Monday, September 8, 2014

More Irish than the Irish themselves?

     Following the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169, it has often been said that the original English settlers became more Irish than the Irish themselves. After almost three weeks here, some of us are starting to feel the same way. Since arriving, we’ve spent countless hours in a crash-course on Irish history and culture. I’m not sure if it’s possible to absorb an entire culture in three weeks, but our instructors are definitely doing their best to make that happen.

     In addition to time in the lecture hall and the library, we’ve been making a number of cultural excursions. During our first week we were exposed to some modern Irish cinema. Well supplied with popcorn and gummies, we watched Adam and Paul, the story of two homeless addicts wandering the streets of Dublin. Loosely adapted from Waiting for Godot, it has the feel of either a very depressing comedy or a moderately funny tragedy. Its dark, dry humour wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The perspective it presents certainly isn’t the one you would get from the guided tours – and that was exactly the idea. According to Ciaran, one of my favourite professors in the course, the movie was an experiment on their part. We seem to be the guinea pigs this year.

     Our next visit was to Croke Park, the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
The museum at Croke Park.
Home to the All-Ireland finals in both Gaelic football and hurling, it can hold over 82,000 people. Each one of Ireland’s 32 counties puts forth four teams: men’s football, men’s hurling, women’s football, and camogie (women’s hurling). The teams are all amateur – none of the players get paid for playing. All the money the teams make goes back into training, development, and travel. Since the stadium was being prepared for the Penn State-UCF game the next day, this fact started an interesting analysis of the merits of amateur athletics. Our tour took us through the entire stadium, but I was most interested in the mechanics of field. Turns out, they need to use large rolling grow lights because they grass doesn’t get enough natural light to stay in playable condition. And even though it rains almost everyday, they still have a comprehensive watering system. Apparently the field drains so well, in order to remain playable in such wet conditions, that the grass needs to be watered every second day or so. And in order to maintain the field’s usefulness in the colder months, it is fitted with an underground heating system.

     This past week, we had our first introduction to Irish theatre. The show was George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. Part comedy of manners, part satire, part reflection on the nature of violence, the show was both hilarious and quite dark (often at the same time). Are you beginning to sense a pattern here? It played in the Abbey Theatre, the national theatre of Ireland. It is a beautiful proscenium theatre with a single tier of seats. The explosions, lighting design, and set concept were all incredible.

Imposing? Check. 
      On Friday, we took a trip into the past. Loaded onto buses at an ungodly hour of the morning (9am) we headed about an hour out of Dublin. It had all the trappings of a middle school field trip, down to the bagged lunches and chatty girls in the back of the bus. Our first stop was in the small town of Trim, Trim Castle. (They filmed sections of Braveheart on the castle grounds.) The largest Norman castle in Ireland, its grounds cover over three acres and are completely enclosed by a large curtain wall. The central keep stands over three stories tall – dominating the surrounding countryside. It was built in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries by the lords of Meath as the seat of their power along the river Boyne. We had free reign of the castle grounds for an hour before our tour. We explored the foundations of the Great Hall, the cellar, the dock. Taking advantage of the large tower between us and the visitor’s centre, we even managed to scale a section of the curtain wall.

The enemy takes the walls!
     Our tour took us inside the cavernous keep. With walls over 4 metres thick and 50 feet tall, it is an imposing structure. Originally guarded by a garrison over 20 soldiers, along with the lord and his family, it is now only home to a number of sparrows. After receiving a quick history of the castle from our guide, we ascended the spiral staircase. (We were warned to beware of the trip steps, a set of steps slightly smaller than the rest which were designed to – you guessed it – trip an attacking soldier as he ran up the stairs.) The view from the top was absolutely stunning; you can see the remains of four medieval monasteries in the immediate vicinity. Following lunch in the shadow of the walls, we journeyed to the hills of Tara. Home to the ancient High Kings of Ireland, Tara has been used as a ceremonial and burial site for well over two thousand years. Dodging copious amounts of sheep poop, we spent the afternoon exploring the ditches which mark the site. I even hugged the stone that declared the King worthy of joining with the goddess Maeve and ruling all of Ireland. I am not worthy.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Where's the Pasta?

     They say you should use your study abroad time as an opportunity to expand your horizons. In that way, Ireland could be called ‘study abroad lite’ – they all speak English, there’s fairly regular Internet access, and one is never more than a few hundred yards from a pub. But I think such a categorization really does it a disservice. It is definitely a different experience from, say, Germany or Angola in that I’m not constantly trying to think in another language. I can be fairly confident that I just ordered a burger and did not accidentally insult the server’s mother. It is almost possible to feel like I’m still home…almost. Granted, the cars driving down the left side of the road would be a good hint, but it’s the act of constantly being shocked out of my little assumptions that makes the familiarity so jarring. In it’s own way, it opens you up to things you wouldn’t have even thought could be different.
     The grocery store is prime example of this. One of the first things I learned about shopping is that you can always ignore the things stacked on the ends of the aisle. They’re just put there to distract you and anything of importance can be found in its proper place among the aisles if you need it. So when I went looking for pasta the other day, I walked past the section four times because I’ve trained myself to ignore the ends. I finally stopped to get my bearings, only to find the pasta starring me right in the face. When I went to check out the first time, I headed for the self-check out machine – I felt confident about my ability to handle this one. I put down my basket on the right side of the machine, like I’ve been doing at Safeway for years now, only to have the polite, Irish voice from the machine complain about my placement. Only then did I take note of the little signs indicating that one’s basket goes on the left and you bag on the right. Successive trips have been more successful, but I’m trying to stick to the off times until I master the checkout.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

First Days

In case you were wondering, it does rain a
lot in Ireland.
      This semester I am studying abroad at Trinity College Dublin, part of the University of Dublin, in Dublin, Ireland. Again, just to be clear, I’m in Dublin. Our semester begins with a three-week international orientation, so right now the only people on campus are tourists and the 80 or so international students. We’ve spent the first few days getting used to the area, trying to figure out where to get food, and how to access the Internet. That last one has proved to be the most challenge aspect so far – one so quickly forgets what it is like to live with only a wired connection (no Wi-Fi in the dorms). Given that the College is approaching it’s 450th anniversary, I just pleased that there’s Internet to be found anywhere.

      Our orientation is an academic, as well as a cultural, program. Even so, there are only three hours of class scheduled everyday. The rest of our time is our own. We’re encouraged to explore, but most of us have spent most of the past few days in the IT center or setting up bank accounts. Aside from learning that most of the decorative, carved stone pieces on post-invasion Anglo-Norman churches in Ireland were actually imported from quarries around Bristol, the most important thing we’ve discovered so far is that the small changes are the ones you notice the most. Even if they speak the same language and prefer the same color for sweaters, things will still be unexpectedly different. Some things are obvious and can be prepared for: 58° weather in August – everyday, at least two hours of rain – everyday, different colored money. It’s the small things that have tripped me up the most. What side of the stairs do you walk up? (It’s still the right side.) Do you tip in a pub? (Bartender – no, Wait staff – yes.) Which way do you look before crossing the street? (Right, then left, then right again. I don’t know if I’ll figure that one out. I’m simply doomed to the awkward head-swivel for the next few months.)

Grey and green, Ireland's national colors.
      If you are able to suppress the constant fear of getting run over, Dublin is an absolutely wonderful city. The dorms we’re staying in are about 4 km from main campus, in Dartry, which is technically outside of Dublin proper. The walk to campus is almost a straight shot down Rathmines and Harcourt Streets, providing a tour of Dublin’s residential and commercial districts. I think we pass at least 10 pubs in the first twenty minutes alone. Trinity College itself is located right in the city centre, next to the National Gallery and National Museum. A spike-topped wall rings campus, while most of the buildings match the grey of sky. It’s my ideal college aesthetic.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What Makes an Internship?

       Perhaps one of the most important parts of the experiences during college isn’t at college at all; it’s at an internship off-campus. It is generally assumed that you will do at least one internship while at school – although the more ambitious among us seem to manage at least six or seven. What exactly these can entail varies widely. You could find yourself answering phone calls and sorting mail in a Congressional basement or planning a full season of concerts for a local venue. If you’re lucky you can scrape some credits out of it, but mostly it’s shameless résumé padding. And of course, just about everyone has very strong opinions about the value and ethicalness of what often amounts to unpaid labor (only the lucky few manage to find a paying gig).
       I am winding down my internship – my second this summer – with the Naval History and Heritage
Command (NHHC) next week. After a minor panic a few weeks before the semester ended, when it looked like I was facing the societally-unacceptable prospect of my second summer without an
The NHHC Seal is pretty imposing.
internship, I managed to piece together an intellectually interesting summer. The first half was spent as a research assistant to a professor. I helped him write a major article by reading and annotating old volumes of a major historical journal. (The head-shaking motion you’re making right now is the usual response to that comment, especially when I mention that I read 100 years of said journal.) After several weeks of this, I discovered I was still having fun. Over the course of explaining my choice of employment at least ten times a week, I realized that was a good sign. If I could enjoy doing the drudgework of history as well as the really exciting stuff, maybe I really did like history. The word vocation might have been thrown around, but I can’t confirm that. My work at the NHHC has been of a similar stock, if in an entirely realm. June was spent investigating twentieth-century church historiography. July and August, naval provisioning during the American Revolution and the abolition of prize money for American naval officers. For a military outfit, I’ve been given a wonderful amount of freedom to explore these topics – albeit so that I could do the grunt work which my boss doesn’t want to do.
       I’ve learned a number of things from my historical summer. First, I am not destined for a regular office job. I cannot wake up everyday at 6 a.m. and be functional. And I just can’t get caught sleeping by my boss one more time. Second, I actually enjoy history. Who’d have ever guessed that? And third, when given the option, I infinitely prefer getting paid to working for free.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Antarticum

     Before the Seventy-Fifth Holy Penguin Empire there was the Seventy-Fourth Holy Penguin Empire. Before that came the Seventy-Third Holy Penguin Empire and before that the Seventy-Second. Some time before that came the Forty-Third Most Holy & Frigid Empire, so named because it included several other bird species in addition to penguins. Between the Twenty-Second Holy Penguin Empire and the period widely known as the Third Penguin Apostasy reigned the Twenty-First Very Holy Penguin Empire, which everyone agreed wasn’t very holy at all. The Third Penguin Empire has long been famed for its historic building program – the palaces it created were still being used through the middle period of the Sixty-Fifth Holy Penguin Empire. The First Holy Penguin Empire is known to us only through the writings of Sylvester, the great bard of the Ninth Holy Penguin Empire, who recorded the oral tradition of his time in a seven-book work entitled The Antarticum.
     By the time of the Seventy-Fifth Holy Penguin Empire, most penguins had come to accept the Empire as something that had always and would forever be. And while the Empire might control ever aspect of their lives, the penguins didn’t mind so long as they were allowed free access to the fishing grounds. Even the highest figures in the Empire had long since forgotten the struggles of the First, Second, and Third Apostasies and sat blissfully ignorant of the uncertain nature of their power. Of course the tradition held that the Empire was divinely ordained before the beginning of time and that all power flowed from the Great Orb to the Rather Impressive Tower at the Pole to the less impressive, but still moderately intriguing Shadow Staffs of the high priests in the temple. They inaugurated the beginning of each new Empire and chose the Holy Penguin Emperor every seven years. The tradition also held that the Emperor was the supreme power in the land, but everyone knew the high priests ran the show.
     So when Aloysius XI mysteriously vanished after a dispute with the High Council, most of the penguins figure the priests were behind it. There was some mumbling when they appointed the Emperor’s old minister for Fish & Sub-Aquatic Affairs to be the next ruler, but generally life went on as normal. Then one day some of the younger penguins at the fishing ground disappeared. At first none of the other penguins thought anything of it. If you were going to play too far from shore, it was your own fault. But then the next day more young penguins went missing. A few days after that no young penguin could be found who was willing to step into the water. Every penguin was whispering to her neighbor – some blaming the young penguins for their impetuousness, others the whales off the northern shore, and still others some unknown sinister force. But then the older penguins started disappearing too. Now a great concern arose. It was obvious that neither whales nor over-exuberance was taking the older penguins. One does not become an old penguin without learning caution. Eventually no penguins would go in the water at all. Soon the fish stockpile ran out. Desperation set in. And all the while the Emperor did nothing. The High Council did nothing. And the high priests did nothing. So the penguins rebelled. Overthrew the Holy Penguin Empire and tossed the government officials into the ocean.
     A few days later a spaceship appeared and took all of the penguins to safety. The end.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Cruel Mistress Time

With a stressful semester blending into busy summer, writing has been a challenge recently. So my lovely girlfriend and I decided to turn it into an actual challenge. A prompt is handed out and work must be returned. No exceptions. The goal is simply to write, without overthinking the exercise, and release what you come up with, regardless of quality.

Structure: Elizabethan Sonnet (For the record, iambic pentameter is difficult...)
Inspiration: Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory

Cruel Mistress Time

Before the clock struck six the ants awoke
Sun’s light, that rude alarm, unceasing chimes
Cruel mistress day, with overbearing yoke
Reminding them their time is only time’s.

Once-shadowed lands with desert pallor glow
As pools of murky ether onward loom
Sight, touch, and memory lost long ago
Our knowing friends their bury’ng ground assume.

Wicked heat, long death, runs into pale black
Incarnate symbol brings welcome relief
At six again the melted clocks go slack
Ants trudge along, evinced without belief.

For who created time, time does control
All chained to timeless master, absent soul.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

First Try

(Scene opens on a man, sitting alone, typing of his iPhone. You hear the tapping of the ‘keys.’) 

MAN: Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there. Shit. No - Sorry, I’ve just met you and already I’m lying. I did see you there. I saw you almost a whole minute ago. How could I not? I’d recognize that backpack anywhere. It’s the one that rests three rows back, four chairs over – always propped up before I come in. Not that I’ve noticed…or anything. So no, I did see you there, but I’m pretending to do something important on my phone so we don’t have to do that thing where we see each other in the distance and then spend the next thirty seconds trying to figure out if we’re going to: A) Stop and chat B) Nod or say hello or smile at each other but keep walking C) Call the wave enough and astutely avoid eye contact. The problem is that I’ve never met you. True, I can recognize you by your backpack and true I’ve spent every Tuesday and Thursday between 2:00 and 3:15 sitting five feet away from you. But we’ve never actually met – I think they used to call it being formally introduced. The other problem is that I think you’re really smart. And talented. And beautiful. And you have an absolutely stunning voice and total command of any room you’re in and an ability to articulate your thoughts that rivals anyone I’ve ever met and…which intimidates me. All of which is why I’m opt for D) Staring intently at my phone. That way, when you walk by, I can pretend to glance up and smile at you. Surprised to see you. But without that awkwardness. And you can just keep walking and I can just keep sitting here and we can both feel like we’ve fulfilled out societal obligations for the day.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Not So Triumphant Return

You see her everyday in the hallway. You pass him on the front lawn after lunch every Tuesday. They wave. We nod. Always smile – never stop to talk.

On the first day next semester, she walks into your first class. He sits down next to you in your second. How do you say hello to someone you’ve seen everyday for a year and never asked their name?

 I don’t know how to come back to a project that I’ve left fallow for so long. Do I apologize or allude to the absence or do I simply ignore it and begin where I left off those many months ago? I’m not sure what the best option is, so I’ll try to hit all them as I work my way through. First off, let me apologize for the dearth of posts this past year. It has been an absolutely draining two semesters. Between an overwhelming lack of time and surprising lack of motivation, I have forgotten the promise I made myself to write. And so I stand humbled before you – as I once again resume this.

Here I am ignoring it. It’s good to be back.

A Final 'Update By Position'

We’ve been tech-ing all year 
With our lights and our schandles 
We’ve built many sets 
Without too many scandals 

You’ve accomplished great things 
You should all be quite proud 
Roofs tied up with strings 
We were certainly wowed

There was an embassy room 
Full of Communist trimming 
And a shop with perfume 
And new dimmers for dimming 

Tech tables galore 
That are soon to appear 
We even painted the door 
Though that took the whole year

We have spent all our dough 
And the season is through 
So there, now you know 
We’ve been Board 162