The Arrival and Newgrange

(10.4.12) The Arrival and Newgrange – The plane lands smoothly and we debark after a delightful breakfast of ham and cheese on a crescent roll, orange juice and tea (or coffee). Many people may have starved in Ireland, but one thing is already apparent: No one will ever starve on Aer Lingus. The wheel chair attendant this time is some sort of management person, very young and able. Once Marge is settled into the chair, I follow Bob up the jet way, an interesting permanent feature with lots of glass and metal fretwork – Dublin International Airport really is a beautiful building – and into the gate area. We collect our wits and our bearing while waiting for Marge and young Declan, but the wait grows longer and longer. Just a few minutes, but more time than one would expect it to take to come up the jet way, so I walk back and around the corner. There is Declan, pushing Marge, carrying another lady’s carry-on over one arm and talking on his cel phone. And all this done very cheerily. I am impressed. Seems someone else requested assistance, but that attendant got delayed, so Declan stepped up. Him juggling everything puts me in mind of those old pictures of one-man bands and sets me up for the day ahead, which first off involves additional transportation misadventures.

Landing in Dublin, collecting our two checked bags and finding our rental car was easy. Locating Newgrange was a bit harder. I must admit I find it very easy to get lost in Ireland. The roads are mostly compact, as the car rental attendant put it, and while the signposting is very good, the Irish seldom use directions. I mean, if you’re on the N18, you must know whether you are heading for Galway or Ennis. Wanting to go north or south will get you nowhere. So, if you are heading somewhere in particular, you must know the names of nearby towns to ensure that you are going in the right direction.

So we drive up and down the eastern seaboard north of Dublin looking for the cut-over for Newgrange. We know the towns nearby, but still can’t seem to find it and the map we have is terrible, but I believe maps, in general, are bad in Ireland. At least, I have always been disappointed with them. Generally, though, I don’t mind stumbling along the back roads and seeing the sights along the way. We’ve got a small four-door hatchback with a standard transmission that runs on diesel, so it could be worse. The fuel is very expensive here in that drivers pay much closer to the actual cost, but the vehicles are very energy efficient. We drove more than 700 kilometers on the first tank and still had about a quarter tank left. This bit of careening around a narrow, vertical section of roadway gives me a chance to practice left-hand driving anyway, which is fairly easy. The difficult bit is adjusting the automatic calculus we all do when reversing out of a parking spot, for example. At home, I don’t have to think about it. Here, I’m backing into traffic that is running opposite to what I’m used to and my entire folk physics is knocked off kilter for a while.

We finally find the River Boyne, which runs near Newgrange, and know we are close. In the village of Slane, we run across signposts for the historical site and close in on it. All of a sudden, we’re there! We’re tired because no one slept very much on the plane and it’s about noon now. The attendant says the shuttle to the site will leave at 1:00 p.m. and to start making our way across the bridge about 10 minutes before because it is a little walk to where the bus will pick us up. We check out the beautifully displayed exhibits in the fabulous facility and learn a lot about the region and the ancient people who lived here. Sure enough, though, when we walk out to the shuttle stop, we’ve misunderstood the instructions and the bus has gone. We were to have arrived at the station at 10 minutes before 1:00 p.m., not head there then. But, being Irish, they simply send round another bus and make nothing of it. As usual, I’m struck by how considerate these people are. There is another tour leaving at 1:45 p.m. and they might have told us to wait for that one, as has so often happened to me at home. But, “Not at all, we’ll catch you up with your group, sure,” is how they handle it.

Once arrived at the site, we walk up to where the rest of the group is waiting, either for us or for the guide. I can’t tell because the guide has not come out of the little shelter yet. Is he really late or is he covering for us? Either way, we save face and join the others on the bench. Almost immediately, the guide walks out and waves us along to a pea gravel pad where we gather around to listen. He indicates that there are three very large barrow tombs and several smaller ones in the area. Some of the smaller ones have been recently excavated, but they believe they have uncovered all of those. He points to the surrounding countryside and the horizon line, and begins talking about the people who lived here and constructed these monuments more than five millennia past. He talks about their knowledge of astronomy and engineering, and the types of materials used in the structures. He talks about how they had to transport some of the granite more than 60 kilometers down the coast and inland, first floating it down the Irish Sea, then up the River Boyne, before rolling it across the countryside on huge log rollers. Like the Egyptians building the pyramids, but these Celts did it first. Then he tells the story of how the monuments fell into ruin for at least 1,600 years until a land owner tried to quarry the mounds to build roads across his property only a couple hundred years ago only to find huge carved boulders, covered with complicated abstract carvings.

After this backgrounding, we go down into the tomb. The guide tells us to carry our bags and backpacks close to our chests and warns us that it will be a bit claustrophobic inside. He encourages everyone to enter, but that folks who think they will be bothered by the close quarters should enter last to facilitate easy departure if it proves too much for them. Ever practical, these Irish! We file in, I’m near the front of the line because I want to make sure I can hear everything and I’m so darned short that I don’t want to have to stand behind a wall of people. We wind our way through the passage, which is very narrow and a bit bendy, never realizing that we are angling up a slope that will bring us to an interior floor about six meters higher than the entry. Once everybody makes it to the center of the tomb, the guide indicates the three chambers opening off the central space, pointing out the cruciform shape of the structure. Inside each chamber sits the remains of a huge stone bowl, into which the cremated ashes would have been placed. Directing our attention to the roof, he tells us how they constructed it, with layer upon layer of large flat stones, each one a bit smaller than the one before, angling up toward a vaulted apex. Not a speck of mortar or mud or anything glue-like was used, he says, pointing out the clusters of much smaller stones wedged in everywhere around the layers of granite. Those large flat stones are supported by their own weight, distributed by those smaller ones. Amazingly, he says, while the skylight over the front portal and the entry collapsed, closing in the chamber, that ancient roof stood firm, solid all those many years. And, he says, in a type of archeological coup de grace, the entire thing is totally waterproof to this day. We are dumbstruck, but our guide is not finished yet.

He reminds us of the bendy route we took into the monument and tells us, then, of how we’re now standing six feet higher than we were when we entered. He further reminds us of the skylight over the entry portal that is just over six feet off the ground. (Even I had to crouch down a little to get under the lintel stone supporting the entry portal.) At this point, he returns to the bit about the ancients’ astronomical knowledge. He talks about pre-historical agricultural practices and how time was perceived differently in the days before the Gregorian and other calendars. Then he explains a few theories as to why these people went to so much trouble to put all this together. This is where he trots out the winter solstice reckoning that allows the sun to sight up precisely through that skylight out front, and asks if we’d like a demonstration. Of course we do, so he warns us that when he turns out the interior lights it will be very dark. (He actually said it would be “pitch” dark, but it wasn’t. It was quite dark, but not nearly as dark as when you take that elevator down into those Polish salt mines. Now, that was where I came to terms with the idea of not being able to see my hand in front of my face.)

We all agree that we won’t mind standing in the near-perfect dark with a couple dozen perfect strangers. He’s asked us to make a path down the middle of the tiny chamber in a line with the entry passage and he plays a flashlight down the path, making sure everybody can see the light beam. When he’s satisfied that we can all see it, he flips the switch. Darkness descends. Once it does, he activates a control panel that directs a light beam from the direction of the entry portal skylight into the inner chamber. That clear beam of light, only a few centimeters wide, floods down the path between the divided group of watchers. I know it sounds strange, but standing there in the blackness, we all gasp when the beam slides rapidly up the path. Now a disembodied voiceover in the darkness, the guide explains how this beam would have played across that path for maybe 16 or 17 minutes for up to five days in a row – weather permitting (as always in Ireland!) – during the winter solstice, marking the shortest day in the year and promising longer days ahead. He goes to great lengths to describe how that single beam would have illuminated the entire interior of the chamber, causing the granite to glow as if lit from within. He talks a bit about the entities these people may have worshiped, almost certainly including the sun, then he turns on the lights. We feel drained.

Shortly after, we all file out through the narrow twisty passage and into soft daylight. Our guide has recommended a walk-about around the monument so we can check out the huge kerbstones that line the perimeter, many of which are filled with strange and beautiful carvings. Many mortal coils, but other designs, as well. I do. The whole experience was very good because the Irish heritage folks did a very good job of orchestrating the visitor response, which is not surprising since this is a land of writers, poets and playwrights. We wait for the bus and ride back with lots of Germans, a French family, at least one Swede, and several Irish learning more about their own heritage.

It has been a great visit, but now Marge and Bob and I are really tired, and we are still on the east coast of this narrow country. We’ve got to get to Doolin tonight so we head off down the road, looking for the M6 that will take us all the way across. More delays as we find our way, but soon we’re heading toward Boston (as the Irish often say). Marge and Bob thank me for taking them to Newgrange, and confide that they’d had their doubts when we were lost and looking for the place. Marge says she thought a tomb that the sun shone into once a year would be nice to see, but perhaps hardly worth all the trouble we were having finding it. Seeing the monument and listening to the archeological account changed all that though, for both of them and I was glad.

Out on the M6, I’m doing fine, but flagging a bit so we pull off at Kennegad to find a cup of coffee or tea. We walk into a little pub on the high street and ask the bar man if he can serve us tea there. He says yes, but he’s got no food. OK with us; we just need the caffeine. After a while he brings out a pot with milk and sugar, and hangs around to talk. He’s been to the states and to Toronto, which he really likes. He has been to Chicago and New York, and prefers the former. When he runs our credit card, Marge asks him whether she can put a tip on the tab and he launches into an explanation of how tipping is not big in Ireland. He explains that servers are paid a living wage – from 9-12 euros an hour – and so don’t depend on them. He also explains that food is a bit more expensive because of that, but that he finds it much neater and fairer overall than our U.S. system. Overall, an interesting socio-economic conversation with a bar man in a pub.

This post has been very long and I apologize for that, but Newgrange is old enough to rate a detailed account. If you have read to the end, here, you will know that the next entry will be about our encounter with the last days of the Matchmaker Festival in Lisdoonvarna.

The journey over was a reward

(10.3.12) There’s just something so zen about flying over the Atlantic, listening to Bob Dylan (old and new) and John Lennon (sadly, only old). It’s a huge plane and packed to the gills. Aer Lingus served up a nice supper of what they called pasta with fennel sausage, which we would call Italian sausage, and a lovely cucumber and tomato salad. Also a brownie, but I didn’t eat that.

That we are even on this flight is remarkable. United Airlines arranged the itinerary, booking us through Houston and Chicago, and connecting with Aer Lingus for the hop across the pond. They could’ve kept us on an international United flight, but they chose to pass us on to their Aer Lingus partner. And very glad I am because it is a truly civilized group of folks up here. (At one point, during dinner, the captain comes on and requests that we all keep our seatbacks up while everybody is eating. Just as a courtesy to the person in the row behind, don’t you know. Left me wondering where were the Ayn Randian complaints about affronts to personal liberties, yada, yada, yada …)

But I digress. Getting to this flight was not easy. My rut-row sensors started going off last night when I tried to check in online and United’s website told me that we’d have to pick up our boarding passes at the ticket counter in Baton Rouge. Called the customer support line and was told that United couldn’t issue the boarding passes because our final leg was on another airline. Well, yeah, with their partner, to which they had chosen to pass on their responsibility for seeing us to our final destination. The customer service voice guaranteed me that we would have no problems – that everything was in order – but that we’d have to get the boarding passes at the airport. Once at the airport, we received passes for the first two legs, both on United. The sensor picked up its tempo as we headed off to the first flight, which was pleasantly uneventful, as was the second flight, into Chicago.

Now, the last time I flew internationally through O’Hare was eight years ago on a return flight from Ireland. Somehow, we’d departed from Newark, but come back through Chicago. At that time O’Hare was undergoing massive renovations in the international terminal, and my daughter and I wandered for hours like Moses in the dessert. Thankfully we had a long layover on that trip. This go-round, we were cramped for time. Remind me, please, to fly Newark on subsequent occasions.

Because our connections were a little tight, we had requested a wheelchair or cart for Marge because – while she is quite healthy and strong – at 87, she is beginning to move a little more slowly and we needed to make time. Thank goodness we did!

I’ll spare the sordid details and spring forward to when we met Milan, the wheelchair jockey who unbelievably enabled us to make the Aer Lingus flight. The first, very kind, wheelchair attendant got us – through a circuitous route – to the Aer Lingus counter in the international terminal. Sweet guy. At Aer Lingus the ladies called for another wheelchair to help us get through customs and to the gate because the final boarding call was pending for our flight. Up comes Milan and the green-jacketed lady walking with us – we were so late that we had gotten started, hoping to run into the wheel chair on the way – said “Oh, look, it’s Milan. You’ll make your flight now for sure!”

A short, handsome young man, he wheeled the chair around with a flourish and settled Marge in it, feet securely on the pads, and tightened a seat belt around her. He collected our passports and boarding passes, and ordered my brother and me to keep up with him. He said that customs security was very crowed and that we should stay close behind him. With that, he was off like a shot.

Bob and I raced off after them, barely keeping up. We could hear Marge laughing up ahead in the chair. Milan wheeled her into the customs security section, where lots of folks were removing shoes and belts, and right past the long queues, up to the customs officer at the front. Short delay here, but not much once the garda figured out we were all Donlons and quit trying to sort out the passports, then on to the conveyor belts. Milan grabbed several bins, tossed them on the floor, and told Bob and me – essentially – to strip. Not really, but he did bark that we should take off our shoes, jackets, belts, and whatnot, put them into the bins, and follow him. He told me to take my laptop out of the sleeve and hand it to him, which I did. Milan now was pushing Marge through security, somehow managing to get the TSA folks to wave her through, and shepherding our bins and my laptop through the screening machines all at once. He also had all of our passports and boarding passes. I was getting dizzy just watching him. He had us through the whole mess in about seven minutes flat. I wanted to kiss him!

Then he pointed to a cart a few yards away and told me to ask the driver to take Bob and me to M5, which (I think) was our gate (but it’s all a blur now). I did, he agreed, and Bob and I climbed on. That whole exchange took about 15 seconds and when we took off, Marge and Milan were nowhere to be seen. When we pulled up at the gate about one minute later, they were there waiting for us. Milan said: “What took you so long!” The Aer Lingus ladies at the gate knew him by name, of course, and indicated he should swipe his card so he could enter the jetway with Marge’s chair. He rolled her right up to the door of the jet, gallantly unbuckled her belt and helped her up out of the chair. He deserved a great tip and he got one. I was so flustered, though, that I forgot to take his picture. (Marge had really enjoyed the ride and later told us that Milan drove faster than her late husband, our father.)

We boarded the plane and took our seats. The flight crew closed the door right behind us and we settled in. Then we waited 40 minutes for our turn to take off. Now I’m sitting in a darkened cabin, listening to music on headphones and typing this story. All in all, a fine adventure for the first day and we haven’t even arrived yet.

Next up: More about transportation misadventures and a fabulous visit to Newgrange!

Democratic National Convention in Charlotte: A Day for Irish-American Dems!

Wow! What can I say about President Clinton’s fabulous speech last night? Fox News, of course, proclaims it too long and wonders why Clinton spent so much time talking about himself and so little time touting the accomplishments of the current POTUS. Which only begs the question: What speech were they actually listening to? To my mind, Clinton knocked it outta the ballpark. He methodically addressed every single issue facing voters as they enter the polls next month, while the RNC never even uttered the word “Afghanistan” once during their entire convention. And even though Clinton spoke for 20 minutes longer than scheduled, I enjoyed every second. He’s an engaging and substantive speaker, and I always hate to hear him close . . . no matter how long he’s gone on. He’s got just that much to say and I want to hear it.

Before I get too far into actual Convention activities, though, I want to share a little of the action on the periphery. In an earlier post, I mentioned the Huffington Post Oasis located just a couple of blocks from the convention center where all the caucus meetings have been held. The Oasis operated during the RNC, as well, but I must admit I had never heard about it until someone pressed a flyer on me this past Monday while I was walking into the Charlotte Convention Center for the first time. That afternoon, and Tuesday and Wednesday, too, my colleague and I made our way to the Oasis. First of all, it’s beautiful. Clean and spare, the Oasis oozes zen – which is a very welcome thing to ooze during Convention week. Nobody is getting any sleep, passions are running high, adrenaline is spiking, and pretty soon you’re feeling all that in some part of your body. It’s different for all of us, but I feel it in my back and shoulders. The Oasis has an app for that. Massage therapists and reflexologists volunteer their time to help work out the kinks engendered by those symptoms, as well as by sitting in arena seats for six hours per night. (That’s my colleague, Carol Leblanc, waiting for her table massage, above.) The Oasis is a beautiful thing . . . on all kinds of levels. Also, healthy food, sleep counseling, books and pamphlets. And did I mention that it is all free? At least to the end user, but paid for by the sponsors (Huffington Post and Off the Mat, Into the World). Arianna Huffington was running around on Tuesday, but she was too busy to stop for pics. So I got a photo with her right-hand lady, Catherine, who demonstrated the soon-to-be-released app called “GPS for the Soul.”

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The morning started off with the usual hearty breakfast in the big tent behind the hotel. Our guest speaker was Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, one of the wonderful women who represent the Democrats in the U.S. Senate. She told a charming story about a football bet she lost to our own Mary Landrieu in which she had to cook a pot of gumbo while wearing a Drew Brees jersey. Mary said it was too bland and proceeded to dump a “Sam’s-size bottle of Tabasco” into it.

 

After breakfast Carol and I rode the shuttle downtown to visit the temporary studio that MSNBC had set up near the convention center.

 

Walking back across downtown Charlotte, on the way to Oasis, we fell into a conversation about my upcoming trip to Ireland. A very tall, white-haired gentleman walking in front of us overheard, stopped and turned to us. He asked whether he’d heard we were going to Ireland and I said yes, he had. He proceeded to introduce himself as the Irish Ambassador to the United States, at which point I blurted out: “So are you Sean Donlon?” He started and said that Sean Donlon had not served as ambassador for more than 20 years. Oops! Then, he asked me why I’d asked about the former ambassador and I told him that someone had recently asked me if I were related to Sean Donlon. As she put it: “Now, would you be related to Sean Donlon, the Irish Ambassador?” Not knowing one Irish Ambassador from another, I took him to be the current one. (Foolish American mistake.) I was slightly embarrassed, but I got a good story out of it, anyway.

Now we come to the Convention, itself. What can I say? It was the most exciting and engaging event I’ve ever had a part in. Gotta rush through here because I’m running behind and must make the shuttle for the big day — Thursday — when Obama and Biden speak. So, let me just say that an unexpected highlight is the roll call of the states, when party chairs announce the delegate votes for the candidate. Louisiana has 72 delegates, but could only announce 65. Seven of us did not attend the Convention because of problems with Hurricane Isaac and there are no proxy votes in this game. Only real signatures count. (I intend to frame the copy of the page on which I signed, which the party provided to each delegate.) One fun note is that celebrities are told they can sit wherever they want in any delegate section where seats are available. Mr. Monk, of course, found a home in our delegation!

Can’t close without including a few pics from the Irish American Dems party I attended at Ri Ra Irish Pub in downtown Charlotte after the Roll Call Vote. Will post details later, but you’ve got to see who showed up as the guest of honor: my friend, Michael Collins, the good Ambassador!

 

 

Here’s the band, who — of course — provided a rousing round of “Nobody so Irish as Barack O’bama.”

 

 

 

 

Here’s Henry Healy, Barack’s cousin from Moneygall.

 

Gotta fly!

 

 

Democratic National Convention in Charlotte: We Love Michelle!

Hello, Friends! Tonight’s entry will be brief because it is almost 3:30 a.m., credential call is at 7:00 a.m., and I am plain tuckered out. I promise to catch up on details tomorrow night, so please bear with me. At some point I’ll also fill y’all in on my experience with the Huffington Post Oasis, a complimentary rejuvenation service right in the midst of the madness, just steps away from the convention hall. The Huffington Post, along with Off The Mat, Into The World, hosts the Oasis — a reminder to find balance in the hustle and bustle of the conventions. On the activity list? Private and group yoga classes, massages, mini-facials, makeup refreshes, sleep consultations, meditation and healthy snacks. The Oasis operated in Tampa, during the RNC, and has set up in Charlotte to provide a calming respite for harried conventioneers here. I’ve posted one pic, but will talk more about the Oasis later because it is just that cool.

Our guest speaker at breakfast was actress and Baton Rouge native Lynn Whitfield, a lovely lady and a strong democrat. She spent a lot of time taking photos with the delegates, including me.

The buses are still giving the delegates and guest fits as they fail to show up on time and take an inordinate amount of time to complete the proscribed loops. Carol LeBlanc (Raceland, LA) and I finished breakfast and walked out front to where the bus should have been waiting — we rushed to finish so as not to miss it — but no bus. We waited for about 45 minutes until a few friends came out to claim the taxi they’d summoned and invited us to ride with them since they had two extra seats. So we did. Arriving at the Convention Center, a crew from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asked me for an interview. The reporter asked a few issues-based questions, then inquired about what I was most looking forward to during the Convention. I told her — and I guess lots of Canadians — that I was most excited about hearing Michelle Obama’s speech and to the Irish-American Democrats party on Wednesday night! (More on the latter later.)

At about 8:30 this evening, several folks texted me at once, telling me they’d seen me on national T.V. I asked each of them how my hair looked!

Tonight was the first full night of the actual convention and the arena was electrified as one fantastic speaker after another took to the podium, squared off at the lectern and faced the teleprompter. My favorites included Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Kathleen Sebelius, Rahm Emanuel, Cory Booker, Joseph Kennedy III, Martin O’Malley, Julian Castro, and — of course — Michelle Obama.

Moving forward, not backward was the major theme of this first evening, and the DNC faced controversial issues head-on, from don’t ask/don’t tell to women’s reproductive rights. They took no prisoners as they held forth the Democratic Party Platform as the mission for America. The crowd went wild.

Small groups of energetic women worked each aisle, handing out the signs and conducting a sort of impromptu choreography with the delegates, instructing them when to hold up and wave them. There were five signs, each one reading FORWARD, NOT BACKWARD, OPPORTUNITY, OPPORTUNIDAD (sp), and I LOVE MICHELLE!

I cannot tell you how thrilling it was when Michelle walked out on stage and we all whipped out our I LOVE MICHELLE signs. A veritable sea of signs proclaimed our affection for our charming and intelligent first lady. She did a very slight double take as she entered the stage that I somehow feel was genuine. Could she really not have known that this was planned, or was it just that she had not adequately prepared for the overwhelming impact of all those signs held by all those people. The arena erupted into applause as soon as she stepped onstage and the sound was deafening. It was truly one of the most impressive social events I have ever participated in and/or observed. I am really so very glad to be here . . .

She gave the best speech of the evening, as usual, and all across the arena, eyes welled up. She spoke of being young and in love and in debt, as she described how she and Barack had taken out so many student loans to pay for college. She was a marvel!

Michelle, I love you!

 

Democratic National Convention in Charlotte: Caucus Meetings and a Benefit Under the Big Tent

Monday started early with credential call at 6:00 a.m. Delegates must retrieve separate sets of credentials each day so security can get accurate counts and IDs for that day. Any credentials that are not claimed by a certain time are then distributed to the waiting list of non-delegate folks who are hoping to get into the Convention site on any given day. That’s why the credential call comes early.

After that the Louisiana delegation enjoyed a really delicious breakfast buffet — in the big air-conditioned tent behind the hotel — catered by Lucien, a New Orleans native who was displaced by Katrina, came up to Charlotte and opened a Cajun restaurant here. This morning he served up eggs and grits, real bacon and turkey bacon, blackened tilapia, chicken salad (?), orange juice, and coffee and chicory. C’est bon!

Alfre Woodard (True Blood; Memphis Beat) was the featured speaker over breakfast and she was great. A tiny little woman with a whompin’ big message for Dems about standing fast and challenging every GOP lie that comes up. She acknowledge we’d be working really hard in this endeavor, but that the alternative would lead to failure and that was inconceivable. Ms. Woodard admired my Louisiana Dem button so I gave it to her. Here she is showing it off.

The shuttle buses are running well, but slowly, which is really OK because I find a great deal of the action takes place en route. This morning Sen. Gerald Neal, 33rd District, Kentucky (Louisville), climbed on and sat next to me in the first seats. After a number of the Oregon delegation got on when the driver stopped at their hotel, Sen. Neal stood up and announced he was taking over the bus, and that he intended to storm the convention center with us. For the rest of the longish bus ride, a bunch of Louisiana ladies (Slidell and St. Tammany) competed with each other in offering up special regional recipes, handing slips of paper over to the senator with their contact information so he could email them and ask for the recipes.

As I write this I’m waiting for the next set of sessions to begin at noon. I missed the first session because of bus delays, which is OK because I’m quite enjoying myself, watching the stream of folks in front of me. (I’m in the food court, which is always a strategic positioning, in my experience.) There are all kinds of folks here, wearing all sorts of attire, and operating on all levels of ambulation. And there seems to be nary a tight-ass in the bunch! This is great fun!

This just in: Had a charming conversation with a volunteer who told me the names of the five most important people from her home state of Georgia. They are 1) Martin Luther King, 2) Jimmy Carter, 3) Ray Charles, 4) Alma Thomas, and 5) Bridget McCurry, who is the volunteer!

Bridget’s job was to ensure that conventioneers followed the directions for disposing of refuse. Who knew that there was actually a right way to handle trash? The Charlotte Convention Center even provided a little tutorial.

 

 

Here are two more interesting things I saw at the convention site: One is the sign for Public Engagement, which I think is a laudable concept.

The other is the patriotic lady and her Welcome Home outfit. Presumably, she was talking about the troops?

 

Today I missed most of the first session because of bus delays, but caught the Youth Caucus and that was very interesting. Turns out that this “enthusiasm gap” that the GOP has identified among young adults is just more hooey. With more than 650 delegates under the age of 34, the 2012 Convention has attracted more young people than any other Democratic Convention in history. More interesting to me is the fact that almost 250 of them are students!

On the way out, walking to the bus stop, the largest truck sign I’d ever seen rolled past. Wish we could have some of these for our local Dem campaigns.

 

The only problems I’ve experienced or observed since arriving in Charlotte has been with the shuttle buses. They just can’t seem to get the buses serving the University Section, which is where our hotel is and the furthest away from the convention center, coordinated. We were very late to the opening reception on Sunday evening, and havoc broke out today when more than two hours passed — in the blazing sun and heat — without nary a #8 bus. Adding to the frustration was the fact that we kept seeing the other numbered buses rolling by multiple times. We finally got back to the hotel without any of the older folks passing out, but I was worried for a bit, there.

After all that time in the sun, I needed a nap so I took one. The first band warming up for the Hurricane Isaac Benefit in the big tent out back woke me up. The tent is right below my window, so I could listen to the opening announcements while I got ready to go downstairs. Sweet!

 

The party was a blast, even for me and I’m not much of a shindig kinda girl. The first band played jazz and was OK, but the second was all soul and R&B. Pretty soon the tent was rockin.’ The food was great and lots of folks from other state delegations came to play. I don’t know how much money we actually raised, but we got lots of company.

There was green salad, potato salad, chicken & shrimp gumbo, crawfish ettouffee, crab balls, teriyaki chicken fingers, wings, catfish al fredo, seafood pasta, chicken salad, and more. And a great big cake with the Louisiana Dems logo on it.

 

Here’s a picture of my plate.

 

The band leader, Dante Lewis, played saxophone and liked to come down onto the floor and line dance with the delegates while he played. He also came down and danced/played with a “lady in black.”

 

Patricia Haynes Smith and John Bel Edwards, two Louisiana legislators, got into the action, too, as you can see here.

 

One of the most fun things about the party was the snowball stand set up at the far end of the tent. The concession was run by two fellas — one was the Democratic mayor of a small town in Pennsylvania and the other was his good friend who’d moved down to Charlotte a few years ago. They had lots of flavors; I had birthday cake with creme.

And here are some of my friends who were at the Hurricane Isaac Benefit with me:

John & Mary Kincaid, Monroe, LA

 

 

 

Carol Leblanc, Raceland, LA (left) and Claire Ledet, St. Tammany Parish, LA (right)

 

Suzette Riddle, Abbeville; Michelle Brister, Baton Rouge; and Karen Carter Peterson, LA Democratic Party Chair

 

Well, it’s late and credential call is just a few hours away, so I will close for now. More tomorrow night as the Democratic Convention 2012 goes into full swing with Michelle Obama’s presentation and more. Nighty-night, Y’all!

 

Democratic National Convention in Charlotte: Sally Pinned & the Goings-On at the Opening Reception

I must admit that when I read Louisiana had been grouped with Washington, D.C., New York, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Puerto Rico, and Texas for the opening ceremony at the Discovery Place, I thought we might be getting ganged up on. After all, why have the Louisiana delegation attend a welcoming reception at a science museum — especially one geared for children — knowing out state’s reputation for creationism curriculum in public and voucher schools? Maybe the organizers thought we needed a little science lesson?

Well, they loaded us on the bunch and drove us over to the Discovery Place. While I still have no idea how the convention organizers drew up plans for the welcoming receptions, I can tell you that the did a fantastic job, at least with Discovery Place event for me and my esteemed colleagues from those aforementioned states, district and territory. The reception ranged across two floors of the facility and included two bands and lots of very good, spicy food, which surprised me no end. And two bands. Did I say there were two bands? But not really bands, just a little jazz combo playing at one end of the venue and two guys playing sort of fusion rock/country/folk toward the back. All in all, rather nice. Not too loud, but enough sound to give the evening a night-out sort of ambience.

There was a full bar and science demonstrations for all ages. There was also diversity . . . lots of diversity. Those of you who watched some of the Republican National Convention on TV last week may have been struck — as I was — by the homogeneity of the delegates. That is definitely not the case at the Dems Convention here in Charlotte. We are a sundry bunch, that much is clear. Apparently, we are a sundry bunch who appreciate science, too!

I met several interesting folks, like Ariadne, the little girl engaging with the tortoise (above, left); Heather and Bob, from way out on Long Island; and Lisa and John Henry, from Detroit. Lisa works for AARP and will be visiting New Orleans for that organization’s conference there this fall. We talked about how much New Orleans appreciates the major meetings that have been held down there since Katrina as the city continues to rebuild. We also talked about the wonderful transformation they see happening in their home town as families reclaim the downtown district and re-energize the urban core. Heather and Bob spoke with me about the positive support the garnered from folks at every stop as they drove the whole long way to Charlotte. Heather’s car apparently sports a number of political bumper stickers and neither she nor Bob knew what to expect as they ventured south for the convention. They shouldn’t have worried, though, because people everywhere along the route thanked them for supporting the Democratic ticket.

On the left (above) is the current president of the Louisiana Democratic Party, Karen Carter Petersen, who is also a state legislator. In the middle are Shane and Suzette Riddle from Abbeville (but formerly of Breaux Bridge), who have just moved down there to be closer to Suzette’s parents. Mike Stagg, interim communications director for the Louisiana Dems is with them. Finally, the lovely young Democrats on the right (above) are from Texas. They asked me if I had as hard a time finding Dems in Louisiana as they did in their state, and I just encouraged them to look harder and ask gently. We’re everywhere, you know, or so our numbers tell us. We’ve just got to make ourselves more visible, is the way I see it.

The View from the Top

Currently I’m sitting in a coffee shop down the street from a conference hotel. I’ve repaired to the cafe to avoid a session that just doesn’t speak to me today. Next year or the year after, I will likely seek out such a session because I will need that information at that time. This year it would just be so much more information that I could process but not use, then have to process all over again when I do reach that point because policy will have changed by that time anyway.

One speaker, though, a high-ranking college access adviser to the U.S. Dept. of Education, voiced an interesting perspective in the morning general session. Telling the story of his nephew who desired to transfer to a D.C. area university (because his sweetheart had already done so), he marveled at his professional-level brother’s approach to “researching” an appropriate campus for his son. This was a younger child in a family that had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars educating him and his siblings through private high schools and other universities, so presumably had a vested interest in paying close attention to the educational landscape and possessed the wherewithal to do just that.

The speaker marveled at his brother’s approach, dropping in on various campuses unannounced with no appointments for tours or interviews, wandering around and asking students and faculty they “came across” about the university of the moment.

Hearing this, I was struck — as apparently had been the speaker’s intent — by the low level of accountability sought by the visiting student and his family. I was also reminded of the flap recently engendered by the governor of my Third Coast state in chastising an educational sector spokesperson for what he called callous remarks concerning parents of low-income students whose children were often attending struggling public schools. My governor has proposed issuing vouchers for hildren attending public schools that had received grades of Cs, Ds or Fs. The families, said the governor, could use those vouchers to enroll their children into private schools. The catch in his plan from my perspective, though, is that the private schools would not be required to engage in the same accountability assessments that had labeled the public schools as standard or sub-standard in the first place.

According to the governor’s plan, parents — who often knew very little about the educational system — would be the best judges of whether their children were receiving a quality education. Now, keep in mind that many of these families are struggling to maintain a family while living at the poverty level or nearabouts. Many are led by single parents holding multiple jobs to make ends meet. A few have not finished high school themselves and fewer still have acquired post-secondary skills and training. Very few are intimately familiar with an educational system in which the policies and standards are as fluid as mercury.

The offense committed by the educational spokesperson was to call the governor out in all his glowing nakedness. Low-income parents, he said, were essentially too busy holding their families together to be able to effectively monitor their children’s educations at that level. That’s it, that’s all he said — that struggling parents of struggling students were ill-equipped to monitor their students’ progress in the same manner as a public school system that has spent millions of dollars and multiple years developing an accountability system considered one of the best in the nation.

The governor has positioned the spokesperson’s comments as callous and insulting to parents, yet continues full-steam ahead with a so-called “value-added” accountability system that will assess a full 50% of a teacher’s success on the academic outcomes of the students she tends to for a few hours out of the students’ often challenging day. The governor’s new state superintendent presides over an entire division and dozens of professional staffers and consultants to do what the governor insists is something that economically challenged parents with no background in the rapidly changing field can so handily and effectively do on their own.

Methinks the governor is being just a tiny bit ingenuous in this and I wish he would just lighten up on the folks who are really working to help our children succeed at school and in their lives.

Consider the perspective of the high-ranking adviser who acknowledges that his own family pursues educational opportunity through a distorted lens simply because their high-level skills fall in other domains than education. Neither is his comfortable family distracted by the stress of holding the center together every day. That advisor is either much more understanding of the point-of-view of folks who are not specialists in educational issues or he is simply more honest than my governor. I will be charitable here and urge the governor to step out from behind the distractions of his ledger book and political ambitions and consider the landscape from the perspective of those non-wunderkinds he has sworn to lead.

But, of course, the points-of-view of those scrambling to the political pinnacle are different from those scrambling to keep their families’ heads above water.

 

 

The King’s Choice

I saw “The King’s Speech” with two girlfriends last year, one of whom is a speech pathologist. The three of us liked the film very much. Last night I watched “The King’s Speech” again and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time. Marge, my mom, watched it with me and it was the second time for her, as well. Before the movie started, she told me that she’d really liked the movie, but was unhappy with the way they’d portrayed Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom King Edward had abdicated the English throne in 1936. Marge had been 11 years old at the time.

The first time I saw the film, I’d been most struck by the intricacies of the interpersonal relationship that developed between the Duke of York, Edward’s brother who became King George VI, and the commoner who was his speech therapist, as well as the impact that the emerging wireless technology had on the public perception. This time I was rather more struck with the political aspect: Europe poised on the brink of a second world war less than two decades after the end of the first while her fearful, battered people looked to their leaders for strength.

Watching it with Marge, whose memories of the glamorous Wallis Simpson clearly colored her perceptions, gave me an interesting perspective on the story. As the U.S. struggled to recover from the Great Depression and England limped along economically and politically, the story of a Baltimore socialite and the king who chose her over his throne captured the imaginations of both British subjects and American citizens. This second viewing of “The King’s Speech” also helped me come to terms with the very different points of view held by each.

To Americans still smarting from the economic constraints of the Great Depression, Wallis exemplified the upward mobility they could only dream about. She was raised by a single mother and attended good schools with the help of more landed relations. While attending those good schools, she befriended a few daughters of Baltimore society and she bootstrapped those connections toward the top. First she married a Navy man, then a multinational businessman, while traveling the world on her chic style and sparkling wit. By the time she met the Prince of Wales, she was ready to move up to the next rung.

Edward, for his part, was a somewhat dissolute dandy, by most accounts, caught up in a style that had outlived the reality of the times. He was perceived as a Nazi sympathizer, but it is unclear whether this was the case or whether he was just ridiculously out of touch with the stresses facing the people he had been born to lead. Although he looked good and swaggered effectively, he was not cut out to be king. In fact, one conspiracy theory held that Wallis Simpson was an American spy whose mission was to ensnare the future king to ensure his abdication, but that seems a bit far-fetched even to me.

At least one new film and two new books about the enigmatic couple will be released in 2012. The woman who famously opined that one could “never be too rich or too thin” seems to have captured imaginations once again, more than three-quarters of a century after she first captured headlines on both sides of the pond. Interestingly, I read while researching the backstory of the abdication that Edward believed Wallis had made the greater sacrifice, and I don’t quite know what that means.

In the end, what I take away from my second viewing of “The King’s Speech” and my mother’s indignation is another opportunity to appreciate that what any story means depends entirely upon one’s point of view.