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.]

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


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

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

Thanksgiving at the Ranch

Sal's Canyon

Two strangers arrive at Tim’s cabin the morning after Thanksgiving. Bill has a fox-colored pageboy and bright blue eyes. He’s strong, and his face just misses handsome before it veers off into unsettling. Jerri has long, tired blonde hair, and wears high-heeled sandals that wouldn’t do well in the February mud up there.

Bill wanted to show her the spot where he lived 25 years ago. There were just three houses in Sal’s Canyon then: Sal’s own homestead; a nearby place with a sign that says “General Store” above the front porch (it’s not a store); and the little shack that Bill rented above the golf course. It burned down long ago, so he’s finding out who lives here now, in these newer cabins.

Sal was a character, he says. Must have been in his fifties at the time. He was still teaching shop in East Palo Alto. “I remember him coming home, complaining about the students –‘Jesus Christ, kid, did ya learn nothing here? You wrote ‘Fuck’ five times on the wall of the boys’ bathroom, and you spelled it wrong every time.'” A ladies man, Tim offers, and Bill shrugs that well, he _thought_ he was. As to whether he was successful, Bill couldn’t say.

Bill grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon. Fourteen cows in an open barn system. At dawn he and his brother would milk, and after school there’d be hours of chores: more milking, cleaning out the barn, and foddering the herd. In the winter they’d be up in the night, calving. In summer, they’d cut and pitch hay. The milk ran through a Rube-Goldberg system of funnels and filters and cooling channels in the barn, and when the churns were filled they’d haul them into the truck and take them to the dairy.

“The churns would run down on rollers, and when the last churn had gone through, we’d be allowed to balance on the rollers in our sneakers”–he mimed a skier’s crouch–“and ride them all the way to the end. Then they’d give us a pail of fresh cheese curds, for free. Squeak, squeak.”

“Sounds like an industrial accident waiting to happen,” says Jerri. “Sounds like OSHA wouldn’t have much to like about that whole set up.”
Continue reading “Thanksgiving at the Ranch”

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…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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tyerra, BAYCAT filmmaker
Tyerra Green, BAYCAT filmmaker, taken by michaele, Yahoo! Teacher of Merit, July 2006.

The first thing you see when you walk into BAYCAT‘s loft–once Villy lets you out of a hug–are the photos. There’s a wall of signed Polaroids of everyone who has ever visited: students, instructors, preachers, clients, donors, Bill Strickland, Jeff Skoll, and our fine-looking mayor, Gavin Newsom. Names and smiles; bigwigs and smallwigs.

BAYCAT trains young people from Bayview-Hunters Point in art, design, digital media, filmmaking, and human decency. These neighborhoods have by far the highest concentration of children in San Francisco, but the rest of the city doesn’t notice that that’s where we warehouse the future. “Historically-underserved comunities” seems to be the vogue term, but however you put it, these kids have had a raw deal so far. They are poor. Their schools are chaotic and badly equipped. The houses were built next to a power plant, on landfill where decades of toxic waste have built up, and so the children get sick more often than they should–but there’s just one pediatrician in the area. Until a Farmers’ Market opened last year, fresh food was a bus ride away, though liquor stores are plentiful. The gangs are armed.

Hunters Point Restaurant
_Photo by Tim, 2005_

Those are the problems, but there are 33,000 solutions. Bayview-Hunters Point also has artists, musicians, leaders, dreamers, preachers, businesspeople, and teachers who have it going on, and there’s no shortage of kids who want more. That’s where BAYCAT comes in. BAYCAT shows kids that they have a voice, and gives them the skills to give voice to their community. These are also, the theory goes, the skills that San Francisco and Silicon Valley employers want: design, video production, editing, and motion graphics.

Villy is the founder and CEO. She went from the New York projects to become an equity derivatives trader, then a corporate lawyer at a fancy firm. What she wanted to do was take these skills to make kids’ lives better, so she trained as a fifth-grade teacher. She was the kind of educator who teaches the Constitution by letting her kids draw up a class constitution: pushing them to move beyond because-I-said-so rules to identify the lasting principles behind them; encouraging them to test rewards and penalties and consequences; stretching ten-year-old minds around the notion of collective responsibility.

But she couldn’t reach all of them. Ten years old is too late. Five may be too late. No matter how much work you put in, how much you dig into your paltry salary for extra supplies, food, and field trips, no matter how many nights you lie awake with racing thoughts, you can’t save every kid. No Child Left Behind is the name of the federal act that has set public education up for guaranteed failure by mandating that every single child must pass standardized reading and math tests by 2012. Its goals are admirable, but no system improves by measurement alone–especially in California, where public education is still crippled by the staggering selfishness of Proposition 13. Where the principles of No Child Left Behind really live is in the hearts of dedicated teachers, who live in a war zone between hope and discouragement.

Villy left the public schools to start BAYCAT. She found an early supporter in Bill Strickland, the Pittsburgh social entrepreneur. I met Strickland (and Villy) when my company hosted a conference that brought together innovators from Japan and the US, and he held us rapt, as he does every audience, with his slides and his story. His power comes from his insistence on the elemental. The worst thing about poverty is what it does to your spirit, he says, and the cure for this spiritual cancer is to expose people to the best of the natural world. Beauty. Light. Water. Music. Art. Good food. Flowers. In the No Child Left Behind era, where principals are forced to force their teachers to drop everything but math and “language arts” drills, this sounds like granola-dreaming. But over the course of thirty-odd years, he has succeeded.

Strickland was a 16-year-old from the Pittsburgh projects, on path to nowhere good, when an art teacher introduced him to ceramics and took him to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house. When he found his calling as a grown man, he persuaded a student of Lloyd Wright’s to build a cathedral-like training center in the middle of the projects in Pittsburgh. That’s where he trained students in the ceramics he had come to love. He loved jazz, so he built a concert hall as part of the center–and Dizzy Gillespie came to play. They started a jazz record label that has won four Grammy awards. He wanted the kids to see beauty, so he built a greenhouse to grow Japanese orchids–and now they supply the Whole Foods grocery chain with flowers and hydroponic tomatoes, grown in the projects in Steeltown. He worked with local Pittsburgh businesses, Heinz and Bayer among them, to set up facilities to train a new generation of workers in food service and lab technician skills, so they could find jobs–and eat good food every day. Sunshine, he insists, is for everybody on the planet, not just for rich people. Good food is for everybody on the planet. His Manchester Craftsman’s Guild trains students in art, not academics, but his students’ graduation rates are so high that the city of Pittsburgh recently asked him to take over a failing high school. His first action will be bring in fresh flowers. People understand those kinds of messages. We are creatures of expectations, he says, and once you put people in the light, they shine.

Villy is an artist and musician too, and the BAYCAT loft reflects their shared belief in the power of beauty and high expectations. It’s spacious, light-filled, and stylish, and designed for people to work together. Buildings have emotions, I think, and BAYCAT’s place is warm and playful. It’s in the Dogpatch neighborhood, between Bayview-Hunters Point and downtown San Francisco.

Across the street, my friend Celine has opened a wine bar, one of several new small businesses drawn to Dogpatch by the mirage of the Third Street Light Rail, which will connect Bayview-Hunters Point to the city that has ignored it. That’s where Villy and I drink Rioja and Viognier from time to time. Dogpatch reminds me of Brooklyn’s DUMBO eight years ago, with its waterfront light, beautiful old warehouses slowly converting to design studios and apartments, and mostly peaceful agreements between the artists and the crack dealers. “I talked to the crackheads and the drunks from the beginning,” said Celine, who is as matter-of-fact as you might expect of a woman who can both pass two kidney stones and open a wine bar in the last two months of her pregnancy. “I told them, I have no problem with you being here, but you just can’t piss in the doorway any more. I can’t do business if you piss in my doorway.” They are obliging. Now they piss in the bus shelter at the end of the block, and greet her warmly as she opens up.

Last July, a team from Yahoo!–my favorite clients–hired the BAYCAT students to make a documentary about a project we were working on, a weeklong summer camp to celebrate 60 local teachers and introduce them to blogging, Flickr, and other web goodies. Every day, Villy drove Tyerra and Jason from Hunters Point to Sunnyvale in her green VW Bug. They interviewed dozens of teachers and Yahoo! staff, including Terry Semel, the CEO. They filmed it, shaped the story, and edited it in two weeks, with the help of BAYCAT instructors. Tyerra’s 14. Jason is 16. That’s Tyerra speaking on the BAYCAT homepage. Yahoo! liked the results so much that they sponsored a BAYCAT “Oscars” to show off the students’ work at the end of the summer. There was plenty to celebrate: graphic design for local businesses, a new design identity for the Visitacion Valley neighborhood, documentaries made for Yahoo!, for the Mayor’s Office, and for NetDay; a film about the Alice Griffith Housing Projects; an interview series on obesity they filmed at local McDonalds. They’re learning to bear witness: by shaping stories, you can shape a future.

Villy has huge plans for BAYCAT. Every time she tells me about them over Italian wine, my brain starts fizzing with her spirit–that’s the Villy effect. She believes that change starts with personal connections, with asking open-ended questions and being willing to listen to the answers. This autumn, she’s going to let me learn how to teach writing at BAYCAT. It’s a tiny commitment–once a week, a couple of students a time–but I want to be there to watch her dreams bloom.