Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Memorial Day

  I had dinner alone in a swank restaurant in the basement of a hotel built in 1850 in Milford PA last week. Guy who built it started Delmonicos in NYC before the Civil War. Bartender went to find me a copy of the Times - "Look no offense but I just can't watch you read off your phone, man"- but they'd thrown it out so he grabbed the local weekly. "I mean if we're gonna talk and all." I agreed. He was a Mets fan, from Brooklyn, if you couldn't tell. 
  Things I learned reading the Pike County Register over some fine spiced kale and a decent ribeye.
  Did you know Norway used to be run by Sweden? Till like 1910.
  Did you know their used to be 4 billion chestnut trees up and down the Appalachian corridor? Then came the fungus.
  Did you know:
  It's 60 minutes from Milford to the nearest hospital with a maternity ward. A local author gave birth halfway along the ride. "I'd like to thank the good officers of the Jersey State patrol for helping my husband and I as we waited to deliver the placenta."
  French Huguenots settled along the upper Delaware in the early 18th century. There's a red brick church in…umm "Huguenot" NY….. that their descendants are trying to save. A good number of them are catholic.
   Did you know the Delaware Water Gap was gonna be an inland sea- dammed up for the tap water benefit of Philly and NYC- until they realized the place they'd picked for the dam would have failed. So the Fed did an about face to save face and said it was supposed to be a national park all along.
  JFK signed the law. At a house about 3 miles from my barstool. Grey Towers. I went up the next day to see the place and talked to the gardener for 20 minutes, which was far more informative than the tour. He was 14 when Kennedy got up to speak, happy simply to be out of school, "He landed right over there on the big lawn. Spoke right here in front of the records building. Under the Copper Elms…..and then, who knew, they shot him a couple weeks later…"
   I didn't ask but when he went on less about the great home of Gifford Pinchot founder of the National Forestry Service and more about what a tragedy LBJ was, I did the math. 14 in 1963. 18 in 1967. Small town. Not much for the books. Vietnam. 
  Rich was his name. Lanky, sunbaked, happy to be the care taker of the mansion he'd watched fall apart as a boy, playing in its ruins. "We put 30 million into it, bought back 400 acres, used local materials again and local people just like Pinchot's dad did way back. It's a rock."
   I liked that when he said "we" he meant the Federal Government.
   He walked me thru the forest Pinchot had planted - "By God I do wish I could return in a hundred years and see my trees.", the old man had famously said - at least that's what Rich said- but as we climbed thru the Pines and the Elms and the Maples and Cherry trees 4 feet in diameter, I thought about all the times I've gone hiking back East in the parks and state game lands of my youth and how you realize it was all clear cut, was all scoured fields and mountainsides of nothing for so long until guys like Pinchot pounded it into people's heads that if you erase the forests you'll drown the towns and destroy your farms and end up in a wet desert.
  Look at photos from the Civil War, look at panorama shots on the opening days of the great museums and libraries of the Progressive age, and what you might notice is the things stand in barren ground.
    There were no trees. We'd cut them all down. We mowed Pennsylvania. What you walk thru now unless you're deep, deep in the woods is third and fourth growth replanting, or random species that have blown in and can live on nothing.
  "I think this place is still here cause the Kennedys have a soft spot for it….doesn't make much sense otherwise. Must be earmarked every year."
   I had to agree that a multimillion dollar pile of stone in honor of a conservationist of wood didn't make much sense but I was glad it gave him a job.
   Rich waved me off, "Next time park in the lower lot, there's shade in that corner." And I drove 5 hours on back roads to Gettysburg, and it felt like I'd crossed a continent. From the gouged out valleys of the Lehigh and the northern Appalachians to the God blessed open fields of Lancaster. It's like going from the Balkans to the English Home Counties. From West Virginia to Iowa. You get some tiny glimmer of how people once measured distance. And how they were marked, molded, and dyed by the land they lived in. What they called their homeland, where they were from as opposed to that oh so different place on the other side of the mountains. Land we can hop across, to and from now in hours.
  I drove through a massive storm, clouds practically reaching down to scrape Pottsville and Lebanon off the PA map, trucks swerving in the wash, folks parked under the overpasses with the hazards on, but when I got to the battlefield the skies softened, went from bruise black to grey, and held. I had to laugh. It was just what you'd imagine. Rain plastering the windshield as I parked. I reached for my raincoat, opened the door and …..nothing but wind.
  And there was nobody there.
  Stones and statues dripping. Handful of intrepid school kids from Missouri, one in a wheelchair they couldn't push across the muddied field of Pickett's charge. The open farm land they say Lee looked across and said "Here. It will be here."
  And was it ever.
  Did you know at a steady walk it takes 15 minutes to cross the fields from the Confederate line to the Union angle. It's almost exactly 1300 steps. 1297 on my count. Though I imagine the last quarter of those, for the handful that made it, were at a dead run, so divide the last 400 by 4, and you get the feel for every step taken by those men across the grass.
  "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here…."


Wednesday, May 14, 2014


  A trip winds down and the exhaustion rolls you up. InterContinental lactic acid. The inland sea of your self you pushed away at take-off comes sloshing back and swamps you. You on you. One trying to stay afloat on the back of the other.
  The basic reason to travel. To escape yourself. And then find yourself. To run him fast or far enough thru streets he doesn't know until he's silent, uncomplaining, forgotten. 
  But then inevitably the platonic umbilical cord will snap you and him back into place. 
  And by that time he's sick and tired and scared and wants to go home. And you have to take him home. It's part of the deal. And you were just getting used to it. 
  What's the movie? The Abyss? The rescue divers breathe liquid oxygen. They go into shock at the first breath but then it's bliss. You breathe under water.
  Kind of like traveling. You breathe new air. You live in a different world where the mundane; a street sign, a light switch, the name of the ground floor, a bag of chips, every single person's voice, has magic strangeness to it.
  And then comes the scene when the diver has to surface and breathe regular air. Not so nice. Not so laden with bliss.
   It's said often in various mediocre ways-  "All travelers see what they want to see in a place, not what's truly there." Which I think is nonsense. As if there's a neutral way to see anything on this earth. Why the Hell would we even speak, the species turn grunts into phonemes if not to say to the next poor hairless ape, "oh you should see this place ...because...." Puritan bullshit always always ringing in our American ears and telling us not to listen, not to trust what's being told, what's right in front of us, you're flawed from the get go. 
  And now I'm back to my Scots-Irish island in America. Pittsburgh. And I felt for the first few days recast. My vision polished. People here, the same people I left seem to live with their teeth in this town, in their lives. They chew on it. On each other. For better and worse. And really can you have the one without the pain of the other? Truly? 
  You walk into the ring you're gonna take a punch. 
  The men blare their accents across each other in the bar, the women whatever their age with the same eyes they had at 17. We got lucky in Pittsburgh. Severe Scots came and built the place and then the Slavs and the Italians and the Greeks rebuilt it and made it worth living in. 
  And for a few days.. while I was waking up at 3:30 in the morning... forgetting where I was... which bed, which hotel, which town....the clouds here seemed lit by the land itself - which had exploded into spring green and thickness and life while I was gone. They moved across a sky bluer than I thought possible in a land locked town. 
  For a few days, the Irish changeling weather came back with me. The hourly miracles of a place that made me think this is what kids must see when they first realize they see it: a storm, a rainbow, the sun. 
  And then my frightened self arrived - those platonic others never do go by air do they- and I slept a good eight hours and I woke up at the appropriate time and remembered where and who I told myself I was. 

Belfast Belfast

    I'm Scots Irish. Ulster Scots on my father's side. With some Irish Catholic mixed in and not spoken of. Which if you take into account the fact the last "immigrant" in my family came over 200 years ago is something mock worthy.
   Ulster : a province in Ireland and Northern Ireland, parts of which lay in both, famous for its independence both geographical and political. Populated for hundreds of years by non-gaelic Irish; Picts, Vikings, and Presbyterian Scots. Scots not Scotch, which is a drink one serves without ice. Scots are a people, from the Latin "Scotus". A french king mockingly asked his Irish latin tutor, "What's the difference between an Irishman (Scotti) and a drunk (sottus)?" The tutor responded, "The width of this table."
   Which says as much about unity as humor.
   Northern Ireland: the six Ulster counties (there are nine total in the province) which are part of the United Kingdom.They're British not English. IE they have their own soccer team. But they vote in the British parliament in Westminster and in the EU. Belfast is the biggest city in Northern Ireland. If you listen to a catholic from West Belfast and a protestant from a quarter mile away it's hard to tell the difference. But they've been fighting over the same patch of land since the late 17th century. Some would say the last millennium. The IRB against the UDF and then the Free State against itself and the UFF and RUC and UVF…..
   Most of the acronyms and the terms bandied about by historians of Northern Ireland, by politicians and reporters, and by those of us who sit in Irish bars 3000 miles away in Boston or Pittsburgh or Chicago and talk about "the struggle", don't register in most people's minds
  IRA registers. Pretty much everybody knows that when bleary, blue-eyed men start threatening to cry or sing at Murphy's Pub at 2 in the morning their inspiration is not their Individual Retirement Account.

   There's a number I've been known to make fun of.
   That's a round figure, the precise one is sometimes said to be 3,234.
   The number of people killed in Northern Ireland between 1968, the beginning of "the troubles" and 1998 the loose timing of the start of the current truce.
   If you check the statistics for the conflict between India and Pakistan during the same period of time that many people were often killed every year.
   Sometimes when I'm bleary eyed at 2 am I say, I guess when your skin is brown and the Speaker of the House is named O'Neill or the President Clinton, you don't count as much in Pakistan or the Hindu Kush.
   I'm Scots-Irish so I felt like I had the right..
   And then a couple days ago I walked through West Belfast. It sits on a slight rise, almost as North as it is West of Belfast, and separated from the city proper by a major highway dug like a moat between the two.
   A green mountain stands behind it. A beautiful backdrop to a handful of working class neighborhoods packed against each other in a crescent. A low theater of houses.
  You can walk the border of the entire thing in 45 minutes.
  The Shankill and the Falls roads are a short jog apart.
  When you walk past the houses you think - working class people who got homes. They found their corner of the world and held on to it after their grandparents fought their way out of the dockyard slums.
   It's well kept, it's pretty clean, it's packed with people.
   And every couple hundred yards you'll see something that will make you sit down on the sidewalk and weep.
   Three thousand 2 hundred and thirty four people died in this minor city suburb in an industrial corner of the British Islands. From the time I was one year old till now. In a space no bigger than the two little Pittsburgh neighborhoods I called home; Edgewood and Swissvale, two people a week were killed till the day I turned thirty. Smaller really. Imagine that in Swissvale, just Swissvale let's say, men were using guns and bombs to fight a local battle supported by an international set of zealots and arms dealers and the British and Irish governments.
  Imagine a guerrilla war happening in your backyard. Not on a giant border held by armies, not across the expanse of Ireland, not in England, not in ghettos around the world but right here in a stretch of post war prefab houses with its trio of thoroughfares offering hair and nail work, deli meats, fish and chips, betting parlors, realty offices, solicitors, children's clothes, sporting goods, travel agencies, and churches. Churches, churches, churches.
  And yes. The IRA killed people in London, and the British government and Ulster loyalists killed people in Derry but the majority of it happened in Belfast. And the majority of it happened in one corner of Belfast. Let's say 3,000 people. Or even 2,500. With about 40,000 injured, crippled, scarred, wounded, or tortured.
  People were going to work, taxes were being paid, schools were in session, homes repaired, cars fixed on the weekends, lawns mowed, lovers kissed, parents cursed, records bought, all of it, the day by lovely monotonous days of it happening while every week 10 or more people were being dragged from their homes and beaten.
 By somebody who lived 4 blocks away. In either direction.
 I stood in the middle of one Protestant grid of streets and had trouble moving my feet. Murals all around me. Stacks of wooden pallets to be burned in the giant July bonfires. Drums in the distance, as it was a Saturday when the orders march. Men sitting in trucks with the doors open casing visitors. White armored Land Rovers every hundred yards. Soldiers in full battle armor with fully automatic rifles at their shoulders.
  And around the corner a green grocer offered apples at a discount and a snug little bar had its door open. Couple kids went by on skateboards. A grandmother and two ladies pushed some prams.
  A woman counted out change to the grocer and said no to a bag. I asked the guy with me, "If we walked into that bar and ordered a beer what would ha-?"
  "I wouldn't come out." he answered before I finished.
   "It's twenty feet away."
   "Well I'm here and I'm with you, an American. That bar? That's somewhere else."


Sunday, May 11, 2014


  I hummed Galway Girl for three days on the Arans until I wore it out on the turntable of my brain and it started to sound like Joy Division. Like a photo, color dead, in a sunny shop window.
  Country Road keeps coming in uninvited because the Irish love it for some reason and play it everywhere.
   I couldn't remember the melody to Do I Wanna Know that Arctic Monkeys tune as I tramped up Slieve League but I remembered the lyrics, which is unusual for me. I spoken worded them in the rain.
   I sang I Left My Heart in San Francisco walking around the cairn grave of Queen Maeve on the bluff above Sligo and then on the way down Riders on The Storm suddenly jumped into my head and bizarrely the voice of Ray Manzarek talking about Jim Morrison's genius in an interview before he died. (Ray not Jim.) Manzarek chattering away as a score of lambs did bleat for mommy on either side of the path.
   There's a long set of stairs out of Giants' Causeway. Overlooking the North Sea I hummed I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart and then Solitude and then I started cursing these two Dutch guys who couldn't quite get the right selfie off their I-Pad facing away from a 400 foot cliff I wish they'd leaped from for love instead.
  Dirty Old Town over and over in Belfast till this guy who owns the oldest record shop in Ireland told me with a laugh that it's about London.
  Get Lucky occasionally pops into my head but I can't seem to keep it there. So last summer sadly.
  I got back to Dublin yesterday, off the train and hopped into a cab, driven by an older fellow who was half something, maybe Lebanese, with the smoothest Dublin accent I've yet heard and as he swore the road closings up and down he sang along with what I think is one of the great dance tunes ever penned-Why Waste Your Time- You Know You're Gonna Be Mine.
  When I'd arrived here three weeks ago thereabouts the cabbie - and for a minute I thought it was the same guy- the cabbie after I'd told him I was from Pgh drove me straight not to my hotel but straight to the statue of Phil Lynott.
  For those of you who don't know who Phil Lynott is…. ah the shame the shame….he was the lead singer and guiding creative force behind one of the 70's great glories. Thin Lizzy. Led by a black Irishman, son of a soldier, mother a local, kind of the Franco Harris of anthem rock.
  I have a rule that I won't ever listen to The Boys are Back in Town unless I'm in Pittsburgh. It sticks me too hard back into the beautiful closed closet of my childhood and I only want to go through that emotional time travel if I'm near something when I grab it I know I can trust it.
  So there we were, he put the meter on hold and double parked up on a curb, me and the cabbie standing in front of the way too realistic brass (?) tribute to one of my favorite singers.
  " 'Guess who just got back today'…" I  said, "So how'd you know? I mean why'd you bring me here?"
    "Lad you were humming the opening to Jailbreak when you sat in the back, dint ya notice?"
     Not me.
     And I ask you friend, what's a man to do, when her hair is black and her eyes are blue.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

From Sligo and around the horn.

  You gotta love any country that burns dirt to stay warm.
  Peat. Compressed dirt.
  Takes a thousand years to make ten inches of the stuff. It's freaking magic. The bog, the gorse, the moor, the taiga, whatever you want to call the Irish countryside, gets buried under itself and becomes this dark, umber-black, amateur charcoal.
  Travel around Ireland and you can see it cut into strips looking like long rails of chocolate waiting for the rain to pause so it can dry.
  Burns slower than wood, but faster than coal.
  Has a unique... smell…..I'm told.
  Bog. What an awesome anglo viking saxon word. Dent. Bent. Ax. Bog. All good.
  I just got to Belfast and have realized what the whole trip was for.
  So I could get to Belfast.
  Love this place. Love the people. Hilarious piss takers, shit talking slangy Pict Irish ruffians in a proud armed city, Proddys and Taigs side by side.
  Feels like Pittsburgh. With bombs.
  With the occasional bomb I mean, and what that would do to the people's parlance.
  Dad said we were Ulster Scots and now I firmly believe it. I belong here. I'm of them. Some things you just realize smack as you walk thru the door. Family at first sight.
  Abhor the politics and the "Ulsterism" but this is the Ireland I'm a son of.
  Ah well. Maybe a great great great great grandson of once removed but...
  The Giro D'Italia runs thru Belfast tomorrow to add a tang of the absurd. Im going to wake up and watch thousands of Euro types hooting for their favorite diarrhetic burn victim athlete in a town that doesn't normally wake up till 9.
   I might start drinking early.
   Drove the whole northern curve of Ireland today. From Sligo to Belfast. Stood on Europe's highest cliffs- for a moment my Cabela's hat was the highest seaside object in the EU. (Full disclosure I've never worked for them or any other crypto-fascist supply outlet).
   Screw the Cliffs of Moher - named strangely enough for my friend Malhar ( good work on the bog to table restaurant you've started over here my man) and go to these Slieve League cliffs which are higher and far more majestical. And God bless the Irish for continually not giving a damn if there's any kind of formal stairs to be found along a trail. Makes the journey seem routed in one's fantastical childhood imagination. You step from a stream bed to a set of rocks to heaps of turf that may or may not be related to the human foot, to a path that drops 1000 feet in either direction (God Bless the fog too, best not to know how you're gonna die) and it's a lot like being ten again, searching the neighborhood for "trails" and secret hideaways and the bushy doorway to some enchanted clearing.
   Every point of the progress of a trip across the Irish countryside every nook and cranny is uneven, off true, bent. There's not a straight line or plumb surface to be found. The landscape continually alters. The fingers and the feet of whatever God built the place must have been constantly active. You feel you could lay any story into any corner of it. Or that someone, eons of someones already have.  It's remarkable. It's a place lousy with narrative. They harvest narrative here.
  And it's lush. My God it is. Fecund, seething with life, creeping growing piled up life. There's more water here than Seattle and Pittsburgh combined. It's a green and dark green Irish jungle. The Connemara, Sligo, Donegal, wow they are packed with streams and lakes and heaps of moss and turf dripping over whatever pathway or wall we've put between them and wherever it is they want to go.
   Drove drove drove it all. Which when you realize the place is the size of Maine doesn't mean much. Roads the width of the average driveway in Bloomfield. As if they took the Big Sur coast road, squeezed it a touch and laid it over Ireland. Over and over again. Donegal, Ballybofey, Derry (yes DERRY!), Portrush, Ballymoney, Kells, and here, where the 3-d Titanic Experience auditorium is bigger than the ship itself.
  The last 20 miles -and when you get to the NI it becomes miles again and things take longer to get to damn it!- the last 20 were on a major highway that could have (dis) graced any American city. You descend on it into Eastern Belfast thru some light hills, the road cuts below the neighborhoods and at the last overpass before I hit the city proper I saw on one side the Irish tricolor high on a pole and on the other the Union Jack.
 Oh, the politics. Am I this am I that….what American could have any idea without living here?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


I looked up from my seat at the bar and saw it was May 5th.
Cinco de Mayo in Ireland.
Ah. Like St Patrick's day in Oaxaca.
Except May 5th is the day Bobby Sands died. His IRA hunger strike come to an end. The career of Michael Fassbender one day to be launched. The man who's proved almost single handedly the edict of Ice Berg Slim, "Ain't no woman can't be turned."
Ah well…casting, casting….
St Patrick has a mountain.
It's where he had a hunger strike for 44 days and then called on all the venomous creatures of Ireland to arise and said to them "Out demons!"
The English stayed.
His mountain looks like a perfect cone. It's not of course but from afar it makes you want to drive at it to see, "Is that for real?" It's a pilgrimage magnet.
At the end of July 30,000 people climb it in a week. In their bare feet.
St Patrick's mountain is not made of mud.
On the contrary, the faithful have over the years placed stone after stone along the route of the pilgrimage thus making the "pathway" a kind of scree strewn Hell. The last two hundred yards alone make you wonder what kind of penance needed to pay for this.
And on the summit is a chapel built by the same folks who thought they should toss sharp stones all over the trail and this chapel is locked.
Instructions are posted as to how many Hail Marys and Our Fathers one should say near the Pope's picture (jammed in a pile of rocks) and how many times one should have circled the entire mountain before attempting the summit in order that the plenary indulgence could be awarded.
Now I don't know how many of you go on regular religious pilgrimages or how many of you have sat on a Holy Mountain but I was looking for some ….fireworks.
A little lithic levitation, a voice in the fog, a fellow pilgrim to have a long chat with who I'd later see in some ten year old obit page.
Russians wearing plastic bags to stay dry.
German kids kicking rocks and slowing down their father as they debated whether or not Pep Guardiola was gay.
Intense looking men on their own.
Why is every interesting corner of the world ruined by awkward young men in close fitting clothes who can't stop staring?
It was freezing. It rained. I was soaked. The wind was blowing about 40 miles an hour.
I'd made it my mission to pick up any garbage I saw and you can say what you will about christian fanatics but on the whole they don't litter much.
I stumbled to the top. More rocks at my feet, grey everywhere else. Said Chapel padlocked. And for some reason I was scared.
It makes no sense. I'm 2200 feet from a car park and a Guinness on a path you could drive ( well you could roll) a truck down - there's 4 more hours of daylight left and I had water in a bottle in my hand.
But I was afraid.
Maybe not scared but….at a loss….at sea……bereft……
I suddenly thought, well you're here, why not pray for your brother. So I knelt in the bloody cold wind and said a weak little prayer, a straight request it was, that my brother could be somewhere as beautiful as this country, this place, wind swept and bone chilling as it sometimes may be.
I wanted him to be somewhere he could be thrilled. "Happy" feels a little weak for what we should gain or face in the afterlife so I chose Thrilled.
And then I got up and walked, tripped, and slid back down.
At the shoulder of the top section the clouds blew off and the green and brown peat valley below lit up. It looked uneven somehow- not true- tilted against the slope of the rocky hill.
I looked to my left and there was a guy.
I'd been on my own for the last 45 minutes of the climb. Not a soul on the cliff and here I had company.
He walked right up to me and asked where I was from. To my Pittsburgh he replied, "I'm from Boston. My family was from around here and I've never been. Is the chapel open, man?"
I told him it wasn't and that he had the place to himself. "It's just you and the mt, brother. And the fog. And the ghosts."
And he looked at me.
"I lost my brother this year. I never do this shit. Thought I'd go up and say something."
I just looked back at him and we smiled, I suppose like people do when they're both somewhere absurd or dangerous or alone and he headed up.
About 400 yards later I looked back and he was standing in the rocks, a black shape against the clay colored stone. He looked calm. The fog swept in and he was gone.
When I got near the bottom and threw out all the trash I'd accumulated, the sun hit me and there were suddenly two rainbows over the hill below St Patricks. I started laughing and talking like the guy in the Lucky Charms commercial and I thought if I was Irish and heard a guy doing that I'd beat his ass. And then I thought about Ali and Frazier fighting for the third time and how Ali said One of us was going to die in there and how much respect the two men had for each other in the end. Even if they didn't show it.
I looked back and the summit was clear, its cone revealed, the peak of the locked up chapel clearly visible and I thought, "At least he got to pray in the sun."

Monday, May 5, 2014


  The Aran islands are famous for their stone walls dividing and subdividing their fields. Three islands, Inishmore, Inishman, and Inisheer, or big Inis, middle Inis and little Inis to the locals, who call themselves Ishies, running northwest to southeast along Ireland's Western shore.
  The mainland's barely a boat ride away, you can see houses there clearly on a good day.
  There's even an airport here which must be the aeronautical equivalent of tossing a stone across a pond if you're only flying back to Galway. Up to speed, up, apex and down again. At least when the weather's good. If not it must be the equivalent of tossing your heart up into your throat.
  Everybody here lives on the inland or leeward side of their island. If you lived on the windward side you'd probably go mad. On the two smaller islands the land slides down toward the sea like the back of a wave. The people hide their towns under the face on the eastern side.
  On Inishmore most of the land doesn't slide down to a Western beach. It rides straight out, dropping slightly and then snaps off into the ocean. Cliffs 200 feet high get hit by rollers that have travelled 3000 miles. When you look down the line of the coast it's hard to read the scale of the landscape. Waves hit the stone and ride up almost to the crest of the lower grazing lands- it takes awhile to add up that those lands are 90 feet off the water. You can perch on the edge or 100 yards from the edge and the concussion of the waves is like some mammoth drum being struck. It comes up into your feet. You can feel it tap on your breastbone. Oddly enough it's calming. I find it calming. I almost fell asleep lying in the thick grass of a clearing of a bronze age fort. Anyone who knows me knows I don't nap much nor do I do it in public in a field but for some reason….
  well there's basically no one here. And there's almost none of that commercial culture which springs up around vacation spots or ex-art colonies. You'd imagine these islands would be lousy with writers and painters and "craftsmen" but they're not. Nobody's out painting in the fields. There's no main drag with galleries selling faux indigenous drawings. There's no yoga retreat. Only the big island has an espresso machine.
  There's just a pack of locals and their bars where they like to stay up late and drink, and make music and money off the tourists who ride around in buses and drink. Otherwise, it's you and the livestock and the walls.
  It's the only place I've ever been where I feel like you move too quickly when you ride a bike. I rented one and pretty often I just propped it up against one of the walls and headed out on foot. The place was made for feet and the way your eyes read a landscape when you walk. It reads stone by stone. Inlet by magical inlet.
  Almost everyone's seen a photo of the Aran walls- think back to the academic parents of your most thinky friend in high school, his dad's study maybe had one framed in metal above a desk. A coffee shop in the 90s, the office of a dentist who liked to travel but got his prints done at Rite-Aid. You'd know them.
  They look good photographed, they're easy to photograph, hell I've taken 50 so far of the same damn arrangement but they don't work that way. You don't see the Aran walls. You experience them, you move through them, you -like the islanders and the cattle and the horses- you use them. They're things and they're art and like a Christo you have to be in them, go to them, to "get it". And really they're more "things" than they are art but in some way the act of moving through them gets your mind rolling and you say to yourself ….sure it's the simplest way to build a wall but …is that it?
  I just don't buy it that the guys laying and tilting and tapping these stones 600 years ago didn't step back once every 40 or 50 feet and say, "Damn Seamus, that's a good one."
  Wandering the fields is endlessly compelling and at the same time maddening - you're staring at a piece of "modern art" every step you take and then you find yourself being passed by a farmer in his tractor and you're just staring at his wall. Sean Scully, a painter I like, was obsessed with this place - he said the entire landscape was drawn. The earth was picked up and used to mark the air. Not sculpture but vertical drawing that people try to decode, to read.
  "Should art be useless and only ever that?" he writes, "So that its intensity is unfettered?"
  Stone, the elemental representative of form. Each stone a letter or a digit or a figure….what we've all done since childhood, "This stone is special, this must have been made this way on purpose, this meant something."
  So two things happen here: there's practically nothing but stone which shoves one's thinking toward the declaration, it's just a series of piles, it's meaningless, and then comes the realization that no matter how much stone is piled, how much evidence there is of the commonality of the stuff the arranging never ceases to fascinate or trigger meaning.
  We never stop ordering, making patterns, arranging. And before writing and color theory and meter and rhyme there was all this stuff lying around us. So we moved it with our hands. And we still do. Sure there's a very practical reason for tearing all the stones out of what little arable land you have to survive on and stacking them so the mad winds of the North Atlantic don't knock them down each day and scour the entire island, but it's more than that. Or it's become more than that. The walls aren't art. They don't lean toward modern painting or aesthetic formulae any more than the sea does. But Art, any art, works to be something like these walls. The way Mamet describes theater trying to be like a wedding ceremony or a funeral. In our dreams, the wooden puppet or the stuffed rabbit trying to be alive.
   Aran's walls are, oddly enough for hard mute stone….alive….they're animated every time someone walks by them and thinks, and knows, each of those stones was placed in its place by a human hand. A person stood there and made that hunk of rock rise up and defy gravity. Choices were made, time passed, sweat stained them, from right to left or left to right, point by point of the compass, they were cobbled together into that simplest of human constructions. A line. 4000 years and practicality became virtuosity.
   - Okay. Pause. News flash. I've been writing and rewriting (re. erasing) these walls notes for days so today I had to go somewhere where there were no walls to clear my head and that place is called The Sea so I hopped on a boat, nominally traveling to the other islands, where there are more walls - (and each Island has its own subtle wall style but I won't get into that)- but really I just wanted to stare at a liquid moving surface that if you tried to mark it would only laugh and then probably kill you.
  But. Upon landing at Inisheer I looked down into the harbor and there was a woman swimming with a dolphin.
  Yep. Woman. Wild dolphin. 55 degree water. All three together.
  Very quickly my interest in bronze age ruins and early christian burial sites and the hermeneutics of wall making went right out the window.
  I'm simple that way. If you want to get me out of my head, or knock me off my autistic art appreciation track, show me a kitten. Or a horse. Or a woman in water that would kill most people after 20 minutes swimming next to a wild 12 foot dolphin.
  Mind blowing.
  She's from Dusseldorf. She lives part of the year there. But she and her husband come to Ireland 7 months out of the year where she ….well…swims in a couple harbors with this dolphin she met 12 years ago.
  I went into the local bar where a pack of Boston firemen and their wives were communing with their ancestors while watching the Red Sox and checking their Facebook accounts and I said to the bartender, "You know there's a woman swimming with a dolphin in your harbor? This isn't possible." Nice girl, finally with some dark hair, "Oh yes with the dolphin, she's been doin it forever, every day she is."
   I downed a bad bloody mary and some crisps and went back down to the shore and there they were husband and wife sitting on the jetty, she wrapped in towels leaning over and I thought damn she must be freezing poor thing. I got a little closer and I realized they weren't freezing they were praying. Kind of nodding, kind of davening to the water in a Dusseldorfy sort of way, and the dolphin no where to be seen.

  Walls in the Arans. Slag heaps in Pittsburgh.
  The major physical by-product of steel making, well the major one you can see, is this grey gravel called slag. It's what gets scraped off the top of a ladle of molten steel as it cooks, like pond scum or the meringue on a pie. The landscape of Pittsburgh is literally walled in by heaps of the stuff that became grassy mounds and cliffs and hillsides people think were always there. Dig into them and the slag reveals itself, comes crumbling out in handfuls of little digits. Looking like pieces of bone or clay that was squeezed in a hand and then fired.
  It's not the most romantic material.
  And yet…
  We don't give the workers of the industrial age much authority. And in that word lays a clue. The author. Authorship. Somehow when a thing doesn't have somebody's name written on it it's not worth as much. The walls of Aran have no names inscribed but their very shape calls to mind the movement of individuals. But is that simply a prejudice of how well or what languages we can read? How subtle are the movements of the plasterer or the wall painter or the steel worker? How circumscribed?
  I know that when a good "cook" was made as the furnace boys called it, when they'd made an especially difficult alloyed soup out of molten metals and then rolled it into steel, afterwards they'd go up and sign the cooled ingots. Not just to mark them and tell the loaders what batch was what but just to say, we did this.
  When I'm scrambling over the slag heaps in my hometown trying to get to a bike path or down to some hidden patch on the rivers I look at the miserable crap and sometimes it looks to me like typeface, or some kind of language that got broken off a wall and ground into gravel.
  And the sea around Aran today looks like metal. Adios.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Galway away

   What flipping sunlight. What LA light wants to be when it grows up. Like the Guinness…this is light without pasteurization. Catholic light. It comes without protection.
   And the walls everywhere.  Light bouncing off stone after broken stone refracting into the heavy grass. 
   Fields dragged for stone over the centuries. It must have been hell - like eating bony fish with a spoon. Eating centuries worth of bony fish with a spoon - there's more loose rock in this country than the rest of the world. Every freaking 8th of an acre clipped in by wall after wall after wall. Amazing. And in every other back yard is a white horse and a couple cows, or a handful of the big fatties meandering around in the rocks and the mud. And the damn things never come say hi. You can't pet them for the life of you.
  (Word about the building trades in Ireland -or really Europe- there must be about 5 wholesale suppliers. Period. Once you roll into Irish suburbia all the damn houses look half done, naked, clipped together out of the same cheap dry wall propped around standard windows poked through in utter disregard for some kind of aesthetic balance- same vinyl siding, same dropped on rooves, same pale plasters, I mean they look like shit. Graceless, almost completely utilitarian without even a Spartan modernist charm I just don't get it. 
  It's not just me missing the ridiculous wealth of some American burbs where even among every 15 McMansions you'll find one castle well appointed by a wife with taste - no there's just no .... Design... To the euro burbs. They didn't build from their own vernacular for some reason. It's odd.
  Maybe it's me.
  Or us.
  The American fetishization of "THE HOME". Our obsession with the estate, each man's house being his castle so why not figure out 500,000 ways to standardize and miniaturize the details and signs of estatedom? Tack Chatsworth onto a 1/4 acre in Connecticut. Spend a year and a years salary "remodeling". The finished home answers all problems, supplies all needs, and shuts the door to the world. It's the outer armor of the married couple whose eggs have literally become the basket. Or vice versa….
   Europeans I think don't fall for it. They've been in apartments for so long even the the idea of a house,  what we'd see and call a shed or a fishing shack they'd call home and be happy with it. Their houses like their spouses aren't expected to be able to shut the world out, or carry its weight.)
   Annnnnnd, back to Galway. A last night doing as Romans do roaming from bar to bar looking for a decent band and finding several. For a one street town given over shamelessly to the State University model of bars! stores! and …more BARS!! they do have a pack of seriously devoted fiddlers.
  I sat on a stool in a corner of a place called Tis Coulis (?) which I think is gaelic for old house and I'm guessing because there used to be a crepe joint in San Fran called Ti Couz which in Breton means old house and we in the drunken Nineties hoped meant old something else, but the Galwegian bartender had watched a lot of tv so he was generous to me and to this kid I'd met on a hike thru the Burren Hills earlier that day.
   Went on a bus tour (yep) with a pack of germans driven by a man whose voice in both Irish and English was the aural equivalent of being basted in cat urine while Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music plays in the background. In long reasonable history of the Celts this guy was sui generic. Half Office cast member half Hannibal Lecter and half way thru the loop o' the sights after he turned the volume down on the Greg Kihn's greatest hits, the option was given. "Those who would like at the given time to make the hike over Brown Mt thru the Connolly farm and its many goats will be welcome and we will move on to the famous Alliwee caves and retrieve you up on the opposite side."
   I got the hell off and so did one other guy. And of course he's an actor from Montreal taking some time off after his auditions at the Bristol Vic and running from a lost love named Tasha in French Canadia.
  We walked over a scrabbled, rock-screed mini mountain mis-quoting Hamlet and Henry V and Pinter in the middle of nowhere a place dotted by cairns and tombs that Shakespeare and his well dressed London friends would have found ancient and quaint if they'd been here 400 year ago- we met some goats, three beautiful hunting dogs and a pair of Connolly brothers who'd just come back from University and looked a little dazed but happy that they'd decided to make a go of it with grandmother's farm. They made great hot chocolate and knew every wall, flower, and brackened gorse patch in the valley and when we told them finally how barking mad the bus driver was the older brother said the best thing Ive heard in an Irish accent thus far, "Yeah, guy's a dick."
    Return with me to the bar in Galway after "time" which means the bartenders just up and leave and people sit in the bar like nothing happened and continue to talk and listen to music. Me and Mark, Mr Canada, sat tapping our feet to the circling rhythms - the shit is like a hindu prayer wheel become music- its mesmerizing, when it's done you feel like you've been sent thru the wash cycle of your soul.
   I don't know if Im Irish or half Irish or an 8th but somehow it taps on the shin of my heart and involuntarily happily without the least thought or decision I move, I am moved to happiness.
    Well all the folksters went home to bed or to somewhere they only tell each other and I ended up in another bar this time more suited to Ann Arbor or Columbus Ohio or Happy Valley than the West Coast of Ireland. Two guys stood in the corner and played all the shit all the shit heads ask for and chant with and can't dance to and I wanted to teleport five angry guys from Mckees Rocks into the place so they could kick some gap year collegiate ass.
  I decided I'll drink one more beer and try and help Canada and Ireland mix genetic strains - when I got up to the bar one of the two guitar men yelled "Anything!! Come on people, we can play anything, try us."
  "Richard Thompson", I yelled over my shoulder as the Guinness sat thru its first draw.
   Woman yelled to them, " No don't play that…wait who IS that?"
   One of the Munson twins said "He's an Irish folk musician." To which I replied now beer in hand, "Right and Guinness is an Irish beer. Come on - something, something guys that sounds like you learned it here."
   And the bigger fellow stared at me and said, " You want something local? We'll give ya something local. "
  And they proceeded to sing Aerosmith's Walk This Way set to the tune of Galway Girl with the latter getting the second and last chorus.
   Utter bloody genius.
   I bought them both ridiculously expensive Whiskeys. Which they made fun of.
   Galway!! Good night!! We love you.