Sunday, December 31, 2006

She wants to see the video

It seems appropriate at the end of the year to comment briefly on a life that came to a violent end on Friday night. I despised Saddam Hussein and all he represented. He was a cold, calculating man, a monster and the photographs of the Kurds whom he executed bring a chill to my heart and tears to my eyes. Coming from wartorn Northern Ireland, I can relate in some way to the terrible pain some Iraqis have suffered as a result of his brutal ways including the punishments and/or killing of family members and friends.

That said, as someone born and bred in a European country, I do not believe the death penalty has a valid role to play in a civilized society (backed up by the cold fact that innocent people have been put to death here in the United States) and feel the news footage and spin surrounding his hanging was nothing more than a gross and disgusting spectacle. I feel his punishment would have been far more appropriately cruel had he been compelled to live in abject isolation reflecting solely on the pain, misery, mayhem and murder done by his hands and that of his administration.

It horrifies me that videos (albeit grainy, though I'm sure cleaner versions will be forthcoming)of a human being's death--no matter how odious that person--has become a source of entertainment on the internet, a sort of modern day equivalent of the death games in the ancient Roman ampitheatres or a ringside seat at the beheadings of French royalty. The mass rejoicing and shooting of rifles into the air--the latter perhaps ironic in that Hussein was himself caught on camera making one such display. The course laughter. The articulated joy and desire by a fifteen-year-old Iraqi girl now living with her family in Michigan whom I heard on teh radio saying she wants desperately to watch the death video. Yes, a fifteen-year-old girl whose parents will allow her to watch a man's execution yet will not allow her to smoke a cigarette, drink a glass of wine or even kiss a guy.
Could I envision my young nieces watching such a video or being allowed to do so? Absolutely not! What does all of this spectacle say about the people we have become?

Also equally startling is the results of an ad hoc poll (we Americans love our polls) done by our local telly station where many viewers (overwhelmingly women, which was a breath-usurping shocker) emailed to state they were happy he was executed.

There is certainly a downside to the technology we've spawned.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Crossed lines

Our friend Lee has had all her medical tests done and found an excellent surgeon who has now performed the breast conservation procedure--formally used to be known as a lumpectomy, I believe.

Her surgeon also practices Reiki, which in its simplest form is simply the practitioner placing his or her hands on the recipient with the intent of bringing healing and willing for Reiki energy to flow. It was very important to Lee that the surgeon she chose have a holistic approach to the concept of healing.

During the operation, a biopsy was performed and thankfully the cancer had not spread to her lymph glands. In other words, the cancer was contained to the lump that was removed from her breast. Lee presented her surgeon with the gift of a miraculous medal she's had since childhood, a gesture that moved the woman very much.

At this stage, I have to admit that lines of communication somehow got crossed when she called Larry on the evening of her surgery and said she was doing well and given the all clear as nothing had been found in the biopsy. Larry was mistaken and assumed she meant that they had not discovered cancer and she was thus cancer-free. I was in NYC that day on business and he informed me of her 'great news' that night on my return. Next day, I called her still acting on the assumption and the phone just rang and rang so I thought she'd gone back to work. Next day, I rang again and the view she'd not had cancer endured throughout the call and beyond--which, it transpires, is not the case because she must now go through five or so radiation treatments and various follow-up visits.

Larry and I assumed she was fine and, as there were just two days left, probably very busy with the run up to Christmas so there was no further contact until we met at Sharon and Michelle's for Christmas Eve dinner.

Finding myself seated beside Lynne at table, I turned to her (a few turns prior to the turn that sent the chair back arcing toward the sideboard) and said, "That was such fantastic news about Lee. You must be so relieved."
"What do you mean, 'relieved?'"
I chinked my eyes in befuddlement. "Well, that she doesn't have cancer."
She looked at me strangely. "She had cancer and they removed it."

As we discussed further, I realized our mistake and was aghast. (We'd even been calling friends to say it had been a false alarm and that Lee was fine.)

In hindsight--as only hindsight can reveal--I did remark to Lee during the call that her initial tests must have been what are called 'false positives' to which she replied 'Not...not really', but I didn't follow up on the comment and we moved on to other topics. Moreover, after the call, I remember thinking how ironic it is that so many Americans scoff at the British National Health Service and its failings and budget problems, but the American system, too, makes mistakes and false disgnoses such as Lee's.

"I'm so glad we've sorted this," Lynne said. "Lee's been getting calls from so many people this last few days asking how she's feeling, and she was so hurt because she didn't hear from you, guys. She said a few times, 'I wonder why Larry and Damian haven't called to see how I am.'"
What did you say?" I said.
"I just made excuses..." She laughed, "because I had no explanation and just didn't know what was wrong."
"You should have called us...even if it had been to bitch us out...and we're such good friends, you should have known something wasn't right. Oh, my God, I can't believe this mistake has happened between us who see each other so often."

We've been close friends for years so the misunderstanding was, of course, understood and forgiven, utterly. However, it serves as a valuable lesson to others in two regards, I think: first, I don't think men fully understand the entirety of what's involved when their mothers, wives, sisters and women friends are diagnosed with breast cancer--I think we have a tendency to downplay illness, including any sustained by others; and, secondly, I think people don't listen as much as they used to in the days before the advent of our craving for blackberries, emails, IM and cell phones, etc. We're losing the art of conversation. Clearly Lee had meant the cancer had not spread when we assumed she'd never had it in the first place and the initial results had rendered a false positive.

All in all, it also made me wonder how many countless misunderstandings take place throughout the US every day in every sphere of life including politics, some with very serious repercussions.

Finally, two useful sites to visit are:
mammogram if you've been putting off having one and another is National Breast Cancer Foundation for information

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The popping chair back

We went for Christmas Eve dinner to our friends Sharon and Michelle who've just recently moved to a lovely house in Lambertville--one of New Jersey's prettiest town's in my opinion--from Hoboken. They've also got a new puppy--a Cairnoodle (cross between a Cairn terrier and toy poodle so her fur is black with a beautiful copper sheen that glitters in the overhead lights) who's rambunctious, adorable and, for the first time since Spice died last April, made me think, "Yes, we could have another doggie." But we're still not there yet as we miss him still. (Recently, I planted daffodil bulbs on his grave which should come up in a few months time and I'm looking forward to seeing them bloom.)

L and L were also there. Sharon's of Polish heritage, so I was very much looking forward to traditional Polish fare and my taste buds were not disappointed. We had Kielbasaand sauerkraut--the genuine kind, not the suspicious, overly red stuff that masquerades as Kielbasa in supermarkets--and delicious Golomki, which is cabbage stuffed with chopped meat (mince steak in the UK). For dessert, Michelle baked excellent cookies, including my favorite which was stuffed with marzipan and topped with pine nuts, and thus I pigged out, necessitating an extra twenty-five minutes on the elliptical and two additional sets of sit-ups this morning as it was my first day back at the gym. At one point during supper, as I looked around the table at everyone chatting and laughing, I thought how truly important good food and friends are to making life happy and fulfilling.

A temporary glitch occurred thereafter because I had an accident. I turned to speak to Lynne and heard a dreadful crack. It wasn't the deafening kind, rather more like a popping sound. Before my brain could process what had occurred, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a piece of wood arc through the air toward the sideboard. I looked at the back of my chair (an antique one, to boot) and saw it was missing the upper horizontal of its back. Somehow, it had come off as I'd turned. A veil of silence plummeted as swiftly as Madame Guillotine. Larry's eyes drilled into mine in unarticulated 'Typical clumsy Damian' declaration. (I'd heard Sharon asking people not to lean back on the chairs as they were old and delicate--by that, she meant not to lean so that the chairs are balanced only by two legs, as some people have a habit of doing, a habit from school days--but I was entirely satisfied I'd not done that.) Naturally, I informed Sharon and she was most understanding and said Michelle could fix it. (She'd bought Michelle a professional saw--she's an artist who also makes furniture--replete with 'G' clamps for Christmas, so this would be a first try-out for the clamps.)

Thereafter, we repaired to the parlor where we played an interesting game (can't remember its name, though) involving a board, die, cards with questions and a DVD. There were three categories of questions--music, film and another I can't remember--and we selected questions about bands and music. Much craic (fun) was had. All of us were stumped when the questions involved recent pop bands or artists--I'm not talking about questions dealing with the likes of Kelly Clarkson or Spears, etc and, of course, we all know the true and lasting talent of people like Christine Aguilera--which I suppose is a sign we're getting on a bit. Some things become just more important.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Flying Sauc...Fruitcakes

I love fruitcake and I love Christmas pudding so you can imagine my shock when I first moved to the States and discovered just how much it's detested and make fun of when Christmas rolls around. Americans simply cannot understand how the Brits and Irish can tuck down pounds and pounds of mince pies and heavy fruit cake--it's just so hideous to conceive and they'd far rather have a nice warm apple or pumpkin pie.

At first I was bewildered, though I will admit some of the cakes masquerading as fruitcake in stores here is indeed highly suspect, if not downright criminal. I picked one up a few years ago and could not determine what exactly was holding the imposter together other than its plastic wrapping--it seemed to be all bright red and green cherries, assorted colorless fruit peel, a few bloated raisins and pecans. I mean, who puts pecans in a traditional fruitcake? I purchased it to complete my forensics at home and even I, supreme fruitcake lover, would not dare eat it because it was uncooked flour goo that turned out to be the binding agent.

There is nothing in existence to beat a wellmade fruitcake in my opinion. A friend travels to London frequently and makes a point of bringing me back a decently sized one if he's there near Christmastime, sneaking it past customs who might be inclined to think its some sort of missile because it's so dense with fruit....and rum and other desirable alcohols. My sister Deirdre bakes her delicious fruitcakes during the summer (she's been doing them ever since she learned how in domestic science class at school) and all throughout the fall she seasons them with brandy. If she knows I'll be home that year, she bakes one for me so I can sneak it past the watchful customs people. This year, I was over in Ireland and also brought back a Marks and Spencer Christmas pudding that my sister Siobhan had in her back cupboard, as well as some rhubarb jam my Mom bought and had blessed at a monastary. (Only kidding about the blessed bit, but I knew I'd get it home safely considering its point of origin.) We had the pud about a month ago and it was moist and pleasingly chewy--though I wished I'd had brandy butter and had to settle for vanilla ice-cream with real vanilla extract.

On the telly the other night, I saw a segment about an American family that have been playing a game of pass the same tinned fruitcake between them for the last fifteen years. That's what I call true re-gifting. One of the sons decided to end the game when it arrived at his house this year. He called the family together, opened the tin, and cut himself a slice.

"How is it?" his mother asked. She'd been the one who first bought it as a gift.
He chewed for a few minutes without replying, then swallowed. "A bit rubbery. I'm not going to finish it. I hate fruitcake anyway."

One town, Manitou Springs in Colorado, even has an annual fruitcake toss. This year will be their twelth year holding the event and it's taken very seriously. There's even rules and some competitors build very complex launchers, including trebuchets.

Here are some of their rules:

1. Participants should bring their own fruitcakes. Fruitcakes must contain glaced fruits, nuts and flour. They cannot contain anything inedible. Fruitcakes will not be “taste tested”. Fruitcakes must be visible to the inspectors, no duct tape, foil, etc. All Fruitcakes will be examined by the “Fruitcake Toss Tech Inspectors.”

2. A limited number of fruitcakes will be available to rent for $1.00 if you were not fortunate enough to receive one of your own or if you were unable to find the time or recipe to bake one.


4. For the Fruitcake Launch the device used to launch the fruitcake must not be powered by fuel (ie: no motors, engines, gasoline, diesel, etc.) The maximum length of the hurling device will be 10 feet. Safety is the most important issue. Any device deemed not to be safe by the organizing committee will not be allowed to compete.

Prizes awarded for: Most Beautiful Fruitcake, Ugliest Fruitcake, Most Creative Use of Fruit Cake, Fruitcake that traveled the greatest distance to the event (proof provided by post marks on package).

With such current disrespect for the lowly fruitcake, what chance does it truly have of being accepted as an equal in these United States? I think that's a viable question to occupy the time of the next Congress. If the President pardons two turkeys annually, why can't they establish a Committee of the Fruitcake and establish some rules....and respect?

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Rocky rocks the pastors

I'm a sucker for the triumph of the underdog and overcoming the odds--heck I've written about it--but I couldn't help smirking when I heard on NPR the other day that the latest Rocky movie "Rocky Balboa" is being shopped to pastors and religious leaders as a tool to teach their parishoners solid christain values and principles, a sort of outreach program. I am not joking. Apparantly Rocky is humble, turns the other cheek, and is an all-round tremendous guy and thus a good example of how to lead one's life--never mind he's mashing up his opponent's face and/or beating the shite out of him and vice versa. There's even a website called that's been set up by Hollywood (well, not all of Hollywood understandably) and/or Stallone--who spoke recently at a teleconference to the pastors about being reborn.

According to the radio piece, the website encourages churches and religious leaders to include references to Rocky in their sermons, to show clips from the movie, and thereby illustrate what a tremendous example of Christianity he is as he goes about his life. Why, they're so helpful, they even suggest themes for the Sunday sermon.

And the amazing things is that many pastors and priests have bought the spiel and done as the website suggested. I joke not. I'm convinced Rocky might be the first fictional character to be canonized if this ball keeps a-rolling.

As always there's a tiny fly in the ointment. Apparantly, Stallone is neither 'talking up' his 'reborn' credentials nor Jesus and the Christian arc of the story when he's interviewed by the mainstream press or other market segments which the studio and/or he has targeted. It's led one cynical wag to suggest they're trying to ride the coat tails of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," by targeting church leaders to drive the buzz and sales.

Of course pastors are in a lather to get people into their pews, but surely they can spot a bit of slick willie marketing, can't they? Maybe not--though it's true some are denouncing the attempt to influence the course of their sermons.

At least the City of Philadelphia had the good sense recently to refuse to designate the statue of Rocky (which they'd erected in some minor park) as a landmark and thus assure its permanent removal to the top of the steps of the venerable Art Museum, as some fans and interested persons desired. As a compromise, it now stands near the bottom of the steps as a piece of interesting artwork.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Shuttle sighting...I think

I was watching the local news on the telly last night and they said Bucks County residents would be able to see the new space lab and shuttle fly by on its orbit between five-thirty and five forty-five.

Off Larry and I rushed with our glasses of red wine to the field where he's building the fieldstone house in the style of a French Country home. (He put a Christmas wreath on a top floor window last week--even made the red bow with crimson lights-- and it shimmered in the crystal clear air as we came up the drive that's really just a lane made of stone, currently.

We stepped out of the car and looked up at the sky which was pocked with aircraft, both commercial jets flying to Europe, undoubtedly military aircraft on their way to Dover airforce base and smaller private planes belonging to locals who've got landing rights and strips here. It was magical watching the warning lights flash on and off intermittently as the aircraft crossed the huge expanse of sky.

Just as we'd concluded we'd missed the space lab, a much larger white light emerged on the horizon and slowly arced across the sky. It traveled slowly and had no flashing lights, so we're pretty sure it was the shuttle and lab. We saw it, though all it was was a white light about the size of Venus. Might as well have been Venus, which we see every morning...but of course the telly guys never tell you that all you're going to see is a moving light and you won't see windows and astronauts walking about outside. Bright lights aren't newsworthy, I imagine. Not even for local news.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

How to get a new stadium 101

The sun was shining and it was warm like it was a mid-spring day as we drove up to NYC, this time for our Puerto Rican Christmas dinner at Larry's Mum's apartment. It was delicious, delicious, delicious. Her apartment lies just off the Grand Concourse, near the beautiful Bronx Supreme Court building where I once held a surprisingly competitive foreclosure sale a few years ago on a large commercial property (left me with knots in my stomach in case I'd screw up the paperwork as it was my first real estate sale as a NY lawyer and my boss was a difficult mensch, I shall say, diplomatically) for the FDIC and it's got four beautiful pink, unpolished granite reliefs of ancient Greek men and women playing sports and reading tablets in the art deco style.

It also looks right into Yankee stadium, though that's going to change next year because they're busy with the construction of a new multi-million dollar stadium behind it that's beginning to take shape. That's something that blew my mind when I first moved to the United States; how football, basketball and baseball stadiums that are twenty-five years old are suddenly declared obsolete and torn down. America is a throw-away society--from refridgerators to baseball stadiums. Few people repair fridges or stoves anymore because it's easier to throw them out and buy a new one. Crazy, but true. I'm convinced telly and fridge repairmen will soon be categorized as artisans here.

With regards the stadiums, the teams charge huge ticket prices in order to pay their players and management disgusting amounts of money--money that they could earmark to finance the building of their own facilities. Of course they don't want to hear that sort of pragmatism. No, they want the like sof NYC and Philadelphia, etc. tax payers to do that because they think we're all dummies. (It's no wonder the international soccer organization (FIFA) tried so hard to make their sport break-out over here a few years ago. They saw the dollars; but it was all for nothing because soccer's regarded as a women's sport in the US and baseball and American football's too entrenched.)

The rip off of the tax payer normally begins with the team's owners declaring their old stadium is too old and they're going to move to another city (or New Jersey) which they state will build them a new gig; sometime's it's true, but as often as not, it's total bullshit and intended to pressurize the current city's mayor and administration to come to the bargaining table with millions of tax dollars for the new project. The Philadelphia Eagles and Philly's did it a few years ago successfully. And last year was the Yankee's turn.

Regarding another NYC construction project, yesterday was a particularly poignant day at Ground Zero because families of people who were murdered on 9/11 and interested members of the public were invited to come down there and sign the first steel beam that is to become the soaring Freedom Tower. It was available until 3.00 pm. On NYC radio, I heard some family members read (between gasps and tears of sadness) what they'd written about their loved ones on the beam and it was heartwrenching. Some wounds will never heal and it is right and fitting they are being involved in this process.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Little reminders

The day before yesterday in Berks County, the next county along from where I live, they experienced an earthquake--I think it registered 2.7 on the Richter scale, which is nothing big, meaning only a few cups and saucers shook in peoples cupboards.

Two years ago, when my publisher sent me to California on tour, I was a bit nervous when I arrived in San Francisco because I thought the 'Big One' will probably occur when I'm in mid-read at Book Passage in Corte Madera given my luck. As I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge--and it is a thrill to drive across it for the first time even though its color is more rust in appearance than gold--it also crossed my mind that it might happen and I'd be left undulating in my rental car.

Of course, I learned and had forgotten that New York City (Manhattan Island) is also built on a set of crisscrossing faultlines and has had two earthquakes in 1774 and 1884 measuring about 5 on the scale, which is still relatively mild.

So yesterday was a cupboard shaking reminder that earthquakes don't just happen on the West Coast. And last week London got its reminder that tornadoes happen in England, too.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A call to weights

Today's a sodden, mist-enshrouded day in this part of the eastern seaboard, a day that reminds me of living in London and Ireland, a day when the deer peer gloomily from the woods and not even the skunks or ubiquitous grey squirrels venture out to gather yet more decaying black walnuts to add to their stockpiles in preparation for the bitter Pennsylvania winter that's been forecast by Glen, the perpetually dickey-bowed weatherman, on our NBC affiliate. (He boasts an eighty percent accuracy rate in his long range forecasts so we'll see; if he is, he'll drive me from this part of the states for sure because I can't hack snow or winds so chilly they numb the lips within seconds of being exposed to them.)

Today was also D-day in a way. You see I've been a wee bit lazy of late: I stopped doing my weight-lifting six weeks ago, although I continued to do the elliptical and even bumped my time up by five minutes in a futile attempt to delude myself that I was still being scrupulously diligent. A few weeks ago was also my anniversary at the 'Y'. I've now been going there for a year; in fact I just renewed my membership for another year and am resoved to take up Yoga and Pilates in the coming months.

So, on this unmotivating day, I decided to return to the weight-lifting section of the gym because, though my body is taut and quite satisfactory in general, I was beginning to think my biceps were becoming a little slack and my tummy has begun to chomp discomfitingly against the waistband of my Levi's (even with the belt's removal) rather like a horse's mouth at a bit. I'm sure the biceps issue is all to do with guilt and an overactive imagination, but said Levi chomping will not be denied, nor can my voracious appetite and vino-imbibing during Thanksgiving and subsequent Christmas parties of late. It's all conspired to remind me of how much sweat I've spilled to get to this body-stage and, knowing I have four parties this week beginning tonight and four more next week, was sufficient motivation to dispatch me to the dumbbells and hellish abdominal machine.

Hornet was already in the section (she no longer owns the Hummer as I don't see it in the parking lot anymore and has now taken up weights in addition to her hours of cardio) working on her abs and we nodded at one another. We've lapsed into a sort of agreeable nodding and I'm hopeful this bout of amiability will last. There is only one tiny threat to its termination. We're both creatures of routine and, like me, she gets to the gym after eight in the morning and loves to get rid of the tedious and difficult exercises in her routine first. This includes abdominals. As there's only one machine and it's very popular and never free at the moment one needs it, we'll have to see how it works out though I am determined not to fire the first volley of shots. I refrained from asking her how long she required and did my butt squeezes instead.

I remain confident. We shall see.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

A looming day

Early in the mornings, on my way to the gym, I drive by a dilapidated clapboard house and a few outbuildings that declares itself a farm judging by a sign near the mailbox and boasts it was built circa 1875. (Use of the word 'circa' is very big in the states.) During the summer the family arranges a few scrappy-looking beefsteak tomatoes or zucchinis for sale on a rickety table by the roadside and they also have a sign attached to a barn that states 'Brown eggs available', presumably laid that morning by one or other of a bunch of scrappy brown hens I see wandering the yard. I'm convinced the farm's a bit of a ruse and they aren't really farming for a living, have in actuality just fenced off their couple of fields and call it a working farm so they can claim the benefits of one or more of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's tax laws--maybe even getting an IRS (federal tax) concession or two into the bargain.

Propped against the barn is a lifesized model of a deer made of foam that has been shot through the heart so many times I can see through to the barn siding. Of course, we're now in the peek weeks of the deer-hunting season so I sometimes see the men of the family (plus one pugnacious-looking women with biceps I'm working diligently to acquire who's a wife of one of the sons or a daughter and favors a scary looking bow and quiver of arrows rather than a rifle) dressed in their camouflage and piling into a couple of rusty pickups with their friends to go for a spot of bonding and killing in the woods.

Also on the property is a squat, sun-bleached windowless shed that looks sinister. I think it's used for processing. Yes, processsing. My suspicions are probably correct because in an adjacent field that's really more of a back garden, there are usually two calves grazing for periods of six months. In the field there is also a pen where said farmer/hunters train the calves to approach and get fed grain from buckets. This family appears to have a a voracious appetite for red meat; four cows a year, in addition to the legally permitted two, three or four deer...and let's not forget the brown eggs because I'm sure people don't stop to buy them...oh, and I'd imagine any of the scrappy chickens that have the misfortune to become unproductive.

About one year ago, the family had Aberdeen Angus and tan Hereford calves. The Hereford's face was white, unblemished and it had those long cute eyelashes calves have. Though I grew up in the countryside and do eat a little meat, I grew distantly attached to the Hereford to the extent I even considered driving there in the dead of night and releasing both it and its companion, but of course I did not give foot to my consideration. I didn't because I rather feared getting an arrow or two in my back and ass. The day came six months ago when the white-faced Hereford and Aberdeen were no longer there. Two Aberdeen Angus calves arrived a few weeks later. Like their predecessors, they too were cute and innocent. Throughout the summer, I've watched the pair transform to sleek, fat bullocks whose coats look coppery in the late fall sun.

Christmas is now soon upon us, the radio's playing carols, people are drinking and partying, and another of those days is coming again. Very soon. Next week or the week after I will drive past on my way to the gym and the field will contain only dried hoof prints, the pen only the two pails side by side, and the door of the squat windowless building will be shut.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The drunken pompom:a true Bronx tale

I zipped up to the Bronx to visit Larry's Mum (not the official Christmas visit where we eat traditional Puerto Rican Pernil) on the day New York officially banned transfats from our diets effective 2007. Predictably the restaurant lobby is up in arms, but tough S.H. One. T as my sister Siobhan the pragmatic social worker says on these occasions. (I love New York City when they do sensible things like this because restaurants can easily make the dietary changes without compromising taste and, as it's known widely that what New York and California do today, the rest of America does tomorrow; already it's happening because Boston and Chicago announced they plan to follow suit.)

His Mum always cooks fried plantains (they look a bit like hard bananas but are vegetables and must be served hot) for me regardless as to what she's prepared for lunch because she knows I LOVE them...amd I do to the point of transforming into a piglet at table. However, being well brought up and always wanting to be well thought of, I try to curb my gluttony in public so never wolf all of them down and, on this occasion, left one piece for her--usually I leave one-and-a-half or two, the dryish or more browned ones, which she sometimes munches on while Larry and I tuck into dessert.

Afterwards, she asked us to put up her Christmas tree. It's artificial, about three-feet tale, and she likes to place it on top of a waist-high wooden cabinet. Larry was anxious for us to get out of the city again early because of the Christmas traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge and I78, had forgotten she'd want her tree decorated, and was consequently a bit snarky as he pulled out her Christmas bits and bobs from the storage closet. But his mother is as strongwilled and Germanic as he and, try as he might to take shortcuts, she pulled him up on it. I helped decorate, but couldn't help laughing inwardly as she rattled off at him in Spanish (the family's been in Puerto Rico for centuries now) about what he was doing that she didn't like, which I partially understood as a result of being with him for years.

At last it came to topping the tree and she desired a life-sized white dove with real feathers--a gift given years ago from a now deceased son--to have the honor. Larry yelled it wasn't possible because the dove was too heavy and stuck it into the tree just beneath and then proceeded to spear a colored ball on the uppermost spike so that it looked like a pixie hat pompom. As I watched, the tree tip lurched then slowly swayed to one side as if the pompom were drunk.

'It's okay,' Larry said to his mother, who looked at me aghast.
'No, it's not,' I said. 'She wants the dove on top. I did it last year...very well, too, I hasten to add.'
'You did it wrong,' he said. 'It fell off twice before Christmas day.'
Determined to make a point, I glared at him before snatching the dove from its roost within the branches, pulled off the ball and bent the uppermost tree spike in three, and began to affix it to the remaining stump but the damned thing's right leg came unglued.
'Oh dear, its leg's come off,' I said. I was horrified. 'Can you fix it, Larry?'
'I told you it wasn't possible to put it up there,' he said smugly.
His mother went up to a box and began rummaging through it.
'Larry, don't you get it?' I whispered. 'What your Mum wants is what you have to give her in this case. It's not about the dove. It's about--'
'Give me that bird and let me see if I can fix it,' he said, an edge still in his voice to show I wasn't entirely forgiven.
'It's okay,' his mother said. 'Here's another one. Junior gave me two doves. Put this one on top.' She looked at Larry 'You can fix it another time, chikita'
'Ma, no crying,' he said.
(His mother visits his brother's grave almost every week and Larry is soft-hearted and can't bear to see her cry.)
With absolute determination, I placed the dove atop the tree and then tested it to make sure it would not fall as it did last year. And if I'd had a camera handy I'd have taken a pic to prove its sturdiness because this scene will play out next year again. Absolutely, it will.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Arriving American style

Siobhan, my sister, just informed me of my nephew David's preparations for his sixth-form social, which is the Northern Irish equivalent of the prom, and they seem extensive. He attends a Catholic college (was Siobhan's alma mater as it used to be a convent (high school) for girls and the surrounding all-boy Catholic high schools nicknamed them the 'blue virgins' because of their royal blue school uniforms) and this is his final year, but it appears times have changed since I was a sixth-former in Ulster.

Apparantly, school kids over there have adopted the sort of American trappings I detest. He's dressing 'black-tie' for the event, which is fine--in my day, we went dressed in casual attire to the girls school called Dominican College, named after the order of nuns that patrol its corridors and dorms with their mean looks and oversized wooden rosary that clack as they stride--but David will travel with his date and friends in a limo, which is not fine. Sadly, I believe the limo is also American manufactured, one of those stretched Lincoln contraptions that some local entrepreneur decided would make him a buck or two if he imported it for this and other similar purposes. Furthermore, I think I saw one of them on my recent trip there.

If school kids over there want to be tres cool, they should arrive at their socials in Smart cars. They're cute and very noteworthy. But it's not going to happen. Big vulgar American limos will win out least for a while. The kids are brainwashed with all the mindless American television programming we export there.

Now, my nephew's gonna (I mean, is going to) hate me.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Searching for avocado...still searching

I love avocado pears and guacamole, but a Californian housewife is hoping her disappointment over a dip will lead to taking a big check to the bank.

Apparantly she bought Kraft's Avocado dip, whisked it up, decided it didn't taste 'avocady' enough and filed suit.

Putting on my lawyer hat for a moment, I find it hard to believe she found an attorney to take the case. One requirement for filing suit is the nexus between plaintiff and sustained damages and/or loss. Other than the price of a packet of dip, I'm finding it tough to come up with any sort of damage that would merit a lawyer getting involved--unlike, for example, finding a bit of mouse in a bowl of chile.

Well documented here is that I'm no cheerleader for conglomerations such as Kraft, but I tend to agree with them when they state that a reading of the packet would have shown her excatly what was in it, that there was no avocado contained in the ingredients.

Moreover,in my estimation, a quick pour of the powdery stuff into a bowl would have been another clue.

Mind you it has scared Kraft because they've whipped (pardon the pun)all Avacoda dip packets of the American supermarket shelves. I think it's to return in the near future as Avocado-like dip or some equally tortured wording. (Maybe they should follow the pharaceutical industries current fad in marketing and abbreviate its name like they do freshly invented illnesses that can only be treated by their new minted drugs.)

I'm sure this woman's been scouring for years for an excuse and product to sue a corporation with deep pockets. Wonder when exactly it'll make it into a subplot in Desperate Housewives or even make it to TV movie of the week.

No wonder people have such low opinions about my profession in the states.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Honey, I'm home

I've been doing some preliminary work on a memoir I'm going to write in 2007, things such as going through old musty boxes and trying to sort out timelines for the New York bar review course I did and jobs I've had since coming to the United States and where I've lived, etc. Though it's been fourteen years since I came to the States from London, it's astonishing how much one forgets--how I was once attacked (and shrieked in a highly undignified manner) by a large, bad tempered Amazon parrot belonging to Larry's ex at a dinner party in New Jersey, for example--and how one loses touch with people one meets on the journey such as a centenarian who was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

One thing I'd definitely forgotten was my extreme surprise at the flimsiness of contemporary American home construction, especially the condominiums and tract housing (MacMansions is the term for such houses) that's mushroomed in the towns and cities in the past fifteen to twenty years. I remember moving into a condo unit in Long Island, rapping my bedroom walls with my knuckles, and thinking when I heard how hollow it sounded that we wouldn't even make the walls of a kennel with that kind of sheetrock in England or Ireland. Nor did it help matters any when I could hear my landlord's every word and lovemaking in the bedfoom next door--very unnerving, very disturbing, very public.

Nor is the use of this 1/2", 3/4" or max 1" wide sheetrock restricted to cheap housing. Nowadays, multi-million dollar houses are constructed with the same inferior and unsuitable, yes 'inferior and unsuitable' are the only appropriate words, product. I asked Larry about this (he builds French Country homes and should know) and he said it would not be cost-effective to employ old-fashioned plasterers. They're now categorized as artisans and, therefore, their labor is very, very expensive. In his last house, Larry contracted with chaps from Ireland to have the house facade done in stucco and it was hugely expensive. (The Celtic Tiger was also at its peak and two were going back permanently to Ireland because they could make more money.)

Admittedly, the fact that the frames of houses in the US are constructed of wood and not cinder blocks (or its new cement equivalent) adds to the hollowness and ability of noise to travel unfettered through modern homes. The other night at a dinner party in someone's home, I needed to use the loo and didn't miss any dinner table conversation in the dining room because I could hear clearly; of course, that inhibited my pee stream because I feared they could also hear me.

It amazes me that Americans, who are so picky about their cell phones, computers and cars--although here, too, there is room for debate when it's an American car they buy--will accept such substandard products. I cannot believe they gave up their domestic privacy without complaint.

I believe Americans should insist that gypsum manufacturers make a better product and/or townships and cities should amend their building codes to insist privacy is as important as the breath of stairs and height of treads, fire walls and installation of electrical circuit breakers and demand products taht cut down on the hollowness and flimsiness of interior walls. Either that, or just bring back good old fashioned plaster walls such as are found in old farm and townhouses.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A diagnosis

Last Friday, the reality of breast cancer hit very close to home because Lee of our very dear friends L&L got a call that a biopsy she'd had done the day before was positive.

Lynne rang to tell us and I could tell she was absolutely shocked on the phone. So Larry and I went over as they wanted to be with friends. Lee was there because she'd been told the news while at work and, of course, it put her through a loop and she had to come home and gather her thoughts.

Anyway, the cancer is pea-sized, is not the aggressive type, and she needs to seeboth an oncologist and breast surgeon in order to discuss treatment options. They're busy setting that up now, in addition to having a test done on her lymph node to ensure it has not yet spread to that area.

Thanksgiving is on Thursday and this year we've got something to be very thankful for in that Lee's being going for mammograms on a regular basis. Her last one was eight months ago and there was no cancer at that time, so this means she's only contracted the disease in the last months, which makes it much less dangerous and absolutely treatable.

She wishes me to say that going for your checkups really works. So to all women reading my blog, please go and have a mammogram done if you've been putting it off. To borrow a legal phrase: Time really is of the essence.

Another site for information

When her treatment begins, I'll have more posts.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Interview with a Brother from Australia

As someone who was born and educated Roman Catholic, I've thought it important for people like me who learned our catechism by heart and also understand how the church functions to speak up against the hierarchy when its members act hypocritically or in a bigoted manner and/or when they're not in touch with the laity in some of its doings and/or when they're just plain wrong. The day of blind or ignorant acceptance of all that they preach is over viz-a-viz the developed world and I am convinced--with respect to God in so far as practicing Christians venerate Him--a hierarchy that is fully accountable to an educated, informed people would be much more in keeping with His intentions.

The obverse side is that when people within the church--whether in the laity or hierarchy--are doing good then that, too, must be acknowledged and lauded. So I am very pleased to bring you an interview with a Brother whom I had the good fortune to come across as a result of word of my novel going farther and farther ashore--in this case to Papua, New Guinea via Australia.

Because he is still in the process of coming out to some members of the Order to which he belongs as well as having a desire to afford them privacy, the Brother wished to remain anonymous and I respect that. I feel you will find this as educational and interesting as I did. As he reads my blog, feel free to leave comments for him via if you feel inclined to so do.


DMN: Can you tell me about the area where you grew up in Australia?

ANS: I grew up in the Western Suburbs of Sydney in an area that would be described as working class. My family is very close and very large. I am one of 11 children, two of whom have died. In reality I am classed as the eldest because the one born before me died shortly after birth. My education was totally in Catholic schools and many of the Brothers and Nuns who taught me were Irish, a feature of Australian Catholic life at this time. I attended the Convent School from Kindergarten until Year 3 and the following year, Year 4, advanced to the ‘Brothers School’ where I completed my
education up to Year 12.

DMN: Were you close to your parents? Were they very religious Catholics? Are they immigrants to Australia?

ANS: I was closer to my mother. My father was a good man who loved us, looked after us and provided what we needed. In many ways he was a very private person and looking back it was hard to get to know him at least that was my experience. I realize now (he died in 1984) that there were many things about his own family he never told us. Much I have found out from my research into the family history. My mother was always the one at home and having given birth to so many children she had to be there, so for me she has always been the one I found it easier to talk to.

I don’t think I would describe them as overly religious Catholics. They took us to mass every Sunday, confession occasionally and we attended all the Easter ceremonies in our parish church and dad was a member of the St Vincent De Paul Society. We took our turn at the family rosary statue that came around the parish but not too many of my brothers and sisters enjoyed that compulsory exercise.
Both my parents were born in Australia.

DMN: Did you go to university and, if so, what did you study?

ANS: No I did not go to University. I went straight from school into the Brothers and when it came time to undertake my professional studies I went to the Teachers College where I trained as a Primary School teacher. I therefore have a BEd and also now have a BTh and Mth.

DMN: Have you always been religious?

ANS: I went to Mass and did the things that were expected of me as a Catholic but apart from that I wouldn’t describe myself as always being religious.

DMN What made you decide you wanted to devote your life to the church?

ANS: I did not join the Brothers with any big ideas of wanting to devote my life to the church; I simply wanted to be a Brother like those I knew and admired. That may sound naive and at the age of 19 when I joined it was probably not a good reason for joining a Religious Order. Having said that I did join and I still remain to this day, quite some years later. I am convinced that although one’s initial reason for joining a group may be immature or unclear, over time one refines that initial call and the reasons why one remains. A call to me is something that unfolds as the life journey we are on continues. I would describe it as a journey into authenticity and faithfulness.

DMN: Are you a priest or a brother?
Why did you decide to enter as a brother as opposed to becoming a priest?

I am a Religious Brother. The Religious Order to which I belong does not have priests. Despite the men who taught me being tough enough in school, outside of class there was an ease in relating to us that I was drawn to. It was never a choice between being a Brother or a Priest. I always wanted to be a Brother.

DMN: Please explain the difference between the two.

The major difference is the role we play within the Church and the life we lead. Priests are very much involved in the sacramental life of the people. We are not; we don’t celebrate Eucharist, hear confessions or marry people, or dispense any of the other sacraments of the Church. My vocation is to live out my calling in a community of like minded men who try to imitate Christ and base their lives on Gospel values. We also follow a particular ‘charism’ or spirit given to us by our Founder. It can be argued that this is the call of all Christians and that is so. The thing about me is that I have chosen to live out my Christian calling in the Religious Order to which I belong, trying all the time to deepen my relationship with the God who called me initially.

DMN: Describe an average day in your life and the type of responsibilities you have in your vocation.

ANS: I live in Papua New Guinea. An average day for me at the moment is a follows. I rise at around 5.30 am. Things start very early in the tropics and that isn’t all bad. I am not by nature an early riser so it is sometimes hard to get up that early. I begin the day in private prayer followed by community prayer with the other Brothers with whom I live. Mass follows and after breakfast the day of ministry begins. Having only been in my new posting for a little less than two months I am still settling in.

Basically I am involved in the teaching of young men who are in various stages of training and commitment as Brothers. I teach them about Prayer, our Religious Life, Scripture and all manner of other topics relevant to our life and life development in general. In the New Year I will be responsible for those in a particular stage of their training called Novitiate. That is a period of two years before the person commits themselves to our life by the vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. At the end of the working day we gather in community for prayer and then our evening meal which we take turns to prepare. I love the morning and evening as they are the coolest part of what is generally a very hot and humid day. The cool of the evening gives the chance to sit and enjoy the particular beauty of the area in which I live. We have a lovely view of the coconut palm dotted coastline. People would pay a fortune for such a view in Australia.

DMN: When did you first realize you were gay and how long did it take for you to accept it?

ANS: This is the six million dollar question and also what has been at the heart of my own journey over the last year. My earliest memory of my same sex attraction would be around the age of 8 or 9. Obviously I would not have attached the word gay or homosexual to those feelings but they were there as I look back. My knowing I was gay continued to unfold as I got older but around my early teenage years I definitely knew I was attracted to other boys of my own age. There is a very big difference between knowing and accepting. I was going okay until towards the end of my High School. I was in Year 10 and 16 years of age. We were told by our Principal that we were to have a visit from a particular priest who was going to tell us some very important things about sex and other matters young men of our age should know. I remember thinking this was funny as we had already been told the facts of life in Science class some two years previously and I wasn’t sure what this priest could add. I don’t remember all he said but I am very clear on the tirade he gave us about homosexuality. That really threw me and I was too scared to go and talk to anyone about it. I was totally confused. Up until then nothing bad had come to my attention about my feelings. That was suddenly all changed. When I ‘gave in’ to those feelings I went to confession and thought it was all okay but the feelings were still there and I struggled very much. Throughout the last two years of my High School I was very aware of my attractions to other boys but despite having some very good men teaching me there was no way I was going to raise the topic with them. At this stage I began to become aware of the views of the wider society on homosexuality and they were as bad as the church so I shut up and said nothing. So began the journey to not accepting the truth about myself.

When did I finally accept this truth? Only this last year, in what has been a most difficult, personal and spiritual experience but one I am pleased I have been through because of the end result. I would not wish the agony on any one but believe me there was light at the end of the tunnel and with the help of an excellent counselor and an excellent spiritual director I came through. The agony was around finally believing that it is good to be gay and that one is loved very much by God for being gay.

DMN: Was it difficult to accept your upbringing as a Catholic with being a gay man?

ANS: I suppose that was what my journey was all about. Both the Church and society continually sent messages that to be gay was something akin to having a life threatening disease. I had to finally confront the reality of this belief in my own life and that was difficult. I thought I had succeeded in blocking out all the negative messages and was okay especially as I was not living in a homosexual relationship, but one can only fool oneself for so long. Eventually the truth has to be faced and the truth was that many within the Church and society for that matter still think it is wrong to be gay. When I accepted that reality I then had to face what I really thought myself about being gay.

DMN: How did your family (immediate and extended) react when you told them? Did any of them reject you as a result?

ANS: My fear has always been that if others knew I was gay they would not want to have anything to do with me. The thought of being rejected by my own family worried me so much I wasn’t prepared to say I was gay. I have always wanted to be accepted for who I was but have been afraid to say it.
I initially shared my journey and my fears with particular members of my family and was so happy with the reaction. I have since shared it with them all and not one has reacted negatively. I have shared it also with some members of my extended family and received the same positive response. Some of my family members have friends who are gay and so it was never going to be a problem for them. It is a similar case with my younger nephews and nieces who live in a more tolerant society and are very much faced with the reality of gay men.

DMN: Why did you decide to tell them?

ANS: In the end I had to, if you know what I mean. When I finally came to the peace of accepting who I was it seemed to be the natural step to share this knowledge with those I loved. It adds integrity to ones life if you are prepared to share the deepest truth of yourself with those you love. The sharing of such truth and the pain of the journey has brought me to a deeper relationship with quite a few of them and that in itself is good.

DMN: Have you informed your order that you are gay?

ANS: I have informed the leadership within my Province and also our worldwide leader. There are also significant others within my own Province with whom I have shared this truth about myself.

DMN: What was their reaction?

A very positive one. No one has any problem with my being gay. In fact the community in Australia which I recently left felt free enough to discuss the matter around the dinner table.

DMN: What do you hope will result from your decision to come out to them?

ANS: First and foremost, an acceptance of the reality that there are gay men already living within Religious Community and doing quite a good job at it. Secondly, to challenge any stereotypes that may exist in the minds of individuals. Thirdly, how does such knowledge challenge them to accept homosexual men and women within the wider society?

DMN: Have any of the brothers changed in attitude toward you since you came out?

ANS: None at all, but then again those I chose to share my truth with are men whom I respect and with whom I have a very good relationship. Some expressed surprise but then realized that being gay didn’t change the reality of the person they already knew.

DMN: How do you feel the Catholic Church treats people who are homosexual,both its clergy and lay congregation?

ANS: This is a difficult and complicated question to answer and what follows is my own opinion. The official teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality leaves much to be desired. It can only be and is a source of pain to those who are gay and lesbian and who want to take their rightful place within the Church. I believe it is stuck in a time warp and it is high time it moved out. Bigotry and hatred abound against homosexual people and the Church has to accept her share of the responsibility for this given their only partial acceptance of men and women homosexuals. Many quote the Bible to prove their position but take it completely out of context and with no knowledge of the advances that have been made in Biblical scholarship in recent times. They have also failed to take into account the advances in the behavioral sciences about sexuality in general and sexual orientation in particular. While many within the Church totally accept and minister to the homosexual community the hierarchy itself has a long way to go.

DMN: What changes in attitude would you like to see within the church in this connection?

ANS: Imagine a world where all men and women are accepted fully for who they are!
That is the change in attitude I would like to see. What if the Church stood up and publicly declared that it has been wrong in its judgment of and treatment of homosexual people in the past and they want to change all that. What if the Church espoused a Theology of love that included the love of one man for another and one woman for another and welcomed the living together of two such people in a loving, life giving and committed relationship! It would be a very different world we live in.

DMN: Is Australia tolerant towards gay people?

ANS: Australia is very much like any other country. There is both acceptance and rejection in all its degrees. While Sydney each year hosts the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and huge numbers attend there is still much violence done to homosexual people. Sons and daughters are still thrown out of their homes for saying they are gay or lesbian; gays and lesbians are still being beaten up on our streets and even killed. So while I would say Australia is a tolerant country it still has a long way to go.

DMN: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about yourself,

ANS: What I have described here is only the tip of the iceberg. The story each of us has to offer has its similarities and differences. It is also very complex and is almost impossible to put down accurately in such a short space. I ask those who read my story to accept it as it is. It is not complete and it still continues. It has validity because it belongs to me. I look upon it as something very special and something quite sacred. I trust you will respect it for what it is and for the truth I have decided to share in these few pages.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Cosmopolitans and the Book Club

A book club 'adopted' my book recently and they invited me in to discuss it last week. I knew I'd enjoy it as soon as I arrived and saw thirteen ladies in the living room clutching Cosmos' that looked exceptionally expertly made. I stuck with red wine.

I love it when a book club gets the questions asked that they need to ask while having a good time doing it. To top it all off, Leslie (the hostess) made the most delicious chocolate fondu for desert that I've ever tasted. I made an absolute piglet of myself...but that's what chocolate's for, right!!!

What a really fun evening.

Coming up next week, my interview with a Brother from Australia in which he discusses growing up in Australia and his coming out to his family and church.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

I didn't inhale

It seems fitting I would give my ten cents worth on the recent scandal involving Ted Haggard, who's the president of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals and senior pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Not to do so would risk me being hypocritical because my comments on the Catholic church in this regard are already known.

Basically Ted romped with a handsome gay escort called Mike Jones and asked him to procure two hundred dollars worth of crystal meth--a drug which apparantly increases sexual pleasure during coitus--over a period of three years despite being a married man and father of five children. When meeting for trysts, he went by the name of Art and they discussed many topics including his antipathy toward the homosexual lifestyle and his strong opposition to gay marriage and civil unions--which he even made known personally to our current President. While surfing late at night on TV, Mr. Jones was apparantly flabbergasted to come across his 'John' pontificating and praising God and Jesus on a Christian channel.

It is to Mr. Jones' credit that he decided to come forward because he could not stomach the hypocricy of this self-appointed man of God. He openly admits he was being political in exposing this man and thereby hoping to effect the outcome of a Colorado ballad initiative aimed at excluding the institution of marriage to gay people, an initiative Mr. Haggard was actively campaigning for.

It is unacceptable for any person to attempt to destroy and trample on the rights of any law abiding human including gays and lesbians, and doubly so if the attacker is a closet homosexual (Mark Foley) or a married man or woman full of selfloathing and/or living a clandestine gay or lesbian or bisexual lifestyle. Unfortunately, there are many such persons. It is just and proper that this man be exposed.

Haggard will now have a great deal of explaining to do to his congregation, wife and children. He has stated he did order the drugs, but threw them away as soon as he got them...oh, and yes, he also admits he was with a gay escort but did not inhale...I mean, shag. Hopefully, after the necessary media circus comes to an end, he will enter a period of deep reflection, come to terms with his sexuality, and give priase to his God for bringing an end to his falsity and pernicious hypocrisy.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Queen:Movie review

"Uneasy the head that wears the crown" Henry IV, part 2

As the film opens with Helen Mirren posing as the Queen for an official portrait on election day in a flowing purple robe (the color of royalty) adorned with the medals of state, the viewer thinks this will be a remarkable film. When she turns and stares into the camera before it pans away from her face and, with an additional mere twitch and the slightest shift of her neck, imbues herself with the public's perception of Queen Elizabeth II's personality, the viewer knows it will be remarkable.

The film revolves around the events of the week following the Princess of Wales's death on August 31, 1997. Juxtaposed between actual footage of the arrival of Diana's coffin back to England by a jet in the Royal flight (a privilege the Queen did not wish to extend until Charles informs her they can arrange for her to be sent via a commercial flight with an hour stopover in Manchester), images of her life as a royal, and parts of the funeral procession, we see a Queen totally ignorant of the wishes of her subjects for the first time in her reign. Encouraged by her idiotic husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, who is portrayed with a hairsbreadth of hating Diana--not to be forgotten is the irony that he is an outsider, himself brought into the bosom of the English royal family as a spouse, yet renders the loudest, most unconscionable opinions about the Princess's life and personality, and many of us can relate to this kind of situation within our own families--the Queen decides to stay at her forty thousand acre estate called Balmoral and keeps both William and Harry in the dark about what's occurring in the country viz-a-viz their motehr's death by removing the radio, television and newspapers from their quarters.

The public begins to turn against the royal family, despising their indifference. We are shown scenes of them talking about deer hunting in the living room over gin-and-tonics while watching montages on television of Diana's life on the television, as well as a scene of Philip and his entourage stalking a magnificent 14 point stag on the moors--the scenes compiled partly as a result of discrete interviews with people 'in the know' and partly from 'informed imagination. It falls on Tony Blair as the newly elected priminister to advise the Queen she is in error and eventually, when the Queen's folly and intransigence becomes ludricous, he compiles a list of things she must do in order to save the monarchy that includes getting her family to London as soon as possible, accepting a state funeral when she wanted it to be private, and actually paying her respects at Diana's coffin in person and flying the royal standard at half mast at every royal residence including Buckingham Palace. The latter has never been done before, and it is all the more galling in that the Queen stripped Diana of her HRH title and thus regards her again as the commoner she once was. One can experience the Queen's abject horror in Mirren's face and by the stiff British upper lip turning slowly upward before our eyes. Moreover, the insult that it is the British Primeminster advising the Queen wounds her psyche deeply, especially when one understands that royal protocol dictates that the charade to be maintained at all times is that it is the Queen who appoints and advises her Primeinister on affairs of state.

A very moving moment occurs in the film when the audience relives emotions experienced on the day of the funeral while listening to a portion of the eulogy given by Diana's brother, though the tears do not remain in our eyes long because this time we can see the Queen's deadpan face as she sits listening in the front pew inside Westminster Abbey. Also, I had the sense that the director may haved inserted a bit of fun for the benefit of British audiences (and those foreigners in the know) by poking oblique fun at Blair's promise to change Britain radically when he came to power, yet ten years down the road there's been no major change at all, the monarchy still survives, and he's become America's poodle.

Like Cherie Blair, I am not disposed favorably toward the monarchy, but having grown up in Northern Ireland where one could not escape the public's appetite and adulation for all things royal, I have had to fight a natural inclination to watch them if they're on television. Mirren is seductive. But then the monarchy is a seductive institution, which is why it survives. The Queen has fought hard to maintain its air of mystery. A shrewd woman, she understood that the elixir of secrecy and mystery is what made their subjects rever both the family and instititution and thus ensured its unquestioned existence by the majority-- though now that the curtain has been pulled open on that world of privelege and familial shenanigans and we see they're not any better than we are and that they have a perverted vision of their 'upper class-ness', it will inevitably lead to their demise--the only question being when, exactly. All in all, a very good film and well worth seeing.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Scent of God and Author Interview

TNThe Scent of God

Being raised Roman Catholic and coming from an extended family with a long tradition of members dedicating their lives to the nun and priesthood, I was anxious to tuck into Beryl Singleton Bissel's memoir. Here was somebody similar yet very different to me: similar in that she was brought up Roman Catholic and educated in their schools, but different in that she came into Catholicism as a result of being the offspring of an English mother who converted; similar in that she never quite fitted four-square into her social milieu as a child and then adolescent, yet different in that, whereas I began to question my faith and the hypocricy of the organized church, she became infatuated to the extent she was convinced she was destined for sainthood and in an effort to secure that prize became a Poor Clare and left society to live a life of prayer and contemplation in a New Jersey monastery.

I was not disappointed, was in fact often riveted by the narrative. In a straight-forward, precise writing style (which I like in both fiction and nonfiction), the author takes us on a unique journey from her first home in New Jersey beside a pretty lake where she experienced the negative effects of a parent who drinks too much to lush and exotic Puerto Rico--she even mentions the blazing flamboyan trees, which held me spellbound on a trip there too--where she doesn't quite fit in at school initially and later experiences her first love affair with a Puerto Rican youth who dies before the book is finished. But Bissell decides her happiness lies in her being close to God and enters the aforementioned Poor Clares, much to the horror of her parents--as does her sister a few years later. Her descriptions of the time spent in the order is one of the book's strongest parts because it gives the reader an exceptionally intimate portrait of the noviate's life and the hardships, solace and humor behind those formidible walls.

But living as a nun was not to be and the author meets and befriends, on a trip home to Puerto Rico to assist with an ailing parent, an older priest. The friendship develops into a love affair. When Bissell decides to leave the Poor Clares--she is resolute and unafraid to show she's redblooded and has desires for this priest. Though not stated, there is a sense that the memoirist feels the clock is ticking and she wants to marry and this leads to an ultimatim being given to Vittorio (who is tormented about quitting his vocation) that he must make up his mind becaused she will not wait for him to make up his mind. A period of indecision on his part follows--there is a funny aside about her first trip with him to Italy where she packs condoms in with her luggage just in case--and they do eventually marry. However, the story does not end there because Vittorio sustains a life-threatening illness, an illness whose knowledge Bissell carries alone in the relationship because the family do not want him to know he is dying.

I am thrilled I discovered this inspiring memoir because it educated me in an aspect of Catholicism I had not known anything about and showed the choices one woman made in her path toward becoming happy and fulfilled.

Author Interview

Thanks for agreeing to appear on my blog and answer my questions, Beryl.

DMN: Writing a memoir is an exceptionally personal process (as I'm discovering myself now that I'm embarking on the journey) and leads to much self analysis. What inspired you to write a memoir about growing up in the States, Puerto Rico and becoming a Poor Clare?

BSB: Overhearing my teenage children, in periods of special angst say that things were going wrong because their mother had been a nun and their father a priest and God had it in for them. I began writing to tell them the story of the love that brought them forth but as I wrote I realized that I, too, was grappling with the same questions. Did God punish us for the choices we make in life, what were the beliefs that led me into the monastery, what was my role in the events that contributed to the unravelling of that vocation. Basically, who is God and who am I.

DMN: Was it difficult to write at any time and, if so, can you give us an example of any difficulties you experienced. Going deeper, getting to the story beneath the story.

BSB: This required the most prolonged examination of conscience I've ever undergone. I thought I'd finished the story when an agent told me it was a great story and I wrote well but I hadn't told the story yet. "You touch on huge issues and then dance away from them into details."

DMN: You write that your parents were not initially pleased that you decided to enter a convent, which I found very interesting because I come from an Irish tradition where it is almost a mark of honor to have a child receive a call to the religious life. Your mother was an English Catholic. Do you think her Englishness and coming from a country which is not particularly interested in organized religion (as judged by low church attendance) made her suspicious of religion to the point she discouraged your vocation?

BSB: My mother was actually a convert who became a Catholic because she wanted a "church wedding." At that time mixed-marriage ceremonies took place in the rectory. She had little grounding in the faith; there had never been a priestly or religious vocation in either family and she wanted me to have the best this world had to offer, including marrying a rich man.

DMN: Why do you think your father was unenthusiastic?

BSB: No religious vocations in the family, even though he'd once considered becoming a priest, and wanting to support my mother. I think it was giving up the college scholarships that troubled him the most. He was proud of my brains and wanted me to excel and a monastery was not a place that would allow me to "shine."

DMN: Have you tried to trace your mother's former boyfriend, the one she went back to England in search of during your girlhood?

BSB: I've been thinking of writing a book based on her life (fiction because there is so much I don't know) but to do so will require going to England and searching out this sort of information.

DMN: What is your relationship toward Roman Catholicism today?

BSB: I am a practicing Catholic but not one the Church would call "devout" because I have serious issues with the Church today. I feel at home in Catholicism but not in the Church -- the liturgy, sacraments, and the legacy of the saints keep me anchored.

DMN: Have you experienced any negativity from people within the church's hierarchy since the book's publication about your decision to leave the church and your courtship (and eventual marriage) to an ex-priest?

BSB: I thought I would but I've had little negativity. My conservative pastor loved it -- bought six more copies and wrote a full page review in the parish newsletter, The National Catholic Reporter gave a glowing review. I have met a few people who told me they are deeply loyal Catholics and found the whole idea scandalous but while reading the book found our story deeply spiritual and moving. Where it has caused heartache has been in my monastery -- especially because I used real names and locations. Had I a chance to do it over again, I'd change those names and the location of the monastery.

DMN: You mention in the book that your brother became a Brother later in life. Do you think he was inspired by your earlier decision to enter the religious life and were you surprised by his decision?

BSB: Greg joined the Third Order Franciscans as a lay-person. He cooked for a friary and was very active in their ministries to the homeless and those dying from AIDS. He'd been an alcoholic and the process of living sober became deeply spiritual (though always remaining outrageous). His wife had divorced him years earlier because of his drinking. When he stopped drinking a few years before his death, his children felt they'd regained their father. I know that Greg asked me for the silver ring I'd been given at my final profession of vows.

DMN: What are you working on now?

BSB: Publicity, publicity, publicity. I've been doing lots of readings and the like
to keep the book before the public's eyes. And I am working on the sequel to the memoir. Right now I'm plowing through 20 or so journals rereading the painful years that followed Vittorio's death through the death of my daughter. Heavy, heavy reading and I want the book to have enough joy and humor to leaven the rest.

DMN: Tell us a bit about your approach to writing.

BSB: I write in order to discover what I think about things. Since joining Gather, my words flow with greater ease . . . I am a fine-tuner of phrases but writing short posts and commenting on other's works has alleviated that need to fix every word. I usually read some poetry, especially Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours, before starting and I say a prayer for the gift of tongues--that people will hear and find what they need in my words.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Frau Laux

When I was a freshman at law school--I was nineteen-years-old, I decided to spend my vacation in Germany learning German and ended up in Trier, the oldest city in Germany that has a huge Roman gate in its center called the Porta Nigra. I ended up staying with the Laux family in Pfalzel--a suburb--which was arranged by their son, Richard, who was teaching my brother Seamus at high school in Ireland at the time.

I arrived speaking little German and both Frau and Herr Laux spoke little English, which meant I had to learn fast which I did. Frau Laux was an attractive redhead, about mid-fifties, and she made it clear from the beginning that this Irishman was to be treated as one of her family. She became a surrogate mother in a way and took me into the city, helped me find a job at a restaurant called Zum Domstein, and spent her afternoons feeding and conversing with me in her garden. In the center of their garden, which swept down to the banks of the Mosel river, was a Mirabella tree that produced a sweet delicious fruit that looked like yellow plums. She baked the most exquisite pies--those German pies where the fruit is halved and put on the top of teh salty-sweet like a plum comforter.

Some days Frau and Herr Laux came to the restaurant to collect me after work and then they'd drive in their gray Ford Tauras to a hospital carpark where I'd wait while they went inside for a long time. I could never understand what was going on, nor did they offer an explanation, though the rides home where always very somber. Moreover, even if they had, my German was so poor I wouldn't have understood.

The summer passed quickly and I grew to love them deeply. On the final morning, they came outside with me and hugged me tightly before I left for the train staion. (They'd wanted to take me to the station, but I didn't want that as I knew it would be difficult to take leave there.) As I kissed her, Frau Laux's amber eyes sparkled with tears and she gripped me more tightly that my mother ever had. I looked to Herr Laux and saw his eyes were similarly full.

"I'll be back at Christmas time to visit," I said in perfect German. "I promise."
Frau Laux began to sob.
"Tschus," she said, and I can still see her beautifully tanned arm rise and wave sand then she went quickly inside leaving the others to watch me leave.

Three weeks passed and then I got a call from a friend Michael--a student from the same village that I'd befriended--to say Frau Laux was dead.

"What?" I said, shocked to the core, memories tumbling like kaleidoscope pieces in my brain.
"Damian," he said, "she didn't want you to know she was dying of cancer. That was her one condition to her family. When their son Richard told them that someone from Ireland wanted to come to Germany to learn German and asked if they were interested in having him stay, they held a family conference. Herr Laux didn't want you to stay because he said you'd be too much of an interruption because she was dying. But Frau Laux wouldn't hear of it. She wanted you. She said she wanted the Irishman to come and no one was to tell you that she was dying. She wanted her life to be full and normal. She didn't want pity. She wanted to show you the real Germany."

I was at once humbled and in awe. My love for her surged. There was so much to tell her, so much to say, and it was all too late. For the first time in my life I knew the true meaning of death, its silence and permanence. I hadn't even felt such loss when my grandfather died, but then I was a child and didn't understand.

I take comfort in knowing my presence and my ignorance helped her during those final days, helped her live a normal life till she could do it no longer, that being there stopped the family from becoming dark and breaking into endless bouts of tears and darkness. She was an amazing woman and the laughter we shared--often when I said crazy things in German like "Es regnet Katzen und Hunden" on rainy day (It's raining cats and dogs) when in German it should be "Es regnet in Strom"--is vivid in my memory, as is her chiselled, tanned smiling face as she stands beside her beloved Mirabella tree.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Barbary's dedication

As some of you may know I am a member of and this morning I received an email from the poet Barbary Chaapel (who also read A Son Called Gabriela few months ago and enjoyed it) to say she was much moved about a post I had written about the homeless I saw a few months ago in NYC and, as this is an issue she holds close to her heart, she dedicated a poem entitled 'Invisible' to me.

I have never had a poem dedicated to me and I am both speechless and much moved.
As many of you may not know, I am posting her poem here so you may read it.

for Damian McNichol


Old eyes.

Lower teeth sunk sideways

Like old tomb stones.

The things her mouth

Won't tell;

Keep away the man.

I see her plainly.

This season, the color of winter,

She is grey limbo.

What she does

Does not define her.

Can you not imagine,

Once, on her hands,

Scent of cherry and almond,

This hungry ghost,

Waiting for a spoonful of sugar.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An act of brainwashing

This is a new twist on attempts to dumb down or con Americans.

The other night I was watching the telly and a commercial came on for a drug meant to alleviate some kind of arthritis. I can't remember the drugs name, but I know it's manufactured by a large corporation.

One of the side effects stated in a very calming voice was that it may lead to "fatal events". I could not believe my ears.

"Larry," I said, "did you just hear that commercial?"
"No, I wasn't listening. I never listen to that stuff."
"He said, taking it can lead to a "fatal event."
"No kidding. Huh!"

Last time I checked, 'fatal event' meant 'death.' Why don't they just take off the sugar coat and say "death."
The answer is simple, of course. It won't make us rush to the doctor crying for a prescription for the drug.

Marketers and their clients want used cars to be 'pre-owned' and dangerous drugs to cause 'fatal events' not death.

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