Giving & Receiving in Silicon Valley

veruca_saltSilicon Valley is an ironic place. Not in the hipster sense (even though they are trying). This place is ground zero for the apps and technology that are designed to connect people and build community. The rally cry: let’s make connection everywhere!

But in the concrete, actually interactive Silicon Valley the prevailing message is ever more: Mine mine mine exclusively MINE.

It’s MY turn at the stop sign (even though it’s not). MY right to interrupt your work day to get an answer to MY email which, ahem, I sent two hours ago. TWO HOURS! And – the current flavor of the year: Members Only – your non-member money is worthless here.

Lately….I deal with it the only way I can. By imagining that I am Willy Wonka, and that the selfish party is Veruca Salt lunging at the golden egg, wailing, “Mine! I want it Nnooooowwwwwww!” You remember that look on Gene Wilder’s face when she and her prize are unceremoniously flushed out as a bad egg? Yup. That look. It *maybe* happens a lot in private.

Part of me is ready to run for the Oregon border. The other part of me is ready to dig my heels in, hunker down, and push back against this insanity that has infected the culture of my otherwise-amazing hometown.

I find it harder and harder to be open or generous or understanding. You’re not entitled to my kindness, I want to yell sometimes – I am just…..Jesuit-educated! Raised by Jesuit-educated hippies! Or maybe it’s a little more subconscious – why be generous if it is less and less likely to be reciprocated even indirectly. At which point then, doesn’t that make me part of the disease?

Since I don’t know whether to stay or to go or to actively fight or to just muddle-and-make-do with my Gene Wilder faces, I’m going to publish this reminder of what happens when we give even our precious, hard-won, priceless things.

It’s a deeply-personal story of how unexpected the rewards can be when we act with integrity even when we’d really rather be selfish and keep our prizes – tangible or otherwise – to ourselves.


I’d given my dear baby cousin, M, a blank slate: tell me the souvenir you want from the 2004 Paralympic Games. I was thinking she would say “t-shirt” or “necklace.” But she had just shocked me by asking for a wreath from the medal ceremony.

She had obviously been watching the Olympics. And closely! I looked at this child, whom I loved more than it seemed possible to love another human being, and saw the expectation in her beautiful face.

How could I possibly say yes to this request?! Was I jinxing myself if so? What if I said yes and then didn’t win anything? Would she be hurt if I said no? I had an instant to decide what to say.

“Well…….I can’t promise, because I have to win a medal in order to get one, right? And I don’t know that I’m going to win anything. But….IF I win a medal, you can have my wreath.” And then I hastily added, “But I can’t promise I’ll win.”

She hopped with excitement, spun around, and ran back to where she had been playing on the grass.

I thought, “Good one Kelly. Really good.”

But then…months later at the Paralympic Games, our relay won gold. The national anthem filled the venue, and all I could think was, “I have to give this wreath to M.”

And then….the Games wound to a close and I was in the stands clutching a second medal and a second bouquet, wearing a second wreath, and thanking my family for coming to watch. One of my aunts asked, “Do you want us to bring anything home for you?”

I hesitated and then, replied, “Well, actually, since you live down there, can I give you this wreath to deliver? I don’t know if M even remembers….I mean, I didn’t promise-promise, but…here. It’s fragile.”

Part of me was very sad as I handed my wreath over. I didn’t want to give it up. But I knew I had to. If she did remember, that little girl in Southern California probably thought we had a promise, and she would be even sadder if I didn’t follow through. Especially now that I had won two.

Off to vacation I went. I came back to DC and met the President of the United States. Then….I returned home to live in my dead grandmother’s house and the fact that she was gone finally hit me. Hard. Also I finally had to come to terms with being dumped by my best friend because well, actually, no, he didn’t love me. Hadn’t ever. There was a lot of crying, I was very depressed.

Which is all to say, I was having a bad time and had definitely forgotten about the wreath the day I opened the mail to discover a note written in M’s wobbly, inch-high, school-girl lettering.

In one corner she’d drawn a gold medal. In another, the Olympic rings. It said, “I hope you had fun in Athens. Thank you so much for the wreath. I was so excited when you won because I remembered our promise. I will cherish it forever.”

I stared at it. Dumb-founded. She had remembered! It was a promise?! I was suddenly glad that I had been true to my word. Her little drawings were so cute! And the careful, deliberate handwriting! I collapsed into a kitchen chair, smiling and laughing..and then, suddenly crying. M’s note hung on my fridge for 6 years.

In the weeks and months immediately after the Games, when I was grieving three losses at once, frequently I would stumble into the kitchen for breakfast at noon and wonder how I was going to get through the day.

And there was M’s note to greet me. It would bring a smile to my face – some days I would laugh out loud at the adorable cuteness – and my heart would, all over again, light up with love.


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