Look, look, look

My friends Denis and Lily are driving me and Tara back home to Limerick from Sligo.Denis has mastered the complex task of threading a seat belt through various safety hooks on the car seat, and so he buckles the baby in while I pack her play mat and nappies.

Though his own children are grown, Denis has saved a full repertoire of songs to charm babies, or at least distract them while a five-point harness clamps their freedom. This morning it’s The Wheels on the Bus. Tara learns that the wheels on the bus go round and round, the doggies on the bus go woof woof woof, and the babies on the bus go wah wah wah. She seems to want to take notes. Maybe in two columns, distinguishing actions from sounds.

“The…Dervalas on the bus…” sings Denis, and stops to consult my four-month-old daughter. “What do the Dervalas on the bus say, Tara? Oh, yes, I know.” And he’s off again: “The Dervalas on the bus go, Oh, look at my gorgeous baby. Look, look, look. Look, look, look.

It’s true. I’m shameless. I’m known to dawdle past likely admirers—older women, say—while pushing the stroller hood back and blowing bubbles to make her laugh. I collect oohs and ahhs like a busker’s tips.

Because it’s also true that she is gorgeous, this baby. She has liquid Salma Hayek eyes, the kind that go down well in Ireland, where we prize brown eyes over our common blues. She has a healer’s charisma. People feel better when they hold Tara. She waves her fingers in delicate spells, making strangers feel seen and liked without saying a word.

Tara arrived in the air-world with all the qualities needed to succeed at babyhood: a fine, strong body, a well-finished digestive system, and a happy interest in her surroundings. Even before she arrived, I’d known that she was good at being a baby. Our shared placenta was unreliable, so I’d had scan after scan, weekly visits to get to know the beating of her heart, the grace of her swimming, and the way she found her thumb for comfort when the ultrasound technicians poked her.

By six days old, she was smiling every day. By ten weeks, she could roll right over and back again. She sucks with loud, smacking enjoyment—mwahhh!—and smiles herself awake in the mornings. Vaccinations, transatlantic vacations, strangers, teething, the puzzle of a bottle: she accepts all challenges, except the brief catastrophes of her mother’s sneezes.

You can tell, I suppose, how besotted I am, the ridiculous older mother of an only darling. I didn’t expect this child, in any sense. Though my body made her, out of blood and fat and milk and hopes, she is entirely her own self, and those oohs and ahhs are for her, not me. I like that we don’t look much alike. It reminds me that she arrived complete, and I’m just watching her unfurl, and beckoning witnesses to confirm what I can hardly believe. Look at this gorgeous, competent baby. Look, look.

At night I do what once made me good at my work: suck down information about my new research subject, and stack up all the contradicting experts. I’m not looking for advice. Though some things about being a single mother are hard, figuring out how to look after her is easy. These books and podcasts are something else: an orientation. This is what might be going on behind those brown eyes this week. This is what she might be discovering, feeling, thinking. All are clues to my biggest question: Who are you?

That, and of course the baby books give me little hits of smugness that take the edge off, say, figuring out childcare and mortgage payments. For fun, I read out lists of milestones to our neighbor, Keith, who visits her every evening. “Check,” he says. “Check. Ha. Check.” He is even more smug than me that she’s so advanced. We make fun of unknown loser babies who can’t even roll over, for god’s sake. Tara smiles on his lap, judgment-free.

This is the part I can do, these early months, which must surely be the loveliest. It’s all pared down: Breast milk to feed her. Plain water to wipe her bum. My arms to shelter her in bed. A knuckle for sore gums. A song, a walk, a storybook, a swing in the park. We need so little.

It’s the next stage that daunts me, as I leave this trance of babymotherhood to go back into the big world and look for work. I miss having colleagues and business challenges, and I have more to bring them now: my mind is sharper and my heart is bigger and more patient than before.  It felt like an exciting luxury to get a few hours of babysitting while I looked for short-term projects this past week.  But then the prospect of fifty-hour weeks, traveling for work, and hour-long snarls each way on the Bay Bridge makes me fear for her and for me. This year, I bet on rearing her as a single mother, on moving to California, on buying a home in our hysterical Bay Area housing market while I still could. Now I have to make those bets pay off for both of us.

“There is no such thing as a baby,” D.W. Winnicott said long ago. “If you set out to describe a baby, you will find that you are describing a baby and someone.” I don’t want Tara’s someone to have to abandon her in order to support her. May I find a way to be as good at my part as she is at hers. 

Tara in the bath at 4 months

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.

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 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

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.

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.

Amazon.com: A Love Letter

Ten years ago, I experienced the internet only through paper. It was reverently capitalized back then, like the Electric or the Motor-Car, and for those who visit but don’t yet live there, it still is.

I was working at Hodges Figgis bookshop in Dublin while my future ex-husband finished his thesis on delivering video through noisy channels. I’d had little chance to use computers, and was hazy about his post-graduate research. When I found the first issue of Wired, it didn’t occur to me it might have any connection to his work. Wired burbled with the promise of this World Wide Web, and I pored over it with the fizz of discovery, even though the typography was maddening. More than once I had to trace with my finger some distressed fuschia font as it wobbled from a lime-green background to the purple overleaf. I felt like a dyslexic with a treasure map.
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Strong Language

Engineers, scientists, and military officers often turn out good prose. Their sentences may not always be limpid, lyrical or arresting, but as writers they are capable of a clarity and precision that academics and marketers often can’t or won’t match. Their work demands it. When a software engineer writes vague instructions, her program breaks. When a scientist notes observations imprecisely, her experiment suffers. When a Green Beret commander gives a rambling order, his guys are put at risk.

But a literary theorist who expresses his ideas in clear language betrays the “expert” mystery on which tenure depends. An MBA student who avoids crass jargon might fail for seeming not to know it. A marketer who relies on simple, direct language must know exactly what the product can do for the customer—and understanding that takes effort.
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Do You Know What the Problem Is?

My gut reaction when someone offers a solution is, Thats great, but do you know what the problem is? The mere characterization of a product as a solution suggests that people are pushing the answer without first knowing the question!
Joe Puglisi, CIO of EMCOR, quoted in an ITSMA / Babson College study

Since I’ve woken up as a language crank this morning, here are links to two of my favorite writers complaining about the same lazy “solution” to a hard copywriting problem: how do you explain what a company does, and why people should care?

From Erin Kissane, whose Call to Arms is worth following:

Solution: Meaningless, Self-Indulgent, Arrogant
Solution is much too vague to be useful. To compound the problem, companies frequently use it in the short blurbs that describe what they do in which clarity is essential and space precious. Its a punt at precisely the wrong moment, and throws away a crucial opportunity to communicate something real.
Read the rest

And Tim Bray sputters:

May it visit laryngitis, halitosis and a severe stutter on those vendors who describe disk drives, network routers, printers, computers, or pretty well anything that contains silicon and plugs in, as solutions. A disk drive is not a solution, dammit, its a disk drive.

But though Tim’s business card says Director of Web Technologies at Sun, even he can’t keep this nonsense off their home page. He’s reduced to translation:

Dear world, take it from me: at Sun we sell actual real computers and networks and consulting and infrastructure services and software subscriptions; you can safely ignore the marketing-speak.
Read on