Books Read 2021-22

Note: Fall and early winter of 2021 I read a lot of books, but I can’t remember many of them. I was moving around often and never seemed to have time to record thoughts on the books I was reading. This is a partial record of what I read in 2021 and early 2022.

Running for My Life by Lopez Lomong

This book was one of about five given to me, very kindly, by my friend Lynda Banks at FrogSong, who answered my request for books for the Coasties to read. She went out and spent real money on nice, new copies of good books, after doing research to find out what the Coasties might like to read (she consulted a reading specialist and a former CG member too).

If this book doesn’t make you cry, your heart is gray marble. The story of one of the “lost boys” of Sudan had me at “lost boys of Sudan,” because of my most kind and saddest student of all time, Bhanydhuro, an EFL student in Egypt. Bhanydhuro was an incredibly generous student, kind to all his classmates and practically reverential to his teachers. And very, very hardworking and thus good at English! He told me abut his escape from Sudan on an overpacked ferry, which cost a fare for which his parents had had to save up for a very long time…he said to me, sadly, “I do not think I will ever see my family again.” He was the most enthusiastic, kind, warm-hearted student I’ve ever had…and there have been many. I have always felt bad that I did not extend more friendliness to him – but I was not much older than him at the time, and shy and awkward. I should have adopted him and brought him back to America!

Anyway this book tells the true story of a child who is kidnapped, along with all the other boys in the village, by some terrorists who want to turn them into child soldiers. From his harrowing months living in a dark room (with other boys dead and dying around him from starvation and stress) to his amazing escape – made by literally running and running through the desert, for days.. eventually, he got to a refugee camp, where he lived for about ten years. There, the high points of his week were Tuesdays, because that was garbage day, when some people from the town(?) came and dropped their waste into a big pit near the refugee camp, and he and the other boys would fight over the scraps as they looked to find something to eat.

After a decade or so of this life, in which he admits he was looking forward to being bigger and becoming stronger so he could bully other people the way he was bullied, and thus perhaps get more to eat, he by a series of miracles was allowed to go to the USA. The story of his flight from Africa made me cry …before he got on the flight, he was given a bottle of orange soda and what he describes as a “loaf” of bread, which I suspect was a small bun or roll. He was astonished at having so much food and asked whom he was to share it with. Having been told he could eat it all himself, he then got on the plane and did not move or eat or drink for the next three flights and about 24 or more hours. He said the other people on the plane had drink and food brought to them, but he had no money so each time the stewardess offered him something, he would politely refuse. Besides, he had had the orange drink and the loaf, so he didn’t need more food. It wasn’t until his third flight that stewardess realized he hadn’t eaten and spoke to him and assured him that it was okay, he could eat the food. That was just the beginning of his new life; he was taken in by a well-off couple in New England, and the young man went to high school and not only learnt English and managed to graduate on time but also becomes a track star…and what happens after that is even more amazing. I love this book and even though I guess it’s a “young adult” book I’d recommend it for anyone.

On the next page: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, by Piper Kerman

Pages: 1 2 3 4

January 2020

Not Your Father’s Coast Guard: The untold story of U.S. Coast Guard Special Forces

by Matthew Mitchell

I was lent this old, but very interesting, book by one of the chiefs on board the USCGC Confidence, and it laid the foundation for my understanding of present-day Coast Guard culture and values.

It’s an old joke:  when Navy sailors return to the US, they write books; when Coasties return to the US, they refuel. But in the case of this book, a USCG officer chose to write about the “special ops” he took part in, and the Coast Guard’s history of such ops, especially in South America after the Vietnam era. Although the author gives too much detail of military arrangements, personnel, group nomenclature and classification – and uses way too many acronyms – here are also fascinating, frightening stories of the missions undertaken in the 1980s era War on Drugs (missions that extended far beyond the Bush era and continue today).

The author took part in a small, inter-agency task force in South America, a group of men who succeeded in slowing if not stopping the flow of cocaine (and likely other drugs) from the jungles to the cities of South America and the USA. They accomplished this mostly by blowing up runways and cocaine labs. Their missions were not only physically dangerous and politically controversial, but also emotionally harrowing. The men’s struggles and conflicts dramatize the different sides and purposes of the USCG.


The Little Paris Bookshop

 by Nina George

This charming and engaging love story was recommended to me by Anthony Marcelli before I even met his charming and engaging lovable self. In a text message, he mentioned that he was reading it; I looked it up and ordered it instantly, while still texting back and forth with Anthony.

Translated from the German, the novel is about a “literary apothecary” who has a bookstore on a barge on a river in Paris. He has a secret sad heartbreak and a room (in his apartment on land) that he hasn’t been into in years…a room that holds the mementoes of his lost love, a woman married to another man. The bookseller is sad and I was sorry for him for pretty much the whole book, especially when he goes into the room, which has been sealed up for years, and opens for the first time an old letter from his lover. Of course, the letter reveals something that would have changed the course of his whole life (and sadness) had he read it at the time he first got it – but he thought it would be too painful to read at the time, and he set it aside, and by the time he does read it, it’s too late and his lover is dead. Yet even with no hope of ever seeing her again, he still continues to live, and he has to do something with his life – but what, and why? (This was a question I sympathized with).

The book contains both the past narrative (including his lover’s old journals!), plus a present-time story in which the bookseller and a few odd friends take off in the boat, each man looking for a different kind of reading material/escape/love affair/woman. All along the way are references to the complex joys and benefits of reading (and writing).

I was sad reading this and then sad in a different way when it ended (because I couldn’t read the story anymore), but I was cheered by the various long appendices, which include recipes (of meals cooked in the story!) and a guide to literary prescriptions – that is, a guide to which books to read for various emotional ailments, each one particular and odd – and not uncommon. I could relate to a lot of the emotional diagnoses and was interested in getting some more of the books that are prescribed to treat them – but it’s not clear if all of the books are real (are they just fictional references?) and some of the books that do seem to be real have never been translated into English!

I would prescribe this book especially for my friends Margie Wachtel and Joan Ogden, who love reading, and for anyone who feels nostalgia for a lost love or for something that could have been, but never was (in other words, for everyone).

I especially enjoyed the “dictionary of emotions,” which the main character is working on throughout the story. Like the prescription-books, the dictionary is very specific and inspiring. Based on his dictionary entries, I came up with a few of my own:

“The feeling you have at the end of a difficult conversation when you are still caught up in it but know you will feel better soon”


“The way wine tastes if you are looking at the sun while drinking it.”

His are better, but you get the idea. Now get the book.


Deep Sea, Foreign Going: Inside shipping, the invisible industry that brings you ninety percent of everything

by Rose George

This is one of those books that sounds as if it would be dull but was actually riveting (ha!). I never knew the shipping industry was so huge and moved so much stuff and involved so many people or was so dangerous.

This nonfiction book about shipping was recommended to me by my cousin Jeannette Simpson, who works in London for an American company that creates packaging used in world-wide shipping. The author, an English writer called Rose George, goes on a merchant vessel for an extended journey, to learn about the shipping industry and write about it. She was the only woman on her ship, as I was on my Chinese engineering vessel, and her situation was similar to my own in ways big and small. Not only was she the only woman and only person who was not an experienced sailor for hundreds or thousands of miles around, but, also like me, she had a “standing order” that anyone on the bridge should notify her of whale or dolphin sightings.

What a fantastic book to read while I was underway on a Coast Guard vessel – even as the Confidence was tossed around by the biggest storms, even as the Coasties undertook dangerous interdictions of drug deals off the coast of South America, I felt supremely safe compared to the people I was reading about who were on merchant vessels. Pirates threaten the lives of merchant seamen constantly and almost everywhere, especially in certain passages in the Middle East. According to Rose’s (extensive) research, apparently at any moment in any recent decade, including the moment in which you are reading this, there are well over a hundred freighter crew members (usually including captains) who have been kidnapped, and who are being held as hostages, by pirates. They are held as the pirates wait for insurance companies to come through and pay the ransoms (which, apparently, are considered part of the cost of doing business now!). The shipping industry has to include paying pirates in its operating expenses.

I was sorry when this book ended, and I intend to write to the author and send her a copy of Mr. Ding’s Chicken Feet. I also might write to Maersk and see if they will hire me to teach English to their crew(s), as Rose says that there is a desperate need for better English speakers on the merchant ships. I think I’m one of very few people on earth whose résumé includes teaching English as a Second Language on ships.


On the Edge of Survival

by Spike Walker

I devoured this harrowing, true story in just a few days, and I could hardly catch my breath. Years ago, while reading of Shackleton’s adventures, I felt cold the whole time. While reading this book, I often felt that it was hard to breathe – the story is breathtaking! It tells the true story of a terrible storm and shipwreck in Alaska in, I think, 2004, and an incredible rescue by the (what else?) US Coast Guard.

A huge freighter, over 700 feet, was in trouble somewhere in the Bering Sea during a storm, and the Alex Haley (a USCG Cutter) went to rescue it, but the stupid captain of the freighter (the Selendang Ayu, from Malaysia) kept putting off the rescuers, claiming that his crew was fixing the engines, as meanwhile the terrible blizzard and gargantuan waves got worse and his ship drifted closer and then onto to the rocky cliffs of whatever remote Arctic Godforsaken island they were much too close to.

There were two H-60 helicopters on the scene initially, both based on land very far away in Dutch Harbor, and they were big and powerful and fueled enough to have rescued the 27 men freighter crew, but the captain kept putting them off, too. The helos could not land on the deck of the ship, but they could lower a “basket” that could lift one man at a time into the helicopter. After many dangerous hours, in which the helos circled around, wasting time and daylight and fuel, the captain finally allowed some of his crew to be rescued. One chopper did lower a basket, but the men on the freighter did not get into the basket – they just looked at it, as the waves crashed around them and the deck of the ship tossed up and down and sank lower into the water. The helicopter finally sent a rescue diver DOWN in the basket, to help the crew get in and thus get saved, but it was terrifically dangerous and difficult. That helo did save about 9 men, but it got back to Dutch Harbor badly crippled and unable to fly any more sorties.

Meanwhile the storm got worse. The other chopper made a harrowing rescue of some men, and got them back to Dutch, too, at times flying blind through the blizzard. The pilot and crew of the one functional helo, exhausted, turned around and went back out to the ship, but on their attempt to rescue the remaining crew, the helo got sucked down by a massive wave — it crashed by the side of the freighter. That left 10 men struggling in the Arctic water, with two more (the captain and the brave CG rescue swimmer) still on the deck of the broken, sinking freighter, being drenched over and over and over by massive waves. So frightening I kept holding my breath!

This made me understand why military people talk about being inspired by their peers. Even if I were in the Coast Guard and had their training and skills, I would not have been as brave as those helicopter pilots and techs, let alone the USCG rescue swimmer who volunteered to be lowered onto the deck of the freighter, and who saved many lives, putting his own safety last. Every man involved was acting out of bravery and noble impulses – their story made me admire the CG even more than I already did.

Now I want to write a book about the CG. This book is a good thriller, but the writing is not beautiful or wonderful…I want to emulate its thrill-factor but also write a story in good prose (as good as I can make it). But would anyone care? I think most people who read military and outdoor-adventure or survival-at-sea books care more about plot than prose. But The Perfect Storm is extremely well written, so…I’m sure there’s a place for a beautiful adventure story. I can try!

February 2020

Steal Like an Artist

by Austin Kleon

One of the two other women on the Confidence, an Ensign who had been an English major before the Coast Guard assigned her to a career as an engineer, stopped by my English 102 class one evening, and she thought my student, Doc, could use this book. She lent it to him, and after he’d finished, I borrowed it, and wow! I love it! I copied some of it into my journal and thought of several people I want to send it to (Miho, Anthony, John Zussman, and more). This will be a book I share with many people.

Kleon’s idea that nothing is original, and everything is copied, reminds me of the Marxist literary criticism lectures I used to hear from Terry Eagleton, although there are significant differences in the delivery (the “means of production,” ha!). This little paperback book is slick, in a trying-not-to-look-slick kind of way. The font is all like a schizophrenic’s handwriting, and the words are huge with outsized stick-figure drawings and big geometric designs on very small pages because, really, there are not a lot of words here. Yet the publishers are still selling it for $12.95, but I don’t begrudge it to them.

Lines I love from this book include:

“Always be reading”

And, about reading,

“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book it leads you to.”

Also I love that Kleon encourages readers to find writers/artists who inspire them and study all they can about them. Synchronistically, a night or two before I found this book, I had a dream in which I was with Garrison Keillor, Sy Safransky, and Kate Millett, all writers and thinkers who have shaped my writing and thinking, since college. In my dream, Kate Millett was looking at a watercolor I had done (which was also reminiscent of a photo my college housemate, Beth Johnson took of me and my post-college boyfriend, Scott Campbell, lying down in a bunch of big pipes…). Kate Millet was saying it was good, and it just needed a light wash over the whole thing.

I was thrilled, in that dream, to be with those people, and then right afterwards I was reading in this book about how we should study and honor our artistic mentors. Kleon says we should put up pictures of our beloved artists, and study everything we can about them and by them, and then find out who inspired THEM and ditto study those people, as far back as we can – this, he says, is our “creative genealogy.”

Kleon quotes my one-time dissertation director Brian Kitely saying that he wanted his writing workshops to be like real workshops, full of air and light and hands-on use of tools, or some such. Brian’s workshops were very good, but I would not describe them as light, airy, or hands-on. There was a problem with one of the men in the room doing 90% of the talking and one of the few women (not this one) NEVER SPEAKING. I have thought about that situation often, and it definitely impaired my ability to learn in that class. But Kitely was a thoughtful, generous, and very perceptive teacher, and it’s delightful to see his name in this book about art.

Another good paragraph by Kleon:

“Franz Kafka wrote, ‘ It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you.’ And Kafka was born a century before the Internet!”

I’m not sure about that last line – what part of the world will “offer itself” to me? But I do know that to begin a piece of writing, it’s necessary for me to go alone into a room and be quiet.

Also I really like Kleon’s suggestion for keeping a “logbook”– simpler than a journal (like the one I keep, full of many many WORDS), his “log” is just a memento of each day…funny tiny drawings, a quote or two, a few words, maybe a picture from a package or magazine. I like it. Reminds me of Scott Campbell’s wonderful “The Year in Pictures” journals.

Guardian of Guadalcanal

by Gary Williams, 2014

As Babe Ruth is (I guess) to baseball, as Alexander Hamilton is (now) to the Constitution, as Jesus is (ostensibly) to the bible, is Doug Munro to the Coast Guard. At trivia night on the mess deck of the Confidence, I was surprised not only that a Coastie got the Medal of Honor (what’s that?, I thought) but that so many of the crew knew about it in detail. The hot trivia game stopped for discussion about whether and why he was the only person to receive such a medal while in the Coast Guard service.

The chief who lent me On the Edge of Survival also encouraged me to read this collector’s edition of the book about Doug Munro, which he (the chief) got when he was on the newly recommissioned USCG ship the Munro. So I had a personal connection to the subject of the book, although I’ve never met him or anyone who has met him.

While I read it with interest, I don’t think it will stick with me long. Unlike the adventure story of the last book (Edge of Survival), this is more a war story, about an especially bad battle in WWII in which Munro lost his life after helping to save the lives of some 500 Marines. I’m moved by his bravery and especially his “devotion to duty” (one of the Coast Guard core values). Munro was shot on a small boat, while taking the Marines off a beach where they were being massacred by the Japanese. Purportedly, his last words, when he came round briefly from the effect of being shot in the neck, were “Did they [the Marines] get off?”

Although I was moved by it, I found several problems with this book. First there is the fact that the author focuses on the loss of one American as a tragedy, whereas when he describes times that the US won battles, the Japanese deaths are described succinctly as, say, “5000 losses.” I don’t read a lot of war history, so I have no basis for comparison, but I’m pretty sure that there was horrifying bloodshed on death on BOTH sides of the war. Williams is never exultant about the war, nor glib about anything, but it’s clear where his sympathies lie and do not lie.

The other significant problem, which made it hard for me to enjoy this and at times made me consider giving up, is the heavy reliance on facts (dense with acronyms and many capitalized words, some of which should not have been capitalized) with no context, emotion or anything I knew or could relate to. For an example, I opened the book at random, and here is the first sentence I saw:

“True to his word, on February 24, 2017, the filled conference center in the Douglas A. Munro Coast Guard Headquarters Building was formally named the Commander Ray Evans Conference Center.”

See what I mean? There’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but to my ear it doesn’t compare favorably with, say, Evelyn Waugh’s lines in Brideshead Revisited about the middle-aged Charles Ryder’s return to a building that was significant to him in the war. Waugh’s prose makes me cry and re-read the lines over and over, and Williams’s makes me yawn and count the pages left till the end of the book.

Still I am glad I got through Guardian because it adds to my understanding of Coast Guard culture. I am thinking of trying to write a book about the USCG, perhaps particularly about the role of women Coasties, and so I appreciate the background and history about the institution.

April 2020


Infinite Jest

by David Foster Wallace

I started reading this book when I got my first Kindle, around 2012. At that time I was traveling often on long overseas flights, most often from the US to England but also sometimes to Australia, and I wanted to try out an e-book to see if I liked it. For that experiment I bought the e-book version of Infinite Jest, Wallace’s most famous book & famously a “cult classic.” I had wanted to read it ever since finding in Margie and Morey’s guest room Wallace’s wonderful essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Infinite Jest in paperback is 1079 pages, and they’re BIG pages, too. I decided to read my e-book only on planes, and in that way I slowly got through the first 400 or so pages, but then I slowed down. After starting it in about 2012, I read it in bursts for 8 years, in which time I found out that actually, I prefer carrying books onto a plane instead of using a Kindle, so I never finished the book in that time.

In winter 2019-20 I took my Kindle onto the Coast Guard ship, and there I continued reading the book at about the 50% point. I finally finished it in spring 2020, while sheltering in place in Northern California. It’s the longest and one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Still, it was startlingly difficult to read. The prose is dense, with arduously long sentences and burdensome neologisms. One of the things I like about the book is that Wallace uses words I don’t know, and then I look them up and learn them. But one of things I don’t like about the book is that Wallace uses words I don’t know, and then I try to look them up I find that he has made the words up, and they’re not in any dictionary.

Infinite Jest is very funny. Even though I had to re-read many of the sentences in order to see the humor (or, really, just to understand what was going on), it did make me laugh out loud often. One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read in my life is the one in which one of the characters is going to an AA meeting. He hates and despises all things related to the program, and he spews invective in the most mean-spirited and virulent speech he can think of, telling everyone in the meeting how much he detests them all and everything they stand for. Meanwhile the long-time AA members keep bellowing encouragement at him: “Keep coming back!” “We’ll love you till you can love yourself!”

I didn’t love how violent Infinite Jest is. There were scenes of human and animal abuse that upset me so much I put the book down for a long time. Several times I almost quit the book for good: even though it’s fiction, it was just too disturbing and too horrifying. Sometimes, after a long period of not reading that book, I’d go back and re-read a few hundred pages but I just skipped some of the terrible scenes, because …what’s the point? They just gave me nightmares.

I wish Wallace had not included those violent scenes, or had made them less explicit, because the book would be better without them – they add nothing. And without those scenes of abuse, the whole book would be magnificent. It’s not that the other scenes are all lovely and light — far from it! But I would call some of the scenes, especially the ones from the point of a view of an addict who hurts and kills cats and dogs, “pornographic” in that they have no redeeming social value. I wonder what other people thought of those parts, if they find anything redemptive there.

I would recommend this book to any serious reader, though, and in fact I gave a copy to my brother. I also recommended or gave it to my sister, who read most of it but not the footnotes. I’m proud of myself for having finished it, and I hope read another of Wallace’s massive books in the next decade or so, too.


May 2020

Insane City,

by Dave Barry

In about 2015, when I lived in Florida, my friend Amanda lent me this hardback, saying she wanted me to read it so we could talk about it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to it till spring 2020, when I found it a light, attractive book that I enjoyed reading, but about which I have few lasting impressions.

I think Amanda wanted to talk Barry’s depiction of Florida and Floridians (there are snakes involved, and primates, and illegal drugs and guns, and a way-over-the-top wedding, and lots of drinking). Although the novel made me laugh out loud only twice, it is amusing, the kind of thing that can take your mind off an international pandemic and diabolical presidential behavior. This book is like one of those joke “news items” about “a Florida man” – the humor is based on the idea that this far-fetched, but harmless, crime/good fun/growing-up story is typical of the state and its people. I know of course that it’s not, but what a great beach book.


All You Can Ever Know

by Nicole Chung

I picked up this book in the lovely library in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where I went in to see about borrowing books for my students. I went in to borrow books and ask about loan periods, and if they could be extended for Coasties who were in other parts of the world serving the nation when their books came due, and the librarian told me that there were free books that did not have to be returned. She showed me racks and racks of brand-new books provided by some federal military library (I can’t now recall which one). I could take as many as I liked! In the very short amount of time I had before I had to be back on board, I perused hundreds of titles and took back to the ship as many as I could carry. One of them was All You Can Ever Know, which I picked up because I liked the title and it seemed to have something to do with genealogy and adoption. My sister is a genealogist and my friend Amanda is adopted, so I was pretty interested, and then there’s this interesting first line: “The story my mother told me about them was always the same.”

The “story” is the idea that Nicole’s Korean, birth-parents couldn’t manage to keep her and give her a good life, so they gave her up for adoption when she was born. That’s all she thought she could ever know, and it was difficult for her to know so little about her roots as she grew up in an area with no other Asian people – she looked different from her family and everyone around her, and she was teased and bullied at school sometimes, for being different.

The book is unusual, in that it’s largely a chronicle of her emotions. At the beginning, she is conflicted about looking for her birth parents, but not wanting to hurt her “real” parents, the ones who adopted her and gave her a family, who have, she thinks, some qualms about her search. She does find her birth parents, both still alive, as well as two sisters (one whole-blood sister and one half-sister), but of course, things in that family are not the way Chung had always thought that they were: the “story” her parents told her was a convenient platitude, and the reality much more distressing. But the value of knowing the truth, and becoming close to one of her sisters, makes up for any confusion or pain she has felt.

Now, I’m mailing this book to Amanda.


June 2020

Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart,

by Carrot Quinn

I got a wonderful assignment writing for National Geographic Travel about the top 10 LGBTQ travel books, and as I was looking for books to consider reviewing, my friend Kathleen Mavros (a teacher and reading specialist) sent me a list that contained this one. Recognizing Quinn’s (cool) name from reading manuscripts for The Sun, I happily perused her website and then bought her book.

Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart is the great and true story of Quinn’s great and true hike of the Pacific Coast Trail, from Mexico to Canada. She undertook it out of desperation to “feel something” when she was in her twenties, spending all of her time on the Internet. After reading some blogs about hiking, she rather suddenly decides to walk the PCT, even though she’s never done serious hiking before. Many things about her trip surprised me, especially how she formed attachments to the people she’d hike with, whom she called her “trail family.”

Just as reading Shackleton’s story made me cold, and reading On the Edge of Survival made me hold my breath, reading Thru-Hiking made me hungry all the time, as if I, like Quinn, needed to take in 3000 calories a day just to keep from starving. Quinn often failed to meet that quota, whereas I gained a few pounds.

But besides eating more, I also walked more as a result of reading this book. During the early part of quarantine, I’d been walking a few miles every day, but while reading this book I became more willing to take much longer walks, as much as five miles. No, my strolls along the creek in Cotati are nothing like the 30+ mile days she was putting in, but I’m still glad for what I did. I’m looking forward to Quinn’s future books, including a re-release of one about riding freight trains.


Tail in Two Cities

By David Gilmore

David Gilmore is a good friend and a good writer, and I enjoyed his past two books very much, so when he asked me to blurb his new book (for publication mid-July 2020) I felt honored. But to write an effective back-cover blurb, I thought I’d have to lie. A book about gay men’s sex in New York City and San Francisco in the 80s and 90s did not seem like my cup of (English) tea. How wrong I was! I love this book.

Yes, it’s about sex: graphic, often unappealing (to me) sex, sex that’s explicit and not one bit sexy (to me). But the perspective and the emotional context were fascinating, and lots of the sex-stuff was overtly educational, so I learned a lot and laughed a lot. Reading this nonfiction memoir was like reading the private journal of, say, a top athlete or a musician: the personal reflections on his preferred activity were revealing, personal, and funny – that is to say, very appealing. I could sympathize with young David utterly, as he kept looking for love in all the wrong places. Here’s an example:

Our connection was enigmatic and our relationship was open. Very open. We would bump into each other at orgies and then I would wander around the dungeon having my feelings about seeing him. There is nothing worse than romantic sadness at an orgy.

David and I lived in New York and in San Francisco at similar times in the 1980s and 1990s, though we never met until we were both living south of the SF Bay Area in the late 90s (when David was producing the wonderful PRI show “OutRight Radio.”) I had only a few gay male friends at those times, but I did have first-hand experience with one experience David writes about, and I loved his pointed, dry descriptions of the stupid human-potential workshop called “est” and its est-hole leader, Werner Erhard. Here’s an excerpt, about a conversation he had with a new friend in San Francisco:

“Dave, have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you lived into it more powerfully? If you were a conversation for possibility?” Tom would ask me over a cup of tea at Café Flore in the Castro.

“What is a conversation for possibility?” I had to ask.

“It’s when you stand in your commitment…”

I checked my shoes to see if I had stood in something.

“You know, you’re being-ness, not your doingness.

Here’s a version of the blurb I wrote:

Everything I ever wanted to know about gay sex in the time of AIDS but was too polite to ask. Covering about a decade in New York and San Francisco, Gilmore’s memoir offers a factual, fascinating, funny account of lots of sex acts with lots of partners, and a soft-focus panorama of his own heart. “Who . . . goes to an orgy looking for a boyfriend?” Shocking tenderness plus explicit emotions equal a rare innocence, and really great read.

Here’s a shorter version of my blurb:

Down-to-earth, often instructive descriptions of gay sex, combined with shocking, titillating, tell-all revelations about his heart.

The Tale of Despereaux

by Kate DiCamillo

Early in the shelter-in-place period (which started in California before anywhere else in the country), I was making a lot of soup: carrot-and-cashew soup (an old favorite from Diet For A Small Planet), leek-and-potato soup, minestrone soup, split pea soup, butternut squash soup, and more, especially in the first month of staying at home (it was cool and damp in Northern California then). Anthony was surprised at all the soup-making, and when I told him I love soup, it reminded him of this book (and the line, “The queen loved soup.”)

We got hold of a copy of The Tale of Despereaux, which Anthony had been given by his friend Mary to read to the children he took care of, and he began reading it to me. What a fantastic treat! The book is long (it took us about seven or so nights of reading for quite a long time each night), and very well written. Unlike many children’s books, it’s utterly unpredictable and also quite dark. It made me cry, and laugh, and think.

Anthony not only read the book aloud but virtually acted it, doing convincing and amusing different voices and personae for each of the characters. Enthralled and entertained each evening, I didn’t want it to end. Fortunately, even after the end of the narrative there are “questions for discussion,” and so we are still enjoying the book.

Despereaux is an exceptionally small mouse with big ears. He lives in a castle inhabited by a princess with whom he falls tragically but sincerely in love, and by treacherous and sadistic rats, and by treacherous but sincere humans. It’s a story about unhappy childhoods (or mouse-hoods), abuse and betrayal, the idiocy of many rules of law, nonconformity, and the importance and power of love and soup. I recommend it to everyone who likes to read, to be read to, or to have comfort in harrowing times.

Nous Sommes Tous Francais.

It's easy to show your colors on Facebook...but so what?

It’s easy to show your colors on Facebook…but so what?


On September 13, 2001, Le Monde, the French international paper, published a huge front page headline:


Translated as We are all Americans, its meaning was clear: the French people were standing with Americans, sending us support after the worst terrorist attacks ever to occur on US soil.

That day, I was in Ireland on vacation. In shock, my then partner, Nicole, and I cancelled our plans and watched endless news of the attacks on TV in our Irish B&B, Side by Side. The owners were an unusual lesbian couple: one woman came from Northern Ireland and one from the south, the Republic. In the normal course of Irish life, they’d be enemies or at least strangers, but they were in love and living together, happily. They told us that no one else they knew was even FRIENDS with someone from the “opposite” religion: most Protestants, from the North, avoided or just didn’t know any Catholics from the Republic, and vice versa. But they’d met and formed a lasting love — and named their B&B after it, too.

Fascinated by their story, I asked something I’d been wondering about for a long time: how on earth did Irish Catholics or Protestants KNOW who was what religion? How on earth could a Protestant KNOW she was meeting a Catholic person? I compared their difficulties to racism in the US, but of course most racism is based on physical characteristics like skin color or eye shape — it’s obvious, if you want to be prejudiced against people of a certain physical cast.

Bernie thought about my question for a while, and then said, “Well, first there are the names.” A Mary, she said, would be a Catholic, as would an Anne. I was surprised to learn that, and even more suprised by what Sallie added. “And the noses,” she said. “You can tell by the noses.”

Nicole and I exchanged amazed glances. “What do you mean?” we said, in unison.

Sallie laughed at us. “You two! You’ve both got Protestant noses!”

We gazed at each other’s faces, focusing on the middles. Both Nicole and I have rounded, rather small noses, but we’d never attributed religious significance to them.

“Catholics have long, thin noses,” Sally said. “They’re Latin, Italian noses.”

Ever since then I’ve enjoyed testing the theory on my American (or European) friends, and it’s an amusing party trick. But more importantly, it’s significant of the ridiculous ways we find to separate into groups.

The day that I learnt that, a lot of Americans were rushing to blame “Arabs” and “Muslims” for the attacks in New York and Pennsylvania and Washington. And this week, after the Paris attacks, the Twittersphere and the halls of Washington there are new reams of anti-Muslim, anti-Syrian, anti-immigrant speech, which seems designed to bolster xenophobia but not stop any form of violence.

I’ve been crying, praying, and thinking about what I can do. Of course I along with millions of others switched my Facebook portrait to a pro-France image (see above). So what? Of course I sent out messages of support on #parisisburning, #Frenchlivesmatter , #Frenchattacks, #toutsommesnousfrancais and so on — and I even started (?) a new hashtag, #noussommestousfrancais. I wrote my bimonthly CURVE column about what I was feeling:

But none of that helped anyone except me, I think. I was frustrated and sad and felt I could do NOTHING of any import. I can’t invite a Syrian refugee into my home (there isn’t room). I can’t fly to Paris and sit rebelliously in a cafe all night. I can’t start a pen-pal relationship with a survivor of the attacks.

But I realized today, after reading a message from my aunt on Facebook (!), there IS one useful thing I can do: I can petition Rick Scott to change his deplorable resistance to Syrian immigants. Scott has in the past opposed “illegal immigrants” being allowed to get drivers’ licenses, but he has also supported their getting in-state tuition rates at Floridian universities. Of course, until last week Scott had probably never thought about immigrants from anywhere but Mexico and Central America, but now that he knows the word “Syria” he’s opposed to all things Syrian.

So, enough with the hashtags and photos of peace signs. I’m off to write to my governor — and I hope you will, too. Nous sommes tous Francais.

Some years ago when I was teaching writing workshops at Esalen, a few of the students (those troublemakers, Pam Schubert and Bill Herr) flattered me by saying that they loved the class – and, they added, they’d love it even more if I “could maybe include a little movement.”

I blinked and demurred. Movement? In a writing workshop? It seemed a little unnatural to do anything except sit or lie on the floor. Wouldn’t moving just use up writing time?

I’ve moved quite a bit myself since then, and now, bravely, I’m offering a combined writing/movement workshop. My co-leader is Elaine Boucher, a licensed massage / polarity therapist, and Reiki master. Receiving massage from Elaine is helpful, healing, and energizing — even mind-blowing. It’s like getting a great critique on a piece of writing. We’ll be offering at least one gift of each kind of work (massage and professional full-length critique) as door prizes.

This workshop will be an intimate group of writers, singers, massage therapists, and other people who’d like to spend a weekend doing creative things in a peaceful place (gorgeous Pumpkin Hollow retreat center, in New York State). I promise  that the movement will be gentle, but the writing might be boisterous and explosive.

In the planning stages now, we welcome your questions and suggestions.


Building on 25 years of teaching creative writing and nonfiction, Dr. Gillian Kendall is now offering a workshop that incorporates movement, massage, and body-awareness elements led by LMT and Reiki master Elaine Boucher.

In this limited-enrollment workshop, we’ll use movement to access memories and stimulate imagination, then shape them into stories or memoir. Using gentle yoga, massage, meditation, and music, we’ll write and bring stories to life, and bring life to stories.

Please register your interest ASAP by email. Registration by July 30th is encouraged.

Where:  Pumpkin Hollow retreat center, New York

When: Weekend of Sept 25-27th, 2015

How much: $345 includes workshop, meals, and housing. (Partial scholarships available on request.)

Love and writing,


Gillian and Elaine Workshop Sept 2015

What I Remember

On Tuesday I lost consciousness, control, and my lunch. I had had lunch with my friends Buddy and Cindy, who had driven down to the island on a rare day off to spend it with me at the beach. They’d had a rough morning already, had a hard time getting out of home, and we’d finally gotten together at 3 pm at the Mar Vista. They’d gotten a table in shade near a fan, where we could easily see the water. Not very hungry, but feeling celebratory, I ate a strange meal of nachos and a margarita. I drank only half the Margarita, though, and couldn’t seem to make it taste right no matter how much lime I added.

At the end of the meal I happened to be talking about my mother and how dehydrated she gets, how if I don’t follow her around with a glass of soft drinks or clear liquids she will drink only tea and wine all day, and then she gets weak and dizzy and sick, and sometimes has to go to the hospital because she’s so dehydrated.

At the end of a long, leisurely meal, when it was time to leave, I stood up and felt dizzy. I took a few steps but it seemed dark and I couldn’t walk properly. Feeling weak and strange and embarrassed, I leaned on the table briefly and then I had to sit down again. I put my head on my arms on the table and from a long way away I heard my friends asking if I was okay. I think I said, “I’m hot, very hot.” I think someone told me to take deep breaths. I and took some deep breath I and lifted my head off the table and asked if I could have the glass of water in front of Cindy. She said “It’s not very cold; Buddy’s has more ice in it.”

I said “I’m not going to drink it.” I got the big glass and leaned back in my chair to let my hair fall down over the backrest. As I did in Israel on the day when I walked many miles in the sun along the beach, I poured the water over my head. In Israel, doing that same thing repeatedly at all the little water fountains along the beach made it possible for me to walk back to my hotel, But this time I didn’t even feel the water. It made no difference at all. I just sat there for a few minutes with a black fog in my mind, and then took more deep breaths and looked up again and said, “Ladies room. I’ll splash myself with cool water.” Buddy said, “Cindy, if you want to help Gillian I’ll carry the purses.”

I said, “They won’t go with your outfit.”

He said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about.”

I started walking in the general direction of the restaurant but it seemed dark I couldn’t see very well and I couldn’t remember where the ladies’ room was. I don’t recall how it happened but I sat down again, at a table under the awning, and after that my memories are fragmented.

Getting Help

I felt embarrassed at not be able to walk normally and having to hold up my friends. I put my head on my arms and rested. People were saying, “ Are you okay?” I felt dizzy. I pulled my long skirt up to try to cool my legs. Someone said, “It’s okay.” A man with black hair stood in front of me. He seemed very interested in my illness. He asked my name and address, which I gave him carefully but doubtfully; I always have trouble remembering the street number of my house and often get it wrong. I couldn’t seem to sit up properly. I was extremely hot. I asked if I could have a cold cloth. There seemed to be movement around and behind me. I wanted to rest my head in my arms but sometimes someone stopped me. There were people eating lunch at tables under the trees. I felt very thirsty. The man with black hair asked what I’d eaten and I said nachos and half a margarita. He wrote that down. Someone brought me a cold cloth. I put it to my face. There were more cloths on the table, folded.

There two big bags of ice. Someone said one was for my chest and one for my neck. One lay on the gray slate table. I felt very sick; sometimes I tried to lean forward to make the nausea stop. Someone said something about CMS. I didn’t know what that meant. I covered my eyes and leaned on my arms on the table. I sat up. I felt very sick. Someone moved my hand and skirt down. I wanted to lean back but someone kept stopping me. There were strong people behind me. People seemed to be moving my limbs around. I wanted to get cool. I saw Cindy’s face. She was sitting down on my right and she looked extremely worried.

Someone held the bag of ice on my neck at the back; it didn’t feel cold but it felt solid and comforting. Someone said something about “CMS.” I asked for a drink of water but the man with black hair said no. He said something else I didn’t understand. Someone said, “I don’t like the look of this.”


I was seeing a scene, perhaps in California, with many, many people in it and much activity going on. A lot of people were trying to do something important. I was involved and very interested in story. The color red was there. I was sitting up at the Mar Vista and feeling sick. I said, “Oh, I was dreaming!” Cindy said no, that’s not what had happened.


I needed to vomit. I held a cool cloth up. Someone said, “Do you feel sick?” There was no cup or bowl or anything. I didn’t want to vomit on the table so I moved my head to the side and vomited a long way down to the floor. I threw up three or four times. I thought, “I will never eat nachos again.” Someone said, “Get a bucket” and a black man who seemed to work in the kitchen put a gray dish bowl under where I was vomiting. I apologized to him. I don’t think he heard me. He kept a good distance. I was glad that we’d tipped well.

I was appalled to be vomiting within sight and earshot of people who were trying to have a civilized afternoon drink at the Mar Vista. I looked at one table to see the people were disgusted but they seemed to be looking away and I was glad but also horrified. I said, “I’m sorry.” Cindy said, “Would you stop apologizing!” which seemed very funny although I don’t think I laughed. Someone said the EMS was coming. I thought maybe that was an ambulance.

A lot of people were there, mostly behind me. People were talking about things I didn’t understand. A man in a dark blue uniform was right in front of me. He seemed to be where the table had been. Someone asked if Buddy was my husband, and I said, “I wish.” Buddy was a solid good presence behind me, holding ice on my neck. Someone asked my name. Someone was taking my pulse. A plump black man with curly hair leaned over from the right and said, “Now, I need to put these on your legs; don’t slap me,” and I wanted to tell him that of course I wouldn’t slap him. I knew he was helping me. Someone said, “This will sting” and there was a sting on my right side. I knew that several people were helping me. I felt dim and sleepy although not as bad as before I’d vomited. There were people in blue and people talking to me and asking questions. Buddy said, “Her eyes rolled up in her head and she went rigid.”

One man in a blue uniform kept talking to me. He said things I didn’t understand. There seemed to be a lot of numbers and acronyms and jargon in what he was saying. Someone asked me if I suffered from many different things, if I took any medication, what I’d had to eat and drink. I kept saying no, not asthmatic diabetic epileptic nothing, I have nothing wrong with me except a little overweight, I only had half the margarita, I’m not drunk. I live here; I’m not a tourist. I’m sorry. Someone did something to my left hand that hurt. There were a lot of numbers being spoken and people moving things around my body. I was very hot.

The man in the uniform said he’d like to do some more tests in the ambulance where it was cooler asked if I would consent. He and someone else were pushing me into the ambulance on a stretcher. I was impressed by the size of the space. The man who had been talking to me stayed with me and he was reaching around, getting things, putting things on me and around me; more tabs and sticky things I didn’t recognize. There were cords and lines and things in both arms and hands. I knew that they’d put things like that on my mother sometimes in hospital. I was glad to lie there in the coolness and be helped. People kept asking me if I was okay, was I dizzy or nauseous. I said yes.

The ambulance

The man kept looking at me and at the same time he was reaching for things and saying things that I didn’t understand, things like, “Run that Isis under the Frankenthaler at six and a half.” “Why isn’t the Oh four seven C in the black?” He said something about the B shift. He told me that the other man in the ambulance was on the B shift. He asked how I was feeling and I said better. He said to tell him if I got too cold to tell him. That seemed unlikely. A man apologized for putting something under my shirt. The man who kept looking at my face said things like, “I want the AKG at forty-eleven on half piece.”

He recommended that I go to Blake. I asked him to please get my cell phone from my bag and to please ask my friends to go back to my house. Someone tossed my bag into the ambulance. Someone said my friends were going to follow up to the hospital. I said, they were silly. He said there was a lot of that going around.

He told me it was nearly my birthday. He said we were the same age. He told me he had a pacemaker. He said my sugar was very low. I said I didn’t know what that meant. The ambulance was moving. Someone put a line with oxygen coming out of it under my nose. The man said it would help me cool down and feel better. He said something else was a different number. He pointed to a small plastic bag of clear liquid and said he was giving me saline and sugar. He said a lot about the mix of water and sugar, and using words I didn’t know. I told him I didn’t understand. I had the impression that he wanted to keep me awake. I breathed the oxygen. It smelled odd. It didn’t seem to help cool me down.

The sleeveless pink cotton shirt I was wearing felt like a suit of armor. My bra was constricting my chest. The ambulance was going to Blake, he said. The man kept complaining about the driving. He said we were going over a lot of bumps. I didn’t feel any bumps. I felt weak and I needed badly to urinate. The man who was my age and had a pacemaker asked if I knew the date. I told him it was the 8th of July, the day before Nic’s birthday, the day Buddy and Cindy were coming to visit. He asked me if I knew what day it was. I said it was either Tuesday or Wednesday and he seemed to agree.

He told me I reminded him of someone he used to work with in Hillsborough County. I told him that I grew up there. He said something about my blood pressure going back down very low. He said my sugar was very low. I told him that I wanted to pee. He said that he had a special pan that he could put under me if I needed it.

Blake and Getting Better

I was lying on the stretcher in the ER at Blake. Someone asked if I felt sick and I did. Someone asked for a bucket. Someone handed me an emesis bowl. I knew what it was called from writing Mark’s autobiography. A man on my left said, “I’m Dr. Blend by the way.” He asked me some questions about what had happened. I told him I’d had lunch and then got very hot and very sick. I was put into a cubicle and the man in the dark blue uniform asked if I could move myself from the stretcher to the bed or if I needed help. People were attaching things to my legs and arms and chest. Someone apologized for something. I said I could move myself, and I hoped I could. He said, “Not yet, not yet.” He said gravity would help me. Then I leaned to my right and moved sideways slowly. I was proud that I kept my skirt from getting tangled. He said, “Good job.”

A lady came in and asked for my insurance details. A nurse put a blue gown on my lap. Someone said, “This will be a sharp sting.” There was a sting in my left hand and it hurt. Nurses came and went and asked me things and did things behind me. I felt sick. I asked if I could use the restroom. They said they’d bring a toilet in. The doctor complained about the IV stand. The nurse said they were all like that.

My shoes had come off and my feet were cold. People left me alone for a long time and then came back in and asked me things and did things. I asked if the nurse could please put something on my feet. The same doctor came and talked to me. He said they were doing tests. He said my blood pressure had been extremely low. He said something about my heart that I didn’t understand. I asked if I could use the toilet. They left me alone. Someone brought a toilet and said I could use it soon, but not yet. She said they needed a urine sample so not to throw the tissue in the potty. After a while they said I could get up and use it. They asked if I needed help and I said no.

Someone came and looked in the curtain while I was sitting on the toilet. I wasn’t able to pass any urine. She wanted to ask me about insurance. I said, “Can I just have a pee first?” She apologized and withdrew. After a long time, I passed a very small amount of liquid and got back into bed. The doctor came back and said something about the IV line not working. He took it apart and liquid went all down his shirt and pants and onto the bed. He said, “Now we know where it was stuck.” A nurse gave him a syringe and he plugged the syringe in and the needle in my left hand jumped and jabbed and it felt very cold. The doctor asked the nurse if she had anything. She gave him a paper clip. He clipped the bag of liquid to the lamp over me. I hoped it would not fall on my hand.

Someone said that my heart rate was better. The doctor left. The nurses left. The curtain was open and I saw people walking back and forth. The curtain was closed and I thought I heard Buddy just outside the curtain, saying, “It was clear that she wasn’t faking any symptoms,” and I was grateful.

I asked the nurse to let Buddy in. She went out. I found the bed uncomfortable. I wanted to sit up. I wanted to have a drink. The nurse came in and said that she could not find my friends. She left. I felt a great sense of sadness and loss. It was Nicole’s birthday in Australia. She was in Australia.

When someone asked for my next of kin I did not tell them my parents’ information. I told her my sister’s name and address. She looked up my sister’s name in my cell phone. She could not find my wallet. I asked her to hand me the phone and if I could take the clip off my finger and she said okay. I called Buddy. I said, “How are you? Are you here?” He said, “I’m in your living room! How are you?” He went into my filing cabinet for me and found the insurance details. I couldn’t hear him well on the phone. I asked if he had my wallet. He said he had my keys.

Everyone left and my hand hurt and I was weak but I knew where I was and that I was alone and that Nic was not there and I didn’t want to alarm my parents. I was glad that Buddy and Cindy were at my house and not at the hospital, but I was puzzled because I had heard Buddy. I felt tears in my eyes and on my cheeks. A nurse came in. She asked how I was. I said I was confused and I didn’t know what had happened. She said that was because I had passed out, and I didn’t know what had happened.

The doctor came back. I told him, “I feel very strange.” He said, “You’re in a strange place!” I said I’d been upset. He could see I’d been crying. He said, “The emotions…” he sighed. He talked about hormones and reference levels and age and bio-identicals. He said traditional medicine was 10 years behind. I didn’t know what he meant. I said Dr. Kosfeld was a good doctor. He said he knew him and he was a good doctor but a lot of doctors don’t know how to treat women for menopause. He said I should ask Dr. Kosfeld about it or ask him to send me to a gyno. He sat down and held my arm and told me about bio-identical hormones, how they have no side effects, how I shouldn’t be afraid of them. He told me the problems they could solve in women my age. I said they wouldn’t have helped me that day, with my fainting, and he said he wasn’t so sure; it might have helped. I asked him what problems they alleviated and he rattled off a list of things that plague me, including fatigue, weight gain, insomnia, depression, and more. I asked for his card and I told him I still wanted to try diet and exercise to lose weight but if it didn’t work by the end of the summer, I’d find out more about the hormones. I asked him for his card and I asked him if I could go home.

Someone gave me some papers and went over them with me. I didn’t understand most of it but they told me it was all written down. I’d had a “vasovagal reaction” they said. I asked why my blood sugar had been so low, what that meant, and the nurse said she didn’t know. She asked me to sign something saying that I’d received a copy of the paper and all my questions had been answered. I signed it. The doctor came in and said that the low blood sugar was a side effect of my body’s extreme low blood pressure.

A while later, the second or third time I asked, I was allowed to get dressed and go home. Buddy was waiting for me in a huge white van. I was very glad to see him. He said cheerfully, “No offense, but you’re looking a whole lot better than last time I saw you. Would you like some water?” I said yes I would, thank you. I heard about what he’d experienced: my going into convulsions, my eyes rolling back, his holding my arms when they started flailing before I went rigid. I thanked him again and again and felt I could never repay him for his solidity and his kindness. I felt very bad about his day off at the beach being spent in such a horrible way. He said something about “Divine appointments.” I believed him. While he was holding me so I didn’t hit anything or swallow my tongue, he said, “Cindy was clearly in prayer.”

If Buddy and Cindy hadn’t been there, if I’d collapsed like that alone on the beach or in my garden, I don’t know what would have happened. Maybe it would never have happened if I hadn’t met them for lunch that day or maybe it would have been much worse. But I am glad that they were there to help when I lost control.

The Lesson

What interests me most is the dream that I was having while unconscious. I wish I could remember it, but all I know is it was a heavy, crowded scene in black and white and many colors, including red, and that I was seeing it as if it were an animation. In it a lot of people were trying hard to achieve something in which I had a great interest. I don’t know if I was out of my body and seeing the scene from above or if I was just out of my mind and hallucinating an unrelated story. It ended abruptly and I was sorry.

It occurred to me as I was in the hospital that although this was the first time anything like this has happened to me, it’s probably not the last. I’m 53. From now on when something like this happens, I will have to admit that something like it has happened before. I now have lost control of myself, however briefly, and had to be helped.

Finally, this is what I’ve learnt: I will never eat nachos again.

It looks like evening outside but it was afternoon, I think. A rare Irish rainbow in a gray sky, with a lit-up pub across the way. Doolin.

It looks like evening light outside but it was afternoon. A rare Irish rainbow in a gray sky, with a lit-up pub across the way. Doolin.

As of Monday May 20th in the afternoon, Marie and I had had zero — count em, 0 — lessons in bodhrain and hadn’t yet even managed to borrow a drum. On the other hand, Marie had taken herself into the Doolin Music shop and purchased a CD called Total Beginners Bodhrain Lesson. She showed it to me triumphantly when she picked me up to go have lunch. Delighted by her ingenuity, I said, “If we had a CD player we could start to teach ourselves how to play, if we had a drum.”

But we didn’t. I’d be leaving Saturday morning, and Marie not long afterwards. If Blackie or someone didn’t start teaching us soon, we’d miss our opportunity to learn, which had been the whole point of the trip. This prospect seemed bleak, especially as I was hungry and broke and couldn’t find anywhere to buy groceries.

So we went out for lunch. Our third meal in Doolin was the third one we’d eaten out (at a cafe or pub, not in the hostel), and like all the others, it was fantastically down-to-earth and satisfying. Soup and chips for me; fish casserole for Marie.

At McDermott's, we were just about the only patrons at lunchtime.

At McDermott’s, we were just about the only patrons at lunchtime.

We were almost the only people in McDermott’s, the third we’d visited of Doolin’s  famous live-music pubs.Marie's lunch: fish casserole, no chips, more brown bread and butter It’s a red-trimmed, white building, old and redolent of live music and live craic, and like the other two pubs its walls are hung with interesting photographs of the same pub in the old days with the old musicians and the old craic.

As we sat looking around at all the interesting stuff on the walls they have to look at while you’re sitting there, I glanced out the window and noticed a rainbow. Despite the frequent concurrence and collision of rain and sun in Ireland, I’d never seen a rainbow there before. I took a photo out the window: it shows not only the rainbow but McGann’s pub across the street, plus a reflections of the interior of McDermott’s, plus a reflection of my face looking pleased and surprised as I looked at the rainbow.

Marie and I ordered lunch from the only other person in the place, a a slim, short-haired barmaid of about 30. We we both thought she was a lesbian, though Marie was more sure than I. We engaged her in engaging conversation, and she was happy to pose for photos and answer questions about the town, but didn’t proffer any information about “where women went to meet.” She was cheerful and funny, though, about the pub and the clientele, and we liked her.Nice barmaid, cropped Finally, Marie asked her who took care of her little boy when she was at work, and she said, happily, “my husband.” I nudged Marie and reminded myself that a) just because a woman is make-upless, short-haired, and outspoken doesn’t make her a dyke, and b) my gaydar sucks.

It’s fortunate that Doolin’s increasing popularity with tourists has meant that more shops have opened – music shops, a used book shop, craft shops, as well as numerous new cafés. It’s unfortunate that the groovy, independently owned, desirable businesses have edged out the one place in town where a person could buy groceries. On previous visits to Doolin, I could walk a half mile or so from the hostel down the main street to buy loaves of bread, wedges of cheese, apples, and the other staples of hostel cuisine.

But on this visit, the only food available within walking distance was that which someone else hd prepared and would serve at a decent table at a decent price. The first day I arrived, a Sunday, I went hopefully to the weekly outdoor “market” but found it full of handcrafted Irishobelia but almost nothing edible. I did, however, get a loaf of designer bread.

By Monday afternoon, after three restaurant/cafe/pub meals, I was eager to stop dropping $15 every time I ate. Happily Rob, the hostel owner, offered me a lift to the nearest place I could stock up: a small shop attached to a petrol station about 3 miles out of Doolin. Rob needed tpetrol, and he said he’d wait while I picked up some supplies.

About the size of the smallest convenience stores in America, the place had tins of beans and packets of soup, and cabbages and apples and enough potatoes and onions to feed everyone who could walk or hitch there from Doolin. I got tinned soup, butter, eggs, and carrots and crackers to supplement the Cashell Blue cheese.

When I walked out of the little shop, clutching to my bosom several of the the tiny, waxy, flimsy paper sacks that Irish shopkeepers use to punish people who forget to bring proper bags, Rob was waving me over to the side of the forecourt. He wanted me to meet a friend he’d just run into: a wild man, tall and angular, with bad teeth and great white hair flying around his large head like a halo.Willie Daly is the official matchmaker of the Lisdoonvarna festival and, it turned out, willing to take on occasional work as a bodhrain tutor!DSCF0746

As I approached (careful not to let the apples tumble from their envelope), the wild-, white-haired, big-headed man – I got an impression of an Irish Rastafarian Lion King — was talking about his main line of work, i.e. getting people married at the match-making festival. Probably for my benefit, he was saying, “Yes, the best time is between about 11.30 and 4 a.m.; that way they don’t know what’s happened till the morning. I introduce them in the pub. Instead of saying, “How are you?” the boy asks “Will you marry me?” and the girl says yes, then in the morning it’s all done.”

I knew  then that, if I ever got a lesson in bodhrain playing, it was going to be interesting. I received from Willie a promising hug and half a promise of a possible drumming date sometime to be planned at a later time, before I left, to be sure.

That evening, Rob joined us for a drink before we went out to the pubs. In the big hostel kitchen – the only one I’ve ever seen in which there is a) enough room for everyone’s stuff and b) a supply of clean, dry dishtowels, I attempted to prepare enticing snacks. Despite the limitations on presentation, I cut up apples and sliced carrots, and laid out water crackers in an even curve around large, crumbly mounds cut from the huge Cashell Blue. Marie came in to see if I wanted help, saying, “I’m sitting out there like a visiting dignitary.” She took out the food and we sat with Rob on the L-shaped bench by the fire and ate Cashell Blue and water crackers and  sliced apples and carrots. They drank the excellent Irish reserve whiskey – I’d swiped several of the little gift bottles that my table-mates had left behind at the Castle Martyr reception — and I drank the excellent tap water.

The best session that night, Rob told us, would be at McDermott’s. So about 9.30, in the warm-cool, pink-yellow dusk, when I wanted to go to sleep, instead I walked with Marie the half mile or so back to the the pub where we’d had lunch.

What a difference six hours and a world-class local band made. The place that had been nearly empty at lunchtime was crowded, and as soon as we opened the door we encountered a wall of sound – but not like the electronic wall of ear-bashing speaker-sound at a rock concert. This was a soft, dry-stone wall of sound, old as the earth and equally natural.

In one corner of the pub stood Blackie and Cyril, this time with banjo player Karol. Karol was a wavy-haired man with a sweet, square face DSCF0515 -Foolin in Doolin McDermott's Blackie, Karol, Cyriland an even sweeter sound on the banjo, a great accompaniment to Blackie and Cyril: this was the full, official Foolin’ in Doolin.

Once again, I was thrilled by the music and by the crowd’s engagement with the music. Marie and Andrea, a German woman from the hostel, and I had to stand up at first, but then found a couple of stools, and eventually took posession of a bench that was vacated in the first break.

Marie in center, Andrea from Germany on right of photo.

Marie in center, Andrea from Germany on right of photo.

While Marie grabbed the seats, I got a round in for us and bought pints for Blackie et al as well. Blackie passed by on his break, and I got a quick word with him on his way out to smoke. I told him again how great the sound was, and asked how his gig had gone that afternoon. “It was great,” he said. “Savage.”


“Yeah, savage is great, awesome. Fekkin’ savage.”

He reminded me that after that night’s gig he’d lend me his drum. We clinked glasses and I went back to Marie and our friend to share my new vocabulary word. She and Andrea were in merry conversation which I could not hear over everyone else’s merry conversations, but I drank my cider and looked around at all the people apparently enjoying themselves and wished once again that a) we had pubs like this in Florida or b) I could get to Ireland more often or c) I lived in Ireland.Good night at McDermott's & the view from my table

DSCF0549In the second set, Marie could no longer sit still, but got up to do her tap routine set to the Irish jig rhythm, which she’d been practicing for some weeks in preparation for her mother’s upcoming birthday. She stood up and danced, alone, and was much smiled at and praised, and Blackie said after the songs, “Well done the dancer,” which made me proud of her. DSCF0544

Also, a woman bent over me at the table to tell me that my friend’s dancing had “made her night,” that she always herself wants to get up and dance but doesn’t have the courage. She seemed truly delighted by Marie, which delighted me (and Marie, too, when I told her). On the next song, Marie had someone else to dance with her.


Below is a link to a short video of Marie dancing. Worth it just to hear the music, though the visual is a bit confusing. It may look like film taken by a tipsy amateur who was using Marie’s new Iphone and was unfamiliar with how phone-video cameras work, but really Marie is just a really good dancer. She can dance up the walls, going horizontal without breaking rhythm. She turns the place on its head!

After a few more tunes, a man came up to the front of the room near the band with a broom. I thought that someone had knocked over a drink and he was clearing up, but in fact the broom was his partner. As Foolin’ in Doolin did another superfast reel (or jig – I can’t usually tell the difference, despite my Texan teacher demonstrating for me many times that a reel beat matches the rhythem of “ag-i-ta-ted all-i-ga-tor” and a jiggoes “cho-co-late, cho-co-late, ch-co-late”) the man lay the broom down and hopped and skipped fast over it, with his heels clicking, but soon he lifted the broom up higher so he was jumping as well as dancing, faster and faster, like a Russian acrobat, defying gravity and normal space-time limitations, and the bodhrain grew louder and the music whirled upwards, till he – clack — dropped the broom and quick grabbed it up again, an incident for which he later apologized to Marie and say he hadn’t danced for years and was out of practice.

But Marie asked him to dance and they instantly made a grand pair – she learnt some Irish steps from him, and they got more  approval and more space as people obligingly shuffled their stools and chairs back, giving room.

Marie learning steps from Broom-Dance Dude in McDermott's

Marie learning steps from Broom-Dance Dude in McDermott’s

More women got up to join in, and then a few more men, and then our German friend, and by the last tune I was up along with Marie and Broom-dude and Andrea and everyone else, all of us grooving Gaelically in the small spaces between the tables, and people smiling and taking our picture and then leaning around us to see the musicians. We were getting our Gaelic moves down and about to get a drum to learn on, and everyone in the pub was having a really good time in time to this terrific music. It was savage crack. Fekkin’ savage.

DSCF0551 Blackie lending us a drum

Mitzi elliptical Sept 2013Eight weeks ago, as described in “First Day of Forever,” I adopted two elderly cats. Although they’d lived in separate cages at the shelter and were put in separate carriers for the drive to my house, I was under the impression that I was rescuing a “bonded pair.” When they got to my house, I opened their carrier doors, and the short-haired calico then called “Lizzy” crept into the other cat’s little carrier, and they crouched there, side by side, peering at me with large, frightened, feline eyes. Seeing Lizzy purring, presumably to comfort herself and her friend, I thought, “They’ll be all right.”

Five minutes later, as they started to explore my house, they became antagonistic. One hid under the big gray couch for the first night, and the other went beneath the beige loveseat. On Sunday the short-haired calico, Lizzy, began to appear on top of the couches and then came into my bedroom. She was lying on my bed by the end of that day. Lizzy soon let me touch her and groom her. I don’t think she’d ever been brushed before; a lot of fur came out at first, and she seemed puzzled by the brushing though not opposed to it. Her fur – a lovely mixture of black and reddish-brown patches against bright white– became polished and smooth.Mitzi closeup Sept 2013

She soon proved to be the purringest cat I’d ever met, with a variety of purrs from baby kitten to Harley to helicopter. Lizzy started purring spontaneously, even when I wasn’t touching her; she purred as she slept. At night she’d snuggle up in my hair, or under my left arm, and purr us both to sleep.

I wanted to rename both cats. For shy, long-haired, gray-and-white Lilly, my mother suggested “Billie,” which we both liked (my mother and I, I mean: Lilly evidenced no opinion on this or any other matter: she remained hidden in the lining of the loveseat). “Silly” didn’t suit her, and “Frilly” would suit only a certain kind of female lizard. For the other cat, Lizzy, “Dizzy” or “Busy” were obvious choices to go with “Billie,” but Lizzy wasn’t dizzy or busy. Eleven years old and slightly overweight, she spent most of the day sleeping and purring.

One nap time, I was thinking of names for the cat that was drowsing above my skull, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I had her name in my head, probably dreamt there by the cat herself: Mitzi.

Lilly, the long-haired calico, whom I remembered as beautiful but who remained out of sight under the loveseat, became “Milly.” Distressed that she would not come out, I’d post my worries on Facebook, or discuss the matter with friends, and get back well-meaning, thoughtful replies. “She’s been hiding all night?” someone said at first. “My cat did that, too. Then she was fine.” After it had been a few nights, two people told me of a cat who’d hidden for a whole week.

On day four, I felt that Milly had been hiding long enough. One afternoon, I cautiously tipped back the loveseat, making sure not to trap any paws or a tail. I thought to slowly, gently lift Milly into an embrace and hold her, talking to her to introduce her to her new life. I reached gently for her and she screamed and ripped deep stripes in my forearm. Yowling, she tore off to the other room and disappeared. As I bathed my wounds with hot water, soap, and rubbing alcohol, I decided not to disturb her again.

The next day, after more searching than I would have thought possible in this tiny house, I found Milly. There’s only one closet in my house, and it’s packed with clothes, shoes, sheets, and blankets; I had looked there several times before I finally spotted her on top of a green L.L. Bean quilt-bag, underneath the long, hanging trousers. I part the coat hangers, spoke encouraging words, and then moved the trousers back into place and left her alone.

Late that evening, as Mitzi and I were reading on the bed, Milly crept silently out of the closet, heading towards the food, water, and litter box. Mitzi leapt off the bed, hissing at her, and chased her into the living room and under the loveseat. There she remained.

As the weeks went on, my friend Carol told me of a cat who’d refused to emerge for a full month, but then “came and joined the family.” At the one-month point, where I was still lying on the floor to pet my new cat, and when she was starting to come close to the edge of the couch to eat from my hand at dinnertime, my friend Theresa told me of a cat who’d taken a full year to get used to living with her. A year!

It’s now been eight weeks and one day, and I have never seen Milly emerge in daylight. I spend many hours lying on my side, reaching under the couch and into the lining, to pet and stroke her. Often my hair gets in the cat food.

At first she kept so far away from me that the only way I even knew she was in the lining was by a small, aversive movement. Over the weeks, I began propping up the loveseat on books and magazines, adding a few centimeters every few days, so that now the front is about eight inches off the ground. I also ripped the lining, so that now it’s like a cloth cave instead of a box.

Short of calling a pet psychic — $60 for 30 minutes, and in my experience they just tell me things I already know or hope are true — I’ve done everything possible to help the cats get along. I’ve given them separate beds, food and water, and litter trays; I’ve traded bedding, so they could get used to each other’s scents; I’ve tried different “therapeutic” aromatherapy and drops from Petco. Nothing has made any perceptible difference, except that moments after I plugged in the diffuser that emits the scent of a lactating mother cat, Mitzi peed on my bed.

I kept asking people how long it might take for two acrimonious cats to come to a peaceable arrangement (In the last weeks, the Republican zealot faction has shown no signs of ceasing the bullying of the Senate…). My friend Mark Hanks, a vet & Sun reader, said he’d give cats two months to settle in.

And then, as we approached the 7-week mark, and the hissing and spitting at night was getting worse, I noticed that Mitzi was licking at a sore spot on her abdomen. Thinking it was just a “hot spot,” I made a vet appointment.

Note: when I adopted these cats, although I was happy to save their lives, I said to everyone that I could not and would not prolong those lives if either animal required expensive medical treatment. In my current circumstances (broke in the USA!) I can barely pay for minimal health care for myself, let alone manage cancer or other difficult conditions in elderly cats that I’d only just adopted.

So, after just seven weeks of ownership, and about 10 minutes and $111 dollars after we arrived at the clinic, the vet diagnosed a probable tumor. He gave Mitzi an antibiotic shot and gave me ointment to apply to the red, inflamed area around her nipple. A few days later, though superficial sore had healed, it seemed clear that there was a tumor.

I had no friends available to adopt Mitzi and I could not bear returning her to a shelter, where she would languish in a cage and then be put down. I asked the vet about the cost of the surgery (about $375 if he just removed the tumor; much more to do some needed dental work as well). I then told him my unhappy circumstances and asked how much it would be to have the cat put down.

Brusquely, he said he would not put down a “potentially healthy” cat, and that if I couldn’t get the surgery done, I should take Mitzi to “a no-kill shelter.” Maybe he’s never before met anyone who had an animal they could not afford to buy surgery for. This is a rich island, and most people probably would agree with him that the removal of the tumor was a “small” operation. I could see his side of it: to him, it was 15 minutes of his time: to me, it was a month’s earnings.

I explained to him what I understand happens to no-kill shelters (as I learnt after reading the Nathan Winograd interview in The Sun, and talking to various animal-care professionals at shelters in this area). The no-kill shelters either fill up and stop taking animals, or they take in animals and send them elsewhere to be killed. If I took Mitzi to the Bishop Animal Shelter in Bradenton, as I had done with a feral cat a few months ago, she’d be locked in a cage, tested for leukaemia, and then taken to a different facility to be put down.

The vet seemed shocked by this information. “What about the Cat Depot?” he said, naming a no-kill shelter in Sarasota. I said, as respectfully as I could, that although I loved the idea of no-kill shelters, I was not going to take my cat somewhere just to be taken elsewhere to be killed. No one was going to adopt an 11-year-old cat in need of surgery, and she’d be put down after days or a week of misery. The vet again said that it was a “small” surgery, and that I should get it done.

I then was in a difficult and distressing situation. In trying adopting what I’d thought was a bonded pair of doomed elderly animals, I’d ended up with two apparent enemies, one of whom was bullying the other and had a tumor. My theoretical, simple-sounding, sensible plan to “have put to sleep” a cat whose medical bills were beyond my reach would be impossible if my vet refused to assist.

In despair, I looked in the “Pet Pages” and found a two-page ad for a vet who would come to the house to perform euthanasia. Although expensive, it seemed like the best option to end Mitzi’s suffering. I called the vet — Robin Hughes – and told her the story. She listened quietly, and I was glad to have someone who seemed not to judge me. She gave me “kudos” for adopting elderly cats, and she said she knew what it was like to be unemployed and have trouble with bills.

After I’d gotten to the part of the story where the vet refused to euthanize a nearly healthy cat, Robin made an “mm-hmm” noise, as if she agreed. I was worried that she, too, would think me cruel or irresponsible for my decision. But she didn’t. She asked if the vet had done blood work. “Is the cat otherwise healthy?” she asked. I said yes, adding how nice Mitzi is, how intelligent, and how pretty. “She’d be very adoptable,” I said, “but no one wants old cats.” On the other end of the line, Robin mmm-hmm’d again.

Then she asked, “Do you know about the Cat Depot?” I didn’t even have a chance to say how I figured they would be turning away animals, because she went on to say that she was the vet there, and she would speak to the manager about Mitzi the next day.

Twenty-four hours later, I got a call to say that Mitzi had been “accepted into the program” at the Cat Depot, which, I knew by then, was like getting a child into an exclusive private school. By looking up Cat Depot online, I’d learnt that it’s a state-of-the-art cattery. When I read that, I thought, “The state of WHAT art?” But now I know — the art of housing cats, and these people are experts!

I’ll never know why Robin Hughes listened so kindly to my story about Mitzi, nor what motivated her to encourage the manager to make a space for my cat, ahead of the more than 200 animals on the waiting list. But I will always be grateful.

Mitzi under Hope's sign Sept 2013

I was given an appointment for Sunday, to bring in the cat and surrender her. If she tested negative for leukaemia and HIV, she’d be admitted, and begin the process of getting adopted. Calicoes went more quickly than some other kinds of cats, Robin said, and I began to hope that Mitzi might be okay. Maybe, although I had failed her, someone else could give her a good home.

Every time I looked at Mitzi, I felt relief as well as sadness. I liked her so much, especially considering that I’d had her less than two months. In that time, she’d gone from being a scared, noncommittal, rough-coated little creature with a cough to a sleek, happy, confident animal who stood up , tail erect and waggling, when I came into a room. She’d expressed a clear liking for the Zoom Groom (a purple rubber brush that massages the cat) and an equally strong distaste for the red grooming glove (which picks up hair via static electricity). Although she clearly had been taught not to go on any furniture (except beds and couches), I was able to teach her – with many Whisker Lickin’ chicken & cheese treats – to take her first steps onto my desk, and to look out the window. This cat had lived indoors for eleven years, and she showed no inclination to seek out sunlight or even look outdoors. But after a few weeks, she had begun gazing outside, and lately to pay rapt attention to passing birds and creeping lizards.

Unlike any cat I’d ever known, Mitzi would reach up to my nose for a sniff, as cats do to each other, and when I was grooming her, she’d purr and reach down to my arm and nuzzle and lick me, to show her appreciation. I thought that she was very intelligent.

But she continued to harass and bully Milly. But I still didn’t have any peace about the decision to abandon my responsibility. I had not slept at all well for several days, instead lying awake and petting her, worrying.

I talked to my friend Joan H. about the situation, telling her that I’d failed Mitzi. She sympathized, but she said in her view, I’d succeeded in saving the cats’ lives, and I was going to act as a conduit to get Mitzi to her next owner: that made me feel better.

I also told my friend Sy Safransky about how terrible I felt, and he said – I think – that it was because I was aware of the suffering of the animals, and my self-recrimination was a form of ego, because I wanted to be the one to control and prevent the suffering. At the time, I understood what he meant, but later, trying to explain to Ann D., I couldn’t get quite clear on it. One of the vows of a Buddhist, and the only religious vow I’ve ever believed in, is to relieve the suffering of all living beings. As a human who wants to alleviate suffering of animals, and as an ethical vegetarian, how could I accept that any animals, let alone my own pets, would suffer at my hands? Sy helped me to see that this was my ego causing me more distress, but I’m still trying to understand how I can try to alleviate suffering without ego attachment.

I spent Sunday morning composing Mitzi’s biography, which I packed along with Mitzi’s food, bedding, and treats and some other donations for the Cat Depot. I spent a long time grooming her, making sure that her coat and her skin were in top condition for the next people to see her – hoping they’d admire, enjoy, and want to adopt her.

She knew the cat-carrier when I brought it into the bedroom, and, sadly, her last ten minutes in my home were spent horribly, with me trying to trick/catch her and her evading me, till I finally grabbed her from the back of the closet and dropped her into the upended carrier, where she curled into a ball and started crying. She cried most of the way to Sarasota.

I cried, too. I thought about the nature of suffering, and how little of it I let myself feel. Sy said something about how we all are surrounded by suffering, whether or not we let ourselves be aware of it. I’d thought that, because I listen to the BBC news and read The Sun, I was aware of human pain and suffering globally. And yet, feeling the sadness of my cat, I realized that I usually block out nearly all the suffering around me.

Mitzi is just one, very lucky, very privileged pet animal, who in her life in the USA has suffered far less than many human beings endure daily. So far as I know, she’s never been hungry or thirsty or neglected or abused. If she died, it would be quickly and humanely; if she lived, she’d always have food and attention and stimulation. She’s not suffering very much, relative even to that of the animals living on the city streets we were then driving through.

My cat’s unease and discomfort at being trapped in a carpeted carrier in an air-conditioned car would count as less than a trillion of all the suffering of all the creatures on earth, if such feelings were measurable. If it were possible to weigh Mitzi’s misery on a scale, it wouldn’t even nudge the needle.

Yet I cried because she was crying, and I could feel her sadness and fear. Empathetic grief made me so sad and distracted that I could barely drive.

But Mitzi cried less as we drove south. The sun shone into the carrier, and she had her head in the light; at first I thought she was enjoying the warmth, but then I saw she was panting. I turned up the AC to mid-winter temperatures, but I think the panting was from fear. I talked in my most soothing voice, using the words I hoped she’d recognize: “Mitzi, good girl, Mitzi, you’re a good girl, you’re going to be okay.” I told her how sorry I was, how I hoped I was doing the right thing, how I couldn’t cope with both her medical needs and Milly’s shyness. But she didn’t seem to hear me, and even if she could, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Nothing I could do would help.

Before going into the Cat Depot, I composed myself, remembering what my mother and friends had said: that this was the best option. Mitzi would have her best chance at a real “forever home” by coming here.

And still, when I put the carrier on the desk and the lady in reception asked me if we were there for shots, I started crying again and couldn’t speak. I just shook my head: No, not there for shots. She said, softly, “For adoption?” and I nodded a slow yes.

She called the vet tech, whom I gathered from the receptionist’s end of the phone conversation was not expecting us. I waited, petting Mitzi, who was terrified, crouching wide-eyed at the far end of her carrier.

After ten minutes, a young, smiling brunette woman in teal scrubs came out and greeted us cheerfully. I followed her into the exam room. A English-accented man, a volunteer, came and carried Mitzi’s carrier for me. He talked to the cat, but although he was speaking kindly, I thought that his loud, masculine, and unknown voice would scare her.

Andie and another female volunteer petted and soothed Mitzi, asking me about her. Mitzi, amazingly, didn’t fight them; she seemed relatively calm. Andie asked about the tumor. She felt and looked at the blue-black spot under Mitzi’s nipple and said that although she couldn’t make a diagnosis, as she’s not a vet, she didn’t seem to feel a very big tumor.

I was glad to hear it, and I repeated what I’d told Robin and the director, Constance – that if by chance Mitzi did not have a tumor, I’d like to have her back. I’d then continue to try to get her and Milly to leave peaceably together. It wasn’t just the surgery, and it wasn’t just the fact of their fighting – it was the combination of the two factors that made me unable to keep Mitzi. I was crying off and on, and trying to get them to read the biography I’d brought, and asking questions, and probably babbling in my distress. I repeated myself a lot. I asked if I could, for sure, get Mitzi back if she didn’t require surgery.

“Oh, sure,” Andie said. And then, she said the words that would change everything: “Or if we do remove the tumor, you might be able to adopt her back.”

It wasn’t up to her to make the decisions, she said, but it was not uncommon or unheard of for a cat to come in, get surgery and be prepared for adoption, and then for the person who’d brought the animal in to be called and offered the first chance to adopt.

I started crying harder, feeling relief and hope like a small warm cloud around me. For the second time in a week, I felt not just lucky but blessed: that I would be able to have Mitzi back at home, well and whole, with only the socialization problem to deal with, seemed miraculous.

The volunteer and I held Mitzi as the vet tech took blood and did an exam; in between the vet’s attentions, the volunteer held Mitzi to her chest, wrapped up in a towel. Mitzi’s eyes were open, but she was no longer staring around in terror; with the gray towel wrapped close around her head like a babushka, she seemed to feel safe.

Bobby, the big English man who’d brought Mitzi in, offered me a tour of the facility, which I was glad to see. It’s the best animal shelter I’ve ever seen. Purpose-built four years ago, it has (yes) state-of-the-art ventilation, natural light, and super-clean, comfortable enclosures for groups of up to nine cats. Each “pod” is the size of a small bedroom, furnished with specially designed, color-co-ordinated, soft furnishings. The litter boxes, out of sight underneath a bench, have a separate ventilation & fan system from the rest of the building. The air was as fresh as if we were outdoors, although considerably cooler. In each of a half-dozen offices where the staff work, one “special needs” cat lived, with its own bedding and toys, and its own private person there at least 40 hours a week.

At the Cat Depot, there are about 125 cats there at any time. Last year, they found homes for nearly 900 cats and they hope to place 1000 this year. About half of those cats, the ones who’ve been there the longest, have access to the outdoors in the form of small, wire-fenced patios, where the cats can lie in the sun or the shade anytime they want. They’re all fed Science Diet, plus wet food and treats, and volunteers come daily to play with, read to, brush and pet the cats. Each pod has a television (!) playing soft sounds (all the same channel, human voices and nature sounds) and showing a video of a warm fire in a fireplace! There are toys, cushions, play spaces, scratching posts, climbing pillars, and lots of cubbyholes, padded benches and bed-boxes.

Now, the furnishings and so on were lovely – what other animal shelter has matching cushions in every room, or has different rooms in different earth colors? (When I put Mitzi in the cage where she’d spend the night, I got to pick between soft orange, blue, or green.) But what impressed me most was that, with the exception of one cat awaiting surgery, every cat I saw – over 100 – looked calm and peaceful. Not one was mewing or appeared to be in distress – not even the “pudgy pod” where the cats are all on diets!

In the pods were people playing with the cats with feather dusters and laser lights, reading to the cats (Dewey is a big hit; all the books seemed to be cat-themed), petting them, and generally giving the cats great attention. One woman, Donna, was speaking sweetly to and brushing a long-haired black and white cat. I asked her if she might pet my cat later, and she not only promised to do so but came back with me later to meet Mitzi and hear her story and start getting to know her. Donna even knew how to blink at a cat — both eyes, slowly — which is a feline signal of comfort.

Bobby, the man who showed me around, assured me that he knew how I felt and promised that they’d take wonderful care of Mitzi. He told me about his own – blind! – cat, from that shelter, who now has a great life. He said his wife would be in the next day to pet Mitzi specially. I ended up hugging him, and Donna, and wanting to hug everyone else, too – but the vet tech and the director, Shelley, were by then engaged with a set of kittens that had just come in.

As sad as I was to have to leave Mitzi anywhere other than home, I could not have imagined a better outcome than this – at least not short of a private home. I feel beyond lucky that, as Joan says, my good intention for Mitzi has had this result – and more than anything I feel grateful to the good people of the Cat Depot. I have already emailed them offering to join as a volunteer on their grant-writing committee; I have already decided where the bulk of my contributions this year will go.

And now, finally, I can turn my attention to the other cat whom I offered, and promised, a “forever home.”Image

Many pubs have signs like this one, keeping a few seats for the musicians.

Many Irish pubs have signs like this one, holding a place for the musos  to sit among the crowds who come to see them.

Note to readers: I have no photos from this evening. In lieu of visual aids, please click on this YouTube link and let the music (by Foolin in Doolin, Blackie O’Connor’s band) play as you read my blog.

From Doolin, Ireland, on Monday, May 20, 2013

“Have you a few drinks in you?” Blackie looks closely at me, his black eyes shining through the black curls surrounding his long, narrow face. It’s about 8.30 p.m. in McGann’s pub where plenty of people already have a few drinks into them, so it isn’t an accusation, just a sympathetic enquiry.

“No, I’m just slow,” I admit. “And dopey.”

Like O’Connor’s pub (see “Buttersweet” blog entry), McGann’s is another famous music pub in another very old building where the wooden beams are steeped in three centuries of pipe and cigarette smoke. Marie and I have come to Ireland and this pub with a soft-edged plan to meet Blackie O’Connor (no relation to the pub) , a musician who’d been recommended to me before my trip by Failte Ireland.

I’d phoned Blackie a few weeks before the trip, to ask for drum lessons. I told him that Marie and I were coming to the center for Irish music (Doolin) to learn how to play the instrument that I mispronounced “BOUGH-rain,” and he’d corrected me, saying, “BOE-rohn” and thus giving me my first lesson. Though his speech was quick and his wonderful accent thick, I’d understood him to say that he’d “be very happy” to help us out and lend us a bodhrán, though he himself was not a teacher, so we could “learn the bodhrán and have the craic.

Note: as anyone who has spent five minutes reading any guidebook or searching any website (e.g. to Ireland knows, craic is a Gaelic word, meaning “good time,” or, specifically, “good time in a pub involving drink and live music.” It’s pronounced “crack.” One of the Irish slang synonyms for “fun-loving person” is “ho” (as in “ho-ho-ho”), so I have deduced that when entering Ireland it’s perfectly respectable to tell the immigration authorities at passport control that you are visiting their country as a “craic ho.”

Entering McGann’s is like entering O’Connor’s in that there is no music audible from outside, but as soon as we open the thick wooden door and walk in through the thick stone walls, we hear singing and playing. But in McGann’s two things are different: 1) the music we hear on entering is a recording, and 2) I do not recognize the layout. Apparently I didn’t go to McGann’s in my trips of 1996 or 2001, or if I did, I’d had too many lager and lies (stet) to remember it.

Marie and I take a seat in the back of McGann’s as far as we could get from the American woman who offers to move her stuff so we can sit next to her and her boyfriend. Both of us are hungry and surprised to be hungry, me especially given that I’ve eaten a breakfast of Irish vegetarian champions (scrambled eggs, thick brown toast with butter and strawberry jam, baked beans, and anachronistic and imperfectly cooked haloumi with pesto and red pepper) at midday. But by the time we reach McGann’s it was 9 p.m., or 4 p.m. in Florida, so soup and green salad sound fantastic, along with my soda water and Harp lager for Marie.

The American woman’s boyfriend sounds bad. Tall and bushily red-haired and red-bearded, he’s  telling a story at top volume in a harsh, nasal, possibly Chicagoan accent. He’s almost shouting about how he told the people at work he was going to Ireland, and a coworker asked him how long it’d been since he’d been back, and even though he’d never set foot on Irish soil before, and he – oh soul of Chicago wit – had said, “Fourteen years,” ha ha ha HA! The point of this long, loud retelling is that the teller looks Irish, but this is not a point worth making: anyone with red hair can be said to look Irish.

But soon there will be much better things to listen to, and for now there’s plenty to look at. The pub has red tiled floor and walls of light knotty pine, but old light knotty pine so it doesn’t look glossy and fresh like my cottage in California with its relatively new pine walls from the 40s. High above eye level, just under the roof, runs a shelf holding things to look at, such as a yellow-and-green ceramic jug with a flower on it, a Chivers Jelly box, odd glasses, a wooden box coffee grinder, a rust-pocked red kettle, a large, colored cardboard box — marked importantly ‘EGGS’ — a pewter tankard, and four or five flatirons.

As Marie and I partake of soup and salad – both accompanied by brown bread and butter, like every meal we will have in Ireland – a very tall, thin young man with a curly black ponytail walks by, winking at me en passant. Even though I imagine he winks at everyone, and even though I’m twice his age, I’m still pleased. I like Ireland.

Ten minutes later the ponytailed man is setting up his mike in the musician’s corner and taking something like a big flute out of a big bright red case. The man who has winked at me is Blackie, the one we’ve come to meet!

When I step over to introduce myself, Blackie seizes my hand and welcomes me, his long thin sad face turning happy. He sets aside his instruments and comes back to meet Marie, kissing her on the cheek. “We’ll work you hard this week,” he promises. Then he says, “I was supposed to bring you a drum, but I haven’t. I’ve to play it tomorrow morning, though it’d be a year and a half since you’d catch me with a drum.” The quick speech, pure black eyes, and unfamiliar use of tenses confuse me, but I assure him it’s no problem that he wouldn’t be lending us a drum that night.

We’re eager to set up a lesson, but neither Marie nor I can pin him down to a specific time, place, or teacher, at least not as far as we can tell. His friend Geraldine McGann (no relation to the pub) is coming later, and she too has said she’ll give us a “get to know your bodhrán” session, but she too claims not to be a “proper teacher.” Both she and Blackie have offered to help us get proper lessons later, but it’s Monday night and there’s no drum nor lesson in sight, and I’m leaving on Saturday.

“So will you like a lesson later in the week?” I think that’s what Blackie is saying, or maybe at least that’s his meaning, or at least that’s what I’ve been thinking he is going to say based on what I’d thought he’d said on the phone some weeks back, wasn’t it?

“Yes, when?” I said. “Any day. Any time. I’m at the hostel and Marie’s next door.”

“I’m out tomorrow afternoon,” he said, “playing with [more unfamiliar names]  at [some town I’d never heard of]. But I can lend you my drum after that. And Geraldine will help you tonight a bit, perhaps.”

“Would you give us a lesson, then?” I said, confused. “Or would she? Or did you say something about someone else?”

“Ah, well, we’ll see about a lesson for you,” he says. “What day would you like?”

“Any day is fine,” I repeat. “Anytime. But I have to leave on Saturday.”

“Ah,” he says. “And today is Monday, isn’t it? I’m here tonight…” he rattles off a bunch of names, days, times, and places, all of which sound similar. McGann’s on Monday with Geraldine McGann, or O’Connor’s tomorrow or McSomeone else’s on Wednesday for a lesson perhaps that day or the day before or after or both, if I like, in the pub or before or after the session in the hostel perhaps, someone will call someone, here’s his cell phone number.

I could not keep up. “So, when might we get a lesson in, do you think?” I say, politely.

That’s when he looks at me with that devastating, sympathetic gaze. Probably his eyes are just very, very, very dark brown, but they appear black.  “Ah,” he says, suddenly seeming to understand. “Have you a few drinks in you?”

I give up, but hope that Geraldine will sort out some kind of lesson for us later in the evening.

Geraldine turns up and turns out to be built like me, but unlike me she is wearing a tight black jacket and even tighter black jeans and enviable ankle boots. She has big, shiny, diamante earrings and a big, shiny, off-white smile, and she gives the impression as she shakes my hand that she is giving me a hug and kiss at the same time.

“I’m no kind of a teacher,” she says. “I taught myself as a child and just to make some noise, so, but I spoke to a man who’d give me some things I can show ye, shure. I’ll come to you at the break and we’ll have a chat, like.”

Marie flew in from Florida the day before, and I’d been conferring hard at my conference for the last several days, so we both want to go to our respective rooms and respective beds, but in order to get Geraldine’s help we stay till her break. I am glad we do, because the music she and Blackie and the banjo player Cyril play is so fantastic that even I, musically illiterate and usually unable to concentrate on sound, find it compelling. Actually, I find it far more than compelling – I respond to it the way my sister and my other music-loving friends respond to music they respond to: I love it. Listening to it was so good I sometimes closed my eyes, but when I opened them again to look at the musicians or gaze around — I’m in Ireland! in a pub! —  there’s a lot to look at.

Up by the bar as in many bars and shops in Ireland are the multicolored, palm-sized, cloth badges of American public servants and sports teams: the Boston Fire Department and the Nashville EMTs and the Los Angeles Police Department and the public works and baseball teams of small towns in Kentucky and Idaho and a veterinary service clinic from Hawaii. All of the badges look fresh and stiff and official, as if torn off a brand-new uniform. I wonder if I should bring a handful of badges on my next visit, to endear myself to the publicans and shopkeepers of Ireland, and if so, how I will acquire those badges when I don’t know even one American who is a firefighter, police officer, professional sport player, or public servant, unless you could count my mail carrier, a lovely blond lady called Karen, and I don’t think the Manatee County USPS employees have badges.

On the other hand, my best friend’s son is a reservist in the US Marines, and four months ago I met in a bar an attractive lesbian whom my friend Marie insisted was a transgender man, who was a police officer. She claimed to be a better shot than any of the men in her squad or team or whatever they call her coterie of shooters, but she wasn’t in uniform, and I’ve lost her number, so I don’t know if she wears a badge or if I could get one, but I’ll work on it. Maybe the fire-fighters sell badges as fundraisers, the way the police fraternal league sends out decals to affix to the driver’s side window of your car so that if you get pulled over for a ticket, the first thing you do when the cop approaches is make sure the window is fully rolled up, so that he’ll see that you’re a Supporter of The Law and not a public menace even if you were doing 40 in a 25. Failing that, maybe I can buy badges on Ebay.

Meanwhile, I get Blackie a pint of Guinness and he looks up through his waves of hair and says, “Gillian, you’re a star,” and even though he meets a million people, he has remembered my name, so I’m flattered even though we did just meet in person a few minutes ago and anyone could remember a name of a person who’d been emailing and whom they’d just met. Still,I don’t usually merit attention from young, good-looking musicians, especially not men, and never in my life from a famous Irish fiddler, since I’ve never met one before, and it’s fun to meet one who looks like a hip warlock and speaks so nicely and who winked at me.

For the performance Blackie has pulled his ponytail out so the curls are dangling down his shoulders as he plays, and the Irish bagpipe is huge and unwieldy across his narrow lap. After the first song, Blackie’s joined by bandmate Cyril, who, sitting wide-kneed and scraggly haired with a mandolin in his arms, looks as if he’d seen many years of long nights in pubs. There’s gray in his wild hair and the way his glasses fit deep into his eye sockets suggests that he makes up for lack of sleep with Jamieson’s.

After the second song, he unsmilingly introduces first himself and Geraldine, then Blackie. He murmurs drily against the terrific applause for Blackie, “He’s well known in these parts.” The applause increases, and Cyril adds cryptically, “We love ourselves, don’t we?” Though he has little facial expression, everything he says about Blackie seems insulting and funny. He mutters that Blackie is playing “the pipes,” about which “he’ll give a short lecture later on.”

And then all three of them play and sing and break our American hearts because we will never be Irish. Blackie, Cyril, and Geraldine sit on narrow black benches in the corner and sing like the future of your favorite life. Between, before, and sometimes during songs Blackie and Cyril laugh hard at something no one else knows about, and the laughter blends with the music, their human noises building and harmonizing even as they play their instruments with their faces turned down. It’s as if they’re laughing at the floor, as if the floor is cracking them up, and some other spirit is playing the music for them while they have a laugh.

The three of them sit simply on their bench, making a perfect storm of perfect sounds, and in between verses Geraldine raises her chin at us and lifts a happy thumb to see if we’re okay, and I raise my glass back to her.

Again, I think about how accepting Irish people are. Here are the musicians and the stars of the crowded pub treating us like old friends. Crowded cheerfully into the pub’s two little rooms are many dozens of people of all ages and degrees of dental health, all kinds of bodies in a range of shades of pale, from the “black Irish” white skin to the freckled redheads, and everyone is welcome for the craic.

All the singers I’ve seen so far on this trip have been chubby or pinched, and the men playing music are often wizened or wearing weird clothes. Even beautiful Blackie’s in a floral, black-and-white, long- sleeved button down shirt and jeans faded to blue-white like the spring skies when it’s not raining, and I believe that he put no thought into what he would put on that night, though it looks great on his Black Irish self anyway. I think how far it is from how an American band would dress themselves, how they’d present their image and their songs to match their outfits.

When Geraldine picks up her bodhrán I tell Marie, “Watch, she’s going to play now.” But I can’t see because Geraldine’s left-handed like me, which is great for my hopes of learning to play from her, but I’m on her right side, kind of behind her, and can’t see the drum. After a few minutes of staring at her rocking torso I hear a sound like the pub’s heartbeat and only then realize that she’s playing.

The reel gets faster fast, and Blackie adds some amazing-grace notes, and the pipes and mandolin players play so fast their fingers blur, and if I could see Geraldine’s left hand I’m sure it’d be even blurrier. I’m so excited I’m tapping the table, jigging knees, clapping hands, tapping toes, bobbing my head up and up and down and down, and I call to Marie, “Just think, in a few days we’ll sound just like her!”

I’m joking but I’m hopeful, too, thinking how, after most of a lifetime of listening to this music, starting when I was 17 at The Place when Joan Ogden kept bringing home people to play folk music, and after 20+ years of owning the instrument my sister bought me when she was learning fiddle, finally finally I’m going to learn to play the drum, the bodhrán.

The bodhrán – I feel it as much as hear it, reverberating under me through the wooden bench and the stone floor. The beat’s in front of me, in the bobbing heads of a man and woman, whose silhouette is suddenly joined by two tiny hands flung up: a previously unseen child on the woman’s lap is praising Glory in time to the bodhrán, her little starfish fingers spread wide, her mum jogging her in time, her daddy flopping his head and long hair up and down for his little girl like an 80s rock star, all in time to the music she is growing up to and will learn to play in time, in time.

Less coordinated and less cool than the exuberant infant, I’m tapping and jigging everything, thwacking the table with my fingers like sticks, tipping my toe and sometimes stomping a heel on the floor, stomp, stomp, clack. It’s all, all of it, so fast and fluid, so fluid and getting even faster, yes, and I feel as if I’m matching the drum. Surely I can do this with a tipper in my hand and a bodhrán on my knee. Maybe for once, I’ll be a natural at something. I understand that this is the first lesson from Blackie — this immersion and enthusiasm is the unschedulable learning. I understand!

Maybe, I think, in the light and misty heat of the spinning music, my lost Irish roots will blossom into buds of musical ability that have only to be nurtured with whiskey and rainwater and practice every day. Right.


Lizzy, in jail at the shelter, August 23 or so 2013

When is the moment when the lives of a person and an adopted pet come together? Is it when we find the animal at the shelter, when we bring the pet home, or when we first start looking for one?

I’ve been thinking of getting a cat since I moved into this house, last November. Nic and I fostered two kittens last spring, but owning a pet forever is a big responsibility, especially since I travel often.

A few weeks ago, though, I dreamt of an orange, long-haired cat and woke up feeling that he was my next cat. I spent many hours online, looking up animal shelters and Persian and Himalayan-cat rescues. I emailed enquires about cats in different states; I found a long-haired male called Dasher as close as Sarasota. And then, I found a beautiful orange Persian in a Tampa shelter, called French Fry. She was female, and prettier than the cat in my dreams, but I wanted her.


I called the Hillsborough County Animal Services, and learned that French Fry had a microchip, so they’d have to try to contact the owner, who’d have ten days to claim the cat.

Over the next few days, I hoped to adopt FF even as I Googled my way around the southeast, looking at other long-haired orange cats in need of a home. Dasher in Sarasota was male, and orange, like the cat in my dream, and he was available. I could have gone on indefinitely, looking up cats on the Internet, thinking about adopting, waiting for more dreams, but I received the September Sun and started reading the interview, “Inhumane,” with No-Kill advocate Nathan Winograd.

After reading half of it, I went to my computer to write a letter to the editor, to say that I didn’t care whether animals were adopted out to risky homes or humanely put down: what mattered to me was that we end animal suffering. But I didn’t even start the letter. When I sat down at my computer, I Googled the Hillsborough Animal Shelter and called them again.

French Fry had five more days before he’d be available for adoption. The officer I spoke to told me to come in and put in my application in person. It takes 90 minutes to get to the Hillsborough County animal shelter, and I arrived about 6.30 p.m., half an hour before the shelter closed. They had just taken an application from someone else to adopt for French Fry, about 20 minutes before I arrived.

I was shocked. How could the cat of my dreams have been taken away from me? In a daze, I said that I’d like to see him anyway, and have a look at the other cats.

I respect and appreciate the work of the Hillsborough Animal Services, but every time I interacted with a staff member, the staffer had to ask two or three other people for information: how to operate the computer, how to get information on an animal, how to let me see an animal. To be fair, the shelter is inundated with animals. One man, Alex, told me they get between 50 and 100 animals a day. Of the cats, 80% are put down. Of the lucky 20% that get homes, nearly all are kittens. Virtually 100% of the older cats that come in are euthanized.

I found my way past the rooms of cute kittens and big dogs to the older cats. But I couldn’t find French Fry, so I asked a girl in blue scrubs for help. She, Barbara, wasn’t a staffer but a cat-lover there to rescue a cat that would otherwise be put down. She showed me French Fry, and then she showed me all the oldest cats in several rooms. There was a big brown cat that turned to look at me, which she said was astonishing, since it had had its face in the corner since it came in. A longhaired, small, black-and-white cat was lying limp and unresponsive in a cage. There was a lovely Russian blue I might have adopted to please Nicole, but it hissed violently.

And then Barbara took me to a long-haired gray/white/tabby cat whose face reminded me of my Puffy, my childhood cat. There was a similarly colored, short-haired cat in the next cage. Reading their cage-tags, we realized that they’d been “surrendered” together – that meant the owner had dropped them off. Why they’d been put in separate cages, I have no idea. I said, “I could adopt those cats.”

Barbara told me that old cats at that shelter got very little time. Sometimes “owner surrendered” cats were put down right away; she thought the two calicoes would be put down in a day or two if I didn’t put in an application to adopt them. Out at the service desk I filled in the paperwork to adopt the cats that I’d never touched or even seen in clear light.

The next day I woke up a dawn, worried about cats. I felt guilty about rushing into the application in for the calicoes. And Dasher, in Sarasota, still needed a home. I put a call for advice on Facebook and got lots of it. The most common advice was that I should take all three cats: the two I’d “made a commitment” to as well as the orange one I’d dreamt of. Cousin Baby said that the dream had led me to the shelter to adopt the other two cats. Margie said I didn’t choose my human friends based on their color, so why would I pick cats that way? Colin said I could have three cats if I tried.

Most of the people advocating my owning three cats have never seen my house: I live, work, and play in 688 square feet. I didn’t know if any of these cats would ever venture outdoors.

On Saturday, I drove 30 miles south to Sarasota’s animal shelter to meet Dasher. My dream cat, maybe, Dasher, in SarasotaHe wasn’t the same as the cat in my dream – he’s unfortunately had a “lion cut” — and he wasn’t especially friendly. Furthermore, he was comfortable and safe: the shelter is spacious, clean, and bright. Cats  can curl up in a private niche, snooze in the sun, or play with other kitties. None is killed; they’re kept till they’re adopted or taken by a rescue group. I stayed about half an hour, but I left feeling that Dasher’s life was going to be okay without me, and mine without him.

Up at the shelter in Hillsborough (50 miles north) an hour or so later, I explained that I’d rushed into the adoption and I was starting to doubt my choice. Then a man at the next desk told me I couldn’t see those cats, because they were in “la-la land.” They’d just had surgery, he said, and were anesthetized.

Tearing up, I said, “I’ve driven up here from Anna Maria Island twice in 24 hours, and I haven’t been able to touch the cats I’m adopting. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing.”

As I stood there, trying not to cry, the female worker recalled that those cats had not had surgery. They’d already been spayed when they were surrendered, so they’d simply been checked by the vet. They hadn’t been anesthetized, and it was fine for me to see them.

I thanked her, feeling stunned, while the man put a call over the intercom for a “meet and greet” in cat room four, to get someone to let me pet the cats.

Three times, I was told to walk back to the room where “my” cats were to wait for someone who would come and open Lilly’s and Lizzy’s cages. Three times, I trudged back to the cat room and found no one there, waited a while, and then went back up front to find someone else to put in another call over the loudspeaker. On the fourth try, a kind, tired-looking African-American woman called Kathy met me in the back rooms and opened Lilly’s cage.

Lilly is the prettier of the two cats — long-haired, gray and white and tabby, with a funny cream-colored dot on her forehead just like Puffy. I no longer have her “jail picture,” unfortunately. She shrank away to the back of her cage, but when I gently pulled her out, she settled into my lap, and I knew I would be adopting her, along with Lizzy.

And about an hour later, I did just that.

The man who did the final paperwork and took my money – cats were on sale! Just $20 apiece! – looked up the cats’ records and licenses and found that they both were probably at least 11 years old, maybe 12. They were given up because the owner had to go into a nursing home.

Because the carriers are so small, the cats were put into separate carriers for the trip home. We stacked one cage atop the other in the front seat of my car, and seat-belted them in. Lizzy (the shorthaired calico) cried a little, but after a while (in the nice, quiet Prius!) both cats calmed down. They both stopped sitting in a hunched ball and lay flat, maybe so they could feel in the sun coming through the openings in their cages.

For my cats’ first night in their forever home, I took both carriers into the smallest room in my house, a large, all-tile bathroom with two windows, much bigger than the cages they’ve been in for the last several days. The place is airy and clean, and stacked with towels and rugs and comfy places for cats to sit. They could get used to that one room first, I thought, so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

I set the cages side by side and opened the doors. Neither cat moved and both ducked away from my hand when I reached in, so I stepped outside the bathroom to get up a litter box and bowls of water and food. I left the carrier doors open so the cats could come out and stretch their legs and start getting acquainted with their new home.

When I returned five minutes later, neither cat was out exploring. But Lizzy had left her cage and gone in to be with Lilly. They crouched in the tiny carrier, side by side, staring out at me. Lizzy was purring a little, comforting and warming up her friend. They were going to be okay.

Doolin, County Clare, Ireland

May 19, 2013

Marie fits in so well here I didn’t recognize her in the Shannon airport. As I was looking up at the arrivals board, and thinking it was her flight from JFK that was going to land 3 hours late, I was approached by a blond woman wrapped in gray and green wool, with a cute wool cap, walking towards me, looking Irish and intent. Only when she was within a few yards did I realize it was Marie. She was not only not late but was bundled up ready to leave the airport, having been waiting for some hours.

Marie in front of Aille River Hostel, DoolinHer dark green coat, gray hat, and wool scarf hid her figure and face, which was why I hadn’t recognized her. She looked much like many of the other, Irish women in the airport, and out in the Irish air and rare Irish sunshine she blended into the landscape, as if she’d lived there all her life.

She looked great, but we were both tired. She’d had no sleep on the plane, and I’d had little, having spent the last night of the travel writers’ conference at a long, strenuous reception/cheese tasting/whiskey tasting/dinner at the old Jameson distillery, County Cork (see photos below of exterior of distillery and interior of reception area with first spread of food).

Meeting Patrick Perry was one of the highlights of a great conference.

Meeting Patrick Perry was one of the highlights of a great conference.

Even I who hate whiskey had been taken by the ginger-lime-Jameson’s cocktails. Quite taken.

This was the spread in the reception area -- before the cheese tasting, before the whiskey tasting, and before our four-course dinner. Is it any wonder I gained weight? Note the Kerrygold cheese, of which I ate my own bodyweight.

This was the spread in the reception area — before the cheese tasting, before the whiskey tasting, and before our four-course dinner. Is it any wonder I gained ahem a few pounds? Note the Kerrygold cheese, of which I ate my own bodyweight.

*                                                          *                                           *

After our taxi-ride from the airport and after we’d both had a rest in our respective rooms, Marie and I set off up the main street of Doolin. Well, I think we walked “up,” but perhaps we walked down it. The street went uphill in both directions from the B&B and the Aillie River Hostel, where Marie and I respectively were staying; the direction we took was towards the coast, and towards the slightly more shop-dense end of the village, so would you say we went up, or down?

Aille River Hostel cropped

Aille River Hostel, Doolin, my favorite hostel in the world, which recently was named Best Hostel in Ireland

Whether it was up or down, we walked about half a mile to O’Connor’s pub, because Ann the Aussie hostel warden had told us they’d have music at O’Connor’s “in the afternoon.” It was about 7 p.m. then, still yellow sunlit daytime to my eyes, and I wasn’t sure what time the locals thought “afternoon” began or ended, but I was hoping for a “trad session,” or in other words some live traditional Irish music. Although I didn’t know which way I was going or what time of day it was, I tempted the rain by not wearing my raincoat but only a warm wool sweater and a thick wool cardigan that comes down to my thighs. In Ireland in May, that’s living on the edge.

Blinded by the sunlight, 7 p.m. in May, County Clare

Blinded by the sunlight, 7 p.m. in May, County Clare. Photo by Marie Corbett

It stayed brilliant sunshine all the way to the pub, as bright as it would be in Florida at about 5 p.m., but the yellow light was mellower than it is in the tropics, maybe tinged by the glowing green fields. The cows, rust- brown and cream, glowed, too, not only from the shine of their mink-like coats but also from their timeless, deep, inner beauty. Their faces show their sense of fulfillment, and their dark cow-eyes shine with bovine well-being. Dove’s Natural Beauty campaign could hire them as plus-size models.

Cows in Doolin

Gillian sampling Kerrygold butter at Ballymaloe, Ireland

Nothing says “Ireland” quite like a gob of butter.

The butter here (or at least the Kerrygold butter of which my friends and I partook so heartily) is as yellow as egg yolks, from all the beta-carotine in the milk that comes from the cows that eat the grass that grows extra-green from all the rain that falls from the gray clouds, which hang above the land perpetually and precipitously except for that Sunday afternoon, or evening, when the light slid through partings in the clouds like an Irish blessing across the narrow road we walked on the wrong side of, and we did not get hit by any cars, but there weren’t very many cars that afternoon, or evening, and we were as happy as little butter balls, rolling along to the pub.

Writer Sarah Rose partaking of a bit of Irish butter at Ballymaloe

Writer Sarah Rose enjoying a bit of Irish butter

Ellen Redmond and another lovely Irish lady, sampling Kerrygold

Above: Impromptu butter tasting  at Ballymaloe.

*                              *                           *

I was hoping not only not to get hit by any of the cars but also that it was late afternoon, as I’d been told cheerfully by Ann the warden that the heat in my room would come on “in the afternoon.”  She’d said that about 1.00 p.m., after I’d checked into my room and checked it out and found it sunless and chilly. Although I didn’t want to seem American and demanding, I pleasantly asked her if “afternoon” – and the advent of the heat – might be about 3.30 p.m., to which Ann from Australia slightly less cheerfully said no, not that early, but later in the afternoon.


Thumbnail image courtesy of Gus O’Connor’s pub’s website. The pub is much bigger in real life.

Marie and I reached the wide wooden door of Gus O’Connors pub, which is at the top (or bottom) of the village, in an old building near a few new craft and music shops in adjacent old buildings and not much else. From the outside, it didn’t seem as if there were any music, but as we stepped in the wide entry, two things happened: first, I remembered the whole layout of the place, including where the barmaids and the musicians would be; second, we heard faint but lively and distinctively live music, coming from the rear through about twenty feet of thick stone walls and around dozens of thick bodies on stools, in booths, and at tables.

Marie went back to find seat near the music, and I went to the corner of the half-square bar get the drinks, and one of the bodies at the bar addressed me, asking if I were there on holiday, which is a pretty sure bet for a positive response here in Doolin, as the entire town is full year round and especially now, in mid-May, with people coming from around the world to hear trad music, and he’d heard me speak with an American accent, so he knew I wasn’t local, so it was slightly disingenuous, but still friendly. I appreciated it.

I got the drinks in – half of sweet cider for me, half of Harp lager for Marie – and we found a bench seat with a back directly to the musicians, so we turned 180 degrees and put our legs at odd angles and peered over the back to watch as we listened. Not only the layout was the same as last time I was there, in 2001 with Nic, but also the bar staff were the same and the customers were the same and the musicians looked the same as last time and identical to all the photos on the wall of the all the musicians who have been there forever, including those in black-and-white photos of women in cat’s-eye glasses and men in hornrims, and even older pictures with the men in suits and boots, and they were playing the same instruments as well: a sort of banjo-mandolin thing, and a flute, and a guitar and sometimes other things which I could not identify, although they sounded familiar.

No bodhrán appeared, but the beat was kept by the accordian player, a bald-headed, smooth-faced, round-skulled man who looked more capable of smiling and speech than the other musicians, who mostly looked as if they were awaiting unanesthetized dentistry, even as they played wild and gay Gaelic jigs and reels at speed that always seemed to increase, never slow down.Gus O'Connor's musos, May 19 2013

The fiddler – I could tell it was a man by the flat outline of his green jacket and wide shoulders – kept his head so far down that his long black curls obscured his face. Most fiddlers face upward or at least forward when they play, but this one tucked the fiddle under his chin and hunched over it the whole time, like an model for hair conditioner or Irish angst.

His fiddle-playing was terrific. We couldn't see his face, though.

His fiddle-playing was terrific. We couldn’t see his face, though. Photo by Marie Corbett.

Between songs – which were long, maybe ten minutes – the men took up their glasses and drank about a third of a pint in one serious draught. In that way they made up for the period of time in which they were not drinking, and kept up with their peers who were not playing.

Although so much was the same, the great difference between that night and the last time I was there, twelve years ago, is that there was no smoke. Twelve years ago and sixteen years ago, being in that pub meant straining to breathe through a cloud hanging at eye-level and above, all the way up to the dark-stained-yellow beams, smoke so thick it made us cough and order pints. But as a consequence of the anti-smoking laws enacted in the early 21st century, I could that evening in 2013 see the things on the walls, and even see windows in the walls. It was great to be able to breathe without a sensation of internal burning, and I breathed quite a bit, enjoying the pure air as much as my cider and the newly visible decorations. I looked at the photos of musicians, the painted mirrors, US license plates and dollar bills. I could see the windows – no two alike, and not one set square in a wall — and the stained glass in some windows. Across from me was “Slainte” (pronounced “SLAHN-shuh,” and pronounced often) which means “cheers,” and some faint pink curls and ribbons that looked suitable for a stained glass window in a 1920s Parisian haberdashery.

I told Marie that she was the best drinking companion I’d taken to O’Connor’s. The first friend I took there drank like a college kid – because she was 23 – and the second would embarrass me by going in pubs and ordering orange juice or cups of tea. But Marie was born in a remote part of Newfoundland where everyone sounds, looks, and drinks like their Irish ancestors, and she ordered a few sequential halfs of Harp which she drank in moderation, leaving her glass on the table for long periods while she looked gently around the pub and made occasional interesting comments. For instance, she told me that she owns a harpsichord, and that many of the men in the pub looked like her cousins and uncles from Newfoundland.

For the first time since I’ve known Marie – 2 or 3 years – I had pencil and paper and time to ask her about her 40+ first cousins, and we ended up doing a bonsai family tree for her, showing the Annes and Catherines, showing Cyril, Len, and Martin, and Francis, Mary and Joseph!  And it showed other relatives in family groups of 11 and 13 and 4, those who died and those who lived, those who  stayed in Newfoundland and those who emigrated across the US and beyond. Marie mentioned that one of her uncles had been a construction worker on the Empire State Building, which pleased me because one of my uncles (Bill Williams) also worked on the ESB. Maybe our uncles – Marie’s and mine – might have known each other, worked together, even been friends who drank together in an Irish pub in New York in the days when Clare was an even longer way from there.

And that brings me back to the music. My favorite Irish song is one I first heard in Texas, which goes “It’s a long, long way, gets further by the day, it’s a long long way from Clare to here.”  The nostalgia and un-provable, improbable logistics of this homesick-making song are emotionally enhanced for me by the fact that “Clare” spelled that way is my middle name, a fact that does not hearken to my ancestral lineage even though my ancestor Mary Scanlan did come from this county, but to the fact that my mother liked the name ‘Clare’ and spelled it without the ‘i’ for reasons she has never explained. It’s a great song. I have asked for it several times from trad music players in Northern Ireland, New Jersey, and Alabama, but no one has ever been able to sing or play it for me; indeed no one I’ve spoken to has ever even heard of it.

But earlier that day, I’d seen it. After arrival, I’d gone to the open market, which like everything else is “just across the road” from the hostel (i.e., over the bridge and down or up the street). The market was, fittingly, in a “marquee” behind a hotel. To get there, I passed Fitzgerald’s pub, a light orange building with a washed-out mural of bar of music painted across the side, and although I can’t read even a bar of music without sitting down with it for ten minutes and a keyboard, I can read English words readily, and the lyrics printed below the notes in a curly but clear script were:

“I sometimes hear the fiddles play, maybe it’s just a notion
I dream I see white horses dance upon that other ocean
It’s a long way from Clare to here

 So even though the market had no produce, and there is no longer any shop in Doolin that sells food, so I had no way to buy the things I need to eat for my stay in the hostel (eggs, fruit, tomatoes, onions, and chocolate biscuits, for instance), I did on my outing get a loaf of homemade (of course) soda bread, and hope of hearing my favorite song here, in Doolin in County Clare.

2 girls at O'Connor's pub playing their own songs

Two brave Canadian girls singing their own songs at Gus O’Connor’s pub. Photo by Marie Corbett

I liked how all the musicians were  grown-ups, dressed in normal clothing, instead of kid rock stars. Some of the men playing were in their 60s, and the man with the long black hair and no face might have been 40, and the people watching were all ages, many white-haired and some bald, and some so little they were carried into the pub and sat on laps. The two young women who turned out to be from Quebec borrowed instruments and sang a song in French and then one in English, and they received warm applause, neither more nor less than the other musicians.

A chubby cherub with blonde curls falling like ribbons down her back danced and ate a chocolate biscuit at the same time, her face a Rubenesque portrait of pink-cheeked joy. The young Canadian women took the little girl’s hand and danced in a circle with her, including her, and making her sticky-fingered, sweet-mouthed pleasure complete. To be dancing with the big girls!

As I was watching another, tiny little girl watching her dad toss his head back and forth, teaching her the rhythm, Marie turned to me, to say how nice she found it to see all the different generations together. That too reminded her of Newfoundland, where people of all ages socialize together, instead of everyone in a bar or a party being within ten years of each other’s age, as it often is in the US.

I told her I’d just been thinking the same thing. It was the first time Marie and I have had that kind of synchronicity, but I bet not the last.  I was glad we were traveling so well together. I’d thought we would, and we’d spent plenty of time together before, but you never know till you actually go somewhere with someone if you are going to end up wanting to push each other off a scenic overview. I’m feeling optimistic about our cliff walk on Wednesday.

After a couple of instrumental songs, someone started singing. I looked around further, curling backwards on the bench at risk of slipping off my seat and into an undignified puddle of cider and wet wool on the hard stone floor, to see the singer: an old man with white hair and beard (is there any other hair color for old men in Clare?), singing with a crutch tucked under one arm, leaning on the bench where the musicians sat, singing with a somber face and looking as unselfconscious as if he were ordering a pint, which he no doubt has done every day of his life since he was a lad, and that was a long, long time ago, when they sang songs like the one he was then singing, about a boy who sees a beautiful girl, the most beautiful girl in the village, whose skin was like roses and cream:

Singer at O'Connor's pub

Old man standing up and singing at O’Connor’s pub. Photo by  Marie Corbett

“But if at those roses you ventured to sip,
the color might all come away on your  lip.”

This man was wearing a green button-down shirt and a black woollen vest, and he had lines down both sides of his face and across his brow under the white hair, and he sang with the conviction and certitude of a man often but not always disappointed in love. When his song ended he ignored the applause and picked up a tiny red-and-black bottle of Coke, and I said to Marie, who has recently begun dating a person she considers considerably younger than herself, how beautiful he was, how one would not want him any other way than exactly as aged and purely white-haired and wrinkled as he was. She said she knew the song, “the Cliffs of Mourne.” She made no comment then on the age/beauty/desirability question, but I kept thinking warmly of how accepting the Irish people I’ve met seem to be, how in the pubs, even singing in the pubs, people seem unselfconscious. And they seem to like each other. A day or two later, Marie told me that she’d liked my observation on the old man — how lovely he was, how we wouldn’t want him any other way.

A few weeks earlier, in a Sunday night session at a famous music pub (The Moorings in Portmagee, County Kerry), I had noticed a similar vibe. That night I’d been approached by the lead singer, a plump, beautiful black-haired blue-eyed alto, who on her break wandered over to me and asked a friendly question. We talked a little, and I said that one of the people sitting in the musicians’ circle, a little blonde woman, looked terribly serious, even teary. The lead singer, who is renowned in Ireland, said something about the girl being “special needs,” and carried on chatting.

Later, as I looked more carefully at the people sitting in the stage area, I noticed that several of the people playing or just sitting near her, the big-name beautiful singer, and the other professional musicians, did indeed have the slightly lost, young, out-of-place expression of people whose intelligence has not formed in time with their bodies, and then I was full of feeling for the kind people of Ireland, who judge a person not by the color of their skin or type of passport, not by age or clothes or the shape of their figure or comeliness of features, but by the content of their hearts and, maybe, their willingness to sing openly.