Monday, April 30, 2007

Open Season

As announced by An Taoiseach yesterday, there will be an election. Officially, the campaign season has opened and the rhetoric will now fly freely.

How does Bertie Ahern begin, on opening day? Unfortunately, he begins by explaining away the 30,000 pounds sterling that was given to Celia Larkin back in 1994. Bertie and Celia were still an item back then, with Ms. Larkin considered Mrs. Taoiseach when it came to public functions. What became of all that money, the voting public may ask, and it's a fair piece of change even at today's inflated rates.

Michael Wall, Dublin businessman and possessor of largess, owned a house in Drumcondra that was being rented by Bertie Ahern. Mr. Wall gave the money, in cash, to Ms. Larkin, who in turn made a deposit into her bank account. According to evidence given to the tribunal investigating some shady land development dealings, Ms. Larkin then used the gift to fix the place up a bit. As Mr. Wall owned the house, and must have considered Ms. Larkin a woman of taste, one might presume that the house needed a little rehab or redecorating. Just re-doing a small bathroom would suck up most of the 30,000, and a slap of paint doesn't come cheap either.

Once the house was tarted up, Mr. Wall sold Bertie Ahern.

Was it a convoluted path to a bribe? Mr. Ahern insists that he didn't go looking for money from anybody connected with the Quarryvale scheme that is currently under scrutiny. Had Mr. Wall not sold the house, however, it would have come to Bertie Ahern through a clause in Mr. Wall's will. No matter what happened, the newly refurbished home was the property of Bertie Ahern.

On this opening day, the political parties are busy laying out their positions on the key issues, about the economy and who is most capable of keeping things humming, about better health care and smaller classroom sizes. Reminding the voters that money has been passed under the table and favors granted may be playing in the background, but will it really make any difference? Sure this sort of thing has been going on forever, and will continue to go on, no matter what party holds the most seats in the Dail.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Where's The Beef

Isn't he the arbiter of good taste and quality and excess? Isn't he the proud owner of the old Post estate, Mar a Lago? Isn't he all that and more?

But wait, there's more. Donald Trump is an authority on.....steak. Slabs of muscle from well fed steers, trimmed of fat but yet richly marbled with juicy cholesterol. Prime meat to boot, not that choice cut that the hoi polloi buy when they're in the money. Gourmet quality. Special ....rare ...exclusive ....comes with a side of shite and onions.

There was a time when Hugh Hefner was the arbiter of taste, defining what was cool for the swinging bachelor of the 1960's. Now we have Donald Trump, promoting himself by shilling for just about anything that offers a respectable rate of return. The latest effort is the Trump Steak (patent pending, no doubt) which is offered exclusively by The Sharper Image. Indeed, the very people who have brought you the massage chair, the air purifier, and thousands of other gadgets that serve as toys for adults, are now the one and only source of Trump Steaks and if you want Donald Trump meat you have to go to The Sharper Image.

The man who made his fortune in real estate deals, acting with relatively little ethical concern, is an authority on meat products because.....he eats meat. Did you not think it was as simple as that? No, he's not a cattle man from Montana, nor does he own and operate a feed lot in Nebraska. Just as well, what with the hair so carefully coiffed and a Stetson would only spoil the effect.

The message is plain. Buy Trump Steaks and eat like Donald Trump. Pretend to be a multi-millionaire with a trophy wife, Manhattan real estate and money to burn. Make believe that you are living his life for as long as it takes to chew that hunk of animal protein. But why not take it a step further, and take a cue from Hugh Hefner? The Trump Club, that's what's needed. Live like Trump, with trophy wife-like waitresses serving generous martinis and luscious Trump Steaks. Trump key chains, Trump steak knives, the list is endless. The Sharper Image could label just about anything as Trump, create an entire line of Trump approved widgets. The money-making potential is enormous.

On the other hand, there's Tallgrass Beef, the brainchild of news reporter and producer Bill Kurtis. Expensive, yes, but not because it's the brand of an overblown ego. His cattle, from his ranch, are fed on grass, that naturally occurring, self-replenishing, environmentally sensible product. Why buy it? Not to pretend to be some egomaniacal millionaire, to spend money recklessly on an overpriced item just to show off. If you've the currency for fine meat, you can support a venture that looks to promote sound environmental practices in the meat industry. Depends on the image you want to present to the world.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

All Questions, No Answers

Adrian and Ciara Dunne went to the funeral home in New Ross on Friday morning, to make arrangements for themselves and their two little girls. The funeral director thought it odd, that two young people, full of life, would be thinking along those lines.

What if we were all to die in some terrible accident, the couple said. They had often spoken of going over to Liverpool, great fans of the team there, and there are so many road deaths that maybe there was nothing odd after all. Perhaps a bit more fatalistic than most, but not mad.

Adrian requested an oak coffin, and he was to be laid out in his Liverpool jersey and Sunday jeans. He'd be waked at Cooney's for the one night, and then brought to the church in Boolavogue for the funeral. Play "You'll Never Walk Alone" and the Guns n' Roses version of "Stairway To Heaven", he requested as he described the service he'd like.

Now, should Ciara die at the same time, the couple made arrangements for a guardian for the two girls. Everyone should name a guardian for their little ones; it makes sense to set out your wishes. Ciara was Adrian's eyes, they were always together in the car, and weren't there a tragic number of road fatalities in Ireland?

Taking it a step further, Adrian ordered very specific arrangements for his two girls. If they died before they were six years old, the elder was to be put in his coffin and the youngest buried together with her mother. The girls were to be dressed in Liverpool jerseys and Dora the Explorer logo jeans. The family headstone would be black, the plot lined with kerbing, and Liverpool colors would be used for the stones.

The funeral director, Frances Cooley, rang up the local Garda station as soon as the family had gone. She knew that Dora the Explorer branded clothes were only available for small girls, toddler sizes, and Adrian had been clear on what his children were to be buried in. Acting on the concern, a garda rang up Father Redmond, who knew the family, and the priest called at the house in the Moin Rua estate on Friday night. He spent two hours there, and then arranged for the priest in Monageer to visit the next day. No one answered the door on Saturday afternoon when Fr. Cosgrave came to call.

Gardai on patrol in the estate drove past the house several times, to keep an eye on things, and Father Cosgrave came back on Monday morning, but still got no answer. When the gardai and health service officials arrived that afternoon, they broke into the house and found Adrian had hanged himself. Ciara was strangled, and the two girls had been suffocated.

Rational people ask rational questions, to find the cause of this irrational act. Was Adrian struck down by the grief of losing his father and then losing his brother to suicide only a month ago? His hereditary blindness had been passed down to his girls; did he despair that they would have a wretched life if they lived? Was it a suicide pact? In a moment that lacks all reason, can reasonable people ever find the answer?

All their meticulous plans came to nothing in the end. The family was waked at Adrian's mother's home, the girls in separate coffins and not with their parents. Then the bodies of Ciara and the two girls were taken by Ciara's parents, brought back to her hometown in Donegal for burial. Adrian was left at his mother's house, to be waked for a second night before his body is taken to St. Cormac's church yard in Boolavogue, to lie alone. The instructions left behind have been ignored, leaving nothing but questions that may have no answer.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Permanence of Books

Fifty, one hundred years from now, historians will be writing books about the Iraq War, and they will use whatever reference materials they have available, the pieces of the puzzle that they will organize into the full picture. On Monday, George Tenet's piece of the puzzle will be made available, his recollections that will enjoy the permanence of the printed page.

After Mr. Tenet resigned from his position as CIA director, the 24-hour news cycle began slicing and dicing the post-George Tenet era. Making the rounds of the Sunday morning political talk fests, White House spokespeople have taken a seat and put forth the official line about who is to blame for what. Thrown under the bus, abandoned, this has been the fate of Mr. Tenet. Verbally, over the airwaves, the former CIA director was showered with much of the blame for poor intelligence gathering and thus the chaos of the current situation. So many fingers pointing his way, and who wants that to be the permanent record of one's career?

Yet history is not written as it happens, it is written well after the fact. George Tenet's memoirs are about to be released, and he has set his personal record straight, a hard copy of the events as he witnessed them. And all those who savaged him on television will get savaged right back. Long after the plasma screens have gone dark, Mr. Tenet's skewering will remain, to form the backbone of the historical record. What happened in the days following the terrorist attack, the historians will ask, and Mr. Tenet's At the Center of the Storm will provide many of the answers, the insider's expose of the White House.

President Bush supported Tenet publicly, awarded him the Medal of Freedom, and is said to enjoy a reciprocal embrace in Tenet's book. Much will be made, however, about what Mr. Tenet has to say about the cast of characters that surrounded the president at the time of the attack, and it will not be complimentary. According to a report in today's New York Times, Tenet accepts blame for shoddy intelligence gathering prior to 9/11, but he also criticizes Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz for having their own agenda and ignoring Mr. Tenet's input when the invasion of Iraq was debated. Colin Powell, Condeleeza Rice, they're all in there as well, to go down in history as seen by George Tenet.

The book will be laid down on Monday, and thanks to early publicity and well-placed leaks, it will fly off the shelves and do very well for publisher HarperCollins. Whether or not readers will discover anything new, or find assertions that they heartily disagree with, will be fodder for discussions at the office or the play group. The material in At the Center of the Storm will provide an interesting read now, but its importance will come later, when the historical record is distilled from the many ingredients that make up the past. The spoken words will be largely forgotten then, while the words put down on the pages of a book will remain.

Ladies And Gentlemen

Overheard in the pub across the way from the courtroom of Mr. Justice Liam McKechnie, where the difficult case of Dr. Lydia Foy (she used to be a he) is being heard in Dublin:

--The transgenders usually take their business next door, with the gay crowd, sir.

--Oh, you are much mistaken. I am a lady. Although my birth certificate lists my gender as male, it is wrong.

--Born a girl, so?

--I should have been a girl. Afflicted as I am with gender identity disorder, my birth certificate reflects what the physician saw on the outside. Hence, a grievous error was made and I was identified as male.


--Gender identity disorder. My sexual identity is at odds with my physical appearance. My wife did not understand either.

--Wife? Ah, you're looking for the lesbian pub. Four doors down.

--My soon to be ex-wife is a lady, as am I, although I was the one to father our two daughters, while she gave birth in a very ladylike manner. Since that time I have corrected nature's mistake and am now a surgically crafted female. To complete the process and live with dignity, I must have my birth certificate corrected as well.

--Are you saying that at the time of your birth, you were male? Then the birth certificate's correct. I mean, you've got Y chromosomes and all.

--You sound like Mr. Justice McKechnie. He ruled on my case five years ago and said that very thing. But the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in a similar case since then and they stated that the rights of the transgendered to marry and enjoy a bit of privacy are breached by such barbaric judgments. One would think that my ex-wife would accept the wisdom of the European Court, but no, she's been fighting against me. All in a flutter, thinking that our marriage would be null and void since two women can't get married, and that would mean that we were not a family as defined by the Constitution. Worries that our daughters would lose their rights.

--When you filed for divorce, you must have accepted that you were a male when you were married, and when you impregnated the missus?

--It's not as simple as that. My birth certificate says I am male, but I am not. The laws must be amended to give transgendered people their rights. Mr. Justice McKechnie said as much when he first ruled on the case, and still nothing's been done by this government to ameliorate my trauma. At the very least, the court could issue a declaration that I am entitled to a corrected birth certificate, if they can't see their way to actually issuing the thing.

--Your wife, a woman, gave birth, and you say you're the other biological parent. Sorry, Dr. Foy, but only males can be the other biological parent when the first one's a female. It doesn't matter what a surgeon does to your body, or what you think you are. The European Court of Human Rights can't change the laws of biology, no matter how many writs and appeals and rulings they make. It's not as simple as that.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

It's Your Shout

The bar's still open at the Debut post. The barman's running himself ragged pulling pints, the whiskey's flowing....there's seats in the snug for the ladies. Drop in and put in your piece about platforms, and it's not 2 x 12's for joists that we're debating.

The Coming Invasion

Seventeen years have come and gone, and nature is ready to work her miracle. Sorry, all of you who live on the wrong side of the Mississippi're not to be granted the pleasure. It's not personal, it's just a question of location and being in the wrong place when the invasion comes.

By this time next month, a large swath of the US will be inundated with very large insects and their very large red eyes. Every seventeen years it happens, with a regularity that the entomologists have yet to understand. In their hundreds and thousands, the white slimy creatures emerge from the earth, to attach themselves to anything vertical and molt with careless abandon. Under cover of darkness they crawl en masse, climbing onto trees and curbing, clinging, glistening in the lamp light.

And then the birds swoop. The dogs on walks pounce, feasting. Worried about what to feed the family pet? There's no melamine in cicadas, a high protein and high fat morsel of seventeen year old nutrition. Soon enough there'll be recipes provided in the local newspapers should a human being care to indulge. Deep fat fried, sauteed, pan roasted....with hollandaise perhaps?

If you're so unfortunate as to be cicada deprived, you can make your own. For a true effect, you'll want to make several hundred of them, but it's difficult to reproduce the experience of large heavy stupid insects flying into your head and trying to land on your body while you hold your glass of wine at the drinks party and hope that the host will herd everyone indoors before one of the feckin' bugs settles on your canape.

The cicadas emerge to have sex. That's all they do. No eating, no biting, just find a girl, settle down, raise a family, and then drop out of the trees, dead. The little ones will hatch, fall to the ground, burrow down and then grow for seventeen years, when the cycle repeats.

Where were you seventeen years ago? A child, ready to burst out of the school's doors and into the arms of summer? Where will you be in seventeen years time? An adult, perhaps, recalling the last invasion. Maybe you're a grandparent now, looking forward to sharing a wonder of nature with the little ones, and thinking that you may not be here for the next cycle of life and death.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


The chief examiner in the Department of Education is worried about the future of Irish writers, in that they may be going the way of the dinosaur. It's text messaging that's to blame.

In reviews of honours papers composed during the last sitting of the Junior Certificate exam, the anonymous examiner was appalled to find spelling and punctuation errors, in such abundance that he became alarmed. Text messages, with their shorthand phonetic spelling and lack of commas, have become the standard for communication, while the written word has fallen by the wayside. As we all must communicate through reading, it is imperative that we all have some common rules of interpretation to understand one another. The use of text message speak undermines that completely.

The sentence structure of the students sitting the exam also reflected the popular culture of texting, with short answers and minimal responses to the questions. There were no flights of fancy, complex sentences or poetry in prose. The resulting answers, brief and quick, failed to show whether or not the student really understood the question or made any attempt to hash over the problem and compose a response in some detail. Yes, no, C U L8R. Hardly the stuff of deep philosophical thought.

What's to be done? If the students are turning in classwork that pays tribute to texting, it is up to the teachers to sharpen their red pencils and attack with a vengeance. After all, there is far more to writing than passing along information. Texting is fine to let mammy know you're on your way to the chip shop, back home at 8, but to say that the bag of chips was fine does not begin to explain the smells, the texture, the taste. Strings of words, put together in sentences that have punctuation to guide the reader, are needed to fully describe things so that someone else gets a clear picture. It takes effort to write something clearly enough so that the audience can imagine they were there, at the chip shop, while still being so concise that the listeners don't drop off to sleep with boredom.

Honours level writing, dumbed down to suit popular culture, has proven to be lacking in the sort of sentence structure and vocabulary that makes up good writing. Being fluent in text does not bode well for the future of literature. English teachers of the world, unite!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Soft Core Politics

The general election is creeping up, and Ms. Deirdre Clune is busy these days, seeking re-election to her seat in Cork. The last thing that the Fine Gael councillor needs is to be linked with pornography. Hardly the sort of thing to appeal to the average voter.

Even Senator Feargal Quinn is not keen to be tied in to soft core pornography sent out over the airwaves, even if he would make a little profit off his investment in the television station that would be airing the naughty scenes. As for the Barry's Tea people, well, there's nothing more to say. Have a nice cuppa and the steamy sex will keep it hot, hot, hot? Not exactly the ad campaign they were considering.

Channel 6 was launched a year ago, with a business strategy to capture the much desired 15 to 34 year old market. Investors ponied up 14 million euro, thinking of course that they would gain a tidy return on investment. Unfortunately, the mix of American programs and music shows has not captivated the target group, and we all know that low ratings make for low advertising revenues which makes for a loss on the bottom line. At the last board meeting, this dilemma was discussed, and someone put forward a brilliant plan to boost those much desired ratings.

How best to gain the undivided attention of males aged 15 to 34? Pornography ought to do it. After midnight, so the little ones are tucked up in bed, fast asleep. A French distributor of skin flicks was found and a deal made for a ten week session of late night T and A, with further plans to extend the run should it prove successful. Give the audience what it wants and they will watch, and the advertisers will beat down the doors to get thirty seconds of air time. Very basic business strategy, and one that most likely would have worked.

Worked, that is, until Mammy up in bed heard the moans and groans and heavy breathing, and then noticed that himself and the boys were not in bed asleep, but staring at the glowing screen with their eyes goggling. Think she'd buy another tin of Barry's Tea after that?

That leaves Channel 6 Chairman Pat Donnelly up against the edge. He's in charge of delivering the goods for the investors, but it's difficult to find something that will capture a big audience in this day and age. Too many other channels, satellite television and the Internet are all competing for the same audience, and a new channel on the block has a very tough go of it. Porn would work, but it's not at all the family-friendly sort of offering that politicians want attached to their investment portfolio.

We'll Meet Again

No reply after eight months. They get so many queries at BookEnds, I'm sure, so I'll presume that mine was lost in the mail. With a new title and a fresh new query, I'll try them again.

Alicka Pistek doesn't take paper queries any more, so the one I sent in September must have been shredded. Or it didn't arrive, lost in the mail. I've resubmitted via her e-mail address at Publishers Marketplace and not heard back, so that's a no. I guess. Or did she not get the e-mail? How can anyone tell? Try again, perhaps? Give it up? So many choices.

Michele Beno never responded to the e-mail query, so I tried snail mail. No reply since September. Lost in the mail again, that's got to be it. I'll shoot her another one soon, just to double check the postal service in New York. As for Tara Mark at RLR, well, that lost in the mail excuse doesn't hold water. She never responded to the query from September, and the second attempt has been just as ignored. Fine, if that's how it's to be, but a little note on the website would be appreciated.

Some agents are backlogged and the wait will be long. It took Chris Parris-Lamb of the Gernert Co. about five months to catch up, but at least he finally mailed off the rejection letter. That's such a contrast with agents like Joy Harris or Sonia Pabley, who rejected my query the minute it landed on their desks. Could have saved a couple of pennies on postage there. I figured it would take a couple of months for a response, so the SASE had that extra postage affixed. Turns out it wasn't needed, with the rejections arriving well before the rate increase.

No one's looking at a partial, no one's asked for a full. Two weeks gone since the last round of queries went out, and it's time for the next batch. I've been doing this too long, until it's just an automatic sort of thing. Send out mail, receive mail, cross off agency, move down list. Write another manuscript, begin at the beginning and repeat endlessly.

As hobbies go, however, it's cheaper than model railroading or antique auto collecting.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sober As A Bishop

-- Can you drive?

-- Sure I'm grand. Sober as a bishop. Not Bishop Eamonn Casey's type of sobriety, of course, but I can drive.

-- You're fifty metres from the gardai over there, with their breathalyzer all ready to go. Are you sure you can drive?

-- Only had a couple of pints.

And so, TD Martin Ferris has learned what is common knowledge amongst those who have grown accustomed to stringent drink-driving laws. Walk out of a pub immediately after downing a couple of pints and your breath will indeed set off the breathalyzer machine. It's guaranteed.

Don't have a designated driver available? Have to get yourself home? Don't leave as soon as the empty glass is back on the bar top. Go outside for a smoke. Have a long chat, play some darts, flirt with the ladies. But don't get in your car the minute the glass is drained.

Keep in mind that alcohol impairs reasoning. You think you're fine, that you're walking a straight line and your eyesight is keen, but none of that is true. Only a couple of pints, you think, that's nothing, I'll not be setting off any meters this evening. Until your liver has had a bit of time to metabolize the alcohol, however, your exhalations will be redolent with fumes. Not that you're so drunk that you'll pass out half way home, but it doesn't take much to slow down reaction time. A second or two lost, and instead of braking to avoid that collision, you're smacking the hapless pedestrian who's walking home from the pub because he knew he was too drunk to drive.

Now Martin Ferris has to face the public, to let everyone know that as little as two pints can trigger an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. "I suppose the only way you are safe is not to have any drink," he was quoted as saying. That's exactly what the authorities would like everyone to know, to be aware that a little booze goes a long way on the breathalyzer.

They give no quarter to those on high, no free pass for the politically powerful, and that's as it should be with something as deadly as drink-driving. Still, though, to think that the man who once ran guns for the IRA got arrested for having alcohol on his breath. It boggles the mind.

Literary Tourist Attraction

English majors from around the world will soon be flocking to London for their spring break vacations. Who needs South Padre Island when there's Dickens World?

Dublin has Bloomsday, featuring walking tours that take fans of James Joyce to the many places he memorialized in his novels. With pub crawls part of the action, it's relatively popular, far more than the writings of Mr. Joyce ever have been. Now London is hoping to capitalize on the whole 'fun with authors' concept and take it up a notch.

Dickens World is a theme park, not as expansive as Disney's World and not as thrill-oriented as Six Flags, but a theme park all the same. Dickens World is entirely indoors, featuring a replica of Main Street USA....wrong place, sorry. It's a replica of Main Street UK in the Victorian era, with faux cobblestone streets, authentic storefronts and actors portraying pickpockets and whores. Advance publicity claims it's even got the smells to go along with the sights. Makes for wholesome family entertainment, and you'll finally learn what a tussy-mussy is, and why it was so very needed. Perfumed handkerchiefs are optional.

Thelma Grove, an expert on Dickens, acted as a consultant on the project, and she's over the moon with the end result. Visitors to the exhibition can see such Dickensian thrills as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and peruse the innards of Newgate Prison. Bring the children, please, as they will also have the opportunity to frolic in Fagin's Den. Where, one might presume, they would be lectured in the delicate art of picking pockets, since that's what Fagin was up to in his fictional den.

When it finally opens, the entrance fee will set the tourist back about $25, which is rather cheap compared to the price of admission at most other amusement parks. Once inside, visitors will discover that there's real value for the dollar (or more accurately, the pound sterling) at Dickens World. No other amusement park can offer the endless fun of the 'Bleak House' attraction. A replica of the famed Chancery Court, those who enter find that their exit is delayed through endless writs and postponements. Only those wise enough to not pin their hopes on leaving with money in their pockets manage to get through the place.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Twin Advantage

Enda Kenny announced plans by Fine Gael to organize a climate change policy department if his party wins in the upcoming elections. Not to worry, his new climate change bureaucracy will link to the Department of Finance, and all will be coordinated. If, that is, Fine Gael takes the prize in the upcoming elections. Now doesn't a climate change policy department make you want to vote for Fine Gael?

On the other side of town, Michael McDowell was touting the plans of the Progressive Democrats. He was all tax cuts and down with the stamp duties, stumping for votes in the upcoming elections. Sustaining Success they call their movement for this election cycle, to remind everyone that the prosperity they now enjoy is due entirely to the policies of the Progressive Democrats. Vote PD again, and the money will keep rolling in.

And the word on the voters' lips's the new babies, Taoiseach? Born two months premature, twins Rocco and Jay Byrne are the talk of the town. First time grandfather Bertie Ahern doesn't have to discuss policies or promises. It's not 'what are you doing about the water in Donegal' but 'have you spoken to Georgina lately, and how is she doing?' as far as the questions go.

Mr. Ahern was making an appearance in Dunboyne when the reporters descended on him, but it wasn't about the upcoming elections. Attention has been distracted by the birth of twin boys, an exciting occasion for any family, but a very public one for Georgina and Nicky Byrne.

You can be sure that Enda Kenny is as pleased as any man over the good news coming out of Holles Street. Still, it must grate, that he has nothing to offer the public but campaign rhetoric, while Bertie Ahern can just show up and tell everyone about his new grandchildren. All eyes are focused on the Taoiseach and the Byrne twins, while Mr. Kenny must jump up and down on the hustings to get anyone to pay him any mind. It's so unfair, that he has something important to say and the electorate is distracted by childbirth. Aren't babies born every day? And isn't there such a shortage of beds in some area hospitals that women endure labor wherever they can find a quite spot? No one's talking about the nurses and their protests over wages and conditions, the important issues of the day, it's all Jay and Rocco Byrne, all the time.

No, the birth was not timed to coincide with the start up of the campaign season. Sometimes things just fall into place for the lucky few, whose daughters are married to famous boy band members and who attract a lot of attention without doing anything out of the ordinary. If only Enda Kenny had something to offer the public beyond the usual speeches. Politicians can kiss all the babies they like, but it's different when their lips are applied to the smooth cheeks of their own grandchild. Mr. Kenny just can't seem to catch a break.

Limbo Up, Limbo Down

What becomes of the unbaptized babies, we asked the nuns long ago. They go to limbo, of course, where they exist in happiness but they can't get in to see God. He's not taking appointments with the unbaptized. Of course, in a pinch, a mammy could do her own baptizing. Back in the day of home birth and long distances from local clergy to local parishioner, any good Catholic could baptize the baby and God would accept the emergency as a valid sacrament. Hence, we all had bottles of Holy Water in the house.

Babies not born, like those lost in miscarriage, were not at risk until 'quickening', that magical time when a woman feels the first movements. So the wise philosophers of old decreed, notables like St. Augustus and St. Thomas Aquinas. The baby isn't alive until the quickening, so there you are, missus. I didn't feel a thing, she might say, and her priest could comfort her over her loss with the assurance that the baby wasn't headed to limbo at all because it wasn't ever alive.

In this modern age of abortion, the Catholic Church decreed that babies are now alive at the time of conception. That quickening business, it's got no scientific validity since the scientists know more about gestation than was known in the Fifth Century and there's no ignoring the unquestionable facts. Lovely, we're set then, all on the same page? Slight problem, there, Your Eminence, you see, the scientists also know that a fair number of embryos never implant. Just keep right on going out the door, as it were. So there's more babies than ever going to limbo? And all the early term miscarriages, some of the ladies are getting a bit upset to imagine their unborn child getting stuck in limbo forever. A bit harsh, isn't it?

Harsh indeed. Yet the Church has always taught that all are born with the stain of original sin which is removed in baptism. Ergo, all unborn and unbaptized babies die with that stain intact, and they can't go to Heaven. But God is merciful, not a hard man at all, so how do we deal with this dilemma? You can't tell the faithful to shut up and believe what they're told, not anymore. God is just and merciful, and that concept is not in sync with the whole "unbaptized need not apply" sign that's affixed to the Pearly Gates. Time to straighten out a very crooked line of reasoning.

"Limbo reflects an unduly restrictive view of salvation," the International Theological Commission has decreed. "There are serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved..." we hope. The Commission hedged its bets, stating that their decision was not "sure knowledge", but a determination that took into account the just and merciful God hypothesis.

Fifteen centuries of limbo, wiped out by a Jesuitical decree. The vow of priestly celibacy doesn't arise from the words of the New Testament either. Will that be the next rule to fall?

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Lakefront Drill

The Chicago Plan Commission is on board, approving the latest design by Santiago Calatrava. No twizzler, no spike, the most recent plan calls for a 2000 ft. high, twisting monolith that is every inch a drill bit. Hog butcher for the World, Tool fitting to plant a gigantic drill bit on the city's lakefront.

At 150 stories, the tower would indeed tower over the skyline in its silvery aluminum glory. The design has been approved, but will anything proceed from here? Is this Chicago Spire to be nothing more than architectural renderings and scale models?

Architectural engineers earn their hefty salaries by taking an artistic flight of fancy and figuring out how to make the real thing. To date, no twisting spire this tall has been built, as the spiral structure currently rising in Dubai is much smaller. How will the engineers plan for wind at such heights? How much sway must be allowed for? Can this particular spire even be made to stand, and still retain the artistic sweep of its 360 degree rotation? The skin of the spire is to be stainless steel, yet how is this steel to be manufactured to perform as needed?

This being Chicago, the primary question is one of finance. To date, developer Garrett Kelleher has said not one word about how he's to fund this project. No cost projections provided, no plans to pre-sell condo units, in direct contrast to how things are normally done. Total costs are estimated to reach $2 billion or more, yet the only suggestion of financing from Mr. Kelleher has been a mention of support from a top executive at Anglo Irish Bank. Not that it's a puny institution by any means, but there's a great deal of doubt that AIB has that kind of financial power. Builder Steven Fifield, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, labels the suggestion as not credible. At possible development costs of $1000 per square foot, AIB isn't enough.

Overall, the add-ons are high priced. The parkland that fronts the building will be developed to the tune of $9 million, and the underground parking will take some very savvy engineering to pull off, given that the excavation will have to go below the water line and no one wants to buy a place with a leaking basement. All in all, the units may have to sell for $1500 per square foot, which is London or Paris pricing, not Chicago rates.

Given that, who will be looking to buy one of these 1200 units? Mr. Kelleher has plans to market the development in Dubai, London, New York, etc. Chicago is indeed a lovely town, a very user-friendly sort of city that's easy to get around with its grid network of streets. The lake view is highly prized, beautiful and well worth the price. Makes the perfect destination when one wants to get away from the social rat race of Mayfair and Manhattan...perfect for those looking for a $1500 per square foot vacation home.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Despondent Whale

For two days it swam aimlessly, as if waiting for news or instructions. The minke whale hovered near Brooklyn, confused and disoriented in Gowanus Bay, a teenager seeking the answer.

Experts noted that the animal was not sick, despite the fact that it chose to hang out near Brooklyn, rather than seeking the trendier reaches of lower Manhattan. Day after day it swam around, causing concern to all who observed this young beast in the wrong place.

Suddenly, the whale began to splash heavily. It swam with purpose and hit the dock, to die quietly in Gowanus Bay near Brooklyn. A necropsy is to be performed, but the reasons for the whale's death go deeper than the physical.

Yes, it's true. The young minke whale was despondent over the results of that night's poll on American Idol. The stunningly coiffed Sanjaya was voted off the show, and little Minke had nothing left to live for, no goal to swim towards. In a case of a temper tantrum gone wrong, the whale hit its head, never intending to cause harm but wishing to express a sense of frustration that the worst singer ever to appear on the program was finally getting the sack. The talentless whale's role model was gone, beaten by those with talent.

The whale's demise was witnessed by a crowd of onlookers who never knew that they could have saved the life of this tragic aquatic mammal, if only they had been home to vote for Sanjaya.

What You Need

High cholesterol? Aches? Pains? Arthritis? Insomnia?

You can find what you need by watching the adverts on television. Whatever did we do before 1998, when the FDA allowed drug companies to market their wares direct to the consumer? Surely we all were suffering. How could we have educated our physicians, without knowing what drugs we wanted?

About $5 billion is wasted on pushing drugs to the consumer, and Congress is beginning to realize that drug manufacturers are promoting their products rather quickly after development. Good for the company, of course, because people see the commercials on the air and in print, and then trundle off to the overworked Doc in the Box at the clinic. I saw this, they might say, and it's just what I need for my high blood pressure/cholesterol/sleep apnea, et. al. Yes, I saw that as well, says Doc, and here's a prescription. Let me know if you develop any serious side effects because this drug hasn't been out long enough for us to see if it's harmful. Say, for example, a heart attack after taking Vioxx for a few months. Well, your next of kin would be doing the notification, actually.

The drug companies don't like the idea that they might have to wait a year or two before springing their newest concoctions on an unsuspecting public. They'll argue First Amendment rights, free speech, and odds are, they'll win any such argument. Watchdog groups believe that the FDA should have the right to restrict drug advertising, suggesting that recent disasters such as Vioxx serve as excellent examples of why such muzzling is needed. Free speech, yes, but one cannot yell 'Fire' in a crowded hall.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) wants drug companies to be able to advertise freely, so that the consumer has access to "valuable information". Legitimate point, provided that the consumer is an educated health professional who understands the chemistry involved. A short thirty second promo for Lipitor is not going to educate anybody about the body's need for cholesterol, where it is found, what its function is, etc. A print ad will not educated anybody about the need for exercise and weight control as regards cholesterol, nor will it educate anybody about the way in which the human body processes foods and produces cholesterol. All the adverts do is educate people about an available product which is made to sound like the solution to the world's ills.

The FDA's request to allow a cooling-off period between product release and first public advertising may fall on deaf ears. It's useless to talk to the politicians who are taking Lipitor. Leads to hearing loss, among other side effects. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) is all in favor of restraint when it comes to prescription medicine promotion....he'll have to talk louder.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Shift The Blame

It's the war in Iraq that's to blame for the massacre at Virginia Tech. "...prevailing anxiety, insecurity, embitterment and violence currently felt in this cultural centre of the US military..." according to the editor of the Irish Times. So it comes down to George Bush again, is that it?

The murderer has been described as exhibiting odd behavior back in high school. Let's see, high school age, seventeen, eighteen? He was twenty-three on Monday. Five or six years, he was weird and getting weirder. But it's the fault of George Bush and the NRA and American culture...ooops, sorry, cut that last bit. The killer was Korean, not American.

Professor Gerard Toal of Virginia Tech lashes out at the NRA and the war in Iraq as the root cause of the unprecedented violence. That's much easier to do, to shift the blame to his particular bugaboo, than to ask why in God's name one of his fellow professors didn't get off her chair and do something more forceful than suggest the young man obtain counseling. The English Department at Virginia Tech knew the student was a nut job. His creative writing was 'troubling'; his fellow students had him pegged for a dangerous loon and his professors weren't comfortable being around him. He was known on campus as a nut job who did not even speak to his room mates. He never spoke in class. Ever. Not even to write down his name. But it's the war in Iraq that drove the lad. It's the fault of the NRA and George Bush.

The fault lies with those who would pat the slightly deranged on the head and say, there, there, do your own thing. You really should do something about your insanity, but I'm not going to make you do anything. Oh no, we musn't put restrictions on people. We musn't act, we musn't call in the authorities to have someone committed to a mental institution. They're entitled to their freedom, the dangerous lunatics. And when they act on their insane reveries, well, we'll just shift the blame to the NRA and the war in Iraq and then on to President Bush.

We send our children to university and expect those in charge to mind them, to look after them. Sometimes that means getting one of them out of the general population, as unpleasant as that may be. Sometimes an authority figure has to be the parent, and not the best friend.

Hanging On

Oh, you mean the lesbian bookstore...that was the response you might have gotten if you'd asked after the Women and Children First bookstore when it opened in 1979. It was the place to obtain feminist literature, back when feminist literature was fresh and new and not so readily available at Kroch's & Brentano's. The shop was opened up in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood when the area was beginning to come into its own as the trendy, highly gentrified part of town that offered Victorian beauties that still smelled of fresh plaster and paint. Rents were not over the top, but not as cheap as they had been five years earlier. But the people who wanted unique books lived there, and Women and Children First fit into its niche.

Ten years on, owners Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen relocated to another neighborhood that was becoming gentrified and trendy. Up in Andersonville, they continued a successful run, providing feminist literature and children's books for the yupsters who congregated. Twenty-five years on, the shop is on the verge of closing up.

Part of the problem is rent. Andersonville was a cheaper place to be in 1990, but demand for space is up and so follows the cost of a lease. Add to that the price of corruption in Chicago, and property owners have to cover the ever escalating property taxes that pay for all those sweetheart deals for the Friends of Daley. Ms. Bubon has worked out a deal with the landlord to hold the rent steady for the next year, but after that, it's got to go up and she may very well be out.

Fans of Women and Children First are keeping a close eye on Borders, where the bottom line has slipped a bit. There's talk of closing up a few Borders locations in the city, and the one down the street from Women and Children First may be shuttered (to the huzzahs and hosannas of independent book dealers everywhere).

Ms. Bubon suspects that patrons browse through her stacks, tote their wee babes to her Story Hour, and then hit the Internet when they get home, to buy cheaper on line what they examined for free in a brick and mortar store that she pays to rent. She assumes that these people are buying elsewhere, but are they buying? After looking through the books, is it not possible that the patrons went home, saddened by the offerings from the publishers? Maybe there's just not enough good books available to reach sales goals. Is it the publishers who are driving out the book sellers, providing a poor product that few actually want?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Second Chance

Snowflakes skidded into his head as he walked across the Drill, the last breath of winter battling against the coming spring. With graduation in three weeks, he walked a little more easy, on the downhill run he liked to think of it.

Five years had become six when he stumbled in the early going, finding it difficult to make the transition from high school achiever to average college freshman. Back then, the As and Bs didn't come so easily; he had been allowed to repeat part of the first year, given a second chance. Now came the pay-off, the degree from one of the best tech schools in the nation. There would be three years of internship, more hard work, but then he would have a life of his own.

He stopped at the studio to drop off the renderings that would become part of his portfolio when he interviewed. It would only take a second, save him from having to walk all the way back after the morning class.

The professor asked about job offers while he ran his eye over the drawings. Excited, the student spoke of positions available in Richmond, in Boston, but he had his heart set on Chicago, back home. The Olympics, the professor said, and they chatted about the odds of the United States winning the host city competition for 2016. What an incredible, once in a lifetime opportunity that would be, to be an architect in the firm that was designing the facilities. The young man's future was before him, exciting, vibrant.

What was only going to take a minute had taken much longer. He was running late now, going to be late to class, but at this point in his college career, if a guy couldn't show up five minutes past time...

Can't go in there, he heard someone say. The lights of police cars and ambulances flashed off the walls of the building. He was late for class, in the building that he could not go in. Gunshots echoed, loud, there were gunshots. Oh God, he said. Maybe he shouted the words. Maybe he only thought the words. Oh God.

I'm okay, Mom, he said into his cell phone. His voice began to quaver, to shake. I'm okay. I was late for class. I talked to a professor, and I was late. I'm okay.

Monday, April 16, 2007


It's grand to be an author in Europe. Every time a reader checks your book out of the library, it's money in your pocket. What a brilliant idea.

The Irish Writers' Union lobbied for such a law, and it looks like their wish is about to be granted. So every time that a library patron checks out a book, the cash register in the author's royalty account will cha-ching. Quite the bonus, considering that the library paid into the royalties by purchasing the book to begin with, and now the writer gets even more.

There'll be no cash register at the front desk of the library, however. The Exchequer, with its Celtic Tiger abundance of revenues, will be responsible for cutting the checks. Imagine how off-putting that would be, to hand the books to the librarian for processing and she tells you that'll be twenty-five cents. And what about those of us who read three or four books every week? It adds up, all those pennies. Much better to have the government do the paying, and add in those pennies to our taxes where we're not so likely to notice them and therefore not likely to protest.

While pushing for the new law, the writier's union was also in favor of government payments, and wisely so. Given the limited budgets that libraries must operate within, they could have saved quite a bit by not buying anything by Irish authors. No need to worry about royalties and keeping track and mailing the check on the first of the month. For people like Colm Toibin or Maeve Binchy, however, it would mean a decline in sales and a drop in royalties, which is the exact opposite of what they're trying to achieve.

In a complex bit of bureaucracy, the royalty project will be plugged into the Department of the Environment, where the Library Council will then administer the program. There'll be new software needed, of course, to the tune of 600,000 euro. Once that's in place, then the government projects costs of 1.1 million euro per year to run the program. Oh, and there's the expense of the royalties in there as well. What are the chances that it will cost much, much more to administer this grand scheme than what gets paid to the authors? Wouldn't it be cheaper in the long run to subsidize creative writers? Just throw some money at them at the end of the year, or give them a tax break on the royalties they get from the publishers.

Does this mean that book exchange groups will be operating outside of the law? What of those who buy a book and then pass it around within their discussion circle? Someone should alert Michael Smith, Minister for Trade and Commerce. There's a revenue source out there that really should be tapped. Who'd have guessed? A black market in borrowed books, springing up all over Ireland in a bid to beat the tax man.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Minnow Treads Water

Moody's Investors Service took another look at Riverdeep's credit status, hard on the heels of Ernst & Young's sudden departure. When one's auditors slip out the back door, those who would loan substantial sums of money would like to know why said auditors left so abruptly, and what are those so-called "incorrect representations" all about exactly?

As it turned out, Moody's was comfortable leaving the rating at B3. Not quite the sort of lofty rating one might hope for, but there was no downgrade and Barry O'Callaghan can take comfort in that. Unfortunately for the same gentleman, Moody's stated that the outlook for Riverdeep was not getting any better and would remain negative for now.

Investors want to know about a firm's future prospects, not unlike a potential bride examining her suitor in a Jane Austen epic. So what does our Mr. Darcy of an educational materials company have going for it? Perhaps he is not the one for you, my dear.

The little minnow that swallowed the Houghton Mifflin whale has caused concern amongst the thinkers at Moody's, who continue to be troubled by the company's reported earnings for 2006 (before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization for those of you who follow the markets). Any time a firm comes up short in the expected earnings department, investors tend to flinch and big bankers grumble, loudly.

Moody's is also looking at the future, and they have their doubts that HMRiverdeep is going to deliver on the "synergies" that were projected for 2007. That means that the big, overstuffed minnow might not cut costs and blend the two companies together in a way that results in profits. Big losses are not popular with investors, and the threat of such losses has kept Riverdeep's credit rating in the negative range. On top of all that, Moody's has the notion that Mr. O'Callaghan might be thinking of buying up something else, adding to the debt load, which in turns puts pressure on the bottom line. Interest payments have to be met on time, and if there's no money in the till, the banks go begging. With a threat of loan default looming, B3 is the best that Riverdeep is going to get.

Off to a rocky start, plagued by doubters, but the little minnow hasn't gone under just yet. The question remains, can Barry O'Callaghan pull off what he said he would when he ate up Houghton Mifflin?

The Perfect Gift

You'd think that everyone would have had enough of the Titanic by now, but just when you think the fuss is fading, someone has to come along and resurrect the dead.

What fresh nautical hell is this? Watchmaker Romain Jerome has crafted the perfect gift, a unique timepiece for the person who must have that which is most rare. What time is it? Time to buy your very own piece of the Titanic, to wear upon your wrist. Am I the only one who finds this somewhat gruesome?

The Geneva firm bought a piece of the hull that had been retrieved on a previous expedition to the watery graveyard. No less than Harland and Wolff, the Belfast shipbuilders who put the Titanic together, have certified that the metal used in the watches is genuine. The timepiece will not look like a rough, rusty chunk of metal plating, of course. When one pays anywhere from 6,000 to 128,500 euro, one expects a certain degree of elegance and style.

In Switzerland, Romain Jerome made an alloy, combining the Titanic's steel with bits of Harland and Wolff steel that will be used to craft a replica of the ship. So it's a touch of old and a dollop of new. There's to be some gold and platinum detailing, to create the requisite artistic statement, but wait, there's more.

The watch face will be black lacquer, owing to the coal that is included. The very coal that would have fueled the ship had she not sunk, the same chunks of coal that were retrieved out of the debris field, will become a component of the watch. Perhaps they could also make use of some of the shoes that were also found in the debris field, the shoes that were worn by the many victims as they died and their bodies sank to the bottom of the ocean. Watches have leather straps, after all, and wouldn't that be the talk of the corner office.

Yvan Arpa, the head of Romain Jerome, believes that his new product will sell, as there is a sucker born every minute. Not that he put it quite that way, but he did say that wealthy people buy ridiculously complicated watches that they don't even know how to use because they like to show them off. Holy Mother of God, sure a watch plucked from a graveyard makes for some star attraction. What time is it? Don't know, can't work this thing, but let me tell you where my expensive and very fine timepiece came from.

Anyone keen on purchase had best make haste. Only 2,012 watches are being made. The number coincides with the year that marks the anniversary of the sinking. So strap on your watch and try not to think about the hundreds of immigrants in steerage, left to die so that the First Class passengers could make use of the limited number of lifeboats. And if you can afford the watch today, chances are, you could have afforded a First Class compartment in 1912. Something to boast of, is it?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Do It Yourself

Students at the University of Limerick have to cross a very busy road on a regular basis, and no one in authority would act on their repeated requests for a marked pedestrian crossing. Thanks to the quality education that they have received, the pupils knew that they would have to do it themselves if they wanted it done. So they did. And now everyone's all upset.

"Very immature" said Robert Gallagher of the Limerick County Council. "Potentially very dangerous."

Sweet Jesus, but that was the point, wasn't it? The place where the students had to cross was not marked, it was risky to dash across the road there, and they asked for a marking to make it safer. Now they've done their own painting, and the road authority people say that's what's dangerous. According to St. John O Donnabhain, the student union president, they've asked for the painted crossing until they were blue in the face, and once a student landed in hospital after being struck by a car, the kids took matters into their own hands. It's all about safety, although there's a little bit about civil disobedience in there as well.

So over at the Groody roundabout, fifteen students armed with paint cans (and one would hope the appropriate tools to make straight "zebra stripe" lines) took up brushes and went about the job on Wednesday night. Thousands of college students who must cross there every day on their way to school discovered the newly marked crossing on Thursday morning, and then the Limerick County Council found out. Like proper adults, they fussed and fumed and accused the students of being very bold indeed.

How dare the kids show up the adults? There's a request already in train with the planning department and some fine day the crossing will be marked. And isn't it time that the history professors stopped teaching about the Home Rule issue, and how the British government kept promising to install Home Rule but it would have to come later? The next thing you knew, Padraig Pearse was reading his proclamation and all hell broke loose. Such talk gives impressionable young minds some immature and dangerous ideas.

Good In Bed

The problem with the World Bank is that there are not enough Frenchmen in positions of power. All of Paul Wolfowitz's current problems trace back to this most unfortunate state of affairs.

The poor man tried to do the right thing, when he got his new position as leader of the world's bankers. His significant other was already employed there, and he would have become her boss. Such a position was clearly untenable, and demanded immediate correction. So Mr. Wolfowitz corrected it, and now look at the trouble he's in.

Through connections, and one may assume that his connections are legion, the man who loves Shaha Ali Riza nabbed a spot for her in the State Department. The lady is originally from Tunisia, of Libyan and Saudi blood, so what better place for her than with State, and in light of the current political situation in the world, who could argue against it? Under advice from the Bank's ethics committee, he did as he was told and relocated her, with a promotion to boot. Can't very well demote her, when she did nothing wrong, and moving her sideways wouldn't reimburse her for her troubles. Wasn't he just following orders so?

Ms. Riza did not get where she is by batting her eyes and smiling sweetly, no indeed. It takes brains and guile and smarts to climb so high, and she worked very hard to achieve a prominent post and the salary that goes with it. Now, whether or not that is Mr. Wolfowitz's reason for lobbying on her behalf and getting her a hefty raise, we may never know. He's not talking.

Thanks to Lover Boy, Ms. Riza makes more than the Secretary of State, Condeleeza Rice, who is rated as smokin' by the stuffy diplomats who brush up against her power suits. Given that status, one must then surmise that Mr. Wolfowitz believes his darlin' is worth even more than Madame Secretary, hence the bigger paycheck. This is, of course, not the sort of thing that any man could utter in public, although if a bunch of Frenchmen were hovering around the halls of power at the International Monetary Fund, they'd be slapping himself on the back. Hard enough to keep a mistress, the French would realize, and if a man had the opportunity to find someone else to help foot the bill, what's a man to do?

Paul Wolfowitz went in as head of the World Bank and had to fend off a swarm of criticism and distrust. He's been hell bent on rooting out corruption, something that's in great need of doing, but this one slip-up could be enough to bring him down. He who would fight corruption must be above corruption and dirty deals himself, if he's to be taken seriously. And garnering a big salary for the bit on the side...outside of France, it's just not done.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tempus Fugit

The post World War II generation spawned a new crop of literature, writing with a gritty realism and a certain degree of cynicism. Saul Bellow typified the style of the time, immortalizing the down and out with a strong air of hopeless depression.

Another one of the Twentieth Century literary lions has gone, leaving behind a body of work that defined his time. Kurt Vonnegut was an icon, the face of the counterculture era that thrived during the Viet Nam War days. He honed his craft at the Chicago City News Bureau, famous as the employer that asked its reporters to check it out if their mother said she loved them. Edna Ferber was once such a reporter, but there's no more of them being made.

He was a science fiction author at first, but over time his genre became one of his own making. Aliens and space travel appeared in his books, but there was nothing science fiction-y about the plots or the topics. After witnessing, and surviving, the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut developed an outlook on the world that could best be expressed by writing in his own way. Could he have exorcised his demons while chained to the rules of a particular genre? Rather, he combined a little out of this world, a touch of satire and a dose of humor to become one of the most beloved authors of our time.

Would he have gotten published in this day and age, when the market for fiction is said to be so tight that anyone trying to break into the industry shouldn't even try? In Rodney Dangerfield's silly comedy, Back To School, the comedian played a wealthy father who decided to attend university in response to his son's challenge. To help the lad along, the father hired Kurt Vonnegut to pen an essay for the boy's English class, thinking to garner an A. Needless to say, the English teacher did not find the paper to be of A caliber.

A witness to the war, a soldier returned home from a POW camp, Vonnegut battled depression for most of his life. Surely his suffering, his mental anguish, was deposited within the pages of his manuscripts. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was not invented recently. Will our own generation of soldiers find solace in the written word? Is there another Kurt Vonnegut out there, patrolling in Anbar province, piecing together sentences and paragraphs in his head?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dry Spell

Getting roaring drunk on Good Friday would be near blasphemy, but to share a jar on Easter? It's just part of a festivity, part of the celebration. Unless your dictator is as dry as the desert, of course, and then there'll be no drinking at all.

Hugo Chavez makes so many decrees, taking over and nationalizing and rattling his rusty little saber, that the average Venezuelan pays little heed to his rants. Take the recent Holy Week, the run up to Easter, and the days following. Bars and liquor shops and vendors were all told that the sale of alcohol was to be suspended, supposedly to curtail drunken driving. Of course, all the law-abiding folks did as they were told and....were served alcohol in coffee cups and no bottles were left in the open at the high-end restaurants that the wealthy patronize. How does one say "speakeasy" en espanol?

Considering the fact that Venezuelans are the biggest beer drinkers around, to tell them they couldn't drink was quite the Easter joke. Bars in the center of Caracas, in the more run-down neighborhoods, did a thriving business, packed to the rafters with festive boozers knocking back a brew or two. In the slums of Caracas, where the law does not extend its strong arm, no one paid any attention to the ban. Bars remained open so that the locals could enjoy their Easter holiday.

Considering the runaway success of Prohibition in the US back in the Twenties, this comes as no surprise. That the decree of the almighty Chavez was ignored by the people of Venezuela, however, gives a pretty clear indication of the limits of his power. It's the poor people who put him in office, it's the poor people who continue to vote him back into office, and it's the poor people who can get away with drinking in the dry season.

And the result of the drinking ban on safe driving? Officially it was a brilliant success, but the opposition claims that there were just as many traffic fatalities as ever. Did anyone look at liquor sales? You can be sure that they were up.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Roofers Wanted

The tourists will be disappointed if the thatching industry continues to decline. All across Ireland, the population of thatched roof buildings is sinking, giving way to depressingly dull roofing materials that just don't say "Ireland" to the tourists. Have you ever considered relocating?

No one wants to be a thatcher any more, and the craft is struggling to survive. At Bunratty castle, the master thatcher is getting ready to retire, but there's no one to take his place. Visitors flock to the castle, to enjoy the restored ambiance of a time long gone, but without thatchers the scenery around the castle could become radically changed, no longer reflecting the typical roof structure of the past. But the past is exactly what people pay money to see.

In an interview in the Irish Times, Ger Tracy mourned the loss of the skill. He's tried to take on Irish lads as apprentices, but none of them seem to stick it out. The problem is, they go in dreaming of the old days and ways, only to discover that they are not preserving their ancient culture. They are doing heavy work on a roof, exposed to the elements, and there's no glamour in the trade. So, like every other job that goes begging, the Irish thatchers are turning to immigrant labor to fill the empty slots.

Around Munster, the master thatcher there has taken Polish lads under his reedy wing and begun to train them in a craft that is wholly unfamiliar to them. Work is work when you've come from a poor country with high unemployment, and it could be that the trade will become associated with the Polish. It's a sure sign that Ireland has finally met up with the rest of the developed world.

In these parts, you'll not see a non-Mexican taping drywall. There's an art to it, the need of a sharp eye to know when the mud has been sanded evenly so that the seams don't show. Drive by any roofing project and it's Tejano on the radio and Spanish on the tongue. For those wealthy enough to afford a lawn service, it's the same thing. Certain jobs have come to be associated with the Mexican worker, and now Ireland is about to undergo the same transformation.

But if you don't mind hard work and you'd like to live abroad, there's government grants and training available. Not an easy job by any means, but to be able to list 'thatcher' on your could a literary agent cast aside your query letter without asking about that?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Time To Make The Donuts

True or false, all the Dunkin' Donuts franchises in Chicago are owned by East Asians.

If you answered true, you are the winner in today's political grab bag contest. Your prize? The opportunity to feed at the public trough, and Patti Blagojevich will handle all of your real estate needs.

Amrit Patel is the king of donuts in this part of the world, and when Krispie Kreme was sinking like greasy lead weights, he decided that the time had come to bring his Dunkin' Donuts franchises to the Illinois tollway oases. Thousands travel the Tri-State, the Reagan, the Northwest, etc. etc., and many of them will get hungry for a donut and thirsty for a caffeine buzz. There's money to be made at the tollway oasis, and Mr. Patel wanted to be the money maker.

How to acquire such a prime location? Start by hosting a fundraiser for the man who would be king...excuse me, governor. Although he acts like a king. Just ask anyone who lives near him and who would like to be able to park their car near their condo. What, you thought that the governor of Illinois would live in the state capital, in Springfield? Ah go on with you.

Fundraising's done, so what next to seal the deal? Buy some property. Any property will do, as long as Mrs. Blagojevich, the First Lady of Illinois, gets the 6% commission. Mr. Patel managed to pay out over $30,000 in commissions to herself, although the Boy Governor gets testy if his wife's work is questioned. And Mr. Patel made sure that his little girl's name appeared on the contracts, so that he could distance himself from the dirty deals.

This particular revelation is sort of a part two of a series. Not too long ago, it was revealed that one of Mr. Patel's cronies, Amrish Mahajan, was also linked in a pay-to-play scheme that has resulted in the arrest of Mrs. Mahajan. She was charged with defrauding the state, billing Illinois taxpayers for drug tests that were never done. Mrs. Blagojevich garnered a nice piece of change from the Mahajans as well. Never knew there was such a demand for real estate amongst the East Asians, but what better investment than land?

The Federal prosecutor is breathing heavily down Rod Blagojevich's neck, and pundits are laying odds on the date when the governor will finally be indicted. In Chicago, the Federal prosecutor is getting mighty close to Mayor Richard Daley, attempting to root out corruption that costs the taxpayers plenty. In the corridors of power, there are many who would very much like Patrick Fitzgerald gone.

In Washington, the long knives are out for Roberto Gonzalez, with both sides of the aisle crying out for his resignation. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin has voiced his opinion, that the Attorney General should resign. Once Gonzalez is out, who should be tapped to step into his shoes? Whose change of appointment would take the heat off of the donut makers in Chicago? Whose removal could make it easier to buy real estate in Illinois and funnel even more cash into the Blagojevich accounts? Who has been so successful at catching the rats that scurry through the halls of power in Chicago and Springfield, and who is trying to lay traps to catch some even bigger rats who don't much want to be caught?

Odds on favorite? None other than Patrick Fitzgerald.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


It's Easter again, and we cannot forget
Our brothers and sisters and all that was said.
So practice your pipes, stand proud in the wet.
For the eyes of the world are upon you.

Smoke and Strong Whiskey, Wally Page

A blessed Easter, and a happy birthday to Ireland, 91 years young. Have you not been to Mass yet? Go on with you now, and say your prayers.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

My Sweet

Do you think it's sugar, that powdery fluff in the yellow packets, nesting happily on the restaurant table? Do you think of it as artificial sweetener, free of calories, or do you think of it as sugar converted through chemical miracles into a calorie-free substance?

The makers of Equal are of the mind that you, the consumer, are taken in completely by Splenda's marketing campaign. Made from sugar, the ad line goes, so the gullible sugar-craver flocks to buy the competitor's product. They've been led down the garden path, Equal argues, the poor unfortunate puchaser, and Splenda must be made to stop.

Equal was once the top seller in the artificial sweetener market, after saccharin and cyclamates came under closer scrutiny and the fear of cancer was spread on thickly. Then along came a rival and sat down beside her and took all the customers away. Equal would have the courts believe that Splenda's claim to being made from sugar would indicate that sugar is its main ingredient, when there's not a glucose molecule in it at all. Hence, the accusation of false and misleading advertising. The chairman of Merisant, maker of Equal, argues that Splenda's soaring sales, and Equal's decline, are due entirely to this false notion that is created in the consumer's mind.

I remember when Equal was first introduced. Actually, I had a friend who worked in one of the labs where Equal was tested before being introduced, so I guess I was there when it was a mere babe of a product. Aware of the questionable scientific practices that surrounded the lab work, I gave the stuff a try anyway. Risking brain lesions, I sipped on a soft drink that warned phenylketonurics to stay away, and promptly noticed that the stuff tasted bitter. Not sweet at all, just flat and bitter. Tried a different flavor of pop, same lack of sweet taste. And then I developed head aches that made my eyes cross, and I'm not prone to headaches. My experiment had run its course, and I never touched Equal again.

Along came Splenda, and I gave it a try. Sweet Jesus, it's like eating a sugar cane it's so feckin' sweet. I know full well it's made in a laboratory, that there's no natural anything in it. I wouldn't use the stuff because some ad guy told me it was made from sugar. I'd use it because it tastes sweet, which would seem to be the point of an artificial sweetener.

The makers of Equal don't want to admit that someone has a superior product, and that's why their sales are falling and likely to sink even further. They're fighting for their bottom line right now, using ridiculous excuses to knock a peg or two out from under Splenda, but the market is speaking and it's saying your product is shite. Splenda is cheating, Merisant whines, but the real issue is the taste of Equal versus the taste of Splenda, and the yellow-jacketed chemicals tickle the right taste buds.

Which one will I buy? Neither, actually, since I put my faith in nature and abandon the chemists to their test tubes. Real sugar, real butter, all in moderation. And who wouldn't prefer a pint over a glass of fizzy colored water? It's an easy decision.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Theft By Design

There's book smarts and then there's street smarts. The intelligentsia that runs the Rhode Island School of Design may be thinking of adjusting their curriculum to add a bit more of the latter. At a minimum, one would hope that they've hired on a decent accountant.

Why must those who pull a fast one on a prestigious college go to Ireland to hide? It's a bit of an embarrassment, really, with one extradition request after another sailing over the ocean. And why couldn't the Rhode Island School of Design pay some attention to their employees in the first place, so that all this would have been avoided? Is it that hard to figure out that a million dollars worth of anything never arrived?

Every time I hear of Ballinamore in County Leitrim, I think of the song Ballinamore. Some very funny lyrics about a reputed IRA safe zone, where the hens are laying hand grenades and the sheep are advising there'll be another Rising. With that sort of quasi-independent atmosphere, is it any wonder that Patrick Clyne and his lovely missus, Ibtisama Bradley, chose to conveniently relocate and settle down? And their custom built home must be an architectural marvel, one would presume, seeing as it's the Rhode Island School of Design that inadvertently paid for it.

Back in the days when your man was a college employee, he apparently set up a shell company to bill the school for fire prevention equipment, which was never delivered even though the bills were paid. One million dollars worth of bills, for no actual goods. Mr. Clyne says that he and his spouse told the authorities in the States that they weren't responsible for the wonky billings, and they did nothing wrong. It wasn't us, they claimed, it must have been some other ones.

So there they are, relaxing in the comfort of their home in Ballinamore, and along comes the US attorney with a plan to seize their rural hideout....or is it hideaway? And they'd like to extradite the couple to face charges in Rhode Island, but it's highly unlikely that Mr. and Mrs. Clyne would like to return, after five years in idyllic Leitrim. Particularly as they would face twenty years in prison. Rural Ireland can be confining, but all things considered, the Clynes would opt for Ballinamore in a heart beat.

If it's true that the house they built in Leitrim is paid for by some illegal means, one would hope that the least the couple did was to incorporate the philosophy and tenets of the Rhode Island School of Design. That's only fair, if money was lifted from university coffers, to pay some sort of tribute to the source. It would only add insult to injury, if the house turns out to be some standard box with a wall of garage door facing the road, the epitome of all that is ugly about the suburbs, lacking in taste, proportion and elegance. But costing a small fortune.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Rules Of The Game

The rules have changed, to Sam Zell's detriment. The man who would be a media mogul in Chicago cannot have things quite as he might have wished. Blame the FCC on this one.

Who started up the television station when the industry was young and new? It was the World's Greatest Newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, that founded WGN as a small local station in Chicago. They created it, and so they owned it, and all was well in the world. WGN brought us Bozo's Circus and Lunchtime Little Theatre and Garfield Goose and a slew of Baby Boomer fodder. The FCC was fine with it. They probably liked watching Diver Dan and the Adventures of Clutch Cargo themselves.

Now Sam Zell is poised to buy up the lot, all that is part or parcel of the Tribune Company. Like a true White Sox fan, he's not having anything to do with the Cubs franchise, which will be sold separately. When the deal goes down, he'll own the biggest daily in Chicago, with the aura of Col. Robert McCormick floating through the halls of an architecturally significant building. The FCC, according to new rules put in place about thirty years ago, will not let him own WGN and its stable of stars. Weatherman Tom Skilling will not answer to Mr. Zell if it rains on a Harley Davidson parade.

The FCC wants diversity and competition, hence the law that prohibits consolidation of media in a single market. A newspaper, a radio station and a television station are too much for one company, and the Tribune got away with it because they had it before the law came into effect. Under a new owner, the grandfather clause is no longer valid, and Mr. Zell may have to divest some parts, or the Tribune Company will have to break up their empire and sell off the components.

The Tribune Co. is still working on obtaining waivers from the FCC in a few other markets where it bought up newspapers and took possession of television outlets. Their argument is an interesting one, pointing out the spawn from hell that is the Internet, the biggest competitor for television and newspapers. Why not let them own a paper and a channel, the logic goes, because whatever they put out is going out on the Internet as well, faster and cheaper. If that's not competition, well, take a look at how Internet access has cut the heart out of the printed page.

Market analysts ponder the mindset of the FCC commissioners, taking a political angle on the question. Will the Democratic members take a jaundiced look at a real estate billionaire taking possession of a staunchly Republican newspaper? Do these same analysts realize that Sam Zell is born, bred and residing in Highland Park, Illinois? Quick to brush off his place of residence with a snort, labelling the town as another in the string of high-end, conservative suburbs that hug the North Shore of Lake Michigan, but if they took a gander at the demographics, they would not be so fast. In a sea of conservative Republicanism, Highland Park is an island of liberal Democrats. The deal's not washed up yet.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

His True Colors

Ancient nautical term, to show your colors. It refers to the flag, the colors that a ship must display to indicate its country of registry. Way back in the day, a clever captain would run up the enemy's flag, using false colors as a ruse to do some military maneuver. Once ready to engage in battle, however, said captain was required to run up his true colors, the flag of his nation, and fight proudly.

Even today, a ship has to wear its colors when entering a port, to be clearly marked as friend or foe. Imagine the alarm in Cobh Harbour, then, when the Sea Mist staggered in, plagued with engine trouble while crossing the wide Atlantic. The former trawler came in all naked, no flag of registry, and the Irish Naval Service, Customs, and a few gardai were on that ship in no time.

If Gordon Richards, at the helm, was not suffering from a bad back, he might have been thinking more clearly and run up the Orange, White and Green. For want of a nail, the battle was lost, and for want of a flag, Irish customs officers searched the ship from stem to stern and weren't they shocked to find 599 kilograms of cocaine hidden therein. Too late now, but Mr. Richards has surely learned that he should lift heavy weights with his legs, and not bend his back. One would presume, of course, that his back pain was tied in with the massive quantity of drugs. Someone had to load the boat, after all.

Naturally, the captain and all his crew were promptly arrested. In court, the crew were let off, and the captain was left to face the legal music. Mr. Richards, or John Ewart as he is more properly called, is sitting in Arbour Hill prison right now, and will enjoy the historic significance of the jail until June of 2009. He was good enough to inform the authorities that he was working for Brian Wright, the biggest drug trafficker in England. From there, Irish law enforcement officials worked with their colleagues in America and Britain, and together they put a significant kink in the drug pipeline following the arrest of sixteen gang members.

Eventually, the top of the ladder was reached and Brian "The Milkman" Wright was found guilty in Woolwich Crown Court yesterday. Having worked hard to achieve greatness during the first thirty years of his life, he will now enjoy the next thirty behind bars. Not exactly as plush as his box at the Royal Ascot, that cell at Belmarsh Prison, and twenty-two hours a day of solitude is a far remove from the days of rubbing shoulders with the elite of the horse racing circuit. Given his poor health, it's been suggested that Brian will most likely die in prison and never see freedom again. Odd, but the judge didn't seem to have an ounce of pity for him.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Joycean Clearing House

I'll be fielding calls, downloading upon request, for friends and family abroad. Not a burden at all, at all, since I expect something in the neighborhood of few to no requests. Not big James Joyce fans, my relations and acquaintances.

While the Irish must suffer in blacked out silence, here in America we can view, online, some excerpts from James Joyce. Things that have not been published, and have been squirreled away by the estate of James Joyce are going to available online for the Joycean scholars to consume with relish, and perhaps a side of fried kidneys. It's what you've waited all your life to read, isn't it?

The release to the internet of this trove of Joycean lore is part of the settlement between Joyce's grandson Stephen, in charge of the estate, and Stanford professor Carol Loeb Shloss. Poor woman had to jump through hoops and travel through hell to get permission to cite some specific material in her book about Lucia Joyce. Following a lengthy trial, the court sided with Prof. Shloss and determined that she could put her data on line at a dedicated website, which is a companion piece to the biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance In The Wake.

In the book that was released in 2003, the Professor expounded on her theory that Lucia Joyce appeared in Finnegan's Wake, and that she was James Joyce's muse as well. Because of restrictions, she was unable to print the quotes and citations that backed up her theory, and she had to sue the estate to protect her name and reputation as a scholar. Ms. Shloss couldn't very well write something and then tell the literary world to trust her on it, and being able to provide the background material that led to her conclusions was necessary, to provide the paper trail by which she navigated.

Thanks to the wording of American copyright law, the Yanks can sit at their keyboards and read away, while the restrictive laws of England and Ireland will keep the screens blank. That's where I come in, assuming any of my family or friends abroad would give a toss about James Joyce or his mentally ill daughter. I'm handy with the copy and paste, I know how to e-mail, and you can rest assured that blocking a website is not going to prevent anyone from seeing the material that the Joyce estate wants to keep hidden.

Sort of like those who bought copies of Ulysses in Europe, when the book was banned in the US, and smuggled it across the border to share with friends. It's just that smuggling bytes is so much easier, and far less bulky.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Go Small Or Go Home

British food giant Tesco is trying mightily to expand into the US. But they're not going with the big box giant sized model. Reflecting their home base on a small island, Tesco is putting up little individual serving sized stores.

They've hit an environmental impact of a roadblock out in Riverside County, California, and it's put a crimp in the plans. Tesco already has signed leases with existing buildings in Phoenix, Las Vegas and various southern California locations, but they would need a distribution center to service all those new shops.

The local environmental group has given Tesco its blessing, but some other organization has come forward to challenge the construction project. That puts Tesco another thirteen weeks behind schedule, to the tune of $50 million lost plus additional bleeding if the court case drags on longer than that. Who could be behind such an expensive move?

Even though the new Tesco stores will be about one quarter the size of the modern American supermarket, the "Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market" is projected to capture anywhere from two to six percent of the southern California grocery dollar within five years of opening. To say the least, Safeway, Kroger and Albertson's are alarmed over the prospect of losing one billion dollars in revenue to a British upstart who's coming in with some dinky shop that people just might like because it won't be so overwhelming.

If worse comes to worse, Tesco will find some temporary facilities to serve their needs, but they have every intention of taking on the American market and making headway. Wisely, they've begun out west and avoided the Chicago market. For some odd reason, no one seems to be able to crack the loyalty that has kept Jewel and Dominick's as the undisputed champions. As for making inroads in the North Shore suburbs, let's just say it's been tried, and it's failed. Still, a lovely little green grocer, without a fifty foot aisle of sugary cereals, just might be refreshing.

Return On Investment

Dinner at Mon Ami Gabi. Lovely. Out of my price range, of course, but if I were a novelist just bursting on the scene, I might have been dining there like Steven Hall.

Haven't heard of him yet? His novel's not released, but his publisher is getting the lad's name out there, meeting and greeting, pressing some flesh, making happy talk. There's a new strategy in the marketing game, as the publishers seek to get the maximum return on their literary investments.

Steven Hall was plucked out of Manchester (wonder if he knows the McGuinn clan by any chance) and deposited in Chicago and then dragged around the Midwest, all to promote his upcoming novel The Raw Shark Texts. No book signings on this type of tour, as there is no book to sign. Mr. Hall was promoting his tome to the sellers, to the people who can place the novel at the front of the store or leave it to languish on a back shelf, however they're feeling at the time. As the author, his job was to hit the bricks and make personal contact with the higher ups of Borders, the owners of City Lights in SF, on down to the manager of a book shop in Minnesota.

His whole story is out of the ordinary, anyway. This is his first novel, picked up by Canongate U.S. and optioned to Film Four. Foreign rights are already sold. Labelled as a postmodern psychological thriller plus love story (sort of DaVinci Code-esque with an alternative setting), the publisher is sinking $150,000 into promotion, and they fully expect to get it all back, and more, in sales. Hence, they are hedging their bets by sending the author out there to sell, sell, sell.

Now, if the book is well written, with believable characters, it will indeed sell. Word of mouth will help, good reviews of course are a benefit, but if the owner of the independent book shop has met Mr. Hall and taken a liking to him, the odds are better that the same owner will recommend the novel to clients. For the booksellers, this whole pre-publication wine and dine is all new and the impact, initially, will be strong. Do this with every hot new author coming down the pike and even the independents will grow jaded.

Quite odd, to picture a reclusive writer-type person being thrust into that kind of setting, having to be personable and sociable when they're quiet and introspective by nature. Adds to the pressure of being a writer these days. Not only do you have to be a good writer, you have to be a star salesman. The MFA just isn't enough any more; you'll need an MBA as well to make it in the author business.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Never Too Late To Begin

There's a sense out there in the publishing community that writers have to begin when they're young. Hence, the freshly minted MFA is such a hot writing credential that the owner is positively smoking. What if you're thirty-something? Maybe not too long in the tooth, but it's getting there. In your forties or beyond? Sure you're too old to have anything to say that's worth hearing. Nobody wants an old author with his old-fashioned writing.

So we all take heart in the saga of Harry Bernstein, making his literary appearance at the age of 96. No one in New York would look at his manuscript, not when he started to write at the age of 93. The query letters would have given away his age, with an air of polite manners and proper format that is unseen in the fledgling MFA. One glance at the query and the publishers would have laughed. Christ, he's old, who gives a rat's arse about his book, they might have said. Some senile old man, rambling on and on. That's not for today's publishing climate. We want hip, we want quirky, we want urban fantasy and realism and grit and the next DaVinci Code.

The manuscript had to be discovered in England, where the art of writing, the love of words, still exists in some amber-encased reliquary that pays homage to the likes of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Kate Elton, an editor in Random House's London branch, ran across the manuscript after it had languished for a year in the slush pile, and she found that she could not put it down.

What Mr. Bernstein put down on paper as an exercise in mental health therapy turned out to be a book filled with moving characters and a vivid story. It's true, his little book, with the story of a religious divide and a Romeo-Juliet love story that has been done to death, except that this telling is fresh and real. The author reveals a life spent in poverty, facing anti-Semitism and the violence that was part of a rough childhood.

Don't think that Bernstein has never written something before, because he's worked as an editor of trade magazines and penned freelance articles. He's a keen reader, which is the best training for a would-be writer, and he has survived a difficult life with an alcoholic father and a saintly mother. No wonder he's looked on as the newest incarnation of Frank McCourt.