Saturday, September 27, 2014

Peace Like a River

I noticed on Facebook that a few people had posted a list of the top ten most influential books they had read.  A few of these listed the book Peace like a River by Leif Enger.  And those who identified this book are people with whom I share similar sensibilities.

I'd never heard of it.  I saw it was published in 2001, a time when I was not--as I recall it--living under a rock.  I bought the book from Amazon and when the paperback arrived I noticed that the first pages were filled with beautiful words of support and praise for the novel.

The story is told from the perspective of a boy in North Dakota who has a sweet precocious sister a few years older, and a several years older brother.  Their dad is a single parent who had a revelation while studying to be a doctor. The revelation was such that he quit studying to be a doctor and became a janitor. At that point his wife fled to Minneapolis.  All this is background.  Then something happens which causes the older brother to escape and the rest of the remaining family to try and find him.

Much of this book refers to the power of a superior being and the value of praying to that superior being.  The father prays a good deal after his epiphany which had him leave the world of medicine. Very early in the book we read of another event that seems miraculous and a result of some super being's hand.

The story is engaging in parts.  Reuben is the boy narrator and he can turn a phrase. His sister Swede is nothing short of delicious and the Dad, a wonderful man, and endearing.  This said the book did not do it for me in the same way it did it for others.

I imagine the story is meant to be fantastic (in the sense of a fantasy) and not literal.  Still too many parts of the plot don't fit and one character's whereabouts at the end ought to be a matter of concern and does not seem to be.  Swede, Reuben, and Davy (the older brother) do not appear to be as bruised by their mother's fleeing as you would think they would be (though there is a reference to such bruising).  The mother, despite some serious ongoings with her children, does not factor into the events.   The story is set in 1962 and there appears to be a lot of wild west in it, even for North Dakota. Lots of folks on horseback and very remote towns. The remote towns would make sense in this part of the country, but not sure the absence of modernity.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was 1962.  John Glenn had already orbited the earth.

And then there is the suggestion throughout that a super being had a hand in the events, not so much predestination, but a responsiveness to prayer. I think this is dangerous stuff. I think we pray, if we do, to help ourselves feel whole and conduct ourselves respectful of the others in our universe--with sensitivity and love.  I don't think we pray to get us out of a jam or even help us see the light to a right decision.  By feeling and being centered and sound, which may come from prayer--if one is a prayer--that might help one make decisions.  But suggesting that there is merit in asking the Lord for directions is dangerous stuff. We have to make our own choices when we come to the fork.

I had the book on my desk at work while I was reading it. Two colleagues noticed it during that time and told me what a great book it was.  I liked Peace Like a River, but can't recommend it as effusively.  I had no problem putting it down.  I am glad I read it to get to know Swede, the sister, and to read about rural North Dakota (even if it seemed more like 1862 than 1962).  But the book would not be any where near my top ten list.

Friday, September 26, 2014

To Life

If my parents could weigh in from their graves, they would tell me that they are glad that I am posting this photo.

My mom and dad have both passed in the last 15 months.  Before their deaths they would frequently talk about the importance of life and enjoying time.  From their place wherever they may be, they are urging all--whether you just celebrated a new year or not--to live, enjoy time, and seize the day.

My folks would have also enjoyed hearing about an experience I had in Dublin last week.  I walked onto the campus at Trinity College. It is a beautiful campus, majestic buildings and inviting grounds. The day I arrived happened to be student fair day.  Readers will remember this from when you were in college.  Early in the year, club representatives would sit behind tables urging newcomers to join their organization. So, the chess club, theater people, society for the study of Ayn Rand, French club, groups like that were arranged in a common space. Must have been 50 of them.   I walked past the Christian student club table and it reminded me that I wanted to go to a Friday night Shabbat service while in Ireland. So, I asked the woman behind the table if there was a Jewish student association booth. She said there was and very willingly, started walking with me around the various tables, looking for the table for the Jewish student club.  Before we found it, we ran into the Islamic Student Association.  So she asked there if they had seen the Jewish student table. The Islamic students also said they had seen the table. So now myself, the Christian student rep, and two Islamic students went looking for the Jewish student table. And we found it.  And there we stood, all three major religious groups smiling. The Jewish student behind the table thanking the Christian and Islamic students for steering me in the right direction. The Islamic students and the Christian student saying, no problem, as they smiled and went back to their booth.  My parents would have liked that story.

They would also be happy that I am wishing all who read this a good shabbas, and encouraging all to celebrate life.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

GAA Irish football

If you start out in Boston and fly 3,000 miles or so west, you find yourself in San Francisco or thereabouts.  If you fly east and north for 3,000 miles you find yourself in Ireland.  So, now explain this?

When I was in Dublin recently I delivered a paper at a Sports History conference. The paper was based on the Madness of March book I wrote a few years back.  I made the case at the conference, as I hope I have in the book, that those who travel to Las Vegas to bet on the games are not inveterate gamblers, but rather fans who congregate that weekend like those who attend the annual meeting of any group with common affections.

The people who attended the Sport History conference were all knowledgeable about sport-especially as the conference name indicates- sport history.  Yet, a question after my presentation by one fellow was shared by the others in the room. He/they wanted to know if I had coined the term March Madness for the purposes of explaining the fandom.  I was surprised by the inquiry and when I told them, that no, of course, I had not coined the term; it is used throughout the country at that time of year by everyone from sports broadcasters to advertisers peddling products with their March Madness sales, the audience members were surprised.

I know a fair bit about sports. Dad was a big fan and I honestly came to be similarly interested and, more than the average bear, knowledgeable.  As I wrote in an earlier blog, when I had been briefed by the cabdriver from the airport about the GAA football championship that was occurring, coincidentally, the same weekend of my visit, I discovered that football in Ireland was not soccer as I assumed.  It was a game that was completely alien to me.  I have since seen snippets on the television when I was still in Dublin.  I had never seen a clip before.

Fly to San Francisco and mention March Madness to anyone not under a rock and they at least have a passing knowledge about it. Fly the same distance northeast, speak to those who are scholars of sport, mention March Madness, and these aficionados think you made up the phrase.

Not a person in Dublin that I ran into did not know that this past weekend was the time of the GAA football championship. It would be like someone during the first weekend in February not knowing at least what the super bowl was.  Yet, I who have followed sport since my dad took me to the Polo Grounds when I was maybe 4, had never heard of the game let alone the schedule for the championship.

Sit on the subway in Boston and you might come across some teens carting their football gear to a practice site, or a lacrosse stick, or some sport apparatus.  As I sat on the 16 bus going from city center Dublin out to my hotel on Swords Road, I noticed three young men hauling what, in other countries, would have seemed like weapons. They were sticks shorter than hockey sticks, with a base like a hockey stick but fatter. These kids were obviously coming from some practice.  I knew from a conversation I had had previously with a cab driver that the sticks were for a game called hurling.

Hurling is not Curling, a game with which I have a passing acquaintance.  I asked one of the fellows with the sticks to explain the game to me.  He did. It was intriguing to me but more significantly, I had never heard of such a game before.  (The explanation was so engaging that I missed my bus stop. It was a double decker bus so when I thought I'd missed the stop, I moved as fast as I could down the spiral staircase and approached the driver.  "Did I miss the Swords Road stop" I asked.  His deadpan response was worth the 3/4 mile walk back I had to take. "You did, indeed." said the proper Irishman driver without taking his eye away from the windshield).

Irish football and Hurling are the two major sports in Ireland.  Sports knowledgeable people in the United States, never heard of them.  Sports knowledgeable people in Ireland had never heard of March Madness.

The championship game was between Donegal Creameries and the Kerry Group.  My hotel was jammed with the Donegal Creameries faithful.  I would have liked to have seen the game, but it took place during the first hour of my flight back to Boston.  During the flight, the pilot got on the speaker to inform all that Kerry had defeated Donegal. I could not catch the score because before he uttered it, as soon as he announced the victors, there was a loud roar on the plane from those who followed Kerry.

When I got back home I picked up the Sunday Boston Globe to see if there was a single mention of, what would have been at the time of printing, the upcoming GAA championship game. Not a word. Then on Monday I looked to see if there was a column or even a listing for the championship in the scoreboard section of the Globe.  Alas, no reference whatsoever.

Go figure, same distance as San Francisco. I can find out the nuances of the successes of the San Francisco Giants, 49ers and Golden State Warriors and know much about them without even having to resort to Google.

For fun, if you are a fan of sport, go to youtube and see if you can catch some snippets of an Irish football game. Very fast moving game.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Danny Boy

The scene downstairs in what was a sleepy tavern last night is something for central casting. It is 125am local time.  I got into watching a movie from 10-1230 in my room and was considering going to sleep, but I figured I would just go downstairs and have a pint on this my last day in Dublin.

Well, let me tell you, nothing sleepy about the hotel pub tonight.  The place was jammed in the way taverns become when you have to try and make yourself thin to negotiate the narrow pathways.  Tomorrow there is a football match that is the equivalent of the super bowl held not far from here. And the singing, boisterous, not shy about drinking regardless of how old you are, group are preparing for the day tomorrow.

In my experience crowded taverns are populated by young people, say 20 to 30 year olds with maybe a sprinkling of 40 or 50 year old folks.  The average age downstairs was between 50 and 60 with several feeling no pain having passed 60 years ago. And this was a family affair.  Husbands and wives, their childen--in their 30s-- were crooning with the singer, and to be sure, well on the other side of sober.  I could just imagine my dad taking me to a place like this. Not.

Yet this is not to disparage the revelers. They all seemed to be having a grand time. When the guitar player banged out Danny Boy, good lord, it was a Hollywood scene. The patrons got up, put their arms around each other, and started swaying from side to side, belting out the lyrics, drowning out the miked entertainer.

The guitar player took a break at 1, and this is way past my bedtime, so I went up to my room. But there was no shortage of clients who remained to challenge the sweating barkeepers.

I'm looking forward to seeing some of the singers tomorrow morning to assess how well they weathered the party.  People fifteen years my senior were banging them back and wobbling around the tavern.  The quaffers' abilities to negotiate the terrain tomorrow ought to reveal skill and perhaps there should be some sort of competition to determine who is most mobile at 9 am.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


I arrived in Dublin an hour ago after a trip from Boston which was about as long as a non stop flight to Las Vegas. Packed plane.

The cab driver from the airport told me something I had already known, sort of.  I had been told by the coordinator of the conference I'll be attending that rooms would be difficult to secure this weekend as Sunday, coincidentally, is the date of the football championship here in Dublin.

When I read the notice about the championship, I assumed that football meant a soccer match.  It was on this point that the taxi driver provided an education.  I asked him about the major sports in Ireland and he told me about the championship game of which, as I mention, I was familiar.  When I said, "by football, you mean soccer?" the fellow disabused me and then provided an engaging description of Irish football.

Now, after the tutorial, I still know next to nothing, but I do know the game is played fifteen on a side for 90 minutes.  The players advance the ball by running and kicking the ball. One cannot take more than three steps without kicking the ball or else the team with possession must relinquish possession.  A team gets three points by kicking the ball under a goalpost and one point for kicking it above the goalpost. The former is more difficult because a goal tender polices the under the goal post section.

The cab driver told me that I was in for a treat this weekend as followers from all over the country will be descending on Dublin for the match which happens to be played very close to my hotel.  I sit now in the lobby of this hotel, half asleep, since I have never got the hang of sleeping on red eye flights, and my room of course is not ready at 9 a.m.  I am tempted, if I can find the energy, to travel to the stadium where the match is to be played just to see the field.   I also look forward to meeting the fans who, if the cabby is correct, are likely to populate this hotel and others. I will imagine that they may be a rowdy group.  As I look about this lobby, the fans have not yet arrived. This place looks like a sleepy zone with other overseas travellers hanging out waiting for a room in which they may get their zs.  Nobody here and now looks like they could run three steps unencumbered, let alone progress toward a goal while athletic defenders attempt to block the path.

Twenty five euros from the airport, a distance of about 10 miles tops.  I gave him 30 not knowing protocol, he took the bills without offering change.  Thirty euros is equivalent to 45 dollars about what it costs to cab from Times Square in Manhattan to LaGuardia.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Urban Atrocity

There are several stories about companies who sold their products in ways that were incomprehensible.

A sneaker company decided to call a brand of shoe "the incubus."  This shoe was a woman's sneaker. Nobody, apparently, decided to look up what the word incubus meant.  They just thought it sounded right. An incubus is a devilish spirit that has unsolicited sexual relations with women as they are sleeping during the night.  It is not a common word, but it is a word, and it has a meaning, and the meaning is such that if you are a woman you are unlikely to want to wear a shoe named after a devil who rapes.

An automobile company could not understand why their vehicle was not selling in Spanish speaking countries the same way it had been selling in other locations.  The name for the car was a nova.  This was a problematic name for a vehicle because in Spanish, no va, means "it doesn't go."  Unlikely that one would want to buy a car that advertises itself as one that is not mobile.

A paint company had a similar problem with Spanish speaking countries and one of its slogans.  The slogan was "[the paint product] for years".  The intended message was that if you used this paint it was durable and one would not have to repaint as frequently. The problem was that when printed, the advertised slogan left off the ~ in años, and instead of "[the paint product] for años", wrote [the paint product] for anos".  Años means years in Spanish; anos means anus, if you don't want to employ the street term for that part of the anatomy.

Anos may be the operative word for something I heard about last night.  As opposed to the examples identified above which were born of ignorance, this example was fueled by what can only be called an amalgam of idiocy and insensitivity.  I read that Urban Outfitters had produced a Kent State sweatshirt for sale.  In what I am sure some fool thought was "thinking out of the box" and "pushing the envelope" the product had blood stains on it, in order to ha, ha, ho, ho. refer to the killings at Kent State University in 1970, when for no good reason, four students were murdered, another was paralyzed, and several others were shot.  These shootings were called by a commission that studied the murders, "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."  Jeffrey Miller, Alison Krause, Sandy Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder were murdered in a parking lot that day.  So, let's peddle, ha, ha, ho, ho, a sweatshirt with Kent State on it and blood stains.  Anos.