Numb and Number

Something happened last week, a load shifted in my psyche. I don’t have the words, really, to describe the feeling. Something like a grim set of the teeth. Determination to face the coming cyclone even though there will be nothing left intact on the other side.

Over the weekend I went to see Scorsese’s brutal movie The Departed. I picked up the soundtrack and found these words from Comfortably Numb that could have been written by my own soul at the moment:

There is no pain, you are receding.
A distant ship’s smoke on the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying.

When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look, but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child has grown, the dream is gone.

I have become comfortably numb.

Second Hand Life

Morro Rock

We spent the Thanksgiving holiday in San Luis Obispo visiting our long-time friends Gene and Ros. We also house-sat for a woman in Los Osos, free lodging in exchange for looking after her pets.

In the morning we would take the dog for a walk. It was a strange experience because neighbors and other people about town knew the dog. They greeted us as if we’d been living next door for the past five years. It felt to me as if I was wearing someone else’s life. As if I was the Talented Mr. Ripley.

It was an unavoidable temptation to put together a story about the woman whose life I had adopted. Clues could be found in pictures on the wall, notes pinned to the refrigerator, the titles of CDs neatly stacked above the stereo.

The bookshelf revealed this much:

Passionate Marriage

Staying Together

When Things Fall Apart

Helping Your Child Cope with Divorce

Zen and the Art of Knitting

“So,” I observed to Maureen, “that’s how it goes. It starts with a passionate marriage and it ends with knitting.”

“You got it,” she said.

The Farmer in the Till

Driving through the Irish countryside we saw countless small farms, each with a small herd of cattle or a few flocks of sheep. I don’t know what a head of beef goes for on the Irish market–I’d guess maybe between 800 and 1600 euro. Seems like you’d have to sell at least a hundred head per year just to eke by. No farm that I saw had that kind of stock. So how does it all add up? Well, now I know.

First Impression: Wolverine 40 GB FlashPac

Wolverine FlashPacYou gotta love a gizmo that does only one thing, but does it exceptionally well. And if you find such a thing, let me know, because the Wolverine FlashPac has a few little quirks that leave me wondering if I can trust it completely. And that’s not how you want to feel about your equipment when you’re out on assignment.

The Wolverine FlashPac is designed to copy files from your digital camera’s flash card and store the files until you have access to a computer.

The basic operation is simple. Push the power button. Insert your media card into the universal media slot (if you have a Compact Flash card, there’s a second slot for that.) Push the copy button.

My biggest frustration is that the LCD display doesn’t give you much feedback. It tells you the amount of storage left. It shows you that it is downloading files. It tells you when the download is done. But if you go away for a few minutes and come back to find the unit has gone to sleep there is no way to access the disc’s directory and confirm that yes, it did complete the download of all your files before nodding off.

Twice I found myself wondering if the Wolverine completely copied the contents of my 1 GB Smart Disk. Each time I decided to copy the disk a second time just to play it safe.

The good news, I suppose, is that the Wolverine safely brought back all of my photos from Ireland. And I didn’t find any duplicates from the two times that I copied twice.

The bad news is that it takes FOREVER to transfer the files from the Wolverine to my Intel iMac–maybe two or three hours. And three of the folders were funked-up: the Mac didn’t recognize them as folders. I had to download the three bad folders a second time before I could access the contents.

Here’s where your digital camera’s built-in file management comes in handy. By looking for gaps in the numerical sequence of the filenames I was able to identify missing shots and go back to the Wolverine and ferret them out. Maybe this was a one-time hiccup, I don’t know. Time will tell.

The drive is mechanical, meaning that a healthy fall out of a moving vehicle could wreack mayhem with your photos. But it seems solid enough for careful use.

All-in-all I was satisfied with the Wolverine, but I wouldn’t want to marry it.

On Grafton Street in November

Leaving Dublin, heading for the airport, 5:00 AM, we found ourselves for just a second on Grafton Street in November. Young people in costume walked slowly, barefoot, weaving their unsteady ways to wherever home happens to be. Reality sinks in.

Kavanagh’s Queen of Hearts is merciless. Without getting too sappy about it, I feel some cracks in my own heart upon leaving. Five days is hardly enough to know a country and its people, yet it all seems so familiar. Like a favorite pair of boots.

The journey home was a slugfest, as a person would expect. Perhaps the biggest shock of the whole trip was our arrival at JFK airport. Parts of the causeway where under repair with plaster dust and drywall screws left strewn on the walkway. The escalator was shut down. A big pile of fuzzy trash covered half the bottom step. I don’t have a keen sense of smell but the people around me commented on the reek of an open sewer. The TSA workers were openly hostile.

Irish pride is deep to the bone. As a people they don’t take themselves too seriously, and they do so with unrivaled fierceness. I found myself wishing to feel some Yankee pride on my return, but there was a deadness to the people who worked the terminal lines. Smiles unreturned from hollow eyes. The irony is that we were at Kennedy airport, a name that has demi-god status among the Irish. And not an ounce of pride or conviction to be found.

Maybe I’m just tired and that’s why things look this way. But if America wants to make a good first impression on visitors from around the world, perhaps we could start by at least sweeping up the trash.
New York Skyline

A Quiet Street Where Old Ghosts Meet

Halloween in Dublin

Halloween in Dublin was a perfect night to go on a literary “pub crawl.” Our crawling party consisted of myself, Maureen’s brother Dan, his wife Christina and their children Cole and Ava. Cole was dressed as a Wraith, and Ava was in character as a lil’ devil. The city bustles with students who dress in costume and haunt the Temple Bar district, but it’s not the insane acid-fueled nightmare that you find in a place like Santa Cruz, California.

The pub crawl was a fun, tourist-y, way to spend an evening. The hosts, a man and woman whose names I missed because we arrived late, acted out rousing bits of “Waiting for Godot” and Oscar Wilde’s journals. They were very good and it gave a snapshot of the city’s literary heritage. But the part that impressed me most was standing in the square at Trinity College listening to the fireworks bang in the distance, echoing in the courtyard. Earlier in the day I spent some time on the Mount Street bridge looking for a geocache with historical references to the 1916 rising. The boom and clatter that fell on my ears was probably similar to what people heard in Dublin on an April night some 90 years ago.

To these thoughts add four or five rounds of Guiness on an empty stomach and I could pratically feel the ghosts of those who trod the cobbles before me. Such a history and such riches from a country that I always assumed lived in the nagging shadow of poverty.

On the Heels of the Dublin Marathon

Aside from visiting Williamstown and looking up the Family Tree, the other part of our mission was to cheer on Christy O’ as she ran the Dublin marathon. Christy was having some problems with a hip flexor and wasn’t planning to run a personal best, but she was determined to finish.

Christy’s friend Tony O’Donnell mapped out four spots along the race route and calculated the times that Christy would pass by. Our challenge was to find a taxi and negotiate Dublin’s maze of one-way streets and get to the next spot before Christy did. It sounds easier than it was.

Dublin Marathon

This marathon had its share of people dressed as super heros, cartoon characters and even a couple bottles of beer. Everyone got a good cheering-on, even the Danes in their Viking helmets. This surprised me a little, because of Ireland’s history with the Vikings.

Christy made the first stop right on time, and looked a lot fresher than most of us on the sidelines. I’ve lost track of the exact sequence of events, but do recall getting lost at St. James Gate by trying to take a short cut through the hospital. We took the light rail to one of the stops–I had to shove Norah into the crowded car with one arm and with the other yank Maureen on board before the doors closed. Maybe not as crowded as the Japanese subways, but pretty darn near.

With all modes of transport available to us, we cut it close arriving at a couple of our stops. Christy, on the other hand, kept chugging along right on schedule just like the Little Engine that Could, and didn’t appear to even break a sweat. Amazing.

Christy O'Connor in Dublin Marathon

Derrynasaggart, Ballyvourney and All that Blarney

Tom McCoy pilots the bus as if it was a cruise ship–smooth, steady, certain. And when we weren’t listening to Martin’s power ballads on the CD, Tom was happy to toss out bits of knowledge.

For instance, the Derrynasaggart mountains are going through a wide scale reforestation program with lots of Sitka spruce and Canadian pine. The ancient Celts valued cattle more than hardwood, and Ireland’s forests were never managed. By the 1890s less than one percent of Ireland had any forest to speak of. Apparently today there are still many who view the Sitka spruce and other non-native species to be a threat to the native boglands–the problem being that native species can no longer survive in the acidic soils left behind by the bogs.

Rolling down into the foothills of Derrynasaggart is the area of Ballyvourney. In places this area reminds me of Mariposa or Mono counties in California.

From here we made good time to Blarney castle, reaching the gates as soon as it opened. I’ve always heard that the wait to kiss the Blarney stone was excruciating, making it hardly worth the effort. There was no wait for us, we were just about the only people on the grounds. Emma swore that she wasn’t going to kiss the rock, thinkging about all the lips that had gone before. But when we reached the place where the old inhabitants used to pour the boiling oil, she joined the fun with the rest of us.

The Blarney stone, said to be Jacob’s pillow from Beth-el, is a strange colored rock, worn smooth by countless lips over the centuries.

Congregating at St. Danny Mann’s

Somehow we’ve managed to avoid darkening the door of a church thus far. But we haven’t avoided Jesus, because there on the red flocked wallpaper in Danny Mann’s is a framed picture of the Sacred Heart.

Danny Mann’s is a pub in the traditional style, with dark wood beams and wallpaper that looks to be straight from a Victorian bordello (not that I’ve ever been in a Victorian bordello.) A pub-review from early 2003 gripes that Danny Mann’s has several giant screens projecting a “messed up version of Riverdance.” Three years later I can testify that the same messed up version of Riverdance is still playing. Probably because, as O’Byrne points out, Riverdance is single-handedly responsible for the Irish economic boom.

Our server was a Russian woman, first day on the job who unluckily had to work the tables furthest from the kitchen, which happened to be us. Irish table service, at least when the Eastern Europeans are managing it, is pretty ornery business. The waitress takes the orders on a piece of paper, carefully noting who ordered what. Somewhere between the table and the kitchen this piece of paper apparently vanishes in flames. The wrong meals are trotted out of the kitchen and set before each person, who politely notes the error to the waitress. The meals go back into the kitchen, sit for five minutes , then come back out to be set in front of more wrong people. This goes on until everyone is finally satisfied with the plate in front of him or too famished to care.

I dined on striploin of Irish beef, in which the main ingredient is not beef as you might think, but is black pepper. There’s only enough beef to serve as a garnish. Maureen had a less firey experience with the wild, hand-caught, hand-wrestled-to-the-ground, and hand-clubbed-over-the-head Irish salmon.

The band was from Cork and called themselves the Molly Maguires after the Irish revolutionaries executed in 1916. They played a few traditional reels, a few ballads, some Dubliners’ covers and a couple of revolutionary songs. Then they launched into an up-tempo version of “Lord of the Dance,” a Christian song that I’ve only ever sung at youth rallies and Sunday School. This, combined with the several portraits of Jesus on the walls, only added to my confusion about whether we were in a pub or a house of worship. A couple rounds of Guiness, an Irish coffee, and a Black Bush on the rocks and I, not being a heavy drinker, was ready to confess anything to anyone who would sit still long enough to hear it.

Killarney: Another Feckin’ Wild Goose Chase

We we hit Killarney a battalion quickly formed to go shopping. I decided this would be a good chance to snag another geocache.

Killarney GeocacheArmed with my trusty GPS it didn’t take long to pinpoint the coordinates on the western bank of the River Deenagh. The clue was that the cache would be in a hollow stump. Problem is that there are any number of hollow stumps and logs, all covered with ivy in this place. And they all have any number of rotted-out holes where a person could hide a Tupperware. And this is Bank Holliday, meaning that I had to be extra careful not to get spotted.

From the cache I nabbed a red button maked with 17.A.06–if anyone knows the meaning please post a comment. I left a jellyfish.

After that the adventure began. I followed a trail that headed me into the National Park. About that time the carillon at St. Mary’s played the most magnificent peal of bells that I’ve ever heard.

Jaunting Cart, Killarney

Walking deeper into the park I came across an ancient well, a herd of Irish red deer and a breathtaking view of Lough Leane. I also got a big sloppy kiss from an Irish cow. It was a black angus, so perhaps it was a Scottish cow.

The Rocky Road to Dublin

It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…

Edmund Ludlow

This morning Tom McCoy took us along the Western coast of County Clare. We stopped outside of Kinvarra for a Kodak moment with a pastoral scene on one side of the road and the karst crags of the Burren on the other. According to Wikipedia the area was divided between the O’Loughlen clan in the east and the O’Connors in the west in Corcomroe. The people of Corcomroe were among the first to settle the Aran islands.

Just thought you’d want to know that. You might also be interested to know that limestone is so pervasive in the heart of the Burren that it is called pavement. Grass can grow only in the cracks between pavements, that is to say in the grikes. Now and then there are expanses of soil, in which case a lone rock in a sea of earth is called a clint. (Scrabble players take note of these terms.)

As inhospitable as the Burren is, it is home to some of the worlds most exotic orchids. Go figure.

The Burren

We piled back on the bus and headed for the Cliffs of Moher. On the way I noticed a subtle shift in the Irish psyche. In County Galway you can paint your house any color you like as long as it is white or butter yellow. The houses there are mind-numbingly similar–a box with a peaked roof, bookended by chimneys. Variations included gables or no gables and brickwork or stone facing.

South of Kinvarra a new color comes to the pallette–pale torquois. Here and there you’ll see a salmon house, a black house, pumpkin house. You might think you were in Santa Fe if there was a cactus anywhere on the horizon.

Norah at the Cliffs of MoherIt was drizzling and windy and socked with fog when we reached the Cliffs of Moher. But visibility was good enough that we could see the breathtaking drop from the top of the cliffs.

“Inconceivable,” Norah said.

After that we called this stop the Cliffs of Insanity.

Cliffs of Moher

The Importance of Being Sheen

Back to the Raddison for dinner. Someone in our party spotted Martin Sheen at our hotel, rumor is that he lives in Galway part of the year and goes to university.

The lobby was full of Australian football players, in town for the anual Irish/Aussie grudge match of International Rules football. The Aussies stayed up all night drinking and singing, making it understandable why a gentleman sharing our elevator said, “Damned Australians. The only thing I hate more than Australians is Californians.”

Then out again to another pub, An Pucan–known for some of the best traditional Irish music in all Galway. A scruffy trio in plaid flannel and t-shirts sat at a table inside, picking out traditional reels on four string banjo, guitar and concertina. I wish they would have stayed longer–the next duo set up their microphones, guitar and Yamaha keyboard on the stage made from a Galway hooker (traditional fishing boat) and proceeded to play Roy Orbison and Elvis accompanied by a drum kit on floppy disc.

Williamstown: Barking Up the Family Tree

Williamstown Circa 1930By all appearances Williamstown is a typical Irish farming community. The population is about 300. The town consists mainly of three pubs, each next door to the other, and a church across the street. What’s different about Williamstown is that two of the three pubs are up for sale while the church is undergoing a major rennovation. I wish we had a chance to meet that priest. He must have tongues of fire dancing above his head.

Campbell's MeatballsWe stopped in the local market to see if anyone might know something about the Dillons (Maureen’s grandmother’s family) or the Nees (her great-grandmother’s family.) The woman running the cash register gave us the name of another woman who keeps all the parish birth and death records. Unfortunately I was so taken by the Campbell’s Meatballs “in AWESOME onion gravy” that I didn’t catch the name, while Kathleen and Maureen were too busy trying to de-broguify what the woman was telling us that they didn’t catch it either.

Everything happened so fast that I’m not sure I have the details straight. Next thing I knew I was in Mick Kennedy’s bar with a pint of Guiness in my hand and we were talking to a man named Finnegan who seemed to remember his father talking about the Dillons. I think he said that his father was a shoemaker and Finnegan used to run errands. The Dillons lived in a red house. But maybe his name was Ferguson and Dillon was the shoemaker. And I really think that Finnegan is the name of the woman who keeps the parish records.

Possible Site of Dillon Home

Next thing we knew Finnegan-Ferguson, whom we later gave the unfortunate name Meat-in-the-Trunk because he had a raw pot roast in a loosely knotted plastic bag pleasantly stewing on the rear shelf of his Ford Focus, was leading us out to the possible site of the Dillon home. Each of us took a turn poking his or her head through the hedgerow to catch a glimpse of “where it all began.”

Finnegan-Ferguson Meat-in-the-Trunk was very enthusiastic, taking us next to the villiage cemetery. We stampeded the place but most of the limestone grave markers were too weathered to read. A caretaker who was working at rennovating a nearby grist mill took me to one side. “There are no Dillons buried there. Some Nees, though. In the Northwest corner.” He took off his baseball cap and scratched his head. “Oh, and say hello to George for me. Tell him I don’t like him very well.”

At that point a green Eurovan pulled up. The woman in the passenger seat told Maureen that she remembered Rita (Dan, Maureen and Kathleen’s mother) from school. That was convincing proof that we’d hit the mother lode, so to speak.

I think some addresses were exchanged, meaning that I should end this post with a TO BE CONTINUED and a handful of ellipses.

Williamstown Cemetery

Connemara, for Peat’s Sake

Bog in ConnemaraPeople tell you how green Ireland is, but they’re only telling you half the story. You never hear how brown the countryside is, grass turned to rust by the high iron content of the soil. Even the fresh mountain streams run a kind of gunmetal color with yellow foam breaking around the rocks. Some places the water is red as rust– Ruamheirg is the Irish word for it.

The peat bogs are a strange habitat. They are so saturated with water and tannic acid that there is no room for oxygen. In fact, the only place on earth where oxygen is scarcer is on the Senate floor when Ted Kennedy is making a speech.

The preservative quality of bogwater is so excellent that turfcutters will sometimes turn up a bog person dating back 2,500 years or more. You would think that bog baths would be in higher demand at health spas.

Time was when every man would grab his flachter and skroghoge and cut long strips from the turf to use as fuel. These days there are machines to do most of the dirty work. The Irish still burn turf in small zinc-plated barrel stoves. The peat is processed into compact briquettes and burns with more heat than light, much like coal.

From the boglands we swung by the Twelve Bens, sometimes called the Twelve Pins.

The region is beautiful beyond words. But it’s a pitiful excuse for a mountain range. Is this the best that Ireland can cough up? The tallest mountain in the country is just 3,400 feet, and the tallest Ben is about 2,400 feet. Seeing that mountaineering poses no challenge in this fair country, athletic types have taken to running the Bens. The goal is to climb all twelve mountains–combined elevation of some 28,000 feet–in a single day. If that isn’t enough of a challenge for you there’s always bog snorkeling. With or without a mountain bike. The championships are held in Wales.

There are no peat bogs in the US, that I know of. But if you want to rekindle memories of your time in Ireland you can always have real Irish peat delivered to your door.

Geocaching Galway: A Feckin’ Wild Goose Chase

Otter Gargoyle in Galway Feck (pronounced “fake” or “fehk” in Irish) is an acceptable word in mixed company, whereas fuck (pronounced “fook”) is vulgar. Feck is an obscure word, meaning something in the neighborhood of “forceful.” The word feckless means the opposite–weak and impotent. Just don’t overuse feck or feckin’…especially not around a crowd of native Esperanto speakers or you’ll earn a reputation as a potty-mouth.

Yesterday afternoon I snuck away from Maureen and the girls so that I could have some personal time with my GPS and treasure maps to do a little geocaching. Geesh, what a nerd.

I found a longitude line in John F. Kennedy Park and stayed long enough to listen to a trio of high-energy rockers that call themselves Woof! Woof! Woof!

Woof Woof Woof

After that I wandered every way but the right way, taking pictures of chimney pots and starlings, cracks in walls and mailboxes. Something like a mixture of a Japanese tourist and Rainman. I finally found myself down by the Forthill graveyard with no place else to go.

Forthill ChurchBest I could tell, my GPS was pointing me south in the direction of Donelly’s Coal Importers. On one side of the road was a gated yard with a high link fence, some seafaring barges and a mountain of coal dust. On the other side of the road…dead people. And plenty of them.

It was getting close to supper so I decided to leave the geocaching for another day, meaning this morning.

Reviewing my charts it seems that I not only confused left with right, but I’d gotten “up” and “down” reversed–perhaps the influence of the Australians staying in our hotel, in particular the bridesmaid covered in Emu feathers.

But it was soon clear what I needed to do–hoof it and fast over the bridge at Father Griffin Road and walk out Claddagh’s Quay to the end of Nimmo’s pier. It turned out to be a longer walk than I thought. I broke out in a heavy sweat as I passed the wild swans at the dock in front of building designated by a sign reading “Galway Rovers.” Maybe this is the headquarters of Galway United, I don’t know. It looked more like a smoking and drinking club to me, Eire’s version of the VFW.

My GPS took me straight to a smallish bronze plaque with the clue to the puzzle. I followed this to a section of ancient stone wall…and broke off a few of the stones trying to find the secret Tupperware. This I found, took out stuffed Doubletree cookie man and left a keychain from a San Jose Ford dealer in its place.

I was late getting back to the hotel. Maureen was ready to tell Tom McCoy, our tour guide, to go head and leave without me. Everyone had been on the bus waiting a good fifteen minutes and they were pretty steamed…the whole feckin’ lot of them.