(This is chapter 31 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I’m not sure what I thought I was doing, as my big July 23, 1999 Literary Kicks fifth birthday show at the Bitter End drew near. Suddenly I’m a concert promoter? We had a big lineup now, and the whole thing began to take on an unreal tone for me, especially because I was so busy at work that I barely had time to focus on the plans for the show.
I was tired of being an overworked techie. One typical day at iVillage our entire website suddenly crashed. As we scrambled to find the problem, we learned that many other popular websites had gone down at the same time — all of them, it turned out, websites originating from New York City. We gradually figured out the reason: all of these sites were physically hosted at a single facility, a gigantic network data center owned by the Exodus corporation across the Hudson River on the Jersey City shore. The building’s entire electrical system had just failed, taking the Internet’s east coast along with it. It took hours for Exodus to get the machines back up. I joined a delegation of angry tech managers for a follow-up session with an executive at Exodus, who explained that the failure of a single battery in a single power supply unit had caused the crash. “You’re the top network hosting company in the field,” one of the frustrated managers said. “Aren’t you supposed to know to check your batteries?”
I’d had enough of this nonsense by now. I’d been watching web servers crash since 1993, and it was time for me to do something new with my career. I was sure I had exhausted the creative possibilities of Linux and C++ and Java and Perl, and I wanted a bigger challenge, a different kind of challenge. I guess I was feeling very confident — a big stock market victory will have that effect. I also seemed to be developing an aura of success, because people with impressive resumes were seeking me out. I began meeting regularly in Madison Square Park with an entrepreneur named Deanna Brown who was putting together a high-rolling media-industry web portal called Inside.com along with Michael Hirschorn, Kurt Anderson and Steven Brill. She’d been searching for a qualified chief technology officer and somebody had recommended me.
I enjoyed meeting with Deanna several times and explaining the basics of tech systems and requirements and likely costs. I was flattered that she wanted to hire me as CTO, but I was sure I could not play that role. More than anything else, it was the social and interpersonal parts of the job I didn’t feel I could handle. I was not a hand-shaking, business-card-flipping extrovert. I hated talking on the phone, hated wearing suits, hated meetings that started before 10 am. I was surprised that Deanna tried to change my mind even after I demurred several times, but this was a “step up” I wasn’t ready to take.
I was also pretty sure it wasn’t my destiny to remain a techie. I’d always felt very different from my professional peers. I did have some of the common stereotype traits of the modern techie: I was obsessive and irritable, drank a lot of coffee, played several musical instruments, had an intense relationship with food. But I was also unusual in many ways: for instance, I hated video games, didn’t care about Star Trek or Star Wars, had never played Dungeons and Dragons. Many other techies, I noticed, tended towards fantasy and alternative universes, but I’d always been fascinated by gritty reality. And many other techies tended towards futurism, while I was always deeply involved with the past.
Somehow I got it into my head that it was my dharma to be a product guy, to work on the website’s creative/marketing side. Maybe this was my place in the world? I moved fast after iVillage’s Director of Product Development Tony Morelli announced his resignation. I relentlessly campaigned my bosses Rich and Allison and Craig to let me transfer into his job. They were skeptical but agreed to give the arrangement a try. I was assigned to report to our Vice President of Marketing, Alexandria Alessovsky.
This was a major, major change for me. For the first time since I’d graduated from college, I wouldn’t be coding for a living. I would be defining product specifications and developing marketing plans. It would be my job to understand and satisfy customer needs and desires. It was an exciting change, though I was worried I might be too distracted — by the upcoming LitKicks show, along with other things — to do the job well. I eagerly awaited my first assignment.
I suppose this was the first time in my life I believed I deserved to be happy. I had three great healthy children. My creative work on the web was being recognized. I had money in the bank. It wasn’t till later in life that I pieced together the problem with my happiness formula. Private success isn’t enough in itself to make any person happy, because we exist in relationships, as parts of organisms greater than ourselves. If you dream of a success that will make you happy and find yourself in a situation where this dream may become a reality, you need to consider whether or not your success will bring happiness to those around you as well as to yourself.
If not, you should still go ahead and work towards your dream, but you should consider that fulfilling your dream may never make you happy. Happiness thrives on harmony; it’s rarely a solo achievement.
My good fortune in 1999, by contrast, was entirely private. A couple of years earlier my stepfather Gene had discovered he had cancer. Once a successful electronics executive, Gene had always been my business mentor as well as a good friend. He was the one who’d encouraged me to consider a career in technology way back when I was in college, and I’d gone to him for advice constantly since. Now, he was suffering through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and his relationship with the family was changing. He was used to helping others, but now he needed help. I was so wrapped up in my daily concerns that I barely understood the new role I had to begin to play when he reached out to me for the first time. I only knew how to get help from Gene; I didn’t know how to give it.
Meg and I were in a state of quiet crisis. Around the July 4th weekend of 1999 we began the worst fight of our life together during a backyard barbecue at her brother’s house upstate. It started, ridiculously, because I was playing frisbee with Daniel and hooked one the wrong way, hitting Meg’s beloved grandmother Mary lightly but insultingly on her head. Somehow this mistake escalated into a point of resentment between Meg and myself that grew until it was time to leave, at which point we began driving home in a state of mutual absolute fury.
We’d always been careful not to fight in front of the kids — this was important especially to me. But we did not contain ourselves during this horrible three-hour ride. We let it all out, as ugly as it could get. After, I felt devastated by this; it was against everything I believed in to rage at each other in front of the kids. I felt we’d crossed a new line I’d never wanted to cross.
Later, thinking back to this moment, I came to understand that I’d missed something. It was during this backyard party that Meg discovered that her father Henry was showing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. I thought at the time that she was upset about the frisbee, but in fact she was more upset about her father. Still, if I had known this at the time, I’m not even sure it would have made a difference. We were both upset about a lot of things.
I tried to keep my focus, because I had a job transition to deal with and a big LitKicks show to put on. Back at iVillage, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one struggling with the weird anomie of success one day when our CEO and founder Candice Carpenter arranged a special outing for the entire company. All 175 of us at this point assembled on 22nd Street one late morning and walked down Broadway to a movie theater on Union Square. This was our last IPO celebration, Candice’s private gift — she was taking the entire company out to a movie. We even got our popcorn paid for.
The movie was October Sky, the true story of an astronaut named Homer Hickam who’d grown up in a poor coal-mining town in the 1950s and won a state science fair (and a college scholarship) by building rockets with his friends. Clearly, this inspiring gang of nerdy high school kids with a big dream was meant to represent Candice and Nancy and the whole iVillage team. I loved the movie and loved the fact that Candice wanted to share this moment with us, that she had the nerve to express her pleasure in such an idiosyncratic way.
But, I was sorry to discover, most of my co-workers weren’t impressed. They didn’t like the movie, or they didn’t appreciate the extravagance of the gesture. “Maybe Candice can spend an afternoon going to the movies, but we have work to do.”
I took a few days off in late July because I wanted to really throw myself into the final plans for the Literary Kicks Summer Poetry Happening. Brian Hassett and I had put together a brilliant collaqe of interrelated writers, musicians and web artists; this was far beyond the much more sedate web writers reading I’d arranged in 1996. This was now a bacchanal. We had David Amram on piano and Richard Hell reading poems from his new book Weather. We had John Cassady, Neal’s mysterious son, who as a young kid had been a character in Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, coming in to New York City — Jack Kerouac’s city — for the first time. We had Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, Bob Holman, Holly George-Warren representing a new Rolling Stone magazine book about the Beats. Our cool lineup got great us representation in the local press, and we were even the Wednesday “Pick of the Day” in Time Out Magazine. It amazed me to be “Pick of the Day”. I felt momentarily like the King of New York.
The show started off beautifully, exactly as I’d planned. I wanted to start with some of the quieter performers: poet Marie Countryman, author David Alexander, radiant webmaster Leslie Harpold, who read a funny story called “Princess Winter-Spring-Summer-Fall”, Haiku masters Cor van den Heuvel and Walter Raubicheck, who pulled off some sweet Zen poetry with Daniel Srebnick jamming on saxophone between the lines. The first truly magical moment of the show came for me when the lovable elderly Beat poet named Herschel Silverman ripped into a combustive jazz-poetry jam with David Amram on piano and an operatic vocalist scat-singing along with his words. It wasn’t even 8 pm yet (the show had begun at 7) and we were already starting to cook.
John Cassady had rarely spoken in public before but had a natural way — he must have inherited it from his Dad — of charming a crowd. After his long “rap” he invited the Manatees, a jam band Brian Hassett had brought in from Pennsylvania, to back him up on a tribute song for Neal and the Beat Generation, Chuck Berry’s “Nadine”. Just to flip the audience out, Brian and I planned to follow John’s performance (we’d known he would end with a Chuck Berry song) with another blast from the Beat era, Buddy Holly’s “Rave On”, expertly played by Robert Burke-Warren (who had performed as Buddy Holly on London stages for years).
At this point the show was completely rocking, and David Amram did a killer set, followed by another musical surprise, local webmaster Mark Thomas performing a transcendent version of Philip Glass’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” on piano, followed again by the legendary poet Charley Plymell reading a stirring piece he’d just written about John F. Kennedy Jr., who had died in a small airplane crash just a week before.
I then performed my piece, a short story called “The House”, which was about a young guy who drives up to a house he’d once briefly lived in and sits there in his car thinking about how he remembered it. I suppose it was an odd piece to read (I mentioned before that I’ve always had a thing about the past). But I think it went over pretty well.
Brian Hassett also read a personal piece, followed by the great Richard Hell, who said “I never cared about all this Beat Generation stuff to begin with” and then read some amazing poems. By now the night was going perfectly, except for one growing problem. There were more and more acts scheduled to perform. Time was running, running. Bob Holman and Lee Ranaldo and Ron Whitehead were still out there waiting to perform, and so was Phil Zampino and Meg and Breath Cox and Christian Crumlish and Eliot Katz and Galinsky. Things started to get chaotic in the dressing room as I found myself suddenly called upon to make impossible decisions. What do I do? Crazily, I hadn’t even planned for this contingency. Do I knock Breath Cox for Lee Ranaldo? How do I tell my buddy Greg Severance that he can’t go on till 1 am? What about Ron Whitehead, who’d come up from Kentucky and could easily command a stage for an hour — how could I tell him to cut it to five minutes?
I suppose it was inevitable that the beauty and wonder of my great night devolved into disaster by the time the night was over. Truly and seriously, I lost one good friend that night (and I still deeply regret the sudden ending of that friendship, which never recovered). Bob Holman was a good sport and did a short funny audience participation piece. Lee Ranaldo seemed peeved about my hosting skills when we spoke briefly backstage, though he went on to deliver a hypnotic Velvet-like mood poetry piece that impressed the then thinning-out crowd. I appreciate the fact that Meg rose to the occasion (despite being bumped by about an hour) and delivered a riveting poem — a poem about our troubled marriage, in fact — with our friend Toby Kasavan on piano. Christian and Greg finally went on after most people had gone home. Eliot Katz and Galinsky both sat patiently through the whole six and a half hour show and never got a chance to go onstage.
I went to sleep in a confused daze. The next morning I didn’t know if I felt happy because the show had been a riotous success or sad because it had been a disorganized disaster. I guess I felt so shredded up that I didn’t even know what there was left of me to feel anything at all.