Working for the Man in America

We’ve lived in other people’s houses for the past year so I haven’t had to worry about home maintenance, but that all changed when we got back to Denver at the end of June.

Before we left for our year abroad we put our house on the short-term rental market. We live in a nice part of Denver so the bookings filled up quickly and over the course of the year, the house was occupied about 80 percent of the time. That’s good in terms of paying the mortgage but as we made our way back to Denver I wondered what the house would look like after all those people lugged their suitcases up and down the stairs, cooked in our kitchen and partied in the basement.  Would the furniture be trashed? Holes in the walls? Broken windows and lighting fixtures? After I walked in the door and surveyed the place I was pleasantly surprised. Aside from a leaky faucet, hail damage to the roof, a dead aspen tree in the backyard and louver doors at the bottom of the basement stairs that had (again!) come off the tracks, everything seemed pretty good.

I come from a family or real estate agents, contractors and people who do stuff with their hands and who know how stuff works so I try, as much as I can, to fix things on my own.

Not that I’m very good at it.

I worked for a builder for a spell after I finished college and I enjoyed the labor and being outside, but I’m not really good with my hands and I don’t have a mechanical mind so I never excelled in that area even after I put some effort into it. As I struggled setting the miter box properly or setting a door header, the guys I worked with–good, solid, industrious people who spent their lives building things and solving problems in the world of “things”–would look at me with pity, roll their eyes and come over to give me a helping hand. This isn’t something I’m proud of. I’m envious of my friends and family members who know how to dig foundations, repair cars, hang doors and build decks and I guess it’s just a good thing for me that graduate school worked out.

Oftentimes, when I do try to repair something around the house I just break it even more, precipitating a call to a general contractor anyway.  Shortly after we bought the house we live in now, I tried to fix the sprinkler system in the backyard but ended up breaking a water line so I had to call in a plumber and ended up paying double what it would have cost had I just called the plumber straight away.  I don’t fail every time, though. Last year before we left I built a new gate for our back yard, I’ve replaced locks and doors and I’m pretty good at making shelves.

Infuriatingly, Sujata is much better at fixing things than I am. We sort of play this game that I’m marginally competent at doing projects around the house, but when I get stuck or can’t figure out how something works, she usually saunters in, spots the problem and fixes it herself.  I guess that makes her the handywoman of the house.

Last week when I set out to replace the leaky faucet, I couldn’t get the old faucet out of the housing so I went to the hardware store and bought a basin wrench proudly crowing to Sujata as I walked out the door, “I just watched a YouTube video and realized I need a basin wrench to get this job done! Be back in a bit.”  I got home, crawled under the sink, stuck the basin wrench up into the slot and started to use the wrench to turn the hard-to-get-to nut.  It wasn’t working and when she heard me cursing, Sujata came over, asked what the problem was, grabbed a wrench and twisted off the old faucet from the top of the sink.

Show off.

For as bad, though, as I am at home maintenance, I’m even worse at dealing with contractors who have the tools and knowledge to fix the things that I can’t.  I’m too trusting and I don’t have enough technical knowledge to know if what I’m being told is honest or a load of crap. I tend to believe people and think that they have my, as well as their own, best interests at heart. In a weirdly condescending way I can’t imagine that anyone would be dishonest to me because (I dishonestly tell myself) I am so honest with everyone else.

Last week, I opened our garage door and pushed the garage door button–the door opened about halfway and then reversed directions and closed again. I pushed the button repeatedly and the door kept doing the same thing, opening half way, then closing. This garage door has, over the years, given me plenty of headaches. Oftentimes, we’ll open the door, pull the car out of the garage, hit the garage door button and watch the door close halfway before it pops open again. We used to drive away before the door was fully closed and then we’d come home to a wide-open garage. It’s a wonder our bikes were never stolen and there are, obviously, not enough tools in the garage to tempt a thief. It’s a ritual now in our family to patiently wait in the car and watch the door fully close before we put the car in drive and head out. That said, I’ve watched enough YouTube videos to know how to adjust the garage door when it acts up. There are little tension adjusters on the motor that hangs from the rafters and that works the chain the lifts and sets down the door.  When the door refuses to close I usually get on a ladder, mess around with the adjustments and voila! the door either opens or closes without incident and I don’t end up having to call a garage door company to fix it.

That was not the case, last week, though. I couldn’t get the adjustments right and after watching way too many YouTube videos, pricing new garage door openers online and even visiting Home Depot to examine their selection of new garage door openers, I gave in and called a couple of garage door companies to come over and look at the problem.

In hindsight, I should have just called the guys who have fixed the door over the course of the past 10 years. They are, as Sujata reminded me at the denouement of this incident, honest, trustworthy and reliable. Plus, she hastened to add, they live in the neighborhood: “Why would you go calling people from god-knows-where when you can just work with people who are local?” Well, I was actually bit miffed that the damn door kept acting up and wondered if those neighborhood guys were just putting it into a periodic fail mode (so much for being too trusting!), so I looked around for another company.

I came across what I thought was a great online deal: a Denver company was offering $125 off a new opener and $50 off for new customers. I figured the whole thing would cost $350 with parts and labor so with the $175 off that I was, or so I thought, getting a great deal. I called the dudes and they held to their promise to come out later that day.

The Irish, who have mastered the art of the insult, will slight a rude, incompetent or obnoxious man by referring to him as “your man,” except that the Irish pronounce it as yerman. As in, “Yerman over there tried to charge me six euros for a pint of Guinness when it’s still happy hour.” Halfway through our stay in Ireland earlier this year, we gleefully discovered that there’s even an Irish way of referring to a rude, incompetent or obnoxious woman. You just call her yerone. Now, I know some Irish person is going to read this and say, “No, that’s not right at all, yerman just means any dude and yerone just refers to any given woman,” but I have to say that in the five months I lived there I never once heard any Irish speaker use yerman or yerone without rolling their eyes and performatively casting aspersions at the person they were referring to.

So, yerman, the garage door guy, pulls up to our garage, hops out of the car, shakes my hand and begins to assess the situation. “The motor’s fine,” he opines, “but it’s the springs, man, they are shot and you really need to replace them.” “Look,” he says, “See how the door crashes to the ground when it’s halfway closed? Not supposed to do that. The door is supposed to gently glide to the ground. What that means when the door is crashing down is that the springs are all messed up and the motor can’t handle the weight of the door.” “Oh,” I said, “Can I just adjust the springs myself?” “You don’t want to do that, brother,” he replied, “I’ve seen people nearly decapitated themselves trying to do that. You let that screw out just a little too much and the whole spring unravels–sounds like a gunshot. My brother lost his finger and I’d say he was lucky.”

This was all news to me.

I was figuring I’d just need a new motor and that with labor would be about $350. I wasn’t anticipating bad springs and just the mention of possible decapitation made me more than willing to hand over the job to yerman.  He gave me a quote. I asked if he could knock off 50 bucks to which he readily agreed and then I, feeling good about the deal I was getting said, “Great, good luck and watch your head.”

I walked in the house to find Sujata standing in the kitchen, arms akimbo and brows furrowed. Had someone else been in the room she would have nodded her head my way and declared in her Irish brogue, “Yerman is a right edjit.”

You will not be surprised to learn that Sujata was correct. In my desire to get the best price from the garage door guy, I looked over a number of things: 1) the fact that he readily dropped the original price more than 50% of the original quote; 2) the fact that the springs had just been replaced five years ago and 3) the fact that this company, Sujata haughtily informed me as she lifted her smart phone to my eyes, had the very worst Yelp! ratings that a garage door company could have! No! I thought to myself, this can’t be! I looked at the Yelp! reviews and they were all good. I was dismayed and embarrassed, of course, to see, quite clearly, a host of one star reviews and short, direct, pissed off comments about the bad service unsuspecting customers had from this company.

I took 20 bucks from my wallet, walked back to the garage, thanked yerman for coming out, placed the money in his hand and informed him we were going to look for another company. He didn’t seem surprised. I suspect this sort of thing happens all the time and, honestly, I didn’t blame him at all. He was just an ordinary guy working for a dishonest company and I was sure that he was getting all kinds of pressure to make sales at any cost.

It’s easy to get mad at dudes like yerman, but I know that behind him, poking him, putting pressure on him, taking his health insurance and other benefits away are unscrupulous people who care even less about him than they do about me.

When I walked into the garage to give him the 20 bucks he handed me his phone. On the other end was some guy with a Jersey accent and a slightly aggressive tone in his voice asking what price I was expecting for the repair and why was I wasting their time? I didn’t say anything, I just handed the phone back to yerman and tried to convey in my expression that I was sorry he had to work for people like that.

The fun never ends, either. This morning, I took our kids and the Shea boys up to the playground and when we came back to the house we were all alarmed to see a squirrel running across the kitchen counters. The kids ran out of the room and came back with their homemade boys and arrows trained on the frightened squirrel. “Don’t shoot!” I shouted, worried they’d hit their mark and I’d have to clean up squirrel remains from the kitchen sink. The squirrel jumped up on the top of the kitchen cabinets and then . . . it just disappeared. We spent a full hour looking all over the house, but no sign of the squirrel. I suspect that someone will wake up tonight staring back at two beady black eyes. I put a call into a squirrel exterminator (good Yelp! reviews and a local company) just in case.

My point here, though, is that in America, my quarrel is with the guys in the suits, not the guys in the work boots.  I’d like to see an America where guys like yerman enjoy the same entitlements that I have: good, affordable health insurance, a 401k plan and a 529 account to send my kids to college. Let’s face it: It’s not easy working for The Man in America.

And maybe that’s why I have such a difficult time with contractors. I’ve been in their shoes and I know how hard they work and how much they have to hustle to get by. I admire their skills and abilities and I generally enjoy talking to them. Guys who work with their hands are generally more informal and much less pretentious and easy going than the people I rub shoulders with in my profession. They are good-humored, use colorful language and, as far as I can tell, they don’t treat me any differently than they’d treat any other client.

As for me, I’ve got about two more weeks of home improvement projects to get to before go to New Zealand where we are, happily, renting a house for the year.

 

From Paris to Reykjavik: Final Post from Europe

We left Paris and landed in Reykjavik for a three-day layover before our return to the States. As Sujata said shortly after we took off from Charles DeGaulle airport, even though returning to the political and cultural gruel of America is unappetizing, it feels good to be traveling westward again.

Stopping over in Iceland for three days before we headed back to the States was Sujata’s idea and until we arrived in Reykjavik I was lukewarm on the whole thing.  The run up to getting home has been starting to feel like the last act of a Eugene O’Neill play (tedious and never ending) and after Paris I was frankly tired of being a tourist. I was just looking forward to a day where I didn’t have to fight for space on the streets, herd children and spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out where and what to eat.

If Paris and Reykjavik were drinks, Paris would be a 1995 Chateau Rayas–rich, complex and very expensive. Reykjavik, on the other hand, would be a fresh, cold lager from a local brew pub.

Paris is incomparable. Paris is Paris. Other cities copy Paris, but Paris copies no one. Paris is its own mold, its own masterpiece. It’s thick with history, culture, haute couture and cuisine and it relishes its rich patina of fine taste.

Paris, in other words, has a nose for things. It lays out its riches, one by one, street by street. It’s like the arch angel of culture and history unfolding itself in front of you, declaring, “I am Paris, admire me. Or else!” Parisians as well as visitors like us are willing to obey. Everywhere you go, the denizens as well as the tourists, seem to be constantly aware of where they are: “We are in Paris!” everyone declares in subtle and not so subtle ways.

All that said, after a week, I was ready to get out of there.

Paris, for all its charms, is a quick and crowded city and after a few days there, you begin to feel visually, culturally and gastronomically overwhelmed. Everything in Paris calls out to you to stop and pay attention to it. “Look at me!” cry the pastries in the patisseries, the gargoyles staring down at you from their medieval perches, the winding romantic streets that take you by quaint cafes, boutiques and specialty shops, the panoramas along the Seine and the ornate, stylized public gardens. I remember walking down some rue in the La Marais on our last day and thinking to myself, “I just can’t see one more beautiful thing!”

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Just another stunning view along the Seine

 

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The lofty and ‘weightless’ vaulted ceiling of the Sainte-Chapelle cathedral

It’s no wonder that history means something different in Paris and Iceland. The Parisians have it in spades and the Icelanders, in contrast, are the newcomers of Europe. Humans were wandering along the banks of the Seine as early as 250 BC. Socrates wasn’t even long dead at that time. By the time Reykjavik was founded in 874 AD, the venerable Abbey of Saint-Germain was already 300 years in the making. Paris is proud to be bound by history and why not? It’s history, culture and language that have made Paris what it is and what it will continue to be.

Yet, with so much history that you need to sweep it off the floor every morning, mature, established Paris seems, in some ways, like a city with its best days behind it. The Eiffel Tower (1889) is a wonder, but it doesn’t compare to Notre Dame (1345) and contemporary architectural manifestations like the George Pompidou Centre (1977) with its nod to Postmodernism and British Brutalism, is, for me at least, an eyesore.

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Plaza in front of Georges Pompidou Centre

That’s not to say, however, that all post-medieval Parisian architecture is a flop. Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne park is an artistic and architectural wonder and we spent a delightful afternoon wandering through its galleries and admiring its unencumbered beauty.

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The approach to Gehry’s LVF
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The ‘sails’ of the LVF

Still, Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, is more my style. Downtown Reykjavik feels to me like a kind of working man’s Aspen, Colorado. Reykjavik is slouchy without being sloppy, funky without being precious and unique without being arrogant.

I didn’t run into Bjork, but as I was walking around the streets of Reykjavik and driving through the subarctic tundra of southern Iceland, Bjork’s music (I’m a casual listener) made more sense to me. Iceland, like Bjork, is austere, stark, uncommonly beautiful and, by turns, harmonious and dissonant. If you get in a car and drive outside of Reykjavik you quickly find yourself winding your way over volcanic mountain passes that drop you down into green valleys of fresh water lakes and streams. Steam from geothermal pools rise close and far away and fields of extrusive igneous rock (hardened molten lava) covered in a fuzzy, lime green moss spread out across the landscape.

Sujata, as usual, was correct: finishing our trip in Iceland made a lot of sense. On a practical level, a three-day stopover on Reykjavik was relaxing and it gave us chances to breath fresh air and get out into big nature. On a more literary level, there’s a nice unity to finishing the first part of our adventure here. Much of our time abroad has been spent on islands–New Zealand was our first stop, we were three weeks in Japan and then we lived in Ireland for five months. And Iceland isn’t even the end of our island hopping. After our five-week stay in the States, we’ll get back on a plane and travel back to New Zealand, where we’ll spend the next year.

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Assembling cairns in a hot river outside of Reykjavik

 

 

 

 

 

Late-night accounting

The day after tomorrow, we’ll fly from Reykjavik to NYC, returning to the States after 11 months abroad. I couldn’t sleep last night so I lay awake in our Reykjavik guesthouse trying to account for and remember the things we’ve done, the places we’ve visited and the experiences we’ve had. Here’s what I came up with:

3          Continents visited (Oceana, Asia, Europe)

5          Countries in which we’ve watched Homeland

4          Countries we’ve visited ruled by authoritarian regimes

4          Post-communist countries

7          Bicycle trips

17        Countries visited

12        Countries visited with universal health care (not America)

8          Pairs of shoes worn through (Me: 2; Sujata: 2; Boy: 2; Girl:2)

74        Blog posts posted (that’s just mine–Sujata not included)

10        Visitors from the States

10        Countries where I swam laps

5          Boxes sent back to America

4          Birthdays celebrated

6          Islands visited

11        Months out of America

16        UNESCO World Heritage sites visited

1          Pubs that serve Bereta beer–Viniloteca!

6          Rental cars

5          Countries we drove on the right side of the road

4          Countries we drove on the left side of the road

91 flight hours

Denver-LA

LA-Auckland

Auckland-Sydney

Sydney-Cairns

Cairns-Alice Springs

Alice Springs-Darwin

Darwin-Bali

Bali-Cambodia

Cambodia-Vietnam (Saigon)

Vietnam-Tokyo

Osaka-Budapest

Timisoara-Milan

Timisoara-Valencia

Lisbon-Dublin

Dublin-London

Dublin-Edinburgh

Dublin-Paris

Paris-Reykjavic

Reykjavic-NYC

NYC-Denver

 

French men make khaki look cool

I probably think slightly more about fashion than the average middle-aged American male.

That said, I feel like a slob in Paris.

When I met Sujata in 2000, I looked like a holdover from the late 80s with my pegged jeans, baggy shirts and weird, faux-mullet haircut.

There are a number of critical junctures that can make or break any romantic relationship. There’s the first kiss, the meeting of the parents, the first argument and, at least for us, the first time Sujata critiqued my sartorial choices.

It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly you dress, the shirts and pants and sweaters and ties and blazers and whatever else that you choose to cloak yourself in everyday say something about who you are or who you think you are and pretty much no one wants to be told, in blunt or even gentle terms, that the clothes they are wearing look stupid, or out of date or, worse, ugly. In other words, even if you profess to not care what people think of your sartorial choices, you actually do, and you will be (even slightly) offended should someone/anyone raise an objection to anything that you might choose to wear.

That’s partly why fashion as a topic of discussion (or critique) rarely comes up in normal adult conversation and that would especially be the case with dudes. Imagine strolling down the sidewalk with your best friend and offering, “You know, you look like you are on your way to Applebee’s, man, why don’t you change that shirt before we head to the pub?” Because unless you sleep next to the person who is leveling critiques at your sartorial choices, you should really just not go there, unless you are trying to derail the relationship/friendship in the first place.

That said, one of the critical junctures in our relationship was the first time Sujata verbally turned her nose up at my fashion sense. I think her first shot across my couture bow was directed at my jeans, which she declared to be too tight and high-waisted. This was in the early to mid 2000s as low rise jeans were coming into fashion. I, stuck in the mid-80s, still thought that the jeans Springsteen wore on the Born in the USA tour were in fashion and I wasn’t aware of the low-rise craze. Next, came derision cast at the houndstooth blazer that I’d been wearing for upwards of 10 years and then from there, there was a protracted assault on my denim shirts.

I grudgingly took her advice and, over the years, acquired at least a modicum of fashion sense. It’s not like I have a fashion coach, subscribe to GQ, or read the Style section of The Times, but I will go out of my way to find a stylish shirt, a nice pair of dark wash denim jeans, a pair of smart shoes and a few nicely-fitted blazers.

At my age and given my subject position (white, male, middle aged) the object is, at minimum, to not look like a denizen of the American suburbs, which, as it turns out, isn’t that hard to do. You just have to stay away from baseball caps, cargo pants (or shorts!) or t-shirts emblazoned with “Just Do It,” “No Pain No Gain,” or “Go Hard or Go Home.”

And I have to say that as you get older, it’s a lot easier to look older simply based on your fashion choices. A baggy pair of jeans or khakis, a schlumpy collared shirt (or worse, a polo shirt!) and suddenly 50 looks like 60. And I’m not ashamed of admitting that I’m slightly vain enough to care.

We’ve been living in Europe for nearly nine months now and, over time, I’ve figured out European fashion. I bought some beautiful wool sport coats and fashionable European-cut slacks in Italy and a pair of Campers in Spain. In Saigon, I found a tailor who made me three beautiful shirts and, of course, I have the classic sweater that Sujata made me in Ireland.  I’ve purchased a scarf in just about every country we’ve visited. So, I felt pretty fashion forward throughout most of our European journey. Well, at least I didn’t feel particularly fashion backward.

European men favor slim-fitted slacks with an inseam just above the ankle, a style choice which allows them to show off their shoes as well as their socks. Most men over 30 wear a European-cut blazer (fitted, shorter in the sleeves than most American blazers and shorter at the waist as well) with an open-collared shirt. You rarely see ties. Soft leather or suede chukkas or (better) pointed, high-top, wing-tip leather boots (very cool!) are popular as well.

If you had to characterize European men’s style you’d say it’s quite minimal and close-fitting. The lines in the shirts, blazers and pants are straight and smooth and there is no taste for baggy or oversized fits. Colors are, by and large, muted, earth toned. There’s no room for loud plaids or paisleys and forget about wearing plaid on plaid or plaid with stripes.

French men, though, are at the top of the pile of European fashion. In Dublin, for instance, dudes walk around with skin-tight spandex jeans–they look like they just got off the boat from Queens. Romanians dress like guys on the Atlantic City boardwalk, Spaniards dress like San Franciscans and the English dress like they just woke up and couldn’t remember if they were going to the rugby match or the office. The only European men who can compete in a fashion sense with the French are the Italians, whose taste for fine wool blazers and trousers is impeccable.

French men, though, can make khaki look cool.

The other day, as we were walking through the Luxembourg Gardens, a very fashionable young man walked by us. Dressed in his spring fashion blazer, open-collared cotton print shirt, perfectly creased trousers and pointed wing tip boots, he appeared to have leapt from a catwalk. “Look, children, a flaneur,” I whispered, to which Atticus quipped, “He seems like the kind of guy who should have a television crew following him.” Well played, young man!

All this is probably making you wonder, “How can I look dress more Parisian?” Or, “How can I get my partner to dress more Parisian?”

Well, if that’s the case, then read on. As I’ve been admiring French architecture, the Seine and French Impressionist paintings, I’ve also had my eye on French fashion so here are a few tips on how to look as cool and fashionable as any Parisian man nonchalantly waking through La Marais:

  1. Get a scarf. I started wearing scarves when we were in Cambodia last summer. The Cambodians (perhaps because they were colonized by the French) love their scarves and Cambodian scarves are made of a light cotton that you can wear throughout the summer. I bought about 10 of them when we were in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and hardly a day has gone by since then when I didn’t have one wrapped around my neck, even in warm weather. In Paris, though, a scarf is simply required.
  2. Get a pair of high-top, wing-tip leather shoes. If you are in the States you may need to special order these because I don’t think they sell them at Cole Haan, but, it’d be worth the extra postage and, anyway, get a pair of French boots so you are at least supporting the French (who voted the right way in the last election) and get them before #45 levies import taxes on European goods because after that happens, everyone will want them.
  3. Keep at least two buttons of your collared shirts open. I know, this is hard for American men, but, you know what, you just have to do it and then, eventually, you’ll get used to it and you’ll feel free. In the week that I’ve been in Paris, I’ve not seen one Parisian man wearing a collared shirt that wasn’t opened at least from the last two buttons. Since we’ve arrived, it’s been getting progressively warmer and I’ve noticed that at the temperature rises, fewer buttons get clasped. You just have to try it and then it starts to feel normal. Today, for instance, I left the flat with three of my top buttons undone while kept looking around to see if anyone was staring at me on the walk to the Metro, by the time we got to the Musee D’Orsay, I completely forgot about it and just melded in with all the other Parisian men.
  4. Wear v-neck tshirts. You will never, ever see a Parisian man walking around with a crew neck tshirt. C’est horrible! V-necks are way cooler and fashionable and if you are really freaked out about keeping the first two buttons of your collared shirt open, the v-neck will make you feel safer and more secure.

If you are feeling fashion adrift, I hope this little bit of Parisian advice will get you through the spring and summer fashion season.

 

 

 

 

Paris and the Unexpected

After five months in Ireland, it was time to move on. The semester at Maynooth University came to an end, the Regis students all dispersed across Europe and back to the States, the children finished their school work and our Irish visas were about to expire.

Paris seemed like as good as any of a place to end the first part of two-year hiatus from 45’s reign, so we boarded a flight early this morning and landed in the city of lights before noon.

It’s a miracle we got here at all.

A few days before our departure, I walked into our living room in Maynooth only to find Sujata staring at the computer with a look of complete horror on her face. “Um . . . I think I made a big mistake,” she declared and then informed me that the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Paris that she thought she purchased never really got submitted and we didn’t have a flight. After a frantic search, she found us reasonably-priced seats on Air Transavia (it’s not that bad!) and the crisis averted.

I wasn’t actually that excited about visiting Paris. I really like beaches and although we have been traveling for a year, we have spent probably about two days at the beach so I really wanted to finish up this European part of our adventure in Cadiz or some quiet Grecian island. Plus, it’s been so cold in Ireland–I felt like I needed to bake a bit in the sun to get all the cold and dampness out of me.

Those dreams were roundly outweighed by a nine-year old’s dream to climb the Eiffel Tower and Sujata’s dream to spend her fortieth wandering through Parisian arrondissements, munching on croissants and sipping wine. Besides, they blithely informed me, we’re on our way to spending a year on the beach in New Zealand and you don’t even have to work! So I set aside my ocean dreams for at least two months.

But, I have to say, after Emmanuel Macron’s white-knuckle handshake of 45, I was ready to come here and support the man, and the country, that is willing to fight to make the planet great again.

Plus, it didn’t take long for me to fall for Paris. We usually take public transportation from the airport to our hotel or Airbnb, but we left Dublin with more luggage than we would have liked so we took a cab to our flat in La Marais. I was glad for the ride, though, not just because I didn’t have to lug a 15kg duffle bag as well as my backpack (although that was nice), but because I got to see the city as we sped along the surface streets.

In some ways, Paris’ cathedrals, haute couture shops and outdoor cafes reminded me of Vienna and Rome, and I even saw a little of Barcelona in the way the sunlight glinted off the white stoned buildings along the Seine and among Paris’ many lovely plazas.

We left our flat with a clear set of objectives: 1) find a creperie, 2) stop by the Notre Dame cathedral, 3) walk over to Shakespeare and Company and 4) find a nice outdoor cafe to relax and watch passersby.

Objectives 1 and 2 went swimmingly.

We wended our way from La Marais, across the Seine and over to Isle Saint Louis where we stumbled upon a quant creperie.

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Ice cream apres crepes
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On the Saint Louis Bridge

Afterwards, we found our way to Notre Dame and admired the flying buttresses, the ancient stained glass and the absolute grandeur of the place.

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It really is a marvel

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Everyone was excited for Shakespeare and Company, but for different reasons. For her part, Sujata wanted to get a book by an American expat to Paris (she was thinking James Baldwin or Richard Wright), get a classy Shakespeare and Company stamp on the inside cover and then retire to a cafe (preferably by the Seine), order a glass of wine and begin reading. The children just wanted another book to read and I just wanted to walk around the bookstore that published Ulysses and served as a lending library to the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and other members of the Lost Generation who made their way to Paris following the first World War.

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Water fountain outside Shakespeare and Co.

It was at Shakespeare and Company, though, that things went a bit awry and we found ourselves caught up in that very thing you think will never happen to you, namely, a terror attack.

I was standing in the middle of the store reading Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers (they have like five copies–try finding any Cohen book in any US bookstore), Sujata was at the register with an armful of books (she chose Wright’s Native Son) and the kids were somewhere in the store, I wasn’t exactly sure where.

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The Shakespeare and Co stamp inside Sujata’s copy of Native Son

I was really enjoying the first few pages of Beautiful Losers and even contemplating getting my own copy when Sujata sidled up to me and asked, “Did you hear that?” No. I didn’t hear anything. “Gunshots.” Oh. I carefully put the book back on the shelf and looked around the front of store where an employee was calmly shutting the front door. He turned around and in a voice as calm as the Seine, he announced that there was a shooting at Notre Dame and could everyone please stay in the store?

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The scene after the doors were closed

No one said a word.

There was some scuffling of feet and of course everyone whipped out their cell phones. We didn’t get SIM cards at the airport so we had no data and of course there was no wifi in the store so we just kind of moved to the back of the store, looking for the kids. We found them in the back, quietly reading in the kid’s section, so we sat down with them and waited it out.  I, bizarrely, picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution (don’t ask!) so to take my mind off whatever the hell was happening outside, cracked the spine and tried to read.

You could hear sirens in the distance, but the people in the store, just stood in groups, chatting quietly and flipping through books.

Some people in the store started quietly narrating events: a man with a hammer attacked a police officer in the plaza in front of the cathedral. Later, we learned that the assailant was “neutralized” (dead? handcuffed?”) but the area was sealed off and folks were under no circumstances to go near the cathedral.

I’m not really sure what I was thinking. I wasn’t scared and I certainly wasn’t thinking that the store would be stormed or anything like that. I figured that we’d be okay, but I do remember worrying for the people who were at Notre Dame (we were just there!) and hoping no one was hurt.

Then I just got disgusted.

Here we were, holed up in a store, listening to sirens pass by, following the news on phones and wondering what exactly was going on. Plus, we have been wandering around the world for the past year. I have seen exponentially more acts of kindness and grace then I’ve seen or been a party to acts of stupid bullshit like attacking someone with a hammer and I just became internally furious to think that in my country a semi-elected cretin (not Cretan!) is holding us (and the rest of the world) hostage and now here, in Paris, we’re held hostage by idiocy on a whole other level.

After a time (it felt like around 30 minutes), the back door swung open and an employee told us that we were free to leave the store, if we wished.

Minutes before we were allowed to go, the skies opened up, delivering a tremendous Parisian thunderstorm. It rained earlier in the day, in fact, on our walk from Notre Dame to Shakespeare and Company and as we stood under oak trees, watching the rain bounce off the sidewalks, I remarked to Sujata that these are the things they used to write songs about. Despite the rain, we walked out of Shakespeare and Company, away from the cathedral and on a roundabout way back to our flat. I opened our umbrella and Sujata noted that that probably wasn’t the best time to leave the store (on account of the rain), but I just wanted to get out of there at that point.

The mood on the streets was cautious. Mothers were still out there pushing prams, but they were walking with a purpose, heads down, home on their minds. Couples sat at the outdoor cafes, sipping wine and smoking cigarettes, but the sips seemed like gulps and the inhales seemed like long drags. We walked quickly and quietly, looking back over our shoulders periodically.

Later that evening, as we ate dinner in our flat, the children said they were nervous, but definitely not scared.

Our friends from Denver came to visit us in Ireland last week. After they left us, they flew to London so they were in the environs when the terror attack happened on the London Bridge.

I guess this is the new normal. As we were walking back to our flat from Shakespeare and Company, I watched the kids as they walked ahead of me, arm and arm with Sujata. What will this world look like when they are my age, I wondered? Will they even be able to bring their children to Europe and retrace our steps?

I hope so. It’s just so damn beautiful here.

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Walking home, across the Seine, on streets wet with rain

Mike Pence and the Commencement Season

It’s not an easy time to be a college student with a political conscience.

Emboldened by the racial, gender and economic provocations of the current administration, Right Wing conservatives like Mike Pence are happy to use any microphone they find themselves standing in front of to rail against what they consider to be a virulent form of political correctness that’s sweeping across college campuses, turning them into so many cauldrons of overwrought liberalism.

That’s certainly what Pence was up to this past Sunday when he addressed graduates of the University of Notre Dame and, after congratulating the students and wishing them the best of luck, launched into an attack on so-called political correctness on college campuses.

Pence’s very presence at the ceremonies, his role in the current administration and his long history of anti-gay rhetoric and policies precipitated about 100 of the Notre Dame graduating class to walk out of the ceremony.

Conservatives looked at the students who walked out on Pence and cried out, “See, we told you! The fascist left can’t accept free speech on campus when that speech challenges their own beliefs.”

In context, though, the peaceful and orderly walk out by the Notre Dame students looks tame compared to a few campus incidents that occurred earlier this year and to which Pence was no doubt referring to in his comments.

Last March, students at Middlebury College disrupted a talk by the controversial sociologist, Charles Murray, and even went so far as to rough up one of the Middlebury faculty members who invited Murray to campus. Earlier in the year, protests against a scheduled talk by Milo Yiannopoulos turned violent at Berkeley and, more recently, Ann Coulter cancelled a scheduled visit to Berkeley because of threats of violence.

The reality, though, is that most college campuses are wastelands of political involvement and most students, cowed by ever-escalating costs of higher education and anxious about getting ahead in the business world are more interested finance and marketing than they are in violent or non-violent resistance to a corrupt political system.

Only 100 of the nearly 3,000 graduates at Notre Dame chose to walk out on Pence.  What do you think kept the rest of them in their seats?

I’m sure Facebook feeds, Twitter accounts and the blogs of the conservative media are filling up with exclamations about the disrespect that Notre Dame students showed to Pence. The truth, though, is that it’s the administrators and faculty members at Notre Dame who made the decision to invite Pence to commencement who are to blame.

Administrators at elite institutions have come to treat commencement as a kind of showcase of their own purchasing power. Commencement season has become a time of chest thumping as universities jockey for the most sought after speaker. What’s worse, political, cultural and entertainment luminaries are trotted out on the stage to speak the same old shibboleths. And, they are paid quite handsomely for their saccharine words.

What’s lost in this model of commencement invitations is the more civic-minded purpose of the commencement address. More than anything, commencement (or, the beginning) should be a time for university communities to come together, to celebrate the achievements of their graduating class, to thank the students, their families, staff and faculty for their work and dedication and to set the institution on course to fulfill the democratic mission of higher education in America.

Fat chance, though, of anything like that happening in the current American climate.

And it’s not that controversial ideas and people don’t have a place at commencement ceremonies, which are whitewashed enough with their inspirational platitudes. A strong and vibrant democracy accepts a wide diversity of political thought and astutely uses its collective acumen and wisdom to parse out alternative facts and heavily-laden ideological pronouncements.

Confident and mature people (and by extension, nations) actually seek out criticism as a way to get better.

No matter what you think of Mike Pence, by virtue of the fact that he’s aligned with #45, he is a divisive political figure who has a greater chance of offending audiences at a place like Notre Dame than he does of compelling them to think deeply and act in the world with a sense of justice and grace.

In that regard, it makes sense for a place like Liberty University to invite someone like #45 to its commencement ceremonies. Eighty percent of fundamentalist Christians who participated in the 2016 presidential election voted for the sitting president and given that the students who choose to attend Liberty are overwhelmingly evangelical Christians, why shouldn’t Liberty invite him to speak to its graduates?

For Notre Dame, a Catholic and purportedly global, outward looking and relatively ethnically diverse campus, to trot someone like Pence before the graduating class and its families seems like tone deafness at best and provocation at worse.

I’m still in Ireland, so I did not get to attend graduation ceremonies at my home institution, Regis University. Aside from seeing my students receive their diplomas, meeting their families and saying goodbye, I generally don’t look forward to commencement ceremonies. I was disappointed, though, to miss commencement this year because Regis invited Father Greg Boyle to address the graduating seniors.

Father Boyle, a Jesuit priest, founder of Homeboy Industries and the author of the great book, Tattoos on the Heart, is the kind of American we should set out to become. He’s funny, smart and worldly in his outlook, but more importantly, Father Boyle, through his long-standing commitment to serving communities of color and working on the front lines of gang violence in Los Angeles, is a paragon of decency and compassion.

Hats off to Regis for inviting Father Boyle and for demonstrating respect and compassion for our graduates and their families at this exciting time in their lives.

The children are too loud in a fancy restaurant in Kinsale

My folks are in Ireland for a week, so we rented a car and drove to County Cork from Maynooth for the weekend. This was the first time I visited Cork and I was looking forward to our stay mostly because one of my favorite Irish writers, William Trevor, was from Cork and many of his novels are set in Cork townlets and villages so I was looking forward to seeing the country side, if only to visualize what I imagined from my reading of Trevor’s novels. Cork is the rebel county of Ireland in that great republican leaders like Michael Collins hail from Cork, so I was excited to see some of the sites related to Collins and republican Ireland as well.

We stayed in Cork city the first night. Cork is rougher around the edges than we expected and my folks wanted something a little more quaint, a little more “Irish,” so we hopped in their car on Saturday morning and drove to Kinsale, a little fishing village 20 km south of Cork city.

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Kinsale is a picture-perfect harbor village. We checked into a gorgeous hotel right on the water and walked to Fort Charles, a sixteenth-century English military stronghold designed to keep the French and the Spaniards from landing on the island. It turns out, though, that the French and Spaniards did indeed land in Kinsale although they did it through the figure of King James II, the Catholic king of England who landed here in 1789 with funding from the Spanish King and with French and English soldiers by his side. James made it ashore and fought his way about Ireland with his army for a year until he was ultimately defeated by William of Orange at the famous Battle of the Boyne and expelled from Ireland just a year after he landed at Kinsale.

We had fun walking through the ancient fort, enjoying the scenery and imagining the military scenes that took place here so long ago.

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Kinsale Harbor from Fort Charles
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Exploring the tunnels at Fort Charles
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Guards on the wall–don’t mess with them!
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A panoramic view of Fort Charles

We made reservations at what we were told was the best restaurant in KInsale so we showed up on time, were seated by the maître d’, ordered drinks and appetizers and everything seemed to be going okay.

The restaurant started filling up and it was a small space with low ceilings and hardwood floors, so it started getting busier and louder as we finished our first bottle of wine and happily waited for dinner. We hadn’t seen my folks for some time so we were enjoying catching up with them and telling them about all the adventures we’ve had over the course of the last year.

Our children don’t use electronic devices at the dinner table. They join in the conversation with us and they are, generally speaking, good conversationalists. And, despite the fact that they had walked nearly eight miles that day and hadn’t slept much the previous night, they were animated and engaged with the conversation at the dinner table that evening in Kinsale.

We were all enjoying ourselves and laughing about something when I noticed the maitre d’ approach our table, lean toward the middle and ask, “Could you all keep it down, you’re a little too loud and we’ve had complaints.”

We have eaten in restaurants all over the world and we have never been asked to lower our voices, even in places like Japan which, relative to Ireland, have a lower threshold for public noise and garrulousness.

I was, then, taken aback by the request, especially given that we were the only table with children and, frankly, the only brown people in the restaurant. It was hard not to read something into the message the maître d’ delivered.

Ironically, just before we were asked to quiet down, my father had just related the following story: He was in a restaurant in Florida one time and a family sat down next to his table. The parents were chatting and the children took out their electronic devices and were either playing games or reading but shortly after the kids took out their devices, the host; walked over to the table and asked the children to put their devices away because they were too bright and were disturbing the patrons. The father went nuts, started yelling at everyone in the restaurant and then the whole family got up from their seats and left the restaurant.

We can agree, I hope, that going ballistic in public is bad behavior and should be discouraged. That said, maybe, though, the parents had a long day and just wanted to relax and talk with each other. Maybe the kids were exhausted themselves and just needed some time to check out.

I had my father’s story in mind when the hostess in Kinsale delivered her news to us. I wanted to snap back that we were really sorry to be enjoying ourselves and maybe they should issue an Ipad to all the children they let into the place so that the kids remain passive and quiet and we are so sorry for having fun and enjoying each other’s company.  I looked at Sujata and she clearly had a similar message to deliver. We both, wisely, held our tongues, acknowledged the request, politely said, “No thanks, we’ll have dessert somewhere else,” paid the check and walked out.

The place didn’t get any quieter, by the way, as we got up to leave.

And the thing is that it wasn’t that great of a restaurant. The waitress used her fingers to move the appetizers from one plate to the next and as I was walking down the hall from the toilet back to my seat the very hostess who within minutes would ask us to quiet down pulled me aside and asked if I’d reach up to the top of the wine rack and grab a bottle that was out of her reach. I was, of course, happy to oblige.

All that said, my children are not shrinking violets, either. My daughter, in particular, has one of those voices that you can hear across the room and her laugh, a rollicking, full-throated chuckle, is unique and evident when she is enjoying herself. I suspect that whoever complained was hearing her laughter over the din and perhaps assumed that others in the restaurant were raising their voices in order to compete with the nine-year olds. Who knows?

There are many things to love about my daughter–she is funny and quirky and, as our friend Cath says, “full of beans.” It’s her voice though–both the physical projection as well as what she says and how she says that is one of the things I love the most about her.

When she was five years old she told us that she wanted to be in a play so we enrolled her in a community theatre production of The Little Mermaid. We weren’t sure how it was going to go but she stuck with it and secured two minor roles for herself. On opening night I found myself volunteering behind the scenes–I was assigned to the boys dressing room where I was charged with helping the boys change get into their proper costumes and it was the closest I think I’ll ever get to being on the set of a Wes Anderson film.

Just before the play started I walked around to the front of the auditorium to watch the opening number because I knew my daughter was in the first scene and I wanted to see her maiden performance. The curtains parted and there she was, leading a phalanx of war-torn sailors, marching to the front of the stage and launching into the opening number, “Fathoms Below.”

She was five at the time and she was surrounded by six or seven other five-year olds and as they opened their mouths, all I could hear was my daughter, off-key and shouting the lyrics with the energy and confidence of a seasoned veteran of the stage” “I’ll sing you a song of the kind of the sea/An’ it’s hey to the starboard, heave ho!/The ruler of all of the oceans is he/In mysterious fathoms below!”

My eyes were like spigots. I had to wipe the tears away and I thought to myself, that’s my daughter, that’s my daughter.

She’s secured minor roles in two other community theatre productions and when we get settled in New Zealand, I’m sure we’ll find another community theatre for her to be a part of.

I’m proud my young daughter doesn’t act like the girl that the larger culture expects her to act. She’s strong and opinionated and she doesn’t let anyone mess with her. That’s how we raised her. That’s how she is, and that’s, I hope, how she’ll be for the rest of her life.

So, I don’t like it when strangers ask her to be quiet, especially when she’s not even being excessively loud.

I thought about that first night of my daughter’s young acting career tonight as we quietly left the fancy restaurant in Kinsale. I also thought about the poor people who were in the restaurant and were agitated by a young girl’s laugh. What’s wrong with them? But, then again, who knows? Maybe they were struggling with relationship or health issues and just wanted a quiet dinner away from their troubles. But beyond all that I also worried about the message that was being sent to my daughter. She heard what the hostess said and because she is respectful of others, she quieted down and actually said very little the rest of the short time we were in the restaurant.  When we left, I grabbed her hand, told her I loved her, and told her to not worry about what happened back there.

We bought them cheap, overly-preserved ice cream at the corner store, walked back to our hotel and went to bed.

I thought I’d could put the experience behind me, but when I woke up in the morning, the hostess’s words still grated against me.