Category Archives: about me

red rhododendron blossoms.

A Lifetime of Gardening

Although much of my life has been lived in urban environments, I have a lifelong (if often frustrated) love of growing things. I’m not sure exactly how that came about. The time I remember most in my early childhood was spent in Bangkok, even then a large and very urban city. But it was also Read More…

Although much of my life has been lived in urban environments, I have a lifelong (if often frustrated) love of growing things. I’m not sure exactly how that came about.

The time I remember most in my early childhood was spent in Bangkok, even then a large and very urban city. But it was also tropical, and, for the latter half of our five years there, we lived in a large house surrounded by a lush tropical garden filled with plants that I came to love and now identify with the happier parts of my childhood.

bougainvillea
bougainvillea

Our front fence was entirely covered in bougainvillea, which produced masses of magenta petals surrounding tiny white blossoms. It was also abundantly provided with thorns – an additional deterrent to burglars.

There was a bed of monstera or something like it near the back porch. It never produced any flowers that I can recall, but I loved the big, fleshy leaves.

spider lily – photo taken in Australia

There were clumps of spider lilies, whose delicate white blooms only lasted a day or two, and less than an hour if cut and put in water (I tried, because they were so beautiful that I wanted to be able to look at them always).

There were trees as well. One produced a fruit called rose apple, of a roughly conical shape with a waxy white and pink skin (hence, perhaps, the name). It was edible, though not particularly tasty, but I ate it anyway, because I liked that I could just go pick something off a tree and eat it.

We also had a huge rubber tree, towering over our two-story house. Like all rubber plants, it tried to propagate via long roots that trailed down from its branches. I used to climb up into the crotch of the tree, about eight feet off the ground. I wound the roots around and filled the resulting nest with cloth scraps. This nest was for myself, though I don’t recall how long it lasted – presumably not through a rainy season.

I suppose we had someone who took care of the garden, mowed the lawn, etc., but this probably took place during my school day; I don’t remember doing any hands-on gardening myself, nor observing anyone doing it. But I kept a loving eye on my favorite plants.

I was envious of friends who had banana trees in their yards, not for the fruit (which we could easily get anyway) but because someone showed me how to make a hobbyhorse out of a banana leaf. Sections of banana trunk were also used to create the floating candle boats that would be set out on the river for Loi Krathong, the festival of lights.

me and a friend at Khao Yai National Park, ~1970

A favorite family getaway spot was Khao Yai National Park, where we’d go for long hikes through untouched rainforest. There I learned to look, but not touch: a great deal of the tropical rainforest vegetation would fight back with thorns and stings. And I learned to walk carefully on the narrow trails, avoiding vines that looped down and thorny branches obtruding on the path.

Then we moved to a dingy apartment in Pittsburgh. Fortunately, my soon-acquired stepmother liked houseplants, so we had several of the types that were popular in those days, like wandering jew and Swedish ivy. People would trade around cuttings; perhaps easy propagation accounted for the popularity of these particular kinds of houseplants among broke hippie students –  I rarely see them around anymore.

During the Pittsburgh years we used to visit a friend who lived on a farm a few hours away in western Pennsylvania, so I saw something of the cycles of farm life, learned to curse the blackberry brambles that grew in low loops like croquet hoops always ready to catch your feet as you walked over the rolling hills, and kept up my tree-climbing skills.

When we moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh, we lived at first in the same house as my dad’s office, which had coconut trees growing around it. I observed their lifecycle: growing new palms, shedding old ones, growing coconuts and dropping them, often when the nuts were too immature to develop into trees (I was never sure why they did that).

plumeria –photo taken in Hawaii, 2017

It was decided that we should have private quarters away from the office, so we moved into a house across the street, on a double lot which meant that we had a huge, empty back yard, dominated by an enormous mango tree. The smaller front yard had been made into a flower garden. When we arrived, there was a plumeria tree – one of my lifelong favorites for its beautiful scent and association with Hawaii, where we’d lived for a year when I was small. I was devastated when the tree soon died of some tree disease.

rose bush behind me

But there were also two magnificent white rose bushes flanking the front door, and lots of room for other flowers. There was also Bapak, the ancient caretaker/gardener whom I could work with and learn from. I was doing correspondence school on my own while both my father and stepmother worked. That only took me two or three hours a day, and there were no kids my age living nearby, so I had plenty of time to dedicate to the garden. I experimented on the rose bushes, learning to encourage them to change their shape by pruning, and watched over other flowers and plants which I chose in the market.

Bapak suggested that we plant vegetables in part of the backyard, which we did, though I don’t recall exactly what. I also wanted pets. After several disasters with dogs (two puppies that both got hit by cars, one dying in drawn-out agony), I decided on goats. We went to the market and got two black goats. The female was much larger, but the male made up for his diminutive stature in testicle size and sexual enthusiasm.

Bapak warned me that goats are difficult to pen, and he was right. Oddly, and much to my annoyance, the many times they escaped, they would ignore the vegetable patch right next to their pen and make their way into the front yard to eat my flowers. By the time I went off to boarding school, it had been decided that the goats were too much trouble to keep, so we donated them to Bapak’s Buddhist temple, where presumably they would be kept for milk and breeding, rather than to be eaten.

Himalayan red rhododendron tree

I then lived for four years in the Indian Himalayas, surrounded by mountain forest. Oddly, I did not learn much about the local vegetation at the time (I was too busy being a teenager), but the magnificent red rhododendron trees were unmissable in their season. (The photo at the top shows the red rhododendron I got for our new San Jose garden. It will take decades to achieve tree height.)

I did not have much opportunity to grow anything after that until I was married and settled with my family in a small apartment in Milan. It was not the most promising place to garden, but I was not alone in my determination to make our two tiny balconies flourish. Italian balconies, no matter how small, are often vibrant with plants and flowers. There were shops and market stalls selling plants. Some flowering plants, such as primula and cyclamen, would show up seasonally even at the local vegetable shops.

flowering balcony in Lecco.
flowering balcony in Lecco, 2004

The first plant I bought for my new home was a little yellow primula. I was devastated when, after a while, it began to die. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. Too much water? Too little? Too much or too little sun? Having had most of my exposure to gardens in the tropics, I had never grasped the concept of an “annual” plant that was supposed to grow, flower, seed, and die within a year. I thought all plants just kept growing, all the time, forever, as tropical plants did, with some merely having a dormant period in winter (like trees). But to just up and die on me? It took me a while to figure this out.

My balcony garden got more crowded, and was difficult to keep watered, especially in the hot summer when we would go away for weeks at a time. Fortunately, the balcony I grew most on was outside our bathroom. I hooked up a watering system with a timer, supplying it from a pipe under the sink. My then husband was convinced that there would eventually be some problem that would cause a leak, and he was right – the bathroom flooded and then the water puddled out into the hall, but those floors were marble and terrazzo anyway, so I think only a little of the wood floor in the adjoining bedroom got warped. This did mean I had to give up on automatic watering, and resign myself to everything dying over the summer.

daffodils on the balcony, Lecco

Then we moved to an apartment in Lecco, where I planted flower boxes on the balcony with daffodils, irises, and more. And then we bought a house which had its own garden, and I began gardening again in earnest. I wrote and photographed a lot about that at the time (eg, in March and June, 2007). A garden is a long-term project, and one of my few regrets in leaving Italy is that I have not been able to see all my work has come out. During my final visit last year to collect my remaining belongings, I observed that the roses badly needed pruning, but that was not surprising since Enrico had been out of the house for months following a stroke.

Colorado native flower

Back in the US, I lived first in someone else’s house in Colorado. I didn’t try to grow anything there, but took walks around the semi-wilderness nearby and observed the local wildflowers. In my various California apartments, I’ve been a dedicated balcony gardener. (At the Oakland apartment, I also took charge of the building’s front patch, tidying it up and adding plants and seeds to an area that had been sadly neglected for years).

Now we’re renting a house with a lot of gardening space that has been needing attention for some time. It even has a greenhouse, something I never dreamt of. I don’t know exactly what to do with it, never having had one before, but I’m experimenting. Given some recent experiences in this and other (visited) houses, Brendan’s expectations of our future lifestyle have changed from: “We’ll have a condo with a view of water” to: “We need a private pool and a greenhouse.” Well, that gives us something to aspire to!

orange azalea blossoms in our new San Jose garden, 2019

Toxic Things I Once Believed

Once upon a time, I believed that: I had to adhere to a commonly-accepted standard of beauty for women, in order to be found attractive at all. (And “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”) It was normal and natural for a woman to be considered less and less attractive as she got Read More…

Once upon a time, I believed that:

I had to adhere to a commonly-accepted standard of beauty for women, in order to be found attractive at all. (And “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”)

It was normal and natural for a woman to be considered less and less attractive as she got older – men would always prefer younger women. Yet even very young women were supposed to be attracted to older men for their maturity, experience, power, and money – the men’s physical attractiveness barely entered into the equation.

It was important for a woman not to “let herself go,” and especially not to get fat. She should make every effort to stay attractive to her mate (while he was not required to make any such efforts).

I was “too smart” and “too self confident,” and this would scare off most men – I was therefore lucky to have a man who “put up with me.” (I repeated this “wisdom” more than once to my daughter, a memory which now makes me feel ill.)

A woman might have a career (and her financial contributions to the family are welcome), but it is always of secondary importance to her husband’s career. She should also do the bulk of child-raising and housework so that he can focus on his Very Important Career. Even when she’s also working hard at her own job, and making two or three times his salary.

On the professional front, I internalized things like:

Women should first of all be decorative; any skills and knowledge they happen to have are a bonus.

Women are never as “technical” as men, whether from lack of innate skill, lack of interest, or lack of determination. (“Math class is tough!” exclaimed Barbie.)

Women developers exist, but the male ones are 10x, more gung-ho, just… better. Women engineers should be shuffled off to management ASAP, because they are better at those soft people skills, and should leave the real work of engineering to the men.

Engineering is the the only job that matters in any tech company; everyone else is at best useful to the engineers, at worst a moron who gets in the way of engineers doing the Really Important Work.

The role of women in all areas of a company is to support the far more important work of men. (Even in parts of an organization that are mostly staffed by women, such as marketing, who’s in the top roles? Men. I’ve never understood how any company justifies that on any statistical basis.)

As I got older, the world tried to make me believe that:

We should leave off older experience and specific dates from our resumés, so that potential employers won’t know our real age.

We should make self-deprecating jokes like, “Oh, this will date me…” or coyly say: “A lady doesn’t reveal her age.”

We should obsess about our rapidly-fading looks and sagging bodies, subjecting ourselves to expensive and painful diets, “treatments,” and surgeries, because standard beauty and looking young are still all that matters in a woman, and looking old is to be avoided at all costs. Even in the workplace.

We should be grateful to keep or get any man who will have us. Even an abusive, toxic one. Because, at our age, we might not get another.

We should be grateful to keep or get any job that will have us. Even an abusive, toxic one. Because, at our age, we might not get another.

There are undoubtedly other toxic ideas that I still live by without even realizing it. But, with 55 years of life and a hell of a lot of experience behind me, I have at last perceived the bullshit of many of the “rules” that once governed my thinking.

How did I unlearn what I have so far?

Partly, it’s being with a good man who values me and finds me attractive – physically, intellectually, and professionally – as I am (even when I was undergoing chemo and looked like Dr. Evil).

There’s also something that comes with age. Not necessarily wisdom, but… a lack of patience with bullshit. At this point, I’ve dealt with more than enough for one lifetime, and I’m no longer willing to put up with it for the sake of getting along with or appeasing anyone.

And, after years of trying to “fit in,” I came to terms with the fact that I’m not good at being anyone but my weirdo self. I’m ok with that, because I like who I am, and I’m finally able to say that anyone who doesn’t appreciate me just as I am is not worth having in my life. I have plenty of friends and loved ones who do appreciate me exactly as I am –  I need not put up with anyone telling me that I should be otherwise.

“In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change with every passing lad
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.”

Dorothy Parker

Deirdré Straughan by Helena Price 2016-0

The Techies Project

I am thrilled and honored to be included in the Techies Project, which launched this week as a way to showcase some of the diversity that does exist in the tech industry. There’s not nearly as many of us as there should be, but we are definitely here. And we are staying, and growing. Projects like Read More…

I am thrilled and honored to be included in the Techies Project, which launched this week as a way to showcase some of the diversity that does exist in the tech industry. There’s not nearly as many of us as there should be, but we are definitely here. And we are staying, and growing. Projects like this can help us know that we’re not alone in this.

For more about the project and the woman behind it, Helena Price, read here:

And there’s been lots of press:

The portrait of me above is the one Helena did for the project (she’s a great photographer!). There’s also a somewhat edited transcript of two hours of conversation we had about my history in life and in tech – I really need to edit that down more, it’s a lot of words! But you should read all the other stories on the site – there are some truly amazing people in tech, far outside the mental picture we all have of tech as being all young white dudes in hoodies.

Books I Read (or Re-Read) in 2015

Not surprisingly, I had a lot of time to read this year. I also had a lot of material, in part because many kind people bought me books (and DVDs) from my Amazon wish list. Below, in no particular order, is a not quite a complete listing of what I read and re-read this year, Read More…

Not surprisingly, I had a lot of time to read this year. I also had a lot of material, in part because many kind people bought me books (and DVDs) from my Amazon wish list. Below, in no particular order, is a not quite a complete listing of what I read and re-read this year, I’m certainly forgetting things, and not listing some books that I haven’t finished (or, in some cases, even started) yet.

…one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound. In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.
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Mean Nasty Ugly Things

I listened to Arlo Guthrie’s – Alice’s Restaurant Massacree around Thanksgiving (as tradition demands). This part hit particularly close to home, and is likely to do so for some time to come: “…Proceeded on down the hall gettin’ more injections, inspections, detections, neglections and all kinds of stuff that they was doin’ to me at the thing Read More…

I listened to Arlo Guthrie’s – Alice’s Restaurant Massacree around Thanksgiving (as tradition demands). This part hit particularly close to home, and is likely to do so for some time to come:

“…Proceeded on down the hall gettin’ more injections, inspections, detections, neglections and all kinds of stuff that they was doin’ to me at the thing there, and I was there for two hours, three hours, four hours, I was there for a long time going through all kinds of mean nasty ugly things and I was just having a tough time there, and they was inspecting, injecting every single part of me, and they was leaving no part untouched.”

 


my breast cancer story (thus far)