Belfast Badassery!

Enthusiastic audiences greet author and new book

Marilynn Richtarik’s talks in Belfast were the academic equivalent of a sold-out arena hosting a semi-famous rock band — albeit without cellphone flashlights aloft or the pungent smell of marijuana.

Audiences that require more than the fingers on two hands to count are considered good by scholarly standards, so it was quite refreshing to host 70 people Tuesday at Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies (including 40+ online viewers) and about 40 on Thursday at the Linen Hall Library across from Belfast City Hall. The audiences were enthusiastic, and discussion after the presentations was lively.

Just like touring with that semi-famous rock band, celebrity sightings were also common. David Park’s novel “The Truth Commissioner” and Michael Longley’s poem “Ceasefire” both feature in Marilynn’s book. Park was on hand, as was Michael’s wife, Edna Longley, herself an accomplished scholar.

Anne Devlin and Rosemary Jenkinson, both playwrights and short story writers, attended the Thursday event, as did a journalist from Shared Future News and more than a dozen people from a cross-community initiative in north Belfast that strives to bridge the sectarian divide. That group asked particularly probing questions about how the Good Friday Agreement changed (or, rather, did not change) the lives of common folks in Northern Ireland, especially disaffected young men.

It was fantastic to see so many friends at both events and to make new ones along the way. We also are grateful to people at the Queen’s Institute of Irish Studies and the Linen Hall for making the necessary arrangements, and to No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast for selling copies of Marilynn’s book at both events.

Finally, while I wish I had come up with the headline for this post, that honor belongs to Dana Miller, a former grad student of Marilynn’s who tuned in while covering the SXSW Music Festival in Austin. She wrote, “What a brilliant talk you have given, and it is such a joy to watch you talk about your incredible work.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Have Knowledge, Will Travel

Care for a few facts? Will you buy me lunch?

An academic book tour is much like the education system during colonial times. Then, itinerant educators traveled from village to village, trading their skills for a night or two in a barn, a bunch of carrots for the stew pot or the occasional piece of meat.

This is only a book tour because Marilynn wills it so. There is no budget from the publisher, so she called and wrote academics, booksellers, and friends to arrange five readings and public events in Ireland, north and south. This is in addition to the people she asked to review the book, the work she did creating a hit list of academic and general interest publications for the publisher, writing blogs and articles about the work, doing a radio interview for a Dublin book program, and — oh yeah — staying on top of the two classes she’s teaching this spring.

In return for those five readings and public events, we have accommodation in Belfast for two nights, Dublin for two nights, and Galway for one night. We’re staying with a friend outside Belfast both weekends and a friend near Galway for a night. There are still a couple of days unaccounted for, so we’re going to see what the weather’s like and where we’d like to visit.

Oh, the Places We’ve Stayed!

We promoted Marilynn’s Stewart Parker biography for three years of book tours during the Thanksgiving holiday 2012-2014. Declan was in elementary school, so we took him out a week early and jaunted for two whole weeks, visiting Ireland and England the first year, England the Scotland the second, and England and Wales in 2014.

Her pay included some lodging, a few rail or bus tickets, and many meals out following a lecture. Fortunately, Marilynn doesn’t do it for the pay but, rather, for exposure for the book and the chance for us to travel to interesting places:

  • When I said I’d never been to Wales, she arranged a visit to Aberystwyth, the westernmost point of Britain. We stayed in a terrific grand hotel that overlooked the sea and the town’s boardwalk. During dinner, a Welsh professor taught Declan a dozen or two words, which he promptly wrote down on a napkin (and still has).
  • The previous year, we stayed in college lodgings in Durham Castle, an 11th century building that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and also serves as a student dorm for Durham University. We ate breakfast at the high table in the dining hall, which served as inspiration for the Hogwarts great hall in the Harry Potter films. I should also point out that the bathroom for our room was up about 20 uneven concrete steps to an unheated chamber that in November felt like it was two degrees above absolute zero.
  • We’ve also stayed in the dean’s quarters at Hertford College, Oxford. Oxford University is comprised of 44 colleges, and Hertford was founded in 1284, which makes Marilynn’s Jesus College a relative newcomer. The Welsh college, which she attended as a Rhodes Scholar, was founded in 1571.
  • And though we remember nothing about our room at the Radisson Blu in Galway, we all still fondly remember the breakfast bar, which was the largest and most elaborate we had ever seen before — or since.

It certainly beat a few carrots and a soup bone.

Farewell, Dr. Himebaugh

I trust that every person reading this has that one person, that business mentor, that guiding light you always can depend upon for counsel and support. For me, that was Glenn Himebaugh, my journalism professor at Middle Tennessee State University. However, he didn’t know it at the time.

Nearly three decades after college, I did reconnect with Dr. Himebaugh and his wife, Ellen, visiting them in Murfreesboro and taking them to dinner when I was in town for meetings. To honor the man who meant so much for me, I founded an endowed scholarship for him in 2010, which started helping students a few years later.

While his passing last month at the age of 86 certainly saddened me, that sadness was tempered by the knowledge there remained no unfinished business between us. He knew exactly the influence he had had on my nearly 40-year career as a working journalist.

You don’t have to start a scholarship to honor the mentors in your life, but you do owe it to yourself (and your mentor) to make your feelings known.

Influence Well Beyond the Classroom

Like many people attending state university, I was first generation and worked the entirety of my college career — often full time. Consequently, I didn’t make those deep connections that I envy my wife for making during her undergraduate studies.

But during my journalism career, I often recalled my time on campus and the intensive and real-world training I’d received at MTSU. Dr. Himebaugh formed the core of my learning experience, teaching three of the foundational journalism classes, including feature writing and copyediting. He undoubtedly was the heart of the Mass Comm program, which he co-founded in 1971 and served for 40 years — the last 10 as professor emeritus. He taught those small, writing-intensive classes where students are slowly, lesson after lesson, paper after paper, molded into budding journalists and writers with bright prospects.

I remember his wry sense of humor and the washes of red ink he left on about every article I ever turned in. He was responsible for getting me involved in the campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, accompanying us to conventions in Mississippi and Atlanta, where an obviously inebriated Ted Turner delivered an incoherent keynote address. He also was indirectly responsible for one of my favorite personal stories, about how Mrs. Sarah Cannon (better known as country comedienne Minnie Pearl) insulted me in the backyard of the governor’s mansion in Nashville. But that’s a story for another day!

The Right Answer to a Big Question

After consulting the university foundation on the particulars of scholarship-founding, I invited the Himebaughs to lunch at a local Italian restaurant to ask his permission. I compare the experience to asking Marilynn to marry me, a joyful but stressful occasion filled with tears (mine) and much trepidation (also mine).

Somewhere through the main course, I brought up the subject, my voice breaking and a single tear falling from my left eye. When I popped the question to Dr. Himebaugh, he said, without hesitation, “As long as it’s not a memorial scholarship!”

Although Dr. Himebaugh is now in the newsroom in the sky, his legacy lives on in the thousands of students he taught over a long and distinguished career. It lives on in his scholarship that continues to grow and help fund the dreams of future journalists. But, per his wishes, the scholarship will never be “memorial.”

To support future generations of journalists, please consider a donation to the Dr. Glenn Himebaugh Scholarship at MTSU.

Notre Dame Fire Like Losing a Friend

The day dawned cool but clear, tendrils of fog drifting off the Seine. After a quick croissant breakfast, we made our way to Notre Dame Cathedral to be among the first to visit on a Paris morning two years ago.

The pre-opening crowd of about a dozen was split evenly between tourists like ourselves and penitents, including two nuns. Gothic cathedrals are a particular favorite of mine, and visiting Notre Dame was high on the list during our brief, two-day visit to Paris.

Like millions of others around the world, I experienced a profound feeling of loss when learning about the devastating fire at Notre Dame, which will cost billions to repair. According to French President Emmanuel Macron, there is no question that the 800-year-old cathedral will be rebuilt. Cries rang out from the yellow vests and others who believe that money would be better spent assuaging social ills in the republic.

Both sides have merits, but Notre Dame remains one of the most indelible icons of Paris, along with the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Champs-Élysées. It’s more than a building and more than a religious relic. Failing to rebuild it would be like failing to rebuild the Lincoln Memorial or the Statue of Liberty. When the twin towers fell, there was no question that the World Trade Center would be rebuilt.

Memories linger

On the day of our visit, a prayer service began at 8 a.m., filling the cathedral with sweet singing, a perfect accompaniment to the early morning light filtering into the worship space.

More than 850 years in the making, the cathedral got its start in the 1160s before receiving its Gothic makeover in the 14th century. For many, Notre Dame represents the quintessential Gothic cathedral—massive rose windows, vaulted ceiling linked by capstones, massive pipe organ, stained glass aplenty and gargoyles that, fortunately for us, weren’t spitting water that morning.

Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Notre Dame in all of its glory. While I’m certain it will be restored, it will never be the same.

LA Fitness Follies: What shower curtain?

After being a silent-on-social-media member of a national fitness chain for several years, I can be silent no longer. I don’t want to name names, so let’s call this chain Lower Alabama Fitness, or LA Fitness for short.

curtainWho knew that shower curtains were optional? We’re not in middle school here, and I remember being surprised seeing open showers when Declan and I toured Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal, a few years back.

On Friday, I reported to the front office staff there were only four shower curtains among the eight showers in the men’s locker room. Today, there were just two.

I reported it to staff (again) and then spoke to the manager, who said he’d check with the facility manager to see whether they had been ordered. “Shower curtains are basic amenities at fitness facilities, just like toilet paper and paper towels,” I said. “You should be ordering them by the case and reordering them when there are six or fewer.”

I even pointed out the Walmart in the same shopping center, which is open 18 hours a day and sells shower curtains. The manager apparently didn’t appreciate my helpful suggestion.

While I certainly hope this is my last installment of LA Fitness Follies, based on part experience, I’m pretty confident this will be the first of many.


Spanish and Cuban Influences in Tampa Bay Area

Making our way from “Waitee Longee” Springs, Declan said he wanted to see the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.

We are traveling to Spain next month for an Irish conference, and Declan has immersed himself in all things Spain. Not only has he had Spanish language lessons in school since he was a kindergartner, he has been planning and plotting this adventure since we bought our tickets in December.

Although Salvador Dali is known the world over for his surrealistic paintings, the Spaniard also sculpted and made experimental films, among other creative pursuits. And, of course, he also was a flamboyant self-promoter, mustache waxed and curled into a big ol’ smiley face. Thinking about it, Dali was a walking emoji before they existed.

I had been to the former location of the Dali Museum a couple of times, leaving both times impressed by the depth and breadth of the man’s work. My favorite has always been the hologram of ‘70s rocker Alice Cooper that Dali did when both where at their artistic apexes. I only saw the hologram on my first visit, leading me to believe it was on loan.

Are you a stoner?

You can read about the hologram at Civilized, which apparently is a pro-pot website. Top-notch reporter that I am, I figured this out when the promoted items after the story

Hologramincluded a search box for cannabis dispensaries and a QA box that asked, “Are You a Stoner?” And apparently you can buy a photo at Walmart!

We enjoyed our visit to the new museum, but I think the ceilings aren’t as high, which limits the full effect of his insanely large masterworks. Although we put three hours’ worth of quarters into the parking meter, we were on our way after 75 minutes or so.

Best Cuban in Tampa

The day’s highlight undoubtedly was wrapping my lips around the best Cuban sandwich in Tampa, which you can find on the edge of Ybor City at Brocato’s Sandwich Shop. Real Cuban bread makes all the difference between an OK Cuban sandwich and the taste sensation that is Brocato’s.

The shop is located in a too-small cinderblock building that fills to overflowing every weekday lunch with people of all types, colors, sizes and professions. Like the Village People, if the band was co-ed. You’ll see a couple of guys in suits and ties waiting in line behind cops, construction workers, moms and “tourists” like us.

But the line moves fast, and you can glimpse seven decades of memorabilia while you wait. Sandwiches include chips you select from large, gray garbage cans on rollers on one end of the building, as well as a drink (including beer!). There is limited seating inside, which is too cozy for me, so we always sit under the covered awning out front.

In addition to a Cuban, get yourself a devil crab, which locals say is the best in the area. Unfortunately, I can’t eat them anymore after developing an extreme intolerance to onions several years. But when dining with a group, I’ll still order one, break off a smallish piece, dose it with a dash of Tabasco, pop it in my mouth and savor the creamy crab goodness before passing the rest over to everyone else. Because you don’t want the deviled crab—or anything else from Brocato’s, for that matter—to go to waste.

And if my stomach complains, it’s a small price to pay.

Weeki Wachee: Once-in-a-Lifetime Means Never Again

Visiting the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For Declan and me, it means we never have to visit there again during our lifetimes.

Yes, there are mermaids that suck in air through hoses like they’re in a hookah bar (just picture that for a moment), and a big tank and lots of bubbles. Ultimately, however, it’s a big ol’ piece of cheese wrapped in an interminable wait.

Vintage Florida

I’ll admit it. Visiting the springs was entirely my idea. As a native of central Florida, I’d heard about the springs from the time I was a wee lad. It’s part of old Florida, a throwback before the glitz and glamour of Mickey and Universal forever changed the tourism landscape.

When the idea of a spring break trip to Orlando surfaced, I made Weeki Wachee Springs a stopover before visiting my sister in Tampa.

Maybe the blinders of adulthood clouded my vision of the springs, because many people certainly seemed to enjoy their outings. But there wasn’t enough to do at the park, with long times either in line or waiting to get in a line. They have a crack marketing staff, though, because we heeded the website warnings that the park would be closed once capacity was reached, prompting us to arrive shortly after opening time.

But there were only three mermaid shows the entire day, and the first one didn’t start until 11. So, what to do for two hours? The boat ride through the springs filled quickly to overflowing, so we took in the wildlife show, instead. It was your basic turtle, snake and gator show, with cheesy humor throughout.

Waiting is the hardest part

And then we waited. Declan spent five minutes on playground equipment that was about eight years too young for him while I made a business call. We had already made a complete circuit of the grounds and had no desire to swim at Buccaneer Bay, half of which wasn’t operating on the day we visited.


We were among the first in line for the mermaid show. Lines open 30 minutes before the show and fill quickly. Once ushered into the theater, we sat around and enjoyed the black-and-white archival footage of mermaids frolicking, and the show was introduced by concert footage of Jimmy Buffett performing “Fins,” complete with lip-synching mermaids.

The show was “The Little Mermaid,” so we all know the story. Ariel, while celebrating the mer-equivalent of a quinceanera, gets to go topside, where she saves a drowning sailor boy. To woo him, Ariel strikes a deal with an evil witch who takes her voice in exchange for getting legs. Fighting ensues and love triumphs over evil.

To their credit, the performers were graceful. Personally, I’d be thrashing and gasping for air instead of calmly lip-synching or performing that far underwater.

However, cheese rules this performance, and likely any other performance at the springs. Despite their grace, the performers essentially were taking air hits off a hose like the one you find at the gas station to put air in your tires. It’s a mental picture that’s hard to move past, like watching a junkie jonesing for a fix.

The witch looked like she has long strips of cloth like you’d see at the carwash in her hair. And when Ariel’s friends joined her birthday celebration, the costumed turtle was just too much. Declan and I were crying by the time it surfaced to the stage and started “dancing.”

The audio track included many voices singing a song. I failed to mention that live fish swim around the tank, and while the song was playing, a feeding fish passed by our viewing portal, mouth opening and closing as if it was singing along. We drew stares as we laughed uncontrollably.

After the show, Declan really wanted to take a boat ride, so we waited another 40 minutes (at least) for a 30-minute boat ride that didn’t reveal much in the way of wildlife.

Fortunately, the Italian restaurant where we had lunch offered sangria, the better to wash the taste of what we now call Waitee Longee out of my mouth.

One Foot in Two Worlds

Three short weeks ago, an exhausted Bolch/Richtarik family returned to the US.

The intervening days have been a whirlwind of unpacking, washing, shopping, errand-running and overwhelming tiredness. Think jetlag on steroids, and you still haven’t approached the fundamental weariness that has hit the household’s adult population. Declan, naturally, is unaffected.

Don’t get me wrong: we are genuinely happy to be back. We missed (among many other things) our cat Gunner, our king-sized bed, ceiling fans, big-ass washers and dryers, driving to the store, our community, milkshakes and American plumbing. Say what you want about our country, we do plumbing right. And, of course, I’ve been smoking or grilling nearly every day on the Big Green Egg.

My sister asked me whether the Irish ate pork. “Whatever gave you the idea that they didn’t?” I asked. “Because you’ve been smoking so much pork,” she replied. “Well what else are you supposed to do on a Big Green Egg?” I said.

Too much to do

Part of the reason for our tiredness, I think, has to do with the incredible amount of household work that awaited us. Take the mail, for example. Despite stopping all of the magazines and everything else we possibly could, we had an overflowing milk crate’s worth of mail waiting for us. It took me an entire day just to deal with that, separating the snail mail wheat (very little) from the chaff (very much). Seeing seven months’ worth of mail at one go does provide insight into how often charities we never support constantly send us stuff we don’t want.

The contents of two bedrooms and my office were packed away so our tenants could feel at home with their own stuff. All of those things have to find their way back where they belong—a process that’s still not complete.

Marilynn shops what’s on sale, creating a weekly menu based on store specials while stocking up on pantry items. We ate through as much of that as we could, leaving the rest for our tenants. But that meant the cupboards were bare when we got back. It seems like we’ve been to one store or another every day since we got back.

I was responsible for turning everything back on that had been turned off, resubscribing to what had been canceled and getting our cell phones working again, which required at least four trips to the AT&T store, three to Best Buy and a drive to the Atlanta ‘burbs for a new flip phone for Declan.

Add the start of Declan’s school year (and the requisite supply list shopping), my business and Marilynn’s work, and it all adds up to too much to do.

Another life left behind

Another reason for our malaise, I’m sure, is that we still are pining for our life in Belfast and our friends there. Toward the end, I absolutely felt like a native, albeit a native with a decidedly Southern American accent. I took great pride in striding unmolested past the Belfast tourist office, where reps for various bus/rail/drunkie cab tours hang out and hand leaflets to passing strangers. People who know where they are going don’t get pamphlets.

We have a ton of friends there and had more adventures in seven months than many families have in a lifetime.

Simply put, living outside your country and somewhat out of your comfort zone puts a new perspective on every aspect of your life. I can’t escape thinking about the post-World War I song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”

And I believe the answer is: You can’t.

Coimbra an Up and Down (Mostly Up) Experience

I forgot to mention how hilly Coimbra is. Porto is the same way. Getting up the triple and quadruple switchbacks—while walking on cobblestones—is a test for any person. Fortunately, Declan took that into consideration, too, when planning this trip.

He scheduled mid-day breaks on most days, so I wouldn’t have to be on my feet for too long at a stretch and would be ready to go again in the afternoon. He also booked hotels close to where the action is.

In Coimbra, the nighttime action includes fado music, a Portuguese specialty that generally denotes a sense of longing. We attended an event at à Capella, an intimate venue in a 14th-century chapel. The music was interesting, but not really to my taste. However, Marilynn liked it better than the flamenco music and dancing we saw in Seville, Spain, a few years ago.

Roman influences everywhere

On our final day in Coimbra, Declan had us scheduled to visit the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, built over the remains of a Roman forum. The cryptoportico (a kind of elaborate foundation) is believed to be the largest surviving Roman building in Portugal.

A tour of the cryptoportico begins the museum visit. Long, spooky corridors with occasional archways line one side, while shorter offshoots and individual rooms are dotted throughout. In other places, industrial walkways above other ruins allow good views of other parts of the cryptoportico.

Other highlights of the museum include the 11th- or 12th-century remains of part of a Roman-style cloister that was unearthed on the site in the 1930s. Another is the expansive apse of the church of the Convent S. Domingos, which was built between 1553 and 1564. A controversial decision was made in the 1960s to dismantle the severely deteriorated church, where the apse wound up in the museum. Seeing the amount of degradation, however, the decision seemed a wise one.

You’ll also find lots of religious painting, sculpture, statuary, reliquaries and what Declan and I like to call bling. Among my favorite things, however, were the dozen or so azulejos (Portuguese tiles) that contained mathematical or astronomical concepts dating from instructions issued by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus in 1692. The style suggests they were made in Coimbra.

Going back to church

There’s no better way to top a visit to a museum full of religious artifacts than to see a church. So after lunch, we found our way to the Historical Cathedral of Coimbra, a “church-fortress” dating to the 12th century. The church features small slits in the walls, just like in a castle’s battlements, the better to station archers in case of a siege.

Like all churches this old, there are numerous influences, including Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance. The highlight, for me, however, was the 13th-century Gothic cloister that surrounds the central courtyard. I especially liked the pediments below the arches, each designed in a different pattern.

Our time in Coimbra complete, we boarded a train for our next destination—Porto.