Then and Now

One thing that really jumped out after visiting DC was the juxtaposition. The Metro was full of ads for defense contractors and government IT solutions providers on Sunday afternoon, and the drive home down 101 on Sunday night was chockablock with billboards pitching developer jobs and infrastructure management solutions. I’ve moved from one industry town to another, and that industry’s gravity pulls everything into its orbit somehow. In a lot of ways, to be honest, because all the things I marveled at in California in 2002 – pervasive free wifi, GSM phones, gourmet burger places and craft beer options and Apple technology everywhere – all that has come to the DMV, pretty much. 

Now it’s time to start looking the other direction. Because there are things that Silicon Valley needs to be going to school on. And one of the big ones is that for better or worse, you can’t stop pretending like all these towns up and down the Peninsula are anything but boroughs of one big city. Forget about parsing out Redwood City and Palo Alto and Menlo Park and Sunnyvale and accept the truth: San Francisco is 800,000 people, San Jose is 1.1 million people, and they both border a city of 1.5 million people that just happens to be divided into two counties and a bunch of trifling municipalities for no apparent reason. 

Next big thing: when DC expanded into Arlington and Tyson’s, it did it by building train lines and growing around them, and in a pinch running the train into where the growth had already happened. Say what you like about Metro, but it’s out there running a train every six minutes at rush hour, sometimes more where the lines overlap. In Washington DC, you couldn’t get away with a transit line that only put up one train every 90 minutes on the weekend or once an hour between 10 and 4. Caltrain is commuter rail that tries to pretend it’s transit, and it suffers miserably in the effort. And yet people insist on trying to build around a Caltrain line as if it were transit for anything other than commute hours, and that development is highly imperfect at best. Apple isn’t on the Caltrain line. Facebook isn’t on the Caltrain line. Google isn’t on the Caltrain line.  Maybe if you decamped to San Jose…where you not only have Caltrain, but Capital Corridor and ACE and the future BART down from the East Bay and the VTA…

Hold up.

VTA light rail is currently something that runs every 15 minutes at rush hour, every 30 minutes otherwise, and knocks off at 10 PM. It runs at street level through much of San Jose, but has its own right-of-way in the northern part of the county. And it runs right through a whole lot of space that’s developed as office park at best, with precious little housing and no other amenities.

Here’s the thing about my old neighborhood in Arlington: the 25-story apartment towers are clustered within five blocks of the Orange Line stations and then taper right off. But they’re not only walking distance to the trains, every single one of them has (or is directly adjacent to) some kind of deli or mini-market or other retail necessity right there. You don’t need a car at all. Famously, I was walkable to two CVS stores, a mall with a movie theater and a full size grocery store. And the easy draw, the thing that made it attractive, was that you’d have a Metro train every twelve minutes, in either direction, every day from 5 AM to 1 AM. This was not the case when they started building the Orange Line under Wilson Boulevard in the 1970s, and people at first wanted to know why they wouldn’t just build down the middle of I-66. But they didn’t. They built it and the development grew up around it.

The biggest feature of construction in Mountain View right now is the growth of these blocks of 4-story apartments, rental or condo, all along El Camino Real from Adobe Creek to 85. Probably only four stories so they don’t have to switch away from wood construction in case of earthquakes. But here’s the thing: they’re on the road. They aren’t on any train system. What transit options they have basically boils down to the 22/522 bus line on VTA, or calling some sort of ride share company (of the sort that has demonstrably grown San Francisco traffic out of control). This new dense housing is going to do nothing to alleviate traffic problems, because the thing about urban development isn’t that you have dense housing, it’s that you have dense everything. Dense housing without transit just means bodies stacked like cordwood and roads that don’t move.

So it’s time to take the bullet and build along the VTA in the north. Build your 15-story luxury apartments if you must, but every single one has to have a drugstore or a taqueria or a dry-cleaners or something worthwhile in it, such that you don’t have to hop in the car for every little thing. And you’re going to have to run more train cars, and you’re going to have to run them more than every half an hour, and you’re going to have to run them past 10 PM. Because “Silicon Valley” is functionally the seventh largest city in the United States, and a city that size has to have trains that run more than twice an hour and don’t shut it down before prime time television ends.

I was at the airport, I was in downtown, I was all along my old patch in Arlington and I was all along route 7 all the way to Reston. And I only needed to call a cab twice: once to go all the way to Leesburg and once to speed home from the bar past 1 AM. You’re only going to build a workable urban environment when you don’t need to use a car anymore, whether you’re driving it or not, and anyone who tells you Uber or Waymo are the answer can pound sand. See the transit, be the transit, use the transit. There’s no sustainable alternative.

Where once we watched the small freebirds fly

WMATA might be among the most beleaguered and benighted agencies in any level of American governance. Torn between two states and the District of Columbia, overcrowded and underfunded, reduced to pitching a PR campaign about how they’re getting “Back To Good” – it’s an awfully big ask and an awfully bad situation.

And yet, descending into that round concrete brutalist tunnel system felt like coming home.

I hadn’t been in the DMV for five and a half years, not since last call for the 4P’s. Since then, time happened. DC was occupied by the Russians, National Geographic was subsumed into the NewsCorp media empire, my best man got divorced and my crew was scattered to the four winds (one, as it turns out, landing in Ireland just in time for me to completely miss him. The one time it would have been helpful to be on Facebook, and neither of us was. But anyway). And most of all, I underwent a complete meltdown at work, my lowest point in California, and found myself in the summer of 2015 realizing that in eleven years, I had found myself right back where I was professionally in 2004 when I left, and without my crew around me at that.

I missed being in the DMV. A lot. My virtual communities – scattered across half a different blogs, sites and apps – never had the immediacy or the reality of that gang that went for coffee at the Mudd House (sadly demolished) or lunch at the Pizza Place (ditto, and I couldn’t tell you its real name with a gun to my head) or Fuddrucker’s (now a Shake Shack) or closed the 4P’s on Saturday nights (again, RIP the best Irish bar in America). I missed the strange poetry of Rappahannock and Chain Bridge and Spout Run, the Virginia license plate which hasn’t changed since I first moved there, the mirrored glass towers rising out of fall-colored rolling hills down the Dulles Toll Road or I-66 or Route 7.

But the other thing is that when my academic career plowed into the earth, I was thrown free of the crash and didn’t stop moving for almost a decade, during which I had a crazy and chaotic life. I took my two political science degrees to the capital of the free world and never meddled in politics again. I latched onto IT at a time when anyone could and spun a career out of it. I drove back and forth to Ohio and New York and learned my way around the Metro and the Delta Shuttle. I embarked on a whirlwind romance on both coasts with JetBlue as my commute option back and forth to see my girlfriend who was almost on a rotator commute between Arlington and Silicon Valley. And when it all came to a head, I moved to California, got a job at Apple and got married. By the time things settled down and finally sank, I had completed ten years of being the most interesting person I could imagine being and achieving things I would never have imagined possible.

I came back to DC four times in the first year after leaving. It was a slow detachment, not least because Courtney at Signature Cigars was still sending me sticks and there was a Cosi in the Macy’s at Valley Fair mall in San Jose. I could almost feel like I was still going back and forth the way my now-wife had. After that last trip, though, it became an every-couple-years sort of thing. Spring 2007, spring 2010, spring 2012 – and then nothing for five and a half years. This was my first trip back in autumn since 2004, the first time I could see the city and its surroundings in a similar way to that first time two decades ago when I started my life over.

Some of the places are the same. Plenty aren’t. Some new things have grown up in their place, and some betray the bones of their predecessors if you stare closely enough. I could close my eyes and see the America restaurant or the Illuminations or the Hecht’s in Tyson’s Corner Center, but when I opened them again, there was the huge new space and theater and three high-rises where the parking decks used to be, complete with outdoor plaza full of Astroturf and fire pits and Starbucks and a platoon of athleisured stroller moms. Ballston Common has been gutted and is being rebuilt. Someone dropped an entire new line on the Metro map that goes all the way out to Reston, which was “here be dragons” territory for transit twenty years ago.

But plenty is the same. Geographic looks the same as it ever did. So does Mario’s Pizza, late night on Wilson Boulevard, and the Silver Diner is still at the corner of Clarendon even if Hard Times Chili isn’t across from the Clarendon Metro. Ranger Surplus is still in the strip mall on 7 for all your paintball needs. The Clarendon Apple Store, where I once tried to FaceTime my sweetheart in the Palo Alto store, is still a going concern. So is the Barnes & Noble that anchors the Market Common, and so is the Crate & Barrel adjacent where I once speculated on what kind of furniture I might want in a notional California residence someday. And walking down into the Metro at Virginia Square looks, sounds and smells like the autumn of 2000 in every way that matters, a strange mechanical aroma that is invariably associated in my mind now with…Disneyland.

And the crew turned out. Some of my dearest friends, some folks I haven’t seen in years (or over a decade in a couple of cases), some of the people with whom I have this avalanche of memories of good times and bad, of struggle and triumph, of shoulder to shoulder in the darkest hours. The old college crew, the Army buddies, the high school championship team, all the cliche stuff that you can’t and won’t and shouldn’t let go – this is what I have. For seven years we were the lords of the Earth, and we had a chance to celebrate us without having to wish we could go back. I was a little worried about how much of an emotional wrench it could have been, and I suspect there are a couple of circumstances where it really would have been, but those did not obtain for better or worse.

As it is, it was fine without being overwhelming, even if I might have liked being overwhelmed (and regretted it later). We were legends – we are legends – but time happened, and life happened, and Centreville and Leesburg and Brooklyn and Cupertino and Kildare happened. And as I stood there in Tyson’s II looking out over a scene of luxury shops that hadn’t budged in 20 years, I thought about what has come since, because I remember standing on that balcony looking around in the spring of 2004 when I knew I might be going away for good.

An Apple staff badge. An iPhone. A new model VW Rabbit and a hybrid Chevrolet. The iPhone. A mortgage with my name on it and a wedding ring on my finger. London, Paris, Tokyo, Galway. The rise of Vanderbilt baseball. Twitter and Facebook and SBNation and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A Metro line running from East Falls Church to Wiehle Road, which in 2004 seemed as futuristic and exotic and unlikely as a black President. The guy standing on that balcony in 2004 had never seen any of that. The one there last Friday has seen all of that and more, and he’s glad he has.

DC and Northern Virginia, for seven years, was where everything happened. It’s great to be reminded of who you were, and in a way reminded of who you are. It’s also a reminder that you can’t go back, you shouldn’t go back, and you should make the next thing happen instead. So let’s get on with that, shall we?

First impressions

Back to the future, as the new Nokia 3310 (3G) finally lands in America. I don’t know if it was as iconic in this country, as the 3310 was a 900/1800 GSM device; while there were similar models in America none of them became as iconic for that era as the Motorola MicroTAC or StarTAC flips. So what happens when you harness nostalgia to a burner phone?

The Nokia 3310 in the US isn’t the dual-sim version, as it turns out. Instead you get a MicroSD slot where the second SIM would go, which I guess is fine for MP3 storage and playback. You won’t be doing much else with media on this phone for sure; the 2MP camera takes worse pictures than you could take with a potato. Which would also make for a superior browsing experience, as the phone features good old Opera Mini, a proxy browser I was trying to make the best of before I ever left the DMV for California.

In fact, this phone is a memento mori of how things used to be. Had you offered this phone for $65 in, say, 2006, people would have lost their damn minds. A Nokia with a 2-inch color screen, a 2 MP digital camera, Bluetooth and speaker phone and no thicker than your little finger? In a way, you can look at it and see the vestigial DNA of the Nokia 6620 which was my first real California phone when I started at Apple. The slight bulge in the middle and the screen that takes up the entire top half of the phone, oriented what we now think of as portrait rather than landscape? There is all the nostalgia you want here, and it’s true to life. You are getting the legitimate “Re-Elect Bush 2004″ mobile phone experience.

And it’s proof of why the iPhone had to happen to launch the true mobile Internet. Trying to interact with a tiny web browser screen with 12 keys and a D-pad is a nightmare. It also explains why the WAP deck was the key to everything in early mobile phone data: tiny trickle of information meant you could easily be given something like sports scores or basic weather or stock updates (delayed 15 minutes most likely) but anything that required graphical interaction was right out. 

So for my purposes, this is the shutdown-night phone, the device I use when I don’t actually want to be connected. What am I likely to need at that point? Well, Wikipedia, if I’m being honest, because I can’t deal with not being able to look something up as soon as I’m curious about it. And the UI for Wikipedia through Mobile Opera…I’ll make something up and be satisfied with that until I get outside. Where I can see what the weather’s like because it’s easier than trying to navigate to even the most bare-bones website for forecasts. Two things the iPhone revolution got us were a display big enough to be graphically useful and apps sufficient to cut through the web nonsense and get you straight to the data you need, frequently unencumbered by advertising. Modern web ads destroy the proxy browser as a viable choice.

The biggest kicker with this phone, though, is that 3G spectrum. Not only does it work here and abroad, it will continue to even as countries shut down and refarm their 2G spectrum for other 4/5G use. Right now T-Mobile is the last man standing with 2G in this country and even it will go away sooner than later, but UMTS/HSPDA 3G is barely 10 years deployed successfully in the US and will probably persist for a while yet. It may be functionally about where the phones I took to London in 2005 and 2007 are, but it’s not like I’m ever leaving the country without my SE ever again (until the SE2 or X-Minus appear).

Nope, this phone is another reminder of How We Used To Live. Kind of like my mechanical watch, a sort of sidestep into a world where I don’t need or want to be plugged in constantly. Just as the MOTOFONE F3 in 2007 was a reminder of what life was like in 1997, this phone is a reminder of what life was like in that last spring before the iPhone arrived, how things were what seems like a lifetime or two ago.

Of which…

The New Side Piece

For Christmas 2007, I got a MOTOFONE F3. It still works just fine – it’s the most minimal phone you can have. There seems to be a pretty good market for “festival phones” or the like as people attempt to get away from it all, and a phone that just places and receives calls, places and receives (rudimentary) text messages, and has speakerphone and an alarm – and that’s all – seems to be desirable to a lot of people who it turns out could have gotten it for maybe $30 a decade ago. But, as with so many things, time happened. And now only T-Mobile still supports GSM 2G networks, and not for very much longer.

Enter the Nokia 3310. The 2017 nostalgia phone has an update to quad band and 3G, so now it’s broadly feasible to have a simple phone that will continue to work after the plug gets pulled on the old networks – and will work around the world into the bargain, not least because this version is dual-SIM. (Not that I could go abroad without a smartphone, to be perfectly honest, but it’s the principle of the thing.) The original has sold out of all proportion to sense in the 900/1800 GSM world – with no 3G, no meaningful apps, a 2.4” display and technology that is the best 2006 could offer.

Why? More to the point, why would I throw $60 at this thing myself on a pre-order?

It’s aspirational, to be honest. Like the mechanical watch I wore abroad in place of the Apple Watch, it’s a touchstone of a time past – and maybe a time to come – when you don’t want or need social media, or GPS directions, or a steady stream of updates so you can watch the world burn in slow motion. It’s the means to keep in touch in a pinch, to text and say you’ll be late or call to hold a table, to snap a quick two-megapixel reminder of where you parked or what the address of the coffee place is. It’s a way of clinging to just enough technology to assist your life without letting it take over your life.

The truly ironic thing is that the only thing it really needs that it doesn’t have, at this point, is WhatsApp. Just because managing a group chat is so much easier without SMS, and for better or worse, WhatsApp – not Signal, not iMessage, not Facebook Messenger, certainly not any Google product – has become the de facto universal mobile messaging solution. Cross-platform, international, and it would be nice – but not utterly essential, thanks to the cunning use of Google Voice in a pinch. And then there’s Instagram…but then that’s opening the door to everything else too. The ironic thing is that Facebook owns both WhatsApp and Instagram, has largely left them alone, has managed not to screw them up – but it’s Facebook that has a built-in icon on the 3310, not its superior subsidiaries.

Honestly, this is all driven by the Irish experience. What apps did I legit need in Ireland? Maps, certainly, but that’s fair enough when you’re in a new town every night. WhatsApp to communicate with the traveling party. Instagram for people back in America to see how things were going. And really, that was about it. Almost no place took Apple Pay. There was precious little to be gained by checking email or RSS, it was just as easy to walk out and stick up your arm for a cab as to use any sort of ride-hailing app, and while using Swarm to check in was handy to create a record of where I’d been, it was a little superfluous with the pictures being tagged.

The moral of this story is simple: if you’re not really going anywhere and not socializing, then what is the point in having a device on you that’s just going to steamroll you with all the stuff you’re trying to get away from? There is no percentage in it. Instead, as 2G shuts off my F3 and the lack of updates slowly obsoletes my Moto X, I will soon have this 3310 for a while to be a species of cosplay, an artifact dropped in from another edit of life where it’s all you really need to get by. It’s a new tool in the escape kit. It’s the same phone you give a toddler…for the same reason. It even looks right.

We’ll see if it helps.

Fall of the Year

This is when it started.

Minneapolis, on the road in a strange city for a conference for a product we hadn’t deployed yet, no idea what I was doing and trying not to catch a sinus infection for my trouble (too late, it arrived as I left), and I was suffused with a darkness that couldn’t just be put down to encroaching Minnesota winter. It was the slow creeping realization, with two weeks to go, that we could fuck this thing up and that I had no plan for what if we did.

And we did. And I still don’t.

We got here well before November 8. We got here for eight years of Bush the Younger, when all of this choose-your-own-reality nonsense was pioneered. Stop acting like Bob Corker or Megyn Kelly or anyone else on the right is somehow heroic in the face of this outbreak of insanity, because their dumb asses drove the monkey to the airport every day for seventeen years. When “who you want to have a beer with” was somehow privileged as the only fit criterion for choosing a President, that paved the way for “no qualification whatsoever.” Purple Heart band-aids and Swift Boat documentaries and racist panic about Muslims and Sharia law proved that you don’t even have to pretend to have a winking association with facts as long as you fit what the Fox News demo wants to believe. And worst of all, we let a President get elected in the 21st century with fewer votes than his opponent. That should have been a fucking tornado siren for American democracy, and if it had been a Democrat who benefited, you can rest assure the GOP would have moved heaven and earth to undo the result of the election – because they spent eight years moving heaven and earth to undo the election of a black man with the temerity to win both the electoral college and the popular vote, twice.

That’s why it’s a waste of time to fret and wring our hands about preserving the norms and standards of our political system. Because those were shot to shit seventeen years ago. Once you say that the person with the most votes doesn’t win, you may as well hang it up. You don’t have a democracy any more, you have China without the organizational planning. A world where every single bill takes a 3/5 vote to move just because one side says so, a world where you can block a Supreme Court nomination for a year without consequence so it can be handed over to the useful idiot of a foreign power – don’t waste time worrying about what resistance and opposition and scorched-earth defense is doing to American political culture. The damage is done. It’s been done for years. We didn’t do these things before because nobody did. Then one side broke the seal, and it’s time to accept things are different now. You can’t un-ring the bell and it’s pointless to pretend we somehow could. We’re never going to have not elected Trump. We already burned the house down. Now we’re just arguing about how impolite it is to put the fire out if it hurts the arsonists’ feelings, when we’re not slobbering all over people covered in gasoline who are bemoaning how fire debases us. 

Because this has been a long time coming. The people who were turning firehoses and dogs on protesters in Birmingham in 1963 are still alive. So are their children. None of this ever went away. We just pretended it did because we knew it was wrong and we were content to say “this has no place in society.” And then when people persistently whispered “yes it does,” one side chose to indulge them for the sake of votes. Since Lee Atwater helped the Bush family go full redneck in 1988, the GOP has managed to win exactly one popular vote – but they’ve gotten a President in three times, and every time it was to our further detriment as a nation. The Republican Party willingly let itself be led by rednecks – not conservatives, rednecks – and now we live in the United States of Alabama and we’re pushing back hard. Five years ago, we thought – I thought – if we could just hold on and wait for the Old Ones to die off, we’d finally be able to get somewhere as a nation. More fool me.

And now matters are worse. What we’ve institutionalized is the idea that the best thing is to be as big a dick as you can, all the time, to everyone, and it will pay off in the end. If you don’t believe me, look around Silicon Valley, where an endless parade of assholes builds their advertising Panopticon out of your personal data without oversight or consequence or the balls to face an open market, because there’s always some dickhead on Sand Hill Road or Pioneer Way willing to prop his Allbirds on the desk and shoot another five hundred million dollars at a Stanford dropout with a fifteen year old brain. Our future is ever bigger businesses doing whatever they want and insisting on “personalizing” everything so that you can have your miserable life just the way you want, and never mind anyone else who might be driving you or delivering your food or standing on the same train platform. We wanted a classless society? We got a society with no class.

Two weeks in Ireland confirmed my worst fear: I didn’t want to come back. I am sure Ireland has no end of problems of its own – the Repeal 8 march on the Saturday after we arrived should be evidence of that – but Ireland didn’t look at a leadership position in the world and say “let’s let the worst people in our country shoot us all in the face” the way Britain and America did. Maybe there was a time when Ireland was hopelessly rural and backward, but it sure looks from here like they’ve managed to crack the code of having all the important stuff the 21st century has to offer without simultaneously giving in to the 19th or disappearing up your own asshole like area code 650 does.  Maybe it’s not practical for us to spend between six and nine years establishing residence and obtaining citizenship, but there has to be something I can do here that gets me separation from Palo Alto, separation from Silly Con Valley, separation from the United States of Alabama and the redneck mental defectives that make it so. And if I can find it, I might just about have three more years left in me. 

I don’t have seven.

Cead Mile Failte, postscript

So. Lessons learned. After finally visiting Ireland, what did I learn and what do I want to take back to improve my life here?

I mean, this is what I do. I go abroad and discover things I want to apply to my mundane workaday life. In 2007, London and York made me actually want to start visiting my local farmers’ markets regularly. 2010 in Europe opened my eyes to Spezi, elderflower and long haul train travel. Japan in 2015 made me want to drink highballs again, and London last summer made the half-pint of session ale an aspirational desire. So what did I come back from Ireland with?

For starters, wool. I bought a tweed flat cap and a dark gray fisherman’s sweater – certainly not the dingy off-white lanolin-rich tight-weave actual Aran sweater, but something more suited for a part of the world that never seems to get below 5 degrees Celsius no matter how hard I try to will it so. Sure, I look like somebody’s dad, but to be blunt, my whole life has consisted of me waiting to age into actually being that auld lad in the pub.

For another, I now realize that the pubs of my frequency in the South Bay are actually not that far off from the real thing if done right. The Tuesday night trad session in San Jose. The Kilkenny on tap in Sunnyvale. There’s no one place that will actually give me a snug, a fireplace, half pints, comfy chairs and live trad all at once, but I can probably get three out of five in any given spot if I play my cards right. Having experienced the real thing, my hope is that I can now embrace the local spots as warm reminders rather than cold comfort.

(And as much as I do enjoy the cheeky half, it’s nice to have the full long Imperial pint of Guinness or Smithwick’s or (insert local sub-5% ABV milk stout that I will move heaven and earth to find now) and I’ll probably have to have it in the 20 oz Yeti tumbler so that it can stay crisp and cold to the last drop. I got back, didn’t have a beer for almost a week, then had a Sonoma-area IPA and my actual tongue puckered. Lesson learned. Stick to the stuff that isn’t stunt-hopped to a fare-the-well and try out milk stouts and brown ales instead.)

Third, and this one could be big: it might just be time to knock Twitter on the head once and for all. I was very little in social media on this trip, Instagram notwithstanding, and it was proof that of all the social media outlets out there, the one that genuinely works and counts is…the group chat. Whether it’s in WhatsApp or iMessage or what have you, the group chat kicks the very ass out of the Twitters for being a good environment where you’re not constantly wading through the crap of the wider world. So there’s a nonzero chance that my various attempts at a private friends-only Twittersphere will get disposed of in favor of just maintaining the existing public presence (which in itself is less of a big deal, somehow) and I will stop trying to make this toxic thing somehow be nutritious for me. That would be nice.

The other thing I learned about myself is that in addition to fog and stone, I apparently have a thing for urban running water. The problem is, we don’t have a lot of that around here. Stevens Creek or the Guadalupe River are probably the closest, but they are dry for months at a time and don’t have buildings butting right up against them the way the canals did in London or Dublin. What I did do was change the white noise app in my phone from rain to running water…and it seems to be helping, even as I struggle to get my sleep cycle back to normal. (Naturally, I get it sorted just in time to make an early morning flight to the East Coast. Typical. Of which.)

Other than that…just patience. Wait for cold. Wait for fog. Wait for the darkness to pass you by and endure in the meantime. And just remember that someday you get to be back on the Sea Road, half eleven, listening to the session sounds drifting out of the Crane Bar and into the coal-smoky night.

Cead Mile Failte, part 6

Many countries have a national motto or creed, something ancient in Latin on a coat of arms that usually translates along the lines of ‘God at my right’ or ‘Get off my land’. The Irish national motto, Cead Mile Failte, means ‘A hundred thousand welcomes’.

-Pete Brown, Three Sheets To The Wind


San Francisco has about 800,000 people, give or take. San Jose has about a million. The thing that nobody around here seems to have grasped is that in between them is another city. It’s forty miles long, and it has a population of 1.5 million people, and it’s cunningly disguised as a couple dozen separate municipalities.

Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland has a population of just over four and a half million. The largest city is Dublin, with just over 1.3 million, followed by Cork at under a quarter million. Then Limerick and Galway, both of which are smaller than Sunnyvale. Think of the names of these places you’ve heard of. Limerick is under a hundred thousand. Killarney has maybe fifteen thousand people. Waterford, where the crystal comes from, is 54,000. The Rose of Tralee comes from a down of 24,000. The sixth largest urban area in the Republic is Drogheda, population 41,000 – the same as the listed capacity of Vanderbilt Stadium. Shannon – home of the international airport that was the gateway across the Atlantic for decades – has fewer than 10,000 souls.

Ireland is not really an urban country. These are towns and villages that grew up slowly over hundreds of years, self-contained and in many ways self-sufficient. People in Kinvara might be commuting to the big city for work, but the big city in this case is Galway, which is the size of Mountain View. And when you go to these towns and villages, they’re all walkable in a way that contemporary New Urbanist types in America would drool over. As long as we stayed somewhere close by, everything we needed – the grocery store, the pharmacist, the pub, the other pub, the restaurant, the museum, the other other pub – it was all an easy five minutes on foot, whether in Galway or Dingle or Kilkenny. I suppose I could have managed that in the town where I grew up, for a few years, but by 1995 it was pretty clear that you’d need a car to do anything at all in my hometown and forget about any kind of bus or rail transit.

And in most every town we stopped through, there was a storefront for the local TD – that is, member of the Irish parliament. You’re never far from your government, and when the annual budget comes out, they’re going to break it down in detail on the television and in the papers. Some people have suggested that there’s a Dunbar-number problem with American democracy in that you probably don’t know anyone who knows your Congresscritter, but I think it’s simpler than that. Ireland understands terrorism. Ireland understands bigotry. Ireland understands history and its consequences, because they weren’t things that happened long ago and to someone else. Ireland is in no hurry to get out of the EU, or to shut the borders – not when one Irish grandparent is enough to put you on a glide path for citizenship. In short, I think Ireland still operates at a human scale and with a sense of perspective.

There were things that reminded me of growing up in exurban Alabama – in a good way. So many doors still lock with old-school cartoon keys of a kind I only ever saw used in my grandfather’s old house. The proliferation of electric showers in stalls raised above the bathroom floor suggests buildings constructed before indoor plumbing or electricity. Long buildings curving around roads that were trod out by hooves instead of laid out in a grid. Portions in restaurants – and coffee and soda servings – suggest my childhood rather than the Golden Trough approach of the 21st century. The grocery stores were generally small to smaller. You speak to the pharmacist behind the counter about your issue and she suggests the thing you need to buy, rather than staring at a row of pills and creams and just picking out what has the gaudiest packaging or the best advertising. And the biggest sports – the ones that had banners strung across every road and homemade signs exhorting players by name at the crossroads – are amateur ones played by the local boys (and girls, incidentally) in the name of the county, not some professional organization or sham-amateur college operation.

You don’t want for modernity at all – there’s a satellite dish out every window and wifi in every pub and ubiquitous cell coverage for rates far cheaper than the American telecoms shaft you for, and everyone’s on WhatsApp – but you aren’t a prisoner of it either. There’s an agreeable pace to life, a general sense of just trying to be decent human beings to each other, that our country decided we didn’t have to bother with anymore sometime in the 90s. When I look at Silicon Valley in 2017, I want to shake the tech yuppies violently hard and shout “do you KNOW there’s other people?” Ireland does know. You hear a horn honk on a rural road, you know it’s because the driver saw someone he knows. You stand uncertainly at a bar in a strange pub in a strange town and hear “Have you been served?” Talking of our national embarrassment evoked sympathy, and in most cases a genuine curiosity about how such a thing could have happened, that only drives home what a rotten stroke of luck it was.

In short, Ireland looked me in the eye and asked me what life could have been like in Alabama had we somehow pulled our head out of our collective ass eighty years ago or so. None of the self-absorbed get-rich-quick hustle of Silly Con Valley. None of the pinched suspicion and passive-aggressive bigotry of the Confederacy. None of the desperation of grasping at some kind of imagined prior greatness because someone decided their stupid was more to be valued than other people’s smart. Just a country at peace with who is it and what it is.

It was on this trip that I realized how irked I am by the “green beer Irish” in this country. The ones who think Killarney and the Blarney Stone are the go-to destinations in Ireland. The ones whose idea of an Irish lass is Scarlett O’Hara. The ones who take the broad twentieth-century stereotypes of Irish-American as a modern representation of Irish and try to leverage it as some sort of white ethnic shibboleth. And let’s be blunt: most of these people are actually Ulster Scots, and I’m sure I’ll have things to say when I finally make that trip. Suffice to say that after two weeks, the real Ireland is far and away better than the one made up in somebody’s head from a smattering of Bing Crosby records with the acid-trip geography of how things are in Glocca Morra.

I expected the trip to be an emotional wrench, but it really wasn’t. Not even belting out the Fields of Athenry (in a pub called the Merry Ploughboy) did me in. The closest it got was two brief moments. One was when I picked up a check at dinner and couldn’t really convey what I wanted to – which was “here we are in this amazing place, and I don’t know when I’ll have the opportunity to be back here and have dinner with my real actual blood family, so I got this.” Seventeen years I’ve wanted to visit Ireland, and I found the lock picked and the country laid out before me through the good offices of our hosts. Thank y’all so so much for that.

And the other was when we were getting ready to walk out to the plane to fly out of Dublin back to Heathrow, and seeing “May the road rise up to meet you” painted on the wall. I live in a time and a world that, on the whole, doesn’t particularly wish me well – doesn’t wish anyone well, if we’re completely honest. For sixteen days, the Republic of Ireland did just that. There are no words for how badly I needed that, or how grateful I am, or how I hope that someday I go be back there and convey my respects in person. In the meantime, I’m going to try to bring what I experienced back with me and improve the state of my life here. Of which.

Cead Mile Failte, part 5

After leaving Kinsale, we finally found ourselves heading into the proper historic East. There was a whirlwind of a stop in Waterford, mainly just to see the crystal. I did get to hold the crystal football that goes with the college football national championship trophy, which is probably as close as Vanderbilt will ever get to it if I’m honest, and then we decamped quickly for Kilkenny, the next to last in our series of short-hops. One long drive up a scenic autumn motorway later, there we were.

An aside: the European Union requires its member states to upgrade a certain percentage of their roads to be 100kph-capable. Ireland managed this by merely sticking some signs up reading 100kph and calling it a day. So you can be going down a one-lane country path with a hairpin turn and an oncoming tractor right next to a sign reading “100 KPH”. Which would be awesome if you were filming an Hibernian remake of the Dukes of Hazzard, but which tends to be a little scary in a rented Skoda Octavia (which had a noisy diesel engine that shut itself automatically at every stop until we figured out how to disable it, a broken mirror in the driver’s sunshade, and over 100,000 kilometers on the odometer. They don’t have a lot of automatics at the rental counter in Ireland).

Anyway, Kilkenny is a town of about 9,000 with another 15,000 in the hinterlands. Its town charter predates the Magna Carta and its origins are hundreds of years before even that, and it has transformed one of its deconsecrated churches into a wonderfully-done Medieval Mile Museum as the cornerstone of its well-preserved high street, which includes Kilkenny Castle and a public house called Kyteler’s Inn. The inn dates itself to 1324 and is a whole warren of rooms and chambers on different levels before descending into an outright catacombs…which in turn opens on an outside patio that lets out onto a lower street on the back side. It’s easy to believe that this pub has been running in some form for 700 years, because it was cozy and welcoming enough that my teetotal wife sat at a comfy barside stool soaking up the music and the atmosphere for hours while I nursed a couple pints of Kilkenny Cream Ale – which is kind of like Smithwicks, but nitrogenated like Guinness. I’ve found it in two places on Earth so far. One was Kyteler’s, the other was Fibbar Magee’s in Sunnyvale California. Which means I’m going to be spending a lot more time in proximity to Fibbar’s even if they closed their own smoking deck. (Those duty free Cohibas don’t smoke themselves.)

From Kilkenny we delved into the Wicklow mountains, came the back way through the Sally Gap and its almost Scottish moors, and found ourselves at Glendalough. Which was everything you’d expect. Very old, very scenic, wrapped in gray cloud and gray stone and autumnal chill. When Christianity came to Ireland, there were no cities (Dublin wouldn’t be founded until the 900s) so the bishoprics and ecclesiastical structure was based around abbeys and monastic communities rather than towns and existing settlements as in Europe. In their way, they were as much universities as churches, because it was there that the Irish preserved learning and knowledge until it could be reintroduced into post-Roman Europe. Cool gray solitude in the pursuit of knowledge…Glendalough was every bit as affecting as Trinity College Dublin, and it wasn’t hard to see myself content at either one.

I have to mention the Wicklow Heather, where we had dinner. I’ve dined in some posh establishments in my time, but none of them has ever sent a car to collect me and drive me home at the end of the night, gratis. We had a lovely dinner, only mildly irritated at first by a literal busload of Americans on tour which provoked me to comment on social media, “the day will come when I can go abroad without Americans showing their ass and embarrassing me, but tonight is not that day.” If you’re going abroad as an American, my advice is to skip the ball cap, learn to feign a convincing Canadian accent, and for Godsakes don’t join a tour group.

And then it was back to Dublin, divest ourselves of the car – when we tried to board the shuttle to the terminals and said it didn’t matter which because we just needed a cab, the driver got out and went into the Avis office to call a cab to pick us up on the spot and be spared the airport surcharge – and one last night in Howth with one of my wife’s old work colleagues for dinner and pints and gossip before that big bird home. And Ireland gets you through the security line expeditiously; the biggest slowdown was when the security man pointed at a stuffed sheep in my bag and asked “you feed him already before flying?” I said I’d feed him on the plane and he replied “best be sure he’s not the food on the plane” with a wink. And then, after another short hop to Heathrow and a scramble for last-minute goodies, that long daylight flight home that added up to a 21 hour day awake and from which I still haven’t properly recovered (but waking up wide awake at 5 AM PDT is actually working for me and will through the end of October, so I’m trying not to fight it).

It was a dream come true, to be honest. Even when things were getting squirrely on those back roads, or we had gotten down to only three Euro cash between us, it was a delight to be there. And I don’t know how much of that baseline joy could be parsed out to being away from work, or away from America, or actually in Ireland, or other stuff, but there’s a lot of regression analysis to be done there.

Of which…

Cead Mile Failte, part 4

We left Galway after five and a half glorious days and headed south to Dingle. It was the beginning of a long stretch where every night but two were spent in a different town – two in Dingle, one in Kenmare, two in Kinsale, one in Kilkenny, one in Wicklow and one in Dublin before the bird home. The problem is, I always have a certain amount of mild gloom and difficulty in a new place until I get oriented and get my wits about me. Changing towns every day makes it difficult to get through that, and more to the point, almost every one of these towns would reward a two-day stay. Dingle itself probably calls for about three: one night at the pubs, one day driving around the Dingle Peninsula, one day exploring the high street and the village generally, and then maybe an excursion to the Blaskets or similar. And this is a town of two thousand people. It’s smaller than the town I grew up in, and there’s three days worth of things to see there.

Halfway around the Dingle Peninsula, amidst the medieval beehive huts and stone forts and hairpin turns on single-lane roads, there was a village called Ballyferriter. There are two hundred stories in the naked city of Ballyferriter. And four pubs. We stopped into one that said it had a Star Wars Viewing Platform, intrigued – and found that its back patio looked across the water to where a huge set for Episode VIII had once stood last winter. Apparently the offseason last year saw the Lucasfilm crew spend four weeks building a replica of Skellig Michael, four weeks filming on it and four weeks tearing it down, and among the amusements it offered, Chewbacca turned up in person to visit a school full of kids playing the John Williams score on their tin whistles. Now the whole village is Star Wars fans, even people who cared nothing for movies or sci-fi. I told the friendly barmaid pulling me a glass of Beamish that “you folks better be ready for more crazy tourists than ever before.” As a pilgrimage site for the Comic-Con set, you could do much worse.

We also visited the famous Foxy John’s Pub in Dingle, which is a public house and a hardware store. It serves both as long as it’s open, so if you need a hammer or to get hammered, as long as the door is open you’re fine. Huge crowd in the front room with the saws and nails and such, and then a pleasant space with tables and chairs (big comfy chairs!) near a roaring fire, and then yet another covered patio outside for the smokers. And the thing in Ireland is…everyone goes down the pub. Men and women. Young and old. Every demographic. You smoke, you don’t, you drink, you don’t – the public house in Ireland dates from a time when you needed that common space not just for social interaction, but for things you didn’t have in your own home. Like television. Or electricity. Or heat and light, if you go back far enough. (Some parts of Ireland weren’t electrified until the 1970s.)

The other notable thing in Dingle was the distillery. It opened five years ago, started making whiskey, and laid it down to age – and then kicked off making gin and vodka in the meantime. If you want to be a craft distiller, but don’t have three years and a day to wait before making profit, gin and vodka is the way to go, and Dingle’s gin is a rare old spirit indeed with tons of local botanicals (fuchsia, bog heather and the like. I also had a taste of the raw whiskey before it’s cut and barreled – it was roughly 164 proof, the strongest thing I’ve ever tasted in my life, and amazingly even at 82% ABV it still had a certain richness of taste that let you know “there is a very smooth whiskey waiting under here for you in 2020.” And to see a genuine Irish distillery – not an exhibition center, not an “experience,” but actual stills and rickhousing and mash tuns – was a great experience even if I don’t drink that much whiskey any more.

Kenmare was a delight in its own way – an amazing snack dish at one pub with the softest pint of Murphy’s you’ve ever tasted, followed by a dinner at the Coachmen’s with Ireland’s best accordionist, so-called, followed by a diversion into yet another pub with a full pint of Smithwick’s to watch Ireland take on Wales with a bunch of other folks riveted to the screen. And Ireland won through, 1-0, with the kind of more-guts-than-goods victory that you used to expect from the United States. If we can pillage Martin O’Neill to rebuild US Soccer, I will pay whatever it takes. And then the walk home by the river with no streetlights…and it was quiet. Dead quiet. No light but the night sky, no sound but a gurgling brook, and you start to realize just how rural the West of Ireland really is to this day, and how much I apparently do have a predilection for running water nearby.

Kinsale was another picture-postcard-perfect town of what, maybe 2500 in town and 2500 in the outlying areas? With five churches, five bookstores and twenty-five pubs. I lined up Guinness and Murphy’s and Beamish and sampled all alike (sadly my palate isn’t sophisticated enough when they’re all fresh from the local brewer. THEY’RE GOOD BEERS BRENT.) and we wound up buying deep-cut crystal worthy of the bottle of Yellow Spot on my drinks cabinet. But this is where my wife’s genius kicked in: we’d booked a room at a spa hotel instead of yet another B&B, because by this point we needed a vacation from the vacation. A couple nights of room service and a huge bed were perfect. (Ireland likes a firm mattress, too firm in many cases, but the weird electric shower thingy definitely gives you hot enough water.) And I was able to watch a little TV. I saw the Angelus rung before the Six One News on RTE. I saw wall to wall coverage of the 2018 budget interrupted by news of the California wildfires. And I was persuaded more than ever that what passes for “news” in the United States has a lot to answer for in how we got to this point…of which, as they say.

Cead Mile Failte, part 3

As an aside, now I will discuss the beer scene in Ireland. One of our stops in Dublin, obviously, was the Guinness Storehouse, a giant Disneyland of history for any aficionado of The Black Stuff. It may be Diageo now and they may be making a dozen different brews, but the iconic Irish dry stout is still mother’s milk to millions of fans around the world, myself included. So here’s my first blockbuster revelation of the trip:

(glances around furtively, whispers) It wasn’t that different.

Guinness in Ireland is like Cuban cigars: the quality threshold is a lot higher, and you’re more likely to get the good stuff, but if you know what to look for in the States – that is, a place that goes through a LOT of Guinness, sells it as fast as they get it in and keeps it impeccably with a good nitrogen system and clean lines and knows how to pull a proper pint – the experience is almost as good. The 4P’s did this, and I can vouch for a place or two around here. Nevertheless, my first pint of Guinness was drunk in the Gravity Bar at the top of the Storehouse with a 360-degree view of Dublin’s fair city. The experience alone made it remarkable. Thing is, in Ireland, you’ll get a five-star pint almost everywhere you go, and if it isn’t, it’ll be a four-star pint, whereas in the US, you have to scuffle some to find a four-star pint. But it can be done.

A little more about the beers of Ireland. I mentioned earlier that Guinness is on two taps if not three everywhere. Smithwick’s Red, with a different logo, is almost everywhere, and many if not most places also had their newer blond and pale ales. Carlsberg was the most pervasive lager, with Heineken a close second, but a lot of places were selling Guinness’s new Hop House 13 lager – which was rich and flavorful and better than most lagers I’ve ever had, and was a perfect accompaniment to fish and chips. Bulmers (sold as Magners abroad) was the universal cider, on tap most anywhere. The only American beer with any penetration, shockingly, was Coors Light, which brings us to the next point:

Irish beer isn’t generally all that strong.

This is the whole point, to be honest. Guinness is 4.2% ABV. Smithwicks is around 4.5%. Coors Light, as it happens, is around 4.2. When you drink beer in 20 ounce servings, 7% ABV American IPAs turn into a ballbreaker pretty quickly. The various craft beers I tried – like the delightful Buried At Sea milk stout by Galway Bay Brewing Company – were all around 4% ABV, as are the other dry stouts in the Cork area like Murphy’s and Beamish (both owned by Heineken now). Beers like that, sold in the 10 oz “just a glass” size (aka the Cheeky Half) are perfect for a quick bend of the elbow.

Ireland also knows how to balance an IPA. The hops are sharp and flavorful, piney and citrus, without overwhelming the malt of the beer or being too bitter to sip. The Galway Hooker (it’s a fishing boat, you perverts) session IPA is crisp and refreshing, not a stunt beverage with a ridiculous IBU count. Franciscan Well in Cork or Sullivan’s in Kilkenny will brew you a red ale that tastes like the best of autumn in a glass. And I did find Kilkenny Cream Ale, which I’ve now only had in two pubs ever: one in Kilkenny and one in Sunnyvale. But more on that later.

The thing that saved me, though, was Guinness Mid-Strength. It looks like Guinness, but it’s only 2.8% ABV. I spotted it on the taps at the Merry Ploughboy, locked in and tried it, and it turned out to taste exactly like Guinness tastes after you’ve already had eight pints of Guinness. I had been warned not to keep pace with one of our Irish compatriots, and rightly so as it turned out – but thanks to the Mid-Strength, I did it, and got home at 1 AM just fine and up and out the next morning without harm. And then, looking at Wikipedia, I saw that “Guinness Mid-Strength was test-marketed in Limerick and Dublin from 2008.” I don’t think that tap would be there if you went back today. I think God or Loki or St Brigid or someone put it there to protect me that night, and I am thoroughly grateful.

The moral of the whole thing is that on this trip, by various instruments, I re-learned that you can have a whole Imperial pint of a flavorful beer that you pull at slowly for an hour and a half and be just fine. I intend to pursue this at home with my 20 oz Yeti tumbler and a jug of the brown ale from the local brewpub, because Ireland has figured out how to drink smart and drink well. Now if only I could find a pub around here with a flagstone floor and an open fireplace and live traditional music and a comfy chair…