Monday, February 27, 2006

Moving Forward

I have to say that two days after the unfortunate Dublin riots, I am completely rioted-out. I can't think of Saturday without feeling a combination of sadness and nausea. It's completely depressing to me that a few hundred thugs could cast such a shadow on city and a country.

The media coverage today has been predictably depressing, from the worst-possible-scenario interpretations of Jeffrey Donaldson on Newstalk's Dunphy-less Dunphy show to the frightening eyewitness accounts. Henry McKeon had a fantastic report on the Moncrieff-less Moncrieff show. (In my next life, I want to come back as an Irish broadcaster - they apparently get loads of holidays.)

It's clear I was lucky enough to miss the worst action on Nassau Street. I was particularly taken with the story of the woman who grabbed a fire exstinguisher, sprayed a couple of hooligans to back them off from a burning car, and then put out the fire inside the car. Good on her. I'd like to buy her a pint or two.

I'd really thought Saturday could be a turning point and now it looks like the country and the peace process might be turning in the wrong direction. I'm somewhat encouraged by the public backlash and am very supportive of David Norris' idea to have the march again and invite everyone along, especially politicians like Bertie. I'd love to see regular citizens come out to the march to help provide safe passage for the marchers.

As I said in my last post, I don't believe the Love Ulster folks had the purest of intentions, but I do believe that they should have the right to air their grievances in a public manner, just like the Irish Ferries workers did last December. The possibility of a positive turning point still exists. It's time to reach out, to draw a line between the broken, difficult past and a better, brighter future. Arguing about things that happened 316 years ago or 90 years ago or 30 years ago is getting us nowhere.

History is important to remember, but not at the expense of the present and the future. Ireland of 2006 is a much different place than the Ireland of 1916 or 1922 or 1949. Likewise, Northern Ireland of 2006 is a much different place than the Northern Ireland of 1921 or 1972.

What would happen if the people in the middle of both communities, the people who were sick of the violence and sectarianism stepped up and said "I don't always agree with you, but both of our communities have suffered enough. I'm willing to do what it takes to move forward." Could that sort of grassroots, broad support marginalize the rabid and irrational sectarians on both sides? I think it could and I think it's time that the political leadership of both countries step forward and show the way. Condemnation is one thing but offering a viable alternative is quite another.

If you're interested in reading more about the riots and people's reactions to them, you'll find loads of reading goodness abounding on the Irish Blog O'Sphere. I highly recommend the following:
  • Auds at RealityCheck(dot)ie has a good round-up of different news sources, including the regular-types.

  • Rincoir at Tiny Timid Thoughts don't let the name fool you - there's nothing tiny or timid about these thoughts. I believe he did a bit of debating and he certainly offers one of the most impassioned yet coherent condemnation of the riots that I've seen.

  • Dec at Dec's Ramblings has several good posts

  • Jaqian at Jacanoryhas pictures that really capture the events as well as a good post.
  • Saturday, February 25, 2006

    A Sad Day for Dublin

    I went into town today to watch a couple of films and to see the Love Ulster march. I wasn’t there to participate; I wasn’t there to protest. My plan was to go into the second floor of Supermac’s or Easons and just watch history go by. It’s been something like 70 years since Orangemen marched in the streets of Dublin and it felt like it could be a turning point.

    My feelings about the march were somewhat complex. I had concerns about the safety and viability of the march. I also had some concerns about the purity of the marchers’ intentions. I suspected that besides calling attention to victims of sectarian terrorism, they were also here to try to pick a fight. I’d hoped that Dublin would be above responding to any perceived petty provocation.

    I liked Sean Moncrieff’s suggestion of carrying signs that said “Welcome to YOUR Capital City.” But because it seemed like provocation was part of the intention, I didn’t want to do anything to actively acknowledge or encourage the marchers. I just wanted to see the thing happen.

    But, as we all know, it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because of a couple of hundred young, angry men who were happy to be provoked. I am very sad and angry about what happened and it’s difficult to crystallize my thoughts.

    I was at the intersection of Parnell Street and O’Connell Street. I saw the mob create the barrier out of the temporary fencing that was meant to protect the building supplies. I saw the mob throwing bricks and bottles at the riot police. I saw broken windows, a broken fire hydrant, small fires. I watched all this from behind the safety of a temporary fence, clearly delineating the unruly mob from the passersby.

    I was there when the police moved the crowd down the street and I have nothing but good words for the professionalism of the police. They held the line with fireworks going off in their faces. Iwatched them move the mob down the street and my first impulse was to clean up the mess. To do something to show that these couple of hundred people with covered faces did not represent Dublin.

    I wanted to watch what was happening, so I cut down some side streets and then got back onto O’Connell Street only to find that I was now on the wrong side of the police cordon. It felt like I was standing on the edge of a frying pan and that the grease might start boiling and splattering soon. This area of O'Connell Street did not have a handy fence to separate the protesters from the rest of the Saturday afternoon crowd. When the police line moved, I got out of the way and let them move. I did see some truncheon swinging but it was only when provoked.

    Strangely, it felt more dangerous to be on the “right” side of the police cordon, as the mob’s projectiles were easily winging over the line. Rocks. Bicycle tires. Bottles. This is when I left. It was clear the situation had progressed far past the point of control. Anything could happen and I didn’t want to be any part of it. Not in any way.

    This shouldn’t have happened. There’s the issue of preparation – on all sides. Sinn Fein told people to stay home. That was entirely unrealistic. If a group of hard-core republicans wanted to stop the march, then they should have organized a sit-in or some other peaceful civil disobedience measure. Creating a riot and trashing Dublin’s main street was counterproductive and disgraceful.

    The City Council, the city planners, and the gardai should have recognized that a poorly secured building site was an open invitation to would-be rioters. The supplies should have either been removed or they should have been guarded. I didn’t get there until the barrier-building was well underway, so I can’t say how many gardi were on hand at the start or how the crowd was able to congregate on O’Connell Street. But it seems to me like it wouldn’t have taken the Kaiser Chiefs to predict what was going to happen and better planning and better use of resources could have prevented it.

    But there’s a more important issue here – one I’ve been thinking about all day. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom to assemble are the fundamental building blocks of a functioning participatory democracy. Whether you agree with the Orangemen or not, they deserve the right to air their views.

    Here’s the thing about open discourse, it allows the bigots to be exposed for what they are. When you have an open exchange of ideas, you’re able to debate, refute, and educate. Answering bigoted ideas with overreaction and violence is like pumping oxygen into a fire. Sometimes, you have to let a fire use up all its oxygen and burn itself out.

    Instead of letting the march unfold peacefully, a small group of people decided to create barricades, set fires, and create an atmosphere of violence and mayhem. It was disgraceful and counterproductive. It handed a moral victory to the Orangemen and made Dublin look bad.

    Wednesday, February 22, 2006

    Smart Dogs, Dumb Choices: Part Two

    After reading my post on smart dogs, Peter remarked that I should have written about Caper, the second dog of the life we had in Wheaton. He's right - Caper totally qualifies for the "smart dog" designation and I don't write about Caper with the same frequency I write about Kodiak.

    Kodiak was MY dog whereas Caper was Peter's dog, so I feel a little funny writing about Peter's dog. More to the point, he's not our dog at all anymore. When we started the search for new homes for our animals, a friend of Peter's sister fell in love with his picture and now Caper is living the life of luxury and indulgence in California. I've never even been to California but my ex-dog lives there. Kodiak is still a part of my family, albiet my extended family. (Sometimes, on our weekly phone chats, my dad runs out of things to say to me and puts Kodiak on the phone.)

    So, today is about Caper, since this is the anniversary of the day we adopted Caper - 22 February 2003.

    Caper was everything I never wanted in a dog – smart, young, and high-energy. He was a blur, a force of nature, forty pounds of pure energy, a truck that hit us head-on.

    We wanted a companion for Kodiak and Peter had his heart set on a Blue Heeler. We set up a time to check out a two-year-old Blue Heeler mix who was listed on a web site as obedient, a good listener, and good with children and cats.

    On a blustery morning, we drove 80 miles to a small shelter. The attendant brought the dog into a cramped office to meet us. He was in motion the entire visit - jumping on us, the chair, the edge of the desk. Several red flags flapped in the small space, but we ignored them. He had a great face – expressive eyes under brown eyebrows and ringed by a black mask, the distinctive white blaze of an Aussie Cattle dog, endearingly floppy ears. We couldn’t say no to that face.

    At home, it was readily apparent that the dog was not quite as advertised. He was just barely a year old He chased the cats with a gleeful vengeance. Commands were noise to him. He was only marginally housebroken. Kodiak spent the first night staring at me with doleful eyes, the thought bubble above his head practically screaming, “What are you doing to me?”

    I wanted to call him "Badger" because it's a funny word and he had a white-stripe on his head, but it soon became apparent that "Badger" and "bad dog" were far too closely related. We christened him Caper after the playful way he pranced and frolicked.

    Do you get the dog you want or do you get the dog you need, even if he’s not what you think you need? Dogs work in mysterious ways. Despite the accidents on the carpet, Caper improved our lives. He kept Kodiak and us active. The rigorous training he required forced us to become better handlers. The pure joy he displayed bounding around the backyard reminded me to take the time to enjoy the simple things. The athletic way he moved made me appreciate the job his breed does.

    If I’d known the truth about Caper, I would never have agreed to even look at him. But I’m glad that we did. He added a spark and excitement to our lives and I miss him.

    Why Life Is Sometimes More Fun Inside My Head

    What the radio announcer said: "Henry defeats three Madrid defenders, fires into the goal, past the keeper. Arsenal have gone up one to nil!"

    What I heard: "Henry defeats three midget defenders..."

    What I pictured in my head: A towering French giant kicking a soccer ball into the net while three midgets wriggle in a heap on the ground. Picture Goliath meets and the Lollipop Gang.

    Sunday, February 19, 2006

    Paris Trip Report

    Yes, it only took me nearly a month to complete, but my trip report for Paris is now up at Travels with Grandma. It's a five-parter, so be prepared to print it out for later reading goodness.


    What a Difference a Year Makes

    A year ago today, I was lying down in our guest room in our little house in Wheaton, Illinois. I was reading a mystery and I had a dog snuggled down on either side of me. I was content and comfortable. It was the Sunday of a three-day weekend and I was looking forward to spending another day home with Peter. He’d been away in Ireland from 1 Feb until the 14 Feb and I was enjoying having him back in the house.

    Peter trudged into the room and clambered up on the bed, moving Caper from my left side so he could snuggle next to me. I thought he might just be done with playing his computer game or he might want some company. He started to talk about how unhappy he was, which wasn’t news to me. He’d been at the same job for five years and although he enjoyed his co-workers, he wasn’t passionate about his work and he felt like he was getting old and boring and that life was slipping past him.

    It was also difficult because although he’d made some great pals, he didn’t have the kind of friends he had in Dublin. To spend two weeks with these friends, attend his friend’s wedding, and then return to cold, dark Wheaton and a job that made him miserable was overwhelming.

    We talked through some of the possible options before I hit on the obvious.

    Me: “Why don’t we just put the house on the market and move back to Dublin?”
    Him: “That’s a bold plan for such a little girl.”

    It was a bold plan, but it made a lot of sense. In the space of several minutes, we made a decision that changed our lives. It was an odd decision in that on the surface, it was the mother of all snap-decisions. But we’d always said we’d move back some day and it was crystal clear that if some day wasn’t NOW, then it was always going to be some day.

    I’m a firm believer in the idea that when something isn’t working, you have to do something to fix it, even if it is a big, scary, unknown, leap of faith sort of something. Living in America wasn’t working for us anymore, so it was time to go. It was difficult to give up our pets, our house, our pastimes, but it was the right thing to do.

    Even though it was the right thing to do, it continues to be difficult sometimes. I miss our house in an aching, physical way that surprises me. I miss my friends and the barn. Peter misses flying and having a good, steady income.

    But what we’ve gained balances out what we left behind. Peter has his friends. We have a much more active social life. I’ve been fortunate to develop real relationships with Peter’s parents. We’re able to watch our nieces grow up. I have a new job and Peter has a new business with all of its rewards and challenges. We’re able to travel to interesting places.

    Yesterday, I read a blog post about a study on decision making. The study found that people who thought too much about a decision were liable to make decisions they later regretted whereas people who considered the alternatives, slept on it, and then made the decision were happier. The hypothesis was that conscious thinking tends to focus only on a subset of considerations, which gives those considerations undue weight in the decision-making process. Unconscious thinking appears to have the ability to allow you to more fully process all the considerations and then make more sound decisions.

    If we’d thought too much about our decision, we might have decided to wait longer to move. We might have focused too much about the intricacies of moving, the decrease in income, the high cost of property, or some other single item. But just assessing the situation at a gut level, we knew it was rubber-meets-the-road time.

    I don’t regret our decision. A year ago, it was a scary leap of faith. A year later, things are probably not exactly what I expected, but we’re doing well.

    Friday, February 17, 2006

    Word of the Day

    I can admit pretty easily that I'm a total word-nerd. Not that this is going to surprise anyone. After all, I do a bit of writing on the side.

    Part of my daily routine is looking up the word of the day on Merriam-Webster. In and of itself, this is probably not too weird. But that's not where the story ends.

    See, I have a little game I like to play with the word of the day, provided the word is suitable. I like to see how many words I can make out of the word of the day. My completely arbitrary rules are as follows:

    - Words must be at least 4 letters in length.
    - Words in the past tense are allowed.
    - Pluralizations are not allowed UNLESS it is a plural of a 3-letter word. (And even then, I think it's a lame way to score points so I usually don't bother.)
    - Words must appear in the dictionary.
    - There's no time limit, but I usually exhaust the obvious possibilities and move on in about 5 minutes. 10 if it's a huge word.

    What makes a word of the day suitable for my game? Lots of letters is a good indicator of suitability. Having an A, E, and good consonants like T, R, S, and H also help. Sometimes, a long word will only yield 15 or 20 words while a shorter word will yield 40 or 50. If a word contains a Q, X, or Z, it's much more challenging, but I don't score myself higher for unusual words.

    Yesterday's word was fantastic, both for its meaning and for its surprising suitability for my game.

    The Word of the Day for February 16 is:

    • \PIK-suh-lay-tud\ • adjective

    1 : somewhat unbalanced mentally; also : bemused
    2 : whimsical

    You might be thinking "Huh? I thought that was going to have something to do with computers." Yeah, that's what I thought too, until I read the explanation of where the word comes from. Since I have a special affinity for pixies and faeries, I think that pixilated is now, officially, my favourite single word in the English language.

    At first, I dismissed the word as suitable for my game because it's not long, it has an X, and it doesn't have many "stackable" consonants. (You know, like S, T and R can be used as ST, TR, and STR.) Then, I decided to give it a go. I came up with 43 words, which made me happy.

    So, if you want to play along, post a comment with your words. See if you can beat 43. The winner gets a post card from my next travel destination - Venice and Slovenia. In a week, I will post my 43 words.

    Tuesday, February 14, 2006

    List of Joy

    One of the local radio stations here has a regular feature called “A Day in the Life,” in which their reporter goes out to learn what it’s like to be somebody else. It’s a great series and has included interviews with a butcher, a cloistered nun, a prisoner in Mountjoy, and a blind person.

    Yesterday, the interview was with a therapist, who had all the soft-toned, empathetic understanding you’d expect from a man with his job. One of the things he said intrigued me though. He was talking about counseling people and how one of the questions he likes to ask is what brings the person joy. Not contentment or happiness but real joy. His contention was that, in the struggle and stress of daily living, most people forget how to be joyful.

    One of the exercises he recommends with his clients is writing down a list of 25 things that make them joyful. He said most people get stuck around number 6. I like a good challenge, so I had a go:

    1. Dogs in general, Kodiak (and Caper) in particular
    2. Feeding ducks, swans and geese
    3. Petting Farms/Zoos
    4. The big swinging boat ride often seen at county fairs in the States
    5. Doing art projects with my nieces and nephews
    6. Seeing the seals in Bullock Harbour, especially the one I nicknamed Mr. I-Ordered-Fish
    7. Endorphin highs when exercising
    8. Sunlight in autumn mornings
    9. Kids meal toys, especially the ones from Supermac’s
    10. Having a snow day (I am totally jealous of the East Coast right now)
    11. Getting funny texts from Peter
    12. Seeing wildlife on car trips or hikes (you do not even want to know how crazy I will go if I ever get to see a badger)
    13. Making a good play in camogie
    14. Good swimming days, when everything clicks and I feel like a fish
    15. Finding something that I’ve given up for lost
    16. Being around horses
    17. When Peter takes me on one of my bizarre agricultural outings
    18. MY BIRTHDAY!!! (in my hand-written list, this one was underlined 3 times)
    19. Receiving a good email from an old friend
    20. Watching the neighbourhood cats play in the garden
    21. Seeing my brothers after a long separation, namely the tackle-hugs that ensue
    22. Finishing a novel (the writing of, that is)
    23. Having a new character pop into my head to tell me a story or solve a problem in a novel
    24. Splashing in puddles

    I did get a number 25, but I thought of it sometime after writing my list and I can’t remember it now. I told it to Peter. Maybe he’ll be kind enough to leave a comment if he remembers it. Obviously, all this joy makes one forgetful.

    It was a good exercise and one that I enjoyed a lot more than counting blessings. Being grateful for something carries a lot of baggage. Appreciating what you have is all right, but the whole pious Puritanical Thanksgiving-esque counting-your-blessings can, ironically, be a bit of a downer.

    Joy is simple and pure – it just is. A few weeks ago, Peter and I walked up Killiney Hill so he could take some photographs. The site is popular with dog walkers and there were about 8 dogs having a no-holds-barred off-leash dog party, romping and frolicking and chasing. That’s joy.

    I’m lucky in life to have a low excitement threshold. Much like Kodiak, a ride in the car is easily the highlight of my day. Sure, I appreciate some of the finer things in life – single-malt whisky, good films, four-star hotels. But I really enjoy the heck out of the little things.

    Wednesday, February 08, 2006

    Right-Click Saves the Day

    I got a new computer at work yesterday, which means I spent the afternoon and part of this morning installing software and copying over important things, like my bookmarked web pages. I noticed immediately that an icon in the task tray (you know, the yokey near the clock) was going to drive me mad.

    It looked like a sperm trapped in the game Pong, endlessly pinging only one way with its spermy little tail trailing behind it. I hovered the mouse over the icon and learned it was for some sort of monitoring program. I guess the icon is supposed to look like a heartbeat monitor.

    The motion was eye-catching and then the fact that it resembled a sperm was somehow captivating. I was powerless to resist the icon's allure. Mid-morning, I knew I was going to have do something about it.

    But what to do? I didn't install the program. I didn't know anything about it. This is the single instance I can think of where being a technical writer pays off. When you don't know what something is or what to do with it, right-click is your friend. In and of itself, right-clicking shouldn't do anything. I won't stick my neck out and say it will never do anyting, but the convention is that right-clicking should give you a menu. (Smartie tech writing types call this a context menu.)

    The menu will hold various options that the developer or designer thinks you should be able to access easily. Sure enough, right-click yielded something a command similar to "Change the weird little spermy icon". I think it was actually "Make icon static" or maybe just "Static Icon". I selected the option and was rewarded with a non-moving icon. The new icon looks a little like a NATO defense screen. But as long as it never moves, I think I can peacefully co-exist with it.

    So, the next time you are in computer trouble, try a right-click.

    Monday, February 06, 2006

    Smart Dogs, Dumb Choices

    When we first moved to Chicago, we participated in urban apartment life for 5 years before packing it in for the Western Suburbs’ siren song of cheaper housing, safer streets, and actual backyards. During those first five years, I wanted a dog but we lived in apartments with no-dog policies. I’d never had a dog growing up and dreamed about what my dog would be like.

    My first choice, for a long time, was a golden retriever puppy whom I’d name Douglas but I’d call him Doggles. In my daydreams, it always came out of my mouth like DOGGLES!, causing a frenzy of tail-wagging and cute-puppy antics. A girl and her dog – the most perfect Hallmark made-for-TV movie you’ve ever seen.

    My daydreams soon got boring and frustrating, so great was my desire for a dog of my own. I did the next best thing – I volunteered at an animal shelter. I started out as a dog bather/walker and worked my way up into the vet clinic. As part of their initial entry into the shelter, every animal got a full vet check to assess its health and temperament. As a vet assistant, I…well…assisted with these exams and sometimes with other duties in the clinic, like cleaning cages.

    Although the work was sometimes heartbreaking, I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about animals and about the veterinary profession. I got to see hook worms under the microscope and watch the neutering surgery of an enormous German Shepherd. I learned a lot about dog breeds and temperaments, which I put to good use when we were ready to get our own dog.

    The puppy fantasy went right out the window. There would be no DOGGLES! for me. Puppies are as much work as babies and they don’t wear nappies, which makes them even more inconvenient than babies. Sure, they’re cute and all, but I knew we didn’t have time for housetraining and separation anxiety and full-scale obedience work.

    My favourite vet at the shelter always used to joke, “When I get a dog, the first requirement is that he’s not smarter than me.” Smart dogs are much more work than dumb dogs. I know that some people prefer smart dogs, but I think a lot of people are uninformed about what smartness really means in dog terms.

    For dogs, smartness has little to do with an ability to learn. It has everything to do with the dog learning and complying with what YOU want him to learn. Intelligence is found in breeds like herding dogs, who were bred so that a farmer could trust the dog to make decisions about when and where and how to move a herd of sheep or cows.

    Herding dogs are among the smartest breeds and, as a result, often end up having rough lives in urban areas. A herding dog needs a job, needs to make decisions, needs to size up situations. A herding dog who spends all day in an apartment can go seriously nuts.

    When I set out to find my first dog, I knew exactly what I wanted – a big, dumb dog. I found him – a Great Dane-lab mix named Kodiak. When we moved over here, my parents very graciously adopted Kodiak and he’s living out the rest of his days happily trying to sneak onto their furniture. My dad thinks that Kodiak’s ability to try to get on the furniture makes him smart. I think it just makes Kods a lazy dog of leisure.

    A regular dog doesn’t really think about much beside his next bowl of kibble or next ear-scratches. A smart dog thinks thoughts that are dangerous for a dog. Thoughts like:
  • Let’s see what will happen if I chase the cat.

  • A hole in the fence…let’s see where this goes.

  • I think I know how to open the refrigerator, it’s just going to take a little bit of effort with my pointy nose.

  • Still not sure what a smart dog is all about? Then check out Jon Katz (yes really) and his excellent book about his adventures with a headstrong border collie – A Dog Year.

    Wednesday, February 01, 2006

    Musical Moods

    She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly off the coast and I'm heading nowhere.

    I had that line trapped in my head for the last two days. It was a little earworm, gnawing away at the edges of my brain, taunting me to recognize the song or name the group or remember more than just this scrap. This evening, I went to I-Tunes and bought the song. I've listened to it 6 times in a row so far. It just suits my mood - a little melancholy.

    Funny enough, I was never a fan of Ben Folds, but I guess the song must have gotten a lot of play on the radio. That line just soaked right into my subconscious. It wasn't until I listened to it again and had a look at the lyrics that I realised how sad it is. I keep turning the lyrics over in my head, trying to find at least a little hope in it. I can't see it though.

    I thought I'd turned the corner on my obsessive song-listening compulsion after my teenage-angst-Smiths years but I still get into musical ruts. I find a song that matches my mood and I'm hooked. Sometimes it's purely the words, like Modest Mouse's Float On, which would be my choice for a theme song if my life was a TV show. Other times, it's the way the song sounds, like Interpol's "Say Hello to the Angels". Trust me, it's definitely all about the beat and melody in that one - the words make absolutely no sense.

    Other times, it's a deeper connection. The song reminds me of a particular time in my life. In a way, the song becomes inextricably linked with both a mood and a memory. When my grandmother was dying, I listened to Modest Mouse a lot. Months later, when I was trying to process her death, I was in a Flogging Molly phase. A couple of times when I was fairly miserable and alone here before Peter sold the house, two songs came up in sequence on my I-Pod and it felt like my grandmother was talking to me.
    The songs were "Ocean Breathes Salty" and "If I Ever Leave This World Alive".

    That's the nice thing about music - it can provide a bit of mood therapy. Now that I'm reaching the double-digits on playing "Brick", I feel like I have a good bit of the gloom and hopelessness out of my system.