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Friday, November 1, 2013

Even With My Eyes Closed Shut

When I passed a certain age milestone that shall remain nameless, I started looking at my fears and tackling them one at a time in the hopes of feeling freer and mentally healthier. I was tired of being afraid to speak in public, to sing in public, etc. I took my fears one at a time, made a plan, tackled them and got them out of the way.

The latest one is what I consider my deepest and most imbedded fear, and that is singing in public. It comes from an incident from Catholic School (of course), when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. We had a lay teacher for music, a gruff old man. I was eight years old. This was 1970. The Partridge Family was a big thing amongst my age group.

On the first day of class, he was giving a lesson on a capella singing. He asked, "Who thinks they know all of the lyrics to a song?" We looked at each other and some of us, including me, raised our hands tentatively. He points to me and says, "You! Stand up. What's the name of the song?" I said, "I Think I Love You," by the Partridge Family," in what squeaky little voice I could muster. He said, "Sing it." I stood there, blinking. My mouth went dry. My throat shut. I started to feel weak at the knees.

He said, "Go on! You think you know it? It's not so easy without the music, is it?" With a look of contempt, he said, "Sit down." From that point on, I have not even been able to sing along with Happy Birthday songs without feeling extremely uncomfortable, though I have been trying to power through this as much as possible lately because I know it's completely irrational and silly.

My latest plan of attack was to make myself sing at Karaoke. I mean, that is bold considering that I can't even feel comfortable singing along with a crowd that's not expecting anything close to perfection. And my opportunity came along after a film festival a few weeks ago. I confided in my new friends at the after party that I had this fear of singing in public and karaoke in particular. They went with me to the nearest karaoke bar and supported me as I confronted this fear. And it felt GREAT (even though I seriously messed up the song), but it didn't quite cure me of the fear. It just made it a little bit easier. And maybe I'll always be at least a little nervous. Who knows? At least it's not debilitating anymore and I can cross it off my list, even if I still work on that front a little bit.

Not too long ago, I also conquered my math anxiety by preparing extensively before I took College Algebra and working almost every single day with a tutor until I could pass the course. It just about drained me financially, but, it was worth it because it was the only conceivable obstacle between me and my Bachelor's Degree. And I know plenty of folks out there from The University of Arkansas who only need College Algebra to get their degree and they've given up on it.

I feel like if I could do it, literally, anyone can. You have no idea how badly I was immobilized by my fear of math for years. I had math nightmares. I woke up with chest pains and palpitations. It was horrible. But when I prepared for my last attempt, my experience was very different. Everything was much more doable because I had my tools and options lined up and I made myself do it. I didn't feel trapped and the situation never seemed hopeless so I pushed on and "Got 'er done."

Another biggie is the losing weight thing. If losing weight were simple, we'd all be skinny. I am finding that it is a complicated process. Your physical attributes, including excess weight, are part of your identity. It's what everyone sees and what everyone notices and even comments on. I get that. You can transcend and love yourself no matter what your weight is, but, honestly, you don't look at good when you're grossly overweight and it's laborious and painful to get around so you're not as comfortable. Also, it can stop you from doing the things you love. It can literally immobilize you.

Weight can make you feel trapped. It can make you feel like a loser. It can really take a toll on your self-esteem, which is probably a pretty fragile thing for most of us anyway. While the mechanics are somewhat simple--exercise more, eat healthier--very few of us accomplish this in a substantive way and keep it off. There's a whole "weight loss industry" out there that has zillions of products for us to try, some probably quite harmful, and if we're desperate enough, we will try them.

A few years ago, I decided that the reason why I started gaining weight in the first place was two attempted rapes/molestations that happened to me when I was around 16 years old, with one incident being pretty dramatic and terrifying. After the second incident, I shut down mentally and tried to make myself ugly. I wore my hair in my face, I wore baggy clothing and I started gaining weight until men no longer noticed me. The problem was that the boys that I wanted to notice me stopped noticing me, too. From that point on, I've struggled with my weight.

But once I identified what was blocking me mentally, I felt empowered to try to shed the weight physically. I lost 60 lbs and went to Ireland and had a blast exploring and hiking everything I could. I kept the weight off for a year, started gaining it back after a friend died, but I did manage to keep 30 lbs off. Then this January, I started another program that I liked much better and lost another 40 lbs (though I've been yoyo-ing 5 lbs up and down for a while). I just lost my job recently, so once things stabilize, I will probably start losing again.

While I've been mostly out of work for the past month, I've been working a little bit more on self-improvement. Today, I took an online test which determined that I have a fear of failure which is keeping me from succeeding. No surprise there. So, I came up with the idea that if I can state my fear honestly that maybe I can surmount it and make a real change in my career path. Then maybe losing my job can turn into a blessing.

In my job hunt, I'm going after both safe government jobs like the one I had and also some of my dream jobs that I'm stumbling upon. These are the kinds of jobs where you just smile thinking about how happy you would be if you had them. My actual fear is that I'll take some dreadfully boring job out of desperation and hate it for the rest of my days until retirement instead of taking this opportunity to redefine myself as a professional with a college degree who is capable of doing much more.

And now all of you know my fear and my struggle to navigate this. I'm still keeping all my options open because I'm afraid to do otherwise. There is also a part of me, the part that still dreams, that wants to buy a movie camera and set out to explore my world like Jeff Kerouak and just create my own future. And yet, I feel shackled by the duty of bringing in the benefits for the family and taking a safe job.

Not too terribly long ago, Donny Osmond was faced with the same dilemma. He was training to be a race driver and he even had a pit crew and sponsors lined up and was loving his new life, his new identity. He was redefining himself and felt more alive than he had in years. Then, the call came for Joseph's Technicolor Dreamcoat and he had to make the decision. I imagine that his heart died a little bit the day he turned away from the racetrack and started rehearals to do the same show over and over and over and over again, until he could do it in his sleep. This was what his family needed and what his fans expected, and he did it, like a good drone.

I wish I could say that I know my decision will be different, but truthfully, I am still on the fence. I'm trying to convince myself to take the leap. To have faith. But, I look down from the clouds of my dreams and I can't bring myself to jump without my trusty parachute, even with my eyes closed shut.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Going to Prison

My husband, Steve, and I went to Varner Super Maximum Security Prison yesterday, Friday, October 25, 2013, in Grady, AR, just south of Pine Bluff. The purpose of our trip was a "friend" visit to Zachariah Marcyniuk. You can Google his name and the whole history of the murder in March 2008, subsequent trial, etc., will pop up. You can read whatever you choose about it. While it is perfectly reasonable to be sympathetic to the murder victim, Katie Wood (as I am also), my husband and I can't help but also feel some concern for Zach and especially his family as well.

But, why did we wake up at the ungodly hour of 3 AM to be on the road at 4 AM to visit Zach in particular at our appointed time of 8:30 AM, you wonder? We do have tenuous ties to this case. Way before the murder happened, my husband worked with Zach and his dad at Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse #432 at Zion Rd & College Avenue in Fayetteville, AR.

Being an English major myself at the University of Arkansas at the time of the murder five years ago, Katie, an English and Art major, was in some of my classes. I don't want to pretend that Katie and I were friends, because I never got the chance to know her. I was intrigued by her and I meant to get to know her, but she was murdered before I had the chance.

To me, Katie reminded me of Olive Oyle. She was thin and petite and had alabaster skin, dark brown hair and big eyes. She was quiet, maybe shy. But, when she spoke up in class, she was pithy! I like that in a person! I knew she was intelligent and thinking, not just taking up space in class. I thought, "One day, I'm going to go up and introduce myself and get to know her." Well, this is a classic example of why you shouldn't put things off.

But, back to Zach. It is obvious that he has some social difficulties. There is a pronounced social awkwardness about him and he also has anxiety issues. Probably the most profound thing that people would notice is that Zach finds it hard to look people in the eye for any period of time. He said yesterday that he finds that aggressive and so it's hard for him to bring himself to do that towards others. He's always been this way, though apparently this didn't stop him from being a popular kid in high school because he describes hanging out with lots of friends during that time.

He also converses in a very linear fashion, which can be conceived as a little "OCD" or obsessive. He also is very careful to include a lot of detail. My husband, when they were shooting the breeze over lunches at work, found that he had to let Zach talk his way through to whatever his point was or you could get hopelessly mired in tangents and minutia and never find out what he was trying to say.

What I've learned about Zach in his letters from prison and now our talk is that it is very important, despite the murder, that he perceived himself as remaining an honorable person. The truth is very important to him. He admits he killed Katie. He is not one of those convicts who goes around pronouncing his innocence when it's obvious that he is guilty of the murder. He avoids posers and users in prison, preferring to keep to himself than get pulled into that kind of melodrama. For someone in solitary confinement, that is a powerful statement. Solitary confinement messes with your head and at some level most people crave human interaction on any level just to break up the aloneness. Yet, he prefers to be alone than to deal with people he feels are less than honorable.

Yesterday, Zach also stated that there is a certain mental illness that seems to run in his family (he didn't specify and I didn't ask), but this was not brought up at trial and it might have had a significant bearing on his case, especially on his sentencing. This makes it a matter of life (in prison) and death (the impending execution should he run out of appeals). This is some serious stuff and it's about someone my husband and I know to some degree. It's not about someone else somewhere else. This makes it more real to us.

Also, as difficult as it is, my husband and I decided to write to Zach and visit him out of support and respect for his parents. As parents ourselves, we could not help but put ourselves in their shoes. Through something beyond their control, something tragic happened that seriously altered the trajectory of their and their son's lives. Zach will be inextricably tied to Katie Wood forever and his parents will always be the parents of someone who murdered someone else.

Can you imagine the psychological impact of such a thing? How the media would skewer you and your son and how many of your friends and maybe even family would just vanish? I'm sure being the parents of a murderer would not make you a popular person. And I'm not making an indictment on the people who may have abandoned the Marcyniuks in their time of need. Just like people not knowing what to say in the event of someone's death or other awkward situation, it's natural to avoid the situation entirely. That's how our society has evolved to be. Why face something unpleasant head on when you can just have a glass of wine and push it out of your mind? Turn on the boob tube and watch some mindless reality show. Numb yourself in your social product of choice and nothing changes in your life. And maybe you will never have to feel the pain.

To me, that's not living! The whole reason why you appreciate the amazing sunsets or the sweet smell of fresh cut grass is because you've been stuck inside some office or classroom for most of your waking day or have driven past a chicken processing plant at some point in your life. It's exactly the bad stuff in life that makes us appreciate the good.

There are times that I come home late at night and go and stand at the edge of my field and almost cry at the beauty of the stars in my night sky, a sky that Zach might not ever see again because of one tragic moment in his life. He will probably never have the pleasure of looking at a menu and choosing what HE wants to eat. Am I saying that he doesn't deserve to be in prison for what he's done or that he shouldn't be denied these luxuries? Not at all. I'm just commenting on ALL that he has forfeited. There are a thousand little decisions that we have the freedom to make every single day that he doesn't have, though I will say, as cold as it was yesterday, my husband and I were a little envious of the state issued thick thermal underwear Zach sported under his white coarse linen prison jumpsuit. And when we got home to our drafty old house, we thought, well we're free, but I wouldn't say our conditions are better, LOL (but that saga is another story that I'll probably start writing more about as well).

My other motive or interest in the Zach and Katie story is to film a documentary about it, probably for my Master's thesis in Journalism at the University of Arkansas (where Zach attended as a non-traditional part-time Art student and as I mentioned, Katie was an English and Art major, very close to graduating). Zach and I have discussed this at length in his letters, which is what lead to this first "friend visit." I've been very above board about this project because he has to trust me or he can refuse to participate and that would be a much less compelling story. I'll be writing more about this as it starts unfolding. My first major hurdle is to gain permission to get the cameras into the prison system, where they are patently not allowed. This ought to be fun (not).

So, here are my impressions of yesterday in a kind of stream of consciousness form:

Steve and I drove down the Pig Trail in the dark, glad that we had no run ins with any spunky deer. The traffic was mercifully light until we hit Pulaski County (close to Little Rock) and approached the beginning of their rush hour traffic, though we were through "The Rock" by just after 7AM, just a little apprehensive of the crazy drivers in that neck of the woods (high speed in-and-out weavers!). After Little Rock, traffic was lighter again and we drove across miles and miles of long, flat terrain, questioning whether we were still on the right path and how much further we had to go. We were apprehensive of entering a super maximum security prison.

When we arrived, we observed a tractor towing long flatbeds of prisoners in white (no stripes) going out into the fields, we were guessing to work in the fields. The flat beds were flanked by armed prison guards mounted on horses. The surreal appearance of the situation made Steve quip, "Oh, so they get to go on hayrides here!" I'm sure it's better than working in the prison laundry, but it's not to make light of their situation either. I can see the benefits of this both physically and mentally, no matter how many chain gang images come to mind. This also made Steve start quoting his favorite movie, Cool Hand Luke.

We went through security which involves taking off shoes and belts, jewelry, etc., and placing wallets and other items into a tray, just like the airport. You put it into the x-ray machine while you step through the metal detector. Then you get patted down (I joke that they get to first base if you're female because you can hide a lot of stuff in a bra!) in front of everyone and have to kick up your heels so that they can see if anything is stuck to the bottoms of your feet. Then you get redressed. You can only bring in up to $20 in cash (for the vending machines), an ATM card, a driver's license, and various baby items like bottles, etc. Anything else you have to pitch in the trash or take back out to your car. Then you stand in front of a camera while you are electronically finger printed and they scan your driver's license. They issue you a pass that has your inmate's picture and info on it as well as our pictures and info. Hall pass!

So we walked out the door and through the first locked gate, and the security guard explained to the guard tower that we were not going to general population visitation (where the majority of people go), but rather to the Maximum Security area. We waited to be buzzed through a 2nd gate for a long time, like she forgot about us? Not sure, but we finally got buzzed through. As we approached the 3rd gate, we observed that while it appeared closed, it was actually a little bit ajar and we were going to walk through, but she buzzed it anyway. It didn't close behind us. Steve joked, "Hey Zach. We found an escape route for ya!! Quick! Run like the wind, Bullseye!" This was another moment of surrealness. How secure IS this place if the gates don't lock like they're supposed to?

We kept to the path and walked behind the building to the back door. The buildings themselves were very unimposing, favoring many schools, all one story. Central High School in Little Rock and the Graduate Education building on the UA campus look more imposing than Varner does. Of course, there's all the electric fencing and razor wire, but still, it doesn't produce a lot of anxiety as I had thought it might.

As we approached the back door, we could hear some prisoners being very loud to the right. One of them pushed on the door a little ways to the right of the visitation area door, like he was testing to make sure it was locked? Making a futile gesture? Who knows? We stood outside the visitation security area for probably 10 minutes (hard to say for sure since you're not allowed to bring watches or cell phones in with you) in the cold, but we were finally let in by a very young and pleasant guard. He apologized for the wait. We did not have to go through security again and were ushered into the visitation area, being told that the prisoner was already waiting for us.

We selected the items from the vending machines that Zach had indicated that he would like if we were so inclined. It is one of the perks of getting visitors (one non-legal visit of up to 4 people at a time is allowed per week), having the chance to eat microwaved pizza, cheetos, etc. that he doesn't normally get. I thought it was the least I could do. If you aspire to nasty vending machine pizza, then you may have it! Being a foodie, I'm trying not to pity him!

We were led into the visitation area, where Zach was handcuffed to the thick metal bars of the cinder block room. We were ushered inside and then he was uncuffed. You could tell that he was embarrassed, but we got past it by shaking hands with him and getting through the greetings. He wasn't sure that we were coming because my postcard had not reached him yet, so it was a complete surprise. They just woke him up and said to hurry up because he had visitors.

This was a "contact visit" in which we were locked in a room with him for 3 hours to just shoot the breeze, which we did. There were no barriers, no monitors, no glass. It was just him, a convicted murderer, and us, sitting around and talking like old times. Steve and Zach spoke of the folks and situations at Lowe's and Zach and I spoke of our times at the University of Arkansas and the Art Department (I just ended my employment with the department he had majored in and so I was able to give him news of his past professor's retirements, etc.).

Zach asked if I wanted to talk about the documentary and the trial, etc., but I declined because I know that when it comes time to film him, should I get the chance to, that his responses won't be as spontaneous. We did wind up talking about it and the whole capital punishment thing at least a little bit, but it wasn't the focus of our visit. This was more of a getting reacquainted type of visit and one in which Zach would probably make up his mind once and for all if he trusts me enough to move ahead with the project. The prospect of being (his words) "at my mercy," makes him feel very vulnerable. Yet, the fact that he has never been able to tell his story does eat at him. He said that if the worst happens (execution), that when he is strapped to the gurney, he thinks that he would deeply regret not participating in this project. He wants people to know his story.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Bowing out of Christmas

I know I haven't posted in a while, and I will start doing that again. Today I just want to say something about Christmas and the holidays in general. For a long time, I've wanted to make Christmas less commercial by making home made gifts and doing things for people rather than buying something. I feel that a home made gift, a photograph, a poem, scented bath salts, cookies, a scarf, etc., are more thoughtful and heart-warming than most things you can buy. I mean, if we were in the tax bracket where my husband could surprise me with the keys to a Maserati, I certainly wouldn't turn it down, but I just feel that the commercialization of Christmas has become an extraordinary burden on most of the middle class and below, especially as the prices of electronics and especially cell phones has skyrocketed. It also sets up unrealistic expectations of what people deserve and it skews their self-worth.

In the past, I've always wanted to be generous with people during the holidays, irrespective of whether they could return the favor. I really just wanted them to enjoy my generosity with no expectations of a return gift. I now know that it creates an awkwardness to the situation that cannot just be wished away if the recipient just chooses to not worry about it. This year, because my position is being reduced soon, I was not able to exchange gifts with anyone except a small something for each of my children and our holiday plans were shot.

When I put that out on social media starting around Thanksgiving, some of my friends did what I would have done. Here is some money. Buy your family Thanksgiving dinner. I understand the sentiment because I couldn't enjoy my Thanksgiving knowing that another friend could not. I've actually done this before. And here I was at the receiving end. Wow, now I know how it feels. While I wholly appreciate the gesture and sentiment, now I know why it doesn't feel....good. Not exactly. It's not that I'm not thankful, don't get me wrong! I guess it's a situation that unless the donor is anonymous, it just makes things forever awkward. Money makes things awkward in a way that even gifts do not. If you're a person that feels entitled, I assume this would not be a problem, but for most people, it is.

The same sort of thing happened for Christmas. And believe me, if I wasn't feeling very stressed about the lack of money, I might have been a stronger person and returned the gift. Wow, now that would make hard feelings, right? I mean, what is the proper etiquette to not cause hard feelings? I'm not sure there is a way to accomplish this! So, I invited people over for Christmas dinner and bought a big old turkey and all the trimmings and cooked away. It was one of the best meals I've cooked in a long time. Everything from the turkey to the stuffing to the gravy came out fabulous. You should have been there. Really. I did all that cooking and no one showed up. We were eating turkey until we started to gobble ourselves! Oh, I did spend the extra money on a good crock pot so that we can cook some soups and stews during the cold winter months, if the cold ever gets here. :) That helped me get through December, though, and now I'm carefully navigating January.

So, here is what I'm taking away from this humbling experience and walking in someone else's shoes. As our Christmas gets more commercialized, I get more and more uneasy about the holidays. I actually enjoyed not having to worry about buying gifts for everyone this year and trying to figure out what I could afford vs. their smile factor. I never liked buying people junk just to buy something. I take care to at least try to buy something perfectly suited for them. Their smile was my reward. I've also lived a hectic life with work and school and raising kids, commuting, etc., and I haven't had as much time or energy to put into making homemade gifts as I would like. I want to work towards that end. I want a simpler life. I want to be generous in spirit since I'm not in a position to be overly generous monetarily. It took me a while to come to this conclusion.

Our society has blossomed into one that is more and more dependent on expensive electronics and telephone plans. Our phones graduated Phi Beta Kappa and can now communicate with us. Our televisions are enormous and high def. Our kids don't just play video games, they get plugged into a whole society of gamers playing the same game at the same times and are able to talk to each other via headsets. But all of this costs. Our home phone used to cost around $25/month and people didn't call long distance very often. Now our family plan is more than $200/month and we can call practically anyone, anywhere and at any time. I was enticed to get a smart phone because I reasoned that I had a portable navigation device and I could load it with music like an iPod. I can also take pictures, post them immediately on Facebook or other social media or look something up on the web. Everything is at my fingertips. But, I'm locked into a 2 year plan and my job is being cut back. So, now what? I'm kind of stuck!

I also wanted to mention that I've learned something else during this situation. Once you stop giving/receiving gifts with people, some of the magic of Christmas is diminished. I will not lie. It really was not nearly as fun as it's been in the past. So now what? I think we need to work on making Christmas a more meaningful experience. If we're not going to throw money at it, we need to invest more love into it. This is what I'll try to work on for next year. Is that my resolution? I really didn't make any, but okay. Yes, that's my New Year's resolution. :)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Third Week at NUIG

This week at NUIG, we had guest speakers Paula Meechan Reading and Theo Dorgan. Both were very interesting writers and stressed the importance of knowing the history of a word to draw on its many layers of meanings. Then we watched a documentary about Nobel Prize winning Poet Laureate Seamus Heaney.

I think it was Sunday night that I dropped a heavy jar onto my laptop's keyboard and fried the hard drive. It was in the repair shop for several days installing a new hard drive and getting it all up and running, along with attempting to save most of the data off of the old hard drive to transfer over to it.

So, the good news is that I have my computer back. The bad news is that I've lost a lot of stuff and I'm behind on my homework. And I know what you're thinking. Part of my homework is to keep a journal. A rose is a rose and all that junk.

We went to town one evening after classes to shop and decided to eat at the Couch Potatas. The potatoes are slow baked in the oven and all of their ingredients are fresh. The service and prices were very reasonable. In our group of four we have one vegetarian and one vegan. It's sometimes hard to find a restaurant for all of our needs, but this one fits the bill nicely.

I had a warm chicken salad. It came with brown bread or a potato, and I chose the potato and ordered a side of sour cream and chives to go with it. The other sauce came with it and was a cucumber dipping sauce.

For dessert I had the strawberry lumpy bumpy. It was a layer of crust, cheesecake, ice cream and white chocolate, with a side of real whipped cream. OMG, it was amazing. Dessert and tea or coffee was only $5 Euro. Molly ordered the caramel lumpy bumpy which was the same thing in caramel and delicious, but extremely sweet. Erin ordered another dessert that I've forgotten the name of, but it was also very good. Alas, they did not have any vegan desserts for the other Molly, so she was left out.

The Galway Film Fleadh is in town and I've been attending a few indie films. I saw the animated film The Illusionist which was very sweet, then a drama London River which was about the London bombings a few years back, then a Leonard Cohen documentary about the Isle of Wight concert which was very interesting. I got home just after midnight.

The next day I saw Nothing Personal which was very interesting and funny and then The Disappearance of Alice Creed. I rate Disappearance top notch. It's gritty, but extremely entertaining and one of the best indie films I've ever seen!

Today Katelyn and I explored and shopped a bit. We ate at the Amnesty International Shop and Cafe.

Where we had the vegetable soup and brown bread for only $3.95 Euro. It is one of the best vegetable soups I've had in Ireland thus far and the shop is filled with a lot of fair trade gifts to browse.

I had a little more than an hour before I had to get down to the boat dock to take the river tour of Galway on the Coiribe and we made our way slowly in that general direction. While we were outside of Enable Ireland thrift store, I looked at my watch and realized that I had missed my boat! I mean, I hadn't bought a ticket yet, but I was really planning on going. Oh, well! At that point we stopped in the nearest pub and had a cider, then headed homeward.

On the way, we stumbled upon the house of Nora Barnacle, James Joyce's wife. She was also the inspiration for one of the greatest short stories, The Dead.

After that, we had planned on going to more indie movies, but we're leaving for the island of Inishbofin in the morning and I still have laundry to do and packing, etc. So, there will be more to report and more pictures in a few days!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Second Week at NUIG

The second week of classes we're getting into a routine. We're trying to stick with our homework during the week, and plan on exploring on the weekends, with some exceptions for special events. Most of our jet lag is gone and it's just a matter of getting used to the sun coming up at around 4:30AM and setting at close to 11PM. Our day usually consists of at least a short nap somewhere. We can't seem to help ourselves.

This week we had talks and readings by Dermot Healy and Kerry Hardie. They were both delightful in their own way. I bought Kerry's book of fiction called The Bird Woman and she signed it. I also bought Louie de Paor's book of poetry called Clapping in the Cemetery and Mary O'Donoghue's book of fiction called Before the House Burns.

The folks at NUIG put on an Independence Day celebration for us with a bar-b-que. They had hamburgers, cole slaw, etc. (and of course the obligatory baked potato) and showed fireworks on the television sets and gave us poppers for party favors. The college bar was decorated in red, white and blue balloons. This time I had 2 wine coolers. Those of us who had bought Louie de Paor's book hit him up at the party to get his signature. We're shameless that way!

On Thursday, I went to the post office to mail off an urgent package and found out that their post offices don't offer nearly as many services as ours do. I guess they don't have as much competition or something. Anyway, in preparation for sending boxes home in the future, I went to Eason's book store (which has stationary in the upstairs) and bought some shipping boxes and packing tape. I need to investigate if the airlines will ship something back home because there appears to be a 5 kilogram weight limit. A kilogram is 2.2 lbs, so I can ship roughly 12 lbs. If I have more, I guess I'll send multiple boxes, but the airline might be cheaper. We'll see.

On Friday, I booked the Connemara tour with O'Neachtain Tours and had a blast. It was an all-day affair. These guys only charge students $15 ea (not $20) and they pick you up at your door in the morning and drop you off in the evening so that you don't have to walk or worry about a taxi. There were only seven of us on the tour that day and so they took the smaller bus, which was much more maneuverable. He stopped several times to let us out for photo opportunities, taking pictures of the Connemara ponies, waterfalls, etc.

Our tour guide and bus driver Stephen soon started referring to me as his #1 photographer because I was always the first to jump out and take pictures. He painstakingly explained to us how the farmers of Connemara dry out turf from the bogs to use for fuel. He pulled over and encouraged us to take pictures, which none of us did. He said, "What? My number 1 photographer is not interested in the number one fuel choice of Ireland?" I said, "No, maybe if you had some cute sheep I would, but not for just the turf." So we drove on and he found me some cute sheep!

As Stephen was giving us information about the Connemara region, he said, "The Connemara region is filled with eligible bachelor farmers and they're many times seen walking the roads. If you ladies are also looking for a man, this could be your lucky day. If you see one you like, we can pull over and invite him on the bus. Oh, look there's one now! Ladies, what do you say? Shall I pull over and invite him on with us? Is he a keeper?" It was an old grizzled farmer smoking a cigarette. We declined.

When we pulled over, Stephen would say, "We're stopping for 10 Irish minutes. That means I'll let you out now and I'll be back to pick you up on Tuesday!"

Stephen also kept saying that at 4PM that we'd have bus karaoke. At 4PM, he stayed true to his word and even sang us 2 Irish folk ballads to get us going. And yet still, no one would take him up on it. Ah, well.

When Stephen dropped us off at Kylemore Abbey he said that we were to meet him back at the bus at half 3 (3:30). He said that if we weren't there that he would assume that the sisters had convinced us to join the Benedictine order and were staying. We were ALL on time.

We spent 2 1/2 hours at Kylemore Abbey. Lunch was first on the agenda. I had goat cheese and sundried tomato quiche and a seafood chowder that was generously chock full of salmon and other seafood. It was among the best I've ever had.

Then it was off to tour the castle, the cathedral, I skipped the mausoleum, but I spent a lot of time in the gardens. The food raised in the gardens feeds the sisters and guests, and is also used in the restaurants. I had just enough time to breeze through the main gift shop but I had no time to really find anything before I had to be off to the bus. Aftera all, I was not about to join the Benedictine nuns!

If I did this right, this week's blog should have paragraphs and this next object should be a video of one of the many street musicians we encounter in Galway's city center.

Monday, June 28, 2010

First Week at National University of Ireland at Galway

The way our studies are set up, we have a background lecture at 10:30 AM and a writer's workshop at 2:30 Monday thru Thursday. Fridays are usually clear unless we have a field trip planned, which we did the first week. Students usually have a choice between poetry workshop or fiction workshop, but since the group was so small (9 students), we decided to blend them together. The first day, we had a background lecture by Hubert McDermott from NUIG who gave us a wonderful, personal lecture on James Joyce and the story The Dead from the book called "The Dubliners." You can tell that the Irish are fiercely proud of their literary heritage and excited to share this with others. Not only did we get a lot of personal, contextual information about James Joyce's life, but he included a map outlining where all the important historical buildings still stood, should we choose to visit them. We also got clued in to where some of the local names came from. Like Bogden round-about didn't register with us until we were told that Michael Bogden was the real identity of the character who died as a young lad in the story, the one that was in love with the main character's wife, who was in reality Joyce's wife. That afternoon we had our first workshop because we had turned in poems and short stories on Tuesday, which were photocopied for everyone and ready to go. For non-writers out there, the workshop process is a priceless commodity to those of us who write. Our friends and family may think our writing is wonderful, but without someone critiqueing our work, we have no idea where we can improve which makes us much more competitive should we submit our works for publication or for contests. It should make us better writers in the long run, but things can almost always be improved. Then the trick is learning when to quit and leave it the heck alone! At 5:15 there was an informal reception at the campus bar. They provided sandwiches, onion rings, fried chicken and spring rolls along with 2 drinks. I opted for a ginger ale and then a small bottle of wine, Gato Negro. It was really good, too! Most were enjoying Guinness or Cider. The next day we had an engaging lecture by poet Dr. Louis de Paor. He explained how he liked his poetry to be at the intersection of a major event, like a birth, death, leaving home, marriage, etc. It is the point where once you pass it, there is no turning back to the way things were. That afternoon we began workshopping some of our fiction. Friday, we all went on a field trip to Coole Park (Lady Gregory's estate) and Thoor Ballylee (summer home of W.B. Yeats and family). For those who don't know, Lady Gregory was an amazing woman, a tireless defender and supporter of the Irish arts, mostly poetry and theater. She was a good friend to Yeats and he spent a lot of time at Coole Park and wrote a lot of poetry based on his experiences there. After marrying, Yeats bought a smaller place down the road a piece that he fixed up for his wife Georgie and where their family spent most of their summers until things got so unsettled in Ireland that it wasn't safe to be there. Thoor Ballylee is the site of Yeat's famous tower where he retreated to write near the end of his life. Friday night we went exploring downtown Galway which was like Greenwich Village meets Haight Ashbury meets Eureka Springs. It was amazing with cobblestone streets and window boxes with colorful flowers and street musicians. We ate at a great Thai restaurant and while we were leaving around 10PM, it was just starting to threaten darkness and we headed home after a long day and long week. Your cultural lesson of the day is that apparently if you don't get your bill in an Irish or English restaurant, you must get up and approach the cash register because they don't want to rush you. If you are waiting on your bill, you could be waiting a very long time. Saturday morning we woke early and headed to the farmer's market in roughly the same area we were the night before. It's near St. Nicholas Cathedral, near Shop Street. We found amazing produce, very hip clothing, hand tooled leather, live chickens, fresh cut flowers, scones, cheeses, handmade jewelry, jellies, crepes, etc. It was an amazing market and shop street had more street musicians and cute little shops. I found all kinds of great stuff there. A spot of bad news is that while we were running across an uncontrolled part of the round-about, I must have strained my foot because then I could barely walk. I cancelled the rest of my plans for Saturday and Sunday to just rest. The farthest I walked was just to the grocery store so that I could eat in. The good news is that apparently I didn't break anything and I just have to not overdo it. I'm not the only one with very sore feet, but I am twice as old as everyone else and have to remember that. Friday night we had a big potluck over in apartment 38. We played a game that's like Pictionary meets Telephone. You write a saying down on a piece of paper, the next person draws a picture from that saying, the next person writes their interpretation of the picture and so on and so forth until the end and you get your own saying back. When we read them back to everyone, we were literally rolling on the floor laughing. Those of you on Facebook know that Sunday night we played "Never Did I Ever" which someone my age should never do with a bunch of 20-something year olds, LOL. I was the second one eliminated. What chance did I have? Facebookers can see my pictures in FB in a photo album labled "Writers in Galway." I will see if I can upload at least a few here. We'll see if I can figure this out.

Oh, and over here bangs are called FRINGE!!

:) Ciao! Catatonic1

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Shannon and beyond

During the bus ride to Shannon, we stopped at a truck stop to use the rest rooms and get refreshments. My camera was set on some weird setting and I enlisted the help of others to see if I could fix it and no one could figure it out (pictures were coming out in a grid of 16 pictures per frame instead of one). I gave up and decided to figure it out later.

When we finally got to Limerick, another passenger Dee and I decided to go for fish and chips (my first, and it was good!) while we waited on the bus to Shannon. Then we took the first bus to the Shannon airport because it left an hour earlier than the one that went to the city of Shannon. Since The Oak Wood Arms Hotel was only about 2.5 miles from the airport, I thought perhaps that was a good idea. We also talked about sharing a taxi, but then her hotel was right there at the airport and she walked. Oh, well. At least I got to Shannon while it was still early enough to enjoy a little bit. And the hotel was so beautiful! Everything is brick, stained glass, thick carpet, wrought iron, etc. It's just stuffed with charm.

I was so tired of riding buses that I decided to go for a walk, which you can do because it stays light until around 10PM around here. So, I walked down to the turnabout and took pictures of the odd statue there of what appears to be some seed pods. There is no plaque explaining it and the locals don't even know what it is exactly. Then I saw a sign that read "Pelican Crossing." I had to take a picture, though I did not see any pelicans. I'm guessing they might have a problem with that or they wouldn't have made the sign.

Then I came back to the hotel and decided to go into the bar for a bit of dessert and a cider. The bar was gorgeous and I ordered a cheesecake and cider, cider being a cross between apple cider and beer. Both were excellent!

Then I went to my room and took a nice warm bath. The hotel prides itself on handicapped accessibility, yet the handles in the bathrub weren't levers, they were round and hard to manipulate. I am not a person with a disability, but I even had a problem with it. Anyway, I was relaxed enough at that point to crawl in the comfy bed and have a good night's sleep. I set a wake-up call for 6:30 since Kaytee Stephens was flying in early the next morning and I promised to meet her at the Shannon airport.

I got up as promised (hating the alarm!!), showered and went in the dining room for the continental breakfast. In the morning, my fight with the shower handles was so bad that when the epic battle was over, there was water all over the floor. If I wasn't wet with nothing on but a towel, I would have demanded another room. It was downright ridiculous.

When I went to the restaurant for breakfast, everything was in those covered heated serving dishes. Note: never eat sunny side up eggs from one of those things! They're like rubber. The rest of the breakfast was nice, though.

I went to check out and asked about a cab in 15 minutes. The concierge made the call and I scurried to the room to pack. I got out of there just in time and the taxi was waiting. We went over to the Shannon airport and he talked about the water to the left of us being tidal and the tide was way out. He also mentioned something about all the trees in Ireland being cut down and there just weren't any ancient trees anymore.

I walked into the airport and was going to have Kaytee paged, but I saw her sitting there knitting. I said, the bus to Galway leaves in 29 minutes, let's go! I didn't want to wait on the others. She did. I had learned in the past 2 days that you can get just about anywhere in Ireland simply by asking someone. Anyway, we waited. We shouldn't have because had we left earlier, the bus would not have been so hot (they don't have air conditioned buses because they would only use it one or twice a year) and we would have checked in before everyone else and avoided a bottleneck.

But, anyway, we got to Galway and took a cab over to the Gort Na Coroibe apartments and got all signed in and everything. The apartments have a downstairs living room and kitchen combo and a half bath. One story up, there is a single room, a double room and a bathroom. Another floor up, there's two single rooms. Since our program was so light on participation, we only had Hannah on the top floor and me on the floor below.

Now, get this. I was having trouble communicating with the maintenance staff about the problems in our apartment. We refer to the ground floor usually as the 1st floor. Then one story up would be the 2nd floor or 2nd story, and so on. To them, the ground floor is the bottom, then one story up is the FIRST floor! yikes!

So we settled into our rooms and went to the grocery store. I think I mentioned before that the produce isn't always up to American standards, especially the lettuce. Every head I looked at was brown, except one, so I bought it. Days later I find out a big secret. If you want nice lettuce, go to the farmer's market! Everything looks wonderful there.

Anyway, we get together and walk over to the National University of Ireland at Galway (NUIG) to register. It's a good long walk, I think maybe a mile and a half maybe? I'm a bad judge of distance. Let's just say it's a long walk by our standards. The Irish seem to do a lot of walking, so to them it's no big deal. It's been a little hard on some of us, especially if we're used to just hopping in our cars or taking a bus to get where we need to be.

Then we get a tour of the campus, which is just beautiful. There is so much greenery that you don't have the same line of sight from one end of campus to the other like you do at the University of Arkansas. So, we had a walking tour, but it was hard to get our bearings. At 3:30 we were introduced to the faculty, Moya Cannon, and for those who didn't go to the UA, they were introduced to Skip Hays from our English Department.

Most of us expressed a desire to take advantage of the poetry workshop class and the fiction workshop class (which go on at the same time) so they decided to stagger them since there is such a small class (only 9). Afterwards we get signed onto the NUIG system.

Then we walked all the way back to the apartments. Some of the group went out, but some of us settled in and ate from what we bought at the store. We were mostly exhausted. It had been a really long day with bus travel and a lot of walking. Most all of us had jet lag to some degree.

The next day, we started classes.