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

 

 

Before you post that photo . . .

Last week one my students, Brianna Barkocy, wrote a blog post about some questions that she’s been struggling with over the course of her time here in Ireland. To my mind, it’s a profound piece of thinking that asks difficult questions about what happens when we remove ourselves from the familiar and how social media allows us (if we let it) to inspire misperceptions of others as well as ourselves. I encourage you to read Bri’s piece.

Bri’s piece is interesting and useful because she gets underneath everyday life and she questions practices that are so quotidian that they seem normal. Upon closer inspection, though, these practices actually reveal something about our inner lives.

Bri describes a condition that she terms ‘social media travel.’ As she explains it, the social media traveler posts photos on her Facebook feed that show ‘ceaseless adventures into new landscapes.’ Here in Ireland, it’s the inevitable drinking a pint of Guinness in a pub, walking along the Cliffs of Moher or kissing the Blarney Stone.

Bri cautions us to ‘beware of the social media traveler,’ because behind that veil of good times is oftentimes someone who is homesick, bored, lonely, tired and afraid to show the world the challenges anxieties of traveling abroad.

On the surface, Bri’s piece is an honest look at some of the pitfalls of living and studying abroad. What it really does, though, is lay bare some essential and difficult questions regarding the nature of our lives, especially what happens in those moments when things get really quiet, our minds start to wonder and we are left with ourselves alone. Travel does that to you, if you let it.

We enjoyed a robust conversation about Bri’s blog post in class the other night. At one point in the conversation, one of the students, Molly, raised her hand and said, “Bri, this is a really important piece and I think everyone who studies abroad at Regis should read it.” As Molly was finishing the sentence, though, her voice trailed off, she paused and then concluded, “No, never mind, you know what, I don’t think it’s possible to understand what you are saying until you have been abroad for a while. People will just have to figure this out on their own.” I loved Molly’s comment for its pure phenomenological insight: you have to experience the world on your own terms to really understand it.

I suppose that the phenomenon of the social media traveler that Bri identifies is shared across nations and cultures, but I don’t know enough about the minds of people from other places to say whether that’s so, or not. I do think, though, that there is something terribly American about Bri’s piece and what I perceive as our dread of quiet, of being alone and of loneliness. As Bri so eloquently writes, social media travel allows us to fill a void and to do it in a rather unconscious manner. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course–travel in particular and life in general should be joyful and exciting so by all means, keep posting those shots of you skiing through powder, enjoying a cocktail on a beach and hiking through the woods!  But, as Bri notices, social media often acts as a cover for our fear of making ourselves vulnerable, of telling people things they might not want to hear and of revealing our anxieties and second thoughts.

I appreciate the unvarnished honesty of Bri’s post and it highlights of the reasons I still enjoy teaching after 22 years: I find myself continually inspired by young people like Bri, who is just one of twelve wonderful Regis University students studying here at the University of Maynooth this semester. They are all writing blogs and they are all producing thoughtful and entertaining vignettes of their lives here in Ireland.

You can find all of their collected blogs here on our class blog spot.

We Attend the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin and Stop in at the Maynooth GAA Club

We woke up this morning, ate breakfast and took the early train into Dublin. We met Andy at the Hodges and Figgis bookstore on Dawson Street, stopped in for a nice breakfast at KC Peaches Cafe and then found a nice place on Dame Street to watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

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Spending time with Andy in Dublin before the parade
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The only flag Sujata will ever wave

After the parade, we said goodbye to Andy (see you tomorrow for the Ireland v. England rugby match!) and took the Sligo Express back to Maynooth. On our way back home from the train station, we stopped in at the GAA Club in Maynooth. The place was lit up with families enjoying St. Patrick’s Day and we were happy to run into some of the families from the children’s school.

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Impromptu soccer game outside the GAA Club
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We feel like welcome visitors in Maynooth

The parents waved Sujata and I over, we pulled up chairs, ordered a few Guinness and spent a delightful two hours socializing. The kids went off to play soccer on the fields and an hour later, they came back, soaked, thirsty and starving. I enjoyed spending time in Dublin and watching the parade, but sitting in the local GAA club, chatting with parents, watching kids run in and out and all around, sipping Guinness and munching on crisps . . . feeling and being treated like a local, really, was the highlight of the day.

We walked back home in lashing rain and wind, tumbled through the front door and all of us agreed that we couldn’t have had a better St. Patrick’s Day.

The only thing that could possibly make this day any better would be a Spartan win tonight, but I’m not holding my breath.

On a final note: our children are attending Irish schools this semester. Gaelic is a required part of the curriculum in all the national schools so both of the kids are learning Gaelic. Yesterday, my son came home with a bi-lingual handout of Irish aphorisms. Here are some Irish-isms you all might enjoy spouting off tomorrow. Let me know if you have an opportunity to use any of them and extra points if you say it in Gaelic!

Nior bhris focal maith fiacail riamh. A good word never broke a tooth.

Ni deanfaidh smaoineamh an treabhadh duit. Thinking will not do the ploughing for you.

Is maith an taniann an tocras. Hunger is a good sauce.

Is fearr rith maith na drohsheasamh. A good run is better than a bad stand.

Giorraionn beirt bothar. Two people shorten the road.

March Sadness, then Gladness

Today begins the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

A year ago, almost to the day, I did what I normally do on the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; namely, ditch work at noon, head to the basement, turn on the television and watch basketball games until deep into the evening.

Michigan State had the first game of the day and they were a #2 seed playing a #15 so in my mind, I’d calmly sit there and maybe even grade some papers and catch up on some emails. There were a couple of loads of clean laundry on the floor and I figured I do some folding during the second half. Instead, I found myself pacing back and forth in front of the television, reading frantic texts from my MSU friends and staring wild-eyed at the screen.

By 2 pm the game was over, MSU was out of the tournament and the laundry remained scattered across the floor.

I walked upstairs, put on my shoes and went to collect the kids at school. When they came bounding out of the schoolyard, I leaned down and delivered the news as if a favorite pet had died. They looked up at me a bit incredulously but then shrugged their shoulders and asked, “Can we go play?”

I, on the other hand, didn’t take it so casually. I sulked for the better part of the weekend and I couldn’t bring myself to watch another game of the tournament. It wasn’t until the beginning of the NBA playoffs that managed to go back downstairs to watch television.

Over the course of the spring and summer, I’d occasionally check the MSU Athletics website and ESPN to read about the latest recruit and to check on the pre-season rankings (okay, I check it ever week). This, by the way, is really depressing because ESPN keeps the scores from the previous year’s tournament on the NCAA Men’s site so every time I check in about the latest news I’m reminded of last year’s fate. By October, though, I was feeling optimistic: the Spartans were ranked #12 in the pre-season coaches’ polls and they picked up a number of strong recruits.

When we were in Romania this past fall, the first thing I did was sign up for a VPN service so that I could watch college basketball while I was in Europe. MSU played its first preseason game against Arizona at the end of November–the game started at 2:30 am Romania time and I stayed up and watched the whole thing.

They lost at the buzzer.

We are in Ireland now. Last time Michigan State won the national championship was 2000 and I was living in Dublin then. This was before satellite television and the internet so I couldn’t watch the game.  That still hurts. I’d be lying if I didn’t note that I’m hoping for some magical, symmetrical turn of events where every time I am on Irish soil, the Spartans win the national championship.

Michigan State is a #9 seed this year and they play Miami at 3 am Ireland (GMT) time tomorrow. I’m telling myself now that I won’t watch it, but I probably will.

Anyway, I feel like maybe last year’s curse is lifting.  Last night, my sister-in-law’s UC-Davis Aggies won their first ever NCAA men’s basketball tournament game. I stayed up to watch it and we were texting back and forth during the whole game.

I realize that this magical, obsessive thinking about sports in general and my alma mater in particular can seem ridiculous to most well-functioning adults, especially among my academic tribe. God knows, I’ve been on the receiving end on more than a few eye rolls and face palms from Sujata.

But this is as much about memory and personal history as it is about anything else, and memory can cut different ways: it can haunt your present or it can help you feel safe and connected to your past. In that regard, then, my passion for Michigan State basketball is the better part of memory.

It reminds me of those cold winter afternoons when I was a boy in the 1970s and I’d huddle in front of our black-and-white television to watch the Spartans and then go outside and try to shoot jump shots like Greg Kelser and drive to the bucket like Magic Johnson.

It reminds me of those short winter afternoons or long, bitter cold nights in East Lansing when we’d meet in crowded bars where everyone was watching the game together.

It reminds me of watching MSU games with my children back in Denver and it reminds me of the three of us, after the games, heading up to the neighborhood basketball courts to shoot jumpers like Denzel Valentine and box out like Matt Costello.

It’s your life, man, so turn on those games this weekend . . . and remember.

 

 

 

 

The Academy in the New America

I’ve always had a kind of lover’s quarrel with the American university and it seems to flare up in times of national crisis.

During the fall semester of 2001, I was teaching in the American Thought and Language department at Michigan State University. The day after 9/11 I walked into class and stared at a class of dazed 20-somethings. We did our best to try and make sense of what happened the day before but mostly, we just shook our heads in disbelief. Toward the end of class I asked the students what professors in their other classes were saying about the terror attacks. Most of the students replied that their classes were going on as if nothing happened and most of the students were disturbed that some of their professors pressed on with their lectures in the face of the attacks.  I know that wasn’t true for all classes across American universities, and I’m not judging the professors who chose not to discuss the attacks.

I think it’s pretty clear, though, that as a whole, the American university did basically nothing to deal with the national trauma of 9/11 aside from capitalize on the billions of federal dollars dedicated to the construction of the surveillance state by launching programs in Homeland Security and National Defense. There’s a legitimate argument, of course, that those efforts have paid off. Still, beyond some bells tolling on campuses every 9/11, can we honestly say the American university effectively responded to the crisis (and its aftermath)? The current generation of college students know virtually nothing about what happened on 9/11, why it happened nor the subsequent war(s) America has been waging in the middle east.

And it does raise the question about the role of the American university in times of national crisis.

Like the one we’re in right now.

I’ve been teaching abroad for nearly a year now, but I keep wondering what it’s like to be in a university classroom in the States. Are professors changing the content of their courses in order to reflect the seismic shifts taking place in American politics and culture?

Should we?

Are the shelves of university book stores filled with Orwell, Huxley and Hannah Arendt? (To my mind, science fiction is the only thing that really speaks to what’s happening right now.)

Are faculty and students talking about and reasoning through about what’s happening in America? Or, is Allison Stanger’s description of the recent mob violence that erupted at Middlebury College over a lecture by the controversial political scientist, Charles Murray, evidence to how far civic discourse has devolved, even in academia?

Are there newly-formed ‘task forces’ and ‘steering committees’ charged with developing university responses to the threats to the republic or even just helping ordinary people understand that it’s the rich white billionaires and not the blacks and the Indians and the Muslims and the Mexicans who are the problem?

Or, are things pretty much as they’ve always been, aside from some sarcastic remarks at the beginning of every class about the latest tweet?

I love my academic ‘interests’ just as much as any other professor. Reading and talking with young people about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lincoln’s speeches, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and the songs of Nina Simone and Woody Guthrie is an abiding privilege and joy for me, and I never take for it for granted. But I realize, too, that my work in particular and the work of the American university in general is a part of something much bigger than narrow academic specialization and knowledge production. As a professor in American higher education, I have, in other words, a duty and an obligation (however ill- and nebulously-defined) to write and educate for the common good. I know that sounds idealistic (forgive me!) but I also know that most of my colleagues feel the same way, more or less.

I don’t, however, know how to move forward with my teaching and scholarly life in this new American any more than I did in the aftermath of 9/11.

If you do, or even if you disagree with that premise, I’d love to hear about it.