Monday, April 30, 2007

Bad Blogger, Better Novelist?

Yes, I've been a bad blogger. There's been the usual amount of busy - work, Toby, camogie, running. Then there's a new form a busy that's about to take over Peter's life and have some impact on mine. ( But it's not that I haven't had time to write. It's that the time I've had for writing has gone towards my books.

As I've mentioned before, I've been taking the occasional day-long writing workshop up in Dublin. They're great fun and really put the boot up my arse to get me focused again on my novels. I have, at this moment, 2 completed novels in need of rewriting to improve the structure of the stories, and 2 half-completed novels in need of the rest of their middles and all of their ends. I've made a decision that the noveling has to take precedence over the blogging, at least in the short term.

My goal is to finish rewriting my first novel (Flying Close to the Ground, which details one determined young woman’s attempt to fulfill her dreams of becoming a jockey without destroying herself) and finish writing one of my chick lit books (Being Katie, which isn't far enough along to have a blurb) by my birthday. Which is in 3 months.

I know, it's a bit of an optimistic goal, perhaps overly so. But I'm a big believer in making no small plans. I'll still be stopping in on a semi-regular basis. (I know, I owe myself 2 more driving/automotive posts.) And who knows - if I come up with something half-decent in the novel, I might post a bit here.

Friday, April 13, 2007

One Good Turn

The streets where I grew up were mostly laid out in a grid, although there were a few exceptions. The most interesting exception to me was the street that my street ended into – South Park Boulevard. South Park Boulevard is a twisty street that works its way uphill, following the line of the infamous creek. After I learned how to drive, it was only of my favourite streets. I liked following its curves and twists. As an added bonus, the street only had 1 stop sign, so it was the street of choice for getting to the main road.

There was no parking allowed on South Park, mostly because there was no place to park. Nearly all of the other streets allowed parking on the "even" side. Of course, there's always an exception. For reasons I never understood, Marioncliff Drive, home to a giant Ukranian Orthodox church, only allowed parking on the "odd" side of the street.

The upshot of this is if I was driving back from the grocery store or my best friends' houses, the best route was to drive up South Park and then turn right onto Marioncliff. No need to stop before turning and no need to worry about parked cars on my side of the road. I taught my brothers this trick, when they were old enough, and also taught them about how to properly execute The Turn, as we came to call it.

Making The Turn correctly was fun and challenging. As you came around the bend before The Turn, it was important to maintain your speed. Then you made The Turn as though it were just another curve on the road. For best effect, you avoided using the brake during The Turn and, once you'd gotten through the guts of it, a little gas made The Turn feel even more fun. Taking The Turn in icy or snowy weather is definitely not recommended.

We teased Peter, on his first few trips to my parents' house, that he wouldn't be a real member of the family until he was able to make The Turn. Lucky for him he's a quick driving study.

As I drive around the twisty roads in the Middle of Nowhere, I think about how The Turn prepared me for driving here. I also think about how I'd really like to take a rally driving class. I'd love to know how to go around a corner practically sideways.

Don't get the wrong idea here. I'm hardly a Girl Racer. There's just something exhilarating about coming around a bend and accelerating out of it. Blame it on my love of The Turn.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Driving in Cars with Dogs

It seems to me like dogs were made for driving around in cars. I know there are some dogs who are car-phobic, but I've never met one in Real Life. All the dogs I've ever known have thought that cars were magical moving caves purpose-built for dog entertrainment.

Two words in the English language had the ability to transform Kodiak into a tail-wagging, galumphing dog of joy - "walk" and "ride." I loved to say to him "Who wants to go for a ride? Do YOU want to go for a ride." He'd cock his head to the side and a look of intense concentration would pass over his eyes, then the word would register and he would do his little Happy Dance around the house, barking at me if I didn't move fast enough to get him into the car.

Kodiak was a good dog to have in the car. He responded quickly to the "Lie Down" command. He was quite content to stretch out in the back of our Passat and watch the world go by. Once, during a particularly scary drive from Cleveland to Chicago, on snow-slicked roads in a Mini Cooper that had performance tires that offered almost no traction, Kodiak laid his head on Peter's shoulder, as though he could help guide the car home.

About a month ago, while giving Toby ear-scratches, Peter discovered a number tattoed in his floppy-down ear. We had great fun speculating about the tattoo. My contention is that Toby is an army or police dog who went AWOL. That theory explains why every morning, when I let him out, he runs over to the cars and sniffs around them quite thoroughly. It also explains why he has a compulsion to jump into every open car to check it out.

Peter's theory on Toby's car-incursion compulsion is that he was abandoned from a car or by people in a car and so he is terrified that if a car goes somewhere without him, he will be permanently left behind. That's a fairly solid theory - but to me it doesn't explain Toby's willingness to jump into the car of total strangers. (We were walking him past the shop in the village once and a woman opened her car door in front of us and Toby tried to jump right in.

Toby's not the best dog to have in a moving car. Unlike Kodiak, he does not respond quickly enough to the "Lie Down" command. Or to any command really. The car, for Toby, is a sphere of anarchy, at least when I'm alone with him. (Like all our dogs, he behaves much better when Peter is around.) Last week, he tried to jump out my window when he saw some sheep in a field. I rolled up the window far enough so that he couldn't pull his head out but not so far that it was choking him. He hasn't tried that trick since.

This past Tuesday, the trip back from camogie practise was way more exciting than it should have been. I had to stop twice to extricated Toby from the front seat and return him to the back seat. I probably should have stopped a third time, but it was the twisty-est bit of the drive and the options for pulling over were not great. Since I had blocked off the gap between the two seats with my hurley and my helmet, Toby was trying to gain access to the fron by slipping through the gap between my seat and my door. By jamming an elbow in his chest and hunching over the steering wheel like someone's ancient grandmother, I was able to get us home safely, but I was not well-pleased.

Toby needs some car manners. I wish I could import Kodiak to teach him a few things.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Driving on the Left in the Right Frame of Mind

This weekend, we met up with my dad's sister, her husband, and their daughter, who is attending a semester abroad program at UC-Cork. My aunt and uncle had flown into Shannon and rented a car. The driving wasn't going as well as their trip to New Zealand a few years ago, when they went to visit their other daughter who was doing a semester abroad over there. It seems that the roads in New Zealand are much wider and less stress-inducing than the roads in County Cork.

I had to smile because my uncle's problems with driving here were my own problems three years ago. Although I first visited Ireland in 1995, I never attempted to drive here until 2004, when I rented a car to collect various relations at the airport for our big exciting wedding.

Now, I'm an old pro, here's my top seven tips for driving on the left in Ireland.

1. Prepare to drive a manual transmission car.
I know you paid an extra 20 euro a day for the privilege of renting a sub-compact automatic transmission car. The odds are that when you arrive at the car rental counter, they won't have any automatics left. They will give you a "complimentary upgrade" to a sedan or a minivan. Then they will throw the keys at you and run away, leaving you to discover for yourself that your shiny ugrade is a manual transmission. Be ready for this possibility - brush up on driving a manual if it's been a few years (or never) since you've driven one.

2. If forced to drive the manual transmission "upgrade," try to remain calm.
Really, driving a manual is a lot like riding a bike. If you did it once, you can do it again. Don't worry about the idea that you're shifting with the "wrong" hand. The less you think about it, the easier and more natural it will be. And remember - it's a rental car - it's not like you have to worry about replacing the clutch.

3. Keep yourself in the middle.
This is the easiest way to remember to stay on the left, as long as you haven't imported your car from continental Europe. I should hasten to point out that I don't mean drive right up the middle of the road. I mean keep your side of the car closest to the middle of the road. Think about it - it's what you do when you drive on the right. I also spent weeks before I came over visualising what driving on the left would look like - especially thinking about how left turns would be the "easy" close turns and right turns would be the "difficult" far turns, against traffic. (My uncle told us he was calling left turns "happy turns.")

4. Brush up on round-about rules.
I created a simple song to remind me how to drive in round-abouts. It goes to the tune of "Camptown Races." (And by "rounders" I mean traffic already in the round-about.)
Rounders have the right-of-way.
Doo-dah. Doo-dah.
Let them pass then drive away.

5. Blow everyone away by using your blinkers correctly in a round-about situation.
When you drive up to the entrance of a roundabout, put on your right blinker. Leave it on as you enter the roundabout and keep it on while you're in the roundabout UNTIL you approach the exit you want to take. Then change the blinker so it's the left blinker that's flashing. Make your turn off the roundabout at your desired exit and, if necessary, turn off your blinker. Easy peasy and everyone will be so impressed.

6. When possible, get out of the way.
You're going to be poking around, trying to get used to your driving experience or attempting to navigate the pathetically labeled Irish road system. Whenever possible, get out of people's way. If you've noticed traffic building up behind you on a one-lane-in-each-direction road, look for a safe spot in the hard shoulder to pull over and let traffic pass you. (I'll give you a hint, a thin verge in the middle of a hairpin curve is not the place to pull over.)

7. Think about the new dimensions of your car.
This is a tricky one and it's something I never thought about until I was actually in the car, driving on the left. When you drive on the right, the "rest" of the car is on your right and you learn to judge the distance between where you are and where the distant edge of your car is. When you drive on the left, you have all sorts of car space to the left of you that you've never thought about before. I am spatially challenged to begin with. I still, even after 2 years, end up hitting the curb with my left-side tires all too frequently.

So, those are my tips. Why only seven? Because it's my lucky number. (And I'm tired.) Anyone have any tips to add?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


The first car we bought in Chicago was a ten-year old Mercury Tracer. I had been against buying a car, since we lived a block from the Montrose el station and were able to take the train to work. Getting groceries was a little challenging, but doable. Peter really wanted a car though and when one of my friends from work was selling the car cheaply (and was willing to teach me how to drive a manual transmission car), we decided to buy it.

The Tracer was a perfect first city car – we never had to worry about it getting dinged or stolen. It was very reliable for an old car. After awhile, we discovered a long-term health problem, a leaking valve-y thing or something that sometimes caused the car to burn oil briefly when we started it up. It would have been very expensive to fix but as long as we checked the oil frequently and topped up when necessary, the problem was mostly just an annoyance. We were betting that by the time the valve was entirely shot, we'd have gotten a new (or at least a new-to-us car).

We bought the car in the summer and the winter was an adventure. When it got cold, there was always the chance that an old car like that wouldn't start. We'd talk to the car – his name was Baby Toly (short for Anatoly, since we'd bought him a Communist. I mean a Socialist. ☺) "Comon, Baby Toly. You can start. You can do it." For an old car, Baby Toly was extraordinarily reliable. Even on the day it was so cold that the locks froze and we had to climb in through the hatchback, Baby Toly always started.

Until, of course, the day that he didn't start. I still remember standing in the parking lot of a drug store, waiting for the tow truck. Not a great feeling. After that day, we could never really trust Baby Toly quite the same way as we had. He might start. He might not. When he didn't start, it usually meant we were going to have to pay what my brother called "the used car random crippling balloon payment."

That's the thing about a used car – once the trust is gone, it's very unsettling. You wonder all the time – "Are you going to strand me today?" "Are we going to have to spend the vacation money to replace some part I've never heard of?" "Is it a bad sign to know the tow truck driver by name?" Of course, living in Chicago, you nearly always have other options so an untrustworthy car is an annoyance and a money sink, but it's not the end of the world.

Living in the Middle of Nowhere, having a car you can trust is essential. Because cars and insurance are so expensive in Ireland, I can't really see us ever owning a new car. We had to buy a second car and I found the process very frightening. But I really fell in love with my little grey Peugeot so I let myself trust the car.

The trust was quickly broken by a flat battery. (Someone, who shall remain mostly nameless, left the lights on. He was later partially exonerated by the fact that the idiot-alarm that warns you that the lights are still on is somewhat faulty.) But the AA (same as AAA) man fixed that problem without breaking a sweat. So the trust was restored.

Then 4 days later, the car stopped working just outside the next town. Our very kind local mechanic rescued me and fixed the car right away, since I had to drive to the airport later that day. I worried about the car the whole time I was in Dublin. I did not want to be stranded in the airport.

The car started fine and has been mostly starting fine ever since. Sometimes, it takes a second too long to catch or it takes a second try. But, even if it starts every time until the day I trade it in, I will still have a hard time trusting it. (After camogie practise, I start the car first and then change my shoes, just in case there's a problem, I don't want to discover it after my team has already left the car park.) I've learned that not unlike interpersonal relationships, in automotive relationships, once the trust is gone, it's nearly impossible to replace.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Road to Nowhere

I've been thinking about the skills and attributes that are essential for someone who is living in the Middle of Nowhere. For example, you can't really be afraid of the dark. When it gets dark out here, it gets really, really dark. No streetlights, very few house lights. If the moon isn't out, the roads are pretty much pitch black.

Another example – you have to be okay with people knowing what you do. People you don't know at all know who you are. You have heard the expression that you can't sneeze without half the village knowing about it. That's all true. I've been introduced to people here and even though I don't recognise them, they've seen me and say "Ah sure, I know you – you're the wan who runs with the dog." (Which I suppose is better than being known as "yer crazy wan who won't open the front door after dark," which is also, unfortunately, true.)

But, if I had to nominate one skill as the most necessary for a fruitful and happy Middle of Nowhere existence, it would have to be driving. The distances here are really quite extensive. It's 5 miles to the next village and 18 miles to the next town. While I could walk 5 miles (and even walk the 10 mile round trip) without any difficulties, there wouldn't be much point. The next village has everything my village has – it's the towns that have the big grocery stores, the libraries, and the movie theatres.

Saturdays are my big adventure days. I get up early and drive into Macroom to visit the Civic Amenity Site and do my big shopping for the week. Civic Amenity Site sounds so grand, doesn't it? In actuality, it is a recycling centre and garbage dump. We don't have curbside pick-up in the Middle of Nowhere – I have to drag our trash 20 miles and pay 8 euro a bag to dispose of it. (On the plus side, I am now a fiend for recycling and composting.)

I realised a few weekends ago that on the Saturday, I'd driven half-way to Dublin, but I'd only gone into Macroom for shopping and into Bandon for camogie practise. That's right – I drove a little over 100 miles in order to run errands and play my sport.

I'm not complaining though. Really. Although I hate driving in Dublin, I actually love driving down the country. (Granted, I'm not real keen on going through Bandon town which has a couple of intersections that are accidents waiting to happen.) I love the narrow, twisty roads. I love the lack of traffic.

The radio in my car is broken, so I've had a lot of time to think recently. I've decided I'm going to get a little ambitious this week. Since driving is so important to my new life down here, I'm going to go with driving as the theme of this week. One week – 7 posts about cars, driving, roads, and anything else tangentially related to anything automotive. Day 1 down – 6 more days to go.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

For Better Hallway Vision

For a couple of years, I had the best sunglasses in the whole world. I bought them in Big Pine Key, near Key West, on the advice of a kayak guide. (If you're ever in the area - I highly recommend his tours - he's a great guide and if a movie were made of his life, Kevin Costner would be a good likeness.) Bill recommended polarised lenses, since they would eliminate the glare off the water. They did that, but they also did some sort of light-filtering magic (Peter would know the technical term) that made colours look so much brigthter and better. It was as though the tornado had sucked me out of black and white Kansas and deposited me in Technicolor Oz.

I bought them regardless of how they looked - it was all about the lenses. As a side benefit - they didn't look too bad, although they were sort of a cross between the guy with the freaky eyes in X-men and Bono's glasses. (In fact, Peter delighted in calling me Bono for the first couple of weeks.) They were quite different to any glasses I had bought previously - I tended to favour wire rims and these frames were black plastic and sleek looking.

The best part - they were only $12. I never wanted to spend more than $20 on sunglasses because I know I have a tendency to treat them poorly. Despite the odds, those sunglasses lasted me for a few years, until I lost them in Berlin. Don't ask me how - I think it was when I was lying on a bench in Alexanderplatz, near the big TV tower. Although it could have been when I was lying on a bench, listening to a violinist busking, in Gendarmenmarkt. (It was that sort of gorgeous, lazy summer day.)

In any case, I've been without sunglasses for nearly 2 years. It wasn't for lack of trying - it's that polarised lenses at a decent price are very difficult to find over here. On Friday, I struck lucky - in my chemist in Macroom, they had a rack of sunglasses and I noticed a couple pairs had "Polarised" stickers. Jackpot. There were only 3 pairs with the magic lenses. I rejected the first pair because they were ugly, giant Paris-Hilton style glasses. The second pair I rejected because they had brown lenses and I am just fundamentally opposed to brown lenses. (Also to blue, yellow...basically any color that's not a shade of black.)

So I bought the third pair without even looking to see if they made me look like an eejit. I wanted to be able to drive without squinting and to see those glamourous, better-than-real-life colours again. Besides, although the frames were a grey-silver colour, they still bore more than a passing resemblence to my Florida Keys sunglasses. About my only complaint about the glasses is they cost 40 euro, which is way more than $20, but they did come with a nice soft purple carrying case.

When Peter drove down from Dublin Friday evening, I had my sunglasses on because I was leaving to go to camogie practise. Here's a recap of his reaction:

Him: "You got new sunglasses."
Me: "Yep."
Him: "Where did you get them?"
Me: "Matt Murphy's Pharmacy, in Macroom."
Him: "Are the lenses..." (he made a weird gesture with his head for reasons completely unknown to me)
Me: "Polarised? Yes, they are."
Him: "Did they have any nice ones?"
Me: "Nice ones? I paid 40 euro for these glasses. They better be really nice!"

So, just a hint, guys - greeting your wife's new sunglasses with a comment like "Did they have any nice ones" - even if you mean glasses that would suit yourself and you're not trying to malign your wife's choice - is not the best way to ensure harmonious marital relations.

Peter has taken every opportunity to tell me how good the glasses look on me. But here's the problem, you can't unring a bell and even though I know what he meant by what he said, it's still way too much fun to tease him about how it sounded.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

March Reads

I recently joined a Yahoo book group (Murder and Mayhem). I also joined Book Crazies but I think I'm going to drop that one as there is too much noise and I really prefer crime fiction to all other genres. At the end of the month, people are asked to post about the books they read during the month.

Here's my list from March. (Yes, you can read this as a Lazy Blogger's way out of a Saturday post - it is gorgeous outside today.)

"Killer Instinct" by Joseph Finder
Summary: Jason Steadman is an ordinary salesman, plodding through his life with a modicum of success, but not exactly setting the world on fire. Then, a minor car accident puts him in contact with a vet of the Iraq War. Kurt is a former Special Forces officer, a cracker of a softball pitcher, and he promises he can be your best friend or your worst enemy. After Jason gets Kurt a job in Security at his office, Jason experiences all the benefits of having a special ops agent as a best friend. But when Jason's conscience gets the best of him, it all starts to go horribly wrong.

Grade: C

Reason: If you've read Finder's "Paranoia", then you've read this book. The voice of the main character is nearly identical - the go-along-to-get-along regular Joe who finds himself wrapped up in something much larger than himself and very much out of his control.

"The Killing Hour" by Lisa Gardner
Summary: After 3 years of quiet, the Eco-Killer is a back at work. He strikes during a heat wave, kidnapping two women at a time. One serves as a map -- a set of clues to find the second woman. The police in Georgia dealt with him 4 times and only managed to save 1 woman. When a body turns up in the woods in Quantico and the Eco-Killer's cryptic messages show up in the local paper, an assortment of agents, special investigators, and concerned parties join forces to unravel the latest mystery.

Grade: A

Reason: Well-written suspense novel with a full fleshed out characters and an engaging plot. A page turner in the best ways.

"Betrayed" by David Hosp
Summary: The daughter of a wealthy family is found tortured and killed in her house. The evidence points to a local drug dealer, but the police can't manage to close the seemingly open-and-shut case. The lead detective hooks up with the dead woman's sister to try to unravel the real story behind the murder.

Grade: B

Reason: This was a good, solid read but it got a bit preachy and draggy at the end.

"Every Secret Thing" by Laura Lippman
Summary: Seven years ago, two 11-year old girls happened upon a baby in a carriage on a porch. "We have to take care of that baby." The baby is found dead 4 days later. One of the girls was the Good Girl, dragged along by the circumstances, and the other was the Bad Girl, the mastermind behind it all. Due to a plea deal, the 2 girls are sent to juvenile hall until their 18th birthdays. Now they're both released and another young child has gone missing, a child who bears a remarkable resembalence to the dead girl's sister.

Grade: A+

Reason: Easily one of the best books I've ever read. The story was carefully and judiciously unraveled. All of the characters were fully developed. It was just a very well-told and compelling story.

"Kill Me" by Stephen White
Summary: What if you were able to take out an insurance policy to ensure your own death before you were incapacitated by a debilitating illness or accident? What if you could make sure you died before you became a permanent vegetable? Such is the situation that the main character finds himself in (yeah - I can't remember his name and it's buried somewhere in the narrative but I can't remember of find it). This is the unraveling of his story, how he got to where is now, how his situation affects and is affect by his loved ones, and what happens next.

Grade: B

Reason: It was an entertaining enough read, but the voice of the main character was a little bit annoying and I'd rather read a straight-up Alan Gregory novel instead.

Non-Mystery Reads

"Dream Travellers" by Sherry Ashworth
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction
Summary: The new lodger in 12 year old Sam Kenyon's house is undeniably creepy. But when the little dolls he makes allow Sam and his friends to visit each other's dreams, they enter a world where one evil man can control everyone just by taking over their dreams.

Grade: D

Reason: So much promise in the premise, but very little follow through. The book wasn't very well-written and it was a bit too one-dimensional for my tastes.

"The Triplet Diaries: Extreme Motherhood" by Jackie Clune
Genre: Memoir
Summary: Jackie Clune is already the mother of a year-old daughter when, during the course of her ultrasound scan, the technician says "Erm, is there a history of twins in your family?" Begging for it not be twins, Clune is floored to learn that her unplanned pregnancy is actually triplets. The book records her pregnancy, the triplet's (twin boys and girl) birth and first several months.

Grade: A

Reason: Clune has a great writing style, which is both funny and brutally honest. The book was a joy to read.

"Charmed Thirds" by Megan McCafferty
Genre: Chick Lit

Summary: The third book featuring Jessica Darling, this book followed her (mis)adventures in her early college career.

Grade: D

Reason: It was a big disappointment. Where the first 2 books had a fresh voice and an earnest honesty, this third book was overly self-conscious and whiny. Jessica Darling is no longer someone I wanted to hang out with - she was someone I want to avoid. Somehow, she (and the author) have lost their way.

"Bridge to Terebithia" by Katherine Patterson
Genre: Middle-Grade Fiction

Summary: Fifth grader Jess Aaraons befriends the new girl in school, Leslie. Together they create a magical kingdom for themselves, until something dreadful happens.

Grade: A

Reason: This is an incredibly well-written and sensitive book that I absolutely loved when I was a kid. It holds up well in re-reading in adulthood, although I'm sure kids today have no idea who Walter Cronkite is and can't imagine Barbie dolls costing $2.

"Life As We Knew It" by Susan Pfeffer
Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Summary: What would happen to a regular 15-year old girl and her normal family if an asteroid knocked the moon slightly off kilter, causing tsunamis, volcanoes and other natural disasters to upset an otherwise ordinary existence? This book follows Miranda and her family as they try to adapt and adjust to their new world.

Grade: A

Reason: Pitch-perfect in every respect. Being a teenager is hard enough, but being a teenager in a world that seems like it might be ending is a special challenge that this book describes perfectly. I found myself, at the end of the book, wanting to know what happens next. I hope there's another one.

"Holes" by Louis Sachar
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction

Summary: Poor Stanley Yelnats has never been very lucky, all because of his pig-stealing great-grandfather. A miscarriage of justice lands Stanley in Camp Green Lake, a juvenile dentention facility where the "campers" must dig a whole every day - 5 feet wide by 5 feet deep. Just what is the Warden hoping to find?

Grade: A

Reason: Good characters, compelling storylines, and a very interesting method of blending the past with the present and showing how Stanley's distant past has affected his present and future.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Foghlaim Dé hAoine

Níl mé ag obair inniu.

Níl mé ag obair Dé Luain chomh maith.

Abu! Tá deireadh seachtain fada breise agam.

File under:


Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Importance of Names

I have a new idea for a story that I'm kicking around in my head, but I don't want to start writing it yet. Not only do I have too many open projects at the moment, I also don't have the most important piece of information – I don't have the names of the characters.

Names are absolutely essential – get them wrong and you might as well not even bother with the book. As someone who went through life hating her nickname ("Beth" or "Bethy") and eventually abandoning her first name for her middle name, I understand the importance of names.

When my laptop died recently, the thing that upset me most was losing an idea file for a mystery. The one thing that I'd managed to do with the idea was work out all the names of all the characters. That was a major achievement and the thought of having to do it all over again depresses me.

Since we don't have any children, I've never had to undertake the nearly overwhelming responsibility of selecting the right name. All I've had to name are my characters and my pets. Funny enough, some of my characters tell me their names straight away and with others, I have to decide what they are. It's not all that different from our pets.

Since all of our pets over the years have been adopted as adults, they’ve always come pre-named. In Chicago, we adopted a cat named Freedom knowing that the name would have to go. Since he was a long-haired black-and-white Tuxedo cat, we ended up naming him Jeeves. It was perfect.

Similarly, Peter's dog came with the name Soldier. Yuck. Neither one of us could picture ourselves standing on the back porch shouting "Soldier! Come here, Soldier!" We discussed possible names during the 100-mile drive from the animal shelter up to Wheaton. Since they suspected he may have been a trucker's dog, I wanted to call him Mack, but Peter wasn't that keen on the idea.

We named him Badger, but then after a night of realising that Badger and "bad dog" were quite similar (and that we were going to be saying "bad dog" quite a lot), we decided he needed a different name. Peter had a rogue character named Caper in an online role-playing game. The name suited the rogue and Peter realised it would suit Caper as well.

Toby came to us with his name and we decided to keep it. It's a great name and what I like most about it is that it's nearly impossible to say without smiling. It's a happy, cheerful name that mostly suits our neurotic dog. I can't think of what else we would call him, so Toby stays.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Knowing When to Quit

Laurie's post about her dog Boscoe's reaction to injury has inspired me to write about the diametric opposite.

In our past life in the suburbs of Chicago, our dogs favourite place was the East Branch Forest Preserve dog park. It's a huge park originally intended for the training of gun dogs, so it has a nice big lake in the middle. It also has hills and brush and long fields for chasing. I imagine it's not far off from doggie heaven, perhaps great mountains of dog treats and trees made of hamburger are the only things that are missing.

Kodiak and Caper loved the park. Caper had this fantastic way of bolting off the leash and cavorting like a kangaroo. I'd never seen a dog spring around the way he did. While Kodiak spent most of his time trying to be the boss of passing dogs, Caper bounced and raced around. Caper enjoyed the park so much that he'd slink off when he knew we were getting close to the parking lot and would refuse to come when called. When we'd finally get him re-leashed and out to the car, he'd sulk – he'd plant his butt on the ground, hunch his shoulders and refuse to move. Peter usually had to pick him up and put him in the car.

One of Peter's co-workers had a dog about Caper's age, so they decided to arrange a puppy play-date at the park. Murray's some sort of lab mix and he matched Caper in athleticism, although he was probably even faster. Murray and Caper got on very well and were soon just blurs, with Kodiak galumphing along behind him, the thought-bubble above his head screaming "Hey guys, wait for me. I'm the boss of you!"

Murray and Caper quickly engaged is some sort of canine version of tag in which Caper was apparently "It." He was gaining on Murray when the crafty dog made quick turn that Caper couldn't quite match. There followed a spectacular wipeout, with Caper losing his feet out from underneath him, tumbling and twisting until he hit the ground. He was up immediately and back into the game straightaway. It never even occurred to us that he could have been hurt.

We were about two-thirds of the way around the lake when we realised he seemed to be dragging one of his legs. Peter called him over and manipulated the leg, probing for tender points. But it seemed fine. We did notice that Caper had run so hard that the pads of his front paws were scraped and bloody, but still he was tearing around. When we were about three-fourths of the way around the lake, Caper's legs finally gave out from underneath him. We took turns carrying him back to the car.

When we got him home, it was obvious that this wasn't just some simple muscle pull that was going to work itself out shortly. The poor dog literally didn't have a leg to stand on. His front pads were bleeding and his back leg wasn't working so well. Of course it was a Saturday and of course the vet's office had just closed, but we decided we'd better bite the bullet and take him to the emergency vet. (Usually, whenever we went to the emergency vet, the dog in question miraculously healed himself upon entering the $160-a-visit office.)

The vet had him walk up and down the hall and then popped him on the table. Again, there were no obvious tender spots in his leg. The vet, being a trained professional, knew exactly what was wrong. Caper had pinched a nerve in his back –that spectacular wipeout was not without its consequences.

He gave Caper a shot of a muscle relaxant and sent us home with pain pills for the next few days. He also showed us a reflex test to do and if Caper failed the test, it was vital that we get him to a vet immediately or he'd have permanent damage.

We took Caper home and he spent the next three days curled up underneath a heating pad. (Kodiak was so jealous of the attention that I ended up having to cover him with a towel so that he'd feel he was getting equal treatment.)

Caper was Peter's dog and I never felt that I had much in common with him until that day. You see, I too don't know when to quit. I'll run through pain and illness as though my pure stubbornness is all that's required for recovery. The lesson we learned that day was that we couldn't trust Caper to listen to his body and let us know when he was hurt. We'd have to watch him and curtail his activities if it looked like he might have injured himself. I felt bad for Peter – since now he was going to have to keep an eye on both his stubborn wife and his stubborn dog.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

An Open Letter to the Creators of Radio Ads

Dear Radio Ad Creators:

I understand what you're up against. Given the limitations of your medium, you can't dazzle potential customers with memorable visuals. Your connection to only one sense means that it is easier for people to tune you out, to ignore your message. You have to work harder than television to put out a memorable ad. I get that.

However, you are way too fond of annoying conventions that alienate and frustrate your audience. Radio, as Ira Glass and Terri Gross are always reminding me, is a very intimate medium. So when you drop these horrible earbombs, it's as though a blind date suddenly vomited in my lap and then asked me for a kiss.

I beg you to elimate the following from your ads:

  • Screams or screeches, particularly of the woman-in-distress variety.

  • Useless and distracting repetition in a conversation between two people. No one talks like that.

  • Coughing, sniffling, sneezing, snoring, lip-smacking, slurping or any other bodily noise. It's odd to me that farting and belching are out but snoring and lip-smacking, both far more irritating, are used frequently.

  • High-pitched electronic warning sounds, particularly the droning REEP-REEP-REEP that the generic digital alarm clock makes. That sound makes me want to punch someone – preferably you.

  • Dental drills. Think about this for a minute – no one likes going to the dentist. Why would you employ the number-one most feared and detest sound in your ad? Why? All it makes me do is turn off the radio as quickly as possible. After the first time, as soon as I know the sound is going to be in the ad, flip and you're gone. I don't even know what product you're flogging – that's how determinental the sound is to your ad.

I thank you in advance for your assistence in eradicating these vile sounds from my every day audio existence. I spend 8 hours a day listening to the radio – I buy stuff. But I'm not going to buy your stuff if your ad contains any of the above noises.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Unfit to Practise

Last year, before I started playing camogie, I thought I was in pretty good shape. I could run 7 or 8 miles and was getting used to handling hills. I could scramble up to the top of the Sugarloaf quickly and get my breath back within a minute or two. The thing is, I'm built for distance, not for speed, and camogie is more about speed. It's ages of standing around punctuated by minutes of terror and flat-out effort.

My team last year practised once a week for most of the year. There were sometimes that we went twice a week, but mostly it was once a week. Although we did some running drills early in the season, by the middle of the summer, our sessions were mostly pucking around and then playing matches.

My new team is an entirely different proposition. Although the team is at the same level (bottom of the pile Junior B), the standard is a good bit higher. I knew it was a different sort of team the first practise – the coach had to leave early. Not only did everyone play until the end of practise, we did sprints after we were done playing. Sprints. I don't think my old team would have ever done unsupervised sprints as we barely did the supervised ones.

Within two weeks of starting back to the training, my new team is training twice a week. The coach is on a fitness kick – he doesn't want to have to say in the middle of the season that we would have won a match had we not been unfit for the last 10 minutes. So he's working us hard – sprinting and interval drills with sit-ups interspersed. I no longer think I am fit – I know I'm completely unfit. Forget the fact that I can run 7 miles – on the camogie pitch, that means absolutely nothing.

Last Wednesday, I was afraid I might puke after practise. (And then I had to drive the 35 miles home.) I am inordinately proud of myself for completing that practise, for running out every drill, and for not puking.

At the Friday practise, he took it easy on us. We did mostly skill drills and then played a match. I like playing against my new teammates although I find it especially challenging. They've all been playing since they were 6 and are good. I am easily the worst one on the team.

The standard for skills and playing is again much higher than it was in Dublin. We had maybe 2 girls who could put the sliotar over the bar from the 45 m. line. On this team, I think there are maybe 2 girls who can't do it. (Me being one of them.) I am in awe of the way these girls can hit the ball. I am also in awe of the way they can move, can get away from markers, and can get a ball away under pressure.

On my old team, it was understood that you toned down the aggression and physicality at practise. You were seen to be unsporting if you hip-checked or jostled anyone. I always thought this did us a huge disservice as we were rarely able to match the physicality of the best teams in our league. It's like when the Irish play the Aussies in International Rules – it's much easier for the Aussies to tune down their violence a notch than it is for the Irish to kick it up a notch. (Of course, given the last match I was at, I think the Irish would have had to kick it up about 10 notches to be on a level playing field with those brutes.)

I don't think physicality during matches is going to be an issue with my new team. (If anything, I think giving up frees might become an issue.) I don't mind the hard hits during practise either. I wear my bruises as badges of honour and I hope, by the time the season starts, I won't be unfit to practise anymore.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Horseguards

Thanks to Laurie for inspiring me to write down this recollection of a favourite traveling memory. Hope you have as much fun in London.

In 1994, I spent the summer in London, doing an internship course through Syracuse University Law School. It was a pretty good deal – we had a week's worth of classes and then eight weeks in a law-related internship. I'd wanted the Crown Prosecution Service but got put in the legal department of the Borough of Islington. I learned a lot, mostly that I didn't want to practise law in the States. Ever.

I was living in a 2-bedroom flat in Islington with 3 other internship students. We quickly broke into two groups – the beautiful model girl with a bad attitude and a gangly wanna-be became the "cool" kids. The other girl, T, and I were the nerds. I didn't mind so much as T was fun – she had a wickedly sarcastic sense of humour and was a complete non-drinker, so she kept me out of a lot of trouble.

T had bought a Brit-Rail pass before she got to London, so she spent most weekends taking the train out to the countryside to tour castles. We spent every evening after our jobs trying to wring ever last drop of fun out of London. We'd take the Tube to a new place and jump out to explore the neighbourhood, taking turns picking where we'd go. T's choices ran to the safe, genteel neighbourhoods while I usually selected the borderline area. After we witnessed a bar fight in Whitechapel, I was banned from making any more selections.

We definitely had our favourite spots – we both loved the Tower Bridge and enjoyed St. James Park. I liked the lions in Trafalgar Square and T had a massive crush on the horseguards. She dragged me to the Queen's birthday parade and to a Trooping of the Colours concert thing so that she could see her boys in action. A guy I dated briefly my first week in London told me that to be a horseguard was one of the highest honour a British soldier could achieve, so I reckoned that T had very discerning taste.

On our last weekend together in London, we planned a Day O' Fun. We were going to go everywhere we'd wanted to go but hadn't gotten to yet. The Friday night before our Day o' Fun, we took the walk that had become our regular. We hung out in St. James Park and then walked through where the horseguards stood sentry.

We had our little gawk at the man on duty and then headed out to the street. When we got nearly to the corner of the building, we saw 2 guys hanging out the window, smoking cigarettes and drinking cans of beer. We could tell they were horseguards, since they were still wearing their jackets, fully unbuttoned to reveal white undershirts.

I stopped and said "Hi" to them, which embarrassed the hell out of T. She was a shy and quiet type with strangers (which is usually how I am except that I was taking the opportunity that summer, in a foreign country, to be more outgoing) and was absolutely mortified. She had good cause to be wary of what I might say, since I am in the habit of speaking first and thinking later.

They said "Hi" back and asked us where we were from. I told them. T was practically pulling my arm off to get me to leave. One of the guys said "Go ahead, I know you have some question that you're dying to ask us." I thought about it for a second and said "Yeah, doesn't it get horribly boring to just stand there all day?"

They laughed and the other guy said "Exactly! You understand exactly. You have to come in here." I was all ready to go although T was a bit torn. But then, we'd spent all summer admiring these guys from afar, could we really turn down an invitation to go behind-the-scenes? Indeed we could not.

The guys were joined by a third guy – I only remember the names of two of them – Mac and Seamus. What I do remember is that they were incredibly nice. They gave us a tour of the stables and let us each have a turn sitting on a horse while they lead the horse around the inner courtyard. Then we went into canteen with them where we politely refused beers and chatted with them for about 3 hours.

When I told them what the guy I'd dated had said, about it being a huge honour, they nearly died laughing. They didn't always like their jobs much. One had taken the posting because the alternative was to go to Belfast and now, he was wishing he'd gone to Belfast.

They were great guys – fun and charming. We would have stayed longer only we didn't want to miss the last Tube home. It was a fantastic experience and turned out to be even more fun than all of our activities during our Day O' Fun.