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

 

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.

I swim in the same pool where Michael Phelps won six Olympic medals

I’ve spent a good bit of time in swimming pools over the course of our travels, and this past weekend on our trip to London I reached perhaps the apex of my international swimming experiences when I swam in the London Aquatics Center, the site of the 2012 London Olympic swimming competition and the pool where Michael Phelps distinguished himself as the greatest swimmer and perhaps the greatest athlete of all time.

Phelps won four gold and two silver medals at the 2012 London Olympics and by the end of that competition he had earned his 18th gold and 22nd overall medal. After his last event in London he was given an award naming him the most outstanding Olympic athlete ever. As in, London 2012 was the 30th Olympiad and Phelps was designated the most outstanding of all the exceptional athletes that had competed in the previous 30 Olympiads. That’s almost impossible for me to understand.

Before I jumped in the 50-meter competition pool at the London Aquatics Center in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, I had swum laps in a variety of pools in New Zealand, Australia, Cambodia, Japan, central and southern Europe and Ireland. In fact, much to Sujata’s chagrin, one of the first things I do when we arrive at any given city is look for the nearest pool. Oh, and it’s not that Sujata doesn’t support my swimming habits, it’s that when we arrive to a new city, the priority is generally finding a place to eat or the location of our hotel, so looking for a pool comes across as an indulgence.

Despite my best efforts, though, sometimes I just can’t find a pool or what I do find is too far or we just don’t have enough time for me to get to the pool. Other times, I’d spend a good amount of time getting to the pool and it’s a bust–like the outdoor pool I found in Phnom Penh where I walked a mile on treacherous roads just to get to the pool and could hardly complete my 1500 meters because the air was so smoggy that my lungs were on fire after just a couple of laps.

There was also a funny moment in Timisoara: After much searching, I finally found a lap pool and it was walking distance from our flat. Score! Or so I thought. I immediately threw my swim gear in my backpack and pretty much ran down the street. I walked into the natatorium and a janitor who spoke no English waved me into a room that I guessed was a changing room so I changed from street clothes to my swim suit, walked through a number of corridors, opened a door and voila, there was the pool. I had a great big grin on my face as I approached the pool and before I heard a gruff voice yelling in Romanian. I knew the verbal assault was directed at me and all my Romanian friends who heard this story said I should have just jumped in the water and started swimming because The Yeller would have just walked away, but being the good, first-born American that I am, I stopped and learned from The Yeller that free swim was over and that I’d have to leave the pool. So I did and I never went back there.

And as much as I loved swimming in the London Aquatics Center, the very best swimming experience I’ve had to date was the Osaka Pool, quite possibly the coolest indoor swimming pool in the world.

If it weren’t for the legacy of greatness that the London Aquatics Center holds, I’m not sure I would have had such a great time. For one thing, the pool was pretty far from where we were staying at Waterloo Station so I had to get up early and ride the Underground at rush hour (not fun) for 40 minutes before I even arrived at the natatorium.

Incidentally, it had been 15 years since I’d last been in London and I forgot how tight the cars are. I know that’s why they call it the Tube, but when I first entered the car at Waterloo, I had a slight panic attack because I was shoulder to shoulder and back to front with a lot of people and there was very little ventilation and it was just not a pleasant experience.

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Sujata looking cool, Atticus probably humming a David Bowie tune on the Tube

The car eventually emptied out. I got off at Stratford Station, walked through a giant indoor shopping mall that I assume was constructed just for the Olympics, cut down a few side streets and there was the Aquatics Center sitting in the middle of the Olympic Park.

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The London Aquatics Center, approach from Stratford Station

I’m a bit weird I guess in that my heart generally skips a beat or two when I see an indoor pool. Some of them–like the Osaka Pool and the London Aquatics Center–are simply architecturally and even culturally interesting: here’s this huge bubble in a major urban where real estate is high-priced and scarce and it’s dedicated entirely to swimming. And given that not many people swim that much anyway and that, aside from flying, swimming is one of the most unnatural activities for a human to engage in and that these natatoriums cost a lot of money to maintain on an annual basis, I think it’s just amazing that they exist in the first place. So when they do exist and when they exist in this grand and palatial manner, I’m grateful to the largess of civic-minded people and tax payers who fund these sorts of public spaces.

I was a bit shocked when I walked in the locker room at the London Aquatics Center. The sign clearly said “Men’s Locker Room,” but I noticed that there were women in their blow drying their hair, so I quickly turned around, walked back out and re-read the sign. A few moments later, a dude walked by me and retraced my steps so I followed him in and quickly realized that the locker room was an enormous–probably 2,000 square foot–area that acted as a co-ed changing room. There were 3×3 foot changing rooms cubed and linked together across the center of the room and you just walked into one of those tiny rooms, shut the door, changed into your swim suit, put your stuff in a lock and then walked through a section where you could shower and then walk out on to the pool deck.

The pool itself was pretty crowded–I shared a lane with four other swimmers but given that the pool is 50 meters long, you hardly ever see the other swimmers except if you stop for a break at either end.  And, swimmers are, by and large, decent people; that is, they don’t worm up on you if you are slower or give you dirty looks or flip you off or do rude kinds of things that drivers sometimes do to cyclists and runner. Still, having so many people in the pool and in your lane makes you a bit conscious of other people around and, at least for me, takes away from the meditative and mentally relaxing part of swimming.

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You aren’t allowed to take photos on the deck–I took this on the other side of the glass

Until you stand at one end of a 50-meter pool and prepare to dive in and swim to the other side, over and over again, you can’t really appreciate the athleticism and power of Olympic swimmers.  Physically, I’m not that that much smaller than Phelps. I’m 6’2″, I have size 11 feet, a 6’5″ arm span and I weigh 170 lbs. Michael Phelps is 6’4″ he has an arm span of 6’7″, size 14 feet and weighs 194 lbs. I’m also not a terrible swimmer. I routinely swim 1500 meters and if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish that in around 30 minutes. That said, when I dive in the pool and start my forward crawl, I look insignificant and minuscule compared to Phelps, who cuts through the water like a shark. And that’s one of the things that is so remarkable about Olympic swimmers–they dominate the water in a way that is really beyond the scope and ability of probably 99% of the human race.

After I finished my swim, I slipped out of the pool and just stood on the deck for a few minutes, admiring the beauty of the Center and thinking about Michael Phelps and what he accomplished here.

We did other, more typically touristy things, in London and Sujata and I will get around to writing about them shortly.

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View of the competition pool from the top of the stands

I teach my final class at Maynooth

For the winter term I’ve been teaching a course in the English department here at the University of Maynooth and yesterday was our last class meeting. Given than I’ll be moving to New Zealand and on leave from my home institution next academic year, it was the last class I’ll teach for some 15 months. I half-heartedly looked around for a university near where we will be living in Whakatane on New Zealand’s north island. The big universities are two to four hours away by car and given that we’ll be living on the beach on the Bay of Plenty, one of the sunniest and warmest places on the island, I figured I could find better ways to spend my time than preparing for classes and grading papers. I can’t say I’m happy about the prospect of being out of the classroom for that extended period of time, but, I guess I can’t say I’m sad either so I guess it’s more correct to say I’m ambivalent.

One thing I do know is that teaching abroad this year has been a unique and exciting experience. I spent the fall semester teaching American Studies classes at the University of the West in Timisoara, Romania, I had a chance to lecture at Karoli Gaspar University in Budapest and then this past semester I taught an American literature course at Maynooth as well as an Irish history course to the Regis students who are studying here at Maynooth.

Each of these teaching experiences brought its set of joys and challenges. I still think about and miss the students at the University of the West. Their warmth and their excitement in learning about American culture is still with me and I’ll always be appreciative of their generosity and willingness to share their time and experiences with me and my family.

Given the way the class schedule was set up, I ended up spending a lot of time with the Romanian students–we were together in class for three hours every week and then quite often they would meet me and my family for dinner after class. They were a funny, irreverent and gregarious lot and I think, in many ways, they spoiled me with their friendliness and openness. They made bracelets for my children, gave us delicious Romania foodstuffs and a number of them even came to the post office with us and acted as our translators so we could ship our boxes from Timisoara to Romania.

Teaching at Maynooth has turned out to be equally exhilarating but quite different from my experiences in Romania. Irish students are by nature, I think, more cautious and guarded in the classroom and I think it took the students in my American literature class a little while to get used to my teaching style which is more Socratic and discussion based than what they are used to.

I also have a tendency to get worked up and dramatic around certain literary moments and early on in the semester, I think some of them thought I was slightly crazy. Like, for instance, when we discussed that amazing moment in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck is faced with the prospect of turning Jim into the authorities (and doing the right think according to antebellum slave laws) or continuing to hide Jim from the authorities (and breaking the law) and he stands there and thinks for a moment before he does the truly right and just thing and declares, “Alright then, I’ll go to hell.” It’s a classic American moment of the individual giving the middle finger to a corrupt and unjust system. I’ve read that passage probably 100 times over the course of my life. It still sends shivers up my spine and I have to say that it resonated deeply with me as I read it with my Irish students following the ascension of #45 so, naturally, I got slightly worked up and acted it out and while I think the Irish students were entertained by my excitement, I noticed them giving each other sidelong glances as if to say, “Oh, boy, what have we gotten ourselves in to now?”

At the same time, though, it didn’t take long for me to appreciate the sarcasm of my Irish students. The Irish are, generally good at sarcasm and take some pride in their cheeky and cynical outlook on life. That makes sense, given their history vis a vis the British empire, and it makes for honest and entertaining verbal exchanges in the classroom, especially when I would ask them to think about Irish equivalents to American historical or literary events.

For instance, while we were reading Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried, I did a little presentation for them on public memory and American war memorials which prompted a funny discussion on Irish public memorials. The Irish, I learned, are really good at mocking their public monuments and for good reason, I have to say. Here, for instance, is the monument Dublin put up after the IRA blew up the statue of Admiral Nelson on O’Connell Street in 1966. They call it “The Stilleto in the Ghetto” or “The Stiffey in the Liffey” (!).

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The famous statue of Molly Malone is dubbed “The Tart with the Cart” or “The Dish with the Fish.” James Joyce’s statue off O’Connell Street is referred to as “The Prick with the Stick.” Are you getting the patterns?

Americans, who by and large do not possess the trenchant and irreverent sense of humor of the Irish, have no nicknames for our iconic public monuments and you don’t have to look too far beyond the Washington Monument for material.

As the students packed up their bags and walked out after our last class, one young man came up to me, thanked me for the class and asked for some book recommendations of American authors. Students used to ask me questions like that quite frequently, but I’ve noticed over the years, as the internet and hand-held devices take a large toll on all of our intellectual and spiritual lives, that I get those kinds of requests more and more infrequently. But, I’ve found Irish students to be quite intellectually curious and well read so I was pleased to write down a few books for the young man (Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was at the top of the list), and made a mental note of that moment as I’ll want to remember it next year when I think back fondly on this past year.

 

 

We Fly Kites on Derry’s Defensive Walls

Derry, an ancient and storied town on the extreme western edge of County Derry, Northern Ireland is a border town with a border mentality.

I love Derry because of its literary and historical position on this island, and I think that if you really want to understand Ireland you have to, in some way, come to understand Derry.

Back in the U.S. I teach a course on the literary responses to the Irish Troubles with my friend and colleague, David Hicks. Derry, because of its literary and political history, plays a significant role in the course so I was excited last weekend to take the Regis students and my family to Derry for the weekend.

The old city of Derry sits on a high hill overlooking the River Foyle and its seventeenth-century walls are still intact, so you can walk the perimeter of the old city and gaze down at the picturesque Foyle river valley below the city.

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West side of Derry’s defensive walls, looking down onto the Bogside

 

Derry is a plantation city that was established by James I in 1613 to essentially provide London with a plentitude of Northern Ireland’s natural resources like salmon and timber. James called the town Londonderry and if you are loyal or sympathetic to the Crown you would, to this day, refer to Derry as Londonderry. If you are Catholic or a nationalist you drop the London and call it Derry. The road signs outside of the city read “Londonderry” although, as is the case with many of the signs, they have been defaced so they read “Londonderry.”

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Two years ago, when David Hicks and I took the train from Belfast to Derry, the conductor would switch back and forth between saying, “This is the train for Derry,” and “This is the train for Londonderry.” Even the train tables referred to the town as both Derry and Londonderry. That’s just to say that the city is so politically and culturally fraught that even the name illustrates its conflicted past.

In 1689, one of the more dramatic scenes of Irish history (and there are many) took place here in Derry. James II, a Catholic, took over the English throne and subsequently invaded Ireland. This was good news for the Catholics, who were a political minority on the island and very bad news for the Protestants, who controlled the island. James’ forces sailed down the Lough Foyle and laid siege to Derry. The gates of the city were shut in December of 1688, the siege began in earnest in April of 1689 and it was finally broken in July of 1689.

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Scene depicting the closing of the gates of Derry by the storied Apprentice Boys

The breaking of the siege of Derry is to (some) Protestants in Northern Ireland as the battle of Gettysburg was to the Union army in the American Civil War and the battle of Stalingrad was to the Russians in WWII and the end of the siege of Derry is still celebrated every August in Northern Ireland.

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There is a good deal of heroic depictions of the ending of the siege of Derry

The best way, perhaps, for an American to understand the modern town of Derry in Northern Ireland is to imagine this scenario.

It’s April 1865 and you are one of the many abolitionists living in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Confederacy has won the Civil War and the new political border that’s been drawn to separate the United States from the Confederacy runs west along the Ohio River and then just a before Cincinnati, the border juts northward and wraps around the northern side of the city and then continues westward. Cincinnati, a solidly Union town during the war, becomes a Confederate city and you find yourself a member of a nation to which you are radically opposed. 

What’s more, the town of Cincinnati remains solidly supportive of the Union. A full 2/3 of the citizens of Cincinnati remain loyal to the Union. However, the new Confederate government redraws the district voting lines so that that Union supporters can never win back political control of the city. As a result, the 1/3 of the population of the city loyal to the Confederacy controls the judicial, legislative and executive decisions for years to come.

This fictional scenario is not dissimilar to what actually happened to Derry.

In 1920, a year before the end of the Irish War for Independence, the Government of Ireland Act created a political border in Ireland that separated the six northern counties from the other 26 counties on the island. (See the map below for the full visual effect.) This didn’t cause too much of a stir until after the Irish won the War for Independence and the six northern counties were given the choice of joining the Irish Free State or aligning themselves with Great Britain.  They chose the latter, of course, and set in motion a century’s worth of trouble and conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants in the six northern counties.

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Derry is at the very top of the island, just to the east of Donegal

The six northern counties choose to go with Britain because the majority of its citizens were loyal to the Crown. This was not the case, though, in Derry, where 2/3 of the inhabitants were Catholic and would have preferred to align with the Irish Free State. To make matters worse, the Unionists in Derry (who made up less than 1/3 of the population of the city) set up judicial, administrative and legislative norms and practices that discriminated against Catholics who, as a result of the institutional discrimination, found it difficult to find housing, jobs and a decent education.

I should say, too, that it’s easy to characterize the Protestants of Northern Ireland as intolerant and unjust but that position it mostly unfair. Protestants in Northern Ireland aren’t any better or worse than people anywhere else. Their loyalties and their culture has, for centuries, been associated with Great Britain so it makes sense that a majority of them chose to maintain those ties. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland some very bad actors on both sides had their way and basically held the entire region under the sway of their cultural and ideological demands.

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Unionist mural on the east side of the old city: “Londonderry Westbank Loyalists Still Under Siege No Surrender”

When you stand on the west side of the old city of Derry, you can look across the Foyle River onto the green, rolling hills of County Donegal, the extreme northwest county of the Republic of Ireland. For centuries Counties Donegal and Derry had more in common than not and aside from the political border that separates them, they are still nearly indistinguishable.  Imagine, if you can, what it might have felt like to be a Catholic and a supporter of a united Ireland and to stand on those ancient walls realizing that your gaze fell on soil that didn’t discriminate against you because of your faith tradition. It wouldn’t have been unlike the fictional abolitionists of my scenario above looking across the Ohio River at the Union state of Ohio.

Things simmered in Derry throughout the 40s and 50s and then at the end of the 1960s, they came to a boil. The situation for Catholics in Derry for most of the twentieth century was not much different from that of blacks in the American south prior to (and after) the American Civil Rights movement.

Catholics and Protestants in Derry and Belfast joined together to begin a civil rights movement modeled after the American Civil Rights movement, but violence erupted on the streets pretty consistently and it all culminating in the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1972 (the historical basis of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday). At that point, the Northern Ireland civil rights movement effectively died and the militant wing of the IRA, the Provos, basically took over. The whole country, then, devolved into 25 years of communal and state-sponsored violence that simply devastated Northern Ireland.

Nothing good came of all this violence (nothing ever does). Even after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the IRA didn’t secure a united Ireland–the very thing it had been waging war for 30 years. But, there were a number of literary figures that chronicled these dark times in thoughtful and lucid ways. Ireland’s greatest poet, Seamus Heaney, hailed from County Derry and attended St. Columb’s College (it’s a high school) in Derry city. Many of Heaney’s most profound poems use the Troubles as foreground and background and it’s safe to say that reading Heaney’s generous and humanistic poetry about the Troubles is one of the best ways to understand that dark period.  One of Northern Ireland’s greatest politicians, John Hume, is a Derry man as is the writer and critic Seamus Deane. The same goes for the great Irish playwright, Brian Friel, who was born in County Donegal and who wrote a number of plays that take up the topic of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Deane and Friel were the creative forces behind the Field Day project, a literary and historical movement committed to viewing the Troubles through a nationalistic and post-colonial framework.

 

Halfway between the old city walls and the River Foyle is a neighborhood called the Bogside, so named because the land was reclaimed from the Foyle before houses began cropping up in the area. The Bogside is the working class, Catholic and nationalist neighborhood of Derry where much of the communal and State-sponsored trouble took place in the later part of the twentieth century. The Bogside is unique for its many public murals which have become sites of public memory regarding the Troubles and the 30 years of conflict that transpired there.

If you ever have a chance to visit Derry, you must visit the Free Derry Museum. When we visited Derry last weekend, the museum had just opened so I was excited to be one of the first patrons. I’ve visited a lot of museums over the course of our past ten months of our journey and I’d say the Free Derry Museum was one of my favorite. It’s collection mostly commemorates the horrible events of 30 January 1972, otherwise known as Bloody Sunday and there are artifacts and video footage of the massacre that I had never seen so I found the whole experience moving.

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Sports jacket worn by one of the 13 marchers killed by British forces on Bloody Sunday. The yellow arrow marks where the bullet left the body of the young man who wore this coat.

Derry is a complicated city and in a short blog post I can’t do justice to the historical and cultural circumstances that have gone into making it the city it is today. If you are interested in learning more about Derry, I suggest reading Eamon McCann’s War in an Irish Town, Seamus Heaney’s early poems, my friend Andrew Auge’s very good book on Irish poetry, A Chastened Communion or Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows On Our Skin. And, by all means, if you ever find yourself in Ireland, take the time to visit Derry.

On our final day in Derry, we woke up early and walked the perimeter of the old city walls. The children brought along the kites they made the previous day and flew them as they walked the walls. Children flying kites on militarized walls. I can’t think of a better image.

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Flying a kite on Derry’s defensive wall