Monday, March 27, 2006

The Sea is Wide & I Cannot Swim Over

There's something about leaving Ireland that makes it imperative that you listen to all of your favorite Van Morrison songs immediately. Lucky for me, I had several on my iPod and so could begin the lament on the long train journey from Waterford to Limerick before I ever got on the plane. I started with 'Carrickfergus' where the line about Kilkenny had new meaning to me, and ended with "Won't You Stay."

The last day in Ireland was a drizzly one, so it took awhile to get moving. I have about a sixty minute tolerance for museums of any sort, so even though I'd been warned to have three hours for the Waterford Treasures museum, I had to walk around the town centre, poking my head into stores, getting dew kissed from the drizzle, and generally feeling a part of life there before trekking to the museum. The Irish coat I bought when I was there in November must make me look more like a native, because again I was asked for directions. This time, sadly, I had no answers.

The museum is nicely done and has a remarkable amount of interactive "treasures" as well as the more traditional kind. The first thing I did was go into a little theatre where a modern version of a Viking ship made up the seating area. I was the only person in there and almost got hysterical when the movie started and the ship started rocking back and forth. The movie itself was silly--about a bunch of Vikings making the journey from York back to Waterford, calling out to a horned old disembodied head who must have been Odin. But the creaking of the aluminum bleacher-seat ship was worth 12 minutes of movie boredom. I was only sorry that I was alone on it and so my laughter must have seemed a bit deranged.

Probably the most impressive piece in the whole museum is the city charter, which is, essentially, a bunch of documents about mayors and city ordinances written and illustrated on vellum and then sewn together into one big historical quilt. I liked seeing man's history presented in such a girly fashion. Which brings me to my main beef with museums and history in general. I can rarely find myself there. Sure, there might be some bowls women served food in, a beaded necklace of some ancient peoples, but mostly what you see are the stories of men. Likely, they affected the women in fringe ways, but I would prefer learning about their lives & that forgotten history. What shaped domestic life instead of how a political action shaped a nation's history, or, to borrow words from the Feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, I am most interested in how the political shaped the personal. While I don't care which king presented the Mayor of Waterford with the Cap of Maintenance (which, by the way, looks over much like the Hogwart's Sorting Hat), I am curious about the woman who helped piece it together or the Lady Mayor who had a laugh with her husband after the presentation about how stupid he looked in it.{"Ohhhh. Don't you look divine in your cap o' maintenance, Darling.") But those aren't the stories we get in museums or history books because they aren't considered important. They aren't national or global. They aren't worthy of being recorded. In museums, it seems, the female story is predominately relegated to who wore what and which of our dishes were used to feed the men who were fighting the wars and signing the charters. This is an old, unoriginal argument I'm presenting, and it is changing in terms of recorded _modern_ history, but it does impact my level of interest in dusty relics that I pay 7 euro to see.

I cruised through the rest of the museum, paying homage to anything that seemed homage worthy, but generally reassuring myself that I am not a bad person or a bad student of life if I don't love museums, where life and stories are kept in airtight cases.

Back at the Artist's house that evening, he showed me his artwork from the period right after his wife had died. These were all chalk pastels with mythological figures and death symbols throughout. He explained each one, which I appreciated, because it helped me understand his thought process. Talking about these pieces must have been exhausting for him, both because physically it is hard for him to get breath behind his words and also because of the subject matter. I was overwhelmed by the pain that was in them & found myself having to turn away periodically. After he had shown them to me, I asked about the sketches he did while his wife was dying and he nodded toward the cabinet where they are kept and said that his children can't even look at them because they are too painful. At that point, the phone rang--two of his friends were taking M. & I out for a drink--and I felt relieved to have the spell broken and to have been spared witnessing that pain. Even so, as M. and I were driven away while he stood at the door, holding onto his wheeled-walker, waving goodbye to us, I wanted very much to hop out of the car and insist we spend the evening at home with him instead of drinking with his friends. I wanted to soften the sadness of what I'd just seen. Of course he has lived with these paintings and his grief for several years, so it is likely that I was the only one who needed the softening.

The man who picked us up was the Artist's neighbor, a retired banker who now travels and studies languages. He drove us to the house of the other man, a sort of care-taker for a Big House that was formerly owned by the Waterford Crystal people. Gates had to be opened before we could drive in. We had drinks there and then later at a 17th century pub which sits under an ancient-looking "flyover" (overpass). We talked about politics (Irish, U.S., African, E.U.) and drank, then went back for tea before heading back to our unpacked suitcases. When we got back, the Artist was already in bed, so M. and I stayed up until 1:30 talking about life, even though we knew we had to get up at 4:30 the next morning to catch the cab that would take us to our train. Though we've worked together in one form another for over ten years, we didn't know all the bits of each other's lives.

Morning came early, but we made our connections and had only an hour to kill at Shannon. There were a few U.S. service men (I'm not being sexist, I saw no women) walking around in their desert cammies. I felt self-conscious about my black shamrock, anti-U.S.-troops-at-Shannon-Airport button and was glad it was out of view. As much as I don't believe in this war and don't believe we should be involving Ireland in our nation-building, I feel none of those things about the soldiers themselves. They are my neighbors, my students, my cousins, and, if I'd been more productive on prom night, they could be my sons.

As we were in the departure hall, we could see a large line of soldiers on the other side of the glass just arriving from their trans-Atlantic flight, ready to be shipped to Iraq. As they walked by us, a few waved tentatively through the glass, and M. and I and some others felt compelled to wave back. My God did they look young. I know this is what people always say about soldiers, but seriously, these boys looked about 14. And maybe I was reading in, but they looked a little scared too. More people waved. A few clapped. I got teary, thinking of the hardwork they were about to undertake. How some of them wouldn't be coming home as they left. How some of them wouldn't be coming home at all. I had to turn away, as I had the night before looking at the Artist's study of grief, because the idea of it all was overwhelming. But then the cheers and chants of "U.S.A." started and the spell was broken. Suddenly it became not a poignant, human moment, but a sporting event. Our team is best. Our team will win. Our team will trounce your team. Gooooooo team. No doubt there is need to build the gladiators up before they go into the arena, but it rang false.

My thoughts turned to a local business owner whose marine son recently walked through that same arrivals hall on his way to be a tank gunner. She said this is what he wanted to do with his life, that this is his destiny. She told me the story of how he and a woman he'd met online tried to connect at Shannon so they could meet face-to-face before he went to Iraq. She talked about how upset the woman was when they missed each other, how touched she was that someone cared so much for her son that she would drive all the way from Dublin, just for a glimpse of him. She explained how she sent an angel statue to the woman as thanks. So anyhow, I ignored the cheers and false bravado and thought instead of these two women and this young soldier, and how though I haven't met him, I hope he comes back in one piece, because this personal story is the one I care about. Not the oil. Not the WMDs. Not even how political boundaries are drawn or how the history books later present the events.

Maybe its juvenile of me to have this attitude, but I don't think so. Several years ago a friend told me that he believed poetry would save the world. I couldn't quite wrap my mind around the concept at the time, though appreciated the validation he gave to my chosen line of work. Now, I think I understand better. It's the little moments of personal pain or joy that are recorded into the story, the song lyric, the dance, that will do the work all of our peace talks and war making cannot. It is art that will breathe life into dusty relics in those air tight museum cases, even if it is by way of an aluminum Viking ship and bad video. It is Van Morrison telling us how he longs for the ability to swim or fly or pay a boatman to carry him back to his own ones across a wide sea.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Ghost Ship

Crystal is expensive & its absence of color bothers me, but when you are at the Waterford Crystal Factory and you've watched the film about how it is the MOST perfect crystal in the world--how, in fact, imperfection is not tolerated--suddenly it seems like you need to own a piece and like maybe your cousin who is getting married next month needs a piece. And maybe your mother. Maybe an aunt. Maybe a neighbor. If you find yourself in this situation here is my advice to you: don't do the euros-to-dollars conversion in your head. Pretend that the sticker which says '85' means eighty-five dollars and be done with it. Later, when your Visa bill comes, you can worry about the math and bad exchange rates. At which point, the prisms dancing around your living room and your cousin's note of thanks about how her marriage would not have been so happy without your gift will soften the blow.

It really is just the most awful kind of extravagance there at the Waterford Crystal Visitors' Center. For instance, I mailed ten postcards by dropping them into a giant crystal mailbox.

When you walk in, you are at the highest level of the show room, looking down on the chandeliers. This level has replicas of the various trophies that have been created (one in the shape of a football, most in the shapes of loving cups), place settings of goblets and doo-dads that Queen Elizabeth (or Oprah) couldn't afford. It's gorgeous, but excessive.

The next level down is where the goods are sold. I walked around this area for an hour, trying to do the math that would make it possible for me to spend money in a cost-effective way, get a wedding present, a shower present, some other small gifts, and spend the 200 euros needed so I could ship everything home for free. (For the record, other people are going in with me on the wedding gift. I'm not THAT extravagant. I do just teach at a small Midwestern university.)

I couldn't decide, so I went to the next level down where the Wedgewood is sold. I'm not buying English china in Ireland. I'm not. So I scooched on into the room where other bits and bobs were sold. The space started feeling a lot less posh and a lot more like a basement. I was more comfortable. Here was the tourist tat that is sold everywhere in Ireland, of which I own too much because in those last minutes before a plane boards, suddenly it seems imperative that I have a Claddaugh apron or sixteen bumper stickers that say 'Pogue ma 'Thoin' and key chains and coasters with my family's supposed crest on it. (You know, my family who had to leave the auld sod in the 19th century because they were starving or at least terribly uncomfortable. Sure they had a crest. Sure they did.) It disturbed me that Waterford Crystal, an entity that couldn't be more Irish, has the same class stratifcation that the Titanic (another Irish creation) did. So there I was in the basement in my scuffed up clogs with my hair in a ponytail and my black 'just say no to troops in Shannon airport' Shamrock button, KNOWING that I belong--and always will--in steerage. But for the sake of my cousin and her fancy wedding, I clawed my way out of the ship's hold before I was tempted to buy her a shamrock covered teapot with 'Eire' written above a facsimile of Brian Boru's harp.

I made my choices, did the euro-only calculations, and then at the last minute asked the woman how long the free shipping would take on these items. Six weeks, she says. The wedding is in three weeks. Guess what's going to be in my carry-on, wedged under the seat in my own little hunk of American Airline's version of 3rd class travel?

An interlude: yesterday in Kilkenny, I saw a pub with a blue sign that said, 'The Mouse Bar.'It made me laugh and imagine tiny rodents sidling up to the counter, asking for a pint, so I took a picture. This evening I mentioned it to M. and Himself and showed them the picture. Isn't this funny, I said. The artist looked at me like I'd lost my mind. 'It's the HOUSE bar,' he said. 'Not the MOUSE bar. I told you about it before you left, said it would be a good place to eat.' M. got so tickled she couldn't quit laughing. Her face was red and Himself said, 'Get control of yourself, woman.' For the rest of the night, all either of us would have to do was softly mention 'mouse bar' and the other would start cackling.

Back to our regular scheduled programming:

This afternoon, M. decided that I should see the famine ship in Dunbrody. She'd tried to see it last Spring and it was in dry dock, and then later in the year she'd made the trip and found it worthwhile. She'd even checked the web last week to make sure it would be open this time of year. It is a replica of one of the ships that brought over emmigrants who were trying to leave an inhospitable Ireland in the mid 19th century. The night before she'd pointed me to a few sights to find information on a great-great grandfather no one in my father's family knows anything about, and she said that at the ship I could search manifests to see who traveled from where and when. Though I'm not big on re-enactments of such things (can we really know how horrible the insides of those coffin ships were in 1847?)the genealogical aspect seemed excellent, so today we drove the 20 minutes or so down the road to New Ross, and as we were crossing the bridge, she said, 'I don't see the boat.' It was misty out and I figured she'd just forgotten where it was. The closer we got to the dock, the more sure it seemed that it wasn't there.

The visitos' center, however, was opened. People were there having sandwiches in the little shop and the ladies running it were dusting off the souvenir erasers and sterling silver celtic crosses in hopes of making a sale. It was as if they were unaware that the boat wasn't there. As if, perhaps, it were a ghost ship that only they could see. There were two computers there and I momentarily got my hopes up that I could do my search anyhow, but then quickly saw the 'out of order' signs hanging on both. M. asked about the ship. It's in dry dock again for some big sailing thing later in the Spring. M. pointed out that she'd just checked the website. The lady said, 'But it only went into dry dock last week!' M. said that yes, perhaps that was the case, but last week was when she checked the website to see if it was worth making the trip (FROM AMERICA) and the woman said, 'But it will only be in dry dock for a week!'as if that explained it away. She then offered to show us a ten minute video about the boat we wouldn't be able to see. I said, 'No. I've gone off it,' and we left. And then we laughed most of the way back to Waterford. It was annoying, but I can't really be too annoyed in Ireland about anything. Everything just seems sort of funny. Going to the wrong church. Having a pint at a mouse bar. Visiting a ghost ship.

To save the day, M. then drove me to East Dumore, a resort town that Maeve Binchy writes about and where movies of her books are filmed. Lots of cottages with English thatch. It was a windy, misty, cold day, and the sea was crashing against the rocks and roaring. We saw a monument to the sea-dead from the area that one of the Artist's co-workers designed, and drove around the high road looking at the view. It was breathtaking, and there, without benefit of ten minute films or faux famine ship passengers, I could think about what that voyage must have been like, how desperate a person would have to be to leave family and home to brave a sea that could be so violent. How optimistic. And while I'm not ego-centric enough to think they imagined their future generations drinking Coca Cola out of crystal goblets, I wonder if maybe they weren't wanting something a little more close to perfect than what they'd been born into.

Isn't that why we're always scratching and whinging and charging things on our credit cards? Don't we have some idea that things could be better if only we...?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Moose at the Gate Should Have Told You

This morning I woke to the sound of M. scratching at my door, singing 'Morning Has Broken' and saying that the musical wake up call is just another of the services offered here. I had a train to catch for my solo adventure to Kilkenny and she'd been given orders from the Artist to leave forty minutes early 'just in case.' She rolled her eyes at his caution, but it was harmless. Both of us were secretly pleased to have someone clucking after us, I suspect.

My reasons for wanting to go were three-fold: 1) my need to go places alone periodically so I feel adventurous 2) Rick Steves's (my former travel god) recommendation that it is the most beautiful inland medieval city in Ireland 3) a song of the same name that I love to torture myself with.

In terms of adventure, I'm more like a toddler who is just learning to walk, being shunted across a narrow living room between parents. I like the independence of mini-solo travel when I know at the end of the day someone is going to be waiting on me and will know if I've been hit on the head with a piece of Connemara marble and left for dead in a bog. (And yes, I AM mixing metaphors.) To my credit, I know non-single people who can't go an hour without dialing up their beloved even if they are both in the same city with plans for dinner at 6:30, so I'm not that bad off. No. I KNOW adventurous people. I am not one. But this affords me the illusion.

My mother thinks I have amazing traveling acumen because I can navigate the Dayton International Airport without studying signs overlong. She finds this ability akin to a sixth sense or messages from the Holy Spirit, but the reality is that everything I know about getting from one place to another I learned at amusement parks. I think parents who don't take their children to Disney World or Six Flags or even Kennywood should be brought up on child-endangerment charges. When I go somewhere new, the first thing I do is look for the 'park' map, find the key things I want to do and make a plan of attack (to avoid lines, excess walking, or midday sun), and then search for a landmark by which I can navigate. 'Tram' service of some sort is operational most places. 'Concession stands' (most here selling pub grub instead of corn dogs, admittedly) are every two feet, where you can also find restroom facilities. Souvenirs can be purchased anywhere, though balloon animals in this location tend to make you look a bit touched in the head.

So this morning when I got off the train in Kilkenny (population 10,000), I immediately searched for castle turrets and got my bearings. Irish Frontierland. It was about a ten minute walk and on the way a car pulled up beside me and asked how to get to the castle. I said, 'Straight ahead and turn left. You can't miss it.' I didn't KNOW this for a fact (I'd left the guidebook back in Waterford, even) but the truth is these are basically always the directions you get in Ireland anyhow, so why not give them like a native? Sure enough several minutes later, I was standing behind the folks I'd given directions to, waiting to get my ticket for the Kilkenny Castle tour. They thanked me; I smiled, secretly pleased with my own navigational brilliance.

Kilkenny Castle is nice. I'm not a fan of Irish castles because I always think of oppression and audacity instead of the romance and adventure. In England, it is easier to buy into the whole chivalry thing without worrying too much about serfs and thralls. Maybe a beheaded wife will intrude on your Arthurian fantasies. Here, you can smell it for what it was--imperialism with a helping of genocide. Rich people (living richly) on the backs of the poor. But I digress. The castle is lovely. It's 800 years old, has beautiful grounds, and has been refurbished impeccably in Victorian decor, the last era it was used before falling into ruin. The town was beautiful too. Bustling. Narrow, cobbled streets. Brightly colored store fronts. Just what you expect to find.

I ate lunch at the Irish equivalent of Subway, and when I was finished asked for directions to the cathedral. Which cathedral, the sandwich guy wanted to know. I don't know--the cathedral you're supposed to see when you are here, I said. He chewed his lip, consulted with the sandwich girl, and they decided it must be St. Mary's I was after. I asked how I got there and they said in unison, Straight up the street, turn left, you can't miss it.

I walked to the cathedral, humming 'Kilkenny.' It's a song that you listen to when you feel you need to cry but can't quite get yourself over the hump. Three lines from it and you'll be wiping your nose on your sleeve. After the first round of the chorus, you'll be belting out great hiccuping sobs. It's like an old-timey Irish version of 'Cats in the Cradle.' So I sang it, walked to the cathedral, peered in the door and felt generally unmoved. I like Catholic churches when they aren't in session. I like the smell of incense, the candles flickering, the sounds of the kneelers creaking under the weight of the devout. But this church didn't feel like the one I was supposed to see. I shrugged and headed back toward the train station. On the walk I started thinking that 'Kilkenny' didn't sound right either. It didn't sound right at all. I hum-sang a few more bars and realized it WASN'T 'Kilkenny.' It was KILKELLY. 'Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 60, my dear and loving son John/Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat McNamara's so good as to write these words down.'

Sniff. Wipe.

So, while I had managed to get myself and a family of four I'd never met to the castle, I had basically gone to the wrong town in the first place and while in the wrong town I had hummed and fantasized about a song that was, apparently, inappropriate, seen a church that was not recommended by Rick Steves, Esq. Still, it was a good day. I'd seen some things, I had people waiting on me when I got home, and in my fake-out amusement park world, no humans in giant furry animal suits tried to hug me as I departed the magic kingdom of Kilkenny.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Secrets of the Other Sex

Last year, M and her man thought for about two days that I would be a good thing for his son, who is younger than me and an untamed creature of sorts. I suspected after two descriptions of him that we would not be a Love Connection on account of he was living in New York City where surely all the girls are thin, young, and lovely, and also on account of his documented hyperactivity, which was evidenced on his webpage and the number of extra curricular activities he was involved in. We never met, he fell in love with some Southern Belle, and is now back in Ireland. The end.

Except now I find myself in the peculiar position of sleeping in his bed. His room is still his, though he's lived in the U.S. (and now Dublin) for quite awhile. I've never met him, so it's an interesting study.

When I was younger, men seemed like the ultimate mystery to me, like if you could crack open one of their heads like a melon, all the secrets of the universe would spill out. I've snooped through the drawers and bookshelves of men I love hoping to uncover the thing that would help me understand them, to no avail, and then after several years of married friends telling me that as far as men go, there is no there 'there,' I gave up wondering what secrets lurked therein.

So now I'm in the room of this guy I never met, and I'm reminded of how mysterious men used to seem. Of how I'd stand outside the boys' dorm in college and wonder what went on in there, listening to their music choices and suspecting the choices were superior to mine, realizing their lives functioned fine without me (or other women for that matter, about 40% of the men at my college ended up being gay or Celibates for Jesus). What I'm finding, instead, is that there is a hell of a lot of little boy in a man. True, this is this guy's childhood bedroom, but he's got literary classics in Irish, English, Swedish, and German on his bookshelves. He's no slouch. But there, in the midst of John Gardener and Joseph Heller will be sandwiched a Mad Magazine. Family photos dot the room, along with posters in languages I don't speak. And then, inexplicably, a stuffed animal. I'm beginning to embrace this nearly middle-aged thing, where I feel wiser and know things I didn't used to know. Where I have no need to snoop or speculate.

Maybe I'm kidding myself. Likely, if I'd met this person and were having a relationship with him and if he'd been unusually silent at dinner tonight, I would have had the room torn apart in five minutes flat, trying to understand him, wondering if I could find evidence of his love or his deception...going back to my old way of thinking, that a man I want inherently knows something about life that I don't. Yet, as I've mentioned before, I like to think I'm smarter now. Older. Wiser. More sure that what I know is enough and the rest I can just google up and find answers for my ownself.

Today was a windy, grey day in Waterford. M and I took a walking tour of the old part of the city, Ireland's oldest, a Viking city. One thing that interested me was the big archaelogical find they uncovered when getting ready to build a shopping center. It was a huge thing--Viking settlement, bodies, wood houses, the whole deal, buried in the bog. There's a little bit of it on display in the shopping center that was built on top of the find after the better bits were excavated and carted off to a museum. Initially, I was annoyed that they hadn't turned it into a Viking National Park or something, until the guide pointed out that once most of it would hit the air it would turn to dust in just a matter of hours. Oxygen, it turns out, isn't good for everything. Some secrets--like those in the hearts of men--need to remain under cover, under floors, under parking garages, under lock and key.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Bus Eireann Shuffle

I spent the better part of the day on a variety of busses,and have finally landed here in Waterford with M and her man, the Artist. The house is a good sort, full of books and his art and his dead Swedish wife's Swedish things. In fact, the house feels more Swedish than Irish for reasons I'm unsure of except a few of the rooms are bright blue and yellow. You can tell life was lived well here for their family before she died several years ago and before the Artist himself got sick with MSA, which has left him weak and with muscles that do not always cooperate as he'd like for them too.

Waterford I'm unsure of. At the moment, it looks a bit too much like Cork City for my liking, but I saw very little of it this evening. M picked me up and we went to pick up her man at the osteopath, who is about to turn 40 and to celebrate is going to Malaysia. This seems a bit like celebrating a major event with an eyelid-ectomy to me, but I am not _that_ adventurous. Steven the Osteopath, however, looks like a man who does yoga in his sleep and who will return from Malaysia fully relaxed and epiphinized. After that we went to Tesco to do some grocery shopping (brown bread, Kerry Gold butter, Dubliner Cheese, and Guinness for me, slightly more healthy things for M and Himself.) And now here. Tomorrow is an unknown. If it is sunny, a walking tour of Waterford. If it is raining, I have no idea.

Saturday and Sunday with the O'Mahony and Mohan cousins was good. Saturday night we watched Ireland beat England in rugby and win the Triple Crown. (I know nothing about rugby but was told anytime the Irish beat the English at anything it is cause for jubilation.) John and his young son were both so into the match that they were dancing around the TV, screaming at it, and a few times when it got too unnerving, John had to go into the other room to talk to Ginger the Cat in order to calm himself down!

Sunday I got to visit with the other cousins who live at the Homeplace. They have a cozy farmhouse, and the kids entertained me. I left full of tea and Guinness and good stories. One thing I learned that I did not know is that there are World Plowing Championships. Did you know this? Gerry the Cousin goes to them. He says they'd be no use to Americans who can plow however they like because our hot sun will burn off the green bits, but it in Ireland if you don't turn a row correctly the vegetation will grow and then no more row.

His wife and two oldest children are going to be in Chicago in April. It would be fun to see them on American soil, so I hope to make the trip up there. His wife is convinced that I must come back in September to go to the matchmaking festival in Lisdoonvarna, though the other set of cousins warned me off of it later.

On the bus today leaving Galway, I listened to the Saw Doctors sing about the West of Ireland and realized once again, that it is my favorite part of this country. As the bus moved out of County Galway and into County Clare and then further in toward Tipperary, the stone fences and rocky landscape became less and less frequent. It's all gorgeous, but there is something in Connemara's harsh landscape that speaks home to me in ways the rest of the country don't.

Also, I felt a bit hypocritical that I was enjoying watching the lambs frolic and just twelve hours before had been enjoying a lamb dinner. It's not right. I won't ever eat lamb at home, but when I'm here and it is served up, I don't feel like I should refuse. And sadly, it is delicious.

So the six hours on the bus was not so bad. I listened to my iPod shuffle thru various Irish songs and watched the movie of Ireland's landscape unfold to the soundtrack of my own making. (I'm beginning to 'get' the iPod business.)

That's what I know today.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Magically Delicious

Ireland is still here. Sometimes when I leave, I wonder if it disappears in a mist. An Irish Brigadoon. Since I was here in November, not much has changed except the flipflops are in the stores even though it's only 8 degrees celsius out.

Uneventful flight. Uneventful departure from M, as she headed off to Waterford. Uneventful bus ride to Galway alone. I got here at 10:30, dumped my suitcase at the train station, and decided to pack as much into the day as I could before my cousin Mary and her husband collected me at 3:00. At home, I could spend a Saturday doing my nails and looking at the window. That's it. The day just disappears. It is nice to know that if I really want to, I can move quickly and get a lot done. Like this blog, for instance, which will end in approximately five minutes so I'll have time to go to Charlie Byrnes, buy a postcard & a couple of books, and trot over to station to pick up my suitcase and catch my ride.

So, I got here, I looked at the eyesore which is still an Eyre Square under construction, with fewer trees, but otherwise looking like it did before the city planners spent their millions refurbishing it. Saturdays in Galway are market day--a sort of farmers' market with cheese and veg and handwoven bracelets from Guatamala (Genuine Irish). While there I found the baby shirt I had wanted for my U2-lovin' boss last fall when she had her baby. It says "U2: Rattle and Mum". Then I turned a corner and saw what looked like the poet Michael Gorman, who taught a summer course I was in four and half years ago at NUI Galway. He walked like him and wore a hat like him, so I yelled, "Mickey???" He snapped around, looked a bit frazzled, like perhaps he had enjoyed St. Patrick's Day too much last night, and stared at me blankly. I didn't expect him to remember me though I had a summer crush on him that was almost painful. So I re-introduced myself, shook his hand, he said, 'Ah, yes!' but I'm not convinced he remembered. He said he was in a hurry to get teh shopping done and something about a football match or something, but he wrote his number in my journal ("A Moleskine, I see!") and told me to call him tomorrow for coffee. I won't BE here for coffee and am sure he forgot as soon as he hurried off to fondle carrots, but boy if it didn't make me feel good to bump into someone I knew here. Particularly him, still looking befuddled and artistic and cute.

In order to celebrate, I went to my favorite sweater shop and bought a new cardigan. The woman who owns it was back. In November, she had been out with a broken knee cap and her very charming son managed to sell my friend Isabella and me about 400 euros worth of woolens. So I asked after her knee, asked after her son, and then talked to her friend who now lives in Canada but is moving back. It was a perfect morning--making me feel, as I almost always do here, that I am HOME.

After I was warmed up by my sweater, I sat by the Corrib and watched it race by, before going to Fat Freddie's for my favorite pizza. And then the Ninja Shopping commenced. Less bought than looked at, but two books, a notebook, some inkpens I like, and a birthday card for a kid's birthday in June.

So, all in all, a very fine day indeed. Now I'm off to buy a few books and meet up with the O'Mahony family to find out how the rugby match went yesterday. I think I need a hot whiskey!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Bon Voyage to Me

My cousin saw photos of the pieces I have in the art show, found out I was leaving for Ireland in two days, and said, "It must be so satisfying to be you!!!"

It's so odd to see your life from someone else's perspective. In my mind's eye, people look at me like I'm mildly mentally handicapped. I imagine they expect little out of me because they don't think I'm capable of much. This isn't the truth. I know this isn't the truth. Yet it's what I think sometimes. So when I heard her assessment of my life, I laughed out loud.

I've been talking to an old friend I lost contact with for awhile. He reminded me that ten or so years ago I sent him a tape of some sort and wanted to know if I remembered. I didn't. The tape isn't currently in his possession, though he's getting it back, and for some reason, I'm disturbed by this. Whatever bad music choices I made when I was 27 are hurtling back towards Canada, and thus, inadvertently, me. Possibly, I fear being judged. I did, afterall, own a John Secada CD at one point. And I totally got sucked into the Evanesence thing before I knew they were going to be on the radio every fifteen minutes three years ago and that my students would, inexplicably, write papers about them. I'm easily persuaded to listen to schlock if the commercial for it is catchy enough.

My best guess is that the tapes contain one of three things. My number one guess is that it is Nanci Griffith's _Flyer_. I'd just discovered her in grad school. If its _Flyer_, I'm not embarrassed. Guess Number Two is that it is the Irish-American punk band, Black 47, also discovered around the same time. This seems like a long shot, though I do remember going through a month-long period of trying to convince other people that they were fabulous. The final, and most disturbing possibility, is that it is not music at all but an audio tape of Marianne Willimson talking about the Course in Miracles. We'll see.

In an attempt to figure out what I was listening to in 1994, I dug out an old journal from that time. It was painful to read. I'm considering installing self-destruct mechanisms in all future journals, so six months after I've finished them they disintegrate like those "Mission: Impossible" tapes. I've never understood how people destroy their own journals because it's an archive, but now I get it. You turn almost 40 and you realize what hooey you believed when you were younger. You also realize that no matter how many times a day you wish you could go back to your twenties, you don't really mean it. The twenties were awful. Nothing on your body was sagging yet, but your brain is riddled with self-doubt and self-loathing. I don't know if it's satisfying to be me, but it is much more satisfying to be me now than it was then.

So I leave for Ireland in the morning. My cousin Mary has said it's supposed to snow on Saturday when I get there. I fly into Shannon, part from my traveling companion-co-worker for a couple days as I go to Galway, in the West. Land of my forebears and sheep-shaped rocks and rock-shaped sheep. On Monday I'll take a six hour bus trip South to Waterford where I'll spend the rest of the week, skulking, drinking Guinness, and chatting up Irish men.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Our Bold Lies, Our Selves

It's March. It's hot. I hate summer and today has been a painful reminder that we're heading straight for the inferno. Kamikaze flies are buzzing around my lamp because I opened a non-screened window in hopes of catching a breeze. I'm thirsty and feel like I should sleep in mosquito netting tonight and go on safari.

A while ago I had a thing for an African guy I know. A friend. In my deluded, lovestruck state, I actually thought for the right man (and he seemed like the right man) I would be impervious to heat, to bugs, to dictators, to poverty, to eating crocodile. This is why women haven't ruled the world for a few millenia: if a man is involved we believe the most ridiculous crap, and most of it is our own fabrication. This guy wasn't hinting I should come home with him where we could make a home at the foot of the Ngong Hills with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Mostly, he wanted someone to go to movies with, someone to play miniature golf with, someone to drive him to the airport for his 20 hour flight home twice a year. I'm the one who filled in all the blanks.

No. It wasn't any sweet nothings he whispered to me that made me imagine this Daktari-style future. It was all me. And yeah, I wanted him (he smelled good, he was funny, and I loved the way he said 'banana'), but it is _possible_ that I also wanted to believe I am the kind of person who doesn't require airconditioning and porcelain. A person who could say at cocktail parties, "Oh, yes. That's when I lived in Zimbabwe." But I'm not. I'm me. I need several months of cold weather to get me through July and August. I need a suitcase with wheels. I don't really want to drink out of a _canteen_.

So I kind of know who I am, but what I wonder is this: who ARE those people we imagine ourselves capable of being? What's the line between having a goal/overcoming personal obstacles and just completely deluding yourself? I've never really wanted to be a self-deluder, yet the evidence indicates that perhaps that's exactly what I am. Perhaps that is the only way we are able to live with ourselves. I could admit--at nearly 40--that I'm never going to join the Peace Corp, yet I like the idea that I might. I might quit my job and join the Peace Corp. I might become a foreign correspondent. Maybe one of those people who cashes it all in and lives on a sailboat.

This is how fairy tales (and heat) addle our brains.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

I Bet You Think This Blog is About You. Don't You? Don't You?

I'm scared of my iPod.

Right now its lying in bed beside me, curled up in its little complimentary leatherette case. I imagine it is hoping I'll take it out for a spin, but instead, I've been online, ordering a lime green iSkin for it and an adaptor so I can charge it when I'm in Ireland. (Did I tell you I'm going to Ireland? I'm going to Ireland.) See, I KNOW how to order things online. I KNOW how to dress something up. I even KNOW how to plug things in. But I'm not all together sure how to use the thing yet. Last night I couldn't figure out how to turn it off. I have no idea what the 'hold' button is for, but get the impression that it is important. Today's concern is that I don't know how to organize the music the IT guy at school downloaded (uploaded?) for me. I'm afraid I'll do it wrong. I'm afraid some really cool guy--probably a 17 year old in a letter jacket--will see my iPod and sneer because I have Sinead Lohan's music under "Sinead Lohan" instead of under "Irish Pop" or "Road Trip" or whatever other playlist would be appropriate. (Never mind that he'd already be sneering because I have a Sinead of any sort in there.)

There are two critics who live in my brain: one is a 40something writer--Gore Vidal in younger days, perhaps, John Iriving in his wrestling duds--and the other is the abovementioned 17 year old boy. The boy's name is something like "Kip" or "Chet" and he makes fun of me for a variety of reasons including my inability to realize that I'm a square, my ineptness on the stairmaster at the gym I visit once a month when I'm not too tired, the way I shush him and his buddies when they talk during a lecture, the width of my ass, and so on. Gore Vidal/John Updike has a much narrower genre of items he can sneer at, but for Kip, it's all fair game.

I hate Kip.

Aside from my iPod ineptness, I'm a little uptight about three "assembalges" (read: junk in a black shadow box) I entered in the women's art show where I teach. I like them. They please me. Yet I don't so much like that other people are looking at them (or not looking at them). A co-worker friend reported that another co-worker I don't know very well is concerned about me because there are babies in all three of the pieces. She's afraid my being of a certain age and childless is a problem for me. She wonders why I don't invest in some invitro and have a baby on my own because everybody knows babies don't need daddies. The childless Mary Cassatt spends her entire artistic career painting children she doesn't have and is considered genius (for a woman), but I throw some 99 cent plastic babies in a Martha Stewart party favor tin and I need either psychoanalysis or a turkey baster. See, that kind of thing makes me feel a little too vulnerable. It's just a matter of time before Kip walks through the hall and jostles one of the boxes off the wall with his big football player shoulder...a matter of time before Gore Vidal/John Iriving saunters through and says dismissively, "Crafty."

I hate Gore/John too while we're at it.

So anyhow, I'm thinking that once I master the fine art of iPod-ing that I'll compile a playlist of songs for my inner critics. For Kip, possibly the soundtrack to "Everybody's All American" with movie stills of a bloated Dennis Quaid at his 20 year reunion flashing on my little video screen. For Gore/John, a host of feminist rants starting with "You're So Vain" and ending with something dismissive and Shirley Manson inspired.

Tonight, I will let the iPod sleep in bed with me. All the manuals say not to do this, that the iPod will cease to recognize me as master if I let it think it is on the same level as me. But I plan to run an iPod-centered household and don't want it to grow up with a complex, thinking it is subordinate to me.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Princess of Prosperity

I'm in the market for an iPod. I'm a sucker for whatever Apple wants to sell me, particularly if I can get a fruity-flavored skin to keep it in. Whether or not I'll be able to figure it out is anybody's guess, but I see this as the fork in the middle of my late 30something road. If I don't go forth and embrace iPod, I will become instantly of those people who refuses to use the LCD display on the digital camera in lieu of the eentsy viewfinder or who doesn't trust electronic paycheck deposits. I'm not ready to become that person, so this weekend I'm going to take the plunge. Or at least dip my big toe into iPod waters.

But I'm approaching it the way my mother would, which is a cause for some alarm. I scour the descriptions on the Apple website, trying to figure out how they are trying to "trick" me into an inferior model or into buying add-ons I don't need. I sent an iPod savvy friend approximately 23 emails today, in essence, begging him to make the choice for me between the teensy hip Nano and the more powerful (and impressive) regular iPod.He graciously responded in Yoda-like phrases though ultimately refused to make the choice for me. (No chance of blaming him later if the iPod seems too cumbersome compared to the Nano.) Now I must decide do I want 30 gig or 60? Black or white? My name engraved on the back by what I assume is a licensed Apple engraver? Decisions, decisions.

Today when I wasn't obsessing about my choices, I listened to Louise Hay's CD on creating prosperity in your life. When I'm not in a cynical mood, her mind-over-matter belief system seems not completely unsound. We are, probably, what we think, and so better not to think that other people have everything and you have nothing. She has this soothing, wise, voice, so I had no reason not to buy into what she was selling me this morning.

Louise may be on to something. When I got to work, there were exam copies of textbooks I didn't order. I had my annual review and was recommended for highest merit (which, if approved, will result in a slightly larger (small) annual raise). Back in my office, the textbook buy-back guy who usually shows up once a year, stopped by on a whim to see if I had anything to sell him--and remarkably, I did: the three new books, one of which I had rejected simply because of the word "roadmap" in the title. Nothing like being $21 richer for doing absolutely no work. Tonight, the guy whose novel I'm editing called to talk about the work I've done. He likes the feedback I've given him and asked me to edit another manuscript. Also, he and his wife have invited me to stay with them in Aspen when I go this summer for a writing workshop, which will save me about $1,000 in hotel bills.

Tomorrow I'm going to listen to Louise Hay's tape on "Breaking Down Barriers to Get What You Want." By the end of the day I should have a marriage proposal, a Capricon fetus in my womb, a winning Powerball ticket, and a three-book deal with Penguin.

If I win the lottery, I'll buy you a copy of this CD so you can win too. At which point we'll buy tiaras and eat caviar on my private island off the southwestern coast of Ireland. (Possibly instead of caviar, I'll go for the brown bread and Kerry Gold Butter with a Guinness chaser.) We'll talk, have a good time, and when we get sick of each other, we'll listen to our iPods. We'll have different models for every day of the week. Because, seriously, isn't the whole point of prosperity having the means to buy an excessive amount of stupid things (in fruity flavors)?