Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Morning in the young Autumn

One by one, silently they drift or spin lazily in the motionless early morning air toward the browning grass, and I watch spellbound from the window. A leaf from the young nearby oak, another from an elm on the crabgrass strewn fringes of the lawn, yet another from the clefted ash encircled at its feet by ornamental grasses. Back and forth, one by one, the wake of silent plummeting. Such impeccable manners these beautifully dying leaves possess. All summer long they've formed the sprawling canopy, weathered the rough winds, have sipped constantly on the mother tree's life-sustaining waters, but now it's time. Today, for these thousand or so leaves, it's time. There is no choice, no other way.

And as they languidly comply, they float by the embroynic buds of next year's siblings on their mother's lower extremities. Do they protest or scream their inevitability? I have no answer. I hear no sound but an unexpected bout of tapping and turn and peer out of the farthermost window where, almost out of sight, a pair of large, crimson-headed woodpeckers begin punching their sharp beaks into the heart of a soaring sassafrass. All summer long I'd seen the hole grow larger, the mound of golden wood dust at its base rise, but have hitherto not seen these elusive carpenters. Yet here they are in all their piebald and crimson magnificence. Have they guessed at my curiosity and show themselves now to say farewell?

The hollow drumming continues as I turn my attention back to the canopy and watch the leaves depart in their blazing prime, so mannerly, so final, each intrinsic part of the whole permitted a glorious moment in the rays of autumnal sun piercing the wood's dimness.

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Two Irish women

I'm very friendly with someone who lives in the depths of Northern Irish rurality. We go way back. She's in her early eighties, in terrific health, and one of the most interesting characters whom I've ever befriended. She's known me since I was a schoolboy, a very cunning schoolboy who knocked on her door on my way home from school one afternoon to ask for 'a glass of water because I'm thirsty...but with some orange squash (orange concentrate in the US) or lemon barley juice in it, if you just happen to have any.' (Years later, she told me that initial request almost killed her because she laughed for hours.) I got orange 'pop' that day and everyday thereafter when I knocked on her door to ask for a glass of water. Sometimes, I even got Fanta (fizzy orange) and Pepsi Cola, the 'Rolls Royce' of juices.

She came to the States in her early teens and entered service. She cooked for a bunch of WASP families, apparently cooked very well, and shared with me countless yarns about her life in Boston. Her stories riveted me. (Another friend, Anne, an elderly Irish lady who moved to London and started a business with her sister who subsequently died of a broken heart, also shares stories about her girlhood in the countryside where my father was a boy, and then I. In fact, a few years ago, I spent time with her and recorded some of them with a view to writing something in the future, perhaps a story or two, a novel, we'll see. As a university student, I stayed with her a few times as well, and she played tricks on me (and I on her) which I'll divulge on another occasion.)


My friend left the States and returned to Ireland to look after her sister and brother who've since died. They lived in a version of the Irish whitewashed cottage cliche with its manicured thatched roof and rosebushes with pink blooms as big as men's fists by the door. They owned cows (tan and black Herefords) and sheep, in fact she still raises cows--sometimes sitting for hours in the barn during calving time--which she sends off to the market with the aid of a friendly neighbor. Despite having lived in America, she remains highly suspicious of automobiles.
"Learned to be wary of them back in Americay," she says.

I'm not exaggerating when I write she's suspicious. She walks everywhere; five miles to the nearest town, two miles to mass on Sundays. I believe she despises cars, actually. When they approach, she clutches her handbag in front of her tummy and mounts the ditch and waits like a statue till they pass her by. Everyone in the area is used to the 'Yank's' (that's what her nickname is) eccentricity and give her wide berth when they drive past. Some horrid adolescents sometimes swerve toward her as a joke.

Anne and she are the same kind of women as my late paternal grandmother whom I adored. They're very strong, have character and backbone, take no bullshit, none. They have no truck with insincerity. The three used to confab non-stop at the chapel gate after Sunday mass when I was an impatient youngster chaperoning my grandmother to the early service (my appointment no accident), impatient for her to stop her bloody yacking and bundle into my uncle's car so they could drive me to the shop for my 'Sunday after-mass treat' of ice-cream with a chocolate flake. (Oh yes, I was a most cunning child, streets ahead of my siblings.)

I also like my friend back in Northern Ireland because she doesn't give a shit about what people say or think about her. (It took guts to clear off to the States at age sixteen without knowing anyone, as I did years later, albeit I knew two people.) Some in the area where I grew-up--uncreative, conservative people, people obsessed with the church and a ticket into heaven--regard her as a loose canon; some guilt-ridden souls (perhaps the nervous too), if she's on route to pay a visit to her siblings graves, will literally whisk behind tombstones or stop and begin to pray rabidly over a non-family grave rather than converse with her. She sees this, of course. She does, because my friend knows everything that's going on in my old townland, knows exactly who's 'stepping out' with whom (the stealthy married ones as well as the legitimately single), knows when the pope and church are just plain wrong, knows what's going on in the youth club, knows exactly the value of her herd and land, knows if someone's trying to shortchange or pull the wool over her eyes, and tells them.

I owe a debt to these women because I had them in mind when I decided to try my hand at writing. They are talented and form part of a great Irish tradition of oral storytelling, a tradition rapidly vanishing due to the homogenization of the media and the decline of the ceili (an Irish word for visiting neighbors at home in rural communities for evenings of storytelling and/or dancing).

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

At Agnetha's altar

When I was a teenager, like my protagonist in A Son Called Gabriel, I worshipped everything ABBA. What I really mean is, I worshipped blonde Agnetha. Every time I saw her on Top of the Pops (a British Pop program the BBC ran on Thursday evenings), I would sit mesmerised and watch this gorgeous Swedish goddess dance and sway her golden tresses in the amber, blue, crimson and green glow of the lights.

ABBA came to prominence throughout Europe by winning the Eurovision Song Contest in the mid-seventies--a contest that all the European countries participate in today still. They won with the song "Waterloo", which oddly I didn't care for when I first heard it, though after it won the competition, I thought it the best thing since the boxy Volvo. At one point they became so successful, they became Sweden's principal export.

Everything Swedish seemed so much more alluring and exciting in comparison to the grey humdrum of my Northern Irish life where the local news was but a litany of the bombings, murders and mayhem that had broken out in the larger towns and cities. Stockholm rolled off the tongue so much more exotically than Belfast or Derry, and its river was dotted with islands which one could purchase and live on. (Ironically, I lived in a rural area of Northern Ireland that seldom encountered violence, though the media slanted their broadcasts to suggest that murder was endemic throughout the province.) Sweden represented beautiful people with golden hair, pristine lakes and a country that was very rich and looked after all its citizens. In a way, it represented nirvana to this self-conscious teenager.

And I used to dream of meeting Agnetha and how, when I did, she'd be so taken by my good looks and crooning that she'd instantly offer me a spot in her band. I visualized myself beside her on the stage, both of us aglow in the warm, multi-colored lights, the presence of Benny and the other band members narrated as an occasional flickering on the dark wings of the stage. It was she and I the fans adored, and we'd sashay or lean out heads together--glistening black against spun gold--as we sang "The Winner Takes It All", "S.O.S" and "Chiquitita". Little did my parents or siblings know the crazy plots about Agnetha and my newfound fame flooding my mind as I sat at the breakfast table clad in my school uniform eating porridge. Naturally, my family did not feature in these dreams, though I do recall I would always arrive periodically back in Ireland in a black limo to shower them with the spoils of my success. Such is the innocent fantasies of adolescents.

Recently, I was interviewed by the Princeton Packet group of community newspapers for their TimeOff arts section and the subject of ABBA and Gabriel's and my attitude to them came up. While I can't speak for Gabriel anymore, I can speak for myself, and I did.


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Monday, September 19, 2005

Mainlining in Philly tonight

I'll be reading on the Philadelphia mainline tonight.
It's at Barnes &Noble, 720 Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr at 7:30 pm.

Also, I'll be on a panel at the Philadelphia's 215Festival on Thurs, October 6th, 7-9 pm.
Here's the details:
FORMATS ARE FOR LOSERS. Hosted by KEVIN SMOKLER, with CHRISTIAN BAUMAN and DAMIAN McNICHOLL. Three contemporary writers explore working in several different medium (books, radio, the web) and why being multi-disciplined is better than having a whole lot of it in one place. At Voices & Visions Bookstore. Free.

It'll take place at Philadelphia's newest independent bookstore called Voices & Visions in The Bourse on Independence Mall. Afterwards, people can adjourn to McGlinchey's pub to schmooze with some crime writers...as well as down some good old Irish booze, of course.

Click on the 215Festival website to see the other great scheduled events and authors in attendance.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

A woman of courage

Recently I watched a program on the telly that profiled a woman from Colombia whose work and dedication to her country I had not known much about until the documentary's airing.

Maria Cristina Chirolla is undoubtedly an admirable and brave woman. Fully 80% of the world's cocaine is produced or trafficked through Colombia. A kilo of cocaine that can be bought in the Colombian jungle for approximately $1,100 will sell on the streets in the United States for $25-30,000 and for $60,000 in Europe. Little wonder then that the $5 billion a year drug trade has financed a civil war involving leftist guerrillas such as FARC and right-wing paramilitaries, a war in which 3000 people are kidnapped and where over 3,500 people lose their lives annually. And worse, much worse, corruption is found at every level of the central and local government.

Despite such realities, the modest Ms. Chirolla, who describes herself as only an 'honest citizen', works relentlessly to oust this marauding, ravenous beast from her beloved Colombia's borders. She served first as the head of her country's Attorney General's anti-money laundering office but, when corruption in the Attorney General's office was discovered which led to two high ranking firings, she was created the chief of anti-drug and anti-crime operations. Diminutive only in height, since her rise to power, Ms. Chirello has fearlessly executed operations targeted at the drug lords, operations in which she has destroyed their drug-making laboratories and seized their riches, the luxurious homes and furnishings, boats and yachts, the expensive European cars, and has succeeded in curbing drug trafficking to a noticeable degree.

In doing so, she risks the loss of her own life daily. Attempts have been made by paramilitaries controlled by the drug lords to assassinate her, one 2004 attempt being organized from a government army base in Bogota that she'd used as a safe house. In one particularly poignant scene, I watched Ms. Chirolla run on a treadmill with tears coursing down her cheeks because she felt that someday the drug lords will successfully assassinate her--just as they have murdered other valiant politicians before her--because the government cannot fully protect her; and yet she cannot resign her position because she cannot leave her work unfinished. Such is her love for Colombia and the average citizen.

Women like this I have encountered in Northern Ireland, women who have marched and demanded justice and equality without fear...or perhaps, now that I've reflected, they were awash in the same fear dogging Ms. Chirolla, yet were equally driven to do what had to be done and their determination won out.

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Monday, September 12, 2005

Coming again soon:Buy a Friend a Book Week

Author and reviewer, Debra Hamel, informs me that Buy a Friend a Book (BAFAB) week is almost upon us again. It's October 1 through 7 and you may remember I was the guest author for the last round. This time it's Gayle Brandais, author of The Book of Dead Birds who's made the selections.

I think buying a friend a book for no good reason is is a jolly good idea, so here's a link to check out the choices, both mine and Gayle's:
Buy a Friend a Book

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Couple of PA and NJ readings

Just to let Pennsylvania and NJ readers know I'll be reading at Barnes and Noble, 102 Park Ave, Willow Grove, PA on Tues, Sept, 13th at 6pm, and at Barnes and Noble, 419 Menlo Park, Edison NJ on Thurs, Sept 15th at 7.30 pm.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Those heady freshmen days

Watching clusters of happy American students go off to college for the first time on the telly recently put me in mind of the time I left home for University College, Cardiff in Wales. Flying away from the parental nest really is a rite of passage, a painful rite from some, but nevertheless a necessary one. As the parent(s) help their child carry the brightly colored plastic containers filled with books, plants, clothing, chips, candies, sodas, etc. into the dormitories, they're really in one way saying good-bye to the child they've reared. What returns to their Thanksgiving table will be an adult, a girl or boy who's now tasted the freedom of making decisions, and the status quo has shifted forever.

My parents took my cousin Adrian (who was already studying at Liverpool polytechnic) and me to the Belfast docks where we caught the overnight ferry to Liverpool. I was to spend a few days with him adjusting to life "across the water" before I left by train for Cardiff where I was to attend law school. Adrian was fun and we'd been extremely close since childhood--now, sadly, we've drifted apart and hardly talk at all, but such is the serpentine road of life--and they'd deemed it prudent that he act as my guide. After the tears and copious promises at the dockside, we boarded the ship and proceeded straight to the bar where we loaded up on gin-and-tonics and chatted with other Irish students making their way to various universities and colleges throughout the United Kingdom. My gregarious cousin, the gin, and merriment added piquancy to the excitement I felt about the shining, new life I was sailing toward, and, even before we'd navigated the estuary that becomes the broody Irish sea, I'd forgotten the tearful dockside farewell and my parent's melancholy as they made their way home in the car, each silently locked up in their own thoughts about their eldest boy who'd now permanently left their protection.

Liverpool was fun, a swirl of introductions, pub hops and dining at trendy restaurants that served colossal hamburgers (not by American standards) and salads in deep bowls made of bread. I loved his flatmates and close friends: quiet Ian from Derby whose girlfriend once asked an air stewardess in mid-flight to Greece how to open the jet's window because she was very hot; suave Miles, his other flatmate, who was Irish though born in England and educated at a top Roman Catholic public school called Ampleforth; and four girls who were student teachers and lived in an upstairs flat with bright purple curtains in nearby Lark Lane. It was in Liverpool where I stopped using sugar, an accident really, because Adrian didn't care for it, had none in the flat, and we kept forgetting to buy some, so every morning I'd have my tea without and then decided to do the same when I arrived in Cardiff.

Cardiff was different to Liverpool, so very elegant because of its keep and castle and gorgeous civic centre housing, among other buildings, the university's administrative offices and the art museum. I will never forget the melody of accents surging through the halls and refectory of the law school: Malaysian, Canadian, Australian, Irish, British public school, British regional and Welsh, of course. Here, I experienced my first sharp feeling of public shame since arrival on the mainland, when I talked to some public school chap and he said he couldn't understand a word of my Irish accent. My accent was strong then, but I knew I could be understood. He had wanted to diminish me in front of his friends, and had been victorious though I would not allow him to see it. To my horror, I found he was also in my tutorial group--there were eight of us--and he was such an ass. He adored the sound of his plummy voice and always boasted about his 'barrister' father. He was a bigot too, very anti-Irish (as many of these types of English people are) and constantly interrupted me when I was answering the tutor's questions...though I got the last laugh because he was kicked out of the law school after he failed the end of year exams and ended up at some second-rate college studying English lit.

The university allocated me a room in a self-catering village called Llys Talybont (Although South Wales was fully anglicized, the street signs were in both English and Welsh, and the University had Welsh names for some of its accommodations.) There, I found myself sharing with Richard and Gary, two Englishmen, a tall, broody Welshman called David, and John, someone whom I knew from my grammar school who was studying medicine. Our mothers had stipulated to the university authorities that we should room together--a final act of parental authority, if you will--as we'd be wonderful company for one another. Mother chose to ignore the reality that I couldn't stand John at school; he behaved in a precious manner and was an intellectual snob, loved only the company of chess players and straight 'A' students.

I quickly learned John was obsessed with hygiene, disease and sickness to the extent he used to think he had developed symptoms of one disease or other he'd just learned about the previous week in a lecture. This would have been relatively tolerable except for his need to recite the litany of gory symptoms accompanying these infectious illnesses. Of course I talked him back toward sanity each time, but I also learned then that the practice of medicine's as much an art as a science. We never became close friends and grew to tolerate one another during that freshman year, especially since Richard proved to be an absolute prick (Gary settled into the role of faithful lackey) and constantly poked fun at us because we were, in his eyes, only 'stupid Irishmen.' This, notwithstanding, I was always at pains to remind Richard everytime he broached the subject that it took much higher grades to get into law school at University College than it did to get into the Civil Engineering faculty. After the second year, John went off to live with a bunch of medical students, I wangled a room in a house with some postgrad students, and we've never seen each other since.

As today's students at American campuses will find, the first weeks of college are spent making new friends and attending parties, dances and concerts. I deliberately don't mention pub crawls here because they're not permitted to go to bars or imbibe alcohol until twenty-one, unlike British and Irish students who can do so on their eighteenth birthday. (As an aside, I've always though this American prohibition very stupid; if an American kid comes of age and can vote at eighteen, they should be allowed to decide if they want to drink alcohol at that age, too. I guess, the law's a remnant of America's puritan roots.) Like it were yesterday, I can recall the hilarious times spent with my friends Patsy, Lindsey, the Simons (one of whom announced he was a Jew as he tucked into a ham sandwich), Peter and Hilary, the vicar's daughter who towered above us, danced abominably and kept us all in stitches with her accent imitations. But after those initial weeks, partying was relegated to weekends in the main (at least it was for law and medical students in Cardiff) because the tutorial work began to pile up and we had to stay in the law library until ten at night just to keep up, and even then I felt I was still behind.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Gorging on peaches

It's been a humid and uncomfortable summer in Pennsylvania and I can't stand this kind of weather, probably because my 'temperate' Irish genes get out of whack. Then again, I can't stand the Commonwealth's static-filled, bone-chilling winters, either. I've always hated extremes, both in people and the climate. So I'm happier we're in September because the sun's turned benign again and we can sit outside and enjoy a glass of wine.

Americans always complain about the horrid Irish and Brit climates after they've returned from a visit over there, that it's always raining and the sun's lazy when it does make an appearance, and they usually end by saying, "I don't know how people can stand it there."

There's some truth to their complaints, and it's also true the Brits and Irish certainly take full advantage of the sun's beneficence when they're visiting over here. A few years ago, we had a friend visiting from London in the early Spring and, on the first afternoon of his stay, a watery sun escaped from behind the clouds. Six-foot-three, burly and with skin so white it almost blinded one to look at him ( his hulking physique I'd always thought a terrific counterpoint to his calling as an Anglican vicar), he announced he was going to do a bit of 'bronzing', excused himself and went upstairs. Notwithstanding I'd translated for two other friends present that 'bronzing' was Brit speak for 'tanning,' one of their mouths fell open when she saw him return dressed in his swimwear.
"I've only got two weeks and can't go back to England without a tan," he said, and laughed as he passed out the door with a towel draped over his lily white shoulders.
Our friends watched spellbound as he spread his towel on the uncut grass, slathered himself in sun oil (SPF2 because he was greedy to catch and process every ray) and stretched out. Certainly no American--nor I, because I'd gone native by then--would have considered lying out at this time of year, but to my friend the sun was hot and perfect for tanning...I mean bronzing.

This summer I have done no bronzing and, aside from the gallop to LA and Boston, I've spent my time indoors with the air-conditioning cranked up. On those rare occasions I have gone outside, I've done so to mow the lawn, do a spot of weeding--a job I've always despised since childhood because my father always selected me out of his five offspring to do it--or take a stroll to our garden where we'd planted fruit trees. Larry, who's got green fingers, also planted a cornucopia of veggies including zucchinis, butternut squash, tomatoes, Chinese cucumbers, eggplant which I still call aubergines and peppers. I must say it's a very satisfying experience to go there and take stock of the fruit and veggies, even better to pick and eat them fresh for supper.

Yesterday, we strolled to the 'orchard' with friends and gorged on the peaches. They tasted superb. We planted the trees--two peach trees, two pear trees, and two apple trees, one of which produces five types of apple (something I'd never known was possible until I saw the thing and then had to satisfy myself it had nothing to do with genetic engineering before its acquisition)--several years ago and this is the second year the peaches grew to a decent size and looked edible. Last year, they'd looked appetizingly large too, but then a crafty deer (Bucks County is cursed with an abundance of some of the most conniving, intelligent deer in the country) jumped over the fence before they'd fully ripened and scoffed the lot.

What was particularly satisfying about this year's crop was that we didn't have to spray them, so they could be picked and eaten right off the trees. These peaches are pungent and succulent, their sweetness undoubtedly intensified by the knowledge they're our own bounty. In fact, they're so sweet, I've vowed never to eat another peach from a supermarket ever again. I'm simply going to savor every bit of what we have, purchase from local farmers stands when we're through with our own, and then recall their sweetness from memory until next year comes around again. No matter how prettily they're presented, supermarket fruit tastes wretched nine times out of ten. Bring back the era of the local greengrocer, I say.

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