Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Honoring Shannon McBride

Yesterday would have been the 28th birthday of Shannon Lee McBride. Alas, Shannon died on July 29, 2003, from complications of a simple tonsilectomy. She suffered from a nicked artery during the surgery, and bled off and on for days following the procedure. Shannon tried over and over to get medical attention for the problem. In fact, on the day she bled to death in her father's arms, she was sent home from the hospital without any diagnostic testing to determine the cause of arterial bleeding. Shannon was the victim both of terrible chance and human error--and a wonderful young life was lost.

We salute Shannon's life, full of vitality, family, and friends. And we honor her parents, her sisters, her wider family, and her many friends. Nothing is lost to the Lord. Nothing is lost to the Lord.

"I Want My Mommy!"

Here I am, a grown man, and my first thought yesterday when the stock market tanked 777 points and we seemed at the edge of the abyss was: "I want my mommy." I wanted to call her on the phone, or better still, stop by the old house and drink a beer and chat and laugh with her. She would have taken this latest crisis, this latest abyss, with a grain of salt. She, and we all, have been through many crises and many hard times before. We would get through this one together. Unfortunately, visiting Mom would have involved a trip to Heaven, and I'm not ready for that leap yet! Mom died December 8th, 2003, and we, my brothers and my sister, have been on our own ever since. We have to pretend to be the peaceful, confident voice: "Yeah, everything will be all right. Don't worry about it. Let's drink a beer."

Salute, slainte to you, Mom. We'll get through this.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman--Passing of a Great Person

This weekend we learned of the passing, at age 83, of a great human being, Paul Newman. Paul Newman is considered one of our own in the Cleveland area. He was born in Cleveland Heights and raised in Shaker Heights. After high school, he briefly attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. After a stint in the Navy during World War II (where he saw combat), he attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He came back to the college and to the Cleveland area many times over the years. I vividly remember him campaigning for John Kerry in the Shaker area four years ago. He even canvassed in his old neighborhood, knocking on the family's former home, and showing the current residents where he and his father used to sneak cigarettes.

Paul Newman was able to do what many people find impossible: he balanced a devotion to wife and children with artistic pursuits, hobbies, and businesses. He was married to Joanne Woodward for 50 years, and he died in the presence of his wife and children. His family life was not without sorrow--he did lose his oldest son, Scott, to drugs and alcohol and never got over the terrible loss.

He certainly was one of our greatest actors, in films, on television, and in live theatre. His work include some of the greatest, most iconic films in history, including The Hustler, Hud, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Color of Money, and more. He directed his wife and actors John Malkovich, James Naughton and Karen Allen in a tremendous production of Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie (this great work is not widely available, as far as I know). His characters had spunk, spirit, attitude, and left a sharp imprint in memory.

His hobby of race car driving began in mid-life and was pursued, with passion and great success, until the end. Another hobby, cooking, evolved into a tremendously successful non-profit business--Newman's Own salad dressings, popcorn, and sauces.

What is greatest about this artist and family man is his generosity. He gave back to his community, his country, his world in so many ways, not the least of which is an estimated $200,000,000 in profits from "Newman's Own" and his establishment of camps for children with illnesses (The Hole in theWall Gang Camps).

Paul Newman lived a blessed and full life (though not without suffering and personal tragedy). Let us thank God for the likes of him, and somehow let's begin to take on the work of this great human being.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Irish-Gaelic--What a Language!

So you have a drop of Irish blood in your veins and you are thinking about learning Gaelic, the language of your ancestors. Think again . . . then go ahead and dive into the deep end!

What's the Name of This Language?

Everything about Gaelic is complicated . . . and fun. Grist for lots of humor and conversation over a couple/few Guinness. Even the name of the language is tricky. When speaking English, the Irish don't call their language "Gaelic" --they save that term for the language of the Highland Scots. They call their language "Irish." When they are speaking in their Celtic tongue (and only about 1/4 of the Irish can do this (some estimates range up to 42%), they call their language "Gaeilge"--unless they come from parts of Munster, southwest Ireland, where the language is called "Gaelinn." In a few isolated places, there are even other names for this language. This issue of the name of the language has political ramifications to it--don't get me started on that! Here is what Wikipedia says about the name of the language: "Other forms of the name found in the various modern Irish dialects, in addition to south Connacht Gaeilge mentioned above, include Gaedhilic/Gaeilic/Gaeilig or Gaedhlag in Ulster Irish and northern Connacht Irish and Gaedhealaing/Gaoluinn/Gaelainn Munster Irish." Anyway, it's hard as hell to figure out what this language is even called!

At the Edge of Annihilation.

Irish came this close to extermination. The forces of annihilation included the power of British government and law, that feared and disdained Gaelic Ireland; the devastation of the Great Famine of the mid 1800's; and the imperial power of English and American popular culture. In the 1800's the language began retreating underground and became mostly the oral language of the poor, those without land, money, or means (our ancestors!). This despite an almost 2000 year written history and a rich literature. When the famine, An Gorta Mor, hit in the mid 1840's, a huge number of the poor Irish-speaking population died or emigrated to save their lives (about 1/4 of the population died or left). Astonishingly, we find large Irish-speaking emigres in the most unlikely places--for example, in the mining communities around Butte, Montana, and in the Gold Rush communities in the Yukon and Alaska.

A. Astonishing, Byzantine Grammar.

My teachers, Warren Clay and Paul Curran, and sometimes Ellen Holland Keller, often begin an Irish grammar lesson by saying something like, "You can't make this stuff up!" That is how astonishing and byzantine the grammar of Irish is. The truth of the complexity is beyond any fiction you could invent. What many people don't realize is that their own native language is filled with hundreds of rules, exceptions to rules, and options as strange as those in Irish. I know that entire books have been written about the use of articles (a, an, and the) in English. What seems second nature to a native speaker is like Chinese torture to those learning English (or Irish, or whatever) as a second language. I won't go into the details of Irish grammar here, but let's just say that almost every element of the language, from vocabulary to syntax to pronunciation, is different and at times feels much more foreign than, say, German or French.

B. Difficulty in Using a Dictionary.

Irish isn't the hardest language for using a dictionary. Can you imagine trying to figure out how to use a Chinese or Japanese dictionary? But it is tricky because Irish words and their spellings transmute in various situations. One reason they change is because of tense, when verbs are involved, and in grammatical case, when nouns come into play. Noun plurals change much as in Latin, but without Latin's regularity (as far as I know). So the noun cara (friend) is cairde in the plural (friends). but in so many real contexts, these words appear as chara and chairde, and those spellings won't be found in Irish dictionaries. This is because of a process called lenition, in which the initial consonant of Irish words is "softened," changed--sometimes rather dramatically! There are rules for this process, so it's not a big problem after about five years of studying the language! But at first it seems like an insane problem.

Verbs can also present a big problem because many common verbs have wildly irregular forms, and because verbs change endings under many circumstances. This same thing is true for most Indo-European languages, and probably many other language families. [examples will follow]

C. How Do You Pronounce This?

The first time you try to read a passage written in Irish-Gaelic is an eye-opener. The letters look like the familiar Roman alphabet (unless you are reading an older Irish font--that presents some modest problems at first). But you won't be able to come very close to actual Irish pronunciation. Before I get into some actual details of Irish pronunciation, let me try to describe what the language sounds like. My first impression was that the language sounds like the wisperings of the wind, with lots of soft, breathy sounds. And there is some truth in that--some passages, some poems and songs, sound like the West Wind blowing in from the North Atlantic. Other times, the language sounds oddly like German or even like Hebrew. You hear/ch/ sounds as in words like loch (lake) or oiche (night)--sounds which don't exist in many dialects of English. The sentence rhythms seems very unlike English too. Sometimes the rhythms of Irish remind me of Scandanavian rhythms. Also, you can begin to notice the heavy accenting of initial syllables, the presence of strong /r/ sounds (and a few odd /r/ sounds similar to the "hairy r" in Czech words and names like Dvorak). All in all, the lanuage as spoken by a native sounds very very foreign, quite different from English (except Hiberno-English, the Irish twist on English, which picks up many feaures from the Irish-Gaelic).

My teacher Paul Curran always reminds us that "Irish is pronounced exactly the way it's spelled." That is a bit of a joke, because it takes a couple years to figure out the letter-sound correspondences of Irish. But for the most part, the language is consistent, unlike English. In that regard, Irish is more like Italian or Spanish--or a better analogy might be French, which is mostly consistent but strange indeed!

D. Strange Words Where None Exist in English.

It is never possible to translate word-for-word from one language to another. Those little computers they sell as translators make me laugh--they can do some things well, but they can't make perfectly accurate translations!

A fun part of studying a foreign language is discovering words that don't have a simple corresponding word in your native language. A couple of examples from German are the words Gemuetlichkeit and Fingerspitzengefuehl. You can explain these words with an English phrase or sentence, but usually not with a single word. Fingerspitzengefuehl is a nice German word that literally means the "feeling-you-have-at-the-tips-of-your-fingers." We might say that it means "intuition," but that's not exactly right or accurate--it's more than that.

Here are some fun Irish words and their definitions:

Baclainn, "crooked arm," the way your arm is when you bend your elbow (to carry a baby, for example). Bhi an leanbh ina baclainn aici, She was carrying the child in the crook of her arm.

Ioscaid, the hollow space behind your knee.

Ladhar, the space between your fingers and your toes.

Masach, having big buttocks.

There are many more and I will add to this list as I run across interesting new words.

E. Lack of Words for Certain Things.

There is no simple way in Irish to say the following things: yes, no, to have, to want. You can say “yes” in Irish by saying a version of “it is” (and "no" by saying “it isn’t” in some contexts). Other times you need to repeat the subject and the verb. So if you are asked something like “Do you drive a car?” you could answer “I drive.” In some ways this is like Latin (which from ninth grade Latin I remember this rule: “To say ‘yes’ you can say sic, vero, itaque, certe, or repeat the verb”). Saying “no” also involves a negative particle plus a verb or a repetition of the sentence with a negator. Maybe this is why the Irish are so garrulous!

To indicate possession (we do it in English with the verb "have"), Irish speakers say something like: “The book is at me,” an leabhar agam, word-for-word, “is the book at-me.” There are many similar idiomatic ways to express things in Irish that strike an English speaker as odd.

F. English Words Borrowed from Irish Gaelic. A sampling.


banshee (bean , literally, woman of the fairies)
blarney (name of a town and castle near Cork, Ireland)
bog (bog, soft)
boreen (botharín, little road)
brogue (bróg, shoe)
cairn (carn, pile of stones, often a prehistoric archeological site)
colleen (cailín, girl)
galore (go leor, much, many)
glen (gleann)
gob (and gob-smacked),
keen (caoinadh, crying, wailing)
kibosh (from the Online Etymological Dictionary: "One candidate is Ir. caip bháis, caipín báis "cap of death," sometimes said to be the black cap a judge would don when pronouncing a death sentence, but in other sources identified as a gruesome method of execution 'employed by Brit. forces against 1798 insurgents' [Bernard Share, 'Slanguage, A Dictionary of Irish Slang']. ")
loch (lake)
poteen (poitín, homemade whiskey)
shamrock (seamróg)
shanty (sean , old house)
smithereens (smideríní, little pieces)
whiskey (uisce beatha, water of life)

Other possibilities: lynch, hooligan, shenanigans . . .


Erin go bragh (Ireland forever), dún do bheal (shut your mouth), póg mo thóin (kiss my behind), cead mile failte (a hundred thousand welcomes), slainte! (health; toast).

Personal Names: ( a small sampling, using mostly Anglicized spellings)

Brigid, Brian, Cieran, Colleen, Conal, Cormac, Deirdre, Dermot, Donal, Eamon, Ellen, Enya, Erin, Fergus, Finbar, Kathleen, Kenneth, Kevin, Malachy, Molly, Murray, Maeve, Maura, Maureen, Maurice, Murphy, Neil, Niav (Neeve), Nuala, Owen, Patrick (a name adopted by the Irish--their language originally did not have the letter "p"), Rosheen, Rory, Ryan, Sean, Shiela, Tadg (or Ty), Una (or Oona), and so on!

Place Names:

So many place names are borrowed from Irish! A surprising one is Baltimore, a town in county Cork and a city in Maryland. Here in Ohio we have our own Dublin, which means "black pool." Derry, Vermont has its namesake in Ulster. The name means something like"oak grove." Coleraine is a township in southwest Ohio and a town in the north of Ireland. So many towns, subdivisions, and roads are named after Irish cities and villages that it would be impossible to list them! My great-great grandparents, Daniel and Mary Crowley Coughlin, lived with their children, including my great grandfather Cornelius Coughlin, on Cork Road, in the Town of Scipio, Cayuga County, New York. These immigrants brought parts of Ireland with them and gave these names to their new homes.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What Makes Each One of Us Different? Why Was I So Successful in School?

We are a crazy, mixed-up bunch of people--all of us. So different that it's hard to believe we are the same species. I guess if you looked down from the moon, we humans might look pretty similar. But I am struck by the differences. These differences are all the more striking within families. I have 3 daughters who are stunningly different, in appearance, in temperament, in so many other ways. My three brothers and my sister are all so different. What follows are a few guesses on why I am different from them.

To begin, I am the first-born kid in the family. I was even the first grandchild on my father's side. I imagine that the first born gets more attention than those that follow. Sometimes the parents and grandparents have more energy and even better health to deal with the first child or grandchild. I wouldn't use the "s-word" (spoiled), but the first-born has some advantages (and a few disadvantages, I might add). The first-born lives under stricter rules (in 3rd grade I had to be in bed by 8 PM during the school year; Jimmy probably went to bed after the Johnny Carson Show!). Sometimes the first-born lives in a family with very little money because the parents are at an early stage in their careers. I had to eat slum-gullion; Jim and Kev were chowing down on steak, those SOB's! Well, maybe I exaggerate a bit.

I know that I possess my parents' DNA, but there is enough shuffling that mother nature does that we brothers and sisters are pretty different. How did Denny get so tall? Mary Ellen so pretty? Why did Jim and Denny keep their hair (in contrast to Kev and me)? Why was Kevin such a fast runner and great football player? And how did he become a Republican, for God's sake!

One big question for me has to do with my success in school. Why did I do so well at all levels of school, from St. William's Grade School to St. Joseph High School, and to three colleges, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Cincinnati, and The Ohio State University? My simple answer is that I am more intelligent than my brothers and sister. But I know them too well to make that claim! I'm not that dumb and I don't want them to beat the crap out of me! We are all intelligent in our own ways. Somehow, my intelligence took me successfully through the American school system up to a doctorate degree.

I think my Dad especially gave me a lot of attention in my early years of schooling. He drilled me all the time on spelling and arithmetic. He took me to various libraries, Euclid Public, St. William's, and Cuyahoga County. And he read the newspaper and books--he was a fairly good model of a reader. He even managed to get hold of a magnificent set of used Collier Encyclopedias, one of the joys of my youth and adolescence.

Also, I really wanted to please my Mom and Dad by getting good grades in school. Later, I wanted to get straight A's because that would allow me to receive 7 pair of free Indians' baseball tickets. That played a huge role in my academic success.

One other strange factor was my sense of self. In first or second or third grade I was put into reading Group 2 at the beginning of the year. I'm guessing placement in that group was based on some sort of test scores. I remember thinking to myself (at age 6, 7,or 8): "I'm not group 2 material. I should be in Group 1, the top reading group." And then I proceeded to work real hard to prove to the teacher that I belonged in the top group. Within a week or so, I was moved to that group. Why did I think I was top-group material? Isn't that strange?

Along with this sense of myself, I was very competitive. I'm guessing that was partly a gift from my Dad and from my Grampa Coughlin--both very competitive athletes. This competitiveness helped me get into the top groups and helped me achieve top grades. It has been a theme through much of my life (occasionally to my detriment).

A couple of events probably shaped my life. When I was 2 going on 3, I was accidentally run over by my mother. The accident happened on Windermere Avenue in Willoughby. I had walked away from home to visit my Gramma and Grampa, who lived a block away on Hayes Avenue. My Mom didn't know where I was, and proceeded to back out our car to go looking for me. Unfortunately, as she was backing out, I was running up behind the car. I was seriously injured and had to be removed from under the car. I was taken by car to Huron Road Hospital in East Cleveland (a good 20 miles away), where they discovered a fractured skull, a concussion, and a broken collarbone, among other minor injuries. I was in the hospital for many days, a week I think. I remember vividly many details of this entire event. And I remember being so lonely in the hospital, without the presence of my Mom and Dad (at least at night). I remember them putting me in a crib-like bed, something I resented, thinking, "Here I am, almost 3 years old, and I'm put in something like a baby crib!" I remember that when I got out of the hospital, my Mom and Dad told me that I had turned 3 years old and that we were moving to a new house in Euclid, Ohio. Somehow, that accident and those days in the hospital shaped me.

Another important event that shaped my personality happened when I was 5-years-old and in Kindergarten. It must have been late winter or early spring of 1954 when I got an illness (measles, chicken pox, or influenza) that developed into pneumonia--very serious pneumonia. I remember going deaf at one point, and having severe vertigo where the room spun around. I had a terrible fever and remember Mom running frantically into the kitchen and putting me under the cold water to cool down the fever. As she turned on the water, spiders and snakes came out of the tap and I screamed. Then she rushed me to the bathroom tub, and did the same thing. Again, spiders and snakes came out of the faucet. The fever must have been very high to trigger hallucinations like that.

A doctor came to our house--this must have been the end of the era of home doctor visits. He prescribed a sulfa drug to treat my pneumonia, but it backfired, causing some sort of damage to my kidneys, as I ended up urinating blood. During this sickness I was stationed in my Mom and Dad's bed. I was totally (and temporarily, it turned out) deaf, had trouble breathing, and constantly coughed up thick mucus. I spent my day's between sleeping, looking at children's books (I couldn't read yet), and playing games with myself ("pick-up sticks" was a favorite). Something changed in me during that month-long sickness, something shaped my life-to-come. I was more interior, more reliant on my self and my imagination. I suffered through tremendous loneliness and isolation, and had survived. One day in early spring I saw my friends Brian Cox, Allen Lane, and Chucky Lintern playing in the yard. I was so sick that I couldn't go out and play with them. I felt a profound loneliness and even a sense of being deprived of life and vitality. I was determined that that would change. And it did.

Monday, September 15, 2008

My Dad Dreams of an Ordinary Life--New Poem

Here's a draft of a new poem. I imagined my Dad, a signalman aboard his small wooden ship, a Subchaser, in the middle of the Battle of Leyte Gulf in late October of 1944, hoping for an ordinary life back in Northeastern Ohio. Here's the poem:

Dream of an Ordinary Life

In October of 1944, my Dad, 22 years old,
Stood on the signal tower of Subchaser 1154,
A little wooden ship,
Offshore from the island of Leyte in the Philippines.

Black smoke all around the wild seas,
Bombers and fighters in the heavens,
Big naval guns pounding both Japanese and American ships,
Mines, torpedoes, shrapnel, kamikazes
Death everywhere, everywhere,

My Dad, 12,000 miles from Willoughby-on-the-Lake
Thought of his Mother’s apple pies, the wild black cherry tree
Outside their Hayes Avenue cottage—a home he, his Dad, and brothers built themselves—
Thought of his Dad sitting at the tavern at the corner of Lost Nation and Lake Shore,
Drinking Leisy’s Light and telling baseball stories,
Thought of brothers Connie, Jack, and Bill, fighting
This war hither and yon--Would he ever see them and his sister Bernice again?

What do you want from life, he asked himself, in a rare moment of reverie.
If you ever get back home?

The answer was rather simple:

A wife, a job, a little house, some children,
Friends and family nearby.
He wanted what once seemed so ordinary,
What once seemed too predictable, too tame,
Too lacking in adventure.

To see his mother and father again,
His brothers and sister.

To play horseshoes by Hayes Avenue,
And drink beer around a campfire,
To swim in Lake Erie again.

Just an ordinary life would be fine for him.
And he prayed for that right then and there,

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean,
Death whirring over his head,
12,000 miles from Willoughby-on-the-Lake.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11, 2001--A Memory

September 11, 2001—A Memory

How I taught that 10 AM class I don’t know. I did mention the tragedy to the class, as if they didn’t know already, and we all prayed in class before the lesson started. Then amazingly, I proceeded with the lesson.

As the class progressed, I grew more and more anxious, until the end, when I practically busted out of the room and ran back to my office. “I have to see if Mom is all right!” I yelled to myself, racing down the hallways from T Building. I was also worried about my wife Linda and my 3 daughters. Julia was away at college, Miami University. Carolan was at Chardon High School. Em was at St. Mary’s School, where Linda worked. But Mom was 77 years old, blind, and alone at home in Euclid--Dad four years in the grave. I had to go to her right away!

I ran to the faculty-staff lot and cranked up my car—it was almost empty of gas. A thought streaked across my mind: What if the gas pumps go out? What if gigantic lines form at the gas stations? Are the ATM machines working? As usual I had almost no cash in my wallet.

My first step was to get to the Bank One money machine. The machine worked and I withdrew a hundred dollars, a huge amount for me to carry around. Then I headed to Kirtland Road, the back way to Mom’s. I thought maybe the freeways would get jammed up with cars, people fleeing . . . to somewhere, anywhere. We had no idea what was going on yet. So far we knew that both towers of the World Trade Center had been hit; by this time one of the buildings had actually collapsed to the ground, something unheard of! There was a story about a jet crashing into a field southeast of Pittsburgh. The Pentagon had been hit. There were rumors galore flying around. One claimed that Dayton had been hit. My oldest daughter Julia was a freshman at Miami University, not far from Dayton. What was going on? Are we all in danger?

Down Kirtland Road I drove like a maniac, coming to Rt. 20 in Willoughby. West on 20 to Vine Street. Down Vine to Lakeshore Boulevard. There near the corner of Lakeshore and Vine was a gas station without big lines. I pulled in and filled my tank. Would this be my last chance to get gas?

I zipped out on Vine, then left on Lakeshore down to Lloyd. Down Lloyd to Forestview. Then to E. 272, then Farringdon, then E.266 and into Mom’s driveway. I pushed open my car door, one knock on Mom's door, then inside.

There Mom calmly sat on the davenport, drinking a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette, and watching the television’s grim news. Mom was OK; I was the one who was frantic, anxious, frightened to death. I hugged her. She comforted me like I was a scared 5-year-old again.

Robert M. Coughlin
September 11, 2008