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Sept 11th – a recollection

20 years ago today, around this time I was emerging from the subway at Bowling Green in Manhattan right by the iconic iron bull sculpture. My subway journey had been marred by delays and the commuting New Yorkers were getting irritable, myself included. Little did we know that above ground the first plane had struck the Twin Towers, and the second was just about to hit. As I emerged I saw throngs of people running down the middle of Broadway, some shouting and others with their eyes locked on the horizon in a catatonic stare. I shuffled through the crowd, catching snippets of conversation about a plane and the towers. It didnt make much sense. Once inside my office, with a radio plonked in the centre of the communal area, we learned piecemeal about the hijacked planes, but it was all pretty unclear still. I called my dad and my sister to let them know I was ok. My friend Dave and I went over to Battery Park to see for ourselves, and I will never forget the sight of the buildings burning and belching out smoke, with the sound of sirens all around us. As odd as it sounds now, despite the unspeakable horror of it all, we assumed the NYPD and FDNY had it under control. We returned inside and without warning our building started to violently shake. Looking back, this was the first tower collapsing and the reverberations were so fierce they shook our foundations, although at the time we didn’t know it. There was garbled talk on the radio of bombs, and with our building backing onto the NY Stock Exchange, there was a real concern for our safety and the rumbling building felt like a warning. I made a personal decision to leave and as I did so, the building announced an evacuation. Throngs of people spilled into the lobby but the doors to the outside had been locked. Mixed messages from the building management meant that thousands of people were now pressing into the confined area and it was getting uncomfortably tight. A security guard said he would open the doors and we could leave at our own risk. I exited with Dave and his sister Karin, who also worked with me. I still remember the yellowish dust that lay on the ground like a weird snow, as we traipsed through it. As we crossed Bowling Green there was the sound of planes roaring above us and I felt panic and threw myself against a wall in a meaningless effort to stay safe. They were likely military planes securing the area, given that all air traffic had been grounded. We then slowly trudged down to the bottom of Manhattan with streams of people pouring out of buildings onto the normally busy roads of the financial district. Some buildings had hauled out their water coolers onto the road and were handing out cups to drink from. Around then there was another loud boom and plumes of smoke raced down the concrete canyons around us as the second tower collapsed. Everyone started running and we made it to a slip road up onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where a kindly cop let us enter. Once I was up there I stared across and saw hordes of New Yorkers streaming out of Manhattan across the bridges. It was only then I was finally able to look back at the island and where the towers had once stood, there was now a smoking, burning vacant space. When we finally got to Brooklyn I looked up into the clear blue skies and saw the surreal sight of reams of paper fluttering down. Old letterheads and index cards from the offices in the towers, just drifting to the ground. Some of them charred and singed. I grabbed one and folded it into my wallet as a strange memento to remember those who were gone. With a sense of social duty we went to the hospital to donate blood but they didn’t need any more, and as it would turn out they unfortunately wouldn’t have a huge need anyway due to the lack of survivors from the buildings themselves. As we finally sat down in Dave’s apartment in Carroll Gardens, I called my father to let him know I was ok. He hadn’t heard from me for hours and saw the events unfolding on live television. Both of us spoke in hushed tones and in a state of shock, as well as real gratitude to be talking. Next I spoke to my sister and then a few friends & family in Ireland and Sweden. And then I did the only thing I knew to do, I sat down and wrote a brief and spotty account of my experience on an online messageboard, which I recall getting picked up by The Irish Times and the Munster Express in my home town of Waterford. The next morning I ventured out to the subway and made the lengthy journey back to Sunnyside, Queens, still wearing the dusty clothes from the day before. Commuters staring blankly to the floor. When I got home I bumped into my landlord Tom Lee,, who let me know that our neighbour Warren, who worked in Tower One, had not returned home yet. And he would never return. And as the week rolled by I heard of other sad stories, and also of unlikely escapes, like my friend Shadi who was fired from his job in the Twin Towers on Sept 10th. The week that followed was a blur of watching the news and sleeping and eating. And the return to work was an eerie one, with military personnel and vehicles on the roads, with strict ID checks at entry points from the Subway. And those fires burned at Ground Zero for months afterwards. Months. Air filters that were normally changed annually were being swapped out within weeks. Union Square become a memorial ground to those who were gone, with candles and flags and mementos and books strewn in makeshift shrines. Some sang songs. Others walked in silence. It was a strange and oddly beautiful time to be there. And as I look back now, 20 years later, I think about how grateful I am to have walked away to tell the tale, and I turn my thoughts to those who didn’t. May they rest in peace.

Where do you get your ideas from?

This is a classic question that often gets directed at creative people like you and me. And there really isn’t a satisfying answer for it. At least, not a definitive, simple explanation that the person asking will be happy with. For me, it’s about allowing space for little connections or sparks to happen in my brain. Often a good idea will come to me when I am thinking about nothing at all – sometimes when I’m on a walk, or in the shower, or simply staring into space and daydreaming. One pattern I have noticed with myself is when I am beginning to really zero in on a particular project that excites me (most recently this was a comedy play I am writing). Often I will then spot something in the everyday, or a cool concept/thought enters my consciousness, and I instinctively try to connect it to the work I am currently focused on.

So, what could have been a random idea that simply makes me smile or intrigues me and ordinarily gets jotted down in a notebook and filed away, now instead seeks out connective tissue to the project I am working on. I see possibilities for how it could be woven into that project. In the case of the play, I recently had an idea for a cool way of displaying visuals on a screen on a stage, and I quickly realised that this could be something that might work for the play I’m finishing up.

If I was to step back and analyse this a bit more closely, it starts to become a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. In my subconscious there are things rumbling, and I was possibly inspired to think about theatrical staging because I was working on a play. Or its equally possible that this idea was sparked by something else I observed and I was able to draw a connection to the play, and to then find a way to fit it in creatively to the piece.

More broadly though, I think the more you allow yourself to simply daydream and give a project time to breathe & formulate, the more you find that these flights of fancy come to you and, by extension, are something that you can start attaching to your current project like little lego ideas.

Deadlines can be a great forcing function sometimes, but I personally run into trouble when I am pushing myself to write something very specific and am demanding my brain to cook up inventive ideas that simply aren’t accessible. It can be done of course. And I have done it for many projects. But generally I find that you end up going back to cliches, standard tropes and things you’ve done before. If I have the luxury of time, the more I allow myself to not demand a creative idea, but rather give myself leeway to let it take shape in my head before committing it to a page, the better and more interesting it can be,

Everyone has a different process, and many creative people like prompts to spark new ideas, and others simply let the muse take them. As for me, my ideas come from everywhere, usually where there is space to not overthink.

Vaccination!

Ireland has been through a pretty awful stretch of lockdown and restrictions, with a slow roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine, so I was surprised and thrilled to get my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine today. If you are in a location where it is available, please do the right thing for the community and get vaccinated. The sooner we reach immunity, the sooner we can bring back live arts – an industry where so many have been struggling during this unprecedented time.

Big Night – A tale of culinary creativity

Many moons ago, my dad and I watched a beautiful film called Big Night, which has this remarkable food dish called Timpano as it’s centrepiece. Essentially a massive multi-layered baked pasta drum. We were so taken with it, we tried to make it together one night back then with my friend Jakob, and it was moderately successful. But the experience of making it has stuck with me ever since.

So I had wanted to make it again for decades and this birthday felt like the perfect moment to bring beloved family and friends together to make it , and share in this experience. Myself, Jim, Doug and David spent hours laughing and cooking, as we created exquisite bubbling sauces and ragus, boiled eggs, grilled meats, rolled “polpette” meatballs, sliced salami, made and rolled out huge sheets of pasta dough. We made several feasts that would have fed a large percentage of Ireland. And then we layered all those myriad of feasts into not one, but three Timpanos — one veggie and two meaty.

Into the oven they went, and once baked, there was still an element of doubt that they would come out of the dish in one piece, and when slicing into it, if it retains it’s structural integrity, and comes out in a solid perfect layered slice. As you can see from the photos and videos below, they came out absolutely perfect – a moment of true joy.

Then it was time to taste. I can tell you, they were absolutely delicious. All of them. And on top of that the joy of sharing them with friends old and new over a glass of wine was the real treat.

We then chatted and sang songs till deep in the night. All seated around the gorgeous tables so artfully decorated with care by my brilliant wife, Jessica. She brings people together and draws the best out of them, and today was no different

Inevitably my mind drifted to those who could not be with us and the fire they carried into my life. I thought of my mother who was the same age as I am today when she passed away. She would have loved this , especially the meatball Timpano. I thought of my father who would have been in his element in the kitchen and spinning jazz records on the turntable. He would have loved this, especially the veggie Timpano.

It was a great day. A perfect day. Fun, family, friends. And fabulous food. Most of all, it was an experience I will treasure forever.

Today, I will definitely be eating lots of leftovers and as evening falls, we are going to stick on Big Night and watch it with the kids. They have to carry the fire now and I’m counting on them to make Timpano with me in a couple of years too.