Essays

“Botching,” Asphodel, No. 4, Fall 2005.

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Meeting Individual Donors

Coffee Dates In Seattle

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 16, No 3 (Fall 2005)

by Linda Breneman

“Blah blah blah, Duffy, blah, blah, blah.”

Okay, I’m exaggerating. I understand some of what my colleagues say. More than Duffy, for instance. (Duffy is part cocker spaniel, and there is truth to the saying “dumb as a cocker spaniel.”) But I am running to catch up, just as Duffy on her four-inch legs scurries after me on a brisk walk.

I am the only person in the room who identifies herself as an individual donor. I am an amateur in a roomful of professionals. Many of these folks work for big foundations. They don’t just read the research — they write it. I am a dilettante in two senses of the word: an amateur (a neophyte, a greenhorn, a rookie) and a learner (an apprentice, an aspirant, a recruit).

I’ve been thinking, though, in my aspiring way, about the individual donor question. Here in Seattle (as in many places across the country), thousands of people in their twenties, thirties, and forties have gotten rich on stock options. Many of these young people want to give money away during their lifetimes, but they don’t necessarily want to endow a foundation. It may be more tax-efficient to skip the foundation endowment route and instead set aside a hefty amount to give away each year. These givers tend to write checks, give appreciated stock, and sock money away in a donor-advised fund at a community foundation or brokerage to distribute later. Often these young donors work at their giving, create plans and strategies, join giving circles, and attend classes.

I’ve been interested for some time in these people and others like them — individual donors of substantial net worth (say five million or more) — so I created a limited research project for myself. What you’re reading right now is the research report, such as it is. You should know that the people in it are composites of real people, and the experiences are composites of real experiences. If I wrote about real people, I’d never get another coffee date in this town.

At Madison Park Starbucks — Making the Case In Seattle’s Madison Park, a neighborhood characterized by turn-of-the-century homes, hundred-year-old trees, views of Lake Washington, and a half-and-half mixture of old-money and new-money families, the Starbucks is a popular crossroads. It feels lively and soothing at the same time — something about its cherry floors, maple tables and chairs, oak-framed windows, translucent beige draperies, and hunter-green walls. Behind the babble and buzz — people conversing, milk steaming, espresso tamping — bee bop saxophone flows like a meandering waterway.  On a Monday morning, I drink a latte and wait for my meeting. At the dozen or so tables, I see moms and kids, solitary writers and readers, earnest twenty-somethings pitching venture capitalists, and nonprofit emissaries making the ask.

At the next table three people enact just such a scene: a man in his forties, balding, with a face that reminds me of a hawk, dressed in running shorts and a sweatshirt; a woman in her fifties, red-haired and substantial; and a woman in her twenties, neat and bespectacled. The man, whom I recognize as the former CEO of a telecommunications company, is being asked for a donation. The red-haired woman, the board president of an arts education organization, teases him: “No, that was last year. You’re up again.” They all laugh. And then there is a quiet statement from the man. I can’t hear what he says. What I can hear is the effect: “Thank you so much.” “That’s incredibly generous. Really. Thanks.”

It must have been a big one.

I average two coffee dates a week at this Starbucks — mostly to meet with hard-working, altruistic folks who want something: money from my foundation or my checking account; my participation on a board or committee; or an introduction to another donor I know, like Marianne the Tech Retiree.

I often meet Marianne the Tech Retiree here. She is active in Social Venture Partners (SVP), a giving circle founded by high-tech entrepreneurs. She serves on grant allocation committees and takes the lead on relationships with grantees. I know her because several years ago she and I went on an SVP site visit at an after-school arts program for kids. The arts program didn’t get the SVP grant (much coveted, big, and multi-year), but Marianne liked it, so she began making substantial personal donations to it every year. She was impressed by its businesslike management, by its values that connected social justice with creative expression, and by its kid-centered but rigorous teaching. Marianne is a former Microsoft executive, married to a former Starbucks executive. I’d guess the couple is worth about $50 million.

I didn’t much like Marianne when I first met her.

One of my faults is that I dislike most people at first. They have a gruff manner, or they laugh too loudly, or they are too quiet. Why can’t I give people a chance? Why can’t I see past the rough edges, idiosyncrasies, or defenses to the human being underneath? When I first met my best friend, I almost caused her to run away with my aloof, skeptical manner. Thank God she was able to see past our differences in temperament and background, or I would have missed one of the most important, pleasurable, nurturing, and challenging relationships in my life.

When I first met Marianne, I pegged her as bright but too blunt. She took leaps in her thinking that were sometimes too high or wide for others to follow. Since then, I’ve seen her moderate her manner. She has developed into one of the most committed and thoughtful philanthropists in the city. She has run a capital campaign for a social service agency, served on boards of large and small nonprofits, established a foundation, and created scholarships, all while raising three kids and training for mountain climbing expeditions.

There’s a writer named Julie Salamon (Rambam’s Ladder, A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give) who explores the difference between charity and philanthropy. Marianne is a good example of a person who made the transition from charity to philanthropy in a short time and in a big way, going from addressing an immediate need (charity), to undertaking a series of actions that addresses the source of that need (philanthropy).

When I was growing up, I had a few casual experiences with charity and no direct experience with philanthropy. Most Sundays my dad dropped a five-dollar bill in the offertory basket at Christ the King Catholic Church. When I was thirteen I entered a walk-a-thon and collected a few bucks for every mile I walked. I don’t even remember now what the cause was. My only exposure to the concept of philanthropy came through Sister Joseph Michael, who made us study famous philanthropists in fifth-grade civics class. I picked Andrew Carnegie to write a report about, probably because I loved libraries — the ones I’d seen, anyway — the Richland Public Library and a bookmobile my rural cousins met every Tuesday on the gravel shoulder of the nearest blacktop road.

Andrew Carnegie’s life was about as different from mine as any life could be. I was growing up in Richland, a town of 20,000 souls in Eastern Washington known chiefly for its devotion to making plutonium for nuclear weapons. My dad worked at Hanford Nuclear Reservation as an instrument technician. In Richland’s social system, since Dad didn’t have a degree of any kind, much less a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics like some dads I knew, our family wasn’t anywhere near the top. We were somewhere near the lower-middle. For most of my childhood, my family of six lived paycheck to paycheck in rental houses with too few bedrooms and one bathroom. We always had plenty of good food and a basic house and enough gas money to go for Sunday drives in our Chevy station wagon, but we never had fancy clothes or vacations to anywhere — even across the mountains to Seattle — unless our destination had a relative who was willing to put us up. The form of charity I knew best was the cheerful reception, care, and feeding of traveling relatives.

There’s nothing like seeing an immediate need and responding to it to make you feel good. But as I’ve grown and learned, I’ve become more interested in philanthropy — not so much giving handouts, but trying to become more organized, strategic, and forward-looking, like Andrew Carnegie, “for the benefit of all mankind.” It may not feel as good, but I’m convinced it does more good.

At Café Nordstrom Downtown — Crossing the Bridge Every Nordstrom department store has a cafe or two, and the downtown flagship store is no exception. Here’s the place to observe Seattle’s Old Guard, the inheritors of timber and shipbuilding fortunes, sipping coffee or tea in their elegant coiffures, skirted suits, and matching pumps and purses. Deena the Straddler is comfortable here. In fact, she’s comfortable everywhere in Seattle, from the Rainier Club (that former gentlemen’s club where ties and jackets are required), to Vivace Café in Belltown (that hangout of techies where they couldn’t care less what you wear).

Deena’s short dark hair and tailored blazers give the impression of health, practicality, and style, and preserve an echo of her Boston childhood and early career as a New York publishing executive. Now she devotes all her time to philanthropy. She’s on the boards of a children’s hospital, a university, an art museum, a women’s giving circle, and a small theater.  She lives with her two teenaged children in an estate in The Highlands, a gated community overlooking Puget Sound where there are no street addresses. (Her address is Deena Z., The Highlands.) She’s in her forties, and she’s been divorced for six years from her college sweetheart, who is a renowned tech start-up guy.

She has a net worth of about 40 million dollars. Half of her money is socked away in a charitable remainder trust. The other half is invested in stocks, bonds, and real estate. Over the past five years, Deena has given more than five million dollars to various charities, mostly for the arts and medical research. She uses about a third of each year’s income from the charitable remainder trust for charitable donations. She serves on the boards of several nonprofits, and writes checks to each of between $5,000 and $50,000 per year. She is also a member of two pooled funds to which she has committed tens of thousands over several years: Washington Women’s Foundation and Social Venture Partners.

Deena is one of the bridge-builders between the new wealth and the old. She numbers among her friends and neighbors executives of Boeing and vice-presidents of Microsoft, boosters of the ballet and aficionados of fringe theater, inheritors with trust funds and investors with venture funds. In Deena’s house, in Deena’s company, these people come together to fund a variety of causes.

Deena is thoughtful, powerful, curious, and well-read, much more the philanthropist than the charitable check-writer. Her giving is organized and propelled by a clear set of values, but she has chosen not to create a foundation. As smart and knowledgeable as she is, the private foundation world — and its research and collegiality — is essentially unknown to her. Sometimes I wonder how her philanthropy might be transformed if she happened to engage in one far-ranging conversation with a foundation program officer.

At the Bauhaus — Going Incognito Bauhaus Books & Coffee is the essence of Seattle style. It’s on Pine Street on lower Capitol Hill, and it overlooks I-5, the Convention Center, and the retail core. It’s real. Real old wood floors, painted brick walls, bare timber trusses. There’s always a young barista there who is really a musician (or actor, or writer) and who is clever and funny and on friendly terms with Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam.

The Bauhaus is where I meet Josh Anonymous. He is in his early thirties and you could never tell by looking at him — in his faded Black Sabbath t-shirt and ten-year-old canvas boat shoes — that he is one of the wealthiest men in this town.  He designs video games, and every single one of his games has been a huge seller. Josh says he has more money than God; he certainly has more than he’s comfortable with.

Josh is a single guy. He doesn’t date much because he’s shy. And he’s a Seattle native. His parents are college professors at the University of Washington. Josh grew up in a small bungalow in the Green Lake neighborhood.  Like many of their Seattle neighbors, Josh’s parents are politically liberal, environmentally conscious, and extremely frugal. In their world, which some would call eccentric, if not extreme, the idea of money has negative connotations. Every dime they earn goes to third-world charitable causes — to the point where they have no retirement nest egg and sometimes get behind on their mortgage.

Josh lives in two rooms in a run-down boarding house in the University District, where his neighbors know him only by his first name. The fact is, very few people know that Josh is worth more than $200 million — I don’t think Josh’s parents have any idea of their son’s means.  One person who does know is Josh’s philanthropic advisor at the Seattle Foundation, where Josh has an enormous donor-advised fund.

Josh is fond of giving large donations anonymously, and he gives often and generously to arts-education programs in the region. He says it’s because he was once a lonely artistic kid who would have either curled up and died or gone crazy if he hadn’t been encouraged to draw, write, and play music. Until recently, Josh has given money away in an organic (some would say catch-as-catch-can) manner. He’d see a human interest story in the newspaper, overhear a conversation at the Bauhaus, or hear about a program from a gamer buddy, and a huge donation check would arrive in the mail at an unsuspecting arts organization the next week. Recently he’s begun having regular meetings with his Seattle Foundation advisor, and he’s becoming knowledgeable about arts-education programs — the large and small ones offered by both high-brow and community-based organizations.

What Josh doesn’t yet know about are theories and models of arts education funding, and, being a voracious reader and web-savvy researcher, he probably can learn most of what he needs sitting alone in his rooms with his computer and high-speed connection. I’m trying to convince him to sign up for a GIA conference, but I don’t know if he’s ready. To my mind, there’s no substitute for face-to-face conversation with experts.

At Café Argento — Mulling It All Over Café Argento is the place I have coffee dates with myself. It’s a small, friendly place around the corner from Richard Hugo House, a writer’s center I co-founded on Capitol Hill in Seattle. At Café Argento I read about individualism and drink a latte that is its own work of art: thick, nutty, and hot. Here is where I find the line Walt Whitman wrote long ago: “I swear nothing is good to me now that ignores individuals.”

As I age, I cleave to this notion. I think of Zack the inner-city teenager who attends Scribes, Hugo House’s summer program for high school writers. Jeanine, Zack’s mom, is exhausted from working two jobs and taking care of Zack’s little sister Annie, who has intractable seizures and needs brain surgery. Inside Zack are the seeds of a poet and a saint — another Whitman, another Rilke. Words — assonance, dissonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia — swirl in his mind and propel him into the streets. Zoom in and you can identify — and identify with — the hunger in his mind. The need. For it is only in becoming aware of the particular that we understand the universal.

Life is no good without the individual — characters, personages you can see, feel, hear, and know. Good or bad, common or odd, the singleton, entity, hermit, maverick, wombat, mountebank, coot, hambone, or virtuoso makes the story good, makes life worth living. The artist is always an individual, the creative arises always and forever from an individual vision.

I’m convinced the same individual creativity can be brought to philanthropy, but doing philanthropy, like writing poetry, must be both studied and practiced to be done well.

I put Whitman away and pick up “Philanthropy’s Forgotten Resource: Engaging the Individual Donor,” a report from New Visions Philanthropic Research and Development. Among the eye-openers in this statistics-filled report is this: in 1973 there were no social change foundations, federations, or women’s funds providing education and support to donors, and in 2003 there were 243 such organizations. Donor education opportunities abound, these days. I can get educated about philanthropy at the Seattle Foundation, at Social Venture Partners, at Washington Women’s Foundation, or at my local Fidelity or Schwab office, or on the internet.

It was on the internet that I found an interview with Susan V. Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (3/2003). She says, “I believe that most societal change begins when someone wakes up in the morning and is inspired or angry or otherwise determined to alter something in their world….If they are able to mobilize other men and women, they begin to build a force for change.” I agree with that. Then she says, “We try to do that at Ford, working with nonprofits, business, and government.” True, Ms. Berresford, true. But conspicuously missing from this list, in my opinion, is the individual donor. If so much giving comes from individuals in this country (through the Fidelities and the Schwabs, for example), why are they excluded from the list of important partners? One reason, explained by Ms. Berresford and others (notably, John Kreidler in “Leverage Lost: The Nonprofit Arts in the Post-Ford Era), is that charity (giving that responds directly and simply to a need, without the strategic component of philanthropy) is a good and necessary thing for society. Ms. Berresford and Mr. Kreidler are loathe to intervene in the individual funding landscape.

And I can understand that to some extent. But here’s one problem with that scenario: There are too many individual donors who respond only to their friends, their relatives, their neighbors, their golf partners, their book club buddies, or their workout pals. So mostly what we end up with, as a society, is a lot of wealthy white people having access to a lot of other (more or less) wealthy white people. This has always been the case, to be sure. But with the landscape of philanthropy changing to include more non-institutional giving that is driven by individuals, there’s not enough awareness of the need to bring social justice (Ms. Berresford’s societal change) into decisions about giving.

To be fair, foundations are beginning to respond to this problem. For instance, the Ford Foundation, along with Kellogg and the Doll Family Foundation, funded “Giving Together, New Ventures in Philanthropy,” which does go a distance toward organizing and categorizing the ways individual donors can join together to learn and pursue common initiatives. (Wow, this New Ventures web site is really good — I wish I’d stumbled on it sooner when I was doing the research for this essay.)

To be sure, the big foundations — the ones with a wealth of experience making grants and a wealth of skill in the research arena — are beginning to take more notice of the individual donor. But there are still many important questions that need to be answered. I don’t believe that anyone yet has a clear understanding of individual donors, who they are, what they want, what their specific interests are, and how their philanthropy can be supported efficiently.

And I know that many (indeed, probably, most) individual donors prefer to be left alone to make charitable gifts without outside interference, information, or visibility.

However, I think there are many individual donors who would take advantage of better opportunities to segue from charity to philanthropy, if they were aware of them. The main question I’d like answered right now is a simple one: How many individual donors in the United States would be interested in tapping into the research and collegiality available from mixing with the professional staffs at private foundations?

I can’t help harkening back to the first time I ran across the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader. Alongside the thoughtful articles about arts funding, there was a description of the upcoming GIA conference, and I wanted to go. I tried to sign up, but I couldn’t. Even though I gave, at that point, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year away, I had not established a foundation and therefore I was ineligible. Fortunately, I happened to know long-time Seattle arts activist Anne Focke (who is also GIA’s executive director), and she fudged me in. That was a few years ago, and since then I’ve attended several conferences. More importantly, I’ve had dozens of informal conversations with foundation program officers through my association with GIA.

I don’t have hard data to support my intuition — not yet, anyway — but I think we need more solidly researched initiatives that reach out to, organize, and engage individual donors.

And, in the meantime, I’d like to see more folks of all income levels, amateurs and professionals, learning from each other — more people having conversations at conferences or in coffee shops, giving each other a chance.

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http://www.ascentaspirations.ca/densityaltitude.htm

Density Altitude

Ten years ago my husband and I crashed an airplane. It was Friday July 22nd, 1994, and we’d taken off from the north end of Lake Washington to fly over Seattle, circle the Space Needle, and spot sea lions in Elliot Bay. J. loved to fly because it gave him respite from his high-pressure, high-stress job as a high-tech CEO. He wanted me to fly with him because it was fun and because I’d asked him to spend more time with me. When we lined up to land, the lake from altitude looked like a teeming Petri dish—sailors, jet-skiers, swimmers, and sunbathers swarming near the shore—but we descended. Our time was up in the rented Cessna and I wanted to get home to the kids. But then a white speedboat cut through the touchdown point.

J. shook his head. I think he said “Shit.” He was forced to make snap decision: to fly over the boat, set down closer in, and risk slamming into the shore, or to pull up and go around. He yanked on the yoke. The plane’s nose tilted up. But we were flying through butter—too slow, too low. The plane headed straight for the steep hillside by the lake.

In 1994, J. was a brilliant, self-possessed type in his late thirties, conventionally and boyishly handsome, with a strong jaw and wary green eyes. He was full of suppressed energy. When he laughed hard, he threw his head back and opened his mouth wide. He knew the physics of flying like he knew the lingo of his trade—the rules of lift and acceleration were as familiar to him as the algorithms and syntax of software. Like others of his ilk—young high-tech lions—he was intelligent, agile, skillful, and cunning but not fully empathic. He was instinctive about power and authority. An older man who delivered a serious slight elicited a languid retreat; a child who spilled milk at the dinner table provoked a verbal swipe.

At the time of the crash, these qualities of his had led him to success in two software startups. In the first company he’d served as vice-president of Engineering. The stock from that venture had netted several million dollars. After a year off, he decided to start another company, and in 1994 we were well into the upward climb of that company’s life cycle. Our million shares of stock had been valued at first at a nickel a share. Now the stock was valued at several dollars a share—on paper at least.

If you had looked up “successful young American couple of the Nineties” in the dictionary, you would have found us. We were happy. Work, marriage, children—all of it exceeded our dreams.

The plane mushed toward a lakefront restaurant. The engine screamed at maximum revs. A tall wall of windows loomed larger and larger. J. heaved on the yoke. Tendons bulged in his neck. We were going to crash.

A fissure opened in me that exposed long-buried memories, dreams, and thoughts. Inside the cleft was a dead spot, a mile-high singularity from which I could look down at myself in that plane. I became a minuscule participant in the rushing-around of life, the molecules of sky and water and earth, the mammals and insects and microbes, the light and heat and sound. It was as if there was a frame around the whole busy mess of life, and the frame was heaven or art or physics or God, and God didn’t care what happened to me because we all live and we all die. It’s only a matter of time, and time is irrelevant to God. And in that moment my life began to matter to me. I became as precious to myself as a kidnapped child found alive after many days under ground.

J. and I had grown up in the same small town. We had been together since high school. Our lives had taken parallel courses for years—we’d both graduated from the University of Washington and worked in the software industry. (I was technical writer and he was a programmer.) Now, eighteen years into our marriage, our roles diverged. I quit working when we had our first child in 1988. I studied creative writing and wrote poetry between outings to parks, loads of laundry, and trips to the grocery store. I was along for the wild ride that was the Go-Go Nineties, but the family was my priority. Family was important to him too, but it didn’t come first. He was the public face of a public high-tech company, the founding CEO. Shareholders, customers, and employees were his responsibility, and he was driven by duty.

In my role as chief nurturer, I encouraged J.’s flying hobby. It had the combination of intellectual challenge and physical risk that could distract him for at least the time it took to take off in a plane and land it safely.

Our plane crash was caused by a thing called, in aviation parlance, density altitude. Density altitude is a calculation to help pilots compensate for the fact that air is not consistently dense. Air density affects the amount of lift available to make an airplane ascend. The way it’s supposed to work is that the airplane powers forward, the air flows under and over the wings, and the plane rises.

Lower air density means less lift and less engine power. A lot less.

There were 21,380 aircraft accidents between 1989 and 1999. Weather was a contributing or causal factor in nearly 5,000 of them. Most of the 5,000 weather-related accidents had to do with wind, but density altitude was a factor in nearly 1,000 of them.

The density altitude calculation is affected by the weight of the aircraft and its power, as well as the air temperature, the humidity, and the altitude. We were at sea level, but the airplane was underpowered, and the pontoons had taken on sea water when we’d briefly touched down in Elliot Bay, increasing our weight. And it was hot. Around 90 degrees. If J. had figured all this out ahead of time, he’d have known that once he committed to that landing on the busy lake, he would not be able to pull up and go around. It would be impossible to gain enough altitude to clear that restaurant, much less the steeply rising terrain across the road.

But it was a gorgeous day. We were flying.

Density altitude is a trap. It is a giant sheet of flypaper, an enormous spider web, the colossal hand of God.

We lived on the breaking edge of the Nineties high-tech tidal wave. The company’s stock price climbed steadily. New product releases thrust the customer base into the millions. Localizers were hired to translate the software for overseas markets, and sales offices were set up in Dublin and Tokyo. J. traveled often to Europe and the Far East, while I stayed home and took care of the house and the kids. Every quarter stock analysts watched the company’s performance and reported on it. They expected sales and profits to grow by a certain percentage quarter by quarter, year after year. It

was as if the shareholders and analysts were predators who fed constantly but were never sated.

And somehow the company and its executives managed to meet the growth goals year after year, as ridiculous as they seemed. J.’s anxiety increased every three months as the quarter deadline approached. And his anxiety grew quarter by quarter. After several years of this, I began to understand that, even if he wanted to, he couldn’t go on like that. There was no end to it.

Running a growing software company in the Nineties was like taking off in a small plane and realizing that the throttle’s stuck open and the elevator and rudder are frozen in position for a steep climb. You go until you run out of fuel or air. Either way you’ll end up falling out of the sky.

I loved J. He had a wicked sense of humor and a sharp intellect that kept me challenged, and we shared our lives intensely and deeply, the way only people who grow up together can. We had come from the same desert town, we knew all the same people, we loved each other’s families, and now we had children together. I expected that one day in 2050 we’d die together, lying side by side in our bed.

I admired his work, too. His company’s software was clever and clean, with a beautiful look and feel. It helped people do their work, and it provided well-paying, interesting jobs for thousands of people.

But I didn’t like what was happening in the stock market. Everyone knew it was a game, that stock valuations didn’t have much to do with real value. Even so, everyone wanted to play. You could get rich. We were getting rich.

Still, there was fear in the air. It felt as if we were flying in a jerry-built plane. I was always waiting for the engine to sputter, the flaps to freeze, the wings to tear off. I was always waiting for the crash.

When a small plane takes off correctly, it pops up like a buoyant stick in a still pond. In our plane, the engine whined, maxed out. Instead of ascending steeply and steadily, we labored on a flattened curve toward the restaurant windows. I saw the diners, their forks and knives as they ate. I saw their eyes widen as they looked up from their meals. I watched them pause, point, and gesticulate. I watched a man dive head first under a table like a Hollywood stunt man. I thought “We’re done. Damn.” Just that. But as the plane drew near the glass, the nose tilted skyward and the pontoons cleared the roof’s edge and the plane stalled and fell front-down onto the downward-sloping shed roof like a seesaw on its fulcrum.

I thought, “Damn, maybe we’re going to make it after all.”

Psychiatrists ask plane crash survivors if they are suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD—the syndrome that used to be associated only with war veterans—symptoms like anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, substance abuse, violent outbursts, self-mutilation, and suicide.

In 1999, a study questioned the conventional wisdom that all trauma victims suffer from PTSD. The study said, essentially, that plane crash survivors are “better off psychologically than their non-crash airplane traveler counterparts.” The researchers, Gary Capobianco of Old Dominion University and Thanos Patellis of the College Board in New York, had managed to question 15 airplane crash survivors and compare their answers to air travelers who had never been in a crash. They found that the plane crash survivors experienced less emotional distress in their daily lives than the control group.

What is the up-side of catastrophe? The question reminds me of the apocalyptic movies that are so popular these days. Could it be that we love the idea of wiping out everything—all our mistakes and betrayals and tragedies and disappointments—and starting over? Having another chance to fly right?

 

Once the plane cleared the edge of the restaurant’s shed roof, it stalled. It bounced and slid down along the roof. For a moment the road was a dark blur below us. The treed hillside loomed in front of us. I remember the ground drifting toward me as if I were a rider on a quaint old Ferris Wheel. The pontoons hit the road and buckled. There was some jostling. Not much. I hit the back of my head against the curved cockpit wall (an eager young ER doctor later insisted that I needed one stitch), and then there was another bump. A car traveling south on Bothell Way collided with the plane.

People ran over from the sides of the road.

Some guy said, “Stay put, help is coming!”

I said, “I’m getting out of here.”

We unhooked our harnesses. I remember thinking “What if the plane catches fire?” and then shoving the door open and scrambling out.

The newspaper account quoted a bystander who said I was “shaken.” I don’t remember feeling shaken. I do remember feeling chastened and grateful to be alive, especially after I knew all the facts: that the plane’s pontoons had scraped off the restaurant’s satellite dish, and then the tail of the plane had caught the 7,500-volt power lines that ran along Bothell Way, slowing us down enough to keep us from slamming into the hillside across the road.

When it was over, somehow everyone had escaped serious injury, even the elderly couple in the car that crashed into the wrecked plane.

For days after the crash, I told my mother and my best friend that nothing was wrong, but I spent hours cleaning cupboards, closets, storerooms, and drawers. I sorted dishes and silverware, linens and towels, clothing and toys, needles and thread, photographs and mementos. I needed to touch familiar objects and put them in order. It was as if I was a southbound waterfowl looking for a safe, still pond in which to land, rest, feed, and nest.

Joseph Stiglitz, the former chairman of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, has a new book out about the Roaring Nineties. He says that high stock prices made some people into millionaires overnight, but they also fed an “irrational exuberance” (Alan Greenspan’s phrase). Billions were poured into crazy high-tech ideas when we should have invested those billions into our country’s dilapidated infrastructure and failing school systems.

Unlike some of the dot-coms, J.’s company produced both a good product and solid profits every quarter. Still, we all knew that the stock-market feeding frenzy was not real. It was not sustainable.

We were about to run out of runway. There was no way we could gain enough altitude to miss the steeply rising terrain ahead.

Flying mattered to J., and he was not the kind of person to give up after a scare. He wanted to keep flying, he wanted me to join him, and I didn’t want to run away from a challenge or let him down. A week after the crash, I decide to get back on the horse; I booked a flying lesson at Boeing Field.

Bryan, the flight instructor, was a beautiful man in his mid-twenties. He had dark wavy hair, George Clooney eyebrows, and a knowing and sympathetic smile. Bryan had booked a rental plane from an agency on the field. Rental planes are usually small and beat up, and the plane Bryan had rented, an old Cessna 152, was no exception. It looked like the plane I’d crashed in, except that it was older and smaller and had wheels instead of pontoons. I stood on the field during the pre-flight check and examined the plane. The struts that connected the high wing to the cockpit seemed as slender and fragile as curtain rods.

We took off. I felt a little nervous, but it wasn’t bad. We flew around for a while, and then Bryan talked on the radio and got clearance to land. He lined the plane up and asked me to take the controls.

I tried to keep the plane on the glide slope, but I got dizzy. It was as if my head decided to stay at altitude while my body continued to descend with the plane. My bowels filled with wet cement. My stomach sprouted writhing worms. I told Bryan he’d have to land the plane, and he took over.

I could not keep my lunch down. I tried to vomit out the window, but I was not completely successful.

My body’s reaction shocked me. I had thought I was fine. It turned out that my body understood the nature of a brush with death even if my mind didn’t.

Life went on through the mid Nineties and into the late Nineties. Our kids grew, we built homes, we traveled. J. still got sick with anxiety every quarter. I understood when he said that public-company CEOs don’t just quit. If they do, the stock price can tank. He started looking for someone to take over, but nobody on the management team was ready for that challenge, and looking for a CEO outside the company would scare the markets. By 1998, though, I knew he had to get out. By 1999 even he knew it.

Microsoft was buying companies, and a conversation with Microsoft began, followed by a year-long, excruciating negotiation. Microsoft was tough. It took months to agree in principle on the sale, and many more months to settle on a value ratio for the stock swap. The offer was announced, weeks passed, and the deadline for SEC review approached. On the day before the deadline, the SEC decided to review the deal. Three more months of legal wrangling followed, during which the stress and pressure increased. I didn’t think I could stand it a second longer by the time the $1.26 billion sale was finally approved on January 7, 2000.

After the plane crash, I wanted to spend more time with people I loved. I wanted to touch them, listen to them. I wanted to make pot roast and play with the children. I cosseted myself as if I was a Victorian invalid, always contented in my sickroom, but happiest when receiving visitors. I could not bear the idea of dying forlorn and forgotten. On the other hand, my husband craved new experience—travel, music, food, drink, and especially people. He pushed himself out as if he was a rookie astronaut, impatient for the launch, happiest when walking on the moon. He could not bear the thought of dying without having lived. I drew in; he flew out.

J. and I weren’t divorced until the end of 2001, but our 24-year marriage was dead by the time the company was sold January 2000. I know this because I remember J. giving an interview on the occasion of the sale of the company. The interviewer asked him about the plane crash (I’m not sure why), and he gave an account of it—all of it—in nearly as much detail as I’ve given here. In his description, however, I was not mentioned once. It was as if he’d had no passenger at all.

But no, it was worse than that. It was as if we had never met in Kaiser’s Market when we were seventeen, or fallen in love, or married, or had two children together. He talked only of himself, his feelings, and what he’d learned.

By January 2000, he had moved on, even if he didn’t move out for another six months.

A few weeks ago I was visiting my friend Robin, a former Seattleite who now lives in Los Angeles. Robin happened to have some other friends over that night, who I’ll call John and Mary. John, a handsome, fit guy in his fifties who reminded me of my ex-husband, was a former Navy pilot who landed jets on aircraft carriers. Now John and Mary enjoy flying their small plane into remote mountain strips to camp and fish. John was talking about how careful he is when taking off from the high-altitude grass strips. He said visibility and density altitude are important factors, and if there’s any doubt at all, he doesn’t go. He waits for better conditions.

I said, by way of making conversation, “I know something about density altitude.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“I was in a crash because of density altitude.”

He leaned forward: the hungry look of a pilot who loves to talk aviation. “What happened?”

I began to tell the story of the crash. He interrupted in the middle of the story and finished it for me. He knew all about the accident. In fact, he knew more than I did. He turned out to be one of those pilots who digest, memorize, and analyze all the accident reports in the FAA bulletins and NTSB missives—a conscientious pilot; an aviation wonk.

“If those power lines hadn’t caught the tail, the plane would have crashed into the hot tub shop and exploded. You’d be dead right now.”

Even ten years out, I shivered. It was as if the tunnel of my time on earth opened for a moment into a grassy, sunny clearing; I glimpsed what might have been missing from the world if I had died in that crash.

Now I think of the crash as a touchstone. Before the crash, I believed I was busy building a life, a home, and a family. After the crash, I understood that I was busy preparing to die. Catastrophe and calamity arise in any life—mine included, but I don’t fear it quite like I used to.

Occasionally I ask a friend who’s a pilot to take me up in his small plane. If conditions are right, I ask if we can fly low enough to see the trees on the mountains, the boats on the oceans, the houses in the towns, and the cars on the roads. A low-altitude aerial view has a magic all its own, a kick and a delight, an angle on life that’s otherwise unattainable.