Thursday, September 29, 2005

Girls Who Like to Run Around and Hit Things with Sticks

I’m not good at relaxing and doing nothing. I think it’s one of those inevitable things in a marriage. One person is an annoyingly high-strung, rise-and-shine-go-get-em-Tiger sort of a person (e.g. me) and the other is more of a laid-back, stay-up-late-and-sleep-until-noon sort of person (e.g. Peter). To make sure that Peter didn’t strangle me with my own hair after getting woken up at 7 am on a Saturday, I quickly figured out that I needed activities to keep me occupied and happy.

Giving up my activities, namely barn work, horseback riding and taking care of our dogs, has been one of the most difficult parts of my transition to Dublin. I haven’t been the happiest camper because I haven’t found an outlet for my extra energy. We can’t have a dog right now and there aren’t really any conveniently located horse barns. At least not any to which I could ride my bike. So it was time to find a new activity.

Starting new things is VERY difficult for me. I am pathologically shy and go to great lengths to avoid social situations that might be uncomfortable, particularly the meeting-new-people kind of social situations. But being miserable and moping around the house isn’t doing me any favours either, so I finally decided to hunt out an appropriate activity.

This past Tuesday, I went to my first camogie practice with the local G.A.A. club. I found the club online, got in contact with one of the camogie players and was told when and where to attend practice. When I asked her what I should wear and if I should expect just to observe at first, since I’ve never played camogie or field hockey, she told me to wear a track suit and that they’d give me a hurley to knock things around.

I was unspeakably nervous and excited about going to practice. I had a job interview in the afternoon and I was more nervous about practice than about the interview. Since the practice was held in Dalkey, a little less than 2 miles from the house, I decided to run there so I could loosen up and relax a bit. The sun was just starting to think about setting and there was a pleasant nip in the air. I could pick out a hint of burning peat. It felt very much like autumn in Ireland, which, duh, makes sense since that’s exactly what it was.

I had a lot of fears about the practice. In addition to meeting new people, I was afraid because I had no idea how to play the game. I thought I would be the oldest person there and the only beginner. I was worried people would laugh at me or think that I shouldn’t be there. Peter tried to calm my fears by saying “Look, they’re girls who like to run around and hit things with sticks. You’re a girl who likes to run around and hit things with a stick. You’re going to get along great with them.”

He was, as almost always, right (yes almost always, Sweets, you are not infallible). I was not the oldest person there. The team seems to be split nearly down the middle – half the team are 16-18 year olds and the other half are maybe more in the 25-40 spectrum, definitely in the comfortable “around my age” range. The women who were around my age were very welcoming and encouraging. The teenagers chatted and giggled amongst themselves, which I was told was completely normal for them.

The practice was held indoors, since they’re getting into off-season mode. When the trainer (coach) arrived, we were divided into four teams, each with four players. Two teams played a six-minute long game while the other two teams waited. My team sat out the first game, so I got to watch and try to pick up a few tips.

When my team went out to play, the captain asked me which position I played. I told her I’d never played before and that I’d play wherever she told me to play. Since we only had four players, the setup was one forward, two mid-fielders and one goalie/back-field player. I was assigned to play forward and managed (more by luck than skill) to score two goals in the game. Our team lost though, so we sat out the next game and then played the losers of the first game.

Again, I was assigned to forward and again, I scored two goals and had a couple of decent passes. I was fairly pleased with my performance, given my newbie status. The goalie in the second game was a little dynamo – dashing with great speed and grace. I felt like an oaf trying to keep up with her. Even though I like to think of myself as fit, at the end of six minutes I was gasping for air like a fish out of water.

After practice, I asked someone how you were actually supposed to hold the hurley, since I had the feeling I was doing it wrong, which I was. My impulse was to hold it like a baseball bat, with my dominant hand closer to the business end. It turns out you’re supposed to put your dominant hand right at the end of the stick and put your other hand right next to it. That’s going to take a lot of getting used to, but I think it’s supposed to make it easier to swing from either side.

I had a great time and I’m looking forward to next week’s practice. Today, I did two things to make my involvement official. First, I bought a helmet, which was inexplicably exciting. I told the guy I’d need a large helmet and he looked at me a little dubiously. My head is much larger than it looks. When he brought out the large helmet, it was my turn to look dubious, but I was in luck because the helmet was also much larger than it looked. The guy got it fitted good and snug on my head, then I popped it off and announced I would buy it.

The guy I asked what colour I wanted and I actually had to look at the helmet to see what colour it was. (Blue, which is exactly what I wanted.) Peter later made fun of me for having to look at the helmet. I explained it like this “well it was just a blur of excitement and then the helmet was on my head.”

Peter also asked me if many players wore helmets and I told him “all of the older women do.” I think this is partially a function of the blissful ignorance and invincibility of youth. But I think it’s also partially due to financial reality. If you’re young and you get hurt, someone else pays for it. If you’re old and you get hurt, you have to pay for it. Plus, I really like having all my teeth and both my eyes.

The second thing I did was fill out my paperwork to join the club. One of the players told me I’d have to fill out a form and said that they’d help me with it. I thought to myself “Help me with it? Do I look like I’m illiterate?” Then I downloaded the form off the website and realised that no, I don’t look like an illiterate but I do sound like I am unskilled in the Irish language. Although half the form is in Irish and half is in English, it is the Gaelic Athletic Association, so the Irish cultural thing is very important. All this time, I thought that everyone who played inter-county hurling had really Irish names. Now, I realise that you have to put the Irish form of your name in your membership form.

It took me a lot of detective work to fill in the Irish part of the form so I was very proud when I finished it. I even went the extra mile and put the date in Irish and signed my name in Irish. As long as no one makes the mistake of thinking I’m fluent, I should be okay.

-Áine Ní Scannláinn.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Random Acts of God

Friends of ours in Chicago have a dog named Murray, whom they adopted from an animal shelter. Murray is a great dog, mostly Lab I think, and very active. (We met up with him in a dog park and he literally ran the pads off our Australian Cattle dog mix. Caper's paws were bleeding by the end of the visit.)

Murray's background is a bit of a question mark, but it's a certainty that it featured some mistreatment at the hands of cruel humans. He's great now with his adopted Mom and Dad, but he's a little wary of strangers. Oh, he wants to like people, he wants to be friendly, but he's just not sure. Poor Murray is the master of mixed signals.

Murray can have the submissive, head down, creeping up to you thing going on, but then he can start to growl a little. But then he might approach you again, interested, but then he's not sure. He's difficult to read. Does he want pets or does he want your fingers for lunch? Sometimes it's impossible to tell, so the best course of action is to steer clear until Murray figures out exactly how he feels about you and what he wants.

The weather today reminds me a lot of Murray. This afternoon, the sun was shining. And not in some half-assed, peeking through the clouds way. It was Sesame-Street-Sunny-Days out there. But, in the midst of this abundance of golden light goodness, it was lashing rain. Great big sheets of rain of the "I hope you're wearing rain paints and galoshes because an umbrella isn't going to cut it" variety.

This split-personality weather gave way to cloudy skies and then good old-fashioned grey-skies rain. It rained for about two hours, then became brilliantly sunny with fluffy white clouds in a deep blue sky. It looked like the sort of weather that would make you want to frolic in fields and make daisy chains. This lasted for about an hour, then it was back to grey skies and rain. Now, we have brilliant blue skies with radiant sun and no clouds or rain.

I remember hearing about a psychology experiment involving rats and tasks and treats. I believe it went something like if a rat always gets a treat for performing a task, that is good. If a rat never gets a treat for performing a task, it is tough luck for the rat, but is better than if the rat gets treats intermittantly. When there is no correlation between reward and good behaviour (or, for that matter, punishment and bad behaviour), then the rat has a breakdown trying to figure out the pattern, trying to learn the system.

I used to have this theory about religious guilt. I'm Irish Catholic and I'm full up to the brim with guilt. My friend Mary Ellen is Polish Catholic and she, too, is at-guilt-capacity all the time. It doesn't matter that we don't go to church anymore. What matters is that we both went to Catholic school and were well-schooled in guilt doctrine.

But, I have to ask you - when was the last time you met an Italian Catholic who felt guilty? How about a guilty Catholic Spaniard? I don't believe that they exist. My theory had to do with the climates and weather of the different Catholic countries. Spain and Italy have much better weather than Poland and Ireland. While the Irish are sheltering from icy sheets of rain and the Poles are freezing their tootsies off, the Italians are drinking wine and lounging on the southern beaches and the Spaniards are having siestas in the sun.

My theory goes that the Irish and the Poles, because they were continually punished with the weather, feel an acute sense of Catholic guilt because in order to suffer so much, they must be bad or deficient in the eyes of God. After today, I think I want to give more consideration to the role that unpredictability in the weather plays in the development of a religious guilt complex.

If the weather changes randomly and we go from praise to punishment in a nanosecond (or, worse yet, we are punished and praised at the same time), what hope do we have of avoiding becoming neurotic with the guilt? If you took an Irish Catholic or a Polish Catholic person and transplanted him or her in southern Italy, would the guilt complex fade away with the sunshine and wine therapy?

I'd love to speculate more on this, but I've got to get out there and enjoy the weather while it lasts.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


To celebrate Nana’s anniversary, we took her to Newgrange on Sunday. OK, we took a tiny little speck of her ashes because when I finally opened the very attractive little urn-locket my mother gave me, it turned out to have a tiny sprinkle of very fine Nana powder. Given the size of the locket, I was expecting a thimble of ashes.

Newgrange, an ancient tomb 600 years older than the pyramids, is the kind of place Nana would have loved. She was fascinated with just about everything in life, but in particular with different cultures and time periods. She had a life-long love of learning and discovering, which she fed with PBS, National Geographic and the nightly news.

This was my third time visiting Newgrange and my second time since I moved over here in the spring. Access into the tomb is by guided tour only, but I think you could visit Newgrange every day for a week and still learn something new, especially if you had a different tour guide each time.

This is what we know about Newgrange for certain:
  • It’s big, but only a small section of it is actually used for the passage tomb.
  • It is made out of a lot of rocks, most of which came from a fair distance from the site. The largest rocks, the kerbstones, came from 15 km away and weigh between one and ten tonnes.
  • The roof of the inner chamber consists of a corbelled ceiling that was built with huge slabs of rocks with small rocks filling the gaps. The roof has stood intact, without leaking, for 5,000 years.
  • The light box about the entrance is constructed in such a way so that on the 5 days around the winter solstice, the light from the morning sun enters the passage and bathes the inner chamber in warm winter sunlight.
  • The Stone Age people who built Newgrange didn’t even have the wheel yet, but they were still able to complete a complicated, labour-intensive monument.

    The tour guide on Sunday was in to the speculation. Since Newgrange was built over 5000 years ago, no one really knows exactly what it was used for and why it was built the way it was built. You can make some pretty good inferences – fragments of bone from 5 distinct individuals were found in the tomb, so it was used as a burial place. But you don’t know the whole story. Was it only a tomb for the most special people in the tribe? Was it the tomb for a single family? Were more individuals buried in the tomb but were their ashes so well cremated that no bone traces were remained? Did treasure hunters in the 1700s carry the bones away?

    In front of the entrance to the tomb sits an intricately carved kerbstones, known in archeological circles as K1. The guide expounded on some of the possible interpretations of the carvings. Could the three interlocking circles on the left half represent the three stages of life: birth, death and rebirth? Are the carvings simply what was popular art back in the Stone Age? My favourite theory is that the carving is a map.

    At first, I didn’t get it. It looks like swirls and squiggles. But then the guide suggested that the three interlocking circles could represent the three large passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. The smaller interlocking circles could represent the smaller tombs visible in the surrounding fields. The diamond shapes could represent fields and the squiggling lines at the bottom of the kerbstones could represent the Boyne, which snakes around and surrounds Newgrange on three sides. It’s certainly something to think about.

    Inside the tomb, the tour guide provided a demonstration of what the inner chamber is like on the winter solstice. At 9.02 am, the sun peeks over the horizon and its golden rays enter the window box. As the sun rises higher in the sky, the light floods into the chamber. By turning off all the lights and then strategically turning on the passage lights, you get an idea of what it would be like.

    It is this aspect of Newgrange that fascinates me the most. I imagine this ancient civilisation, dependent on the earth and the weather for their survival. I imagine what the winter must have been like for them. Cold. Dark. Frightening. Nearly interminable. Those nights around the shortest day of the year – did they see it as a turning point, a celebration? Did they fear that if the sun got angry it might continue to give them short days?

    Why did they build the window box in alignment with the winter solstice sun? Did the light play a role in some sort of religious ritual. Did they believe the hand of god was coming to collect the souls of their dead? Was it just an elaborate calendaring system, marking the end of one year and the beginning of the next?

    I told Peter that I would love to have a time machine, just so I could go and observe the people who built and used Newgrange. I wouldn’t have wanted to live at that time (how would I survive without the Internet and indoor plumbing?) but I’m curious about the whys of Newgrange. I wonder what Heaven is like and if you can go back in time and get these questions answered. I’d love that sort of afterlife and I know that Nana would too.

    I wanted to leave some of Nana’s ashes inside the tomb, but I felt funny doing it. (I don’t want to get haunted by some angry ancient god.) Practically speaking, given the paltry dusting of ashes that I had, I needed to be creative about how to get the ashes to wherever they were going to go. I put a few specks from the urn-locket in an old medicine container (sorry, Nana) and then filled it with water.

    To get from the visitor centre to the loading area for the tour bus, you cross a bridge over the River Boyne. I ceremoniously emptied my jar of diluted Nana into the river. I figured she’d enjoy the trip out to the Irish Sea, the very trip the Newgrange builders made to collect the smaller rocks used to build the tomb’s façade.

  • Saturday, September 24, 2005

    The Things I Miss

    Before we moved here, Peter asked me what I thought I was going to miss from America. I thought about the things he missed from Ireland (Irish junk food, mostly Rancheros and Snack Bars). Since I always avoided American junk food because the taste never justified the calories, I was at a loss trying to think of what there was to miss.

    After being here for nearly six months, I now know exactly what I miss. In no particular order:

    Our Ice-Making Fridge. To me, an ice-making, water-dispensing fridge is the height of luxury and I was thrilled that the house we bought happened to have one. It would even crush the ice for you. Over here, you can buy such a fridge and, in fact, they are even called American-style fridges. But there’s not one where we’re staying and so I’m reduced to making ice the old fashioned way and getting water from the sink.

    Corn Syrup. Yeah, I know, I never thought I would miss corn syrup either. But you try making a pecan pie without corn syrup when you’re not familiar with your substitution options (golden syrup or treacle).

    A Wide Range of Diet Sodas. Diet Dr. Pepper, Diet Cherry Coke, Diet Mountain Dew, I miss you all. While Pepsi Max (remember Pepsi Max?) is great, I miss the variety of diet pops available in the States.

    My Brand of Birth Control Pills. Don’t get the wrong idea – this isn’t 1980s Ireland. Contraceptives are legal and readily available. But they don’t have my brand, Ortho Tricyclin Lo. I took some poor substitute and one of the side effects was that I gained 12 pounds in about a month. I am not a happy girl about this situation and plan to buy a year’s supply of my pills the next time I’m in the States. I don’t care what it costs.

    Bookstores That Stay Open Late. If it was 9 o’clock at night and I ran out of reading material, a quick trip to the Barnes and Noble or Borders solved that problem. If that happens over here, I have to troll through my mother-in-law’s bookshelf, trying to decide which Maeve Binchy book will be least annoying. Most retail stores here close at 6 although they do stay open a little bit later on Thursdays. It’s annoying to not be able to go out and buy what I want when I want it.

    My Kitchen Aid. The only thing I love more than baking is baking with a Kitchen Aid. Don’t you dare think “no big deal, it’s just a mixer.” The Kitchen Aid is a revolutionary advancement in the baking sciences. It’s big, it’s heavy and it will last for all of your days. I had to give my Kitchen Aid to a good home because of the electrical circuit issue. My brother Shane kindly took in the Kitchen Aid. A week later, he called me and said “I didn’t understand what the big deal was with the Kitchen Aid, but I just made meringues with it and now I want to make sweet love to the Kitchen Aid.” Another convert, just don’t touch his meringues.

    Target. From cat litter to cleaning supplies, bed linens to furniture, Target was our go-to source for our daily living needs. Ireland doesn’t really have an equivalent. Dunnes comes close, but not close enough.

    Friday, September 23, 2005

    Nana Anna

    A year ago today, my grandmother died. She was 90 (and a half) and had developed a highly aggressive form of cancer. Even though I lived away from her for eight years, she always played a very big role in my life.

    Both my parents worked and their shifts started early, so my dad would drop us off at my grandmother’s in the mornings. She would give us breakfast, make sure we looked presentable and send us off to school. We walked to her house after school, where she would give us a snack and supervise our homework completion. Whatever study skills I had, I learned them at Nana’s round kitchen table.

    I could tell you about Nana Anna all day. I could tell you the funny stuff – how she believed that breasts were muscles, how she once asked me if I had ESPN when she meant ESP, how she had a personal policy against wearing underwear. I could tell you the touching stuff – how she took care of my grandfather when he was goofy with the Alzheimer’s, how she took care of me when I was sick, how she was the glue that held our extended family together. I could tell you the things she taught me – how to colour inside the lines, how to bake, how to speak up when I felt something was wrong.

    I could do all that, but I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to let Nana talk to you herself. No, I’m not crazy – I inherited her journals, letters and other papers. Earlier this week, I started to go through her journals. From 1980 to 1998, she kept a general journal where she recorded the happenings in our family and in the world news. She didn’t write every day, but she did try to at least provide summaries each month. I don’t know what happened in 1999, but Nana kept an entire journal devoted to 2000, focusing mostly on news headlines.

    Nana chronicled our fevers, report cards, general moods, music concerts, dance recitals, school plays and haircuts. She recounted birthday and anniversary celebrations. She made frequent observations on the state of the world.

    August 12, 1984 – The Olympics Closing Ceremony
    The closing – marathon – equestrian medals – music superb – flag girls – fantastic – participants – warm – responsive – happy –

    All athletes march together as idea of unity all countries enter as one continuous group – no selfishness – no bitterness – no hate –

    Why can’t life be like this for all –
    Women prove they can play as well as the men
    Simeron gave this Olympics a 10
    Volunteers were outstanding and marvelous

    October 1998
    Lou cleaned up the garden. His pumpkins were beautiful – colorful – dainty – shapely and plentiful.
    Were in Windsor went to casino for a bit of excitement. Lois and Greg came along. We enjoyed all, food very good.
    Getting ready for Halloween.
    World Haiti a headache
    Russian – threatening
    Bosnia still a problem
    Congress – Did nothing

    Saturday January 1, 2000
    My mother often wondered if any of her children would be around to celebrate the year 2000. She had passed into 1900 from 1800. Yes, Mom, one of us made it – your daughter, lucky enough.
    January 1 was a quiet day for Lou and me. December, Friday the 31 of 1999 was jubilant. Sydney, Australia ushered in the first new year with huge figures and fireworks. Other cities were Rome, London, Paris, Spain, New York, Los Angeles. The most spectacular was Paris with the lighting of the Eiffel Tower. It was beautiful color and all.

    Another priceless treasure I inherited was a spiral-bound book called Grandmother Remembers. Someone gave this to Nana as a gift and she dutifully filled in many of the pages, recording her childhood, her parents’ lives, her daughters’ childhoods and her grandchildren’s births and early years. Now that she’s gone, it’s the only record of her growing up. I wish I’d seen this book before she died. I’d love to ask her some questions about some of the cryptic memories she scrawled down.

    My favourite is on the Family Stories page. The prompt is “I still laugh…” My grandmother wrote: “The day my father brought a baby pig home after a confrontation with my mom.” Doesn’t that just make you insatiably curious? Why did he bring home a pig? What did it have to do with the argument? Was it alive? Did it stay alive? Did he want to have it as a pet?

    I enjoyed reading her impressions of her three children and her six grandchildren:

    Kathleen gave me so many trying hours because I always didn’t understand. Her steps in the snow where frightening to her. The stitches I experienced at the hospital. She was always most helpful.
    Lois’ love of diving into a book and never being disturbed – regardless of events. The ability to fall asleep anywhere. Her love of chocolates and dance.
    Priscilla’s way of getting her fingers caught in the mixer. Her devotion to whatever the task might be. Her love of dance throughout the years. Ever faithful.

    Beth-Anne how small you were when little. Your listening ability and I still wonder what you are thinking about.
    Shane the little trick you aggravated me about.
    Patrick your ability to be too kind, even to me.
    Jessica your love of talking talking talking you should be a lawyer
    Matthew your quiet way and hiding things
    Lisa your way of getting around all of us.

    On the “My Grandchildren” page, contains the best words I could find to show how Nana was and what she wanted for us.

    My wishes for you as you grow up:
    That you all go out and be what you want to be – but with love in doing so, never forgetting to help and share with each other.
    Nana Anna, thank you for teaching us how to love and share. I hope we can all live up to your example.

    Thursday, September 22, 2005

    In Search of Pants

    Before I moved to Dublin, Peter and I hit the outlet mall. Hard. I stocked up on work clothes from Ann Taylor, the Gap and Banana Republic. I bought two pairs of comfy black shoes from Clarkes and fruitlessly searched for the right size Converse All-Star High Tops.

    I knew clothes were going to be a lot more expensive in Dublin and that money would be tight at first. Better to stock up than get caught out. This worked great for the last six months because the clothes were all spring clothes and summer in Dublin is fairly similar to spring in Chicago.

    But now that we’re sliding in to fall, my wardrobe has some chinks in the armoire, if I can make a really lame pun. I have no suitable black pants. I have black suit pants, but I have nothing that I’d want to wear to a pub or to work in a business-casual environment. So today I set out to try to remedy this problem.

    Let me stop here to say that my List of Things I Absolutely Hate To Do goes something like this (starting with the most dreaded):

    1. Go to the dentist.
    2. Go to the gynecologist.
    3. Pierce my ears with a rusty sewing needle.
    4. Go shopping for pants.
    5. Sit on a bus full of obnoxious Spanish exchange student.

    Why do I hate shopping for pants? Because I am five feet tall with an ample ass – today’s mass-market pants are just not made for a woman like me. Mass-market pants are made for freakish Amazonian women who don’t mind if the world gets to see their ass cracks on a regular basis.

    I tried on about 25 pairs of pants in five different stores. I also walked into countless other stores and didn’t even bother to go through the dressing room charade. There is an annoying fashion in pants over here at the moment – the ridiculously flared bell-bottom legs. All I wanted was a pair of straight-legged black cotton pants. All I could find were these 70s throwback monstrosities. When the circumference of the pant leg is longer than the distance from my knee to my ankle, something is just wrong in Pantland.

    When I put on some of these pants, I looked like a little kid playing dress-up. With one pair, the flared cuffs billowed out for about a foot. Or at least they would have if I hadn’t been standing on eight inches of extra pant leg. WNBA players, I’ve found your pants. I’m still looking for mine though.

    I bought a pair of khaki green cargo pants because they were cute, had ankle ties to strap down the parachute-like pant legs, and I thought they were 15 euro. They turned out to be 30 euro and I ended up returning them an hour after I bought them. I was disappointed the store clerk didn’t ask me why I was returning them. I was going to plead temporary insanity.

    After exhausting all the shopping possibilities in Dun Laoghaire, I took the Dart into the city centre. I struck out in town as well. The pants I want are apparently woefully out of fashion. Looking like Jamie Gertz in the Lost Boys is all the rage this season. I could get a raggy skirt and a jacket that would make Sergeant Pepper proud. I could get a pair of cargo pants that could carry actual cargo. I could go the preppy route and get a cute little checked sweater vest. But I cannot, for all of the euro in Dublin, get a simple fecking pair of black straight-leg cotton pants.

    First stop when I visit the family in Cleveland: Aurora Premium Outlet Mall. I’ll be the maniac buying half a dozen pairs of plain black pants.

    Creature of the Sun

    With the exception of Iceland or one of the Scandinavian countries, I can think of few places I would rather spend the summer than Ireland. At the peak of summer, dawn starts around 4 and dusk lasts until nearly 11. As an added bonus, it never gets too unbearably hot. I wore shorts about 3 times this summer and only had about a week in June where it was difficult to sleep at night.

    Despite my fear of UVA and UVB rays, I am a creature of the sun. I need a certain amount of exposure to its life-giving yellow goodness or I become cranky and depressed. My body automatically sets its little alarm clock to the sun. Unless I've been drinking too much beer or mainlining caffiene or decided to play lazy, I usually wake up during the dawn. (When I was a kid, my parents hung a thick scratchy army blanket over my window so I wouldn't wake up - they called it a black-out curtain.) Within an hour or two of sunset, I'm inexplicably sleepy.

    Summer in Ireland is good for me - good for my creativity, my mental health and my sleep cycle. Winter in Ireland is not going to be so good for me. Besides the fact that it lashes ice-cold rain on a regular basis, the sun goes on a radically reduced work schedule. Dawn is around 8 and it's completely dark by 5.

    September and October are bittersweet for me. I love the quality of the light in the fall - the warm, soft light, like something out of an impressionist painting or the way they used to light Cybil Shephard's character on Moonlighting. But I'm painfully aware that each day, we have a little bit less of the sweet sunlight and a little bit more darkness.

    Right now, dawn is around 6 here and it's dark around 8. I've found it much more difficult to haul myself out of bed in the morning. By 9 pm, I am thinking about putting on my pajamas and brushing my teeth. Sleeping in the fall, with the window open and the cool breeze filling the room, turns on my hibernation instinct.

    I miss summer and I'm not ready for winter. But I hope I can enjoy fall for what it is, instead of lamenting what it is not and dreading what it will become.

    Wednesday, September 21, 2005

    Barn Sick

    My dad’s mother was an avid camper and Girl Scout. When she was a kid, she loved going away to Girl Scout summer camp. Whenever anyone asked her if she got homesick at camp, she always said that she didn’t get homesick, but when she went home, she did get “camp-sick”.

    I have a similar problem. I’m not homesick, exactly, although I do miss our little house and the space and privacy it provided. But I don’t wish I were at home. I don’t pine over Wheaton or Chicago or America in general. I am, for lack of a better word, barn-sick.

    For nearly three years, I volunteered at a horse barn near my house called Danada Equestrian Center. Danada is an unusual place. It’s owned by the county and is part of the DuPage County Forest Preserves. The place has about four full-time staff members, and a handful of part-time seasonal staff. The bulk of the labour force is made up of volunteers, crazy people who commit to coming in for four hours a week to shovel horseshit and carry buckets of water.

    What would possess someone to spend their spare time carting around 80-pound bales of hay? Why would you want to muck out stalls? Who in their right mind would sign up for a frigid winter of hacking away at frozen poop and a sweltering summer of slapping away flies?

    Nearly every volunteer is drawn to Danada by a love of horses. Through the training program and then during the course of volunteering, you learn so much about horses. Grooming, tacking, feeding, taking care of health issues – volunteers are involved with all aspects of horse care. I’ve seen an equine dentist float a horse’s teeth. I watched an equine chiropractor give a horse an adjustment and show us how to fit a saddle. The best day, by far, was watching the vet castrate a colt, but for some strange reason, Peter doesn’t like me to talk about that too explicitly.

    In addition to free education, volunteers also get some riding perks. After putting in 32 hours of volunteer time, a volunteer is eligible to get one free session of lessons. The rest of the lessons are half-priced. Volunteers can also take 3 free trail rides a month. In the winter, volunteers get to participate in the Adopt-a-Horse program, which is like having your own horse but without the bills. Adopters look after their horses two times a week, working on grooming, riding or ground manners. It’s a program designed to keep volunteers addicted to Danada and to keep the horses from becoming too fat and lazy in their off-season.

    The horses are definitely the hook that gets the majority of volunteers in the door. I was all about the horses when I first started. But, in the end, horses are only half of the equation. The people – the other volunteers and the staff members – play an equal role in the attraction of Danada.

    I made great friends at Danada. The horses may get you in the door, but it’s the people that make you want to go back week after week. It’s a character-building bonding experience to struggle up a hill, carrying a bale of hay with a fellow volunteer, trailed by hungry horses, struggling to get your footing in mud the consistency of cake batter. I met people I never would have met otherwise. I enjoyed working with them, even when we were working in the rain or scraping paint off fences in the middle of winter or de-cob-webbing the hayloft or pushing overloaded wheelbarrows to the manure spreader.

    Wednesday and Sunday mornings are hard for me now, because that’s when I would have been at Danada. I miss the horses. I miss my friends. I miss the work, even the back-breaking disgusting chores. I don’t think I will ever be able to replace Danada because it truly is a unique place.

    Tuesday, September 20, 2005

    It's Like Riding a Bike...

    My provisional driver's license arrived in the mail on Friday. Now I can finally drive again, even though I am required to have a licensed driver in the car with me. I have to get my procrastinating butt moving and sign up for my driving test and then get a few lessons.

    Yeah, that sounds like it's out of order, doesn't it? But with the waiting lists the way they are, you really do have to sign up for the test and then learn how to drive. Our friend is taking his test in October, after waiting 56 weeks.

    The license arrived just in time since, in my desperation, I'd started to do something scary just to get places. No, I wasn't hitchhiking. I was....riding my bike.

    There are two problems with that. One - the inherent problems of me and bicycles and two - the problem of bicycles in Dublin.

    My cycling history is irreparably tarnished by one accident. About 2 years ago, I was riding my bike to the gym and I thought a car was going to pull out of a church parking lot right in front of me. So I slammed on the brakes, went flying over the handlebars and landed with my left arm trapped under me.

    I knew my arm was broken right away. It's a peculiar sort of pain, like a current of electricity is grinding between the broken ends of bone. The break turned out to be fairly minor, as these things go, and since the bone was in a stabilised position, I didn't even need a cast.

    I know what you're thinking: "you fell off your bike and went boom, big deal, where's the trauma." In the emergency room, Peter asked me which brake I'd used to stop the bike - the front or the rear. I told him I'd just slammed on both brakes and then said, "Do you mean there's a difference?"

    With that one sentence, I completely undermined my biking authority. Peter lost all confidence in my ability to ride a bike safely. If I'd had a bike license, he probably would have taken it away. Instead, he revoked my biking privileges until I completed a safety class.

    The upshot of all this is that I am a nervous biker now because I am always aware of how fragile my bones are and how strong my front brake is. (Yes, I did learn something in Safety Town.) I tend to avoid riding my bike now, if I can help it. But with my current transport situation, I finally broke down and tried out the bike.

    It was a beautiful day, so I decided to ride my bike to Phoenix Park, which is about 9 miles from where we're staying. The first part of the ride was fine - I got to zoom along a nicely paved cycle lane that runs parallel to a dual carriageway. The only hiccup was the construction work on the pedestrian crossing bridges meant that I had a choice of walking my bike on the sidewalk or riding in the bus lane. Yes, my pansy ass went sidewalk all the way.

    In Donnybrook, about 2 miles outside the city centre, the cycle lane entered an unholy alliance with the bus lane. Instead of having a nice little cycle lane all to myself, I had to share a big bus lane with, well, big busses and something even worse than that - taxi cabs. Yep, the taxis in Dublin are permitted to use the bus lane and they have a bad tendency of acting like no one else should be able to use the bus lane. Not busses and certainly not bicycles.

    I was motoring along, a little intimidated by the evil eye I was getting from taxi drivers, when the bus in front of me stopped to pick up passengers. I watched as the cyclist in front of me made a snappy little hand signal that looked like he wanted someone to give him five, down low, on the right side, and then he swung into the adjacent lane, right in front of a car. He was fine though because he was able to use the tiny clearance between the bus and the car to scoot around the bus.

    I looked at him, looked at the steady line of traffic in the adjacent lane and stopped behind the bus. Maybe I'm a wuss or maybe I just like sucking diesel fumes. Judge not, OK?

    Over the course of the next two miles, the cycle lane would appear on its own, then it would merge with the bus lane, all without any rhyme or reason. I doggedly pedaled along but I was so not enjoying this little excursion. My knees felt like someone was tightening the tendons in them until they wanted to snap like rubber bands. I couldn't go fast, no matter which gear I tried or how furiously I pumped my chubby legs. And every 5 minutes or so, I got another infusion of fresh, yummy diesel fumes.

    Then I hit the city centre, where the cycle lane would just disappear without even the pretense of merging with the bus lane. More cars than I want to count, the vast majority of them taxis, nearly hit me. I tried to follow the cycle lane, to guess where it would occur next but it really did make no sense. For example, nearly Dublin Castle, there's a cycle lane for about 20 yards. It just appears, runs for 20 yards, and then disappears.

    I admitted some measure of defeat during this portion of the outing and spent a fair amount of time walking my bike on the sidewalk. I don't care if I looked like a loser, I know for a fact that the taxi drivers had a laser sighting with the outline of my bicycle on it.

    When I finally got to Phoenix Park, 2 hours after I left the house, I pulled over on the wonderful, clearly delineated, separated from traffic cycle lane and sent Peter a text. (A quite whingy text about how I hated cycling and wanted a motor scooter.) As I was texting, I realized that my seat didn't seem quite right. I got off the bike and examined it more closely. The seat was all the way down - that's why I felt like a bear on a circus bike. I adjusted the seat until it was nearly at the end of its post. What a difference 8 inches of height makes.

    Unfortunately, 8 inches of height doesn't make cycle lanes appear in the city. After my tour of the park, I still had to do battle with traffic. I took a more direct route through the city centre, even though it meant riding on the quays along the river. In addition to taxi cabs and city busses, add a stupid number of tour busses and huge trucks - like 18-wheeler trucks. Let me tell you, nothing makes your bones scream, "Careful crazy lady, we're breakable" like having a two ton truck barrel past you.

    At least with my adjusted seat, the time I spent exposed to bone-crushing traffic was greatly reduced. I got home in nearly half the time. It was a great relief to stuff my bike into the wood shed. The next morning, my tailbone and knees complained that next time we should just take the damn bus. I am inclined to agree.

    Monday, September 19, 2005

    Becoming a Swan

    When I first moved to Dublin, I stayed with some friends who lived a good bit closer to the city centre than we do now. Living there was great (mostly because our friends never touched my laundry or asked me where I was going) and I was able to walk into town. Being a bum, I did this quite frequently.

    It was spring and I’d walk along the canal and pass the swans, who hadn’t yet moved on to wherever their summer homes are. I became a bit obsessed with the swans.

    Up close, a swan is nothing like I’d expect. It’s a huge bird with a neck as thick as my arm. A swan is also not quite as lily-white as you’d expect – he has some black feathers and a little bit of accumulated grime. Most shockingly, a swan has the biggest feet – they look stolen off of a Navy SEAL diver.

    I guess it’s the curved necks that make swan look so graceful as they languidly paddle along in the water. It sure can’t be the way they flap their wings and run along the surface of the water when they want to get somewhere quickly. When they do their water running thing, they look ridiculous.

    The other thing no one ever tells you about swans is that they are nasty as hell. Picture your favorite ornery Canada goose and multiply that by one thousand. Now you’re getting close to the attitude of a swan on a good day. I once saw a swan chase off a medium-sized dog. Swans take crap from no one.

    The rumor about swans is that they mate for life, which is a very admirable, loyal quality and it’s part of the reason why I find the canal swans so interesting. There’s one swan who patrolled an area not too far from my friends’ house. He was always alone and I don’t know if that’s because his partner is nesting or if it’s for sadder reasons.

    A ways down from Mr. Alone was a flock of swans that were even more interesting because one of them was expressly not a swan. The flock had a goose in its midst – a white Mother-Goose type of goose. The goose was smaller than the swans and at first, I thought it might be an interloper. But the goose appeared solidly part of the social group.

    The flock consists of five swans, plus the goose. This caused endless speculation for me. Was the goose partnered with one of the swans? Did Mr. Alone’s partner run off with Mr. Goose? Was this a bird version of an interracial marriage? Could they actually have goslings together? Were there other groups of swans who are less accepting of this arrangement? Was this the talk of the canal waterfowl world?

    Every time I saw the goose, I just had to laugh. I don’t know if it was a he or a she. I don’t know if he/she believed that he/she was a goose or if he/she just really liked swans. Where is the line between pretending to be something and believing you are something? And when you cross the line into belief, do you actually become that which you want to be?

    I wish I knew. Maybe the goose isn’t all that different than I am. After all, what am I doing over here if not trying to assimilate into a new culture. My accent marks me out as surely as the goose’s orange feet and bill. But maybe, if I believe I belong, I will.

    Saturday, September 17, 2005

    Native Language

    English is my native language. In school, it was my best subject. Thanks to a certain ruler-wielding nun, I can diagram a sentence. I know the difference between affect and effect, who and whom, its and it’s. On good days, I come down on the side of right with lie and lay, although that one does still trip me up. The point is, I do speak English.

    As do the Irish, although of course, not the English that I’m used to. I notice it all the time, in funny ways. Thanks to television and movies, I already knew a little bit – say boot instead of trunk when you’re talking about putting luggage in the car, it’s petrol not gas, lift not elevator.

    But sometimes I can’t help how my brain works. It’s wired to associate certain words with certain meanings. When someone talks about using a torch, I think about the sort of item that appeared in the hands of the villagers when they went off in search of Frankenstein’s monster. I worry about the open fire risk and where to find the matches. But it’s all silliness on my part because they’re talking about a simple flashlight.

    My favorite word over here has got to be scheme. In America, schemes are the tools of con-men and tricksters. Over here, the word scheme is untainted by the unsavory American connotations. Here, a scheme is any sort of organized program. So, the government over here is always formulating a scheme to deal with whatever the day’s news problem is. Come to think of it, perhaps the main perpetrators of schemes aren’t so different in the two countries.

    Every so often, I come across a word or phrase that means absolutely nothing to me so I must invent explanations. One that’s been puzzling me recently is heard often in radio advertisements. The announcer says something along the line of “to take advantage of this exciting new scheme low phone” followed by a phone number. I want to know what low phone is and how it’s different from free phone. I want to believe that low phone distorts your voice so your call is confidential or that you can only make low phone calls while you’re under the table or a bridge.

    My five-year-old niece, Michelle, told me a story about her 16-month-old sister, Anna, who had developed a habit of putting on Michelle’s pants whenever she could find a pair. Everyone else who was told this story roared with laughter but I could only smile politely. I couldn’t see what would be funny about a small child wearing two pairs of pants.

    Then, when I was at their house for dinner, Anna came down in her pink pajamas, one of those cute fuzzy pairs that are all one piece with the feet covered. Only she was wearing Michelle’s underpants over the pajamas, which made her sort of look like a very small, very pink Batman. Now that was funny and I understood my earlier confusion.

    Michelle has been very patient with me when I display a lack of understanding of the English language. I’m sure she thinks her poor aunt is terribly slow but one day, I’ll show her that I too can be a clever clogs!

    Tuesday, September 13, 2005


    I think it's time to admit that I have an addiction. A serious compulsion that is starting to interfere with my daily life. I think about it all day. It keeps me up late at night. I'm irritable and anxious, waiting for when I can get my next fix. And when I do, when I am finally able to satisfy the need, I can never stop with just one. I can never get enough.

    What is the source of this powerful addiction? It's not what you might think. You can cross drugs, booze, sex and chocolate off the list.

    The source, in general, is the series "24", in particular the glorious Jack Bauer. Let's take the series first. In case you've been living in a cave (or the White House), "24" uses the unique narrative device of following events pretty much in real-time. Each series covers a single spectacularly eventful day in the life of CTU - the Counter Terrorism Unit. The CTU agents race to discover and foil the baddies while they negotiate the intricate twists of their personal lives.

    The first series of "24" was a ground-breaking masterpiece of television history. The second series was a suprisingly good sequel. The third had a little bit of shark jumping (Attention television writers: Baby = Jumping the Shark. Write that down and remember it) but still managed to provide compelling entertainment.

    Now we are deep in thrall to the fourth series. Because we are such addicts, we do not watch the show as it regularly airs on television. We could never handle the week-to-week suspense and would resent planning our lives around a television show. We scrupulously avoid all spoilers and anxiously wait for the release of the DVD box set. Peter's brother gave their dad the box set while we were on our trip. We came back home to find that we had 8 shows of catching up to do. The first night back, we watched 4 episodes. The second night, we watched 6. (We are a family of addicts - Peter and I watched disc 2 upstairs on the computer while his dad was downstairs watching disc 3.)

    Peter gets agitated sometimes about the decrease in the show's quality. He says that it's crap television and that we've just been conditioned to crave it, like mice pressing a lever to get a snack. I think it's still good television and from a story-telling standpoint, I can learn a lot from how they ratchet up tension and use cliff hangers to grab their audience. The show heavily subscribes to the writing maxim "if there's a gun on the mantle, your character better use it." The show works because it creates an insatiable desire to know what happens next.

    So, Jack Bauer. Any girl would want to be Jack's girlfriend, except for the tiny detail that his girlfriends usually end up dead. He's the perfect mix of bad boy and good boyfriend. He can be all empathetic-concerned-voice-crinkly-eyed with his girlfriend and then turn around and electrocute a suspect to obtain information. He's a thug, but he's working for the good of national security so his behavior is acceptable. Chicks dig the bad boys and the only thing chicks dig more than that are bad boys who are good at heart.

    For the record, I do not find Keifer Sutherland all that attractive, but Jack Bauer, well, it just goes to show that it's all about the personality. (I had a similar thing with Jimmy Smits and Bobby Simone.)

    We've raced past the 12th hour and are working our way through the second half of the season. I am starting to get a little melancholic about it, since each episode brings us closer to the end. But I can't stop now and I can't slow down. I am desperately anxious to find out what happens next.

    Sunday, September 11, 2005

    New Trip Report


    I'm back from my adventures in Counties Clare and Donegal. You can read all about it at Travels with Grandma.


    Friday, September 02, 2005

    The Zen of Cleaning

    We’re going away for about a week. We have a wedding today in County Clare. Then we’re going to spend a couple of days in Doolin, a picturesque fishing village known for fantastic traditional music sessions in its three pubs. After indulging in fresh fish, Guinness and music, we’re heading north to the lonely wilds of Donegal. We don’t really have an itinerary in Donegal, we’re just going to wander.

    Before our trip, I had to get our house in order. The attic and our bedroom had become certified disaster areas. The shed in the back garden was feeling the effects of the summer. To get to our auxiliary fridge, you had to battle through a forest of lawn chair cushions and try not trip over my hiking boots.

    I couldn’t enjoy a trip knowing that sort of chaos was waiting for me back at home, so yesterday I went on one of my cleaning sprees. I don’t like the daily-upkeep sort of cleaning. I hate vacuuming and dusting. I’m not the most tidy of people, even though I appreciate a clean, well-organized space.

    Despite my antipathy to regular cleaning, I love intensive organizing and cleaning sessions. It’s hard to get into them, but once I get going, I am impossible to stop. I have a system. Like Rick Moranis’ character in My Blue Heaven, I have a system for everything, even eating pancakes.

    My cleaning system involves clearing a workspace – a bed, coffee table or dining room table work well but the floor will do in a pinch. Then, I start in a corner of the room and pick up everything that doesn’t belong there. I haul the stuff over to the bed and sort it into piles. Books, clothes, papers to file, papers to recycle. I keep a garbage bag close and use it frequently.

    There’s always a point where the cleaning process looks worse than the mess does. On bad days, I must power through this moment. I have to force myself to carry on, to not give in to the apparent hopelessness of ever finishing. But on good days, like yesterday, I love this moment. It puts me in the zone – it lets me know I am making progress and gives me a glimpse of what the room will look like when it’s done.

    A good cleaning day is like a good running day. My body does its thing well and my mind is full of thoughts. I often get breakthrough ideas for my books while I am cleaning or running. Both also give me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. It took me about seven hours to complete my mission, but I can leave today secure in the knowledge that, for at least a short while, my living and storage spaces are ship-shape.