Delighted to see my short story, “The Poetry Monster”, published in Defenestration Magazine!
Delighted to see my short story, “The Poetry Monster”, published in Defenestration Magazine!
So you’ve got a problem. You’re irritable. You’re sitting on a rubber ring. And your body has decided to turn your posterior into a vineyard of sorts. Yes, you are suffering from the scourge of the 21st century: hemorrhoids.
But how do you treat them? You have a number of options. Many will, of course, reach for “Preparation H” – imbued, is its name suggests, with the careful consideration of a skilled chemist, preparing his preparations. Or, indeed, you may simply not care about the chemist and want something that promises exactly what you want. In this case, the brand “Hemorrhoidal Ointment” will be your choice – a brand that dispenses with the frills and gets you to your destination like a Ryanair plane. But what if you don’t have the patience to let an ointment do its thing? What if you need relief now. What if today is the day the grapes have ripened and become wrathful? Well then – you need “Hemorid” – a brand name that, it seems, will ‘rid’ you of your problem.
The thing is – all of these products contain the same medication – phenylephrine – yet the three of them try to tell different stories to appeal to different people.
Sometimes people will get used to a brand name for a drug and, when a cheaper, generic version comes on the market, they may not buy it – even though it does exactly the same thing. In many cases, the only difference is the colour of the box.
Have you ever heard of sildenafil? It is the actual name of the active medicine in Viagra. Clearly, the marketing people over at Pfizer came up with a brand name to tell a story by mashing words like Vitality, Angry, Virile … and so on. The other drug that uses sildenafil as its active ingredient is Revatio – which, despite doing the same thing, is trying to appeal to those who have more of a paternal relationship with, well, themselves.
And so it dawned on me: is there a space for this generic alternative within the world of writing?
The idea is simple – take a known piece of writing that conveys something definite – and then try to use vaguely similar words and concepts to change the story a little – but still sell the basic underlying ‘active’.
For no other reason than I happen to like the poem, I have decided to look at Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’ to see if there is a generic alternative that one could use to deliver the same message – without, of course, the essence of Heaney himself.
For the uninitiated, here is the first few lines of the Heaney Poem:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pin rest; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:water
My father, digging.
What is the essence of this poem? To me, the message is about someone pondering their place in the world – recognising that there is a talent or an interest that is perhaps not in keeping with what tradition might have expected – but one that the writer clearly wants to identify with. When trying to think of a vehicle for this – I thought about ‘vehicles’ themselves. There is nothing more masculine than washing a car – and so – that will be the theme for my generic Heaney poem.
Heaney uses ‘digging’ as a device of both tradition and masculinity. Thus, we need to find the same.
We will also need to find a title. Some recommend, when naming a generic drug, that virile letters such as ‘B’, ‘X’ or ‘Z’ are used. It is also a good idea to find a word associated with the message – perhaps a Latin word that already suggests what we are looking for.
The Latin for ‘washing’ is ‘ablutio’ – a robust-sounding word that we can almost certainly incorporate into our title. The Roman’s weren’t too big on cars – but they did have chariots. Currus is a triumphal chariot – which is particularly apt given that triumphs were all about symbols of masculinity – including – literally – large fake penises on display beneath the chariot. Seems pretty apt for what we want.
My generic poem is a far cry from something Heaney would have penned. The final piece is to come up with a pen name for the type of person who might have written such a poem. There are a lot of ‘name generators’ going around – find out your ‘superhero’ name, or your ‘vampire’ name, etc. I tried to come up with something similar and, after a few false starts (name of your first pet + favourite soup ended up being Friskey Tomato, for example), I’ve decided on the perfect author name generator: First name of the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for your birthyear + the first word in your favourite dessert.
And so – I reveal to you my first attempt at Generic Writing:
by Isaac Sweetpotato
…And there on my lap
My tablet – resting – cast as a resting rifle.
Outside my window, a swashy bubbling
As the sponge sinks slowly into the soapy water:
My father – washing the car.
According to Wikipedia, I have, at 35, reached something of a milestone. I am about to pass average life expectancy. Granted, the life expectancy to which Wikipedia referred was that of the Medieval Islamic Caliphate – but still. The hill has been crested and momentum is downward.
Naturally enough, like most other 35 year olds, thoughts have turned to retirement planning. Recently, I was asked if I would retire here in Ireland, in the land of my fore-fathers, or in America, the land of my wife’s one-father. It’s not something I had ever really thought about much. Where would I retire? By what criteria would I make my choice? I thought that I’d jot a few down a few ideas to assist me were I to opt to break up with Caitlín Ní Uallacháin and retire to the room over Uncle Sam’s garage.
First things first. The most important consideration for any Irishman – or, indeed, anyone at all, is fairly straight forward and obvious. Automatically eliminate the States with bears.
This map shows the North American distribution of the black bear (in red). For those of you who think it something of an over-reaction to choose based on bears – allow me to explain … The average bear has to spend a lot of time eating meat to insure it consumes enough protein and fat to be in peak hibernating condition. It also has to eat a lot of berries and fruits to ensure that the body works properly and, well, regularly. If bears realised the benefits of an all-geriatric diet, filled as they are with prunes and Ensure, there would be trouble indeed. I would especially be in trouble given how my family tastes to bears (I’m basing this assumption on the levels of gorging undertaken by Wisconsin bears on my son’s soiled Pampers last summer). If a Carabini can taste that good at three years of age, how much better would one taste at ninety-three? Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, California – you’re all out.
The next criterion suggests itself: avoid states with high populations of ticks. The map below shows the national distribution of the Blacklegged Tick:
I’ve spent many an hour over many a summer in the American Midwest trying to tell if I’m looking at a tick or at a particularly hairy freckle. Now imagine trying to do that with failing eyesight and additional crevices. That rules out the entire East Coast and much much of the Deep South.
The first two criteria have really begun to help me to focus in on potential locations. The next thing to consider is temperature. Not too cold in the winter (I’m looking at you, Minnesota) or too hot in the summer.
This map shows temperature averages in the USA. You will see that the hottest places are marked in deep orange. I think this is the cartographer trying to tell me “Orange you glad you don’t live here?” Instantly, all of the US/Mexican border states are discounted. New Mexico is discounted a second time for having a high temperature score of ‘ridiculous’. An average in the 90s? Are you trying to kill me, New Mexico?
The final criteria I need to consider concerns the average cost of living. Where can I make my pension dollar stretch furthest and be able to afford that second angry stick to shake at things?
I had, up to now, been pretty much reduced to Arizona and a small corner of Nebraska. The application of the Cost of Living statistics, however, changes this. Arizona is knocked out of the running as it is, apparently, more expensive than a French Kiss from a hooker with gold teeth.
I return my attention to that one small corner of Nebraska – and a place called Scott’s Bluff County. It’s not excessively hot in the summer. It’s not ridiculously cold in the winter. It’s below the national average for cost of living. It’s the sort of place where a freckle is always a freckle and a mole a mole. And, best of all, there are no marauding gangs of black bears feasting on the sick and infirm.
I google pictures of my future homeland. It returns image after image of geriatric-hungry tornadoes …
Looks like I called your bluff, Scott. Back to the ol’ drawing board… 32 years and counting …
Today, I decided to revisit a carpark that I had visited as a child. Carparks can be surprisingly interesting places. They are, for example, a good place to start looking if you’ve lost an English monarch. They work equally well, as Richard Nixon discovered, as a place to pass on information to bring down a US President.
Unbeknownst to most of the Western world, but long understood in Ireland, however, is the fact that carparks are, apparently, also good places to take children on school trips. While children in more salubrious educational establishments were being taken to zoos with living examples of animals long extinct, kids in my income bracket were being taken to visit government department buildings and their associated grey carparks.
One occasion in particular comes to mind. It was 1985. I was seven years old – but I remember the year vividly. Barry McGuigan and Ronald Reagan had shared the Oscar for best supporting actress in the movie Amadaeus, Bob Geldof discovered the missing wreck of the Titanic, and acid rain had fallen on Gorbachev, permanently ensplotchifying a piece of his forehead.
That September, our school tour was to involve a childhood highlight: a tour of Dublin’s pollution landmarks. And so, following a presentation at a government department concerning acid rain and that showed lots of pictures of industrial chimneys and dying frogs, we were taken on a walk around Dublin to see its effects. We saw a little stone erosion here, the occasional melting pensioner there – all evidence of the acidic plague. But the Pièce de résistance was a visit to the carpark behind St. Andrew’s Church on Suffolk Street to see a statue of St. Andrew himself that had been so harshly flogged and walloped by this pickled precipitation that it had reduced the once proud apostolic figure to little more than the form of a common blancmange.
Had he been human and not a statue, or, indeed, had we have cared, it would have been quite a harrowing experience. Poor St. Andrew had lost most of his facial features. His beard seemed improbably weather-beaten. His robes had been divested of definition. It was, in a word, sad.
It had always bothered me, though. Yes – Dublin was particularly pollution-ridden at the time and my memories of it from the 1980’s are soot-covered. But nothing else had been as badly damaged as the St. Andrew statue. So what was it about this exact spot that had so angered Taranis? What, exactly, had St. Andrew done? And why did no other statue in Dublin look like it was made from particularly-lumpy porridge?
Years later, my interest in the statue was revived when I worked for a season on Dublin’s red-top tour busses. Every day, I would pass St. Andrew four times a day and look at his fading features forlornly focusing on the floor. Acid rain just didn’t seem to explain it.
I did a little research on the church – now converted to Dublin’s tourist centre – but still with the forgotten Andrew in the depths of depression in the carpark out back.This is the third St. Andrew’s church. The statue was carved in 1803 and placed above the church entrance, where it stood until 1860 before a fire gutted the building. When it was re-built, they simply placed the statue in the corner of the yard.
Ok so – fire was involved. Surely the heat would have played a part?
Further research told me that the church was frequented by members of parliament, the upper classes and members of Daly’s clubhouse. This last was of particular interest to me. Daly’s was a gentlemen’s club with a particular reputation for outrageousness. Basically a sanctum of illicit pleasure for the rich and powerful, it was famed for gambling stories that ended with sentences such as “… and they threw him out of the top window.” Also of note is the fact that Daly’s stood (and still stands) just a short distance away on Dame Street.
Daly’s was also famous – or infamous – for duels breaking out. In Ireland, duels were serious business. In fact, it was the Irish duelling rules that more or less governed the practice across the English-speaking world. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/sfeature/rulesofdueling.html)
In other parts of the Empire, the duel was not particularly fatal. It served as more of a mechanism to ‘vent’ than to kill. In London, about one in fourteen duels were fatal. In Ireland, however, it was closer to one in four …
So why was duelling in Ireland much more dangerous than duelling in London?
Simple. In London, practicing was frowned upon. Yet, it seems, the Irish took a different view of it. Gambling in Daly’s was a significant contributor to the duelling statistics. But where are you going to practice for a duel in a city centre?
If only there was a life-size statue standing in a backyard somewhere …
Legend has it that when the White Bull of Connaught was tearing apart the Brown Bull of Cooley, pieces of the bull landed all around the country and placenames were born. So the name Áth Luain, charmingly, refers to the place where the bull’s loins landed. Yes – Athlone is the ‘Place of the Loins’. Sounds vacationable to me!
Athlone is situated more or less in the middle of the island of Ireland – an ancient fording spot on the river Shannon – Ireland’s main inland navigation route. It is, therefore, more known in naval terms moreso than for its loins … (ahem …)
I was back in town on business – as, indeed, I had been many times before. This time, however, I had a little time to kill and promised myself that I’d venture out into the town and see some of it. I had spent the previous night in the tower at the Sheraton – the tallest building in town. Now, in most countries, the view would be impressive. It is possible to see for miles in all directions – lush farmland appearing as a patchwork quilt, tall forests reduced to window-moss. Lough Ree – a large lake by any standards – a distant glimmer on my panorama. The problem is, however, that this is Ireland. A room with a view in the Irish midlands simply means that you know ten minutes beforehand when it’s going to rain. I spent the morning getting some work done as three sets of rain clouds came and went. The view from the tower told me that I had at least ten minutes of dryness. Time for exploring.
A little down the road, I pass St. Mary’s church – a site that had long appeared on my ‘Oh – I must look at that someday’ list. I had always appreciated something of its charm – a late medieval relic in a modern part of town replete with crumbling graveyard and meaningless tower. I take a quick tramp amongst the tombstones to get a sense of the place. Soon, I am standing at the base of the tower. There is a sign on it – presumably erected by the tourist people. Great! Time to find out what famous person was buried here.
Oliver Goldsmith has earned a rightful place in the pantheon of Irish Writers – arguably one of the finest writers not just of the 18th century – but of any. And yes – the sign mentions him … but it is not he who is buried here …
The sign instead references ‘Dean Goldsmith’. Now who is Dean Goldsmith? Dean Goldsmith was a cousin of Oliver’s – or so the sign tells me. Was he also a famous writer, I hear you ask? No. Not to my knowledge. The sign, instead, simply references him as Oliver’s cousin… So Athlone has a sign up to commemorate a man who wasn’t famous in his own right, but who was simply the cousin of someone who was??
Sadly, no. It’s not even that exciting. The full text of the sign reads:
“Inside this tower was interred
30th September 1769,
the wife of Dean Goldsmith, Cousin of
Oliver Goldsmith, poet, Essayist and Playwright.”
I have to read this sign three or four times. Are they really honouring someone who was married to the cousin of someone famous?? Yes, it seems. They are. And what’s worse – the sign doesn’t even mention her name. Words fail me …
I decide to move on.
In hindsight, I should have expected something like this. The next stop on my grand tour of Athlone is the main town bridge – linking not only two halves of the town across the Shannon – but linking the two provinces of Leinster and Connaught. I had looked up a little information on the bridge before I began my tour and learned that the bridge was designed by Thomas Rhodes, “Cousin of the famous Cecil Rhodes …” What is it with Athlone and fame by proxy?
Across the bridge, I encounter Athlone Castle – a beast of a medieval affair that would look more at home looking down on the beaches of Normandy in the 1940s than gracing the banks of Ireland’s premier waterway. I enter the rather impressively-restored site and begin to look around. It becomes clear that the castle had little to do with the town. It was a garrison fort for most of its existence. Around it, the town went about its own business of pipe making, whiskey distilling and other such local crafts. Indeed, the castle museum is filled with little reminders and artifacts from the everyday life of the townsfolk. In fact, very little at all survives from the authorities that ruled from the castle. The one tangible artifact left over from them is rather gruesome: a man-trap used for catching poachers. Indeed, this being Athlone, I suspect that the trap was also used to catch not only poachers, but their wives and cousins too …
I figure that I have time for one more site on my day in Athlone. Athlone did actually have an extraordinarily famous son. Count John McCormack, arguably the world’s most famous tenor in the early 20th century, was born in this town. Given the tributes and the lengths that Athlonians go to in order to celebrate those who are vicarious celebrities, I’m expecting great things. I’m expecting at least a twenty foot statue that sings recordings of McCormack’s music on a permanent basis. Or maybe an obelisk pointing to the heavens of which McCormack so famously sang. Who knows? There might even be a throng of American tourists breaking into tears as they visit the birthplace of the man who popularized that most Irish of Irish songs, ‘Danny Boy’.
To say that I am underwhelmed by what I find would be an understatement. I do not find a statue. I do not find a tower. And there are no American tears forming the newest tributary of the mighty Shannon. Instead, I find a Chinese restaurant … and a sign that informs me that John McCormack was born here …
It takes me a while to contemplate this. Why has Athlone chosen to celebrate those who are related – however distantly – to famous people but not put as much thought into remembering those who were, themselves, famous? I guess that in Athlone – it’s not what you know – but who. Dean Goldsmith’s wife clearly knew someone famous. John McCormack clearly didn’t – and that’s what counts around here.
That in mind, I retire for the rest of the evening to Sean’s Bar – hoping that my name will prove enough of an intangible link to result in a free glass of whiskey or two and to allow me space to contemplate my day of loins, of mantraps and of miscommemoration.
The plane to Cardiff was, ironically enough, tardif (yes – it’s a real word). Night was already ensconced well before the taxi ever arrived at the hotel. But by that time, I was too late. I had missed the city’s lupine transformation from normal, everyday, provincial city into a werewolf-like party town. By the time I hit the streets at eleven, the city was howling.
I didn’t have far to walk to meet up with the rest of the lads who were here for the stag party – maybe three or four minutes. But in that short time, I passed one woman sitting on a kerb looking in danger of passing out and another man on the rain-drenched footpath – in the recovery position – who actually had.
The McDonalds up the road was still selling Big Macs – but was no longer allowing the nocturnal revelers to eat inside the establishment. Thus, there was McRubbish everywhere – blowing down the windy St. Mary Street like a high surf tide towards me.
I found the bar and inquired as to my whiskey choices. There were two. Jack Daniels or no Jack Daniels. “What do the locals drink?”, I asked the alewife. “Beer,” she replied, in a perfect Lithuanian accent. I went for the Jack Daniels. As I returned to the table, I heard the band in the corner begin to play a heavy, thrashy version of a Lionel Richie song. No. It was not them I was looking for.
The rest of the night passed in a bit of a blur and I found my way to my hotel room at about three in the morning. I reckon I would have slept well too but for the Irish guy in the room opposite (from a different stag party) who took so much cocaine that it required two police officers with extremely loud walkie talkies to calm him down. I didn’t realise walkie talkies could do this.
The next morning (or ‘afternoon’ as some might call it), I went out for a ramble. Amazingly, the streets were spotless and Cardiff felt like a real city again. The shops were open and in the process of being perused. Men and women were promenading through the streets in Welsh rugby jerseys. Sections of Cardiff society who most likely had never seen it at night were wearing turtle neck shirts and tweed jackets – their hair bouncing as they laughed while cupping a latte between their diswithered fingers.
And then the rains came. A deluge worthy of instant depression befell me. Better duck out of it somewhere lest my shirt become see-through. Such things are unconscionable in a city like this. Well – they are at this hour at any rate.
“Are you here to see the History of Cardiff exhibition?” a tour guide asks me. I had ducked into a museum, apparently. “Eh – sure,” I responded, not wishing to disappoint. I was shown around the museum where the answers to many of my future questions were anticipated and answered. I was told about how there was no city to speak of until a decent coal port was needed in the area about two hundred years ago. It is, thus, a relatively new city by European standards. I watched a film about the last fisherman on the mud flats and was told of how he still regularly comes in to the museum to complain about the inaccuracy of his exhibit. I learn about coal. I learn about miners. And I learn about coal again.
I stand contemplating a scale model of the docks. A local man – also visiting the museum – strikes up a conversation with me.
“That’s Cardiff Bay now”, he says, pointing to the model.
“What do you mean ‘now’? Was it not always called that?”
“No – the locals used to call it Tiger Bay. The tourism folks changed it about twenty years ago when they were looking for a touristy name.”
“Why did they change it? What was wrong with Tiger Bay?”
He contemplates this for a moment. “Well Tigers are dangerous creatures, aren’t they? Don’t want to be scaring off tourists.”
I laugh heartily at this – but it soon becomes apparent that not only is he being serious but also doesn’t seem to understand why I’m laughing.
“Funny thing is, though,” he ventures, “It’s still called Bae Teigr in Welsh – which means ‘Tiger Bay’.”
“Oh! And why do you think that is?”
“Don’t know really. Maybe the Welsh just aren’t afraid of tigers.” Again – not a hint of irony.
The rain over, I return to the streets and head up to see the Castle. Cardiff Castle is actually a very impressive, serious piece of castleage. The site was originally a Roman fort but was replaced by a Norman castle in the 12th century. Inside the impressive curtain walls lies a motte and bailey and an impressive Georgian mansion. But it was not this that I had come to see. I had been told to go and see the ‘animal wall’ while I was there – an outer wall of the castle that, apparently, has animal sculptures so lovingly carved atop them that they have spurred generations of local fairy tales. I’ve always been interested in things like this – unique sights that have captured the local imagination.
Sure enough, I soon spot a wall bedecked with animal sculptures. However, rather than inspire me with wonderment, they give me pause for concern. The animals have all been sculpted awkwardly atop the wall. The sculptor appears to have tried to make it look as if they are resting there – but in reality, they appear to be trying to escape whatever terrible thing lies on the other side of the wall. A big cat haunches his fleshy arms over the wall in a manner that suggests something is trying to drag him back in. A seal raises his snout to the air as if to take one last smell of freedom before terror befalls him. And a bear looks both into and past me with dead glass eyes – frozen in time at the very moment he realized, it seems, that he was going to die … This is all too tragic for me – time to move on.
As I turn back onto St. Mary Street, I see two policemen (in their funny British police hats) approach two men on the corner.
“Are you two dealing drugs then?” he asks in a semi-serious sounding Welsh accent.
“Fuck you copper!” retorts one wittily.
“Now now – there’s no need for profanity.”
“Is there a need for murder, copper? I have a confession to make. I murdered two people. I stabbed them. They crossed me and I stabbed them. You want to take me in for a full confession?” he screams in what I think is an angry Welsh accent.
The policeman simply nods and says “Oh is that right? Did you now?”
I decide to move on. Just up ahead a little, I find the entrance to the indoor city market – a collection of ragtag stalls and food shops that sell everything from Liver and Onion Faggots to second-hand books. I wander through it a while, pausing for a moment’s contemplation as I watch someone kick an innocent bystander pigeon up the arse for no reason other than the arse was there and was not being kicked.
A couple of hours later, the sun went down, and the transformation began afresh…
Now – don’t get me wrong – Cardiff is actually not a bad little city. It has a little of everything – a few museums, a decent number of bookshops, a serious piece of castle … but at night, the only thing that separates it from Gomorrah …
… is the Welsh accent.
“It is not the mountain we conquer – but ourselves.”
– Edmund Hillary
“The depth of darkness to which you can descend and still live is an exact measure of the height to which you can aspire to reach.”
-Pliny the Elder
I’ve never been much of a mountain climber. More of a hillwalker, if I’m honest. I spent over a decade in the scouts when I was younger and traversed many a Wicklow hill. And that’s pretty much what one does when hillwalking. Traversing. Oh there’s a little bit of rambling and a touch of circuitous roaming. Perhaps also a smidge of promenading – though only ever on show to one’s-self.
It’s true that hillwalking and mountaineering are two inhabitants of the same bailiwick. But mountaineering is more pointed. There would appear to be more of an ‘achievement’ in mountaineering. The equipment is usually more expensive than the stick a hillwalker might find by the side of the road. And mountaineering doesn’t allow for much in the way of ‘divergence’: either the summit is reached or it is not. When I think of it,mountaineering is, essentially, hillwalking multiplied by boasting.
Now – I like a good outcome myself. For years, I’ve been looking for a way to ‘achieve’ more from my hillwalks without having to mountaineer. I usually try to pick a particular site or ruin to visit, for example, or judge it by the distance I walk. But now, I think I’ve found what I’ve been looking for. Rather than find a mountain to climb, I’ll find the opposite to ramble to.
And what is the opposite, you might ask? Ireland’s highest peak is Carrauntoohil, Kerry, at 1038m above sea level. The opposite is Ireland’s lowest point: North Slob, Wexford, at ten feet below.
In December 2013, I find myself driving back to Dublin following a rather tense meeting in Wexford. As I drive, I see a sign advertising the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve. A few months back, I had read about this place – a reserve on the North Slob – Ireland’s lowest point. Looks like I might have time to stop off for a little descend-walking before I get home …
The Wexford Sloblands are an area of farmland reclaimed from the sea in the 1840s. In fact, the word ‘slob’ is itself an old Irish word referring to muddy, useless land. It was adopted into the English language in the 18th century. In fact, it was not until the 1880s that the phrase ‘a slob of a man’ was first used.
My car pulls off the main Wexford road and follows a tiny, windy affair that is more a track than anything. To my left, lush farmland. To my right, a ten foot polder keeping the sea at bay. I drive for a few miles before reaching an old abandoned factory and a car-park. This is the entrance to the Wildfowl reserve. I step out and approach the gate. I see geese behind the fence. Literate geese,apparently. A sign proclaims ‘Geese Only beyond this Point’. Indeed, the geese appear to be congregating exclusively in the hinterland of the sign. Literate AND observant.
I walk around a fenced-off lake – the only person in the complex – and, it feels, quite possibly the only person in the Sloblands. I stop and take a few pictures. I take a minute to ponder my achievement today – my grand descent – my gently walk – to here, Ireland’s other extremity.
Although a bird sanctuary nowadays, it was not always the case. In fact, until recent decades, this was the opposite of a sanctuary and birds were hunted in their thousands. In 1951, one hunting party on this spot began to argue with each other about whether the Golden Plover or the Grouse is the faster bird. This argument resulted in the idea for the Guinness Book of Records.
After a short while (watched constantly by geese that appear to taunt me to disobey the sign), I leave and make my way to the polder. I am wearing a snappy FCUK suit and grip-less shoes. Not ideal hill-walking attire, I’ll admit – but I’ll make do with what I have. I take a long run at the steep polder and – barely – make it to the top. And the view is quite beautiful. Across the bay, I can see Wexford Town in the twilight. When I look back along the polder, the height of the sea above the road becomes apparent. I stroll awhile along the polder top before being joined by a friendly dog. He walks with me awhile – a Tenzing to my Hillary.
There is a peacefulness to this place that I find quite pleasing. I had come here to try and get a silly story – but I actually find myself enjoying it – the beautiful rural scenery, the bay the backdrop, the silence.
I sit a while as I look out over the bay and reflect on my day. Haven’t I finally done it? A walk with a purpose? Have I finally blended the ‘achievement’ of mountaineering with the rambling serenity of hillwalking? I look back to my car. There are two geese walking around – inspecting it. Maybe this isn’t as thrilling as mountaineering after all …
So a short post this week – but one about something that has addled my brain for – literally – months. I had an idea for a little poem – a two liner piece of nonsense that made me smile and, well, that was about it.
But try as I might, I just couldn’t get the words in these two lines to fit. It ended up sounding grandiloquent as I reached for words such as ‘behold’ and ‘shall’ to make the meter of the poem ‘fit’. When I took them out, the poem felt unfinished and – odd as it may seem for a two-liner – disjointed.
And then it simply came to me. So I give you my new poem “Poueltry”. It won’t change your life. It won’t give you any insight into either the mind of the creator or access to the drawer of index cards at the Anima Mundi. And yes – it is very ‘Ogden Nash’. But, then again, so was Ogden Nash. All I know is that I like it. And here it is – the result of two month’s of the most intense and inexplicable frustration …
Poultry and poetry – the difference, I’m told,
Is that one is a chicken and the other, an ode.
It is July 2013 and it is hot. My family are staying in the forests around Gordon Wisconsin in a little trailer without air conditioning. No – wait – make that ‘bereft’. The trailer is ‘bereft’ of air conditioning. Despite the fact that the Sun has long since evaporated and turned the hot day into night, it is still equally as fevered.
I cannot sleep. Heat aside, a suburbanite such as myself does not do well in the forest. Things make noises. Cracking branches and falling leaves sound like plummeting trees and tornadoes. Foostering chipmunks sound like befuddled bears. Eyelashes appear in the half light to be Brown Recluse spiders swinging quickly on their silk before my vision – taunting me.
My childer – between them ranging from two to four years old – sleep nonchalantly. They clearly get this from their mother, sleeping noisily in a manner that I now understand is a locally-learned defense mechanism to keep noise-fearing scavengers away. This is no country for suburban Irishmen.
I look at the clock. It is 1am. What to do? I’ll have to get up in the …
The trailer begins to shake. There is a rustling sound outside. What the … And then it stops. My blood is now 85% panic. My ears are patrolling. My brain is not only interpreting – but also – helpfully – embellishing every sound. What was that?
In the morning, I tell Marie of the shaking incident.
“Oh my! Did it eat you?”
“Did what eat me?”
“Whatever was shaking the trailer?”
“No – it didn’t eat me.”
She gives a wry smile. “And it won’t eat you tonight either. You’ll be fine.”
I am more worried than ever now! Is that the classificatory test used to decide upon the level of danger posed by an animal? Did it eat me and if so, then it’s OK to be scared?? Surely it would be moot by then!
I decide to take my mind off things by bringing the kids out for a drive. Not far from the trailer is Gordon Dam park. The dam itself is an impressive steel and concrete affair that was built in the depression era as one of Roosevelt’s far sighted public works schemes. It replaced an earlier wooden dam at the location. The water from the mighty St. Croix river backs up behind the dam in a flowage before plummeting through the sluice gates into the river channel below. The kids throw sticks into it – but the water is so ferocious that they disappear into the water’s ether (the sticks – not the kids).
People are fishing. Kids are swimming (amazingly not too far from the business-side of the dam …). The Sun continues to be relentless – but there is a cool breeze that either comes directly off the flow or is created by the wings of about fifteen billion mosquitoes … either way – it’s not unpleasant. This is exactly what I needed to keep my mind off the wildlife difficulties of the previous evening.
“Look Daddy!” shouts my daughter as she lovingly frolics in the grass, pointing at an oddly shaped rock.
“That’s nice honey.”
The rock moves as she reaches down to touch it. “Noooo! That’s a snapping turtle!” I run towards her. Luckily my hollering has sent her into a state of catatonic shock. Parenting.
I explain to her that it is a snapping turtle and could bite off her little finger for no reason stronger than spite. She receives the message – but my wildlife radar beeps a loud internal ‘told you so’ to me. We return home
It is night-time again. I lie as if wishing sleep, but am secretly on sentry duty, here to protect my family against the lurking Wisconsin fauna. I am the hero they need. I am …
The trailer begins to shake again. My eyes dart to my watch. It is 1am again. The trailer moves back and forth. I am as rigid as an overzealous sentry. And then it stops. I listen intently and do indeed hear a rustling yet again. Sleep continues inside the trailer without me …
Over breakfast, Marie listens politely to my concerns – about how a trailer is only barely structurally sound and is easily penetrable by, say, a mildly curious bear – never mind an angry one – which, by my reckoning as an expert on bears, all of them are.
“You probably heard a chipmunk and the shaking was probably just the wind. You really have nothing to worry about.”
Later that day, we are back at the dam by popular request of the kids. I am now on turtle and bear watch. So far, so good. In fact, we see nothing of any interest at all and, after a very pleasant stroll down by the water’s edge, we return to the car. I am a little taken aback at a “Don’t Shoot a Swan” sign that I see tacked to a tree – but I eventually see that it can apparently happen as a result of mistaken identity with geese. My brain quickly shuts down the
image of locals dining on lavish feasts of white-plumed delicacies.
We return home and put the kids to bed. By 8pm, they are out cold. Marie and I sit at the trailer table looking out the window and test driving a random assortment of words and sentences. The scene really is quite idyllic. We are surrounded by a birch forest. There are a few fallen logs. Some indistinguishable shoots are attempting to compete with the taller trees for sunlight. There is a quiet forest road perhaps twenty feet away…
And there is a three hundred pound bear running down the road at about 35 miles per hour.
We both stare in awe at this magnificent creature. We see his muscles ripple like a salmon stream beneath his shiny fleece of darkest black. We see his arms reach out and gobble up the roadway with speed.
A car approaches. The bear is spooked. He leaves the roadway and makes his way over towards the trailer! Now this is a close encounter!
He sees the trailer – and no doubt sees a gape-jawed Irishman looking at him through the window. I wonder if he thinks the window is merely a sneeze guard to the course of Seán contained within?
He turns, and walks off into the forest.
And then a lightbulb goes off over my head.
“Sorry”, says Marie. “It was getting dark in here.”
“No problem – but I have an idea! The bear! This trailer! The trailer hasn’t been here that long. I wonder if it’s parked in a natural pathway that he uses? After all – he came straight for us and then turned away. I wonder if he’s using the trail at night, bumping into the trailer and having to awkwardly stand on two legs to make his way around the trailer – between it and the trees? Is that what’s rocking it?”
“Sounds possible! I mean – wow! What a fantastic thing to see!”
I determine to stay awake that night (as if I would have been able to
sleep …) and investigate.
It is approaching 1am. I am the only person still awake. I am listening intently. The glass on the window immediately beside my bed is open to allow cool air to come in. There is a mesh screen in place – the only thing separating me from things that want to eat me. I listen through it for footsteps…
The trailer begins to rock back and forth. I sit bolt upright. I can hear a rustling. I throw open the blinds to see …nothing. For it is 1am – the middle of the night – in a dark forest. What did I think I was going to be able to see?
But then a thought strikes me … I might – at least – be able to hear him.
So I put my ear right up to the mesh …
And the nose of a bear breathes right into it …
My heart forgets to beat.
“Marie! Marie!”, I should in my loudest whisper.
“What? What is it?” she says, very reluctantly rousing from her sleep. Over the years, she has made it very clear to me that sleep-rousing is pretty much a cardinal sin. Oh I’ve seen comets, shooting stars, mysterious things aflying in the sky … but I’ve seen them all alone. She must not be woken. However, I feel that a bear’s nose in my ear probably counts as acceptable exception.
“The bear! He’s sniffing in my ear through the mesh!”
Marie turns to me and, in a clearly annoyed voice, says “The bear is only a problem because you’re still awake.” With that, she turns back on her ‘away from me’ side and is instantly back asleep.
The bear withdraws. I listen to him pad this way through the leaves – away from me and my potentially delicious ear … and towards the bins, where he spends the next few hours gorging himself on the contents of my son’s used diaper bag.
Part of being the greatest Dad on the planet is rolling with the punches. Below, I share two January conversations with my kids – the fruits of my lions – and show that no matter how advanced in the field of awesome parentage one may be, one is never fully prepared for what comes next.
Conversation with Matilda (age 5):
“Look Daddy! I drew a picture for you!”
“Well thank you Matilda! Is that Mammy on the right?”
“Yeah. That’s Mammy. She’s wearing a pretty dress.”
“Ok. And that’s me? With the long hair on my head?”
“That’s not a long hair. That’s your stink lines.”
Conversation with Orran (age 3):
Orran: “Daddy – will you play swords with me?”
Orran: “Ok – pretend that the gun that the world comes out of is after us and I’ll get it with my sword.”