Green Card

I’ve worked with my immigration lawyer for 12 years now, and no one knows more about me than Ken. He may not know what makes my heart beat faster (too much red wine and coffee, Ken), but he has the facts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must be nice to live in California in January.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inevitable Evolution of Love

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

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

I

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

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

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

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

I now pronounce you

spouses

for life.”

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

V

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

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

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

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

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

Life Beyond Screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anaheim, California

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”—Samuel Beckett, Murphy

“Welcome to John Wayne International Airport. The current Homeland Security threat level is Orange. To enhance your safety, and to avoid transporting dangerous goods, please do not leave baggage unattended. Please report suspicious or unattended packages to law enforcement personnel.”

“We have a high degree of need to protect structure.”—San Diego County Fire Chief, on NBC News

Anaheim, California should be paved over, if it weren’t already. We’ve been going there weekly for six months, yet my friend J. and I still get confused between the 57 North and the 55 as we leave the airport. Our plasticky rental cars get no respect on these freeways, which crawl with wide-arsed vehicles that are probably bought with the profits from p*n*s enl*rgement spam. We cut them off through incompetence, and get cut off in our turn. Who cares? It’s not as if they’re human.

With names like “Hotel Drive,” “Convention Drive,” and “Airport Way,” the streets round here don’t even try. We can’t get a purchase on the geography, so we learn to swerve into U-turns. We drive past Christian superstores, Disneyland hotels, and PetCo chains. Cell towers and bulldozers and parking lots. We look forward to our few landmarks: Fritz That’s Too, our favorite strip-joint, or Mr. Stox, an early 1980s power restaurant straight out of Caddyshack. The memory of dinner there makes us laugh every time.

We drive by strip malls and theme malls and self-styled anti-malls, where the women have padded lips, new breasts, and pale hair. It’s the opposite of camouflage—without them, you disappear at thirty. Their daughters wear skirts that my friend G. describes as “two inches from the good stuff.” Surrounded by modifications, I’m struck by how human beings are hard-wired for facial pattern recognition. I catch myself staring at people in Starbucks queues, searching for symmetries and flaws, trying to tell what’s been altered. Cosmetic surgery is unsettling, in the way that shaved eyebrows are unsettling, and I fantasize that some Hallowe’en the whole population of Orange County will wear t-shirts printed with their first driver’s licence photos, for easy comparison.

Our usual hotel is full, and we call this one the Willy Loman Memorial Marriott. Instead of room service, there’s a communal mini-bar at front desk—a fridge with a tray of tiny liquor bottles, Lean Cuisines, and frozen burritos. At 10 pm, J. knocks on my door and holds up a miniature Dewar’s scotch and a Snickers bar. “Dinner,” she says, my organic, vegetarian friend. “I just wanted someone to witness it.” We make up German words to describe the feeling of opening the door to a lousy hotel room: Hiltonschmerz. Scheissekarpetzgeist.

At breakfast, men eat pallid eggs and make notes on their PowerPoint decks with cheap hotel pens. They’re already in meetings, and it’s just past dawn. Soon they’ll waltz to the ballroom to show the numbers at the All-Hands, while their colleagues doodle. Their company name is pegged up on one of those old-fashioned event boards. They sell drug testing solutions.

John Wayne swaggers at the entrance to his own airport—cast in bronze, bow-legged, a life-sized 12 feet tall. Those security announcements loop on the intercom, full of robotic warmth, while we line up to be searched and have our hummus confiscated. At the departure level, two fat cops on Segways roll past a wall of windows that frames a dark orange sky. The Santa Ana bellows is still blowing on the wildfires to the south, and we can smell the smoke even in the sealed terminal. The air is itchy and thick.

“Keep your hands up! Don’t touch anything. “ A woman sprays Purell on every surface near her son, murdering bacteria, while he asks where I’m going. He’s five, and his name is Miles. He holds his hands up patiently and kicks his light-up sneakers. “M-I-L-E-S, Miles,” he says, mumbling the last letters as she swabs his mouth.

J. and I soothe ourselves with trashy magazines for the plane ride home. The sales clerk at the airport newsstand is a friend by now, and every week we discuss Britney Spears. While J. counts out the dollars for People she asks her a question. Something innocuous; about weekend plans, maybe. However it comes up, the woman answers that, well, at the moment, she’s homeless. She lives in her car, sometimes sleeps on friends’ couches. She’s hopeful that something will turn up soon.

Behind us, there’s a line of tired people waiting, without much interest, to find out if Brad really has walked out on Angelina this time. Or was it the other way round? Everyone wants to escape.

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…”

“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.

BAYCAT

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.

The Culture of the New Capitalism

“Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary institutions. The culture of the new capitalism demands an ideal self oriented to the short-term, focused on potential ability rather than accomplishment, willing to discount or abandon past experience.”

Richard Sennett has a newish book out called The Culture of the New Capitalism. I heard him interviewed about it on a BBC podcast, and there’s only one copy left at Amazon’s UK store, but he’s less admired here in his own country, as far as I can tell. Sennett is concerned about the people who don’t fit the needs of this economy. They’re not the stars the talent spotters want, or they are too old, or too needed by dependents to hold a Blackberry tether with grace. Or maybe they’re the kind of people who find that shifting loyalties make them anxious and sad.

I had just enough of a taste of the old work culture of pantyhose, punchclocks, and marble lobbies to be grateful to be born into this new work style exported from the Bay Area. By Sennett’s standards, I was designed for this economy. I have more curiosity than ties. I’m childless. I’ve moved like a stone skipping across a pond: 120 miles, 500 miles, 3,000 miles, 6,000 miles from my hometown, touching down only lightly in each place. In Hernstein and Murray’s creepy Bell Curve analysis of intelligence structures, I’m a “symbol analyst.” A “master of change.” That makes me a good catch.

“When we hired you, we weren’t interested in your experience. We were only interested in how fast you could learn,” I was once told. At 24, that’s flattering. It’s also a relief—thank God, it doesn’t matter that I know feck-all. I’m a little bundle of potential. But at 34, it’s disconcerting to have a dozen years of your life dismissed. I could have stayed in bed rather than bothering to get trained on Wall Street? I didn’t need to sweat through those startups to learn why entrepreneurs have more in common with artists than with MBAs, and what it really takes to turn an idea into a change? I needn’t have bothered with volunteering, with learning to write, with riding the public buses around Bolivia?

For all that this amoral economy suits me well, I’m making a promise to my future self that if I hear at 54 that my experience is uninteresting to capitalism—and I expect to—I’ll stand up, excuse myself with a big smile, and go back to the woods for good. We’re human beings. Our stories matter. Grown-ups have more to contribute than babies. And where we have been and who we take care of matters more to me than symbols, models, and theories.

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…

The CalTrain Penal Code

“In October, a schizophrenic homeless woman threw her three young sons into the San Francisco Bay. The mother, Lashuan Harris, had been living with her children in an Oakland shelter, and had stopped taking her medicine because she believed she was cured. But voices, she later told police, told her to throw her sons into the water. Relatives told the press that they had sought custody of the boys, but that social workers had failed to act. Less than two weeks later, a homeless man, Johnell Kirk junior, died after being set on fire by another drifter, who was said to suffer from schizophrenia.San Francisco has struggled to deal with the many homeless people who come to the city for its temperate climate and generous welfare programmes. Gavin Newsom, San Francisco�s mayor, has made the issue a priority. His controversial �Care Not Cash� initiative, which offers homeless people services rather than welfare cheques, took effect in May 2004, and there are signs of success. The programmes have reduced the street population by 28% and housed nearly 1,500 people…But the city has a lot more work to do.”
—The Economist

“You heard what she did? Three little kids. They struggled, man. She had to work to do that. That took hard work, harder work than she’d ever probably done before in her goddamn life. They found one of ‘em, but I don’t know if they’ll get the other two, tides and all. Filthy water. Can you imagine? She just walked away, pushing a fucking empty stroller like no big deal. Said she heard voices. Said the voices told her to push her three little kids into the San Francisco Bay and hold them down until they drowned.

“And you know what’s going to happen to her, right? You know, right? She’s not going to jail. She’s going to go to some psych ward and get the medication and the good food and the gym and the therapy. She won’t do a day in jail. And she’s going to sit there, her and her voices, you and me paying for her doctors, and she’s not going to pay for squat. Not for rent, not for her dinner, not for her occupational therapy, not for her doctors, and sure as hell not for what she did to those three little kids.

“Know what I’d like to do to her? I’d like take a manhole cover—nice big round one—and explain to her how the voices told me to chain it to her ankle and roll it off the pier, right there in front of the sea lions. Or—no, wait—I’d put her in a giant microwave. Rig it up in Giants Stadium so she could sit there in her chair in her giant microwave, and I’d set it to High for as long as it takes to drown three little kids. Multiplied by two. And I’d bring the whole city out to watch her cook, so they’d get the idea it’s not smart to listen to the voices. Or, know what I’d do? I’d stake her out, tie her down, so she couldn’t move a muscle, and I’d pour sugar syrup over every fucking inch of her. And then I’d bring out the fireants, man…Real slow, that’d go. Wide awake.

“You know they don’t even use the electric chair any more? Said it was inhumane. It took a whole five minutes to die. And they’re doped up with valium, having sweet dreams. Oh, what a crying shame, to take five minutes to die, after you probably tortured someone for three weeks. These people with the prisoners’ rights, man. You give up your rights when you take someone’s life, all right? I’ll give ‘em rights: hang ‘em with an American flag. That’s their right. It’s God’s job to condemn, not ours, but let’s just go ahead and arrange the meeting, you know what I’m saying? Fire up Old Sparky, cut the crap.

“I hear they tried to rape Scott Petersen already. I hope he’s getting it good, after what he did. Know what I’d do? I’d let five of the largest, strongest relatives into that cell, armed with baseball bats and let ‘em blow off some steam. Or maybe a very large, sexually-deprived silverback gorilla…”

The train slowed. A woman stuffed headphones into her bag, stood up, and excused herself. He jumped to his feet, head bowed, voice soft.

“No problem, ma’am.”

“You’ve been pumping a lot?” his friend asked when he sat back down. He pushed up a sleeve, examined a bicep and frowned. His scalp gleamed.

“Eighteen inches. But I want to get it to twenty. It’ll take a lot of work. A lot of focus._ I wanted to get to the gym tonight, but my little guy has a soccer game, and it’s important to me to be there. Sends a message. My dad never made it to my soccer games. I know he was working to put a roof over our heads, so it’s not like I mind. But I’m going to be there for my little guy at his games. It’s the kind of role model I want to portray.”

He squinted at his bicep again.

“Takes a lot of work to build up the right dimensions. But it’s fun to have the size. Especially in bars. I am not a violent person. It’s part of my credo. I’m very controlled. But I get some guy in a bar, someone inappropriate, maybe being a jerk to some woman, and you know what I say? I say, real quiet, “You’re going to apologize. Or I’m going to break your arm.” Total control, total calm, total polite. And my friends say, ‘Uh, yeah, he will.” And then you just get to watch this asswipe back down…”

He folded his arms in satisfaction.

“Only bad thing is it can make it hard with women. You meet these women who just like big guys, that’s their thing. Makes it hard to tell. They can be fine as a person, quality people, but they’re not necessarily candidates for a serious long-term relationship if they’re only with you for size. I’m seeing a woman right now, she’s a quality person, but she’s not over her divorce, she’s just getting used to dating. And she’s really into the muscles. Likes the big guys.”

“Not over her divorce? Fuck that shit, man. Get divorced, move ON.”

“Right. Move the fuck on.”

They looked out the window. Palo Alto passed.

“Karl Rove. You know what’s going on there? You been following it? Karl Rove is guilty of treason. He deserves to share a large, smelly cell with the most horrible inmate…”

No Ronald McDonald?

Discovery Channel viewers have picked a shortlist of the five greatest Americans of all time. It’s one of those memes that starts on the BBC or the CBC and spreads to US television, like The Weakest Link or those LiveJournal “If you were a bodily fluid, which one would you be?” exercises. This particular soap opera is sponsored by Tide.

The top five does not include Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Frankln D. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, or Mark Twain.

It does, however, include Ronald Reagan.