“It lets us travel the way a child travels…round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

—Don Draper, pitching the Kodak Carousel on Mad Men.

I remember playing with the yellow plastic boxes, and my father saying, “Don’t put your paws all over the slides.” I used to hold the squares up to the bedroom window to see tiny pictures of monkeys and babies. They weren’t that exciting, but in those days telly didn’t start until 3 o’clock.

Zambia was mine. My younger sisters were born in Limerick, but I was born in the town of Mansa, Luapula Province, Zambia, Africa, The World, The Universe. I had no memories of the place, and no real curiosity about it, but it was a thrilling claim, in a lions-and-tigers kind of way, and at eight you’ll use whatever might make you special. I liked to tell people I was born in Africa, in that hair-twirling way of small girls who want your attention.

“And I was on an aeroplane, and on the way home from Africa I got sick out the window,” I remember announcing in class one day. One of the boys said that the windows on aeroplanes didn’t open, so it wasn’t true.

I would be 14 before I got on a plane again, and none of the other kids had yet been on one at all, but his challenge put a stop to my boasting. It still stings. (Not long ago my mother told me that yes, I’d had some bad water on a stopover in Addis, and vomited the whole way back—but not out the window.)

My mother was 20 and my father 24, and they were a few days married when they went from Ireland to Zambia to start their teaching careers. It wasn’t an unusual choice at that time. The Irish had gained independence fewer than fifty years earlier, and had started free secondary schooling just within the previous decade. Ireland felt a kinship with African countries through a shared colonial history, and through decades of Catholic mission and relief work.

In the late 60s and 70s, newly-independent African nations were offering contracts for foreign engineers, doctors, and teachers, just at the time that the first Irish generation to get free secondary schooling were coming out of college with their first-in-the-family degrees. The bolder ones were glad to sign up for a three-year adventure.

Those fresh Irish graduates were neither priests or Peace Corps warriors.  They didn’t go to save souls or save lives. They came from a small rock in the Atlantic, and I like to think that they knew what it felt like to be young, far from the center, and thirsty to learn and better themselves. They went to share their brief head start with others like them, while earning a bit of money to send home.

Rural Zambia’s rickety generators, rationed water, and monotonous mealie-meal weren’t hardships for my parents. The cottage in which my father was reared didn’t get electricity until he was ten, and never had plumbing. If he had been born a year or two earlier, he would have left school at 14 to cut bog turf or lay bricks on London construction sites.

My parents weren’t the only young couple on that long journey heading out on one of those contracts. They watched the other passengers to see who stayed with them past Rome, past Addis Ababa, past Nairobi, and onward to Lusaka. A girl with a shiny new wedding ring turned to my mother on the last leg, weeping, and asked her “Do you miss your mammy too?” They are still friends with Esther today.

Esther’s baby, Danielle, was born a month before me. She was Town Mouse and I was Bush Mouse. I was the first white baby born in the Mansa clinic, 18 months after they arrived, and my mother didn’t see a doctor until late in her labour, when we were both troubled. Afterwards, she washed in a pitch-dark bathroom and then discovered next morning that it was thick with flies and filthy; she became infected and very sick. She remembers the other mothers laughing at her mottled, red-faced baby, but says she didn’t mind.

Mary and Dervala

We didn’t have many photos from Zambia in our house in Limerick—a few square, white-bordered prints of leopards, my christening, and the gleaming young men on the football team at St. Clement’s Secondary School, where my father taught. But there were dozens and dozens of photos of my younger sisters, born six and nine years later, and I decided—with more logic than bitterness—that this was because they were so clearly cute, while I had brown hair and glasses.

It wasn’t until a trip home last September that I remembered the yellow boxes of slides. My parents hadn’t owned a slide projector, and we had never seen them properly. Over the years their pictures had faded first into mystery and then into oblivion. At some point they had been shunted up to the attic. My mother wasn’t sure about letting me have them—I’m known to lose things—but I persuaded my sister to climb up to the attic and pass them down to me, in a precarious operation that had the three of us yelping “Oh Jesus! Watch it!”

I brought the slides back to San Francisco and eventually got round to shipping them to a scanning service down the road in Burlingame. They sent them on to Mumbai, where Indian workers would scan each slide by hand and color-correct them for my digital approval, then return them to San Francisco along with a DVD copy of their contents.

We are moving, says my friend Richard, from a world of things to a world of flows. The Zambia slides had a long journey in years and miles. They were carried across four continents and three decades, encased in yellow plastic boxes, in suitcases, in bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts, in cardboard boxes and packing tape, until one day their atoms were reborn as bits and their hidden stories began to flow.

I opened the links on my computer at work. There was the baby that was once me—smiling, pondering, sleeping, bawling, floating. There were my parents, hip and beautiful and improbably young, wearing bright colors. And there was Zambia, dusty, sunny, with new brick buildings and vivid red bushes.

Sean, Mary, Dervala

These were my blurred stories but not my memories, and I wished that I were discovering them with my mother and father instead of sitting alone 5,000 miles away. Digital photos don’t live anywhere. There’s no ritual of setting up the projector and dimming the lights. You’re not passing loose photos across a kitchen table, or squeezing in beside someone to turn the pages of an album. Loosed on the web, these photos seemed ephemeral and indestructible, detached and yet achingly intimate, years ago and yesterday.

I sent the links to my sister in Canada and to my friends at work, because I wanted the photos seen. How can you not bite your lip at the sight of a tiny baby, wet and kicking after a basin-bath, even if that baby is—somehow—yourself?

As I said, I was six when my sister was born, and as an almost-only child I believed myself to be self-sufficient. I remember vividly the night I learned to read, some time before I was four. My mother was re-reading an Enid Blyton story about Santa Claus getting stuck in the chimney of a factory. I was curled under her arm, sucking my thumb and imbibing the bliss of a story, and then there was a moment when the words on the page unscrambled, and I knew by the shape of them what each one said. It was fabulously exciting. From now on, I could read myself a story any time I wanted, forever and ever. It was my emancipation.

That’s what I remember—being a good girl, being the big sister, being able to tie my own shoes and put on my pyjamas, being able to learn off my spellings and read my own bedtime stories. All my life, I have shrunk from needing things from others. Yet these Zambia photos tell a different story, one that makes my throat swell. I wasn’t an independent little creature. I was a baby who was swaddled and held—in the crook of my father’s arm, on my mother’s hip, on their laps and shoulders, in lakes and on land—and I accepted it with grace and satisfaction. My parents didn’t have a Baby Bjorn to keep their hands free for their iPhones. Even though the Zambian babies were carried in wraps, it hadn’t occurred to my parents to do the same. They brought me everywhere—on safari in the back of a friend’s tiny Volkswagen Beetle, to parties with their childless friends, backpacking through Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. We were a trio.

This year, 2010, my parents will be married forty years, and my mother will turn sixty. I no longer gaze up at them daily with total dependence and devotion, but now I know how much I once did. And through their old photos I’ve learned to read another love story.


If I know aught of myself, no one whose mind is introspective–and mine is painfully so–can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious ***; addicted to ****: averse from counsel, neither taking it, nor offering it;–*** besides; a stammering buffoon; what you will; lay it on, and spare not; I subscribe to it all, and much more, than thou canst be willing to lay at his door–but for the child Elia–that “other me,” there, in the back-ground–I must take leave to cherish the remembrance of that young master–with as little reference, I protest, to this stupid changeling of five-and-forty, as if it had been a child of some other house, and not of my parents. I can cry over its patient small-pox at five, and rougher medicaments. I can lay its poor fevered head upon the sick pillow at Christ’s, and wake with it in surprise at the gentle posture of maternal tenderness hanging over it, that unknown had watched its sleep. I know how it shrank from any the least colour of falsehood.–God help thee, Elia, how art thou changed! Thou art sophisticated.–I know how honest, how courageous (for a weakling) it was–how religious, how imaginative, how hopeful! From what have I not fallen, if the child I remember was indeed myself,–and not some dissembling guardian, presenting a false identity, to give the rule to my unpractised steps, and regulate the tone of my moral being!

That I am fond of indulging, beyond a hope of sympathy, in such retrospection, may be the symptom of some sickly idiosyncrasy. Or is it owing to another cause; simply, that being without wife or family, I have not learned to project myself enough out of myself; and having no offspring of my own to dally with, I turn back upon memory and adopt my own early idea, as my heir and favourite?

—Charles Lamb, ”New Year’s Eve,” 1821

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.

The Wishing Chair

Classic Eames lounger and ottoman – $xxx (haight ashbury)
Reply to:
Date: 2006-02-03, 10:09PM PST
I have a classic Eames lounger and ottoman for sale. Bought it from dwr for xxx. Will take xxx for it. Was a gift but can not afford to have such luxuries. cherry finish with black leather. in perfect condition. rarely used.
* This item has been posted by-owner.
* no — it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests


The orange sofa was demoted to the kitchen when we moved to the new house. Although it was born in the seventies, the shade wasn’t that 1970s burnt-orange, exactly; it was more the marmalade tan of old Florida ladies. Its leathery skin had crackled, and it sagged. It was homely.

You could drape yourself across the top, and then roll-flop down onto the cushions, like a sea-lion cub. The back would support timid headstands, and while you lolled upside down you could pull fluff from its deep buttons. Or—and this was what I liked best—you could burrow into the left-hand corner, safely sandbagged by the wide leather arm that came up to a seven-year-old’s chest. That’s where I sat for hours with Enid Blyton for company. In spite of all the scoldings for reading in the dark, my shoulders are still rounded from those winter afternoons.

I read about The Enchanted Forest and The Wishing Chair. “Mollie and Peter have a thrilling secret. The chair in their playroom is a magic Wishing Chair. When they sit in it and wish, it grows wings and takes them on lots of exciting adventures.” When they finished their adventures, I’d start the books again, chewing strips of the pulpy paper as I went.

My grown-up sofas have not been squashy. I own two: both built for two, and neither built for lounging. Over the last year, it began to occur to me that I live alone, and that I might like to lounge once in a while. A chair arose in answer. It would have arm rests broad enough to balance notebooks and cups of tea; low enough to keep my typing elbows free; soft enough to pad my bony arms. There would be a place to drape my legs. When I sat down each evening, the chair would remember me like an old lover. From this chair, I could gaze out at Twin Peaks and the Golden Gate Bridge, or watch a whole season of Six Feet Under in a single weekend. It would grow wings and fly me to the woods to talk to pixies when things got rough.

I tried out friends’ favorite chairs: La-Z-Boys and Saarinen wombs; Jennifer Leather and IKEA. Either they looked good or they felt good. Then Keith let me sit in his vintage Eames lounger. He claimed it was the best chair for nursing, though he lacked the boobs to be convincing. Still, the old baseball mitt was a comforting cradle, and it was the first seat in years that made me want to reach for an Enid Blyton. (In chairs, as in music, my tastes are those of a middle-aged man.) I dug out Charles and Ray Eames’s exasperated letter to Henry Ford, and remembered how likeable they were.

I started to type their name into Craigslist every few days; another idle surfing tic. There was a lot of junk. Like “web 2.0,” “eames” is now a code for raising cash. Every swindler with a particle-board bookcase adds “eames herman miller midcentury” just to bump the search results. After eight months I found Truong’s ad for an Eames lounger, several days after he’d posted it. I guessed it was gone, but a few days later I got a terse reply. The first guy had flaked. He would show the chair to the next three people at 10am on Wednesday, and the first one with cash could take it. I explained that I had the cash, but had to be at work at 10. After several exchanges, he relented, and let me come early.

I thought about his post as I biked up Haight Street, lungs bursting: his frank (stern?) admission “can not afford to have such luxuries;” the chair for sprawling that was “rarely used.” Why did I think a chair was worth a month’s rent? Did I think I could sprawl more than “rarely?” I pictured a tough-minded Vietnamese accountant who would barely hide his distaste for my American self-indulgence.


But of all things, Truong was a poet. His bay-windowed apartment was stuffed with furniture that would have looked good in the modernist Reunification Palace in Saigon. He sold pieces from time to time to raise cash for poem-writing. He showed me his books. “Are you a dealer?” he asked, and was pleased when he learned the chair was for me. I wanted to ask him about Vietnam but instead we talked about poetry. Poets always seem surprised to meet punters who read poetry–most don’t themselves, as far as I can make out.

A few weeks later, my friend Kevin helped me pick up the chair his truck, on a night when I was so frazzled that I left my bag at the office and he had to pay my taxi-driver off. He carried my chair up the stairs and then left us alone. I sat down and swung my legs up, and the cool leather unfrazzled me. I burrowed in and read Truong’s poems.

A chair should feel like home. A chair should have some history. This one does. Now I’m waiting for it to get its wings.

yes the stories are at times overwhelming but would i stop listening the answer is no for without the stories there would be no history and without the history there would be no people where then would i be if not for the acronym the oddity the visitor the native
—Truong Tran

You’re Better in My Head

Every so often, I check this site to see if I’ve written anything. It’s mostly while working on some presentation where the client strategy is stuck in my craw and no project manager has stopped at my desk to perform the Heimlich Manoeuvre. I’ll huff and sigh, get coffee, check my mail–both Outlook and pigeon hole–tweak a header style, kneel before the kitchen altar and eat five two-bite brownies. Lapse into severe inert reverie. Move a sentence, delete it, stare and retype it. Eventually–all right, in minutes–I’ll alt-tab over to Firefox, and click the vain little bookmark, just to see if I’ve posted.

For months now, the same entry has greeted and disappointed me. Why hasn’t she written, this other me who shares my life but lives upstairs? I deserve some distraction, and she affords me none. Only the Propecia spammers add to a conversation that trailed off in November, a Caltrain rant on the way to…where, anyway? She doesn’t even say.

I look for those stories more to pass the time than out of real interest or concern. I was there, after all. At first I can remember the difference between the telling and what really happened, but as time goes on her version–tweaked, spun, ellided, and public–takes over. As my sister’s best friend tells her when she goes home to Ireland, “We talk about you all year long, but when you get here I realize you’re better in my head.”

So I’d like to hear about Christmas in Ireland, with three bad sisters back together. Even though I was there, I’d prefer to read the news shared by twenty-year friends in a flagstoned Liscannor pub than finish this presentation. I want not to write, but to have written, retellings of a few of Bernie’s caffeinated stories, and a few of John’s scéals, spilled over pints in Nancy Blake’s. I’m looking for the cautionary tales from a month studying Youth with a clipboard and a video camera. I’d settle for some bittersweet book report on the growing stack of Irish women’s memoirs–Nell and Nuala; Rosemary Mahoney–and the gratitude and hackles they raised.

Memories bob for a while, but then they sink beneath the surf. For want of writing them down, I might sink with them. I’ll keep checking, just in case.


Registrations for November’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) opened yesterday. Last year 42,000 people signed up, and 6,000 made it to the 50,000-word requirement.

I’ve wanted to do this for years, but always had too much time on my hands. You need serious time constraints to turn out novel in a month—otherwise you’d fuss with every line.

This year, I’m tempted to sign up. Anybody in?