the urban-ish life

So I’m coming home from an outdoor street festival tonight – an odd combination of band party, farmer’s market, car show, alfresco dining and assorted other stuff. There was a pop-up demonstration of a separated bike lane, there were root beer floats from a stand in front of the local small grocery, the works. And I came there straight from an errand in the city, in the Mission, on Valencia and 17th – the very beating heart of hipster heaven, currently chockablock with techies and their ilk.

And I thought about Portlandia – not least because a minibreak to Portland appears to be on the cards for later this year – and how it deftly skewers the excess of hipsters and yuppies alike. And it occurs to me there’s not a lot of difference anymore. Skinny jeans are everywhere. Surplus store clothing? Hell, military style jackets are in Macy’s. Apple products? You couldn’t get more mainstream. Yupsters? Everywhere, and for one simple reason: that’s now effectively the mainstream of a life that can more simply be called urban.

Urban is the magic word. It used to be the preferred media euphemism for “black” but now it seems to be the signifier of an entire realm of cultural experiences. Street life, eschewing cars, technologically mediated, transit-focused, the works. Consider Mountain View, perhaps the archetypal suburb (if not outright farm town) until the coming of Fairchild and the age of silicon. Now it’s one of a handful of towns around the turn of the peninsula with its own art and wine festivals, its own commuter train stop(s), its own bike share stations, a slew of restaurants with outdoor tables, and – inevitably – political arguments about just how cityfied you want it to become.

In years past, the big fight was always how to keep the urban realm from becoming suburbanized – no big box stores, no chains, every effort to preserve local character. Now, the argument seems to be about how much of the urban box you can unpack in suburbia without getting the bad bits. Denser housing without towering skyscrapers. Transit and shuttles and bike lanes without crippling the ability to move regular traffic. Business-friendly and upscale retail without pricing out the locals or destroying an affordable future for kids who might want to keep living there after college.

It’s a tough nut to crack. It’s not something you can get with ample doses of loose money and a pro-bidness-at-all-cost attitude. But it also required being urban-minded, which is why it hasn’t really taken hold in the old country at all. I suppose it’s just lucky that much of Silicon Valley already had a Southern Pacific line running down the peninsula and a tradition of interurban rail going back to the old #40 line to San Mateo. And then there’s San Jose, which went from farm town to bedroom community to quietly becoming the third largest city in California, bigger than Oakland or San Francisco, yet with a downtown that hardly seems bigger or more compelling than a cleaned up multi-ethnic Birmingham.

And these places all have their own character. If you have a specific sort of thing in mind – city grit, rustic isolation, working-class credibility, crackerbox suburbia – you can find it somewhere along the 415-650-408 axis, although you may not care for the resulting commute. Then again, the transit and transportation infrastructure has yet to scale to accommodate the true need, because stuff costs money. And it’s hard to get too fired up about the limited transit when your employer will bus you to work, or when you have to drive yourself anyway and why should you care about the shitty light rail performance anyway? Which in its way is of a piece with the ever-popular “this place was paradise up until five minutes after the person after me arrived” way of thinking. And…but then, that’s a post for another time.

In a lot of ways, I think that’s the goal for most of the area. Not Los Altos Hills or Atherton or Hillsborough, obviously, but everywhere else – if you had to pick a civic goal, I would put it on something like “Just Urban Enough – But No More.” Which, depending on the approach, is far from the worst aspiration for growing suburbs in 2014.

Wheels Down

When the zombie apocalypse comes, my first thought is going to be to go steal one of the Bay Area Bike Share bikes.  In a post-apocalyptic landscape, when fuel is no longer to be had (good luck with that Tesla, buddy!), what would you rather have? It doesn’t need fuel, food or a plug, and it beats the hell out of walking.

The bike I have is pretty shitty. It’s a hybrid, somewhere between road bike and trail bike, and not very good at either.  It’s got a 21-speed gear system that uses thumb and finger triggers to shift, it’s amazingly uncomfortable to sit on, and its best function is gathering dust in the garage.  Which is what I asked for, to be honest, but for the last nine years I’ve dreaded biking simply because it was a shitty experience every time.  Much to my wife’s chagrin.

And then I experienced the bike share bikes, which despite being very heavy are stable, comfortable to sit on (with step-through frame), easy to operate (seven-speed internally-geared with a twist shifter), and uncomplicated to use.  And then my wife got her new C7i from Public Bikes (okay, I got it for her birthday) and lo and behold, it wasn’t bad to ride on.  And that made me rethink things, and then she rode my bike and confirmed that holy shit, that’s a terrible bike, no wonder you hate riding it.

But I like those bike share bikes.  And then I saw the new creation of Priority Bikes in NYC, a simplified $400 bike with run-flat tires, a belt drive instead of a chain, a 3-speed internal-hub gear systems and coaster brakes like a kid’s bike, a comfortable saddle and upright seating position.  Basically, it’s the perfect bike for somebody who just wants to ride a bike instead of being A Bike Person.  And that rang a chord with me, because my whole professional life has been spent working in a computer ecosystem that has its roots in computers for people who didn’t want to be Computer People.

So after a little looking around, we were advised of a sale at Public Bikes on the M7i – a French-style mixte bike suitable for either sex, enough step-through for aging hips and knees, a really comfortable upright riding position, the same 7-speed internal-hub transmission with twist-shift as the share bikes, accessory compatibility with the wife’s bike, and – most intriguing – an easy conversion path in future to an electric-assist bike. I was sold, not least because ten years from now, I might not be able to walk all the way downtown and might appreciate a bit of a bump.

And that’s the approach I take to biking, which seems to be the opposite of most other people in this part of the world.  To most folks, the bike is part of an alternative to driving.  You use the bike and transit to replace a car, mostly for commuting.  I’m going completely in the opposite direction: the bike is a replacement for walking, a force multiplier to get me further than I’m willing to go on shank’s mare.  I’m not going to battle the crowds on what’s already an overloaded Caltrain system. But what I will consider is that there are destinations that take the better part of an hour to reach on a back-and-forth transit route, too far to practically walk, which are suddenly fifteen minutes away on a bike.

So we’ll see.  This is a pricey experiment, but one I’m genuinely looking forward to.  As long as it’s not going to be too hot or humid (serious risk lately with all the monsoon moisture in the air) and not pouring rain (bigger issue in the winter months), this could be fun, and (gasp) I’m actually looking forward to it.

the search for time lost, n-0

“There comes a time in your life – and if you haven’t felt it yet, trust me, you will – when you have to stop trying to be the person you were, and let yourself become the person you are.”

-me, June 30, 2004

“There comes a time in every man’s life where you have to stop trying to be Nuke and start trying to be Crash.”

-me, repeatedly, for years now


Three years ago, I was at Disneyland with friends.  We had been rampaging through Disney California Adventure, a park that didn’t exist until 2001 – and which I’d never visited until 2009. It was a brand new experience, one unencumbered by any past baggage, something entirely new to explore and experience, and in three previous trips, we’d enjoyed it immensely.  And after taking it in for the fourth time, there I was, with my wife, sat on a bench with the sun setting, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle over our shoulder, and the sounds of “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” drifting up from the end of Main Street USA.

It was the dream.  It was everything I’d hoped my life would be back in 1989.  Sure, life wasn’t perfect, but the things that weren’t were on the other side of the bubble.  I had my girl. I had friends, both here and waiting back home.  I even had some family again.  I was good at my job, I didn’t hate it, I was a year removed from going to Europe, the Commodores were in the College World Series, all was basically right with the world.  More or less.

We went back a few weeks ago.  Aside from an experiment which successfully proved that we have no business on a bus, it was glorious. The parks, the food, just being able to get away from it all and have a few days together in a dream world.  It was the kickoff to another emotional roller coaster brought about by sports – Stanford stood between Vanderbilt and another trip to the College World Series, and the Dores brought it off.  Then beat Louisville, UC-Irvine, beat Texas (it took two tries and ten innings, but we miracled through) and then beat Virginia in three to clinch the first national championship in baseball ever…and this is a team that started playing in 1886.

Dreams do come true, as Joe Fisher said on the final strike.

What was the dream?  Did I really want to be Vice-President? Did I want to be in the Senate? Did I actually want to be teaching political science in some small private liberal-arts school with a great basketball team? Those were things I thought could happen, but not things I really wanted – because I wasn’t seriously thinking that far ahead, ever. Looking back, the dream came down to three things: my girl, my crew, and adventures.

Ten years ago, to the day, I arrived here with my girl in pursuit of an adventure. Left my crew, left my job, left the East Coast, and came out here in search of a fresh start and the ever-nebulous big dream.  I wanted to see if I could make it here, partly inspired by the detritus of the dot-com boom and partly because of the need to play in the big leagues. Which – along with a College World Series title – has put me back in mind of Bull Durham quotes like the one above. Or like this one:


“Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once.  21 greatest days of my life. You never handle your own luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.”


I honestly thought it could be months before I found a job.  I had specifically not thought about what might happen, because I didn’t want to set myself up for expectations. I just wanted to take it as it developed naturally rather than get my hopes up on unrealistic things.  (The three things I wanted were a gambling stop in Reno, where I got cleaned out in about 4 minutes, a DirecTV dish, which I got, and a VW Beetle. Which I got, except it took two years and was a Rabbit by then. But I digress.)

Instead, after about three weeks, I was a contractor with a certain fruit company in Cupertino. It was chaos the first few months, and there were a couple of days when I wondered whether my badge was going to work in the morning, and then I was hired on staff.  And less than a year after that, there was a sort-of promotion and a job shift. I had an actual office with an actual door, I had a short email address, I had a company AmEx and got sent on show support for ten days. For the only time in my high tech career, there was no friend-of-a-friend, there was no recommendation, there was nothing but my resume and my skills and my own dubious charm. And I made it. Dream accomplished.

Then I got sick.

I probably could have sought some accommodation for the physical infirmity. Maybe doing so would have alleviated the mental health struggles. Not doing so was the second biggest mistake of my entire life.  Instead, I panicked, and I ran, because I thought the key to my future was being technical. Maybe that was true and maybe it’s not, but I wound up heading right back into what I’d done before…and have been doing ever since.  And lately it’s been hard as hell to shake the thought that I may actually be doing this for years to come, that I’ve maxed out at triple-A, that my brief sojourn in the big leagues was just that.

It might not be the worst thing.  As long as I can still make some money, take all the leave I’m offered (the only real perk of the current job), and make an effort to go out on vacation and travel and go down the pub and win trivia and spend time with friends and take my downtime and enjoy life away from work…that wouldn’t be the worst way to kill the next twenty years, would it? Find some way to make work into something I can live with and just enjoy the rest of my life otherwise?

It’s tough. But then, you get told unrealistic things as a kid. I’m not going to be the first man on Mars, because this country doesn’t even have the capability of putting a person in space without help from the Russians anymore.  I’m not going to be President, or even Vice-President, because that’s something that only happens for two or three people per decade.  Forty-three individuals have been President of the United States, ever (and one of them got counted twice, and another only stuck in the job for a month).  I’m not going to cure cancer, because there’s no such thing as monolithic “cancer” and besides, I haven’t made an A in a lab science course since eighth grade. Sure, you might be in the top one-tenth-of-one-percent in the country in terms of IQ, but guess what?  That means that 300,000 people are just as smart as you or smarter.


“Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”

I’ve learned a lot of things in ten years.  But if I had to nail it down to just one thing that life in Silicon Valley has taught me, I’d say this: the world is an unpredictable place. Not everything follows the rules, no matter how much you wish they would. Randomness is real and luck is real, and sometimes the luck breaks your way and sometimes it doesn’t. Life is not predictable, fortune is not something you can teach in class and turn into a reproducible process, there is no standard rich and famous contract, and much like college football, there is no god in high tech but Loki.

Just because you give it your best effort and try your damnedest, you’re not guaranteed that everything will always work out in the end.  Nothing is promised to you and the future isn’t real until you can put your hand on it.  The lead isn’t going to come into the back of shop and help with the laptops, the boss isn’t actually going to set up cross-training opportunities, the Sony rep isn’t going to come through with the free K710, the second interview isn’t going to result in an offer. All you can do is try to bend the curve of probability as best you can, through effort and influence and preparation and whatever else.

And if (when) it doesn’t turn out like you expected? Puke and rally and try again tomorrow. Harold Hill doesn’t every time marry Marion the Librarian, and when the prospect you’re mentoring gets fast-tracked to the big club, you might find yourself cut from the squad. But sometimes, there’s an opening for a manager at Visalia, and you have to rethink what you’re doing and whether it’s isn’t time to take your career in a different direction.

“Well, Nuke’s scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man’s here. We need a live– is it a live rooster? We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose’s glove. And nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. Is that about right? We’re dealing with a lot of shit.”

It’s called life.  Best to just get on with it.

Death From Above 2014

First off, don’t be misled by the scoreline. The history books will say that Brazil lost to Germany 7-1, true. But that one goal was scored in injury time at the end of the match, long after the Brazillian humiliation was complete. In every other way that matters, Germany defeated Brazil by seven goals yesterday, more goals than Brazil had given up in an entire World Cup since 1998, the first defeat on home soil since 1975, the biggest margin of loss for the national team in ninety-four years.

What is this like? I don’t think people in this country really grasp what it means to be down 5-0 after thirty minutes.  You could compare it to a hockey team up 5-0 after one period, or maybe the Super Bowl defenestrations of the Broncos against the Redskins or Niners in 1988 and 1990 respectively.  But to really grasp what it’s like, imagine the new college football playoff, with an undefeated Alabama team hosting, say, Nebraska. And imagine Nebraska going up 35-0 through the first quarter and ultimately winning by a final of 84-3, with the final pathetic field goal for Alabama coming as  time expires in the 4th quarter on the last play of the game. And oh, by the way, Auburn is playing in the other semifinal and could win a championship instead.

That’s what happened. The team with more World Cups than any other, the host nation of the 2014 tournament, the nation synonymous with the sport – that team was absolutely destroyed, utterly humiliated before a worldwide audience behind a team that couldn’t miss. This wasn’t a match, it was an autopsy. This was the biggest disaster for Brazil since Google announced that Orkut was shutting down.

I mean…I don’t know what you do for a loss like that.  The coach is fired, for sure.  The players will live with this for the rest of their lives – Tim Vickery, the BBC’s South American football specialist, said on the World Service this morning that he had known players from the 1950 Brazil team that still lived with the pain of the loss to Uruguay half a century on.  Right now, the whole country is shellshocked or blackout drunk.  When they come to, it’s not going to be pretty…especially in a country where the tournament – and a presumed victory – was supposed to salve growing unrest over economic inequality and political corruption.  Elections have been lost over less.

It was amazing to watch.  It’s not often you get to see one of the superpowers of sport systematically destroyed in real time in front of two billion people and all of Twitter.  And along the way, it drove home what a great job ESPN has done with the World Cup as a whole: get the best announcers, get good analysts (including not only foreign players but Julie Foudy – can you imagine somebody bringing in a former WNBA all-star to comment on the NBA finals?) and let the game tell the story, instead of loading it down with hype and analysts and the kind of human-interest folderol that makes the Super Bowl and Olympics unwatchable.  ESPN does so much wrong, but they’ve done this absolute right, and I suspect we’re really going to miss them in four years.