homer

Seuss to Joyce: A Bloomsday Journey

Ulysses

As published in the Providence Journal on June 16, 2014.

Today is Bloomsday, as the world celebrates all things James Joyce. Bloomsday gets its name from the protagonist of the Irish author’s modernist masterpiece “Ulysses,” which takes place on June 16, 1904. From Dublin to Philadelphia to Sydney and beyond, there will be readings and re-enactments and more than a few pints raised.

Some consider “Ulysses” to be the finest English-language work in the 20th century. Others find it unreadable. I think it is both — 783 pages (1990 Vintage edition) of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, impenetrable allusions, and sheer comedic joy.

As a junior in college in 1980, I attended school in Dublin and took a class on “Ulysses.” I recall purchasing the book. It was about the size of a cobblestone, with nearly the heft. I would have used it as a doorstop had I not taken the class. To pass, I had to read Joyce’s tome closely. I am still reaping the rewards today.

“Ulysses” charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in the Dublin of 110 years ago. By paralleling the events of the novel with those of Homer’s Odyssey (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man — Bloom and Stephen, you and me — as modern heroes (or, some would say, antiheroes). The fact that Bloom works in the advertising profession, as I do, has, with time, made him even more endearing to me.

Studying literature in Ireland deepened a love of words that was born in me as a young boy. Long before Swift and Yeats and Joyce, there were Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman. Books like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” and “Go Dog, Go!” taught me how to read; they also showed me how much fun words could be. Like playing catch in the backyard, throwing words around was exhilarating and engaging.

As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know that the baby bird in Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” was being onomatopoetic when he called the earthmover a “Snort!” I just knew it made sense to me. (Years later, I would discover that English teems with words whose sound suggests their meaning. Ducks quack. Teeth chatter. People hiccup. Fires crackle.)

As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know Dr. Seuss’s narrative in “Green Eggs and Ham” was an exercise in parallelism: “I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.” I just enjoyed the repetition — I kept reading, with growing interest and expectation.

(Years later, my study of “The Gettysburg Address” confirmed what I had sensed intuitively reading Dr. Seuss as a boy: parallelism provides balance and rhythm and eloquence. “We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground”; “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here”; “Government by the people, of the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The effective use of parallelism is one reason Lincoln’s words are long remembered.)

Saturday morning cartoons were playgrounds for words, too. When Bugs Bunny mispronounced “moron” in his dismissal of Elmer Fudd — “What a maroon!” — my brothers and I didn’t call it a malapropism; we just laughed. I felt a kinship with Bugs. For months, I thought my big brother played flamingo guitar. Then I saw the cover of his lesson book: flamenco.

(Years later, malapropisms were among the many rewards of having children of my own. In our family, we call Ruby Tuesday restaurants Rubby Tuesday in honor of one son’s original pronunciation of the name. And then there was the 3-year-old who had the misfortune of getting a rash on his private parts. He knew we had used an ointment to soothe his woes, but confused Vaseline with another word: “Hey, Dad, should we put more gasoline on it?” We still get mileage out of that one.)

The journey from Dr. Seuss to James Joyce is not as unlikely as it may seem. In fact, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which preceded “Ulysses,” begins with the language of a classic children’s story: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was . . .”

Today, in celebration of Bloomsday, I will open “Ulysses” once more and lose myself in Joyce’s Dublin. When Molly Bloom rails at her husband’s constant use (and misuse) of obscure scientific terms — “O, rocks! Tell us in plain words” — I can sense Joyce smiling. He loved to poke fun — even at himself.

Happy Bloomsday!

 

Scenes From An Emptying Nest

pete_ev_beach

In my mind, the scene plays out like a bittersweet Bill Forsyth movie. My sons Peter and Evan are set to depart for Los Angeles to chase pop music dreams. The car is packed and idling in the driveway. Soft breezes wash through the trees outside our house. Birds chirp.

As Deb gives the boys her good-bye hug on the porch, she speaks with the wisdom and love of every mother who has ever lived. I hand the boys an envelope. It contains my epic poem on the eternal bond between fathers and sons, surpassing Homer and Joyce in its insight. And now a car pulls up. It’s Juliana, making a surprise early return from her Martha’s Vineyard getaway because she can’t let her brothers get away without a sister’s kiss.

Cue the music for the final scene: Mark Knopfler serenades the boys as they drive down Peirce Street and into their future. Dolly back, fade to black.

Of course, it doesn’t happen this way – just ask National Grid. On departure day morning at 7:00 sharp, they show up right outside our house with a mountain of dirt and a whirling Bobcat. A backhoe doubles as the boys’ alarm clock, pounding Peirce Street and shaking the house. No birds are chirping now.

Inside, the mundane and the practical trump my cinematic visions. Do you have clean towels? Where’s your shaving kit? Anyone seen the phone chargers? Did you get to the bank? For the hundredth time, I tell Peter and Evan to make sure they take 287 West for the Tappan Zee Bridge. Eyes roll. And then the rain comes – torrents – forcing the National Grid guys to stop their banging and huddle under a tent. We continue to load the car in the downpour – the boys are on a schedule.

Finally, at the moment of departure, disaster strikes – a family fender bender in the driveway threatens the trip before it even begins. We survey the damage in disbelief. How do you open the hood? Where’s the manual? This morning, we are more Griswold than Greek poetry.

But somewhere the gods are watching over us. The driveway mishap is more ding than disaster. With the car’s front grill popped back into place, the boys depart at last.

And just like that, a milestone Thursday turns ordinary. I go to work. Deb arranges to pick up Julie at the Fast Ferry. The Red Sox beat the Mariners. National Grid patches the road and moves the orange cones to the next block.

When Julie leaves for college in August, the flight will be complete. Deb and I will be empty nesters, though that’s a misnomer. Memories will fill the house. Remember the time the Christmas tree fell over? The first night with Moxie as a puppy? Basketball games in the basement between the Celtics and the Monkey Team? Midnight breakfasts? Talks about what you want to be when you grow up?

In my mind, these scenes play over and over – a family movie never taken, still in development, based on a true story, already a classic.

For Peter and Evan, somewhere between Columbus and St. Louis.

Joyce, Bloomsday, And The Color Of Money

You can tell a lot about a nation by the people it puts on its money. In the United States, our legal tender celebrates our democracy and the leaders it has produced. A parade of presidents graces our dollar bills – Washington ($1), Jefferson ($2), Lincoln ($5), Hamilton ($10), Jackson ($20), and Grant ($50). Ben Franklin, a colonial triple-threat – diplomat, inventor, essayist – gazes at us from the $100 note. Franklin coined the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Save enough pennies and you can carry Benjamins in your wallet.

When I arrived in Ireland as a student in 1980, I was struck by the pre-euro pound notes that made up the Irish national currency. There were different colors for different denominations – green, orange, pink, blue. The notes were larger than American bills. And look who appeared on the notes – Jonathan Swift on the £10 bill and William Butler Yeats on the £20. Writers on money! As a student of literature, this was the country for me.

That semester, I fell under the spell of James Joyce and his modernist masterpiece, Ulysses. Considered by many to be the finest English-language novel published in the 20th centuryUlysses is a dazzling and difficult work, 783 pages of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, and comedic joy. It charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus on a single day in Dublin: June 16, 1904. Why did Joyce choose this date? That’s when he took his “first walk” with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

Bloom is Joyce’s everyman. By paralleling the events of Bloom’s day with those of Homer’s epic hero Odysseus in the Odyssey, (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man – you and me and the rest of us – as a modern hero. The fact that Bloom is an ad canvasser endears him to me further.

Now known as Bloomsday, June 16th is the day when the world celebrates all things Joyce. In Dublin, literary pilgrims retrace the footsteps of Bloom and Stephen. In New York, Symphony Space holds Bloomsday on Broadway. In France, the Paris Bloomsday Group presents songs and readings from Ulysses. Last year, even Twitter turned Joycean when @11lysses tweeted the novel 140 characters at a time.

When Ireland issued its new series of banknotes in 1993, Joyce appeared on the £10 note. The notoriously money-challenged author would have loved the irony.

Happy Bloomsday!

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