Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What Fresh Hell Is This?

A Brief Survey of Choice Traditional Irish Ballads:
Or how to be a truly sad and lovesick bastard

(1) Danny Boy
(Classic Irish heartstring-puller, in which our dear Danny Boy is heading off to war, pretty much guaranteed never to see the singer, or a good day, again.)

"And if you come, when all the flowers are dying,
And I am dead, as dead I well may be,
You'll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me."

(2) Fields of Athenry
(That same old story in which a young lad is arrested for stealing the lord's corn, and thus set adrift on a prison ship bound for Australia, leaving his true love a single mother...)

"Against the Famine and the Crown
I rebelled they ran me down
Now you must raise our child with dignity."

(3) I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen

(In which a beloved wife dies a slow and painful death, and her devoted husband escorts her body back to her native Ireland. Incidentally, my grandpa Van used to sing this song to me when I was but a wee lass. Because we liked to keep it real and not sugar coat it.)

"The roses all have left your cheek, I've watched them fade away and die..."

(4) An Emigrant's Daughter
(A haunting sea shanty in which a daughter is put on a boat to America. But she gets a fever. She starts hallucinating. And, because this is an Irish Ballad, she dies. The they throw her body into its watery grave.)

"Oh please ne'er forget me though waves now lie o'er me
I was once young and pretty and my spirit ran free,
But destiny tore me from country and loved ones,
And from the new land I was never to see."

(5) Carrickfergus
(In which a man starts hitting the bottle after being cuckolded by a bawdy and humorous ditty.)

"But I'll sing no more now till I get a drink,
For I'm drunk today and I'm seldom sober..."

(6) My Dark Rosaleen
(Here a man gets his serious pine on while missing his boo, Rosie.)

"Woe and pain, pain and woe,
Are my lot night and noon,
To see your bright face clouded so,
Like to the mournful moon."

(7) I'm Stretched on Your Grave
(I think this one pretty much speaks for itself...mel-o-drama!)

"I am stretched on your grave and I'll lie there forever..."

(8) The Wind That Shakes the Barley
(In which a doomed young rebel loses his love and marches into the 1798 Irish Rebellion, pockets stuffed with oats to munch along the way. Of course, it all ends badly. *Interesting side note: Random patches of barley popped up all over the countryside post-rebellion, indicating both the mass unmarked graves of Irish soldiers (barley in pocket), and symbolizing that stubborn Irish tenacity and a big fuck off to British rule. The Wind that Shakes the Barley is also a gorgeously sad film starting the extremely easy-on-the-eyes Cillian Murphy. In layer upon layer of fine Irish tweed.)

"While sad I kissed away her tears, my fond arms round her flinging
The foeman's shot burst on our ears from out the wildwood ringing
A bullet pierced my true love's side in life's young spring so early
And on my breast in blood she died while soft winds shook the barley."

(9) Four Green Fields
(This song is in it to win it. It pretty much delivers all the goods... plundering, pillaging, loss, starvation, dead family, blood, guts, screaming children, British invasion...)

"There was war and death, plundering and pillage
My children starved, by mountain, valley and sea
And their wailing cries, they shook the very heavens
My four green fields ran red with their blood, said she."

But, for all their suffering, and proclivity for reliving that suffering nightly through song, the Irish also have a tremendously big-hearted, admirable, and irreverent sense of humor.... and so I leave you with this gem..

(10) Lily the Pink
(In which the dubiously named witchy woman Lily the Pink prescribes her medicinal compounds to cure whatever ails the locals, for which she is immortalized in a drinking song.)

Quotes won't do it justice, so you'll just have to listen and watch this amazing cover here.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Forty Shades of Green

The Dingle Peninsula
Yes. There is a real place called Dingle. Berries do not grow there, but peat does. And rocks. Rocks thrive there. And a resident dolphin. In 1984 a lone little dolphin swam into the harbor and never left. Curious and friendly, he has entertained tourists and locals ever since, although "to show his freedom, he never accepts fish thrown by divers or trawlers." And how did they repay this congeniality and independence? By christening him with the magnanimous name of Fungi. I don't know what they were thinking. Apparently the name is somehow related to the fisherman who first took a shine to the little tursiops. Apparently his fellow fisherman mates thought it was decidedly uncool to like girly dolphins and stuff, AND, dude couldn't grow a legit beard, so they taunted him with the nickname Fungus, which they then creatively transferred onto this poor, unsuspecting dolphin.

Going back to Ireland involves at least six to seven emotional breakdowns for me per day. --Anjelica Houston
Anyway, we did not see Fungi the Dolphin, although I couldn't resist riding his bronze likeness in the harbor square. We did see forty shades of green, herds of woolly sheep, one billion rock walls, the ruins of famine huts (just the laughfest they sound like) miles of insanely narrow, curvy cliffy roads, old cemeteries, and the sea, the sea, the sea. The country is undeniably beautiful, but it is veiled in a deep sorrow, too. It is so easy to see how cold, damp, and difficult poor farming life would have been like in these hills. The very definiti0n of hardscrabble. The embodiment of suck-it-up, stiff-upper-lip, and keep-your-head-down. The Great Potato Famine (courtesy of another, distinctinly less fun fungus) occured between 1845 and 1852 took out a million Irish, causing the country to lose nearly 25 percent of their population to death and emigration. Ireland's collective history is thick with tragedy. That is probably why they make such fine whiskey and sing the sweetest, saddest ballads in brogue around. Aye, aye, aye, the Blarney Stone really will bring a tear to your eye.

And the Larks They Sang Melodious
But if you want to hear more about it, quit reading this tripe and listen to the Man in Black sing about it, (even if he was more Scottish than Irish). Famine and smokey peat fires aside, in the end, you know it usually always comes down to missing a girl.

And, oh, yes.
Tonight I pretty much got what I wanted out of Ireland... three hours of an old man pick-up band singing in a pub called Durdy Nelly's (plastered with police badges from the states, incidentally), calling upon Guiness-swigging patrons to sing traditional songs, chorus roaring, hands on shoulders, tweed caps and wool, bohdran and squeezebox. I stood on a bench, clogging my heel against the dark wood, grinning like a fool, knowing I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Art of a Storytelling

We arrived in southwestern Ireland yesterday, stiff-hipped and bleary-eyed, but happy to touch down. From above, the Shannon airport of County Clare cuts like a slice of asphalt in a blanket of green, peppered with bumbling sheep on both sides--just like you would hope. The weather is blustery... fitful and moody, misty and gray, windy and riling, punctuated with errant sunbeams--just as you would expect. But my first impression of Ireland had little to do with sheep or shamrocks, gingers or jigs... It had to do with birds. With rooks to be exact, and jackdaws, too.

Cyrano O'Bergerac
Both birds are smaller members of the Corvidae family. Rooks are the Barbara Streisands of the corvid family, flashing prominent schnozes. Unlike some other rooks, these friends can move any way and where they want--up, down, diagonally. Jackdaws are small and portly, with gray hoods and bright, light blue eyes. This time of year they seem to hang out in big family groups (rookeries!), peering down through new-green oak leaves, making a racket, and adding a Hitchcockian element to the neighborhood. Actually, considering they kick it around the nearly 600-year-old Bunratty Castle, they remind me more of carrion crows gathering before a medieval battle than a creepy black and white film. That said, I love corvids--so cool--and am constantly trying to make friends with them. Obviously. Apparently groups of rooks can be called a building, a parliament, a clamor, or my favorite, a storytelling.

Like all corvids, these guys are avian geniuses, making and using tools and such, so you have got to remember to be careful of what you say out loud in their presence. They might be writing it down and informing the little people.

On an unrelated note, I have been singing, humming, and whistling Christmas in Killarney non-stop since we arrived, much to my sister's mighty chagrin. I know. I'm sorry. I just can't help it. The door is always open. That is one catchy jig.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Name is Yon Yonson

I come from Wisconsin.

Which, incidentally, is where I have spent the last ten days. In Madison, my hometown. I can't seem to come up with a specific or cohesive theme to discuss here, (aside from the now infamous Series of Unfortunate Events that have recently transpired at the capitol) so I'll just present some random observations in brief summary...
But first, a primer on the awesomeness that is Wiscony:

Fact #1: Take that Minnesota!
Wisconsin has over 14,000 lakes and 7,446 streams and rivers. I think you'll find if you do the math that is considerably more than 10,000.

Fact #2: One word is enough.
Wisconsin' motto is simply "Forward". No big deal.

Fact #3: Helping men maintain their virility.
Wausau is the Ginseng Capital of the World.

Fact #4: We heart cows and healthy bones.
Wisco has more dairy cows than any other state (1,500,000), produces more milk than any other state -- and 15% of the entire country's milk.

Fact #5: Badger don't care.
Our state animal and UW's mascot is the badger, and undeniably badass animal. Seriously, though short and rather portly, a badger will take on a bear if it needs to. Texas's motto may be Don't Mess, but their state animal is a Longhorn. A badger could take a cow down at the ankles, eat it up down to the bone, then turn its ribcage into a veranda.

Anyway, just saying.
Its been a lovely trip of visiting old friends and seeing nearly everyone in both of my immediate families. A baby sister graduated from UW (she was, I believe, something like the 14th member of my family to do so... we're legacy!) A grandfather was honored with a memorial bench overlooking the lake. A brother got married. A nephew was schooled in the power of the slow burn rainy-night-sax-solo in Careless Whisper. Flowers were arranged. Sundries were wrapped in grape leaves and drizzled in olive oil. Cakes were decorated. Lilacs bloomed. Hair frizzed. Cheese curds were eaten. Arrangements were made. All was good.

Tonight I head out for a week in western Ireland! Updates to follow...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dogs and Cats, Living Together!

I used to have this poster hanging on my kitchen wall, in all its full pastel glory. Imagine my surprise and delight to find it in sticker-form, plastered to the back of a traffic sign on Belmont.

Look how well we can all get along if we try!

Speaking of evolution and love... check out the sweetest little song ever:
Baby, It All Led to You by song-a-day dude, Jonathan Mann.

Sometime in the ocean of goop and fire and heat
Little one celled organisms learned a new way to eat
They started reproducing
They started doing their thing
And baby, it all led to you...

Monday, May 16, 2011

In This Light

"Davina, seventeen, and good enough for Julliard, but she wants to live in the wild, meet the snow leopard face-to-face, hear its still, small voice high in the Himalayas--she wants to follow caribou across mountains and tundra, record the sounds they hear on their way to the edge of the world--Davina wants to sing as elephants sing when they visit the bones of their ancestors." 

Peep my latest review for High Country News:

In This Light: New and Selected Stories
By Melanie Rae Thon
Graywolf Press, 2011

I wouldn't call Thon's haunting collection of short stories summer reading, but it is some damn fine writing. This woman has some serious chops.

The Painful Beauty of Love
By Kathleen Yale

Utah author Melanie Rae Thon maintains a seat beside fellow literary powerhouses Annie Proulx and Maile Meloy as she paints a portrait of a West that is at once desolate and tender. Written in fierce and unflinching prose, the stories in her third collection are about the dispossessed, the wild and searching. Every story is one that "could turn the hard of heart into believers, or the most trusting souls into cynics." In This Light will make you feel achingly old and cold to the bone as you link arms with the narrators, limping toward some sense of peace.

Thon slips into the skins of her flawed, long-suffering characters with astonishing ease and authenticity. Her characters are hungry, and for more than just food. Two runaway kids break into a house one night and gorge themselves. One says, "You don't know how it hurt us to eat this way, our shriveled stomachs stretching; you don't know why we couldn't stop." Her people are loners, addicts, outcasts, misfits stuck in too-small towns and reservations. They lose fingers to frostbite and steal coats that are too thin. In one story, Thon describes a horde of runaway children who haunt the woods outside of Kalispell, Mont., as being glued together "from broken sleds and headless dolls and bits of fur and scraps of plastic. Their bones were splintered wood. Their hearts were chicken hearts. Their little hands were rubber."

Though this collection weighs heavy on the heart, it also provides a strange comfort. For anyone who has wrestled, as her characters do, with the questions "Why were you whole? Why were they shattered?" this book flickers like a small campfire in a black night. If these characters are abandoned, they are also saved -- reaching for redemption, however imperfect. Thon describes a ragged, scarred Chippewa man as "scorched like the earth itself, a face that revealed the suffering of a thousand homeless Indians"  and then writes, "Yours was a face to love: without love, there was no way to look at you."

She bears witness, she takes names, she makes the details shine, but when specifics fade, when blame disappears, the human condition remains. To a homeless junkie kid, to a Vietnam vet, to a Holocaust survivor, to an orphaned teenage mother, to the reader of this book, pain is pain, love is love. Even the driest heart can still recognize beauty.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Who's the Moss?

Flat top, afro, or crew cut?
When I think of Portland, I think of moss. It’s only natural, given you can't turn your head without seeing some sort of Bryophyta gently, gently creeping. I have loved moss ever since I was old enough to walk barefooted along the rolling green carpet from cabin to lake every Wisconsin summer of my childhood. When I find moss in arid Montana it feels like a gift. I linger near those patches. I brush my cheek against them. But here in the Pacific Northwest, moss is quintessential. 

A calm, but powerful presence. A patchwork quilt. The great green stillness.

Keeping warm with a moss skin coat
 I was walking around town the other day, thinking about moss… noticing the different species, petting them with open palms. People seem to have different attitudes about the moss in their lawns. I passed a woman who was lovingly brushing off the moss on her yard rocks in the manner of a hairstylist fluffing up a bouffant after a trim. The gesture was sweet, affectionate even. Just a block later I saw a man scraping and scrubbing and scouring his concrete steps, tearing moss away. I felt like yelling Good luck with that, Sisyphus! Because there is one thing you can be sure of in a place as rainy as here: in the end, the moss always wins. Given time, like a shadow over a field, it will take down rock, tree, sidewalk, railing, fence, shingle, porch swing, even a car. It is not uncommon to see an old rusted truck, too long stationary, blanketed in green.

It’s like the moss so loves the world it wants to hold everything in its verdant embrace. A big ol’ group hug. Or it’s on a mission to take over the world through soft, calculated suffocation…

Mini-Michael Landon's Highway to Heaven
Bryophytes are non-vascular plants, which means they have no internal water-bearing systems, no vessels, no veins. They need a damp environment to survive and liquid water to reproduce. Their small and simple leaves sip mist and lick sunlight. Their roots serve more as anchor than vacuum—they don’t absorb nutrients or water through their roots, and thus are never parasitic to the trees they so thoroughly decorate. According to known fossil records, moss first crept on the geologic scene some 320 million years ago. Which means it ain’t no spring chicken. Most botanists believe modern moss evolved from aquatic ancestors (like the rest of us), and I like to imagine a fuzzy little moss blob crawling out of a murky pond, inching along the ground like velvet-gloved Thing, and checking out the local rocks for a room with a view. Yeah, yeah, I know that’s not how it works… but regardless, moss has been making gravestones, rooftops, downed logs, stumps, sidewalk cracks, sloth backs, and that car on bricks in your backyard beautiful ever since. 

Hulk + Chia =Magic Moss Love
Incidentally, moss also provided the inspiration behind the lesser-known, misunderstood but nevertheless badass He-Man character--Moss Man. 

This dude had the power to manipulate plant matter, cause tidal waves of moss and leaves, and make the flowers bloom to impress all the ladies. Not that he got many ladies. Maybe because he was a moss-covered recluse, and that kind of thing really only works for Megalonychidae and Bradypodidae guys. Naturally he was the quiet, pastoral type. He was sensitive. He probably knew how to brood. When He-Man offered him a coveted seat at the Masters of the Universe table, Moss Man what like, no thanks, Hoss, I’d rather keep it real and chill in my forest, talking to these trees. 
There is a lesson in there somewhere.

Matel honored this man by dousing his action figure with a “pine-like” scent. 
And how many people can say that? 

He did it all for the moss.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How We Wrestle Is Who We Are

Recently I have had the great fortune of connecting with two of my favorite writers, Robert Michael Pyle and Brian Doyle, for lunch, conversation, and inspiration.

Last week Bob blew into Laurelwood Brewery on a pouring-rain-day, took off his oiled hat and handed me a fresh cottonwood twig, heavy with sticky red buds. New cottonwoods present one of my favorite smells on Earth. If I could bottle it I'd soak my hair in that scent every night. I've been smelling them down by the rivers here for the last couple of weeks, and they always remind me of living in Missoula and walking over the Clark Fork bridges on spring nights, on the way home from writing workshops. I first met Bob when he was a visiting writing professor for the University of Montana's Environmental Studies Program. It was one of my favorite classes. Ever. Bob looks like Santa meets Jerry Garcia. He is an astute naturalist, a world-famous lepidopderist, a fellow lover of otters, a fine writer and teacher, and a kind mentor and friend. He has this infectious zest for life. He also used to wear a utility kilt, dance to Van Morrison, routinely stay up until 3 am, and enjoy drinking pints and eating fine English cheeses. And he wrote a book about Bigfoot. I visited him  and his dear wife Thea at their Gray's River, Washington home a few years ago, and we've kept in touch ever since. I recommend any of his many books. Besides the cottonwood, Bob also gave me a copy of High Desert Journal containing his sweet little poem:

The Girl With The Cockleburs In Her Hair 

We were talking about how children don't
get out any more. She showed me
her daughter on her telephone:
big pout, and four big burs
caught up in her hair.
That girl, I said, is
going to be
~ ~ ~

And yesterday I finally met the delightful Mr. Doyle after years of corresponding, trading jokes, and occasionally poking fun at one another. Brian is the editor of Portland Magazine and author of many a fine book and essay. He seems to encounter everything with admirable wit, good humor, reverence, and wonder, and there is a palpable brightness and shiny-eyedness about him. The kind of thing you hope will rub off on you just a little. We talked about books and the hearts of whales and hummingbirds and watching kids watch giant sturgeon and soccer and police blotters and Hemmingway and writing and how-to-find-a-job and religion and Mt. Hood. Our lunch breathed some new excitement and energy and inspiration into me.
For this I am very grateful.

It got me thinking about writing. And about thinking. . . about how our questions define us, about why searching, why longing, why wondering, matters. Why it is worth the heartache. It got me thinking about how if we don't stand in our own way, we just may be dazzled by what kind of creatures we are so patently and brilliantly and utterly and wholly and holy capable of becoming…We are capable of anything. And that is really freaking exciting. . .

It also reminded me of one of my favorite little essays, which I shall now share with you.
Brian is a master of the short form essay, and this one is truly worth the read:

How We Wrestle Is Who We Are
By Brian Doyle
from the January/February 2005 issue of Orion magazine

MY SON LIAM was born ten years ago. He looked like a cucumber on steroids. He was fat and bald and round as a cucumber on steroids. He looked healthy as a horse. He wasn’t. He was missing a chamber in his heart. You need four rooms in your heart for smooth conduct through this vale of fears and tears, and he only had three, so pretty soon doctors cut him open and iced down his heart and shut it down for an hour while they made repairs, and then when he was about eighteen months old he had another surgery, during which they did more tinkering, and all this slicing and dicing worked, and now he’s ten, and the other day as he and I were having a burping contest he suddenly said, “Explain to me my heart stuff,” which I tried to do, in my usual Boring Dad way, and soon enough he wandered off, I think to beat up his brother, but I sat there remembering.

I remember pacing hospital and house and hills, and thinking that his operations would either work or not and he would either live or die. There was a certain clarity there; I used to crawl into that clarity at night to sleep. But nothing else was clear. I used to think, in those sleepless days and nights, what if they don’t fix him all the way and he’s a cripple all his life, a pale thin kid in a wheelchair who has Crises? What if his brain gets bent? What if he ends up alive but without his mind at all? What then? Who would he be? Would he always be what he might have been? Would I love him still? What if I couldn’t love him? What if he was so damaged that I prayed for him to die? Would those prayers be good or evil?

I don’t have anything sweet or wise to say about those thoughts. I can’t report that God gave me strength to face my fears, or that my wife’s love saved me, or anything cool and poetic like that. I just tell you that I had those thoughts, and they haunt me still. I can’t even push them across the page here and have them sit between you and me unattached to either of us, for they are bound to me always, like the dark fibers of my heart. For our hearts are not pure; our hearts are filled with need and greed as much as with love and grace; and we wrestle with our hearts all the time. The wrestling is who we are. How we wrestle is who we are. What we want to be is never what we are. Not yet. Maybe that’s why we have these relentless engines in our chests, driving us forward toward what we might be.

Eventually my son will need a new heart, a transplant when he’s thirty or forty or so, though Liam said airily the other day that he’s decided to grow a new one from the old one, which I wouldn’t bet against him doing eventually, him being a really remarkable kid. But that made me think: if we could grow new hearts out of old ones, what might we be then? What might we be if we rise and evolve, if we come further down from the brooding trees and out onto the smiling plain, if we unclench the fist and drop the dagger, if we emerge blinking from the fort and the stockade and the prison, if we smash away the steel from around our hearts, if we peel the scales from our eyes, if we do what we say we will do, if we act as if our words really matter, if our words become muscled mercy, if we grow a fifth chamber in our hearts and a seventh and a ninth, and become as if new creatures arisen from our shucked skins, the creatures we are so patently and brilliantly and utterly and wholly and holy capable of becoming…
What then?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Here Comes the Sun

Another perfectly sunny weekend in Portland.
One wonders if the even the rainclouds like weekends off.

So, Beacon Rock State Park. Tremendous spot to spend an afternoon with friends.
Home of osprey, turkey vulture, flicker, and cormorant. Heady with the sweet smell of sticky cottonwood buds. Named for that big, bad 848-foot slab of  volcanic rock on the banks of the Columbia. Apparently this gargantuan andesite plug is one of the largest free standing monoliths in the northern hemisphere. In our own backyard! When the intrepid William and Meriwether hit this point in their western journey, they measured the river tides and marked the rock as the eastern extent of tidal influence on the river, indicating their trip was nearly complete. I'm guessing there was a solid round of high-fives, or at least firm back-slapping, and a general smoke 'em if you got 'em attitude, assuming they were likely long out of whiskey, but yet undaunted.
In 1915 a dude named Henry Biddle bought the rock for a whopping one dollar, which must have been a pretty damn good deal by anyone's standards. Now there are all sorts of crazy metal railings, monkey bars, and switchbacks snaking up to the sweet view from the top.

Ensign GiGi practices nuzzling tactics on Captain Willehag
Down at the riverbank, out on a fishing dock we saw a sea lion. A sea lion! Not, as we prematurely speculated, a small whale. Or an antlerless elk. Or the King of all Beavers. Or a wayward capybara. Or Nessie's cousin. Sea lions come in from the coast and hang out around the Bonneville Dam, gorging on migrating steelhead and salmon. In doing so they piss off a lot of people. Washington State now regulates (as in monitors, relocates, or eliminates) these big pinnipeds. Its what we call an unfortunate situation. On a side note, sea lions have been trained by the U.S. Navy for secret underwater military ops. And they aren't the only animals.

Sittin on the dock of the bay
But, enough about big rocks and animal spies. This day was mostly just about laying in the sun, running in the green grass, getting sunburned, getting happy about it, and propelling various sporting apparatuses to and fro.

I hadn't kicked a soccer ball around for ages. While my heart was totally in it, my legs took a bit of a beating. Lack of appropriate footwear combined with a series of skewed connections between leg and ball (as power knee pops kept drifting into thigh-crushing catapults), has left me with a skull-sized bone bruise and the feeling of being acutely pummeled by a sack of air-filled leather. But it was absolutely worth it. Actually, it was pretty delicious.

And all the lions of sea and field smile up at the shining sun