Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Kiss me - I'm finally Irish!


This is my first year that I can celebrate my Irish heritage on St. Patrick's Day.

In the year since, lo, the Chicago River ran green, my mother received some genealogy information from her mother's side of the family.

The image above shows a part of the passenger manifest of the Brig Hannah, which sailed from Londonderry, Ireland, and arrived in Philadelphia in 1836. The fifth passenger listed is James Morrow, a 21-year-old weaver. He is the earliest ancestor of mine that I can trace, the first known to have come from the Old World to the New.

To this point, I had no idea that I had Irish blood. Polish, German, Italian - those we were sure of. It's quite possible that another ancestor was Serbian and may have killed an ancestor of a friend of mine from Twitter. Thankfully, that one is unconfirmed.

The Hannah sank in 1850 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Cape Ray on Newfoundland on its way to Quebec City from Ireland during the famine. Of the nearly 200 passengers and crew aboard, 49 died after the ship hit an iceberg. A Canadian documentary, "Famine and Shipwreck: An Irish Odyssey," lays out the story of the Hannah, the actions that led to the sinking, and one family's search for their own roots in Ireland.

"In order to survive, the poor were forced to abandon all their property and take refuge in Dickensian workhouses or board coffin-ships bound for Canada and the United States," the documentary's site says of Irish immigrants during the Potato Famine. "But that was another famine nightmare and many never made it alive."

Here is the full list of the Hannah's passengers from the voyage my great (and then some) grandfather took:




Friday, June 27, 2014

What do you get when you cross Bea Arthur, mountains and pizza?

You get a blog called bea arthur mountains pizza ... a definitive collection of photos featuring Bea Arthur, mountains and pizza. And here is my suggestion for it, a variation of the birth of Chewbeacca.

Chewbeacca

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The spontaneous orgasm and the senior citizen spelling bee


"Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe." - Typogycemia meme
The human mind can accomplish some amazing things, not the least of which is its desire to complete what's put before it. One example is the above text, an example of "typoglycemia," a portmanteau that doesn't really mean anything involving the second part of the word. While it's not clear whether scholarly work has actually ever been done on the phenomenon, I got to see this in action once when, in front of his elderly mother and about a hundred old people, my college adviser unleashed the language of love inadvertently on an unsuspecting audience.

The year was 1994, and as a college senior, I was a little lost. And since the Internet hadn't been unleashed on the general public, I decided grad school was a good way to find out what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life. To do that, I needed a few letters of recommendation - which wound up being an odd mix of self-serving quid pro quo. One letter I procured from a journalism adviser in exchange for restarting the college chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. That one turned out better for me than I anticipated - the "Foot in the Door" program I started in 1994 kept going and helped me get my first job out of school when I attended a 1995 installment where my first boss was a panelist.

The second came from Jake (not his real name, but many people who read this will know EXACTLY who this is), my English department adviser and fearless leader of the college's theater group. Jake is a Shakespearean actor - think of King Lear, and the person you see in your mind is Jake. He's the guy who always plays Ebenezer Scrooge in your town's yearly local production of "A Christmas Carol."

I had worked on a few of the shows he directed, shared a memorable scene as a Spanish thug in a forgettable play with one of his daughters and helped stage manage another play with his other daughter that led to me nearly blinding an actor with a congratulatory rose I'd bought for her. He's also indirectly responsible for the only game of Spin the Bottle that I've ever played, but that's not part of this story.

No. This is the story of the Allegheny County Spelling Championship, an event put on by the Allegheny County Department of Aging. That's right - an old people spelling bee.

Jake had the honor of using his theatrical voice in the role of pronouncer at the event, probably at the behest and in honor of his mother, who was a member of one of the Pittsburgh senior centers sending their champion to do battle. Three of his grad students had been roped into being the judges, but one had to cancel.

Yours truly was asked to step in as No. 3.

I had no idea what I was expecting, but it wasn't what I saw walking into the fray of felt banners, signs and cheering sections. One man came up to our delegation and said to Jake - I cannot make this up - "I see you brought the strapping young lad to carry the unabridged dictionary."

Um ... thanks ... can I take my seat now?

The grad students and I followed along as, within one round, half the contestants spelled themselves out of contention. What the regional senior center competition must have been, I don't wanna know.

We had only reached the "al-" portion of the spelling sheet when we came to the point where all hell didn't break loose.

The word next on Jake's list was "albino." The contestant asked for a definition. And Jake missed it by two letters.

Here's the definition on the sheet, which is forever burned into my mind:

albino - an organism that exhibits a
complete lack of pigmentation and color.

What came out of Jake's mouth was:

albino - an orgasm that exhibits a
complete lack of pigmentation and color.

Time froze. The concept of bullet time in "The Matrix" was created then and there as I heard "orgasm" come flying past my head, eyes wide open, trying to figure out if I had heard what I was sure I had heard.

I looked at the dais. The contestant was still trying to figure out how to spell "albino" while all I could hear was "orgasm" bouncing around my brain.

Jake was there, patiently waiting for the answer, seemingly unaware that he had just accidentally said "orgasm" in front of his mom, daughter and a legion of fans of old Pittsburghers spelling just the early As.

Seemingly, they had no idea what just happened either.

I turned around in my chair to face them.

No tittering. No whispers. No smirks on a slow burn to outright guffawdom. 

I raised an eyebrow and left it there.

The grad students sat stone-faced as well. No change in demeanor except, "spell albino, already, sheesh."

I began to question my sanity. Until I turned back toward the stage.

And saw one elderly woman, a contestant, sitting with raised eyebrows. Her eyes darted back in forth, scanning the crowd as I had done for evidence that a crime against pronunciation had been committed.

I looked forward, waiting for her attention to come my way.

Our eyes met. They locked. And she and I had a wordless, three-part conversation conducted entirely in mime.
Me: "Uh, did you ..." (eyebrow emphasis completing that sentence)
Her: "Pretty sure, yeah! So, what now?" (eyebrows furrowed, expecting instructions)
Me: (shrugs shoulders) "I have no idea."
Fortunately, for everyone involved, the speller defeated the orgasm and spelled albino correctly. If he had failed to do so, I was fully prepared to stop the proceedings and tell Jake about his spontaneous ejaculation (defined "something said quickly and suddently," o ye of dirty minds) and give the contestant another word due to an unspecified "technical error."

The event soldiered on, and a winner was crowned. Fans cheered. Hugs were exchanged. 

In another corner, a lady who had been eliminated sought out a similarly befuddled judge to ask the all-important question: "Did you hear that TOO?"

Turns out, we had. We went to Jake, because without us bringing it up in solidarity, we feared nobody would have believed us. She was the only other person who shared the moment with me - nobody else came forward to overhearing a rogue orgasm in the room. Not the grad students. Not Jake's family. Not even Jake himself. 

It was a moment of typoglycemia - two letters forgotten changing one word into something completely different, heard by an audience expecting merely a definition of albino and their brains receiving exactly that - a definition. Typoglycemia as mass hypnosis. A hundred brains processing without hearing, context providing a completion that satisfied their inner interpretation of a simple spelling bee interrupted by a little sexy talk.

My reward, aside from a story, is the magnifying glass bookmark at the top of this story. Have I needed it yet? No. One day, though, my eyes may get weary and I might ride into battle, a head full of words as my weapons, waiting for the person at the podium to "Cmoe at me, bro!"

Monday, February 10, 2014

A short guide to double standards in the 2014 Sochi Women's Olympics

Please remain fully clothed while celebrating a medal win ... 




... however, the rest of the year ...



... keep those emotions in ...



... unless ...



Monday, November 11, 2013

The Ciminillos Calculator


I know you've been wanting to know how many Ciminillos you occupy - who doesn't in this day and age? Here's where you can find out:

   

Shown above: A trunk space that accommodates approximately one unit of Ciminillo.

What is my trunk's Ciminillo capacity?

So you've got your car ready for the weekend, but you need to figure out how many Ciminillos you can pack effectively. Now you can calculate it easily.

   

This is a calculator designed a few years ago for Drive, She Said blogger Jill Ciminillo, who also operates under the guise of "Girl in the Trunk." This explains why someone might need to know how many diminutive-yet-fantastic auto writers can fit in the storage compartment of a vehicle.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

An October tale

The time of plenty is ending.

The cornstalks are fading from green summer lushness to dusty brown fields on roadside landscapes. The taste of fresh berries is giving way to oven-baked smells of pumpkin and nutmeg, ginger and clove, apple and cinnamon.

The harvest is here. Have you felt the change of seasons creeping into your bones? That subconscious awareness of the natural fabric of a year in the life?

The pagans, from whom Christianity so wisely borrowed, were fully aware of that cyclic fabric and celebrated it. The equinox is coming? Let’s party.

Take All Saints’ Day, which traveled down the calendar from mid-May 1400 years ago, costuming itself in the trappings of the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain.

At Samhain, livestock came down from the hills for the pre-winter slaughter, their bones cast into bonfires – and the fabric between the temporal and supernatural worlds was at its most thin. Time for the dead to return to our world.

With the dead walking, you had two options – pray and share stories about the good spirits, or wear a disguise to hide from the bad ones.

The traditions migrated to the colonies, as the myths of the Old World often did. While early settlers decided the New World pumpkin was an improvement on turnip lanterns, their superstitions settled with them.
And Father, Son, Holy Spirit – we still pay heed to the bygone ghosts.

New England embraces that ghostly sense of autumn like few points on the map. The leaves turn earlier. The winters run deeper. The spirits seem closer. It’s the Gothic charm shared by Washington Irving’s headless horseman and Stephen King’s towns of Castle Rock and Derry, where the supernatural lies just below the surface.

My aunt’s house – far enough upstate in New York to be farther north than Massachusetts – is home to ghosts.

When she and my uncle bought the pre-Revolutionary War house, it was in disrepair. They saved many of the contents of the house, including 200-year-old documents, from a junkyard, and restored it.

They’ve seen a man in colonial garb in the study. Ghost children – “the pranksters “ – inhabit bathrooms that used to be their bedrooms. My grandmother talks to them. My aunt says they’re good spirits, not evil. The kind you don’t hide from or fear.

The New York spirits don’t speak. But if they did, it wouldn’t be the first voice a family member has heard from beyond.

The other voices are, likewise, good spirits. And yet, the words from one voice inspire in me dread the likes of which Ebenezer Scrooge feared from the Ghost of Things to Come.

It’s the voice who said my mother won’t be with us a year from now.

And despite the empirical denial in my mind, my heart tells me to believe it.

No doubt, you’ll want a reason to believe it. Or at least a reason why I do.

My mother has lived with fibromyalgia for three decades. It’s hard to diagnose. People with it often are disbelieved, especially by insurance companies. For the record? It’s real. I’ve seen her in pain so acute a hug would hurt, not comfort.

One of the few things that would give her relief was a trip to the family hot tub, right off the porch, and warm in winter to boot. While she may have arrived late to Catholicism, she’s a believer. And it was there she made her prayer chapel under the stars and trees.

And it was there she talked to angels.

These are the spirits of our family. All of us have them – father and mother, sister and brother, even my wife and 4-year-old. My sister’s and mine are singularly alliterative. Mom’s are Bartholomew and Steven – who insists “very strongly” on the V, thank-you-very-much.

It was Bartholomew who told her she wouldn’t live to see a certain age. If that’s true, Oct. 11, 2013 is Mom’s final birthday on this plane of existence.

To everything there is a season, and lady, this one’s yours.

In 1994, my parents and I took our final camping vacation in Canada, north of Toronto on the shores of Lake Huron. On the day we returned, Mom hit Our Lady of Perpetual Bubbles for a prayer session, which went something like this:

“Lord, I’m very happy with my life. I have a great family. Now if we could just find the money to fix the driveway.”

This is where I tell you not to jest with the infinite. Because the infinite has a strange sense of humor.

The next day, she got a call from my aunt, her brother’s widow. An insurance company was trying to track down next of kin on an insurance policy on Uncle Denny, who died in 1987.

The policy – which nobody knew existed – had been paying itself down. It would have been worthless in months.

That day in 1994? It was worth more than enough for a new driveway.

You may call it coincidence. I don’t. It’s too specific, too strong.

It’s not the only time the angels have interceded. When mom’s car hit an oil slick and slid off a road, Bartholomew came to her. “He and I just looked at me crashing into the hillside and it was like watching a movie with a friend,” she says. “His presence was just like you standing beside me. It felt so normal, except it was accompanied by a pervasive sense of peace. That peacefulness, and no pain, lasted three days.”

And the first person on the scene? A young man named Steven – with a v.

Has her pain put her in touch with something outside herself to make up for her sufferings? Does it impeach her testimony?

As her son, a human, a witness, I feel the truth in my bones – same as I feel the autumn bells clanging.

Mom’s prepped. “Don't forget this all starts with my dad, who knew he was going to die when he was 51, like his dad and only brother,” she says. “His birthday was in March and he made it to Sept. 6. I was terrified I would die when I was 51, too. So I think the message was given to me to assuage my fears. And it did. It was all gravy after that.”

When it does happen, she wants it to be a cause for celebration. There’ll be balloons at the funeral.

She’s ready. Her grandson won’t be.  Her son isn’t at all, even though he’s had 20 years to come to grips. Time to get the cards there earlier, call more often, listen more closely.

If death comes, is it another affirmation that Bartholomew and Steven are real? That a benevolent spirit will one day say to us all: “Down from the hills, friend – time to come to this side”?

And if it doesn’t? If at Halloween 2014, she’s handing out candy? Just God changing his mind, she says. Bonus time.

We’re in the zone of uncertainty. The ghosts are in it with us. They’ll be here when we’re out.

Time to wait. Time to see another year through. And enjoy the time of plenty while it’s here.