Saturday, March 31, 2007

What's up, Philly?

Poor Philly's in the doldrums at the moment.

First, it's recently been downgraded from fifth largest city in the United States to sixth, the usurperer being Phoenix, Arizona. Admittedly Phoenix's claim to the title is a bit dubious because it's based on a seeming voracious appetite for including its very, very far-flung suburbia into the city for determining size. If Phoenix had a lot of snow in Winter, I wonder would it be as keen to include these towns and villages for purposes of determining high efficiency at keeping the roads clear and costs of doing so.
Hmmm, I wonder!!

I landed in Phoenix to change planes to San Francisco when on an author tour and I have to say it looked a bit too 'deserty' for my liking--a bit too hot as well. Philly's greener, but then again we have the dratted snow.

Another more disturbing Philly record is that it recorded its 100th homicide in 2007 last night and we're only just done with March. It's a record and a bloody terrible one at that. The murders are occurring in the poorest neighborhoods and involve African American drug gangs. And its anguished African American families that are suffering, their kids and mothers being shot as they gather on their porches or make their way to school. These gangs possess guns that one would expect to find in a theater of war.

They're now in the middle of a campaign to determine who the mayoral candidates will be from each party--Republican and Democrat--and I just hope the new major will do something after he's elected. Philly is, after all, a city with proud working-class roots, the City of Brotherly Love.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Working last

Very gratifying to see that Ian Paisley--whom I admit I don't have a great deal of time for because he's as close-minded, bigoted and tiresome as Southern evangelicals with whom he strongly identifies--has agreed to work with Jerry Adams and help bring stability and progress to Northern Ireland. (Northern Ireland held elections last week and Paisley's DUP party which represents most Protestants without getting bogged down in minutiae about the diversity of Protestantism there and Adam's Sinn Fein which represents many nationalists won majorities and thus have the major say in how to form a power sharing administration.)

I just hope it's a genuine commitment, though at their first historic face-to-face meeting at Stormont castle (the seat of the Northern Irish parliament and a very attractive building, I might add) the two men did not shake hands which is a bit of an ominous sign. It's historic because, prior to this, Paisley has always negotiated using intermediaries and has not admitted to working with Sinn Fein whom he said were affiliated with terrorists.

Time will tell. Perhaps at eighty years of age and not in the best of health, Mr. Paisley is thinking about what he's going to say to his maker when called to answer for his conduct in the political arena. Either way, it's a move forward Northern Irish style and I shall be cautiously optimistic.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The catch

Driving from the gym early this morning, a large red-tailed hawk rose from the side of the road ahead and flew in front of my car. It hovered about eighteen inches above the road's surface as it tried to gain altitude, its huge wings beating the air furiously. Suddenly it veered off to the left and the pair of us traveled in parallel for a bit--me staying on the road of course. I saw its beautiful snowy underbelly then noticed it had a squirrel gripped firmly in its talons.

The little thing's bushy tail swept behind the birds feet, its back was arched and the face was pointed in the same direction as the hawk's beak. It was being carried away to its death, though I hope it had been stunned or died during the hawk's attack. Instinctively, I honked my horn about ten times to try and frighten the bird so the animal could fall down to the soft grass in the field and run away (if it wasn't stunned). But the hawk wasn't frightened and it rose and rose and I had to turn my attention back to my driving.

I felt bad and yet I knew it was just kind and cruel Mother Nature at work. The hawk is as beautiful in its own way as the squirrel and needs to eat, too. My thoughts went to the polar bear cub called Knut in the Berlin Zoo that was abandoned by its mother and left to die. In that case, humans stepped in to save it and allow it to grow into an adult bear. Is human intervention regarded as nature at work in that sort of case? Or should, as some animal rights groups state, the cub have been left to die as its sibling did. I think to hell with what the animal rights groups hold in this instance and chose to think of that sort of intervention as nature at work--man's compassion for animals and life driving him to save them.

Cherry picking, I suppose.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Getting it done

I just LOVE productive weeks and this week has been such a week and it's not yet over.

A friend, Jessica, opened a smart, upmarket ladies boutique in town a few weeks ago and she asked me to help compose a press release she wanted to send to the newspapers and magazines, which I did. It's great to be able to help friends when they begin new exciting ventures. Hope it does its job!!

And I settled down and did a serious--I mean serious--amount of work on America and Me, the memoir I'm currently writing. The word count is now 55,300 and I'm now at Chapter 20--yes 19 whole chapters have been written--and I think I'll be able to complete the latest today. I'm going to work my arse off this afternoon and do it.

I'm having laughs and bouts of sadness writing it. And it's strange and thought-provoking going over old correspondence and uncovering documents in files that were once vital and critical and celebrated profusely--like notifications that I'd passed the Bar examination, etc--and realizing they've lost that vitality and importance.

Of course, once the memoir is completed, the really tough work begins because editing and redrafting is an essential part of the process. An essential, necessary pain in the arse.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Crazy Woman singing

I had the afternoon off today and decided to go the gym in the p.m. rather than early morning as is usual. We've had a lot of snow so I was anxious to get in a hard workout and cheer my spirits. To my surprise all the exercise machines were occupied.
As I walked about checking the sign-up sheets (which we have to complete prior to mounting the machine) to see which one would become free first, I came upon one which was unsigned which is not a problem. I looked up at the lady pumping away on the pedals and said, "Hi there. Excuse me but I was just wondering how long you've got to go on your program?"
She removed her earphones and said, "As long as it takes." She smiled, killed it quickly.
"No problem. I'm not asking you to leave or anything, it's just I wondered how much of the half-hour schedule you've got to go. If it's not long I'll just put my name down on the sheet."

"Listen asshole, I'm on till I'm done. Satisfied?"
I was stunned and enraged. I just stood looking at her as she pumped and made a swatting gesture as if I were an annoying insect.

A plump, red-faced woman with frizzy hair exercising casually on a nearby exercise bicycle was bug-eyed with shock. After locking her pale eyes in my gaze, she raised her shoulders to commiserate.

Unwilling to accept the status of insect, I said, "Hey, technically I can ask you to get off because you're supposed to sign the sheet. But I'm not doing that."
Again the bright yellow earphones were being slowly lowered to caress her neck as I spoke.
"Screw the rules," she said. "I don't bother with sign-up sheets."
"I see. I'll pass that nugget on." I went off to the management staff and asked if they'd amended the rules during my absence, added that I wasn't asking the woman to leave--pointed toward the machine as I talked--but I just wanted to know how much time she had on the machine because I'd traveled a bit to get here. As I was doing so, I heard high-pitched shrieks, looked in the direction of the elliptical, and when our eyes connected heard, "You're a fucking asshole."
"Wow," the manager said to me.
"Don't do anything," I said. "Maybe just tell her to sighn the sheet like everyone else so we know what's free," I said.
The only machine free--though only for ten minutes-was beside her. I hopped on and began my exercise regime, still so riled by this woman I couldn't concentrate properly and keyed in an 'uphill' cycle rather than my usual 'weight-loss.' I began to read my book (no irony intended but entitled "Me talk pretty one day).

As I pedaled, the woman began to sing aloud. I think she figured it would annoy my reading enjoyment. Her pitch grew louder and louder until people in the gym began staring at her. She didn't care. Louder and louder she got until the gym manager came up. "Are you okay up there?" she shouted.
She removed her earphones. "What?"
"Are you okay?"
"Yea. Why wouldn't I be? Just singing while I do a nice workout. Tra la la la la."
The manager looked up at her speechless as the woman recited again, "Tra la la la la lala lala.
"Well, try to keep it down a little." She paused. "And try to remember we're a family gym here. We like people to get along and we don't like that sort of language.
"Tra lala lala."

I was beginning to wonder if this woman was mad and might have a gun in her pocketbook and wait for me to leave the gym. Just as I was wondering if I should vacate the machine, a middle-aged man drew up very alpha-male style to the front of my elliptical, riveted on the sheet attached to my machine, and glowered at my upper chest as he walked away. I knew the glower. It's the unspoken signal that one's time is up and it's now their turn. As soon as I got off and wiped down the machine, he returned and climbed aboard. The woman stopped singing.

I decided to lift some weights, my every movement watched fiercely by Crazy Woman as I did so, though every time I turned in her direction she lowered her head. ten minutes later she got off and moved straight to the thigh machine without wiping down the sweaty elliptical. No consideration for her fellow gym bunnies. Takes all kinds to make a world, I suppose.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Aye, very nice ...but is it edible?

While Saint Patrick's Day is wildly celebrated here in the U.S. by ancestors of those who flew the coop hundreds of years ago but not so much in Ireland and, because I live in the U.S. now, I wondered what would be the best way for me to mark it's passing.

The answer came this afternoon and here's the result. My Mum baked the most delicious Irish Soda bread and Irish brown bread when my siblings and I were youngsters. So, I found a recipe for Irish brown bread--it's very healthy--and baked it and here it is fresh from the oven. The orchid's for artistic purposes, naturally.

Tonight we're going off to the home of a Yankee friend who's cooking an Irish dinner and I'm taking my bread along and can't wait for everyone to try it.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Hey, I'm a thinking person's blog!

Debra Hamel of the Deblog has nominated my blog as a blog that makes people think, a nomination I'm very pleased to have gotten. The concept originated from The Thinking Blog and it's now my turn to suggest five blogs that I also consider well-written and insightful and make me think because everyone should think constructively a wee bit every day.

Here they are:
Martha O'Connor's blog--Not only is she an accomplished novelist whose first novel, The Bitch Posse, I enjoyed thoroughly and can't wait for her second one which is set in Ireland, but her blog contains wonderful information about diabetes, a disease one of her children deals with daily.

Gayle Brandeis's Blog--Again, Gayle's a wonderful writer whose The Book of Dead Birds is rich and insightful (her second novel Self Storage has just released) and she is also a social activist who works hard for justice and equality in society.

Kieran's an Irish American and boxer from Brooklyn who writes beautifully and I love his takes on living in NYC and more.

A life in Wales because I love Wales, went to law school in Wales and this uplifting blog is about the life, good writing and astonishing photography of a woman (and her cats Bella and Lulu) who lives there.

Bridlepath is my fifth choice because who couldn't love a well-written, in depth blog about horses...except, I guess, the few people on earth who don't care for horses.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Cuban row boat

One of the more interesting aspects of the cruise occurred on our journey homebound from Belize.

At one point going Northward, the ship passes parallel with a part of Cuba--albeit the coastline is miles away--and it's well-documented that many Cuban refugees strike out from her shores on rickety row boats toward the United States and South America. The night had been very rough going and the ship's listing and rocking had awoken me many times--no, I didn't get sea sick because I have a stomach that seems made of steel.

Just after breakfast the following morning, the captain made a public announcement that a small boat had been spotted at a distance and he felt it his duty to turn the ship and seek out the vessel and investigate if there was someone who perhaps needed help. It took the ship a while to turn and Larry and I went to watch from the bow. All we could see were choppy waves and miles and miles of water. Of course, the decks were buzzing with muted excitement as to what would be found.

After twenty minutes, we spotted the boat--a rowing boat just like one sees in any city park lake. The ship drew nearer and nearer until we were upon it. It was a surreal experience standing high on a huge, modern cruise ship as it drew gently closer and closer to the rowboat in order to see if anyone was aboard and perhaps injured. No one was inside and it had taken on some water. On its floor were three coconuts and a few bananas. My heart went out to whomever had decided life in Cuba under Fidel Castro was so intolerable and their circumstances so desperate that they were prepared to risk their lives in the stormy Gulf waters. I hope the boat slipped its mooring or the people were rescued by a merchant ship or something.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Cruising the Caribbean: Part Two

"Attention passengers, this is your captain speaking. We have reason to believe there may be a stowaway on board and..."

From a balcony on the ninth floor of a cruise ship, the cobalt waters of the Gulf of Mexico take on a very unique quality. Some evenings after dinner I'd return to my cabin, walk out onto the balcony and lean over the varnished teak balcony, dig my fingernails into the thin layer of encrusted salt and watch mesmerized as the ship cut through the swells. The waves would race toward the ship's hull, smack against it and then, as if repelled like two North poles of a magnet, would push away from it at speed. At the farthest point of their race away from the ship, the wavelets would crest, turn inside out and dissipate in sparkling showers of snow-white foam and spray.

We spent one and a half full days at sea on the outbound journey before arriving at Costa Maya in Mexico, our first port of call, where we took a rather prosaic tour of the Kohunlich Mayan ruins. I say prosaic because this was to be my first time to learn about the illustrious past and sophistication of the Maya and I expected to see and climb huge soaring temples and palaces such as those found at Copan, but instead all I saw were sad mounds and hillocks still covered by verdant jungle vegetation. It didn't help that our guide--a weasel-like Mayan chappie--didn't speak fluent English and kept saying "Guys this" and Guys that" at every turn (only words I and others could decipher) and then had the gall to ask for a tip at the end of the journey rather than trust us to give him one.

Not so our trip to the Quirigua Mayan ruins in Guatemala the next day. We docked in Santo Tomas's port in Guatemala at six that morning and after disembarkation met with the effervescent and charming Carolina, our guide, who took us on a spectacular two hour bus ride through to the ruins, entertaining us en route with tales of the ancient Maya and life in modern-day Guatemala

I must say it is a spectacularly beautiful country. It is called the 'land of eternal spring' because its climate is always the warm and sunny and the landscape is full of rolling hills and jungle awash in colorful flowering trees, shrubs and flowers including orchid and animals equally diverse and vibrant. At one point we passed rubber tree plantations--hailing instantly to life my schoolboy memories of geography class about the subject and the teacher saying "give me your jaw, boy!" as he grabbed and squeezed my cheek mercilessly if I was acting the smart-aleck or insubordinate--and huge banana tree (actually a member of the grass family) plantations whose fruit would soon be harvested and shipped off to Dole factories for export to America and Europe, etc. (Factoid--baby banana plants must be allowed to grow alongside their mother for six full months or they die. I have a banana plant in my house and it always has a baby growing alongside it in the pot and until now I never knew why.)

The Mayan ruins were of the Mayan Classic period (550-850AD) and contained intricately carved Stelae and Zoomorphs (the latter being huge carved boulders including one called "The Great Turtle" that were forms of monumentation unique to this Mayan city/state and the hieroglyphs on them could only be read from the sky), all evidencing the greatness and deeds of the Mayan dynasty that ruled there.

Views of the city and courtyard with Stellae-tallest is 30 meters high

Bringing the local history to life, Carolina whose English was perfect (she'd lived in Los Angeles for three years before returning home) described as we walked through the acropli, temples and ball courts that there had been two Mayan cities in the region--Quirigua and the wealthy city of Copan--and how one of the kings called Cauac Sky captured and sacrificed 18 Rabbit, the king of Copan, freeing Quirigua of its vassal city/state status and giving rise to the Sky dynasty. (Nothing like a bit of intrigue and kingly skulduggery to keep the tourists chomping at the bit and wanting more.)

One of the Zoomorphs, a type of ancient Mayan monument unique to this city state

Cauac Sky build a new palace for himself over the sacrificed king's body (his decapitated body was the only one ever found at the ruins to date during excavations that are ongoing; it astonishes researchers that they have not found the remains of any citizens).

Close up of stella depicting Couac Sky

As an aside, in ancient Mayan culture, only the best was offered the gods. Thus, it was the winning ball player who was sacrificed immediately after the game, not the loser as previously thought. The players wanted to win and be sacrificed (by decapitation in front of the spectators) and it was an immense honor for the player and his family.

All in all, I was transported and left the ruins pondering how a civilization so sophisticated (their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics was superior to ours and their calendar is more accurate than the one we use today) could disappear so rapidly--contrary to belief, it wasn't all to do with the arrival of the Spanish--and leave the modern-day Maya as simple and unsophisticated as the people they'd once been before the rise of their ancient ancestors. (As an aside, the Mayan calendar ends on August 12, 2012, where it is said a great event will unfold.)

On the way back on the bus, as I passed the wooden shacks where the Maya--who're a very friendly and proud people--now live, my thoughts returned momentarily to Ireland and the similarities the countries share, how throughout Ireland, for example, there are now copious ruins of former peasant homes where families were reared. The Maya today are socially and politically where the native Irish were over a hundred or more years ago. Where the Irish were powerless and lived in stone hovels with no running water or electricity then, the Maya today are similarly powerless and live in tiny wooden huts with zinc roofs, the woman spinning and creating magnificent blankets and clothing, their animals and fowl bleating and clucking in the nearby earth. And I hope, like the Irish have now achieved, that one day the Maya can rise and be allowed to become full and equal participants in the countries of their birth and that discrimination against them will end. They have a noble ancestry that we, for all our sophistication, cannot begin to touch.

Departing Santo Tomas was a heart-warming experience, one of those events that really makes one happy to be alive and healthy and believe in the good of human beings. The Norwegian Sun is the only large cruise ship to dock weekly at their port and, as a show of appreciation and sign of how valuable her presence is to the local economy, the local people arrived en masse to say farewell. As the ship sounded her thunderous horn four or five times to acknowledge the farewell reception (even the crew were watching from the decks and bridge) and began to sail, a group of Pula dancers began to dance, an entire school of Catholic schoolchildren (judging by the uniforms) began to wave and sing and scores of taxis and cars that had assembled for the event began to blare their horns. Seasoned cruise veterans had tears in their eyes and I overheard them saying they'd never encountered the like of this in all the years they'd been traveling. And, right there on the fringe of the dancers, dressed in her navy and yellow jacket, was a widely smiling and waving Carolina...just as she'd promised she would be doing when we bade her farewell dockside twenty minutes before.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Cruising the Caribbean: Part One

It was my first cruise and I lucked out because we had a port-side cabin on the ninth floor with a balcony and the entire trip went smoothly. (Found out the origin of the Brit word POSH--Port Out Starboard Home)

The ship's name was Norwegian Sun, belongs to Norwegian Cruise Lines, and they pride themselves in being different in the cruise line market in that they offer a concept called Freestyle Cruising. What this translates to is that, instead of being placed at one of the two de rigueur daily lunch and dinner sittings at the same table with the same people--which can be awkward if they're just not your type of people and/or Southern bible thumpers and/or homophobes--throughout the cruise as is typical of other cruise lines, NCL permits its guests to dine wherever and whenever they please. They have a number of restaurants that are free--except for the vino and other alcoholic sundries of course--and a number of 'specialty' restaurants that include French, Italian, Sushi and a steakhouse. We were traveling with Bob and Adrian, the friends we'd stayed with in New Orleans, and ate twice in the French Restaurant--excellent--once in the Steakhouse--average--and once in the Italian, which was good but not very Italian and the area was rather cramped in my judgment. The rest of the time we dine in the 'free' restaurants, which were pretty good. One problem was that NCL have a really good concept in Freestyle Cruising, but at an additional charge of $20.00 per head, they should vary the menus throughout the cruise. Also, I think they're being a wee bit greedy and should charge $10.00 a head for dining in these 'specialty' restaurants--an opinion borne out by the fact that I noticed the vast majority of the passengers used the 'free' restaurants.

Only on our second night did we encounter any overt curiosity and hostility toward the fact we were four men dining together--there were many other sightings of exclusively male or female clutches--when a most rude (and potato-faced) woman with tight hair perm kept peering at us from the security of her adjacent table where she was ensconced with her husband and another couple. My blood began to boil because she watched our every sip and bite so that I had the weirdest feeling I knew exactly how the highly intelligent, cognizant mountain gorillas must feel at the Washington DC zoo.

At some point during our main course, she leaned over and said, "Four generations! Are you gentlemen four generations?"
Her question was idiotic as Bob and Adrian look the same age.
"No," Bob said.
"Fathers and sons on a vacation?"
A pregnant pause as the rusty cogs in her mind continued to turn.
"Related, then?"
She pursed her lips so that deep furrows appeared above her upper lip.
I'm always amenable to chatting with new people, but I could see her disdain and the stony looks from the others.
"Well, if you're done," I said, "I'm sure you'll extend the courtesy and allow us to grill you about your background. Where are you from?"
Larry peered at me and chuckled.
It took a while for the four of them to grasp my rebuke. Uneasy laughter emitted from the woman's husband, then from the other woman whose nose reminded me of the Concorde's as it used to appear on landing.
"We're plain folks from Idaho," the woman's husband said. She kept her eyes fixed on her dinner plate, which I noticed contained the shell of a lobster tail (It was lobster evening on-board) and uneaten asparagus.
Bob (being the gentleman he is) wished to alleviate there discomfort and tendered he and Adrian were from New Orleans and the conversation moved quickly to the safe topic of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation she'd brought. Just then, the waiter arrived with the woman's second entree which was Beef Wellington loaded atop mashed potatoes and accompanied with more asparagus--after all, it was one of the free restaurants and they were just plain-eatin' Idaho folk--and all conversation thankfully ended as her dinner guests turned to admire its presentation.

Our presence elicited the opposite response--it must be admitted--every time we dined at the French restaurant where the urbane maitre'd (a married Turkish man of about fifty who was also responsible for the breakfasts at the restaurant where we went and where I went to town on the deliciously creamy muesli) and the waiters and waitresses (European or Filipino) lavished attention on us that was not superficial and caused the other diners to look quizzically and wonder if we were perhaps celebrities they'd never heard of. I say it wasn't superficial because tips were not given to the staff as the cruise line deducted $10.00 per day from each guest that was then put in a pool to be divided by all the staff and non-officers after the cruise ended.

In any event, I realized loaded cruise ships are but microcosms of general society. One encounters those rigidly determined to embrace their ignorance and prejudice even while at sea and one encounters those who are enlightened and pleasant no matter where they are. The experience did make me consider if I'd have thrown an orange lifeline to Ms. Idaho if I'd noticed her falling overboard (we had two rough-ish nights) and then alert the Captain with the words 'Man overboard' as protocol required or would I have let the ship slide on, safe in the knowledge that the sharks would take care of their own. I decided finally that my question was academic because she and her companions would not have spent the extra dollars to upgrade to a cabin with a tiny balcony anyway.