Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Sure-Fire Way To Ruin Christmas

There’s a running joke in my family about my youngest brother Patrick. OK, there are several running jokes involving Patrick but this one has to do with how Patrick is always ruining Christmas. In point of fact, I don’t think Patrick has ever really ruined Christmas.
Patrick might go out with his friends on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. He might leave his shopping until the very last minute, but he’s not really one to set out to ruin Christmas.

But still the specter of a ruined Christmas always looms. This year might be a little dicey. My grandmother died in September of last year and she was the sun that held our familial solar system in orbit. Without her, we’re all a bit lost and sliding off course. It’s amazing how one strong and loving personality can keep all the petty squabbles and simmer feuds in check. Without Nana, we have to police ourselves and be nice to each other for niceness’ sake, not for Nana’s sake.

I hope my father won’t have to don a blue helmet and negotiate intra-familial strife, but if it does come to that, he can do it. He has his Reasonable Voice that can convince just about anyone that it’s best to let bygones be bygones.

So, Patrick’s not going to ruin Christmas and neither are any of the extended family, so, what is then the eponymous sure-fire way to ruin Christmas?

Through observation, I’m developing a theory that your own expectations of perfection are the sure-fire way to ruin Christmas. I’m talking about the pressure that some people put on getting everything right. The perfect gifts. A table setting out of Martha Stewart. A dinner out of Nigella Lawson. A house out of Home and Gardens.

I am grateful that, for the most part, Christmas at my parents’ house is not about perfection. My family is exceedingly laid back. My dad once remarked that if we wrung out the rug in the family room, we could probably eat for a week. And I don’t think he knows about the bottle of ketchup that met an ignominious end on that carpet when my brothers decided to test the shatterproof claim on the ketchup bottle. (Lesson learned: shatterproof and unbreakable are two entirely different thing.)

Our Christmas dinner might consist of leftovers from Christmas Eve or it might be a deli platter. When I was a kid, we often got up at 4 am so my mother could watch us open our presents before she went to work at a nursing home. The emphasis for Christmas at our house is on the togetherness, even if sometimes that togetherness is difficult.

If you find that you’re getting a bit stressed about your Christmas celebration, it might be time to take a step back and think about what’s stressing you. If it’s living up to some ideal, take a deep breath. It’s too damn much pressure to put on one little day. It’s silly, really. No one is going to remember if you forgot to take out the good china or if there’s a stain on the rug. No one cares if the turkey is a little dry or if the candles burn out over dinner.

Set the bar a bit lower. I say that as long as no one gets stabbed with a fork at the dinner table, then it’s a great Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Dark Womb of Winter

Last week, a local radio station had a hippie New Age druidic woman to talk about the role of holly and ivy in the ancient pagan celebrations surrounding the winter solstice. She talked about how the ancient people saw the solstice as the beginning of their new year and how they believed in the circles and rhythms of life. She said that they thought of the time around the solstice as the “dark womb of winter”, which would eventually give birth to the new life of spring.

She made it sound all calm and mystical and relaxing. When I go to Newgrange and I think about what went into building it and the scientific and presumably religious aspects of aligning the window box with the dawning sun on the winter solstice, I can’t help but feel abject misery and terror.

I picture this ancient society, who probably felt very beholden to nature and to the seasons, building a structure to appease what must have seemed like a very fickle sun. I imagine the endless nights of winter and reflect on the strength and gumption required to survive in the dark and the cold.

By ancient standards, I am hopelessly spoiled – I have warm clothes, waterproof shoes, indoor plumbing, reliable heating, a comfy bed and a thick feather duvet. And even with all these creature comforts, I still loathe the long, dark, damp nights. Going to work in the cold, shiver-inducing damp darkness and returning home from work in the cold shiver-inducing damp feels like it is grinding down my very soul.

I want to believe in the womb of winter. I want to picture the delightful birth of spring and its budding flowers and baby animals. I want to trust that all this darkness has a purpose. But when I look ahead and see the endless nights of January and February stretched out in front of me, I mostly just want to kick the dark womb of winter’s ass.

Pam Houston wrote a great short story in her collection of autobiographical essays A Little More About Me. I related to her struggles with depression, a condition exacerbated by winter.

She had a little party with a friend where they went out to a creek on her property and celebrated the shortest day of the year by trying to break the ice on the creek with large rocks. This was a cathartic activity and it made her feel like the solstice marked the top of the steep hill. Even though the days lengthen imperceptibly, they would lengthen.

I found the story comforting then but now I can see that it outlines one of the struggles I am having in my adopted homeland. Winter means very specific things to me – it means ice and bitter cold and snow. The short days in Chicago were a drag but they were not as markedly short as they are here. And the cold here is a special sort of cold to which I will devote an entire post soon enough I’m sure.

I just feel a little adrift. It doesn’t feel like Christmas, it just feels like an endless winter, like Groundhog Day only not as funny. I’m sure in time, I will develop my own coping rituals that will be just as cathartic as dropping 20-pounds stones onto ice. My sister-in-law tells me that repetitive motion (like in exercise) releases serotonin. I must ask her if rocking and moaning in a dark corner or banging one’s head against a wall qualify.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Not a Mensa Candidate

I have very long hair that is, well, difficult in certain respects. It’s as though the personality comes out of my brain, up through the hair roots and down through the strands. My hair likes things how it likes it and it doesn’t like any changes in the routine. I used to fight with my hair, trying to perm it into submission and blow dry it into compliance, but in the end, it was always I who had to cede to the hair. (Making someone look like a French poodle is remarkably persuasive – maybe the army could develop bombs that just gave everyone really bad hair days.)

One of my hair’s first commandments is “Thou shalt wash me no more than four times a week and never, ever, ever two days in a row.” The penalty for over-washing is brittle, cranky hair that splits at every end and then taunts me throughout the day. So yes, in the interests of peace in the hair community, I abide by that commandment.

Yesterday, after running around on the hurling pitch for an hour, practicing my roll-lifts, solo-runs and scoring points by whacking the sliotar over the bar, I was ready for a shower and the hair was ready for washing. When I opened the shampoo bottle, I thought to myself “Hey, they changed the way it opens. This used to open from the top and now it opens from the bottom.” And didn’t think much more of it.

This morning, when I woke up, my hair felt absolutely disgusting. Like I’d styled it with Crisco. Ewww. I was confused, since I’d just washed my hair the day before and, for all its evil punishments, excessive grease production is not something the hair usually goes for.

I resigned myself to the idea that I was going to have to break the hair’s first commandment, but I really had no choice. In the shower, I grabbed the shampoo bottle, squeezed out some shampoo, thinking this time that it’s weird they would change the design of the bottle without trumpeting a rebranding campaign all over it. That’s when I realised that the shampoo was rather viscous and not at all shampoo-like.

Yes, I’d washed my hair the day before with conditioner. Tell me what the freaking sense is in making two bottles look nearly EXACTLY the same, except that they open from different end and in 10-point font on the front says “Intensive Care Conditioner” instead of “Intensive Care Shampoo.”

The sad thing is, of course, this is not the first time I’ve done this. I use entirely different brands of shampoo and conditioner, so when I grab the blue bottle, I fully expect it to contain shampoo. I don’t condition the hair too often because of conditioner’s spoiling effects – the hair become fat and limp and lazy. It lounges on my head in a flat fashion, issuing orders like an over-indulged emperor.

The hair has berated me for my stupidity and mocked me mercilessly. I swear I remember standing in the supermarket aisle, carefully looking for the shampoo brand and style and then making SURE the bottle said “Shampoo” and not “Conditioner”. I either failed or the fairies are out to get me again. When in doubt, blame the fairies. Those evil bitches, with their perfectly coiffed fairy hair. I hope they had a good laugh.

Shampoo is now on the shopping list and I used Peter’s shampoo for the day. The hair is offended by the change but so far so good on the retaliation front. I shouldn’t take risks like this – the hair is powerful enough to strangle me while I sleep, but desperate times call for desperate measures. At least I don’t feel like I’m wearing a hat made out of cooking oil.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Playing Chicken

Since I moved here, I've heard some pretty interesting traffic reports - a donkey loose on the M-50, a mattress blocking the N-11, a large plastic bag slowing traffic on the M-50. But today's traffic report was the best yet.

From the traffic reporting service:

CAVAN: A truck is no longer obstructing the N55 at Ballineagh, however
the route should still be avoided as up to 7000 chickens are loose in the
area. Some of the chickens are laying eggs on the road and conditions are
quite treacherous all drivers are asked to reduce their speed.

I have to give credit to the AA Roadwatch reporters on the news - they managed to report this without giggling. I don't know how. I was in pieces just thinking about it.

Sadly, since this happened in the middle of nowhere, there aren't any pictures, but you can read the Reuters new's report here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Thoughts about Fear

Mirty learned a new word this week in her blog travels and she makes a very interesting point about said new word. Since the new word has to do with a phobia, she also posted a list of unusual phobias, which I looked at so I could see how many I could check off, like it was a great collect-em-trade-em-race-em challenge.

I was disappointed to see that one of my top 3 (and definitely my most unusual) phobia was not on the list. So I did a little googling and discovered the name of it:

Mycophobia - Fear of mushrooms.

Yes, I am irrationally and all-consumingly afraid of mushrooms. I have been reduced to a quivering heap of tears after getting mushroom gunk under my fingernails when cooking Peter dinner. (That was at least 5 years ago and I haven’t touched a mushroom with bare hands since.) My brother once caused a large-scale meltdown by chucking a mushroom into my bowl at a pick-your-own-stirfry bar. When we had a yard, if a mushroom dared set up shop in it, I’d dispatch Peter to send the fungal interloper to the afterlife.

Where does a mushroom phobia like this come from? Childhood, of course. When I was about 4 or 5, I was watching Supe’sOn!, the monster movie extravaganza that appeared on the local UHF channel every Saturday afternoon. (It was hosted by Super Host.) One day, my tender sensibilities were apparently shredded by a Japanese monster movie called Attack of the Mushroom People. Now sure, that review makes it sound like a boring Japanese version of Reefer Madness but the film had a profound and lasting effect on me.

I have a strong visual of the shipwreck and of the survivors only having a couple of candy bars between them. I remember the island being full of mushrooms and thinking, even then, that mushrooms looked pretty gross. I sure didn’t think I wanted to eat them. But then the idea of people turning into mushrooms was too much for my little brain to process. A life-long phobia was born on a Saturday afternoon.

In digging around for the clinical name for my phobia, I learned that there is hope!

Go ahead, have a look. I can only imagine that this is a case of content management software run amok. Swap out something serious and debilitating, like agoraphobia or aviatophobia or claustrophobia, and drop in the searched-for phobia, all to sell your crappy hypnosis product.

Consider the following statements:
· “Known by a number of names - Mycophobia, Fear of Mushrooms, and Aversion to Mushrooms being the most common - the problem often significantly impacts the quality of life. It can cause panic attacks and keep people apart from loved ones and business associates.”
· “To add insult to an already distressing condition, most mushrooms fear therapies take months or years and sometimes even require the patient to be exposed repeatedly to their fear. We believe that not only is this totally unnecessary, it will often make the condition worse. And it is particularly cruel as mushrooms fear can be eliminated with the right methods and just 24 hours of commitment by the phobic individual.”
· “For anyone earning a living, the financial toll of this phobia is incalculable. Living with fear means you can never concentrate fully and give your best. Lost opportunities. Poor performance or grades. Promotions that pass you by. mushrooms fear will likely cost you tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of your lifetime, let alone the cost to your health and quality of life. Now Mushrooms Fear can be gone for less than the price of a round-trip airline ticket.”

Gee, can I imagine my life without mushroom fear? Just what is the fear of mushrooms keeping me from accomplishing? Sharing a pizza with Peter, maybe, but I think we’re both okay with that. If I had to eat a mushroom to save Peter’s life or tromp through a field of mushrooms barefoot to win a million euro, I know I could do. I have a hard time thinking that my phobia has kept me from living a productive and healthy life.

Now, it does make eating out a bit tricky sometimes. On our honeymoon in Scotland, we had dinner in a restaurant in a remote village. The menu choices were limited if you didn’t want a slab of meat and I was forced to order “the stuffed mushrooms without the mushrooms.” Yeah, it’s the sort of order that makes the chef come out of the kitchen to have a look at the weirdo.

Life is all about picking your battles. It’s also about finding a way to be comfortable in your own skin. I happen to believe that mushrooms are the evil spawn of Satan and I’d cross the road to avoid having to look at one. But it’s okay because I’m okay with that.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Another Dublin Bus Story

Well, it happened again. There I was, sitting on the bus yesterday morning, when it diverged from its route. Sigh.

Actually, I was standing on the ground floor because it was nearly my stop. Danny Wallace had just gotten on the bus. I was mentally singing “Happy Friday to Me” and calculating which task on my “To Do” list was sufficient to keep my occupied for the day without making me think too hard. Everything was right and good in Fridayland.

Then the bus took a left on Simmonscourt Road. I looked around and, as usual, I was the only person who seemed alarmed or even to have noticed. I realised that the guy standing across from me, who was edging his way up to the door, was wearing a Dublin Bus uniform. Great. He’s late for work so we get to do a detour to drop him at the depot.

In the end, we didn’t go as far as the depot in Donnybrook. We just went back behind the RDS and then got on the Anglesea Road, which brought us back to the bridge and the road the bus is meant to travel. This added maybe four or five minutes onto my travel time and, unlike the last time we had an unscheduled detour, the roads we traveled on were all part of other bus routes. No crashing over speed bumps, no squeezing between parked cars and oncoming traffic.

Did I ask about this new route? No. I understood the driver’s motivation and I was a little too annoyed to trust myself to talk about it rationally. I guess I also figured that on a National Day of Protest, I was lucky to have the bus at all since I knew I was going to walk home in the afternoon. (And walk I did – it took me a little over 2 hours.)

It’s just the principle of the matter. A bus is not your personal car – it’s a public amenity. Just because you’re the guy wearing the blue cap and sitting behind the wheel doesn’t mean you should reroute the bus to suit your friends. What about the couple of people who get on the stop in front of the RDS? Real nice that they had to wait an extra 10 or 15 minutes for the next bus.

The traffic situation in Dublin is ugly. In some ways, it’s probably worse than Chicago. I’d wager that the travel times for the commutes are about the same but the distances traveled are much smaller. The Celtic Tiger has put a chicken in every pot and a German luxury car in every driveway, or so it seems. There are too many cars on the road and not even $6/gallon gasoline is enough of a stick to get people out of their cars and onto public transport.

Why? Because public transport in Dublin is a disgrace. It’s unreliable and often not very accessible. I’m lucky that I live right on a bus route. There are loads of new housing developments that are built miles away from bus routes or new bus routes with very dubious frequencies (like 1 bus a day into town and then a bus every couple of days out of town).

The Dart runs along the coasts so if you live inland, you’re out of luck. If you live further out, like in Gorey or Drogheda, you can take a commuter train, but if you can work flexible hours, you’re better off driving into work before rush hour starts. The LUAS, the new tram system, has been a smashing success. In its first year of service, 16 and a half million people rode the LUAS. The government was expecting between 7 and 13.

Imagine this – a service that has large parking lots at its terminus stations, clean trains, and decent reliability. People actually use a service like that. People are less interested in getting on slow, dirty busses that make random adjustments to their routes based on the whims of drivers.

Last month, the government announced their transportation plan, a 34 billion euro plan. I am highly skeptical about the government’s ability to implement even 10% of the plan, but if they could build the new LUAS lines, extend the existing lines and link them all up nicely, then it’s money well-spent.

Because after all, the LUAS driver can’t decide that it’s a special drive-his-friend-to-work day, now can he?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Simple Things

Near the end of my tenure at my first Grown-Up Job, I’d reached a sort of breaking point. I was ready to go. The work was no longer challenging or interesting and the hours of unpaid overtime required for weeks at a time were grinding me down.

One Saturday, I dragged myself into the office while still dressed in my pajamas. That morning, I realised I might be able to experience some measure of job satisfaction if I were able to wear pajamas to work every day. In fact, on my last day, I wore pajama bottoms, which were deliciously comfortable.

Who would have thought that such a simple thing – soft flannel pants – would give me job satisfaction. But life is funny that way. Sometimes, a very simple thing can change everything.

Right now, I think my life would be at least 2000% better if I had a dog. I’d settle for any decent-sized dog (minimum of 40 pounds – rat dogs need not apply), although my ideal would be my Kodiak, Kody-Kods, the best dog in all the land.

Although I enjoy my uninterrupted morning coffee routine, I desperately miss the unconditional love, the playful antics, the happy oblivion that only dogs can bring into your life.

Irish dogs, when met on the street, are incredibly standoffish. They either bark ferociously, run away or regard you suspiciously. My father-in-law tells me that historically, Irish dogs were more likely to get a boot up the arse than a scratch behind the ears. While the standard middle-class mutt in America is a pampered, mollycoddled child-replacement, Irish dogs, even the more respectable middle-class variety, are often let roam and mightn’t have had the best experiences with strangers. The best you can hope for from an Irish dog is for him to tolerate your attentions. A tail wag is probably asking too much.

I am so desperate for doggy attention and affection, I’ve caught myself trying to interact with the Microsoft Windows Search Dog. On more than one occasion.

In 17 days, I arrive in Cleveland, where I can’t wait to see Kody-Kods. Seeing my parents and my nephew and my brothers is all well and good, but it’s the prospect of seeing Kodiak I find most exciting. The helicopter tail. The bounding enthusiasm. The yippee-I’m-so-excited-to-see-you greeting. That’s what I daydream about on these short, dark December days.

Random Messages from my I-Pod

Mirty, over at (funny enough) Mirty’s Place, has an interesting little meme out this week.

Grab your MP3 player (or your computer with I-Tunes), set it to shuffle and post the first 15 songs that come up. Mirty admonishes no cheating (yes, we all want to know if you still listen to Duran Duran or the song about a very annoying achy breaky heart).

Since my musical posts always open me up for vicious teasing, I thought this would be fun.

1. Brian Ferry - "More Than This"
2. Interpol - "Take You on a Cruise"
3. Sisters of Mercy - "Something Fast"
4. U2 - "Who's Going to Ride Your Wild Horses"
5. Guggenheim Grotto - "Cold Truth"
6. New Order - "Blue Monday"
7. Modest Mouse - "Ocean Breathes Salty"
8. Modest Mouse - "The World at Large"
9. Talking Heads - "Swamp"
10. Social Distortion - "Story of My Life"
11. Social Distortion - "Knockout"
12. Til Tuesday - "Coming Up Close"
13. U2 - "Out of Control"
14. Sisters of Mercy - "Vision Thing"
15. Tori Amos - "Mother"

Now, in my defense, I only have a 1-gig Shuffle and I never keep it fully stocked. I also tend to like what I like and only listen to that until I get sick of it. I will also listen to a song over and over and over again. Yes, I am boring and unadventurous. I find that my Shuffle behaves the same way.

Apparently, you get the Shuffle that you deserve.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Further (Mis)Adventures in High Fashion

This Saturday, I had a meeting that required my taking the bus into the city centre in the morning. I over-estimated how long the trip would take and ended up with about an hour to kill. I wandered into a few shops as part of my ongoing quest to locate a simple pair of black cotton trousers.

You might remember that I wrote about embarking on this fool’s errand back in September. I am happy to report that the ridiculously flared cargo pants are now, officially, out. Yay, you might think. Yay indeed, but for one small detail: they have been replaced by something even worse.

The latest fashion atrocity to blight the city of Dublin are called city shorts. They are straight-leg shorts that are about knee-length. They resemble the short-pants that British boys wore in the 40s. They are cut for the lucky women who are not large of ass or thick of thigh. But, and this is the big issue here, it’s December. Who the hell wants to wear shorts, in the winter, in Ireland?

I guess the fashion is to wear these travesties with tights (read: nylons), particularly the coloured and/or patterned variety. Even if my ass wasn’t like the universe, expanding every second, I still wouldn’t buy these things. Not only are they impractical, they look stupid.

You can still find some long trousers in the city of Dublin, but they have a fatal flaw – they’re super-low riders. I am so damn sick of seeing other women’s thongs or their “bad-girl-bull’s-eye” tattoos. And what’s for sale to wear with these pants that end below the hips?

Yep – half-shirts and half-cardigans and half-shawls. Is cloth an endangered species? Does the War Against Terror require cloth rationing? Are we depleting our supplies of rayon and acrylic?

I’ve got no trouble with sexy little clothes, but for the love of God, it’s the middle of winter! I want to snuggle under nice warm sweaters and fleeces. I want pants that cover my calves AND my ass. I don’t want the area from my waist to my belly button exposed to the harsh cold wind. I don’t think this is too much to ask.

This is what’s available in the casual clothes sections. I don’t want to wear business suits or dresses to my job so I definitely don’t want to wear them in my free time. And I’m not ready to wear elastic waistband polyester pants or shapeless granny housedresses.

All I want is a simple pair of black cotton pants and a couple of warm sweaters. Presumably, I’m not the only one. Where are the clothes for low-maintenance regular girls?

Friday, December 02, 2005

Thoughts on Time

I try not to be one of those people who runs around saying “Oh, I’m so old”, because, in the grand scheme of things, I’m not that old. With the genes I have, I should make 90 with no troubles, as long as a psychotic Irish driver doesn’t make me carnage on the roads first.

But, as surely as every joint in my body cracks like a drum set in a Def Leppard solo each morning when I wake up, I can see signs that I’m not as young as I used to be. The biggest sign involves time, both how I feel about it and how I spend it.

It galls me that I’m able to say things like “Fifteen years ago, I won a trip to Washington DC” and I’m able to remember it as clearly as yesterday, even though it was almost half-my-life ago. Time is on an accelerated payment plan and I don’t like it at all. I’ve fallen into that easy rhythm of work-work-work-work-work-weekend-weekend and entire months peel off the calendar like a montage in a cheesy movie before I have a chance to realise it.

The only exception to this rule is when I am looking forward to something, like my Christmas trip to visit my family in Cleveland. I leave 3 weeks from tomorrow. The way time is going, it’s going to feel like 3 months. But time is fickle and not particularly friendly to me and the fecker will go all warp speed. My visit in Cleveland will feel like 3 hours.

How I spend my time, well, my inner teenage girl can describe that in three words: like totally sad. Take tonight, since it’s a Friday and should be prime going-out time. After work, I went to the gym where I swam 700 meters, soaked in the hot tub and roasted in the sauna. I came out feeling like overcooked spaghetti, but in a good way, a relaxed, rubbery and overly laid-back way.

Back at home, I ascended into the clubhouse and curled up with my laptop to check my email and read blogs. On Blue Meany’s site, I discovered a fabulous time waster – the South Park character generator.

Yes, this is the ideal sort of Friday night for me – a bit of stress-relieving exercise followed by some time-wasting on the Internet. I’ll have a microwave meal when the hunger kicks in and maybe read a book. Peter’s down the pub with his dad and they’ll probably have dinner out as well. The last couple of Fridays, I was asleep before they came home.

My inner teenage girl has a very selective memory (she has selective hearing as well) and has conveniently forgotten that our social life has been rocketing down the far slope of the bell curve ever since college. By and large, I am okay with this because, let’s face it: drinking until you vomit and then drinking a little more is only funny for so long. Then it’s just sad and disgusting and foreshadows dole cheques, liquor in brown paper bags and teary interventions. No thanks.

I can accept a quieter social life but I just wish that I didn’t feel like time was always racing past me. I’d prefer my time to meander a bit, so I could relax and enjoy the journey.

For your amusement, here are Peter and I as South Park characters: