Thursday, January 12, 2006

Mark of Coincidence

One evening, shortly after I had arrived in Hawaii and we had found our place in Kaneohe, my friend and I stopped at Aloha Tower to get a beer. We had been surfing, or rather he had been surfing and I had been bobbing around in the water like a champagne cork. Our heads were full of seawater and our skeleton-muscular systems were fairly exhausted. Aloha Tower has a pub there that brews its own beer; it’s one of the mainland franchises of Gordon-Biersch. It’s a bit upscale, but the beer is good and the scenery is fantastic- it’s at Waikiki overlooking the beach and Diamond Head.

My friend and I were catching up on time spent away in the interim since college. He had traveled and so had I. He was telling me what it was like to live and work on a farm in northern Europe and I was telling him what the Peace Corps was like. I was trying to describe the tribal markings the Akan people used, and he wasn’t understanding. I tried to think of a better way to describe it, and in my searching for words my eyes darted around the beer garden.

Strangely, at the next table I saw a black guy with an Ashanti tribal mark. He was in a group of guys all wearing the same kind of t-shirts and hats. They had obviously just gotten off work and were having a “pau hana” beer. I told my friend to look at the next table and he would see what I was talking about. He looked and then said that there was a black guy with a scar, true enough, but there are so few black people in the islands that it was virtually impossible that an Ashanti was sitting at the next table as we were discussing the ritual scarring. Told him that that was probably true, but there he was nonetheless.

My curiosity got the best of me and I had to go and ask him. I asked where he was from and he said that he was Hawaiian. Everybody at his table laughed, and he asked why I wanted to know. I told him that I was describing Ashanti tribal marks to my friend and that I saw that the mark he had was definitely the same as an Ashanti tribal mark. Odd that it would be on a black Hawaiian. He was flabbergasted that I knew the mark, and when we carried on the rest of the conversation in fluent Ashanti he was truly beyond belief.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Isle of Arran- Scotland

From the island series...

There is an island off the west coast of Scotland called Arran. You can get there by taking the ferry from Greenock, it's not far from Port Glasgow. When I was a college kid almost twenty years ago now I went to that island with three friends, and we had a wild time.

There wasn't much wild to do on the Isle of Arran. We didn't stay out all night chatting up girls or dancing to flashy beat music. But the island was wild, the weather was wild, and anyone lucky enough to be caught out in it had better be wild too, or suffer.

There were a couple of tiny villages ringing the island on the one road. I remember Catacall and Pirnmill, but can't remember the other one or two. It was a miracle that we got out to the island at all. After living in Cork where the accent was very lilting I could barely understand the Scottish burr. It may sound odd, but that is completely true, I really couldn't understand everything the Scottish country people would say. Luckily, one of our friends' mother is Scottish, and he could understand everything all the time. It was as if they were speaking a different language and he understood it. I was amazed.

We took a choppy North Sea ferry from the mainland to the island and decided to have a look around. The landscape made a very stark impression. I can see it with my mind's eye, but I cannot at all describe it. It was beautiful the way a mournful uilean pipe solo is, unique and poignant. One had the feeling that all of the fertile, fecund, steaming places in the world could never undo the frosty, lonely rock on which you stood. On which you were priveleged to stand. This was the only time I had ever gone away for Spring Break, and I was instantly glad that I had come.

We tried to find the youth hostel that was in somebody's guidebook and learned that it was in a different village. We did more detective work and found out that there was a bus that would ring the island once a day if the driver felt like going. We strolled around while waiting for the bus. We ducked into a tiny shop for ham sandwiches and lucozade. We watched the see grow more and more angry as we boarded the bus that finally came.

We arrived in the village and found the hostel, but we couldn't all afford to stay there. In the dimming twilight the friend I was staying with in Ireland and I lit out to find a place to pitch our tent. We found what seemed to be a perfect spot. It was protected from the wind on three sides and had a deep bed of moss supporting the floor and easing the back. We went back to the others and stepped out for a pint. The ale was numbing. I could feel my bones being pulled inexorably toward the center of the earth through the wooden chairs next to the mumbling coal fire. Eventually we had to brave the cold and dark to find the tent again.

We fell into our sleeping bags and shivered off to sleep until, in the middle of the night, a torrential rain began to fall. We learned that the rock faces that protected us from the wind also channeled the rainwater into a waterfall as voluminous as an open spigot. That was why the moss had flourished there. We got out in the dark, cold rain and fumbled for the spikes until we found and dug them all up and could move the tent as a piece. We were soakded through by the time we crawled back into the sleeping bags, and we lay there silently shivering, neither of us asleep but both of us dead tired.

I got out of the tent at first light and walked to the headland. Clouds were partly obscuring the rising sun and some of the landscape was bathed in a new glow while some was being clawed back down into the gloom of night. There were short whitecaps all over the sea. Clouds were headed toward the island with columns of snow and rain streaming down to the ocean that looked like grey fabric hanging off of them. I went back to the tent to find it empty.

I started back toward the village where the hostel was. I found that the pub had opened to serve coffee and tea and all of my friends were in there wondering what happened to me. My camping friend and I tried to get as close to the fire as we could without falling in and we clutched the steaming mugs until the liquid inside was cold, trying to eke out every last calorie of heat. The well rested two wanted to try for the bus to explore the remainder of the island.

We waited outside for the bus to come and could see the storm clouds I told them about coming in. When they got close enough that we could easily see that it was snow, and not rain, two of them jumped into a phone booth that offered the only shelter. My camping friend and I just turned up our collars and bowed our heads against the North Sea squall. The wind blasted the heavy wet flakes into any exposed flesh and you could feel them hit, like tiny snowballs. The wind was so strong that you had to struggle against it to breathe. The frigid tempest made everything else go away, until you were only a bundle of neurons struggling to fire enough synapse off to keep up with the squall response, existing as a series of connected moments. It was pretty intense.

Finally the only bus came, but someone had left to find a restroom. Two people got on the bus, pointing out that if you didn't get on this one, there was no other behind it. I went to find the other, and the bus left. I finally did find her, and we had a great day exploring the island, and we did make it to the other side after all. She had come to see Ireland and Scotland, but she had also come to see me. When we found an old manor that had been converted into a B&B she took some of her vacation money saved up expressly for this purpose and got us a room for the night. The building was ancient and the decorating motif was antique. There were no other guests, so we had the run of the place. The old couple who were caretaking seemed to find us amusing, as we did they. They were our friends by the time we left.

I always wanted to go back to that very same place, but was windblown here and there. I would still go back if I could. I wonder if it's still the same.

Clondalkin to Cape Coast

Another repeat...

There is a song by Johnny Clegg, a white South African, called “Jericho”. In the refrain of the song he sings that, “…we are the prisoners of the prisoners we have taken…” During a concert he explained the meaning of that line. The act of taking a prisoner makes you a jailer, regardless of what you would like to be. The interaction with the “other” elicits conditioned responses, limiting you to a certain set of behaviors. He said that without the consent of the bulk of the white populace in his country the power structure overcommitted itself to become a police state.
The idea is that the commission of certain acts or the pursuit of certain policies has consequences on a societal level as well as a personal level. Often trends in society have sociological repercussions that result in crises in individual lives; suicide, deviance, or one of the all too prevalent forms of madness. Nowhere are these personal tragedies more clearly tied to societal machinations than in the U.S.A.
When my family goes to Ghana we stop in the town of El Mina to revisit the spot where my wife and I honeymooned. Without exception I see African-American tourists in either El Mina or Cape Coast, and I often overhear them talking about “these people” in terms of what “these people” eat, how “these people” treat women, or the squalor in which “these people” seem content to live. Every time I see African-American tourists they are happy to tell anyone who will listen which creature comforts they miss and how good they will feel when they get back to Chicago, or New York, or Philadelphia, without fail. The locals call them “white men”, and the African-Americans may never find out.
The non African-American Americans that go to Ghana do not complain as much. They have gone to Africa to experience destitution and life where the masses live close to nature. They are in search of adventure, and that twinge of discomfort reminds them that they have found it; or they are in the service of their Lord and welcome the opportunity to prove their piety through worldly suffering. The African-Americans, though, are expecting to be welcomed home as brethren, and they are not. The experience of the Africans of the diaspora must be similar to the experience I had when I went to Ireland to live. European-Americans call it Third Generation Return Syndrome. The crux of the syndrome is that an ego creates its identity of self based on certain attributes that are not exclusive to the self but are rather based on attributes ascribed to a second tier group, or a group that has an identity affiliation with a parent group. When generalized others from the constituency of the parent group refuse to identify with the self as a co-possessor of the common attributes of the parent group, the subject ego is immediately thrown into a crisis of self identification, i.e., I am Irish-American because I possess strictly Irish traits, but when Irish (significant and) generalized others fail to validate my Irish traits they strip me of my adjective, rendering me American alone. This occurs with some regularity in expatriated communities and there is a recognizable structure to the responses for the ethnic group abroad. The African-American community, however, has been deprived not only of the glaringly obvious connections to the parent group, such as language, indigenous religion, and major cultural traits, but also of the nuanced connections that serve to solidify personal relationships. African-Americans have had to create an “African-American-ness” based solely on the experience of the diaspora. If African immigration were to have followed the pattern of European immigration then there would be Yoruba-Americans, Akan-Americans, and Sahelian-Americans.
The world will eventually reach a level of heterogeneity such that major population centers everywhere will present such a high level of integration that the term “diversity” will be used to express the gamut of major traits of individuals as persons, such as weight, personality preference, or rate of acceleration of development. Difficulties caused by peoples’ reactions to differences in skin color will diminish with an inversely proportional relationship to the level of integration and the frequency of interaction with groups identified as “others”. By then, though, I’ll be sitting on a tropical beach with a good book and a cold beer, secure in the propriety of my relationships and confident in the progress of racial relations; at least of the ones in my house.


Also previously posted in Othering

I went north with two of my roommates and two German friends. One of my roommates was from Antrim, and we were to stay at his parents’ house over Easter. The rest of the long weekend we were staying in the empty dorms at QUB, where our host had gotten his undergraduate degree.

We drove north from Cork in a German car in a good mood, stopping to take photos of tourists’ points of interest and having lunch somewhere in the midlands. It took us the better part of the day to reach the border at Newry, and when we did, we saw it in all of its late eighties glory. There was a fortified roadblock manned by nervous looking kids who were younger than us. They had German shepherds and mirrors on long poles. They had very large assault rifles that they never put down. The kid with the thick Cockney accent approached the passenger side of the car, insisting that the window be rolled down, and assuming that the driver would be there because the steering wheel is on the other side of German cars, like American cars. Our friend Kieran from Antrim was in the front seat and rolled down the window and leaned back so the soldier could talk to the driver. The German driver was challenged with English, so we assumed the native northerner would do the talking. He never said a single word. The soldier got flustered talking over him and went around to the other side of the car. By this time his compatriots had taken the license number to run through the computer and had not found it listed, because the car was registered on the continent, not in the islands. This brought on the dogs and the mirrors. I felt bad for the kid because he couldn’t make himself understood and he didn’t know what to do with us. Then I realized that if he got too upset then we might have more problems than he did.

Eventually it was communicated that we were tourists from the south, and that we all originated in other countries. The native northerner just nodded when asked if we were all foreigners. They made note of it and let us through. Once we were through the checkpoint the driver had some very choice words for Kieran, mostly monosyllabic, but we got the gist that he was upset that assistance was not forthcoming. Kieran explained that it would have been more problematic if he had offered his assistance because they would have demanded his ID and seen his Catholic name and gotten it into their heads to keep them all for questioning until they sorted out what was going on. This guy was the most disingenuous, down to earth person who you knew could never ever, entertain the thought of deceiving anyone, but this act had come as naturally as laughing at a stupid joke to him- he was conditioned. That was our first impression of Northern Ireland; guns, dogs, tension, and conflict. For the rest of the weekend that impression was not to change.

As soon as we passed the checkpoint we could tell the country was different. It had a much bigger feel to it. There were bigger buildings, bigger houses, wider streets, working traffic lights, and the townships we passed through were better developed. The mailboxes were all red and the police wore different uniforms; the branding of the nation was distinctly different.

My memory here is imperfect, so please take the following glimpses of memory and impressions:

Helicopters: We got into the city and Kieran directed the driver through a maze of city streets precisely to the University where we would stay. Once we got into the city we could hear helicopters overhead. This was a sound we hadn’t heard for months on end in the south, because there were no helicopters in Cork, for ambulances or for reporting the traffic. The helicopters in Belfast were military helicopters that stayed low to the ground and patrolled constantly. The helicopters we had heard back home were completely different. Comparatively, the British Army helicopters were behemoths that made a terrible racket. The helicopters didn’t stop flying the whole time we were there. They made it hard to sleep.

Paisley: One day while traipsing around looking at things we saw a large gathering of people. They had gathered to hear the Reverend Ian Paisley speak. We got near enough to hear that we couldn’t understand his accent. Kieran understood him, but did not want to listen. He translated some bigotry for us and soon we were queasy from knowing that his audience believed his tripe. Kieran told us that Paisley was the safest man in Belfast because he cast his people in such a bad light for the international media. I got the idea that his people, like white South Africans or Israeli settlers, felt so secure in the rightness of their actions that they just didn’t care what anyone thought.

Police Station: There was a police station directly across from the University. It was a fortress. It had high walls and blast proof windows. There was concertina wire all around the top. The personnel going in and out were armed to the teeth, in stark juxtaposition to the gentle gardai we had seen down south, holding the leashes of attack dogs. The constant drone of the helicopters overhead completed the picture. The impression was one you could imagine from an old film about the Nazi occupation of Paris. Even I felt a psychological impact from the overt show of force. It was not left to the imagination that the “government” could perpetrate acts of violence against the population at any time.

Barfight: I saw the first barfight I had ever seen in a three story pub near the University. They had a traditional pub on the first floor, the second floor was like a disco, and the third floor had a live band. Kieran knew one of the guys in the band so we went to the top floor for a few beers and some relaxation. I got bored and went to the bogs, winding my way down the stairs to look in on the other two bars for the hell of it. While I was in the stairwell between the second and third floors (the Irish would say the ground floor and the first story) a squad of police in full body armor and face shields crowded the landing and burst into the disco level. They left one guy holding the door open, and no sooner had they entered than they were leaving, with two flushed and dishevelled young men restrained and being removed not under their own power. I looked out the window and saw the armoured car that awaited them, running and with the hatch open with an armoured rifleman standing guard. I learned that this was barfight between two individuals fighting over a woman (surprise, surprise), but that they were known to be from different camps. In my mind these police may not have been the good guys, but they were definitely professional and efficient. I returned to the third floor and raised a glass and toasted with the Irish, “Slainte,” and Kieran immediately said, “Cheers,” loud enough to be heard by anyone who had heard me. I found that I was not particularly good at being oppressed.

Attitude and Safety: By the end of our time in Belfast my American friend and I had been travelling for the better part of a week without the benefit of razors or Laundromats. We were both poor college kids who had been living in Ireland for some time. We had supplied ourselves with a lot of clothes that were appropriate to the weather by patronizing the second hand clothes stalls at the quays in Cork. Because of this we were dressed in the fashion of poor Irishmen. We are both ethnically Irish as well, so we looked very Irish. One day in the city we were away from the rest of the group and we were standing on a street corner where one of the many armored cars had stopped at a light. The top hatch gunner was riding at his post and had looked down on us and started to make the sheep noise, “Baa, baa, baa-aaa.” This is a common insult in Ireland; I don’t think I need to explain it. It struck me that he was insulting us because we were Irish, or rather, he thought we were Irish. He certainly wasn’t fooling around like you would with an old friend; he was trying to separate us from him, dehumanizing us so that us “Paddies” would be OK to shoot. After all, he had come all that way and done all that training. The light turned and the armored car sped away before we could assimilate what had happened and react. It was a good thing, too, because I’m sure one or the other of us would have done something rash. I hated him, and by extension everybody like him. In that minute I hated the police holed up in their fortress, I hated the military on the ground and in the air, and I hated all the people who looked like regular people but who were secretly hating me because of my name and my look. I was fully prepared to perpetuate the cycle of violence, because I was angry, and I didn’t even lose a family member or get wrongly incarcerated for any length of time. I had a much lower tolerance for it than I had encouraged northerners to have in prior political conversations.

Later, it may have even been that very same day, my friend and I were lost wandering aimlessly around the city. As it turns out, Belfast in ’88 wasn’t the best place for that. We wandered down a long lane that had nobody on it. The evening gloaming was coming on, and nobody was out. There were graffiti on the walls and trash in the gutters. We walked slowly, trying to get our bearings, but still looking like the world famous Irish poor. We came to the end of the side street and found light at the juncture of a larger, if not major, thoroughfare and turned to get our bearings again. In the shadows in a doorway there was a sniper crouching, and following us with his scope, his rifle trained on our backs or heads. We talked each other around the corner, and I was angry again.

We went to shop for comic books and browsed Kieran’s favorite comic shop for about an hour. Then next day, in the dorm at QUB, we saw the same wall we were leaning against on the TV news, covered with the blood of a bombing victim.

When we were in Kieran’s hometown, a village really, preparing for Easter mass, we were pretty far from any large city, but we were in the same area as Enniskillen, where a major bombing had taken place a year earlier. As we walked to church with all the other families dressed in their Easter best we were eyed by police and soldiers with rifles, assault weapons, and attack dogs. They were not there to protect us, they were there to protect themselves from us. The IRA bombing was wrong and bad, but being marched to church like a prisoner of war was also wrong.

Impact: When I returned south and spoke to my cousins about the trip they spoke to me as one would to a school child who is first discovering that the world is not fair, or to a junior high kid who was jilted at his first dance. They were life long veterans of the conflict, but in a much different way than the people in Belfast. They were tired of the Republican factions in the north trying to drag the whole country into a conflict that would surely extinguish its sovereignty. They wanted to move past the armed struggle and towards a lasting political solution, and all of their arguments were logical and well thought out, and sensible. But something I have not forgotten is the visceral reaction to the insults, the implied authority over life and death, the imposition of a false fealty to an obvious oppressor. I got the feeling that if I were raised there and had to choose between living like that or any other alternative, that I may have chosen any other alternative.

When I returned to the U.S. and tried to talk to the “Irish” in Massachusetts I got no condescension to my naïveté. They could not understand what I was talking about at all. They could not formulate informed arguments one way or the other. They had no context from which to frame their perspective. They knew generally that long ago the British had done bad things, but they didn’t know what the bad things were and they didn’t know about the bad things done by the Irish against the Irish. What I found most shocking was that most Irish-Americans didn’t realize the scope of the troubles. In Ireland we would hear about a killing in the north almost every night on RTE 1. Eventually I stopped talking about it. In the later years of my late brother’s life he became intensely interested in his Irish heritage, but by then my ardor for the social justice aspects of the originating culture had cooled.

What Bernie Taught Me

This one was previously posted in Othering...

I have six older brothers, and when I became a teenager I thought it best to learn to fight. I took boxing lessons and started boxing at a gym not far from my house. My hometown is famous for boxing, so there are plenty of places to box, if you are of a mind to do so. I boxed through high school, and when it came time to go away to college I boxed there too. I could go on for pages and pages about boxing, but this story isn’t solely about boxing, it is about a cross cultural experience at the basest level. This cross cultural experience stuck with me and really gave me more of an education than I had expected to get at UCC.

When I went to University College, Cork, I joined the boxing club. It took me a while to get around to it, but I knew that I eventually would. I took the time to sightsee and to do the more traditional things that exchange students do, and when it was time to settle into a routine I found the boxing club. To tell the truth, I took long hiatuses from the boxing in order to travel around and to spend time with new friends, but boxing was a worthwhile thing to do, if only for the lesson I learned during one bout.

I had befriended and been befriended by the captain of the boxing team, a guy named Trevor Hayes, who was a concert pianist and a pre-med student. Why he wanted to jeopardize his hands by boxing I’ll never know. He kept cajoling me at first to join the club, and when I had joined, to spar with the fighters. Boxing is what boxing is all about, so I sparred with the other guys, trying to keep to the coach’s guideline that bouts are won by points, and that fighters should focus on scoring points, not knocking the opponent unconscious. That’s the way it was while sparring.

We sparred quite frequently, at the end of the club’s training sessions, and if someone did not want to participate then he was not required to participate. After only a few sessions I noticed something that I never said aloud, and never would. I was a better boxer than eighty percent of the fighters there.

The coaching and the facilities were not up to the same par as the club’s U.S. counterparts. The club coaches in Brockton and at UMass had a tremendous amount of experience and expertise both in the ring themselves (which is important) and as expert observers (which is more important). The Irish club didn’t have a weight room or any of the equipment specific to a boxing training regimen, such as medicine balls, weighted gloves, or duck-ropes. Back home, thirty percent of the training time was spent reviewing and dissecting techniques, doing reflex exercises, and working to undo habits. In Ireland we worked out with callisthenics and abdominal exercises, did some bag work, and sparred.

It is easy to tell who does and does not have a lot of experience in the ring. The thing that you look for is coverage. Someone who has frequently been in boxing matches knows that the fighter gets hit the most when he is throwing a punch. An experienced boxer will offer as little of his body unprotected as possible, will keep his head down but eyes up (covering his neck), clenches his teeth properly, forcefully exhales while delivering, and can sustain a hit and still deliver a combination on rhythm.

When I sparred with the Irish guys they couldn’t hit me as much as they wanted to, and when they did, it didn’t satisfy them as much because they would get my shoulders, upper arms, or gloves more often than they’d get their targets. I would be able to put gloves on their score zones when they didn’t think I could, because the average Irish boxer at UCC stopped throwing punches when they were getting hit. At first they were surprised, but then they complimented me on my abilities by saying that they wanted to see me beaten. Trevor and I worked up to a match to decide who the best boxer in the club was, but that is a story for another time.

The UCC boxing club had a meet with a club from an agricultural school from Kerry. We trained for it and shared our secrets with each other like warriors going into battle. I told each of the guys what I noticed about them, what their “tells” were, and they shared with me. There was some discussion as to whether or not I would participate, some saying that because I was not a regular student I shouldn’t be included. That was fine with me. No matter what the coach said, I knew this meet would be bloody. This was a rivalry between entities that would not interact again for a year. The opponents had no impetus to restrain themselves, and neither did we.

I was put on the slate and the opposing club had no complaints, so I was assigned an opponent by weight class. We were the third bout, so I had the opportunity to look him over. His name was Bernie, and Trevor knew him from previous meets. According to Trevor he was a big dumb country boy who thought he should fight because he was strong. That gave me something to think about. Bernie was about six inches shorter than me, but he outweighed me by at least twenty pounds, and he was not at all fat. He looked like a hurdler that someone dropped an anvil on from twenty stories up. A true fireplug. I knew how to use reach, agility, and foot and hand speed to rack up points, but I had a strange feeling going into this bout.

It is normal to fear physical pain and injury. Anyone who does not fear pain and injury has a form of psychosis, which can cause the person to die prematurely. Boxers, the ones I knew anyway, had healthy doses of fear and nerves before bouts, but never to the point of debilitating the fighter. Again, this is a function of experience. When a boxer is new to the sport he may be preoccupied with injury and pain. Eventually, though, one learns that injury and pain are inevitable, and that preoccupying oneself with them increases one’s chances of sustaining injuries and feeling pain. So a boxer’s anxiety dims and fear becomes a background sense, more of a heightened sense of awareness than abject terror. I saw Bernie from that perspective, but I also had a different feeling. He looked like he had something to prove. He was cocky and arrogant. He had obviously worked on his considerable strength, and there was no getting around the fact that he was short. I was not the underdog. The gossip that flies around a meet must have come to Bernie; I had overheard “Yank” in the conversational buzz.

We watched the first two three round bouts and cheered on our club-mates. By the time we were stepping into the ring we were one hundred percent in the moment. We met in the middle of the ring and he was trying to make a point of appearing ferocious and hard-eyed. He fought me and I boxed him. I landed my gloves on him over and over as he tried to get close to me. I had conditioned him to expect head shots as he tried to get in range to land his own combos. I would score points on him and by the time he got under my reach I slipped the corner and was back in open ring. It frustrated him mightily, and he became predictable. I used his predictability to land some body blows on him to try to get his arms down, but they didn’t come down. In the second round I was fairly tired and I tried to give him more of the same, but my fleetness afoot left me for a while, and when I tried to lull him into reacting predictably enough to try to take his wind away with body shots he made me pay, big time. He caught me with a hook that physically moved me back in the boxed off corner. All the air in my body expulsed from the force of the blow and snot hung from my nose. I was lucky to keep my mouthpiece in. I was stunned long enough for him to bull his body straight into mine, forcing me against the rope (where he wanted me). He was able to unleash a combination that made best use of his strength and unleashed all of his frustration. I covered up as best I could, which was fairly well because I was no novice at getting my ass kicked, but he hammered my arms and trunk with a force I hadn’t experienced since my first year of boxing. I started to get that suffocating and underwater feeling. I had to get out of there, so I let myself take a hit to the ribs in order to land a blow to his face. A blow to the face often serves to disorient an opponent long enough to make an escape. It did, and I made my escape to open ring. I couldn’t breathe as deeply as before, my feet were flatter. I was hurt and the cajoling teams outside the ring became a roaring din.

I hated not being the underdog. I hated being singled out as a foreigner, and I hated the fact that Bernie had so much support. More than anything I feared Bernie’s strength. He bulled right back to meet me in the center of the ring and I didn’t try to be cute with combinations landing lightly to earn points. I hit him in the head very hard, over and over again. He was at first surprised, thinking perhaps that I couldn’t hit that hard simply because I had theretofore chosen not to. He pursued with more dogged persistence, and I met him and let him under my reach in order to land punishing blows on his head. Soon enough he became muddled, and his decision making faculties began to be compromised. I dropped my guard and delivered blow after blow, and I must admit that I was unsettled. The bell rang.

Trevor and the guys in my corner congratulated me on a good round and Trevor told me that I had to keep fighting my fight. The other guys were telling me to keep doing what I was doing. It entertained them, but Trevor was right. I said that Bernie hit like a bull, and Trevor told me to stay out of his reach. The bell rang, and I went back in.

Bernie had regained his wits and was fighting smart and well, if not cleanly. He committed the fouls of charging, head butting, and rabbit punching in a clinch, but he was doing everything he could to get under my reach and land body shots. I took a couple serious blows and I had my wind taken away. I feared that I would suffer a broken rib or worse. Bernie scared me early in the round, and I decided the best way to deal with the threat was to eliminate it. I decided that I would knock him out. I mustered a rally of my internal resources and rained some head shots on him to cloud his eyes and stuff up his nose. He had his hands up and he was facing where I was standing a moment before, expecting that I was still there. I waited an eternal moment and he did what I knew he would- he dropped his hands and looked up, looking for me. I had a clear and open shot to deliver a haymaker if I wanted to, to give him the coup de grace, and God forgive me, I did. I hit him as hard as I have ever hit anyone, a punishing blow to the left side of his jaw. The sound and tactile sensation were unforgettable, and sickening. I was flabbergasted when he punched back at me. By rights he should’ve been dead. I couldn’t believe it.

He turned toward me and I started to count off combinations. Jab, jab, cross, jab, out. Jab, cross, hook, hook, jab, out. I gave up trying to score; I gave up body blows altogether. The coach from the other club was berating me and the coach of our club. What kind of a savage was I? Would I be wielding a tomahawk in there next? I put it out of my mind. I had to drop Bernie before he hurt me seriously. I know Bernie had the sympathy because my blows were landing on his face and head, but his blows were more devastating to me than mine were to him. Blood came out of his nose, blood came out of contusions inside his cheeks and lips, and each blow would fleck blood on me and clinches were his opportunity to clear his eyes and face by wiping his blood on me in big smearing swaths. I became disgusted with myself and laid back to wait out the round and he pummelled my solar plexus and lights flashed in my peripheral vision. He had indicated that he was not amenable to allowing the bout to end without further gore. I resumed hammering his head until he fell over.

He sort of staggered to the left and it seemed as if he simply forgot to put his other foot down to keep himself up. He wound up sitting and leaning on his outstretched arms with his head hanging. A long gooey line of deep red blood and snot hung from his face. There was a mixture of horror and relief. I had unleashed the atavistic, reptile core of myself in the fight or flight reflex and it had taken over, but at least it was done. The danger stopped. Until Bernie started back to his feet.

Some of the members of his club cheered him on, but others advised him to stay down. By the time he got up the referee took a while before he started the standing eight count. I was about to chalk it up to home field advantage because he was Irish and I was not when I rethought that this was our club’s gym and that I was a home member. I wasn’t allowed to approach him, but from my corner I also advised him to stay down. I think he took it as an insult, when in fact it was good advice to a man I now respected. He got to eight and asked Bernie if he wanted to keep fighting, and he said he did.

I didn’t wait for him to meet me in the center of the ring. I went to him and resumed my effort to put him away. I spared nothing and I knocked him down again. He got up again and I kept at it. Eventually the bell rang, ending the bout. We went to our corners to regain ourselves and to receive our admonishments and congratulations. The scores were added to the teams’ totals and we left the ring. There were a couple of bouts after ours, but ours was the talk of the meet. By the time we left, Bernie looked as if he had been thrown under a truck. His face had begun to swell and the cuts that you could see became visible wounds, not just seeping nicks. No one could easily see my injuries, but I think I got the worst of it. I definitely bruised a rib if not cracked a rib and I couldn’t leave the house the next day. I felt it for weeks.

What Bernie taught me was that I could turn myself into an animal. I didn’t like it, and I quit boxing after that.


I’d like to take a minute (or ten) to share a commuting story. So many of us commute to work on buses and trains and in our own cars. For many of us the commute is the worst part of the day. My most harrowing memories of commuting are definitely the commutes into Boston from the southern suburbs. Route 24 between Brockton and the split is the most congested piece of highway in the country, I’ll bet, and the red line into the city from the Quincy or Braintree is its own kind of nightmare.

I have had some memorable commutes, like the ride into the city of Jeddah on the school’s commuter bus from the compound by the Red Sea. I never had to drive and it was only about twenty-five minutes. Often, though, the sun would be just squeezing out the crescent moon and the off-kilter constellations, and the driver would be bantering in Amharic with my blonde blue-eyed American friend. You could smell the baking unleavened bread through the open windows and in the shadows cars driven by women in abayats looked as if they were remote controlled.

From my grand hovel in Haeundae I had a short, brisk walk to the institute in the morning. Korea is called the Land of the Morning Calm for good reason. One gets the feeling that life in Korea on a typical day starts as it should. When I reached the tangent of the hill that rounded the corner to the institute I had a great view of the hill commanding the panoramic sweep of the beach below. There was always a moment or two to stand quietly and watch the street come to life.

In Ghana there was the walk from my house in Sukum up to the bustling center of Besoro to meet the workmen and find some sustenance before beginning whichever endeavor commanded our attention that day. I will always remember the bleary eyed children wrapped in cloth with chewing sticks protruding from their mouths, staring, stunned, as if someone had just clubbed them. I know they were battling their residual exhaustion in the same way I always did when I had to wake up for school as a child. In their case, though, the exhaustion was caused by improper sleeping quarters and pestilential insects. They were juxtaposed against the older people already in full motion before the world was entirely lit.

My most beautiful commute by far was the ride from Ano’i Rd in Kaneohe to Makawao St in Kailua. I had my own car, which was an 86 Sentra wagon, three speed. I loved that car, even though it picked the most inopportune moments to express its disdain for the world of men. I learned to shift and drink blistering hot coffee at the same time, while keeping my eyes on the road for as little time as possible so I could take in as much of the view as possible. I would leave the mountainside and catch the warm tropical breeze coming off the ocean as I passed some very quaint, country looking shops. There is (or was) a piece of Kaneohe that reminded me very much of northern Vermont, and I loved buzzing through there. I would have hated the fact that I was going to work, except that I knew the best of the ride was yet to come, and I loved my job too. Kaneohe Bay is picture postcard perfect for views. I have seen it on many postcards. When I was commuting it there was almost always a three masted sailing ship docked and waiting to carry its crew back into the days when Kamehameha ruled the island. The Bay is bounded by hills on both sides. The rising sun over that beautiful scene wraps you up in it. No matter how angry or frustrated or depressed you are, you could always count on being happy for that few minutes. Then you go through Kailua which has almost no traffic coming into it; all the cars are headed for the big city and the skyscrapers there. On that last stretch down Makawao St you can see the ocean at the end at Kailua Beach Park. The final part of the commute, and maybe the best part, in my opinion is right after the pledge of allegiance when everyone has his or her head bowed in silence contemplating the prayer. You could clearly hear the soothing respiration of the waves, shared in the company of those with whom you would spend the rest of the day.

Friday, January 06, 2006


I remember being five years old. It was a good many intervening years ago now, filled with plenty of sound and fury. I don’t think it is odd that I remember being five. What may be considered a bit odd is how vividly I remember the experience of being five, committing to being five, and promising myself that I would stay five.

I have six older brothers and three older sisters. My house was always busy while I was growing up- always. There were times when I would be able to get lost in the crowd and get away with not taking a bath for a night, or I would be included in a task that normally would not be given to a five year old, like ferrying tools to a sibling on a ladder. More than once I stayed under the radar and was able to breach my bedtime to watch important events on the news, or to keep watching pivotal games. This is how I come to remember footage of foot soldiers on patrol in Viet Nam.

The year my brother Joe went to first grade and I stayed home I had the entire house to myself. My mother may have been thinking that there was just one child left to send to school before she could begin the next phase of her own life. I was thinking how good it was to have my mother’s attention. I remember being able to say, “Ma” and having her answer. Not that she wouldn’t answer before, but you had to make your voice the one that was heard among all the others in order to get her attention.

I clearly remember leaning against the upright part of the boat trailer hitch piece in our driveway. We had a boat in our driveway most of my young life, and it was always a place to play, if not to sail. I remember thinking that the feeling of calm and contentment that I had day to day during the week was unfamiliar, but was nice. I knew that first grade would start for me the very next year, and that my life would change forever. I could not have put it in those words back then, but I did know it.

I clearly remember telling myself that I wanted to stay five forever, and I knew exactly why. I still know, because I keep reminding myself. I won’t try to put the reason into words, it was largely something that has to be experienced; and even then it is more a sense of being than a knowledge of knowing. Putting words around the experience will do it no justice and in fact may belittle it. But I knew it then, and I know it now, regardless of all of the sound and fury in between. I don’t expect that as the years run on I will forget my promise to myself to stay five forever.

My daughter is five. Sometimes my wife tells me that I talk to her like she is too grown up, like she is far more advanced than a five year old really is. I won’t do her the disservice of insulting her intelligence or underestimating her capacity. I know how aware and alive and engaged she really is, and I know how impressionable, and I know how wondrous. I know from experience that her five will go on forever, and I won’t rob her of the chance to gather up all of the good five that she can, or to arm herself against the coming sound and fury.


I almost fell down a well one day. It was the most frightening three quarters of a second of my life.

It was at an in-service training exercise for water and sanitation volunteers. We learned how to make hollow blocks to line wells. They would be very cost effective and function perfectly. The Peace Corps wanted us to introduce this technology to the masons in the rural communities. In order for us to learn it and be able to pass it on, we had to dig a well and do it experientially.

We had to travel all night to get to the Volta training site, pretty far from the Ashanti site I lived at. We got in really late, but still did some catching up with the other volunteers we hadn’t seen for many months. Morning came quite early.

The cultural tradition in Ewe land is not too terribly different from Akan land. Before starting a major project there has to be a prayer and a libation poured. In the very old days the libation was a ritual sacrifice, but now the drinking of the local moonshine replaced sacrifice.

We all stood in a circle around the beginning of the well the villagers had dug the day or two previously and listened to the fetish priest giving his blessing and rendition of the desired outcome. He talked and talked and talked, and the tropical sun rose in the sky like a marble flung out of a kid’s slingshot. By the time we were finished doing shots the temperature had risen into the nineties.

The digging began again in earnest. We hadn’t slept properly, hadn’t eaten, and had done shots of killer moonshine. Some went into the well and dug, some people had to stand on the two by fours slung across the well hole and lift out the water and rocky mud and pull it out using buckets tied onto long ropes. Some people used the red clay of the open courtyard to form templates for the concrete blocks that would line the well; others mixed the mortar for the blocks.

After some time everybody was starting to dehydrate and water was brought for refreshment. Ewe land is low, and there are marshes everywhere. The standing water that is too brackish to drink has no bacteria. The water that is not too salty to drink has been standing on the surface forever, and is essentially a science experiment waiting to be drunk to release its progeny into the closed system of the unlucky drinker. It is almost a form of torture being desperately thirsty and having water on hand that is just not potable. Some guys went back to do another shot of moonshine to quench their thirst. In case you don’t know, moonshine doesn’t work that way.

People had initially been intended to rotate tasks so as to experience each facet of the operation, but that process quickly deteriorated to people milling around doing whatever they felt like doing. Me and a couple other guys were doing the hard work because we knew it would not get done otherwise. I was standing on the planks over the twenty foot hole pulling up wet rocky mud. It was heavy and the bumping and sloshing of the buckets before me had covered the planks with wet clay. There are probably fair few of the reading audience who have ever walked on wet African clay, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you how slippery it is: it is very slippery. The people who had dug before me did not want to go far before releasing their bucket loads of well bottom, so there was an amphitheater of slick mud built up around the hole, funneling any loose rocks or drunken onlookers right into the twenty foot drop.

Hunger, exhaustion, dehydration, alcohol, heat, all came together to hit me with a bolt of dizziness just as I was trying to crest the apex of the amphitheater to dump a bucket. One of my wafer thin flip flops slid down until I was on one knee holding the full bucket at shoulder height. My entire person, in tableau, began to slide down the hill of unbaked pottery and I kind of snapped to the realization that I was about to fall down a well. It only took a split second, but that split second was enough to leave a lifelong impression. I knew in that instant that there were no medical care facilities within a day’s travel. That’s the thing about getting hurt out in the middle of nowhere- you are at the mercy of God’s creation without benefit of human society. If I fell down that well it would be exactly as if I had fallen from the tree of forbidden fruit in Eden- Eden on the branch, purgatory after impact.

One of the Ewe villagers grabbed my t-shirt and had grabbed the person standing next to him. He knew what was happening. He had been pulled by my substantial weight into the slippery cone as well, but he knew that it would happen, so he had as an act of forethought held onto his neighbor. His neighbor had instinctively held onto the man next to him, and the man next to him instinctively pulled away and in so doing had fallen to the ground. His falling to the ground produced a force that was levered against the fulcrum of the apex of the crap-heap, pulling the whole line of us, and me, to the top. Once I was on the far side of the hill I nearly shat myself thinking of what almost happened.

I nearly shat myself just now, thinking about it again.

The Underside of Beauty

I lived in Haeundae in Pusan. Haeundae is the Beverly Hills of Korea, especially around the beach. I was privileged enough to live in a single room attached to big house. I was slumming it in Beverly Hills. It is hard to be poor among opulence.

One of my opulently wealthy students took me and a friend out for drinks one night. It was after a Friday night class. We all met at the institute and walked to the strip along the beach. We went to a restaurant that had drinking salons upstairs. We had raw fish in the restaurant and then took one of the drinking salons for the evening. A drinking salon is a small private room that has no window and no view. There are guards at the top of the stairs and in the hallway to ensure that no one who is not a paying guest is allowed upstairs. Usually there is a karaoke machine and a hostess will bring in platters with bits of fruit impaled on toothpicks, roasted nuts, and dried squid or other “anju” or drinking snacks. Koreans do not drink without having food on the table. This is true even if the food never gets touched.

The drinking salons also come with the ubiquitous amenity of a young woman who “facilitates” the proceedings. She is not a master of ceremonies. She smiles and laughs and keeps pouring beer and sings along with whomever is at the karaoke machine. I was uncomfortable with the practice of having these women around, because in my mind either something untoward would become of them or in the best case they were objectified and made somehow less of people than they should be. All my American friends who went out with their students thought this practice was at best immoral. It is not in the American character to assume a pretty young woman should be assigned a station where she is a known quantity- no one ever asked these girls their opinion on politics or philosophy. In any case, I knew the people I was with were good people, and they wouldn’t do anything that would cause them to lose face; they knew how I felt about having comfort women around.

After a couple hours of drinking beer and gnawing squid and making a complete mockery of some very bad seventies and eighties tunes, we took our leave. The person who tendered the invitation pays the tab, and my friend and I waited on the top step while the bill was squared away. When we got to the street, the gazillionaire student offered to get me a cab back up the hill to my abode, but my friend and I had been scheming to turn the night out into a long night out, and I respectfully declined.

Out on the street we said our long goodbye, as custom dictated, and went our separate ways. Friday night on the strip was just getting underway. There were tents and kiosks of varying sizes set up around the street that followed the beach. There were mechanical bulls, electric punching bags, and sundry other carnival games set up in and among the noodle stalls and soju vendors. Our plan was to start at one end of the beach and work our way to the other, while eating, drinking, playing games, and killing time. When we got the hotel at the far end of the beach we would go into the Irish bar and drink Guinness and play darts.

To make a story about a very long night shorter, we accomplished all of our objectives. We poured ourselves out of the hotel’s Irish bar sometime before morning and began to trudge along the beach on the sand, shoes in hand, listening to the waves. We came across a clutch of college students who said they were still on the beach because they were simply too drunk to stand up and walk away. They had a small propane burner set up in the sand and they were warming their hands and bottles of soju on it. Two kids had guitars and they invited us to sit and belt out a tune with them. Because I was different, they asked me to play, and I honored them with a ragged version of an old American song they did not know. We all got up to leave when the tide came in on us.

We kept trudging along the beach, with the understanding that when we arrived at the jetty on the far side my friend would catch a cab home and I would continue on up the hill to the frozen postage stamp that was more of my cage than my home. But it didn’t work out that way. My friend pulled out a collapsible fishing rod from his inside suit coat pocket. He said he just wanted to take a couple of quick casts from the end of the jetty before going home. Who leaves work and goes out drinking all night with a fishing rod in their coat? We headed for the jetty.

There was a small shack set up in the nook of the leeward side of the jetty, and when we got close the occupant called to me to join him for a shot and to watch the sun rise. My friend kept looking down, picking his way from concrete jack to concrete jack. I went to greet the occupant of the shack.

I was pulled into the shack by the arm. It was a single small room made of used pieces of wood and bits of iron sheeting. There were three stools around a small table that had a game of goh set up on it. There was a small propane heater in the corner with sets of gloves hung on a rack in front of it. There was a very stout, short man with a very red face sitting on one of the stools contemplating his cards. At first glance it appeared as if his entire body was chapped, and the roundness of his girth was not flaccid weight. He looked like a judo guy who had been left in the weather too long.

I was pointed to the empty stool by the smaller grinning guy who had led me in. I took the seat and we started to communicate in a fumbling way, using both Korean and English. I kept wanting to get up and see where my friend was and I was urged to play out at least one hand of goh. The person who had extended the invitation got a short bottle of soju and pulled snacks out of unopened boxes of cargo. It was then that I noticed that half of the shack was filled with just stuff.

Eventually my friend called to me through the open door of the shack. I had finished a hand or two of goh, had drunk a toast, and had laughed with the Laurel and Hardy of the jetty. They were pretty cool guys, I thought. I went outside to see my friend standing well away from the shack calling to me. He was insistent that we leave right away, and said as little as possible to the others. I took my leave and stumbled off with my buddy.

My friend told me that those guys were gangsters, and that they were stationed there to skim off of the traffic in and out of Haeundae. It made sense to me after he explained it in a little detail. They were obviously there for a while, but they weren’t fishing and they weren’t working. They did have a lot of cargo just piled up. They even had raw fish that they had taken from fishermen.

I thought it odd that there would be such an operation right there in and among the trappings of wealth. As I slowly made my way back home, I noticed that the normal rhythm of the morning had begun and thought it odd that I had turned a Friday night into a bright Saturday morning.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Wake Up Dreaming

I don’t think I can ever forget one night’s interrupted dreaming. I was bone tired and did not want to be burdened with any kind of thoughts. Anyone who has had his sleep interrupted but has not woken up can sympathize with my feelings. There has been a time since, as a graduate student in a very long night class after working an unusually long day, when I began to fall asleep in class. Dream overlay the wake-a-day world of the classroom, and superimposed on actual reality was the incoherent construct of my imperfectly functioning mind. This intrusion of the real world on my sleep was something like it.

I knew that I was in Ireland, at 6 Aldergrove, lying in my bed on my side of the room I shared with John. There were several things going on in my life at that time and in my dream state I was aware of them all. Uncourageously, I did not want to have my rest troubled by them. Though I had been truthful in dealing with the ending of one relationship and the beginning of another, there was some gray area in which I did not practice full disclosure, and it weighed heavily on my conscience. There was also a fight that I had coming up which had been built up in the boxing club to be a battle of behemoths, in which I was to fight one of my good friends. It was a cause of trepidation. There was a definite rift in the house between the Irish and the Americans, not only because we Americans were not afraid of a pint or two, but also because we were not nearly as conservative as the Irish in general; socially, politically, and religiously. Also, I, as most students do, had to pay very close attention to fiscal discipline. All these things came together to harass my mind and keep me from plummeting to the depths of my subconscious, where I could find the sustenance necessary to rejuvenate my mind.

I have seen sleep studies being conducted on public television where the subject has wires attached to his head and there is a monitor that graphs the amount of brainwave activity as an indicator of the level of consciousness of the subject. I am a complete layman when it comes to the science of attaching wires to someone’s head while they sleep, but the program was convincing enough for me to come away with the impression that a person’s level of consciousness rises and falls throughout the sleep cycle, and that the most nourishing sleep occurs at the deepest depths of one’s consciousness. As if magically, my level of subconscious consciousness rose, but I woke up without having woken all the way up.

I suddenly knew that I was back home in Eastern Massachusetts, safely and soundly lying in the bed that I was most comfortable in, free from the situational worries of my year abroad in Ireland. I knew that my closest friends were nearby and that we would meet at some time in the near future to raise a glass in celebration of our youth. I knew that my family, parents and siblings, were all close at hand to lend the succor and support I had come to rely on to frame my life as a whole. I was calmed, reassured, and happy that all of the burdens troubling my sleep had been removed. It was like the reward for having endured that time, and having successfully navigated the waters of murky ethics, conflict, and want. I was relieved, and heaved a deep and heavy sigh, and settled in to resume the sleep I so richly deserved.
This comfortable bliss lasted a very short time. There was a long, loud, persistent wailing that woke me up and would not let me sleep any longer. It woke me all the way up. I opened my eyes. The horizon was dusty dun colored baked mud with small humps marching away into the distance. The sky was a smear of scarlets and maroons with a grey gauze of high clouds dabbed in. I was lying on the roof of a roundhouse in a Sahelian compound amid drying millet cakes and the muezzin was calling the faithful to the sunrise prayer. On and on he bellowed into the morning, “Allah hu Akbar! Y’allah, salaat, salaat!” I sat up and pawed around for my Red Sox hat, knowing that nothing else that could happen that day could possibly be stranger than the day’s beginning.

Having extremely vivid dreams is one of mefloquine’s many known and documented side effects. I know that the mefloquine, the malaria prophylaxis I had taken the night before, had worked this side effect on me. Yet the three realities that I had experienced in such a short period of time were all as real to me as the reality that I am now experiencing. Since that day I have been half expecting to be involved in some mundane task like mowing the lawn or driving to work and suddenly wake up on another planet or deep in the jungle of Borneo or Brazil and to have a known recent history, complete with memories, waiting for me to pick it up and carry on like I did that day.