Category Archives: Mind

Waiting out ‘May gray’

Lido, 1917. Pic: Foretpan/Vargha Zsuzsa

Lido, 1917. Pic: Foretpan/Vargha Zsuzsa

Spring is in full swing in Oregon, which means more light and heat and greenery.

The greenery is ever-present here, but the high, diffuse May light is not. The bright gray above reminds me of the Irish Midlands, where whole childhood weeks would pass under the off-white dome.

Back then it usually meant dry weather, which meant football outdoors. Now it’s almost oppressive, however, particularly when temperatures warm into the 70s and the heat seems trapped by the uniform sky – or lack of one.

Under the gray this morning my memory – which may or may be accurate – called to mind Thomas Mann’s “Death In Venice”, and the oppressive skies above the Lido that provide a backdrop for the main character, Aschenbach’s, fall.

While the absence, or concealment, of the sun worked as a metaphor for Mann, it’s also what’s most oppressive about ‘May Gray’ (as the Californians call it). Without the sun in the sky, there are no shadows, time seems to slip off schedule, there is no clear dawn or sunset.

Nothing to do but wait, of course. Until the end of the hour, or the day, or the week, when the clouds clear and high blue returns. And with it, hopes and memories of summer.

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Feeling Irish abroad – but maybe not today

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

Poet Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

What’s makes up an emigrant’s St Patrick’s Day?

Wearing green? Hitting the Irish bar(s)? Calling home? Listening to the Six Nations? Or none of the above?

It’s probably the latter for me. The most Irish thing I’ll do today is have a glass of Jameson this afternoon. The most Irish-American thing I’ll do this weekend is the Shamrock Run, a 5k in downtown Portland tomorrow morning, which attracts thousands of participants, many clad in kelly green (one of the 40 shades I’d never heard of until I moved here).

But Portland isn’t Boston or New York or even San Francisco. On a run today I spotted, in the early morning murk, a single tricolor hanging outside a house on NE 33rd Street. Yesterday a couple of colleagues wore green (as did I).

But that is the extent of St Patrick’s Day, for me. I’m tempted to pop into the local Irish bar, which is making the most of the weekend, but it looks like rain, and it’s chilly, and I’ll have to walk the dog later, so I’m not sure.

Not that this represents much change from when I used to live in Dublin. As a journalist, I worked every St Patrick’s Day, negotiating the alcohol-fueled mess of Talbot Street and the DART to get home at the end of the day. I’d wade through thousands of pictures of parades, but never bothered going to one.

Living abroad, I feel more Irish in certain moments than on certain days. A particular light in the evening will remind me of the sky over St Anne’s Park in Raheny, or a damp, clear morning will bring to mind stepping out of my dad’s house on a spring weekend. A Planxty song or a Patrick Kavanagh line or an Irish accent in the coffee shop – all of these prompt a certain small twinge, a reminder of my Irishness.

But I’m not feeling any of this today. Maybe next year, until then – go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís.

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A (very) quick visit to Dublin

River Liffey, February 2018

River Liffey, February 2018

“Has it changed much?”

I was asked this question more than once last week by friends I met on a visit to Dublin. I also asked it myself, given that it’s approaching two years since I moved away from the city, and the country.

After spending a couple of days walking the streets, visiting a couple of museums, some old favorite coffee shops and pubs, and just hanging out, my conclusion is simple: Dublin is fast.

The people on the pavements are fast, the cars and – even more so – the buses driving millimeters from the footpath are fast, the service is fast, the conversation is fast. Even the clouds whipping westward over the Liffey in the evening are fast.

Coming from Portland, a similar-sized city, this was an eye-opener. It led to more questions. How did I spend 20 years in Dublin moving at this pace? How was good for my shoes, or my timekeeping, or my digestion? And why have I been bumped off the pavement by two shoulder bags already this afternoon?

I’m 40, but a pretty active 40. I get as much done in a day in Portland as I did in one in Dublin. But I just seem to do it a little less hectically here.

Dubliners might pass the rush off as a symptom of a returned economic boom. But I remember the first one, and it wasn’t this busy around town.

The pace had its advantages though. Because of – or perhaps borne upon – the throngs of people I managed to knock off two museums, three bookstores, two coffee shops, a couple of restaurants and four pubs within a day or two, with plenty of time left over to gaze on at the city’s energy.

Could I do this every day, day after day, like I did in when I worked and lived in the city center, rarely venturing outside the canals for weeks at a time? Maybe. But that urge has gone – I’ll leave Dublin to the thousands and thousands of people, both younger and older than me, who still have an appetite for it.

For now, I’ll keep moving a pace or two slower, even if it means a five-minute wait for an americano or feeling duty-bound to let two cars zip merge instead of one. It’s not you, it’s me, Dublin. Right now I’m afraid I might slow you down.

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What will survive of us

From Dad to Anne. Powell's, Portland, Dec 2017.

From Dad to Anne. Powell’s, Portland, Dec 2017.

Fifty-five years ago a man sat in a diner somewhere in the United States, pulled a book from his pocket, and inscribed a short, touching note to his daughter on the first page.

As he did so, did it occur to him that a person not yet born, in another place in another century, would one day read his words? Or that the book he inscribed would travel from that counter top on a journey that would see it end up, in 2017, on the shelves of a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon?

“Anne,” the man writes, “waiting for lunch in the Olympic Grill I have been looking through this book I just bought, and it is so much your book that I have decided to give it to you, even though it isn’t Christmas or birthday or even Easter.”

He signs off with a simple, “Dad”.

Whatever became of Anne? Or her father? Were they close, a dad and daughter who knew each other well enough to know that one would enjoy the Dylan Thomas book that the other had just bought?

Or were they distant, or becoming so? Is the absence of a sign-off simply the sign of a less emotionally-open age, or a clue to their relationship?

Re-reading the note, as I stood between the shelves in Powell’s this week, I wondered how far the book had traveled. I can’t locate an Olympic Grill in Portland in 1955. Perhaps the man sat in the still extant Kelly’s Olympian, nearby in downtown Portland, or in another establishment in another part of the country.

The place is likely gone, like the man himself and, quite possibly, his daughter. But his small gesture remains, on the opening page of a crumbling $5 book that – perhaps because of the note inside – I couldn’t bring myself to buy.

“What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin. I hope that I held a small piece of it that afternoon.

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All I want for Christmas

All quiet. Alberta Park, Portland, Dec 21, 2017

All quiet. Alberta Park, Portland, Dec 21, 2017

Here’s my Christmas wish: peace and quiet.

An absence of bad news – or indeed any news – for 24 hours.

Phones turned off. Conversation, of course, and some downtime with a book too. A decent glass of whiskey, a nice serving of Christmas dinner (whatever’s served, Christmas dinner always tastes great, in my experience), a good, strong coffee – all important.

A little, but not too much TV. Perhaps a board game (after all, it is Christmas.) A walk in the afternoon, fresh air between the raindrops.

And family, of course, far and near. Whether they’re 4,500 miles away or in the next room, they always feel closer at this time of year.

And, above, under, and throughout it all, peace and quiet. Silence. Everything and everyone turned off. A perfect holiday, for one day.

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Tom, Sean, and me

Sean Hughes

Sean Hughes

I’ve spent plenty of time in the early 1990s recently, pulled back there by the deaths of Tom Petty and, yesterday, Sean Hughes.

Both men were sides of a coin – or squares on a Rubik’s cube (this was the Nineties, after all) – to a teenager like myself, growing up in a smallish town in Ireland which seemed a million miles from Mulholland Drive or the Edinburgh Festival.

Reading tributes to and – more immediately – watching clips of both performers from 25 or more years ago, led to mixed feelings, some nostalgic and some of – ‘was it really like that?’

Sean’s Show ran on Channel Four, one of the nine or 10 channels we had at home back then. Not owning a CD player, I listened to Full Moon Fever on tape – so much so that I wore out the frail spool. It was one of about 20 cassettes I possessed.

After digesting the obituaries and watching the YouTube clips, and spending too much time chasing teenage memories, I was left with an unanswered question: what the hell did I do with the rest of my free time in 1992?

Tom Petty. Pic: Takahiro Kyono

Tom Petty. Pic: Takahiro Kyono

Nowadays it’s often a struggle to carve out 30 minutes to listen to a piece of music or watch a TV show; back then it seemed that I was the lord and possessor of vast amounts of time, some of it spent playing soccer, some with my head in Tolkien or Thomas Harris, and none of it linked to anything digital.

Was it a better time? Or a happier or healthier one? Who knows? I can’t really remember. Then again, I can barely remember the album I listened to yesterday on Spotify, or the last long article I read, because both have already been drowned out by the online noise I surround myself with.

Watching an episode of Sean’s Show last night, I was struck by its feeling of space, the slower pace, the unfilled moments devoted to a confused look, a wry glance, or a cut scene. There was nothing pressing about engaging with the show, it was easy to slip into its pace.

An hour later, I made it barely 15 minutes into an episode of Family Guy, because the jokes weren’t coming fast, or funny enough. Maybe it’s me? Or maybe it’s what I’m watching?

Tom Petty sang that ‘the waiting is the hardest part’. I’m not sure that 2017 me would have the patience to sit through some of Sean Hughes’ quirkier set pieces, or the filler cuts on late Eighties Heartbreakers’ albums.

Perhaps that’s no bad thing. But I still have a feeling that – minor as it is in the face of mortal news  – something’s been lost.

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On returning to visit Ireland

On Dollymount Strand, September 2017.

On Dollymount Strand, September 2017.

Every emigrant believes that their story is new.

It’s a conviction woven through the fabric of the emigration itself; a new start, new beginnings, a renewal of outlook and perspective – all these are critical to the experience, and my experience was no different.

As an Irishman, I’m aware that millions of people departed my home country for the United States over the past 200 years, under many circumstances (and a great many of those unhappy). And yet, because I’m me and this is my life, I can’t help but put myself front and center in my own story.

So, when I returned to Ireland for a visit last week – my first since leaving the country more than a year earlier – I expected (naively, of course) the insights to fall like rain from an Irish summer sky. I would see myself, and the country, cast in a new, deeper light; I would achieve understandings that were impossible in the 38 years I’d lived there.

I may not have forged the uncreated conscience of my race since I’d left, but I would have strongly held beliefs on what makes a good taco, for example, among other things.

Dublin, 2017.

Dublin, 2017.

What I found was what I already knew, but perhaps didn’t appreciate enough before. It’s obvious to some I’m sure, but it wasn’t to me.

For all the tourist ads and Instagram pics, the Ireland I returned to wasn’t a place. The place was there (I was standing in it, after all), but what made it ‘home’ was the people.

And my wife and I tried to meet as many people as possible. Over a short number of days we spent time with family, met old friends and former work colleagues, and even shot the breeze with the owner of our favorite coffee shop.

We didn’t do, or speak about, anything different or groundbreaking or radical to what we had before. The ‘T word‘ may have been raised once or twice, but we got over that quickly enough.

Instead we just hung out, eating and drinking, walking and talking, covering a great number of topics. Not least the greatest Irish conversation starter: the weather. (For the record it rained most days – which added to the sense of homecoming.)

There was no pretense or argument or oneupmanship – just connection.

When I walked into departures at Dublin Airport a few days later, I hadn’t come into possession of any great emigrant insights. I wasn’t taking off with a razor-sharp concept of the 21st-century Irish psyche in my pocket.

My insight was simple enough – that Ireland contains some of the greatest people, who I love and I miss and who I look forward to returning to. Sin é .

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Hiking the ‘geography of hope’

Mount Hood. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Mount Hood. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

“We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

So wrote the novelist Wallace Stegner in 1960, in an appeal to a U.S. government official involved in a policy review of America’s ‘Outdoor Recreation Resources’.

Stegner’s point seems self-evident 60 years later. In 2017, after hundreds of years of human erosion of natural resources, the wild country in public ownership is clearly worth more than its simple economic value.

While this is clear to many – particularly those who’ve visited a national park – the country’s current president may take some convincing. Meanwhile, hope seems thin on the ground these days.

But, as Stegner argued, it’s still there – for now. With this in mind we recently travelled from our home in urban north Portland’s to the Mount Hood National Forest, and specifically to the Lolo Pass Trailhead, a waypoint on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

From there, my wife and I hiked the PCT for a couple of hours, before turning off on the Timberline Trail, which we cut away from to ascend Bald Mountain.

In the course of the hike we met a handful of people, who quickly passed with a nod; at times, we seemed to be the only people standing beneath the gargantuan west face of Mount Hood above us. The higher we hiked, the quieter the undergrowth sounded – even the fauna appeared to clear the way.

We felt, to borrow another phrase from Stegner, “single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals…”

After months in the cities, and traffic, living with ambient freeway noise outside our home and multiple screens within, the hours also felt like ‘sanity restored’.

On Bald Mountain.

On Bald Mountain. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

We ate our lunch yards from Bald Mountain’s summit, where the only imprint of civilization was the few stone remnants of a 1930s fire lookout, facing the huge hanging glaciers on Mount Hood. The scale of the view was vast and silencing; our meal over, we sat and breathed and just looked on, a part of the landscape ourselves.

Having hiked in Europe, the British Isles, and Ireland, I’ve long been familiar with the restorative powers of the outdoors – whether in a blizzard on Ben Nevis, crossing a sun-bleached glacier on the Monte Rosa, or on sunny moorland in the Wicklow Mountains.

I still agree with the elderly man I met when descending Croagh Patrick in heavy weather on a November afternoon, who shouted to me above the wind: “It’s good for the soul!”

It was, and it still is. The wild places – to borrow a term from Robert Mcfarlane – remain repositories of peace, beauty, and natural communion. But they’re also places of hope – regions that remind us that – despite everything else that confronts us in 2017 – we’re still part of something awe-inspiring. For now, at least.

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Greatness in the grind

Mo Farah, seconds after winning the men's 10,000m

Mo Farah, seconds after winning the men’s 10,000m

Winning is easy. If you’re Mo Farah, at least. The British runner made his final sprint to the finish in the men’s 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships look like a breeze.

He rounded the final corner and then – boom – after 26 minutes of running he easily dipped into his reserves and pulled out a final 200 meters that left the field scrambling in his wake.

That’s how it looked. In reality I’m sure it was likely anything but easy, despite’s the Briton’s ability to cheerily push through fatigue and pain.

While the final 20 seconds of Farah’s greatest race – or the one that cemented his standing at Britain’s greatest long distance runner – were the ones celebrated, repeated, and reported on worldwide, they weren’t the ones that won him gold.

As the most amateur of amateur runners (yours truly) knows, the end is often the easy – or easier – bit. Getting there is the hard part – the fifth and sixth kilometers are often where the race is run or lost, whether you’re competing in front of millions of viewers, or just hauling yourself around north Portland on a Saturday morning.

Farah’s greatness lies in these fifth and six kilometers, as he displayed in London yesterday. Under siege from younger competitors, who appeared to be running as a team against him, he was forced to step up the pace.

Farah's sprint to the finish

Farah’s sprint to the finish

Watching on, at times it seemed that the British runner was dropping back, only for him to rally again and again, responding to the faster pace, battling back.

Such running goes far beyond physical form or fitness – it demands deep mental reserves, an ability to remain focused and work to a plan, when every external (and most internal) factor wants to pull you off course.

If there’s a lesson to be read from the ability and greatness of Mo Farah, it lies here. Yes, preparation is vital; yes, performance is critical; of course, your finish is often key, but most races are won in the grinding, unexciting, off-camera, mid-sections.

This takes focus and self belief, two hard-won traits that are too easily and too often bandied about in life and sports. And even the world’s best athletes struggle to maintain them; as Farah himself said afterwards: “At one point in the middle of the race I wasn’t thinking I was going to lose, but I thought ‘this is tough, this is tough’.”

“Il faut d’abord durer” (“first, one must endure”) was a motto adapted – in very different circumstances – by a well-known American writer. It came to my mind in the final moments of yesterday’s race. If, like Farah, you can bounce back often enough the challenges – eventually – will dry up.

And they did, in those final 200 meters, when Mo Farah kicked into his sprint, the crowd roared, the flashbulbs popped, and history was made. But that was the easy part.

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