Archives for June 2013

I wonder what Diana would think of this

Here’s an interesting cover of the obscure Bob Dylan song from whence Brian Jobe got the title of his novel, Bird’s Nest in Your Hair.

It’s Saturday Morning

It’s Saturday morning
And I’m about to fry an egg
I’m limping from the bed
I got a pain in my leg

I’m thinking about my sorrows
And how they’re really not that bad
I’d give you all my tomorrows
If there were any to be had

Thunderstorms come
In the morning unexpected
God’s justice and mercy
And Christ resurrected

Your eyes and your words
Burn a hole in my dreams
The things that you don’t say
What is and what seems

It’s Saturday morning
And I’m frying this egg
I’m standing at the stove
I got a pain in my leg

This one goes out to Matthew on his birthday

Schedule a Gift

A young Catholic grows old

A young Catholic grows old

Breaking Down Silos

Soldiers Grove K

Another rumor has it that one of the topless girls was reading Bird’s Nest in Your Hair.

Must be Potter’s neighbors…


…because they also have a house of words.

Clancy the Stonewaller: The life (and work) of a stone mason in early 20th century rural Wisconsin

This story originally appeared in 
The Catholic Times, March 4, 2004 issue. 

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Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

(“If you would see his monument, look around.”)

– 17th century English architect Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph, inscribed on his tomb in his greatest work, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

ROLLING GROUND – In the young days of the 20th century, automobiles were still a novelty – and often eschewed by the older folk who saw in these horseless carriages the dawning of a new age speeding toward them.

But they probably did not fear Henry Ford’s wonderful invention – the mass-produced production-line-assembled automobile – so much as they feared the way this machine threatened their slower-paced and simpler life – especially as it was found in the rural areas of southwestern Wisconsin.

A visitor motoring in one of these new-fangled machines through the Kickapoo Valley region might have caught a glimpse of one such lover of simplicity. A stocky figure humping it along the unpaved back roads, this individual invariably would appear with a hod over his one shoulder and a bag of tools hanging from the other.

As the visitor chugged past at the dizzying speed of 30 miles an hour, perhaps this lone figure would pause in his travels, tip his hat and flash a grin which could charm a calf from its mother.

“Another of those horseless contraptions,” he might think, still grinning and shaking his head in amused disapproval as he continued on his way.

This figure strolling at an even pace along the unpaved back roads was a common sight for the people of the Kickapoo region – places like Rolling Ground, Blue River, Gays Mills, Soldiers Grove and places like Tavera (which no longer exists except as a single weathered shack sinking into the Kickapoo marshlands).

He eventually became something of a legend in the area. His name was James Clancy. He carried a hod. He was a stone mason. But it was more than his job – it was the source of the legend he built up with each stone laid.

Some say he believed in the “little people” – and wouldn’t be caught dead in a cemetery at night. But others who knew him better say it wasn’t true. He was actually less superstitious than most.

Others say he graced everything he touched with a down-to-business talent that borders on the miraculous. And to see his work is to see the miracle of rock still standing on rock almost a hundred years later, looking like it did the day he finished scraping the last of the excess mortar into a bucket. Still plumb. Still level. Still flush. Still standing.

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According to his 1924 passport, Clancy was a transplanted Irish stone mason. He sported a thatch of grey-hair, blue eyes as piercing as Galway Bay on a sunny day, and a mysterious scar sculpted along his right jaw.

What the passport fails to mention is that he had a playful wit every bit as sharp-edged as his mortar’s trowel. And more often than not, the target of the wit was his cousin, Michael Kinney, with whom he came to live.

There was the time, for example, when a traveling salesman wandered onto the Kinney farm and came across Clancy attending to some task in the front yard.

“I’m looking for Mr. Michael Kinney,” the salesman announced.

“Well, he’s in the pig barn right now,” Clancy said, looking up from his business. “But if you want to know which one is him, he’ll be the one wearin’ the hat.”

Clancy was born and raised in what was then known as King’s County, Ireland, before coming to the U.S. Located in the central region of Ireland, the county has since been renamed County Offaly after Ireland gained its independence from British rule in 1922.

He settled in rural southwest Wisconsin in 1911 (although other sources say 1912). But between the hazy distance of the dead and buried to the middle ground of the not quite dead and buried, the dates don’t matter as much maybe as the people who lived and moved through these calendar squares of days long gone.

And for St. Philip’s parishioners and cousins James Gorman and Jack Kinney, Clancy the Stonewaller is in many ways still very much alive. After all, Clancy wasn’t just a neighbor to these two cousins. He was family.

A third cousin to Jack Kinney and Gorman, Clancy was related to the Kinneys and Gormans on his mother’s side, according to Jack.

Coming for a visit, he appeared on Jack Kinney’s father’s doorstep. And true to form, he moved in with the Kinneys with less to-do than dusting lint from under a bed.

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“He just showed up one day and said, ‘We’re related,’” Jack Kinney recalled. “He moved in and began working around the area as a stone mason. That’s about it.”

“He came for a visit at first, but I guess he liked it so much around here that he decided to stay for good.”

“When he first came to the area,” Gorman, a parishioner at St. Philips, Rolling Ground, added, “no one knew who he was until my uncle (Mike Kinney) took a chance on him. He built his first barn in 1912 – and after that, well after that he got lots of business.”

Among the greatest contributions Clancy made to the community was a structure practically unheard of in this region of southwestern Wisconsin – until the advent of Clancy – the stone-built silo.

“We had silos of course, but very few silos in the area were built from stone,” Gorman noted. “Clancy built one of the first.”

Silo 1

As Clancy’s godson as well as his cousin, Jack Kinney remembers with warmth the friendship that sprang up between the two men.

Like many of the men in the area, Clancy liked to play euchre and used to go down to Soldiers Grove on Sunday afternoons – which had about 10 or 12 saloons back then.

“I was 11 years old at the time, and he’d take me down to the Grove with him. Well, he’d play euchre and I’d drink strawberry pop until it came out of my ears. He’d drink some, too, mostly beer. But he’d be snoozing well before we got to town – unless he was driving, which wasn’t very often.”

According to Kinney, even after he purchased his own vehicle, he preferred to leave the driving to others.

“He was a wild driver,” Kinney remarked. “So he’d make me drive – and I was still only 11 years old at the time. When Clancy was asked if it was wise to let an 11 year old drive him, he’d reply, ‘Oh no, with Jack here I’m as safe as in my mother’s arms, I am.’”

Jim Gorman remembered exactly how poor a driver Clancy could be.

“He was constantly slipping that clutch – wouldn’t get far before the car was rocking and jerking around,” Gorman added.

“But once he got down to Madison,” Jack recalled, “and turned left on the square where the Capitol building is. Well, everyone knows you can only turn right onto the square.

“So it wasn’t long before a motorcycle cop comes along and pulls Clancy over.

“’Don’t you know this is a one way street, mister?’ the cop says to him. ‘Well then, begorrah, why don’t you have the rest of the traffic goin’ one way?’ Clancy says to him.

“And that cop – well, he just smiled – then he parked his motorcycle and came back to the car, told Clancy to shove over and asked him where he wanted to be driven. I guess he took a liking to him.”

And that was generally the way of it with Clancy, Gorman noted. “He had lots of friends, but really no enemies to speak of.”

As for the first time Clancy laid eyes on the Capitol building itself, Gorman said that Clancy’s sole comment was typical of his tendency for understatement.

“First thing he saw it and said, ‘So that’s the capitol – well, begorry, it is quite a shed…’”



Jack pointed out that Clancy was happy just to walk before he ever bought a car – sometimes up to 15 miles – from job to job, raising silos and barns around the region.

While Jack Kinney and Gorman feel fortunate to have known this thick-set Irishman up through his time of death, they both admit that they didn’t fully appreciate the fact that a living legend had taken up residence under their own roof.

Clancy returned to his homeland in 1916 – and stayed until 1924. Some speculate that his stay was extended because of World War I – which began the year he left and would officially end with a peace treaty signed in 1919. Others say his homesickness drew him back to the Island of Saints – and only when his siblings and relatives died did he decide to strike out for America again, this time for good, as there was little else to tie him to his birthplace.

According to his cousins, Clancy had a pair of shoulders as wide as his thick arms were short. He was a man of few words, for sure –  and an engine with two speeds – full throttle or impatient idle.

“His hands were always clenched into fists,” Gorman explained. “He was always clenching and unclenching them at the dinner table.”

His tastes – at table and in the pew – ran to the simple. Potatoes. A pint of beer. Faith in God. Potatoes. The sacraments. Devotion to Our Lady. Potatoes. Satisfaction in a job well done. And more potatoes.

As a matter of fact, he enjoyed potatoes so much – he thought that when a neighbor was serving them for dinner the delectable spuds were meant for him alone.

“Hold on fellow!” said his host as he saw Clancy take the steaming bowl of potatoes and place them on his own plate. “You know we all eat potatoes around here!”

It was while at dinner table that Clancy’s hatred and fear of cats came out, as well. According to Jack Kinney, one evening while eating at the Kinney table, one unfortunate member of this species decided to sharpen its claws on Clancy’s shin. Without much of a stir, Jack reported, “Clancy took his butter knife and thumped that cat on the head. Laid it out dead. He looked down at the cat dead there on the floor and then went back to eating as if nothing had happened.”

Like a rural Christopher Wren, Clancy was prolific in and around the Rolling Ground area. His work rises at strong intervals in the pitching landscape – whether it be stone silos, barn foundations, walls – or even a grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes located at St. Philip cemetery.

Silo 2

Indeed, at this cemetery, a visitor can see this monument to his faith – and devotion to the Blessed Virgin – but the visitor will also find a monument to his faith in square, chisel, trowel and hod.

Perhaps it was an early spring day; the sun bright as it began its climb up Clancy’s back to the high light of summer. Clancy was beginning work on a wall that would curb the advance of the cemetery’s shifting soil – part of the rolling ground of Rolling Ground.

Back then, Old Highway 171 separated the living and the dead at St. Philip’s, putting the cemetery on one side of the busy east/west road and the church on the other.

For his part, Clancy merrily began to fit stone and mortar. At high noon, perhaps he stepped back from his work for a moment. His morning labor already brought the wall up to his shins.

Clearly, he thought to himself, progress is being made.

Just then he heard the sharp clap of hooves on gravel. A neighboring farmer was coming up the road. He stopped, tipped his hat against the blazing sun and watched Clancy walling in the cemetery.

“It’ll never last,” the farmer said after a while with a horsey shake of his head. “It’ll be spilling out into the road within five years.”

As if just acknowledging the farmer’s presence, Clancy straightened up abruptly and with a grin as wide as a tombstone, he eyed the farmer for a few moments – and suddenly winked at him.

“I’ll tell you what, mister,” he began to assert with the immediate muster of his well-intoned brogue. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the cemetery. “You’ll be on that side of this wall before this wall is on that side of the road!”

And as any visitor to St. Philip’s can attest, Clancy’s words proved prophetic. No one knows for sure who the farmer was that offered his two cents only to have Clancy handing him back change. But it’s a safe bet he’s buried on the other side of Clancy’s still neatly cropped wall.

“Clancy’s probably got a lot of monuments around this area,” Gorman noted, “but that wall and grotto are probably his best.”

He built the grotto in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Bernadette, both of whose statues appear in the grotto. Clancy built the devotional site by commission. Rose Bannen, a fellow parishioner who shared in Clancy’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin, commissioned him to build the modestly majestic structure at the top of the cemetery hill.

Regarding his final visit to the cemetery, Clancy’s death was much like his life. According to Jack Kinney, he recalls him being fit and active pretty much until the end.

“He was planning to make a return to Ireland and was going to take me with him,” Jack Kinney said.

But then one day he fell ill. The doctors said it was liver cancer. But as in most things, Clancy wasn’t going to stick around long to make a fuss. Within a year of diagnosis, on August 4, 1948, Clancy was heading off for the great quarry of souls in the sky.

His funeral was well attended, Gorman related. A simple affair with his American friends and family as pallbearers, the event welcomed people from around the countryside. They all crowded into St. Philip’s to pay their last respects to a man whose tireless love for stonecraft was a permanent fixture of the landscape.

As for his worldly possessions, fittingly he left his car to his unofficial chauffeur and beloved Godson, Jack, while he spread his money among relatives – including a surviving niece back in Ireland.

Among the many mysteries that have puzzled people who knew Clancy, though, perhaps the most pressing is the question of his tools. What ever became of them? Perhaps they were secretly buried with him. Or maybe they faded into the background – hung on some forgotten hook like a cryptic epitaph in one of the barns Clancy built.

Or perhaps the tools passed into the possession of others – those who were borrowing them from Clancy at the time of his death, or those who bought them at this or that auction over the years.

But that Clancy himself lived and breathed and built and built in the Rolling Ground area is no mystery. His monuments can be seen today. But if you ask Jack Kinney and Jim Gorman, they’ll tell you there’s no rush to see the things Clancy did with stone and mortar.

Those silos and barn foundations, that wall and that grotto – they’ll all be around looking pretty much like they did when the mortar was still drying on them – and probably for long time after the last automobile breaks down.…

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Alien protects its foetus – Ripley’s dream.


Read the first two words only


What Came in the Mail


It’s been awhile since I’ve held a paperback that exudes this particular mid-1960s bouquet.  The last one I can recall that gave off this distinctive compact pulpish effervescence was my first copy of The Last Gentleman, published in 1966 and purchased by me in a used bookstore in Walla Walla, WA in 1986.  There was a near-pornographic image of a woman doing some sort of postmodern dance of the seven veils on the cover and in the air the smell of acidic pages destined to crumble as the 20th Century unwound. Now I turn to McLuhan for help in healing that wound Percy put his finger on, or at least in furthering the diagnosis.

What I Did Last Friday


The Week: Take a pill on gay marriage

Yale Key

Damon Linker at The Week stops short of saying the popes were/are right, but it’s a clear to those “who have eyes” that it comes to the same thing:

Permitting gay marriage will not lead Americans to stop thinking of marriage as a conjugal union. Quite the reverse: Gay marriage has come to be widely accepted because our society stopped thinking of marriage as a conjugal union decades ago.

The most astounding implication in Linker’s piece, though, is the suggested thesis that without religion there is no hope for heterosexual marriage. Is that the case? Is it really up to us, whether we like it or not, to reaffirm the baby-making aspect of marriage, whether we like it or not, as the popes have from the day Peter slipped the Church’s Yales on his ring?

That’s not quite sporting, if you ask me. Remember when those wigged-out Enlightenment chaps assured us that they was taking care of civilization and all that stuff? “Now you good Churchy-Goddy types, don’t you worry your poor little heads off – we’ve got it all taken care of. Go off and do your – well, whatever it is you do behind those closed doors on Sundays, and let us sweep up the public square for you. It will be as good as new – and so clean, you’ll hardly recognize it. Really. Trust us.”

Now what? They’re saying they can’t figure this thing out with reason alone? What in Sam Hill is up with that?



It’s a crazy world…

…someone oughtta sell tickets.

A Frenchman – a Frenchman! A citizen of the country that gave you the terms rendezvous, menage a trois, and cherchez la femme – charged onto the court of the French Open in protest of that country’s legalization of same-sex marriage. Scrawled on his belly? KIDS’ RIGHTS.


The New Yorker goes to hell

…or at least, follows Pope Francis up to the gates and peeks inside.

Hendrik Hertzberg is willing to give the Pope the benefit of the doubt. That’s good.

What’s remarkable to me is how much attention the modern world pays to this barely-living relic at the head of a dying institution. I mean, American Catholicism is pretty well assimilated, right? Why do people still notice this celibate white male who dares to wear white as he presides over a vast network of sexual abusers, along with the few backward dupes who still think God not only exists, but cares about who we know in the Biblical sense.

JOB’s serendipitous NYC literary pilgrimage

Or, what I did for Memorial Day.

It began with a phone call from my mother letting me know my Uncle Jack was dying (he passed from this life quietly and peacefully on May 29, his beloved family – and many of his 11 kids by his side. He was, as the last-cited integers might suggest, an inspiration and a role model for me).

At any rate, the goal was to fly solo to NJ and visit with my uncle in his last days. Like a hermit crab, though, with each passing minute of the announcement to depart forthwith to my home state, the journey/baggage was quickly developing by accretion .  First it was the two oldest offspring – both licensed drivers who could share the burden of time behind the wheel (18-20 hours, five states, and lots of Ohio farmland, depending on travelers’ Gatorade intake); then our German exchange student wanted to come along – she had never seen NYC before (and to be fair, I encouraged her to come); then it was most everyone but Mama, who would stay behind with the youngest.

In the end, we all- Papa, Mama and ten of the younger set – from four months to 17 years old – piled into “Driver 8 [+2],” the fifteen-passenger white Ford van and posing as a Baptist Church evangelizing team we were heading east.

Well, of course, as part of the visit to NJ, we had to hit New York – and hit it we did…hard. On Memorial Day. (“Everyone’s goin’ to the shaw for Mahmorial Day – no sweat.”)

Um. Nope.

Everyone was either hitting the shore points OR staying in NYC – and cramming Central Park around midday.  Interim, Papa Joe enlisted the help of his dear older sister to herd eight or nine teens/preteens (I can’t really remember how many –

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you…)

on a walking tour of NYC.

We weathered the crowds well – no one of our party getting unnecessarily lost – although we came close at one point with some nonsense that involved some preteen female interest in posing with a rather Ab-centric Abercrombie & Fitch model.

We traveled south from Madison Square Garden and inched our way to Times Square and then from there over to Central Park and then back again to MSG – and Penn Station. There was absolutely nothing to do that didn’t cost more money than a father of a large family could spare to part with. It was, in two words, economically prohibitive. I know you don’t care, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Bloomberg; but there it is.

Never mind the details – suffice it to say that the experience of being practically mugged by Elmo, Cookie Monster, two Iron Men, the Statue of Liberty and I think a couple Power Rangers, although they may have been Iron Men too, proved that just as the business of America is business, so the hustle and bustle of NYC is a bustling hustle. In Times Square experience dressed as innocence seeks out the tourists – especially the ones with cameras (although I suppose that’s redundant) and glom them for a picture and a mandatory tip. In case you need a hint, the belligerent buffos all carry mail pouches with “TIPS” stenciled in an ink black high-grade military font.

Never have I felt more exploited…. Rubbing the NaCl into the wound, as I passed one Iron Man, he murmured to me, “Hey, Dad, smile, why don’t you? – it’s almost over.”

As far as I can tell, our walking route took us east from MSG to the Empire State Building down 34th Street. We then hooked a left and headed north up 5th Avenue to 42th St., hooked another left until we hit Times Square (Broadway and 7th), got mugged by human-sized Muppets, then continued up 7th Ave. and hooked a right onto 49th St. and visited the golden guy at Rockefeller Center. We then continued on 49th and turned left on 5th Ave and proceeded on to Central Park, entered through the southwestern corner, enjoyed the sunning turtles in one of the little watering holes they keep for maintaining the sanity of the odd Country Mouse who happens to visit the Big Apple, ate hot pretzels for lunch, and exited the park from the south. From there we continued down 6th Ave., passed Macy’s and on back to our train.

A few incidents of note: My children, being Eloise fans, did their darndest to get kicked out of the Plaza Hotel. The doorman shooed them out in grand style.

On our way up 5th Ave., I saw the ghost of Walker Percy. A man who looked pretty much like the coveting curmudgeon of Covington was standing next to one of those typical Manhattan newsstand kiosks plastered with paper flesh. For all I know he could have been a ghost as he stood there, stock-still. He was wearing formal slacks, a striped dress shirt open at the collar, and had slung a sports coat over his left shoulder in the casual fashion of one taking a look at the horses as they entered the track. He looked neither hurried nor worried. Instead, he was gazing up at the skyscrapers, the way one gazes up at the ceiling when one’s heard a bad joke, a sardonic grin on his face as if both amused and amazed that so much humanity could be so lost.

Perhaps to drive the point home, not far from the newsstand where Percy’s ghost lingered, we passed the 5th Ave. Presbyterian Church. The letter sign out front announced in the familiar chunky black plastic lettering, the weekend sermon: “The Blessings of Being Lost.”

Then, not long after this – or perhaps before it – I discovered the first payoff for Papa on  his Manhattan meandering:

nyc pilgrimage 1

The very place that the Man in the Perpetual Hat, Maxwell Perkins, received  F. Scott, Ernest, and Thomas Wolfe – not to mention Marjorie Rawlings and James Jones.

Best story about Perkins. Charles Scribner was notorious for running an upright ship and so when the young Turks – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, et al, started coming on as Scribner authors, Perkins had a jolly time of it persuading Scribner to allow for profanity. Scribner stuck to his guns, though, and gave Perkins a list of words he was not allowed to have appear in Scribner books: fuck, shit, piss.

Of course, as Scribner handed down his orders by phone, Perkins, desperate to catch the list before his boss hung up, wrote it down on his desk calendar. Some days later, Hemingway came for a visit and saw the list as Perkins had written it. “Jesus, Max! Are you that busy, you need to schedule these things in advance?” or something to that effect. (I might have some of the players confused, but you get the general drift.)

I mentioned that my daughters – mostly my third-born – were desperate to see the Plaza Hotel. On our way up 5th Ave. I happened to catch the glint off a rather largish brass plate affixed to the pale grey brick of an anonymous building. I stopped long enough to realize it accomplished the hat trick for my literary pilgrimage.

Howells it was who first taught me to fall in love with money, you see. But not in the way you might think. Here’s the opening paragraph of what I wrote to get an MA from University of Dallas:

In  many ways, by the time The Rise of Silas Latham by William Dean Howells was published in 1885, the novel as an art form had come into its own in America. The literary landscape first formed by the novels of Melville and Hawthorne was beginning to take on a more definite shape by the time Howells’ groundbreaking novel came on the scene. Lapham was published in America the same year as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and only eight years after Henry James’ The American (1877), both of which novels broke new ground in their own right regarding the dawning self-awareness of the American character. For Twain, Huckleberry Finn’s unique articulation (in his own dialect no less) of the American scene could never be mistaken for the observations of a European. Likewise, as his name suggests Christopher Newman goes to Europe bearing the new American character with a certain blend of innocence and experience that James valued not only for the ambiguity it provided for James but also for the contrast it provided to the European character.

Howells’ work, though, stands at a kind of midpoint between the nativism of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and the sophisticated continentalism of James’ The American.  Indeed, Howells distinguished himself in the New England cradle of American intellectualism with his own brand of sophistication, yet he retained enough of his Ohio back-woods roots to recognize that the natural speech and homegrown culture of America were fair game for great literature. But Howells’ gentle satire contrasted greatly with Twain’s more acerbic wit; and his understanding of high society remained that of an outsider, a Yankee for sure, but one whose roots ran to the wilderness of the Mississippi rather than to the banks of the more cosmopolitan Charles River of Boston’s aristocracy…  


nyc pilgrimage 2

Happy Belated Birthday Dear Pushkin

publication delayed

The Liverpooligans vs. The Bilderburg Bluebloods

In the US, however, spectator sports were organized from the top of society down, which has largely kept them from being a vehicle for mass populism. For example, American football evolved among rivalries between universities with national pretensions: Harvard v. Yale, Army v. Navy, and Notre Dame v. USC.

Similarly, professional sports in the US always had a strongly corporate, upper-middle-class air. For instance, the most celebrated game in professional football history, Broadway Joe Namath’s New York Jets’ victory over the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl, was a victory for the national media’s home team.

In the 1890s, baseball’s sole major league, the National League, was being taken over by Irish brawlers such as the crafty John McGraw of the Baltimore Orioles. Thus, ballparks attracted a lower class of fan. In 1901 entrepreneur Ban Johnson founded the rival American League to provide a more honest and gentlemanly version of the game that would appeal to WASP and German-American families. Johnson’s league has remained dominant for most of the last eleven decades.

In contrast, European soccer clubs mostly emerged from their indigenous communities. European soccer teams sponsored local youth leagues that served as feeder systems for talent. American college basketball coaches, though, are lauded not for their training, but for scouring distant slums to recruit genetically gifted one-and-done stars.