Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Me and My Shadow and Bobby McGee

          The commonplace use of “Me and my . . .” as the subject of a sentence has long been the bane of English teachers everywhere. “Me and my friends went to the mall,” students will say. Or “Me and Harry are going out for football.” Consider this exchange I had with a student a few years ago:

                       Clara: “Can me and Amy go to Guidance?”
                     Me: “May.”
                     Clara: What?”
                     Me: “May Amy and I go to Guidance?”
                     Clara: “You need to go to Guidance? Me and Amy do too.”
                     Me: “I think I actually do, right about now.”

          She hadn’t a clue. But the “Me and my . . .” phrasing has a long history in American popular culture. In 1917, the song “For Me & My Gal” was a vaudeville hit. “Me and my Shadow” was a popular 1927 song that was revived periodically down through the decades. In 1932, the movie “Me And My Gal” starred Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett. Ten years later, “For Me & My Gal” was heard again in the film of that title, starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. And DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox are aiming for a 2018 release of a 3-D animated film entitled “Me and My Shadow.” So the phrasing has long been enshrined in the language and, it seems, will continue to endure for the younger generations.
            The ungrammatical construction “me and . . .” as the subject (doer) of a sentence, then, is by now ubiquitous. How often do we hear sentences that start “Me and my friend . . .” ? Yet, it’s not just the younger generations who do so. It’s so entrenched in the vernacular, that we’re likely to hear it voiced in everyday conversations, interviews across the social spectrum, TV scripts and commercials, and, of course, on social media. The mistake occurs so often now that it actually sounds “right” to many, perhaps to most. My wife kids me that I must be wrong about it, but its frequency is precisely what makes it so challenging for young people, in particular, to overcome. It simply sounds so “right.”
            The problem is with the pesky pronoun—is it “I” or “me”? Grammatically, it should be “My friend and I” as the subject of a sentence, which is usually found before the verb, that is, to the left of the verb, in English. I used to teach my students a sure-fire means of knowing which pronoun to use. In the sentence “My friend and (I or me?) went to the movies,” I’d tell them to mentally remove the words “My friend and” to make their ears reliable again. We would never be tempted to say “Me went to the movies,” and so we should never say, “My friend and me went to the movies.” Just as “I” do things, “My friend and I” do things.
            In 1971, Janis Joplin’s version of the hit song “Me and Bobby McGee” entrenched another unconventional flaw in the vernacular of American youth:
               But feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues, 
               You know feeling good was good enough for me, 
               Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.                                       

Joplin’s posthumous version of the song, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, would become one of the greatest blues rock classics, and deservedly so. Her rendition exudes the blues, imbuing the lyrics with a depth of raw aching feeling unparalleled in any other cover of the song. Even today it is revered as one of the best rock songs of all time.
            The phrasing “for me and Bobby McGee” is actually grammatical: “Good enough for me”—remember to remove the words “and Bobby McGee” to make your ear reliable again. But the phrasing ignores the grammatical etiquette of putting oneself last. (Perhaps it can be forgiven there, since “Good enough for Bobby McGee and me” just doesn’t scan.) “Me and my friend” ignores the etiquette too. But “My friend and me” is still inappropriate as a subject (doer) in a sentence. It’s a matter of grammatical case, one of the few areas where English is still an inflected language. That is, while meaning is usually conveyed by the placement of words in an English sentence, English words still inflect, or change their form, in a few instances. Whether a personal pronoun like I, he, she, or they changes its form to us, him, her, or them) depends on whether we're using it as the subject (doer) of a sentence (usually before, or to the left of, the verb) or as an object (usually after, or the right of the verb or preposition). So we would say, “My friend and I gave him the tickets,” but “He gave the tickets to my friend and me.) Just remember to mentally remove “and me” to make your ear reliable again. No one would be tempted to say, “He gave the tickets to I.”
          The English language—especially the vitality of spoken American English—continues to evolve every year. Who knows? Perhaps “Me and my friends went to the mall” may someday be widely embraced as grammatically correct. We used to make a distinction between shall and will when I was a boy, and we’re in the midst of such a shift with who/whom today. But we’re not quite there yet, and we’re still a far way off from “Me and my friends” as the subject of a sentence being acceptable in any formal setting. 
          But then, what it always comes down to, I think, is whether or not we see language as power. Among those aware of the "Me/I" distinction--and there are still many out there--which candidate is more likely to be offered the job, all other qualities being equal? The one who says, “Me and my last boss thought I should take a risk on that project.” Or the one who says, “My last boss and I . . .” ?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Irish Famine "Coffin Ships"

          Alongside the River Liffey in the heart of Dublin’s modern financial district, Rita and I recently came upon a cluster of bronze statues—gaunt, despairing, their meager belongings clutched to their chests--walking  to the docks. They are among a host of memorials commemorating the 150th anniversary of An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, as the Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852 was known at the time. Docked along the quays nearby is the Jeanie Johnston, a replica of a tall ship that made sixteen crossings to Canada and America carrying a cargo of Irish emigrants. The ship is a famine museum and testament to the millions who escaped An Gorta Mor.     
         As a means of clearing the land for the more profitable raising of livestock, it was often cheaper for landlords in Ireland during the famine to pay for steerage passage aboard a cargo ship to America, Canada, or Australia, rather than evict their tenants. Unlike those in steerage class aboard most other famine ships of the time, however, no emigrant aboard the Jeanie Johnston died during the dangerous sea crossing of nearly two months, thanks largely to an enlightened captain and his ship’s doctor. Most of those ships did not even have a ship’s doctor on board. Called “coffin ships” for their deplorable overcrowding, scant provisions, and inadequate ventilation, 30% of their steerage passengers were said to have succumbed to cholera, typhus, and other diseases in the cramped quarters and to be buried at sea.  

            On a road beside Clew Bay in County Mayo, in the village of Murrisk near the town of Westport, sits The Coffin Ship, the Irish National Famine Monument at the foot of the sacred mountain, Croagh Patrick. A stylized bronze sculpture dedicated in 1997, it is a stunning sight.
             The ship is an abstract rendering of a three-masted cargo ship, sails unfurled, the main deck and hull diminutive in scale. A green patina mottles the sides of the ship as the bronze oxidizes, suggesting perhaps the ravages of the sea during the arduous crossing. With their abbreviated double yardarms, the three masts resemble crosses, symbolizing the torment of the ship’s human cargo. But most poignant of all are the skeletal figures that seem to leap and arc, as if caught in ferocious sea gales as they escape the ship. This image of departing spirits is stark and haunting.
             What strike me most about the memorial are the dreams of those who did not live to see the other shore and the legacy of those who did. How many of those who perished on the infamous coffin ships left on board sons, daughters, spouses, extended family who lived to see the crossing completed, the dreams pursued and one day fulfilled, in their lifetimes or in those of their children or grandchildren? Who might have been among them in the long lists of our own ancestors? Whose immigrant dreams may we, ourselves, be living, one hundred and fifty years later?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Some Thoughts on Seamus Heaney, One Year Later

            A year has now passed since the renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney died in Dublin at the end of last summer. He was buried near his family’s grave in the little country churchyard of St. Mary’s in Bellaghy in his native County Derry, Northern Ireland. This May, on the first of many pilgrimages to Bellaghy, I stood beside the resting place of this great but humble man, the spot marked by a simple wooden cross, his name and dates on a metal plate. It was tucked into a corner of the churchyard, the grave capped with a bank of clay and chained off by small white links. Alone, I read with rueful irony the line, "Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not" from "Blackberry Picking."
            Seamus Heaney left us on August 30, 2013, texting his last words to his wife: “noli timere,” Latin for “don’t be afraid.” I find a comfort of sorts in the thought that Heaney was himself unafraid of what lay before him as death approached. Now, a year later, many continue to feel his loss but know that in his silence, his verse is with us still. How can I enter a church anywhere, anytime, after reading his “Poor Women in a City Church” without seeing “bright asterisks on brass candlesticks:/. . . Blue flames . . . jerking on wicks” or “Old dough-faced women with black shawls/ Drawn down tight kneel in the stalls”? “Marble columns and cool shadows/Still them,” he tells us, and “In the gloom you cannot trace/A wrinkle on their beeswax brows.”
            How can he be gone from us, this Nobel Prize-winning poet, when in his lines we hear “the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat” as turf is cut from a bog and tossed up upon the bank in “Digging”? Or when he recalls for us those childhood days when we traipsed behind our fathers, following in their steps, then live to see with awful poignancy the roles reversed in “Follower”:

                                              I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
                                              Yapping always, but today
                                              It is my father who keeps stumbling
                                              Behind me, and will not go away.

How can he not be here, this poet of grace and truth, who in “Mid-Term Break” is called home from school when his little brother is struck by a car? He who captures forever the image of his brother’s coffin: “A four foot box, a foot for every year”?   
            In the years to come, each time I return to Ireland I will make the journey to Drumcliff churchyard outside Sligo Town, as I always do, to pay homage beside the grave of the poet William Butler Yeats. But I will then drive on up to County Derry in the North and find my way to the humble country churchyard of St. Mary’s in Bellaghy. There I will pay tribute to Seamus Heaney. An Irish friend suggested to me that Heaney’s grave will never attain the pilgrimage status of Yeats’s final resting place, as Yeats lies beside a main road outside a major town. One finds himself amidst the remote and lonely backroads leading to Bellaghy, he told me, only if one has made a particular point of going there, or if one is lost. Yet I envision a different future altogether for Heaney’s gravesite. I see a poet’s grave marked by a polished granite headstone and border to which the people whose lives his words have touched will journey from near and far alike. They will come alone and in droves to pay tribute to this poet who lives still in his words, whose voice we still hear.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Trees Wear Wool in a Cool Summer Breeze


          I have always felt an affinity for nature, a deep atavistic sense of kinship or belonging when walking in the woods, climbing a mountain, or strolling along a deserted beach. Strange, I suppose, for a kid from the Bronx, but there you have it, a connection where least you’d expect it.
            We didn’t have many trees in our neighborhood when I was growing up. In fact, we had none at all in the unadorned urban stonescape of our block. The closest trees were marooned  in the middle of Fordham Road in a small crescent island of soil surrounded by lanes of bustling traffic. Banana Park, we called it, owing to its shape. There were many more trees, of course—in Poe Park, three blocks north; St. James Park, four blocks west; Moshulu Parkway, about ten blocks north; and the Botanical Gardens, a good ten blocks east, though we were mindful in such places of being beyond the pale of our Tiebout Avenue neighborhood.           
            But trees themselves were nondescript in our world. While Eskimos are said to have some twenty words for “snow,” given their exposure to the various kinds of precipitation in their arctic experience, our lexicon of trees was strikingly impoverished. Those of us growing up devoid of much direct contact with nature were largely unaware of the rich diversity of tree species. With two delightful exceptions, to us a tree was merely a tree.
            We knew, of course, that a Christmas tree was an evergreen, but we could not tell a pine from a fir or a spruce—all that mattered was to nudge our noses among the branches for an aromatic whiff of the season. When the holiday lights of December gave way to the brittle dark of a new year, we’d watch the annual ritual of the burning of the green as the older crowd gathered the trees discarded curbside from the apartments in the neighborhood, and set them alight in the gutter. The dried-out bristles and branches would flare and snap, illuminating the night, and the sap would pop in the hard January air of the city.
              The only other trees we could identify were chestnut trees, though without their shiny brown pearls encased in itchy balls and dangling like sneakers from the telephone wires, we would not recognize them from any other tree. Of the furrowed bark, or the serrated leaf, or the symmetry of the chestnut tree, we knew nothing. But we knew where to find them on the campus of Fordham University four blocks away. Every autumn, as the seasons turned, the kids in the neighborhood somehow instinctively knew it was time to gather the chestnuts. In a rite handed down from one generation to the next, with boasts and dares and dreams of neighborhood glory, we’d open the itchy burrs and lift out the shiny chestnuts, rubbing their gleaming hardness between our fingers and our thumbs. To harden them even more, we’d soak the nuts in white vinegar in a mayonnaise jar and go to sleep that night with visions of grandeur in our heads. Some days later, we’d remove the soaking chestnuts and drive a nail through their cores. Then we’d slip a shoelace through the hole, tie a knot on the end, and head for the streets looking for conquest.

            The object of “chestnut fights,” as we called them, was not to beat each other with them, though that inadvertently happened when we’d miss the intended target from time to time. The idea was to hold high the shoelace, then lift the tethered chestnut as far back as you could and fire it at the chestnut your opponent dangled in the air. If your chestnut eventually cracked your foe’s, you added his total number of victories to your own and strutted about the block in search of another victim. It was a ritual, I was years later to discover, that must have been brought across the sea with the Irish immigrants in the 19th century, for there it is in the pages of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with its reference to a “seasoned hacking chestnut, the conqueror of forty.” Well, we’d hack away at those dangling brown beauties until the next street game vied for our attention—spinning tops, or Skully, or stickball in the spring, by which time we were once again largely oblivious of trees

            Then, nearly forty years ago now, we moved to the outer suburbs of Putnam County, where I was to become acquainted with a host of oak, and maple, and birch, hemlock, choke cherry, ash, and spruce, along with an abundance of other species, coming eventually to know each by sight and by name, and to relish the form, beauty, and presence of each tree. I came to know them as if they were old friends I was recognizing once again, for among the trees—especially in the woods—I felt a familiarity, a sense of feeling attuned, of being in a place where I belonged. I felt the oneness of God’s creation.
            And so it came as no surprise to me that I should feel a similar affinity in another place I’m fond of, Falmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, where Portals & Passageways: An Environmental Art and Sculpture Exhibition, has opened at Highfield Hall & Gardens. All along the road leading up to the mansion, as throughout the grounds and in the adjacent woods, regional artists have installed yarn, glass, and wood creations intended to transport the viewer to a higher awareness of the rhythms and energy of nature. Branch arbors, rough-hewn wooden chairs, hand-blown glass orbs dangling from branches adorn the site. Crocheted or knit patterns called "yarn bombing" cling like colorful sweaters to the trunks and limbs of birch, and beech, locust, maples, oaks and sycamores. A wooden walking labyrinth beside a rhododendron garden invites further contemplation of one’s place in the grand scheme of things.
             With the sun dappling the woodlands, birds trilling, the trees wear wool in a cool summer breeze. I am a far cry from the urban landscape of Tiebout Avenue and Banana Park. This is a place of soothing harmony with its natural surroundings, a passageway, in what Joseph Campbell calls “a threshold moment” when one is poised between two places, two worlds, two realities. Not surprisingly, it strikes a chord in me. In an instance I am reminded that Nature is a part of us, and we a part of it, reminded that no matter where we are, we are one with the earth.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Traveling in Search of Ambiguity

            Speaking of traveling abroad, the writer Pico Iyer notes, “When we see people from our own community, we’re particularly sensitive to all the things that are wrong with them. When we see people from another community we’re alive to what’s refreshing about them.” “I travel in search of ambiguity,” he continues. “To me," he says, "the beauty of travel comes in dissolving one’s judgments.” Iyer speaks then of the assumptions one typically makes about people in a foreign culture, saying, “ . . . the beauty of going to [such a place] is quickly to have to throw out all those notions, and to see a reality that’s much more human and complex and to some extent unfathomable.”

            Having just returned from a five-week trip to Europe, I can attest to Iyer’s idea of travel in search of ambiguity. It operates, this search, as do most of our assumptions, at an unconscious level. It is not so much that we go abroad with a mindful attempt to compare ourselves and our culture to others,’ yet inevitably that is what occurs when we find ourselves at once amid another way of life. From language to custom to food to architectural style, all is foreign, unfamiliar, somewhat exotic, curious in its newness, utterly different. How quickly we come to realize, as heads turn at the sound of our voices, our accents, that it is we who are different, we who are the novelty amid all that is so familiar to our hosts, yet so strange to us.

            Our own ears perk up at the sound of American accents when we encounter fellow travelers from the States abroad. But then we meet the Floridian in Amsterdam who discloses that he is a firearms instructor for the NRA and proceeds to proclaim the virtues of owning semi-automatic weapons when the conversation turns to the  killing of children in Newtown. And the mid-westerner on a Dublin bus who, yearning aloud for a taste of corned beef and cabbage in Ireland only to be told that corned beef is an American substitute for boiling bacon, is dismayed that the Irish don’t eat corned beef with their cabbage. We come quickly at such moments to recognize in these fellow-Americans the folly of their assumptions. Perhaps in perceiving their shortcomings, we come in turn to recognize our own.

          Where an American who stumbles on some impediment on a sidewalk might almost instinctively seek to sue for damages, a European would be more inclined to feel that he himself was at fault because he hadn’t been looking where he was going. Where an American might expect efficient service at a restaurant or counter, a European is more mellow and patient by nature. “There are two speeds in this country, Yank,” my Irish brother-in-law reminds me, "slow and stopped.” 
Where Americans are more likely to obliterate in the name of progress all traces of a historic site, the English are inclined to memorialize even fictional ones: “The Tabard Inn,” a historic plaque reads on a wall in the London Borough of Southwark, “Site from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set off in April 1386.” The reference, of course, is to the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, characters who never, in fact, existed.

          A foreign culture—that place that does things so differently—is “refreshing” in contrast to our own, as Pico Iyer observes, so challenging to the ethnocentric assumption that ours is the way to do things. And so we find it surprising that accident rates are lower on Germany’s Autobahn, most of which has no speed limit, than on U.S. highways. Or that spacious, cobble-stoned town squares in so many European communities, like the Grand Place in Brussels, can serve as popular public gathering places to savor a meal at an outdoor cafĂ©, to saunter arm-in-arm with a lover, or merely to observe the passing crowds—rather than the paved parking lots they would likely be in America. And our assumption that pedestrians should take precedence over bicyclists is turned on its head in Amsterdam, where the bike lanes are wider than the sidewalks; the bikers don’t wear helmets because they are capable, cautious riders; and parking lots are filled with hundreds of bikes rather than cars.    

           We come also, along the way, to let go of our stereotypes and assumptions about the people themselves in our travels. Having heard that Germans are blunt and rather cold emotionally, I am pleased to find them tactful, warm, and eager to please. They also have a keen sense of irony. “It’s modern—only one hundred years old,” says a waitress in Bacharach of a tapestry lining a wall of the restaurant where we stop for lunch. We had heard that nearly 60% of Belgians identify as Catholic, but found that a mere 10% attend church regularly. Farther west, our Irish friends and family have always known how to party enthusiastically, but their celebrations seem more subdued in the face of economic austerity and the closing of many rural pubs throughout the country in recent years. Yet the Irish have become much more “European” of late and, owing to cheap regional airfares, are more likely to holiday in Prague, Budapest, or Vienna, than in Ireland. 

The more we travel, then, the more we tend to see people in a true, authentic light as we forego our assumptions about them. Like Pico Iyer, I too have come to travel in search of ambiguity, dissolving my presumptions about a place and its people. And in doing so, I come to know them—and myself—much more clearly than I had before.          


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Coming Spring

            What a glorious day. It’s 54° and climbing, the sun is warm and bright, the clouds low lateral swaths in a cobalt sky. And the birds are back. All morning a flurry of cedar waxwings alight on the bony branches of a choke cherry tree in the back yard. With their tufted crests, signature black eye bars, and plump buff breasts, they lazily preen their feathers and peck away at the fragrant bark. They flutter off for a while, only to return and perch again, basking in the warming sun. The robins have been back a few weeks now, and the chickadees, though many of those tiny wonders have wintered over, eking out what spare feed they could find in that harsh season that is fading now.
            Suddenly the yard is a flurry of commotion as whole flocks of birds cut through the air like a meteor shower. Then a few break off from the pack, darting to and fro in search, perhaps of incipient seeds or of nesting spots. Their shadows streak black ribbons across the snow that still swaddles the yard in a foot-deep blanket.
            I had spread some crumbs of seeded rye bread out on the deck this morning as a welcoming treat, but so far, my hospitality has gone unappreciated and my offering sits there like an unwanted gift. Some waxwings and a robin perch nearby for a closer look, but the chickadees—usually so curious—have given it no heed. Hours later there are still no takers. “Maybe they’re just not hungry,” my wife offers. I nod in agreement but wonder too if the crumbs were just not to their liking, or perhaps not stale enough for their taste. No bother, really, as the blue jays and the squirrels will discover them by late afternoon.                                                                                                                        
          It is now mere days until the vernal equinox, but I’m reminded that we cannot rush the spring, try as we might after this year’s “winter of our discontent.” We’ll have more melt-off today and then some days of rain will follow. We may even see a dusting of snow yet again. But every day we see more of the driveway emerge from ‘neath its fringes of snow and ice. The yew bushes and privet hedges spring back into shape and patches of earth reappear where we knew they were hiding under a cover of snow. No, we cannot hurry the spring, but the winter now is receding with the snows, and the welcome sighting of the birds is a harbinger of warmer days to come.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Deep Winter


            We find ourselves ensconced now in the heart of winter this early February day, buried yet again under heaps of snow. Close to ten inches this time—not the mounds of snow dumped during a blizzard, of course, but a pounding nonetheless from storm after storm after storm in recent weeks, many mere days apart.
            We are by now so weary of snow that we have stopped shoveling one-or-two-inch accumulations, resigned instead to trudge through the drifts and hope that  the sun will melt the driveway before the next storm. But the heavier snowfalls we can't ignore. So we reach for our parkas and scarves, don our earmuffs, hats, and gloves, step into our wellies, crank up the snow blower, then set forth yet again to battle the storm.
            This is deep winter in the northeast, with six more weeks till spring. Yet, despite our Florida relatives’ playful facebook taunts to “come on down,” there's hope on the horizon here in the lower Hudson Valley. A friend has reported the first sighting of a robin.
            I’m reminded too, that February 1st was St. Brigid’s Day in Ireland. On that day, the ancient Celtic feast of Imbolc, the mid-way point between the winter and spring equinoxes was observed. Brigid was originally a Celtic fire goddess associated with the coming of light amid the long days of darkness. St. Brigid’s Day observances in Ireland today are rooted in that pagan festival and still identified with the welcome approach of spring.
            Here now, amid the menace of Nor’easters in the deep of a New York winter, the days are growing noticeably longer as we nudge our way toward spring. Just a few days ago my wife remarked how light out it still was at 4:45 p.m. And yesterday the sun didn’t set until about 5:15. Having cleared the driveway of snow and dug out the mailbox, I sit beside the fire, staring at the flames. I think of Brigid and wait for the spring.