daily preciousness

Thursday, July 12, 2001


The first sight to impress me at Newgrange was the candy counter in the gift shop. They had grape flavored suckers with gum in the middle. I tried one. It was a delicious burst of grape in my mouth. It was like a tootsie-roll pop, but with gum in the middle. Savoring the tooth-dissolving treat reminded me of the old commercial of a wizened and wise old owl being interviewed by a goofy-looking kid. "Owl, do you know how many licks it will take to get to the center of a tootsie-roll pop?" The owl sagely takes the sucker and performs an experiment. Licking the treat, he counts each stroke of his tongue aloud. "One, t-hoo, three…" At this point, he can no longer stand the lure of the candy and must bite into it to get at the rich, tootsie-roll center. "Three," he declares with authority and pomp. The announcer's voice, deep and calming, philosophizes, "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie-roll pop? The world may never know…." Now, back to our regularly scheduled journal entry:

The next thing to impress me at Newgrange was a beautiful etched-glass swirl, looking out onto the Boyne Valley. The swirl was the color of sleet against the fertile emerald valley and powder-blue sky. The window looked out from the visitor center to the small footbridge that led to the museum's bus station. There, visitors hopped on buses to the ancient structure of Newgrange.

It isn't every day that I can set foot on a site inhabited by humankind since before the pyramids. This is one such site. It's probably Europe's most impressive prehistoric monument. Unlike the fenced-in and sanitized site of Stonehenge, Newgrange allows visitors to traipse in and touch the site. So what is Newgrange? I guess I should have started out with that information rather than that lame nostalgic trip down into candy land.

Newgrange is a massive grass-covered biscuit-shaped mound about 80 meters (88 yards) in diameter and 13 meters (14 yards) high. It's situated in County Meath, about a half-hour's drive north-northwest from Dublin.

The monument predates the pyramids of Egypt by about 6 centuries. It's a Neolithic structure that is remarkably well preserved. Inside the monument is an elaborate chamber, probably used for ceremonial burial. But that's just conjecture -- no one really knows what it was used for.

One thing is certain: on the winter solstice, at 8:30 am, the rising sun pours its magnificent golden light through the perfectly aligned slit above the entrance. The radiant light spills slowly down the passage until it reaches the tomb chamber for 17 glorious minutes. Our guide, a baby-faced college student named Jason, demonstrated the effect of sunlight with an elaborate demonstration with artificial lights. Even though it was a paltry substitute for the real thing, it was still a spectacular sight. And it helped us envision what the actual sun would look like on that special day every year. Jason had worked there for more than a year and had been treated to the view the previous year. "It's beyond words – the feeling you get from it," he related. "The waiting list is decades long, so I felt lucky to see it," the shy physics student told me with a twinkle in his eye.

Just outside the entrance is a massive boulder called a kerbstone. It is one of 97 that encircle the mound and keep the 200,000 tons of dirt and stone in place. The stone at the front of Newgrange is special, though. It has the most elaborate and the most ornate carvings of any of the stones.

Most impressive about it is the iconic triple spiral pattern. It's composed of three single-line spirals that in intersect. Staring at this beautiful, perfectly balanced symbol, I suddenly realized that I'd seen it before. The toes of the Great Buddha often have the exact same pattern. The Buddha's feet were lovingly etched in brass and gold plate, whereas the Newgrange swirls were painstakingly carved from stone. That's why the Newgrange version was a little rougher and weather-beaten. But it was the same pattern, no mistaking it.

What does the triple-swirl mean? Jason supplied us with a few interpretations: "No one really knows what they mean, but many have offered their theories. Some say that the swirls could represent the father, the mother and the child, or they could symbolize birth, life and death. Still others contend that the swirls are simply a depiction of a common visualization from hallucinogenic mushrooms that still grow in the valley today."

I have to admit that the last explanation was my personal favorite, based on pharmacological research I conducted in Amsterdam a few years ago. Here's why: the mound was constructed by people obviously concerned about the other world (death) and about connecting themselves, however tenuously (only one day a year) to it. How else, other than through a shaman's other-worldly pharmacopia, would you be able to connect with the other side on a regular basis? And besides, I saw plenty of swirls during my experiments in the coffee shops and among the canals of the Dutch capital.

The mystery of the meaning of the swirls is engaging, but another one perhaps overshadows it. The builders of the monument are called the Beakers – a cute but annoying name based on their tendency to bury their dead with drinking vessels. The Beakers had to have amazingly precise instruments to measure all of the angles and alignments for the tomb. They also had to have mathematical proficiency enough to figure the calendar so precisely. According to careful surveys of the tomb, scientists have discovered that the Beakers were more sophisticated, mathematically and in planetary physics, than the Greeks. If that was the case, then why aren't there more examples of their impressive KSAs (Knowledge, Skills and Aptitudes)?

The answer to these mysteries is much like the mystery of the tootsie-roll pop: the world may never know.

Wednesday, July 11, 2001

texas fried chicken

"Look -- Texas fried chicken!" was the first declarative I overheard on the bus (after a half-dozen "Oh-my-god, we're really in Ireland!" exclamations). We were jet-lagged -- minds and bodies wiped out. But a few of us were awake enough to notice the oddly familiar Southern-style restaurant just off O'Connell Street on the North side of Dublin.

I guess I'm jaded, but I don't get the same thrill out of such minor examples of cultural inversion as I used to. (After seeing "CFC Fried Chicken" in Shanghai and "South Fried Chicken" in Amsterdam, seeing this one in Dublin wasn't a big shock.)

The incongruity of seeing a Texas fried chicken place half way around the globe, juxtaposed among rows of Irish pubs and off-track gambling parlors was just enough to wake us out of our stupor. And the bored driver managed to let loose a small grin as he glanced up at us in his mirror. He'd obviously noticed our lilting Southern accents, which dripped from our mouths like juice from a vine-ripened tomato. (Of course, many Europeans weren't aware that Americans had different accents at all – some that I spoke with were certain that all American voices must speak in the same way – namely, nasally and at great volume. They obviously hadn't carefully watched Miami Vice, Different Strokes, Full House or any of the myriad of quality TV that shows re-broadcast there.)

The rows of restaurants, bed & breakfasts and residences spread out before us, a foreign landscape. Strangely squat, the edifices were old-world in their diminutive size. The old fire regulations were in place: "no building shall exceed the height of our longest ladders." The momentum of cultural tradition had kept the rule in place, so that very few buildings outside of the downtown area were taller than 5 stories. Like London, Dublin was a city that maintained its character.

We entered the beautiful, tree-lined boulevard of O'Connell Street. Statues of great national leaders, great saints and mythological figures (all of whom we would learn later) reached heavenward in the middle of the road.

The first monument, next to the eponymous square, is of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891). He was a well-to-do home rule advocate who was attempting to reach a peaceful resolution with England. After many years of sensitive political strategizing and maneuvering, he was at the cusp of an agreement. But he had an eye for the ladies, which proved to be his downfall. His most supportive contingent happened to be Catholics, who immediately turned on him once allegations of adultery emerged. So a peaceful transfer of power from Britain eluded Parnell, despite a lifetime of tireless work. His reputation, forever tarnished by his wandering eye, only regained stature years after his death. And so the figure, at the top of O'Connell Street, has been dubbed the beginning of "adulterers' row."

Next, there's a monument to Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), the "apostle of temperance." His right hand points upward and his left hand is outstretched, at waist level. Locals joke that he's motioning with his right hand the proper way to make a toast while demonstrating with his left that he was "just this tall" when he had his first drink.

Farther down, we pass "Anna Livia," James Joyce's embodiment of the River Liffey. The 1988 sculpture is a figure of a woman, with seaweed-like flowing locks and very organic features. She reclines as the waters of a fountain rush past her and over her. The local nickname for the piece is the "floozy in the Jacuzzi," appropriately enough.

Just across the way, Anna Livia's creator, James Joyce, stands immortalized in metal. If you look carefully, you'll see that the poor guy has his shoes on the wrong way. The sculptor wasn't too particular about the right shoe being on the right foot. Otherwise, it's a nice, nonchalant pose from the author. He stands on the pedestrian shopping street right in front of the Café Kylemore, the kind of place that serves breakfast at any hour.

The next sight that unfolds itself onto my consciousness is the General Post Office. It's the one I read about in Roddy Doyle's excellent fictionalized history of the Easter Uprising, A Star Called Henry. This is where Irish heroes like Padraig Pearse, James Connolly and other leaders read their proclamation of independence from Britain. (Patraig is the un-anglicized version of "Patrick." You've got to love his name -- Pearse's insistence on keeping it Irish is in itself a political statement.)

Just across from the GPO, I spot a large sign that indicated a future sculpture. It will be the Dublin needle: a simple obelisk, tapering off smoothly at the tip to a bright light. It was to be a millennium project, erected in 1999, but probably won't be finished until 2003. Should be a beautiful addition to the plaza. The needle will stand in the place of an old monument long since gone.

The story here is historically significant. There used to be a big Doric column with a dead white guy on the top. It was Nelson, the guy who defeated the French at Trafalgar. In 1966, the IRA wanted to celebrate the 50th year of independence from Britain by obliterating this little bit of English imperialism. They succeeded in pretty much obliterating old Nelson. The city decided to finish the job, by destroying the entire column. But they managed to shatter nearly every window on O'Connell Street in the process, whereas the IRA had absolutely no collateral damage. (Never call in an army officer to do a terrorist's job, I guess.)

We pass a total of 3 McDonalds – all on this one street. I fail to see how they can all stay in business. But I suppose they've done their market research and can manage to slide by somehow.

Before long, we reach the end of O'Connell Street, cross the bridge, the widest in Europe, then find ourselves at our new home: Trinity College.

Friday, July 06, 2001


Here's a great Irish expression I learned:

'Olann an cat ciuin bainne leis. In English: 'The quiet cat also drinks milk.' It's a neat little expression. Found it on a sugar packet. Culture is everywhere!

Here's a few haiku about my experience in a country town last night:

Dim the lights.

Pull the curtains.

Sink the 8 ball last.

Closing time at the public house:

'Last call, ladies and gents!'


Three cars storm past me,

careening down the country lane:

Midnight rush-hour, as

the pub closes.


Walking the midnight road

through Glendalough

I startle two lovers

ducking behind the holly bush.


Moonrise over

Wicklow Mountain

casts such a milky glare

I nearly missed

the dappled colt

wrapped 'neath the sleeping mare.


A spotlight moon

rises over the valley wall.

Turning the key anti-clockwise

to enter my room:

The loudest, last boarder of all.

Tuesday, July 03, 2001

soft weather

The weather here is like Seattle -- brisk little showers with gentle, misting rains. 'Soft weather, today,' you can hear the old folks say. 'Soft' denotes this peculiarly Irish rainfal that's lighter than a mist and heavier than a fog. Sometimes it falls sideways. Other times, it doesn't really seem to fall at all!

But the rain is healthy and is to be thanked; it's perfect weather to feed the grassy hillsides. Cool winds and gentle sun dominate the forecasts here.

It's all very pleasant, although very changeable weather. Definitely pays to have a brolly and a rainjacket handy at all times!

A native of Belfast told me that the recent day of warm weather (in the upper 80s) was cause enough for a minor celebration of Irish guys. 'They're likely to take their shirts off whenever the temperatures are over 50 degrees,' he told us. On most of them, it really wasn't a particularly aesthetic view for the passers-by.


Just went to an ancient monastery the other day. It was really lovely: exactly as I'd pictured old Ireland to be like.

Beautiful old graveyards, ruins of ancient abbey buildings, round towers reaching up into the ancient mists, ancient castles just tumbling down.... Just pure poetry! Very impressive and with a mysterious air about it that intrigues me in a new and unique way.

Local legends carry a great weight here. And the cultural momentum of the area farmers' lore obviously keeps the stories at the forefront of consciousness. I say this because the legends are, indirectly, destroying some of the ancient monuments at this national heritage site.

Our guide, Nikola, a bright, engaging 23-year-old heritage studies student, told us about the legend. 'Tradition has it that if you take some of the dirt from under the foundation of the old church and spread it on the four corners of your farmland, your crops will be protected for a year.'

Over hundreds of years, many generations of farmers have literally dug up the ground under the church's foundations, causing the old structure to sag down and fall into itself. Despite the pragmatic addition of a cement base to the site, people *still* manage to upset the structure's supports.

The food

The food's much, much better than I'd imagined. And the exchange rate has made everything very reasonably priced -- better prices than in N.O., for the amount of food I'm getting. And plenty of veggie faire, too.

So far, my favorite so-not-traditional but still delicious place is NUDE. It's owned by one of the members of U2, but that's not the cool part. The place has the most amazing vegetarian menu. My favorite of the 4 entrees I've tried has been the spicy yam and chick pea wrap. The fruit smoothies are great, too. The best was the berry burst, with its thick blue/rasp/strawberry mix. Very refreshing, without being overly sweet.

The dancy, hard-edged techno they play matches the George Jetson meets Ronald McDonald surroundings perfectly. I like the mostly young, trendy crowd, too.