Friday, December 31, 2010

Anne Bancroft's "The Buddha Speaks": Book Review

Many books endure by telling you about the Buddha, but this is one of the few telling you in his own words. Recorded by his followers, these discourses survived in the ancient Pali language. As the Sanskrit versions later were destroyed by invaders, these Pali texts taken down from Indian oral tradition remain the earliest renditions of his dharma-teaching recited three centuries earlier. Anne Bancroft compiles them into an accessible vernacular which improves upon the Victorian-era rhetoric from those who gathered them for the first Western audiences.

Ten sections guide the reader toward enlightenment. They begin with the Buddha’s own account of his realization of suffering as the inescapable root of earthly existence, and the way out of its habitual grip by the discipline of meditation and the exercise of compassion that leads to one’s enlightenment. “Awakening” phrases this clearly: “Since all the world is so attached to material things, it’s very difficult for people to grasp how everything originates in conditions and causes. It’s a hard job for them to see the meaning of the fact that everything, including ourselves, depends on everything else and has no permanent self-existence.”

Such a style speaks well for the Buddha’s own speech. It revives the rhythms we hear. What became defined as “dependent origination” by Buddhists in the above excerpt comes across clearly. It remains profoundly subtle, as the Buddha acknowledged. But this changeless insight leads to freedom from attachment, he discovered within, for those who put this into practice.

As the Dhammapada sums up: “You should do the work yourself, for buddhas only teach the way.” Buddhism demands application, not theory, and action, not merely contemplation or study. “Love,” the topic of the second chapter, urges the follower what the Buddha urged for his own son: to bring loving-kindness into the world out of one’s awakened self. Ill-will and harm and cruelty, by this cultivation, fade away. “By liberation of the self through love,” its practice inspires Buddhists to free themselves and others from pervasive suffering.

“Clarity” brings one closer to “uncreated and unconditioned reality,” that is, a detachment from attachment to body or wealth, life or concepts. “When you are no longer dependent on name or form, you will indeed become a seeker.” This non-duality, this refusal to limit perception to a mind-body or spirit-matter dichotomy, breaks down the habitual mentality that obscures insight.

“Body and Mind” reminds the reader that the Buddha taught that the world’s length and breadth and origin and termination all lay within “this very body, six feet in length, with all of its sense impressions and its thoughts and ideas.” Forms arise, and forms cease: this “embodied world” must be “penetrated and realized,” so as to be understood. A middle path avoiding ascetic excess or abundant indulgence allows seekers to care for body and mind sensibly. It also invites them to detach themselves from sensual attachment so as to prefer subtler delights.

“Contemplation” brings the Buddhist into reflection upon such possibilities. Steadiness by controlled posture and regulated breathing centers the practitioner. Water frequently occurs in dharma teaching as a metaphor, where the ripples do not disturb the depths. In these earlier texts, it occurs as a rejoinder to the Brahmin rituals: unclean secretions wash away, but the water stays untroubled and not disgusted, as all impurities flow away under its power.

“Sorrow” cannot be blamed all on one’s self or others; the Buddha explains how everyone’s deeds “are conditioned by ignorance” as the origin of suffering. If ignorance ends, wisdom may begin. “There is no separate self to suffer,” and this understanding, The Dhammapada tells, leads to clarity. In an all-changing array of arising and passing away, nothing remains for long. “If you want to get rid of your enemy, the true way is to realize that your enemy is delusion.”

Grasping to any fixed being, any concept, any item, itself will lead to folly. Happiness emerges if the insubstantiality of the delights and terrors of this world equally appear as beginning and ending. “The hunger of craving pollutes the world, and the pain of suffering causes the greatest fear.” Mindfulness, a conscious commitment to freeing the self from impulsive habits, beckons.

“Truth” saves, lives in many places, and endures eternally. Like a lamp in the dark, so it should be held by seekers, the Buddha said as he was dying. A chariot, in his famous parable, cannot stand on its own as an absolute. It consists of its parts, but not in any entity that exists outside of its components. Similarly, there can be no “I” or “I am” that is absolute; no “body” endures always. Neither does truth exist in terms of a right-wrong reasoning that outlives its own transience. One may notice how the Majihima Nikaya has been referenced twice in this paragraph, as two versions of eternal truth have been paraphrased. This, too, may reveal the challenges within.

“Life and Death,” speaking of binary components, represent another tension. The Buddha skillfully sidestepped those who sought to pin him down about the post-mortem survival of a body, the origin or fate of the universe, the beginning or end of the soul, or even the conditions of birth and rebirth for an awakened one. He regarded such speculation as irrelevant. His concern remained with “the end of suffering and the finding of happiness.” With one’s own freedom inherent, as all can seek enlightenment, disentangling the self awaits a pure seeker.

“Time and Infinity” illustrates how an “unborn, uncreated, unformed, and unconditioned” condition permeates for those who leave behind the realm of time and creation, life and death. Awareness of this draws the seeker towards liberation from a deeper nature than that conditioned by flesh, gold, beauty, fear, desire, or delusion. Friendliness and compassion bring out the best in the one seeking perfection; letting go of one as apart from the world enables one to become more comfortable within the world, which is recognized as fleeting and rootless.

“Wisdom” tells how thoughts themselves make the world; that is, harmful thoughts lead to trouble “as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.” Ignorance can be overcome by insight. Even stupidity, according to the Visuddhi Magga, eventually becomes indistinguishable from wisdom. That is, all blends together “in the great ocean” of wisdom in the awakened mind. Reality in its ultimate nature undercuts all definitions, all distinctions, all definitions.

“Self and Society” reminds the practitioner not to stop with one’s own self when it comes to the path to enlightenment, for the path cannot be followed when it stops with one’s self. The Digha Nikaya advises one to become “an island and a refuge to yourself,” by overcoming one’s dependence on the body and on feelings. Greed and desire enslave the weak. But the weak also need assistance. Buddhism enjoins compassion and fairness: a proper wage, a basic level of sustenance for farmers, a secure income to alleviate poverty, and capital for traders.

Wealth is in itself a neutral force. It’s lawful, but its means of gain must also be lawful. Harming others cannot justify its accrual. Attachment to riches will not bring lasting happiness. It must be held on common on behalf of all beings, not to ensnare one within the lures of materialism.

Similarly, wrongdoing can be avoided. Hatred can be replaced by a refusal to retaliate in ill-will. A Brahman asks why all of the Buddha’s followers do not reach Nirvana. Rather than parry him by a clever retort, he explains how directions to a place may be given, but the inquirer on the road may or may not use them to travel correctly. “All I can be is a shower of the way.”

Many of these sayings draw from The Dhammapada (reviewed [by me recently] in New York Journal of Books) compilation of versified sayings, as well as sutras including the Nikaya collections. These became linked with Theravada, Southeast Asian schools of Buddhism, and the monastic interpreters of these dharma-teachings. They were classified by length, theme, or content, but Bancroft does not explain their provenance in her brief introduction. She focuses on the message rather than the medium.

Although this anthology neatly presents the pith of the dharma, free of footnotes or clutter, too minimal a presentation does provide one letdown. Bancroft is not credited as a translator but as a compiler and editor. Still, she does not credit her source texts beyond a credit such as “Samyuta Nikaya” or “Dhammapada.” Nor does she offer any documentation.

This underwhelming editorial support, given this book’s publication by a leading Western Buddhist press, appears to shortchange the pioneering translators and diligent editors, past or present, who enabled her own fluent popularization. Fuller documentation for these elegant modernizations might have guided the reader back to monastic commentaries and a deeper appreciation, at least for these few inquirers, of their textual and contextual Buddhist roots.

For many, all the same, Bancroft’s inviting compilation will goad the seeker toward a path to enlightenment, as if revived in the everyday words attributed to the Buddha. (Featured at the New York Journal of Books 12-28-10.)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Reginald A Ray's "Tibetan Buddhist Reader": Review

This anthology compiles sayings of over two dozen lamas, past and present. Following the naturally emerging path into Buddhist practice, Reginald A. Ray arranges the contents: “what the path feels like, how meditation unfolds in our lives, the particular problems and obstacles that arise for practitioners, the way to be genuinely helpful to others, and how the vividness and clarity of realization begin to dawn within our awareness.”

Oriented for users rather than scholars, this provides a compact collection that may also inspire contemplation, and putting the fruits of such recollection into action.

Seven chapters model the upward process toward the Himalayas of spiritual accomplishment within the “Vajrayana” diamond-sharp methods of Tibetan teaching. Terminology is glossed (if sometimes too tersely for a newcomer) in an appendix, along with the sources for each excerpt and brief biographies of the gurus themselves. Emphasis remains on the pithy comments themselves, which challenge the learner to enter loneliness as the hard-won way towards wisdom. Others become touched by the learner’s own struggle as self-knowledge humbles one towards compassionate outreach.

As Patrul Rinpoche urges in the first chapter, “Foundations,” the practitioner must “cultivate disenchantment with it all.” Death and impermanence goad the seeker. In the second chapter, on the path, The Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche puts this into terms today’s reader can understand. A theistic, mundane interpretation of religion treats us as powerless; the programmer’s an “external being or external energy” that holds the keyboard and does the programming for us.

For Buddhism, we program, we control the keys, we “press the command keys,” so “we get what we want on the screen.” These commands constitute the dharma teachings given by the historical Buddha. Buddhism being non-theistic, one’s own skill and one’s input energizes it.

Meditation, in the third chapter, resists easy incorporation into one’s practice, despite stereotypes of blissful lotus-posed devotees. True meditation demands discipline; veterans of this regimen warn of familiar seductions that trap even the advanced advocate. “The most subtle and the most difficult” obstacle, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche warns, persists as “the demon of seduction,” the voice that puts off meditation or “practice” due to the pressure of work, the commitments surrounding us, the idea that “next month or next year” will give us finally the time we need to settle down.

The Buddha compared this struggle to that of a dog vs. a lion. Distracted, a meditator will pursue each stray thought as a dog chases a stick, retrieving it over and over. If you throw a stick at the dog, he keeps bringing it back to you. But if you toss a stick at a lion, the lion hunts you down. Your first throw will be your last. While the dog scatters his energy in repetitious activity, the lion gets to the source of the disturbance, and settles it once and for all. A lion-like surety, an ability to rest on the surface of thoughts as one encounters “empty awareness,” as with thoughts that ripple a lake but do not disturb the depths, becomes the desired state for the calmed meditator.

Compassion in the next section emerges from meditation. Foremost among dharma teachings, this represents the “awakened heart” that the Buddha possessed and reminded his followers that they too possess, beneath the ripples within the depths. The present Dalai Lama speaks of no need for temples or “complicated philosophy,” for one’s own brain and one’s own heart make a temple of kindness. This leads to enlightenment: a challenging exchange of one’s own happiness to relieve the suffering of other beings. Compassion signifies inner strength; this bargain for Buddhahood combines peacefulness with power, courage along with generosity.

Eventually, emptiness represents a higher meaning for the skilled practitioner. The lack of lasting substance within any “real” being or thing, Buddhism argues, upends reality itself. One lama quotes: “In the moment of love, the nature of emptiness dawns nakedly.”

This insight can unsettle. Training requires the meditator to break through an intellectual understanding into a direct experience of this knowledge. Concepts dissolve, and awakening presents the adherent with a farewell to illusions and dreams, especially waking ones.

The “mind of the Buddhas,” as chapter six, stresses the inherent nature of this awakening. This naked awareness of mental insubstantiality and physical limitations, Tulku Urgyen explains, resembles a customer at a buffet. If one only looks at what’s displayed, one stays hungry. Being told about Buddha-nature without bringing it into one’s self leaves one unsatisfied, and empty.

Finally, realization of this awareness permeates the practitioner. As with the sky, the eternal presence persists of the awakened mind, no matter the turbulence of passing phenomena, the clouds obscuring the blue vista. Nirvana exists within the mind’s own coming to be. This may sound paradoxical. But those lamas whose lifetimes of training are distilled into the paragraphs and verses that Ray includes argue that this understanding compresses into intuitive truth. A “natural clarity of mind” pierces the cloud cover.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche tests the validity of one who claims to have succeeded at meditation and practice. Within ordinary life, the practitioner keeps steady, freed from distractions. Wisdom persists as recognizable, and this persistence proves the lesson for those yearning for spiritual instruction. “Constant awareness” transcends the sitting session, the formal practice period. For Buddhists, this liberated state does not wait until the afterlife to descend.

Ray presents these complicated teachings in accessible, brief entries. Meditators may wish to consult one or two as examples for daily reflection. Students of Buddhism may find here an easier way to figure out what more specialized texts present in technical language as to Tibetan teachings.

Affordable, and by its organization a book that keeps the teachings themselves front and center on each page, this simple collection of what the lamas profoundly share offers those in the West eager to investigate the legacy of Tibetan traditions a recommended resource. (
Featured at the New York Journal of Books 12-28-10.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Joe Humphreys' "God's Enterpreneurs: How Irish Missionaries Tried to Change the World": Book Review

A century of endeavor by Irish missionary priests, brothers, and sisters ebbs away. Their average age over seventy, their reticence leading them to be tarnished rather than praised by the many who currently criticize any enterprise associated with Catholicism, and their homeland itself transformed by the greed and avarice which their preaching and good works sought to diminish in poorer countries in the Southern Hemisphere, the condition of missionaries from what was the First World's most reliable exporter of young men and women determined to make a difference undergoes a sympathetic but even-handed critique by Joe Humphreys.

Along with reporting by Ruadhán MacCormaic, Sarah MacDonald, and Brian O'Connell, Humphreys, a journalist for Dublin's Irish Times with long experience as an African-based correspondent, provides a history and update on "how Irish missionaries tried to change the world." Sparked by the failed Irish uprising of 1916 against the British, restless, energized clerics sought to bring a message of spiritual independence and what came to be anti-colonial tinged liberation to beleagured Catholics scattered in poverty abroad--often in British colonies. The Irish clergy also promoted, to skeptical patrons, the advantages of competing against the Protestants for the souls of converts. The Columban Fathers, and Medical Missionaries of Mary, among other congregations traditional and upstart, came to dominate the Irish-accented ranks of those overseas.

They were not hesitant, if necessary, to use film and publicity to recruit at home. The Irish Catholic population had remained stagnant 1910-1970, while the number of priests doubled in that time period. By the later date, a fifth of Irish priests worked in the missionary field, and for many men and women back home, the attraction of a more adventurous life, and one in which they might find themselves more in charge than if stuck in a parish or convent waiting decades for advancement, appealed in an era when a vocation was prestigious and an opportunity to combine practical action to help others with one's own adventure in spiritual growth. The realities, as Humphreys and colleagues emphasize for the Columbans and "MMM" sisters, could be dismal. The new members often were sent out while still in formation (if sisters) or just out of training (if priests) and with little chance for acculturation or even language learning often, found themselves running hospitals or schools or parishes in impoverished areas under great stress, left to rely upon their faith, their instincts, their cunning, and their deep-rooted faith to succeed.

By this example, many Irish grew up in the past century admiring missionaries. They may have been misled by naive or stereotyped conceptions of what the Third World stood for, but Humphreys locates in this appeal to the better nature of an Irish regard for those worse off the roots of what U2's Bono, and Bob Geldof, helped in the mid-1980s to jumpstart as Live Aid. Groups such as Concern and Trócaire brought more of the laity into missionary work, and the Radharc film series sponsored by Irish state television publicized social and international issues that involved missionaries. Especially after the Biafran conflict in Nigeria, which led to the Holy Ghost (Spiritan) congregation's own tangled involvement in that civil war, the Irish profile as not only do-gooders but rabble-rousers became prominent. Liberation theology and the preferential treatment for the poor advocated a leftist, Marxist perspective which many Irish missionaries adapted as their new creed.

What characterizes a particularly Irish form of missionary contribution? Humphreys suggests that the disdain for time-based strictures, the "flexibility and casualness" inherent in Irish culture, may have prepared missionaries for the similar mentality in the Third World. It may have also prepared them for the missionary apostolate based less on dogma than on off-the-cuff practicality combined with a determined preference among missionaries for reticence, a reaction that may, however, work against missionaries as their legacy comes under scrutiny.

Added to the now-publicized abuses which Humphreys documents which have stained the Church's human rights record, the many, if humbler and less-promoted achievements in helping the poor at great cost to the clergy's health took their own toll. Most priests, brothers, and sisters who took their vocation seriously suffered deprivation. Some found martyrdom. Many more fell victims to exhaustion or disease, others to mental breakdown.

Today, Humphrey explores a shrinking world. Aging missionaries, disenchanted with the Irish transformation towards a secularized and selfish society, may prefer to not go home again. The Drogheda motherhouse of the "MMM" has only three of its eighty members not retired; the Columban Fathers have not had an Irish-born ordinand since 1999 and all its seminarians studying in Ireland today are coming from abroad. The elusive nature of what the Irish or any missionary brings to their work confounds observers. No systematic analysis of the Irish impact has been carried out. Often the missionaries flee from attention, preferring to do whatever works on the spot, improvising for success that no survey can pinpoint. Converts are not the goal; witnessing to the Gospel is. "Measuring success in such circumstances is like judging performance art."

Orla Lynch of the Loreto Sisters represents a rare figure: a younger nun. When she went to school in Bray, near Dublin, she met a woman who did not fit the stereotype: "I began to realise that you could in fact be young, youthful, vibrant, maybe half-crazy as well, and be a sister." Humphreys shows how Sister Orla's work in the Sudan characterizes the last echo of this long Irish twentieth-century burst into missionary work. Whomever follows will likely be not from the dwindling ranks of very few Irish entering the vowed clergy. Instead, missionaries may perhaps volunteer for a few years rather than decades, and will reflect the shorter-term commitments of those in Concern or Trócaire who devote time when they can and not over a celibate lifetime.

The missionary's core remains not one of ideology, at least for Irish Catholics today, so much as "charism," the anointed quality that distinguishes those delegated to proclaim the Good News to all nations. A Christian Brother working in Paraguayan prisons, Michael Lynch exemplifies "all of the infuriating blend of practicality and other-worldliness; radical and irrational thinking" which defines an inventive foot-soldier commissioned to preach the message of freedom inherent in the presence of Jesus among the outcasts. In Humphreys' view, Lynch "doesn't so much have an ideology as a way of approaching ideology." Contrary perhaps to more evangelical proponents, in this reviewer's estimation (this is an issue that this study does not delve into), Brother Michael "strives to be logical within the framework of a deep and profound faith." The contradictions inherent in this statement sum up the challenge for a clever if--as Humphreys suggests--anti-intellectual approach that fits a pragmatic, canny Irish response to the societal and ecclesiastic and economic system that has disappointed so many over the past few decades.

In conclusion, this popular, readable, and brisk overview reminds us of what the missionaries can teach Ireland. For a nation drawn from tradition into modernity the past forty-odd years, where Catholic pieties increasingly turn cruel caricatures after so many scandals, Humphreys wonders what lessons for better and worse the missionary example, once so devoted to a heady idealism mixed with brute calculation, can offer the homeland. Missionaries fail. The poor will always be with us, the Son of God reminded us. Yet the humility that the missionaries represent, their decision to give up lives of comfort for ones eked out "at the interface between different cultures, with tolerance and integrity," may inspire even a few of us lolling in the consumer's paradise. "Their kind of life might even be called sustainable. It is certainly simple and more in tune with the real world than the self-centred, comparmentalised existence that most of us enjoy."

Humphreys and his contributors remind us, therefore, of the challenge that the Christian gospel, and perhaps any call for renunciation of the goods and rewards of this world, embodies. The missionaries, for all the opprobium heaped upon them as crusaders, as colonialists, as capitalists and even as Catholics, in their best incarnations counter the modern rush to equate self-worth with financial worth. They stand up against despots and dogmatists, even popes and prelates, for the dignity of the forgotten man and woman, so often invisible to those of us who claim to have advanced toward, across what we boast of as the "developed" world. (New York Journal of Books featured 12-28-10.)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tony Bailie's "Ecopunks": Book Review

This novel combines the story of a German eco-activist, a Japanese maverick archeologist, and an Irish acid casualty-mystic. In 225 pages, it covers global ground, and links intriguing ideas such as Robert Graves' analyptic analysis, our narcotic addiction to tv, the entrapment of minor celebrity, and Charles Hapgood's theory about prehistoric continental drift. Tony Bailie, a Belfast-based journalist, integrates into this fiction his sober take on the media's creation of and distortion of events so as to caricature those before the camera and how many everyday folks today seek their own sort of secular salvation, lifted up as reality-TV heroes from their obscurity to their own triumphs over adversity.

The three storylines take a while to connect, but there's no disappointment in the wait. Wolf Cliss, the eco-warrior, certainly manages to juggle relationships (for a while) and to traverse the planet as he stays in front of the reporters who mock but dutifully cover his exploits as he seeks, for sincere but easily manipulated reasons, to alert the public to environmental destruction. Meanwhile, Kei Yushiro falls for Wolf, and their child, Irinda, leads the couple separately and together into the path of the third protagonist Lorcan O'Malley's own wanderings, this time less geographical than psychological, as he tries to figure out what the "chink" lysergically prised open after a drug-induced vision in his hippie days may portend as to the discovery in the Sahara that Kei makes.

The plot moves neatly, and (despite a discouraging number of typos, the one drawback) all the pieces fit. Fittingly, the networked nature of the ways activists communicate and connect today serves to emphasize the conjectures that Kei wonders about in her excavation, and that Wolf uses to try to figure out his own origins.

In his first novel, "The Lost Chord" (see my review on Amazon or my blog), Bailie had explored the side of fame less attended to, that of the musician who nearly made it, one who labors in the shadow of one who did. For Lorcan, his stint in an Irish folk trio at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius recalls Bailie's interest in this milieu, and he captures well the collision of Celtic past with countercultural present, as in Lorcan's gig playing in Antwerp while strippers "gyrate their naked crotches inches from his face like real-life sheela na gigs." After Lorcan's sudden come-down from such heady delights to Irish seclusion, his half-scholarly, half-spiritual quest appears inspired by John Moriarty, the late Kerry-born mythopoeic sage. Bailie patiently aligns marginalized speculations with scientific possibilities from our ancient past about how current research, even if maligned by the mainstream, may point to networks as intricate once upon a time as those you and I use to read this review today.

Also, the novel conveys a message that allows its mediators to preach a bit even as they know they are doing so. It's for, after all, a good cause. Nobody's entirely good or bad in this tale (even if a certain corporation with unexplained initials may indeed do evil), and these human qualities in its characters sustain the reader's empathy. There's one lurch into brief violence, but this hastens the climax and in the context of the threat, remains believable.

The plight of a planet in which devastation is seen as the inevitable exchange for jobs and economic growth is compared to a cancer, which may currently break out in isolated regions but has yet to metastasize. The impact of the earth so far may appear small, but it is like pebbles rolling down a slope after the rain: "the mountain--seemingly vast--varied and unchanging, but closely and almost imperceptibly being eroded until one day nothing would be left." (80) Relationships in this novel appear as fragile, and subject to their own global disruptions and sudden upheavals.

In Spain, after Wolf's intervention fails to halt a river diverted to feed a subdivision: "The trees in the forest didn't get a chance to die from thirst as they were chopped down and their wood used to build garden fences, some of them in the new housing development." (85) The wry note combines with the poignant one.

And even a familiar topic such as another hi-tech blight, that of our bodies and minds by television, gets a fresh spin. Instead of saints and martyrs, today we admire those such as one "who just a few days ago was caught in the same drudgery as most ordinary people now has, by the power of TV, been transformed and taken to a paradise on earth." (196) The slow drain of this eight-hour-a-day addiction, as with any sedative, makes one wonder about the long-term effects, on the individual and on our culture.

The denouement, after the rapid pace of most of this narrative, stands on its own as a haunting evocation of what Kei had discovered, or rediscovered. It ties together the ending, but it leaves it open with the careful twist that allows the imagination to enter the reader as the book is closed. (Author's website. Posted to Amazon US & Britain 12-25-10.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sandow Birk & Marcus Sanders' "Dante's Purgatorio: Book Review

This follows the pair's illustrated, surfer-Californian speak, pop culture-enriched version of Dante's inferno. That dragged us downscale into a strip-mall, back-alley, gang-tagged, trashed and hellish inner-city if still palm-fringed Los Angeles. The sequel's much more pleasant, befitting the hope that energizes those who work of their sentences and in free verse express their determination to overcome their failings and climb the purgatorial heights that rise in San Francisco.

While St Francis will not appear until Paradiso, an angel or two does. Birk's drawings again evoke a contemporary take on the medieval underworld. I liked the strip club of the Garden of Eden in SF placed here as the entrance into the Earthly Paradise that crowns the mountain, and the three lovely ecsdysiasts who as Faith, Hope, and Charity grace the floor. Added to this, of course, is a zaftig, multiethnic brunette Beatrice in a short black dress, talking to Dante. He's abandoned the backward baseball cap that he wore in the Inferno, and now with his hoodie looks more monkish as well as more relaxed. Virgil still drapes himself in flags as well as mantles, but he guides Dante this time only so far. The rest of the vista will await the finale.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere here, so full of fogs and inclines, fits this NoCal locale. "I felt lighter and looser,/ like I had done some yoga and was ready for a hike." (76) There's a relaxed, optimistic undertone to the whole journey, and enhanced by Brother Michael Meister's preface that explains the odd pageant and mystical references atop the Mount, readers will appreciate this infernal sequel. We get a barefoot Imelda Marcos, an envious Tonya Harding, and Oprah and Elvis among the gluttonous, but the pop culture figures somehow appear less noticeable than those sinners in Birk and Marcus Sanders' hellhole.

Dante's part two-- as with part three-- is often far less read than that raw, wrenching otherworldly predecessor (compare the number of translations, reviews, and ratings!), but I found this Purgatorio stimulating and satisfying as a contemporary rendering of this venerable, very Christian call to repentance and reformation. Birk and Sanders appear at ease as they climb to the summit, and they capture the humanism as well as the dogmatism smoothly. As with their Inferno (also reviewed by me), the notes may have to be accessed from another, more scholarly translation and footnoted edition, but especially for newcomers to Dante, this is a welcome excursion. (Posted to Amazon US 10-24-10 & 10-28-10.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sandow Birk & Marcus Sanders' "Dante's Inferno": Book Review.

As a native Angeleno, reading about my hometown depicted as hell the week the temperature in my neighborhood hit 118 (the municipal thermometer broke at 113 downtown) made for some poetic justice. The tag of the gang that dominated my neighborhood graces a wall in one of the many illustrations that recall Dore as well as graphic art that Birk's known for, as in his witty SF vs. LA "war"-- it figures SF gets to be Purgatorio by comparison.

I have ten translations of the Inferno, and I like to compare their opening lines to judge the fidelity or flexibility of each version. "About halfway through the course of my pathetic life,/ I woke up and found myself in a stupor in some dark place./ I'm not sure how I ended up there; I guess I had taken a few wrong turns." This shows the casual prose and the matter-of-fact reporting that characterizes the mood of Dante's quest.

Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders offer a surfer's translation, and while this may feel as dated as, say, the Beats' hip slang in a half century from now if not sooner, it does ring true as the vernacular I hear around me now. The placement of such as Slobodan Milosevic, Jim Bakker (misspelled in the text), and Anna Nicole Smith, as well as Porta Potties, Duraflames, and Fred Flintstone's inflated figure in the subway may lead to puzzled readers soon enough, but for now, pop culture references may hook an audience on the original, many translations graced by excellent renderings often side-by-side with the Italian.

The most harrowing scene for me has always been Canto XXXIII, Count Ugolino having to eat his sons. The simple plaint: "'Why don't you help me, Dad?' were his very last words" combines contemporary tone and eloquent power.

The liberties taken with the text, as with the illustrations, naturally are the reason this version's published, so the carping with the freedoms by some reviewers appears beside the point. Birk and Sanders love their wretched city, show compassion for those trapped here, and give voice to the outraged and the outrages in 1300 or 2000.

Many sections rely on digression to incorporate recent references, and then cut medieval ones, and the summaries before each canto do compress a lot, making likely any reader having to go back to a more comprehensive edition for footnotes and commentary. Brother Michael Meister's accessible introduction does assist us, however, and the illustrated map of Hell is clearly drawn. While this may not be the end of one's Dantean adventure, it may be for some readers put off by more scholarly or fussy texts an ideal enticement to descend into classic terror and enduringly moral, and very Christian and ethical, drama. (Posted to & Amazon US 10-13-10)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Choinne dhá pionta go céilí

Fhreastail Léna agus mé go céilí ómós a thabhairt do Pháidín Dé Domhnaigh seo caite. Bhí lá bréithe é aice. Thiomaint muid go teach tábhairne i bPairc Ghlassell in aice leis chomharsanacht againn.

Bheul, chonaic muid Teach Tábhairne Verdugo i dtús báire. Shiúl muid trí an doras tiubh isteach. Bhí sé níos dorcha istigh.

D'ól Léna gloine bpiorra den leann ar dtús. Rinne "Grúdlann Aonghus ag fánaíocht" ag imeall Naomh Didacus é. Bhain sult as aice é go leor.

D'ól mé pionta áitúil le "Grúdlann na gCarraig Iolar" ag glaoite "Forógra." Ach, ní raibh maith liom é, go cinnte. Bhlais mé é. Bhí ro-searbh é orm.

Lhabhairt Léna leis Máití, an stócach seasta Pháidín ar chúrsaí oibre scannán. Bhí mé tanall comhrá a dhéanamh leis sí faoi punk-roc doléir ina tamall fada. Bhí chuimhne léi níos mo de reir, gan amhras.

Chuaigh trucail loin ansin. D'ainmithe "Fostaitheoir Ribe Róibéis" é. D'íth Léna agus mé sceallóga leis iasc. D'alp muid siad is géarr, ceart go leor.

Faoi deireadh, bhí muid ag dulta ar ais faoi choinne pionta aríst isteach. Cheannaigh mé leann dorcha "Siúcra Dubh" le "Grúmlann Lochanna Beag" i gContae Marin i gCalifoirnea ar thuaisceart; roghnaithe Léna beoir Bheilgeach shamhraidh. Rinne sé le "Grúdlann na nGráin Seacht" i bPlacentia. Bhí breá linn beirt óil ann!

Getting a couple of pints at a party.

Layne and I attended a party in honor of Patty last Sunday. It was her birthday. We drove to the pub in Glassell Park near our neighborhood.

Well, we saw Verdugo Bar first of all. We walked in through the thick door. It was very dark inside.

Layne drank a pint of pear cider to start. "Wandering Aengus Brewery" around San Diego made it. She enjoyed it a lot.

I drank a local pint from "Eagle Rock Brewery" called "Manifesto." But, it did not please me, certainly. I tasted it. It was too sour for me.

Layne and Matt, Patty's steady boyfriend, talked about film work. I was making conversation with her about obscure punk-rock long ago. She had a very good memory on this account, no doubt.

A lunch truck came there. It was named "Shrimp Pimp." Layne and I ate fish and chips. We gobbled them rapidly, sure enough.

Later, we went for another pint again back inside. I bought a "Brown Sugar" dark ale from Lagunitas (~"little lakes") Brewery from Marin County in Northern California; Layne selected a Belgian summer beer (saison). It was made by "Seven Grains Brewery" in Placentia. We loved the pair of drinks there.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Robert Thurman's "Inner Revolution": Book Review

Thurman's easy to fault and easy to forgive. As he'll remind you, he's the first Tibetan Buddhist monk ordained from America; he studied with the Dalai Lama before he was a household name and Thurman's pioneered the promotion and study of Tibetan practice in the West. Promoting activism and furthering translation, he combines moral with academic ambitions admirably.

While scholarly peers such as Donald S. Lopez (see my review of "Prisoners of Shangri-La") fault Thurman for his naive insistence upon a practically utopian Tibetan feudal past as a peaceful theocracy committed to spiritual technology, science of the mind, and individual liberation free of strife, Thurman here does appear to underplay what his 2008 "Why the Dalai Lama Matters" (see my review) admits in passing: the Tibetans can survive on their mountain plateau three miles high where others have not adapted.

That aside, this 1998 popularization of an inner-guided revolution has a few inspiring passages amidst rambling detours. The familiar story of King Ashoka's reforms and "cool heroism" among other, perhaps lesser-known Buddhist leaders deserves telling; Thurman enjoys relating Buddhist heritage in lessons that may confuse skeptics (he can be an awkward advocate) even as they assure the faithful.

Contrasting Western "conquest and unification" by technology with Tibetan "harmony and creativity within one global society," he proposes a reformation that makes modernity less frontier-directed. Instead, he provocatively suggests that our Western attitudes betray our need to plunge into a safe territory to let out our repressions of "the untamed wildness of the involuntary emotions of an unintegrated subconscious." (36-7) I lack Jungian or Freudian expertise, I admit, to judge this. He compares Westerners' expansive imperative to an "inner modernity" that needs social isolation lest it's "smothered by the outer modern conquest." Tibet being the case study, the problem remains that it was overrun by a belligerent larger power who had weapons, manpower, and Western-derived technology for mass destruction of the ancient culture and its people on that plateau.

Later he does come around to noticing this, but practically as an historical oversight. He then states the obvious. "Unilateral disarmament causes you to become totally vulnerable to your former and potential enemies." Tibet had barely any forces to resist the Chinese. Thurman lists "late-first-millennium C.E. India, the Jewish nation in exile, modern Tibet, and modern Mongolia" as casualties: "Societies that have become truly civilized in the sense of behaving nonviolently." (125) A hundred pages later, he does muse about how a "middle way between the two extremes of authoritarian repression and self-defeating nihilism" may be blazed by applying Buddhist principles to the inner self as successfully as we've harnessed science and systems to free ourselves within and from outer nature. (218) How this may be done is left to an inevitably idealistic platform for social renewal-- as appended.

When it comes to Buddhism as a not a religion or a belief system, he's on to a controversial idea that may appeal to many disenchanted with theism, or those who wish to blend dharma practice ethically and spiritually within their own religious orientation. He stresses how the Buddha taught the need to separate one's self from ritual actions mandated so as to nurture critical wisdom. "He taught the relativity of social structures and the supremacy of the individual's right to freedom." (59) Here Thurman seems on firmer ground related to other studies putting dharma into understandable "engaged Buddhist" contexts, but this narrative tends to pack so many disparate ideas into its scope that it may bewilder as many as it reassures.

It ends, however, with you unable to gainsay Thurman's sincerity. His subtitle of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness" neatly hearkens back to visionaries Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson who also kicked against the deistic conventions and political platforms of their day as they inspired revolution. Out of this ideal, Thurman finds precedent for a link to the future Buddha Maitreya, who has been predicted will "shatter his inherited jeweled sacrificial post and distribute a piece to each of his thousands of disciples, all of whom will immediately attain liberation and enlightenment." (287) As with any such myth, its beauty nestles amidst its imagery, not its possibility. Yet, Thurman allies democracy to dharma, as he concludes by reaffirming our "mission to restore the jewel crown of the natural royalty of every individual to every person of this planet, letting the authoritarian personalities of dictators and dictated melt in the glow of human beauty and creativity released by freedom." (288)

Few may believe this lofty rhetoric, but few supported Paine then and even today his rationally based treatise remains too revolutionary for many Americans. Perhaps it may take another 2500 years, as has also been foretold in Buddhist myth, for Maitreya as another Jefferson or Paine to fulfill the prophecy that Thurman seeks here to hasten to fruition. This offbeat manifesto may startle many readers, but it may cause some to at least think again about how they believe or defend what they do, and how this warps or smooths their path and the lives of those around them.

(Posted to Amazon US 9-12-09. P.S. John and Elizabeth Roberts in "Freeing Tibet" --an excellent counterpart reviewed by me, with diplomatic and cultural history combined with boycott strategies, divestment goals, and plans for activists to apply to Tibetan liberation; published later in 2008 than this book, so covering Beijing Olympics protests and reprisals after the Tibetan national uprising-- seem less optimistic than Thurman does here or in his counterpart from 2008, "Why the Dalai Lama Matters", also reviewed by me. Finally, see my review earlier this month of "Mixing Minds" by a Buddhist psychoanalyst, Pilar Jennings.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Robert Thurman's "Why the Dalai Lama Matters": Book Review

"Tired of feeling that Tibet is doomed," friend for 45 years of the Dalai Lama, leading scholar and earnest activist, Thurman explains why China can change, how Tibet can survive, and how they can both be happier. He explores the Dalai Lama's appeal, proposes a plan for compromise, and envisions a "Tibet solved, freed, restored" as an environmental sanctuary, a spiritual center, and an economic entity.

My sympathies are with the message here. But, the tone may fail to rouse skeptics towards this noble cause. Some Tibetan scholars, while admiring Thurman's academic record, shrink back at his emotional embrace of his mentor, and have argued that such naivete and hero-worship may detract from rather than further the Tibetan struggle. I'll mention three other books that those opposing Tibet's predicament may find useful in my review. The first third of this narrative I found the most interesting, but it bogs down when it gets to the details, sort of like after a keynote speaker's introduced, gets through the warm-up, and settles down to business over a long, intricate, and detail-laden scheme. I don't fault the concept here, but the presentation and delivery may, I reckon, make some restless in the audience.

I suspect this book will preach to the converted. Nothing wrong with this, but many more may scoff. The tone of this work will unsettle rationalists. It may put off secular readers accustomed to less fulsome praise of any religious leader today. It will not teach you much about Buddhism, or even Tibet's milieu; I recommend Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet" via conversations with the Dalai Lama, and Pico Iyer's "The Open Road" for context (both reviewed by me). Yet, Thurman does try to account for what many-- not only Laird and Iyer-- attest to in the Dalai Lama's presence: he adapts with inner flexibility to his interlocutor, while radiating a charismatic humility, a balanced power, and an engaging wit that disarms perhaps all but the likes of Chairman Mao or President Hu of the PRC. He's somehow grounded in deep tradition while eager for the latest discoveries in science and technology.

Thurman writes as one who has faith in his subject, literally. He builds upon his immense knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism with his Western sensibility, and his American confidence in righteous transformation for a better world. Tibet becomes a symbol of the "inner revolution" that all can aspire to for transformation, no matter their own beliefs or lack in conventional religion.

Thurman reminds us that the fall of the Soviet empire was predicted by few when it happened. The PRC cannot, he holds, live for long as the jailer next to the prisoner. The six million in Tibet face a genocide; the parallels haunt us with last century's ideological tyranny imposed upon a herded and battered people, their ancient and modern legacy of learning and wisdom, and their rich faith.

He parallels three sections of Buddhism with three roles for Tibet's leader. "If Buddhism is one-third ethics, one-third psychology and religion as therapy, and one-third scientific wisdom," then as a teacher, practitioner, and as a philosopher-scientist, we can work for the recognition of the Dalai Lama as a "Prince of Peace" who in his reincarnations as Avalokiteshvara intervenes for the Tibetans. This may confound outsiders, but he's a sort of renewable messiah. Contrasted with Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, all of whom await a first or second coming of a savior-figure, Tibetans regard the Dalai Lama as their protector who, as the boddhisatva's name can be rendered awkwardly but accurately, "'the looking down compassionately on the suffering' of 'a God.'" That is, he intervenes for his people rather than expecting them to wait for "a God who floats above, aloof in his own freedom and bliss." (128) Heady stuff, as are the claims that Thurman as a believer holds for His Holiness, but he gives an introduction that shifts us from our Western skepticism into Eastern understanding of how Tibetan Buddhism regards its spokesman.

For non-believers, the benefits of the Dalai Lama and an autonomous Tibet would counteract our own economic malaise, moral relativism, and capitalist consumption. The Dalai Lama speaks of shared kindness as our social bond. He knows no religion can be perfect either. He tells Muslims and Christians: "There is no such thing as a religion of hate!" (52); Thurman posits this same claim for a conflicted regime such as Communist China.

The Dalai Lama compares four trends in the 21st century that augur well. War is seen as not the answer to geopolitical conflict; capitalism no less than communism gains trust so much as individual initiative; spirituality offers solace and meaning to those for whom "the dictates of materialistic science" have been found wanting; environmental preservation has gained our awareness as a necessity. (94) Thurman prophesies an Asian Switzerland. The book at this point may bog down with a lot of enthusiastic brainstorming, but the ideals and the possibilities open up what, for fifty years, no other methods have succeeded in doing to advance Tibet's freedom.

He and the Dalai Lama imagine Tibet as a possible land of true freedom. But, governments, consumers, corporations, armies: all would have to change their evil ways. Thurman provides detailed speculation combined with the Dalai Lama's own words on many policies and agendas that could be worked out, if China listened, if the rest of the nations cared, and if we believed enough to act for change. He concludes with no index, but a brief bibliography and websites where you can get involved; the maps and photos dazzle with color and detail; his Ten Points of Hope do rally the committed with an inspiring, eloquent, and idealistic conclusion.

Can the Dalai Lama as a philosopher-king, in his next incarnation, evade the Chinese puppet of a "False Lama" that has interfered in the Panchen Lama's similar case? Thurman urges a federation between Tibet and China as a way to ease tensions. John and Elizabeth Roberts in "Freeing Tibet" (an excellent counterpart reviewed by me, with diplomatic and cultural history combined with boycott strategies, divestment goals, and plans for activists to apply to Tibetan liberation; published later in 2008 than this book, so covering Beijing Olympics protests and reprisals after the Tibetan national uprising) seem less optimistic than Thurman. They cite the Dalai Lama's bold plan to get the world to notice Tibet. He'll come back next life as "a beautiful woman"! (Originally posted except for last paragraph & links to Amazon US 8-14-09) Book's website: ""

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

John B. & Elizabeth A. Roberts' "Freeing Tibet": Book Review

Credit Allen Ginsberg! His Beat quest crossed, in New Jersey, with Geshe Wangyal's Kalmyk refugees who founded the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in a garage. While Ginsberg's popularization of the dharma, repeated in this book, is well-known, Wangyal and his Tibetan colleagues provide the other side of a symbiotic relationship between the counterculture and the Establishment in their struggle to raise not only consciousness but funds and resistance within the occupied homeland for the cause of freedom.

The CIA, as the first part documents (within limits as much remains classified), tried to work within Cold War tensions, India-China frontier clashes, and propaganda benign and black to support Khampa freedom fighters in the Eisenhower administration. But, after secret guerrilla training in Saipan and Colorado, and airlifts into Tibet, the People's Liberation Army, in 1961, slaughtered the rebels in a "second Bay of Pigs" that today still is largely hush-hush, even to the Beltway-insider authors, who in this narrative rely on CIA operatives and released security directives to explain the role of spies and arms in the failed first stage for Tibet's struggle against Communism. With the Asian geopolitical tensions rising in the early '60s, Tibet was abandoned by Washington.

Part Two shows how Beats and then hippies-- and Ginsberg seems to be always in the vanguard-- took over the "ethical obligation" to Tibet. It concludes with an intriguing reflection. After the CIA's failure to support a popular uprising against vicious PLA reprisals, "shared spiritual values instead of political expendience" entered the awareness of the West. Therefore, "what appeared as a double-cross by the American government-- cold-hearted reneging on solemn promises to support the Dalai Lama during his exile-- was in reality a criss-cross, a moment in time when the surging counterculture took over from an establishment that had discarded the goal of Tibetan liberation." (173)

Published in 2008 after the latest uprising, Part Three therefore shows the little we know, given Chinese manipulation and censorship-- of the protests that March, that failed to derail international acclaim for the Beijing Olympics, and that did not result in Western leaders having the courage to boycott the most favored of all trading partners. Yet, the Roberts pair insist that, as with apartheid-era South Africa, divestment and boycotts can and would work against China to force a sort of Catalan autonomy within Spain parallel for Tibet.

Their proposals, on economic, moral, and environmental grounds, dovetail nicely with the book also from 2008 by an advocate they both quote often, Robert Thurman in his "Why the Dalai Lama Matters" (see my review.) What frightens one in the last stages of the Roberts book is that the present, aging Dalai Lama may not reincarnate, or that his reincarnation may be stage-managed as the Panchen Lama has by the Chinese.

The steady erosion of Tibetan culture, where 8 monasteries out of 6000 survived intact after the invasion and then the Cultural Revolution, continues. Native tour guides in Lhasa are replaced by Han Chinese parroting the party line of a grateful nation happy to be released from serfdom and pits of scorpions run by mad monks. The rail brings in immigrants; Tibetan is not taught but Chinese remains a must for traders and advancement of the dwindling indigenous population against the incomers who bring capitalism without ethics or respect for the Buddhist and local traditions.

While this efficient account moves smoothly through such details, it stumbles a bit in the early section, perhaps burdened inevitably by lots of diplomatic minutiae that historians and analysts will nonetheless welcome. The second part, with the Beats and hippies, moves more fluidly; the third part weighs one down with the realization that cheap labor and high profits from the PRC trump any commitment by the East or West to lasting Chinese reform.

I'd have added a couple of clarifications. The 1904 British occupation of Lhasa by Col. Younghusband did lead to a treaty that forced Tibet's trade with the British in exchange for the Empire's recognition of its independence, but it also meant that the Chinese could twist this treaty with a foreign power into a reason to take over Tibet. The Manchus were deposed but the new Republic of China never ratified the Simla Conference of 1913-14 that acknowledged Tibetan independence. This issue is not mentioned by the Roberts, who maybe march too rapidly over early 20th century diplomatic foundations upon which the present Chinese later justified their long domination of Tibet.

Also, in the Dorje Shukden controversy, the "rival sect" possibly entangled with the murderous debate over the 17th Karmapa seems worthy of more coverage. The Roberts do not elaborate, but the controversy over the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) in the West that has spread an anti-Dalai Lama campaign taken up often by pro-PRC media appears deserving of attention, as this plays into the current political and cultural skirmishes over the Dalai Lama and his role in governing Tibetan affairs from his Dharamsala exile.

Still, these are minor asides compared to the moral necessity that most in East and West have shirked-- outside of a few celebrities, musicians, more low-key activists, and brave protesters. Our leaders tell us to trust in "blind faith that capitalism has some magical quality to transform China from a one-party communist state to a multi-party democracy." (246) We buy cheap goods, we send them our factories, and we rely on them to support our debt. But, we fail to make them a fairer regime for the Han let alone Tibetans. I hope this book finds an audience, and I hope it changes the complacency and indifference with which many dismiss Tibet today. (Posted as above to Amazon US 7-10-09.)

P.S. At Amazon, 3-16-10, Charles H. Harpole added to my review: "This review misses a very important point... that HH Dalai Lama has announced that if he reincarnates, it will be in a place NOT UNDER CHINA'S CONTROL. He stated that if someone thinks he has identified the reincarnation body and it is under Chinese control, IT IS NOT HH DALAI LAMA. Thus, in a single statement, HH has trumped China's ace, the ace of holding the Panchan Lama in China's control. Today, China is the master evil empire of all, and the world deserves, by its kowtowing to China, the century of Dark Ages China's dominance brings." I responded that I was unsure if this book treated this trans-border "trump." For, my copy has been returned to the library months ago.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Kurt Andersen's "Heyday": Book Review

1848: "What kind of fool celebrates the vanquishing of Mexicans at ten and the freedom of the French at midnight?" (148) "An American fool."

Andersen's sixteen months, from that April past August 1849, span a Paris uprising, Darwin's discovery, London gentry, Marx & Engels' manifesto, that Mexican War, the Gold Rush, New York conflagrations, the rise of photography, bordellos, arson, and Manifest Destiny. As with his millennial romp, "Turn of the Century," Andersen loves New York City, as he celebrates its rich variety of characters, slang, and customs. What he adds to "Heyday": a novel of adventure that skips lightly over the fresh ideas and social transformations that challenge its three protagonists. Ben Knowles arrives from England, soon falls for Polly (an actress-model-whatever in a much later slang term) and follows her and her brother, Duff, a Mexican War veteran with secrets only half-hidden. Accompanied by Timothy Skaggs, an enterprising jack-of-some-trades, Ben joins the trio as they deal with love and death and surprise.

This picaresque narrative takes awhile to leave Manhattan. It does not lag, but it does take its time in the city, soaking up its atmosphere and allowing scoundrels to skulk and thicken the plot. Coincidences abound. These do give, however, a mid-19th c. air to the enterprise, and it's enjoyable to see neologisms and slang enter the lexicon as it's spoken, mainly by Skaggs. The air is also somewhat melodramatic, but it does recall Dickens inevitably in its fascination with the clash of cultures, philosophies, and accents. Andersen keeps the story moving. He rarely stops for set-pieces or editorializing, keeping the point-of-view moving between his three characters and also their pursuer. This can be dizzying; months pass for the protagonists in NYC, but a journey westwards by way of Panama passes in a blink.

But, symbols do work well, enriching the plot now and then. A house in upstate New York is being moved from its foundations onto a wagon so a railroad can be built. "As the house began to move forward, pulled by more oxen than it seemed possible to harness together, its chimneys crumbled and fell to the ground." (360)

Around pg. 350 of 620 pp., the trio leave for a transcontinental journey. I will not spoil the suspense, for it does build as this section commences. Polly wonders why not go all the way, past their original Middle Western goal, to the Pacific Coast. "Why should we not proceed to a wholly new place? A place far beyond what 'is,' beyond the Mormons and the anti-Mormons, beyond the priests, beyond the upper-ten snobs and the revolutionist shouters, beyond the Whigs and the Democrats, beyond 'this' world, a place of plenty where we might fashion our own world." (247)

Throughout the novel, the restlessness and the excitement of this age recalls our own giddy sensations from political chicanery, imperial conflict, technological inventions, fads and fashions, and the passing buzzwords and neologisms. Capitalism makes, if for a season, California as a place where neither rich nor poor live, only those looking for gold in a fresh, levelled playing field; Marx and Darwin contend with DeTocqueville in struggling to describe a world remade and renewed and seen anew. Andersen captures well in his protagonists this fleeting glimpse of wonder.

"Kings overthrown overnight, the nation ribboned with rails and telegraph wire by the day, California conquered and turned into a gold mine, their own settled lives in New York and London abandoned in a flash...According to Skaggs's theory, they now 'expected' outlandish surprise and speed and high adventure-- even needed them, as people acquire a taste for spiced food or drugs. 'Perhaps the quiet meandering and murk of ordinary life,' Skaggs said, 'is now too ordinary for the likes of us. We've been spoiled.'" (512) (Posted 1-19-10 on Amazon US.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ag dul go hIarsmalann na gContae

Chuaigh Léna agus mé go hIarsmalann na gContae inné. Choniac muid saothair ealaíne éagsúlaí ar ndóigh. D'iarr beirt uainn ag dul amach le linn an lá breá.

Bhí sí ag iarraidh ag feiceáil taispeántas fótografach le William Eggleston. Is grianghrafadóir é ag teacht aneas ina Meiriceá Thuas. Rinne sé grianghrafái cuma dhearóil de radhairc tíre agus saol ina mbailte tuaithe. Shíl mé go raibh siad mír ag plátáilte ach bhí sé ag usaid sáithiú go maith air.

Is maith liom seo uaidh is fearr. Níl sé teidealta chomh an chuid is mó le Eggleston. Ach, ceapaim go bhfuil an gort go halaínn ann.

D'imigh siad go gailearaí ealáine eile. Fuair siad foireann troscáin Tibéadach. Bhreathnaigh siad fideo géarr le Ladakh. Abair go mbheimis ina Hiomaleatha ag cur cuairt mainistreachaí ornáideachái, ag ól tae leis im gheac.

Ansin, d'fhág siad go ealáine lucht an lae inniu. Thosaigh muid leis na líníochtaí fadó riamh le George Grosz. Pictiúir sé duine cathrachaí scigdhealbhaímaithe ina Ghearmáin agus ar feadh Chogadh Dhomhanda an chéad a tharraingt.

Duirt Léna fúthu go raibh siad cósulacht "Chagall leis P.M.S." Nílim ábalta fáil níos mó i rith idir 1910-20 go cruinn, ach faighim seo. Is cuimhne liom é faoi ag léamh Céline im bParas le dó seo bheith ar siúl go díreach.

Rug orainn saothair ealáine le Bauhaus agus Mothálacht Gearmánach. D'éirigh seo go tobann ina aghaidh mise féin. Phéintáil é Ludwig Meidner i 1912 . Feic Radhairc Apacailpteachaí eile air anseo.

Bhí maith léi í, rud atá le céill. Bhí maith liom í fós, mar sin féin. "Dia ag ainliú le hathaint na uiscí," dealbh a ghearraidh as plástar le Hans Barlach i 1922.

I ndeireadh na dála, shiúl muid suas go taispeáint le saothair ealáine Mheirceánachaí. Ag dul thart trid na gailearaithe, d'fhoglaim mé an chuid is fearr a thoghadh ormsa. Is "Cluain Poipín i gCalifoirnea" (1926) é. Tá cárta poist seo le ealaíontóir féin, Granville Redmond, tamall fada os cionn mo deasc ag oibre agam.

Ní fhaca Léna togha uirthi. Bhí "An Baisteadh" le Julius L. Stewart i 1891 ag curtha as taisce. Thoilleadh sé ar aon láthair, phioc mé maighnéad beag sin uaidh nuair ag raibh sáite ag feiceáil ceann le Redmond ina siopa ina ndiath! Ní raibh fhios agam go raibh an dealbh céanna féin go raibh breá go deo le Léna!

Going to the County Museum. 

Layne and I went to the County Museum yesterday. We saw various works of art, of course. The pair of us wanted to go out during a fine day.

She wanted to look at a photographic exhibition by William Eggleston. He's a photographer coming from the American South. He took forlorn photographs of landscapes and life in country towns. I considered that they were a bit stereotyped but he was using saturation well. 

This one pleases me most. It is untitled as most of those by Eggleston. But, I think the field's lovely.

We went off to another art gallery. We found a set of Tibetan furniture. We looked at a brief video from Ladakh. Imagine ourselves in the Himalayas paying a visit to ornate monasteries, drinking tea with yak butter.

Then, we went to the modernist share of art. We started with the early line-drawings by George Grosz. He depicts caricatured city folks in Germany and during the First World War.

Layne told of these they were like "Chagall with P.M.S." I'm not able to get more examples from the era 1910-20 precisely, but I find this. It reminds me about reading Céline in Paris at the same time this was happening.

We caught Bauhaus and German Expressionism artworks. This leaped out at me suddenly. Ludwig Meidner painted it in 1912. See his other Apocalyptic Landscapes here.

She liked this better, as is her nature. It pleased me too, all the same. "God hovering over the waters," image sculpted from plaster by Hans Barlach in 1922.

Finally, we walked up to an exhibit of American works of art. Wandering the galleries, I studied the pick of the lot for me. It's "California Poppy Field" (1926). I have had a postcard of this by the artist, Granville Redmond, for a long time above my desk at work.

Layne did not see her choice. "The Baptism" by Julius L. Stewart in 1891 was put into storage. But amazingly, I picked that very magnet when browsing to see one by Redmond in the shop later! I did not know that that same image was the one beloved always by Layne!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chögyam Trungpa's "The Heart of the Buddha": Book Review

Trungpa Rinpoche's controversial "crazy wisdom" methods of cutting through "spiritual materialism" to penetrate the superficially captivated, shopping-mall mentality of his Western audiences with the essence of Tibetan Buddhism aroused much attention before his early death in 1987. However, the calmer moods of his philosophical and doctrinal instructions, addressing both those practicing and those unfamiliar with the stages on the path, may have been overlooked by those not his patient followers. Fifteen talks and essays, compiled from previously published articles and edited by Judith L. Lief, present an accessible overview of the relevance of the diamond-hard Vajrayana "vehicle" of Tibetan practice that follows the "Hinayana" approach to one's own transformation and the "Mahayana" expansion from one's self to the concerns of other sentient beings.

Edited along the model of these three varieties of Buddhism, the division of these talks and articles begins with those oriented towards the individual. The "Hinayana" aspect expresses the "heart of the Buddha." That is, an intrinsic nature of goodness that humans are automatically born with. New wisdom does not enter by revelation from above or imposition by dogma; Chögyam Trungpa insists that awakening to one's own freedom is how humans discover their own inner "buddha-nature."

He compares this liberation into possibility to a gifted child, whose genius found itself constantly undermined by a society bent on reducing young talent to mediocrity. Parents embarrassed by a prodigy might shut down the expression of a little one's unconventionality. Trungpa tells his listeners that they are like these parents, and then the cowed child, who suppresses innate capabilities. Buddhism urges people to break out of habits and to seek mindfulness that connects one to the larger world, to ease suffering of all beings, and to contribute to the development of one's equanimity, with precision, compassion, and joy.

Such mindfulness shatters the feeling of suffering and dissatisfaction that appears so natural: "Life has the quality of a game of ours that has trapped us." Trungpa by teaching the "Vajrayana" path draws the seeker out of one's self, once the necessity of awareness of the liberating potential of Buddhism has been accepted. The "sharpness" that is at the root of the "vajra" term cuts through illusion. It forces the meditator to face reality not as projected from one's own mistaken perceptions of solidity, but reality as transitory.

A wide-ranging chapter on devotion, to a guru, to a discipline, to a commitment to change one's attitude through the guidance of a spiritual friend, conveys the reaching out from self to others on a level that Tibetan Buddhism exemplifies. The transmission of dharma began orally, from master to disciple, and over generations, this chain of how the historical Buddha's words have been shared thus connects those two-and-a-half thousand years apart. Trungpa's spoken words, here recorded, continue this ancient and durable form of how the dharma in Tibet and Asia has been preserved in face-to-face discussions.

He notes how these dharma teachings have been channeled, expanded, and tested between practitioners for thousands of years. If the Buddha, born mortal, could gain enlightenment by his own willpower, so, Trungpa reasons, can any human. While books accumulate these sayings, intellectuals may put texts aside. Scholars may seek out beggars to understand how the dharma evolves into everyday practice. The example of such a skilled teacher helps the new student.

Trungpa makes the analogy of a spiritual friend to a fine baker from a long line of bakers. The secrets for good bread get passed on over many years. The baker today continues the tradition. "The loaf he gives us to sample was not preserved throughout the generations as an antique; it is not a museum piece. This loaf has been baked fresh and is now hot, wholesome, and nourishing. It is an example of what freshness can be."

Buddhism therefore is both venerable and lively. Later, in a discussion of "taking refuge" in accepting dharma, Trungpa imagines this advanced vow taken to follow Buddha's example, and to practice the precepts while part of the community, as indicative of the resources of which a newcomer can partake. The supportive fellowship extended to the "refugee" resembles yeast "put into a batch of hundreds of grains of barley. Each grain begins to fill up with yeast, until finally there is a huge, beautiful, gigantic vat of beer. Everything is yeasted completely; each one of the grains has become powerful individually--so the whole thing becomes a real world."

These wholesome metaphors enrich presentation of daunting concepts. When Trungpa expounds on "taking refuge," he warns of the loneliness that this entails. No savior, no help from above awaits. Yet this existential honesty, this non-theistic confrontation with the fear and reality of non-existence rather than eternity, impels the practitioner to "get on a train that is without reverse and without brakes." One boards the moving train, one that has been set in motion centuries ago. From now on, redemption and salvation, damnation and condemnation fade away. On the horizon? Facing confusion, and overcoming it. The path is there, the spiritual friend directs, and the journey continues along the same rugged but direct route laid out 2500 years ago.

Essays stretch out from here into higher realms. The boddhisattva vow of taking on the liberation of all other beings before one enters enlightenment pulls the "refugee" away from self-concern to the care for the wellbeing of everyone else. Trungpa warns of this demanding challenge, for one's privacy vanishes, and one's personal concerns give way to an uncertain, unending openness to the needs of others. Vajrayogini practices of the tantra, often misunderstood by Westerners, are here explained as symbolic.

This material precedes the third section of this anthology. Intriguingly, the more relevant to daily life the later talks turn, the more they may unsettle the worldly reader. Relationships, in Trungpa's iconoclastic outlook, deserve to fall apart. Good manners and dignity themselves get undermined as humanistic convention and mind-games; eternity in a theistic sense also dissolves. Death must be acknowledged without hope for our personal survival; sickness can be blamed on a lack of caring for ourselves, whether being hit by a car or catching a cold. Trungpa blames "some kind of loss of interest and attention" for those who become ill or injured. He claims a "psychological responsibility" by the sufferer who lets the appeal of the body go unheeded. "Illness brings us down to earth, making things seem much more direct and immediate."

Trungpa died at forty-seven, his end hastened by drinking. His reflection "Alcohol as Medicine or Poison" fifteen years previous, therefore, takes on significance. He refers to Gurdjieff's "conscious drinking" advice as a model. A yogi, Trungpa suggests, might need to be brought down from a trance about nonduality back into the mundane via a stiff libation. The world demands that he pay attention to it, so drinking may ease communication. Rather than stick to the Buddhist prohibition against intoxicants as a blanket ban, Trungpa perceives the attraction and temptation one has towards alcohol as the wrong; the effects, he conjectures, may prove more ameliorative as they ease pain and heighten pleasure. They may give the "conscious drinker" using "skillful means" a way to lose attachment to one's self, and hasten freedom--and perhaps glean a glimpse of "the cosmic orgasm of mahasukha," or ultimate delight.

Other talks discuss money's lure; dharma poetics; enlightenment and "first thought, best thought”; the Bön way of life in this pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion, and the intricacies of the Vajrayogini shrine's construction and elements. For a beginner, most of this material will be too advanced. While Trungpa surveys the essentials of Buddhism, he assumes for thirteen of these entries that his audience is well on their way along the path of the dharma teachings. An address to children lightens the tone with his good-natured questions and answers; a brief talk to Christian monastics offers a relaxed conversation with his contemplative counterparts.

No glossary is appended, but the index parenthetically (if tersely) defines terms. Lief's brief forward notes the inclusion of both introductory and technical essays but without elaboration. For instance, background on the context of Trungpa's two compositions on 1972 retreat, about alcohol and relationships, might explain their gnomic, enigmatic mood, which differs from more straightforward entries as spoken to audiences. Still, despite the scanty editorial apparatus, this collection succeeds in how Trungpa's entries "embody the living quality of oral transmission and the importance of discussion and dialogue between student and teacher."(Published Nov. 23, 2010 in the New York Journal of Books; posted to Amazon US in briefer form Nov. 30, 2010 & Dec. 5, 2010.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Dave Hannigan's "De Valera in America": Book Review

Post-9/11, Americans distrust foreign leaders coming here to lobby for their ideologies, let alone to raise funds that may be funnelled for radical gunrunners bent on anti-imperialist revolution. The Irish, after the defeat of their Easter Rising in 1916, may have been the first people to lobby for recognition and to sell bonds to Americans eager to support the fledgling Republic, proclaimed but lacking international recognition. In a bold move capitalizing on the renewed rebellion by Irish against the Crown, and the right for national self-determination that the Treaty of Versailles, the post-WWI League of Nations, and Woodrow Wilson all demanded, the president of this new Irish Republic entered New York City to begin an eighteen-month mission. In June 1919, Éamon de Valera returned -- as a stowaway without a passport on the lam from the British and as an escaped political prisoner -- to the city where he was born.

As an Irish journalist who teaches history on Long Island, Dave Hannigan tells the story of "the rebel president and the making of Irish independence." His bi-national position places him neatly. He incorporates primary sources from his journalistic predecessors who covered de Valera's nationwide lobbying for the Irish Republic.

On his journeys across the continent, de Valera was feted and feared. Irish Catholic immigrants and their descendants, naturally, rallied to the cause. 300,000 bonds totalling over $5 million (multiply this over tenfold for today's purchasing power) were raised for an fledgling foreign entity. Ireland's sovereignty defied precedent-- a Republic proclaimed in 1916, defeated by the British, rebelling again against America's ally. Rumors of Reds and radicals, guns smuggled and fifth columnists: these outraged both the American Legion and Confederate veterans. The Union's veterans were angered that de Valera did not enlist to fight the Great War under the Stars and Stripes; the Southern rebels resented a Catholic, and a half-Spaniard, spreading sedition.

He left as an infant, sent with his uncle by his Irish emigrant, newly single mother to relatives back home; he returned thirty-four years later, imprisoned after the Rising. A fugitive, he four months before landing in Manhattan escaped an English jail disguised in women's clothing. He tended towards aloofness and taciturnity, except when speaking for Irish freedom. His eloquence inspired comparisons in the press as the "next Lincoln," another angular "Long Fellow," for his determination to "take the shackles of tyranny from the limbs of the sons of Ireland." (35)

Likewise, his advisor Harry Boland at Boston's Fenway Park compared de Valera to Washington, "an anarchist," and "a successful rebel." (34) Crowds loved this rhetoric; controversy dogged de Valera, seen by the establishment as undermining American allegiance to England. De Valera baited John Bull. "There is no question of Ireland's succession. If a young lady was carried into the harem of a Turkish chief and she tried to get a release, would you call it a trial for divorce?" (39)

Over a year and a half, de Valera doubtless repeated such sure-fire lines over and over. Hannigan sorts out the logistics. He pays less attention to the inner man, the tensions that arose when the leader of the Republic was, during its War of Independence, removed for much of the struggle across the Atlantic while his comrades fought and died. Aspersion and rumor have been cast against underlying motives for displacing de Valera at this crucial juncture. Hannigan minimizes doubts as to his subject's sincerity. He tends towards a simpler explanation that as an American-born Irishman, de Valera best represented the face of Irish freedom that those in the diaspora could accept, despite his chillier mien and distant attitude under considerable pressures.

W. B. Yeats met de Valera during a New York City bond drive. "I was rather disappointed -- A living argument rather than a living man, all propaganda, no human life, but not bitter hysterical or unjust," Yeats observed. "I judged him persistent, being both patient and energetic but that he will fail through not having enough human life to judge the human life in others. He will ask too much of everyone & will ask it without charm. He will be pushed aside by others." (149-150)

On his return to his adopted homeland, de Valera refused to accept the Anglo-Irish treaty brokering a partitioned island and partial independence for the Irish Republic. Civil war ensued. Alan Rickman in the film Michael Collins memorably portrayed a gaunt, shaken, detached de Valera again on the run, this time from his fellow Irish and former comrades. Holed up on a farm, he spoke as if still the Republic's commander. He insisted that he and his republican diehards spoke for the majority who now opposed his cause. An Irish Free State defending a divided nation hunted down Irish Republican Army irregulars; de Valera finally surrendered.

After ten years out of power, the former leader of the dead Republic spent some of the bond money to start a newspaper -- and Ireland's most successful political party, Fianna Fáil. At its helm, de Valera would gain the role of prime minister, faced with eliminating the republicans in the remnants of an I.R.A. sworn to fight on for his 1916 Republic. Between 1932 and 1959, he ran the Irish nation for twenty-one years; he then served two terms as president before his death, at ninety, in 1975.

Originally a mathematics teacher (a fact Hannigan does not mention-- he offers little on de Valera outside of these eighteen months), his many admirers and foes acknowledged his persistent, if charm-challenged at times, ability to calculate, to outwit, to persevere against great odds. For much more on de Valera see Tim Pat Coogan's Eamon de Valera: The Man Who Was Ireland.

Hannigan's narrative was originally published by a Dublin-based press, so Americans not immersed in diplomatic affairs or Irish republican bickering may find certain sections sluggish or obscure. For instance, on page two, Hannigan summarizes de Valera's post-Rising rap sheet. The author mentions how "it was for decades incorrectly assumed that it was his American birth that saved his life. In actual fact, his survival had more to do with the logistics of court-martial and fortunate timing." Yet, he fails to elaborate on this crucial point, for de Valera's wily survival elevated his legendary status among both American fundraisers and Irish constituents.

Hannigan's steady pace presents a solid study. However, accounts of convoluted faction fighting between older Fenians and de Valera's team of advisors may appeal only to historians. The recording of protracted debates between stalwarts John Devoy and Judge Daniel F. Cohalan and upstart de Valera and his aides may weary less obsessed readers. Still, the inclusion of this information, collated from press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, provides value as such data have until now not been gathered, to my knowledge, so efficiently and compactly. (Posted to Amazon US 5-27-10; featured 6-9-10 on

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.