Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dispatch from Bruce's River Tour: Philadelphia 9/9/16

Before we left New Jersey, I admonished Fred to leave his giant, multitool pocket knife home. "There'll be a security screening," I said, "just like at the Monster Truck show, and I'm going to be mad if we have to walk back to the car to stow your knife like we had to do then." I drove, because Philadelphia is mine, and because I have the working radio with the pre-set Bruce Springsteen satellite channel on it. We were headed to Citizens Bank Park to hear, see, and admire The Boss and the E-Street Band. Adele was appearing at the neighboring Wells Fargo Center, and together with New Jersey shore traffic, the traffic for these concerts jammed up I-95. We drove mostly between speeds of 20 and 40 MPH all the way to the Sports Complex. Usually this takes an hour. It seemed an eternity last night, but worth the effort for Bruce. I was hoping he would break his all-time concert-length record of four hours and six seconds, or at least his American record of four hours and four seconds set two nights before in Philadelphia. It would be quite a distinction to have attended a historic concert such as this, and I looked forward to bragging about it.

Me waiting for the concert to start and making a rare political statement
 The concert started at 8:00 and a roar came up from the crowd. The woman next to me let out a shrill banshee scream, the likes of which I knew I would not be able to tolerate for four hours. I scanned the area for other possible seats. She beat me to it. She moved down a few rows with her mother and their Coors Lights. Mama turned out to be quite the dancer. "New York City Serendade" was the first song, just like at this August 2016 concert at MetLife Stadium...(not my video)...(I wasn't there)...

I sat in my blue plastic baseball fan seat for four hours, fascinated by the crowd interacting with their (my) idol, and Bruce metabolizing the crowd's enthusiasm and energy. After all of these years, and all of these (long) concerts, he still looks like he's having the time of his life performing "Born to Run" for us.

He descended into the crowd many times to interact with people lucky enough to be in the Pit Line. He collected homemade signs requesting songs and favors ("Dance with me, Bruce!") and smiled the whole time. At one point he brought a talented college student on stage to perform with him, and at another point a woman and her guitar-playing pre-adolescent daughter. Both young musicians got to play one of Bruce's guitars. Many fans got their wish to dance with (next to) their favorite band member other than Bruce. All of these requests were made known to Bruce via the homemade poster board signs which have become legendary at Springsteen concerts.

All our favorite E-Streeters were there: Max, Steven, Nils, Roy, Garry, and Sookie. And then there was Jake Clemons on the tenor saxophone, frequently taking solos indistinguishable from his late uncle Clarence's. Jake found his way down into the pit crowd quite a bit. From our seats, we could follow Bruce through the sea of people by watching the spotlight on him. When Jake was down there, too, there was a second spotlight. What an honor for him, I thought. It was as if he's no longer simply Clarence's replacement, but is now Jake Clemons, a full-fledged member of the band with his own distinct personality. And he sang back-up a number of times.

I've always dreamed about what I would ask Bruce if I ever got the chance to talk to him or even interview him. ("Dream Baby, Dream") I have my questions ready. I can't tell you what they are but I can tell you they have to do with the creative process, performing, and charisma. For example, "What goes through your mind when you walk out on stage and see thousands of people who not only paid lots of money to see you perform, but sing your words back to you? Does that ever stop being surreal?" I can't ask this one--"If you were to write a book, what would the topic be?"--because we are now eagerly awaiting the release of Bruce's memoir Born to Run to be released on September 27. (Yes, I've preordered it.)

Last night I watched individuals and couples around me swayed to the slower songs and danced like maniacs to their favorite Springsteen showstoppers. The guy next to Fred must be the maniac leader. His crazy-macho dance moves didn't fit the music most of the time, but it was impossible not to watch him. But watching him was at the same time uncomfortable. Quick: look back at Bruce!

Many of my favorites were performed last night. We don't often hear "Rosalita" and "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" in concert. I was thrilled to hear them last night. Before launching into my favorite boardwalk song, "Sandy," he asked, "Is anyone here from the Jersey Shore?" YES BRUCE, I AM! It's sad to think that every time I hear that song my own Wildwood boardwalk days are further in the past.

How appropriate to perform the song "Philadelphia" from the movie Philadelphia in the city of Philadelphia. Fred grabbed a few seconds of that.

 Bruce saved the very best for last. We didn't break any records for concert length, but a three-hour, 45-minute concert is nothing to complain about. It was a steamy, humid, HOT night, and the guy on the radio Springsteen channel said it was 106 degrees on the field. (I consider us lucky that we got more than two hours.) Bruce and the band ended the show with "Jersey Girl" which is a treat by itself, but when he brought a Gold Star Widow up on the stage to dance with him (requested by a poster board sign) there was not a dry eye in the park.

Performing "Jersey Girl"
 I know skeptics will say that Bruce and his advisors are simply master manipulators of fans and marketing geniuses, but I have proof that Bruce's allure is more than an act of manipulation. Fred, who I thought would balk at the length and volume of the music if he was even able to stay in or near his blue plastic seat during the whole concert, was enthralled the entire time. He took photos and the videos you see here. He took more videos you don't see here. "I can see what all the fuss is about," he said. Or he said something like that--my ears were ringing rather loudly still at the time of the quoted material.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Inishmore, an Aran Island

A dry-stone wall in Inishmore
 I regret not taking the time to write more on-location in Ireland, and especially on Inishmore. (Important Irish writer John Millington Synge lived there and wrote about his observations in 1907, before the ferries and airplanes and throngs of tourists.) That was the place in Ireland I was most looking forward to, because of its legendary remoteness and unspoiled Irishness. On-site, I might have been able to capture the environment more precisely. The reality is that tourists ferry over from Galway in the morning. tour the island, buy sweaters and miscellany, eat, and leave before evening. Every day there is like a New Jersey shore summer in miniature: tourists in, chaos, tourists out. Substitute T-shirts for Aran sweaters and it's the same kind of thing. (Not that this is a bad thing...)

One of the Galway-Inishmore ferries
Western Ireland, Connemara and County Galway specifically, and the Aran Islands, have an interesting ecology. If not for people, the parts sticking up from the ocean and bay would be mainly bare rock. But over the centuries, people carried sand and seaweed from the shore and placed it by hand on the bare rock. This has actually made a fertile soil, but it takes hundreds of years. Also interesting about this place: fuschia, the same plant that my mother carried inside to protect in cold weather, fuschia grows outside in the ground all over the place in western Ireland.

Windswept Inishmore remoteness
There are probably some people who sign up for the Inishmore excursion thinking that they'll find ancient Irish civilization and culture untouched and intact on these remote Aran Islands. I can't speak for the other two islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, but on Inishmore frequent ferries and tourism have erased most of the remoteness. We heard the natives speaking their native Irish language (known elsewhere as Gaelic) to each other, but English to us. There is only one ATM on the island, and many of the shops do not accept credit cards, so there is a taste of ancient civilization, I guess.

The fort on the cliff: Dun Aengus
Most people board those ferries, I suspect, to see the island's wild scenery and ruins.

Check out those cliffs behind me! The wall behind me is part of Dun Aengus.
Foremost is Dun Aengus, a fort built on a cliff which dates back to around 1100 BC. At some point, probably around 700-800 AD, the fort was strengthened. Fortified.

Really tall dry-stone walls at Dun Aengus
What we saw this summer were the remains of a structure surrounded by three concentric half-circle, dry-stone walls, taller than those we saw throughout the Irish countryside. Don't climb on these walls: the stones are just placed on top of each other without benefit of mortar, concrete, rebar, or any other support. My guidebook says that the one kilometer walk from the visitors' center to the fort is "slightly strenuous." Indeed it was. I never felt that the walk was beyond me, but I did feel compelled to take extra care over the rough rocks that make up the last section of the hike. (Where is the nearest hospital? How would an ambulance get to me? A broken ankle would be embarrassing.) This is a place for sneakers or hiking boots, not for flip-flops or ballet flats. Luckily I was wearing my blue sneakers with the memory foam insoles. They were nice. I think I'll wear them tomorrow.

Looking back on the walk to Dun Aengus with Galway Bay in the background. The rocks in the foreground make for some tricky hiking. Yes, we walked from that building you can kind of see the roof of, but the van was parked even further out on the road.

We were transported to Dun Aengus by one of the many minivans...
that exist on the island to move tourists around. For ten or fifteen euros, we got a ride and narration to Dun Aengus, a few hours to spend there and at some quaint shops, and the a ride around to see more of the island's sites.

There are sweater shops all over the island, but they also sell postcards, books, and other souvenirs. In a few minutes, those picnic tables would be crowded with thirsty tourists.
Another way to tour Inishmore!

We saw The Seven Churches which is actually remains of two old churches, ruins of some fifteenth-century monastic houses, and some old gravestones.

The Seven Churches site
There's a seal colony down the road, but some overly-seal-friendly tourists ruined our chances of seeing the seals by moving too close to the seals' beach territory. The seals went into the water and all we could discern from our van were possible seal heads bobbing in the water.

One of the two ruined churches at The Seven Churches
Back at our starting point, Kilronan, the only town on the island and location of the ferry pier, we enjoyed lunch and a little shopping. I bought a second Aran sweater (I needed a green one) at the touristy Aran Sweater Market even though I've been told that they're probably not actually made on the islands, or even the larger island of Ireland, and they're not made from wool of resident Irish sheep. (They sell yarn, too.)

LOTS of sweaters and free shipping for 100+ euro purchases
 If I look into my crystal ball, I'm reasonably sure I see another trip to Inishmore or one of the other Arans, but with a brief stay at an inn so that I can see the place without mobs of tourists. I'd like to experience some of that remoteness and some of that extreme Galway Bay weather I've heard about.

Rent a bike or take a minivan tour of the island.
 If I can get my cycling legs back, it would be charming to tour the island on a rented bike as our friend did the day before our day trip. My crystal ball shows nothing about a third Aran sweater, though.

Bonus Aran Island shots:

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Peaceful Glendalough in County Wicklow, Ireland

St. Kevin's Church behind the trees
Up a bumpy road, in a bus with threatening clouds above, my group finally found Glendalough in County Wicklow. We had been told by our leader that this is a pleasant nature place, but I learned through some advance detective work that there are ruins from a medieval monastery and remnants from a defunct mining community. "Photo ops," I thought.

Some members of my group and the general public entering the monastery ruins through the double arch.
I walked around the ruins after checking out the 3D map display in the Visitors' Center. As with many old Irish ruins, the stone walls remained, but any trace of roofs is long gone. They were made of wood and probably straw thatch and didn't stand up to weather as the stones did. Luckily, by the time our group made it outside to the old monastery, the rain clouds had floated away to dump on some other part of Ireland, and we had some sun.

Sheep are everywhere in Ireland, including Glendalough.

Detail of the cathedral at Glendalough
One of the notable buildings from the monastery is the cathedral. This is the biggest building in the monastic cluster and dates from 900-1000 AD. The chancel and sacristy were added later, probably 1100-1200 AD. According to my Glendalough guidebook, the outside of the cathedral (and perhaps other buildings) was plastered over when it was new, and didn't have that rocky look.

Monks' graves were moved to the cathedral at some point
These ferns were popping out of a lot of the stone walls here.
The Round Tower is a prominent feature of this monastery, and our guide told us it is in the best shape of any such tower in Europe. Although the roof fell through in a nineteenth-century storm, it was rebuilt soon after from the same materials gathered from the floor of the tower.

The Round Tower is in better shape than some of the grave markers.
The tower was not used for defense, but as a bell tower. Valuables were also stashed here, hung in pouches from stones inside. A ladder was used to access the outside door, but since each interior level was shorter than this ladder, it could not be stowed inside. This is not the place to shelter-in-place if the monastery was under siege. The Round Tower dates from the early 1100s AD.

I wandered around the ruins shooting photos and reading the grave markers. Some of these markers were very old and unreadable, but many were quite recent, marking the last resting places of prominent Glendalough-area citizens.

St. Kevin is the monk who founded this monastery. I read that he started out as a cloistered monk, reading and worshiping in solitude, but he had so many visitors he decided he would serve God better if he became a more social animal and started this monastery.

St. Kevin's Church has a belfry and a roof.
Most of my group walked beyond the ruins and grave markers to visit either of two lakes, the smaller close one or the further large one. (The Miners' Village was too far to attempt during our visit. Lead, zinc, silver, and maybe iron were mined there.) I stayed behind to wander among the ruins. A big dark cloud moved over the sun creating an ominous atmosphere around the site. I doubled back and photographed the Cathedral, St. Kevin's Church, the Round Tower, and the grave markers in the contrasting light until I started to feel drops of rain. From the bus, I watched as my colleagues got drenched in yet another heavy Irish rain.

The clouds are rolling in.
The raindrops are falling with increasing frequency...time to head back to the bus!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Dublin: Living at Trinity College, Eating at Pubs, Exploring the Region

I'll meet you at the Campanile!
Dorm life. I thought I was done with that forever, But this summer's residency for Cedar Crest College's MFA Program in Creative Writing included a two-week stay in Trinity College's dorms. I dreaded it. We were told that we'd each have a single room but share the bathroom and common space with two other people. I'm too old for this.
Number 2: My Dorm
 It was fine. My suite-mates and I got along fine and hardly saw each other on our floor unless we wanted to. We were very busy with seminars, workshops, excursions, and eating. And, I got to know them better. Yeah, my room was small (and there was no TV) but really all I needed was a bed, a desk, and a place to keep my stuff. The window had drapes and shutters built-in to the inside wall to shut out the noise (mostly traffic and street music) of busy Dublin.
My room on the FOURTH floor (no elevator)
 Living on Trinity's campus was actually cool. There was a wall around us with limited open gates which didn't stop the tourists during the day, but at night if we went out to explore the town we had to remember which gate would be open so that we could get back to our dorms.

The Main Gate, from the outside
We got the hang of it within a few days. I took a walk around campus one morning before our seminar to see what the rest of campus looks like: grassy squares, lots of ivy, and both old and new buildings. The train is elevated over the other end of campus. And then there's the Book of Kells! That medieval manuscript is housed in the Old Library which also contains the Long Room, a centuries-old library reading room with an arched ceiling. The Old Library and the Book of Kells were my neighbors.
The Long Room in Trinity's Old Library
We ate dinner on our own eat evening, and got to explore the many pubs around Dublin: Merchant's Arch, O'Neill's, Porterhouse, and Brazen Head were some of our favorites. Most pubs were either adorned with flowers like O'Neill's and Brazen Head,

or painted in crazy bright colors.

Ya know what's big in Dublin? Hurling is big. This is a fast-paced game which seemed to my American friends to be four or five games played simultaneously. There's a small white ball that is batted around with a wooden stick which has something like a spoon at the end. The goals are a combination of soccer and football goalposts and there seems to be more than one way to score. We watched a game between Kilkenny and Galway at Croke Park, a rather nice stadium that our airport taxi driver was excited to tell us about. We never did figure out all of the details of the game, but it was fun to be there to watch the proceedings on the field and the jazzed-up fans wearing their favorite team's colors. We were told before the game that Kilkenny always wins, and although Galway seemed to be leading for some of the game, Kilkenny got the win.

Dublin is James Joyce's city. We were required to read part of Dubliners before our residency, but it's really Ulysses that the real Dubliners talk about. We visited the Joyce Tower as a group--this is now a museum dedicated to Joyce and focusing on Ulysses.
The Joyce Tower, now a museum

It's a Martello Tower, a kind of tower built as a defense against Napoleon who was rumored to be planning an attack on Dublin. We climbed the very narrow (narrower than the typical American lighthouse) spiral steps to the top to enjoy the spectacular view. 
From the top of the Joyce Tower--is that Howth over there?
Scenes from that epic novel are based on rooms in the tower.

Some scenes are set in Kennedy's pub and Sweny's Pharmacy, both near Trinity College. The protagonist Leopold Bloom bought lemon soap for his wife at Sweny's. (I bought some of that lemon soap for a friend at work who is a big fan. She loved it!) Sweny's is known as the "worst pharmacy in Dublin" mostly because it exists now to sell the lemon soap and used books, and to host readings of James Joyce literature in many languages.

Inside Sweny's Pharmacy
The Joyce Tower, in Sandycove, forms the southern border of Dublin Bay, and at the northern shore of the bay we found Howth, a suburb of Dublin. This delightful seaside city made me feel at home and gave my camera a workout. Check out these shots (it was hard to take a bad picture there!):

Howth Head

It was windy that day--that's not my hairdo.