Lullaby – A Holiday Tale

24 12 2010

After some wonderful responses to last year’s holidays story, Ginger Ale Toothpaste, I figured I might churn out another one. Here, original and published for the first time, is a little holiday gift for y’all. Happy holidays everyone.



It’s posted as a .pdf to download cuz it’s kinda long for a blog post, but I can put it up there if’n ya want ….




From darkness comes light.

21 12 2010

The Winter Solstice is upon us, and with it, winter settles in. Around here we lack the snow that would be the icing on the cake. Everything else, though, is in sync with the season. Each night I drive home amid frozen fields and bare branches striking their way through lonely, watercolor sunsets streaked low across the mountains that surround us here. I couldn’t ask for a better backdrop to contemplate the year that has been and the year that approaches.

The last Winter Solstice was a prophetic one in my world. 2010 was quite a year. We reaped great gains, and we suffered lasting losses. One generation of my family took a final bow, and stepped gracefully into the shadow, while the vanguard of another stood up to be counted. It was a painfully beautiful rendering of the great cycle, and one I’ll never forget.

This is the darkest time of year, the longest night. But we’re reminded that darkness is not something to fear or revile. Darkness is creative, protective and the precursor to the light we love so much. Ideas and efforts begun months ago are waiting, biding their time, until the growing season returns. I’ve got a few of those going myself, and I have to say that this year more than most, I’m feeling optimistic. 2011 holds great challenge but also chances for great change. Personally? I’m looking for 2011 to be a banner year. The last one that came close was 2008, which some of you will recall as The Year for Drinking From the Bottle (and we did).

To that end, then, I grant the coming year its new name.

2011: The Year of Unity.

Happy Solstice all. May it herald the return of the light in each and all of your lives.

Send in the Clowns?

2 12 2010

You know, ultimately, building a life is not funny. There are unlimited opportunities for fun, but they’re not regularly scheduled or guaranteed. Buying a house, or getting into something new might actually be very cool – assuming you are happy doing it on your own, unless you’re not. Ballroom dance lessons sound cool – but not as a prime number. Starting over in a new place is certainly exciting – but the difference between doing it alone and doing it with someone you love is kind of like cooking. For two it’s a pleasure, it’s exciting, maybe even sexy, and fulfilling even when the food is not. For one, it’s a chore, rarely worth the effort and often depressing on some level.

The stories we tell, the singles’ adventures, the nights out, the missed opportunities and the crazy people we sometimes encounter make for colorful tales, but after a while the pages they’re written on begin to yellow, and suddenly the story of how that relationship ended or never started becomes like the 10th night in a row of eating alone: It’s not funny anymore.

We put up a good front, and we tell ourselves the things we hear again and again. It will happen when you’re not looking.

  • It will happen when the time is right.
  • Someday you’ll meet someone nice.
  • She is looking for you too – it’s just a matter of time.
  • You’ll meet a real guy who likes you for who you are.
  • Just be patient.
  • It will happen.

There’s not one person out there, single in some way, who hasn’t heard those, doesn’t think them, and doesn’t believe in each and every one. We have to. This would be otherwise unbearable. The thoughts that we are wasting the life we have, that we are running out of time, that we will have to settle with what we can get, not what we long for – are ever present.

As wrapped up as I get in my own search with its ever-retreating horizon, I get dispatches from the front every now and then that remind me of how this plays out in all different ways for all of us, but the story is painfully familiar.

One way or another, we keep passing by dozens, hundreds, thousands of each other, all looking. We sort and label and discard and keep moving, bent on finding the one that meets all the needs, and maybe some of the wants. We all want the same thing. To be dizzy in love. To be crazy about someone. To daydream about the word, the gesture, the touch, the caress that is – how was it put?-  the smallest but the most profound – that puts a smile on their face, that locks their eyes with yours, that makes their heart pound a little. To give to one person everything that you are, and to accept from them everything that they are.

We all suffer the same setbacks. Wrong space. Wrong time. Wrong town. Wrong job. Wrong age. Wrong background. Wrong needs. Wrong wants.

We all want to stop. We all want to be done with it forever. If you’re like me, you convince yourself, at least for a while, that it no longer matters like it once did. That you can and will dwell alone for the rest of your days, and pursue the life of the mind, or whatever you idolize. Some day, though, we all wake up to the reality that that is not what we are made for. We are built in pairs. We are built to exchange love always, and crave it when we don’t. No matter what castles we build in the air, what fantasies we spin about our own independence, sooner or later they all fall.

Perhaps the oft-recycled song lyric that it’s better hurt than to feel nothing at all is right. We can’t stop, because, love it or hate it, this is what we do. Next time you look at a friend, especially if they’re telling you the latest singles-adventure, take a moment to notice that behind them, it hurts a little. Because in the end it’ll all be worth it, but at the moment, some of this stuff isn’t funny.

Stupid phone.

9 11 2010

I am waiting for the phone to ring. That’s inaccurate. I’m waiting to hear someone’s voice. But it will probably happen right after the phone rings and I answer it. So by proxy, I am waiting for the phone to ring. There is an air of desperation in this desire. I’m not happy about it. I’m not proud of it. But it’s there.

Did it ring on that end? No idea. It did not ring on this end. Just straight to voicemail. OK, so it’s windy. Reception is poor. This is not unreasonable, I guess. Crappy, but not unreasonable. But here’s the thing about waiting for the phone to ring. You keep glancing at it, hoping to catch it right when it lights up. You keep it on you constantly, until you start to feel silly. So you leave it on the desk and go in the other room. But for the next 20 minutes as you eat voraciously because, let’s face it, liquor just doesn’t have the filling power you’re after, you keep hearing phantom goddamm rings! You keep looking up pathetically from your food, wondering if that particular inaudible squeak was the sound of the ringtone drifting through the background noise of the house, the tv, the dog, your own jaw moving.

It’s not. It never is.

So you sit down beside the phone instead, defying its presence. You ignore it. You dare it to ring so that you can demonstrate how much you do not care when it doesn’t ring. Sitting in the same room with the phone you play a game with yourself, to see how well you can pretend your entire emotional state is not based entirely on whether or not it rings.

You struggle mightily, angrily, violently to convince yourself you actually do not want it to ring, and would be annoyed and upset if it even did ring at this point. You build walls and bastions solid as the foundations of the Earth, and when you are finished, you are certain that there are no circumstances under which you could believe those walls would hold.

The worst thing about waiting for it to ring is the knowledge that no matter how much you need it to ring, it isn’t going to. They’re not going to call. Precisely because you care so much, it’s never. Going. To ring.

You get angry with yourself for caring so much, and then angry with yourself for trying not to care, because if you don’t care, never care, at all, than what is the point of any of it?

And what if it didn’t even ring on that end in the first place? What if there’s some perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this? Then you’re neurotic at worst, at best an asshole.

There is no way to win this contest. Choose your flavor of loss.

Settle back, defeated at every turn, certain of the outcome.

And stare at it, waiting for it to ring anyway.

Wednesday Snark: Responsibly Content Meals

7 07 2010

Time now for another installment of me complaining about stuff. Because frankly, if I don’t do it, who’s going to?

No more toys in Happy Meals. No more running on grass. And stop smiling so much!

Could someone please stop the mindless assault on childhood, fun, and enjoyment of life?

It seems that every year, some new group of overly-concerned, hand-wringing, anti-bacterial-that-before-touching-it adults begins howling about a new danger to our lives. For example, we now “know” that the following are bad, dangerous, or generally unwholesome:

•  Fat
•  Salt
•  Sugar
•  Caffeine
•  Protein
•  Carbohydrates
•  Drinking alcohol
•  Not drinking alcohol
•  Eating fish
•  Not eating fish
•  Vegetables and fruits that are not purely organic, and really not farmed at all, preferably found in the deep woods near a pure mountain stream and with no snakes nearby
•  Bottled water
•  Tap water
•  River water
•  Rain water
•  The ocean
•  Air
•  Sunlight
•  Absolutely anything manufactured, grown or even found near, China. Especially toys.
•  Television
•  The internet

Now that adults have declared all food, air, water, leisure and the entire surface of the earth to be bad for themselves, and with nothing left to suck the joy out of and leave a gray, lifeless husk behind, they are going after the only source of happiness left to human life: childhood.

Eating lots of fast food makes kids fat. Fact. Kids like toys. Fact. Kids like toys and fast food that comes in happy little boxes with cartoons on them. Fact. So the answer MUST be to outlaw such things! While we’re at it, lets get rid of these unhealthy cakes at birthdays. They, too, are linked with toys and even singing! It’s as if the adults at these “birthday parties” feel it’s acceptable to celebrate any aspect of life that is not continuously sustainable for at least 50 years.

My FB response:
“CSPI officials plan to target the birthday party industry next.

‘The unhealthy combination of high-sugar, high-fat, low-protein cakes with singing and toys is a disturbing trend in our society,’ one staffer commented.

‘Every day, millions of children are bombarded with the message that it’s OK to spend small portions of their lives responsibly enjoying things without constantly panicking over their long-term health. I mean, these people actually hold these events EVERY YEAR of a child’s life. This MUST end!’

As evidence of the growing problem of marketing high-calorie foods and toys to children on their birthdays, CSPI noted that not one child aged 4-10 surveyed could present a reasonable health plan for maintaining their weight and cholesterol through age 70.”

From now on, McDonalds will serve plain, recycled, no-wax boxes made locally from invasive species that contain: Sustainably raised, free-range soy patties; organic celery; probiotic yogurt that requires no refrigeration other than storage in McDonalds’ new hand-dug root cellars; a pamphlet entitled “Your Colon: He’s Your Special Pal” targeted at 3-7 year-olds, printed on recycled paper with soy-based ink on a hand-press by a vegan woman. Also, they will now be called “Responsibly Content Meals.”

OR, we could exercise that part of brains that contains self control. We could eat at McDonalds only sometimes. We could allow our kids to play video games and watch TV, but limit their time in front of the screen. We could tell them why they can’t have a Happy Meal everyday, and teach them to appreciate healthy foods and active lifestyles, the same way we encourage them to read books and not hit each other.

We could stop trying to turn our children into probiotic, antiseptic, intellectual, vegan, miniature versions of what we think therapists would like us to be, and just teach them to be thoughtful and responsible.

Or we could panic and outlaw everything. Either way.

(Note: Not trying to crack on you vegan folks, here. I’m just using y’all as an example of a restrictive lifestyle that should be taken on by choice, not out of shame. Nothin’ but love for your little granola-chewin’ heads!)

Women to women: “Wow, congratulations! Hag.”

Ladies, I love you. I really do. Women are just awesome. You’re so utterly different from men, and thank you for it. You think differently, you’re good at things we’re not, you provide color and contrast and variety to the lives of men. You delight in keeping in touch with people you have not seen in 3 years. You’re pretty. You smell nice. You don’t have hairy chests.

So when are you going to stop cracking on each other?

Jeez. I have to be honest with you: This is not something that would happen amongst us men-folk. When we take shots at each other, it’s for one of two reasons. Either we’re jealous:”He’s got a ________ and a I don’t.” Fill in with things like Ferrari, yacht, 60″ TV, vacation house, high-powered job, Swiss bank account, girlfriend who looks like Megan Fox, etc.

Or, we don’t like him because he is somehow threatening. “He’s ________. ” Fill in with things like “abusive to animals, racist, a heroin dealer, criminally insane, on fire right now, touching my girlfriend’s ass, touching my ass, etc.”

Most of the time, we’re OK with acknowledging the reason. Yeah, most of us don’t like Brad Pitt. But that’s because he has lots of money, is drinking buddies with George Clooney and sleeps next to Angelina Jolie. We don’t begrudge him his success. We just covet it.

But you ladies actually take shots at each other purely to cut one another down. “We want more women on TV! But NOT her!  She’s pretty and men will want to look at her. And not her either! She’s smart, but she WANTS men to look at her. And not her either! Because men don’t want to look at her and you’re discriminating against her because she’s not pretty!”

Listen, it’s OK to want men to look at you. It’s OK if men do look at you. Trust me when I say, we’re not going to stop, regardless of what you say or do. Somewhere around 12 we suddenly see a girl and say to ourselves “Oh. A girl. OH. Wait. That’s kind of cool …” and that’s it. From that moment until death, we’re looking at you. You really don’t have to try as hard as you do. We appreciate it, but we’re going to look anyway. So quit hacking at one another and just enjoy the attention when it suits you, OK?

‘Nuff said.

Things You Should Experience Often

3 05 2010

This past weekend we inaugurated GeoCaching Season 2010 with a grand tour of the hill towns where I live.

Though it was 30 degrees at night just a couple days before, by Saturday we were roasting in glorious summer heat. The breeze was hot, the shade was cool, and the soaring trees overhead had finally exploded with foliage. Walking under the canopy was entering the oldest — and newest — cathedral in the world, where all the stained glass is varying shades of green.

We followed trails, read clues, struggled with satellite bounce, and even had occasion to use an honest-to-goodness, genuine, WiFi-free, compass. Nailing seven different caches in one day, and a large pile of cheeseburgers, we spent 8 glorious hours soaking up all the fresh air, sunshine and topsoil we could reasonably absorb without serious threat to health.

It was a great day, and nailed all of the following criteria for Things You Should Experience Often:

• Other than the GPS and the occasional glance at the iPhone for tips, we looked at no screens throughout the day.

• We came upon abandoned ruins (one of my favorite features of New England woods) like Broken Chimney.

• We sweated. A lot. Good, honest, body-cooling, stress-free sweat. We sweated for the reason that humans evolved sweat glands. And it was good.

• We got tired. Our bodies started to get weak. Then we pounded water and protein snacks, and charged on to another cache. Again and again, we self-renewed at every turn. Exhaustion was not our enemy. It was our secretary.

• We did things we thought we couldn’t do. We scrambled over rocks; climbed inclines much too steep for us to climb (and got to the top); found things that were too-well hidden; lived the motto “And there is one less thing you cannot do.”

We laughed, we argued, some of us cried, and by the end of the day, there was not one among us who did not feel the day was an unmitigated success.

We ended our day poetically. Down a long, rough, leaf-strewn dirt road, surrounded by dense, towering forest, we came upon an old town cemetery buried beneath layer upon layer of sedimentary silence. The sun had sunk low in the sky by that point, throwing up the first colors of sunset, and night began leaking from the shadows along the centuries-old stone wall.

After a hushed tour of the two dozen-odd headstones, we crept through the gate, over the wall, and dug out our last cache of the day. As we logged our discovery, the fatigue, the noise of the day, the fading glare of the sun, the silence of the cemetery all fell upon us at once. We spoke in whispers, though there was no need. We were surely the only living people in earshot.

Working our way back down the road and on to badly needed baths and well-earned food, everyone had grins plastered on sweaty, dirty, sunscreened, bug repellent-caked faces. We, all of us, had managed to spend an entire day with family and friends, in the sun and the woods, burning calories and building bridges instead of the reverse. The only effort we expended was climbing uphill. We spent little besides energy. What we carried back, though, we couldn’t have found anywhere else.

An Irishman comes home, without leaving.

17 03 2010

I do a lot of teaching. Consciously or not, I’m teaching my daughters something in almost every single interaction we have. Usually for the better, sometimes for the worse, they learn from everything I say and do. Shoot-from-the-hip teaching, you might call it. These days, however, the curriculum I’m teaching has been rigorously — and often painfully — refined.

In elementary school, I kind of liked the special projects that promised something more interesting than reading from the text books and taking tests. But the annual social studies project on family history was not on my list of favorites. While other kids gave presentations on German, Russian, French, English, Dutch, Czech, and Italian culture, and ties to Ellis Island were particularly prized, all I had to talk about was being Irish.

In the early 1980s, Irish culture, as seen in America, was almost exclusively focused on parodies of drunken, foolish men dressed entirely in green shamrock clothing, songs in thick accents, and stories of starvation, oppression and ignorance. The chief Irish exports of the day were targets of lampooning, corrupt Boston politics, extreme views on birth control and sectarian violence. I never once heard someone speak fondly of Irish culture outside of a parade. In short, it was an inglorious time for the Irish on a global stage.

I was jealous of the kids with English heritage (cool ties to the Revolutionary War); French (cool sounding language); Russian (Iron Curtain mystique); German (Berlin Wall intrigue) and others. What could I point to as an Irish kid? Paddy Wagons were named derisively after us. We were blowing ourselves up in Belfast. Everyone assumed we were all alcoholics. Not good.

Somewhere around age 13 that changed. I picked up a free tabloid rag targeted to the Irish American community in Western Mass outside a store one night. Inside those grubby pages with the ink rubbing off the cheap newsprint at the slightest touch, I discovered a whole new world.

It told me that my county had the most residents with direct, one-generation ties to Ireland in the state. That Massachusetts had the largest number of people claiming Irish descent in the nation. That we — the people who had left Ireland in the last 200 years and their descendants, but still identified ourselves as Irish — had a name.

The Diaspora.

We were wanderers. Forced out by circumstance but still holding “The Old Country” in our hearts. A romantic notion, to be sure, but what a notion! Suddenly I did not belong to something not worth remembering. I was displaced! I was one of Ireland’s lost sons. My people were proud of me. We were still a tribe.

That was it — I was hooked. From that moment on, my Irish bloodlines became a source of fiercely defended pride. I read about the potato famine and the diaspora. I bought magazines like Hibernia and read articles about dual citizenship. I studied family trees and talked to my grandfather, the de facto repository of all family knowledge. I sought out Irish music and language and books and the underpinnings of things like knots, sweaters, whiskey and instruments like the uillean pipes and the bodhran. I learned about the relationships between the Irish and the Scotts and studied my Scottish connections. I came to think of myself as an Irishman and to describe my ancestry, more accurately, as Celtic.

The mid-90s seemed to confirm my feelings as a wave of pro-Celtic sentiment swept the world. Riverdance presented Irish music that had nothing in common with “Danny Boy” even if Michael Flately did get silly by the end.  Mel Gibson introduced Scotland’s folk hero to the world and suggested that Scotts were not only fun, they were hardcore. And Sting and Mark Knopfler started recording with The Chieftains.

After years of ignorance, I was secure in my identity. That is, until one day at a family gathering. My then brother-in-law was born to parents who had immigrated from Ireland in the 70s. These people were freakin’ Irish and therefore very cool. I felt a kinship there without even thinking about it. Indeed, he even had a curious hint of a brogue in his south-of-Boston speech. It was all going quite well, until someone mentioned to his father that I, too, was Irish.

“Well,” said his father in a friendly tone, “is he Irish? Or is he Irish American?”

I was not in the room at the time. That was fortunate. Because though I took little offense at first, this question would soon develop into a stinging rebuke of my identity from someone I considered an insider and compatriot.

After years of loyalty and identity, I had been rejected by my countrymen.

To say this bothered me is an understatement. I felt like the combat veteran who rejoins his unit after being wounded only to find himself an outsider among friends who have seen campaigns and suffered hardships that he has not. I still loved my culture, still embraced it, still felt I belonged. But now I was second-class. Irish came from Ireland, it seemed. I came from Massachusetts.

This hurt and confused me for quite a while. With time, though, came perspective. Yes, my family had left. They had said “enough and no more” and struck out for new shores. Just as I had left home for college to find my own way, so had they. I had continued their tradition.

Without the support of hearing the old language, living amongst the history, being steeped in the culture, we, I, had maintained our roots. But we forged a new identity in a new land as well. We kept the old ties but made new ways and new customs. We kept the culture alive — and ourselves — by allowing it to change with the world. We were the new generations, the new faces, of the Irish. Ambassadors to our past, stewards of our future. We are still a tribe.

So no, Mr. Flynn, I am not Irish. I am Irish American. I am the hybrid, the bridge between two worlds. I am the traveler who remembers the way home. I teach my children Gaelic and we cook Irish foods. We remember where our ancestors were born and we love it. But we were born here. We say the Pledge of Allegiance, we cheer on the Fourth of July, and we fly the Stars and Stripes high, proudly and fiercely. We are Irish. We are the diaspora. But we are also Americans. We are still a tribe.

And by the way, not for anything, but when you left Ireland and moved here permanently, you became Irish-American too. You’re very welcome.