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.

A wedding

Siege of Ennis

Photo by Tim Vetter

Everyone danced at my sister’s wedding.

The wedding singer was once the black-haired lead in our school plays, three years ahead of me. By now he had dropped the Sixth-Year poses and his hair was grey, but all the years of leppin’ to Chuck Berry and Van Morrison and Neil Diamond had kept him free of the usual Irish gut. Business was good—he and the band had worked every night for the past five months–and he seemed to enjoy the liturgy of other people’s songs. With his black shirt and pants, he had the hands-off charisma of a good-looking curate.

His heart sank when he saw us come in, he said. Sixty five people in a ballroom that would hold more than two hundred for a summer wedding–and on top of that, he recognized a good number of them as his teachers from twenty years ago. The rest were our neighbours, who had known my sister since she was born, and our aunts and uncles, who were in for the day from their farms in Roscommon and Tipperary. How was he to warm up a crowd like that?

And then the long-stemmed bride and her new husband finished their first dance, and the band launched a waltz, and all the friends and neighbours and aunts and uncles filed out to the dance floor and paired up. Here were Siobhán and Pat, Dónal and Mary, Nora and Denis–the naming order for each couple as established and natural as their moves. The Roscommon uncle I hadn’t seen in 20 years danced with the aunt I remembered as a bride. My neighbour Pat refused to dance with anyone but his wife–but how well he danced with his wife! Esther and Martin, who had been there to greet me when I was born in Zambia 35 years ago, now waltzed for Claire’s wedding.

They all did. The graduates of the 1960s ballrooms swirled around the dance floor like cream in black coffee. The under-forties made circles, unskilled but enthusiastic. The toddler flower girl raised her skirts over her head and shrieked, while the older kids chased the white balloons they’d blown up the night before.

A few nights before the wedding, we girls had made our parents tell us again about the night they’d met, at that céilí dance in Cork in 1968. Their friends used to go out dancing all the time, Mum said; all night, all kinds of music. No drink or drugs to keep them going–it was just pure craic. She felt so sorry for the young ones now, trying to meet someone in the nightclub scene she’d witnessed on Claire’s hen night in Limerick the week before. Shouting drunks, thumping music, sloshing beer, married fellas on the pull, bottle fights in the Ladies. Those weren’t our only options, we told her, but I believed her when she said they’d had more fun.

After decades of Christmas drinks and summer barbecues and year-round bottomless cups of tea, I’d never seen our friends and family dance. They jitterbugged and foxtrotted. Dad danced with each daughter, and none of us could dance like Mum. Everyone gave it up for _Tutti Frutti,_ and shook arms high for _Brown-Eyed Girl._ We made my sister’s boyfriend show us the moves for his oh-so-serious Dance-Offs with his rugby teammates, including the ultimate winner, Reversing Around the Dance Floor: one arm draped in mid-air, the other turning an imaginary steering wheel, while you glide backward and make beeping sounds.

When the band took a break, a musician friend set up her trad band to play _The Siege of Ennis._ It’s the easiest of the traditional Irish set dances, but many of us hadn’t done it since primary school, and others had never learned it at all. In vain our friend Seán tried to call the sets–“Slip sides, change back, swing to the right…”–as the Canadians and the under-forties flailed, and the older men swung the bridesmaids til the Guinness churned in our bellies. A flushed guest succumbed to a swing with extra elbow grease, and landed on the bride’s train. When it was over we called for more sets–Fallaí Luimní, The Walls of Limerick, or Ag Baint an Fhéir, The Haymaker’s Jig–but we didn’t deserve the efforts of such fine and serious musicians. I felt a little guilty when they packed up the bodhrán and the rosin and handed us back to the wedding singer.

For children, Irish weddings are still about fizzy orange and Coke and Taytos, and racing around a hotel unchecked, and getting twirled by the bridesmaids, and letting your mouth hang open while the younger men teach you The Robot. People you don’t know come up to you and give you money and tell you you’re a lovely girl or boy. It’s magic. I know–I was a child at the weddings of some of these dancers.

My uncle J.–another I hadn’t seen since I was a young teenager–shyly handed over a creased photograph he’d brought for me. In it, he had the dark looks of a young George Best, and I was sitting on his lap with my curly-headed cousin. Our full names were written on the back, though we were only babies. It was dated Dec 2 1973: the day before he married my aunt.

I rattled off life-bumps for him–London, New York, divorce, backpacking, San Francisco–and when I saw his stricken look it occurred to me that I was the only wedding guest who was divorced. It’s the kind of news that doesn’t filter out to the quieter men in a family, and he was shocked and grieved that I’d had to go through such a thing. For me, it was only a fact, not a feeling, and I had to cast back five years to reach the rawness that matched his.

Divorce wasn’t legalized in Ireland until after I left, in 1995. Most of these friends and relatives were still in their fractious forties then, and might have been tempted to split if separation had been sanctioned. It seemed archaic and cruel to confine people to bad marriages, and I’d still vote for legal divorce today. Yet the patina of a mellowed marriage is lovelier than the shine of fresh romance, and without a social structure that supported enduring love–in both senses–we would have lost many relationships that could have been restored. If, when you’re sixty years old, you can dance joyfully with the one that brung ya, then you’ve earned your great luck.

I thought about how we would have celebrated this day in the U.S. or Canada or England: the delicate seating plans to accommodate merged and cleaved families; the reception briefings on splits and re-marriages. Love is too tough to be left to couples alone, and that’s what the wedding singer acknowledged when he closed the night by sending our bride and her Canadian groom under the steepled arms of the people who love them, while he bawled “Everybahhdy…needs somebahhdy…”

Earlier, I’d given a speech about what it meant for emigrants like my sister and me to be part of a gathering like that. We aren’t rootless–that’s a different problem entirely. But we don’t have tap roots, burying deep in a single place for nourishment. Ours are runners: we grow by extending outwards to make new plants. We have have too many roots entirely–tendrils that pull us to Limerick and Dublin and Ottawa and New York and San Francisco, and more tendrils that tug us toward the others who have moved. We dream of the mythical party where all our beloveds will be under one roof, even as we know it won’t ever happen.

In a rushed world, where “I have to work” isn’t called out as the lie it usually is, we know how rare it is to be surrounded by decades-worth of friendships and memories. Between the Caher Road neighbours and the Crescent teachers and the old friends, there were about 2,000 years of affection and friendship gathered in that room to send Claire and Glen off into their married lives. I was proud of the dowry we raised.

Happy 37th anniversary, Mum and Dad.

Wedding party

1103-wedding-claire-car.jpg

Dough

I’m making French bread to go with breakfast eggs from Cleo the chicken. I’ve never worked with yeast before. It breathes, it stretches, and it smells like a sleepy lover–how could you not say good morning to such a substance? Tim makes fun of me when I wake up my dough with flour and water, and chat to it about the night it’s had, and show it the moves I learned last night watching Saturday Night Fever. But I’m in the city today, where there are no chickens to shimmy with over tinned sweetcorn. And it’s less crazy to talk to spores and birds than to screens and cars, no?

1215-dough-after.jpg

Because the internet is all about telling the world what you had for breakfast…

Farm Breakfast

Ken Burns Effect

For Caoimhe, born September 12, 2007. Her name is pronounced KWEE-veh, (more or less), and it means “grace.” Caoimhe is Liam’s sister. The Ken Burns Effect is a default setting on Apple’s iPhoto, which pans and zooms through a photo album to make it look like a movie.

Caitriona and Caoimhe

KEN BURNS EFFECT
You yawn, you doze, you blink and gaze,
You pout and grasp your granny’s thumb.
To learn your strength, your knuckles squeeze
That wrinkled hand that shields your bum.

Twelve feelings float across your face,
Twelve photos glide across my screen.
The frown, the fist, the curling lip:
You haven’t learned to hide or preen.

These pictures bring me cells, not bits:
Your pudding rolls, your morning mewl
I sniff your powder-cotton smell
I nibble toes, kiss dewdrop drool

Your belly, with its shallow tides,
Is springy silk, like rising dough.
I gnaw my lip. I’m saving breath
To leave more air untouched for you.

“O child of grace, of butter made,”
Our Irish mothers used to say.
You store ten thousand furled-up lives
Which stories will you tell some day?

For you, I pause my modern march
To learn again what I forget:
The dazzle in a breath, a toe.
You teach me to stay here—and yet

I flip ahead. Who will you be
At fifty-four? At seventeen?
O child of grace, your slideshow pans,
And I cast you, star of my own dreams.

Caoimhe sleeps

Helen the Chicken

From Tim:

Helen died this morning a little before dawn.

Her condition hadn’t changed much when I got back from work last night so I set up a heated infirmary ward for her in the bathroom. She seemed to understand that I was trying to help her and didn’t resist being picked up and relocated. She felt very emaciated.

She didn’t move much but stood erect and steady on a bed of newspapers. She drank a lot of water and took cooked oats, blueberries, and omelette scraps from my fingers.

Later she lay on my lap and let me stroke her and seemed very peaceful. I set her on a jury-rigged roost, a 2×4 spanned between the toilet and the bathtub. I collected moths from the windows outside and she snapped them up from my fingers with apparent relish.

She seemed bright-eyed and alert when I turned the lights out so I thought the little feeding might help her pull through. But around 4:30 I woke to the sound of thrashing and by the time I got down from the loft she was on the floor dead.

I buried her up on the hillside overlooking the house.

The others birds aren’t showing any signs of physical distress yet so fingers crossed this wasn’t something contagious. The three older hens do suddenly seem baffled and sullen. They didn’t want to come down from the roost this morning, and aren’t venturing far from the coop. I guess every time they lose a ringleader they have to work through considerable social adjustment.

No doubt in my mind now that they know and remember individuals and suffer some sense of dislocation when somebody dies, possibly something like our grief.

America Offline

Tim’s girls had spent a near-perfect chicken morning rolling in the dust, clucking over worms, and swerving from the randy rooster, and they objected to being shooed back into the coop so early. He was cool and heartless about it, like Tony Soprano ditching Carmela for an afternoon at the Bada Bing. We were going to the Santa Cruz County Fair in Watsonville to gawk at far more glamorous show poultry.

(I’d never imagined that one day I’d drive two hours on a motorbike to look at prize chickens. It makes me wonder what more excitement waits for me.)

It cost five dollars to park at the fair, and nine dollars each to get in. While we waited to be searched for weapons—poor America—sticky, cranky children trailed out with their prize goldfish. I’m glad that goldfish have short memories.

Tim bought a corndog right away. I wanted to go to the 4-H tent. At work I study what “youth” do, online and at the mall, and for moral peace I needed to see that some of them still grow radishes and make hand-drawn exhibits on The Life Cycle of the Mosquito. I’m descended from farmers, and grew up across the road from a dairy farm, and so of course, the teen me wouldn’t touch muck or muck-related things. Now that I’m old, I think farming is a wholesome pursuit for young people—especially in a country that calls soil “dirt.”

Small baskets of produce were arranged as carefully as a Yangon market stand. The best had purple ribbons. “Third Prize, Patty Pan Squash, Olivia Kohler, Age 7, Santa Cruz.” Three days into the fair, some of the carved vegetable creatures buzzed with fruitflies; soggier versions of the masterpieces in the photos propped beside them.

At the entrance to The Wonderful World of Reptiles, a crowd gathered around a man wearing an albino boa constrictor. Next door, in the Farmyard Tent, a red-haired teen sat in a pen supervising a miniature horse and goat. He stared a thousand yards past the punters who lined up to ooh and ahh as if we were in the Costco meat department come to life. The boy wore his disdain like the martyred llama that slouched opposite, under a sign that explained how donkeys and llamas differ. (“Different: Llamas dislike being looked at or touched.” “Similar: Donkeys and llamas leave their droppings in the same spot every day.”)

A hefty eleven-year-old—clearly the red-head’s sister—took more pride in being the expert on the bonsai Brahma bull in her pen. “He’s three years old. He’s not going to grow any more. I’m totally used to taking care of him,” she said with authority.

But the real draw was in the next stall, where a miniature ram called Napoleon lounged with his two short girlfriends. His shorn fleece had grown into a light, elegant sweater, revealing a huge, shaggy appendage that swung like a termites’ nest between his back legs.

“?Son los cojones?” said a man in awed disbelief.

“Dude, are those his NUTS?” said another.

“Daddy, what is it? What is it?” said a small girl, pointing.

You can learn a lot at the County Fair.

Outside, Tim ate a barbecued steak sandwich served by a Brooklyn Italian. I sweated in too-tight jeans. We still hadn’t found the prize chickens. The pig races were over, so instead we went to see Extreme Canines—dog athletes who did backflips and somersaults and caught dozens of frisbees in a minute.

The crowd was so thick I needed a piggyback to see the action, and when Tim got tired we wandered the Hobbies and Collections hall, peering at glassed-in life capsules. Model sportscars. “Sand From the Beaches of the World.” Motley Victorian teapots. “My SpongeBob SquarePants Stuff.” The handwritten cards explained each collector’s vision.

“When I was about 5 I really liked SpongeBob Squarepants and I started getting his stuff.
Now I have 23 things.
My favorite is the Krusty Krab model.
—Luis Sandoval, Age 7, Watsonville”

There was a line at the Bud Lite tent. There was no line at the Obama 2008 stand.

At last we found the poultry barn. The contestants—hens, roosters, bantams, game hens, ducks—sat in their cages, pecking at their corn and putting up with our stares. The plain-Jane layers and meat birds were grouped in one area, and the fabulous drag queens preened in another. At least the Polish chickens could hide behind their bangs.

After an afternoon strolling through an agricultural fair, I had an urge to show off in the poultry barn. Unlike these blow-ins fussing over the freak birds, I knew chickens. I’d spent at least six Saturdays watching them scratch while I drank wine. I’d read E.B. White. I’d cuddled chicks and collected eggs. I’d rented The Natural History of the Chicken from Netflix. I could recognize at least four breeds (with shaky accuracy). I was a chicken geek, in some senses at least, and I wanted recognition.

I stopped in front of a Rhode Island Red who was getting her cage cleaned out by an official.

“Oh, she looks just like Susan!” I said in a fake voice to Tim, and then turned to the straw lady. “One of our birds was killed two nights ago,” I told her. She clucked in sympathy. I accepted her condolences, even though Susan wasn’t really my chicken. “She’d taken to roosting in a tree after a raccoon attack in the coop. Probably a coyote got her. Lot of them up there in the mountains.”

I felt I’d established my credentials, but it was less satisfying than I’d hoped. “Reds are lovely birds. Good temperament,” I added knowledgably, wondering if Red or Rhodie was the cool-kid term.

The exchange reminded me what had made me an uneasy traveler in my year of back-packing. Being a tourist embarrasses me. I can’t stare in peace at what is supposed to be stared at–I looked at Angkor Wat sideways, the way New Yorkers look at Nicole Kidman on the street. I always want to pretend that I’m a local, an insider, an expert, even when it’s clear I’m no such thing. You can’t blend in without felt experiences, no matter how often you Google the customs.

As we left the Santa Cruz County Fair—a happy day—I wondered what it would be like to gawk at a 660 lb squash without a 21st-century commentary running like a velvet rope between me and the moment. To be amazed; to admire the labor honestly; to tot the sum of pies, pickles, and preserves a giant squash would yield; to talk about it with the neighbors while we waited for a bolt of calico or a bushel of chicory.

It might feel like faith.

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Chicks on the Pacific Coast Highway
Photo by Tim Vetter