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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


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.

Sunday, Jun 30th, 2013

It’s been a long, hot and fairly hard day, at the end of a long, hot and hard few weeks. Very bad news from Nic’s family in Australia, which I will share privately with anyone who asks. For myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my parents, and in my garden, and in my parents’ garden, and sleeping, and faffing around, trying to clean up my too-small house, and not much time sitting at my desk working. Subsequently I’m not making any money, and I’m feeling broke, and I’m also feeling quite fat and unhealthy (not because I’m not making any money, but because it’s difficult for me to exercise because of foot pain).

I’ve decided to change a few things and I’ve had some great help, and, as usual, very good luck. And tonight, I think I had a kind of good omen. Let’s begin with the help and luck — three days ago, I put a “WANTED” ad on (an online community through which I’ve given away hundreds of items, but never before received anything), asking for a bicycle. The very next day, I got an email from a lady who lives near me who had a beautiful bike she had just replaced that day with a brand new one. The bike she offered, and which I picked up yesterday, is beautiful and exactly what I have wanted for years! It’s a large-frame Huffy cruiser, with a basket and a water bottle holder and a purple star on the gold-brown paint. It’s 3 years old but looks brand new. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked by bikes like that at the beach, pointed to them, and said, “That’s the kind of bike I’d like to have.” And now thanks to this freecycle member’s generosity, I have one! It’s in the shop now getting a new inner tube, and as of tomorrow I’ll be riding it – a lot.

The other change will be dietary. Once again, I’m going to omit something from my diet in hopes of losing weight and becoming healthier. I’ve tried this often with refined sugars, but this time I’m omitting all wheat products, and hoping for similar great results (weight loss, improved clarity of mind, better sleep, less aches and pains, fewer headaches, etc.). I’ve had a lot of help on Facebook and in person from friends & relatives who’ve had good results.

So, tonight, the last meal of the month of June, I treated myself to a wheaty meal: two slices of pizza and a salad. It took me a very, very long time to find a place to eat dinner, because the island is so crowded this weekend, and I drove around for a long time, into Bradenton and back out again, before I went to Omar’s pizzeria across from the beach, near the Beach House (in Bradenton Beach). I almost never go there – it’s not especially good pizza – and it was rather odd that I chose it tonight. After I ate, I decided to walk across the street to the beach, even though I rarely go to that beach as it’s so crowded, and I prefer the ones north, on my end of the island.

I stepped onto the sand and was greeted by a very tanned man with a beard whose girlfriend was sleeping, under a sheet, on the sand. I walked up a few yards towards the Beach House restaurant, where there was music playing on the outdoor tikki bar – again, an extremely odd choice for me, as I usually walk away from crowds and noise – and saw something odd in the water. It looked like an otter. It bobbed up, then disappeared. I walked further towards it and saw that it was quite big; I thought maybe it was a dead fish. A very big dead fish. It seemed to be floating atop the water sometimes, but then it would disappear again: it was a sea turtle!

It came crawling out through the white froth and headed across the beach. I was, amazingly, the only person looking at it. I was about 30 feet away, and it was crawling up between me and the very crowded, very noisy Beach House restaurant and tikki bar. Within a few seconds, a dozen people had come out from the restaurant to gape and take pictures, and as the children ran pell-mell towards the turtle I yelled “Stay back! Stay back! Give her room!” and I waved them back with vigourous arm movements They were on the other side of the turtle from me, and they didn’t want to stay back, but, amazingly, the children listened to me, and then the adults had to back up too.

The turtle headed straight across the beach towards the road, moving slowly. More and more people poured onto the beach and more and more people rushed the turtle and I got more and more loud and strident, waving my arms and yelling at them to “GIVE HER ROOM! DON’T CROWD HER!” No one touched her, and they stayed about 10 feet away, but they were talking loudly, laughing, taking pictures, and making a lot of commotion.

The turtle stopped and then turned towards the crowd of people, confused. They should have backed away to let her move towards them, but they didn’t. Then the man who had said hello earlier came up next to me and started bellowing angrily at the other people that they should go away and leave the turtle alone and let her lay her eggs, and she’d never do it if they stayed there. They stayed there, though they did back up a bit more at his command.

In a few more minutes she turned around again, facing me and the man. We backed off quite a bit, giving her more space, but by then there were about 60 people talking and laughing and making noise within about 10 feet of her, and she’d had enough and decided this was no place to raise children. She wisely headed back into the water.

The man and I were joined by another self-righteous person from the restaurant, and both the men started saying how they’d been telling everyone to stay back, how they had protected the turtle, how the people were idiots, etc. I was surprised, because I was the first person on the scene, and for what seemed like a long time I had been the ONLY person directing the crowds to stay back. If it hadn’t been for me, the kids would have been riding that turtle’s back and probably picking her up and carrying her home…but these men seemed very proud of themselves and intent on letting me know how brave they’d been.

Put out that they weren’t noticing MY role in protecting the turtle, I was just like them…we all were relieved that the turtle had gone, and we were all mad at the crowd of tourists, and we all wanted to feel proud of ourselves and impress each other. Before he went back in the restaurant, the man introduced himself to the other man and shook his hand, but he didn’t do the same for me, and I felt, again, a bit miffed. I was uncomfortable, but it was interesting to see how much like the men I was.

The man from the beach was called Sunny, and he’s a professional fisherman. He told me that he’s often caught turtles, and often they die, because he uses “long lines” – those are the horrible fishing lines that drop down in the ocean and carry hundreds of big baited hooks. I asked if there were not some way that he could turtle-proof the long-lines, but he said no. He was sorry about the turtles that died on his lines, but he did admit that he eats them, if they’re dead when he gets them. I agreed with that – even as I wished he would either stop using long lines, or find a way to bait them that doesn’t attract turtles, preferably the first option.

I bet almost all of those people in the restaurant were eating fish, too.

I came away feeling excited, and glad that the turtle had gone back in the water, and worried that she won’t find somewhere more peaceful to lay her eggs. There are Too. Damn. Many. People. On this island, in this state, in the world. I’m always glad I haven’t hatched out any little ones of my own, but I sure wish there were more room for the wild animals to live and breed.

This was the second time in my life that I’ve gone impulsively and suddenly to a place where I had no reason to go, and at which I’ve averted disaster. The other time was in California when I pulled off the highway between my friend Paige’s house and my house, going to a gas station even though I wasn’t even low on gas, even though I didn’t need a break or water or anything. Even as I pulled off the highway and into the gas station, I didn’t know why I was doing it. I’d never been to that gas statuion before and it was not easy to get to. I parked and put a few dollars of gas in my tank, and as I was finishing up, flames emerged from under the hood of the truck next to me, which was running.

I was, again, the only person who saw what was going on. I ran into the store, where everyone else was lining up to pay for gas, and I said, as calmly as I could, “That guy’s truck is on fire; do you have an extinguisher?” And the guy who owned the truck said, “Oh, no, that always happens, it’s just a little smoke coming from– –”  and then he turned around and saw his truck and yelled “HOLY SHIT!” and the cashier didn’t know what to do, because she had to take the money and she obviously wasn’t supposed to leave the line of people waiting to pay, but she told everyone there was a fire extinguisher around the corner. Then all the men from the line  started falling over each other to run get the fire extinguisher and manhandle it out to the truck, all of them crowding through the door like the Marx brothers, all bumping into each other and scared and yelling at each other about how to use the fire extinguisher and where to point it and here, give it to me, damn it!

I got in my car and drove home.

Tonight I did the same thing, not knowing if my being there on the beach had made any difference to the turtle, but feeling that it did. And I think this is a good sign for my change in habits in the month ahead. I’m not going to say that I am like the turtle and need protection, or that I am like the man whose truck was burning who was in denial, or that I am like the stupid tourists who needed yelling at so they’d respect the wildlife, but I do feel that somewhere in here, there has been some providence, some guidance, some help from somewhere. And I’m grateful.

Note: My dear friend and former student, Danny Upton, posted this on his Facebook wall today. It’s fascinating to read this exchange between friends who disagree, and I wish ALL my friends, especially those who still favor discrimination against same-sex couples, would read it. — Gillian


Danny writes:

I just saw that a long-time friend of mine from a conservative religious background had posted a graphic of a man, woman, and child from one of the “traditional marriage” organizations. I’m going to post our exchange:

Danny Upton: Hey, Katie, I’ve known you for over a decade now. You’ve been to my home. We’ve broken bread together. I just want you to know how hurtful it is to me to know that you don’t support my right to equal protection under the law.

Katie: Wow! I can hardly believe it’s been that long! That makes me feel so old! I was just thinking of you a few days ago and wondered if you were still local and how you were! I hope you are well! My stance for traditional marriage is certainly not one aimed at hurting you, whom I consider a friend, or anyone else that believes differently than I. I do try to understand the sensitivity of the issue, but my understanding of the institution of marriage leads me to support the traditional definition of marriage. However the supreme court decision turns out tomorrow, I do hope that my words and actions will be God-honoring. I also hope that despite my differing convictions on this issue, you understand how highly I think of you and that my stance on marriage is not one grown from malicious intent.

Danny Upton: I believe that, but I cannot accept that. And at the end of the day, you must see how fundamentally unfair your view is. If my side wins, you will still be able to believe however you believe. Your church will still be able to teach whatever your church teaches. You will still be able to marry the partner of your choice. You will still be able to inherit his property automatically, even in the absence of a will, if–God forbid–something bad happens to him. You will still be able to draw from his Social Security. You will still be able to make emergency medical decisions for him. You will still be able to determine his final resting place. If he happens to be a non-citizen, you will still be able to petition for him to live and work permanently in this country. But if your side wins, I will have to live according to YOUR religious convictions–not my own. I will have to live according to YOUR church’s teachings–not my own. I will NOT be able to marry the partner of my choice. In fact, I will spend a lifetime with a partner that the law will regard as nothing more than a roommate–like someone you might have shared an apartment with during college. He will not automatically inherit my property–including the house that is his home–if something happens to me. And if I leave him any property in a will, he will be forced to pay estate taxes that you and your husband would never have to pay. We will not be able to make emergency medical decisions for each other. And every year at tax time, we will be forced to pay higher taxes than a similarly situated straight couple–taxes that will support public services and social programs that unequally benefit you and your family and unequally disadvantage me and mine. So this is not an agree-to-disagree situation in which all outcomes are equal. Whether your intent is malicious doesn’t matter. The outcome is. Your support for “traditional marriage” (which isn’t even traditional anyway, which I am sure you know based on your knowledge of the evolution of marriage throughout scripture) does HARM to me and does HARM to my family, even though I have never–to my knowledge–done or supported the doing of any harm to you.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Kenmare stone circle, County Kerry

Courtesy William Burdette

Courtesy William Burdette

Our guide, William, took a few of us writers on a walk this morning in Kenmare — which I had embarrasingly been mispronouncing ‘Connemara’ — to see some standing stones.

The site was just a few hundred yards away from the main shopping streets, and only a few fields and hedgerows from a horrible new house, built by the people who have bought the land on which the standing stones stand. If I had purchased property on which there were 3,500-year-old standing stones, I might not have built a tacky, yucky wood-façade rectangle to live in, but maybe they think their new house is just perfect in that setting. I don’t know. I do know that there are many similarly rephrehensible new dwellings around Cork and Clare, especially around Doolin, so that as I’m trying to compose a decent photo of a 14th-C. castle or an Iron Age ring fort or a lovely ruined abbey, I get bits of pale yellow painted stucco and metal siding in the shot, and it’s annoying.

But most of Kenmare is largely free of such objectionable objects, and after we passed the ugly new house, we walked up a path lined with cowslips and more of those blue flowers, and I got William within sight of one of the stems of blue blossoms and asked that he say definitively what they were: he looked at them for quite a while, started to speak, stopped, and then said, in a cautious way, “Yes, those are bluebells.” Whew. It was good to know  for sure.

At the end of the short uphill path, at the top of the hill in fact, stood a ring of standing stones. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t such an impressive sight. The stones were about as tall as I am, though wider (and older!). Inside the ring, maybe 50 feet in diameter, stood or lay a large central stone, looking like a place designed for human sacrifice. It reminded me of the last scene in the film Tess of the D’Urbervilles, when Tess lies down to await death, at Stonehenge. Being only the second set of standing stones I’ve seen in this lifetime, I guess the comparison was inevitable, but this was smaller than Stonehenge and had no other visitors, and we could walk up to the stones and touch them, so I did, respectfully.

Will told us that “they” (meaning I think “archeologists” or “Irish people in general”) don’t exactly know what the standing stones were for, though they may have been used as a calendar, to mark the seasons of the crops. There is some apparent alignment of the tallest stone with the setting sun, in certain seasons. But Will added  that his archeologist brother-in-law admits that a) often the archeologists in Ireland don’t want to mess with such edifices and arrangements, for superstitious reasons, and b) even when they do study them they often have no idea what they’re looking at.

When I noted that there was no graffiti or damage to the stones, William said that such desecration would never happen, because Irish people believe that it’d bring bad luck on the person who committed it. In the manner of quite a few Irish tale-tellers (i.e. everyone I met on this trip), he told us a harrowing fable – supposedly verifiable and which has been in the newspapers and so on – of a few years ago when a family up north moved some standing stones to build a house, and then within two years, two of their children had died in freak accidents, the implication being that the former choice led to the latter tragedy. He also, later, showed us a house that had been cursed by a priest during the famine, because the rich landlords therein refused to help the poor people in the town. The priest supposedly said that one day, ravens would fly through the ruins of the house, which was then a grand manor. We saw the house today, and it’s certainly ruined and available to ravens, so the Christian curse seems to have taken effect.

As William talked about the superstitions, or pagan holdovers, of the Irish people, I asked him to say more about the “fairy trees” that he spoke of before. Earlier, he’d pointed out a tree in a field as we were passing and explained that was a “fairy tree.” These are old trees in fields or sometimes even in the middle of villages, roads, and major highways, which are respected and protected in perpetuity because they have been used for centuries as the burial sites of unchristened infants. Traditionally, babies who died at birth or at any time before they could be christened could not be buried in the consecrated graveyards, by order of the church. It was thought by the people that the fairy folk took such babies – especially boys – to fight underground in the fairy wars. To prevent this unwanted inscription, the people would bury the bodies of the unchristened babies under a special tree, usually a white or black hawthorne marked by a boulder at its base. These became known as “fairy trees,” and the knowledge about them has been passed down through hundreds of years.Interestingly, there are no signs or formal markers on the trees, but archeologists have at times dug up the earth around certain such trees, only to return the bones to beneath the tree rapidly.

The stories about the people – usually unmarried girls or women, I imagined – having to bury their children in unconsecrated ground, probably stealthily and in the rain, made me think for a second time in one morning about a Hardy novel, particularly the heartbreaking scene in one of them – is it Jude the Obscure? – in which the young mother takes her sick newborn to the priest’s house, begging him to baptize it before it dies, and he heartlessly refuses. As I remember, the girl then tries to baptize the baby herself, because despite the priest’s cruelty she still wants the church’s blessing for her child.

A few minutes later, as we were leaving the stone circle, Will said casually, “This is a fairy tree here.”

I thought it was an awfully handy coincidence that he’d see a tree directly after I’d asked about them, and I asked, “How do you know?”

He said, “It’s white hawthorne. In a few months this will be covered with white blossoms, like snow.”

I still wasn’t convinced – just because it was a white hawthorne, how did he or anyone know it was a fairy tree? But then he moved closer, peered into the branches, and added “See, there are things hung on it.”

Yes, when I looked carefully, I could see that the branches were indeed draped with bits of cloth. Tapes and ribbons dangled among the green leaves, and higher up branches were strung with beads and necklaces and hung with earrings. Then, too late, I remembered then that someone had told me to take a bit of ribbon with me to the standing stones, but I had no scrap of fabric on my person other than my clothing. In my pockets I had only my big metal room key  and I considered leaving it on the tree but thought the Park Hotel keepers might object, especially as the room number was painted onto the key and it could easily be used by a wicked fairy to gain illegal access to someone’s sleeping chamber.

Kimberley, bless her, started going through her bag, and she found a cute little metal key ring in the shape and colors of a butterfly, which, as I recall, her daughter had given her. She took her keys off it, to give it to the tree.

I said, “Let’s leave it here for all the women who had to leave their babies here, because they were banned from the graveyards.”

Kimberley agreed, and she hung it on a branch just above eye level, where it looked festive and commemorative. “It’s Mothers’ Day today,” she said.


Photo courtesy

I was surprised to learn that — I’d lost track of the days. I thought of my own mother, so far away, and wished I could be with her, but was glad I’d see her when I went home. It was a lovely, sad, Irish moment, and I was grateful to Kimberley for sharing her trinket – a gift from her daughter — and reminding us of the day’s significance.

May 11, 2013


Photo thanks to:

“Wow.” “ Have I died and gone to Heaven?” “ Indescribable beauty…”

Few things irritate me more than the language of bad travel writing: superlatives, extremes, and rhetorical questions. The <noun> is always the best, the most, utterly and unbelievably <adjective> the writer has ever seen, in his/her whole life!

The problems with this kind of writing are many, but one is that when a traveler comes upon something – a view, an activity, a town – that really does trump all the others in that traveler’s experience, there are no words left for it. Not everywhere can be the best, the most beautiful, the least describable in words.

When I read, often in the Sunday travel supplements to major papers, that a writer “cannot put into words” how wonderful a place is, I say, “Try. It’s your job to put it in words.”

And so, instead of resorting to the language of hyperbole, I’ll write about the trip I’m on right now, and attempt to finds words to tell you about a pretty good time.

Last night, dining at Dromoland Castle, Will our tour guide told me that the blue flowers I was describing to him (see last two blog posts!) were bluebells. “The woods are full of them,” he said, with authority that comes with being at least six feet tall and having pure white hair and a deep voice. He said he’d been golfing two days ago and had seen the bluebells everywhere. But the same morning, my sister-in-law, Lyn, wrote back to my blog post saying that she thought the flowers I’d described were grape hyacinths, which I’m pretty sure correspond to the “grate” hyacinths of Sarah’s email, earlier. Both Lyn and Sarah are from England, so they should know. But Will is from Ireland and from right here in Ireland and has seen the flowers this week, so he should know better. This morning on the bus as we left Dromoland and headed west towards the Ring of Kerry and Gap of Dunloe, Will noted in passing a few patches of blue among the green fields, saying, “There’re some bluebells, Gillian.” The bus was moving, and the clouds were drizzling, so I wasn’t sure that what he was waving at were the same things I’d carried carefully indoors the previous day, nor that those were the same as the first blue blossoms I’d spotted in London. Later, when we reached the spot where we were to catch a boat across the lakes, I pointed out still more blue flowers, which looked similar if not identical to the ones from the day before, and one of the PR women said she didn’t think the flowers were bluebells, but Will should know.

There are two PR ladies on this trip, Ellen and Ruth, both petite, pretty blonde women, both cheerful souls with appropriate raingear, and neither of them thought we should go ahead with our proposed boat trip across the lakes to the Gap of Dunloe. Neither did Will or any of the other writers except me.

It was, admittedly, undeniably, inevitably, raining. And the boats had no coverings.. A., the only male writer on the trip, said he had “done the lake twice” before, didn’t want to go.  And D. who is quite sick, definitely could not go. And so our leaders, Ellen and Ruth, turned back from the boats and started herding us towards the coach again, saying, “No, no, no,” but I refused to turn back and kept walking towards the boat saying, “Who says no? The boat man?” because the boat man – an old man in green overalls and a cloth cap – was sitting in his boat, and with him were about four people who obviously were NOT boatmen but tourists like us wanting to go across the lake.

“No, we’re saying it,” Ellen said. “It’s too cold for an open boat.”

“No it’s not!” I said, with my usual diplomacy and charm. “Can I go? I can meet you all at the other side of the lake?  Because he’s going anyway, and I’ve never done this before.”

Kimberly, my new friend from the night before, looked undecided. Earlier she’d said she’d go with the flow. Ellen reconsidered, and said, “I’ll go with you.”

Just like Jesus, or maybe it was Judas, I asked her three times if she wanted me to go alone. She didn’t have to come in the boat, I told her. I was perfectly fine to go by myself and meet everyone later. I didn’t need her to come. Three times, she said she’d go with me. And then, suddenly and bravely, Kimberly and Barbara came too.

I clambered in first, hauling myself over the edge of the long red boat – like a very long rowboat, big enough to hold about 12 passengers on six little rows of seats – with no assistance from the boatman, who was standing in the middle of the boat watching me, silent and still. Ellen followed and the two of us sat at the bow, backs to the front of the boat, facing in. Kim and Barbara followed, and quickly pulled up a tarp from the bottom of the boat to put over our knees. The dull red tarp was filthy, and wet, but my legs were warmer beneath it than without it, so I gratefully kept myself under it as much as I could, which was not much. “This is going to be great,” I said as we set off. “Look, the sun is coming out already.”

“It’s an hour and ten minutes,” Ellen said. “We’re going to get wet.”

“I thought it was twenty minutes!” Kimberly said. She pulled her collar up over the back of her hat. “Didn’t someone say it was twenty minutes?”

“Are we heading towards the ocean? Are we in a bay, or is it the mouth of the river?” I asked. The water was thick and mercury colored, like a tarnished mirror in a sunless room. Ellen wasn’t sure.

“Well, is it fresh or salt water?” I asked, thinking that would clear up where we were. “Or briny?”

Kim looked over the side of the boat at the chop a few feet down. “Only one way to find out,” she said.

At the stern, the boatman was talking to the other four passengers, but the wind took away his words.

“Can you speak a little louder?” I shouted to him, across about 20 feet of boat.

Ellen shook her head. “He can’t hear you.”

“I thought this was going to be a twenty-minute trip,” Kimberly said again. She was the thinnest of the four of us and  thus the most prone to hypothermia. Earlier in the day she’d  been saying how she hated to be cold. I was reminded of my sister Valerie, who turned blue when Nic and I took her snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef – in Australia, in summer. Here in the North Atlantic in a cold spring, Kimberly’s hands and legs were hidden beneath the tarp, but her shoulders were shaking..

“Too late now,” someone said, but then and a wave broke over the bow and over Ellen and me and Kimberly and Brenda, interrupting the conversation, as did Ellen’s scream.

We were wet but still seated. “Well, it’s fresh,” Kimberly said, licking her lips.

A few more waves crashed on board, and the two women across from me pulled the tarp up to cover their faces, hiding from the wind and rain. As they did, several gallons of rain and lake water  that had collected on top pf the tarp drained down my left leg and into my shoe.

“My ass is wet,” Ellen said.

“My foot is wet,” I said.

“My whole right side…” Kimberly said. “Are you just kidding about the hour and ten minutes?”

Barbara, who as far as I could see was drenched, didn’t say anything. She was raised in extreme northern Ontario, in a remote mining area, by polar bears.

But the scenery, as I kept maddeningly pointing out to my dripping boat mates, was fantastic. I said inept and annoying things like, “Wow,” and “How beautiful,” and “Just amazing.” I know I used the word “fairyland” at least twice. This is what it looked like, in part:

The very choppy, mercury-gray water flipping up triangular waves to knock against and break against the boat. A thousand meters away, dry-looking, rocky points of land or little islands, one of which contained the ruins of a monastery from the 6th century.

“I can’t imagine what possessed them,” Ellen said. She shuddered, or maybe shivered, as she looked at the wet gray ruined ruins. “They must have been mad. It was hard enough for normal people to get a living. But on that rock – they couldn’t have any animals, and they couldn’t grow anything except a few herbs…”

“They could fish,” I pointed out. I was thinking it sounded like a nice existence, at least for a writer. I bet those early monastic scribes were very happy in their 6th-century life on the remote island and would feel very sorry for us 21st century writers with too much food and not enough God and no peace.

Ellen looked dubiously at the sharp brown cliffs over the rough water. “Fish…” she said faintly. “They might fish. But they’d be dependent on puffins, and seagulls…and religion. Mad. My ass is soaked through.”

So this is how the scenery looked: a chop of silver-gray water, thick and hard with points of waves on it, occasionally sharpened by little wet flames of sunlight, when the damp and soft-edged sun appeared in a hole in the clouds. Above the waterline, the islands and banks were rocky, gray and strangely dry-looking. Above them rose dull brown cliffs, with little vegetation, no houses, no visible animals, no livable-looking habitat. On the bank of the mainland, on my right, the earth held millions of trees of different shades of green, but the islands had none. Above the brown stretches of hillside was pale blue, thickly clouded sky.

I named and studied the colors, trying to memorize the shades for my painter and interior designer friend, Miho: dark gray, gray-brown, rust-brown, pale blue, gray green. Who would think such a dull palette could result in such spectacular and soothing scenery? There was no warmth in it except some of the peaty browns.

“Are we almost there?” someone said. Kim and Barbara were not looking at the scenery; they were keeping their heads down, as the rain was driving into their faces if they looked up. I was glad to be sitting with my back to the weather and thought of the Irish blessing about having the wind at your back. My father had given me part of it as I left: “May the road rise up to meet you.” Maybe it was.

Over the chop and the wind, we talked about how great it would be, later, to get in a warm bath, into dry clothing. We speculated about the central heating of our rooms at the Park Hotel, and about the likelihood of our getting Irish coffees on our lunch stop – a barbecue at Lord Brandon’s cottage, at the gap of Dunloe, an outdoor meal which Ellen was sure was going to be moved indoors because of the weather. Ellen apologized for the rain and cursed the young PR woman who’d encouraged her to bring us on this venture. “But it’s great,” I said, gratingly. “I’ve never done this before.”

“Neither have I,” she said, grimly. “And never again.” Later, she amended it to say that in future, she might tentatively plan the boat trip but “call it on the day” dependent on the weather. Well, I didn’t want to draw her attention to the fact that she had called it off, on this day, but someone (I) had talked her back into it. So I told her  that any PR person could take a group of writers to a five-star hotel for lunch. But it took an independent thinker, a brave and hardy soul, I implied, to bring us to a freezing cold lake to be drenched with rain and out of sight of civilization— to show us the real Ireland.

The boat slowly veered towards a marshy bit of island. “Are were there?” Kimberly asked. She was huddled tightly under the tarp and her cheeks and hair were streaming with water sluicing off her cap.

“You know last night, you were saying you had trouble with narrative?” I asked her. “Well, conflict is at the heart of all fiction.”

“We’ll start a fight on the bus,” Ellen offered.

“No, really,” I said. “Those people on the bus are dry but they’ll have nothing to talk about later. We’ll all remember this for ages. If nothing bad happens, there’s no story.”

Barbara – the one from the Arctic Circle – nodded as well as her frozen muscles would allow. “It’s true, Gillian. We will remember this a long time.”

The boat was nosing into some grasses. There was nothing man-made in sight except for an ancient stone bridge, apparently the same vintage and structural stability as the monastery. I wondered if we were going to have to go rock-climbing to get to our barbecue lunch.

“That’s an unapproved road,” Ellen said. “Don’t write this down. I took a car there once – you’re not supposed to; the road crumbles away under you as you drive. It’s very dangerous. The views were incredible.”

The boatman gesticulated and yelled silently from his end of the boat. Somehow, we realized we were supposed to get out, and somehow, we did. The other passengers said that the boatman was going to shoot the rapids under the bridge, and pick us up on the other side. I was jealous: I wanted to go white-water rafting in the 30-foot rowboat with the old man. “Shall I get back in?” I offered.

He shook his head wetly and vehemently. I got out and joined my friends walking down the stony, slippery path to the bridge. Every time I put my left foot down, water sloshed out the top of my shoe, but every time I put my right foot down, it didn’t.

We were traipsing through a kind of glen or small valley, with the river on one side and little fairy villages made of boulders and ivy and lichen-covered trees on the other. Weird fey hillocks appeared for no reason, and I was sure that under them were coffins or corpses or more monastery ruins or castle foundations or more rocks; everywhere there were turns and twisties  of barely visible paths, and all was green and gray and gleaming with rain.

We walked past the old bridge and down further, out of sight of the boatman. We talked longingly of the hot food we might soon be getting, of the hot drinks and hot baths. The boatman did not appear on the water; a few people went back to see where he was, and one man stood atop the bridge and leaned over and shouted. Ellen promised us that after lunch – which might well contain hot whiskey drinks or at least cups of tea, in our barbecue on the beach – we’d be taking “jaunting cars,” i.e. pony traps, up to the top of the gap, and the  traps we’d ride in had roofs, and the jaunting-car drivers carried blankets for the passengers. This was quite exciting, and we discussed at length the relative merits of dirty cold wet woolen or horsehair blankets compared to dirty wet tarpaulins, and the insulating qualities of both. We decided that wet blankets on dry land would be better than a wet tarp on a wet lake.

Everyone else had by then gone back to watch the boat, so Ellen and I followed. Through the bushes, I saw the front of the red boat nose forward, against the current, and then slide back. “He’s been doing that for half an hour,” someone said. “I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

The tiny engine wasn’t strong enough to push the boat upstream through the narrow part of the river flowing through the bridge. We watched, our heads turning right then left as if at a very slow  tennis match, as the boat slowly surged forward a dozen yards, and then was sucked backwards over the boulders.

After a long time, we saw one of the other passengers inside the boat, pushing against the edge of the bridge with a long thin boat-hook. After many, many tries, he succeeded in adding enough forward momentum that the boat passed through the rapids, and the boatman – whom I had not yet heard utter one word – came and picked us up.

There are degrees of coldness and wetness that a person from Florida can understand and relate to, and then there are degrees beyond that that raise primitive fears and long forgotten instinctive reactions. I get tense when I’m cold, and nervous. Kimberly, who lived for many years in St. Petersburg, looked dangerously frigid and could not stop shaking. Barbara sat as close as she could to her, but they were both wearing rain jackets so not much body heat got shared. Ellen, on my side, tried to cuddle up to me, but when she out her arm around my back, she pulled back, newly sodden. “You’re SOAKED!” she said.

“It’s a raincoat,” I said. “Better it than me.”

She didn’t try to get close after that, but just kept herself hands under the tarp as best she could against the flapping of the wind and the breaking white water.

County Kerry barbecue

To our horror, the barbecue was not cancelled. When we reached Lord Brandon’s cottage, a sprawling white house on the side of a cliff, there was an outdoor patio set up with tables, and a  barbecue stove with glowing coals, which we all gathered around and leaned into, trying to dry our clothes and faces and hands and spirits.

Through the steam, Ellen asked Grace, the woman running the outdoor café at St. Brandon’s cottage: “Is there a place we could eat inside?”

Grace shook her wet head. “I’ve got steaks coming out,” she said. “And there’s salads over there, and cold drinks.” We looked at the array of beer and colas, the green salad and tomatoes in festive little bowls.

“Is there a fireplace inside?” Ellen asked.

“Is there a heated room?” I said.

Grace shook her head. “All I’ve got to get dry with is paper towels.”

“Is there anywhere we could go in for a few minutes to warm up?” Ellen asked.

Grace shook her head. “I’ve got baked potatoes coming out, too.”

“Nothing for a vegetarian,” Ellen said. (PR people don’t like writers to miss a meal.)

“There are baked potatoes and salad,” I said. I don’t like people to make a fuss about my not eating meat. “That’ll be great, no worries.”

“I’ve got some vegetable soup in the shop,” Grace said.

“Yes, please!” I said. I’d never been so grateful to have a fuss made over my vegetarianism.

I removed my outermost two layers – my long blue raincoat and a gray velour hoodie – and left them in a sodden heap on a bench as I tried to dry out my sweater. I was ignoring my sodden lower half, as my left side was miserably cold and wet and there was no hope of any warmth or dryness for a long time. I was looking forward to the blankets in the jaunting cars, though.

As we huddled over cooling plates of food in the wind, but out of the rain, Ellen made phone calls to find out where Ruth and the others had ended up. There were a lot of buses involved, a lot of changes of schedule and re-arrangements. I focused on my baked potatoes (not very good, despite my hunger) until I heard Ellen saying something about a taxi.

She wanted to cancel the jaunting cars and get some real, nonjaunting cars, with hard roofs and sides and electric heating instead of blankets. I was disappointed, but I didn’t want to lead my friends into being wetter and more miserable than I already had led them to be.

Just then, the rest of our group arrived.  Ruth, a very pretty woman, looked like an otter with rain dripping from her sleek wet head. She peered over Ellen’s shoulder at her steak, saying, “I hope that’s really, really tasty.” She and the other writers– including the very sick woman who should have been resting in bed or at least lying down in the back of the bus – had descended from the top of the gap via jaunting car, none of them having realized at the outset that it was an hour’s journey and that the rain would be driving directly horizontally into their faces the entire way.

Ellen explained about the taxi she’d summoned, and then looked at me suspiciously. “Do you still want to go in the jaunting car?” I did, especially if I could take an Irish coffee with me. She told the driver to wait for me and then, perhaps out of a sense of PR duty or insane curiosity about this attraction her friend had put her on to for the benefit of visiting journalists, she decided to join me.

I went to get us hot drinks, thinking that with hot coffees and warm blankets, we’d be laughing all the way, ho ho ho ho. The lady behind the counter of the coffee bar was making teas and coffees as fast as physics allowed. I ordered a hot chocolate and an Irish coffee to take away and then, as she spooned cocoa powder and poured shots of whiskey into cups, I said, “Could you make that an Irish chocolate?”

“No,” she said, with unIrish brevity and obvious displeasure. “I can’t.”

Something about her tone suggested that she wanted to say more, and I thought perhaps she thought it a waste of good whiskey to add it to sweet cocoa, and it would be entertaining to hear her say so, so I said, “Can’t or won’t?”

“I can’t,” she said. “I’m not allowed to serve whiskey in any other way besides Irish coffee.”

“Ah,” I said, glimpsing behind her dark eyes many pages of fine-print rules and regulations for the serving of alcoholic beverages in the County of Killarney, or wherever we were. “Is that because Irish coffee’s a food, and you’re not a bar? So you can serve food but not liquor?”

She nodded tiredly. I got the impression that she thought it was a stupid and confounding rule, but being Catholic, she was used to such impositions of authority and would not risk her eternal soul to try to overturn it.

“I see,” I said. I handed her a 10-Euro note for the drinks, and she gave me two covered cups, whispering, “I did it for ye anyway. Don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t!” I said. “Thank you!” and I went jauntily back to the jaunting car.

Our driver was Casey and the horse’s name was Charlie. Charlie was a big black and white cob, wet to the withers, but Casey owned him and assured me that he took good care of him and indeed, the entire way up the mountain, about an hour, didn’t use the whip once except to touch Charlie’s hip as gently as I might nudge a kitten. Charlie responded to clacks and whistles and singing from Casey, and even, when Casey sang a certain Irish ballad, Charlie seemed to step up his own tempo to match the rhythm. I am aware that that last sentence sounds like something in an Enid Blyton story, and I’m sorry, but it is exactly my adult and sober perception that on the three occasions when Charlie began a particular song, the horse changed its pace, and that the latter pace went better with the song.

Charlie pulled us strong and sure up the potholed, rutted pathway of the gap. It was very steep in places and I offered to get out, but neither Casey nor Charlie took me up on the offer, and indeed I don’t think the cob was much bothered by his burden. The strangest thing was when Casey stopped the horse and told him to back up, back up, back up, and Charlie did so, in blinkers, blindly following girders and pushing back the little cart with his sizable rump. We must have backed up about 40 feet, over potholes full of wet muddy rainwater, before Casey stopped and reached down to pick something up off the road. “Someone lost some sunglasses,” he said, and tossed them onto the seat.

I was amazed. Ever since I lived on the beach I have vowed never again to spend money on sunglasses or beach towels, since both items are available free and in great variety and quantity on Anna Maria, every morning after there have been tourists or a storm or both.  But Casey apparently rarely sees sunnies lost in the roadway, and evidently they’re worth enough to inconvenience his favorite horse considerably. I don’t know why he didn’t just have one of us hold the reins while he jumped off and got the glasses, but I was having a hard time understanding his accent and didn’t want to complicate things by bringing up questions of animal welfare ethics.

At the top of the hill, we met the other writers and Will and the other PR lady in a lovely pub with a big red fire. Everyone who came in went straight to the fireplace and stood with their back to it, warming up, until a newer person came in and took their place. Ellen got us hot whiskeys and hot waters with lemon and we all stood around steaming and drank the steaming drinks and survived.

The Park Hotel

The Park Hotel Kenemare made me go and buy a camera. There were only two shops in town that sell cameras, and one of the shops sold only one camera, but it was on sale at 149 Euros marked down from 249 Euros. I looked at its 15X zoom, and then I walked to the other shop, which had two Panasonic Linux (not Lexus!) cameras, one of which had a 5x zoom for 99 Euros and one of which had a 8x intelligent zoom for $139 Euros, none of which made any sense to me. The two salesmen in there, amazingly, seemed to know even less than I did about buying cameras, and could only read to me the information on the boxes in front of my nose: 16 megapixels vs. 12 megapixels.

I wished Nicole were there. She’d have told me in seconds which was the best buy, and why, and if I’d dithered she’d have bought one for herself and sold it to me later. After a lot of wondering, I returned to the first shop and bought the one with the big zoom, hoping I’d made the right choice. As soon as I can work out how to use it, I’ll start sending photos with these blogs.

I would love to send a photo of this room, which is one of the nicest (superlatives be damned) I’ve ever had (in my whole life, damn it). 216 was a huge semi-divided room, with old grand wooden canopied bed curtained with dull gold and dull pink drapes, and a beautiful sitting area with an antique writing desk (where I am sitting with my laptop on the green leather) and lots of big dark glossy furniture. At my right, the green-velvet-curtained window opens to a swath of green grass and gardens to a lake. I would like to stay here for the rest of the press trip, if not the rest of my life.

Dulling the senses

The spa at this hotel has a motto: “Awaken your senses.” After a day of being freezing cold and windblown, wet-arsed and red-cheeked, I didn’t want my senses awakened any  further. I wanted them dulled to gentle soothing numbness, thank you. But the ads and a desire for warmth led me down a copper-and-dark brown corridor, each step nicely dry and dryly carpeted, into an urban sleek spa full of harmonious scents and redolent with Enya music.

As usual in such places, the receptionist was a beautiful young woman with large soft eyes and an even softer voice. As usual the changing area was equipped with locally made toiletries, standard luxury, all very nice, and the two saunas, wet and dry, were pleasingly tiled in off-white little tiles with occasional tasteful touches of red or black or green, and though lying down in  the dry sauna wasn’t “just like lying on the beach” as the soft-spoken receptionist had said it would be, it was very pleasant, and after I sat for a few minutes in the wet steamy eucalyptus-lavender-oil misty wet spa my bottom was warm for the first time in many hours.

And then there was crushed ice to rub on my hot skin, and then a shower with three degrees of intensity, marked from “Irish Spring” to “Tropical Rainfall” to “Monsoon,” and all of that was charming and pleasant and standard five-star kind of thing, all lovely and great but all pretty much on a par with other spas I’ve enjoyed and then I saw the hot tub.

Wow. The tub was in fact an outdoor heated pool the size of a small bedroom, perched on the outer edge of the building, overhanging the hill, and surrounded on three sides and on top with glass, with one open face towards the lake. I had to myself the whole big tub, which was warm, not too hot, and I lay on my back and floated, looking up at the pale blue-gray sky and the pelting blue-gray rain, and I felt very futuristic, somehow, in all that glass and metal and clean air, and at the same time I felt a kind of animistic Druidic sense of occasion – a sort of solstice, a celebration of warmth after an endless period of coldness.

In the park, which is to say in the space around me on three sides, the wind was blowing the neon-green leaves off the laden branches, and the new branches of buds and baby leaves waved like football crowds. The treetops reflected, gray and green, on the surface of the clear water of the pool, and the shadows of the reflections blended with the mottled green-blue and black-brown marble of the bottom.

Face up,. I floated suspended, warm and wet and with a dry warm face, between cool fresh wind and warm clear water, between rain on roof and water beneath me, between indoors and outdoors, between the gap of Dunloe and the Park Hotel of Kenemare. I looked out at the soft gray sky and the green trees and fresh clear transparent air moving the tree limbs around, and I felt very human in a strange, futuristic, beautiful space that was new to me.

And then I got a massage! It started with a footbath and foot massage while I sipped hot ginger-lemon-honey tea made from fresh ingredients that very morning by the beautiful woman doing my massage, Louise, and  then she gave me one of the best most superlative massages of my whole entire life, and wow, it was indescribable, and then after my massage, once I could rouse myself to move again, I was told to relax in the relaxation area, another large quiet glass room surrounded by green and gray nature. Again I had it all to myself, only this time I was reclining on soft dark brown pillows in a heated robe, drinking hot ginger tea and eating lime sorbet from a silver bowl.

Ravens flapped against the wind through the sunlit evening, calling across the quicksilver water. Firs and deciduous trees swung their branches, baby spring rabbits grazed on green green grass, ivy climbed across ancient crumbling stone walls, and azaleas and camellias blazed in full hot bloom. Some pink red-hot-poker type of flower stood up from the grass where the rabbits bounced and played, and around the hills the light lit up the white, twisted trunks of old silver birches, and sometimes the soft-edged sun sifted through the soft, thick gray clouds, and all the time, all the old trees leaned slightly in the same leeward direction.

On my left, the huge gray-stone building of the hotel rose, massive and reassuring as religion, solid and dry under a slate-blue slate roof, and in it was my canopied bed with warm covers and serenity. Wow, I thought. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I thought. Have I died and gone to Heaven?

“It seems like a big ask,” I said to Nic.  I was worried about our planned date. On Monday, Nic would be returning to Australia after a six-month stay here in Florida. Sunday night, she had planned a great last date for us. She was taking me out to dinner plus a special event: releasing a bat that has been in the wildlife sanctuary where Nic has been a volunteer for six months.

“What does?” she said.

“The bat. It’s been in that little box for, what, two months? And now it’s supposed to make its way in the world? It’s been hand fed grubs and now it has to find someplace to live with a colony it doesn’t know, and fend for itself.”

“That sounds just like me!” Nic said.  She is going home to Melbourne with no job and no place to live: she’ll be sleeping in the extra rooms of friends or family for a few weeks, trying to find her place…so in that sense, yes, I could see why she empathized with the bat and the big ask. On the other hand, she hasn’t been kept in a box here, and she’s stretched her wings plenty. Also, she’s a large and intelligent mammal who can speak the language fluently and already has friends waiting for her.

I was more worried about the bat, which hadn’t so much as stretched its wings out for weeks.  According to Gail, who runs the wildlife sanctuary, it did get out of its cage once and fly around the room in the sanctuary, but for all I knew its muscles might have atrophied since then. It’s a tiny bat, not much more than a baby,  its body about 3 inches long at most, plus a tail of about 2 inches, and its head the size of thimble – plus big ears.  It’s very dark brown, though not black. At the wildlife sanctuary it lived  in a plastic box inside an incubator. The box was big enough for the bat to crawl around and try to clamber up the sides, but not big enough for flight.

After an early dinner by the water, we went back to the sanctuary, and Nic brought the bat in its box to my car. Nic drove, and I asked her to roll the windows up and not talk loudly. “The bat has very sensitive hearing,” I reminded her. As we drove, the bat moved around its box as if eager to get out. Again and again it tried to climb up the plastic sides, but found nothing to hang onto, and slipped back down into the folds of a thick cotton cloth.

We were taking the bat to a bridge over a river nearby where bats were known to hang out, and we would arrive there at dusk. The plan was for the bat to hear its friends-to-be squeaking under the bridge and join them.

About 7.45, just after sunset but with plenty of light still in sky, we got to the park, which is in the middle of an upscale residential area. The waterway is popular with manatees and small boat owners.  The river goes out to the bay there, under a bridge, and the sides of the park slope down towards the water, which is deep and black. I carried the box to a grassy spot, trying not to attract any attention from the few people left around. There were lots of bird noises and a few black crows and white seagulls heading home to their safe places for the night. There were also a lot of cars going over the bridge, which seemed disproportionately loud. The bat, which had been crawling disconsolately around its cloth bedding, hid for a while in a fold of the cloth. It stayed still for quite a while, maybe listening.

Nic and I made out  many different birdcalls, and some other high noises that might have been bats, and might have been insects or other birds. At one point the bat grew as animated as a bat in a box can be – it came out from a fold in the cloth and stretched out one large flat wing. Then it groomed itself a bit, then crawled towards the far side of the box and up the side. It stretched the other wing.

Nic went to look for other bats, trying to spot the colony whence the bats would depart at dusk. She went to the far side of the bridge, by the bay, and then walked back to another bridge a few hundred yards inland.  I sat there watching the bat and watching the sky get darker. The green grass and trees turned to gray-green and then gray. Nic came back reporting no bats. But just as she did, I saw something swoop under the bridge: it was time.

We’d been warned not to let the bat fly out over the water, in case its first flight wasn’t successful. So we carried the box across the bridge to a set of big banyan trees a dozen yards from the water. After we got there, on a bit of land that was between the banyans (on someone’s lawn) and the river, we saw more bats swooping out from under the bridge.

Nic held the camera and I opened the lid of the box. The bat did nothing. After months of trying to escape by climbing up the sides of the box, once the lid was removed the bat seemed to want to go to sleep. The woman who ran the wildlife center had said if the bat didn’t fly off, we could bring it back, but she said usually she just released bats by leaving them in a tree. I wasn’t sure about this – she doesn’t seem to have any evidence that the bats so released ever fly again.

After a few minutes, we lifted the cloth and bat out together, and set them on the grass, at which point that bat took off like a bat out of hell. It stretched its wings a bit but  didn’t fly … it refolded its wings and crawled, at a rapid pace, directly towards the banyan trees. The grass was deep and dark, but we saw the tall grasses moving and so watched the bat’s progress, faster than I’d expected, towards the big trees. It seemed intent on getting there – perhaps there were other bats in the trees and it could hear them, or perhaps the bat was just hastening in the opposite direction from us and the box. It moved as fast as a cat walking, and it was heading directly towards the iron fence. We watched with some alarm, because If it got beyond the fence we would not be able to get it back. I’d told Gail that we’d bring it back if it didn’t seem able to fly. But neither of us wanted to return the bat to the box.

“Well, maybe we should pick it up,” I said.

“Maybe,” Nic said.

As we stood there mumbling and watching the movements in the long, swishing grass, the bat trundled through the railings and onto the private land. Once there, the grass thinned out, and the bat  emerged from the underbrush and took a few trial hops, maybe a foot or so each, in the manner perhaps of the few flight of the Wright brothers’ Flyer at Kitty Hawk, but also in the manner of a creature that can no longer fly properly.  Then it continued crawling. We couldn’t see it anymore but we heard it. We stood listening for a long time, and the noises grew less distinct. There were about five huge trees with long roots hanging down and many dead leaves rustling, but in between the other rustles, every now and then we seemed to hear sounds like a bat crawling.

After a while I moved to another vantage point, and there I saw a creature with a tail  up in the branches of the tree. I saw something stretch a wing out on the ledge by the water. Nic heard bat-crawling noises at the base of the tree.

Well, I was disappointed. It would have been much more satisfying if the bat had swooped up and take a victory lap around our heads, then flown off into the sunset. Maybe in parting it could have given a slight tilt of the wings to acknowledge its appreciation for all Nic and the wildlife sanctuary and I had done  to save and rehabilitate it and give it its freedom. Instead, we stood in the increasing darkness staring through some iron railings and wondering if the rustles we heard were a good sign.

We went back to the car, and drove home. Nic is leaving tomorrow, and I don’t know how she’ll be.

On my way to Oz recently, I had a long layover in LA, during which I stayed at my friend Vicky’s house in Sherman Oaks. I met Vicky at a Sun magazine retreat about 7 years ago and we’ve seemed like lifetime friends ever since.

It was fitting with our Sun-born friendship that on the very day of my visit there would be, she told me, an annular eclipse – a rare event in which the moon passes across the face of the sun, creating a “ring of fire” effect. It would be late afternoon, peaking (or ringing) around the time I’d be waiting on her front step for my airport shuttle. But, she warned me in her best school-psychologist tone, “The only way to see it is not to look at it.”  She said we must  improvise a “viewer,” possibly  from cardboard and paper.

“We could use film,” I said, thinking back to my last eclipse-viewing, ca. 1979 in Florida, when the more scientifically minded of my classmates created little pinhole boxes that worked like cameras to project the light of the sun (of, actually, the absence thereof, in the form of the moon’s shadow) onto a safe viewing area. Other Floridians, we read in the paper, were viewing the phenomenon through used film strips, the brown, sharp-edged negatives that used to be returned when one had one’s photos quaintly “developed” at a “lab.”

Of course Vicky and I didn’t have time that Sunday to look up a website and figure out how to make a viewing device before it was time for the eclipse. We were busy talking, drinking, talking, eating, walking and talking and then packing in a flurry for my flight. I barely had time to call my sister on the East Coast and advise her of the “annular” eclipse.  She had been having cocktails with her neighbor and my mother and they were all a little tipsy.

“A lunar eclipse?” she said, both to me and to her neighbor, Betty, and other assembled guests. “How exciting!”

“No, not lunar, annular,” I said. “It means ‘ring of fire.’ It’s visible here; you’ll have to Google it to see if you can see it there.”

“There’s a lunar eclipse this afternoon!” she sang out to her friends, implausibly.

“No, there isn’t!” I shrieked. “It’s annular. It’s a ring of the sun showing around the moon!”

“An eclipse of the moon?” she asked me. There was a lot of noise in the background, and some static on the line.

“No, the sun! Look it up,” I said. “Google it, or ask Paul.”  Paul, my brother-in-law, tends to know about scientific phenomenon, having been a state park superintendant for most of his life.

“TellFrank and Paul there’s an annual eclipse!” she sang out, incorrectly.

“It’s once every 120 years,” I said. “Annular, not annual.”

“Well, I don’t know what that is,” she said, slightly annoyed. But she was excited about seeing it, whatever it was, and hung up torun find Paul.

Back in California, we toddled outdoors with my suitcase about 5 pm, Vicky carrying a piece of typing paper and a chunk of cardboard with a pencil-sized aperture.

The air was brownish gray and soft, as if it were dusk, and lots of neighbors were out on their own stoops, peering up at the sun between two high buildings. “Oh, wow, it’s really happening!” I said.

“Don’t look at it!” Vicky proffered the two pieces of paper. “If you look directly at it you’ll go blind.” Vicky is Scottish, and her premonitions of doom have a serious Celtic ring of firey authenticity to them.

“But it’s not bright right now,” I protested. “The moon is over it, see?”

“DON’T LOOK!”  She handed me the cardboard-plus-paper like someone giving a prescription drug to a dying person.

I hummed a few bars from the Manford Man song: “Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun; but, Mama, that’s where the fun is!” and we argued briefly about who’d written those lyrics. We agreed that Vicky’s boyfriend, Bruce Springsteen, had done a brilliant job with recording it.

I turned my back on the sun as directed by my hostess, and noted that there was a brilliant and interesting reflection in the window of an apartment nearby. “Can we look at it that way?” I asked.

“Not unless you want to go blind!”

I held up the cardboard and let the sun shine through it onto the paper. There was no result at all of my doing so, as the hole was large enough to allow a full beam of light in, with no lens-creation effect at all. “This is not a pinhole,” I complained. “This is supposed to be a hole made by a pin, not a pencil.”

One of the people standing near us overheard, and said, “A pen-hole? Do you have a pen?”

I didn’t (some writer I am), but he did, it turned out, and I pushed it through the thick cardboard in order to make a smaller,  more lens-like aperture.  Then, with a certain amount of angling of papers and imagination, it was possible to see a vague, half-moon-shaped shadow palely displayed on the paper.  It was hardly the “ring of fire” I’d been hoping for, but it was nonetheless evidence of an astronomical occurrence in progress, and I showed it to Vicky with pride.

She didn’t see it. When I looked again, I didn’t see it, either.

The neighbors, who were squinting at the sun through their eyelashes and not going blind, said they could see something, but they didn’t seem impressed. People in LA have pretty exciting lives and a once-in-120 year event is no biggie.

I gave the neighbor his pen back, and Vicky and I sat and waited for my shuttle, and talked some more, updating and deepening the long and ongoing exchanges that make up our friendship.  In the 18 or so hours I’d spent in LA, we’d caught up on our current views and experiences of The Sun, love, sex, families, her work at school, my writing, and weight-loss strategies that were working for us both. Mama, that’s where the fun was.