Friday, November 7, 2008

Love ∩ Take care of dear friends



Yesterday evening, my friend Ross was supposed to meet me. Instead, I went to the last place he was on this earth. He was a true friend and a very fine man.

Ross Gordon, August 19, 1965 - November 6, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Travel ∩ Reaching out to Chilangos*


Part 5 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

Class dictates touchable from untouchable in unexpected ways –

Human contact requires thinking outside the box

When I see Angeles for the first time on this trip to Mexico City, she comes through the gate that separates her apartment building’s front door from the sidewalk, takes my right hand lightly in her fingers and brushes my left cheek with hers. It is a greeting, Mexicana style, between two women who have not seen each other in a while. When I encounter other women of middle class, whether I have met them before or not, this is standard human contact. With men, there may be a heartier handshake, but usually no kiss.

Touch can be the most startling of the five senses for a solo traveler when a foreign place and its language(s) are barrier enough from other people. Few people bump into me in crowded markets, yet we are packed together in metro cars, hands slightly touching as we grasp a pole when the train lurches. With perhaps two exceptions, I am the only person of obvious northern European descent I see on the trains the nine days I am here, yet when I visit the tony colonias of Condessa and Polanco, I could be in Manhattan or on Rodeo Drive and feel the stark difference.

On Sunday, my cab driver warns me that I am going to a dangerous neighborhood when I request we drive to Mercado Jamaica. He keeps looking at me in the rear view mirror and telling me to be careful. The neighborhood we enter is full of broken concrete and is largely treeless, but so many colonias in Mexico City are this dense and crumbling. When I wander the market’s outskirts, a woman stops and asks me what I am looking for. The Jamaica flower market, as it turns out, is several miles south of the vegetable and meat market. She leans in close as we examine my metro map and repeats her directions to me, looking me in the eye.

When I arrive at the correct market and start searching for a friend among the miles of aisles and thousands of people, we miraculously find each other within minutes. She embraces me in a long, strong hug.


Later, after she has left for an appointment, I stay behind to find unusual things to eat. At one of the few stands I find that sell chapulines (fried grasshoppers), the young woman who runs it wants to know about Chicago and tells me about her town, Puebla, three hours away. She drives in to the market every Saturday and Sunday to sell fruits, peanuts and flour. She is a student during the week but has little time to study because she works. “My father lives in Philadelphia,” she tells me twice and grows quiet each time. I thank her for telling me about the chapulines.

Most people look away, hide their faces or whistle to their neighbors in warning when they see my camera. I can’t blame them because what is a novelty to me is their way of life not put on display for me to photograph.

Yet, some of the people running stalls at Jamaica break into smiles and laugh when I show them the photo I have just taken – one of the distinct advantages of using a digital camera with a large screen. An elderly lady blushes at first and then beams when I show her what she looks like in her dress, the color of the blue and white corn flour she is selling. “Abuelita! What do you think of that?” her grandson says looking from the screen to his grandmother.


Other encounters in this market are not so friendly. After snapping a picture of a pick-up truck filled with marigolds, one of the young men standing beside it waves me away shouting admonishments. I don’t dare show him his photo and feel like such a gringa as I slink away saying “yeah, yeah,” to show him I’m not rattled (but I am).



Monday night I am fortunate to be invited to an exclusive party at a hotel in Polanco, a neighborhood home to some of Mexico City’s priciest real estate, galleries and boutiques. It is a fundraiser for MexFam, a family-planning non-profit that raises funds at this annual event. This year they invited many of the country’s leading artists to decorate display boxes with multiple-hinged lids, which they will auction off. Some are painted with Impressionist-style landscapes or stark abstract lines. One is covered in cracked mirrors. Another sprouts black rubber tubes.

I meet some of Mexico City’s leading architects, society ladies and business people. There are government power brokers and celebrities all around me in costly clothes and stylish haircuts. Beautiful women eye one another, while men in beautiful suits sip cocktails. These people do not faze me because I don’t know who I am looking at. I speak broken Spanish as I take the occasionally proffered hand and juggle a flute of champagne.

The auction begins as a long line of waiters each takes a decorated box to the front of the room where he places it on a spotlighted, mirrored pedestal that rotates to show the audience its angles. The auctioneer opens the bids for each box at five thousand pesos and pushes the price higher and higher, looking directly into bidders’ faces. Their challenges bounce back and forth across the room. “Siete mil pesos! Diez mil pesos! Diez quinientos? Once mil pesos!

An untitled box with the wiggly, spare lines of a man’s portrait by famous Mexican artist José Luis Cuevas goes for more than three thousand dollars. Everyone applauds. Another box covered in exuberant blue, red and green paint by Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo goes for a bit less. And then a waiter sets a box on the flashing pedestal covered in profiles of priests or noblemen dressed in brocades and proffering gifts. It is painted in the style of the Italian Renaissance. I am excited about this box because it is called Los Cinco Sentidos – The Five Senses. This has been a fascinating evening – rare contact with Mexico City’s most privileged class. Yet I am just a voyeur. I take this box’s title as a sign that I have come to Mexico for the right reasons. The bidding starts and soon edges higher. “Six thousand pesos,” the auctioneer urges. “Do we have seven? Seven! Eight thousand, five hundred? Nine? We have nine! Do we have nine thousand, five hundred? Yes! Ten thousand? Ten thousand pesos? Nine thousand, five hundred it is!” The gavel bangs and the audience claps politely. The Five Senses has brought in nearly a thousand dollars for a good cause, but infinitely more for me on my last night in Mexico City.


*"Chilango" is slang for a resident of Mexico City. It can be affectionate or derogatory, depending on who is using it. In this case, I intend an absolutely positive meaning!

All photos by Ardis Berghoff. First photo: Two women enjoy one of the many benches along the Paseo de la Reforma on a Sunday. Second photo: A woman sells chapulines and more from her stand at the Mercado Jamaica. Third photo: An elderly woman sells corn flour at the Mercado Jamaica. Fourth photo: Cover of the auction brochure for Las Cajas Mágicas. Fifth photo: The box called Los Cinco Sentidos (The Five Senses).

Travel ∩ Mexico City’s good taste

From sour to sweet to crunchy, new food means a new world

Part 4 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

An army travels on its stomach and so do I. Some of Mexico City’s flavors are easy on the palate; others are strange and new. Here, in pictures more than words, are some of the ways the sense of taste can transport you through this city, especially during Day of the Dead preparations. (All photos are by Ardis Berghoff, who took most of them October 26, 2008, at the Mercado Jamaica in Mexico City.)













The official fruit of Mexico should be the lime. From the sweet-sour limonada made with sparkling water, to a wedge squeezed over chunks of watermelon, papaya, cantaloupe, banana and pineapple for breakfast, its addition is simple and delicious.


Chili powder can be dusty sweet on sopes de pollo (shredded chicken, lettuce and tangy cheese piled on small, soft corn tortillas). Molé can look like melted chocolate (because it often contains cocoa) but can carry chili’s hot bite, too.










Pomegranates the size of softballs quench a thirst.

























Dark red chapulines (fried grasshoppers) are a Oaxacan delicacy, but a woman from Puebla was selling these in Mexico City. You can eat them straight – they have a pleasing crunch, then chew a bit like soft wood and release a salty, earthy tang.



This German woman has lived in Mexico City for twenty-five years and loves to cook chapulines with garlic and onions and add them to tacos along with salsa, saying she likes the way they crunch and appreciates their protein. She’d just bought a bagful to take home.


















Nopalitos are chopped cactus paddles (nopales) that have been scraped of their thorns. They emit their own clear ooze. When boiled and then tossed with peppers, onions and other vegetables and chilled, they make a refreshing and nutritious salad.



Camotes [sweet potatoes] are slow-cooked in copper kettles and end up sweet and tender.

























They may look like pan de muerto (bread rolls for Day of the Dead), but these brown twists are made from a paste of tart tamarind and lots of granulated sugar, which gives them crunch.













Dulce de calabaza is roasted squash that is so sweet Mexicans eat it for dessert during Day of the Dead festivities.














The fuschia-colored sugar of these galletas (cookies) represents the blood of Christ. These cookies were on display next to Day of the Dead sugar skulls, an example of Mexicans' penchant for synchronizing various religions and traditions.



Sugar skulls ornamented to celebrate Day of the Dead line up under their leader, whose colorful serpent plumes are the maker’s version of an Aztec king’s headdress. Families save these skulls to put out annually on altars to deceased relatives, while children love the chocolate versions for dessert. Note how Mexicans mix Day of the Dead and Halloween traditions.



Monday, October 27, 2008

Travel ∩ Led by the nose through Mexico City


Falling headlong into what is wondrous and dangerous about this place

Part 3 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

To someone who has been in Mexico City for a matter of days, a few aromas start to define it. There is the cozy, slightly nutty smell of corn tortillas cooking on street vendors’ griddles, the smell of wet stone as a woman scrubs away gritty pollution from a sidewalk with soap and water, and the scent of soap again radiating from warm bodies packed into a metro train, where the temperature reaches ninety degrees even though it is sixty-eight above ground.

My friend and fellow Mexicophile, Richard, cites warm tortillas, too, as an aroma that defines this city for him and practically transports him to heaven, he says. He also mentions the whiff of sewer gas as you walk over sidewalk grates. These are smells noted by someone on the move through Mexico City.

Then there are the aromas that define this place for people who have lived a lifetime here – the kinds of triggers our brains produce that bring back childhood or worry the mind every day. Cab driver Gilberto, a compact man with thick, silvered hair, fears the smell of contaminación, the pollution that burns his eyes and irritates his throat. He wonders if his cancer is connected to the poisonous gases in the air. He worries about its effect on his four grown children and seven grandchildren. “It is fatal,” he says. “It is worst November through January, because the cold air does not rise, and you cannot see the mountains or buildings in the distance.”

Gilberto acknowledges that he drives one of the thousands of cabs whose fumes turn the air sweet by 1 p.m. “There were five million people living in Mexico City when I moved here from Veracruz forty years ago,” he says in Spanish. “Now there are five million cars and twenty-five million people.”



Gilberto takes me to the Mercado San Cosme in the colonia San Rafael to show me what locals buy for the Day of the Dead on November 1. The holiday is almost as big as Christmas for Mexicans, for it is when they celebrate the memory of those they love who are no longer living. Among the things they buy as offerings to put on an altar are la flor del muerto, the flower of the dead – what we know as marigolds. When I ask a woman who runs a stall selling these flowers what aroma reminds her most of Mexico City, she scoops up loose marigold petals like water in her palms and breathes in their perfume-sharp scent. “This smell,” she says in Spanish, “because I have known it my entire life and it reminds me of my grandmother.”



I asked Gilberto to take me to this market because I want to smell copal, gray nuggets of tree resin that Mexicans burn in small pots as incense on their altars during this season. The acrid smoke hangs heavily in the air. Smelling a bit like church incense but earthier, this is the aroma that first defined Mexico for Carol Miller, the sculptress and book author I have interviewed for a profile I am writing. “It was so powerful, I had to know what it was,” she says. “It was my first time in a Mexican market, and it was during the Day of the Dead preparations. I could not believe all the color, all the life around me. I have associated the scent of copal with Mexico ever since.”

Indeed, in my next posting, I’ll describe the adventure that Carol, her husband, Tomás, and I had two days later at the Mercado Jamaica – the largest flower market in Mexico City – where copal leads you by the nose into a dizzying world of color, sound and tastes found nowhere else but Mexico.

Above photos by Ardis Berghoff. The first photo shows a small altar for Dia de los Muertos, with marigolds and copal burning. The second photo shows rows of marigolds -- or la flor del muerto, for sale. The third photo shows copal nuggets and nuggets of another incense known as lágrimas (tears).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Travel ∩ Exploring Mexico City by ear

Hearing voices from fifty years ago and today

Part 2 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

On one level, Mexico City sounds like any other metropolis to a traveler. Business people in restaurants discuss the day’s meetings over breakfast. A hundred cars idle at a light as you cross the street. Sirens wail and young men mutter comments to women walking past. Mexico City adds other sounds. Mariachi music bounces from a store on Genova Street, while one block down a club band plays Chicago blues. Peppers sizzle on a street vendor’s griddle. And subway trains emerge from tunnels with a muffled whoosh thanks to fat rubber tires.

But have a conversation with a long-time resident or simply sit in one place for two hours, and more telling voices emerge. Tuesday morning takes me to the home of Carol Miller, a prolific writer and sculptress who has lived in Mexico City since she arrived here by bus from Los Angeles more than fifty years ago. At the time she was a nineteen-year-old eager to write about the “real” Mexico and make her mark in the art world. She barely made a living selling ads for tourist magazines but started meeting at parties some of the people who had moved to Mexico City during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s to flee Nazism, war and McCarthyism. Mexico had just come through a decades-long revolution of its own that left tens of thousands dead, and its government welcomed intellectuals, artists, writers and other individuals who could lend their talents to creating a new, national identity for the country while celebrating its ancient past.

Among the people Carol became friends with were artists Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, public health nurse Lini de Vries, gastronome Diana Kennedy and an architect who would become one of Mexico’s most famous, Louis Barragán. She turned small writing assignments into a full-time correspondent’s position with Life magazine and started writing books about Mexico’s people, civilizations and mythology. Soon she was traveling the world, comparing cultures in Asia, South America and the Middle East with the world she’d come to love in Mexico. And thanks to a Life profile she wrote about sculptress Charlotte Yazbeck, Carol learned to sculpt in bronze. Her human and feline figures “are another form of research,” she says, into learning about humanity and the forces that hold her fast to her adopted country.



Carol lives in Pedregal, a neighborhood thirty minutes south of the city center. Built on volcanic rock, while most of Mexico City rests on a spongy ancient lakebed that is highly vulnerable to earthquakes, Pedregal emerged in the 1950s as an exclusive neighborhood of walled homes designed by Barragán and several other Modern architects. Among their peers were the architects involved in the design of a new, central campus for the city’s largest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Also in Pedregal, it represented the most modern thinking of the time while incorporating murals and other architectural details that reflected Mexico’s proud pre-Columbian heritage. Diego Rivera and Juan O’Gorman, another architect and artist, designed the campus’ most famous murals.

Today, college students walk past the murals chatting with friends and smoking. You smell weed in the air while other weeds grow between the volcanic paving stones and litter lies across lawns. The landmark buildings need cleaning and restoration. But as I sit on a low wall in one plaza, I hear groups of friends erupt in laughter, the persistent rhythms of student drummers practicing on a nearby lawn and dozens of simultaneous conversations coming from the open windows of classrooms in a long building with the starkness of 1950s Modern. Through a set of speakers perched by themselves on a balcony three stories above comes the distorted blare of a female voice reciting a speech. She talks of the university and their work. Then another female voice recites poetry about the sea, the sky and her place in the world. Students keep walking across the plaza below, smoking their cigarettes and holding hands. No one seems to be listening, but it is oddly comforting to see this makeshift sound system all by itself up there, while graffiti on the balcony above it reads, “Atención libertad: castigo a Fox, Peña, Nieto.” Look out, liberty: punishment for Fox, Peña, Nieto – a message for several Mexican leaders.


All photos by Ardis Berghoff. The first photo shows Carol Miller in her studio. The second photo shows the library, with murals designed by Juan O'Gorman on its walls, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico campus, University City, Mexico City. The third photo shows a classroom building on campus. The blaring speaker is the small, silver box perched on the third-floor balcony.The graffiti is barely visible on the uppermost balcony.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Travel ∩ Mexico City’s public displays of nudity and affection



The City’s a Feast for the Eyes
Part 1 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

The Valley of Mexico sparkles with a billion pavé diamonds as my plane comes in low over Mexico City late Sunday night. The white and yellow lights of neighborhoods, streets and cars run across vast flatland, over hills and up volcanoes as high as they dare go before the sides grow too steep for human civilization.

While I have flown into this city – one of the densest and most sprawling in the world – during daylight several times, I have never seen its 20 million people’s worth of buildings and pavement from on high at night before. The sight makes me smile while fireworks sprout and burst over some colonia celebrating something fantastic I am sure.

As my taxi takes me to my hotel, I spot a fire-breather at an intersection. He takes a swig of a combustible liquid from a plastic bottle and lights his breath with a torch. The flame shoots into the dark and is gone in a second. He repeats this act seven times and then goes car to car, but no one gives him change.

What a traveler sees through her own eyes makes the strongest first impression of a foreign place, and my first full day here is no exception. I know better than to expect this city to be the bright pinks, oranges, yellows and reds of travel posters. Instead, it is a visual barrage of concrete, coconut palms dulled with the thick dust of pollution, slick corporate high rises and crumbling Spanish colonial mansions encrusted with baroque limestone and rusting iron balconies.

It is the brown-skinned backs of dozens of shirtless campesinos and their naked wives I see as I walk up one of the city’s main drags, the Paseo de la Reforma, past boutique hotels and the U.S. Embassy. The men are wearing blue jeans and straw cowboy hats as they dance and raise fists from their perch on a traffic median. Their women wear their own straw hats and sandals as they stomp to a drumbeat that makes their sagging breasts and buttocks jiggle and the black triangles below their abdomens glint in the sunlight. These men and women are farmers from the country and they are protesting government indifference and high taxes. A thousand cars wait silently at the stoplight and passersby continue up the avenue with hardly a smile or smirk. The few laughs come from a thousand policemen dressed in black shin-guards and blue bulletproof uniforms as they stand in their own lines down side streets, scratched Plexiglas shields raised and ready.

I walk east on Juarez to the Torre Latinoamericana, where I take the elevator to the top. The doors open to let people out into gray-partitioned offices before we reach the observation deck, where Mexico City’s skyline explodes before my eyes in sunlight, sky, cumulus clouds and sprawl. Now I laugh out loud at the scale of it all.



I ride the metro a lot today. It is an easy-to-navigate system and at less than 20 cents a pop, is one of the best deals going. In the underground Juarez station, three rivers of humanity come at me as I search for my train. Soon I am flowing along with everyone, following the giant yellow arrows on the foot-polished stone floors that direct us through endless corridors to make trains on the pink, green, red and blue lines. Light-skinned faces with the thin-lidded eyes and aquiline noses of Spaniards pass me along with dark-brown faces whose square foreheads and magnificent chiseled noses remind me of profiles of ancient gods on Aztec petroglyphs.

I stand packed up against people swaying on the train taking us to Insurgentes. A blind man pushes through commuters as he hawks CDs, a boom box strapped to his chest sampling his wares at top volume.

The article I am writing about mid-century Modern architecture in Mexico City takes me from one end of the city to the other today as I find landmark buildings, photograph them and scribble notes. A friend told me before I left on this trip how affectionate Mexicanos are. I see middle-age couples entwined in parks, teenage girls and boys necking in subway corridors and two boys French kissing in the Zona Rosa. Still more couples in business suits sit at Starbucks, looking into each other’s eyes, holding hands, and stroking arms, cheeks, thighs.

What a sight.


Photos by Ardis Berghoff. The first photo shows an enamel mural, "Alegoría de los Símbolos Patrios y Solidaridad," by Adrián Brun, in Exposition Hall at the Centro Médico Nacional in Mexico City. The second photo shows the Mexico City skyline looking north from the Torre Latinoamericana.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Life ∩ Independence Day

As I listen to stories about citizenship and patriotism this Independence Day weekend, I think about an occasion two weeks ago, when I had the honor of meeting a young Iraqi face to face.

Twenty-nine years old, he had been in the United States for a month and had come to Chicago with someone I know who had served in Iraq as part of the Reserves. The Iraqi risked his life as a translator for the Americans in his country for a year-and-a-half and had worked with my friend. Handsome, with a square jaw, dark almond eyes and slender build, he spoke excellent English, used slang smoothly, and told me he loved our language.

“I think English is beautiful,” he said.

He learned English in school, had a college degree and talked of how members of his university’s English department would joke very quietly among themselves about Saddam Hussein.

The young Iraqi was granted asylum in our country – one of a lucky few – thanks in part to my friend’s efforts, after a convoluted and financially expensive struggle with government officials.

More than 250 translators working for the Americans have been murdered in Iraq, according to the Washington Post (“Asylum Program Falls Short For Iraqis Aiding U.S. Forces,” by Walter Pincus, Washington Post, January 22, 2008). Their families are in danger as well. The Post reports that a U.S. asylum initiative applied to 50 interpreters a year in 2006, expanded to 500 interpreters for 2007 and 2008, and will shrink back to 50 next year. Some 429 Iraqi and 71 Afghan translators – and 482 family members – have been admitted to the United States as refugees since September 2007, yet there are about 7,000 interpreters who have worked for the U.S. since the war began.

“Have you known people who were killed?” I asked the young man.

“Yes,” he said. “One day they exist, and then they do not. You forget that they are dead and go about your life until you go somewhere or talk to someone else and realize that the person you knew is no longer there.” He shrugged.

I showed off Chicago to my guests for two days – the city’s architecture, our lake front studded with sailboats, our restaurants and institutions. The Iraqi exclaimed with delight as he read the script on ancient coins on display at the Oriental Institute.

“These are words from the Koran,” he said, uttering them out loud in Arabic and English. He received a call on his cell phone about a possible job as he wandered among the museum's collection of idols, pottery shards and stone tablets unearthed at sites across his homeland. He stared up at our buildings, out at Lake Michigan and across our lush parks, all dazzling in the June sun. I imagine he told his new bride back in Iraq of these sights during his nightly phone calls to her. His voice would reach her early in the morning, Iraq time.

He would like to bring his bride to the U.S. One of them is Sunni; the other is Shiite. They had to keep their relationship a secret in Iraq. He is not sure how to contend with his mother-in-law, who does not want him seeking the advice of female Iraqis now in the U.S., young women who may be good companions for his wife when she arrives. Her mother fears these women may appeal to this young man, far from home.

“What is romance to you?” he asked me on our second night together as he, my friend and I walked up Broadway after hearing a French jazz quartet play their hearts out at the Green Mill, my favorite jazz club.

“It is when two people make life special for one another,” I answered. “When they celebrate each other in small and large ways.”

“Yes!” he said, raising his open hands in front of him. “Tell me more! Other women I’ve asked think it's about roses and dinner out.”

“I think romance is when one person makes the other feel that wonderful things are possible,” I said.

The young man smiled as we walked along.

Later that evening I drove the three of us along the winding boulevard that leads to the Midway Plaisance, a mile-long stretch of parkland in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. This oasis, on the city’s South Side, is home to the gothic University of Chicago and the stately Museum of Science and Industry.

“This looks like a road that winds through Baghdad,” the young Iraqi said, looking out the window at the dark trees. “It is just like an area in Baghdad!”

I thought of the Tigris River, how its water must afford a green and curving path through that city, even today.

I felt like reassuring this young Iraqi that by some fluke we were not in Baghdad and that he was safe. At least twice in as many days, as we stood in the sun or before one of Chicago’s landmark buildings, I saw him sigh and smile. “I am safe,” he said out loud.

Happy birthday to our nation and, especially, to one of its newest immigrants.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Adventure ∩ Dream Boat (part 4)



All right, I admit that it has been more than a week since my last posting. I hope to make up for the delay with some good storytelling and photos for you.

First I recount how I met Steve and then we rejoin the voyage, which has reached the middle of Lake Huron.


The first time I met Steve, he was sitting before a roaring fire at a friend’s house. It was a February afternoon in 2004, and he was answering questions for a documentary about his building the St. Barbara and sailing her home to Ireland. Drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee for energy and then his homemade poteen (Irish moonshine) to calm his nerves, he sat stiffly before the camera, which Robert had trained on him from a tripod at the room’s edge.

The second time I met Steve, two weeks later, he was installing the rudder on his boat. It stood on scaffolding beside the Chicago River, a few yards from the warehouse where he had completed the bulk of its construction. I walked around the hull, amazed at its steeply rounded sides and tightly planked, tar-blackened skin. It was like standing before a sleeping whale. Its massiveness was palpable, the sides heavy and thick with wood. I could almost see them move in and out, breathing.

Minutes later, I scaled the ladder to the deck and descended another ladder into the unfinished cabin. I made my way to the front bulkhead, eyeing the wooden berths along the bow. The boat’s framework, while still impressive, did not seem as invincible as it did when I was on the ground looking up at the hull rising some 16 feet above me. I imagined trying to sleep, my body bent to the curving, foreshortened bunk, the water’s force against wood inches from where I’d lie.

Back on deck, Steve paused in his work so that I could take a photograph. The black silhouette of Sears Tower punctuated the downtown Chicago skyline behind him. It was less than three years since September 11, 2001. From the solidity of this 19th century leviathan, I looked at that steel 20th century leviathan and thought about how each was the product of men’s ambition and how vulnerable each really was. The first to whatever nature will deal out in high seas and storms. The second to whatever plans men hold onto with hatred. Man’s threat seemed far more menacing than nature’s on that sunny day, and I was glad for people like Steve, who are driven to build something wonderful, something that others see their dreams in as well.



September 16-17 . . . So we are heading into the second night of our journey, and I sit on deck with Niall, Robert and Steve. The waves are dark mountains before us. I feel their steepness as we surge up and over them to slide down their slick backs, again and again. It is black all around us but for faint sprays of light on the horizon to mark towns. A sliver of bright orange moon rises and falls within an hour in the western sky.

“What have you liked better, building or sailing the St. Barbara?” I ask Steve, as he and Niall, each on a side of the tiller, alternately lean into it to take the waves.

“Do you want the truth?” he replies. I nod. “Building. I like to work with wood.”

Pat indicated the same thing earlier in the day. “Steve likes to build them, I prefer to sail,” he said. “It takes patience to sail, you have to concentrate.” Pat said he would sail all the way to St. John’s, Newfoundland, despite the lateness in the year for crossing the Great Lakes and 600 miles of open Atlantic, both of which grow dangerous in the fall. The same notion gives Steve pause.

The St. Barbara is a Galway hooker, a shoreline boat that was never designed for crossing oceans. Only one hooker has made the journey before, the adventurer Paddy Barry’s St. Patrick, from Ireland to New York in 1986. The hooker’s legacy is one of daily work. Throughout the 19th century and halfway through the twentieth, hundreds of them supplied the people of Connemara’s isolated coastal villages with the staples they needed to survive: food, tools, cattle, pigs, and turf cut from the region’s bogs to heat their homes. Men also used the boats for hook-and-line fishing, which likely gave the vessel its name. The hooker was the main link between villages and larger cities such as Galway. It rose to nautical prominence on Ireland’s west coast without fanfare and nearly went extinct the same way. After World War II, the government paved the roads so that cars and trucks could reach the towns. Workboats making daily deliveries became obsolete.

Left to rot on beaches and in fields, the hooker almost disappeared. There were just two of them still delivering cargo in 1970 when a few men started to preserve the boats and use them for pleasure sailing. One of them was Coleman Mulkerrins, Steve’s father. A traveling insurance salesman by trade, the elder Mulkerrins was interested in preserving Gaelic culture. As the official “King of the Islands,” he was responsible for raising money to save the coastal communities, which he did by organizing the dances that Niall, Niall’s father and many Irish attended. He also helped write and produce plays in Gaelic about contemporary Irish life. He organized trips so that his troupe could perform in Dublin; London; Geneva, Switzerland; Boston and Chicago. No one else was doing such a thing, and the plays were extremely popular.

“They’d pack houses with lines out the door,” said Niall, who accompanied Steve’s father. “Even in London, where the theater manager said it was never packed.”

Back in Connemara, Coleman had bought two small hookers that Steve worked on as a boy. Some days, the two of them sailed one or the other of the boats from their village of Maumeen across Greatman’s Bay. Coleman organized races of Galway hookers, often calling them from a stage on shore. Steve remembers running through town with friends to steal ice cream from the stands set up for race days.

“It was always a big day because we had no stores in town,” he said. Maumeen had just 200 people and one long stone pier. Most residents made a living by fishing and subsistence farming small plots of rocky land. Like many local teenagers, Steve decided to leave home at age 16 for London, where he would learn a building trade.

“My father tried to stop me, but I was too thick-headed,” he said.

Steve worked six years in London, coming home during the summers to see his family and work on the boats. Then he moved to Boston, where he spent another six years working construction and on boats during his free time.

In June 1987, Steve returned home once more. This time he accompanied his father. Coleman Mulkerrins had gone to Boston to try a second round of chemotherapy to conquer his colon cancer. He was in the midst of planning to take one of his Gaelic plays to New Zealand. Instead, with Steve at his side, he crossed the Atlantic west to east on a stretcher laid over three airplane seats. He died several days later in Maumeen at the age of 59.

A decade later, Steve was married and living with his wife and children in Chicago, where he’d begun a construction business and had just launched plans to build a Galway hooker of his own.

“He would be totally over the moon if he knew,” Steve says of his father.

From 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. rain pelts Steve and Niall at the helm while lightning fills the sky and big swells blot out the horizon. Aidan is on deck too, to help navigate. At midnight, while most of us hold onto fitful sleep in our berths, Aidan peers through a pair of night-vision binoculars.

“Tanker!” he shouts and points toward a ship heading right for us. Barely visible because it is missing many of its lights, the tanker is 500 feet away and closing fast. Steve and Niall pull on the tiller and the St. Barbara swerves 90 degrees, out of the tanker’s path.

“I doubt anyone on board was watching for obstacles like us,” Aidan told me the next morning. No one watching on deck, no one watching for a small blip on the radar. He reported the tanker to the Coast Guard by radio after we were back on course. Colliding with such a huge vessel would have obliterated the St. Barbara.

Despite the close call and the bad weather over night, we have made good progress down Lake Huron. Waves are peaking at 15 to 20 feet and the wind is 25 m.p.h. Pat has us raise the staysail and jib to stabilize the boat. In less than six hours, we have gone 55 nautical miles, are doing 10 knots and at 6 a.m. are approaching the bridge at Port Huron, which marks the end of this lake and passage to the St. Clair River.

Before reaching the river mouth, we pass several more freighters, each a couple of hundred feet long, and a Coast Guard ship. Not 30 minutes later, after entering the river, we hear a muffled bump and the St. Barbara lurches. There is a gritty, rubbing sound. We have run aground, most likely on a sandbar. Everyone – Niall, Robert, Tom, Aidan, Steve and I – rushes to the bow and stands on its tip or straddles the bowsprit to shift the boat’s weight as Pat yanks down on a lever to throw the engine into reverse. The St. Barbara eases off the sandbar with a grumble, shifts her weight again as we disperse across the deck, and picks her path carefully down the river. Aidan and Patrick take a closer look at the charts for any marked sandbars ahead.

As the writer on board, it is my job to keep the ship’s log as well as my own notebooks. So I bring the log up on deck and sit on the cabin roof to record the wind speed, the boat’s speed and wave height. I also include a reference or two to things we’ve seen. Steve suggests this bit of detail: He claims that last night our modest skipper Pat, in a sleep-walking stupor, climbed the ladder to the deck, thinking he was back home in his Chicago apartment because he came up in his underwear looking for the bathroom. Everyone laughs, including me, but it takes me a beat to realize this is a tall tale. We all sleep in our clothes. But I put it in the log for posterity, and the guys have me read it out loud when Pat joins us on deck, to great amusement.

I am not immune to pranks, either. Because I am a light sleeper, I use earplugs and a folded bandana, which I tie over my eyes and around my head to block out the cabin light. The guys find this interesting, in an S&M kind of way. Two nights ago, Niall says that Aidan put the blow-up doll, with her collar and dog leash, next to me as I slept and took a photo. This may or may not be true. I have yet to receive an incriminating print in the mail.

Despite the threat of sand bars, it does not take us long to make our way down the 30 miles of St. Clair River and into Lake St. Clair. As we near the Detroit skyline in the damp gray light, we pass a tugboat pulling two barges and then spy a 20-foot fiberglass sailboat approaching us from the south. It swings around and comes alongside us, four men on deck. All of them eye the St. Barbara and its rumpled crew, most of whom are on deck for late breakfast/early lunch.

“You guys are nuts!” the man at the tiller shouts.

I laugh and so do a couple of the other crew. Steve has not heard what the man shouted and asks me to repeat his comment. When I do, he is not amused.

“Why would he say that?” he asks, not smiling.

“He’s teasing,” I reply.

“Let him come on board and say that,” Niall mutters. Steve looks at the men as they wave and then looks ahead with a straight face. I am a little surprised. He and Niall and the rest of our crew can tease one another relentlessly, but this journey is no joke to them.

Later, I sit on the cabin roof again, this time writing in my notebook. Steve sits down next to me and leans in, as if to see what I am writing.

“The sailboat always has the right of way – put that down,” he tells me with only a bit of levity in his voice.


All photos this posting by Ardis Berghoff.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Adventure ∩ Dream Boat (part 3)


Please see part 1 for general background on this story. The crew of the St. Barbara have made it through the Straits of Mackinac and their first night on the water, only to find what Lake Huron has in store for them.

September 16 . . . What this journey gives us it also can take away. It is a kind of barter that we can never predict, much like the weather, which defies the radio reports from the National Weather Service and the Internet.

Patrick has decided to use the engine, rather than risk damage to the sails in the dark as we traverse Lake Huron. It is raining and the wind has picked up to 25 miles per hour, while the waves have grown to 15 feet or more in height. Steve has discussed four-hour shifts with the crew but not with Robert or me, for our job is to record this journey. I realize that I am not part of Steve’s circle of friends, and he wants this adventure to be theirs.

Most of the men stay up all night, and I think they love it, this facing down of the elements and blazing a path with a boat the likes of which the Great Lakes have never seen before. When I stir in my berth, awakened by the pitching, I see Pat sitting at the navigation table, reading charts in lamplight. I hear boots on the ladder and then Steve, Aidan or Niall talking at the helm. They communicate in snatches of Gaelic and a constant “Eh? Eh?” No matter what one guy says, the man he’s speaking to asks him to repeat himself with “Eh? Eh?” Cigarette and cigar smoke wafts into the cabin.

By early morning, we are about 50 miles off course. The waves hit us from multiple directions, the rough movement taking its toll on everyone.

Each of us has a way of staving off seasickness, which can be a minor annoyance or incapacitating. Pat’s approach is to keep busy, while Steve suggests we sing. Does anyone know a sea shanty? Niall, who is in his 40s, chooses to eat nothing for the first several days of the voyage, drinking only beer when we pull into a port. He seems a bit reckless but superstitious, too, with the steps he takes to ward off harm. He carries in his wallet St. Patrick’s prayer for protection. His copy is handwritten by his aunt in Gaelic on a long piece of paper, which he has folded into a small square. It is so worn and brittle that it is illegible. I am not a religious person myself, but when I sought out the prayer in English, I found it comforting, as many people do. Here is an excerpt from one version:


I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Brilliance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today

Through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to secure me



It goes on to say:

Christ protect me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come abundance of reward.



A cloth scapular with an image of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus hangs from a string around Niall’s neck. From his back pocket a green plastic shamrock dangles on the chain that runs from his wallet to a belt loop. He will tell you a story in a deep, growling voice or make a boyish joke.

“You can read an ocean but not these lakes,” he says. “They are like reading Chinese.”

Niall seems to relish his long shifts at the tiller. He is in shirtsleeves, a look of importance on his face. He is rail thin, his face almost gaunt. I wonder if he eats well, living alone in Chicago, where he has a job finishing concrete. He flirts with me almost constantly, but I do not really take offense. I sense he does not have much experience with romantic relationships. He comes from Connemara, not far from where Steve grew up. Both of his parents died within a year-and-a-half of each other. He tells me this quietly, at the helm. He was nine when his father died. They were being driven home after competing in a contest of traditional Irish dancing, where they had both won prizes. Sitting in the back seat, his father reclined, putting his head in Niall’s lap to doze. Niall did not realize he was dead until they reached home.

Steve’s father, Coleman Mulkerrins, had been friends with Niall’s father, and took the boy under wing. Coleman organized dances across Ireland and often took Niall along, giving him the job of collecting tickets at the door.

“He was almost more of a son to my father than I was,” Steve says.

“A gentleman,” is how Niall describes the elder Mulkerrins, who, as he would with family, hung a framed picture of Niall in his home. “Steve is the spitting image of his father,” Niall tells me. “When he says he’ll do something, he does it. He is a great man.”

Niall left Ireland for England when he was 11 years old. He met Steve there two years later and then again in Chicago when he moved to the US nine years ago. Steve was established in Chicago by then and gave him work. Now Niall is part of this crew. He pours strength into his current task as human lever, his chest leaning into the tiller while his legs angle outward, his athletic shoes pressed against the gunwale.

There is no letting go of the tiller, for there is nothing else keeping us on course but the 18-foot-long rudder it controls. The St. Barbara has no polished steel captain’s wheel or steering system driven by rack-and-pinion or hydraulics, let alone autopilot. Every minute we sail, every broadside blow from the waves, and every shove from a wind gust transmits through this length of oak. The guys will maintain direct contact with the boat and the elements this way for every moment of their journey through these lakes and across 4,500 miles of open Atlantic until they reach Ireland.

Against the current we crawl for several hours at five knots (just under six m.p.h.) deep into Thunder Bay. The bay, which is both 10 miles wide and deep, is a bathtub compared to the ocean to come, but this is no leisurely soak. Everything is a miserable shade of gray: pale sky, steely water, hazy tree line. The rain whips around like airborne needles as I watch the waves peak above our heads. The story-telling stops; Robert and Tom have hunkered down. Aidan, Patrick and Steve help Niall at the tiller.

I sit just behind the cabin roof, tense and hating where we are at the moment. To fight seasickness, I have taken Dramamine and am wearing pressure-point bracelets on both wrists. But queasiness sneaks up. I am cold and wet despite wearing three pairs of pants (including a waterproof pair Niall has lent to me, as well as my own), fleece, a life vest, my ski jacket, a rubber-coated jacket (also from Niall), a hat and hood. I train my eyes on the thin strip of land to starboard, each rise of the waves corresponding with a horrible upheaval in my gut. I am shaking and decide to stay quiet, sipping from a water bottle. But filling my stomach with water is the worst thing I could do. I lose it several times over the side as Niall, who has given the tiller to Steve, grabs my ankles. I am oblivious to this as I feel myself turn inside out. I am supremely embarrassed, but the best antidote to seasickness is giving into it, at least for a bit.

We lurch forward, passing three ports because their harbors are too shallow, even for the St. Barbara. Alpena, an industrial town on Michigan’s east coast, is our only hope at this point for finding fuel, potable water for the tank and a hot lunch.

“You have to have patience on a journey like this,” Steve says.

And then, hallelujah, Alpena appears! Not much is happening along the waterfront, where a hardboard manufacturing plant anchors a series of blank-walled buildings. By the time we moor along a seawall, the sun is out. I can still feel the waves in my legs as I struggle to keep pace with the men, who walk into town looking for Main Street and a restaurant for lunch. The streets seem abandoned and too many storefronts are vacant. But we find a steak joint on a corner, decorated like a Western saloon.

The guys let out a cheer – red meat is what they crave! We pass through heavy wooden doors and glance at the animal-head trophies mounted on the walls. We take their biggest table, a circular one that seats ten with a lazy Susan in the center. Everyone feels how tired they are now and says nothing, staring off in different directions as we wait for the food.

Niall has three beers while most of the others devour T-bones. I still have not learned my lesson – despite my returned appetite – and modestly order a hamburger, which does not stave off the lake’s cold and wet like steak and potatoes. But our mood rises, the joking starts up and we talk of reaching Lake St. Clair by first light the next morning. We have 160 miles to go down Lake Huron and the St. Clair River to get there. Steve talks about how well the boat is holding up. When he and the crew discuss sailing the St. Barbara home, they always say they are bringing her “back to Ireland,” as if she had been there before, rather than a gal born in a warehouse on Chicago’s South Side. Back at the pier, she has her fill, too, of diesel and fresh water for her tanks. We will now have running water in the sinks and toilet.

Lake Huron is gentle with us this afternoon. It is hard to believe this is the same lake we knew this morning. The deep blue waves are just a couple of feet high and the breeze is warm and light, so we must use the engine again to augment the sails. We don't like its drone, but we are cruising at a leisurely seven-and-a-half knots. The only distractions are the rush of water splaying from the hull, the leathery flap of sail and the pulleys’ rattle. This boat does not creak; it is still tight from being so new. There isn’t a soul in front of us for miles. Not a person, not a building, not a car nor a billboard. There are no phone calls, pop-music radio stations or demands, except to move forward.

And to sleep. Finally, the guys can sleep. Steve takes a long berth by the engine and puts plugs in his ears. Patrick takes a second long berth behind the chart table.

I sit with the other guys on deck. We are now running with the waves. They keep pace with us and then drop away, like a dog that races a car and suddenly wheels around.

Then I notice a ghostly moan coming from somewhere inside the hull or the water. It goes up in pitch as the St. Barbara pushes great volumes of water out of her way. It falls as the boat settles lower in the water again. Could the waves’ friction on the hull be humming? Perhaps it is mysterious lake whales calling. Later, Patrick tells me it is the dual propellers rising and submerging as the waves roll beneath us. We are carried southward toward ocean freighters, Detroit and a human manatee.

Coming within the week – the next installment of “Dream Boat,” with more photos from the journey.

Above photo by Ardis Berghoff.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Adventure ∩ Dream Boat (part 2)



With the St. Barbara stocked and ready to go, we resume our story. Please see Part 1 for an introduction to this adventure, the boat and her crew.

September 15 . . . Lake Michigan pushes back as we launch the St. Barbara from St. James’ pier. Waves roll right for us as a headwind blows the 20-ton boat toward the pilings. The lively talk that preceded our casting off turns to silence as Steve, Niall and Aidan plant their hands on the pier’s posts and push. Pat runs the engine to maneuver the heavy boat while he steadies the tiller with one foot, a cigar in his mouth. With a bit of persistence and help from the 150 horsepower diesel Ford, we are free of the pier, then free of the harbor and heading out into Lake Michigan.

It is nearly five o’clock. The men decide to raise the staysail and jib, which they have brought up on deck, along with cigarettes and coffee. Nicotine and caffeine will be the choice human fuels for this journey. I soon understand why they need the boost.

A Galway hooker relies on rope, wooden pulley blocks the size of cantaloupes and muscle to raise the sails. The mainsail is lashed to the mast – rope sliding over wood – not run through a metal slot or along a track as on more modern boats. The jib must be clipped to the tip of the bowsprit, which extends 18 feet beyond the bow. The boat’s mast and spars (the gaff, bowsprit and boom, which essentially run perpendicular to the mast and help support the sails) are as heavy as tree trunks, because they are red pine logs that Steve purchased in northern Wisconsin and outfitted for the boat. Finally, the boat is carrying more than 1,600 square feet of sails. While they are made from Dacron instead of the weighty cotton calico that would have been used in 19th-century Ireland, their size makes them heavy. The red color is traditional and comes from the boiled tree bark and butter that the Irish boat builders would rub into the cloth to keep rats and mice from devouring it.

Raising the staysail and jib takes Steve, Niall and Aidan fifteen minutes. It is not easy as the boat pitches about while they try to figure out which line is which. They are not yet used to working together, let alone sailing this boat. This is no sleek, hyper-designed racing boat in the America’s Cup! The guys simply take it as it comes, using their weight to haul on the lines. They crank and hoist until the rusty cloth billows and catches the wind. We are sailing.


Steve puts a tape into the stereo, and Irish ballads blast through the built-in speakers on deck. The volume is high to compete with the engine’s growl, but the enormous blue sky, the sunlight and the rhythm of the waves against the hull quiet us. Steve and Aidan look west across the water, while Niall sits at the stern with Patrick, who is still at the tiller. Tom sits beside me on the other side of the tiller; Robert lies on his back on the cabin roof. Their smiles could be from squinting at the sun or from a new sensation: the weight of every worry and responsibility back home in Chicago falling away as we head into open space and water.

Steve hands me an empty plastic bottle. “Write a message and put it in,” he says. I take a page from my notebook and write, Hello from the St. Barbara, an authentic Galway hooker built by Steve Mulkerrins heading home to Ireland from its birthplace in Chicago. Good luck to her crew and the person who finds this message. I draw a crude shamrock, fold up the paper and toss the sealed bottle overboard. It bobs away on the waves.

We catch our first glimpse of the Mackinac Bridge, which spans the five miles of water between lower and upper Michigan. It is barely a sketch on the horizon, but through binoculars, we can see its towers glowing pink in the setting sun. A line of birds snakes up and down above the waves. There are lots of migrating birds now, but the wind is warm.

Niall and Steve take turns at the tiller while Patrick checks the charts below deck. He has decided that after we pass beneath the bridge we’ll take a southerly route through the Straits of Mackinac. The water is shallow and riddled with rocks, but the distance is shorter. The charts mark each known shipwreck with an X. The Stalker, Cedarville, Barnum, Clay and Andrew. In fact, throughout the Straits, there are 41 known shipwrecks, while another 43 are believed to be in the area but have not yet been located. Most are wooden 19th-century schooners. Some are steel-hulled freighters. Fortunately for us, Galway hookers have a shallow draft by design.

“These boats floated on their bellies so they could deliver cargo in water as shallow as nine feet,” Steve tells me of the traditional hookers, which regularly navigated the natural harbors and rocky shores of Connemara to reach isolated villages 100 years ago.

The men lower the sails at Patrick’s request. We do not want to rely on the unevenness of sail power and wind gusts near the bridge and the shallow water to come. The engine drones. It is about 8 p.m. when we finally pass under the Mackinac Bridge. Its deck, 199 feet above us, arches gracefully like a spine. I can see cars and trucks, their headlights tiny points, gliding along like toys on its roadway. Lights dot the girders and great cables arching overhead and sparkle in the dark. It feels like we’re passing beneath a mighty skyscraper sleeping on its side.

Minutes later we have a job to do. Standing at the bow and along the weatherboards that run the boat’s length, we scan the water for rocks and other obstacles. There are dozens of buoys that come at us out of the dark. Each one corresponds to one of those Xs on the chart or some other hazard. Patrick has the tiller. Steve looks nervous. Niall eyes a gauge at the helm, calling out the water’s depth to Aidan, who’s at the chart table below confirming our course. “Sixteen feet!” Niall calls. “Fifteen feet!” “Seventeen!” We churn past a buoy, its white flag flapping to warn us of its charge, a big wreck lying on the Strait’s mucky bottom, just feet of black water and a century between it and us.

By now, the temperature has dropped and spray has made a seat at the stern a wet place to be, but we all gather there, fascinated by the night. Most of the guys have put on their foul weather gear – bulky, waterproof jackets and pants pulled on over their jeans and t-shirts. I wear my ski parka and nylon ski pants to stay dry. Steve still wears his windbreaker, a logo for the bank that provides the financing for his condo projects embroidered on the front. Dinner is deli meat, cheese and bread.

Lake Michigan recedes into blackness while the 206-mile length of Lake Huron stretches in front of us, equally as black. Turning south, we face down a strong headwind and waves that crash over St. Barbara’s bow, once again trying to force her back from whence she came.

I turn in at this point. It is my first night in a narrow berth – one of the benches beside the galley table. It is too rough to try brushing my teeth in the head, so I dive into the berth, clothes still on, and shut my eyes against the tossing cabin and queasiness, my leg braced against the table to keep myself from falling to the floor.

Coming within the week – the next installment of “Dream Boat.”

Photos by Ardis Berghoff.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Adventure ∩ Dream Boat (part 1)


For nearly four years I followed the story of Steve Mulkerrins, a contractor and condo developer by trade who built an extraordinary sailboat in a warehouse on Chicago’s South Side. It was a Galway hooker, a traditional wooden sailboat used along the western coast of Ireland for much of the 19th and early 20th century to haul cargo and for fishing. Steve’s boat is the biggest of its kind: 47 feet long and made of oak and larch. It took him nearly four years and $500,000 of his own money to build, he says. In 2006, he and a few of his friends set a world record by sailing the boat from Chicago home to their native Ireland. I published feature stories about Steve’s undertaking in WoodenBoat magazine (July 2006) and Lake magazine (July 2007).

The following sketch comes from notes I took as I sailed with the crew during their first Great Lakes journey in 2004. We traveled from Lake Michigan across lakes Huron, St. Clair, Erie and Ontario and up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Montreal. Later posts will recount storms and idyllic days, describe the boat’s massive construction and tell you more about the men, who prove that achieving the American Dream – while maintaining ties with one’s heritage – is alive and well.


September 15. . . “You’re overdressed!” Steve says to me as he enters the terminal at Chicago Executive Airport, an airport for small aircraft northwest of Chicago. He is referring to a call I made to him a couple of days earlier. “Steve, I need your fashion advice,” I joked with the no-frills, self-described carpenter. “What type of foul weather gear should I buy for the trip?” Dressed now in a t-shirt and cargo pants (a duffle bag by my side is packed with a ski jacket and nylon pants instead of expensive sailing gear), I had arrived at the airport at 10:30 a.m., as Steve suggested, for an 11 a.m. chartered flight to Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. The crew left the Saint Barbara there three weeks earlier during the first, brief leg of their Great Lakes journey. Steve and his friends now saunter toward me through the departure lounge, smiling and laughing. It is 11:08 a.m.

Steve* is the stoutest of the group and wears the same stained (but laundered) jeans he wore to tar the boat’s hull months ago. A native of Connemara on Ireland’s west coast, he is hard working, fast-talking and our captain. By his side is his skipper, Patrick*, from the Aran Islands. He is handsome, six-foot-plus and has a melodious way of speaking English. Yet he is so low-key that you would never guess he possesses ninety percent of this crew’s sailing experience and skills. Niall is first mate and a boyhood friend of Steve’s. He is wiry, has a weathered face and tends to call women, including me, “Baby Doll.” Aidan, the youngest crewmember, has a wife and baby at home. He also is from Ireland and works in Pat’s Chicago plumbing business. Tom, who is American-born but of Irish heritage, is a former Chicago cop and Steve’s neighbor on Chicago’s northwest side. Robert is Irish-American as well. A Vietnam vet and retired network television cameraman, he is filming the voyage for a documentary.

A twin-engine pulls up on the tarmac. We pile in, with the guys insisting that I take the front seat beside the pilot. We are in the air by 11:30. It’s a sunny, hot day, the deep blue lake below us smudged with white cresting waves. White horses, sailors call them. They are a sign of rough weather that a sailor will often note to decide if going out that day is worth whatever lies ahead.

The mood in the cabin is high. The plane’s engines roar, so I cannot hear what the guys are saying behind me, but their tone is light and joking. Whenever I turn around, I find Tom, with his large green-blue eyes, staring at me. While I knew most of the crew from gathering at the boat’s construction site and its launch, I had never met him before our boarding the plane and smile at him politely. Maybe he wanted the front seat, I think.

Our pilot, Paul, gives me a set of headphones to wear. He lives on Beaver Island and often flies people between there and the Chicago area. Between his radio communications with the airport, he tells me about flying over Lake Michigan.

“The waves are big, even from up here,” he says, eyeing the whitecaps. At this point, the water seems as abstract as the aeronautical map that lies in my lap. I trace our progress with my finger, comparing the map’s figures with various bays and islands I spot in the hazy distance. Paul tells me that in 2001 he flew back and forth over Beaver Island, helping to look for a downed plane that contained a man, his wife and their three children. Of all the searchers in the air and on the water looking for the family, he was the one to find them. They had crashed in a cedar swamp on the island. The two pilots and the family’s dog perished.

“We’re now best friends for life,” he tells me of his relationship with the husband and wife. “She calls me monthly to see how I am. She must relive that crash every day.”

Beaver Island lies nearly 300 miles northeast of Chicago and is known as America’s Emerald Isle. Mormon leader James Strang tried establishing a kingdom there in 1850 but was later assassinated. Irish fishermen and their families then settled the island. Today, the summer homes of people from Milwaukee, Chicago and other cities dot the island, whose population dips to 551 residents in winter.

An hour later, we land on Beaver Island’s grass runway and taxi to two sheds, one clad in silvered, weathered wood, the other built of logs. As soon as we step out of the plane, many of the crew light cigarettes and take quick, deep drags. The pilot gives us a ride into town. St. James is quaint, with clapboard-sided houses and inns for the tourists. The place has a getting-ready-for-winter quiet that resort towns take on once the summer residents have deserted.

By 1 p.m. we are at the harbor and the boat. I have not seen the Saint Barbara in a couple of months, and she looks good, if not a little lonely alongside the gravel quay. She is named in the Irish tradition after a saint and also for Steve’s mother, out of love and perhaps a pitch for good luck. Her black hull sits low in the water, her hatch is battened down and locked, the open cockpit already a bit sun-beaten and her single mast bare, the deep red mainsail bound to the boom, the jib and staysail stored below in the front bulkhead. Her name in white script graces the bow in English and the stern in Gaelic (Naomh Bairbre).

The guys go to work. There is no organization; there are no orders given. They load their gear on board and open up toolboxes full of clamps, pliers, brackets, hammers and screwdrivers. These are men used to working with their hands, building and fixing things. They talk to one another in bursts of Gaelic and English as they install, adjust and tinker. Pat and Steve check the bilge, which is dry, then the engine, the oil, antifreeze, battery and generator. Steve checks the ballast in the hull, the gray bricks he cast one winter from scrap lead lie there in neat rows. The diesel engine fires up and settles into idling as Tom goes through the small refrigerator in the galley, throwing out old food. Pat sets up his laptop on the chart table. He’ll use it for accessing GPS and weather reports. With a few mouse clicks he demonstrates to me how he’ll chart the course from Beaver Island to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where he and Steve plan to store the boat for the winter before attempting an Atlantic crossing next spring. It is 1,800 miles to St. John’s via water; 1,600 miles as the crow flies.

The cabin is still a mess but the men are satisfied that we are ready to sail when someone suggests we head into town for lunch. All seven of us walk down the road and find a restaurant with a big covered porch. They are just closing up for the day, but a woman lets us inside. I order a cold, plastic-wrapped sandwich from the refrigerated case. Steve and Pat appeal to the waitress, who confirms that the cook is willing to fire up the range. Most of the crew is keen to have a hot sandwich or hamburger. I learn why later.

After lunch we head to the town’s small supermarket. Breaking into two groups, each with a cart, the guys roam up and down the aisles, pulling stuff off shelves. My mind goes blank about what to buy – will we cook, what kind of supplies are on the boat, what do the guys like to eat, and when will we replenish supplies again? As an avid cook at home, I am accustomed to asking such questions of my own larder. But somehow, I don’t think I’ll get answers from these guys, so I wander the aisles with them. They are searching for summer sausage, and they find one, a foot-and-a-half long. It will turn out to be one of the most delicious things we buy, eaten in chunks on deck in the cold wind. We load the carts with deli meats, bacon, cheese, milk, jugs of water, lots of bread, rolls, mayonnaise, baby wipes, paper towels, Styrofoam cups and cartons of cigarettes. Health conscious, I grab yogurt, Grape-Nuts cereal, nectarines, apples, grapes, a cucumber and carrots.

We push the two carts of supplies back toward the boat along the asphalt road. Locals, mostly graying men with their hands in their pockets, have gathered around the boat by this time and watch us approach. There’s talk of three weeks’ worth of dock fees owed. Steve says nothing. A few minutes go by and whoever is in charge of the marina lets it go. I help unload the groceries and store them in the galley cabinets and mini-fridge.

“Ah, someone to do the cooking and cleaning!” Niall says, coming below deck. Another crew member made a similar comment earlier, looking at me, the only woman on this crew. “Careful!” I warn him sternly. He pulls back. I am not sure what to do with myself, though, as the men fall into their work. I have to make myself useful, although my “job” is to write about the journey. I eye the galley and the recently upholstered seat cushions, which are already stained. A jumble of things fills built-in shelves. Washers and screws lie scattered on the galley table. A life-size blow-up doll – Jenny, one of the guys tells me – lies deflated behind one bench. Her mouth gapes, her blonde wig is a mess, a baggy t-shirt covers her torso. A dog leash is around her neck. The guys laugh as I eye her.

“That’s Niall’s girlfriend,” someone says. Niall grumbles and denies it. He heads for the boat’s front-most bulkhead to stash diving gear that the crew may need during the journey if they have to inspect the hull beneath the water line. The boat is an unknown quantity during this journey. While the crew has sailed her during daytrips on Lake Michigan, no one knows how she will perform during prolonged rough seas, or in salt water.

I laugh over the inflatable doll but wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. My guard is up, feminist defenses deployed, yet I’ve spent enough time with most of these guys to know there is a lot of teasing and tall tales in store during this trip. I am happy to be part of this crew, and they have been kind enough to invite me along, even though I am female and do not have a drop of Irish blood in my veins. Certainly, their wives and girlfriends did not beg to come along – this I know from talking to two of these women. Yet, the crew and I know we are about to begin a very special and unusual journey.

Coming within the week – the next installment of “Dream Boat.

*To respect crewmembers’ privacy, I have changed all names except Steve’s and Patrick’s, due to fairly extensive media coverage that they have received in the past for building and/or sailing the Saint Barbara.

Above photo by Agnes Loftus.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Life ∩ The Thin Line


Several nights ago my dog, Django, and I took a walk to a park on the shores of Lake Michigan, just five blocks from where we live. Six inches of fresh snow blanketed every tree, fence and home on our route. We passed stucco four-squares, clapboard-sided Victorians and solid brick bungalows whose mullioned windows cast golden squares of light on the night-blue snow. There is no cozier time for a walk in winter than on such an evening.

But As Django and I reached Sheridan Road, six fire trucks and an ambulance barreled past. A block down, they took the corner and cut their sirens as they pulled up to a row of gracious old apartment buildings. The park is just north of these buildings. While Django happily looked for sticks in the snow, I gazed out over the lake. Where I had seen inky pools of open water a few nights before, the lake was now snow-covered ice. Here and there ghostly piles stood out, perhaps a product of the wind or movement of the icy crust.

When I finally gave in to curiosity to glance toward the flashing lights, I expected to see firemen racing between their trucks and one of the apartment buildings. Instead, I saw them dispersed along the shore, where a line of boulders, several feet high, acts as a barrier that protects the land from Lake Michigan’s surf while it discourages people from entering the water in summer where there are no lifeguards. Many firemen trained flashlights out over the lake, while one man atop a hook-and-ladder swept a spotlight up and down the shore.

This was no fire alarm. Someone from one of the apartment windows had spotted what she thought was a person, partially submerged in open water, his (or her) arms gripping an ice pile to keep from slipping in completely. Reattaching Django’s leash I led him to a few onlookers who had gathered near the rescue operation. Two firemen pulled on bright yellow immersion suits, while others threw coils of rope down to colleagues who had scaled the boulders and made their way out on the ice.

Shuddering, I strained to see a human figure on the frozen lake. Not 100 yards from shore, within shouting distance of where my dog played and dozens of people relaxed or dined in apartments and fine houses, someone could be fighting for his life in a vast and frigid place. Perhaps walking straight out to see the Chicago skyline just south of us – or the allure of ice fishing – had seemed like novelty that afternoon.

I offered the firemen use of a kayak stored in my garage. While inherently unstable, it could provide them with something buoyant to grab onto should the ice give way beneath their feet. “Thanks, but we have the immersion suits,” one fireman told me. I stood there watching until it felt way too self-indulgent.

I worked from home the next day. After lunch, I walked out to the lake and took the picture featured above. You can see the firemen’s footprints like a dappled river over the snow, converging at a spot of thin, gray ice at the base of a snowy pile. The Evanston Review, my city’s newspaper, arrived in my mailbox a day after that. To my relief, the brief article on page seven said the firemen’s search turned up nothing. No one had been found.

Above photo by Ardis Berghoff.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Art ∩ Powerful Poetry

In light of the latest school massacre – the murder by a mentally ill man of five students at Northern Illinois University on February 14 – a poet in Wisconsin may hold at least one small answer to help us prevent more such tragedies in the future. At the heart of her philosophy is getting people to share stories about themselves so they can feel empathy for others.

“The bottom line to everything is story,” says Ellen Kort, Wisconsin’s first poet laureate in 2000 and the award-winning author of 11 books, including eight books of poetry. “If you don’t know your own story – who you are, where you come from – how can you honor someone else’s?” For many years, Ellen has held writing workshops for people who may not think of themselves as poets including doctors, female prison inmates and school children. During her workshops at medical conventions, she explores the healing aspects of poetry by prompting doctors to write poems or stories about themselves. The simple-sounding process helps some realize that if they’d asked patients to tell the story of their lives, they could have found the source for symptoms, instead of (or in addition to) running lots of tests and prescribing drugs.

“‘I won’t practice medicine in the same way again,’” Ellen says one doctor told her after realizing that if he had asked one patient for her story during her first visit, he would have learned her physical pain and anxiety were the result of her husband’s sexual and physical abuse.

The first time Ellen visited a prison – the Taycheedah Correctional Institution for women in Fond du Lac, Wis. – to teach inmates to write, she says she was not afraid. She told them about some of her own hard times to break down barriers. “I knew the poetry would carry everyone,” she says. After one exercise, she asked volunteers to read their work. “A woman waved one hand like crazy while she wrote with her other hand,” Ellen says. “She made eye contact with everyone in the room and said, ‘Ladies, I must stand to read what I just wrote.’ This woman was moved to stand for poetry.”

Ellen has been the poet-in-residence at many grade, middle and high schools across Wisconsin. She asks students to imagine their “inner poet.” One sixth-grade boy said his was a wolf, not the leader of the pack but its spiritual advisor. His poem was about his grandfather’s death and his parents’ divorce. His teacher was amazed because he normally could not write. When Ellen finds disturbing things in children’s poems she shows them to the teacher. “Some say the poems do not surprise them; that the child is going through a lot at home,” she says. “Sometimes the poem is a tip-off, and the teachers say they’ll look into it.”

The women inmates Ellen teaches were children once, too, of course. After one workshop she held at a prison in Great Barrington, Mass., a reporter from a local radio station asked the inmates, as his tape recorder ran, if there was anything they wanted the public to know. One woman wanted the world to know that she and her fellow inmates were not covered in tattoos or gang members as many people feared. Another said she was due to be released soon and that the idea of being in the real world scared her to death.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Love ∩ Dog Love


I live with a handsome brute named Django. He shares his first name and reputation for persistence with the famous Gypsy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt. My Django is a 95-pound German shepherd with the noble head, traditional black and tan coloring, and broad, leonine neck and shoulders of his breed. He is the only male I have lived with in my adult life, so you can gather correctly that I am a single female, one who does not easily settle down. While this admission may seem pitiful to some and strange to others, to me it is amusing. I have learned a lot from this dog. I’m sure I have adopted some of his habits, and he has adopted some of mine.

Django is an accommodating male – sometimes. He gets up to go out when I feel like a walk. He kisses me when I lower my face to his. He gives me a quick bark when I ask, “Whaddya say?” And he accompanies me to every room in our home. Wherever I go, there he is. It's as if there are five Djangos living with me.

But there are things he insists upon doing despite my most persistent training. He steals my gloves every time we head for the door. He crosses over my heels to descend the stairs, which has nearly sent me diving down an entire flight to the concrete below. He naps on my exercise mat while I work out, and he eats his own business, a habit that used to disgust me. Now I simply I make sure he does not kiss me for several hours afterward.

At 11, Django is more like 80 in people years. He is a charming old man with his boyish mischief and, I swear, a sense of humor. The glove-stealing is one of his jokes, which I let him play on me over and over again. But at his age, his joints are stiff. He takes each step (we live on the third floor) slowly as we head downstairs. Not a block from home he often stops to look up at me and then back toward our apartment building as if to say, “That’s enough. Can we go home now?”

When his joints were still supple, Django took a flying leap each night and landed on my bed in a blast of fur. He’d circle once, paw at the sheets and release his weight like a dropped sack of books. There was hardly a greater pleasure to me than having this big, docile beast up against me, sleeping, dreams causing little hiccup barks and his paws to twitch as he ran through imagined meadows.

No matter that I had to sweep fur out of my bed in the morning. Or that I still wipe down every rug in my home with my bare hands. I will continue to gather up great handfuls of wool and take him out in the harshest weather. I will erect a hoist if I have to, to haul him up and down like a piano with four legs instead of three.

Dog love is dogged love. The kind required, this single gal realizes, for human companions, too. Question is, should I find myself a musician?