Seattle

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Posted on September 2nd, 2013 by dervala. Filed in My Places\, Outdoors\, Peace and Love\, People\, Seattle.
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I live in Seattle now, on the top-left corner of the contiguous United States. It’s 4,159 miles from Limerick, says Google, which is a long way from home to end up living under the same shifting grey skies. When I first moved here three years ago, people offered advice on how to get through the dark, wet winters. Rub Vitamin D cream on the backs of your knees. Get Alaska Airlines deals on February flights to Hawaii. Buy a happy lamp. Go skiing at the weekend. Tanning booths—no, really.

I smiled and ignored them. Hadn’t I lived on dark, wet little islands until I was 25? Like most new arrivals, I was busy trying to learn a new job and make a home. That first year I barely left the city, and every day, or so it seemed, Seattle piddled rain like a small, anxious grey dog.

I had to give up my motorbike and learn to drive a car, badly, and I developed a terror of hydroplaning when I changed freeway lanes. As we headed for our 90th consecutive day of rain, my colleagues would insist that New York’s total average annual rainfall was actually higher. I’d bite back bitter answers about preferring to dance under few traffic-stopping New York rainstorms rather than slop through six months of Seattle drizzle sucking the latent heat out of my soul and bones.

By March, I was catatonic with seasonal depression, crying in the bathroom and blaming Seattle for all my failures ever. I felt like a Safeway carrot, buried for months and then misted every 15 minutes.

I was resurrected by a sunny summer—second time lucky. Seasoned now, I took myself to the mountains to learn to ski, badly. I swallowed the odd dose of Vitamin D, but abandoned the happy lamp. I’ve still never been to Hawaii, but these days I’m the one occasionally helping newer arrivals to learn to love Seattle. I know enough to avoid citing comparative average annual rainfall statistics.

Seattle is smart and introverted city, settled by Norwegian loggers, aerospace engineers, and computer scientists. (This population has lovely aspects, but pandas could teach us how to mate.) Dark, wet winters turn Seattleites toward reading and music, coffee and pot. Our bars and bookstores are good. In the summer we lay down stores of cheerfulness, when there’s dancing and bike polo in the streets.

The city is draped between mountains, lakes, and seas that draw many out of doors (though rarely me), zipped in fleece and Gore-Tex. Outdoors is a parallel world—you go “into nature,” properly outfitted for your boating, kayaking, hiking, camping, and skiing. REI started here.

In fact, Seattle has always been a town of canny outfitters, moving here to profit from booms elsewhere. John Nordstrom made Klondike money without ever working his own gold claim, and his store still ships fancy boots to gold diggers around the country. Jeff Bezos has taken 15 years of friendly Wall Street money and spent it dispatching enough Amazon boxes to fill all our new houses. Microsoft made the world organize our computer files in imaginary folders on imaginary desktops, and Starbucks convinced us to put real paper cups of coffee next to them.

How does Seattle spend this money? For all its drive and frontier history, this is a city of Un-American Activities. We hired Rem Koolhaas to design the Seattle Public Library. We just bought a Spurs player to give the passionate Sounders fans some [football][soccer] moves worth cheering. We worship local food and wine. Rich people gave money to campaigns to legalize marijuana and equalize marriage. We have brilliant medical researchers, a good state university, and not-bad buses. This may be why Seattle is a comfortable berth for this middle-aged white lady from northern Europe, despite—or because of—the social reserve that dejected newcomers from other parts of the US call Seattle Freeze.

Seattle knows we’re stiff compared to Portlandia down the road, and staid compared to the Pacific Rim glamour of Vancouver three hours north. We fret, in an almost Canadian way, about whether we’re recognized as world-class at this or that. (“America’s Second-Most Literate City!” the local magazines will blurt.) We know it’s 20 years since Seattle last was cool, and keep checking whether it’s time for a grunge revival yet. (When 71-year-old Paul McCartney played Seattle in July, I sat behind Nirvana. Dave Grohl dandled sweet daughters, looking like any Caspar Babypants daddy.) These days, Macklemore is our great white hope.

But here’s something I’ve come to love about Seattle. All kinds of extraordinary people still show up here, long after the gold rush. They visit, because, rare among cities, we actually read their books, pay to hear their music, or want to hear how they’re changing the world. They move here altogether, because they think it’s sane and civilized, they want fresh air, or their sweetheart got a job that makes them hopeful. And these autotelic, funny, stylish, book-reading, science-loving, art-making humans sit up at the bars of our restaurants to eat their dinners and chat with the stranger next to them.

In San Francisco or New York, those same people might have to look busy, sought-after and fabulous, just like everyone else. They might scan the room for better options, check in for the next party, promise coffee four weeks out. Here, the options aren’t endless and it’s okay to be eager. A stranger might actually chat, glad to find a kindred spirit. As transplants, you can roll your eyes about Seattle: the earnestness, the awkward glass art, the rain, the romance-famine. You can compare it to the last city that still holds your heart. You can band together, thawing out from the polite Seattle Freeze. The streets yield more fun with a playmate or a partner in crime.

And then you make another friend. And another. And another. And one day, maybe a bright evening in July or August, when the sun is still high at half past eight and the park is full of people eating street food picnics, you realize your little tribe has formed, and Seattle—endearing, dorky, emerald city—broke all that ice for you.

Slides

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Posted on January 26th, 2010 by dervala. Filed in Books\, My Places\, Peace and Love\, People\, Quotes\, Technology\.
13 comments filed

Yellow

“It lets us travel the way a child travels…round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

—Don Draper, pitching the Kodak Carousel on Mad Men.

I remember playing with the yellow plastic boxes, and my father saying, “Don’t put your paws all over the slides.” I used to hold the squares up to the bedroom window to see tiny pictures of monkeys and babies. They weren’t that exciting, but in those days telly didn’t start until 3 o’clock.

Zambia was mine. My younger sisters were born in Limerick, but I was born in the town of Mansa, Luapula Province, Zambia, Africa, The World, The Universe. I had no memories of the place, and no real curiosity about it, but it was exotic and scary in a lions-and-tigers kind of way, and at eight you’ll use whatever might make you special. I liked to tell people I was born in Africa, in that hair-twirling way of small girls who want your attention.

“And I was on an aeroplane, and on the way home from Africa I got sick out the window,” I remember announcing in class one day. One of the boys said that the windows on aeroplanes didn’t open, so it wasn’t true. I would be 16 before I got on a plane again, and none of the other kids had been on one at all, but his challenge put a stop to my boasting. It still stings. (Not long ago my mother told me that yes, I’d had some bad water on a stopover in Ethiopia, and vomited the whole way back—but not out the window.)

My mother was 20 and my father 24, and they were a few days married when they went from Ireland to Zambia to start their teaching careers. It wasn’t a completely unusual choice. Ireland has a strong bond with Africa through a shared colonial history and decades of Catholic mission and relief work. In the late 60s and 70s, the newly-independent African nations were offering contracts for foreign engineers, doctors, and teachers, just at the time that the first Irish generation to get free secondary schooling were coming out of college with their first-in-the-family degrees. The bolder ones were glad to sign up for a three-year adventure.

My parents weren’t the only young couple on that long journey heading out on one of those contracts. They watched the other passengers to see who stayed with them past Rome, past Addis Ababa, past Nairobi, and on to Lusaka. A girl with a shiny new wedding ring turned to my mother on the last leg, weeping, and asked her “Do you miss your mammy too?” They are still friends with Esther today.

Esther’s baby, Danielle, was born a month before me. She was Town Mouse and I was Bush Mouse. I was the first white baby born in the Mansa clinic, 18 months after they arrived, and my mother didn’t see a doctor until late in her labour, when we were both troubled. Afterwards, she washed in a pitch-dark bathroom and then discovered next morning that it was thick with flies and filthy; it made her sick. She remembers the local women laughing at her mottled, funny-looking baby, but says she didn’t mind.

Mary and Dervala

We didn’t have many photos from Zambia in our house in Limerick—a few square, white-bordered prints of leopards, my christening, and the gleaming young men on the football team at St. Clement’s Secondary School, where my father taught. But there were dozens and dozens of photos of my younger sisters, born six and nine years later, and I decided—with more logic than bitterness—that this was because they were so clearly cute, while I had brown hair and glasses.

It wasn’t until a trip home last September that I remembered the yellow boxes of slides. My parents hadn’t owned a slide projector, and we had never seen them properly. Over the years their pictures had faded first into mystery and then into oblivion. At some point they had been shunted up to the attic. My mother wasn’t sure about letting me have them—I’m known to lose things—but I persuaded my sister to climb up to the attic and pass them down to me, in a precarious operation that had the three of us yelping “Oh Jesus! Watch it!”

I brought the slides back to San Francisco and eventually got round to shipping them to a scanning service down the road in Burlingame. They sent them on to Mumbai, where Indian workers would scan each slide by hand and color-correct them for my digital approval, then return them to San Francisco along with a DVD copy of their contents.

We are moving, says my friend Richard, from a world of things to a world of flows. The Zambia slides had a long journey in years and miles. They were carried across four continents and three decades, encased in yellow plastic boxes, in suitcases, in bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts, in cardboard boxes and packing tape, until one day their atoms were reborn as bits and their hidden stories began to flow.

I opened the links on my computer at work. There was the baby that was once me—smiling, pondering, sleeping, bawling, floating. There were my parents, hip and beautiful and improbably young, wearing bright colors. And there was Zambia, dusty, sunny, with new brick buildings and vivid red bushes.

Sean, Mary, Dervala

These were my blurred stories but not my memories, and I wished that I were discovering them with my mother and father instead of sitting alone 5,000 miles away. Digital photos don’t live anywhere. There’s no ritual of setting up the projector and dimming the lights. You’re not passing loose photos across a kitchen table, or squeezing in beside someone to turn the pages of an album. Loosed on the web, these photos seemed ephemeral and indestructible, detached and yet achingly intimate, years ago and yesterday.

I sent the links to my sister in Canada and to my friends at work, because I wanted the photos seen. How can you not bite your lip at the sight of a tiny baby, wet and kicking after a basin-bath, even if that baby is—somehow—yourself?

As I said, I was six when my sister was born, and as an almost-only child I believed myself to be self-sufficient. I remember vividly the night I learned to read, some time before I was four. My mother was re-reading an Enid Blyton story about Santa Claus getting stuck in the chimney of a factory. I was curled under her arm, sucking my thumb and imbibing the bliss of a story, and then there was a moment when the words on the page unscrambled, and I knew by the shape of them what each one said. It was fabulously exciting. From now on, I could read myself a story any time I wanted, forever and ever. It was my emancipation.

That’s what I remember—being a good girl, being the big sister, being able to tie my own shoes and put on my pyjamas, being able to learn off my spellings and read my own bedtime stories. All my life, I have shrunk from needing things from others. Yet these Zambia photos tell a different story, one that makes my throat swell. I wasn’t an independent little creature. I was a baby who was swaddled and held—in the crook of my father’s arm, on my mother’s hip, on their laps and shoulders, in lakes and on land—and I accepted it with grace and satisfaction. My parents didn’t have a Baby Bjorn to keep their hands free for their iPhones. Even though the Zambian babies were carried in wraps, it hadn’t occurred to my parents to do the same. They brought me everywhere—on safari in the back of a friend’s tiny Beetle, to parties with their childless friends, backpacking through Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. We were a trio.

This year, 2010, my parents will be married forty years, and my mother will turn sixty. I no longer gaze up at them daily with total dependence and devotion, but now I know how much I once did. And through their old photos I’ve learned to read another love story.

Green

Christening

Wow

If I know aught of myself, no one whose mind is introspective—and mine is painfully so—can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious ***; addicted to ****: averse from counsel, neither taking it, nor offering it;—*** besides; a stammering buffoon; what you will; lay it on, and spare not; I subscribe to it all, and much more, than thou canst be willing to lay at his door—but for the child Elia—that “other me,” there, in the back-ground—I must take leave to cherish the remembrance of that young master—with as little reference, I protest, to this stupid changeling of five-and-forty, as if it had been a child of some other house, and not of my parents. I can cry over its patient small-pox at five, and rougher medicaments. I can lay its poor fevered head upon the sick pillow at Christ’s, and wake with it in surprise at the gentle posture of maternal tenderness hanging over it, that unknown had watched its sleep. I know how it shrank from any the least colour of falsehood.—God help thee, Elia, how art thou changed! Thou art sophisticated.—I know how honest, how courageous (for a weakling) it was—how religious, how imaginative, how hopeful! From what have I not fallen, if the child I remember was indeed myself,—and not some dissembling guardian, presenting a false identity, to give the rule to my unpractised steps, and regulate the tone of my moral being!

That I am fond of indulging, beyond a hope of sympathy, in such retrospection, may be the symptom of some sickly idiosyncrasy. Or is it owing to another cause; simply, that being without wife or family, I have not learned to project myself enough out of myself; and having no offspring of my own to dally with, I turn back upon memory and adopt my own early idea, as my heir and favourite?

—Charles Lamb, ”New Year’s Eve,” 1821

Green Card

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Posted on April 7th, 2009 by dervala. Filed in California, Peace and Love\, People\, Politics\, San Francisco\, Work\.
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I’ve worked with my immigration lawyer for 12 years now, and no one knows more about me than Ken. He may not know what makes my heart beat faster (too much red wine and coffee, Ken), but he has the facts.

He has an original copy of my Leaving Cert results, and he knows the exact and dismal grade I got in my Organizational Behavior mid-term 15 years ago. He has letters from every company I’ve worked for, and unlike my parents, he knows what I did there, too—in fact, he helped me get work permits for most of them. He has maintained a trail of my addresses matched only by my Amazon account. Copies of my fingerprints, birth certificate, social security card, marriage license, divorce decree, and passport live in his files. He has written proof that I’m not tubercular, am HIV negative, and have been vaccinated according to today’s medical fashions.

If I were a private eye, hired by the children of a lovestruck billionaire to find dirt on me, I’d break into Ken’s files first.

His official client is my boss, Susan, who is my sponsor. She’s the one who paid him to make the case to the United States Immigration and Citizenship Service (USCIS) that my job is specialized enough to justify hiring a Green Card holder, and then to show that I’m qualified to be that very special alien.

The Green Card process is straightforward if you’re trying to hire a foreign scientist to build rockets. It may take a few years, but it’s not hard to prove that, in order, a) this job requires certain skills, b) no qualified Americans are available to do it at the prevailing wage right now and c) this talented foreigner is qualified to take the position based on her PhD in rocket science and her five years’ experience building rockets in Tanzania or Switzerland.

The path is twistier if, as in Susan’s case, you’re trying to hang onto an Irish BA graduate for a job that involves anything from making a diorama of the contents of a high-school locker to writing speeches for coffee moguls to coming up with a list of names of emerging stars who should be invited to Davos. (“Preferably females from the developing world…,” is always the whisper added to those requests.)

These are the requirements for a job like mine: curiosity, apophenia, empathy, and common sense, plus fair-to-middling writing skills and an ability to improvise.

The USCIS doesn’t count chronic apophenia as a qualification for becoming a resident alien in the United States. Nor do they take into consideration your card-counting ability, or your yellow hair. All that matters is your educational attainment in a relevant field and the work experience you racked up before you started the job in question—again, as long as you can show that it’s directly relevant. My Spanish degree looks muy bonito on my resume, but since I don’t have Spanish-speaking clients, it’s of no use to my Green Card application. Nor are the 18 months I spent failing to become a banker, way back when.

Over the past four years, Ken did the hard labor of proving that my job warranted special qualifications, and that no qualified natives had presented themselves when Susan advertised the position. What remained was to prove that I was worth a Green Card—that my degree, my paltry marketing diploma, and my lurching career were enough. Though I had no faith in my resume, I believed Ken would fix all my faults and lacks, so I was surprised to get a letter this past February. I shouldn’t have been.

“Request for Evidence,” it was titled. “The documentation submitted is not sufficient to warrant favorable consideration of your petition.”

It came from the USCIS processing center in Lincoln, Nebraska. I’ve been to Lincoln once. Tim drove me through it on a cross-country trip during the Christmas holidays of 2007. We bawled the Bruce Springsteen song over the roar of the old Honda. The muffler had dropped off in Detroit, and though Tim lay in the snow at an Iowa truckstop in order to tie it back on with yellow baling twine, all we got was a few miles of clunking and scraping before the renewed roar of internal combustion. A blizzard chased us across the plains. Every so often we’d pass a yard with a Clinton sign or, more rarely, an Obama sign. Whenever we stopped for coffee at a McDonald’s, our ears rang, and then froze. At the Wal-Mart on the Nebraska border, the cashier asked if we wanted a cooked chicken for two dollars. They would have to throw the chickens out at closing time, and the staff weren’t allowed to take them home. We ate it in a motel room, watching coverage of the Iowa caucus.

After twelve years living on the coasts, it was my first real visit to America. It was wonderful.

When I got that letter from the USCIS, I thought about the person who wrote it. February 2nd, 2009 it was dated: I pictured her pulling on a bulky jacket, cold to the touch from hanging in the hallway overnight, and stepping outside to shovel the driveway so she could get to work. On the car radio, she would hear more still about the unemployment rate, consumer confidence, and the banking crisis—enough misery to make her look for a music station. Then a stop for an Egg McMuffin, maybe, and the pleasure of that first sip of office coffee, and a chat about The Bachelor with the woman at the next desk. After that she would turn to the next file in her tray: a fat packet, 18 months old, with neatly tabbed sections for application forms, college transcripts, complicated descriptions of dotcom-era jobs in New York City, paystubs and tax records, and a covering letter in lawyer language setting forth why this Dervala Afria Hanley should get to get to stay in the United States.

She wants to live in San Francisco, this woman with the unpronounceable names. She has a fancy-sounding job—a Marketing Strategist, whatever that is—and she earns twice as much as a USCIS caseworker in Lincoln, Nebraska. Per the regulations, she doesn’t smile in the passport photos, and there’s a haughty look on her face, as if she shouldn’t have to sit through this. Born in Zambia, the application says, and then a string of jobs in London, New York and San Francisco. Divorced.

“Job losses in January reached record highs in every state…”

Must be nice to live in California in January.

When I think of a USCIS caseworker sitting at her desk in Lincoln, Nebraska this past February, assessing my application, I am amazed at her generosity in asking for more evidence instead of turning me down flat.

Ken and I scrambled for a few weeks, collecting more letters and transcripts. We had to ask my colleagues to dig out five years of corporate tax returns and other evidence that the company was real and could pay a worker. Then he mailed off another fat packet, and I waited.

Driving to work last Monday I thought about when I would have to start planning for failure. My H1-B work permit expires a year from now, and without a Green Card, I’d have to leave the US once again. My home country seems to be in its worst state since the Famine, if the local radio podcasts are to be believed, and the rest of Europe is hardly better. It seemed a most miserable prospect, and yet, even in the privacy of my motorcycle helmet, I couldn’t make the case that I have more right to my job than the thousands who are being laid off every day. I began to wonder what new adventures would be pushed on me. I was getting ready to improvise again.

And then another of Ken’s measured notes arrived in my email inbox, pleased to inform Susan that Dervala’s I-140 immigrant petition had been accepted, and that once a Green Card number became available my full application should be approved.

It’s a thrill. I’m not a lawyer, or even a dealmaker, so I blurted out to everyone in Twitter or text message radius that I’d been approved for a Green Card. That’s not quite true yet, but it’s truthy enough for me to take big breaths of relief, to cry at little and then laugh, to start wondering about all kinds of things that have always been above my station. And to feel a small girl’s pride in doing it all by myself, without needing a man’s accomplishments to stand behind.

Thanks, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. I love you.

The Inevitable Evolution of Love

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Posted on December 28th, 2008 by dervala. Filed in California, Peace and Love\, People\, Politics\, San Francisco\.
6 comments filed

“On election day itself, as the state of California determines whether to make one last-ditch effort to hold back the inevitable evolution of love in the 21st century, Julie and Amy decide to get hitched (again). It is an act of love but also of protest, an affirmation of commitment but also a land-grab for legal rights.”—From a wedding invitation

“Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality… I think it’s a travesty that people have forced someone who is gay to have to make their case.“—Jon Stewart to Governor Mike Huckabee, The Daily Show

I

Cleo wore a princess dress and carried a basket of flowers. She handed each of us a flower and primly arranged the ones left over. Then she set them aside and climbed into the alcove where we’d left our coats—as high as her head—and with a “Watch me!” she jumped off. It was a good day for solemnity and leaps.

We stood at the top of the marble staircase in San Francisco’s City Hall, holding our flowers while we watched Julie and Amy, Cleo’s parents, take turns explaining how and why they loved each other. All week, they had fretted over whether to get married to mark this extraordinary time, and in the end they said yes—again—and each went off to write her vows. It had been fourteen and a half years since they’d met in New York City. They had enough time behind them to see their rhythms and loops, and enough time ahead to set lifelong intentions. They had tested out better and worse, and believed that they could rise to whatever life presented.

So they stood up in front of some friends who loved them, their six-year-old daughter, and a motherly Justice of the Peace, and vowed to stay together for the rest of their lives. This part bored Cleo a little, I think. There wasn’t enough about her. And then, a few minutes before 5.30 PM on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008, the Justice of the Peace smiled at Julie and Amy and said:

“By the power vested in me by the State of California,

I now pronounce you

spouses

for life.”

We all clapped, and a few of us cried, and Doug took photos with a sheet of white paper stuck behind his flash, either to soften or sharpen the light, I don’t know which. An Associated Press photographer took some shots too. While we hugged and congratulated, Cleo showed her friend Annabel how you could skid on the marble steps, and then we all walked down together. There is no better staircase in San Francisco on which to flounce the skirts of a party dress—even in motorcycle gear I feel like Scarlett O’Hara in City Hall.

There were other knots of people just like us—pairs of tuxes, pairs of dresses, some with supermarket bouquets, some with kids. When we walked outside there was a crowd of activists on the steps below, waving placards at the traffic. Some wore costumes, others wore slogan t-shirts. Many of the drivers honked their support and waved, and the activists blew their whistles and chanted back. We stood for a moment and watched. The news crews were parked across the street and a helicopter dangled above. The atmosphere was both festive and charged.

“These two just got married,” I said and pointed at Julie and Amy, and everybody on the steps turned to look up and celebrate them, punching balloons into the air, cheering and applauding. Cleo looked bemused at first, but then she took it as a natural wedding thing that strangers would whoop at her mothers and admire her dress. This is going to be a big memory for her.

Julie’s cousin had to go back to her kids—she was temporarily a single parent since her husband had quit his job to spend months volunteering for Obama in a faraway state. The rest of us made our way to a nearby restaurant to celebrate with wine and plates passed family-style. The customers at the restaurant bar were already tipsy with victory, their elbows nearer and nearer the TV, heads thrown back. “He’s got Pennsylvannia,” they shouted, and our chairs scraped back to see for ourselves. My Blackberry chirped: someone still at the office reported that Obama had won Ohio. In a neatly recycled celebration, Julie paid the restaurant bill with cash raised from selling Cleo’s outgrown crib.

II

Barack Obama was elected that night, and I went to the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, which was hosting the No on Prop 8 campaign party. It was jammed, and I squeezed into the lobby and watched his acceptance speech on the smallish screens behind the reception desk, standing on tiptoe and peering around a pillar. I could hear him but barely see him. He was alone on a giant stage, talking about the hundred-year-old lady.

The St. Francis was a fire hazard. I’m slight enough to weave through crowds so I made my way up to the second floor to find my friends, only to discover at the top of the stairs that no one was moving. Our bodies were pressed together and some people held champagne glasses overhead. We had become a single, breathing mass trying to pour a tentacle down the stairs. On the third floor, people were peering over the banisters to see if they would ever get down. Finally a security guard arrived and shouted instructions into a bullhorn: “No more people going up. No elevators. Make your way DOWN and to the street, and keep moving.”

The people in this crowd had led the fight to keep gay marriage legal in California, and a majority of their fellow citizens had just voted to take this right away from them. I thought of the Christian superstores of Orange County, and how sure their customers would have felt about their votes. In his acceptance speech, President-elect Barack Obama had just acknowledged gay Americans, and yet Julie and Amy’s freshly-signed marriage dangled between today’s law and tomorrow’s.

We had won and we had lost. This crowd—familiar with the rhythms of progress and setbacks—opted for cheerfulness. People practiced saying “President Obama” out loud.

Almost everyone who made it to the exit paused at the door to take in the scene in Union Square below. A cable car was stuck just in front of the hotel, and a gorgeous African-American girl took over the bells and played the staccato rhythms of “Yes, We Can” over and over so that the crowds could roar along.

The tourists had come out to watch the Americans. The only other passengers who stayed on the marooned cable car were a Japanese couple, the man snapping photographs and the woman covering her giggles as the crowd waved up at her. At the edge of the crowd, holding up cameras and then breaking off for multi-lingual discussions, were Italian students, middle-aged Germans, and some excited French. A dull-eyed Irish girl scratched the backfat rippling out of her cami while her sister and their boyfriends held her shopping bags and stared off, waiting for something to happen beyond the world turning upside down. All over San Francisco, strangers were dancing together.

III

The week before Christmas I went to the last Saturday night showing of Milk at the Castro Theater. As is fitting for the neighborhood, it’s a fabulous 1920s movie palace decked out with frescoes and gilt. Before each film, a platform rises slowly to stage level, bearing a bald man in a red jacket seated at an organ. With his back to the audience, he plays several songs to loud applause. Any movie at the Castro is an event, and none more than this one: the last time I was here, part of the street was roped off for the filming of Milk.

The film opened with real footage of men being pulled out of New York bars and loaded into police wagons. They were homosexuals, and therefore criminals and psychiatric cases, and they covered their own faces as if they agreed with those assessments. That was the detail that shoved me into tears that lasted throughout the film: these men—fruits, faggots, queers—were already imprisoned by shame.

I myself am a flaunting, flaming, flamboyant straight, known to flirt publicly, hold hands on the street, and wrap myself around a man on the dance-floor. I wear lipstick and high heels, and motorcycle jackets—sometimes all at once. I’ve brought men home for Christmas and expected my family to accept them. I’ve exercised my right to have a heterosexual union officially recognized, even though I didn’t uphold the institution of marriage very well. I pursue my straight agenda in spite of underwhelming results.

And yet for all my heterosexual brazenness, I also know about shame and fear. When I was growing up, Ireland had closets for all kinds of conditions that sat outside a narrow range of normal. We had a never-ask, never-tell culture of festering secrets, and every close Irish friend of mine can spill those tales today: madness hidden in plain sight; babies given away and never spoken of; violent wives; gay uncles in London; neighbor men with wandering hands. Our ferry ports and airports were pressure valves.

In AA, they say you are only as sick as your secrets, and your secrets will make you drink. I think this goes for societies as well as individuals, and it takes a long time to get over such training. In my own life I’ve kept silent about relationships, weaknesses, and beliefs that might threaten or draw censure, and in the face of bigotry, I’ve dissented mostly by walking on to more tolerant places. Anonymity matters to me.

IV

That’s why Harvey Milk’s bravery moves me to tears. For forty years he lived a cramped, coded, half-hidden life, as expected, and in return for that sacrifice he got to keep his job and a relationship with his family. And then, at forty, he decided that the price for these small rewards was too high, and he stepped into the San Francisco daylight. Somehow, he had saved up enough faith in himself to believe that if only people knew him and others like him for who they truly were, they would learn to find them ordinary rather than disgusting. He practiced radical acceptance, of himself and of others.

Milk asked for safety and respect—and with a smile he offered his own respect even to those who might fear or abuse him. He refused to underestimate people, and tried to inoculate them against homophobia by letting them react to a dose of his presence: a real, live gay man. He stood on a box and asked for an end to the secrets that protect only darkness.

Silence is complicity, and I am sad for people who still live in the many places where “gay” is a noun, not an adjective. For all the people, not just for “the gays” who are cast out. When some people have to live in the closet, we are all stuck in the dark.

In my home town, the compassionate line was once: “I just feel sorry for gays. It’s very hard for them, very lonely.” The circular logic has pissed me off since I was a teenager. Twenty years later, I live in San Francisco, where homosexuality is banal. Most of my gay colleagues are married with children, and busy with car-pooling and grade-school admissions. They’ve racked up decades together, their dogs growing from puppies to gray-muzzled shufflers. There is no pity required for these unlonely lives, and no need to fear such ordinary people. All that’s required is equality.

V

I remember chatting to my neighbor, Bryan, around the time San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom brought in gay marriage a few years back. Bryan is four years older than Barack Obama, and has seen plenty. He grew up in Watts, and remembers the confusion of the riots in 1965. He was one of five black students in his class at the University of Iowa. He lived through the exuberant seventies in gay San Francisco, and then through AIDS in the eighties and nineties. His long-term partner can get no citizenship status here, though they could get married and get citizenship in Scott’s country.

As we sorted our laundry in the garage that day, I put out some opinion I’d read about the dangers of rushing through gay marriage legislation. There was an election coming up, or just past, and people were saying that the sight of lesbian weddings had galvanized the opposition. Strategically, for everyone’s sake, might it have been better to wait until after the election?

Bryan interrupted me. “People will always tell you to wait, there’s always some reason to wait.” he said. “Well, I’m sick of waiting. It’s time.”

Dear Bryan, dear Harvey, dear Barack, dear Devin, dear Julie, Amy, and Cleo: thank you for your gracious impatience and your weaponless courage. Please keep pushing us to come out of the dark.

Further reading: Frank Rich in the NYTimes: “You’re likeable enough, gay people.

C.A.L.I.*

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Posted on December 16th, 2008 by dervala. Filed in California, Ireland\, Peace and Love\, People\.
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dervala-xmas-76.jpg

“Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away.”

—Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

I’m thirty-six years old and I don’t have kids.

Now there’s a sentence that can’t be neutral, even if every word in it is as short and bald as a baby. Who would choose to assert a lack? Yet the other ways we’ve tried to say it—like “childfree”— sound awkward and pointed, like insisting on “Ms” did in the seventies.

My parents were young when they had me, and I got used to being the oldest among their friends’ children. I was happier controlling the universe of half a dozen dazzled toddlers than taking my chances with kids my own age, so I turned into the kind of maternal 12-year-old girl that neighborhood mothers count on. Isn’t she great with the little ones, they’d say, grateful to be having tea and Viennese fingers while I played Ring-a-ring-a-rosy or read storybooks for hours.

I was proud of being seen as “good with kids,” and I’m still vain about it. When a three-year-old decides to be my friend, or a baby flirts, I note another conquest. God knows, it’s easy to get kids to love you: let them check you out before you look at them, don’t ask the dozy questions that most adults throw out, and if they decide to invite you into the world inside their heads, follow its logic absolutely. It’s a bonus if you’re still able and willing to jump around with them, but not vital.

My friend Andy talks about his lifelong dream never to go on a cruise. I didn’t have a lifelong dream never to have children. Like most choices, this one emerged over time from hundreds of smaller ones. Sometimes I tell my friends who are mothers that if I had ten million dollars I’d have a baby. It’s an arbitrary number, out of reach for me but just entry-level wealth down the road in Silicon Valley. Ten million dollars would fill a sandbag against the storms of change that the world and children bring. School fees, college tuition, soccer camp, braces, and psychiatry bills would get paid. I could buy back the time from my workaholic culture to be with a child, rather than working more to keep her from deprivation. I could pay for nannies when I wanted to use my brain again. Having overstretched geographically my whole grown-up life, I could shrink once again the distance between the cities I love and my family in Ireland.

It’s a cop-out, of course. I’m bound up in an individualistic, transaction-based culture, rising and falling by my own efforts, and I don’t like to need anything from the people I like and love. That membrane of separateness, of self-reliance, is as fragile and illusory as a soap bubble, and a child would pop it instantly. The ten-million-dollar thought experiment is a way to keep that bubble floating, to think about change without changing. It turns out that motherhood is one of those things that I’d like to experience, but don’t actually want to do.

In my twenties, the baby announcements were a novelty, and I remember feeling vaguely sorry for the friends who were missing out on the nights out and the sleeps in. Now most of my pals are parents, and each “We’re pregnant!” feels like the news that a friend has got a dream job in Cleveland. I’m glad for them, but there’s a large, disgruntled child in me who wants to send baby back to the hospital.

The truth is, I’m not envious of my friends who have children. I’m envious of the children who have my friends.

There’s genius in a kid’s fresh worldview, and I like to keep up with their latest sayings and doings. I play slideshows of their Hallowe’en photos on my second monitor at work. I’m a small-time scholar of fashions in child-rearing, and I ask endless questions about parenthood and the transforming, heart-stretching love that it inspires in the most unlikely people. (My friend Padraig, who once claimed that as a father he would be “harsh but cruel; distant, yet remote,” is now hopelessly in love with two small boys and a girl.) I can’t imagine what it feels to walk around with a piece of your heart outside your body, though I do remember the painful tenderness I felt for my baby sisters.

But I’ve come to prefer the company of real, live children in concentrated doses, followed by nighty-nights and grown-up chat. Children were once small, not very competent apprentices in the family enterprise, who couldn’t wait to be big and useful. Today, they are the clients, and parents act the part of the incompetent account manager, offering endless options that don’t quite please and blanket praise for every eaten pea and filled potty. (“Oh, good jo-ob, Micah!”) The whole show is tedious. Why are people spending so much time training kids to “make good choices,” and so little teaching them to accept the world with grace? (I treasure the old-fashioned, please-and-thank-you kids I know, who seem to be not just better mannered but more content.)

Karl Lagerfeld told a story about his horrible Prussian mother, who once told him, after he repeated a childish story too often, “Karl, you may be six but I am not, and your stories are very boring to me. Please try to be more interesting, or be silent.” Whenever a chat with a friend gets interrupted for the fiftieth time by a domineering five-year-old, I think fondly of monstrous Mrs. Lagerfeld.

That human reproduction should be choice at all is a comically short blip in our history, and we haven’t yet figured out how to manage it. (Looking at continental Europe, Japan, and non-immigrant America, our selfish minds seem to be winning over our selfish genes.) For now, we’re looking around us to see how many children we should have and how to raise them. My Irish friends, who can count on decent free schooling and nearby families, have three apiece. My coastal Americans started later and for the most part have just one or two.

It’s hard to rear children with just two parents, let alone one. When the rest of the community is not pitching in with advice, sanity, and day-to-day care, and won’t agree to pay for decent schools and healthcare, your little family has to hunker down. All your resources, financial, physical, and emotional, must make up for the lack of the tribe we’ve counted on for thousands of generations. You concentrate your investment in just a few precious children, so that you have enough to shield them from blows and deprivations. You offer them every opportunity you can make, and mold your day and your life to their evolving activities and needs. There isn’t much time or energy left for others, let alone yourself. And besides, you’re living with the funniest, most inspiring people you’ve ever met, and you had no idea that you could love this much. When they’re not boring you to distraction they are the most fascinating creatures on earth. What an adventure.

As your single friend, I think I get it and I’m delighted for you. But I also miss you, and I’m looking forward to solo, selfish, spontaneous sessions with you, just you. One of these days we’ll dream up more ways to make meaning in this world.

*CALI: Childless and lovin’ it.

Opening

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Posted on December 10th, 2008 by dervala. Filed in Peace and Love\, People\.
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It’s 1998. My father is reading the paper on the couch in my New York apartment, and my mother stands behind him concentrating on his head.

“I’m trying to open Daddy’s chakras, but he won’t really let me,” she says sadly.
“Would you ever leave my chakras alone, woman?” he says, and keeps reading.

Ten years later. I’ve just finished a seven-day silent meditation retreat in Marin County, California. I feel as holy as I did when I was nine years old, which is to say, very holy indeed. So much so that I take excursions from the wonder of the present moment to endorse silent meditation to my friends, even though evangelism is not part of the dharma.

In an email to a college friend I describe the retreat. He is a Dubliner, a physicist, and a cynic. “That sounds like a load of arse,” he offers back. “Tell me what you’re doing between cosmetic chakra touch-ups.”

Being forced into the company of my own sweet but crazy mind for a week improves my sense of humor enough to catch myself getting needled—judging, judging. And then I think about the reality of sitting on a cushion for 14 hours a day, seven days in a row, backside falling asleep. Among other things, it is indeed a load of arse. An arse-load of arse, in fact.

Life Beyond Screens

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Posted on December 9th, 2008 by dervala. Filed in Peace and Love\, People\, Politics\, San Francisco\, Travel\.
16 comments filed

In 1985, more than half of Americans said there was someone they could confide in. By 2005, fewer than 1 in 4 said this was true for them.

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
—Henry David Thoreau

Strangers confide in Johnny. They come through the drive through of the Starbucks store he manages in West Virginia. “How’re ya doing?” he says, and instead of following the script they say, Terrible.

“On a beautiful morning like this? What could possibly be so terrible?”

“I just left my husband,” the customer might say, and then the story starts to bubble up until she stops and asks, “Are you slammed? Could I maybe come in and visit?” And Johnny says, “Give me four minutes to get this line here dispatched, and I’ll be right with you. We’ll have a cup of coffee.”

She pulls around to the parking lot, pushes the store door open with a shaking arm and sits down in the corner, a hand covering half her face. Johnny sets his team up to take over for a while and then he brews a French press. When he sits down and pours the coffee, the rest of her story spills out. She looks upward to stop the tears from leaking, but from time to time she glances at Johnny. Is she pathetic, crazy, going to survive? His eyes steady her. She wipes her face with recycled napkins: left tears, right tears, and snotty nose. After a while a smile might twist upward, and maybe even a laugh to go with a shake of the head. Life, huh?

“I say nothing but uh huh and yeah,” he says. “Amazing, what people will tell you. I don’t give advice, but they seem to feel better.”
Johnny talks about the rhythm of his customers’ days. They come in in the morning looking for a bright spot before the day’s work. At lunchtime they might say, “I swear, Johnny, you gotta get me through the rest of this day.”

“Imagine that,” he says, “it’s my job to make them happy. A few minutes in Starbucks is the one good thing in their day.”

He gets their drinks out, and when he has a free moment he heads to the regulars’ tables to drop off a few new jokes while he picks up cups. He stores up the jokes—it’s hard to collect ones that don’t offend anyone and are still funny.

Only after five o’clock are the customers cheerful, as they visit on their way home. He doesn’t know how people stand jobs they hate and can’t understand how they could sit a desk without moving their bodies. Once he joined his brother, a marketer, for the day, and the chairs and the meeting talk drove him crazy inside two hours.

He tells me about West Virginia. There’s nowhere to walk, he says, and people get so used to being in cars that they’ll come into his Starbucks store to use the bathroom and then get back in the car to give their orders at the drive through. On two legs, they must feel as vulnerable as soft-shell crabs after molting.

It’s easy to live simply there, Johnny says, if you don’t let yourself get caught up. He built a little house, just 800 square feet, for about the same as I pay for a year’s rent on the same amount of space in San Francisco. Most nights after work he sits down in his favorite chair and draws a breath in peace. ”It’s MY time,” he says, “after taking care of people all day, running around, talking and listening.” He reads thrillers or listens to jazz. His TV is small and old, and he doesn’t have cable. That makes his friends think he’s crazy, and they invite him over to watch Pay-Per-View on their domesticated Jumbotrons.

“But why would I want to spend my money on a bigger TV every year when there’s nothing on but crap? Why would I want to pay a big fat mortgage for rooms I don’t even sit in? I’d rather save it up to see the world. Three weeks vacation, seven Federal holidays, paid sick time—that’s a lot if you know how to use it.”

He went to Hawaii, the Big Island, and while his brother and friends drank and gambled at the resort, he sat in a park with some old men, playing checkers. The next day, when the boys were hungover, one of the old men took him out to his horse ranch. The man had lived 80 years on the island and was able to show Johnny the places you’d never see on a paid tour. When they got hungry for lunch they picked fruit off the trees.

In Ireland, ten years ago, a couple he met in a pub invited him home for dinner. “Americans might be friendly in a bar,” he says, “but we don’t trust strangers. I was blown away when they invited me in—and I wondered if I’d ever be heard from again. They could have been ax murderers. I could’ve been an ax-murderer. But it was exactly what I want when I’m traveling, just hang out and talk to the people. I don’t want get on a bus with 60 other people to kiss the Blarney Stone. Americans are always too busy getting stuff seen.”

The week after Hurricane Katrina, he went down to New Orleans to see how he could help out. They were still underwater and weren’t even ready to start work, but people kept telling him through tears how grateful they were that he showed up to put a bit of money into the economy. In an empty restaurant, the owner sat down with him and poured out his troubles. Johnny had worked in the business, so eventually the man even opened his books to ask advice on how to cut costs and survive, now that head above water was no longer a metaphor.

The advice must have worked. He went back to that same restaurant in October, and the owner welcomed him like a brother.

Johnny was in New Orleans for a conference for 10,000 Starbucks store managers from all over the US and Canada. My company had helped Starbucks put on the event, and when I ended up next to him on a flight home I asked him about his favorite part of the four days. He told me he’d spent a long time at a photo exhibit on human connection in an age of screens. I’d stayed up late over the Labor Day weekend working on that piece, and I was proud that it had touched him. It was my favorite part too.

Windshields, computer screens, phone and iPod screens, TVs: we are primates behind glass, and it has made us lonely and warped our reality.

“My son is 16,” says Johnny, “and I can see how TV has affected him. He wants to date some beautiful girl who looks like the ones on TV. I say, son, those women you see on those shows? They don’t exist.” His voice rises. “It’s not reality. There’s maybe five of them in the whole world who look like that, and they don’t live here. And all that stuff that looks so good now? Gravity’s going to take care of it. It’ll all be sagging and drooping and wrinkled and you’re going to have to like her enough to be looking at each other then. What you want is to find some girl who will love you and be faithful to you and maybe you can make each other laugh. You don’t want someone who’s with you because of what you make or how you look.”

(This makes Johnny sound like an old fella, but he’s only 34.)

“My son wants $200 jeans. He wants bling. Dad, why don’t you have bling, he says, and I tell him, because I know how many hours of work that diamond stud would cost me, and I’m not interested. I’d rather spend that money traveling and meeting people. And he gets it, but you know, he keeps asking, too. No one can keep up with that stuff.”

That morning I’d had the privilege of showing Norman Lear around the conference galleries in New Orleans. He had stopped at that same exhibit on human connection and talked about how worried he felt about the state of this country. (This was the week before the election.)

I grew up with one state-owned TV channel (later two), and I’d missed all the 1970s shows that Lear created—All In the Family, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Maude—but they are wedged so deeply in our shared culture that I somehow know them anyway. They allowed America to talk to itself about race, gender, money, and politics, without scaring the pants off those whom change was leaving behind.

No one ever coveted Archie Bunker’s bling, his MILF wife, or his Queens crib. That all came later, when Aaron Spelling’s shows broadcast how the other 0.1% lives, and we learned to be discontented with anonymous underwear and unbleached teeth. We worked so hard to keep up with our new television neighbors that we lost the run of ourselves. My god, we got suckered.

A few years back, Norman Lear bought an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. He toured it around the country so that Americans could see their birth certificate. He hoped to trigger some buried memories of what this country was for—and I think those memories have started to stir.

On election night I walked around San Francisco, joining in the street parties that emerged like spores in rain. At 19th and Valencia, strangers danced together in the middle of the road to music from a driver who embraced being stuck. We bounced and cheered, and every stranger who joined in looked around for the focal point—the band, the host, the stage, the organizer—until each one realized that we were what we were looking for. And I thought of Johnny, who had told me he felt West Virginia just might go for Obama, judging from the uncertainty and discontent he was hearing in his store. (As it turned out, the majority of West Virginia voters went for the old white guy.)

There isn’t a Starbucks in my hipster neighborhood. At the weekends I go to Four Barrel on 15th and Valencia, where Jeremy-the-national-barista-champion makes a latte that forces even my distracted self to put down the book and taste it. I don’t ride a fixed-gear bike and my skin isn’t perforated, but I still like the little community that’s coming together in Four Barrel, with a soundtrack of David Bowie and an Obama campaign phone bank in the back.

But we are spoiled here in San Francisco, and in my beloved New York City, where we have real neighborhoods and sidewalks, decent coffee is always just a walk away, and loneliness doesn’t rule. And I’ve come to believe that Starbucks may be the largest private mental health organization in the country, a place where anyone with two bucks for a drip coffee can get smiled at and can sit safely next to other human beings for a while. In San Francisco circles and in the media I hear a lot of Starbucks-bashing, for all kinds of reasons from snobbery to fear to glee. And yet fifty million customers in fifty-something countries go there every week to drink an ancient beverage, side by side, in peace. Isn’t that something? Johnny knows what it is that he provides in his store, and it isn’t just caffeine.

Every week more of my friends and neighbors get laid off. When I talk to my mother about the economy in Ireland, she tells me that people have decided that Australia is the one escape hatch left, unless you count Dubai. We’re all screwed, and we know it, and yet beneath the anxiety I detect a few particles of relief. This crisis is bigger than us. It’s so big that it’s no longer our fault if we fail, if we become poor. We get to—have to—change our minds about what matters. And for the first time in a while, small moments shared with friends and strangers are in the running for significance.

[Disclosure: I consult for Starbucks, but the views here are mine alone and have nothing to do with the opinions of either Starbucks or the company I work for.]

Peckerhead

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Posted on January 27th, 2008 by dervala. Filed in California, Chickens, My Places\, Outdoors\, Peace and Love\, San Francisco\.
13 comments filed

Like the devil, our rooster had many names.

Tim called him Peckerhead, which I found disrespectful. Once or twice I called him Bill O’Reilly, for his bombast, but that was trying too hard. We called him Tinpot, for his dictatorial strut. Ong Bok-bok-bok, for his Thai kickboxing skills. El Gallo, for his machismo. Foghorn, for tradition. Mostly, though, we just called him “the rooster.”

He was a foundling, probably an Easter chick bought on impulse and pushed from a car when it turned into a he. Tim’s neighbor, Bridget, noticed him in the woods at the entrance to their canyon, and for a week or more she lured him with scraps until starvation tamed his fears. She installed him in the chicken house that had lain empty on Sal’s ranch, and there he lived for a year in lonely bachelor comfort. Cooped up, with food and water provided, he had nothing to do but crow until Tim took pity on him and bought a bathful of chicks who eventually grew into thirteen bodacious hens.

From: Tim
Date: 7/15/07
Subject: first poultry copulation witnessed.

with the rhode island red. violent but quick, done in all of two seconds. he didn’t seem interested in any of the other hens, guess everyone is attracted to individuals who resemble themselves.

Peckerhead was not a considerate lover, but his passion was urgent. At first light, when the hens hopped down from their perches looking for breakfast, he would chase each of them in turn. The submissive birds would lower their haunches as soon as he got near, but others would squawk and run. It didn’t matter: he kept meticulous track of his progress and wouldn’t rest until they’d all been laid.

“I never see him eat,” said Tim. “He spends all his time fucking or fighting.”

He fought with Tim, his sole male rival. The rooster had nothing to offer the chickens but rape, oratory, and a flashy uniform. Tim had luxury treats—tinned sweetcorn, bits of cooked porridge, the occasional peach or red wine dregs—and the hens flocked to him like Saigon bar girls. Like the GIs, he had superior weapons, too. We’d gone to town one afternoon to add a Super Soaker and a shrimp net to our anti-rooster arsenal of brooms. No wonder Tinpot seethed.

If Tim were naked, they would have been fairly matched. The rooster had cruel yellow spurs and a glorious Elizabethan ruff, and though he couldn’t have been more than ten pounds, he would launch himself through the air with a force many times his weight. Tim learned to parry him with motorcycle boots, and over time they developed a striking Hong Kong combat style, where the whoosh of boots and feathers masked the lack of contact. Eventually Tim would catch him and snuggle him like a baby, while the rooster’s eyes boiled red with fury. Then he would fling him to the ground and douse him with the Super Soaker. Drenched and humiliated, the rooster would shake his feathers and peck the ground as if he’d intended this outcome all along.

“I have to show him who’s boss,” Tim said.

“Why?” I asked. I couldn’t reconcile to looking after a ball of testosterone held together with feathers, and kept wondering if all he really needed were more love and understanding.

“In the wild it would make sense for him to keep attacking—the dominant rooster will eventually get old and feeble. But for now he needs to have some fear of me, or we’ll never be able to feed the chickens.”

It was true. Entering the hen house was a daily battle that required the yellow broom—the rooster would fill the dark with spurs and beak and feathers. Whenever the hens pottered outside Tim’s cabin, dust-bathing and finding treats, the rooster prowled sullenly, looking for revenge. All summer, I had scabby welts on my shins, where he slashed me with his spurs when Tim’s back was turned.

We were surprised to discover that Pablita, the dark Americauna, started to sleep next to the rooster. Then Cleo and Helen joined them. Their relationship seemed to deepen, and we saw that he was learning to protect his henfolk. They certainly needed protection. Up there in the Santa Cruz mountains, there are many critters who dream of a chicken in every pot. We had lost three baby chicks to a raccoon, and Cleo was scalped by a skunk. Tim’s favorite White Brahma was disemboweled by a fox. Poor Susan had almost lost a wing in the same attack, and was patched up only to be murdered by a coyote some months later. A few yards below the coop, the neighbor’s cats had been killed by a cougar. Then there were the snakes, who slid down from the summit to find water in the canyon as the summer grew hotter and drier.

From: Tim
Date: 6/15/07
Subject: farm life
just after i got off the phone with you tonight i go to let the chickens out. as usual i sit in the coop doorway and ponder the meaning of everything while they scratch for bugs in the leaf litter. i notice the birds all gathered in a semicircle by the cage wire on the rooster’s side, still as statues but craning their necks and making a clucking sound i haven’t heard before. the rooster blithely strutting inside as usual. then i see they’re looking at a big rattlesnake coiled under the rooster’s perch box.

i’ve seen this snake before but she’s always slithered under the coop floor before i could do much. i mean, i could have chopped her in half with a shovel but i haven’t had the heart even though a snakebite would kill any of the birds in about five minutes.

so despite being addled i have the presence of mind to grab the broom, go into the rooster’s side, sweep him (pissed off) into the hens’ side, and close the door so he can’t bite my ass while i deal with the snake

i tip over the perch box and the snake rattles and coils then makes a dash for the wire. she’s a three-footer fat with woodrats that are themselves probably nicely marbled from chicken feed. she gets a third of the way out but i’ve grabbed her hind section and tugged and suddenly have a very ornery snake in the little coop rattling & striking into the air between us .

at this point i manage to pin her head with the broomstraw and get my thumb and forefinger tight behind her jaw. i pick her up and the rest of her coils around my forearm. i’m convinced i can do this because i handled museum cornsnakes and water snakes back in the day. they weren’t poisonous, so a little less at stake

and i’m thinking, if this snake gets loose and bites me how will i explain the unscheduled day off?

i find i need both hands to control the writhing snake but this presents the problem of forcing me to get past the rooster unarmed with the customary broom

he is all over me clawing and pecking but i parry him with my feet until he bounces up onto the hen roost and comes at my face. i dodge and forget that i have a live rattlesnake in my hands long enough for the snake to work loose and i have to recover by throwing her at the coop wall

i get just enough time to grab the shovel and give the rooster a whack not soon to be forgotten then switch to broom and repeat snake pinning operation, rooster pacing menace behind me

i walk past the rooster with the snake, open the main door with my foot, stride past the bewildered hens and out to the back forty where i toss snake into the brush. she hisses at me in total ingratitude

back at the coop i realize i am happier than i have been for a month. have i not been cursed to be haunting cubicle land with this goddamn farmer’s heart?

When he isn’t wrangling wildlife in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Tim helps make phone screens vibrate with sophisticated touch feedback, so that, say, the buttons feel like real buttons, or your girlfriend can send you a little “hug” when she calls. Thanks to the iPhone, people are excited about touchy-feely mobile devices these days, but to me they are Wire Mommies. What he really wants to do is to start a school of full-lifecycle chicken therapy for people driven mad, sad, or bad by lives spent behind screens trying to make other people buy things. He practices on me.

Unfortunately, the anti-consumerist farm therapy didn’t work in time to save Peckerhead’s life. Before our trip to Ireland for my sister’s wedding, I persuaded Tim to leave the sunlit ranch and spend an afternoon in a San Jose mall, choosing a wardrobe of meet-the-family clothes. Like egg factories, malls use Muzak and lighting and windowless walls to blot out the natural world, and we forgot about sundown. That’s when the hens troop back their perches—unbidden—and wait for the door to be closed against the creatures of the night. Busy in The Gap, we left our chickens exposed, and a mountain lion came for dinner. She left no signs of struggle. When we got back, the hens were trembling but unhurt, and all that was left of the rooster was a few bright feathers.

Peckerhead, the butt of our jokes, our unwanted foundling, our incorrigible bird, had died a hero’s death.

A wedding

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Posted on December 28th, 2007 by dervala. Filed in Ireland\, Peace and Love\, People\.
19 comments filed

Siege of Ennis

Photo by Tim Vetter

Everyone danced at my sister’s wedding.

The wedding singer was once the black-haired lead in our school plays, three years ahead of me. By now he had dropped the Sixth-Year poses and his hair was grey, but all the years of leppin’ to Chuck Berry and Van Morrison and Neil Diamond had kept him free of the usual Irish gut. Business was good—he and the band had worked every night for the past five months—and he seemed to enjoy the liturgy of other people’s songs. With his black shirt and pants, he had the hands-off charisma of a good-looking curate.

His heart sank when he saw us come in, he said. Sixty five people in a ballroom that would hold more than two hundred for a summer wedding—and on top of that, he recognized a good number of them as his teachers from twenty years ago. The rest were our neighbours, who had known my sister since she was born, and our aunts and uncles, who were in for the day from their farms in Roscommon and Tipperary. How was he to warm up a crowd like that?

And then the long-stemmed bride and her new husband finished their first dance, and the band launched a waltz, and all the friends and neighbours and aunts and uncles filed out to the dance floor and paired up. Here were Siobhán and Pat, Dónal and Mary, Nora and Denis—the naming order for each couple as established and natural as their moves. The Roscommon uncle I hadn’t seen in 20 years danced with the aunt I remembered as a bride. My neighbour Pat refused to dance with anyone but his wife—but how well he danced with his wife! Esther and Martin, who had been there to greet me when I was born in Zambia 35 years ago, now waltzed for Claire’s wedding.

They all did. The graduates of the 1960s ballrooms swirled around the dance floor like cream in black coffee. The under-forties made circles, unskilled but enthusiastic. The toddler flower girl raised her skirts over her head and shrieked, while the older kids chased the white balloons they’d blown up the night before.

A few nights before the wedding, we girls had made our parents tell us again about the night they’d met, at that céilí dance in Cork in 1968. Their friends used to go out dancing all the time, Mum said; all night, all kinds of music. No drink or drugs to keep them going—it was just pure craic. She felt so sorry for the young ones now, trying to meet someone in the nightclub scene she’d witnessed on Claire’s hen night in Limerick the week before. Shouting drunks, thumping music, sloshing beer, married fellas on the pull, bottle fights in the Ladies. Those weren’t our only options, we told her, but I believed her when she said they’d had more fun.

After decades of Christmas drinks and summer barbecues and year-round bottomless cups of tea, I’d never seen our friends and family dance. They jitterbugged and foxtrotted. Dad danced with each daughter, and none of us could dance like Mum. Everyone gave it up for Tutti Frutti, and shook arms high for Brown-Eyed Girl. We made my sister’s boyfriend show us the moves for his oh-so-serious Dance-Offs with his rugby teammates, including the ultimate winner, Reversing Around the Dance Floor: one arm draped in mid-air, the other turning an imaginary steering wheel, while you glide backward and make beeping sounds.

When the band took a break, a musician friend set up her trad band to play The Siege of Ennis. It’s the easiest of the traditional Irish set dances, but many of us hadn’t done it since primary school, and others had never learned it at all. In vain our friend Seán tried to call the sets—“Slip sides, change back, swing to the right…”—as the Canadians and the under-forties flailed, and the older men swung the bridesmaids til the Guinness churned in our bellies. A flushed guest succumbed to a swing with extra elbow grease, and landed on the bride’s train. When it was over we called for more sets—Fallaí Luimní, The Walls of Limerick, or Ag Baint an Fhéir, The Haymaker’s Jig—but we didn’t deserve the efforts of such fine and serious musicians. I felt a little guilty when they packed up the bodhrán and the rosin and handed us back to the wedding singer.

For children, Irish weddings are still about fizzy orange and Coke and Taytos, and racing around a hotel unchecked, and getting twirled by the bridesmaids, and letting your mouth hang open while the younger men teach you The Robot. People you don’t know come up to you and give you money and tell you you’re a lovely girl or boy. It’s magic. I know—I was a child at the weddings of some of these dancers.

My uncle J.—another I hadn’t seen since I was a young teenager—shyly handed over a creased photograph he’d brought for me. In it, he had the dark looks of a young George Best, and I was sitting on his lap with my curly-headed cousin. Our full names were written on the back, though we were only babies. It was dated Dec 2 1973: the day before he married my aunt.

I rattled off life-bumps for him—London, New York, divorce, backpacking, San Francisco—and when I saw his stricken look it occurred to me that I was the only wedding guest who was divorced. It’s the kind of news that doesn’t filter out to the quieter men in a family, and he was shocked and grieved that I’d had to go through such a thing. For me, it was only a fact, not a feeling, and I had to cast back five years to reach the rawness that matched his.

Divorce wasn’t legalized in Ireland until after I left, in 1995. Most of these friends and relatives were still in their fractious forties then, and might have been tempted to split if separation had been sanctioned. It seemed archaic and cruel to confine people to bad marriages, and I’d still vote for legal divorce today. Yet the patina of a mellowed marriage is lovelier than the shine of fresh romance, and without a social structure that supported enduring love—in both senses—we would have lost many relationships that could have been restored. If, when you’re sixty years old, you can dance joyfully with the one that brung ya, then you’ve earned your great luck.

I thought about how we would have celebrated this day in the U.S. or Canada or England: the delicate seating plans to accommodate merged and cleaved families; the reception briefings on splits and re-marriages. Love is too tough to be left to couples alone, and that’s what the wedding singer acknowledged when he closed the night by sending our bride and her Canadian groom under the steepled arms of the people who love them, while he bawled “Everybahhdy…needs somebahhdy…”

Earlier, I’d given a speech about what it meant for emigrants like my sister and me to be part of a gathering like that. We aren’t rootless—that’s a different problem entirely. But we don’t have tap roots, burying deep in a single place for nourishment. Ours are runners: we grow by extending outwards to make new plants. We have have too many roots entirely—tendrils that pull us to Limerick and Dublin and Ottawa and New York and San Francisco, and more tendrils that tug us toward the others who have moved. We dream of the mythical party where all our beloveds will be under one roof, even as we know it won’t ever happen.

In a rushed world, where “I have to work” isn’t called out as the lie it usually is, we know how rare it is to be surrounded by decades-worth of friendships and memories. Between the Caher Road neighbours and the Crescent teachers and the old friends, there were about 2,000 years of affection and friendship gathered in that room to send Claire and Glen off into their married lives. I was proud of the dowry we raised.

Happy 37th anniversary, Mum and Dad.

Wedding party

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Dough

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Posted on December 15th, 2007 by dervala. Filed in Chickens, Food, Peace and Love\.
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I’m making French bread to go with breakfast eggs from Cleo the chicken. I’ve never worked with yeast before. It breathes, it stretches, and it smells like a sleepy lover—how could you not say good morning to such a substance? Tim makes fun of me when I wake up my dough with flour and water, and chat to it about the night it’s had, and show it the moves I learned last night watching Saturday Night Fever. But I’m in the city today, where there are no chickens to shimmy with over tinned sweetcorn. And it’s less crazy to talk to spores and birds than to screens and cars, no?

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Because the internet is all about telling the world what you had for breakfast…

Farm Breakfast