Friday, July 27, 2007

A Message from the Birthday Queen

I recently told Peter that I loved my birthday so much, I was tempted to take over the world Pinky and the Brain style. Once the power was mine (all mine!), I'd declare my birthday a worldwide holiday. Everywhere, on the 27th of July, people would organise parades, participate in agricultural activities, fish, hike, and search out Big Swinging Boats. But then I realised the fatal flaw in my plan - if my birthday was a holiday and the entire world was doing my favourite activities, I would have to put up with large crowds. So, the world is safe ... for now.

The birthday preparations are in place and I'm ready to kick some birthday ass during my rule as the Birthday Queen. We're in Tramore for a long weekend. I've got several Birthday Outings planned: a pony trek in the Ballyscanlan hills, a hike in the Fenor bog, a visit to a pet farm, pizza for dinner and a visit to the beachfront amusement park (which appears to have something that nearly approximates the thrill of the Big Swinging Boat). Yes, all that in one day. You only get a single day a year to preside as Birthday Monarch, so you have to take advantage of it.

Looking back over the past year, I think I've done pretty well in my efforts to master the Irish zen way of life. I've also changed my entire life - moving from busy Dublin to the sleepy but lovely Middle of Nowhere, West Cork. I've written a load of pages, some of which might eventually become a book. I joined a new camogie team and managed to score my first goal. It's been a busy year and I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out.

I've always been a goal-oriented person and I think I can trace the few regrets I have in life back to that characteristic. The problem with being goal-oriented is that you tend to lose sight of everything else in the pursuit of the goal. That can be dangerous, especially if you've been misguided in your goal selection process. It can also lead todisappointment if achieving the goals turns out not to be what you expected.

In addition to my goal-oriented madness, I'm also a planner. Again, not always a bad thing (if you fail to plan, you plan to fail), but obsessive planning tends to act as a giant spontenaity vaccuum, sucking up your ability to seize unexpected opportunities. It robs you of your flexibility and adaptiveness, plunging you into chaos if your plans are forced to change.

This year, I think I've learned to rein in those two traits. I've come to realise that the journey is as important as the destination. When we first moved to Ireland, I found long-distance car journeys difficult. I'd plan the route using AA Road Watch (Note to U.S. readers - please mentally throw an extra 'A' into that name so you get the right idea and don't go off thinking I'm an alcoholic). With my directions in hand, I'd grab a map and away we'd go. Within 10 miles, we'd be off my carefully plotted route, usually on some tiny squiggle of a boreen that never managed to catch the attention of the Ordinance Survey guys.

The only way to drive in Ireland is to point yourself in the general direction of your destination, follow signs if and when you find them, and eventually you'll arrive where you want to be. No sense wasting time looking for nonexistent road markers when there's scenery to enjoy.

Developing a certain flexibility and willingness to roll with the punches has made me a happier, less stressed out person. Learning to savour the journey instead of fretting about arriving at the destination has improved my outlook and left me able to spot opportunities. When I look at our front window and see the landlord's cattle grazing on a knoll across the road, I can't help but feel a sense of wonder. I never planned to end up here, but I can't think of any place I'd rather live. I'm only here because of an unexpected change in my plans.

Instead of worrying about what I'm not achieving and focusing on what I haven't done, I'd much rather revel in what I'm doing now. Hanging out in the Middle of Nowhere, West Cork with a fantastic husband and a crazy dog, going to a job I love even if I sometimes dislike the work, and developing my skills as a writer. I've lost a great deal of bitterness that all those piles of rejection had fostered in me. Now I see how my work was flawed and what I need to do to fix it. I've also realised that like a meat-packing plant, a writer's mind is designed to use everything but the oink. Every experience and observation provides fodder for future characters, stories or even just for blog posts. It's all valuable. The only way to write about life is to live an interesting one and that, by necessity, requires spontenaity and a sense of adventure.

So, that's my only real goal for Ann Year 35. Okay, I minimize a little bit - of course there are small goals I want to achieve (like doing NaNoWriMo, finishing my chick lit book, scoring more goals in camogie, and finally losing this damn extra stone of weight I've put on since we moved here). But mostly, I just want to go out and collect stories, have adventures, and gain experience.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Wait a Second, Where Am I?

This morning, I drove into Macroom to dispose of our trash and recyclables at the delightfully named Civic Amenity Centre and then to drop Toby at the kennels. Both chores went off without a hitch and on my home, I stopped at our favourite bakery in Macroom to pick up a scone for Peter and a Bavarian pretzel for me.

Macroom has a handsome square in the middle, which probably had some grand purpose once upon a time but is now mostly just a big car park. I had parked there and was returning to my car when I thought I saw a soldier with a big gun guarding the vegetable stand.

I did a double-take. I worked for a month in Belfast back before the cease-fire, so I am not unfamiliar with seeing armed soldiers on the street. But why would the vegetable stand need an armed guard? As I got closer, I could see there were more soldiers lined up along the square and then I spotted the reason for the military presence. A blue cash-in-transit van sat in front of the AIB and it was flanked by two jeeps.

It makes sense, I guess, since cash-in-transit robberies are practically a national sport, but it was still vaguely alarming to see soldiers on patrol in the town square of Macroom.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Camogie Milestone

Yesterday, my team played its championship match. The championship is a straight-elimination deal and this was our first round. We also play league matches, but for some reason, we haven't had all of the matches we were meant to have. So this was only our third real match and we'd lost our first two rather badly. (I think we lost one of them by at least 9 or 10 goals, which is the sort of score you expect to see in an under-10s match.)

I started in right-corner forward and was ready, albeit nervous, to play. The first chance I got, I screwed up badly. Really badly. Badly enough to have the coach walk all the way down to my end of the field and yell at me. I always find the first 10 minutes of a match nerve-wracking. We get instructions in the dressing room but then that all seems to go out the window when our feet hit the pitch. Marking is always a huge issue - what if the defender who is marking you decides to go half-way up the pitch? Do you stay put, hoping the half-forwards will deliver a pass to you? Or do you stay with your marker and "get out in front", which is the only way to win a ball on the ground?

I'm a stay-in-position kind of girl and my defender yesterday was an annoying let's-play-at-midfield kind of girl. I shoved her a few times to try to get her angry enough to become my shadow, but she just ignored me. When she beat me to a ball, I hooked my hurley around her waist and held her back, which got her attention. I don't always know where the lines are between what we're allowed to do and what's forbidden, so I skate ignorantly on the edges until the whistle and the ref tell me where I went wrong. Yesterday, even though I made a couple of hard charges that were probably technical illegal, I didn't give up any frees.

The girl playing full-back for the opposing team was way bigger than anyone on our team. She was trying to pick the ball off the ground and I banged full into her, which was a little like running into a brick wall. My unstoppable force meeting her immovable object was powerful enough to let me get my hurley on the ball, flick it to my teammate, who then scored easily.

About ten minutes after this goal, we had another scoring opportunity. We'd been given a 45 (from a free, I think) and my teammate went for the goal instead of the point. I was standing on the edge of the right side of the goal, where it was my job to keep the ball in bounds. I stepped into the corner of the square after I saw the ball wasn't going to go out of bounds. The goalie blocked the initial shot and the ball trickled right in front of me. It all happened so fast. I pulled on the ball and followed it into the net, just to be sure we didn't have a repeat of the Balbriggan incident.

Just like that, I'd scored my first goal in a match. I was so happy - I think I grinned inanely for the rest of the half. I only played about 10 minutes of the second half and then was pulled for a substitute. I didn't care though - I'd finally achieved something that had eluded me for a year.

It was a good match - closely fought and enthusiastically played. We started to flag a bit in the second half and messed up some good goal-scoring opportunities. We ended up losing so it's back to only league matches for us. But as much as it sucks to lose, nothing could take away the fantastic feeling of accomplishment that came from scoring my first goal.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Keeping Me Honest

When I decided to run my first marathon, I read every article I could find about how to prepare. More than one recommended telling everyone you knew and their families about your plan. That way, on the days when you wanted another 30 minutes of sleep instead of a run, you could remind yourself that someone was bound to ask about your training. Involving others as unofficial supports and monitors gives some external pressure to what is ultimately a solitary and personal quest.

Writing is similar to long distance running in many ways and this blog has been a great way to keep me honest and focused. In fact, in a recent post, Laurie asked about my progress toward my goal of finishing my novel(s) by my birthday, which is two weeks from yesterday.

Am I going to meet my goal? Nope - not a chance. Am I upset about it? Not really, because I'm making more progress than I would have had I not set the goal in the first place. In my chick lit novel, I've written a lot of 2-page pieces, gotten better ideas about the characters, and realised that the floundering plot is what's holding me up. A little outlinging, some storyboarding, and I should be good to go. New goal - finish it before NaNoWriMo in November.

The rewrite of my first novel is both literally and figuratively another story altogether. I had a writing mentor who once confessed that when she realised she was thinking about her third novel as a boil she had to lance, walking away from it was the only option. That's how I feel about Flying Close to the Ground - I've chopped it up into all these scenes and shuffled them around and tried to find a better way to tell the story, but it's stubbornly refusing to be told. So it's time to walk away and give the story some space. We're "on a break" for at least the next few months.

I think now, for the rest of the summer and the fall, the goal is to focus on the chick lit (whose working title is Being Katie which I suspect might be a shade lame) and research and outline my NaNoWriMo book (which is going to be middle-grade fiction and I'm very excited about it).

The other thing that focusing on the goal gave me was permission to let the blog slide a bit. In a way, I think that may have improved the blog, or at the very least my attitude toward it. Instead of seeing it as a chore - something I had to do a certain number of days a week - I've been able to see it more as a privilege. Reducing the quantity has (I hope you agree) increased the quality as I only write when I really have something to say. Good thing I'm the quiet type, huh?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Social Skills

I'm the first to admit that my social skills aren't great. I do okay with people I know, but it takes me a long time to feel comfortable with new people. I hate parties, to the point that most invitations from my friends are prefaced with "I know you won't come, but I wanted to invite you anyway."

I suppose if you wanted to be all psychology-student about it, you'd say I had a moderate case of Social Anxiety Disorder. I'm happy to call myself extremely shy and I've pretty much always been that way. I just don't know how to talk to people I've just met. When I was unemployed, I tried doing a networking event and it was a near disaster.

For whatever reason, I never learned how or just don't have the gene that allows me to feel comfortable (or at least hide my discomfort) with strangers. For things I care about, like camogie, I will suck it up and go to a new place and meet new people. But, for the most part, I am comfortable with my asocial personality and don't feel any great need to change.

Toby appears to share my lack of social skills. I feel bad for him as it's pretty obvious that no one properly socialised him when he was a puppy. When he meets other dogs, he either stiffens up and acts apprehensive or he puts up an aggressive front. We haven't been able to identify a pattern to his behaviour, but it seems like he sometimes feels the need to protect me. Once, with Peter, he was able to play with another dog. Then two weeks later, with me, he got aggressive with the same dog. (And it was a really cute, 8-month old lab-cocker spaniel mix, not exactly the most ferocious dog on the block.)

If we were living in Chicago, we'd know exactly where to take him for socialisation. In the Middle of Nowhere, it's a bit more difficult. Most people have huge yards or fields and don't have a need to exercise their dogs in public parks. It's also unfair to subject unsuspecting people to your unpredictable dog.

Our landlord has been building a "shed" in our yard for the last few months. He brings his dog, an ancient border collie named Sam, and his sister's dog, a lab named Harry, along for company. The first time Harry met Toby, it didn't go so well. Peter tried several times to introduce them in somewhat controlled circumstances, but all it accomplished was impressing on Toby that it was wrong to growl at Harry.

The problem is that Toby has no idea how to interact with Harry. Toby's first line of defence is avoidance. If Harry's in the yard, Toby will stay in the house. If you throw the Kong, Toby will make a half-hearted attempt to get it, but will give up if Harry shows any inclination to follow. Peter's been trying the Tough Love approach - chucking Toby outside and closing the door, but Toby just sits or sometimes cowers up against the back door, waiting to be let inside.

Harry's also a funny one, part happy-goofy-lab and part unneutered male. He will approach Toby with the wagging tail, happy lab jumping with excitement and then turn a little growly when closer. Toby will avoid eye contact, then hunch his shoulders, put up his hackles and back away. His feelings are clear - "Hey man, I don't want a fight. It's your yard - I'm only renting. That's cool." Harry's usually happy not to press the issue too far, prefering instead to plop his sausage body down and study Toby from a short distance.

I'm not one of those people who wants a dominant ass-kicking dog. I'd just like Toby to be able to relax and enjoy the company of other dogs. I know he'd have great fun chasing and cavorting with another dog if he could only get over the initial introductory hurdle. But I should admit that my reasons aren't purely altruistic - I would like to add a second dog one day (and perhaps a third or fourth if we have a farm) but we won't do it unless Toby can accept another dog.

I'm a bit at a loss as to how to teach Toby to deal with other dogs. It's not like I can buy him self-improvement books, take him to seminars, or put him on Paxil. Maybe, with time, he'll overcome his shyness. Or maybe, he'll join me on the sidelines, politely declining party invitations.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Eight Dumb Things I've Said, Thought or Done

Thanks to my pal Dave, I've been tagged to list 8 random things about me. Sorry to disappoint Dave, but not surprise him - I'm sure, since he knows me in Real Life (TM) - I'm only going to play half his game. I'm not real keen on tagging others. (Amen't I such a blogging killjoy?) Plus, I've already done a similar seven random things about me. So I don't want to bore you all with random things about me, me, me.

Instead, I hope to entertain you by reporting eight dumb things I've said, done, or thought. Because, as we all know, I'm not exactly always a Mensa candidate.

1. Peter got a GPS unit for the car at the end of April. Very nifty gadget and quite useful for a landscape photographer. In the middle of May, we went to Killarney for a weekend to celebrate his birthday. At one point, as Peter was flawlessly navigating us through the warren of streets in Killarney, I remarked to him that he must really know his way around the town, seeing as how he was able to get us places so easily. He looked at me like I was taking the piss and then tapped the GPS unit, saying "I've got an automatically updating map."

2. We've been watching The Deadliest Catch. In the opening credits, they show pictures of guys and names like "Northwestern" and "Billiken" and "Fierce Allegience" and "Lucky Lady". It wasn't until the the second time that I watched the show that I realised the guys were the captains and the names were their ships. I thought the names were their nicknames and I'd hoped someone would explain how a big strapping fisherman gets called "Lucky Lady."

3. When I was a kid in Catholic school, I thought that nuns were the priests' wives. (I was never quite able to work out the numbers - 4 parish priests, at least 12 nuns.)

4. Again, when I was a kid, I thought that all kids were born white and then some grew up to be black. It made sense to me - I lived in an all-white suburb and the only black people I ever saw were nurses at the place my mom worked.

5. Peter took me driving in the Wicklow Mountains on our first joing trip back here after he emigrated to Chicago. We decided to get out of the car and hike up one of the hills. He struck off first, shouting back to me "Be careful, it's boggy." I had no idea what he meant, but said cheerfully "Okay!" Two minutes later, I was up to my knees in a cold, wet bog-hole.

6. My parents were very strict about what shows we watched and what movies we saw, but I'd won the privilege to watch The Dukes of Hazzard after a very vigorous advocacy campaign. In the summer when I was 9, we went to New Jersey to visit my grandparents. I was looking forward to Friday night, to get my fix of Bo Duke. When I looked at the TV Guide, I was crestfallen to see (R) after the program name. I became convinced that the episode was rated R and I would not be able to see it.

7. For Peter's birthday, we had dinner in a nice seafood restaurant in Killarney. This was shortly after I'd written my post about my big baby-induced Mother's Day meltdown. We were talking about the post and he was telling me that he felt bad that I was so uncomfortable in posh restaurants. He asked me how I was feeling where we were. I told him it wasn't that bad. Then I asked him if I was using the right knife to butter my bread. He informed me I was using the fish knife. I really thought it looked like a fancy butter knife.

8. For awhile in Chicago, Peter and I worked in buildings that were in the same area in the Loop. Sometimes, we'd get takeaway lunches and meet in this concrete garden in front of my building. He was very fond of a sushi place called Tokyo Lunchbox. I think it was the first time I'd ever seen sushi and the green stuff on the plate caught my eye. I thought it was avocado and popped a wodge of it my mouth. I'm sure I looked exactly like a cartoon character after that - sputtering, smoke pouring from my ears, teary eyes bulging out. How was I supposed to know about wasabai?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

June Reads

I'm fell a little short of my quota in my June reading. Although I got off to a strong start, wading through a weak book slowed me down. Also, I started three books that I ended up not finishing. One was a Kathy Reichs' novel, set in Montreal. I have a tolerate-hate relationship with Reichs anyway and dealing with French names and the occassional French line was just too much for me to bear. The second book was "Fluke" by James Herbert, about a man who is reincarnated as a dog. Peter recommended it and it wasn't bad, it's just that it was a library book and even with a renewal, I wasn't compelled to get myself past the fifth chapter.

The last book I abandoned in June was Lionel Shriver's "We Need to Talk About Kevin". Yes, we probably do, but if the beginning letters were more accessible and less abstruse, I might have been more willing to stick with it. As it was, I just jumped ahead to the gory bits, which were well-written and very evocative. Almost enough to make me return to the beginning to see how she got to the end, but I'd promised the book to a fellow moocher and didn't have time to read any more than isolated chunks. The funny thing was that even just randomly opening the book, the pages I read were more interesting, easier to read, and more curiosity inducing than the first 20 or 30 pages in which the narrator gives an incomplete picture of her current life and spends way to much time in the beginning before the beginning - the period of time in which she and her husband were trying to decide whether or not to have children.

So, now that you know too much about the books I didn't read this month, here are the books that I did.

"Gone" - Lisa Gardiner

Summary: When Lainie's car is discovered on the side of the road in the middle of the night, its door open and engine running, the local sherriff's departments suspicions are immediately aroused. Lainie's estranged husband, his FBI daughter, and her law-enforcement boyfriend work (sometimes at cross purposes) with local authorities to try to unravel the mystery.

Grade: A

Reason: Using the likeable and familiar cast of characters from "The Killing Hour," Gardiner tells a strong tale and manages to provide a realistic and satisfying ending.

"Kill the Messenger"

Summary: Jace, a bicycle messenger, has one last delivery to make, to an isolated parking lot in LA. When the intended recipient tries to kill him, Jace returns to the sender of the package, only to find him murdered and Jace is now the primary suspect. He must work hard to figure out what's going on, before the killer or the cops find him.

Grade: A

Reason: Great characters in a well-constructed plot. I was disappointed when the story was over because I'd grown to like Jace and his brother and wanted to spend more time with them.

"Night Sins" - Tami Hoag

Summary: When 9-year-old Josh Kirkwood is abducted, the town's police chief and the new Minnesota Bureau of Investigations field agent, the first woman to obtain the position, must overcome their suspicions, and their romantic attractions, to find the boy before it's too late.

Grade: D

Reason: I think this was one of Hoag's early books. At least I hope it was. The book is full of annoying and sanctimonious over-telling. Yes, I'm sure it's difficult to be a woman in a male-dominated environment, to be a trail blazer into an old boys' network. But really, I got that the first three time you mentioned it. I didn't need to hear it every other page. I think the book probably could have been shortened by removing 30% of all references to sexism and the difficult life of a female field agent.

"Trouble" - Jessie Kellerman

Summary: Medical student Jonah Stem steps in to assist a young woman who is being attacked in a dark alley in NYC. The assailant is accidentally murdered in the course of his rescue. Jonah's a hero for his intervention. Or were things really as they seemed.

Grade: B

Reason: I might be grading too harshly here, since "Sunstroke" was such an extraordinary debut novel. The book builds slowly, which wasn't a bad thing. It felt sort of like a Hitchcock movie, like "Vertigo" or "Rear Window", but unlike those classic films, the payoff just wasn't strong enough. Partly, I think that was due to some of the characters not being strong or well-developed enough, but I don't know if even the best characters could have rescued the anti-climax at the end.

"Forever in Blue - The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" by Ann Brashares

Summary: The last installment in the series, the Traveling Pants are a pair of blue jeans with the magical power to look good on the four differently shaped friends and to keep these friends connected when they are apart. Like the other books in the series, this book follows Carmen, Tibby, Bridget and Lena as they grow up, together and apart, in the summer after their first year in college.

Grade: A+

Reason: Every time I have finished one of the Traveling Pants books, I have thought to myself "This is the book I wish I'd written." The writing is fantastic, the characters are amazing, and the plots are well-put together. One of the most amazing things to me is how Brashares manages to write in 4 distinct, authentic voices. Most writers struggle with just one but she is able to interweave four stories and have each girl's story sound distinctly different.