To the Silicon Valley, Stanford, and San Francisco

A perfect image of California's abundance and promise: lemon tree in friend Mike Hindery's backyard

I returned from Madrid to an empty house. Linda was helping Robin in Washington, and MacKenzie was with friends. It was too quiet, so I didn’t stay – repacked my bag and flew the next morning, Friday the 30th, to San Jose. Landed at two, caught the Caltrain suburban line to Palo Alto, and walked a mile to friend Mike Hindery’s house. He and I were at Wharton in 1983, and we’ve kept in touch through the years, but I hadn’t seen him since 1991.

He didn’t arrive until 9:45, so I borrowed his bike and rode the town, then all around the stunningly beautiful Stanford campus, where I would speak the next day. I’ve been to a lot of schools, but this one was truly gorgeous; sculptures by Rodin, Henry Moore, and Joao Miró; coherent architecture, varied gardens, wow. The William Gates Computing Center stood opposite the William Hewlett Electrical Engineering building, a reminder that this place is not by accident in the Silicon Valley, center of I.T. and other innovation

University Avenue, Palo Alto

On the Stanford campus

Colonnades, main quad, Stanford

Detail from Rodin's sculpture Burghers of Calais

Took a quick nap, walked into town for dinner at a Burmese restaurant, and read and wrote in this journal until Mike arrived. We yakked for an hour – he had been on a boondoggle trip on Maui – clocked out, and resumed the conversation the next morning, at home and at Peninsula Creamery, a way-cool diner in downtown Palo Alto. Mike drove me around the Stanford campus, then dropped me at the Stanford Women in Business conference, where I was a morning panelist. In classic Silicon Valley form, the first young woman I chatted with was well on her way to launching an internet start-up, with what sounded like a pretty solid idea. Our panel went well – the women next to me was one of the founders of a web company that Intuit bought a few years ago for $170 million. Whoa.

Creative signposting for the Stanford Women in Business Conference; surely the balloons would make the playful Miro smile!

This was clearly a privileged place, but there were some interesting exceptions, the kind that cheer me. At lunch, I met a young African-American woman working on an M.S. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering; her mom, also at the conference, was a flight attendant for Trans States Airlines, a regional carrier. And one of the afternoon panelists told us that at 14 her father was arrested and as the oldest child she had to drop out of school. As a teenager she built a business that started as a single produce table at a farmer’s market in
Vancouver and ended as a $50 million enterprise. She earned a degree from MIT, went on to a successful career with SAP, the German software giant, and now was a senior officer with Tesla, the electric-car pioneer. Whew, that was inspiring.

Mike picked me up at four and drove me to the Caltrain station; we hugged and I hopped on the train. He’s a good fellow, and it was great to see him. A couple hours, after a pleasant train ride and an unpleasant bus ride (average speed, 8 mph), I hopped off at Union and Buchanan in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, and towed my suitcase 1.5 blocks up a hill to another set of old friends, Jeff and Susan Campbell. Jeff and I worked together in American’s International Planning department in the mid-1990s; he rose fast, ending his time at AA as CFO. He’s now in the same role for McKesson, the giant healthcare services company. Jeff’s brother Hal and sister-in-law Jeanette were visiting from Phoenix, and we had a fun dinner, made livelier by Jeff’s and Susan’s 14-year-old fraternal twins, Eric and Patrick. Jeff grilled steaks, plus potatoes, roasted vegetables, asparagus, and some really fine red wine (Jeff’s a wine expert). We went for a walk before dessert, a good idea and a reminder that S.F. is really Verticalville – I had not been in the city (for more than a few hours) in over a decade, and I had forgotten how steep the hills are. Jeff knows a lot about the city and their ‘hood, and offered geographer-like commentary, much to my delight. He and Hal also told a few stories about their dad (still going strong at 90), who had been an FBI agent for all of his career, much of it in S.F., doing stuff like bugging the Russian Consulate.

The way-cool view from the back of Jeff's and Susan's house

The outside front staircase at the Campbell's house

Jeff and I were up early the next morning and out the door on mountain bikes, down the hill to the bay, west to the Golden Gate, and across that wonderful red span. I had never biked it, and it was just awesome. At the north end, we headed into the Marin Headlands, up a few hundred feet, took some snaps, and headed back across the bridge.

Marin Headlands: wilderness less than five miles from Jeff's and Susan's house

Then it was through the vast Presidio, former military land that is now a national park, on some genuine dirt trails. We passed a small military cemetery, pausing to read a touching poem by Archibald MacLeish on an interpretive panel:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died.
Remember us.
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.

Then it was back to the house, shower, and Susan, Jeff, and I headed to a caloric breakfast and a good chat. Jeff drove me downtown, I hopped on the BART train to the airport, and flew home, over some remarkable landscapes (below).

Ordinary commercial landscapes in San Francisco are still visually varied; the hardware store and other shops in Pacific Heights

Century-old commercial building, Post St., downtown San Francisco

A good weekend in Northern California, but after eight days I was happy to see Linda and MacKenzie.

Postscript: as I have often observed, flying over the American West is such a joy: vast, empty, varied, and a lot of cool geology, some modified by humankind. Here are a few scenes from the outbound and return trips:

Central Valley, California

Reservoir south of San Jose

Southern Utah

Lingering winter, Southern Utah; you may recognize those spiky formations from photos in car ads -- this landscape is often used to depict wide-open spaces

1 Comment

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One response to “To the Silicon Valley, Stanford, and San Francisco

  1. William (Mercantelli) Merci

    RB:I came across your engaging blog while browsing McWinney BA 100th year anniversary and thought you may be interested in some additional information about the “old neighborhood”. William Mercantelli, a close friend of your grandfather Jim and his brother Frank, lived on Ashland Ave across the alley from Jim’s store was also an officer in the McWinney club. Uncle Gene live next to the Pullacks on Marshield. Both my father and uncle played professional baseball under the name of Rye. I possess a photograph of Frank and Bill in basketball attire in the Christopher House gym at Altgeld and Greenview. I also have photograph of your mother and young Joseph at a McWinney picnic. Many of the people you described are familiar to me as the neighborhood was a vibrant acculturation of diverse ethnicities; my grandmother’s name was Daria Frediani and Menotti my grandfather emmigrated from nothern Tuscany as did many others to work at the Northwest Terra Cotta company as artisans producing terra cotta for distinguished buildings in Chicago. More and varied information is available. William Merci

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