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Tuesday, August 2, 2022


 Flying Home With Amy Tan

 

 My wife wasn’t talking to me for a few hours, or more accurately, I wasn’t talking to her. Sometimes we’re blessed with the gift of serendipity, a moment of good fortune that falls into our laps like manna from the sky. I had such a moment recently when we were flying home from visiting the kids and grandkids in California. Rushing to load the bags into the car for the ride to the airport, I left my backpack behind. Not the catastrophe it might have been, for our boarding passes were loaded on my phone and our IDs were secure in our wallets. Besides, our son Dave would bring the backpack a few days later when he would be flying east. But both the book I was reading and my phone charger were in that bag. How would I pass the five-and-a half hours flying from San Francisco to New York? I could dive into my library of e-books on my phone but doubted my battery, already down to 60%, would last the journey.

 

        Delta, it turns out, offers an array of in-flight entertainment from HBO, Showtime, Hulu, some network TV series, and a selection of featured movies. While none of them piqued my interest, what did catch my eye was a program that was to captivate me for the next 2,586 miles: a Master Class on writing by Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club.

 

        As my wife dozed in her seat beside me, I flew home with Amy Tan, who regaled me with reminders and new insights to the craft of writing. Her suggestion, for instance, that writers should not do too much research rang true for me as a writer of historical fiction. I recalled having gone down a rabbit hole when trying to date the invention of friction matches in the nineteenth century for my novel about the Irish Famine of the 1840s. Had they been invented yet when my characters lit a fire? I needed to know, and so I spent hours researching one link after another through the history and intricacies of sulfur and safety matches, which were a significant technological advance in their time. But how much of the research would I actually use in my story? Amy Tan’s advice to avoid needless details in research, then, was a timely admonition.

           

        Her recommendation that writers keep a Nature Journal where we sketch what we see and consider its implications for story or essay was intriguing. While I’m not gifted with an artist’s skill, sketching what I observe will no doubt train me to notice details more closely. I liked, too,

Amy Tan’s assertion that every word in a story has a relationship to the rhythm of the next one since I’ve long been attuned to the sounds and rhythms of words in my writing. Her suggestion to break down the revision process to manageable components was also a useful tactic, and her views on the causes of writer’s block and strategies to avoid it were helpful. Finally, her thoughts on knowing how and when to end a story were particularly insightful for both new and seasoned writers.

 

        I’d put Amy Tan on pause every hour or so to snap a shot of the Rockies over Colorado and to share a snack or talk briefly with my wife. But this Master Class so absorbed me through most of the flight that I hadn’t noticed the passing hours as we cut across the sky at nearly 500 mph, 34,000 feet high. Jotting notes on my phone, I was distracted from time to time by the fear that my battery would drain before the end of the class. Five-and-a-half hours later and three hours back in time, we landed at JFK with 6% left in my battery and what would turn out to be more than five pages of printed notes.

           

        Later my wife complained that I hadn’t talked to her for most of the flight, and she was right, of course, for I was “in the zone, that magical, mystical sphere writers and artists and athletes are sometimes blessed to know when they’re immersed in their work, enthralled by it, transfixed beyond time. I was engrossed in a Master Class and flying home with Amy Tan.

 

 


Thursday, June 30, 2022



 To Celebrate a Life


Long before I came to know them by name, I was only vaguely acquainted with trees. While not a single tree was to be found on the paved streets of our neighborhood in the Bronx, up on Fordham Road in a sliver of an island we called Banana Park, two or three trees graced a few benches with a canopy of shade. But as a city boy I could not tell you what types of trees they were. To me they were just trees. 

On occasional jaunts to other parks in the area, we became acquainted with some variety among trees, mainly by the seeds they dropped. We gathered chestnuts in the Fall and pelted each other with “itchy balls” that dropped from the branches and clung miraculously to our clothes. We opened other seeds and made polynoses or twirled them like helicopters when we sent them aloft in Spring and dove headfirst into piles of leaves in the Fall, all the while blissfully unaware of the species that had dropped these treasures in our paths. 

When my wife and I bought the house “in the country” some years later, trees, of course, abounded everywhere we looked. Over the decades I came to appreciate their species, their lifecycles, and their boundless beauty. We mourned the loss of trees to storms, infestations, and disease. We were ambivalent when the stilted willow that had served many years as first base in our backyard baseball games made way for the pool, but we lamented having to cut down the choke cherries and ash lest they fall on a neighbor’s house. 

Over the years I have come to cultivate many trees, mindful that they will grow to imposing maturity after I myself have returned to the earth. I planted whips of poplar and ash, honeysuckle and lilac. More recently, I have planted twigs of hawthorn, buckthorn, and crape myrtle, all of which have sprouted hardy stems and leaves after four years of blazing New York heat and frigid winters. They’ll soon be ready for transplanting to more prominent areas of the yard.

I can think of no more fitting gesture to commemorate someone we love than the planting of a tree in that person’s name. Whether to mark a birth or a death, planting a tree celebrates a life in all its transient beauty and all its enduring memory. So it is that we plant a tree each time a grandchild is born. We planted a sugar maple when our Canadian American granddaughter Chloe was born in 2010 and a Kwanzan cherry tree when our Japanese American grandson Alex was born in 2017. This year we planted a Yoshino cherry to mark the 2020 birth of our Japanese American granddaughter Lilia. All three of these grandchild trees grace the yard with their distinctive beauty and celebration. The maple drops its helicopter seeds with which I may someday teach the children to make polynoses, and in the Fall its golden yellow leaves illuminate the dusk. The Kwanzan cherry sprouts its graceful pink blossoms in the Spring and, alongside it now, the Yoshino cherry opens its snowy white blooms. If the grandchildren are visiting in springtime, we may picnic beneath the cherry blossoms to celebrate their transient beauty. 

It is with such transience in mind that I planted a clump of white birch trees to commemorate the life of John Palencsar, my closest friend of more than sixty years, who died rather sooner than we’d expected in 2021. John was fond of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” with its idyllic image of a young boy swinging the pliable branches who “flung outward, feet first, with a swish,/Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.” I see that tree now, John’s birch, outside my den window, and I find comfort in knowing that, like those of the grandchildren, it is rooted firmly to mark a life, the “going and coming back,” in all its days of storms and resplendent beauty, to celebrate a life that once was, and—in all its seasons—a life worth remembering. 


Thursday, December 29, 2016

WINTER SOLSTICE

                                   



                      
                                                    













                                   My wife looked out upon a single fawn
                                   that gnawed, unaware, at the hedge beside
                                   the rock garden on this first day of winter.
                                   
                                   “There’s something wrong with one of its legs,”
                                    she told me with a frown. As it grazed its way
                                    to the yew bushes along the front walk, I could
                                    see that she was right.

                                    The deer was young, a few months old at best,
                                    from its size, left hind leg hobbled a bit by
                                    what seemed a tumor that shackled her
                                    to her fate.

                                    The fawn foraged in solitude amid a carpet of
                                     snow, cast out perhaps from the herd to fend
                                     alone all predators, to ward off the dark, to
                                     die at last a solitary death and take with it                     
                                     the blight it bore.

                                     Was this the lone deer we saw below our
                                     bedroom window two nights past, feasting
                                     on the birdseed I had scattered beneath
                                     the feeder? We’d thought it odd to see but            
                                     one.

                                     She’d stood, legs splayed, nearly genuflecting
                                     as she fed, the nap of her young fur smooth
                                     and gleaming in the moonglow. We hadn’t
                                     noticed in that swath of silver light the knob
                                     that hobbled her, her outcast plight.

                                     As the shadows lengthen on this longest night,
                                     I’ll seed again the snow beneath the barren ash,
                                     will scatter far and wide the feed to brook 
                                     the coming darkness, the feeble light.
                                   


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Four Dead in O-hi-o

            Rummaging through some old college notebooks from a box in the attic the other day, I came upon a protest flyer from my senior year at Iona College, in New Rochelle, New York. It was May of 1970, and I was weeks away from graduating. “ON STRIKE” the flyer proclaims. I lifted it to my face for a whiff of the familiar purple smell of the mimeograph ink, but the scent had long-since faded, much as the memory of that year has receded into our collective national unconscious of that fateful time.   
            But the flyer brought rushing back the angst that roiled American campuses 46 years ago this spring. Just eight months earlier, in September of 1969, Lt. William Calley had been charged with leading his platoon in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians—including women and children—in the village of My Lai the previous year. That atrocity surely did not reflect the actions of most American troops in Vietnam; but in the virulent outrage that resulted, many in the anti-war movement unjustly vilified all American soldiers as “baby killers.” It got that ugly.
            Three months later, in December of 1969, President Richard Nixon reinstituted a draft lottery. Nearly half a million U.S. soldiers were serving in Southeast Asia and nearly 50,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese had already been killed. Then, on April 30, 1970, Nixon went on television to announce to a weary nation that U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had crossed into Cambodia to launch preemptive strikes against North Vietnamese supply lines. He also declared the need to draft 150,000 additional men. This escalation of the war provoked mass protests across American campuses. Days later, on May 4, twenty-eight national guardsmen opened fire at an unarmed crowd of protesters on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were shot dead.
            The news stunned the nation: for the first time in our history, American students were being killed by American troops on an American college campus. In response, colleges all over the country erupted in furious protests. Hundreds shut down or canceled classes as students went on strike. On campuses across the nation, ROTC buildings were set ablaze and students clashed with police and National Guard units. Within weeks, Neil Young’s song “Ohio” blared from radios across the land, stoking the flames of outrage:
                                              Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
                                                   We’re finally on our own.
                                              This summer I hear the drumming,
                                                   Four dead in Ohio.
                       On May 14, just ten days after the Kent State shootings, without warning, police shot dead two students during a protest at the all-black Jackson State University, in Mississippi. That unprovoked attack garnered comparatively little national attention. Some blacks complained at the time that maybe black lives didn’t count as much as white ones. This grievance sounds eerily familiar today.
            On the whole, college campuses in 2016 are very different places from what they were in 1970. They are communities where political correctness and nurturing of perceived slights prevail. A far cry from the university as a place to broaden one’s perspectives, American campuses have become bastions of intolerance for opposing points of view. Just ask Condoleeza Rice or the growing number of other controversial figures who have been disinvited to speak on college campuses because some group or other is offended by their role or viewpoint. Or ask Erika Christakis, a former lecturer at Yale who resigned in the face of student protests over her suggestion that perhaps they might themselves be better suited than the administration to decide what Halloween costumes they should wear. Ask the college professors who are required to give “trigger warnings” when they are about to broach a topic that may provoke unease or trauma in any of their students. Assigning a reading of The Great Gatsby or Hamlet without trigger warnings about their possibly disturbing issues of physical violence or dysfunctional families would be considered a “microaggression” against vulnerable and unsuspecting students—college students, mind you. Or ask the professors in Texas and the seven other states that allow students to carry concealed weapons on public campuses what the impact is likely to be on free and open expression of ideas or on grade inflation.
            Yet, as spring approaches in 2016, the most enduring protests on American college campuses are those over issues of persistent racial tensions. Nearly 46 years after the killings of American students at Kent State and Jackson State, numerous incidents of black men killed by police in the streets of American cities have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which in turn has galvanized minority student protests. Beginning at the University of Missouri over the slow response of administrators to a series of racist incidents, the protests and their demands for equality have spread to campuses across the land.
            But just as the vast majority of American soldiers in Vietnam were not “baby killers,” most American police officers do not shoot young black men in our streets. The truth is that police lives matter too, white lives matter, Latino lives matter. All lives deserve respect. Still, time after time, black men—often unarmed—are killed at the hands of those entrusted to keep the peace. The point of the protests is that black lives matter too, and enough is enough.
            Perhaps, then, some progress has been made in the spirit of dissent on our campuses amid what seems at times a national regression. The Black Lives Matter movement is a protest that speaks for its time. In the midst of an indulgent culture of trigger warnings, it seems heartening that some college students today are clamoring for justice and equality, demands that echo the high moral ground of bringing an end to an unjust war and the killings of innocent students. Such protests are today what my generation’s reaction to the killings at Kent State was—a defining moment, a time to take a stand on what you believe in. As Neil Young would put it,
                                              What if you knew [them]
                                 And found [them] dead on the ground
                                 How can you run when you know?

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Road I've Taken

            On some occasional rambles through my blog earlier this year, I came upon a path that had been calling me for quite some time. And so I’ve been away from these pages for the past few months, consumed with a historical novel that I’m writing.
            The working title is Tobarmaire (Mary’s Well). The story is set in a fictionalized blend of Dowra, my wife’s native village in County Cavan, and the old village of Tobar nearby that had preceded it. It takes place in 1845-46 during the Great Famine (An Gorta Mor—The Great Hunger—as it’s known in Irish), when the potato blight ravaged the land.
            Tobarmaire tells the story of Michael Corrigan, a fiery young man brimming with resentment as his family and neighbors, evicted from their cottages for non-payment of rent, face starvation.     I've been thinking and reading and writing about this story for quite some time. It began, for me, on a summer evening in Ireland in 1981, when Nan McGovern, my mother-in-law, brought me up Gubaveeny Mountain near her home in County Cavan to meet an old man who lived alone in a cottage. He was known in the region as a “shanachie” (pronounced “shanakey”), a sort of local historian who was said to have “a head full of knowledge about the history of the place.”
            During ancient times, Gaelic clans lived in particular areas of rural Ireland. Evidence of that survives today when so many families in a region have the same surnames. And so, for example, to distinguish one family from another of the same name, a man and his own family would be known locally by his first name, then his father’s first name, then his grandfather’s first name, followed by the family surname. He would be known locally as Charley Thomas Ned McGuire, and his family (if he had one), as the Charley Thomas Ned McGuires, or more simply as the Charley Thomas Neds.
            Charley Thomas Ned—Charley to his face—heard our car approaching and met us at the door of his stone cottage. Stooped, with a gray stubble and rheumy eyes, he greeted us through a mostly toothless grin in the dusty voice of his eighty-five years. “You’re very welcome,” he said to Nan, and turning to me, nodded. We sat before his open hearth, his only source of light. Many of the older folks on the mountain never had the electric hooked up when it came to the region in the 1950s—afraid of it, or just never seeing the need. The light of the hearth, for Charley Thomas Ned, was enough.
            He recalled for us the history of the region as it had been passed down to him in the oral tradition in the years before tape recorders or television, and he regaled us with tales of a local hero who roamed the area nearly 250 years ago. Dick Supple (pronounced “Souple”) Corrigan was a “rapparee,” a highwayman who ran with a gang that robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Through many daring exploits, Supple Corrigan bedeviled the English who oppressed the native Irish in the region in the late 18th century. He is remembered in legend and song in the northwest of Ireland to this day. 
            As the late summer dusk descended on the mountain, the turf fire in the hearth glowed brighter and Nan and I rose to leave. We thanked Charley Thomas Ned for his hospitality and his stories, and the old man replied in a lyrical echo of ages past: “Sure, and wouldn’t ye be happy of the visit if ye was sitting here all the week long with nary a Christian soul to cross yer doorstep?”
            In Tobarmaire, my protagonist, Michael Corrigan, is the great-grandson of Supple Corrigan. Through a series of encounters, he seeks to settle some scores with the English during the famine of the 1840s, some seventy years after Supple had done the same.
            So this is where I’ve been of late, consumed with the past in the present. I’ll be back with some more blog posts from time to time—I’ve just recorded a post at the radio station, which I’ll link to these pages soon. But if I’m away from the blog for a stretch of time, I’m probably just wandering the lanes of my imagination, thinking, researching, or writing about the characters and happenings of Tobarmaire.

Speechless in the Battle


“I have no voice,” he said, barely audible. I was driving my friend John Palencsar to SUNY New Paltz so he could teach his history classes at the college. John is battling cancer of the vocal chords and   had just had a radiation treatment that morning. His speech reduced to a raspy whisper, he told me what frustrated him most: “I have no voice.” Later, in his class, he would repeat those words into a microphone that merely amplified his gravelly message to his attentive students.
            “I think it might serve as a metaphor, too,” he told them. His class by now was rapt, leaning forward, intrigued by what “Professor P.” was saying. “I never felt this before,” he continued. “I always had a voice.” He looked around the room and smiled. The class smiled back and nodded.
            “Maybe some of you have felt this way all along,” he said. “Women . . . and minorities . . . and gays. Maybe you’ve known for a long time what it means to not have a voice. Maybe those of you who are shy or lonely know. Those who are different in any way—to feel that you don’t have a voice.” The students were riveted now by the power of his metaphor.
            Having seized upon a “teachable moment,” Professor P. related the point to the aim of his lesson—that Thomas Jefferson alone was able to articulate a voice for those colonists who objected to a king denying them a say in the conduct of their own affairs. That in the phrasing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had given vent to their frustrations and their passions. He had given them a voice.
            After weeks and weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, John’s prognosis is good. His doctors are hopeful that he will not need surgery to remove his larynx and guardedly optimistic that as his vocal chords heal from the barrage of radiation, he will, in time, recover his voice.
            I think of those who, metaphorically, have much less hope, of those who need not to “recover” their voice, but to “discover” it for the first time. How empowering that moment would be. When the poor pursue means to climb out of their penury, they have found a voice. When minorities refuse to accept that the color of their skin should hold them back they have found a voice. When women or gays or trans people insist that their gender or sexual orientation be respected in their fight for pay equity or civil rights, they have found their voice. Whenever any who feel disenfranchised in any way declare, “Enough! We’ve had enough! We’re not going to take it anymore!” they have found a voice.
            It is one thing to declare one’s passion, to have a voice, but quite another to attain one’s demands. As Professor P. would attest, the American Revolution dragged on from 1775 to 1783. But by conveying the frustrations and desires of the colonists in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson gave expression to their hopes and their dreams. He inspired them to fight against the odds. As with all who feel unrepresented or ignored, however, the journey started with discovering their voice.

            

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Walk to Remember

 
   Rich Albero has a long history as a generous soul. When we taught high school together in New York for twenty-five years, he would occasionally show up to school in the morning looking a bit rumpled and haggard, perhaps even unshaven. Some would make assumptions based on this appearance. He’d had a rough night, they’d think, or he didn’t care about how he looked. Both conclusions were right, but not for the reasons assumed.
            I knew that, in fact, Rich had arrived at school having volunteered to help supervise a homeless shelter in his hometown overnight. If he seemed less concerned with his own appearance, it was because he was more concerned with providing a warm meal and a safe bed for others in need. At school, he kept his work at the shelter to himself and asked me not to mention it to anyone. That selfless volunteer spirit spoke to who Rich was.
            It came as no surprise to me, then, when Rich began to talk last year about wanting to walk more than 1,200 miles from Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. That grand plan spoke of who he still is.
            Rich Albero is sixty-five years old now, retired several years from high school teaching and just this past year from teaching math at St. Petersburg College, not far from his home in Dunedin, Florida. Having travelled around the world as a young seaman in the U.S. Merchant Marine, Rich was later to take other trips of note with his nephew Gary Albero—a memorable excursion to the Grand Canyon, for example, or a drive up to Boston to cheer his beloved Yankees as they battled the Red Sox at Fenway.
            But now, his grandest of journeys, this trek from Tampa to the Bronx is a tribute to Gary, who died in the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. True to Rich and Gary’s generous spirits, the walk is also raising donations to the Wounded Warrior Project.
            The Yankees organization has been very supportive of his walk. In the first week of March, Rich started his journey from home plate at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, where in the midst of spring training the Yankees gave him an enthusiastic send-off. “See you in New York,” manager Joe Girardi said with a hug.
            With some help from a few sponsors—ionic sportwater, Brooks shoes, Tilley hats, Wyndham Hotels, and Wish You Were Here Productions, among others—Rich is now well past the half-way point of his journey. Calling on a small cadre of close friends or family as his support drivers, he recently made his way north through the Carolinas one step at a time. Now, in early May, with more than 800 miles behind him, he has reached the rolling hills of Richmond, Virginia.
            As he approaches Washington, D.C., I’m to join Rich as his support driver for a week. He’ll rise before dawn, do his morning exercises, then wake me for breakfast. Next, I’ll drive him to where he had ended the previous day’s walk, and he’ll resume his journey, aiming for another twenty miles that day. Around noon, Rich will call to tell me his location. Along with an afternoon’s supply of sportwater, I’ll bring his lunch and a bucket of ice water to soak his feet mid-day. Following that, he’ll resume his walk until late afternoon or early evening, when I’ll pick him up and drive him to our next hotel. After a hearty dinner, it’ll be early to bed and up again before dawn.
            Rich hopes to reach New York City by Memorial Day weekend. There he will lay a commemorative wreath beneath Gary’s name at Ground Zero. He will end his walk with a ceremony at home plate before a game at Yankee Stadium, a fitting conclusion to a selfless journey by a sixty-five-year-old Yankee fan who walked more than 1,200 miles from spring training to a home game in the Bronx to honor his nephew and our wounded warriors.

Follow Rich Albero’s progress and donate if you can at www.richardsyankeeswalk.org

Publications

  • "Betting the Farm," PUTNAM Magazine, The Journal News, Summer 2008 (See link below.)
  • "So How Does My Garden Grow?" in Why Am I Doing This? Purposeful Teaching Through Portfolio Assessment, ed. Giselle O. Martin-Kniep, Heinemann, 1998
  • "What Maisie Knew," LEITRIM GUARDIAN Magazine, County Leitrim, Ireland, 1993 Annual
  • "Climbing Cuilcagh Mountain," LEITRIM GUARDIAN Magazine, County Leitrim, Ireland, 1990 Annual
  • "Administrative Jargon as a Barrier to Effective Communication," NASSP Bulletin, Journal of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, May 1984 (See link below.)
  • "Local Folk Legends: Learning From an Irish Model," The English Record, Journal of the New York State English Council, Third Quarter, 1984
  • "The Other Ireland," CARA Magazine (Dublin), Nov.-Dec. 1982
  • "Through a Glass Darkly," The Distorted Image of the Irish in America," SUNDAY Magazine (Gannett Suburban Newspapers), White Plains, NY, March 18, 1979