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[whitespace] Jeff Goodell Portrait of the Artist as a Young Astronaut: Jeff Goodell, raised in Sunnyvale, posed for this youthful photo op at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

Electronic Hive

In Jeff Goodell's memoir, 'Sunnyvale,' the changes in one family and one town mirror the transformation that created Silicon Valley

By Richard von Busack

WHEN AUTHOR Jeff Goodell was a young boy living on Meadowlark Lane in Sunnyvale, his father, Ray, built a grand chimney for their house. It was an evenings and weekends project. Ray built the fireplace out of salvaged cobblestones and mortar, and he mounted in it a firebox big enough to roast an ox, or so his son says.

This huge chimney on the side of a standard Sunnyvale tract house was a folly in our climate, where the mercury rarely falls below 40 degrees. By the end of Goodell's new memoir, Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family, the fireplace has become a sort of monument to Ray Goodell, a self-confessed failure--a memorial to the man's dashed hopes and to the sundering of the family that gathered around the hearth.

On its own, Goodell's book is a common tale of California in the 1970s. Divorce claims the marriage, and drugs get custody of one of the children. The cover image suggests that Sunnyvale is another loss-of-innocence special, with a photograph of Goodell as a boy posing at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in a toy rocket ship lettered "Santa Cruz to the Moon."

What makes Sunnyvale perhaps more interesting is the local angle. By the end of the book, we realize that what's been lost is more than just a kid's childhood vision of a perfect family. Ray was an outdoorsman who loved trees, a landscape architect unwilling to profit from the new business of tearing up orchards and tipping up semiconductor plants. Thus he missed out on the riches that poured into the Santa Clara Valley in the 1980s.

Ray's ex-wife, Goodell's mother, became an "area associate" (a secretary) for the nascent Apple Company, and her fortunes rose with Apple's. Jeff's sister, Jill, also went into high tech. And Jeff's brother, Jerry, developed a drinking and cocaine problem, turning up for a time as a transient in the Maas Hotel in Mountain View.

While telling his family's story, Goodell also describes the change in the valley to "a vast electronic hive," the change from a suburban neighborhood to a Superfund site where the EPA pumps up a stew of TCE, TCH and toluene out of the ground water.

WHEN I CALL GOODELL in his new home in upstate New York, my obvious first question is about Sunnyvale's subtitle, The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family. Was Goodell trying to lay the blame for the disintegration of his family on having lived in the richest boomtown of the century?

"That is the $64,000 question," Goodell replies. "I think that I will wrestle with that question for the rest of my life. The brutality of the dramatic social change that the valley underwent in 1979-89 had a profound impact on my family.

"I know my father would have had a much happier life if he lived in Portland, Ore., say, where the Darwinian quality of success and failure wasn't so apparent. I didn't write Sunnyvale to shake my finger at the Silicon Valley. I just wanted to write a story of what happened to us."

Time, as well as place, was a factor in how the Goodell family split. "In the 1970s, divorce was like the pet-rock craze," Goodell recalls. "The spirit of social or cultural trends was broader than the valley, which was itself a part of the '70s and California. ... However, I do think that the valley culture underlines some of the effects of these trends. There are a lot of singularities. The engineering culture is uncomfortable in dealing with human complexities, with problems that don't come together in right angles."

Goodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, covering high tech and the Silicon Valley for years. He also wrote The Cyberthief and the Samurai, a book about the Kevin Mitnick/Tsutomu Shomomura hacker case. One early article, from 1995, by Goodell, "Webheads on Ramona Street," describes a group of San Francisco programmers trying to open up a proto-cybercafe.

Reading "Webheads on Ramona Street" today can give one a sense of how fast we've been hit by the cyber-revolution. Some copy editor--as late as 1995, mind you--made sure that Goodell's lingo was explained in parentheticals (laptop translated as "computer," geek as "computer-fixated person"). Goodell remembers the article as anticipating the "real bifurcation--the end of the innocents of the technological culture, those innocents who believed that they weren't there to make money but to empower people."

Goodell displayed similar prescience when he wrote about flameouts in the electronic workplace. More recently, he wrote a much-syndicated piece, "Down and Out in Silicon Valley," on the serious widening in the gap between rich and poor in the valley, first published in the Nov. 28, 1999, issue of Rolling Stone.

"It's clear, " Goodell wrote, "that the Silicon Valley is developing into a two-tier society: those who have caught the technological wave and those who are being left behind. This is not simply a phenomenon of class or race or age or the distribution of wealth ... it's really about the nature of unfettered capitalism when it's operating at warp speed."

Goodell commutes in to cover the Silicon Valley from the East Coast. "People ask me why I live in upstate New York," he says. "The answer is that I couldn't have written Sunnyvale in the valley. I do well; I work for a national magazine. But I couldn't have afforded the space or the peace of mind to write Sunnyvale out there. Thus I get in trouble a lot for people thinking that I'm sort of bitter about the valley."

Jeff Goodell
Photograph by Jon Barber/Villard

A Need to Remember: Goodell doesn't want to sentimentalize the valley's past, but he also doesn't want people to forget those left behind by the boom times.

LIKE ANYONE ELSE who didn't make a mint in high tech, Goodell could be accused of sour grapes. In Sunnyvale, the author describes how he was a kid working at the early Apple. He hated his job and quit to go deal cards in Tahoe, thus potentially cutting himself out of a fortune when Apple made its IPO.

"Of course, everyone has this sort of story," Goodell explains, "a story about what they could have had. That's the lottery-like nature of the valley's economy. My own blindness is astonishing to me. But I don't regret not staying at Apple. I'm not an engineer, and I'm not a businessperson. The idea of staying there is a silly fantasy that never works. I don't torture myself about having left what turned out to be the epicenter of the New World.

"I've written about the industry leaders; I totally understand the wonders of the culture and I love my computer. But it's all not as simple as the success story that's being told right now. There's a lot more complexity and human cost from this dramatic change. When I was researching the down and out in the Silicon Valley piece, I saw the vast majority hanging on by the fingernails."

"Many of the men in the tract-house neighborhood where I lived," Goodell wrote in "Down and Out in the Silicon Valley," "worked in the defense industry, building missiles and satellites. But there were also teachers, carpenters, auto repairmen, salesmen. No one was appreciably richer than anyone else. There were always the Hispanic families who had lost their jobs when the canneries went out, but the gap between us and them was not so profound. There were no millionaires, no IPOs. Indeed, had the valley been rich, the whole PC revolution might never have ignited. 'I decided to build my first computer,' Steve Wozniak once told me, 'because I couldn't afford to go out and buy one.' Of course, computers cost tens of thousands of dollars in those days, but the point remains. If it weren't for the struggling middle class--Woz is the son of a midlevel Lockheed engineer, while Steve Jobs, whose adoptive father was a machinist, came from even humbler roots--there might be no Macintosh, no Yahoo!, no Internet."

It could be argued that today talent is drawn from the outside world to the valley. And it could be argued that middle-class kids as visionary as Jobs and Wozniak will be lured here from elsewhere, just as they once came to New York to conquer the world. And, as John Cheever noted in his journal, no one wants to hear about the sadness of abandoned greenhouses. No one, in other words, has much time to mourn how the valley was ravaged with bulldozers.

"I don't think we should sentimentalize the orchard days," Goodell says. "My only point is that in the rush of progress, we don't consider what's been lost here. It's one thing to celebrate the wonders of what happened, it's another to forget everything that's gone before."

Goodell's account of his family's breakup gives a human scale to the story of how the valley became a tougher, bloodthirsty place. The book's compact, unsparing sentences solace those who are reeling from the speed of the valley's drastic change from a chain of pretty suburbs to a polluted, crowded, ruinously expensive urban sprawl.

Still, Goodell's honest corrective may not be as powerful as that unkillable dream of fortunes to be had after only four or five years of round-the-clock work. Note the Library Journal's comments on Goodell's Sunnyvale: "It's useful to be reminded ... how common family anguish is, permeating even the gilt-edged homes in Silicon Valley."

There you have it. The most ordinary Sunnyvale single-family homes ... those $30,000 houses in $300,000 neighborhoods, such as the Goodell's place (bought for $19,000 in 1963) are considered "gilt-edged" by the rest of the world. Let the rest of the world dream, then. But anyone relocating to the valley should be reminded of Woody Guthrie's advice to the last flood of immigrants in the 1930s: "California's a garden of Eden/A paradise to live in or to see/But believe it or not/You won't like it so hot/If you ain't got the dough-re-mi."

Jeff Goodell recently revisited his Sunnyvale home. "The house is cut out into this boarding house now, with 12 people living there, mostly immigrants," he says. "I would be driving around with them, asking them: how do you feel about all the traffic, the rising real estate and the pollution you can't even see?

"They looked at me like I was from Mars. Compared to Taipei, the valley traffic is nothing. One of the engineers, who is living in what was once my father's wood shop, is from Peking, where he was never able to see blue skies. He thinks of the valley as this natural wonderland. To people like that, the valley is still an unspoiled place. It's somehow wonderful to them.

"My house has been completely transformed. There are two people in my old bedroom, the chimney has all been painted white and there's no grill, no fire since we moved out. It's very sterile and cold. I never really thought of the chimney until I reached the end of writing the book--the metaphor appeared in its pathos and strangeness. In retrospect, it seems a wonderfully misguided but heartfelt thing my father did, constructing that chimney. It was his way of showing the engineers of the valley that he could build something too."

Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family by Jeff Goodell; Villard, 252 pages; $24.95 cloth

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From the July 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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