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.]

Peckerhead

Like the devil, our rooster had many names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chickens

three chickens in a shirt pocket

“They’re so busy,” I say. It’s Friday night at the end of winter, and the action on Tim’s kitchen floor is better than the movies. We sit on the sofa, chins on knuckles, and we stare at the chicks. They patter around the bare floor, and from time to time they hoist themselves up on a log of firewood to peck for insects.
“Yeah, but it’s the busy of a badly-run restaurant kitchen,” he says. “Lot of activity, lot of bumping into each other, but not much is getting done.” He’s the naturalist, always more precise in his observations. Able to tell a hungry cheep from a happy cheep within a few hours of owning chicks. And they love him for it, in their way. When he teases them by lifting his feet so that he’s no longer in their plane of vision, their peeps get shrill until his boot returns. The Boot of Worms. The Boot of Warmth. The Boot of Life.

“Birds, birds, birds, birds, bi-irds,” he says when he enters the cabin, and from their bathtub home they twitter with excitement. The Boot! The Boot is back! To Tim they are animals first, but to me they are females. I call them “Girls.”

Tim started with three chicks, bought from the Rural Supply Store as concubines for the ranch rooster. They are a self-assured eight days old when I meet them, clattering up and down the cardboard that lines his bathtub, scrabbling at their feed. A wall heater keeps the room at blood heat. A steady drip tops up their water bowl, and an Ikea desk lamp warms the small cardboard hutch at one end of the bathtub, where they cuddle at night. When they hear Tim, they stop pecking and start peeping. He greets them, and they let themselves be picked up—two in one fist, one in another—and carried out to the garden.

This grass place, it’s a wonderland. There is dirt; there are stones; there are things that crawl and things that buzz and things that scurry. Everything has to be investigated immediately. They are immensely busy, heads down, but they come when Tim calls them by tapping a fingernail on the flagstones to draw attention to a slow-witted worm. That’s how their mother would teach them where to peck.

At first they stay close to the cabin, and even when they explore, they stick together, peeping a constant call and response. When one loses sight of the others, her trills get higher in pitch and volume. She doesn’t peck again until her calls have been answered and she is reunited. But when she finds something good—or something that might be good—she tries to get away from the others to investigate in peace. The others give chase, flailing after her, and she as she heads them off the worm, or twig, hangs from her beak. It looks like chick soccer.

It’s when they are sleepy that I love them best. They want, more than anything, to be taken under a wing, but there are no mother wings in their hatchery world. Tim’s shirt pockets are a warm and crowded substitute, and after some formal complaints they enjoy being stuffed in there to doze while he fixes motorcycles or visits Sal. I peer into the pocket and think of being under the duvet with my two small sisters, at an age when they were all bird bones and soft, sweaty hair. How annoying they were, and how comforting, with their doggy toddler smell. The chicks seem to have the same regard for one another.

When it’s too late at night for pockets, he sets them down on the kitchen floor to run around before bedtime. When they get tired they huddle in a fluffy scrum and try desperately to get under another chick. Is that so much to ask? They stagger, slit-eyed, up against another’s belly, and butt until they’re underneath. But the comfort never lasts. Their bodies are too light. The top chick topples off, and the bleary one is exposed again. These negotiations go on and on, a shifting dune of exhausted fluff.

The following day, Tim goes to town to buy three more chicks. He brings them home in a bucket with a window screen for a lid. Next to them, the older babies look like hulks, and I begin to feel sorry for all the toddlers who get stuck with younger siblings.

It takes a few days for the chicks to learn to drink. At dawn, the small ones reach up to pluck at the tips of the blades of grass. I don’t understand why, until Tim points out that they’re sipping dew-drops. Most birds can’t swallow as we do; they don’t have a peristalsis mechanism. They rely on gravity to drink, tipping their heads back and glugging like a Spanish farmer with a wineskin. When they’re just a few days old, a dish of water is beyond them, and so they reach for dewdrops. Later, when they see their older sisters drink from a bowl, they understand, though they can’t yet work out the physics of reaching in. They step into the dish and together they arch their necks to glug, beaks open, like the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

Now that they can drink, their digestive systems kick in. They leave little pesto droppings on the kitchen floor.

I don’t want them to grow another inch.

“Bonsai chicks?” I say to Tim, hopefully.

I have a narcissistic prejudice in favor of one of the small ones, a dappled brown Americauna. Because she has mouse-colored fluff, I believe that she is smarter, more resourceful, and finer of feeling, than, say, the butterball blonde Rhode Island Red who always has dried shit stuck to her behind, no matter how often Tim goes after her with the nail scissors. I name my favorite Helen, after Helen Mirren, another cool and brave brunette. None of the others has a name. Tim says that since he hasn’t felt inclined to name the rooster, he doesn’t see why the birds need names. Then again, he can keep the six different breeds straight, and I can’t.

They practice flying, vaulting over a few feet of grass or up the kitchen steps. When an airplane flies overhead, they freeze and fall silent. A born fear of aerial predators, maybe, but it’s also their response to any loud, new sound. When the rooster crows from his henhouse thirty yards away, they freeze again.

1-threechicks.jpg

I sit on a tree stump and watch them for hours, chewing my bottom lip to hold in tender sadism. I want them to suffer, in tiny doses, just so that I can rescue them. After an hour or two in the weak March sunshine they start to shiver, and let themselves get caught. Their bodies are warm but their legs are chilled. Even the Leghorn, who wears ridiculous chaps of dirty white fluff, has cold feet. I feel Helen’s heart banging against matchstick ribs, and I want to squeeze her little body like an ortolan.

The rooster, for his part, is perturbed by their arrival. He was barely grown when Tim’s neighbor rescued him from the side of Highway 17, and he’s been alone for more than a year. These strange but familiar creatures have stirred something in his rooster heart. He seems to have a rusty memory that he is a patriarch by rights, born to lead and breed. But he doesn’t yet recognize the chicks for the sexy pullets they could turn into, and they are too small to be left alone with him. Since they were taken away, he has fallen into a rooster funk. He still crows, but then he puts his head down and stalks around his house, clucking in a low voice as if questioning himself.

Tim notes that when the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons first came out, in 1946, most of the audience would have known a rooster personally, and would recognize his pompous, ridiculous magnificence from life. These days, the references go the other way. Most chickens are industrial workers, as are we, and they’re usually in a KFC bucket by the time we meet. As I watch the chicks, I compare them to Furbies, or anime characters, or the clay birds of Chicken Run. All of them are objects designed with the cues that make us love infant creatures—big head, big eyes—but they will never grow. We call them animated, but they have no spark of life.

These chicks are beautiful because they are alive. They have their own drives, their own chicken hopes, and they are fully engaged in every moment. They’re learning, changing, moving, and even as they startle at every rustling leaf, they’re not afraid to depend on one another. I’m glad I met them.

The Real World

Chicks at the store

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope she’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: The chicks survived the night. From Tim:

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

Chicks at the store

The Yamaha Seca

Chicks at the store

Chicks getting ready for new adventures

Chicks at the store

Chicks get introduced to the rooster

Chicks at the store

Chicks rescued from the rooster and the cold

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”

“Do You Hear What I Hear?”

There’s yet another iPod billboard above the post office on my block. It’s more or less the same one they’ve been running for four years now.

Dancing to music that no one else can hear is below air guitar on the dorky scale.

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.

Reitwagen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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