Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fur Coat, No Knickers

This title comes from a phrase used by my host and her friend about one of the guests at their forthcoming ex-pat Thanksgiving celebration. She would appear along with Gay West, The Frump, and others to whom I was not privy. Due to the sensitive nature of their identities, not alone of said female so monikered who I haven't the foggiest about but anyone else mentioned who I do heretofore, today's cast of characters are identified if necessary by simple if sometimes capitalized Common Nouns. Don't feel left out if despite a favorable nod I have not named you, dear Reader, as a Proper Noun; I like you(se) all. I've blurred a few identifiers and specifics; to be fair, I avoided what used to be called Christian names, so as not to herd the sheep with the goats. No witty or catty sobriquets, however, as energy fails me. I am still sort of jet-lagged. Mine left hand verily knoweth not what my right hand doeth, on this very keyboard, I say unto thee.

My latest Irish excursion left me only four nights there, none of them restful. The red-eye over on Delta more than lived up to its name. I'll revert to my family's tradition lapsed with me of novenas to the Little Flower if it frees me from ever using this airline again, but I must book through an agent approved (or outsourced) by My Employer and verify I have chosen the lowest fare. The program sets up a red flag if you do not do this. At least on the way back, if not the wretched flight over showing only "GI Joe 2" as the sole channel, I found the video-audio delights on a brand-new plane via Aer Lingus a great comfort last time, but they flew out of O'Hare and I figured two days prior to Thanksgiving, the conjunction of weather and crowds might be fatal that far north, or mid-west, so I avoided it and the second choice of Newark for Atlanta, the vast hub of un-Southern inhospitality.

Not much of interest. The dreaded TSA full-body scan machines apparently have not been installed at least at any terminal I traversed, nor did the pat-downs transpire. I did notice respectable-looking men of a certain age getting their luggage opened more than once. On the way back into Atlanta, a veganish backpacked waif tried to go to the left of dog and handler, a hefty lass in a green vest as ugly as that strapped on the compact canine Cerberus, snarled at Miss Rainbow Brite to turn to the right. She meekly did, but the dog stayed alert. Asked what she carried, she compliantly responded "brown rice." I hurried on. On the way in, I had bags full of home-made, hand-wrapped (if not many by me, given my lack of dexterity) caramels and brownies, not the magic kind, which disappointed My Host. Those olfactorily enhanced beagles spook me.

I read on the plane a couple of the sale books I'd bought at the Cal State L.A. bookstand the week before, to raise funds for a Critical Thinking course's students as their project. I'd been there as My Second Son wants to apply to the prestigious county high school for the performing arts that shares the campus. I chatted a bit with the silver-haired, granny-esque, petite overseer of paperbacked wares, which were of markedly higher intellectual quality than the usual dreck at such tables. She explained that she was selling off books to raise funds for the re-opening of the radical bookstore that once was down on 8th Street in the Pico-Union barrio, a hotbed, if one store's worth, of the truly far-left. Now they will move to Hollywood. Howard Zinn's icon graced flyers, and homage to an agitator farther tilted than even Zinn, whose name and affiliation remain tacit to avoid web-trolls, also appeared. It was like discovering the Queen Mother's a Maoist.

Anyway, I carefully sifted the stock, as I rarely buy any books no matter how cheap now, to a fine anthology about the philosophy of religion from the mid-60s "God, Man, and the Thinker," a 1963 reprint of an 1896 collection of Buddhist texts, and an old primer I'd wanted anyhow, "What the Buddha Taught," by Walpola (reminds me of Andy Warhol[a]) Rahula. Added to this, a serendipity, a Mercier Press paperback of the bilingual stories of Padraig Pearse. I had this in a newer reprint, of course, but I felt sorry for it and feared it'd be relegated to the trash, so I rescued it. I expected to pay $8 for the lot, but she let me have them for $5, a bargain. She and I discussed teaching the course we both did a bit, and she recommended I do what all the sections at Cal State's Northridge campus show to their freshmen, as "Lies My Teacher Told Me." I demurred, if intrigued, telling her where I taught and of its own hegemony. (They busted their union long ago.)

So, with Pearse's Conamara Irish simply eloquent for me to try to fall asleep to (it did not work) and Rahula's patient explication of Noble Truths (that did not do the trick of trance either), I played the online audio tracks for the flight, at least the LAX-ATL leg. Oddly, the more "modern" plane's the domestic one. Under "retro rockers" classified, the music CDs called up The Clash, who wanted to be retro anyway. I listened instead to the Cure's "Disintegration," full of long instrumental intros before moody tunes, and Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks," full of skipping and wavering, about as close as I'll ever get to jazz or grooves.

The movies were $6 and even t.v. episodes $2, which disgusted me. I was saving my phone with its own music files for the longer flight, as I knew I could not recharge it and feared I'd need it on arrival. In my naivete, I still hoped I'd be able to get internet access and e-mail over there. I munched the salmon sandwiches thoughtfully provided by my wife and drank their club soda as the alternative to no mineral water. I could not believe how many people bought the $3 chips and $6 snacks peddled on board.

The young woman next to me had tattooed on one thumb-wrist web (what do you call that?) "I'm tired." Her other one had "Me too." I reflected on this but could only come up with an off-color association. She asked the "customer service representative on-board" for aspirin, and slouched over the tray table with her red blanket over her head and another riding hood over her body. She did play with her iPhone underneath. She had a cosmetology test bank prep booklet as her in-flight reading, but she only read a page or so.

Atlanta's a big airport. The train shuttle underneath the concourse was broken in the direction needed to go but one of the six or so terminal extensions. If I'd had to go E backwards D-C-B-A to T, it'd be a marathon. The one stretch, A to T, was long enough to take me--a fast walker--nearly half an hour, as we all were funnelled into a side passage not meant for hundreds of us, and we had to then wait in an labyrinthine layout to go back in to security as we'd been dumped out into the regular throng again at the front of the terminal. People kept glaring at me and I was not cheery, but sweaty, tired, and already weary with the Dublin part of the trip still looming. I made it to that gate past the usual smells of whirring coffee machines and manufactured baked buns as the flight was already boarding. In the corner, young folks with very heavy Norn Iron accents regaled a duskier and differently accented fellow about being in the wrong Belfast place at the wrong pub.

I closed my eyes a lot, but seeing the flight filled with Racquetball Ireland teenagers and their families, or chaperones, I did not get much rest. The previous flight had blue polo-shirted rugby teens from New South Wales, all husky and very British in jaw and haircut, but they were surprisingly demure. Stocky Mrs. P.R. (her initials, but her name was nearly as common an Irish one if not more than my own) from Thurles or Clonmel (the teams had jerseys from these locales) sat next to me, who was at the window. But her charges were across the aisle, so Kate and Megan and Matthew had to be hectored constantly. This did not increase my susceptibility to slumber. I had finally, thinking of Warhol[a] Rahula, relaxed my body, against all odds, and may have had a moment of nirvana, when I heard "duty free, duty free" summoning me. I never returned, and two rows away, the back-of-the-plane's bathroom door and the galley's metallic clash, slamming on and off served as my metronomic alarm against any sleep. The crew chattered away, and so did the racqueteers.

However, arrival in Dublin proved magical. The plane seemed to coast in, silently, as we circled at the southern end of the city, glowing amber lights on velvet. I'm no real fan of the place, but it looked enchanted in the pitch-black clarity of 7 a.m. I'd never seen the city like this before; previous flights had the usual clouds. We sailed in softly, over the Swords roundabout and even its garish shopping-mall glow could not dim the gentler necklaces of what outlined quiet seconds before the Hill of Howth and its invisible mansionettes.

The plane landed, and the passengers burst into applause. Not sure why, but it was deserved. I left the plane happy, even if I left it, as I would three out of four sections of the jaunt, all but dead last.

Customs had been remodelled since last autumn's visit, but it still seemed boxy. At one point I nearly ducked, as if entering a Bunratty Folk Park's recreated cabeen's threshhold, into a small corridor, before emerging. We were shunted via a small passageway, and as with many airports, it never looked fully finished.

I'd just missed the 100 bus to Drogheda. The air was in the mid-30s, so I bundled up. I'd taken my trench coat that I'd worn but twice ever, when I went to NYC in the beginning of the '90s. I had layered, and bought gloves along with a backpack from Patagonia, an investment I figure at the rate of necessity in L.A. will last the rest of my life. The man hunched over the timetable and I struck up a brief chat, the kind you do. He sounded Nigerian, and we agreed it was cold indeed. Talk about fur coat and knickers.

On the bus, I again marvelled at the inanity of pop music on Irish radio. If My Older Son was here, I'd have asked him: how does musical talent come out of an island so poorly served by this medium? As expected, the transmitted chat was full of austerity cuts, tottering coalitions, and IMF bailouts.

I like the announced stops on Bus Éireann in Irish for the placenames. The town of the knight sounds better in the original; Baile an Ridire, than Balrothry. I watched what had become familiar signs from last year's itinerary, to Lusk, Balbriggan, Julianstown, Laytown, Bettystown, on the hour-plus ride into Drogheda.

Its Southgate shopping center still languished, only its Dunne's store open and another office, all other sites as empty as last year when I noticed this ambitious edifice on the city's border. A sign promised a development second to none for investment. I was not sure if I missed, when gawking at it, the woebegone, yellow, deserted motel across the road where once the INLA had convened, or if that eyesore had been razed. A symbol of what this county had meant once, and perhaps still did for a few, as Gerry Adams had announced he'd contest for Sinn Féin the Dáil seat vacated in Louth only last month. 

The traffic on the Dublin road as the declivity to the Boyne that divides the medieval town from its suburbs clogged the route. I could have disembarked and walked to my destination twice over in the time it took to crawl a few blocks. But, I waited. I bade farewell to the affable driver, watched the last of the schoolchildren who seemed to be half the occupants of the morning's cargo, and wished the Nigerian best of luck as he and I fiddled with our luggage, and he waited for yet another bus. I went off, around Millmount rumored to be the burial mound of Amergin-- first bard of Ireland who landed on its shores five thousand or some years in myth ago-- and up Pilcher's Hill steps towards my host's home.

Cleo, a doggie simulacrum of my own Oprah, a puppy younger than her but just as lovably evil, welcomed me. I would soon listen to my host and her haircutting comrade about their views, as seasoned ex-pats, on the Irish. They had both lived there long enough for me to hear as their American accents morphed in and out of Irish inflections picked up from spouses, new friends, their own children. About their neighbors turned intimates: "They tell you what they want you to hear, and then when you leave, they tell their friends what they really think of you." I responded, "we're their entertainment. They get tired of talking to each other."

I thought of similar opinions in this novel, recommended by my wife, "The Bleeding Heart" ("Ordinary Decent Criminals" in its British title: both sum it up well); the Philly ex-pat Lionel Shriver and her fictional alter ego Estrin Lancaster share a mordant, post-feminist, bitterly unromantic account from late-80s Belfast that explores and excoriates the Troubles and those "conflict junkies" who come and go to dabble in them as comedy and tragedy. While I found her broad targets hit-and-miss (and only one rating for my review over at Amazon US, that a negative, to date), any participant-observer of the Irish scene, especially transatlantic transplants, will find its morning-after, mirror-shattering looks unblinkingly reflecting, perhaps, their own bleary gaze. Fictional or real, we all agree that we Americans represented our own stereotype, as enduring, as unfair, and as recognizable as that of the country we all loved, admired, put up with, and put down.

I wished I could have stayed for the feast of my less vicious nationals. It's my favorite holiday, even if this would have been my first without turkey. I gave up eating meat after it last year. But I crave cranberries.

After my host's egg-and-potato burrito (closer to home, with chipotle sauce) and a nap I felt better. We had fish and chips, another favorite of mine, for supper, and I regaled the lad and lass in residence with gift t-shirts and brownies and caramels. My politically astute host watched six times, it seemed, the RTÉ newscast with Fianna Fáil's Brian Cowan defending patiently, I thought as an unbiased observer, his party's role in the bailout. Despite the effigies of him paraded on O'Connell Street the Saturday I was there, up the road at my conference, I felt he defended his role manfully, and took responsibility for his party's debacle in a brave manner. I am not sure if FF will survive the election, but given the namby-pamby response of a handful of SF activists who stormed the capital's barricades to overwhelm one harried Garda, and what looked like all of three placard-brandishing SWP allies, I was reminded of what happened the day the Rising started. The rebels broke into Dublin Castle, shot to death a guard, a fellow Irishman, but then stood around, not sure what to do next.

I am jaded, but compared to my situation back home in a state billions in the hole, in a city Third World more every day, the imposition of such as a 100 euro property tax, paying for the first time for water, and a reduction of a minimum wage by a euro from an amount far higher than the dollar equivalent in my home state did not seem draconian. The generosity of the dole outweighs that of the U.S., and the support for housing childcare, medicine, and education reminds me again of why I sympathize with benevolent social welfare as opposed to heartless bottom-line mentalities that dominate my native land's mindset.

California's facing similar cutbacks. Three years of hardship in my household itself has inured me, I confess, to tales of financial woe. It sounds hard-hearted, but teaching so many who have been laid off, downsized, outsourced, and in my own job working faster and harder than ever as I do the tasks of my departed colleagues, while facing heavier courseloads, I betray compassion fatigue. Meanwhile, we're told to spend on Black Fridays (what a term to contrast in the U.S. post-Thanksgiving to the Irish usage) as our patriotic duty, as if to increase our own credit card balance outweighs any lessons forced upon us by the current (it's not over yet) dep-recession.

I had feared the extravagances of the past decade, here and there, would not last. I watched on RTÉ the high dudgeon in which such reports of austerity have been met in Ireland. I calculated in my mind how much even with the lower minimum wage the workers earned compared to my own nation, and the come-down while not welcome did not seem as outrageous as those interviewed made it out to be. Yet, I understood their collective outrage and personal helplessness, when we all feel like decisions are made in purported democracies that none of us as voters and citizens have any say in. What I can agree with? That the leaders who profiteer and the bankers who collude deserve the real contempt. They get that from us, sure. But they will as always suffer less if at all, compared to the rest of us.

The tension between those who control the pursestrings and those who come, cap in hand, never ends. I viewed a billboard on the way in to Drogheda from St. Vincent de Paul Society: "I used to build homes. Then I lost mine." A young man, haggard. Television ads, well-produced, featured related appeals by this venerable charity. They keep dignity for the benefactor and the recipient, and avoid sentiment or self-aggrandizing.

The RTÉ Angelus always moves even hard-hearted me, and the spot I saw this time took in villagers cleaning grave markers by the river at Sixmilebridge. There's tender grace in these aired meditations that I think can be valued by anyone in Ireland or anywhere else, and I find it a powerful reminder of the best that the island has encouraged within its inhabitants, of all or no creeds. Despite the slippery slide to sudden secularism, for better and worse, in recent Irish culture, the tug to give more than take I do pray remains with the ethos instilled over centuries.

With the transition nearly everywhere to capitalism, at its most rapacious, the few countries such as Ireland who still possess a modicum of social consciousness-- despite the temptations to greed the past twenty years that have weakened the communal constraints on avarice-- themselves now face the results of too much speculation, too much flip-flopping, too much debt, too much trust in corporations and politicians. Not to mention what has ravaged so much of the landscape, so many villages made ugly, so many roadsides and ridges scarred, thanks to landowners cashing in and selling out, aided and abetted by developers (a class that for me deserves to languish in Dante's ninth circle, frozen and upended in excrement).

That leads me to the link here: Is there a future for socialism in Ireland? This is a three-hour panel discussion held November 25th at the Holiday Inn, Belfast. I could not attend as my bus headed that night south, so I am doubly glad to have had the chance to hear it online. My host's husband spoke as one of the panelists, along with Daithí Mac An Mhaistír (éirígí); Eoin O’Broin (Sinn Féin); Dr Brian Hanley (Author of The Lost Revolution – The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party). He served as the Critic, with such lines as "Left unity's like a black Klan. It won't happen," but also as the Activist, who told how long it took him with twenty euro coins, to distribute them to the beggars he passed in Dublin's streets: 12 minutes, 37 seconds. "Every paper cup tells a story."

When I arrived in Dublin that same night, the air bit and chilled. On the rumbling ride down in the early dark, I thought about lunch, with my host and the Novelist. He had graciously presented me with a signed copy of his novel Ecopunks which had appeared two days before and he heroically (his car being "scuppered," a fine word) made it down from the North to see us, at the same table in the same restaurant where we had all met a year before. I think this restaurant rivals the best of those (at least on my own austerity budget, for we rarely eat out anymore) in my home city. While the service was unaccountably slow, the fact it was Happy Thanksgiving there, as the cook is American, gave me cheer, and more time to talk with my friends.

They discussed the common pursuit of journalism and its vagaries, in this age of electronic archiving which opens the profession up to all sorts of difficulties in platforms, storage, retrieval, and display. Access can be limited rather than expanded, and researchers such as my host and myself find the barriers placed by the press as frustrating as, for me, using as I still have had to do once in a while a microfiche machine at the library! We discussed "emerald noir," the ironies of the American complaints against the TSA compared to the usual searches and seizures once a daily part of Belfast life, and the challenges of getting the word out about what one has invested so much effort in, as in his contribution to Requiems for the Departed of modern crime fiction based on ancient Irish myth. He and I chatted about the changes one editor may request, and how they may embed themselves, better or worse, into the story forever. I look forward to his novel, especially as a character appears to be based on one real-life figure who I link to in my blogroll at the right-hand here.

I had to leave soon, as both the Novelist and my host's husband had to go north. My visits, with the Novelist and the Host and the Activist, were all too short. Before departing, I did take the picture above on our walk with the dog, and the three yappiers in the window could be heard even from my distance beyond the gate. I guess it fits sort of with the blog entry's title, if you're Cruella de Ville.

The schoolchildren again filled many seats on the bus. I watched the lights pass, the line of cars northward creeping along as commuters edged back from the city I approached. The Skylon Hotel is certainly convenient, the same bus route that took me from the airport to Drogheda now passing the airport into the city. It was next door to St. Patrick's College where I'd give my paper at this conference on Purgatory in Irish literature and culture. Esoteric to all, indeed, but for me, a conjunction of two topics I'd labored over in my dissertation and despite that decade of effort have loved long, and an opportunity I could not miss.

My repast that night, as the delicious mackerel and fries and Smithwick's repast earlier still filled me up, was tea and cookies, and I sat reading the old USA Today paper discarded that I picked up as I'd left the plane. I actually got some sleep, a few hours at least, but as my pattern now, before I left, during my trip, and since then, I have been largely and fitfully awake since two or three each morning. I thought about nothing much and everything in the darkness.

When I woke up, it was in the thirties, for me colder than it ever gets, as it's never this low back home. I figured I'd better load up on carbs to warm me. The breakfast voucher let me down, as muesli, toast, yogurt while I like them all allowed me no portables to take away for later noshing--a strategy often advised by budget travelers. Best Western chain has its own austerity plan. I longed for fruit, not stewed prunes or canned pears in a plastic tray, all that could be found on the buffet not made of caffeine, dairy, or bulk.

The five-minute walk to the conference got me there early, as I could see the school building immediately over the wall of the hotel, but I had to stroll way down the block and back again to get to it. No signs were up yet to guide me to the room for the event, and being a very punctual type, I'd again over-estimated the tendency of other cultures to take their time. I paced the halls, circling the corridor around a courtyard, the one elegant trace of what this teacher-training college might have once looked like, with its old tiles set in the floor and remnants of a Gothic-ish study hall, in the mid-Fifties austerity era of John McGahern, who wrote about being practically immured here in his All Will Be Well (US title) Memoir (Irish title).

His portrait as not a young man faced us as we spoke in D-115. Two days spent looking out at a window where the legs of tall men and lissome women rushed about on the grass above our classroom left me feeling a bit incarcerated myself. Many at least of the younger Irish do seem leaner and more fit than Americans, still. But at 2/3 of my countrymen as overweight or obese, that may not be setting the bar very high. I stretched my cramped legs on a piano bench and sat at the back of the room, given my bad knee propped up. I took notes on all the speakers, who can be found listed via the Conference Schedule of the link above. Discretion rules. Many talks were harbingers of heavenly hope; a few--less than average--proved, well, grimly penitential.

I reflected on return this week to my speech students, despite my wooziness, about how international characteristics may be seen in speakers. Early on, the renowned French expert read off of her own seminal article on the subject to us from a photocopy. While essential research, it went longer than the twenty minute limit. This meant the time skewed. Luckily, the skillful organizer helped us recover the pace, but at conferences, as in my own speech class, if one or two speakers don't follow the timetable, it sets up a domino effect that no Einsteinish quirk or quark (the latter word from Finnegans Wake) of relativity can recover.

A Japanese presenter delivered a talk as if robotically, every word enunciated identically. An Italian effusively joked and played with her material that she projected for us to view. She later carried on conversations with fellow listeners during other presentations, and took out her cellphone to call sub voce during my own talk.

A Central European grad student never looked up his whole speil, as he gripped each end of the lectern. French students varied: one gave a superb talk, another drifted off. Professors from the Sorbonne joined the St. Pat's faculty as conveners, and they impressed me by their questions and comments. A Balkan lecturer never seemed to get to the point and remained mired in generalizations. Irish students as a whole shone, and appeared in their preparation of their talks to stay focused, diligent, and controlled. While they too varied in the way they connected or did not with the audience, they managed to convey a concentration on the material that credited them well, and their professorial colleagues who also gave strong presentations.

I don't mean to be (too) hard on my peers. This is the process by which we learn from one another, and step up the plate, whether two years into our studies or forty years accumulated. As an outlier, I attend conferences once or at most twice a year, to stay in the game for which I was trained even if where I teach, it's as if semi-pro minors sub-class A baseball compared to the majors. Graduate students and independent scholars need fora to share ideas and influences, and those of us like myself on the academic margins gain degrees granted long past our own matriculations of imposed, voluntarily humility, necessary for purgatorial improvement and chastising progress, in our own efforts to scale academic heights.

My own talk went well, considering the next morning it had iced over and I walked over gingerly, never having really had to tread on such a surface before, fearful of black ice and invisible gloss. My own path, however short, reminded me of the fire-ice, hot-cold, boiling-freezing alternations of which I'd speak, Beckett's texts of agnostic afterlife rather than what I'd adapted (nods to Hugh Kenner and Vivian Mercier) as "Protestant hells" and "Catholic purgatories." Being 9 a.m., and with one of our three panelists unable to drive in from the county whose name I can never pronounce, Offaly, we had time for tea and conviviality in the staff room as a handful of us trickled in. I was glad to have come in the previous night, rather than take the early bus down, given the freezing dawn that made for so many a treacherous journey.

I counted a dozen brave listeners. My fellow presenter gave a great overview taken from his UCD doctoral work on Sam Johnson's influence on Beckett's salvific perspectives, as Sam junior had contemplated a drama circa 1937 on Sam senior. Our papers overlapped neatly with Joyce's 1929 essay on "Dante," more about Beckett than Joyce. The follow-up questions weren't as nerve-racking as I'd anticipated, even if I had to betray ignorance given the hour and my condition on entropic exegesis in the works I'd discussed.

The rest of the conference, as such events do once you have spoken, went smoothly. The arc started Friday morning with Origen and Lough Derg, and rose to Yeats and Joyce the first day; it continued with Beckett and passed refugee camps for asylum seekers, Travellers, and still more Protestants as it traversed literary and anthropological terrain the second day. At any conference, nervousness never for me quite goes away until I have delivered my talk, but I enjoyed the remaining papers even as fatigue did dull me to some nuances. A vividly narrated near-closing one on the film "In Bruges" and its purgatorial plot for me proved a personal highlight. Then, I had to rush back to my hotel to try to log on to get a boarding pass, in vain. Their only (coin-operated!) public computer now broken, the staff let me use the one at the front desk but it showed no record for me of a reservation. Panicky, I wondered what to do. I had no access to the net, remember, myself, on my phone. "This is Ireland." Back from years in NYC, Ma soeur Gaeilgeoir's wry admonition echoed in my ear.

By the time I darted back across the evening's ice, Barry McGovern's recitation of Beckett's early (written when he was about twenty-one, in 1927) story Dante and the Lobster had commenced. I waited in my own Ante-Purgatory outside the room where he dramatically related its wonderful, painful tragedy. I could barely hear him if I edged near the window, hiding behind a paper poster so as not to have my head looming over the proceedings. Snatches of his oratory floated through the classroom's pane, but I gave up, a contorted position because or in spite of my height. I sat, as if meditating--resisting the posture of Belacqua's namesake who slouched indolently in Ante-Purgatory in Inferno IV--on the well-worn bench where McGahern might have long lounged. I waited patiently for the applause that could signal my dash into the room.

That being heard, I entered rapidly and added my own applause. McGovern had to run off to the Gate, and his half-hour reading was appended by an intriguing tidbit I record for myself and posterity. Beckett had sent him a postcard about an alternative ending to passage ending with its shattering last sentence.

In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman's cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.
   Belacqua looked at the old parchment of her face, grey in the dim kitchen.
   “You make a fuss” she said angrily “and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner.”
   She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.
   Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all.
   It is not.
McGovern, one of Beckett's most renowned interpreters, elaborated he asked the author, long after the story had been published, for an alternative ending. Beckett had written on the card: "Like hell it is." And: "What do you think? Yes? No? Yours, Sam" A fine and typically terse, ambiguous, demotic, yet philosophical resolution, so typical of his style and soul.

This ended the conference perfectly. The more I read Beckett, the more I admire him, as much if not more than Joyce, for Beckett lived the courage of his convictions by his bravery and generosity to those far less fortunate than he. Joyce tended to spend his money on white wine and lavish blow-outs for his friends whenever he got a check; Beckett gave out many checks to those who sought his assistance large and small.

Speaking of assistance being at my own loose ends far from home, I still had my own fretting, so the friendly organizer let me use her office computer as she tidied up. The single Irish customer service number for Delta apparently keeps only normal business hours, not much help for travellers without the net.  The organizer typed in an alternative, somehow, that led to a fourth (!) version of the booking site that then allowed me, mirabile dictu, to confirm my flight and print the boarding pass. She'd been briefly locked in a corridor as the college was closing late Saturday night, as the security guard had already checked my bonafides up there, typing away and praying I'd get a flight confirmation. They were on edge as there'd been break-ins recently. It was that kind of evening. I feared the weather worsening, and that I'd be snowed in. Fatigue wore me down, and I needed rest.

I'd talked to my Irish friends then as before who assured me that all would be well, and I trusted them. Even though my own plans had been scuppered, I'd relished a chance to get out the nippy night previous to trek down to Temple Bar, a good forty-minute hike down Drumcondra Road to Dorset to Capel Streets into what was now, speaking of lobsters boiled for dinner, Dublin's Chinatown and a bit of Polish or Slovenia-burb to add. I'd needed the exercise after being cooped up far too long that week.

The collisions of car trouble, work schedules, emergency intrusions, parlous roads had left attendees at the conference and comrades for my own optimistic arrangements unable to fulfill them, so I was on my own. So addled I forgot to stop and linger. I realized on coming home (when my students asked me if I'd done the usual tourist pub crawl) that only twice have I ever downed a Guinness within a mile of its brewery. I'm not much of a drinker, anyway, and introverted, so I don't gravitate towards bars.

Instead, I paced about and watched the strollers along Eustace Street. I peered at the old House of Meetings for Quakers, next to the place where a tavern had once been the meeting place for the United Irishmen in the failed uprising of 1798. Speaking of the Year of the French, a French Film Festival attracted ticket-goers, and I wondered about one film, perhaps not French, called "Leap Year" that looked steamy-- if in Spanish. Those in line talked about it and gestured at the poster, which reminded me of "Y Tu Mamá También."

Polish and Italian and passersby of even native extraction shouted and muttered. I was intrigued by how much or how little Europeans compared to me might dress in such weather, and I was glad for my purchase and donning of thermal underwear along with backpack and gloves. I watched misses in miniskirts (were they from Ukraine or Uzbekistan, I wondered, having read lots of such heroin-snorting, packet-shuffling, brawling scenarios in that collection of crime-Irish myth stories) traipse through the cold that at one point had me in the Irish Film Institute (the site of the old Friends Assembly House) sitting on a radiator to keep warm.

On the sidewalk, an teenish urchin passed me brusquely with his mates as I stood outside. "Hey Mr Mac gargle slash garble" I'd worn my khaki-colored, clunky if efficiently lined mac, me as the man in the macintosh; I thought again of Joyce. I think Anthony Burgess commented on what the late John Devitt of Mater Dei Institute told me on meeting him by chance at a lunch at another conference, back in Galway in 2004. It's in the middle of "Cyclops," its anti-semitic tirade, when, recalled by the narrator, "a slut shouts out of her: 'Eh mister! Your fly is open, mister.'" This referred not to me, for once, but to the ear Devitt admired that Joyce had for his city's cadences, exactly rendered in such repetition as they were naturally conveyed. Repetition, as we learned at the conference, leads in purgatory to redemption, if not in reality. For the Irish, the boom and bust pattern familiar from a generation ago appeared to be repeating, as all pointed elsewhere at truer sinners.

For my own budgetary measures, the temperature dropping led me to take a taxi back. It had me repeatedly counting out two-euro coins in the dark, as I tried to reduce my change and watch my remaining stash. To my chagrin, cabs there do not take credit cards. The fare had gone way up it being Nighttown, and I was not used to how much it cost to go the couple of miles back from Temple Bar to Drumcondra. I tried to sleep, but did poorly. I watched television, TG4 the Irish-language channel as is my habit over there, but except for a few phrases subtitled by Gaeilgoir gals winning the All-Ireland teen Gaelic football slots on the pageant I watched groggily, that was that. I'd earlier enjoyed the mellifluous 'blas' of the enigmatic Biddy Jenkinson (not her real name), one of the leading Irish-language poets, on RTÉ, but that show ended too soon, as I tried to pick out word and meaning from the natural flow 'as Gaeilge' broadcast. She spoke of Eve, and maybe Adam, or else my mind was on paradise and the Fall after a weekend's immersion in the metaphorical state Ireland kept returning to, post-lapsarian, post-Catholic but still feeling guilty after last night's or last decade's fun. Before the lights went out, in the spirit of Gabriel Conroy, I found myself finally viewing the weather report in Irish, which seemed foolhardy given my fluency. The island rimmed in frost, the interior white, clouds hovering: even this amadán could tell what was up, or down. In purgatory as in Beckett's The Lost Ones, I'd lectured that dawn, fires and ice alternate.

I was unsure if I'd be stuck at the airport, if there'd be a mass run on the ATM's, if I'd be holed up for days as you see the pictures in the papers, of bedraggled backpackers from Australia trying to get home, rolled out with their tarp on the linoleum at some terminal sixty-eight hours straight. And me with no working phone, damned US incompatibility even as I passed on the way to work "Droid does global" as a boastful billboard.

The final morning had me jittery, for the sleep rarely came. The second morning straight, I opened the curtains to see The Dead's "snow general over all of Ireland," at least from my vantage point over the district where young Dedalus had joshed: "It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra — said Stephen, laughing — where they speak the best English."

I'd packed and obsessed the night before, so not much to do at 6 a.m., but, it not being even time for breakfast yet, a munched scone from under a cake server on the counter, and asking the porter, when he finally showed up, for a taxi. The air rushed in the side door. He left it open. English guests sat in the lobby under a display of flights departing, and Heathrow was closed.

My taxi driver, the fare being twice the distance to Temple Bar, cost twice as much, but I learned from him a tale he must tell a dozen times daily, of how he courted his Balinese-born wife first by e-mail and then by a generous portion of cake with her first coffee upon their meeting. The airport was crowded, but no more really than any other time I'd arrived before dawn. I was checked six times total with passport and pass-- which had to be turned in at one point and reissued, for apparently they suspected now me logging in online and having no bags to check.

I lacked even the time to get my wife her beloved packets of Wine Gums, for it took a while to get through so many lines. Descending the circle, not quite hellish, that draws those American-bound downward around the 300-numbered gates of the terminal, I remembered past summers when the line up the stairs filled every corner while we inched past eloquent wall panels about American wakes and Statues of Liberty. Lately, the wait for the passport clearance has been but seconds, and again the central-casting, burly New Yorkish officer I recalled from earlier interrogations stamped my clearance.

A young woman wore a green knit pixie hat that stood straight up. Her hair red, not sure if bottled or by birth, her eyes green, her skin fair but at least not as paper-white as mine. She reminded me of the first girl I ever kissed, I admit. But she was prettier than the girl I first kissed, me being me. She wore only an above-the-knee black knit dress and I had no idea how she kept warm. She sat in front of me the flight to Atlanta and slept. The woman next to me also did, and even my contorted leap over her after I closed her empty tray table to use the facilities failed to wake her. But, I did not sleep. A movie with Drew Barrymore and somebody who the magazine told me was Justin Long filled the screens. I closed my eyes, with my souvenir Virgin Atlantic first class (we got upgraded long ago twice in a row as a miracle akin to lightning twice striking) eyeshade, superior to the cheaper kinds even if the strap keeping it in place was wonky, attempting to bring me into a Beckettian state of repose like Murphy in his rocking chair in his garret.

At least the train worked back in Atlanta. This was the one out of four flights where I was not near the bathrooms and at the tail-end of the plane, so I got off quickly and walked past customs and the girl with the brown rice. "Welcome back," said the central-casting official as I handed my declaration to him.

There's not much else to report. I changed out of my thermal gear in the bathroom, which took forever. I had an hour to wait. I heard the pitch over and over of the woman enticing walkers into her lair by a pleasant entreaty to sign them up for credit cards with SkyMiles. I circled a "Simply Books" shop where the employees glared at my every move. The Delta kiosk for recharging devices is configured so you cannot use a plug with a side-USB slot, so I perched near a football game blaring above. I pecked out a few messages on my phone, finally in Wi-Fi land.

The flight was jammed, being filled with babies and luggage and families. This time I sat at the back where an "unpleasant odor," as the attendant phrased it on the intercom, permeated the plane. A toilet was broken. We waited ninety minutes on the runway for a starter mechanism to be repaired. Due to the holiday weekend, the passengers had no way to get another flight as all were full. I leafed through SkyMall magazine and reflected on how many products there were not only for dogs but to recharge iPhones on the go, and none for Droids. I used mine carefully, and listened to a calming set of songs, however depressing at times, me being me, that I had put on it: albums by the well-named Bedhead that were rather narcotizing, and the only Belle & Sebastian LP I found consistently listenable, "If You're Feeling Sinister."

Both hefty men between me and the aisle drank beers and played video games non-stop and watched football but never budged. I did once, in desperation to use that darned bathroom. I tried the Delta audio selections, the device being on this flight again, but the interference to the Mozart from perhaps the movie channel drove me back to the narcotic files stored on my phone.Despite all my grousing, my habitual fears, I do love going over there to see old friends and to meet new ones. I was lonely, even if I am a loner, and I welcome the graciousness with which so many met me and looked after me in ways large and small, humbly and quietly. I hope I repaid them with sufficient warmth despite my off-kilter presence of body and mind. I went over the conversations I'd had in Ireland, and the cadences I'd heard, and I sought comfort, wisdom, and peace.

So, back to my own city's inferno, bottom row of the stacked lanes that circle Dantean LAX endlessly. I was the last one off the plane, and I passed a beaming woman who pushed her pallet of trash cans past the dwindling bands of those still waiting to depart. The couple at the last row of the aircraft had been bound for Honolulu, and that flight had been kept waiting for them. I was glad to be at the terminus of my terminal.

A Russian-ish middle-aged jowly blocky man, smoking in a leather jacket and flowered shirt even as the temperature was quite cutting by Angeleno standards, blocked the loading zone in a black Mercedes. He stood on the passenger side, slouched by a young, fair-haired, thinly-clad (I thought of the miniskirted femmes marching in heels down frigid Eustace Street) girl, maybe his daughter. (I hope so given the central-casting alternative.) He refused to move. To my delight, he was being written up by the officer as My Younger Son and My Wife pulled up to fetch me.

Justice rarely comes in this exile in this vale of tears compared to the purgatorial afterlife, but I took it as a good omen to end upon.

4 comments:

Layne said...

What a lovely sweet sad piece this is. I hope knowing how much we missed you at home assuaged a bit of loneliness.

Fionnchú said...

I tried to be diplomatic to all involved, and I fear I offended My Host by the title's use, but I could not resist as was foreshadowed when I heard the phrase! I lack the cleverness of others, but I try to convey my own emotion underneath the usual intellectual overload. And the candies were well-received, a harbinger and messenger of such missed domestic sweetness!

AM said...

An absolutely great piece. I thought I would never reach the end! So it all impacted on you otherwise the piece would not have been so long. The thing is you write so well that long pieces are never torturous ones. And Cleo!! Never realized she made such an impact. It was so good to see you. Looking forward t reading the book on Obama. Thanks

Fionnchú said...

AM, I envy your brevity on your blog. Layne tells me to leaven my dense reviews with some personal account now and then. I appreciate your kind reaction, no hard feelings to the other writer in your household for lifting the title; I'd warned her I might!

As you follow Robert Fisk, I'm look forward to any reactions you have to Ali's similar take on Obama. This week's capitulation to the GOP tax cuts and his trotting out Bill Clinton to rally the Dems to back the rich who got them elected (and the fumbling of DADT overturning in a lame-duck Congress) adds ammunition to Ali's assault.

Can't say I didn't say "toldyaso," and it makes me wonder why so many were not aware so early on. Ali appears surprised at the turnabout by the one he seems to have backed. But, as related blowback, debacles in Britain and Ireland show now, the willingness of the people to trust whomever flies the Jack or the Green flag over the castle remains intact, in a steadfast naivete that would be almost touching if not for the brutal impact such confidence creates, when left to those in charge who call in their debts.

As for debts, many thanks for those incurred by me once again for your hospitality. I was also happy to find Jim Miller's Foucault book on your well-ordered shelves, as I needed to check some citations therein! Glad to have such a pleasant study to slumber in.