Monday, July 31, 2006

Smiling Dolphins

'Mommy, mommy, look at the pretty dolphins...look how they leap into the air.'
'Yes, they're just so cute, honey.' She smiles at her daughter. 'Are you glad we came?'
'Yes.' Hahaha To her little brother. 'Danny, look how it's swimming in the water just using it's tail.' She stands up and points.
The children squeal with excitement.
Mommy looks at Daddy and smiles as she pats her daughter's head. 'They're just so cute.' Hahaha 'I wonder if they do that in the wild as well or if they train them to do that.'
'Mommy, I think they like it here,' says the little boy. 'Look at their smiles.'
'Yes sweetie, they're cute,' says Mommy.
'Wow,' says Daddy. 'Wow. Did you see the two of them jump out of the water at the same time.'
Hahahaha. Hahahahaha. The children laugh and squeal.
'Mommy, look over there,' says the girl. 'There's a woman swimmming with them. She's hanging on to its fin.' Hahahahahaha. 'She's going fast.' Hahahahah. 'Mommy, let's go swim with them.'
'Yes Mommy,' says her son. 'I want to grab its fin and swim too.'
Mommy pushes her sunglasses over her hair and looks at Daddy. 'Hon', she wants to swim with them. I'd like to as well. They seem so cute. Go and find out how much it'll cost.'
'I asked already,' says Daddy. 'It's a hundred bucks.'
'Wow, a hundred dollars,' says Mommy.
'Mommy, I want to swin with them now.'
'We're on vacation, Jeff. It's a once off, isn't it?. Let's do it. We'll get some great photos of the kids.'
'Daddy, please let's do it...oh Daddy, let's swim with them...please,' says the boy.
'Yes, we're all on vacation, Jeff and look at how the dolphins are grinning. They're just so cute. A hundred bucks is worth it, no?'

How often this scene or something like it plays out somewhere in Mexico or the Caribbean or at a show in Seaworld or similar exhibit in the United States. And let me preface this piece at this point by saying I'm a huge dolphin lover and just watched a program about captive dolphins on the telly the other night. Ever since I first saw them when I was sixteen while on the beach at Jelly Fish Bay in Killybegs, Ireland, I fell in love with their grace and uniqueness.

Their unexpected appearance caused quite a stir that afternoon, actually. People were in the water and next thing a couple of women further along the beach started waving their hands and screaming like a banshee choir and all the bathers were racing (as fast as the water would allow) from the sea screaming 'SHARKS, SHARKS, SHARKS'. One man in his haste didn't realize he'd lost his swimming costume and ran naked clutching his daughter from the water. I should say JAWS had been a recent hit and the opening scene of the woman slowly disappearing beneath the waves had clearly traumatized a part of the collective Irish psyche. Even I thought 'shark' for moments as I watched them slice across the waves. Then my intellectual side kicked in and I realized sharks don't swim so close to the Irish coast...but since then, we've had a whale travel up the cold River Foyle to the city of Derry so you never know.

Dolphins are certainly gorgeous animals. Yet behind their unflaggingly impish smiles (our human interpretation of the smiles) lies sadness and misery. Dolphins are mammels, highly intelligent, and thousands and thousands are ripped mercilessly from family pods in the wild by hunters and transported to sunwashed pools of concrete where they're trained to behave like circus animals just to appease the insatiable lust for 'cuteness' we humans have.

(In the United States, all dolphins performing at places like Seaworld and Miami Seaquarium, etc.--places which first displayed the animals for commercial gain--must be bred in captivity. It is also undeniable that the insatiable and growing worldwide demand for performing dolphins leading to brutal and murderous dolphin hunts is due to the practices of these parks in allowing people to interact with the animals under the dubious assertion that it is educational and/or therapeutic for humans. The displays are hard-nosed capitalism at its worst. In the Dominican Republic, one exhibit attracts 200 people daily whio pay $100.00 to swim with the animals. Multiply this by the number of exhibits throughout the Caribbean and it is easy to see the huge profits to be made. Little wonder the animals are overworked and die of exhaustion from being constantly on call. Moreover, fishermen are paid about $200.00 for the capture of a wild dolphin which, when trained, sells to these exhibits for $130,000 via 'brokers' of whom one Canadian--a former trainer--is the most notorious and nefarious in his 'harvesting' for gain )

The dolphins do have an ally. 'They [dolphins] are self-aware animals that make decisions and choices. Thus they are entitled to freedom.' says Ric O'Barry. And Mr. O'Barry should know. He was the trainer of five dolphins for the TV series Flipper. Moreover, he began his career taking part in the capture of wild dolphins for training, a practice he believed in then. Mr. O'Barry realized his error in participating in the capture of wild dolphins and spent the next 30 years leading his own group The Dolphin Project against the practice before becoming a consultant to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, a London-based coalition of 400 conservation and preservation groups.

The wild dolphin hunts take place throughout the world, though Japan leads the world in its cruelty. According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society hunts can last for days and the dolphins, being sentient animals, endure the most excruciating circumstances including intense terror at both the hunt and violent dissolution of their group. Hundreds of them are rounded up until all that can be heard is the sound of their bodies thrashing in the scarlet water. The animals selected for captivity are hoisted into tanks via cranes; the others, the smaller and weaker, are not set free. No, they are murdered simultaneously with those captured--thus answering your question as to why the hunt waters run scarlet. It's bloodsoaked water. And the carcasses are then dispatched to food processing companies. Such is the gruesome fate of sentient mammels, mammels whose sonar systems are as sophisticated as any man has developed to date.

So, I think it's incumbent upon people of conscience to educate our fellow human beings about this practice. We must also stay away from these displays of captive dolphins--including the American ones which have stirred and fed this worldwide increase in demand for dolphin exhibits--so that it will become unprofitable for corporations in the ghastly business to offer them as entertainment. We need not deny ourselves the sight of dolphins swimming and frolicking in water. The Whale and Dolphin Society suggests and recommends various trips to watch dolphins and whales in their natural habitat. So take the hundred bucks and spend it on a trip out to sea where you can watch wild dolphins truly smiling as they play.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Book review:Public Radio behind the Voices

When I lived in London I was an avid listener of BBC radio. Imagine how happy I was when I arrived in the US and discovered the American equivalent known as National Public Radio, the unapologetic thinking man and woman's radio, a refreshing oasis amid the jangle-jangle detritus of America's commercial networks.

Well thanks to author Lisa Phillips who has worked at local NPR stations I'm even happier now because her book entitled Public Radio Behind the Voices yields deep insights into NPR from the shoestring early days to its now polished broadcasts that are choc-a-bloc with humor, intelligence and insight.

In breezy, uncomplicated prose she unfurls rich information about some of our favorite personalities, Liane Hansen, Terry Gross, Scott Simon, Robert Siegel, Susan Stamberg--many of whom she interviewed personally at their studios. Others who did not grant her an interview--either because they are publicity shy, or just don't do interviews out of out principal, or plain just didn't get back to her--she has researched meticulously so that we are left with a complete picture of the personalities rise to prominance.

One of my favorites concerns an anecdote in her essay entitled The Fallopian Jungle about Nina Totenberg, whose husband was hospitalized after slipping on an icy sidewalk and was not expected tio live. Totenberg, at one point during the hospitalizations, was in Oklahoma City to cover the bombing there, but her husband's health plunged and a plane had to be chartered by ABC TV to get her home chop chop. On the plane, she cried because she thought he was going to die alone. She arrived at the hospital to find out her good friend Cokie Roberts keeping vigil at her husband's bedside.

Most fascinating during the read was seeing the development of NPR from its amateurish origins to the powerhouse it is today in American society. This book is a must for NPRophiles.


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Monday, July 17, 2006

New York spectacles

First, on my way downtown the other day, I walked through the tunnel at the Port Authority which leads to the 1,2,3,4, J,M and Z trains. The tunnel's very long and, to my surprise, there was a wall of professionally made posters announcing "Jews for Jesus" in pop culture-like script. I hadn't realized they'd become such a large and/or slick marketing organization because it sure takes a lot of dollars to pay to create that kind of brand awareness. Ironically--and this was my first odd sight--there was an African American homeless man standing halfway into in the tunnel chanting "Jesus saves....Jesus saves...Jesus...Jesus...Jesus saves" like a broken record to the swarm of commuters who swung out religiously to avoid any contact with him.

On my return, I saw my second profoundly disturbing sight. It was an old Chinese woman sitting in the tunnel (the black guy was gone) begging. She was clutching a polysterene coffee mug that served as her begging bowl and had once been a handsome woman, was relatively well-groomed and dressed--clad in a bamboo leaf pattern blouse and those tight black slacks one associates with Chinese women--and I pulled up short at a discreet distance to observe her, so surprised was I by the sight. I have never seen a Chinese woman beg in the streets of New York. I had never seen a Chinese woman or man begging in any western city. I could not imagine what circumstances had occurred in her life to bring her to the grimy place.

As if some kind of dark fate or eye of stark truth (I wasn't sure which, then) was swarming around me that morning, I encountered my third spectacle near the Helmsley Building in midtown. One should bear in mind the magnificence of this building, with its ornate architecture and elegant brass clock and motiff. Near where one crosses the very wide Park Avenue halfway there is a median replete with grass and trees. I looked toward the median and, to my surprise, there was an elderly man, clearly homeless becaused of his grimy clothing and unkempt Moses-like hair (Think Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments). He was clutching a thick book, and every ten seconds or so, he would raise it toward the sky and shout something as if he were calling on God.

After I'd crossed the Avenue, I stopped and looked around. Everywhere, there were well-shod business people hurrying along or standing in little groups conferring about business deals, contracts, God only knows what but I'm sure money was involved, lots of it...and this man was calling to God. Not a single person, other then myself and a couple of tourtists, was looking at him. Clearly he was mad, perhaps had himself been a businessman at one time, perhaps had even worked in the sumptuous Helmsley Building from where Leona had or perhaps still does hold court, perhaps he'd never been anything and had been relesed from an asylum.

Of all the sights though, the one of the dignified Chinese grandmother begging was the most disturbing. Why? It's to do with a number of factors. First, there was the intensely conflicted look of shame, resignation and absolute need written on her face that wrenched my heart, and she wasn't yet a veteran of the streets because surprise at the cold indifference of people still registered in the rapid blinks and creases of her brow. And secondly, I knew in my gut that Chinese-Americans never beg, and the fact this woman was doing so was proof positive that the middle class, the backbone of American society, is in deep trouble in these United States.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Getting to Montenegro

As a writer I am always looking for new experiences and fresh sources of inspiration for my writing no matter from where they emanate and a recent trek through parts of Eastern Europe proved such an occasion. Though European by birth (Northern Ireland though living now in the United States), I had never before visited her eastern reaches, and so, I stored away all my historical knowledge and prejudices about the Balkans and resolved to be open to even the most banal of encounters. If I had expectations, they were that I would not find the cities of the new European Riviera—cities such as Budva, Dubrovnik (also an ancient republic as powerful as Venice had been), Pula, Opatija, etc—suffering from the destructive effects of mass tourism such as one encounters in the original Western European Riviera. And I expected to discover magnificent landscapes, interesting people, unspoiled Roman ruins, castles and cathedrals, and of course mounds of inexpensively delicious food and gems of local wines. I was not disappointed and can highly recommend these countries to other writers and tourists looking for fresh experiences, though have chosen in this essay to concentrate on narrating the experiences I had on my initial journey.

At first, the assertive vividness of the meandering rivers of Croatia and the tiny mountainous section of Serbia and Montenegro—soon to be known only as Montenegro as a result of successfully voting for independence from Serbia whilst I was there—appeared to suggest they were sick with pollution. The water appeared sluggish, thick and jewel-like, the latter quality exhibiting to the exact degree the same gorgeous turquoise hue of the nearby sea. But visitors expects such riotous color to yield from the depths and shallows of the ancient Adriatic hugging the jagged coastlines of these lands; they don't expect it—at least I didn't—to assert from even the humblest of the fresh water lakes and rivers.

Given these countries are newly emerging democracies, as I traveled onward by bus, my Western cynicism came to the fore and I mulled if perhaps farmers and local industries were with impunity discharging toxins into the waters and this mimicry of the Adriatic's shining azure was but a telltale by-product. I scoured for the evidence, targeting my vision deep into nooks and crannies etched into the banks, searching for the glowing white underbellies of bloated fishes, for black, hairy fronds of mutated vegetation, for the rainbow scum of oil and assorted chemicals where the waters appeared particularly indolent and deep. I found nothing. The magnificent truth is that the color of these Montenegrin and Croatian rivers is as innocent and miraculous as that of their sea, and encounters with either will leave only but the most jaded tourist unmoved by the shimmering beauty.

My journey to these parts began at an obnoxiously early hour at London's Stanstead airport. Because the flight to the ancient city of Split in Croatia (site of Emperor Diocletian's huge palace with its well-preserved ruins including Jupiter's temple) was leaving at 6:30 am and the gate closed two hours earlier, I chose to spend the night 'kipping' on an airport lounge couch alongside, it turned out, most of my fellow passengers. (Later that day, I planned to hook up with my American friends in Budva, Montenegro. We were to embark with eighteen others on a 21-day guided tour of the Adriatic and Lake Bled, Slovenia but, because I was visiting friends and family in London and Ireland after the tour ended, I was responsible for organizing my own air travel to and from the points where the tour commenced and terminated. This I love to do where possible because it yields unparalled opportunities for visitors to learn firsthand about a country's infrastructure, customs and people.)

For my flight to Croatia I choose Easyjet, a budget airline that lists major airports for its arrival and departure points. (Some budget airlines may, for example, list Paris as the destination and the unwary passenger books the flight only to discover on arrival that the airport is situate seventy miles from the city.) Split was a new route for Easyjet—they'd started flying there just the week prior—and it was cheap, although I was surprised by the griminess of the seats headrests and aircraft interior. (On my return flight three weeks later from Ljubljana, Slovenia (already a functioning member of the European Community), the interior of the aircraft on the same airline was pristine.)

I found myself seated beside what I gradually came to realize was an English aristocrat traveling to Croatia in order to inspect a farm on an island near Split that he'd treated himself to as a divorce present and on which he planned to plant citrus groves and vineyards. The gentleman offered me a ride in his hired car into the center of Split—a journey lasting forty minutes during which I learned much about Croatia and England's strong links with their sworn enemy, Serbia, during periods of Balkan strife—and was lucky enough to be on time to catch the one morning bus traveling to Dubrovnik that day. One aspect I found amusing at the Dubrovnik national bus station was the requirement to purchase a ticket (only about thirty US cents) for my luggage, a suitcase that was then slung into the hold. TRAVEL ALERT: Easyjet has a tendency to offer sales on routes after you've just booked at a higher price, though they will give you a credit toward a future flight. However, the onus is on the customer to request a credit and they do not make it easy. I was required to call a dedicated number that I had to pay for on a per minute basis—they won't accept email requests—and found it engaged every time I called. I drew the conclusion that Easyjet knows their customers will soon realize their credit is being used up in paying for this absurd phone call and will give up at some point, which is exactly what I did. It is an outrageous fulfillment method and one that would not be acceptable in the United States.

The journey to Dubrovnik cost approximately $40, took a little over four hours (over six during the peak summer season) and was spectacularly beautiful because of the elevated views of the Adriatic coast. Upon arrival at the main station, a phalanx of friendly peasant women immediately surrounded me carrying placards brandishing the word "Sobe." Figuring this to mean "Rooms," I told them I had to be in Montenegro that evening and required information about departing buses. They scuttled about until they located a woman who spoke English and she informed me with a broad smile, "No more buses today. The daily bus to Budva leaves at 3.30 pm, but I can get you a good, cheap room." Public road transport around Croatia and Montenegro is very good and reasonably priced and buses—very comfortable on the whole—do indeed leave only once per day from major cities to other destinations. Moreover, given its coastal, mountainous location, there are no trains in and out of Dubrovnik. (Also, do know that Eastern Europeans smoke at every opportunity—even in five star hotels—though during the bus journeys it was not so overwhelming as to render my experience unpleasant.)

Crestfallen (and a tad panicked because my tour orientation was scheduled to take place at 7.45 that evening at an hotel in Budva), I wondered if I should indeed rent a room through this woman. As I mulled, a tall, young chap whom I'd noticed on the bus from Split to Dubrovnik approached me, introduced himself in reasonable English (better than my Croatian, which is nonexistent) as a citizen of Montenegro on leave from the Greek navy, and informed me the woman was not completely correct in her information. It transpired there were alternatives including catching a bus to a city beyond the Montenegrin border from where I could then catch a local bus into Budva.

Ten minutes later we were on the bus to Herceg-Novi and traveling out of the principal city of the former Dubrovnik Republic. (Dubrovnik is mindbogglingly beautiful, but crowded during high season even with the restrictions they impose on the numbers of people from docking cruise ships allowed hourly into its ancient heart.) As my new friend and I chatted, I stopped often in our discourse to take in the shimmering waters of the Adriatic and the weather-beaten (and shell-pocked) walls of the city and acres of red clay tiled roofs beneath. And as I'd hoped to gain by traveling with local people, by the time Milo exited the bus at Kotor, he'd imparted a number of restaurants and places off the beaten tourist track to visit. TOURIST TIP: Aside from showing my passport at the Montenegrin border, I had to also show it when we passed through a ten kilometer strip of land within Croatia that belongs now to Bosnia-Herzegovina (they have no access to the sea) which had been given to the Ottoman Empire hundreds of years ago by the former Republic of Dubrovnik as part of a successful treaty to stop the marauding Turks from invading the Republic.)

At Herceg-Novi I encountered no-one who spoke English and had to resort to German in order to learn of the times of connecting buses to Budva and the fare price which was a mere $5 for a forty kilometer ride. However, even if I didn't speak German, the process would still have been easy because all one needs to do is show the name of the city you wish to reach to any bus driver and they'll point one to the correct platform, etc. TOURIST TIP for US visitors: All bus drivers collect fares on the bus—in Euros if in Montenegro and Kuna if in Croatia—so it doesn't matter if the bus station is already closed. Moreover, it is best to exchange dollars locally rather than do it prior in the United States because the exchange rate is much better.

Croats and Montenegrins are happily still eager to meet and embrace Americans regardless of political or religious creed, their perceptions of American politics and corporatism perhaps not yet having rendered them as cynical of us as it appears to have done my Western European friends and acquaintances with whom I interacted in the UK and Ireland. But that is a story for another time. Of course these friendly attitudes will likely change in a few years because, like Slovenia now deep in the throes of integration, they are eager to become full members of the increasingly powerful and assertive European Union, which currently bears no great love of the US.

Finally, after a journey of twelve hours, I arrived in the stunning city of Budva at 7.30 pm, just in time it turned out for a 'cat's lick wash' in my room before rushing to the restaurant where the main course of the tour's welcome meal had just begun. I had paid a total fare of approximately $60 from Split to Budva though, of course, the journey had a value far beyond mere dollars: I'd seen much of the country's craggy coastline, become intoxicated by my first view of Dubrovnik, befriended a local chap and learned about Montenegro's colorful past, eaten local foods and candies, and traveled with the confidence of a local. And best of all, I'd learned indeed that rivers can also run stunningly blue.


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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

What better way to celebrate Independence Day afternoon than going to see a movie about the excesses of the American fashion industry and its ancillary magazines.

I'm an avid Meryl Streep fan, have been disappointed that Hollywood has not seen fit to give her lead roles due to the 'age barrier' glass ceiling for quite a few years, and am glad she is now returning in full vigor.

I enjoyed elements of the movie, but ultimately have drawn the conclusion that the producer, director, and screenplay writer need to thank Streep profusely for saving it from relegation to B-movie status. The storyline is about as thin and exciting as the models and not a cliche has been left unturned: one will sit through encounters with a Dragon Lady doyenne of fashion magazines--apparantly, a thinly based cartoon of the novelist Weisberger's former Vogue boss, Anna Wintour; the fashion models starving themselves to skininess while complaining vociferously about other women who can eat 'carbs' and still get into a size 4 dress; the angst of the supporting actress's (Anne Hathaway) failing love affair as she grows in her position as lackey to said doyenne. I think you get the picture--no pun intended.


The message of the movie appears to be to alert us to the fact--as spoken by the dragon lady Miranda to her subordinate Andy--that "Everyone wants to be us."

Saving graces include a short period when Streep is allowed to dispense with the cartoon character and show Miranda as someone capable of real emotion when she talks to her subordinate about her divorce, Stanley Tucci's camping it up as Nigel, a gay fashion designer with heart, and some spectacular shots of New York City and Paris at night.

Fans of chick lit and Meryl Streep (both categories being autonomous, I'd imagine) should definitely go and see it. As I said earlier, I'm in the latter group, and I'm sure glad I did.


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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Writing, footy news and a book review

Well, I'm really on a blitz with my memoir/non fiction and have written the prologue and five whole chapters in a week. But most importantly, I'm having a ball doing it. I really am enjoying the process of creating a story that will become a book, eventually. I think that's what drives a writer: the joy of creating a new and wonderous world with words.

The only cloud in the horizon this weekend is that England is now officially out of the world cup, having lost to Portugal by three goals during a penalty kick-off to decide the winner . I know that might seem odd--an Irishman who's sorry England lost. But, having lived there, I harbor no silly animosities and England did provide us with some tense and exciting moments in the contest. Isn't that what it's all about in the end?

Finally, I'm a member of Gather.com and another member, Barbary Chaapel (who's an Irishophile--if that's the term) read my book and posted a review. She's also a writer so her review is doubly pleasing to me.

Here it is:
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Book Review

A SON CALLED GABRIEL

A novel by Damian McNicholl

A Son Called Gabriel is written by one of our own Gather members, Damian McNicholl. It is a quiet story that takes place in Northern Ireland in the 1960's and 70's, with The Troubles skillfully woven into the background of the story.

Gabriel Harken is the son of a working class Catholic family. Damain McNicholl has written a sensitive portrayel of Gabriel's coming of age, a very young Gabriel who had not the least idea for the longest time he was gay. How he deals with this discovery is sometimes comedic, but at times painful to read:

"But God knew I would never spurn Him. He knew He was in every molecule of my being. He was my life force. Moreover, fear wouldn't allow me to turn from him. I was too frightened, because then I'd really have nothing."

A Son Called Gabriel is a book of family pride and tribulations, guardia raids on Catholic homes, school pranks, the church, dancing with girls, discovering sex and coming to terms with homosexuality. But it is about more than these things: It is about honesty and acceptance, innocence and maturity.

Kudos to you, Damian, for your grand debut novel.


Here's some info on Barbary's work taken from Gather.com:
I have recently launched my book, No Name Harbor, Poetry of Barbary Chaapel. To view four poems from this collection go to: Barbary Chaapel

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