Last week was tough: some thoughts on the Google layoffs

I work at Google. This is very definitely my own perspective.

Last night I dreamed I was visiting a far-away corporate office. The campus landscaping was green and precise, the architecture sleek industrial, the cafes full of local delicacies. The office buildings were multi-story, with elevators and tall windows looking out over the city.

It wasn’t anywhere I’ve been; it wasn’t anywhere real. It was many places I’ve been; it was every Google office worldwide.

Before the pandemic, I used to travel for work. Bangalore, Hyderabad, Tokyo, Sydney, Tel Aviv, New York, Seattle, San Diego, Las Vegas, Jakarta, Delhi. I stopped over in Dubai. I never made it to the legendary Zurich office, or Munich or London or Sao Paolo. I hoped to, in future years. I stayed over weekends, saw the cities and nearby places.

I hated jetlag but I loved my time in planes, loved the feeling of slight dislocation that is another part of the world. I loved that feeling paired up with the familiarity of meeting people in person who I’d previously met on video. I loved going out to dinner with teammates, loved the blur of personality with work projects, the way we all shifted focus after-hours. I still remember one New York trip where a quiet guy from another office, after a couple of cocktails at about the most New-York-feeling cocktail bar I can imagine, said simply: “what I love about business trips is you can work and drink as much as you want.” The rest of us raised our glasses.

On January 20, 2023, Google announced layoffs. It wasn’t just an announcement: thousands of people in the US abruptly lost access to internal systems, email, chat, their connection to this world we were all part of, this world we’d been creating for the last however-many years. Outside the US, the scope and reach remains unknown.

I wasn’t laid off, but my professional profile looks enough like those of people who were that I’m surprised.

I’ve worked at Google since 2003. Nineteen years, going on twenty. I’ve held eight or ten or a dozen different roles, and I’ve always tried to keep my sense of identity separate from work, but nineteen years is a long time. Google – the people, the offices, the sense of possibility – became a place I could trust, a place I could be.

Last night, I dreamed I was visiting a far-away corporate office. It felt like many offices I’ve visited over the years: familiar and slightly dislocated, both at the same time.

It felt familiar, and yet it wasn’t. The cafes ran out of food just as I approached. The bathrooms were located at the ends of long hallways, and closed or full or simply unusable when I got there. The signs pointing to elevators led to dead ends instead.

I ran through hallways I thought I knew, but there was nothing there to find.

Reading notes: a biography of Freya Stark

I’ve just finished reading a biography of Freya Stark, an adventurer & travel writer in the 1900s. I’m struck by the beauty of Stark’s writing, where it’s excerpted – and by how a biography can itself seem outdated, more than even the content it’s writing about. Perspectives on British imperialism, World War II, marriage, homosexuality, Israel and Palestine, concepts of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ – the biography came out only a couple of decades ago, but it seems nearly as ‘past’ as the early-20th-century world Stark herself writes about.

But that’s a digression. It jarred a little, but mostly just in an, ‘oh, quaint!’ kind of way.

  • A few other ideas:
    • what it must have been like when vast swathes of the world were unknown to vast swathes of people. In some ways, today it’s almost impossible to imagine that; in some ways, I wonder how much our own assumptions of knowing are simply flawed.
    • the tragedy of gender expectations meaning that so many women were stunted, for so long; it never should have been the case that on average Stark found men more interesting because they had, on average, had a wider range of travel & geographic & cultural experiences. (On the other hand, Stark also managed to go a lot of places & do a lot of things that would have been more difficult if women hadn’t been so consistently underestimated.)
    • the tragedy also of homosexuality ever having been criminalized, with the result that so many people tried to live in ways that simply weren’t accurate to their own beings, with knock-on effects to so many other people around them
    • how hard it can be to see one’s own life accurately. At least per this biography, Stark desperately missed love and marriage – but a life of wide travel, many languages, many friends, influencing global policy and writing books that reached so many people is a life with a lot of good in it.
    • how luring places that seem ‘exotic’ can be, so consistently, over the whole course of human history. of course what ‘exotic’ includes varies widely, but the appeal in general – vast.
    • how luring the ideal of being able to ‘fit in’ anywhere, whether into a different social group or a different country, can be too. I wonder how real it really is, or if it’s an ever-retreating ideal. And what does ‘fitting in’ mean anyway? Do any of us ever really know when we fit in?

There’s an odd kind of time-shift, too, that I feel when reading about times & people who so clearly seem historical – World War II, for example, or the early days of Middle Eastern archaeology – but who then abruptly show up in places that seem, if not current, at least of this era. And so a photograph of Freya Stark in the 1980s, in Pasadena, gave me a momentary sense of what?! because 1980s Pasadena seems very very different – as if not in the same universe – from pre-World-War II Italy or Greece.

I’ve sort of informally started a project of reading books that have been on my bookcase in some cases for years, and this book was one of them. It was worthwhile.

And, since as I read things I’m aiming to explicitly decide whether to keep them or not, and I’m not keeping this one, now I have very slightly more space on that shelf!

Books on writing: Amina Cain & Elena Ferrante

I just finished reading A Horse At Night, by Amina Cain. It’s a lovely book, a love letter to LA, and a reflection on writing & life. Just gorgeous (and as an added bonus, I kept having these shocks of recognition – yes! it’s like that! as I read it, because the author got it, whatever it is, so right).

As I was finishing it, I saw a connection to Eve Babitz’ writing too – I finished reading Black Swans yesterday – in its love for LA, and its descriptions of the lushness of southern California plants. I remembered my own trips up and down the canyons when I lived there, and my greed for bougainvillea and birds-of-paradise. Babitz is up front about her love for the city – it’s one of the key points of all her books. I wonder if Cain noticed her own, but either way it’s there.

A few months back, I read Elena Ferrante’s In the Margins. It’s a physically gorgeous book, and it fascinated me, in part because its ideas seemed so alien – imagining that only men were great writers?! an emotional reaction to the edge of a page, the sense that there was a boundary, something forbidden or transgressive in how you might approach it?! really?! – but that alienness, too, offered me a sense of my own good fortune, and something to set myself in contrast to.

Yesterday I organized my bookcases. I am more or less out of space; there’s a little give at the end of some shelves, one shelf with maybe two inches free, and another other where I keep oversized coffee table & gardening books has some room – but really, it’s packed.

Cain’s book seems to me like what I want in a book on writing. As I read it, I kept getting these little bursts of inspiration, like mini firecrackers, whereas with Ferrante’s it was more like a sense of watching something intellectually interesting but fundamentally alien, inhospitable to me. And so I’m letting Ferrante’s book go, and keeping Cain’s.