Monday, May 31, 2010

Murakami, Joyce, and a stab at the soul of Ireland

Anna and Frances have been keeping me pretty busy. Between playing Hedbandz (a kiddie varient of the parlor game from Inglourious Basterds) and Monopoly, they've gotten a hold of my free time. Irish monopoly is different since the prices are in Euro and the street names are all things like "Wexford Avenue." Also, they have Dublin and Shannon airports instead of the railroads. I'm pretty glad for the company though, and as I'm sure I've mentioned a million times, they're absolutely adorable.
So I finally decided to see what all the international hubbub was about and read something by Japanese literary rock star Haruki Murakami. I gotta say, the fuss is completely deserved. This guy is a capital-n Novelist. If Shusaku Endo is the Japanese Dickens then Murakami is the Japanese Vonnegut. That said, reading a €2 used copy of Sputnik Sweetheart alone in a series of rainy cafes in Dingle made me feel lonely. To quote Klosterman (referring to the music of Billy Joel) "the kind of lonely where someone hugs you and somehow you feel worse." For some reason, reading a Japanese novel set largely in Greece got my intellectual wheels turning about Ireland.
The chief caveat about their country that I have heard from intellectual Irish people is the fear of insularity, a word that literally means "made into an island." This is hardly a new problem. Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has Stephen Dedalus describe Ireland as "an old sow that eats her farrow." More recently, Bob Geldof wrote about the "Celtic kulturkampf" mentality that dominated his youth.

This was the culture of cowardice. A cultural inferiority in fact. A fear that what we truly had beyond the basic bollocks, “Yer 40 shades of Green,” are any cunt who could scrape a line from an authentically out-of-tune fiddle wouldn’t add up. They were, of course hopelessly, horribly wrong. But just in case, Ireland was to be kept in its touristic cultural aspic. ‘The sea o the sea, grá gheal ma chroi, Thank God we’re surrounded by water.’ We would bang our bodhráns, blow our penny whistles, and authentically jam our fingers in our ears while we sang, faces screwed in ersatz sincerity, the tuneless maunderings of despair that had, by now, become our national psyche.--Geldof, 2004

The younger generation seems to fear the return of the old provincialism: the weathering of hard times by bending one's neck to the blows and withdrawing one's mind to remembrance of a mythic past. For Joyce and Geldof, this past was that enshrined in the epics and cycles of ancient Ireland. Most today need look no further back than the "Celtic Tiger" years of the late 80's and 90's when Ireland had 0% unemployment and seemed to be moving nowhere but up. When times were hard, and they always were, the Irish in the past could always blame the British. That option is no longer open to them, as Britain is floundering in this economic cesspool as badly as Ireland, but the old defeatism is still there. A fellow I met in An Droichead Beag Saturday night said that the Irish have never really stopped thinking of themselves as an oppressed people. He says the difference between Irish and, say, British or Americans is tangible. These latter two people will fight for what they feel they deserve, the Irish will simply allow themselves to be trodden on. And where do these people turn? Inward, inward, ever inward. Isolate and insulate, perpetuate pain and drown your sorrows in alcohol and Christianity, the two great Irish narcotics. Thank god we're surrounded by water. The result is that people develop a skin thick as a Wellington boot. They are impervious to harm, but also to comfort, to a broadening of the horizons.
Murakami writes about the alienation of modern life, giving a voice to what The Daily Telegraph has ignomiously dubbed "the Eleanor Rigby generation". The characters of Sputnik Sweetheart isolate themselves from emotional intimacy by withdrawing into their passions and treating everyone around them as strangers. Their tragedy is that they live a diminished life, with that spark of themselves that feels passion and growth trapped on the other side of the mirror. Can a nation withdraw into this self-imposed exile of loneliness? To be sure, most of the Irish people I've met don't overtly display this mindset--I certainly don't see it in the O'Connors--but the fear is always there. Just the other day, I heard some cheeky American teabagger on a Galway radio program trying to get the Irish to adopt the American scourge of Beck/Palin style populism. Thankfully, the host and most of the callers seemed to dismiss him as a blowhard, since that sort of populism has historically taken much uglier forms in Ireland than anything currently happening in America.
Will the Irish national psyche ever outrun the curse of it's geography? Does the new generation have the strength to finally break the shell of the Eleanor Rigby nation? There certainly seems to be an unmatched (even in America) tradition of self-loathing, but this critical eye does the Irish people no service when it simply causes the best and brightest to expatriate in disgust. In the modern world, isolation is death. As nations and as individuals, we must always strive to practice humanity to the best of our abilities together. Albert Schweitzer was right; the future of the world depends on it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tá an saol go hálainn

True community is found in the midst of solitude.
I spent the last weekend in the remote fishing town of Dingle (An Daingean meaning "the fort"). The town lies in the shadow of Mt. Brandon perched on a shallow harbor that opens into Dingle Bay. It is the westernmost town in Europe. Although it's a tourist hotspot, the town has maintained much of its traditional Irish character fueled by a fishing industry that still brings in money and by its good fortune to lie in an official Gaeltacht area. Irish is the language of choice in Dingle, and while everyone spoke English, not all the signs were bilingual. I've managed to absorb enough Irish through osmosis to stumble my way around, for example "Síopa leabhar agus caife" means "bookstore and cafe," "uisce" means "water" and "fir" and "mna" mean "gents" and "ladies" respectively. Don't get those last two mixed up. The language gives the locals something distinctive that allows them to retain a sense of local color that I think many touristy shore towns across the world have lost.
That said, Dingle was expensive and overrun with Americans. While it was good to meet fellow Yanks, I could tell that their presence had driven up prices in the little shops and galleries. I practiced a little restraint and limited my souvenier buying to a Kerry football jersey (super-comfortable, I'm wearing it now) and a couple postcards. Booze took up the lions share of my budget. I made a mission of trying all the whiskeys in town, though not all at once obviously. I had a Paddys on Friday (really smooth and mellow), a Bushmills on Saturday (full-bodied and smokey) and a Powers on Sunday (starts out mellow, but has a spicy after-kick). I also sampled Cork Dry Gin (very citrusy), Smithwicks Ale (good stuff, great flavor), Murphy's stout (roasty espresso flavor) and Harp lager (kindof blah and pissy, not really anything special).
I was a bit worried that I'd get lonely in Dingle, but within fifteen minutes of arriving at the hostel I had made friends with Lianna from Germany and Zach from Michigan. Lianna was taking a deserved break from her four-week cycling tour of the Irish coast. She had started in Dublin and planned to go all the way to Galway! She had an extremely thick German accent and tended to over-emphasize words when she was excited (which was, quite honestly, all the time). She was also pretty generous with her pocketbook and I managed to get lots of free drinks from her. Zach was your typical American beatnik backpacker, hiking around West Cork and Kerry by himself. Zach has a strict philosophy of living life leisurely, enjoying cheap rolling tobacco, maladroitly prepared food that he had foraged from Irish grocery stores and taking five and a half years to finish his double major in philosophy and history. The three of us made pretty good craic in a small town of almost 50 pubs. Friday night there was a mild thunderstorm that managed to knock out power to the whole town. We were at O'Flagherty's Pub enjoying Paddys and Guinness to candlelight. When the lights finally came back on, the owner, Fergus O'Flagherty started playing some trad music. The guy is an absolute renaissance man, plays the button accordian, tin whistle, bouzouki, banjo, guitar, uillean pipes and sings very nicely (sort of like the lead from The Dubliners). We had to stagger back to the hostel in lashing rain, which was no fun.
Saturday, Lianna and I checked out as many of the little shops and galleries as we could. I gave my mom a 10 minute call for 1.50 euro. We also played a couple rounds of bowling. That night, after a dinner of ham and cheese sandwiches (saving money for drinks by doing a little grocery shopping), the three of us hit the pubs. We started the night at John Benny's listening to a traditional singer called Pauline Scanlon, who I might add was super-hot. We eventually wandered over to a place called Dick Mack's, which is a legend with the locals. It's the oldest pub in Dingleand used to be a general store. You really don't get more authentic; I couldv'e been Yeats in that place. There's no food, just booze and the gate bears the inscription "Where's Dick Mack's? It's opposite the church. Where's the church? Opposite Dick Mack's." The place was loud, crowded, and smelled of B.O. and stale Guinness. At about 11:30 a skunk-drunk bachelorette party stumbled in, singing and halfheartedly flirting with the stinky fishermen. After Dick Mack's, we ended up at a place called An Droichead Beag, where a lone guitarrist played soulful covers of rock songs and traditional Irish diddies. If Marc Seely were Irish, he'd be this guy. The crowd loved it, everyone was singing along and dancing their arses off. We got back pretty late that night, getting semi-lost on the way back to the hostel. At least it wasn't raining.
In short, travelling alone affords me fantastic opportunites to meet people that I wouldn't otherwise talk to. I met scads of people, Irish and American, this weekend and we all got along just fine. I think that people travelling alone learn to find or create community wherever we go. True community is found in the midst of solitude.
Wish I could write more, but Anna and Frances are pesking me to play a game. It's good to be home.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

You never realize quite how high a mountain is til you climb it

So one day I saw the second highest mountain in Ireland, the imposingly epic Mt. Brandon (Cnoc Bhreandáin in Irish), and wonder how it might be to stand at the top.
The walking club seemed to like me so much that they invited me on a Wednesday evening walk up Mt. Brandon. We started up the mountain at about 6:45 pm (keep in mind that Ireland has sunlight until about 10:30 pm this time of year). The first leg of the climb was the hardest. We clambered up a steep grade on soggy pastureland. The sheep seemed much better suited for the terrain than us. Most of the other walkers were huffing and puffing after five minutes. I thanked God for my young lungs. I guess all this farm work has me in pretty good shape. The sun was still shining brilliantly behind the ridge as we struggled through the hummocks of turf and bracken. Most people were too winded to talk, but I managed to find a couple middle-aged ladies who were keeping up a good pace. I struck up a conversation with one of them and she ended up asking me why I picked Ireland for my vacation. I replied that I loved the culture, the food, the landscape, and it helped that I spoke the language. From behind me, I heard someone say something incomprehensible in Irish. I gave her a blank look. "I meant English, I speak English" I said. She laughed.
And that's how I met Sórache: mother of three, B&B proprietor, and fluent Gaelophone. I ended up spending most of the walk with her, since we seemed to be going at the same pace. Her name (pronounced SOR-uh-khuh) means "brightness" in Old Irish. She gave me a couple tips on Irish pronunciation. The consonent "mh" is somewhere between a "v" and a "w" so Ireland's Eurovision representative is Niamh (NEEV) Kavanagh. "Bh" as in "Siobhán Magnus" is a harder "v." She gave me this theory that if Ireland had banned Irish when they got their independence, everyone would speak it. Seems to make sense.
After the steep pastureland, the landscape got flatter and rockier as we entered a dark misty valley cradled in one of the arms of the mountain. There are some glacial lakes in the valley, fed by springs that are crystal clear and pristine. Very few sheep made it up this far; the most abundant animal was hordes of black slugs thriving on the dewy grass. Next, we ascended up a steep switchback ladder on the far side of the valley. At this point, we had climbed into a cloud, so we could barely see the lowlands and Tralee Bay beyond it. A few people seemed ready to give up at this point but in the end, we all made it up. After that it was a short walk alond the spine of the mountain to the summit. Regrettably, we couldn't see the south coast from the top due to the cloud cover. It was very windy on the summit and there was swirling mist everywhere. The ancient cross and ruined rectory which marked the summit appeared suddenly out of the mist, as if they had materialized by magic. There were plenty of cheers when we got there. Everyone sat down in the ruined church, ate sandwiches, pissed on the summit (it was foggy, so we had privacy) and generally seemed relieved to no longer struggle against gravity.
I challenge anyone who comes to Ireland to climb that mountain and not be overwhelmed by its stark beauty. The inhumane landscape, the black rock, white mist and green grass will transport you beyond your present, beyond your senses. This is the Emerald Isle at its finest.
Check my facebook for Mt. Brandon photos
Slán for now. Gotta go milk cows again.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dairy farming is for neither the faint of heart nor the weak in stomach

Today I helped Gerard with the milking. I guarantee that I will never look at dairy products in the same way. For those of you unfamiliar with the process, I will describe it here.
The cows come in and line up at the feeding bins. The farmer pulls a lever to dump feed from a hopper to the bins. He wipes off the nipples of the udder with a newspaper and sprays them with iodine to disinfect. The milking machine then goes on. It looks like an aluminum and rubber octopus with four flabby arms that fit over the nipples. It's attached to a vacuum to provide suction. The milk all passes through a filter and into a refrigerated vat. While the cows are being milked, the next lot are lined up on the other side of the parlor. When the udders have run dry, the farmer takes the milking machine off the one set of cows and transfers it to the other. He then re-sterilizes the udders and lets the cows go. This happens twice a day and it typically takes about an hour and a half to get all the cows through. Keep in mind that the cows are peeing and pooing all over the place. Today, I had to watch Gerard treat a cow sick with an udder infection. The milk that came out was about half blood and looked like tomato soup. I felt sorry for the poor thing, but God was she ever cantankerous. She kept kicking as Gerard was trying to help her and she almost shat all over him at one point.
No matter how hard we try to keep the place sterile, I guarantee that some trace amounts of feces must get into the milk. I drink the stuff all the time here, completely unpasteurized, not to mention all the people all over Kerry (and the whole of Ireland for that matter) who drink milk from Gerard and the other small farmers. I guess it can't hurt too much.
I encountered nettles for the first time today. Anna and I were playing at "who can kick the football over the house" and when I finally managed to boot the thing over it rolled into one of the side gardens. As we were searching back there, I rubbed against something that felt like a hundred angry hornets. I jumped back and saw the plant, pretty innocent looking all in all. Anna showed me how to rub a dock-leaf on to help ease the sting, but dear lord, it still smarts after several hours. Apparently, the tips of the plant are edible, though I can't imagine they'd be fun to gather.
In short, what have I gotten myself into?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Have I over-romanticized the Life Agrarian?

So I got through my first full day of farm work with my stamina intact. I was feeling energetic enough at the end of it all to take a four mile bike ride to the nearby village of Castlemaine and knock back a pint of Bulmers with an octagenarian Irish gent. He told me that the best cider is in the US. I told him I haven't tried it and he said I should try to find a small local cider mill. I got some nice photos of the Kerry countryside out of the trip as well.
The only reason I have energy to blog after a full day of work plus that bike ride is Claire's delicious high-calorie Irish cooking. Supper tonight was two rashers of dry-cured bacon (not as good as ours, more like salty ham), two award-winning local sausages (amazing), Jolly Green Giant sweet corn (hey, it's a comfort food) followed by soda bread with Irish butter, blackcurrant jam and Ardahan cheese (imagine an earthy Brie with an aftertaste like good dark chocolate). And of course, black tea with milk.
The younger O'Connors are finally starting to warm to me. I would point out that sprightly little Vietnamese girls with Irish accents are possibly the most adorable things ever. Anna (8), the oldest, has a generous heart, but much like myself, hides it with razor sarcasm. I can't help but see myself reflected in that girl, especially considering how she schemes and pushes around the younger two. Frances (5) is pure energy, constantly bouncing around and treating every moment as if it were Christmas morning. Lan (1) is a relatively new arrival. She still seems to be carving out a niche here. She walks quite well and seems to want to go and do everything she shouldn't. She loves sweet corn.
Work today started with powerwashing the dairy again. I'm getting better; Gerard said I only missed one spot. I aim to miss none next time. I then spent about three hours pulling weeds. I recognized most of the weeds, since a lot of them travelled to America with the colonists. It is still quite warm here and since all my short-sleeved shirts are dirty, I decided to take my shirt off in the garden. Go figure my back got burned. In Ireland of all places. Weird, just weird.
I'm starting to get this whole accent thing down. Here are a few observations.
-"Zero" is 'naught'
-'Your man' can mean 'that guy' or 'this person I'm talking about.
-The midpoint of an our is 'half-' For example 4:30='half four'
-The trunk of the car is 'the boot'
-A dip in the ocean is 'a piddle'
-Here in the South of Ireland, they pronounce "th" as "t" so 'three' sounds like 'tree' and 'throw' sounds like 'trow'.
Incidentally, I just realized that the radio is playing the news in Irish. What a crazy sounding language. It took me five minutes to realize that it wasn't just a super-thick Kerry accent.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Back in Ireland

I got in through Cork airport yesterday at 7:30 am. I had zero problem with immigration. The guy in Cork was very nice and said he was sorry about all the bollocks over in Kerry. Go figure. I took a bus into Cork City, which is really a big town, but very charming. I plan on going back there for a couple days when my time at the farm is done rather than spending all my time in Dublin. I took a bus from Cork to Tralee in County Kerry and got picked up by Gerard there.
I spent most of the afternoon doing some transplanting and getting to know the farm. There are six polytunnels and a bunch of raised beds that make up the vegetable part of the farm. Gerard keeps about 20 milk-cows and a number of calves while Claire also manages about a dozen hens and geese. There is also a big shaggy dog called Nero, who refuses to give me a moment's peace. Every time I go to put my boots on, he's there to sniff my face and try to lay his head in my lap. Crazy dog.
Saturday night I went out with Gerard and his friend Kevin to see Robin Hood. The film wasn't the utter hatchet job I expected, but Russel Crowe's accent was all over the place. Afterwards we went out for a couple pints at one of the Tralee pubs to celebrate the birthday of one of the women in Gerard's walking (hiking) club. I met a women named Katrina who invited me to come along with them on a walk on the Blasket Islands. For 20 Euro, I could hardly say no.
The Blaskets are the westernmost point in Europe. They have been uninhabited for 50 some years, although they are well visited by walkers and home to a number of sheep who keep the grass short. Apparently, several notable Irish writers made their name writing about the Blaskets and their former inhabitants. The literary snob in me just made a notch in his belt.
I should note at this point that the weather since I've been in Ireland and England has been uncharacteristically nice. It's been about 70 F and sunny, which is very odd for Ireland. The Irish all refer to this as a "heat wave."
The Blaskill walk was incredible. Check my facebook for a few photos. Several of the people on the tour had a very good grasp on local history and told me all about these starkly beautiful chunks of land. Apparently, the Spanish Armada, on their retreat from being whooped by the British tried to pass by the Islands and were wrecked in a severe storm. Several places that looked to me like nondescript rockpiles were actually ancient Celtic forts. I ate my lunch on the remains of an old hill-fort without even knowing it. There were no trees on the island, due to the wind and the frequent grazing. There was grass, heather, cliffbrake, moss, and very little else. The most obvious animals are sheep, though I also saw hares, rabbits and seals. There are quite a few seabirds such as gannets and puffins.
All the walkers from Tralee and Dingle were very friendly and eager to talk as long as I had wind. One chap called John talked my ear off for an hour about crooked Irish politicians using language which I will not repeat here. Politics seems to be a favorite subject here, since almost everyone I've run into seems to know a lot about American politics. People have pretty diverse opinions, althought they're all scared of Sarah Palin and they're all sick of the Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen. The Irish in general seem to like Americans, although John warned me that not all of Europe would be this friendly. The lack of a language barrier really helps. I mean, yes their accents can get rather thick and a very small minority speak Irish (so far, I've met three, even though everyone takes classes in school), but otherwise I feel pretty at ease here.
We stopped in Dingle on the way back. I'm definately going to visit that town again. It's a cute little shore town with great food and drink and lots of traditional music. Plus it's Gaeltacht, so you can hear Irish spoken on the street. I got a seafood chowder and a Bulmer's cider. The cider is quite good here and a very popular drink for both men and women. Certainly a far cry from Woodchuck back home which is sweet, but a bit pissy. And yes, I can officially confirm that the Guinness is better over here. Gerard tells me that I need to try Murphy's, which is a Cork stout that he claims is much smoother.
Tomorrow will be my first full day of work. I'm a little apprehensive all in all, but I think I'll have a good time.
By the way, does anyone know of an easy way to upload large numbers of pictures? Facebook albums are okay for now, but for some reason it's only letting me upload one at a time. Ideally, I'd like to use my google accound so I can link through this blog rather than having to get a Flickr or something like that.
Slan for now.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bureaucracy is hardly a friend of volunteerism

So, in a great historical irony, an American, namely me, has been deported from the Republic of Ireland. It appears that to enter Ireland as a WWOOFer, one needs proof of medical insurance, proof of WWOOF membership and a printed return ticket all in hard copy. I didn't have any of those although it took me all of five minutes to print them off. To be fair, the WWOOF website said I needed a return ticket, although I couldn't print mine since Ryanair doesn't let you do that more than three weeks in advance. I didn't need to show anything to enter the UK, just the address where I was staying. So I screwed up a tiny bit, but all these requirements caught me completely off-guard.
The problem appears to be the customs officer at Kerry airport, who doesn't seem to care much for WWOOFers. He gave me a whole spiel about Ireland's financial problems and how he couldn't let me in to do farm work which should go to Irish people. I pointed out the WWOOFing isn't work; it's volunteering, but he didn't seem convinced. Gerard and Claire said that the same officer had given them trouble before.
I got to stay and work on the farm for a day, although I plan to be back tomorrow. Now that I have all my documentation in order, there's no law preventing me from re-entering Ireland. All this amounts to is inconvenience and $500 down the drain.
The farm, for those of you who are wondering, is fantastic. Gerard and Claire are very nice and their daughters, all adopted Vietnamese, are too cute for description. I'll have some pics up within the next few days. The work has been fairly tough, as I expected. Gerard had me powerwash the dairy and help him give liver fluke medicine to the cows. Cows are pretty gross animals all in all. You get over your fear of shit pretty quickly, although cow manure is pretty inoffensive as feces goes and has the virtue of only smelling when fresh. The dried stuff really has no odor.
I'll keep you posted when I get back to the farm. Thanks for all your prayers and concern.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

London Calling...

Update: I am in London, Camden specifically. I'm crashing at my friend Katie Wallner's flat, which was barely big enough to fit an air mattress. It was still a marked improvement over my last accommodation: a vinyl-bound chair in the waiting area of Newark Liberty Itnl. sitting in between two elderly homeless women who had wandered in off the street looking for a warm place. A cop woke me up when he ran them off, but told me I could stay since I was clearly waiting for a flight. I felt a little discriminated toward. I mean, I understand that the airport doesn't want to set a precedent of taking in every bum in New Jersey, but at the time it was like "really dude, they aren't hurting anyone."

I had a few hours to bum around in downtown NYC on Monday and completely on a lark I ended up at the Museum of Sex. The whole place is one giant proof of Rule 34: If you can dream it, there is porn of it somewhere. The exhibits were (IMHO) tastefully designed and incredibly informative, though I couldn't hold back the sophomoric giggles at points. As someone who adored Dr. Lindquist's animal behavior class, I found the exhibit on animal sexuality completely fascinating. The museum had an obvious sex-positive feminism philosophical slant to it, as one might expect, but it didn't seem to advocate for total libertarianism. It portrayed certain elements of the porn industry as perpetuating damaging stereotypes that hurt a lot of women. You couldn't help but think about societal sexual mores: i.e. where do we draw the line between allowing people freedom to make their own sexual choices and making the judgment that certain behaviors are in fact damaging, particularly towards women. That is the key conundrum of sex-pos feminism, and while this museum doesn't purport to answer that, they certainly provide their viewers with plenty of intellectual ammunition.

Incidentally, their gift shop contained glow in the dark rubbers. Yeah, how about no.

I saw chestnut trees in Madison Square Park. They might have been the original Asian species to bring chestnut blight over here, explaining why we almost never see mature specimens of C. americana anymore. Also highly prevalent in the park were handsome large, pale-trunked sycamores (Platanus occidentalis). I think I will miss the familiar flora of America, but I should hardly begrudge Europe it's native pride. After all, Quercus rober is as dear to the English as Quercus alba is to us in America.

On London: Unable to make a judgment as of yet since all I have seen is the inside of an airport, the inside of the subway, and a little section of Euston Rd. in front of King's Cross. There is a stark juxtaposition of the medieval and the modern, but it's the little things that I'm really noticing. The streetlights are different, the signage is all large and auspicious looking, and of course the buses are huge. There are also inordinate amounts of Indian people, proving that whole line about the colonized colonizing the colonizer (was it Bhabha who said this, I'm gonna pretend to be smart and say it was Bhabha).

More when I get to Ireland. Cheerio for now.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Last minute preparations

So I graduated. All I have left is to pay my last bill (consisting mostly of parking tickets) and I get my diploma. Graduation day was fantastic, although I suffered a mild sunburn on my face. I was seated next to Alyssa Lord when it was announced that she received the alumni award for all her hard work and service. I really can't think of anyone more deserving. When the rep from the alumni association was reading the catalogue of her accomplishments, Kat Reid piped up and said, "guys, she's gonna take over the world." Somehow, I wouldn't be totally surprised. I got to meet her huge family which is almost a mirror opposite of mine with four girls and one boy. Her brother and my sister exchanged their sympathies.

All in all, the whole experience was fairly surreal. I took quite a few gentle ribs from my fellow English majors about my double white and gold tassel, signifying a B.A. and a B.S. Alyssa and I spent most of the ceremony joking with each other like little kids in church. It's something I do to keep myself in the moment. I do pretty good with the present; I can even handle the past pretty well. It's the future that bugs me out, and what is graduation but a celebration of the future?

I saw the future the previous night from the balcony at Duke's on the west shore of the Susquehanna. The future is a silent, dimly lit river: inscrutible, overwhelming, vast. No line can plumb it's depths and no sextant can scry it's horizons. From the balcony, the present was joy, joy that you could wrap yourself up in like a knit afghan. I was surrounded by almost the entire senior class, all my friends all ready to depart on their own journeys. Everone was tipsy, happy, and talkative. But I couldn't ignore that looming fact of the river, black as midnight, silent as a snowy wood. I knew there was a city on the other side of that river, hazy and indistinct beneath the post-thunderstorm mist. I knew that if I were to jump into that river and swim, it might take me a while and it would be cold and lonely, but those sturdy towers and glittering domes would rise up to meet me. I knew that the city before me was a good place, and the bar around me was a good place, but what separated them could not be known, could not be guessed at.

Later that evening, after a couple drinks had me loosened up, I had a short talk with Hazel Shively. She's working with AmeriCorps for the next two years in Mississippi. I felt a bit jealous. Hazel's future promises a lot of long days and a lot of weariness, but a degree of certainty that I lack right about now. I don't know how things will work out when I get back from Europe. Moreover, I don't know if I will be happy. I told Hazel that I didn't think I had the same passion that I had observed in many of my friends, that dedication to an ideal which I see in people like April Lindley or Frank Eanes. Hazel asked me what I thought was really important. I told her that I feel best when I cook for people, that when I cook I feel a connection to both the ingredients and the diners. I guess I thrive on that connection. I would love to do a complete earth-to-table garden/restaurant. Hazel and I joked that we should start one when she gets back from Mississippi. I'm guessing I'll need to provide capital.

The future is misty, murky, uncertain, and in my case, subject to the whims of shifting volcanic ash clouds from that damned volcano in Iceland. Just yesterday, I about pissed myself when I heard that airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland had been closed again. Now, off to pack...

Friday, May 14, 2010


Tomorrow, I graduate. The prospect is 80% thrilling and 20% terrifying. This is four years of restless nights, rainy days, broken hearts and new horizons coming to an abrupt end when Dr. Phipps says a prayer and we move our tassels to the left. We join the ranks of the a new demographic: the college-educated young adult, the millennial, and (for most of us) the unemployed. I've had a couple bouts of pre-grad anxiety. Once a couple months ago, my senior project adviser Dr. Heidi Lee spent about an hour assuring me that I was a marketable job candidate, I just might need to wait a while. Last night, Michelle Canales was gracious enough to reassure me that I haven't wasted my time here, that I have left some sort of imprint on my friends and on my college. As Tony Stark says in Iron Man 2 "It's not about me, it's not about you, it's not even about us; it's about legacy, what comes after us."

I'm still jumpy. I'm trapped alone in an empty apartment right now in the company of a dazed and confused bumblebee the size of my knuckle that's making weird poltergeist noises as it beats itself against the window glass like a martyr. I yelled like a bitch when it flew within inches of my ear.

I'd like to say it'd be too hard to thank you all personally for all that you've done for me over these past four years, but that's cowardice and laziness.

-Dr. Heidi Lee: Couldn't have made it without you. There's just no way. All those times when I wanted to ditch the project, all I needed was a little shot of optimism and confidence from you and things just started looking up. Good luck with your new life in the Philly area. I think I speak for the whole department in saying you will be deeply missed and fondly remembered.
-Drs. Crystal Downing, Sam Smith, Matt Roth, Pete Powers and Helen Walker: Thanks for all your efforts in converting me from an overconfident high-schooler into a mature critical voice. If my writing ever brings me fame and fortune, I'll donate to the school. If it only brings me pleasure and balance, then you've still given me a precious gift.
-Drs. Jim Makowski, Michael Shin, John Harms, Gerald Hess, Erik Lindquist, David Foster, Ted Davis, Karl Oberholser, Roseann Sachs, Anne Reeve and Rick Schaeffer: Thanks for a stellar and comprehensive education in biology. Your classes made me think not just about science, but about all the implications of that science for society and for Christianity. Keep on doing what you're doing.
-Drs. O'Hara, Joshi, Siddiqui, Gillespie, and Utada Sensei at Temple University: You helped make my Philly semester the best of my college career. Go Owls!
-Dr. Larry Lake: Thanks for all the years of competent, kindhearted, and optimistic advising. You stuck with me even when things got rough and I can't thank you enough (no rhyme intended, but it works).
-Anthony Francesco and Andrew Exner: You guys have been amazing roommates. Thanks for tolerating my obsession with cooking and my suckage at Smash Bros.
-Chad Wright: Good times in Philly bro. Seriously, if you read this, get in touch with me when I get back. We need to catch up.
-Kat Reid, Chris Rogers, Matt Dean, Kinley Zook, Juliette Brinks, Laura Dagley, Laura Waller, Pete Corning, Rita Testa, Inna Potekhina and the rest of you dirty RestoHouse hippies: You guys have been nothing short of incredible. You are one of the few groups on campus who practice what the school actually preaches. Stay awesome. Kat in particular, thanks for all the delicious tea and thoughtful chat. I hope to see you over the summer.
-Michelle Canales: I really have no words. You have inspired me, consoled me and risen to the challenge when I needed you the most.
-Holly Perozzi, Lisa Lindle, Kat Roten: Junior year was tough, but you guys were a perpetual source of relaxation and good times. I'm glad that you all seem to be getting on fine in the "real world." It gives me hope for myself.
-Liz Kraft: Never stop being a BAMF. It's your job, right?
-Rich Chagnon, Bryant Vance, Phil Hobbes, Katelyn Ayers, Rich Shively, Brittney Smith, Lindsay Gatesman, Leah Deputy, Wathira Mbage, Christal Liaw, Kelsey Theuerkauf, Sam Moore, Jevon Gondwe, Mark Netti, Charissa Brown and the rest of the Spring '09 Philly Crew: Philly will live on forever in our hearts. I had a great time with you guys and made some friends that I probably wouldn't have back in Grantham.
-Ashley Pim, Andrea Grove: Two of the most incredible people I know. Good luck with your last semester. Keep the "super" in super-seniors.
-Gillian Smith, Victoria Yunez, Caroline Sharp, Brian Behm, Tyler Chick: Thanks for all the years of good times. It's been one giant party with you guys and I hope we can stay in touch over the upcoming years.
-Bea Sasondoncillo: If there's one thing I learned from you, it's never give up, never frown, never stop loving.
-Alyssa Lord, Emily Williams, Dave Miller, Brittani Mazzone, Phil Martin, Karl Schlobohm, Katrina Campbell, Carolyn Wheatley: Guys, we did it! We're obfuscated idiosyncratic literati now. Go team!
-Ray Yaegle: Messiah College should mint a special medal and hang it around your neck. Seriously, you kept this past year hilarious. Hope you get the job in Maryland.
-Steven Collier: I leave it to you, Gillian, Kinley, and Anthony to keep the department cool in our absence. Carry the torch high, brother.
-Jaime White, Sari Heidenreich, Morgan Lee, Tom Brown, Evan Scott, Lindsay Prior, Ashley Dorty, Brian Pennington, Chris Markley: Greatest staff ever! I think we did some great things this year. Finally, the paper is on the right track for the future.
-April Lindley, Becky Minnick: Don't stop believin' Hold on to that feeeeeeling.
-Elisabeth Sharber: I think all those times I burst into your apartment Kramer-like warrant your own line.
-Elizabeth Gager: I think it's all been said already, but this list wouldn't be complete without you.
-Billy Leonhardt: Shoop-da-whoop?
-Ethan Lichtenberger, Dave Alderfer, Jenn Kelley, Cimone Philips, Allison Stella, Hannah Beatty, Andrew Thompson, Amanda Carlson, Cindy Lee, Devin Thomas, Katie Manzullo, Evan Peck, Ryan Manieri, Josh Lebo, Matt Sakow, Ryan Faus, Shanna Lodge, Tim Brensinger, Amy Chrisfield: Okay, NOW I'm getting lazy. You guys rule, capeesh?
-Mindy Maslin: Yeah, okay. Thanks for talking me into coming here.
-Brittany Eltman: Can't wait to see you tomorrow....
-Mr. Bumblebee: Seriously dude, GTFO of my room. Geeze.

You guys mean the world to me. As long as we have love and Facebook, we'll never truly be parted. I know I've quoted this at you before, but I think it bears repeating now.

Remember your name
Do not lose hope--what you seek will be found
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
-Neil Gaiman

Never forget. Messiah College Centennial Class.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Things He Carried

This is a first-draft inventory for the trip. I am largely limited by the Ryanair 15 kg (about 33 lbs) weight limit on checked baggage.

-Israeli Defense Force travel bag. Good sturdy black canvas that can be carried by straps like a duffel bag or slung on the back like a satchel.
-Canvas paratrooper bag. A versatile shoulder bag that will be ideal for just hoofing around the city and as a carry-on for planes. Thanks to Elizabeth Gager for driving me and my brother out to the Army-Navy store in Bethesda for these two items.
-Passport holder/document organizer. Ideal for keeping all my important papers from getting wet or crumbled.
-Old pair of steel-toed work boots. These are strictly for farm work. I might end up leaving them on the farm in Ireland, mostly because their weight makes them inconvenient to haul around.
-Sketchers Limited Edition. I got these shoes a few years back and they've been reliable friends ever since. They're lightweight slip-ons with a classy leather exterior and a sneaker-like rubber sole. They're an ideal fusion of style and functionality, and they don't scream "AMERICAN CHUMP: PLEASE MUG ME."
-Flip-flops. Eliminates the need for socks and provides style and comfort in warmer weather.
-I'm still wavering about exact choices here and of course I'll be limited by what I can cram into the bag. I'm planning on the maxim that each article should be multifunctional since I will encounter a number of different weathers, climates and work conditions. For example, t-shirts and polos can be worn solo or in combination with a sweater vest and a long sleeved shirt for extra warmth. Pants will probably include two pairs of stylish jeans, a pair of work jeans, one pair of shorts, and a pair of pajama pants that I can wear under jeans if things get really cold. I will probably get a lightweight North Face rain parka.
Personal Care
-Toothbrush, toothpaste, contact solution, contact case, replacement contacts (I use Acuvue 2s that last 2-3 weeks), glasses with case, body wash, shampoo, razor, shaving cream (no need to look like a dirty hippie), sunscreen, deodorant, vitamins (at my mom's insistence), pepto bismol, antihistamine, neosporin, band aids.
-Camera with extra batteries.
-Books. Something hefty like Dostoevsky.
-Tin Whistle. Maybe I'll earn some brownie points from the Irish by proving a basic knowledge of Celtic music. We'll see.
-Leather-bound journal. For taking notes

Noticeably absent is a laptop. After much consternation, I decided to cut my technological umbilical cord. I have many reasons, notably weight concerns (my Compaq could be used to bludgeon a baby seal), risk of theft, and increased hipster-cred. This is mildly liberating, but also damn frightening. My laptop is like a best friend who I don't have to talk to and a dog I don't have to feed. What will life be like without checking my facebook multiple times per day?
You, my reader, are probably asking yourself "how will we get blog updates if he has no computer?" Well, I'll have computer access at the farm and I'll be using internet cafes the rest of the time. I plan on writing my thoughts down in longhand in the paper journal and later transcribing into type. So I'm not totally weaning myself off technology, just making a reasonable sacrifice.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


So it's time for me to put that old livejournal to sleep and pick up a chipper new blogspot account from the pound. Seriously, who uses livejournal anymore except Russians and emos? My new blogspot will love me unconditionally. I can take it on walks and play catch with it just like...*sob*...goodbye, faithful livejournal.

My primary purpose in this blog is to have a spot to collect my thoughts and experiences during my six-week ramble through Europe. I plan to continue blogging when I return, but I can hardly promise you pictures of stately castles and quaint pubs in College Park.

Just so the record is straight, this is my tentative itinerary.

May 15: Graduate, move my stuff from my apartment in Grantham, PA to my parent's house in College Park, MD.
May 17: Take a Bolt Bus (which is a great deal BTW) from Greenbelt, MD to Penn Station, NYC. Putz around in New York for a couple hours, then go to Newark Liberty International Airport. Try to sleep in terminal.
May 18: Fly from Newark Liberty to London Heathrow. Should arrive at 8pm London time. Spend night in Katie Wallner's flat in Camden.
May 19: Get a European cell phone in London somewhere. Take a Ryanair carrier from London-Stansted to Kerry Airport in SW Ireland. Get picked up by host family Gerard and Claire O'Connor.
May 20-June 4: Stay and work with the O'Connors on their organic dairy. I met the O'Connors through WWOOF Ireland. Check out for volunteer-tourism opportunities around the world.
June 5-8: Take a train from Tralee, Ireland to Dublin. Stay there for a few days, drink lots of Guinness.
June 9: Ryanair flight from Dublin to Prague. Meet up with Amy Zhou. Hugh, Chad, Ray and Elizabeth all told me that Prague is a great city, so i thought I'd czech it out.
June 9...: This is the part where I have some flexibility. I have a rail pass that will get me almost anywhere in Europe. Right now, the route is looking like Prague-Vienna-Budapest-Ljubljana-Venice-Milan-Marseilles-Barcelona-Valencia-fly back to London although this is subject to change.
July 7: Return to Newark Liberty via London-Heathrow. Go home. Or make a home. Or rest.

That's all for now. I need to start packing up my apartment.