And Yet It All Seems Limitless

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five time more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
—For Brandon and Eliza
Ever Joined in True Love’s Beauty

Beautiful old graveyards address my main complaint about the outdoors: that there’s nothing to read. I’d like more epitaphs, which too few Americans seem to write, but will settle for the barest names, dates, and family labels in this migratory culture, where Hmong mothers lie next to Finnish fathers. Cemeteries makes me wonder about all those lives: short and long, dynastic and solitary, local and far-flung.

In Brooklyn, I used to go to Green-Wood Cemetery to see my compatriots, Dubliner John Mackay, with his heated mausoleum, and the scandalizing Limerickwoman, Lola Montez, dead at 42 and buried decorously as Mrs. Eliza Gilbert.

In Seattle, I lived near the lovely Lake View Cemetery. Another Irishman, P.J. Malone, lies 5,000 miles from his native Mayo, and surely could not have imagined the pilgrims who traipse over his worn 1873 headstone to visit his next-door neighbors, Bruce Lee, who was buried a hundred later, and his son Brandon.

Brandon’s epitaph plays in my mind this season as I make a daily loop of Lake View Cemetery in North Oakland. It’s another beautiful spot, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted with the generosity of an architect who will never see the shapes of his mature plantings. I push my baby’s stroller up the spiraling paths, panting as my softened body tries to harden again. At the top we look down over the San Francisco Bay, south to Silicon Valley, west to Twin Peaks, and north to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Oakland Hills are behind us, with Berkeley to the east.

I take the sunshade down so that Tara can look at the light filtering through the leaves overhead. She squints as she surveys her territory, steering an imaginary convertible with plump arms. Her skin is golden and her eyes darkest brown. She watches her fellow north American natives, the nine wild turkeys who own this hill and the countless Canada geese who gobble the watered grass and then poop more than a ship of babies.

She babbles. We have a little chat about the big birdies.

It occurs to me that she will have an American accent, and that unlike me she will know how to say her name.

(“Is it Taw-ruh or Teaah-rah?” said the obstetrician when I was in heaviest labor, and it dawned on me that there are two distinct American pronunciations, neither of which is my flat Irish “Tah-rah.” Even Siri thinks I say “Tyra,” squashing my hopes that my daughter would have a foolproof Irish name.)

I keep hearing that with motherhood the days are long and the years are short. I don’t find it so, perhaps because I waited so long to meet her. It’s all fast to me. Our days together divide into miniature days that loop quickly. Sleep, eat, blurp, play. Sleep, eat, blurp, play. Walk. Visit friends. And again. And again.

Wherever we are, Tara concentrates on the light, staring at the lamp, the window, the sky, or her Twilight Turtle. The changes help her puzzle out our fruit-fly rhythms. She’s new here, but she’s a great navigator.

I love Brandon Lee’s epitaph. I love the reminder that this immigrant mother and native daughter will have only a certain number of these afternoons at the top of an Oakland hill. Even the act of remembering them will happen only a certain number of times for me, and she won’t record them at all. And yet I look into her face and want to give her every single thing we can see, and all of it seems limitless.

2015-09-06 16.06.11

Seattle

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

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

Peckerhead

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.

The Real World

Chicks at the store

Rural Supply Store, Los Gatos (all photos by Tim Vetter)

Drearier than the prospect of fourteen hours at the mercy of America’s worst airline is knowing that Atlanta, and not home, is at the end of it.

Atlanta has given the world Delta Airlines, soda-pop, and 24-hour televised war, and perhaps this business vigor is why it has the busiest airport in the country. That means 45 minutes of kick-shuffling a laptop bag through the lines at Immigration, then sighing through more queues at baggage claim and Customs. And that doesn’t mean you’re free to go. Atlanta takes its Homeland Security hospitality seriously. If you arrive on an international flight, you and your bags must be rescreened after Customs, even if you’re connecting only to the taxi rank. They take your luggage, brusquely, and wave you to another Tensabarrier maze.

We passengers have just arrived from Tokyo, Delhi, or Madrid, and we don’t understand who has our bags now and where we are going. The minimum-wage security staff at the end of the maze can’t fathom why we are so stupid.

“Four more lines. Four more lines! Keep moving. Keep moving down. Keep MOVING,” shouts a guard, dragging people out of the main queue to the empty security lines nearby. We are bleary, our bodies still belong to tomorrow, or this morning, and strangers have taken our stuff. We look bewildered and pissed off. We have the money to go to Tokyo. No wonder she hates us.

The suitcases have been sent to another carousel, a jolting train ride away. One-footed, we strip off shoes, belts, and jackets, scrabble to get laptops into gray trays, and watch as our little bottles of airline Evian or mouthwash get confiscated. In the strip-lighting, after hours breathing recycled air, we’re as gray as the trays. There’s nowhere to get dressed and repack. We hop in half-laced shoes and clutch our bits and pieces, as the trays back up because we’re in the way.

“The current homeland security alert level is Orange,” blare the announcements, demanding that we keep an eye on Unattended Packages. Baby soldiers sit against the wall, tethered by the too-short cords of the public phones. There are always soldiers milling around this airport. They stick together and don’t say much, a class apart from this air-conditioned bubble world as they wait for their flights to German bases. Most, of course, look far too young and small. Everyone says that. But many more look too old; bone-tired and wobble-bellied. A gray-haired soldier leans against a camouflage backpack embroidered with his last name, and reads Fiasco. I am too ashamed to smile at them and wish them safe return and recovery, though I do it silently.

Beside the second baggage carousel, a tiny girl skips and sings.

“Too-morra, too-morra,
I love ya, too-morra,
Betcha bodda dodda
You’re ownee a day a-way…Mommy, what’s next?”

I hope she’s right.

It takes another hour for my bag to arrive, on the wrong carousel. Hours later, I call Ranger Tim from The Four Seasons, greasy-haired from massage oil, with room service on its way and a laptop downloading a week’s worth of emails cheeping for attention. It’s been ten days since we talked, and I miss him. He was out at the chicken coop.

A year ago, Tim rescued a young rooster wandering at the side of the highway near Los Gatos. Now the rooster lives in a fine house at the ranch, safe from the coyotes and the mountain lions. He’s sleek, and he crows proudly, but we’ve worried about his enforced celibacy. (Maybe it’s easier to feel sympathy for a rooster than a road warrior.) We enquired into girlfriends for him. You can order chickens over the internet, and once in a while people put them up for sale or adoption on Craigslist And the Santa Cruz mountains are home to little farms that supply some of the best restaurants in the world, so surely someone would sell us chickens. You can even rescue worn-out battery hens, so that they don’t end a miserable life as dinner on Delta.

Still, we never got around to it. The rooster got no honey, and we got no eggs. Today, tooling around Los Gatos on my green motorbike, Tim noticed a box of chicks set outside the Rural Supply Store. Easter chicks, set out for children to pet. They were three dollars apiece, and he bought three.

“I brought them home strapped to the Puddingmobile, like a Vietnamese farmer,” says Tim. That’s what he calls my old green Yamaha Seca motorbike, which he spends hours fixing up. “They were terrified, but it was good preparation for their next challenge—surviving life with the rooster.”

At first the rooster paid no attention to the three chicks. He stuttered around his cage, indignant at Tim’s invasion. The chicks huddled in a corner, cheeping in terror.

“Then eventually one of them just said ‘Fuck it, I’m getting on with life.’ And she started to explore a little, peck around her. The other two stayed huddled. It’s amazing, these animals don’t know anything, and yet their personalities are distinct.”

The rooster got over his annoyance. He noticed the chicks. He watched them. Then began to show what might pass for paternal behavior.

“He started to peck in small circles, like he was showing them what to do. And eventually they got it, though they’d never seen an adult before. They relaxed. They even started pecking his beak in some kind of feeding behavior, and he let them. He was looking out for them.”

Until his mood turned and he grabbed a chick in his beak and shook it.

“I thought, here we go, the blood bath has begun. The chick was screaming, and the other two were freaked. But then he let her go, and she wasn’t hurt. It looked something like a cat shaking her kittens.” Still, the chicks were chastened, and retreated to their corner. Life beyond the shell is violent and unpredictable, no matter how cute your yellow fluff.

I ask if the rooster realized that these useless, invading bundles represented his shot at passing on his genes. “Depends,” says Tim. “In a couple of months, they’ll be mature. But who knows if he has the foresight to see them for the bodacious pullets they could turn into if he leaves them alone?”

He watched as social equilibrium was slowly restored, at least for now. “It’s like some kind of reality show,” he says, “where three babies get dumped on some single guy, and he’s clueless, and he grumbles, but in his own way he looks after them.”

I haven’t been to the ranch in months. My life is air-conditioned now. The weekends I used to spend there, I now spend working on PowerPoint in Atlanta or Tokyo, or the airports in between. I didn’t miss the mountains in the rainy season, but now that spring is here I crave news from the real world, where the coyotes don’t wait for room service, and the morning is beautiful if you survive the night.

UPDATE: The chicks survived the night. From Tim:

The rooster didn’t harm them, but he didn’t brood them either (I thought, very wishfully he might have a bit of gay motherliness in him). It was turning cold when we got back from dinner at Lupin, and checking in on the birds, I found the rooster up on his roost, nonplussed at the flashlight beam, and chicks huddled in the corner of the coop shivering. Didn’t take me long to decide they weren’t going to survive the night under those conditions. They’re living now in a cardboard box next to the woodstove cheerfully pecking at a random selection of grains from my larder, run through the coffee grinder. They seem to like white grits and rolled barley best; turn their noses up at all forms of daal. I’ll let them try Irish pinhead oats tonight.My plan is to keep them inside for the rest of this week then starting the weekend have them spend days in the chicken house with rooster. In two weeks supposedly they’ll be able to stand the cold on their own.

Chicks at the store

The Yamaha Seca

Chicks at the store

Chicks getting ready for new adventures

Chicks at the store

Chicks get introduced to the rooster

Chicks at the store

Chicks rescued from the rooster and the cold

Reitwagen

“If you don’t speed up, cars will run you over. Hell, cats will run you over.”

That’s what Bob, the Bay Area Motorcycle Trainer told me. He’s probably right. Especially as I’m learning to ride in mountain lion territory.

yamaha_seca.JPGI have a 1982 green Yamaha Seca, bought from Craigslist and patched up with eBay parts. It cost $650, which is less than the price of the new glasses I just bought. The mirrors are from Brooklyn. The new tachometer is from Florida. The rear brake light is from the Kragen in Sunnyvale. The replacement clutch lever, broken when I dropped the bike doing a “low-speed manoeuvre” (a 5-mile an hour U-turn in a redwood cathedral), comes from—well, I don’t know where Tim got it, to be honest. Motorbikes are his department, as books and chocolate bars are mine. Shortly after he bought the green one for me, he picked up a red Seca II from my Bernal Heights neighbor, and then, a few weeks ago, added a blue Kawasaki KLX650 Dual-Sport when we realized the winter rains would soon muck up Sal’s dirt road.

Tim pores over the Motorcycle Owner’s Manuals (“Got a question? Ask MOM.”)He sits up late on a cellphone dial-up connection to eBay, and spends Saturdays afternoons cleaning the carburetor so that the green bike no longer hiccups like a drunk. He rarely falls into the gumption trap. He guides me, at 30 miles an hour, to the DMV parking lot in Los Gatos, where I practise unsteady figure-eights on the driving test course. In return for his patience, I try to be a good sport about riding motorcycles.

The first time Tim drove his red bike from my neighbor’s house to his shack, an hour and a half south of San Francisco, he sent me a delighted email. After two years of Silicon Valley commuting—did you know that rich people can lead such depressing lives that for two hours a day, reading vanity license plates counts as distraction?—he’d regained some of his old spirit.

“I felt like I was describing a line on the curved surface of the earth. Like I had reconnected to the sights and smells of my surroundings,” he said. It helps that Route 280 is carved through beauty, and that the Skyline Boulevard, which coils above it to his home in the mountains, is a famously spectacular motorcycle ride. Woz lives up there.

I don’t share Tim’s passion yet, though we took the same weekend training course. I lack his physical confidence, and I don’t have an understanding with these mechanical beasts. But still I like my bike—a bit—though it often scares me to shaking.
Sal, Tim, and bikesMy first outing was on a rutted, hilly dirt road: the mile-long driveway to Tim’s cabin. I revved for ages in the workshop, pretending I was getting started. Tim’s landlord, Sal, scratched his head, and inspected the bikes. We like to hang out together, Sal and I. He has a mechanic’s curiosity, but he was dubious about this project. “My youngest boy was killed on a motorbike when he was 18,” he said, off-handedly. “Thirty years ago. Little 125cc thing. On his way home, this woman just cuts him right off. A stupid thing.” He went back to turning wood for the cabin of his new-battered cruiser boat, the one he’s going to take up to the Seattle Lakes for a joyride. Without looking up, he added, “He was supposed to have had my truck that day.”

Then he wiped off his hands and asked questions about the engine, which I couldn’t answer. Told me to be careful. But there’s no telling people to be careful, is there? The truth is, I’m so cautious that I’ll loop right around and meet danger coming backwards. The truth is, it won’t be lack of care, but lack of competence, that will test the stiff padding on my rider gear. And as a long-time acoustic bicyclist, I can hardly believe how little motorcyclists can hear from inside those cheek-squashing helmets. How much can care make up for deafness?

(Sal complains about deafness all the time, too. But he’s eighty years old, and his favorite hobby is making huge termite piles with his earth-moving equipment.)

The most terrifying part of motorbiking, I find, is the loneliness. It’s easier to face danger when someone else might be in charge. The only way I made it down Sal’s Canyon was to shout at myself as loudly as I could, coaching like a dad who just took the training wheels off a daughter’s bike.

“Okay. Okay! Okay! You can do it. That’s the girl. Brave girl. Take your hand off the fucking brake. Let it GO. (Screw you, pothole.) Clutch! Clutch! Don’t look at that rock. Don’t look at the creek. Look where you want to GO. You’re going to make it. That’s the girl. Good…”

I heard my coach’s instructions, and my own dad’s voice, raising in spite of himself, as he tried to teach me to drive in the Raheen Industrial Estate on wet Sunday afternoons. I sputtered down the dirt track, past the nudist camp, and out onto Alma Bridge Road.

Crawling around the Lexington Reservoir in first gear, a spandex man passed me on a racing bike—going uphill.

It’s motorcycle territory, those beautiful swooping backroads in the Santa Cruz mountains, and the biker tribes are friendly. Dirt-bikers, dual-sportsers, cruisers, choppers, and hogs all offer the same low, one-handed greeting, even to me, even though I can’t return the wave for fear I’ll fall off. The dirt-bike kids wear the outfits I should have: bright, armor-padded Kevlar, and Flash Gordon boots. The old lads on Harleys wear leather vests in the summer, and soup-plate helmets. The sports bike guys look good, padded up for brawn. Me, I was sweaty in heavy gloves, jacket, helmet, and boots in beach weather, and by summer’s end, my gloves stank.

It’s unsettling to realize how much I’m de-gendered on a motorbike. Putt-putting up a hill, I look like some skinny, nervous guy on an old rice rocket. I can’t cute my way out of a damn thing, and though that’s never been a mainstay of my survival skills, I confess that I’d like to be able to fall back on it when my incompetence is so marked. Once I lost my nerve on a steep hairpin bend, and abandoned the bike to cry on the shoulder. Once I fell off. Once (last weekend), I went 35 miles an hour on the highway.

Since those first forays, though, I’ve got a little better. Leaning into a turn, when I already feel unbalanced, still doesn’t feel good or sensible to me yet, but my brain can make me do it. Instead of sitting meditation, I take big, slow breaths on the green Yamaha Seca, feeling the flow of pushing my mind to its limit and keeping my body as quiet as the redwood cathedrals I pass through.

While Tim hunted tachometers, I found unworn Emma Peel leathers on eBay, offered by a guy who was bitterly selling a gift bought for his “now EXXXX-girlfriend. Tags attached.” Toe tags? No matter. Nothing like playing dress up to bring me around to a new hobby.

Tim says that in the parking lot at the Los Gatos Safeway, the yummy mummies check out guys in motorcycle gear—the pads are placed, after all, to flatter that silhouette we cavewomen are primed to respond to. More affectingly, he says, middle-aged guys in expensive SUVs give him an unmistakable look: wistfulness, envy, maybe even regret.
“If it weren’t for these little shitheads…” he imagines them saying about the kings of the carseats, whom they serve faithfully.

Today, at the gas station, a middle-aged Russian guy approached Tim as he filled up my bike. Maybe he thought he’d found a fellow Russian—that used to happen all the time in Brighton Beach. He used to ride, he said, and he missed it. In the Urals. They traded stories for a while. His $60,000 car shone nearby. “How much was it?” he wanted to know, nodding at the tinny little bike. Tim told him—about the price of dinner for two in Manresa, down the road. Freedom was that cheap? He backed away, amazed.

Visitacion Valley

“Somewhat scary residential area. Don’t come here at night unless the 49ers have a game at 3Com”
NFT Not For Tourists™ Guide to SAN FRANCISCO

Let the Nobs stay up on their hill and the hipsters stick to Hayes: Visitacion Valley is the most evocative name in the city, and as a neighborhood, it’s preserved, for now, by those nose-wrinkling write-ups. It’s the last stop before you leave San Francisco for the cubicles of Silicon Valley. Perched above it, on the San Bruno Expressway, a cocked martini glass invites commuters to stop for one for the road at a Russian cocktail lounge.

Some neighborhood history is written in the streets: the Mexican names, the boarded-up restaurants that used to sell Louisiana chitlins, the Indian Baptist Church, the Chinese and Vietnamese-language dailies in the newspaper vending boxes. It’s half Asian now, and most of the residents were born in another country.

On Leland Avenue—storefront churches, nail salons, and lunch shacks—I dithered over what to eat. Fried chicken or beef pho? It turned out that the Sunflower Blues Cafe, with its improbable indoor picket fences and yellow gingham table cloths, wasn’t opening until next week, though Marcus, the owner, was proud to show off how good it looked already. Everything made from scratch, he said, and healthy ingredients, salads and grilled stuff, though of course they’d do fried chicken, too; no sense being extreme. He’d started his family young and brought them over to Vis Valley from Bayview. They were grown now, though he didn’t look more than forty. He owned a few properties in the neighborhood, and his wife ran the beauty salon up the street. Julia here used to work for her, he said, and Julia was the best. Could I figure out how to get her to come on board with him?

Julia shrugged and giggled, not yet convinced.

At the Vietnamese place next door, my beef pho came with tripe and tendon, and a bush of basil leaves. The fish sauce was given out without asking. I ordered ca phe sua da and thanked the waiter in dredged-up Vietnamese. I was proud, but he was baffled until I gave in and pointed to the number on the menu. The broth was as good as Hanoi, and the decor very nearly worse.

A gnarled Chinese lady, bent low, haggled in the 99 Cent Store. I paid full price for a bottle of Elmer’s Glue, some Chinese birthday cards, hair clips, and a flashing bike reflector.

Up the road, in Portola, there’s an old cinema that’s a Baptist church now. I’m a lapsed-Catholic-aetheist-Buddhist, but even I’d go to a church with a drum kit behind the Hammond organ. A nearby diner looks untouched since the 1920s, apart from the laminated waffle menus in the window. But in keeping with the neighborhood changes, those red vinyl booths and swivel stools are now wiped down by owners who got here from Seoul four years ago. It was closed, on a Sunday morning, and on the store window next door, a poster warned residents to be wary after several recent attacks.

In the supermarket, frogs squatted in their tank, eyelids heavy. Sunday must be frog night, because they were stacked halfway up each other’s backs like toppled dominos. Three aisles over, you could choose from six brands of canned quail eggs, five kinds of canned rambutan, and a fridge full of sticky drinks. In the checkout queue, with an armful of mangosteen jellies and Vietnamese espresso, I almost wept at the sight of a box of durian fruit inside the front door. In deodorized America, it’s stinky, oozy, primal, pheromonal durian I’d like to offer instead of Altoids.

The other day someone asked me if I still had the travel bug. Truth is, I never did, even—and especially—when I wore a backpack for a year. I’m a homebody; at most a reluctant daytripper, and sniffing a durian on San Bruno Avenue is all I need before heading back to my rocking chair to look down over the city.

“Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
what childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?”

—Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”

New Orleans

New Orleans has come at a good time; a welcome antidote to California and all its subtle, insidious dysfuntions. Life spilling into the streets and everywhere spontaneous joy shared with warm unhurried natives who deliver themselves to me unselfconsciously, in a slapdash gumbo of race and economic station. Very easy to be happy here.

The Vegas-ization of the French Quarter is alarming though; swarms of pale tourists and conventioneers stumbling through a 24-hour booze’n‘jazz’n‘tits’n‘Emeril theme park. But the Garden District and Esplanade-East both feel more vital and honest than ever, so the city still works.

I realize how early and completely my urban living aesthetic was set by this place; why Brooklyn felt like a homecoming, when I finally found it in my mid-30s. These are my true twin cities.

—From the ex files, March 2005

Smell

Back in July, I met a woman who has no sense of smell. She shook huge quantities of salt and pepper onto her salad to prod her tastebuds, but most flavors were lost on her. I couldn’t imagine being deprived of my wine-loving gluttony, but she’d never known anything different.

Barbara Kingsolver has a piece in The Poisonwood Bible where Adah returns to America after years in the Congo. She marvels at supermarkets, which have a massive, odorless arrays of food, and misses the smell assaults of her African market.

The US is terrified of smell, I think. Procter & Gamble has warned us about all the nooks that harbor body odors, and we’re careful to hunt them down with the right products. There are too many people in New York to escape smells completely—our garbage ripens on the sidewalk, and Chinatown smells of raw fish and cooking all winter long. For the most part, though, you can persuade antiseptic Americans to bond over hushed stories of the guy in the office who had B.O., or the time they rode the Paris metro.

I wonder, what’s the big deal?

My friend Mark is taking steroids for a particularly nasty sinus attack, and can now smell properly for the first time in years. The experience seems traumatic. He’s being mugged by a sense he’s ignored until now. He sends me plaintive notes about previously unremarked smells and tastes—cleaning fluid, garlic breath, Diet Coke.

“I’m particularly concerned about the cat’s ass,” he says.

I realize that compared to him, I’ve been living in the olfactory equivalent of Pepys’ London, all chamber pots and reeking fish. I kind of like it. Nostalgie de la boue.

Could we launch a serious threat to P & G by offering sinus cauterization as a cosmetic procedure for the sensitive? No more need for Shake ‘n’ Vac, scented tampons, or Diptyque candles at $45 a pop.

On second thoughts, the economy might collapse altogether.

Neighborhood

When I first moved to Manhattan, almost everyone I knew was between 25 and 30. The school you’d been to seemed much more important than your Old Country. In fact, some of the new arrivals seemed to regard Kentucky or Michigan as the Old Country, and the extreme cases thought that Harvard was.

Carroll Gardens is different still, despite all the chi-chi restaurants that opened for yuppies like me. Most people at Saturday’s party were Irish, Italian, or ‘half-and-half’, as Dominick says. Each side told jokes about the other. Matt, my Santa Claus neighbor, says:

“The Irish people and the Italian people, that can be a real beautiful mix for a marriage.”

Everyone wanted to know what part of Ireland I was from. Matt told me that his friend, Damian, who was killed in the Trade Towers, was one of nine kids of a family from Donegal. They all grew up in Inwood in the ’70s, when it was still an Irish neighborhood. Matt’s from the Bronx, but his family had a summer house in the Catskills next to all these Inwood families. Four Green Fields, they called it. Matt’s father would put on a brogue when talking with the rest of the Four Green Fields men, and the kids would tease him for it. Matt was a year or two younger than Damian and was dying to hang out with the bigger boys.

I realized I’d read a huge New York Times feature about Damian and Inwood a few weeks back. Sonuvagun, If Isn’t Dominion. The article isn’t online any more, but I remember that the whole family was crazy for Gaelic football. Damian was the youngest boy, and his father used to put him down to bed doing commentary on an imaginary match where the brothers all played on the same team.
“And Michael passes the ball to Sean…and Sean passes the ball to Eugene…and Eugene heads it over to Paul….”
The ball always ended up with Damian, and he always scored the winning goal. Lucky kid. He was golden, Matt says.