Racists at the Breakfast Table

My husband and I had breakfast with another couple on Saturday morning. I have long loved and respected these people—we worked together years ago—and they’d never met my husband, so I was delighted to show him off. On the way to the restaurant, though, I reminded Gerry: “No politics, honey. We just can’t talk politics.”

You see, my old friends are (let’s be frank, shall we?) crazed Trump supporters. I’d always known they were conservative (and I am not); I’d put up with my friends saying, in a mock shocked tone of voice, “You mean you want to pay more taxes?” for years.

But recently (in the last three or so years), they’d become one of that group of evangelical Christians who staunchly—no matter how awful the tweet—support and defend Trump. They’d become shrill. They’d become, even, nasty and mean in their defense of him.

I’d thought we could have breakfast and have a laugh. Yet within fifteen minutes, one of them was asking Gerry what he thought of Brexit. Harmless enough, you’d think. But Gerry’s Irish, Brexit will affect Ireland dramatically, and Gerry has followed Brexit news closely. My friend interrupted. “England is being swamped by people who have no respect for its ancient culture,” he said. Gerry snorted: “England had no respect for Irish culture for eight hundred years! And let me remind you,” he said, “England had such a labor shortage in the 1950s after the war that they encouraged emigration from elsewhere in the commonwealth, such as Jamaica.”

My friend was surprised—history isn’t his strong suit, apparently—but undaunted. He widened his cultural reflections to include Europe, which has, he said, accepted all those immigrants who “want to establish Sharia law”—yes, he actually said that—when in fact, these immigrants are often fleeing from Sharia laws. This went on and on. It covered every hot-button Trump-zealot issue you can imagine—and perhaps some you can’t. My friends were also incensed that Sikhs—if they should pass the notoriously grueling RCMP entrance process—can wear wear turbans as a Mountie.

Finally, my husband told them that they were advocating racial cleaning, and that this sounded racist to us. He kicked me under the table, we ended our meal, and left—a little shaken and relieved to be gone. We’re too old to put up with such ugliness.

O Canada …

I lived in Canada—in Stephenville, on the island of Newfoundland—when I was a kid. (Daddy was a helicopter pilot in the US Air Force, which had an outpost there.) It’s one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.

I wouldn’t mind going back to see it. (Though maybe in summer.)

Beautiful downtown Stephenville, ca. 1959, mid-autumn.

Beautiful downtown Stephenville, ca. 1959, mid-autumn. (Click to enlarge so you can read the signs.)

A few years ago I read a book—Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador by John Gimlette—which whetted my appetite for a return visit someday. I even had a little email correspondence about it with the author, who was very generous with his time and advice. We’d have to go in August, it seems.

That isn’t the only book with a Canadian setting in my collection of books (here is a good list of books set in Canada to start with), but I’m particularly fond of novelists Margaret Atwood (who wouldn’t be?) and Louise Penny … or perhaps I should say I want to visit Penny’s fictional Three Pines. I’ve learned a lot about Québec and Canadian history from Penny’s novels about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and now of Three Pines.

But really I just wrote this post to inform you that Canada will be marking its sesquicentennial next year, and to celebrate, all of Canada’s national parks will be fee-free—for the year. There are 38 national parks and 8 national park reserves in Canada, so you’ll need to get a move on if you want to see them all while they’re free. Here are just the ones that are World Heritage sites:

If you can look at the photos in these links and remain unmoved, I’ve got nothin’ for ya.

What’s That You Say? A Polar Vortex?

In case you missed it, the United States has been in the middle of a cold snap. (The South, where I am, has thawed in recent days.)

They’re calling it a polar vortex, so naturally, I had to look it up. It’s nothing new, really, but folks are talking about it on NPR and all over the Interwebs.

It does bring out some interesting photos, however, and that’s what I wanted to share with you. These eerie photos of ice-encased lighthouses in Michigan, for example. I’m glad this gentleman makes the trek every year … so I don’t have to. 🙂

No, really. I do love to travel, but there are some experiences I don’t need to have. I watched a show on public television (longer ago than I care to say) that was about the polar ice caps. They’d cut holes in the ice and sent divers down below to film. The footage was spectacular—very blue. And it really gave you a sense of what a huge place this world is and how much we don’t know about it. How much we’ll never see. I remember being grateful that someone did this—made that dive—so I could see what it looked like and think about how lucky I was to live in this day and time.

It was also a little bit creepy and scary. You will never find me in the mood to swim under a polar ice cap. That’s a trip I will never take.

Niagara Falls is another question altogether. All the polar vortex excitement brought these photos out of the woodwork—OMG, Niagara Falls has FROZEN OVER!!!—and even though they were taken in 2011 (it happens fairly regularly, apparently), I enjoyed having a look. (And since we’re talking about it, here’s another interesting set of Niagara photos, from 1969 … when they turned it off.) And the falls are a place I’d like to visit sometime, too, though in milder weather.

Guess I’ll put it on the list. 🙂

There Goes the Neighborhood

The Man Booker Prize shortlist is out, and possibly for the first time in my life, I’ve read something on it before it was listed (Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary.) If you count the longlist, I’ve read two (TransAtlantic by Colum McCann). Both books knocked my socks off.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction—I love the way Wikipedia boils these things down for us—“is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Republic of Ireland, or Zimbabwe.”

So it’s a good place to look when you’re thinking about what to read next. Do note, however, the committee has made some changes. Beginning in 2014, the Booker judges will consider authors from anywhere in the world as long as the work is in English and published in the UK. This has caused no small amount of consternation on the other side of the pond, and, honestly, doesn’t necessarily make me happy either. As an American, I’ve liked being exposed to books—via the longlist—I might not otherwise have seen at all in an American bookstore or might not have seen reviewed in the (American) media I generally see. I like having a collection of books in my language with a completely different “flavor” than the culture I live in. Just my two cents (a version of a comment I left here). The committee, of course, decided without me. 🙂

How will it change the Man Booker? Impossible to say at this point. But you’ve got forty-four years’ worth of lists to look back on, right? One could do worse than choosing one’s reading material from this list. When I wandered across a chart of the shortlist titles recently, I was astonished to see how many I’d read, including these eleven that won their year:

1982 Thomas Keneally: Schindler’s Ark
1987: Penelope Lively: Moon Tiger
1989 Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
1992 Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient
1993 Roddy Doyle: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
2000 Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin
2002 Yann Martel: Life of Pi
2003 DBC Pierre: Vernon God Little
2005 John Banville: The Sea
2007 Anne Enright: The Gathering
2009 Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

But listen: I only read to please myself. Not because I “should” read something or because everyone else is reading it or because it was considered special by some literary committee. I read strictly for pleasure and escape. And for a little local flavor.

A version of this post appeared at my editorial blog for writers and readers, Read>Play>Edit.

On the Road Again

The other day I set out to run errands midmorning and my car wouldn’t start. As is my wont, I called my brother, who dutifully set aside his morning plans and drove twenty minutes in to town with his portable, plug-in battery charger/diagnostician, to prevent the meltdown his sister would surely have if she were stranded for an hour or two in her comfortable home.

We ended up at Auto Zone watching a nice young man install a new battery. My brother, a farmer, was telling me a funny (in hindsight) story about saving seeds from a batch of habañeros he’d grown; his farmer’s hands are immune to the oil but he wiped the sweat from his face and got a rude, burning surprise.

The Auto Zone man engaged in a lively conversation with us about how best to handle peppers and Scoville units  and what to do about it when you forget you have pepper juice on you (hint: milk, not water). He talked about police-grade pepper spray, made from the hottest peppers. He was quite knowledgeable. Finally I said, “Do you grow peppers? Are you a cook? A chili competitor?”

No, he’d watched a show on the Discovery Channel. “You can learn a lot of interesting things on television,” he said.

Indeed, you can.

But I like to do my own discovery. I like to travel. I like to see things for myself.

Although I rarely rearrange my furniture, I am adventurous when it comes to new travel experiences. I think both are by-products of growing up in a military family. My father was an air force pilot.

We lived in Stephenville, Newfoundland, in Canada, for three years when I was a young child. I still have very vivid memories of the experience. The culture was so different, so … not-American. I loved the folk songs I heard, and made my parents buy me a record of them, which I still have. I can still sing some of the songs, even.

I’se the b’y who builds th’ boat
and I’se the b’y who sails ’er,
I’se the b’y who catches the fish
and brings ’em ’ome to Liza …

I think this may have been the beginning of my fascination with the foreign.

I always thought I would travel more. My parents made sure we saw every national park and roadside attraction, of course. We had a family vacation in Hawaii in the 1960s, which was quite an eye-opener. I grew up, got married, didn’t make much money, got caught up in, you know, just staying alive. Sure, there was the odd trip or two into Mexico. And my husband and I spent every opportunity in Yosemite National Park, since we were just an hour’s drive away.

But I wanted to go to Greece. I wanted to go to England. Italy. Vienna, as the song said, was awaiting me.

I was a single mother before I made it across the Atlantic with my sixteen-year-old son in 2000. Our British hosts gave me a blank book upon our arrival. “Write everything down,” they said. “Otherwise you’ll forget the details.”

And God, as you know, is in the details.

I wrote a travelogue about that trip, and e-mailed it, a chapter at a time, to friends who wanted to hear about it. Upon the announcement of subsequent trips, I was asked, “You’re going to do another travelogue, aren’t you?”

Well, yes, I am. 🙂

I’m getting ready for another trip now. I’ll tell you all about it.

Addendum to Clonfert Cathedral

There were several very old gravestones and memorials preserved inside the tiny cathedral at Clonfert. This one was was so sad it took my breath away:

To the memory of James Frederick Henry Dennis, son of Major James Dennis of the 4th Regiment, whose remains lie interred near this place. He was born at Newark in upper Canada the 17th of January 1805 and died at Shannon Bridge the 8th of Sept 1820, aged 15 years, 7 months, and 29 days. This humble stone was placed as the last tribute of his fond parents bereaved early of a son whose affectionate and religious conduct endeared him to every acquaintance. His infant sister Ellen, aged 2 years, 6 months, and 24 days also lies interred by him, having only survived him 10 days. Blessed be their peace for ever.

To the memory of … (There’s an addendum to this post, to tell you all about this.)

To the memory of …

Naturally I imagined a story to go with it: Maj. Dennis and his wife were emigrated Irish and had come “home” to Ireland (for a visit? to stay?) with their two children.

But I wasn’t thinking like a historian. My dear friend Margaret, a skilled genealogist, set me straight: Maj. Dennis must have been stationed in Canada with his regiment for a while. She found numerous mentions of his presence with British forces in Canada in the early nineteenth century (Newark, where the son was born, was the capital of Upper Canada, which is now Ontario) and quickly discovered that the major was a career officer who saw service in several countries. She quoted from some official records; he

served in Copenhagen campaign; wounded in both hands. Present at Queenston, wounded (Bvt. Major 28 Nov. 12), Fort George, Stoney Creek, twice wounded, Hoople’s Creek. Commanded a Division at Maharajpore, 29 Dec. 43. Bronze Star and appointed K.C.B. for his services.

You caught that, right? He was in Denmark, then shipped to Ontario for what we Americans call the War of 1812 (these were battles: Queenston, Ft. George, Stoney Creek, Hoople’s Creek) and brevetted to major; then they shipped him to India sometime before 1843. Think about how long that took with a wife and kids and household goods. As a result of the awful and bloody Battle of Maharajpore he was awarded the (bronze) Gwalior Star and made a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. (I just report these things, kids, but you’ll see it really does have to do with, well, taking a bath.)

Margaret continued to poke into the records over the next half hour as we speculated via e-mail about why Maj. Dennis happened to be in Ireland in 1820. Was it his home? Or was he there as part of the British forces keeping the “Irish problem” in check? This period of time in Irish history was pretty tumultuous (when was it not?) and the English had garrisons all over the country.

Then she found an obituary that told us this:

In 1801 he married a daughter of Hugh Lawton, Esq. of Cork. That family were descended from an old Cheshire family, Lawton of Lawton Hill, who went to Ireland with Wm. III. In Ireland Hugh Lawton Esq.’s seat was called Marsh Hill. Maj. Gen. [promoted again and again!] Sir James Dennis, K.C.B., died at age 78, Jan. 14 1855, in Pall Mall.

Now, Wm. III would be that darned Dutchman, the Prince of Orange, who as the English king in 1690 won the Battle of the Boyne, and set in motion many of the problems that still exist in the north of Ireland. Thus we might assume the Lawtons were Protestant. And Pall Mall is in London, so I’m betting ol’ Jamie was English born. Margaret told me she found his obit in “Gentleman’s magazine and historical chronicle,” vol. 43, with all the details of his service, including Canada. Interesting is that he started in the Royal Navy as an ensign who distinguished himself and later switched to the army.

A few minutes later, Margaret had even more information:

Mrs. Dennis was Sarah Lucia Lawton, and she died in 1828, having had ten children. Seven of those children died under the age of fourteen. From what I can determine only two grew up and married. After the death of Maj. Gen. Sir Dennis there was a complicated court case between representatives of the children, competing for shares of the estate. One was the widower of an adult daughter.

So there is the rough outline of a life. Of two lives. James Dennis married Sarah when he was twenty-four and stayed married to her for twenty-seven years (a long time in those days; an average marriage was ten years, due to all the wives dying in childbirth). But it’s still very odd that—if Sarah was landed gentry from Cork—she was so far away from her home. Shannon Bridge is in Co. Offaly—the Midlands—and St. Brendan’s in Clonfert is about two or three miles away. So that part makes sense, but she was still a long, long way from Cork, especially by the standards of travel in 1820. What was she doing in Shannon Bridge? It’s a very small town, and it’s not really on the way from/to anything.

It’s a mystery.