“Going home and spending time with your family and your real friends keeps you grounded.” – Jennifer Ellison
This weekend, my wife and I went “home” to the greater Portsmouth, Ohio area. She and I were both born and (as for me, mostly) raised there. Her parents are still there. Mine moved on when I was 14, but I still have plenty of roots. We were without kids this weekend and owed her Mom some “we” time, so made the 2+ hour drive from our house to my wife’s childhood home. I think I can speak for my wife to say that going home for both of us this weekend was bittersweet.
Life in Portsmouth is completely different from our life in Columbus, Ohio. Portsmouth is the epitome of small-town middle America with a population of less than 30,000. Columbus is a major metropolitan city where the population approaches 2 million. In Columbus, we have something going on every night of the week; dinner with friends, kids’ sporting activities, organized after-work events, and so on. In Portsmouth, there might be one event per week in addition to Wednesday evening church service. When we go “home,” we experience the life of our childhood. The life that we couldn’t wait to escape. The slower, sleepy life that would drive us nuts from boredom on the long-term, but that we honestly relish in bits and pieces on these brief weekend treks down memory lane.
This weekend, I went hiking for four hours with my cousin’s husband. From start to finish, neither of us could get cell service among our three mobile phones. Not that we wanted it, I’m just offering a sense of how remote things are in the greater Portsmouth area. My wife and I also attended a car show, which is where people from all around the local Tri-State area (Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia) drive their always polished, often restored, sometimes cobbled together hotrods and put them on display for eager gawkers and some serious bragging rights. The night usually wraps up when the hotrods begin to file out onto the main road and leave a good bit of rubber behind in a plume of blue-grey smoke. It is like a scene out of the movie American Graffiti. We spent a good bit of time with family sharing food and catching up on stories and events. My wife and I also squeezed in a 3 mile training run in the downtown area and on the campus of my first alma mater, Shawnee State University. During our travels around the county, I drove past every house I lived in until I moved away from the area. All of this brings me back to the bittersweet point.
A part of me – a very small part indeed – misses that life. Sure, we couldn’t live in the house we live in now. Our kids wouldn’t have had the opportunities that they’ve had in the Columbus area. No, we couldn’t travel like we do. Yes, I find myself getting cranky at the painfully slow drivers while I’m down there. On and on. But. BUT, a small part of me misses that simpler, small town life. A part of me misses the time when the big event of the day was putting two bare feet into the water and casting a fishing pole. That same part of me misses the house I grew up in, the friends with whom I learned about life, and the roads on which I learned to drive. Judging by my wife’s eagerness to show me the artifacts of her past, I think she share’s the sentiment.
I’m sure this is just the nostalgia of the trip taking hold. If you moved us back to Portsmouth today, my wife and I would go stir crazy in 3 days – or less. I think the important thing here is to revisit memory lane with vulnerability every now and again. With vulnerability, I mean to be open to the trip, to slow down and walk the paths of the memory, to revisit events and consider their impact on you. We can so easily get caught up in planning the next big trip or office politics or whatever. But there’s nothing like a trip to your childhood home to ground you in the terra firma of who you are and what in life is important. It offers a whole new perspective to the impending work week.
The house featured in this post is the current state of my parent’s home when I was brought home from the hospital more than 43 years ago. I remember it as a quaint red brick and red siding house in good repair surrounded by a chain link fence to keep me and our small dog in the yard. But that was a long time ago. Times change.
In Book IX of Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are blown off course by a terrible storm and arrive at the land of the lotus eaters. In need of supplies, the men disembark and interact with the locals. The people do them no harm, but offer them their local food, which is derived from the lotus flower. The powerful narcotic makes the men sleepy and lackadaisical about heading home. Ultimately, Odysseus ushers his men back onto the boat and they are put back on their journey. This book is about lazy intoxication.
In Ulysses, The Lotus Eaters episode is “action packed” in the midst of the mundane. Bloom has left his house a good bit early for Dignam’s funeral and walks to the post office. From the post office, he walks into a church service and from there he walks to Sweny’s pharmacy to order Molly’s lotion. Recall from Calypso that Bloom, who is willing to bring his wife breakfast in bed, is painfully aware of her impending affair with Blazes Boylan. Aside from his sexual objectification of the neighbor lady in the butcher shop, he seems like a practical, stand up man. The reader is drawn to pity him. We all have the occasional stray thought and it wasn’t as if he was actively pursuing the neighbor lady. In The Lotus Eaters, we catch another side of Bloom. We learn through his trip to the post office that he is carrying on at least a written flirtation with another woman under a pseudonym. His pseudonym, Henry Flower, would indicate that his actions are premeditated. Our hero is in fact a flawed man.
Outside the post office, while Bloom is trying to focus on the letter from his naughty pen pal Martha Clifford, Bloom’s acquaintance McCoy stops for a chat. The stream of consciousness dialogue can be difficult here because Bloom is carrying on his thoughts while McCoy is talking and then Bloom spots a sexy upper class woman across the street. We’re exposed to the inner and outer man simultaneously. The dialogue of McCoy, Bloom’s annoyance of McCoy, Bloom’s wandering thoughts, and Bloom’s desire to see more of the woman across the street are all intermingled.
During the dialogue, McCoy asks Bloom about his wife, Molly, and the discussion turns to singing engagements. McCoy’s wife has gotten a gig and he’s eager to share the news. We again see multiple sides of Bloom here. Internally he scoffs at the comparison between McCoy’s wife and Molly, as he views Molly as the superior. With regards to the sponsorship and organization of Molly’s singing engagement, we also read the first asking of the question, “Who’s getting it up?” With an obvious sexual overtone to the question, Bloom can never bring himself to give the straight answer, which is Blazes Boylan. He gives McCoy a complex round-about answer because he cannot bring himself to verbalize the connection between Boylan and his wife.
After reading the naughty letter from Martha, Bloom goes into a church during mass. Through is inner dialogue as he observes the service, we get his thoughts on the Catholic machinery. He thinks about the whole process with complete detachment and analyzes its effectiveness on the masses.
From the church, Bloom heads over to Sweny’s pharmacy. He realizes that he has left the recipe to Molly’s lotion along with his house key in his other trousers. The chemist is able to pull the recipe from the records. The lotion will be ready for pick up later, so Bloom takes a bar of lemon soap on credit and moves to leave the pharmacy. He then runs into Bantam Lyons who asks to see Bloom’s newspaper to get a tip on the day’s horse race. In another effort to be left alone, Bloom offers his newspaper to Lyons while internally casting judgement on him and the others who seem to be caught up in a recent gambling frenzy. Lyons mistakes Bloom’s statement that he was going to throw the paper away as a tip on a racehorse and rushes off. Bloom is then left to his thoughts and he drifts to thinking about a bath and a massage.
The connection between Ulysses and The Odyssey in this episode didn’t quite hit me over the head at first. The lotus eaters are satisfied in their lazy stupor, not striving for anything. While this period for Bloom is essentially killing time between the morning and Dignam’s funeral, I was attempting to find the at-rest inertia of the Dublin locals to connect to the Greek lotus eaters. It didn’t seem to be there. McCoy has ambitions, as does his wife. Lyons is in a rush to bet on the horses. Only after considering the themes did I get it. The lotus eater here is Bloom. He doesn’t want to be at home in the face of Molly’s affair and he doesn’t have any particular place to be. He’s free to wander about. As he observes the world around him and his thoughts wander, we are keyed into some of the themes.
Intoxicants: Bloom thinks of the Far East as a lazy intoxicating place. He observes the stupefied horses drawing the tram. He considers the calming narcotic effect of smoking a cigar. At the chemist, Bloom thinks about alchemy and sedatives.
Marital Infidelity: Molly is forever on Bloom’s mind even though he has left home for the day and essentially knows that Molly will have an affair. Bloom sexualizes an upper class woman across the street and hopes to catch a glimpse of her legs. We also learn that Bloom is carrying on a secret correspondence with another woman who knows he is married. She asks, “Are you not happy in your home?” and “Tell me, what perfume does your wife wear?”
False Cordiality: In both cases of Bloom’s interaction with people he knows, he is cordial but – because we’re treated to his thoughts – we see that he is being false. He tries to avoid McCoy but is accosted. During the conversation, Bloom only marginally focuses on what McCoy is saying. His interest is piqued when McCoy tries to compare his wife to Molly, at which Bloom internally scoffs. At Sweny’s, Bloom considers the shortest way possible to get rid of Lyons. Ironically, Lyons takes Bloom’s castoff comment as a tip on the horse race, which we’ll revisit later.
Criticism of Catholicism: There is scarcely any other way to interpret Bloom’s objective evaluation of than catholic mass than as critical. By this point in Joyce’s life, he has had a full crisis of faith. Given his treatment of the mass in this lotus eating episode, I would be remiss if I didn’t connect back to Karl Marx’s assertion that “[religion] is the opium of the people.” It is never stated, but that’s not Joyce. He shows the reader rather than telling them.
As I close, I am sitting in marvel at the literary giant that is James Joyce. In giving us the flawed hero with a flawed wife who lives in a flawed community, and whose adventure spans 24 hours of an everyday middle class life in early 1900’s Dublin, Joyce essentially stopped the clocks and examined life at a depth rarely glimpsed elsewhere. If nothing else, Ulysses is intensely human.
Happy Bloomsday! Today is June 16, which is the day James Joyce’s Ulysses is celebrated around the world. In the last couple of years, I have taken to reading Ulysses and done my level best to wrap up the reading on June 16. This year I decided to blog about each episode along the way, which, as I have learned, dramatically slows the process. However, I’m also finding that I’m getting more out of the reading this time around, so I’m happy with the process. With that said, it is time for another installment.
“In the act of going, he stayed.” In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus is ensnared by Calypso on an island during his travels. The nature of the ensnarement isn’t all bad. Although Calypso is ego-centric and selfishly wants to keep Odysseus as her own, she is a beautiful goddess-nymphand she generally treats Odysseus well. Their relationship is carnal. But after some time – Homer’s timeline has it at 7 years – Odysseus misses his wife Penelope and wants to make his way home. It takes an appeal to the gods and Hermès finally frees him at the behest of Zeus himself.
Now in the fourth episode of Ulysses, we finally meet our hero, Leopold Bloom. Much like the earlier parts of the book, we’re treated to a continuum of thoughts and actions, although we are limited to reading the thoughts of Bloom and Stephen. We meet Bloom’s wife, Molly, and we learn that they have a daughter, Milly. We also learn that they had a son named Rudy who died in infancy.
Relatively speaking, there is a ton of action in this episode. We have rewound to start the day at 8 AM – this time with Bloom. He goes to the butcher to pick up a pork kidney and observes the Dublin of 1904 around him. He comes home and cooks breakfast, which is a bit of a gender role reversal for this timeframe. Bloom picks up the mail dropped from the mail slot, which includes a letter for him from Milly, a card for Molly from Milly, and a letter for Molly from the antagonist, Blazes Boylan. The Blooms have a conversation about reincarnation and several polite exchanges. Leopold then eats his own breakfast and heads to the outhouse to finish off his morning ritual. There are also several interactions with the family cat throughout.
There are themes aplenty in the Calypso episode. Like Calypso, the episode has sexual references throughout. Also like the goddess, who would have been a champion for women’s equal rights, we get the strong indication that Molly will soon stray from the marriage with Boylan and that Leopold is aware. Bloom gives a lot of thought about staying and going.
Sexual overtones: Bloom notices his wife’s feminine form and features as he interacts with her. Bloom also takes notice of the “vigorous hips” on the next-door girl in front of him at the butcher’s shop and wishes the butcher would hurry so he could walk behind her towards home. It’s “Pleasant to see first thing in the morning.” His thoughts drift off to this woman having an affair with a constable. When he misses out on walking behind the lady, his thoughts drift to his wife, Molly and pleasant evenings of the past. Back home, he thinks of being near Molly’s “ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.” The reference to the word “yes” here also will have overt sexual tones once we get to the final episode and get the chance to spend some time with Molly’s thoughts.” Additionally in this episode, Bloom recognizes that his daughter Milly, who has turned 15 yesterday is coming of age. As he considers his wife’s interest in Blazes Boylan and his daughter’s interest in Bannon, he concedes that it is impossible to prevent in either case.
Staying and Going: For me, the most important sentence of the whole episode is, “In the act of going, he stayed.” This is Calypso in a nutshell – both in Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses. This sentence comes after he notices the opened letter from Boylan tucked under Molly’s pillow. He has seen the flirtation between the two. He knows they’ll be working together and he knows his wife is interested in him. However, there are faraway thoughts throughout the episode as well. Bloom thinks of Molly’s father in the Middle East and in Gibraltar. He considers investing in the tracts of land offered in Turkey to be a farmer. Bloom considers the plight of the Jewish people (Bloom is a Jew), and also considers traveling for several weeks to Mullingar, which is where the daughter Milly is staying. But at the same time, Bloom is wavering back and forth about also staying. Notably, when he goes to the outhouse he thinks about the back garden and how the soil is bad. He has a distinct thought to “Reclaim the whole place.” I believe this is poignant. Joyce is showing us rather than telling us that our hero is conflicted about what to do. Should he stay or go? Or both? Like Odysseus, maybe he will go and then come back to “reclaim his rightful place.”
Other prominent themes in the episode include business, jews, and death. The prominent public event in the story involves going to the funeral of Patrick Dignam, who died suddenly in recent days. The episode ends with the words “Poor Dignam!” as Blooms thoughts shift on a dime to close.
When contrasted with the other 8 AM and simultaneous episode, Telemachus, in which Stephen Daedalus is the focal point, we see several stark differences. Bloom is older and more practical about his thoughts, while Stephen is more ego-centric or fanciful. Stephen is off contemplating the stars while Bloom is calculating return on investment. Bloom is considering “staying and going” in the face of his wife’s imminent stray from the marital bedroom while Stephen is holding a grudge over his friend’s comment that his mother was “beastly dead.” These contrasts demonstrate the mastery that Joyce had over the human psyche. By showing us a difference in maturity in human thoughts while interweaving so many other themes, Ulysses is perhaps the richest case of demonstrated human understanding in the literary world.
If I’m honest, I don’t love the beach. There, I’ve said it. Yes, yes, it is beautiful. But I’m more of a go-out-and-explore than a toes-in-the-sand-with-a-beer-in-my-hand kind of person. So it was with some trepidation that I set aside a week to go to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I am quite clear on how silly that sounds. My lovely mother lined it up so that my sister and her family and I and my family could come together with her for a week at one of the most popular beach destinations in the Eastern United States, and I’m feeling trepidation? I’d probably make a good extra in an Adam Sandler movie.
We’re now in the second half of beach week. We’ve gone to the pool, we’ve caught some rays, we’ve gone to the beach, we did battle with some large waves and decent riptide, and we (I) got a small crustacean stuck in our swim suit. With a couple of days to go, I was thinking that was it – rinse and repeat – although hopefully I could avoid another sand crab incident. But then my wife and better half decided to pull on a thread that has been dangling in front of us. All of our rooms include this seemingly obligatory picture of horses on the beach. Someone mentioned something about wild horses at dinner the other night, but we didn’t think it was a real thing. I mean, this is the modern, arguably overdeveloped Eastern sea board of the US, and it’s the beach. Horses? Pulling out her trusty mobile device, she quickly learned that there is in fact a not-quite-indigenous population of wild horses roaming free on a 7,500 acre stretch of American beach.
Spanish War Horses
In the year 1492, there was this Italian guy who left from Spain to find a short route to the East Indies. He kind of muffed it. But, he did run across this new place that had some prospects. You’ve probably heard that story. So fast forward a bit and pretty soon the Spanish are sending boats to the American coast pretty routinely. The Outer Banks, it turns out, are particularly difficult to navigate. A naturally occurring string of barrier islands that span 200 miles, there are shoals and riptides and all kinds of fun little things for boats to stumble upon. No one knows for sure, but it is assumed that either the horses were tossed off a grounded ship to lighten the load or they somehow survived a wreck. Either way, a group of Spanish war horses (their DNA has been verified) made it to shore in the Outer Banks and have been hanging out in the wild for about 500 years.
Now, I’m an American and I love America, warts and all. But one of the things we Americans are not good at is leaving well enough alone. So forgive me when I declared shenanigans at the idea of a rogue colony of Spanish War Horses living on the beach in North Carolina. I think it would have been much more likely that settlers discovered the horses, tamed them, and their story was swallowed up by history. What I didn’t realize is that the Outer Banks are a relatively new build-out. As late as 1985, there were no paved roads in the Corolla Beach area. So at this point, the horses have been here a good bit longer than the people.
Hop In My Hummer
My skepticism in check, I’m now fully on board. I’ve got to see this. My wife unholstered her trusty smartphone to figure out that Wild Horse Adventure Tours was the best gig in town. We were able to pick our tour time, complete the transaction, and sign the waivers all from the phone. Fantastic! But wait, it gets better. The company has outfitted original Hummers with 12 bucket seats for passengers in an open air environment. The evening was cool for North Carolina and again, the tour company was on point with blankets for all the passengers. We met our Tour Guide, Pippy, whose enthusiasm for the area and the horses was infectious. So we sat in comfort and made the 20 minute trek out to Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.
The tour was fantastic. It included a good bit of the natural and human history of the area as well as the horses. Pippy masterfully guided the Hummer back into the dunes. The first thing that struck me about the area was the number of gigantic beach houses interspersed among the dunes. I want to be clear here. There are no roads. To get to these mostly two-story homes built on at least one story of stilts to avoid the floods, people have to have 4X4 vehicles to navigate the dunes and trapped water in the area. Also, I don’t quite understand how they’re building in a wildlife refuge, but this is much more like the America I know. If you’ve got a cool million to throw at a beach house in a probable flood plain that has no roads and requires a rugged vehicle to reach it, we’ll find you a permit to build. But I digress. We were back in the dunes about five minutes before finding our first harem of horses. The herd is made up of about 100 horses, but these split off into harems as the males are quite territorial. A harem is comprised of at least one stallion and one mare, but – to quote Pippy, “The stallion will take on as many mares as he can handle, usually 3-5.” The horses are beautiful, and I’m sure they are wild. However, they’re certainly not easily spooked. As we drove around the only navigable parts of the dunes, we frequently came quite near the horses as we passed by slowly. We were even treated to a good look at the herd’s only colt of the season, as he was eating grass next to an outdoor air conditioning unit in the backyard of one of the mega-houses. In all cases, the horses went on about their business grazing and doing what horses do as we and other tour companies patrolled the area.While we did not see horses running and frolicking in the waves as the pictures in our condo would suggest, it was still an excellent experience. We learned a little history, saw a good bit of the dunes between the Atlantic and the Currituck Sound, got fairly up close and personal with some wild Spanish War Horses, and got to do all of it in the comfort of a well-navigated Hummer. If this is life at the beach, I am revising my future beach-going trepidation.
We’ve been doing a lot of travel lately. Since March, we’ve been to Ireland, Montreal, New York City, we ran a 150 mile relay race in Southern Ohio, and last weekend, we went to New Orleans. At first, I expected to write some travel-related posts about these trips, but as you might imagine, home life has kept me pretty busy in between. I mean, we have to work during the week to foot the bill for this Instagram lifestyle. Honestly, we’re a bit tired. We wouldn’t have chosen to do all of that travel in such a short period of time, but several of the trips were not really our plan. In fact, almost all of these trips were to celebrate birthdays of other people. We’re all for celebrating other people. But with so much travel and none of it really specific to our plans, I can get knocked off my game.
During the trip to New Orleans, we met several other couples to help one of my wife’s college friends celebrate her 40th birthday. We casually knew most people involved, but this wasn’t exactly a close-knit group for us. How bad can it be? We’re flexible and congenial and can get along with most anyone. Well… at least my wife can. I on the other hand, seem to invite controversy. When I talk to people about my past and the amount of arguments, threats of physical harm, and actual fist fights I’ve been sucked into, people are astonished. In fact, I wrote a whole other post – nearly 2000 words – about this topic but I have opted to scrap it because it sounded like a bit of a sob story. I’m not one for that. But suffice it to say, if a street bum is going to pick out someone from a group of 10 people and start messing with them, it is going to be me. I know, because I’ve seen it happen. Repeatedly.
OK, we get it, you seem to have a tractor beam for aggressive-types; so what’s this bit about your wife being a Zen Master? I’ll get there. So let’s say the trip to NOLA was not without its controversy. I actually handled it in stride during the trip. I took the grief I was given and offered myself up for a bit more. In the midst of the grief-handling, my daughter called me while crying because her car had broken down on a fairly busy community road. She and I worked together to sort it all out, and the bill was going to be in the $1200 range. I’ll come back to this in a minute. So, fast forward to Monday and people at work asked me how my trip went. I started giving one person some of the details about the grief I got and he was aghast. He said, “if that was me, I probably would have ditched the group and gone to the Jazz Fest on my own.” While I was rehashing the story, my Mom sent me a text. Over this same weekend, she took a break from the move into her new condominium, went to a casino for a couple of hours and won $1200 on the slots. I congratulated her good fortune but thought a bit more about it. I sent my wife the following text, “I spent the weekend as a social pariah and it cost me $1200 on our daughter’s car. My Mom played the slots for a few minutes this weekend and won $1200. She is definitely living righter than me.” I was mostly being funny, but many a true word is spoken in jest. My recap of the weekend to some of my co-workers had set the wheels of self-pity in motion.
At first, the Zen Master who is my wife played my comment down as funny. But then she said that I wasn’t a social pariah. What? You were there! I was incredulous. I began to recount to my wife the events of the weekend as if she hadn’t experienced them first hand. How could she say that I was not the outcast? She let me moan on for a bit all the while saying “OK” and “Sure.” If a man wants to dig a hole, there’s no point in standing in his way I guess. After I had more or less exhausted my digging, she hit me with this: “I don’t know why you’re upset now. You’re a nonconformist and you’re fine with the attention that it brings. I thought we had a nice weekend together.” She was right of course. We had a great breakfast at a lovely little French cafe. We had an incredible dinner at an Italian restaurant. We hung out together at a rooftop bar while the sun set. The weather was perfect. We held hands and walked around the French Quarter. I was down there for her, and here I was picking at the tiny dark spots on an otherwise amazing weekend. I let it go.
That evening, I was re-reading Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, and about 10 minutes into my reading, the following passage hit me squarely between the eyes:
We try so hard to preserve the very thing that’s making us miserable. We cling hard to our pain because we mistakenly think that that pain is who we really are. We define ourselves by what we don’t like or we define ourselves by what we like. Either way we miss the truth. We harbor some inexplicable fear that if we start to enjoy everything about life without picking and choosing we might cease to exist.
– Hardcore Zen, Kindle Edition; location 2089
So my wife is now doling out the same advice as an ordained Zen Master. That psychology degree is starting to pay off. All joking aside, this is one of the multitudinous reasons why I profess my undying love for this woman. She makes me a better person.
If you’re wondering, I was able to simply let go of the “pain” I was holding onto. While my wife triggered my letting go, it is my study of Zen Buddhism and practice of Zazen that has helped me to shorten the the cycle of letting go. I’ll focus an upcoming post on how a middle-class kid from conservative and deeply Christian Southern Ohio wound up nosing around a Japanese “non-religious” tradition and how it might help you be a little happier. But until then, let’s make with the questions from this post…
How does your significant other make you a better person?
Are you holding on to some pain that feels like it defines you? What might letting go of that pain look like?
42. That is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least according to Deep Thought, the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ seminal work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is. Those who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide… will already be snickering with this reminder. Those who have not, should. Having recently completed my 42nd trip around the sun on this tiny blue planet, I’ve decided to have a look back on my Ultimate Year.
It was my first full year without my Dad. He died in 2016, and looking back, his death has had a huge impact on me. Most notably, the circumstances of his death had a profound influence on my mindfulness practice.
A year of seniors. My son is now a senior in college, my daughter a senior in high school. My, how time flies.
I ran my first marathon. And my second, and my third, and my fourth. I can be obsessive.
My first full year of eating a plant-based diet. Inspired by Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, I’ve got better health numbers now than I did in most of my 20’s and all of my 30’s.
It was a good year for my career too. I want to keep my career separate from this blog, but it was a good year following a promotion to a leadership position. I have a fantastic team full of amazing individuals. I wouldn’t trade a single one.
My mindfulness practice tipped – in a good way. I read several insightful books this past year, but two of the best were The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Gaining insights and simply fumbling my way through it, I have taken control of my emotions and want for almost nothing. I would by no means call myself enlightened, but it is a fascinating state of being.
I supportted my wife as she pursues her passion: a Master’s of Psychology from Harvard University.
I fell in love with trail running. Previously, I had only pounded the pavement. In my 42nd year, I ran several trail races locally and, perhaps most life-altering, I got the chance to run the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. This is where I took the lead picture of this post.
I was able to go whale watching. Surprisingly, this was the highlight of our trip to the Massachusetts beach house in Marshfield. I expected to like seeing whales. I didn’t expect to be mystified.
We finally took the trip to Montserrat. After years of traveling to Barcelona and always thinking about it, we finally took the day trip to Montserrat. The monastery houses the Black Madonna and my Mom was speechless. The views from the mountain are stunning.
As I wrap up this short post, I find myself in a state of complete gratitude. My wife and I both hail from small towns (I’m not even sure “town” is the right word for these places) in the Appalachian Ohio Valley, home of economic backwaters and the opioid crisis. Sometimes we look at each other and just shake our heads in awe of what the Universe has provided. The views at 42 were pretty grand.
The view from the Marshfield, MA beach house:
Whale Watching on Cape Cod
James and me (right) in Chamonix before heading up into the Alps
I know I’ve mentioned it in other posts, but I’ll say it again. I am a huge fan of James Joyce. With this year’s major trip going to Ireland, there was simply no way I was going to miss out on having a Joyce / Ulysses experience. Readers of James Joyce will know that June 16, aka Bloomsday, is THE big day for fanatics. For the less initiated, Joyce’s book, Ulysses takes place over the course of this single day in the city of Dublin. I couldn’t be in Dublin in June, so I celebrated my own Bloomsday on Sunday, March 5. While doing my trip research, I was delighted to find not only a James Joyce Centre but also a Ulysses Walking Tour. I have taken several walking tours in the past and they feature in some of my fondest travel memories. After getting my private walking tour set up with David Halpin, Owner and Guide of Dublin Ulysses Tours, my day was set. I was ready to geek out.
Before the walking tour, I decided to visit the James Joyce Centre. I’m glad I experienced the Centre before the walking tour. While I want to support the Centre in its efforts to preserve and promote the works of James Joyce, it honestly left a bit to be desired. There are three floors to the Center and the unguided tour is started by climbing the stairs to the top floor to experience the museum on the way back down. The top floor has an interesting Ulysses publication “family tree,” which traces the various Ulysses editions relative to their publishing houses and publication dates. There is also a video that plays three short documentaries about Ulysses. On the second floor, there are several painted portraits from the Joyce family as well as visual schema of each of the chapters of Ulysses. The ground floor has the gift store and a viewing parlor with John Huston’s movie, The Dead playing, but the display lacked any indication as to how it tied to Joyce. So… the James Joyce Centre was good but not great. At €5 per person, I think it’s priced right for the value delivered. If you go, plan for about 1 hour max. The short documentaries on the top floor, which I haven’t found to be available on the internet, take just over a half an hour to watch in total. The rest of the museum will take no more than 30 minutes to walk through.
Having wrapped up the time at the museum, it was time for the main event. David and I had arranged via email to meet at The Palace Bar on Fleet Street in the Temple Bar neighborhood. We recognized each other fairly quickly and settled into a back corner over pints of Guiness. Note that David provides customized, personal tours and he’s constantly looking to improve, so if you go (and I highly recommend it regardless of your experience level with Joyce / Ulysses), your experience will likely differ from mine.
The Palace Bar is a time capsule with wood paneled walls, a hardwood bar and a friendly curate to match. While there is a single mounted TV, it was turned off. This is no sports bar. The Palace is an old fashioned pub meant for talking and to add to the ambiance, its walls are adorned with pictures and portraits of the writers and artists who have frequented it over the years. The seats are comfortable and we were free to arrange them as we pleased. The bar was about half full and the other patrons paid us no mind as David pulled out his hefty copy of Ulysses to call out specific quotes and points. During our chat, David and I discussed our own stories and how we came to experience this tremendous author and his seminal work. David is a polite conversationalist and he really takes his time to make a connection. We chatted for nearly an hour. Then we packed up and headed out into the early spring Dublin weather for Bloom-style walk around Dublin.
Immediately outside, David pointed out the gold colored memorials built into the sidewalk commemorating four of the Irish writers who frequented The Palace. He explained their connection to literature and to Joyce. At this point, I had been in and out of The Palace twice and hadn’t seen these gold colored plaques. As I would soon discover, I had been walking over similar commemorative sidewalk features for the previous several days.
After leaving The Palace, David took us down backstreets pointing out Dublin street art dedicated to Irish literature. We stopped by the statues outside of Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Bar and viewed the murals on Bloom’s Hotel.
Mural of Molly Bloom on Blooms Hotel
Mural of Leopold Bloom on Blooms Hotel
From there, we walked out to College Green and headed toward Trinity College Dublin. David is full of insights about the roles the characters and buildings played in literary history. I wouldn’t do it justice, so you’ll just have to take the tour. From here, we turned right onto Grafton Street and picked up the trail of Ulysses fictional protagonist, Leopold Bloom. This was my third time to Grafton Street in as many days because it is the main shopping district; however, like those plaques outside The Palace Bar, it was my first time seeing the gold colored Bloom plaques embedded in the pavement. Pictures of three of the plaques follow.
These plaques mark the walk of the fictional Bloom as he traveled the very accurately portrayed streets of Dublin during the course of the day and night of June 16, 1904. Experienced readers will already know from the pictures above that the plaques quote passages from Ulysses at the time in the book when Bloom was at that real life juncture. Off of Grafton, we turned left onto Duke Street, which is where I learned not only that Davy Byrnes still exists in a modern state, but also that there is a Ulysses Rare Book Store. I would later visit the store and purchase one of several vintage copies of Ulysses available for sale. For vintage book lovers, this place is worth the trip just to get a glimpse of the Ulysses first edition that is stored under glass behind the counter. But there are plenty of more accessible vintage books by a wide variety of authors on the shelves that the average wallet can afford.
We then followed Bloom’s footsteps over to the National Library, where David brought Bloom and his arch rival, Blazes Boylan, to life with a quick reading of the corresponding parts of Ulysses. From here, we traveled to a neighborhood hotel for a quick stop and a view of what is perhaps the least known – and by far the best rendering I have seen – memorial to Joyce and Ulysses. David’s narrative perfectly illustrated the quoted text as we made our way around the 360 degree monument. Given that this piece isn’t yet called out on Joyce sight-seeing website lists, I’ll keep this spot concealed and again refer the reader to David’s Dublin Ulysses Tour to catch a glimpse.
From here, we made our way to Sweny’s pharmacy, which is where Bloom fictionally picked up the lemon soap for his wife Molly. Sweny’s is no longer a working pharmacy, but is rather a standing homage to Joyce and societal home to – these are my words – a loose knit group of local Joyce volunteers who are committed to keeping the sights and sounds of his work alive. Inside, David introduced me the volunteer in chief, PJ, who shook my hand and inquired about my surname. After providing him with my four nearest related family names, PJ rattled off a brief and authoritative geographical history of my 4 bloodlines. After that, he sat down and sang me a song in Irish as he strummed along on guitar. And with that act, I’m pretty sure I joined this Joyce “society” in whatever form it exists. My tour with David had concluded, but my evening was far from over.
There was almost no question as to whether I was coming along with David to “the reading” after my whirlwind initiation. PJ just looked at me and said, “We’ve had to move the reading across the street to Kennedy’s because we have a good sized group. This is good because we’ll have some pints as we read. Grab a book and let’s go.” So, I did.
“The reading” as the name would suggest, is a group of people sitting around the table each with the same book in hand and each taking his or her turn to read a page. The book was Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which I had never read.
What I did know about the book is that it took Joyce 18 years to write and that the language was almost entirely Joyce’s own amalgamation of various languages around the world. It has a reputation for being nearly unreadable. There was no time for me to be intimidated. About 4 minutes after I sat down and caught the place in the book, it was my turn to read. It is said of Joyce’s work that one of the best ways to access it is to simply read it aloud. I’m sure I got most of it wrong. Others sounded more authoritative in their readings. However, I’m sure that the pints of Guiness that were flowing helped all of us “just go with it.” With one loop round the table of 9 readers, I settled into the process and had a great time. After several loops and a few pints, PJ signaled that it was time to wrap up the reading and he gathered up the books to take back across to Sweny’s.
As the books closed, the discussions opened. I formally met most everyone around the table and we quickly leapt into topics large and small: gun laws in America; US Presidents Trump, Obama, and a sprinkling of Bill Clinton; Irish social classes and Dublin neighborhood distribution relative to the River Liffey; the movie Pulp Fiction, and on and on. Unfortunately, I had to wrap up the evening and get back to my family. As I made my rounds and said my goodbyes, it was a bittersweet moment. I had immediately connected with a Joycian tribe and after a few delightful hours, it was time to go.
Finding Joyce’s Dublin
Through his works and his correspondences, we know that Joyce was fiercely committed to the human experience. After all, what landed Ulysses on the banned book list in all English speaking countries as soon as it was published is the fact that it is an odyssey of the human body and mind. Joyce wrote about things that – at the time – just couldn’t be written about. My day up until that point had been committed to knowing more of Joyce and the Dublin of his time. I was focused on facts and figures. But as I reflected on the day during my long walk along the Liffey back to my Airbnb, I began to realize that my evening at Kennedy’s Bar, connecting with David, PJ and others who share a common interest as we discussed the politics and issues of our day, was as much taking part in Joyce’s Dublin as anything I have done. This is Dublin City. Constantly renewing while celebrating its rich history. Today’s Dublin is Joyce’s Dublin. To experience it, one needs to find a pub, grab a pint, and start a conversation.