Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The parrots of the city I love

It's no secret I LOVE San Francisco. I fell in love with it from the moment I read the first chapters of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City in my cozy London home in Ravenscourt Park and it's a love that has endured, especially now since I went on my own book tour to the city a few years ago and instantly felt at home albeit houses and apartments have become outrageously pricey and there were a lot of homeless which was very troubling to me. It reminded me of nineties London when Margaret Thatcher threw the mentally ill out of the hospitals and institutions to make the National Health Service leaner and meaner. Some say there are homeless in San Francisco because, unlike say New York City, the city has a heart and provides services for them. Others say--admittedly those entirely of a strict and right-leaning Republican mindset--that there are homeless because of the 'damned liberals.' I don't know what the reason is, but they are there in abundance.

So it was a pleasant surprise that my local PBS station aired The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill on the telly last night. The documentary follows Mark Bittner, an out of work musician, a man who is not concerned with the rat race and at ease with himself, as he transforms from a chap who just happens to feed sunflower seeds to the cherry-headed conures (and one blue-crowned conure called Connor) living wild in the city.

I'd heard of the wild parrots, indeed had hoped to see them during my visit but they proved elusive. If only I'd known of Mark and his cottage perched in Telegraph Hill with its magnificent view of the bay during my visit. Apparently, the flock started when a few conures that had been brought from South America as pets were deliberately released by San Francisco residents years ago and they've bred and been able to survive because of the warmer climate and abundance of food. (New York City and other American cities have their flocks of wild parrots now, too.)

At first Mark was merely curious about the birds, but then gradually he learned about and from them and became something of an authority on their habits. With a little macho bravado and humor, he states he does not love the birds but then acknowledges it's not true and breaks down when he discusses the death of one parrot that he'd taken in because it was horribly injured and how it showed him great affection, particularly on the night it died, affection that he'd found very strange and palpable when he'd carried it to its sleeping place for the night. Next morning he found its fragile carcass beside the heater;during the night, knowing it was dying, it had managed to crawl across the room so as to be close to the heat as parrots do when they're cold and sick.

During the documentary, the viewer is treated to the glorious sight of the flock (about fifty birds) swooping and diving in the azure skies above the shimmering bay and city. Two parrots are very different from the others. One is called Mingus and somewhere in his life's journey he broke his leg and thus can't function fully within the flock. As a result, he does not like to fly with them because they pick on him and much prefers to stay indoors, though he has a Jeckyl and Hyde personality so Mark punishes him for misbehaving by putting him outside. Another character was Connor, a blue-crowned conure (a different species) who was tolerated--and tolerated--his cherry-headed cousins, but was never fully accepted. He would come to the defense of the smaller cherry-heads if they were being bullied by their larger siblings. Once he had a mate, but she died. Later, he was introduced to another blue-crowned conure and the two formed an extremely close bond, despite the fact that a mistake had been made and his companion was male. His friend was called Busby (I think that was it) and he was an indoor bird but proved very jealous when Connor left to fly wild with the flock during the day. In the end, Connor decided he'd couldn't handle the possessiveness and stopped coming indoors to spend time preening his friend.

Mark lost his apartment a year ago and had to say goodbye to his birds because he moved to the other side of the bay. Shortly after he left, the documentary producer, Judy Irving, returned to do some last bit of filming of the birds. It was fortuitous because it was Connor's last day of life. Three hawks (they're the flock's mortal enemy) attacked and there is a picture from a SF resident on that day showing a hawk with a conure under its claws that's believed to be Connor because of a wisp of blue on his head. He was fearless of the hawks, only flew away when he was sure there was mortal danger, but perhaps old age caught up with him and he made a fatal error.

A check of the website shows Mark is back on Telegraph Hill again, living next door to his old flat, and he's now married to Judy and writing a memoir about his experiences. (He had a very straggly ponytail which he'd said in the documentary he would cut when he had a girlfriend.)

A gem of a documentary from PBS's Independent Lens.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hovering parents

While drinking my coffee as I surfed the morning news shows, my attention was seized by a segment about 'helicopter parents' and 'black hawk' parents, the latter being a recently minted pejorative term for those who cross the parental/adult offspring dividing line to commit acts that are at best deceitful, at worst border on the criminal in order to protect their Gen Y 'children.'

Gen Y refers to people born from the early eighties onward and apparently they are the most pampered, over-achieving, technically and financially savvy, and parentally micro-managed generation ever to enter the workforce, which they are now doing in huge numbers. Their schooling, hobbies, friendships and social activities have been meticulously managed to exhausting degrees. The upside is that these young adults feel very connected to their parents. The downside is that these young adults feel very connected to their parents.

Gen Yers are used to constant positive feedback from their parents and, as they enter the work environment, fully expect to have this affirming, ego-boosting feedback shuttle continue from their bosses and become disorientated, resentful and alienated when it doesn't. Simply stated, they have been unable to cut the apron strings and continue to involve their parents in the minutest details of their lives, allowing them to write their college entrance essays (hence the term 'black hawk' parents because Mom and Dad are prepared to resort to this and other forms of cheating in a sort of 'the end justifies the means' strategy), to scope out possible employers, prepare their resumes, attend and inspect the workplace,interview bosses and in other ways interfere.

It must be said that some Gen Yers resent their parents continued interference in their adult lives, though the parents ignore their wishes and often justify the unreasonable interference by asserting they are simply looking after their investment. Indeed some corporations have become so frustrated with this form of bizarre parental interference that they now invite parents in to inspect the workplace and arrange for personnel departments to discuss their 'children's' prospects were they to accept a job with the company. I kid you not.

Interestingly, I noticed a few years into living in the States that America parents really do seem to have trouble letting go in comparison to Europeans parents in general. They still refer to their children as kids after they've left for college, for example. Perhaps it's the laws that have something to do with it because I've always found it a bit bizarre that someone can vote or marry at age 18 yet can't buy a bottle of booze until after turning 21 here. Let's face it, one is a fully functioning adult at 18. In Brit and Ireland, we leave to go to university at 18 and we're on our own from there. That's how it should be and, in this respect, I think the European approach is far more mature. I think helicopter parents just doesn't exist as a dysfunction over there.

Here's a link I came across at ABC to a day in the life of a helicoper parent that I thought you might find amusing...or sad depending on one's perspective.

I suspect this dysfunction to be more associated with mothers than fathers but time will tell. Though I realized many years ago after the thunderheads of teenage angst and petulance had dissipated, my parents were actually very normal. Now I know it.

Monday, May 21, 2007

My bleatin' neighbors

I've been noticing an intriguing and welcome phenomena in Bucks County of late. It's to do with goats. Yes, goats.

First I should explain that, although I live in a rural area that's easily commutable to both Philly and NYC, there isn't much farming done here any more. In fact many of the old farms have been purchased by wealthy New Yorkers for the most part and they use them as their weekend getaways. (My township historical society is currently on a mission to find photos of Dorothy Parker at her old farm which lies a stone's throw from my house for a book they're doing--it was a humble place rich in the aroma of its Quaker roots then but through the years has metastasized into a multi-million dollar mansion that's hardly recognizable though the grounds are stunning. It's said she wrote Big Blonde there, which is one of my favorite stories of hers.) Of course, there are still some old families here who still own their farms, but they are now the exception to the rule as opposed to the rule. Sad, but true.

One family near us has a sign out that says "Organic chicken, beef and pork." And the township or County gave them a problem about their hanging the shingle for a while instead of giving them a whopping big bloody tax break. It'd surprise me if it was the township because, all in all, they are in favor of preserving rurality and its traditions. Many residents here are not in favor of cookie-cutter development of the kind the Toll Brothers and others like them do throughout the US, which is the erection of McMansions or tract housing. Oh, you can call these places enticing names like "Summer Meadows" or "Pastoral Mews at Bluebell Farm," but they're still McMansions or tract housing at the end of the day. In addition, the damned school taxes always jump horrendously when these houses get built in country areas.

Anyway, back to my goat observations. As I drive through our County I'm seeing more and more herds of goats at some of these farms. And some of the farmers have constructed interesting climbing and play areas for them because goats are intelligent and love to explore. One restaurant in the area also has a herd of goats, right beside their own organic vineyard--and their wine's (red and white) drinkable which might surprise some because we're stuck in Pennsylvania. An old llama and donkey and a flock of guinea fowl and turkeys live there, too. It's wonderful, refreshing, a tonic for the eyes.

I'm very very happy to report it's a growing phenomenon because I'm spotting goats grazing on farms in New Jersey, too. Maybe the Federal government has given these last remaining farms a subsidy to make goat cheese or something, I don't know. But if they have, kudos to the Federal government and the USDA.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A word about 75,000 words

Yesterday I reached a critical point in the writing of my first work of nonfiction, the one about my coming to live in America, and have been toying with the idea of publishing an excerpt on the blog.

Anyway, I reached a critical point yesterday and passed the 75,000 word mark. I don't exactly know why 75,000 thousand words is so important, but suspect it's because it would be a pleasingly thick book, a book with heft, if it were to be published tomorrow--the sort of heft that asserts 'I have 270 ragged-edged pages inside for you to feel and I am well worth the $24.95 you'll fork out for me in hardcover.' ($24.95 is a sort of median price for hardcovers here in the US.)

I also know the ending now--the final scene ran in my head yesterday like the speeding ticker tape at the ABC TV studios in Times Square--and the manuscript will come in at around 80,000 words in its rough form.

Of course, word content doth not a quality book make. I know that. That takes good writing and an interesting story, which requires a great deal of drafting and redrafting until one is sick of the manuscript so one doesn't ever want to see the manuscript again, hates and loves and hates and loves the manuscript, sometimes wants to hurl it into a blazing fire because it makes one think one is a shite writer. Oh, and a great book requires a great editor.

But, to get to the love-hate-love stage I must have words, at least 75,000 words. Because then I know I have written a book and I can slash and add and edit with impunity. I can because I do not have to fear facing a blank screen page that cries to be filled. I need to have that knowledge. It's my security blanket.

Now to think up an interesting title because I don't think America and Me cuts it for me any longer.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Volvo Mom

There I was in my car, stationary at the traffic lights this morning, when Volvo Mom pulled up alongside me in a silver-gray station wagon. Early thirties, very pretty in an intellectual sort of way and swaying her head from side-to-side wildly as she sang along to whatever song was belting from the radio. She struck at the steering wheel a few times, then began drumming enthusiastically.

Something flitting in the back of the vehicle caught my eye. Her child escaped from its booster seat, perhaps? (I did see the empty booster seat.) But surely this could not be possible. Volvo Mom buys a Volvo precisely because they're sturdy and safe, a veritable army tank on wheels. I looked into the back but still could see nothing.

I resumed watching Volvo Mom who was now swaying her head more vigorously. She bent towards the radio, turned up the volume, and began to drum even more enthusiastically utterly oblivious of her surroundings and now I could now hear the heavy beat of rock music rushing from the cockpit. Further movement. I turned my head quickly and found myself staring into the eyes of a handsome Pomeranian. Its cute little paws balanced on the ledge where the frame of the door and the window connect, the eyes large and glittering like amber in sunlight. The doggie pushed away from the window and disappeared only to return three seconds later. Again our gazes locked and this time his ears pricked comically and he opened his mouth.

"Yep, this is my Mom and she's crazy about music," he seemed to say. "She does this all the time."

The lights changed to green. Instead of rushing from it as I usually do, I pulled away slowly and the Volvo passed by with the cute Pomeranian still staring out at the world, Mom's head still swaying wildly as she crooned.

I really bet she's a lot of fun to know.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dare Poodles pee on Bushes?

Just listened to an excellent program on our local national public radio station about Tony Blair's resignation and what his legacy would be. The guests included an American chap living in the UK and an English man.

The American chap said Blair was instrumental in investing in and building up some of Britain's ailing quasi-governmental institutions including the National Health Service. He added the nugget that he sends his daughter to NHS doctors and hospitals and has found the service and experience very good in general. That surprised me and "tell that to my mother" ran through my mind. Wait times for appointments are horrid, so horrid Americans would find them unacceptable.

Blair deserves much credit for some successes and I think many Brits are just so angry with him over his support of the Bush administration's policy in Iraq that they overlook the good he has done for the country in general. The passage of time will rectify that in his favor. Britain's economy is doing well, I believe. He had staying power when it came to getting the two sides to talk and form a government in Northern Ireland. He ended the absurd system of privilege in the House of Lords by ending the right of hereditary peers to sit in the upper chamber of Westminster--apparently 92 hereditary peers are sitting currently but, when they die, their offspring cannot take their seats as before. It was time for modern Britain to end that sort of undemocratic crap.

His moniker as 'Bush's poodle' was discussed in the context of his unshakable belief that Britain has a 'special relationship' with the United States. It was pointed out that benefits of this 'special relationship' ran only one way, namely to America, during the Bush presidency.

Very illuminating for me was the fact that America considers and trumps up a 'special relationship' with no less than nine countries, including Japan--which it must actually articulate every time an American head of state visits Japan because they expect to hear it--as well as Poland, etc. In other words, the United States does not consider itself to have a 'special relationship' with Britain that is more unique, more valuable, more critical than any other countries enjoying such a title. An administration currently in power--whether Democrat or Republican--is perfectly happy when a country such as Britain asserts it has a 'special relationship' because there is no obligation or downside for America.

The conclusion seemed to be that this is where Blair did make a huge mistake; he was so driven to maintain this 'special relationship' that he was prepared to ignore the wishes of his constituency, namely the British people, and go along with the actions and policies of the Bush administration who, quite simply, did not care whether he agreed or disagreed with their decisions. In the end, Blair got only to influence America in a mere two instances--one being to do with Palestine/Israeli issues--as a result of this perceived self-sustaining duty to keep the 'special relationship' on track and thereby give Britain prestige.

It seems to me the next British Priminister should spend his time working with the European Union because that is where Britain's destiny and power is truly tied. That is where they can truly be effective. (Gordon Smith is apparently not a huge fan of Europe and is a bit of an Americanophile--loves the Boston Redsox, vacationing on Martha's vineyard (who doesn't?) and our economy, though is not hot on Mr. Bush.) Because, only when Europe speaks to an American administration regardless as to who is in power with one consistent and powerful voice will a 'special relationship' be acknowledged.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Scents and other simple pleasures

Every morning now I sit on the deck and drink my second cup of coffee after returning from the gym. I do this because this is the time in spring in Pennsylvania--most of the northern East coast really--when the Russian Olives and lilacs are in bloom and the breeze is heady with their thick sweetish scent. For having such small trumpet-shaped flowers, the Russian Olive--it's a shrub that grows wild here--sure packs a heck of a punch.

Just before dusk, I'm back in the garden--watering this time, because we hoed all the patchy parts of the lawn which the weeds claimed as theirs and spread some grass seed. It looks kind of ugly now but that'll change in a few weeks.

Sometimes, when I'm working in the garden covered in dust and sweat and sneezing because of the pollen, I stop full of amazement at myself. As a kid back in Ireland and an adolescent, I despised gardens and gardening, didn't give a shit about flowers and things. Now I'm out breaking my back to get it all beautiful and in shape just so we can sit out on the deck in the evenings, drink wine or sometimes beer, and listen to the finches, wrens woodpeckers and cardinals in chorus. We even put red flowers in the pots on the deck so we'll have humming birds stopping by in mid-summer to drink the nectar. Times sure change.

On an unrelated note, Debra Hamel of Book Blog has a new site called Twitterlit up and running. It gives the opening lines of published novels (mine is currently her first pick of the day, which pleases me very much) and if it tweaks people's interest to know what works they are, it then links to so you can investigate. Here's thelinkif you'd like to check it out when you get a mo'.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Sailing forth

Today is another historic day in the annals of Irish or British history (depending upon one's leanings)as the Northern Irish ship of state once again leaves the harbor under the control of its own citizens and begins the long voyage toward rehabilitating its reputation of being a bit of a bleak place to live and becoming a viable member of the world community. I am convinced they can do it because the Northern Irish are a tough and determined people. I know because I'm one of them.

The province has a new power-sharing government seated at historic Stormont castle. Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein's Martin Mc Guinness were sworn into the office as first and deputy first ministers and five years of British direct rule ended.

I wish them well and hope the two can find common ground and work together for the good of all the people. They owe it to the thousands murdered during The Troubles.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Marigolds and beer

Nothing like getting a bit of earth dirt on your hands in spring.

Yesterday was a warm, sunny day and I felt the need to do some outdoors work instead of sitting at my desk typing on the laptop. I like writing but sometimes get tired of it and just want to do some hard manual graft, the sort of graft that makes you feel like you've accomplished and achieved something of significance, the sort of graft that makes you feel good to be alive as you slake down a good, ice-cold beer afterwards--and I'm not talking about the weak mass-produced pee that passes for beer here in the US. No sir, I mean good beer, beer of the sort that that comes from Ireland, England, Germany, Belgium and American micro-breweries like Victory's Hop Devil here in Pennsylvania or Berkshire Brewing Company in Massachusetts. No matter how good a job I did working on a legal brief or how good I did in court of how well I think I wrote that paragraph or sentence in a novel, I've never been able to feel the depth of satisfaction I feel when I've mowed the lawn just so or mulched the flowerbeds so that the contrast between the ink-black mulch and bright green leaves makes an indelibly pleasing impression in my brain. I think I always feel this way because one can immediately see the fruits of one's labor, stand back and see the big picture--the sprawling velvety lawn, the lush flower beds.

So yesterday, I weed-whacked the untidy grass and weeds growing alongside the edges of the stone flowerbeds and underneath the picket fence. And after that was done, I got my trowel and dug deep into the musty soil, turned up the earth and popped fifty-five baby marigold plants into their new homes. I love the bright orange of marigold flowers and I love their lacy foliage.

Miss Brody thought carnations 'sensible' flowers. Well, I think marigolds are joyful flowers. In mid summer, after the lavish lily shows have come to an end, one can always count on the faithful marigold to maintain the sunny atmosphere...and they do, right up to the first frosts.

I can't wait for them to grow up and bloom.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


We decided to go to our local town and have a sandwich for lunch as well as do a bit of shopping yesterday. Because I had my writers group meeting that day too and have to leave the house early in order to get to Jeanne's, I eat supper before Larry so always prepare the dinner a bit earlier and leave some for him to heat up later. It's about the only time I cook, really. Feeling like something tasty, I browned some chicken breasts in a pot, added mushrooms and onions, oregano and white wine--lashings and lashings of white wine--and then let it simmer. I was practically drunk with the fumes of wine wafting into the study as I labored at my writing. I was really looking forward to having this with brown rice on the side. Yummy!

At noon, Larry came back from the other house, peered into the pot and said,
"Where are the carrots? There's no carrots in here. My Chicken Caban recipe has carrots."

Shit, I'd forgot the damned carrots. Without a word, I went to the fridge, rummaged and found an entire pack of peeled baby carrots and chucked them into the pot.

He turned up the heat and we started to chat about our trip to Europe that we're organizing at the moment.

"Hey, let's go and get that sandwich cos' I'm hungry," I said.

I went out to the car. A minute later he came out and we drove to town, which takes about twenty-five minutes because we live in the Pennsylvanian sticks.
Just as we entered the tacky part of town, the part where all the car dealerships with their huge American flags and tinsel bunting lay, I said, "Did you turn off the Chicken Caban?"
No response for a moment. "You know, I can't remember."
"Well, try."
"I think we'd better go back."
"What? let's get a sandwich first. I'm sure you did turn it off and just can't remember."
"No, let's go back now."
I turned in the yard of a tacky car dealership and started home, fuming because I was now ravenous--the sort of ravenous that's exacerbated by the fact you're being denied food.
"Hurry," he said.
"I don't think we want to argue with that," I said, nodding to the cement truck ahead.
"Go. You've got room to pass."
I ignored him.
Twenty minutes later, we drove up the driveway and he told me to stay in the car because he was sure he'd turned it off. Five minutes passed and still no sign of him. Another two minutes and I went inside. The stench of burnt chicken and a wall of smoke vied for my attention. he was nowhere to be seen, but the pot was in the sink, its base black as tar and thick with chicken skin that had merged with the metal to make some form of strange amalgam.

He came in from the back garden carrying the lid.

Well, there goes supper," I said.
"We just got here on time. Another five or ten minutes and the walls and ceiling would have been shelacked in grease."

I shuddered to think of the hours we'd have had to spend cleaning the kitchen cupboards, etc. And because we'd opened the two main doors before we'd left, the fire alarms hadn't gone off.

A little sad about what I would not be having with my brown rice that evening, I picked up a carrot that still looked the correct color and tasted it. It was acrid, tasted of burnt steel, smoke and chicken, the bitter taste imprinting permanently on my taste buds.

"All I have to say is you wash the pot..." I said. "...if it's salvageable."

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A rigid mindset

Today's a holiday in Europe celebrating workers and it reminded me of a story I was told at a party. I met someone who manages a large corporation and he told me he'd helped three Irish guys (in this case all came from Northern Ireland) obtain a visa to come to the US to live and work here in order to get some experience. I think it's the visa program that succeeded the Donnelly Visa program because the successful applicants must return home again rather than stay permanently in the US.

These chaps arrived to work at his company. He noticed two of the men quickly became friends, but made no effort to befriend or socialize with the other man.

After three months or so, one of the two chaps comes up to him and says, "Did you know that other Irish fella' working with us is the other sort?"

(The man telling me the story was American Irish and brought up Catholic.)

The manager knew exactly what he meant and couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"I just waanted ye;' to know, like," the Irishman said, as if he were doing his American boss a huge favor and he should immediately fire the guy.

Astonishingly or not surprisingly depending on one's perspective, the other man left and the manager wasn't sure whether he went home or decided to travel around the country. To me the only thing that was surprising was that this Catholic chap felt he had a God-given right to spew his hatred and prejudice in the United States and try to influence his superiors. And it's incredibly sad, too. He gets a visa to work in a sophisticated environment in a large US city, an opportunity to gain some top-notch work experience,and all he can think about is that someone he is working with is an Irish protestant. Talk about leading a limited life. And he's going back to Northern Ireland without learning a thing.