The Irish in Me

I will arise and go now to Innisfree…

-WB Yeats The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I”m drifting off to sleep in the late minutes of March 17. I’m dreaming of Kilkenny, Sligo, Dublin and Galway.

What’s happened for me on St. Patrick’s Day? Actually, nothing that involved crowds and singing and rowdy behavior.

We cooked an Irish Beef Stew, listened to the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners, and Enya and of course Van Morrison’s Raglan Road.

Then, we put on The Quiet Man.

We’re homebound. I feel so sorry for the Irish and all the others who are going through the same thing.

Such times, indeed.

The Busker in the Square

[Photo is mine]

See the guy? Not the one standing center stage…but the one just beyond him with a microphone and black guitar case at his his feet. Yellow flowers are behind him.

To me, he’s the Busker of the Square. He has secured a spot in the plaza in front of the University of Porto. Prime location indeed!

He knows his music. He has a great voice (he can echo the nuances of Dylan’s:

No, No, No. It ain’t me Babe.

He stands out there at least three of seven days. Always on weekends. He has mastered Simon & Garfunkel. I heard “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” at least three times a day. He does a wonderful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Three times a day?

His repertoire includes:

John Lennon’s “Imagine”, “Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and others we’ve forgotten. But, he’s always there and sometimes he sings me to sleep in the mid-afternoon.

I always drop a few Euros in his guitar box. I appreciate his love of music and his desire to share his talent.

Two Churches in Porto

I’m in Porto, Portugal. It’s not Florida and it’s not northern Dorset, and I’m not shoveling 4′ of snow in the Adirondacks.

But there is an interesting church across the square facing our apartment. Actually it’s two churches. On the right is the Igerja do Carmo, used by the monks of the Carmo. On the left is the das Carmelitas for nuns of that order. The interior walls are a mix of faux gold decoration and beeswax candles.

If you look closely, you will see a slender building with white window frames. That building is slightly over 1 meter wide. According my guidebook, it’s the narrowest building in Portugal.

So why is this tiny building there? At some point in history, a law was passed that stated that two churches could not share the same wall.

It may sound witty, but I find it heartbreaking. The narrow building was, perhaps built to separate nuns from the monks. This seems to be the prevailing theory.

Requited love? Unrequited love? Lust? Desire? A moral struggle? Legendary liaisons?

Only the interior walls, the statues of saints, and the God they believed in can judge those generations of souls.

I certainly won’t.

Little Christmas Joys

34978F92-AE10-4A0C-BFC9-8E2E014E7936
Tree at the White Lion Inn

I’m snug beneath the blankets, in a cozy room of a six hundred year-old inn. The pub below us is crowded with men and women filled with ale, mulled wine and good cheer. I’m listening to laughter…I’m hearing Silver Bells On the sound system. I’m not disturbed by the sounds; they will lull me to sleep.

As I drift into slumber, I’m recalling some of the little kindnesses that we have been given during our first week in England:


No one has honked their horns at me when I stalled out in the middle of a roundabout…something that would never happen on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

The Sat-Nav (GPS) that came with the Ford Focus actually works!

Seeing the smile on my wife’s face as she enjoys her first Pantomime in Swindon. [“Look out, she’s behind you!”]

The opportunity to have lunch and enjoy part of Boxing Day with our longtime friends and hosts, the Ovenden’s. And we get to do our laundry at their house.


We are the only guests here at The White Lion. The co-owner graciously offered to open the kitchen on Christmas morning to cook breakfast just for the two of us. I don’t think a Motel 6 would have made the same offer.

Being greeted like family at a local pub called The Buffalo. Kate, the owner kindly invited us to Christmas Eve dinner with her family and friends. Every other pub was fully booked or closed.

The pleasure of being given a Christmas pudding by the staff of The Griffin Inn in Bath where we spent one night.

So, peace and joy to all our UK friends and those back home in America.

Christmas Pudding
Father Christmas

[Note: This is my first attempt at publishing a blog on my iPhone. All photos are mine.]

It’s Not Easy

Elisa Pumpkins[Elias has to choose. It’s very important what to consider.]

[DEDICATED TO ELIAS MUIR GOLDSTEIN, MY GRANDSON]

It’s not an easy life being a child. No, the easy part of life is being a grown-up.  They can go to bed when they want, they can watch any TV show on the cable…like The Bachelor in Paradise or Hoarders, take a bath when they choose and even get to drive a car.

All is not perfect in child land at certain times of the year.

Like October. This is when the difficult choices begin to manifest themselves. The major issue at this time of the year happens to be pumpkins. Every year a child (except those that are home schooled and believe that Halloween is a satanic practice) has to choose the perfect pumpkin to display on the front steps of his or her house. This is not an easy matter. There are endless considerations to be made. To make a very long story somewhat shorter, I will use bullet points to illustrate my…points.

The usual first step for the parents is to take the child to a Pumpkin Farm. At such places, many choices come into play. Shall the child have a cup of cider? A candy apple? Or, perhaps a doughnut?

But then, reality begins. Choosing the absolutely perfect pumpkin. And this is the most difficult process of all. A child has to consider a number of factors in selecting the correct pumpkin. if I remember correctly from my childhood, this is what the youngster needs to consider:

  • How does the pumpkin heft? How do two pumpkins feel when held in each hand?  Is there a proper equilibrium?
  • How does the weight (or mass) compare with others with the same volume? This can be determined, in large part by the heft, but it is not based on solid scientific empirical data.
  • What is the carvability factor? How easy would the knife cut through the orange skin?
  • The size. Will the size support a proper face carving?
  • Is there enough surface area to support a carved face? Should it be scary or funny?
  • The specific gravity. How does the pumpkin relate to it’s volume in a bucket of water?
  • Does it have enough internal space (post-carving) to support a stub of a old dinner candle?
  • What is the Curb Appeal? Can this be seen easily from the street? Will it scare away trick or treaters or will it signal that goodies are to be had in the house that sits behind this special pumpkin?
  • What is the life span? How long can the child keep the pumpkin on the front porch before it becomes a moldy mass of yellow pulp that needs to be shoveled from the steps? Can it last into December?

So many things to consider when you’re a child. But the one thing that will not be a worry is that you will have a loving Mommy and Daddy that will tuck you into bed and tell you that the spooks and goblins are not real and that the candy will have to wait.

Then they can get back to Hoarders.

 

Sometimes Losing is Winning

[Friends Seminary. [Photo credit: Google Search.]

I spent New Years Eve, 1990 alone in a bar in Binghamton.The only kiss I got was from the off-duty bartender who had started celebrating early.  He kissed the top of my head and said: “I love you, man,” and then fell backwards onto a table.

I was at the wrong end of a bitter divorce.  Working as a ‘temp’ at IBM in Endicott, NY, I felt I had nowhere else to go but down.

Fate stepped in and made me buy a copy of the Philadelphia Enquirer. (It was a legit paper, not the Enquirer that your thinking of).  I found an agency that placed teachers.  Without losing a moment to think, I circled the ad and sent in my resume.

I was hired after a single interview at Friends Seminary in the lower East Side of Manhattan.  So I packed up and headed to the Big Apple.  A month earlier I was walking in a park in Binghamton.  The local NPR station ran a public service piece.  The host read a list of ten questions.  If you answered yes to five of the ten the advice was to seek professional care ASAP.  Clear signs of sever depression.

I answered yes to eight of the ten.  Was I down or what?

Without boring you with the details, I got a 26th floor studio on W. 92nd Street.  It was perfect.

So, I started teaching again.  This time it was in a Quaker school.  Make no mistake, only a handful of staff and teachers were Quakers.  But, I learned what a unique place it was the first time I attended an Upper School “Meeting for Worship”.  It was not religious at all.  The students just sat quietly and only stood to say what was on their mind when they felt the need.  I heard sad stories and funny incidents.  I learned more about the adolescent mind in the two years at Friends that twenty years in public and private schools.

I was happy there.  I taught my way, but as it turned out, it wasn’t the ‘right’ way.  The head of the middle school didn’t take to my methods and I couldn’t understand her demands of me.

By contract, the Head of School was supposed to observe you teaching once before your two-year probationary period was over. He came into my Astronomy class on the last day and left before the class was over.

The next day, he and the middle school head told me that my contract would not be renewed.

Did I feel cheated?  Yes.  Did I cry on the phone to Mariam when I told her the news? Yes.

I found an agency that pointed me in the direction of The Town School on the upper east side.  I taught a class in front of the science head and others

I got the job and I never looked back.  I spent ten years at Town.  I was asked to join the board of The Association of Teachers in Independent School of New York.

I was even the science department chair a few times.

Sometimes it’s a glove…sometimes it’s a shoe or a coat.  But you always know in the end when the perfect fit happens.

[The Town School.  My best fit. Photo credit: Goodle Search.]

 

 

 

North Dorset Once Again-The Excurinist III

[A London Pub. Nothing to do with this post.]

We’re with our friends in North Dorset…once again.  I met Tim when he was a rookie teacher when I was an exchange teacher in the mid-1980’s.  Now he’s nearing retiring.  His wife, Jo, is a major player in the local school, psychologist, and tutor.

We love these folks.  They have provided us with a free loft bedroom for two months!  That will allow us to travel to Spain or perhaps Norway.  We have two months.  We’re free and unencourmbed.

Mariam drove on the left for the second time today…to the local grocery market.  I was a nervous passenger, but she did so well.  It’s not easy when all we could book was a standard shift. So many things to thing about whether as a driver or a passenger.  Full disclosure : I have driven on the left since the 1980’s.

Anyway, we are fine and the lack of blogs has to do with the difficulty of getting photos from my camera.

WiFi is difficult in England and in Europe in general.  Most hotels say “free wifi” but the reality is quite different.

Hopefully, I can get inside the wi-fi issue and post more amazing and incredulous posts.

One note: We saw a magic show in London. In the hotel pub.  The woman was a world-class card trick player. I am humbled by what she did since I have two card tricks I can do.

Cheers!

 

A Fair Swap: The Excursionist I

On Friday, February 1, Mariam and I will be exchanging this:

[The Hudson River on January 26, 2018]

for this:

[The Yorkshire Dales, England]

It’s a pretty fine change of scenery if I do say so myself.

Once upon a time, back in the day, I loved winter.  How could one not love winter…when you’re twelve years old and you’re skating on the Brick Pond in Owego, NY?  I had a toboggan, a sled and the ability to make a superb snow person.  I owned a pair of old snowshoes with leather hide webbing.  An Eddie Bauer Arctic Parka hung in my closet…and still does.  I camped out in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks when it was -28℉.  My ice skates, black and weathered, hung on the wall leading to our attic.  Every time I would pass them, on a stifling day in August, I would think of the coming winter and the frozen pond only a few hundred feet from my front door.

I couldn’t wait.

Then in 1974, a personal tragedy visited me while hiking in the Adirondacks and winter became a little darker in my heart.  I no longer saw the snow as pristine and pure and calming as I had for almost two decades of my life.

The years went by.  I woke up one morning and looking into the mirror, I saw a middle-aged man looking back at me.  The salt & pepper hair had gone mostly gray.  My back hurts after shoveling.  My skates no longer fit.  my bones ache and my muscles get sore when I am forced out of our house to deal with a two-foot snowfall.  Winter no longer holds a spell over me.  I layer up with wool and fleece because I always feel chilled.  I love to watch the snow fall slowly onto the lake near our house.  I love to walk in the moonlight, feeling the peculiar crunch of the ground on cold nights.  But where I’d really rather be is sitting near our wood stove and reading a Nordic Noir novel.

In the mid-1980’s, I spent a year in Dorset, England.  It changed my life.  Footpaths and pubs abound in the chalky hills of Thomas Hardy country.  The mossy gravestones surround the mossy churches.  And, the green is breathtaking.  England may not have the twenty-eight shades of green that cover my beloved Ireland, but it’s a close second.  Sometimes, at our home in the Adirondacks, I will gaze out of the large window that faces Rainbow Lake and see a monochromatic world.  My eyes strain for some color.  A last brown leaf on a dormant maple or even a patch of blue sky beyond the leaden skies.  But no, it’s a world of white and gray.  I yearn for a dandelion or a trillium…anything with color.

So, we’re off to spend the remainder of the winter in Dorset, hosted by friends I met in the 1980’s.  We plan on doing a lot of walking, and I will carry an L.L Bean pole to lean on if my back begins to trouble me.

I guarantee that there will be a stone wall to sit on and rest.  There will be a quiet pew in a forgotten little church in a out-of-the-way village where I can write in my journal.

Yes, I will sit in that quiet pew and think about trading white for green, mild days for thumb-numbing cold mornings and ice for muddy footpaths.

And, I shall have some peace there…without fleece, without down and without cares.

 

Coal For Christmas

[Watercolor sketch by Paul Egan. Date unknown.]

[Note to my readers: If you think you’ve read this blog before, don’t think you’re getting senile. It’s perhaps the fourth or fifth time I’ve posted it.  It’s my version of a pure Christmas Story. I’ve tweaked the story several times to try to make the narrative better, clearer and more truthful.  As the years pass, I hope these newer memories are adding reality and not just wishes. This is not a made-up story by me.  It really happened].  

It’s another year and another chance for me to share this holiday memory. Happy Holidays to you all!

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache in my joints and every sadness of my seventy-first year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now.  I am the carrier of the family history.  When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer to brighten the dark and endless winter evenings.  It is a time to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago. It’s time for a Christmas story.

I was raised in the post-war years.  My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good, or Santa would not leave us any brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a little boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing.  But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking.  No, if (as my parents said) we were bad little boys, he would leave a lump of coal. You deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector.  His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out to find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. When we had a house in Owego, NY and we had plenty of space for a large tree in the living room.  And we had plenty of fist-sized chunks of coal in the cellar.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow so much deeper.  And the coal so much more dear.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after midnight, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet. It was too chilly.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night. The reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

In the corner of the small living room stood a stunted Christmas tree.  There were a few bulbs on the branches. My father never spoke about whether there was a string of bright lights, but my suspicions were that there were no bright red, green and white bulbs. I hope I’m wrong about that part of the story.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold, bare feet into an old pair of his father’s cold boots that were five sizes too large.  He then went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid air.  In the fresh snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  They led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was a common occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard.  But deep within, he knew of his parents unconditional love and concern.  He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter.  The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the ten or more feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the inside of the pit.  At their feet was a tin bucket that was nearly full with chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  After glancing at each other once, they looked up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down the ladder and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.  My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house had warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed.  He fell asleep (he always would say) with a smile on his face.

The Christmas morning that followed a few hours later was in a warm living room.  My dad never spoke anything to his siblings about the previous night.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal-pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York.  I was born two years later, in 1947.

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.  That dreaded lump of coal in the stocking that was tacked to the mantle over the little-used fireplace.  My fears left me.  Dad’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “if anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: “I hope so.”

“Then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”