Thanksgiving at the Ranch

Sal's Canyon

Two strangers arrive at Tim’s cabin the morning after Thanksgiving. Bill has a fox-colored pageboy and bright blue eyes. He’s strong, and his face just misses handsome before it veers off into unsettling. Jerri has long, tired blonde hair, and wears high-heeled sandals that wouldn’t do well in the February mud up there.

Bill wanted to show her the spot where he lived 25 years ago. There were just three houses in Sal’s Canyon then: Sal’s own homestead; a nearby place with a sign that says “General Store” above the front porch (it’s not a store); and the little shack that Bill rented above the golf course. It burned down long ago, so he’s finding out who lives here now, in these newer cabins.

Sal was a character, he says. Must have been in his fifties at the time. He was still teaching shop in East Palo Alto. “I remember him coming home, complaining about the students —‘Jesus Christ, kid, did ya learn nothing here? You wrote ‘Fuck’ five times on the wall of the boys’ bathroom, and you spelled it wrong every time.’” A ladies man, Tim offers, and Bill shrugs that well, he thought he was. As to whether he was successful, Bill couldn’t say.

Bill grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon. Fourteen cows in an open barn system. At dawn he and his brother would milk, and after school there’d be hours of chores: more milking, cleaning out the barn, and foddering the herd. In the winter they’d be up in the night, calving. In summer, they’d cut and pitch hay. The milk ran through a Rube-Goldberg system of funnels and filters and cooling channels in the barn, and when the churns were filled they’d haul them into the truck and take them to the dairy.

“The churns would run down on rollers, and when the last churn had gone through, we’d be allowed to balance on the rollers in our sneakers”—he mimed a skier’s crouch—“and ride them all the way to the end. Then they’d give us a pail of fresh cheese curds, for free. Squeak, squeak.”

“Sounds like an industrial accident waiting to happen,” says Jerri. “Sounds like OSHA wouldn’t have much to like about that whole set up.”
Continue reading “Thanksgiving at the Ranch”

The Passion-Industrial Complex

“You are an honest man, and do not make it your business either to please or displease the favourites. You are merely attached to your master and to your duty. You are finished.”
—La Bruyere.

“In 1800, just 20% of Americans had an employer other than themselves; by 1900, the figure was up to 50%, and by 2000, 90%.”
—Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety.

When I was growing up—in a decade when condoms weren’t for sale in Ireland and the Jesuit church in Limerick hadn’t yet been sold for redevelopment—there were things that my friends agreed on. Variously, they had to do with ideas about sex before marriage; God; gays; who was a fine thing; who was a knob; and the tampon-virginity link. In the school canteen, where we tested our collective worldview through a fog of rancid chip-fat and condensation, we adjudicated that having sex might be okay as long as you were in college, really in love, and had been together for x months or years—where x took as long to solve for as the quadratic equations in our copybooks.

We took an inventory of symptoms of what “really in love” was going to feel like—trusting scripts more than swoons, as if already knew we were just trying this stuff on. We were in a hurry to get complacent, and when the boyfriends finally ambled in, we ticked off the weeks and months we’d been going out, racing each other to anniversaries. Though we sat around noting matronly truths about the nature of fellas, our commitment was to each other. Twenty years later, we all admit that for all the love talk, no boys from that time ever cost us anything like the girls who dumped us as friends. And everyone had one of those.

I didn’t agree with the canteen worldview, but it rarely occurred to me to say so. Not when I loved being in a warm little gang, at an age when everything was either hilarious or horrific. It took so little to nod along, and then take my own dogma from the stack of imported Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire magazines in my bedroom. As far as I knew, none of my friends read them, and I didn’t mind. It was the tribe that got me up to go to school every day.

People talk most about what they are hungry for, sketching their lack in words. At fifteen, it’s sex. In Dublin today, people go on (and on) about money and houses. In San Francisco, we talk about time, balance, and community. And in the corporate world, people talk about passion.

At my kitchen table the other night a friend blurted out her annoyance at a job interview experience that day.
“He kept asking, ‘What are you passionate about?’ And I just didn’t feel that was right in an interview. So intrusive. Whenever I tried to deflect it, he’d go, “No, really, what gets you out of bed in the morning? What’s your passion?

Her complaint sparked the others.
“Oh god,” said someone else, “I worked at this company where they’d come up with all these words we were supposed to embody. And they installed them as screensavers, so if you stopped typing for a bit to think about the next paragraph, ‘Passion’ and ‘Excellence’ and all the rest would start floating down your screen like Tetris blocks.”

“I like my work. I’m good at it. I try hard. When did that stop being enough? When did it have to be my Passion? I just got married. There are things in my life that are really important to me. But they’re not necessarily all part of my work life, and I don’t want to bring them into a job interview.”

“It’s like, you’re not allowed to have a private life any more. They want to own all of you.”

“I think they started doing it because it took some of the responsibility off them. Let’s face it, there’s no loyalty to employees. We’re just not set up that way any more. So if someone has to lay you off, now they get to feel that this is your Passion, so you’ll just go and pursue it somewhere else. They get to feel better.”

“After all, it’s your Passion. That means you’d do it for free, right? So no need to worry about you, or worry about your family life when you’re there at all hours.”


“Except…nobody gives you those screensavers if you work for Doctors Without Borders or you’re, I don’t know, a fourth-grade teacher. Or a midwife. That’s where it goes without saying. It’s when you’re sitting in a cube, doing your best at a corporate job even though it’s not saving the planet—that’s where they’re going to start talking about Passion. And if you don’t join in…”

“If you don’t join in…”

What? What happens if you don’t join in?

If I were 15 in San Francisco today, instead of twenty years ago in Limerick, I probably wouldn’t spend afternoons sitting in a smelly canteen talking about life. I’d be too busy polishing my collection of Passions, ready for inspection by the college admissions officers. Instead of going along with really-in-love, I’d be pumping an interest in soccer into a fervor, or turning a trip to Mexico into a passion for international relations. I’d understand that, just like really-in-love, passion was just a code for getting to what you wanted. Not a lie, exactly, more of an…augmentation. I might even have noticed all those tip-off intensifiers—real love, genuine commitment, authentic passion—that admit fakery is possible, even likely. And I’d be well-trained by a culture in which all manner of passion is faked.

As usual, Paul Graham says it well in this essay addressed to school leavers:


And what’s your real job supposed to be? Unless you’re Mozart, your first task is to figure that out. What are the great things to work on? Where are the imaginative people? And most importantly, what are you interested in? The word “aptitude” is misleading, because it implies something innate. The most powerful sort of aptitude is a consuming interest in some question, and such interests are often acquired tastes.A distorted version of this idea has filtered into popular culture under the name “passion.” I recently saw an ad for waiters saying they wanted people with a “passion for service.” The real thing is not something one could have for waiting on tables. And passion is a bad word for it. A better name would be curiosity.

From “What You’ll Wish You’d Known”

It makes me sad. Cranky, too. We’ve used up so many great and needed words this way, and passion is a sacred one. It’s the language of Abelard and Heloise, Petrarch, Anna Karenina, Beethoven, and Oppenheimer. It belongs to lovers, artists, and worldchangers—who rarely need to talk about it, because they live it—and it means something more than “kick it up a notch.” We have good words for what we need—curiosity, enthusiasm, craftsmanship, and dedication. Let’s stick to them, and save passion for when we (really) mean it.


“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.


Tyerra, BAYCAT filmmaker
Tyerra Green, BAYCAT filmmaker, taken by michaele, Yahoo! Teacher of Merit, July 2006.

The first thing you see when you walk into BAYCAT‘s loft—once Villy lets you out of a hug—are the photos. There’s a wall of signed Polaroids of everyone who has ever visited: students, instructors, preachers, clients, donors, Bill Strickland, Jeff Skoll, and our fine-looking mayor, Gavin Newsom. Names and smiles; bigwigs and smallwigs.

BAYCAT trains young people from Bayview-Hunters Point in art, design, digital media, filmmaking, and human decency. These neighborhoods have by far the highest concentration of children in San Francisco, but the rest of the city doesn’t notice that that’s where we warehouse the future. “Historically-underserved comunities” seems to be the vogue term, but however you put it, these kids have had a raw deal so far. They are poor. Their schools are chaotic and badly equipped. The houses were built next to a power plant, on landfill where decades of toxic waste have built up, and so the children get sick more often than they should—but there’s just one pediatrician in the area. Until a Farmers’ Market opened last year, fresh food was a bus ride away, though liquor stores are plentiful. The gangs are armed.

Hunters Point Restaurant
Photo by Tim, 2005

Those are the problems, but there are 33,000 solutions. Bayview-Hunters Point also has artists, musicians, leaders, dreamers, preachers, businesspeople, and teachers who have it going on, and there’s no shortage of kids who want more. That’s where BAYCAT comes in. BAYCAT shows kids that they have a voice, and gives them the skills to give voice to their community. These are also, the theory goes, the skills that San Francisco and Silicon Valley employers want: design, video production, editing, and motion graphics.

Villy is the founder and CEO. She went from the New York projects to become an equity derivatives trader, then a corporate lawyer at a fancy firm. What she wanted to do was take these skills to make kids’ lives better, so she trained as a fifth-grade teacher. She was the kind of educator who teaches the Constitution by letting her kids draw up a class constitution: pushing them to move beyond because-I-said-so rules to identify the lasting principles behind them; encouraging them to test rewards and penalties and consequences; stretching ten-year-old minds around the notion of collective responsibility.

But she couldn’t reach all of them. Ten years old is too late. Five may be too late. No matter how much work you put in, how much you dig into your paltry salary for extra supplies, food, and field trips, no matter how many nights you lie awake with racing thoughts, you can’t save every kid. No Child Left Behind is the name of the federal act that has set public education up for guaranteed failure by mandating that every single child must pass standardized reading and math tests by 2012. Its goals are admirable, but no system improves by measurement alone—especially in California, where public education is still crippled by the staggering selfishness of Proposition 13. Where the principles of No Child Left Behind really live is in the hearts of dedicated teachers, who live in a war zone between hope and discouragement.

Villy left the public schools to start BAYCAT. She found an early supporter in Bill Strickland, the Pittsburgh social entrepreneur. I met Strickland (and Villy) when my company hosted a conference that brought together innovators from Japan and the US, and he held us rapt, as he does every audience, with his slides and his story. His power comes from his insistence on the elemental. The worst thing about poverty is what it does to your spirit, he says, and the cure for this spiritual cancer is to expose people to the best of the natural world. Beauty. Light. Water. Music. Art. Good food. Flowers. In the No Child Left Behind era, where principals are forced to force their teachers to drop everything but math and “language arts” drills, this sounds like granola-dreaming. But over the course of thirty-odd years, he has succeeded.

Strickland was a 16-year-old from the Pittsburgh projects, on path to nowhere good, when an art teacher introduced him to ceramics and took him to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house. When he found his calling as a grown man, he persuaded a student of Lloyd Wright’s to build a cathedral-like training center in the middle of the projects in Pittsburgh. That’s where he trained students in the ceramics he had come to love. He loved jazz, so he built a concert hall as part of the center—and Dizzy Gillespie came to play. They started a jazz record label that has won four Grammy awards. He wanted the kids to see beauty, so he built a greenhouse to grow Japanese orchids—and now they supply the Whole Foods grocery chain with flowers and hydroponic tomatoes, grown in the projects in Steeltown. He worked with local Pittsburgh businesses, Heinz and Bayer among them, to set up facilities to train a new generation of workers in food service and lab technician skills, so they could find jobs—and eat good food every day. Sunshine, he insists, is for everybody on the planet, not just for rich people. Good food is for everybody on the planet. His Manchester Craftsman’s Guild trains students in art, not academics, but his students’ graduation rates are so high that the city of Pittsburgh recently asked him to take over a failing high school. His first action will be bring in fresh flowers. People understand those kinds of messages. We are creatures of expectations, he says, and once you put people in the light, they shine.

Villy is an artist and musician too, and the BAYCAT loft reflects their shared belief in the power of beauty and high expectations. It’s spacious, light-filled, and stylish, and designed for people to work together. Buildings have emotions, I think, and BAYCAT’s place is warm and playful. It’s in the Dogpatch neighborhood, between Bayview-Hunters Point and downtown San Francisco.

Across the street, my friend Celine has opened a wine bar, one of several new small businesses drawn to Dogpatch by the mirage of the Third Street Light Rail, which will connect Bayview-Hunters Point to the city that has ignored it. That’s where Villy and I drink Rioja and Viognier from time to time. Dogpatch reminds me of Brooklyn’s DUMBO eight years ago, with its waterfront light, beautiful old warehouses slowly converting to design studios and apartments, and mostly peaceful agreements between the artists and the crack dealers. “I talked to the crackheads and the drunks from the beginning,” said Celine, who is as matter-of-fact as you might expect of a woman who can both pass two kidney stones and open a wine bar in the last two months of her pregnancy. “I told them, I have no problem with you being here, but you just can’t piss in the doorway any more. I can’t do business if you piss in my doorway.” They are obliging. Now they piss in the bus shelter at the end of the block, and greet her warmly as she opens up.

Last July, a team from Yahoo!—my favorite clients—hired the BAYCAT students to make a documentary about a project we were working on, a weeklong summer camp to celebrate 60 local teachers and introduce them to blogging, Flickr, and other web goodies. Every day, Villy drove Tyerra and Jason from Hunters Point to Sunnyvale in her green VW Bug. They interviewed dozens of teachers and Yahoo! staff, including Terry Semel, the CEO. They filmed it, shaped the story, and edited it in two weeks, with the help of BAYCAT instructors. Tyerra’s 14. Jason is 16. That’s Tyerra speaking on the BAYCAT homepage. Yahoo! liked the results so much that they sponsored a BAYCAT “Oscars” to show off the students’ work at the end of the summer. There was plenty to celebrate: graphic design for local businesses, a new design identity for the Visitacion Valley neighborhood, documentaries made for Yahoo!, for the Mayor’s Office, and for NetDay; a film about the Alice Griffith Housing Projects; an interview series on obesity they filmed at local McDonalds. They’re learning to bear witness: by shaping stories, you can shape a future.

Villy has huge plans for BAYCAT. Every time she tells me about them over Italian wine, my brain starts fizzing with her spirit—that’s the Villy effect. She believes that change starts with personal connections, with asking open-ended questions and being willing to listen to the answers. This autumn, she’s going to let me learn how to teach writing at BAYCAT. It’s a tiny commitment—once a week, a couple of students a time—but I want to be there to watch her dreams bloom.

Down With Jazz

[Hi, readers:

This one is super-long for a blog entry. That’s because it’s a short story draft—you know, those things you skip past in the New Yorker or stopped reading after your Leaving Cert—so don’t feel you have to plough through it. YouTube is always right next door on the internet.

But if you’re interested, the story is inspired by an RTE radio documentary of the same name from 1987, and I’ve imagined it taking place in my grandparents’ hometown in Roscommon. I didn’t know them very well, so those bits are entirely made up. The awesome letter to the Catholic Herald is real, though, and so are the slogans. And one description of country life is swiped from a commenter here.

Oh, and I haven’t written a full-length story since my own Leaving Cert, so this took for-goddamn-ever. Making stuff up takes me even longer than reporting it. I’m posting a draft so’s I can see it with some distance and then patch it up.

As the phone company would say, “We know you have choices for your blog-reading needs, and we appreciate your business.” Thanks for stopping by.


…you danced with her the best slow dancer
Who stood on tiptoe who almost wasn’t there
In your arms like music she knew just how to answer
The question mark of your spine your hand in hers
The other touching that place between her shoulders
Trembling your countless feet lightfooted sure
To move as they wished wherever you might stagger
Without her she turned in time she knew where you were
In time she turned her body into yours
—David Wagoner


The bicycles go by in twos and threes
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
—Patrick Kavanagh

Main St, Mohill

After Mass, Charlie Hanley offered Margaret Kelly a bar to the Saturday dance in Elphin. The fellas had bicycles, and the girls did not, and it was better that way. It meant a High Nelly was a ticket to ask.

The light girls were popular. They’d back up to the bicycle bar like little high jumpers, pretending to be more delicate than they were, and with a laugh and a wobble you’d be away. Margaret was middle-sized—two wobbles, maybe three—but when he reached for the handlebars on either side of her good frock, with her hair tickling his chin, he was glad of every mile of the seven from her home place to Elphin. She was cushiony enough not to complain about the iron slap from each rut in the road. Instead she gripped the bar and pointed her knees primly ahead, like a Strokestown House mistress riding sidesaddle.

They passed Billy Carmody and his donkey, bringing home the churn from evening milking. They saluted Jonjo Sharkey and his old bitch Gypsy, who even though her eyes were milky still snapped at Margaret’s dangling feet. These days the sheep obeyed Gypsy only out of habit, or pity. Jonjo would have to get the shotgun to her soon.

All day Charlie had turned turf. The sods already smelled warm and nearly meaty, as they would when stacked beside the range in winter. At the dinner hour they unwrapped their mother’s bread and drank strong tea from milk bottles. There was just him and the brother to cut their plot of bog. Margaret had a rake of brothers, but they were still young lads, and when she walked out to bring their dinners to the bog she often stayed on to work harder than they did. Though Charlie had known her since she was in High Babies and he was in Second Class at the schoolhouse, it was only in the last few years had he liked to watch her work from across the bog. She looked stronger than she was; rheumatic fever in Sixth Class had given her a bad heart.

In the evening Charlie and the brother walked back, stopping as they always did for a smoke on two flat mossy rocks in the bottom field. They shared a Sweet Afton and listened to the land. Half of life was winding down and half waking up; a change of shift, you might say. It was sweet now to stretch out on a warm rock and do nothing but draw in smoke. He thought about Margaret Kelly’s hair. As the night went on they might be dancing a rumba. Close-to-close dancing like that, it was bolder than the proximity of a bicycle ride, because there was no reason or excuse but the pure pleasure of it. The thought made him feel so alive it was barely bearable. O yes, we have no bananas…

Noel was too young for the dance, and his mind was on Under-16s hurling. Why, he wanted to know, did Father Treacy have Lennon playing centre field again tomorrow? Anyone with eyes in their head could see Lennon should be centre-forward and Noel should be midfield. Lennon was more skilful and a better scorer, and Noel was fitter, bigger, and more controlling of centre field. How else were they to beat Tulsk? Charlie agreed it was a senseless thing. Noel would puzzle it further, but Charlie was inclined to get to the dance. He stubbed the butt and rose towards home, hungry for his tea. The milk bottle rolled in his jacket pocket. Noel followed, slapping a sliotar from hand to hand, still complaining.
Continue reading “Down With Jazz”


The Scared One

Bill flipped up my visor.

“Is it not human nature to fear that which might harm us?” he said gently. “Motorbiking can harm us. Your fear is natural.”

Mute eyes say plenty, especially to teachers who stopped counting at 10,000 students. Though they could barely see our faces, and we hadn’t yet straddled the bikes, Bill and Bob had already sorted the class. They knew whose testosterone pride had to be brought low, who couldn’t follow instructions, who needed no more than mechanical guidance, and who needed encouragement, above all, to quiet the mental gabblings of failure.

I’m braver than most, but only because I’m scared of so much. My comfort zone goes from my nose to the nearest printed page, and going any further affords daily scope for courage. Like the Italian villagers who discovered new worlds (and new hotties) on their post-war Vespas, I was hoping that Class C California Motorcycle Drivers Permit would expand my range.

Bill and Bob had parked their Goldwing tourers front-wheel to front-wheel; twin monuments against the wind that shunted rolls of fog into the drained reservoir. The reservoir is a vast parking lot for City College now, and at 6.45 on a Saturday morning it stood empty except for the orange cones and rows of bikes of Bay Area Motorcycle Training. Next to the Goldwings, the students’ 250 cc Kawasakis and Hondas were rolling hairdryers (though still scarily potent compared to my bicycle). None of the borrowed bikes had mirrors—they’d break when we dropped them.

First we walked the bikes across the park, lumbering in neutral with the engines off. Then we found the friction zone and moonwalked in first gear. Finally, we planted our feet on the pegs and woozily crossed the range, like a row of bowling balls let go too soon. This was fun until I tried to stop the thing. The throttle roared; I dropped the brake and lurched at Bob, then grabbed the brake and roared and lurched again. He gave a matador’s hop.

“Stop riding the brake! Stop braking! Clutch. Clutch! CLUTCH!”

I clutched. It felt so fucking unfair. Whose idea was it to stick the throttle under the brake, ready to roar at you like a junkyard dog?

“You can’t. Ride. The brake,” said Bob. “The clutch is what?”

“Your friend,” I said sullenly. Every morning I freewheel down Bernal Hill squeezing my true buddy—the back brake. I hate not knowing what to do.

“The clutch is your friend. Don’t grab it. Don’t drop it. Squeeeeze it. And get your fingers off that brake. Head up! Head up! Look where you want to GO.” We crossed and recrossed, with laborious three-point turns, until we had established that all twelve of us could putter at lawnmower speed without damaging the parking lot. Then we lined up in two columns. Bill lectured us while Bob demonstrated our next challenge.

“Old people riding. Makes your eyes mist up, dudnit?” said Bill as we watched Bob weave through the cones. “Or could be the fog.”

Our class was relatively elderly. In the other group there were a handful of cholo kids who had boasted in the classroom sessions about not being afraid to get hurt. They did great ghetto rolls on the way to the PortaPotties, even as the day wore on and we were all near-hypothermic in the dank fog. If you’re under 21 you can’t get a California Motorcycle Licence without completing a safety course, but the wily old men must have manouevered them into the other instructors’ course.

“Five months? Aw, you’re just a puppy,” Bill said to the cute newlywed as we waited for all the students to finish the lesson. “I’ve been married 38 years. And here’s what I learned: women go to Wife School when they’re five years old. This is true. No matter where you are, 30,000 feet up in a plane, filling up your tank, sitting in a bar, whenever you get two guys together and the subject of marriage comes up—and I don’t know why it should come up with strangers, but it does—guy will tell you the same thing. “‘Yew never listen,’ she says, or ‘Yew only pay attention to the newspaper.’” That’s because they all went to Wife School and got the script, and the guys are just shambling along without a clue. A guy, see, he’s got a line in the sand. You don’t cross it, you’re fine.”

He drew an imaginary line with the gripper stick he uses to pick up the tiny cones that mark our courses. “But women, see, they got a line that goes like this.”

He broke into a little trot and drew a line that wriggled like an inchworm, the kind of path we were supposed to be able to weave by now. “You cross that line, and you’re dead. And if by some tiny chance you’re actually right for once—and this is very rare—she learned in Wife School what to do. She’ll go back twenty years if she has to, drag it all back up, mess with your head until she’s in the right again.”

“Twenty years?” sniffed Bob, “Try thirty. Try forty.”

“I just start with ‘Sorry’ now,” said Scott, who was 35. “Whatever it is, I’m sorry.” He told me earlier that he’s wanted to ride a motorbike all his life, but first his parents wouldn’t let him, and then his girlfriend wouldn’t. Now they’re married, and she’s relented, figuring he was old enough not to kill himself.

“That’s good. You’re learning. First step is, you’re always wrong. Wanna know what I do when the lectures start coming down?”

“I’m trying to teach a class here, old man,” said Bob.

“I’m passing on a lesson too,” said Bill.

“You’re cutting into my lunch break…”

“I get down on my knees.” He got down on his knees, leaning on his stick. “And then I grab her around the knees—this I won’t demonstrate with you, Scott—and I press my cheek against her thigh, and I say, ‘Please please please, don’t beat me no mo’.’ Sometimes she laughs. Sometimes she tells me to get out of her sight. Either way, it’s a win.”

He hopped on a borrowed bike and demonstrated the course for our lesson on Swerving. Then he stood ready to coach our individual runs, until we rode back to our parking range for further instruction. Engine-off-key-OFF. Dismount CORRECTLY.

“Know why I do this dog-and-pony show?” he said. “It’s not because I need the attention, or I want everyone to love me up here. I could give a shit about that. It’s because you’re going to perform better if you can relax and get out of your heads, start focusing on the skills. So I goof around to try to get you to look up, pay attention to me and your surroundings instead of to that voice in your head that says that you’re going to mess up. Bob and I rarely, rarely have a student fail.”

Bill comes from a line of Marines, though he’s retired now. Below the cod-acting he has the coiled Zen calm of Special Forces soldiers I’ve known. They’re a breed that seems more thoughtful and engaged with the world than the consumers they’re trained to defend. Bill looks a bit like Dennis Hopper. Not the young Easy Rider, but the stoned and placid grandpa in Fishing With John: ready to make fun of himself, and readier still to smack down anyone else who tries it.

When I came back from a break, he had placed my ignition key on the seat. “Understand, I do this not to humiliate you,” he said, “but to draw your attention to the practice of shutting down. Bikes like that, battery’s flat in no time flat. Get a jump from a car and you’ll destroy it. So, be mindful.”

My mind was full. I missed my bicycle. Its muscle-engine needs no choke.

By the second day we had all got more confident. Bill and Bob took turns coaching us through the exit for each activity.
“Watch me. I said, watch me. You don’t get this right, you’re not going to pass the test, and you’re going to have to come back to spend another weekend with the old people.” Bill hobbled behind an imaginary walker.


“DerVAla,” Bob said, mangling my name, “you’re going to have to speed up or the cars will run you over. Hell, cats will run you over. Going faster is easier. More fun.”

Accelerating into a curve.

“DerVAla. Stop riding the brake.”

Riding over an obstacle.

“DerVAla, how do you feel about yourself now?” I’d made it through a box of u-turns and bounced over a two-by-four plank, backside raised a cautious inch. I said that I felt better, with a huge grin he couldn’t see.

“Good girl,” he nodded. “You’re doing fine.” A hit of praise made me drop the clutch in excitement and cut out. He waited while I scrabbled to figure out what gear I was in. “Okay, just hit the starter and start again.”

“I don’t even call it riding,” said Bill.“I call it practice—unless I’m just going down the freeway to get somewhere. That’s commuting, which I don’t care for. It’s practice because you’re always trying to perfect your skills. And you never do. You’re never perfect, at least if you have a mind like mine.”

When I made it through the last training range, Bill flipped up my visor again and peered in. “Learning to be a good rider will change your life,” he said. “In ways that have nothing to do with motorcycles.”

For the test, we entered a box of cones and described a figure eight. Then we puttered up to a line of cones that forced us to swerve around an imaginary bus. We accelerated into a curve. Finally, we each came to an emergency stop, where Bob sat in a deckchair grading us like an skating judge. “Three. Zero. Six,” he called when I clutch-gear-down-front-brake-rear-braked to a halt.

“You went outside the box with your U-turns. You went too slowly into the turn. And your stopping distance was three feet too long. But you passed,” said Bill, when we had all finished and were lined up in front of his clipboard. “You are now qualified to ride in a parking lot. Good girl.”

I babbled thanks, telling him I didn’t even know how to drive a car.

“Listen to me,” he said seriously. “I hear your thanks, and I’m glad you feel that way, but you need to understand something. I didn’t pass that course. You did. You can do anything you want. If you want to become a good rider, you can. Has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with your own expectations.”

Over the last few years, several people have trained me in new skills: to listen actively on a crisis hotline; to sit in silence on a ten-day retreat; to scuba dive and sky dive; to fast for seven days. It’s uncomfortable to be a beginner. It’s an exercise in trust; in faith that these people know where we’ll end up even if we don’t ourselves. Usually, they’re kind and brisk, used to calming fretful beginners so that they can get their jobs done and go home. How quickly we reduce ourselves to types when distracted by an unfamiliar task.

This morning I dreamed that my motorbike class was trying to get to the Motorcycling for Dummies Training Center, somewhere in downtown Brooklyn, or maybe Dogtown. I was separated from the pack, and found myself spinning out of control in front of a biker bar, scared and embarrassed on my little hairdryer bike. I took a breath, and coached myself through the dream. FINE-C. Fuel-Ignition-Neutral-Engine-Choke/Clutch. I drove—up the hill, miraculous competence—to find my classmates painting canvases about how motorbiking made them feel.

“You can’t teach a human,” said Bill in our last lesson. “It’s been proved. You can tell them, you can show them, you can warn them, but in the end all you’re doing is putting the information in front of them so they can figure it out for themselves. That’s the only way humans learn.”

All the Way Back

“In a world without consequences,” my mother’s friend Marian had said over their weekly coffee in the Shopping Centre, “wouldn’t it be great to go to bed with Bill Clinton?” When she reported this, she added, with a 15-year-old’s giggle, “And do you know, I have to say, I agreed with her.”

Dad said, “Well, I don’t know what to make of that at all.”

“We were all swooning to hear him in person. And he knew all about Limerick. He mentioned Dell, and the new concert hall out at the university. He even knew about the rugby!”

Ten days before, I’d got an email request from a friend. “Give me a few facts about Limerick,” she wrote. I told her about the pogrom of 1904; Richard Harris; the spit-flecked Redemptorist Fathers; and the arrival of Latvian, Chinese, and Polish immigrants, who brought durian crisps and rye bread, and queued up for internet access in the public library. I mentioned how unfair the Stab City nickname seemed to the citizens, and the resentment at poor-mouthing Frank McCourt. Sure, the McCourts were starving because the father was a roaring alcoholic—and that was hardly Limerick’s fault.

These ramblings weren’t what she’d had in mind. She was pals with President Clinton’s head foreign-policy speechwriter, and he needed notes for his boss’s trip to Ireland. In those slinking days after the Starr Report, Clinton could still count on a Kennedy welcome in Ireland, which had never fallen out of love with him (and misses him still). He was a great man on the North, it was felt. Irish people took pride in believing, unlike the English with their scourging tabloids, that a politician’s sex life was none of the electorate’s business. They wouldn’t hear a word said against him.

I supplied replacement facts: new bridges, new industries, a new stop on the national arts’ circuit, and an abiding love of rugby that crossed class. These were better suited to help a president reflect a city’s growing sense of itself, and no one does that better than misty Bill. Limerick was impressed at his grasp of town life.
“Ah, Bill’s just my puppet,” I told my mum.

I thought of Clinton’s visit after yesterday’s Munster victory.

“Local update: Munster beat Biarritz 20-17 in the Heineken Cup in Cardiff today. 15,000 people watched on an outdoor screen in O’Connell St in Limerick. 70,000 people at the stadium in Cardiff. Stringer got man of the match. George Hook was unbearable on the telly there. Of course, they beat Leinster in the semi’s so my celebrations are somewhat more temperate.”

That came in a Saturday letter from an old college friend, a Leinster Dub transplanted to Cork. On first reading I thought he was poking fun—as If I’d be interested in rugby, unless I was trying to sweet-talk some fella. Dad regularly reports the match results to my sisters and me, the jokey lament of a man in a family of women indifferent to blood-rising county rivalries. But this week, it was Mum who delivered an excited match report on Sunday night. I hadn’t realized it was a European Final, and a triumph for my home town.

Munster is the bottom-left of Ireland’s four provinces, and it covers Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Kerry, and Clare. Maybe Waterford too; my geography was always poor. It has a lasting rugby rivalry with Leinster, where the Dubs are. I don’t hear of the other provinces getting in on it, but perhaps that’s because rugby is such a city game.

In most of Ireland it’s a posh sport that grows from the private schools. The kids in The Commitments would have played soccer. In Dublin, rugby is for South County Dublin boys whose strong necks are bred to support barristers’ horsehair wigs as well as scrums. Long before the rest of the country could afford to fake Viking genes, their girls were swinging sheets of blonde hair over pints of Heineken.

In Limerick, tough, scrappy Limerick, the whole city is mad for the game. On the field, solicitors tackle janitors and bouncers take down mortgage brokers (or they used to, before the game went professional). In the concrete stands of Thomond Park, the doctors from St. Camillus’ freeze their backsides off next to cabbage growers. We don’t have people from all walks of life in Limerick—there are no rag-pickers, no Google billionaires, no pet psychics—but if we did, they’d probably follow rugby. On Saturday nights, girls dress up for the Sin Bin, a club owned by a former Munster star and named for the place to which he was regularly sent off.

Mum reports that Cork is jealous, because everyone is saying that they’ve never seen anything like the way the Limerick fans came out for the team. At her school, the kids all wore Munster red on Friday, except for a couple of the little Pakistani kids—which is a pity, she says, because red is lovely with their dark hair. All the teachers wore red head to toe. Dad bought a Munster jersey; Uncle Tommy and Derek went over to Cardiff to see the match, and the fans there, oh, the whole stadium was pure red.

I can hear the shine in her eyes when she talks about O’Connell Street, where the whole town gathered to watch the match on screens strung above the traffic lights. When the homecoming bus drove into Limerick in the rain, it was magic. “You turn on the news and it’s all Munster, Munster, Munster, and they’re talking about the Limerick fans and how committed they were. And the team says that’s why they won, they couldn’t let the people down.” (The Limerick people, she insists.)

“Claire couldn’t believe I was watching the semi-finals, and I told her, if you had blood running in your veins, how could you not be interested when they might win for the first time in 120 years? So then she watched the finals and got all into it. Caroline went out for the celebrations and she ended up walking home. I hope she wasn’t wearing stilettos…”

She spills the jokes that are going around, how the Leinster fans were too busy shopping in Brown Thomas to show up for the match, and the Leinster team were afraid to spoil their manicures.

I remember this, or something like it, when Ireland got to the quarter-finals of the Football World Cup in 1990. Something changed. Until then we had flown high only solo, and mostly far from home. Here was an Irish team (cobbled from the stocky British offspring of Irish grandparents and coached by a Yorkshireman) holding England to a victory draw, and gallantly saving penalty shots from Romanian strikers. The country rose up in a great yawp of triumph, and urged the players beyond their modest abilities.

And we watched ourselves as fans, and liked what we saw: thronging Palermo, respectful, high-spirited, cuddly, and cheerfully sozzled. The worse the English fans behaved, the more lovable the Irish fans were careful to become, on their first grand tour. They waved scarves at the cameras and told of bank loans borrowed over the phone so they to stay on and follow the team on through—nobody had booked past the first round. At home the factories closed and we filled the bars—with their brand-new, big-screen TVs bought for Italia ’90— and wept with joy to see ourselves weep with collective joy in front of the world. Ireland was still close to bottom of the EU heap then, but the shine of the World Cup showed a new reflection. Everybody thought we were great, we repeated. It felt good.

For my home town, Shtab City, known for hoodies and piebalds and wormy Stanley Knife scars, this Munster win, a mucky oval ball delivered over a white line, might signal the same shift in confidence. Fifteen years from now we might look back and see just how ready Limerick was to stand proud and passionate, after decades of being done down. “It’s great,” says my mother, firmly, “to see positive images of Limerick in the media for once, when they’re never nice about us.”

Do you know, it is.

You Go, Girl

“In Mexico the family seems to be a centripetal force; in the US it is a centrifugal force.”
—Carolo and Marcelo Suárez Orozco, Transformations: Immigration, family life, and achievement motivation among Latino adolescents, Stanford UP 1995

“And for those of you who don’t know what Barnard is,” says LaTonya into the microphone, hands on hips, “let me tell you: it’s Ivy League, aright?” Everyone laughs. She’s earned that swagger, along with the scholarship that promises to put her all the way through graduate school before she’s even started her freshman year. Now there are hundreds of grown women in the hotel ballroom, eating salmon to celebrate her and her GirlSource sisters.

GirlSource hires 150 poor girls a year, aged 14 to 18, mostly from the Mission, Bayview, Hunters’ Point. They’re trained—and paid—to run a chatty health information website, by girls, for girls. They design, research, write, and code the whole thing, picking up skills they can sell. “We’re not from the kind of communities where we all got the internet at home,” one explains. As part of the program, they also get tutoring, help with college applications and scholarship research, and a safe place to hang out with other girls.

“Can you imagine that I used to be so shy I didn’t want to open my mouth to strangers?” Marisa says gleefully to 600 strangers. “ I’m Filipina-American. We’re raised to obey authority, but not to have high self-esteem. That turned me into a hater. I didn’t know how to appreciate my own qualities, so I hated on other girls to make myself feel better. Girls do that. They hate on people until that person’s confidence is totally destroyed, and that makes them powerful. But when I’d hate on people and bring them down, I’d still feel empty inside. GirlSource taught me to flip the script. When I met the other girls in the program, I was de-fen-sive, wondering what they were thinking about me. Now I look at these beautiful girls, and all they can do, and I feel sooooo proud to be a GirlSource girl.”

In America, just 4% of Hispanic 12th-graders can read at their grade level. For African-American students, it’s even worse. But in spite of poverty, pregnancies, family problems, and sometimes even homelessness, 96% of GirlSource girls graduate from high school. 80% get to college—and most are the first in their families to do so. The organization directors believe that the best way to change a community is to pick a small number of individuals and stick with them. In their turn, the girls tend to stick with the program.

18-year-old Cristina tells how she’s worked to help support her family since she was thirteen. How she took BART for an hour and a half each way to get to school, and worked after school, and made time for GirlSource, and still kept up a 4.2 grade-point-average.
“There was this one class where I got a B. But it was AP so it counts as an A, right?” She had always dreamed of going to New York City. The hardest moment, she said, was one night when her father was sick and she brought him something to eat in his bedroom and he cried that he was so lonely, that things were so hard in the United States. How could she think about leaving home when her father would miss her so much? And then she remembered what she had learned at GirlSource, about standing up for herself, honoring her own needs, using her new confidence to set boundaries. It made it easier for her to make the choice that was right for her. That’s why, she said—with a delivery Steve Jobs might envy—she was going to Columbia in the fall.

There were whistles.

I clapped too. How can you not clap a girl from Richmond who gets herself to Columbia University?

“It’s crazy, right?” she says, eyes shining. “I mean, they’re gonna pay for my tuition, my housing, my books—I’m even gonna get my own psychologist.”

I walk around the Mission a lot, sharing the streets with Norteño gang kids, Salvadoran toddlers, junkies, vendors selling brain and cheek tacos, tattooed hipster gringos, Sixties acid casualties, street preachers, broken hookers, and slumped day laborers hoping to get hired on Cesar Chavez Street.

In the Mission, fruit and vegetables are cheap, and the buses are studded with nuts. Mariachis strut from restaurant to restaurant in white cowboy hats. Full-throated ranchero songs float out from the bars, but when you peep in, there might be only a few old guys on the barstools. On Sunday mornings, dressed-up families walk to church, the stocky kids exact half-scale copies of their parents. Once in a while I follow a little Mexican or Peruvian family a block or two, enjoying kids who are so sure of themselves that they don’t need to come up with snot-nosed demands just to prove they still exist. I like that these families seem to like each others’ company.

(My friend Alex is principal of a bilingual charter school in Silicon Valley. Though it’s in one of the richest towns in the country, 97% of his students live below the poverty line. Their parents clean houses and mow lawns for the engineers and Biz Dev Directors. “Americans think poor people don’t care about their kids’ education,” he says, “but no one wants their kid to read as much as a parent who can’t.”)

Last Thursday night, in a week when hundreds of thousands of my fellow immigrants had marched for respect in cities across the country, a shy young guy invited me to stop for tamales outside a storefront church at the bottom of my hill.
“De puerco o de queso?” said the old woman with the mantilla, almost hidden behind her styrofoam cooler.
“Meat or cheese?” he said, trying to help me out. He was from the Yucatán. I asked if he missed it. “Claro que sí” he said.“Pero hay que ir adelante.”

Hay que ir adelante. You’ve got to move forward. I suppose that’s what drove our forebears out of the primordial ooze, onwards and upwards towards seven-fifty an hour. It’s what pushes Cristina from Richmond to New York City, armed with a precocious biography of self-esteem and boundaries. But still, I’m uneasy for her. Her story is too neat, too Oprahfied. I don’t know how it will serve her when she’s surrounded by slick, expensively-trained classmates at Columbia. What will it be like when she’s three thousand miles from the family who so wanted her to have a better life—and who needed her?

Cristina’s not leaving a village in the Yucatán. She’s already just a BART ride away from one of the best-loved cities in America, and from Stanford and Berkeley. Choosing Columbia means that she’s grasped the California mantra of personal choice, and so her decision brings you-go-girl cheers: distance equals independence equals strength. But I want more for her, and from her. I want her to show Americans how to include love and family in success.

Maybe she still can. Her own Oprahisms are as sincere as they are canned. She’s of a generation that knows how to try on and package identities, and this one is wrapped up for the convenience of the busy women in the hotel ballroom. We’re looking to feel good about throwing a few hundred bucks to young women fifteen years or twenty years behind us, and it works. I believe in GirlSource enough to set up the direct deposit donation, to read through their essays and wonder if I could tutor, or hire some of these girls as interns. (They’d find out what the snacks are like in an innovation consultancy, and we’d learn more than we’d teach.)

But even as I write the checks, and cheer Cristina and her friends, I think, oh baby, you’re going to need that Columbia shrink…

Easter in Ottawa

mum_dad_walking.jpgDad signals the end of his nap with an announcement. “I’ll have a cup of tea,” he says. He doesn’t trouble to open his eyes for this request, and so his womenfolk tease him like Pegeen Mikes.

It’s hard not to delight in my parents’ delight in being on holiday, which is based on walks, treats, naps, and wine. Eleven o’clock is latte time. There are no Starbucks in Limerick yet, but there’s one at the end of my sister’s block in the Glebe, and they love it.

By going to the same place at the same time every day we deal with our most pronounced family trait: indecision. At least until we get there. Starbucks is hard for us, with its made-up sizes and milk varietals. Though Mum has taught generations of Senior Infants to sort big-bigger-biggest, she has trouble with tall-grande-venti, let alone misto-mocha-macchiato, or dry foam. We all do. We mill around the register, getting in the way, then blurting half-formed choices before our shared fear of the service industry drives us out. While the baristas quiz us, we squabble about who gets to pay. The pleasure of the coffee is always tinged by someone’s regret that they didn’t order what they really wanted. Today, we swap what we have to match coffees with hopes. Tomorrow, we’ll know exactly what to ask for…

The Glebe is full of babies and children. On weekday mornings the jog-strollers are lined up outside Starbucks, their big off-road tires signalling some kind of pediatric biker gang. These babas were born to a millennium that gives them the run of the place.

My sister’s new house is a glass-walled beauty, all Corian and cheekbones. Though it sits back discreetly from the red-brickery of the Glebe, it has caught the attention of the neighbors in the year or so it’s been going up. They stare frankly. They want to know how much it cost. They tot the price of the stained oak and brushed steel that gets carried in. They want to know what “he” does.

We know this because “he”—my sister’s guy—works alongside the contractors hired and led by his brother-in-law, George. As Glen steadies bricks or carries sheets of glass he hears and fuels the speculation. One day he’s Head of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. The next he’s a retired hockey player from the Russian leagues. Later, he claims that it’s bought with an advance on my sister’s trust fund; a rumor that makes my schoolteacher parents beam. Mortgages are so dull, and Ottawa needs glamour.

Over the back wall lives a shirtless crank who keeps a broken-down school bus, an oven, a badly-crashed car, and a mound of tires in his yard. He scowls and sunbathes, facing the oven as if for extra spring warmth. Every six months, Glen says, he puts his heart and soul into starting that school bus. By driving it up the block and back in front of the city inspectors, he wins the right to keep it as a “working vehicle.”

A doleful, cat-sized creature paces Claire’s tiny yard, seemingly puzzled by the fence. It has a flat nose, and a band of flattened fur around its middle suggests it’s been run over by a bicycle. It peers at the fence, confused as a sleepwalker, then shuffles to another spot to peer some more. What we know of North American animals we learned from Chuck Jones cartoons, and this one we haven’t seen. Gopher? Possum? Prairie dog? We rule out porcupine, armadillo, and coyote before Glen’s father tells us it’s a groundhog, shedding its winter coat. “I thought they’d be smaller,” Dad says, “Hamster-sized.” After that, we notice groundhogs everywhere, curled up on the verges like Moscow hats discarded for the spring.

Every day we walk the length of the Rideau Canal. My parents stride ahead, discussing whether to move to the Senior Living apartment complex in the Glebe, while Claire and I trot behind as if we were still short-legged kids. I’ve never met anyone whould could match their walking pace, and now that they’re outfitted with new sneakers and windbreakers from the local running shop, there’s no catching them. We survive only because a canal march has to include “a cheeky little beer,” or another “milky coffee,” or a beaver tail. Usually all three.

In the Black Tomato café, the receipts itemize “Dalton’s Tax”—for Dalton McGinty, the Ontario premier-and “Stephen’s Tax”—Harper, the new prime minister. Mum wants to go to a Tim Horton’s, but Claire steers her away, which is a shame. You can’t understand Canada until TimBits float in your blood. I might even have taught her to ask for fifteen TimBits, just to see what would happen. Rumor has it that in certain outlets, that gets you a bag of weed with your donut holes—more Canadian a combination than poutine and Red River Cereal.

The Ottawa spring is undecided. On alternate days it tries out gray bluster, then marrow-warming sunshine. The natives are hedging—fleeces on top, and bare, pedicured toes. Even at 70 degrees, snow is still stacked along the tow-path, and Claire describes winter nights when bar buddies confiscated ice-skates from friends too drunk to glide home. Drug tests. Skate-commuting seems magical to me. I think it would make me feel like a pink-cheeked Jesus to slide down that canal.

Mum is affronted that the tulips haven’t bloomed yet. The Netherlands sends thousands of bulbs every year to thank Canada for liberating the Dutch at the end of the Second World War. Their royal family had taken refuge in Ottawa, and when Queen Margarethe was born the delivery ward was designated temporary Dutch territory so that she would be a full citizen. In the War Museum, there’s a wall-sized photo of Canadian veterans parading in Amsterdam fifty years after their first visit. They look amazed at the young girls who offer them tulips.

It’s two and a half years since I lived in Canada. Two quick April visits—to Vancouver and Ottawa—have made me miss it more, though I still can’t bear Leah McLaren, and I’ve never been able to finish an article on their parliamentary politics. Before I headed back to San Francisco, Claire handed me a bag of papers I’d left in her basement. It’s my laborious application for Canadian residency, almost complete. There are letters from the local sergeant in Patrickswell, from the FBI, and from the Metropolitan Police in London, attesting that no record of my criminal tendencies can be found. There are letter-headed notes from people who admit to having employed me. My college transcripts prove I have unsaleable skills in medieval literature. A certificate from Montreal grades my French as intermediate-advanced. (And for a slow-witted seven-year-old, maybe it is.) I’d filled out a family tree, and accounted for my whereabouts every month of my adult life.

My parents don’t much care for the idea of California, with its earthquakes, SUVs, and fool of a president. They’re pro-Canada. They think it would be a good place for me. As they ask, delicately, what I might like to do with that visa application, I think how hard it must be to go from ordaining how many peas a kid has to eat to earn dessert, to wondering how to suggest that a whole other country might suit that grown kid better. I’m grateful for their grace.

Crib Lizards

Crotchfruit, n., a child or children. (Often derogatory.)

As punishment for irregularities with her Canadian visa and seventeen previous lifetimes of evildoing, my sister is substitute-teaching in our home town. Unlike San Franciscans, Irish breeders are keeping up the numbers.
   “I taught 30 four-year-old crotchfruits today,” she wrote. “They were ick. They kept wanting to hold my hand. And I think one of them had a yeast infection; she kept scratching herself.”

I passed on this touching story to my co-worker, L.
    “Crotchfruitflies?” she speculated.