Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Friday, April 24, 2009

Galway and Mayo in the Rain


Got to read about the "Pirate Queen" when I get back home. The remains of one of her castles was behind our B&B on an island in Maam, County Galway. Evidently, she was quite a character. Wonder why I didn't know about her.

More typical Irish weather lately. As one pub keeper put it, "It only rains three hundred days a year." But even when it's raining sideways, sometimes filtered sunshine peeks through and illuminates up a mountainside far off, lending a mystic aura to the landscape.

Some visitors describe Galway as "melancholic" and one can see why. Others praise the solitude and stark beauty. I wonder what it's like living day-to-day in that white cottage in all that lonely countryside.

I pick out routes with remote mountain passes as we make our way north to Crossmolina. We pass lochs with centuries-old sporting lodges built and maintained by British aristocrats and off-limits to Irish tenant-farmers in the old days.

As I mentioned last year, memories of the Great Famine permeate the country. If you've forgotten about it for a day, there'll be a memorial beside a lonely road in the middle of nowhere to remind you. In Westport, Country Mayo, is the national memorial - the bronze sculpture "Coffin Ship" with skeletons strung about as rigging.

It's eerie, but poignant. Makes me appreciate the Irish breakfast I ate this morning.

Just got an email from my daughter, Annie. Our next grandchild is a little girl! We'll see her in September.

Life goes on.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Aran Islands


One of the most stunning places I've ever visited. We all were thoroughly charmed.

Why all the walls? Behind the horse's head is a "field" of limestone bedrock. According to Thomas Joyce, one of the locals, all the fields were like that until they hauled in sand and seaweed to create the soil - an ongoing process as you can see in the next shot. They broke up some of the stone and built up the walls as boundaries for different plots and to enclose the animals. The walls are higher here than in any place I've seen in Ireland, or anywhere for that matter, and I live in New England.

It all makes me feel lazy. It's even more stunning when you think about what went into making it all.

I promised to get some horse pictures for my daughter Annie

It rained in the morning so we almost cancelled, but then the sun came out and we bought ferry tickets. Joe said it was one of the best days of his life and he's had a lot of them. Let's see . . . ninety times 365 is what?

The sun stayed out all day. I had two pints of Guinness for lunch. So did Joe and Ma. Roseann had a Heiniken. I think I'll have the same tomorrow in Connemara. Very nourishing.

I've taken 410 shots so far. Even Roseann took some. I hate posing and smiling on que, but today I obliged. It was that good a day.

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County Clare


Weather is great so far here in County Clare, but that could change any time. Yesterday was a long day, but great. Ma(84) and Uncle Joe (90) are holding up as well as I am. We toured the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren before eating dinner at O'Connor's Pub in Doolin.

On to the Aran Islands today. Sleeping in Galway tonight.

Sorry if I mislead readers with my last post. I'm only here for a visit and won't be posting columns for two weeks - just short bursts like this one - unless Israel attacks Iran.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Leaving The Country


Crossmolina

It's not because liberal dominance has gotten too difficult to bear, though it is trying. I'm going back to Ireland with my wife, my mother (84), and my uncle (90). We're heading for Crossmolina, County Mayo, from where my great-grandmother, Kate McDonnell, emigrated to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania in the 1880s sometime. My great-grandfather Peter Haggerty followed her to Wilkes Barre and married her. My mother and uncle knew Kate when she was an old woman and they were children.

I may post short pieces from there with a few photos, but I probably won't be posting columns unless I'm very inspired.

Or, unless Israel attacks Iran.

Gotta go catch a plane . . .

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Blue-Eyed Devils


The global financial crisis is “caused by white men with blue eyes,” said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil at a press conference with UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. He’s right, of course, and as a heterosexual, non-Hispanic white guy with blue eyes, I’m ashamed to look at myself in the mirror. President da Silva went on to say that the people who have to pay for the crisis are the poor, brown people. All this misery and suffering - I’m stricken with remorse. President Obama’s Chicago buddy, Minister Louis Farrakhan, believes we’re “blue-eyed devils” too and I guess he’s right. His other Chicago buddy, the, Reverend Wright, had nasty things to say about us like: "God damn America!" President Obama is apologizing for people like me wherever he goes lately, and I guess it’s time I joined in and helped him out. I need to purge myself of this guilt so I can at least shave in the morning without wanting to cut my throat.



In Strasbourg, our president said America has “shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive” toward France, after LaFayette helped us out so much more than two centuries ago. Arrogant Americans think that just because we left 512 American military cemeteries in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg after World War I, that it somehow made up for what the French did for us, but they didn’t allow for inflation. I mean there were far fewer people in the world when the French came over here and helped us compared to how many were around in 1917/18 when tens of thousands of Americans died in the trenches defending Europe. Even though most of those dead Americans were non-Hispanic, heterosexual white guys, it doesn’t begin to make up for the bad things others of our ilk did all throughout history.

Yes, Americans went over again in 1942 after France had again been conquered by the Germans, this time in just a few weeks. Yes, we left another 359 American military cemeteries with over 246,000 dead Americans in them, and some of us think that’s enough. But think about this when you see pictures of all those lines of white crosses: The treads of Patton’s tanks tore up the ground for hundreds of miles and nobody stopped to put up silt fence anywhere. And how much truffle habitat was forever altered by arrogant Americans digging all those graves? How many frogs with nice, fat legs could have been croaking there? How many grapes could be ripening if dead Americans weren’t taking up so much space?

Why did we think we needed to go in there and push the Germans out anyway? Lots of French people were cooperating with German rule in Vichy France. They were working it out quite well until we arrogantly interfered. The French have had a lot of practice at surrendering and they’re very good at it. They cooperated nicely with the Germans by putting French Jews on trains to the gas chambers in Poland. France cooperated with the Japanese in their their former colony in Vietnam as well. Heck, they surrendered so gracefully when the Japanese moved down the Indochina Peninsula that Japan didn’t even have to disarm them. French troops kept their weapons and cooperated until the United States forced Japan to surrender by dropping two atomic bombs on them in 1945.

Speaking of those atomic bombs, President Obama apologized for dropping them too, in Prague. “As a nuclear power – as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon – the United States has a moral responsibility to act,” he said. He wants America to take the lead getting rid of nuclear weapons, since we so arrogantly dropped them on Japan. Heck, all the Japanese did was attack us at Pearl Harbor - and they only did that because we refused to sell them scrap metal. If we weren’t so stubborn, all that misery could have been avoided. And, it was blue-eyed white guys who invented those terrible weapons in the first place.


Finally, it was great to see President Obama bowing to the king of Saudi Arabia. What a nice way to start making up for stealing all their oil. This is the kind of hope and change the American people wanted last November. I didn’t think I’d like it, but now I see that there’s even hope for us heterosexual, non-Hispanic white guys to change too - or at least stop screwing up the world.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Ditching Dollars


Getting a straight answer from an economist is like nailing jello to a wall. “I'm tired of economists who say, ‘On the one hand ... and then on the other hand.’ Send me a one-armed economist,” said President Harry Truman about his Council of Economic Advisors sixty years ago. It isn’t called “the dismal science” for nothing.

In an old western I saw as a boy, two cowboys who didn’t trust each other negotiated a deal. One gave a coin to the other who looked at it, bit on it, looked at it again, then put it in his pocket, satisfied. It didn’t matter whose picture was on the coin or what was stamped there. He was satisfied that it was made of silver or gold. Ridges are stamped on the edge of dimes and quarters because they used to be made of silver. If there were no ridges, people would suspect someone had been shaved off. The cowboy trusted the metal in his pocket more than he trusted the other cowboy.

The value of gold or silver depends on how much is in circulation. If there were a fixed amount and no more were being mined, the value - or the price if you will - wouldn’t change, right? Like the cowboy in the movie, most of us can understand that much. There’s always a possibility of a big discovery somewhere increasing supply and reducing the value of the coin in his pocket, but such things are relatively rare. The law of supply and demand applies, like it or not. It can no more be repealed than the law of gravity can.

When our government printed paper dollars, we had to trust that it maintained enough gold and silver in Fort Knox to back up dollars it printed, just as we have to trust that someone writes a paper check, he has enough in his account to cover it. Absent trust, paper is no good. In 1971, however, President Nixon announced that the US dollar would not longer be backed by gold. It would float freely. I don’t understand how he had the authority to do that since our Constitution gives Congress power to coin money (or print it) in Article I Section 8, but Nixon did it anyway. The dollar would instead be backed by the full faith and credit of government. Nixon also said he would control wages and prices to keep down inflation, but it didn’t work. Inflation soared - as it will whenever government prints money recklessly.

Though I’m a history teacher, my teaching license says “Social Studies.” I’m charged with teaching current events, geography, civics, and economics as well. That’s daunting at times - especially when I’m having difficulty making sense of what’s going on. Things are happening so fast, it’s hard to keep up. Last November, Americans elected leftists to run the country. I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad, this soon. I’m not sure voters understood what they would actually do, but we’re all finding out now and we’re getting nervous. I’ve been gritting my teeth wondering what it’s going to be like after four years. The President and his congressional allies are using the banking crisis to take control of our economy in a hurry. The president is taking over banks, firing auto company executives, guaranteeing transmissions, and will soon take over the entire health care industry. A recent Saturday Night Live skit in which the president micro-manages the lawn mower, air conditioner and blue jean industries, isn’t far from reality.

Congress is so rushed, it voted for almost $800 billion - the biggest money bill in history - without even reading it. Yet it insists it’s “rescuing” our economy and legions of two-armed economists applaud with both hands. We’d already been bailing out banks, auto companies, insurance companies, and God knows who else with $700 billion in TARP money, and the treasury won’t tell us who-all is getting it. A Democrat congress and a Republican president hurried TARP through last fall with few people anywhere understanding where the money would come from, how it would be spent, or whether it would do any good. We know it increased our debt to over $10 trillion and China started signaling it wouldn’t lend us any more. China and Russia want to start a new world currency to replace the dollar. The old commies bit the coin and didn’t like what they saw. They’re concerned that we’re moving too far left. Europe too. Who would ever have imagined this a year ago? Not me.

Then, two weeks ago, $1.2 trillion appeared out of nowhere. The Federal Reserve snapped its fingers and there it was. Worried? It’s all backed by the full faith and credit of our federal government. And what’s that worth? Not much in the opinion of an increasing number of American taxpayers who are turning out all over the country on April 15th for a Tax Day Tea Party.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Trees and Tears


It was as if the tree were crying. Watery beads oozed out of small branches and dropped to the stone wall below. I’d never seen that before and wouldn’t have noticed if it were not back-lit by a setting sun. The prismatic twinkling caught my eye through the window. Drops fell sparkling in the amber light. I thought it was melting ice because it had been a very cold morning, warming up after noon. Then I realized it was a maple tree and those conditions were perfect for running sap. Plumes of wood smoke rose up around town as people boiled it down. Untapped, that old maple surged with too much to hold in. So the teardrops fell, making tiny splashes on the gray stones.

“You don’t have to tell a tree how to be a tree,” someone told me, and thank God for that. It’s difficult enough trying to figure out how to be a man in early 21st century America. At long last, I’m learning its best to leave other living things alone whenever possible and concentrate on myself. Life can freeze a man, but he must thaw when sun shines. Tears can form, and fall, when things surge and pressure builds. As Robert Frost said, “Poems begin as a lump in the throat.” If it can’t escape, that lump will grow and freeze a man hard.

Once allowed to flow, it gets harder for men to hold them back. Not all tears are sad though. They can surge in happiness, as women allow but men resist. Men prefer release in private and that’s all right, as long as they do it. My wife, the therapist, says: “If you can let it flow, you can let it go.”

When my house was finished twenty years ago, I began cutting trees around that maple to see the mountains behind. I split them up and warmed my family with them through several winters. I spared that tree because it’s on the edge of a panorama I was opening, but I cut some of the limbs that intruded, saving one lower limb to look out over. It was that limb upon which the sparkling droplets formed to focus my attention. Soon thereafter, buds emerged. I thought of women giving birth in pain and joy, and with tears accompanying both.

Many kinds of maple trees grow on my lot - reds, whites, swamp maples, sugar maples - and they present different colors come fall. Some, however, have been wounded and go soft inside. Scars and punky wood are obvious sometimes, sometimes not. With other trees, a black stain on the bark indicates a crack beneath. I’m careful dropping wounded trees because I need solid wood in the hinge to guide them when they fall. Some trees show no scarring, but the wood inside has gone soft anyway. My saw feels it first, revving higher and cutting faster, and I realize I won’t get as much good firewood out of that tree. But I work it up anyway.

I’ve wondered why perfect-looking trees rotted inside. Now I consider: Have they hidden their wounds to present a flawless exterior? Has their sap congealed to rot them in their cores instead of nourishing growth in their limbs? Some maples are like this. Some people too.

Another tree nearby tortures itself. It forks twelve feet up and one side sent out a limb that chafes the other. The wounded side grows scar tissue as it rubs painfully during a wind. I hear it groan in a gentle breeze. In a strong gust, it screams. A tree can be its own enemy, as a person can.

Some of my favorite trees are the old, gnarled ones whose scars are open to the world. Some scars are cavernous holes, offering shelter to animals, even children. Old trees live with their wounds over many human lifetimes and send out fresh leaves anyway. They grow bark over and around their scars without hiding them, and the resulting forms charm me. They grow in the open sunlight, and send massive limbs out laterally - unlike trees that grow in dense groves and burn out in competition to shoot upward.

They have strong branches good for swings - not good for lumber and difficult to split into firewood. Maybe that’s why they survive so long. By their very form, they show how to enjoy sun and endure storms. They display endurance. “The artist in me cries out for design,” said Frost, and old, gnarled trees show design by circumstance - what has happened around them and to them - how they’ve withstood it - has shaped them.

A tree doesn’t move. It observes. We stand under it but can’t understand it. Not all of it. Although I have a notion the tree does.

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