Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cuimhnigh cé tusa

Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day, but in spite of my Irish heritage, I do not plan on drinking green beer. I will not have a shamrock painted on my face.

(I abhor face-painting anyway; I am aware of the irony of someone who has tattoos eschewing body art, but I've always hated being drawn on. My mom got called in when I was in nursery school because I refused to let the teacher draw faces on my fingertips for playing Where Is Thumbkin and in fact, sat on my hands to deny her access. They couldn't understand why I wouldn't let them draw on my fingers when all the other children were allowing it. For a nursery school run by 'hippies' they sure did like to push conformity. But I digress.)

I will not wear a "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" tshirt or the "Pog Mo Thoin" model that's become popular in the last couple of years. I plan on a quiet celebration tomorrow, even though I do not begrudge those who will wave their flags and play their Clancy Brothers (or did this weekend and are still probably recovering).

Since my husband and I visited Ireland a few years ago, I haven't been able to see those green beer and gigantic green foam top hat kind of celebrations in the same light. While I've certainly enjoyed my share of rowdy gatherings in celebration of ol' Patricius, (most notably in San Francisco a few years ago, boy howdy), it's important to remember what it really means to be Irish, and it has nothing to do with getting loaded and dressing up like a leprechaun.

Back in 2005, we rented a car and drove around the south and up the west coast of Ireland winding up in Dublin, staying in small B&Bs, avoiding the places the tourists would be and choosing places to eat and stay based on the recommendations of the locals we met. You can't escape history there- it's everywhere. And even though it's been incredibly difficult for the Irish to start talking publicly about their suffering, Ireland hasn't forgotten the Famine and won't let you either, if you go to the right places.

The place where we spent our first night in country- Cobh (formerly known as Queenstown)- was Ireland's principal emigration port. More than five million people emigrated from Ireland in the nineteenth century and most of them left from Cobh.

There's a museum there called The Queenstown Story which has exhibits designed to put you in the shoes of someone leaving their home country for good, including a spooky room that will make you experience what it was like to be in the hold of a coffin ship as it lurched across the Atlantic Ocean.

Cobh is also home to St. Colman's cathedral. Many immigrants, my great-grandfather included (whose saint's name was Colman, coincidentally), sent money for its construction once they'd settled in the US, Canada or Australia.

We decided to pass on the Cliffs of Moher and went to Slea Head instead, a gorgeous cliff looking down at waves crashing up against the rocks with the ruins of Dunbeg Fort at its head. On the other side of the road is a preserved Famine Cottage where you can pay a cranky woman sitting in a booth at the foot of the drive to walk inside and get a feel for what it was like living in a cold, drafty, smoky stone building in desperate poverty.

In Westport, at the foot of Croagh Patrick is a massive iron sculpture depicting a coffin ship, the lines of the ship eerily made of skeletons tossed by the wind.

And the finale was the Strokestown Famine Museum. Representing "the first national attempt at confronting and discussing the history of the Great Irish Famine… developed… to balance the history of the 'Big House' using the original documents from the Strokestown Park Archive to tell the tenant's story. … The fact that nothing of a physical nature remains to represent the lives of the Irish tenants at the time of the Great Irish Famine further underlines the importance of the documents and letters on display." You are toured through the Big House first, the silk wallpaper, china and crystal, and fine furnishings pointed out to you by cheery guides. You see where massive dinners were held, the enormous bedrooms with their cavernous ceilings and delicate linens.

The tenants who worked the land are invisible. As the official site statement said above, the fact that there's nothing left is testament to the hard times these people faced. When we were there, there was a long hallway where documents like bills, receipts and letters were on display. There was information on the potato and details about the blight that killed it. That's about it.

(There's a restaurant on-site now, which seems a little inappropriate for a famine museum, although I am ashamed to admit we were so hungry after leaving the museum that we sought out the nearest pub down the street for sandwiches.)

Anyway, what all this leads to is the real history of what it means to be of Irish descent. It doesn't mean getting drunk and wearing green beads and shamrock-shaped sunglasses and getting in bar fights. Our American St. Patrick's Day celebrations started out as a way of acknowledging pride in an ethnic background that others derided. The first St. Patrick's Day parades were of a similar nature to Gay Pride parades- in spite of what you think of us, say about us, and how you mistreat us, we are proud of who we are. For a people who had come to this country broken and battered, facing stereotyping, discrimination and targeting by the KKK (oh yes, Catholics and especially immigrants were favorite targets) it was an enormous source of pride to march the streets wearing the green, hearing the pipes and singing the old songs.

Like so much in our country, it got bastardized and commercialized. Now we have leprechauns selling furniture.

But if you're of Irish descent, remember tomorrow that your heritage means more than just "partying."
A man named John Carberry wrote a beautiful opinion piece in my local newspaper back in 2006 that has always stuck with me. Have fun, he says, but "remember who you are. You are the product of thousands of years of Celtic determination. … It was seldom easy. At its best, it was the ancient battle to scratch a life from the earth, to beat back hunger and disease and build a culture. At its worst, it was genocide, with half of Ireland's 6 million natives killed or driven off in a single generation and much of that ancient culture erased."

Most of all, you have an obligation. As someone of Irish heritage, we have an obligation to help those who are starving like our ancestors were. We have an obligation to speak up for immigrants who have no choice but to leave their home in order to make a better life for themselves and their families, as our great-grandparents did. We have an obligation to stand up for those who are oppressed and forced to give up their culture and language the way those who came before us did.

I can't say it better than Mr. Carberry:

"When someone points out the poor or the homeless with disgust and waxes aloud about how they are the way they are because they lack the intellect or the character to improve themselves, remember you're the child of a people once made poor and homeless.

When someone tells you that some ethnic group is inherently inferior because of its alleged laziness and tendency toward violence, sexual obsession or drug addiction, remember you're the child of a people whose rights and rich culture were disregarded with these same claims."
It's our party tomorrow, my fellow Hibernians. We get the honor of watching the world celebrate our
St. Patrick and our heritage, however "misdirected and uninformed" our guests may be. But remember that with that honor comes duty. Enjoy your corned beef & cabbage and hopefully a large hunk of soda bread. May your Guinness be poured well, and your bartender not stingy with the whiskey. Sing "A Nation Once Again" at the top of your lungs and stumble your way through "Whiskey in the Jar." Please be sure you have a safe way home and be considerate of your fellow revelers. But most of all, remember who you areCuimhnigh cé tusa. Today and every day.

Carberry, John. "St. Patrick's Day: A time of honor and obligation." The Ithaca Journal. 17 March 2006: A 10. Print.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In Defense of Valentine's Day

Since it's only a few days away, Valentine's Day is really getting some flack.

It seems to be the favored holiday to hate- everyone from single people to florists to restaurant staff to those who regularly bemoan our consumerist society.

But I must respectfully disagree.

Valentine's Day is one of my most favorite holidays, right up there with Thanksgiving, for being at its purest a celebration of something wonderful- love.

Yeah, certain powers that be want you to think that you have to spend a great deal of money to make this holiday significant, whether it be candy, stuffed animals, flowers or jewelry (while we're on the topic, could that Kay Jewelers necklace that Jane Seymour is hawking look any more like butts?)
Who knew Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman was such a perv?

And yeah, you could fall for that. But honestly, the commercialization of Christmas hurts my heart far more than aisles of pink and red heart-shaped boxes of mediocre chocolates. There's something far more obscene about people celebrating Jesus' birth with big-screen tv sets than buying some flowers for your loved one.

And I must also disagree that it's a holiday that solely serves to taunt the unattached, the single, and the lonely. And I think I have my parents to thank for that.

You see, I grew up believing Valentine's Day wasn't about mushy romantic love. It was a day set aside to make sure you told the people you love that you loved them. That was it. My parents made a big deal out of Valentine's Day for us, because they saw it as a day to celebrate their love for us. My dad bought me flowers for my very first Valentine's Day, when I was barely two months old.

And then when I was ten, two days before Valentine's Day, we had a horrible house fire late at night that only reinforced my love for this holiday and what it really represented.

My brother and sister and I were taken to our grandmother's to stay while my parents tried to salvage what they could of our house and find us a new place to stay and new stuff. When they came to pick us up, in spite of everything, they had a Valentine's Day card for me. It was simple- an illustration of a pink ice cream soda that on the inside said something like 'You're So Sweet.' But my mom and dad wrote how much they loved me and that everything was going to be okay, words I really needed to hear at a time when I was wearing borrowed clothes and had lost everything I had ever owned in my short life up till then. I still have that card. It's the essence of Valentine's Day to me.

And my parents also brought another special treat: my 4th grade classmates had saved my valentines for me. Looking through the cheesy little punch-out cards bedecked with Smurfs and other cartoon characters, I felt normal. I felt like a normal little girl, not one that had just a few weeks ago gone running through a smoke-filled hallway dodging sparks that were shooting down from the ceiling. Those tiny cards with their ink-blotty or smudgy pencil signatures were the greatest gift I could have received.

So give Valentine's Day a break. Don't give in to what Jane Seymour and her butts necklace want you to think the holiday is. Use it as an opportunity to tell people in your life that you love them. You can never do enough of that, anyway; what's the harm in a day set aside to remind you? And if you're really feeling lonely, make your way to your local animal shelter and heal a heart you find there. You'll never find love as generous and unconditional as a pet's.

Oh, and don't forgot that you can load up on candy super-cheap the day after.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Of Newspapers and Nutcrackers

I've slacked off on answering this question because I didn't have a really good answer. I wasn't exactly a carefree child. I was a worrier, an overthinker, a perfectionist. I remember feeling frustrated a lot that I wasn't taken seriously because I was a little kid. I remember having my feathers ruffled on many occasions because some adult laughed when I used big words. I clearly don't miss any of that.

But then on Sunday, a couple of friends and I took our friend's children to see the Ithaca Ballet's performance of the Nutcracker. And it reminded me of what was great about being a little girl.

First of all, hats off to Annie and Charlotte for their behavior. They were quiet, rapt, and paid attention to what was going on on-stage. Very impressive for a four and five-year-old. Annie climbed into my lap to take advantage of my aisle seat's choice view. Sitting there, with her head leaned back on my shoulder, I saw the show through her eyes, seeing the spectacle of costumes and sets and fake snow dropping from up above for the first time. When she gasped at the entrance of the Mouse King, I did too. And she made up stories about what was happening on stage when, frankly, all the 'hail fellow well met' night before Christmas formal party dancing got a little boring.

It reminded me of the best part of being a little girl, at least for me: the freedom to visit whatever strange places your head takes you to, to lose yourself in an imaginary world of your creation and not have any hesitancy about what other people might think. 

My cousin recently found some letters I had sent her (we had quite the correspondence going on back in the early 80s), including my first (and I believe only) issue of the Vegetable News. I think I've mentioned before
here that I had a thing for vegetables when I was kid. I thought they were hysterical and was always writing stories and plays starring them (Okrahoma! never made it past a concept, unfortunately.) Apparently, I also thought they were newsworthy.

I also had sage advice to offer:
I really do not know what I was talking about regarding the "beepers" that get "installed in your ear." Or I could see the future and failed to take full advantage of my prescience regarding bluetooth headsets.

I also showed an appalling lack of understanding of genetics:

(Or I was inappropriately inspired by Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear playing "twin" crack reporters in The Great Muppet Caper.)

I apparently watched the sh!t out of the '84 Olympics as well. And a lot of episodes of "Alice."

But I didn't care. I wasn't writing for any audience other than my cousin. I gave no consideration to what anyone else would think. It amused me, I thought it would entertain her, nothing else mattered.

I miss that kind of simplicity.

And writing about vegetables. I should get back into that.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Of flappers and fashion

I have a great fondness for that period of time post-Edwardian era when corsets were on their way out and the flappers were just beginning to make themselves known.

Dresses were getting roomier but with a slimmer, straighter shape.

But I overwhelmingly prefer the 1920s. Besides all that beautiful art deco beading, dropped waists were de rigeur, which is great for me because I'm surprisingly long-waisted for someone as short as I am. This means that the waists on regular dresses usually hit me way up on my ribcage, with my natural waist falling anywhere from two to four inches below the waist on the dress, which besides being incredibly uncomfortable is also terribly unflattering.

Also- look at those shoes- sensible heels! High enough for shape, but not so sharp you could use them as a weapon. Your ankles aren't in danger from snapping when you wear these beauties. You could run for a bus in these shoes.

Cute hats were an important part of 1920s fashion. I love a good hat.

Beyond the 1920s, I also dig Katharine Hepburn in a pair of flowy trousers,
Audrey Hepburn in a simply cut little black dress. And a hat.

 Mostly because my hair is growing out and getting kind of wild, I've been intrigued by Stevie Nicks/ Jean Shrimpton in the 70s with their long flowy dresses, shawls and big boots. I love boots almost as much as hats.
But truthfully, I'm happy to be existing now with fewer fashion rules than we've ever had. You're free to pick from all these past decades and choose what you like and how you want to combine it. Yes, there have been some damn ugly trends (those platform stiletto heels that make you look like you fashioned a pair of shoes out of a couple kleenex boxes, the unfortunately ubiquitous flip flop, flesh-colored pantyhose, jumpsuits) but we're a lot healthier about what we'll do to ourselves in the name of fashion.

I'm appreciative every day to live at a moment in time without corsets, foot-binding, hoopskirts, or towering powdered wigs.  

 It's a helluva lot safer, too.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Of Breakfast Meats and War Movies

Olivia Pope don't need no nickname.

My first name is "Kerry" and that, along with its spelling, does not lend itself easily to a nickname. In its other variations, it usually is a nickname of itself.  "Carrie" is usually short for "Caroline," for example. But "Kerry" is not short for anything, even though I've met several people who insisted it couldn't be, it HAS to be short for something and why won't I just tell them my full name?? What am I trying to hide from them??? (I don't see anyone pestering Kerry Washington about this.)

My sister is in the same boat. Her name is Katie. Just Katie. Not Katherine, not Kathleen, not Kaitlyn. Just Katie. I should know; I named her. (If she was a boy, she would've been Busy Timmy. YOU'RE WELCOME.)

So I've never really had people try to shorten my name to a nickname. There's been the occasional "Kerr" thrown out there in casual encounters (and never repeated after the initial experiment because 1. it sounds weird and 2. dropping the "y" at the end does not really shorten it much). I had a teacher in high school who called me "Kerr Bear" like the Care Bears, which was a little perplexing but I think he was just grasping at straws.

The only real nickname I've ever had is the one my dad gave me when I was baby:  Hamchuck.

Yeah, it's right there in the title to this blog. The irony is that I hate ham. I don't even like Canadian bacon because it's too hamlike. Hamlike? Hammy? ( I love the Denny's breakfast special named "Moons Over My Hammy." But only for the pun. I'd want to substitute sausage for the ham. But "Moons Over My Sausage" just sounds really, really dirty and too unpleasant for breakfast time. Although in doing a quick search just now, I learned that Moons Over My Hammy is actually slang. I'll let you find out for yourselves. And yes, by the way, I do eat other pig products. I like bacon; I like sausage. I will even eat ham if it's chopped up in teeny tiny bits and used primarily to flavor another dish, like mac & cheese or even split pea soup. But ham on its own is gross. So are pork chops. But I digress.)

My dad, however, LOVES ham. Loves it. (Even in Spam form, god help his liver.) So much so, that I always assumed that's why he called me Hamchuck. He loved me, so of course he'd call me after his favorite meat product, right?

Well, turns out it's not quite that cute.

A few years ago, a friend of the family read my blog post about chasing after a bat in my parents' house after bringing my dad home from knee surgery. He informed me that "Hamchuck" is actually a character's name in the John Wayne movie "The Green Berets." Hamchuck (or alternately "Ham Chunk") is a Vietnamese orphan who is taken under the wing of one of the main characters, Sgt. Petersen.

Here's what IMDB said about the film:

Hamchuck is the one on the right.
"Petersen befriends a young native boy named Ham Chuck, a war orphan who has no family other than his dog and the soldiers at the basecamp. As the battle rages, the dog is killed and the boy tearfully buries his faithful companion. Symbolically, the boy uses the stick he had used to dig the dog's grave as the tombstone. As the soldiers rush to their defensive positions, the stick is knocked away, leaving an unmarked grave."

I think I preferred the pork product reference.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Screw you, Dorothy Hamill.

Was it this one?

Or perhaps this one?

Nope. Definitely this one:
This one right here. 
Hellllooo, headband.