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Dear sister, dear radical

FROM certain angles my sister looks a great deal like a leftover from the '60s. She lives with her husband on an island in Maine, where they earn their way by fixing up the houses of summer residents. They don't have steady jobs, in the sense that a computer assembler or an accountant has a steady job; they had a hard time getting credit cards, which most people now think of as an occupational rite of passage. My sister particularly spends a good deal of time doing her own thing. She raises vegetables and sometimes tends sheep; she writes, and reads, and teaches school, and takes long walks. It's not a bad life -- not even especially self-indulgent -- but it tends to evoke one of two responses when I tell people who ask about my family. Sometimes I get the wistful gaze, accompanied by something like ``Oh yes, that's what I'd really do if I didn't have to make a living.'' Other times it's a slightly cynical chuckle, with a comment about how pockets of ``that sort of people'' still exist all around the country. That's OK with me; I know my sister's out of date. What's a little strange, though, is how she's the one who's closing in on what I've always taken to be the American dream.

In a letter I got from her the other day, she was ecstatic -- she'd just bought two acres of land on the island. ``It's a wonderful feeling, having land under your feet which is yours,'' she wrote. ``Strangely, giddily wonderful.'' I was a little giddy myself, since I'd never taken her for a landowner. I was wondering how she managed, and why; but she went on to explain. She talked about the saving, the moonlighting, and the small amount of borrowing -- no big deal. The land clearly earned her love, motivating her all by itself. She described its one giant spruce tree, its low hill, its meadow, and its view of the ocean. Not bad, I thought, for $4,000. She also told a little bit about clearing it -- a big job, because of the significant quantity of legendary Maine rock -- and she explained the value of the rock, once cleared, as raw material for a foundation. ``I don't want to have to pay for any more materials than I need,'' she wrote.

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As I read her letter I began to realize that a certain orderliness was growing in her life. It wasn't an everyday kind of orderliness, which she'll probably never get in any case; but it touched her at a deep level. It was as if owning the land helped her to get her life in hand -- to know what she needed to do and didn't need to do. She inspired me, so I put on my shorts and went out for a walk.

I live in an apartment in an older Silicon Valley neighborhood, where houses go on sale in regular little spurts. I noticed one with a new sign out front, only a couple of blocks up from my place, and stopped to give myself a tour. It was a tiny place, a cottage really. The kitchen nook was straight out of the '30s, with a refrigerator you could store in a modern freezer. The single, closet-size bedroom had an unfinished addition with a mildewed plywood floor. I thought the best feature of the place was its location right next door to a woman named Mary, one of the nicest women in the neighborhood, who knows just about everything.

``How much for that place?'' she said with big eyes, as if she had a bad joke to tell. ``You wanna guess?''

Her voice dropped to a whisper.

``A hundred and forty-nine thousand dollars,'' she said.

I gasped, only partly faking it. I knew that Silicon Valley property values were crazy, but this was -- well -- a bad joke. It's the kind of place my parents started out in when they had no money -- the kind that always made the backgrounds to summer photos, with Mom and Dad on the stoop in shorts, standing by the new lawn chair they'd just splurged on. It's the kind of place I ought to be able to afford, and can't.

So, my dear sister in Maine, my hat's off to you. I remember times in the late '60s when Mom and Dad told you you'd come to no good, being such a wild nonconformist; and here you are, telling me what it's like to own your own place. Me -- I'm living just back from the cutting edge of technology, with a decent, ordinary job, and I may never be able to experience that ``giddily wonderful'' feeling of yours, at least not here. Tell me, dear sister, dear radical -- am I doing something wrong?

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