12 Years a Slave

Official poster to Steve McQueen's movie !2 Years a Slave (Image Source: Fox Searchlight: 12 Years a Slave)

Official poster to Steve McQueen’s movie !2 Years a Slave (Image Source: Fox Searchlight: 12 Years a Slave)

I am a huge fan of the works of Steve McQueen, not Steve McQueen from the Great Escape, this McQueen is responsible for Shame, and now another great movie, 12 Years a Slave.

Slavery, a “peculiar institution” that existed in America, is  a sad and shameful part of US history. But the history that we know broadly, slaves brought from Africa and sold as “chattel” at auctions, sometimes for $800 each, turns out to be far more complex.

In the years preceding the civil war in America kidnappings of free black men and women from northern states did occur, and this is the story of Soloman Northup. It is a true story of Northup’s abduction from a free life in upstate New York to the life of a slave in the south.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, and Michael Fassbender portrays the cruel slave master he is sold to.

Unlike Alex Haley’s “Roots”, or the movie The Amistad,  12 Years a Slave portrays a view of pre-civil war America as being not just ideologically divided with regards to the slavery issue, but within the black community there was division, and though black men and women were “free” in the North, they still had their “place.”

This is shown in McQueen’s film during the scene when Northup and his wife are shopping for a travel bag, and again when Northup is rescued by the white man who shows up at the southern plantation with Northup’s papers.

What struck me most about 12 Years a Slave was how the definition of “free-man” altered between black and white. There are, it would seem, varying degrees of freedom. That is what I left this movie with, a sense that even in the North, black men and women had a different freedom to the whites, and certainly a different freedom to the blacks living in the South


Blue Jasmine

Official poster for Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Official poster for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (Image Source: Wikipedia)

You either love Woody Allen or don’t, I happen to think the man is a genius. There aren’t too many Woody Allen movies that I don’t like, in fact I can’t even think of one.

Blue Jasmine, Allen’s new film, lets us be judge and jury to the fall of socialite Jasmine. Her riches to rags story is reminiscent of Bernie Madoff’s, in fact I felt constantly reminded of Madoff’s family and what they were going through during his fall from paradise to pavement.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, and she is most definitely “blue” as in depressed. Her marriage to Hal has fallen apart, and because of her hell-bent need for revenge, so too has her luxurious life.

Karma features strongly in Blue Jasmine, and karma bites back hard for Jasmine. Blanchett has won a Golden Globe and SAG award for best actress for her role in this movie.

Her sister, Ginger, played by the always fantastic Sally Hawkins, see Happy Go Lucky, though not as financially well-off as Jasmine, is a far happier person. And she certainly deserves happiness. I was shocked at how good Andrew Dice Clay was as Augie. I remember when Nora Dunn of Saturday Night Live refused to work with him when he hosted the show. Clay was excellent in this movie.

Should we feel sorry for the woman sitting on a bench and talking gibberish to herself? That’s your decision. I felt sorry for Augie, he’s the one who really got the short end of the stick.

One night in Gander makes a hard man crumble

Interior view of the international lounge at Gander International Airport in Newfoundland. (Image Source: Virdid Place Branding and Design)

Interior view of the international lounge at Gander International Airport in Newfoundland. (Image Source: Virdis Place Branding and Design)

It is January 1994. My chartered flight is already late taking off from Shannon Airport in Ireland. (Do they even offer chartered flights any more?) The destination is, allegedly, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. But a flight that should have taken approximately 6 hours instead takes over 17 hours.

I leave Shannon at about 4 am EST and arrive in JFK at 12:30 am EST the following morning. In between Shannon and JFK I spend twelve hours, involuntarily, at Gander International in Newfoundland.

In 1994 I see it as an old fashioned place, harkening back to the sixties with its decor. But now, almost 20 years later, I appreciate the opportunity I had to see this once-upon-a-time important place and its significance in early trans-Atlantic aviation.

Canadian geese sculpture at Gander International Airport (Image Source: Virdis)

Canadian geese sculpture at Gander International Airport (Image Source: Virdis)

Gander International was opened in 1959 by Prince Phillip. At that time all trans-Atlantic flights had to stop and refuel in Gander. Imagine how many famous people, royals, celebrities, and rock stars walked through the international lounge in Gander.

This was at a time when flying across the Atlantic was reserved for those who could afford it, air travel back in the early sixties wasn’t as accessible as it is today. The notion of foreign vacations, flying off to New York at a whim for a long weekend wasn’t even on the radar for most middle class families, unlike today. Gander International in Newfoundland was the last stop before America.

Instead of appreciating my surroundings and taking it all in, I sat on the Herman Miller couch in the international lounge and decided to buy a postcard of Gander International with my last 50 cents.

Exterior of Gander International in Newfoundland (Image Source: Airport Data.com)

Exterior of Gander International in Newfoundland (Image Source: Airport Data.com)

Then I tried to cash a personal check to buy myself some dinner while waiting for our chartered flight to resume its course, only to be told, “Sorry, but we don’t cash personal checks.” Bummer.

My dinner that long sleepless night was 10 packets of Tayto cheese and onion crisps washed down with gallons of cold water from the faucet in the ladies room. I remember how difficult it was to lean in to the faucet and drink. I should have thought long and hard about eating 10 packets of crisps.

Gander in 1971. (Photo by Peter Hamer Image Source: Airport Data.com)

Gander in 1971. (Photo by Peter Hamer Image Source: Airport Data.com)

Our flight finally did take off, amidst a blinding snow blizzard, and surrounded by 15 foot walls of snow either side of the runway. The plane physically lurched forward headlong into the blinding snow, and audibly groaned, I swear to it. The passengers stopped complaining about how long they had waited and that the chartered flight was not responsible for paying for our dinner…hence the 10 packets of Taytos. Instead, we resorted to holding onto our seats and contemplating whether or not we would have enough leg room to bend over and kiss our asses goodbye.

Mr Tayto, my friend and companion at Gander International for many long hours in January 1994. (Image Source: Wikimedia.org)

Mr Tayto, my friend and companion at Gander International for many long hours in January 1994. (Image Source: Wikimedia.org)

I have a funny feeling that Liz Taylor, Jackie Onassis, Frank Sinatra, and others who landed here in the sixties didn’t share my experience. However, 20 years later, I am glad I saw Gander International. I couldn’t appreciate it at the time I was there, but now I can.

Gander International is an historical place and well worth a visit. But don’t spend as many hours there as I did, don’t go there in winter, and bring extra cash for dinner, just in case.

But Come Ye Back?

Home in Ireland (Image source: Flickr)

Home in Ireland (Image source: Flickr)

Due to a slow economic recovery, the low real estate prices in Ireland may tempt some immigrants to return, not permanently, but possibly purchase a holiday home in Ireland.

Is now the right time to return, albeit temporarily, to Ireland?

There are lots of great deals to be had, but the money that you will pay to purchase a home in Ireland won’t be the only thing you will have to pay for. Apart from the usual expenses such as food, electricity, and house oil, you’ll need to consider the hidden expenses that come with owning a second home and maintaining it. Here is a list of things to consider before you decide to pack your bags.

 Non Principal Private Residence Form (Image Source: Docstoc.com)

Non Principal Private Residence Form (Image Source: Docstoc.com)

1. The Non Principal Private Residence Tax requires that owners who own a second home that is not their primary residence in Ireland pay an annual 200 Euro tax to the local government.

“The Local Government (Charges) Act 2009, as amended by the Local Government (Household Charge) Act 2011, introduced a €200 annual charge on non principal private residences, payable by the owners to the local authority in whose area the property concerned is located.”

2. Because of the lack of gas pipeline in rural areas of Ireland, house oil heating is the best option to heat your second home. The cost of 1000 liters of heating oil for your home according to Cheapestoil.ie for the Galway region is 890 Euro. If you pay with your credit card there will be an additional surcharge. How long will 1000 liters of oil last to heat a house in Ireland? Lots of factors affect this. How cold the outside temperature is, how large your house is, and how well insulated the house is all come into play.

Most of the older homes in Ireland are not well insulated, therefore heat will be lost through the walls and roof. You might have to insulate the older home to get more value for money with house oil. On average, most people time the heat to come on for an hour or two in the morning and then it turns off. It comes back on again before they come in from work. One home owner posted the following comment about heating his home in Ireland on askaboutmoney.com.

Oil tank for home heating oil in Ireland (Image source: inspectapedia.com)

Oil tank for home heating oil in Ireland (Image source: inspectapedia.com)

“I moved into a new log house just before Christmas. I’ve run out of oil for the second time today. I’ve already spent 700 euros (1000 liters) in 3 months. At the rate I’m going it’s costing around 40 euros a week!! I’m getting different opinions on how long 500 liters should last and want to know what is the average length yours lasts and any advice on making my system more efficient.”

The response given to his/her query was as follows:

“A 1000 liters lasts me 12 months. I am out all day and only use it from 4pm onwards in winter and not at all in summer I would use it for longer sat and sun. I also have open fire so I burn coal. I have 4 bed house.”

The most important thing to note about buying oil to heat your home in Ireland is the shocking new trend of home owners having their oil tanks siphoned off. Another commentator gives sound advice about this:

“A friend of mine in Kerry, like yourself was very surprised when her oil ran out so quickly. Turns out oil tanks are being siphoned off on a regular basis all over the place. Get a lock on the tank!!”

As the second comment states, open fires are also needed to heat a home adequately in Ireland. Wood, turf, coal and peat briquettes all cost extra!

Cars on Irish Roads (Image source: Breaking News.ie)

Cars on Irish Roads (Image source: Breaking News.ie)

3. If you live in the countryside in Ireland you’ll need a car to get you around. Car tax, insurance and petrol/diesel are all pricey, and remember if you are now a US citizen you can’t spend a day over 6 months out of the US or your citizenship will be revoked. So that car will be sitting idle for 6 months. You’ll have to trust someone to come over now and again to check on your home, and start the car to make sure the battery isn’t dead! Let’s hope someone will do it for free, but I don’t think they will.

Irish and American Flags (Image source: www.clker.com -)

Irish and American Flags (Image source: http://www.clker.com -)

4. Speaking of American citizenship, remember this when you are in Ireland for the duration: American citizens still pay taxes even if they live abroad for 6 months of the year. You’ll be paying taxes on the car and house laying idle in the US as well as any US income you are earning while you are in Ireland.

5. On average groceries and necessities will cost more in Ireland, the Euro exchange rate will not give you more bang for your buck either. There’s not much of a difference, but big enough for you to notice the price hike in necessities such as in petrol, house oil etc.

Bank of Ireland (Image source: The Guardian.com)

Bank of Ireland (Image source: The Guardian.com)

6. The biggest shock is the pace of life in Ireland. While some people love the slower pace, there are times when faster is better. Banks close for one hour for lunch every day. The post office will not deliver mail as quickly as it does in the US.

6. Customer service isn’t the same. I’ll give you an example. When traveling by Iranród (Iron Rod) Éireann (Irish Rail Road) three years ago, my husband and I stood on the platform and asked the IRE employee where we should sit on the train as there had been some confusion about it. His response was, “How the f*#!k should I know! Sure I am just the driver!” (Yes, we can laugh at it, now!)

Really bad customer service (Image source: www.techtv101.com)

Really bad customer service (Image source: http://www.techtv101.com)

More recently as we stopped at the toll booth leaving Shannon Airport after just arriving from the US my husband offered the worker in the booth $10 because we had no Irish money on us. “Now if I was in America, would you take my Irish money?” was his response. Yet he took Sterling money from us. So in my opinion, customer service is lacking in some places in Ireland. Not all, but in the ones that, ironically, have a lot of dealings with tourists. The hotel industry could teach these fellas a thing or two about “customer service.”

That’s not to say that there are no places that offer good customer service, but it was shocking to experience the negative customer service in areas that deal with a lot of tourists such as the Irish Rail Road and the toll booth outside of Shannon Airport.

But hey, we have some poor customer service here in the US also, but I have to say, after 20 years of living here, I can only recall two. It isn’t the end of the world when you do have a bad experience, but when you are on vacation and it happens, it does leave a poor opinion of the place visited.

A Lesson Hard Learned: The Leaving Cert and Human Error

Students receiving their Leaving Cert results at Loretto College in Dublin last year (Image Source: Journal.ie)

Students receiving their Leaving Cert results at Loretto College in Dublin last year (Image Source: Journal.ie)

The Leaving Certificate, mention that to any 17 or 18 year old in Ireland today and they’ll tell you how stressful those exams are.

I did my Leaving Cert, as we called it then, back in 1987. It is a required state exam that qualifies you for advancement into third level education or to graduate from the Irish equivalent of high school.

We did the exams in June and the results came out in early August. I did Honors English (as opposed to pass), Honors Irish, Honors Geography, Honors History, Honors Social & Scientific Economics, Pass Maths, Pass French, and Pass Bookkeeping and Commerce. I failed honors Irish, or so they told me. So I packed my bags and left for America. Three months later my Irish teacher came knocking on my parent’s door.

Doing the Leaving Certificate Exams (Image source: Broadsheet.ie)

Doing the Leaving Certificate Exams (Image source: Broadsheet.ie)

I did not get offered university placement in 1987 because of an error on the correction of my Irish exams. It took my detective-like Irish teacher, Síle MacLoughlin, to do some digging in order to discover that the oral part of my Irish exam had not been added on to the final results, therefore instead of failing honors Irish, I passed the exam.

I never thanked her for it, I should have. Many, many times. I would never have thought that a mistake was made, and never have graduated from university because of this lady’s hard work.

With the recent cut backs and high incidence of human error in correcting exams this year I would urge all students who did their exams to question grades that they feel were lower than expected.

Leaving Cert Results (Image Source: RTE)

Leaving Cert Results (Image Source: RTE)

I started university a year later than those who did their leaving cert with me, but I had worked abroad for a year and had enough money to pay for my tuition, books and living expenses. There’s nothing wrong with taking a year out to earn some money for school, but don’t forget to go back to it.

So here is the lesson that I learned the hard way: If you feel that your final grade was lower than expected, by all means question it. Mistakes can be made and corrected. Don’t throw away a chance to proceed on to third level education or just accept that you got that grade. There might be a chance that the grade is incorrect, especially this year with all the cut backs. So, don’t pack your bags yet, contact the SEC, State Examinations Commission, and ask them how to query those questionable results.

Congratulations to all Leaving Cert Students 2013 in Ireland. I wish you all the very best in the future.

Getting your thoughts organised for a book

Now where did I write that funny saying?

The hardest part of writing a book is not actually writing it. The hardest part is keeping track of who is six-foot two, who has grey hair and blue eyes, who is blonde with green eyes, and who is stocky and fond of their grub.

It is also difficult to remember who did what and when, and where did I write that great expression that I heard someone say the other day that would really work well in chapter two when character X is talking to character Y? And what was Y wearing again when she drove from the murder scene to the police station?

It’s hard keeping track of all the details! But hopefully the following suggestions will be helpful to you.

Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat has some great ideas for helping writers, specifically screen writers, get organised. But the book works well with book authors too. I began implementing his suggestions for my next book, Death and the Bereavement Group, and I have to say the writing process is going a lot smoother than before. What is Snyder’s magic I hear you ask? Well here’s what I have changed in how I organise my thoughts as I put a book together.

Dry erase board with raw plot and characters.

1. I start with a big dry erase board where I write down the very basics of plot and character details. This inevitably will have changes, but the very guts of the story start right here.

I write down funny sayings I want the characters to utter, specific tasks that I want them to do. But this is not organised; it is a mish mash of what could potentially happen in the book. I don’t hold myself to anything on here right now, they are just twists, turns and character traits and sayings that I really like.

Story board with index cards.

2. I use index cards and start mapping out the chapters of the book and pin them to a cork board. According to Snyder, using index cards allows you to move ideas around. Perhaps the discovery of the body should have happened in chapter 1 and not the prologue?

The four dividing lines on this cork board delineate where the action should happen in a script, but for my own purposes right now, they are lining up chapters. If chapters need to get moved around, just unpin it and move it.

Timeline on blank register tape

3. One of my biggest problems, and mind you I’ve got many, is consistency with timeline events when I write.

I use a strip of blank register tape (you can buy them in packs of 6 from Staples) and tape it to the bottom of the cork board. Here is where I write down, in chronological order, a list of important events that happen in the book. It is easier to keep track of the timeline this way.

Basic Plot; displaying sideways, blame it on the cyber gremlins.

4. Finally, on a big piece of cardboard I write down the story’s plot in as much detail as I can. Again it doesn’t have to stay this way, but in case I forget something later on, now is the time to record what I think is important to remain in the plot.

I also use a writer’s notebook ( I use a simple composition notebook) to eavesdrop on conversations and behaviors when I am out to dinner, shopping, or just sitting and observing people.

If you have difficulty remembering what characters should look like, I use pictures of actors to remind me; Judi Dench was my inspiration for Emily Pritkin in Outward Walls.

In a future post I will lay out in detail the suggestions by Snyder in Save the Cat. For now, these are the ones that I found helpful in getting my thoughts organised.

The Irish Accent: Borrisokane, North Tipperary

The art of asking a question and providing the answer to it all in one sentence is a very complicated oratory gift. My father’s people were from a town in North Tipperary, Borrisokane. They seemed to possess this gift in greater quantity than anyone else I knew in Ireland.

I call this gift “double barrel speech.” It happens so swiftly that the listener must pay special attention, otherwise the punchline has come and gone before the words register in your head.

For example, as a child I remember sitting in the family car outside a store in Borrisokane, The Gem this store was called back then. It was a hot summer’s day, we don’t get too many of them in Ireland. The windows of the car were rolled down and the conversations of the passerby on the street were clear and distinct.

Two older men approached each other from opposite directions. The greeting was as follows.

“Ah hello. Are you not gone home yet?”

“No. Are you?”

Wasn’t the answer just staring them in the face?

Another example of double barrel speech was the offering and refusal to offer a cup of tea, all in a few short words. Again this speech pattern is specific to Borrisokane.

“You won’t have a cup of tea will you?”

Ah, let me think about how to answer that. Yes I will not have a cup of tea? No I will not have a cup of tea? Maybe I will not have a cup of tea? I guess the right answer is that I won’t have a cup of tea, thanks all the same.

“You won’t have a cup of tea, will you?” “Am? Do I win the tea if I give the right answer?”

I am poking fun at the Irish accent here, but I am allowed to, I am Irish. I love how we speak. I love the fact that we are a small island and we have such a diverse dialect that we can pin point where a person is from just by listening to the accent.

Today’s lesson was lovingly dedicated to Borrisokane in North Tipperary. Tomorrow we’ll head off to Galway, my mother’s home county and “The besht in the wesht!”

The 84th Academy Awards

The 84th Academy Awards.

Billy Crystal’s funniest moment at this year’s Academy Awards was, in my opinion, when the Oscar for best original score was announced. The stage behind him produced a massive music notebook. The music accompanying the rise of the notebook was typically over the top and  grandiose.

When the stage had been set, Crystal looked straight into the camera and nonchalantly said, ah. Like “no biggie!”

The second comment he made that had me laughing was the comment about the shoes actresses wore in movie roles, then in the list he mentioned J. Edgar Hoover!

Was Angelina Jolie’s leg up for auction last night by the way? And will Sacha Baron Cohen ever get invited back? Well, not by Seacrest anyway.

The New Yorker commentator Richard Brody found this years event to be boring. And it was, truthfully, boring. Except for the red carpet spillage by “The Dictator” on  Seacrest!

NBC’s Today show described the event as showing love for the history of Hollywood.

The top winners of the night were The Artist and Hugo, both winning five Oscars each. The Artist took the top three, best picture, best director and best actor. Nine pictures were nominated. This was a first for the awards ceremony.

The Kodak theater was also mentioned because it is no longer the Kodak theater, a point that did not go unnoticed by Crystal who suggested the “Flomax Theater.” His opening bit was funny, but he’s done better in his eight previous hosting gigs. Here’s the Huffington Post montage of Crystal’s funniest Oscar moments. None of what I said before matters!

That is No Country For Old Men

Preliminary figures from Ireland’s 2006-2011 census were posted online in April. The results are astounding with regard to housing construction and population growth and decline.

The dark blue and blue areas on this map of Ireland depicts areas where 20% to 25% of dwellings are vacant.

The dark green and light green areas show where 10% to 20% of the homes are vacant.

Yellow depicts 0% of vacant dwellings.

According to the 2006-2011 Irish Census online, “Housing numbers (dwellings) have increased more rapidly than total population between 2006 and 2011, with a 13.3 per cent increase in dwellings compared with 8.1 per cent for the population.”

The census statistics show a remarkable phenomenon that brought the Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s once booming economy, to its knees. Property developers ignored the age old adage of “supply and demand,” and built houses without knowing if a demand existed.

The census states that,  “The number of dwellings increased by 234,562 from 1,769,613 in 2006 to 2,004,175 in 2011, representing an annual average increase of 46,912.”

Almost 50,000 homes were built in Ireland over a five year period.The Census reported that there were 294,202 vacant units that were habitable in Ireland.

Add to this the fact that inward migration to Ireland started to increase in 2002.

People began to return in small numbers starting in 1991. Between 2002 and 2006 net inward migration to Ireland averaged 47, 800 per year. Then the turnaround came, early signs of an end to the Celtic Tiger’s growth. Starting in 2006 the population declined and continued to do so.

Between 2006 and  2011  almost twenty five thousand people  left Ireland. It was the first population decline since 1991. Previous migrations ‘en masse’ occurred in the seventies and eighties and previously in the fifties and sixties.  The record low according to the 2011 Census findings was a staggering 44,000 leaving the country in 1989.

Going back to the housing situation; a 13.3 per cent increase in dwellings compared with 8.1 per cent for the population, who were they building these houses for? Property developers cashed in during the population boom and continued to cash in when the decline in population was apparent. Politicians and bankers turned a blind eye because they all benefited financially. Over 250,000 houses lie empty or unfinished in Ireland. Despite some well meaning pressure groups wanting to house the homeless, other uses that are regularly mentioned for the now-closed hotels, empty offices and ghost estates are nursing homes, hospitals, schools, community centers and prisons according to an article in The Irish Times. The common solution to half finished houseing estates is to tear them down and return to farming the land.

In the aftermath of the 82 billion Euro IMF bailout agreement for Ireland, those same politicians, property developers and bankers are now living abroad, in million dollar homes. Sean Dunne now lives in Greenwich CT, after NAMA, the National Asset  Management Agency of Ireland acquired €350 million Euros  of Mr Dunne’s loans from Irish banks.

Banker David Drumm lived a luxurious and quiet life in Chatham on Cape Cod, Massachusetts until karma caught up with him.

An Taoiseach, Irish Prime Minister,  Bertie Ahern in 2008 resigned amid financial scandals to be replaced by Brian Cowen. Each man was being paid more than the president of the United States whilst in public office. According to an article by  the Associated Press in 2007,

“Prime Minister Bertie Ahern gave himself a hefty pay increase Thursday, putting his salary higher than both President Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Ahern, Ireland’s leader since 1997, will see his annual salary rise 14 percent to $444,000,  more than Bush ($400,000), Brown ($387,000) and a host of other European leaders.”

The Taoiseach’s salary has led to ongoing discussions and presently much needed cuts. Harry McGee of the Irish Times said it correctly in 2010,

“The Irish elite have big notions about themselves.”

For a small country where do they think all this money is coming from? The new taxes imposed on the Irish left in Ireland will cripple the economy, the mass exodus of Ireland’s  young will leave an older generation to steer the tax heavy sinking ship.

All of these factors help to fulfill the first line of William Butler Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, “That is no country for old men.”