Half-finished, half-destroyed, hybrid? Syncretic culture

During the first week of May my family and I had a chance to explore ancient Greece.

Well, OK, modern Greece. With some ruins thrown in.

In addition to the museums of Byzantine culture, early Christian churches, old Turkish baths, reconstructed tombs of Phillip II of Macedon and all that, we also wandered around downtown Thessaloniki (Thessalonika) quite a bit. I was struck by the prevalence of half-destroyed, half-rebuilt buildings in various states of disrepair/renewal/disusage/usage. Continue reading

Why I’m leaving Facebook (and why you should, too)

facebookAbout ten days ago, I started a countdown on my Facebook “wall.”

Some of my “friends” asked if I was going to send something into space.

When I “commented” that I was leaving Facebook as of May 1st, they begged me not to.

The system will police itself, they argued. User complaints and the #deletefacebook movement/backlash would force Zuckerberg & Co. to change their policies.

Hardly. Instead, they’re doubling down.

In fact, Facebook has been terrified for years that its users would eventually find out that  it’s nothing more than an online marketing tool for greedy companies – and that Facebook has sold them out.

It took me a while, but finally I decided enough was enough.

I’m leaving Facebook. Here are a few reasons why I hope you will, as well.

Continue reading

Winter: A Time to Read

Since becoming sick this past November (first a momentary, sudden illness in the pit of my stomach…), I’ve found it difficult to stay 100% healthy as winter has well and truly set in. It’s not terribly cold where I live (the middle of Honshu, the main island of Japan), but the up-and-down irregular temperature pattern this year has made it easier to catch colds, influenza, and other upper respiratory sicknesses.

So while down in the dumps with the mumps (which I contracted over New Year’s from my two children, despite having been vaccinated against it as a child…different strain here, perhaps), I’ve tackled a reading book list compiled from last summer. Even managed to finish one or two! Continue reading

Thoughts on the eve of tomorrow

As I sit here in front of my computer late at night, on the verge of the 2016 US presidential election, I’m struck by the choice I had to make. Two different versions of a future US society: one that invites multidiversity and multiethnicity in all their chaotic, unpredictable combinations, and one that shuts the door and preserves a traditional us vs them, insider vs outsider mentality.

By all rights, I should support the latter. I’m from a small town of less than 3,000 inhabitants, close to 99.99% white, deep in the heart of Upstate New York. I grew up surrounded by people who basically looked like me, enjoyed camping and hiking, canoeing and fishing, playing baseball and football and video games. Driving. A lot. I did yard work when I was old enough to get my working papers (back then, you didn’t get your social security number until you applied for it after age 14). In the spring, I helped my father in the garden. In the summer I mowed lawns. In the fall I raked leaves. In the winter I shoveled driveways. In high school, I had a part-time at a local pizza place, then at McDonald’s, then washed dishes in a nearby town. All our customers were white. All of them spoke English. It was all just fine, everybody looking the same and acting the same. Everybody just like me. Continue reading

Stories from next to the grave

img_0719In April, my grandmother died. She was my last grandparent.

In August, I was finally able to visit her grave. Anyone who is living overseas for an extended period of time (or permanently, as I probably am) will tell you how difficult it is to have a sense of closure at the death of a loved one. Particularly a close family member.

But as we were standing there, gazing down at the names of my great-grandparents (whom I had barely known) and my grandfather and grandmother (whom I had known very well from a young age), it wasn’t just a sense of closure I was seeking.

It was a sense of history. Of stories.

When the three cars of relatives arrived at the cemetary — myself, my wife, my two daughters; my parents and one younger brother and sister (I have eight siblings in total), one of my aunts and uncles (I have at least twenty…yes, it’s complicated…) an interesting thing happened.

We all started telling stories. Maybe it’s the Irish in us (Bushnell, Connally, O’Leary, and Dougherty, among others). But telling stories has always come naturally to people in my family, as natural as eating and breathing.

My uncle started it. Stories about my grandfather when he was in the Navy during World War II (he never left Florida).

My aunt followed. Stories about my grandfather when he was growing up. Stories about my grandmother when she was the same age as my cousin. (A recently discovered photograph showed her to be almost identical in appearance, too. Scary, that.)

My father continued (with a little prodding from me) with a story from when I was a child. (This is how I found out that the United Methodist Church-owned apartment building I had lived in as a young child had been and has been occupied by family members for at least four generations.)

When I mentioned my intention to write a book of non-fiction about my grandparents and their generation — I’m thinking of calling it “My Three Grandfather” — the stories came fast and furious.

Right next to my grandparents’ grave.

There we were, in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of a centuries-old cemetary overlooking the Hudson River Valley (near HVCC, as a matter of fact), telling stories about the dead, with the dead. With the living.

Stories aren’t just all that’s left. Stories are what we always had, and have, and will have.

Eat your heart out, Washington Irving.

1000 Isles

Some people have asked me on FB for some previews of Notes from the Nineties. It’s difficult to prepare excerpts from short stories (which are already short). So while I’m thinking of what’s appropriate as a teaser, here’s another poem from the volume. It appears right after the story “Boys Will be Boys” together with the poem “Grandmother.”

 

1000 Isles

 

Summers of my Upstate youth were spent

in the family station wagon, the six of us, or was it seven,

traveling to the great St. Lawrence

Seaway of a thousand islands.

 

The first time we stayed one night at Mosquito Heaven,

sleepless in a brown canvas tent,

and four nights on the biggest island—

half in the US,

half out.

 

I learned how to gut a fish, how to swim,

how to roll up a sleeping bag,

and where to buy fireworks—

I mean sparklers.

 

On my 12th birthday, I got a wallet,

put in a year’s allowance,

then when I forgot it in the campsite bathroom,

got advice in return the next morning—

“I told you so.”

 

Looking back, it makes sense

to me now

that I hate dressing.

Notes from the Nineties: Cois Fharraige / Ag an gcrosaire

From now I’ll be spending some time on the blog briefly explaining the background of some of the stories and poems in my new book Notes from the Nineties (already available for pre-order! Only $1.99!).

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The first story in the volume is called “Cois Fharraige,” which used to be subtitled “or, By the Sea,” which is the meaning of the Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) title. The poem that follows the story (“Ag an gcrosaire,” which means “at the crossroads”) stems from the same time period and experiences.

From 1995 to 1997 I studied creative writing, literature, history, and Irish language in the University of Notre Dame MFA program. (Actually, when I entered the program it was an MA but changed to a “terminal degree” at the end of my first year, but that’s another story…). When I told my roommate that I was studying Irish he first said “don’t the Irish speak English?” And then he added, “Gee, that’s going to improve your job offers” (or some such words). Continue reading