Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Scarlet Letter (L, not A)

After obsessing over my impending driving test for the last few days, I woke up in a surprisingly calm state. I went for a run with Toby, had a hearty breakfast, and read all the encouraging comments on my last post. It's about an hour's drive to the test centre and I gave myself enough time to get stuck behind a slurry truck and a tractor. The sun was out, the light was golden, and the traffic was co-operative. I did get stuck behind a yellow-reg (British) for a few miles on a twisty road, but they politely got the hell out of my way when a lay-by came up.

I was cool and collected until the moment I pulled into the test centre. Then my heart started dancing, my palms started raining, my mouth turned into a desert, and my legs were replaced with overcooked spaghetti. I sat in the reception area, trying to keep my feet still and concentrate on Rise and Shine, my current reading material. About 15 minutes before my test was scheduled to begin, the office door opened and Jean Reno's separated at birth Irish twin called me in to start the process.

He flew through the cursory examination of my provisional license, the insurance cover disclaimer, and the rules of the road quiz. (Biggest screw-up? Looking at this sign and saying "Ummmm? There's a fence ahead?") It wasn't too horrible but I did feel like he was talking too quickly so I asked politely if he could please speak more slowly and loudly, which he then did as he directed me to go outside, open the bonnet, and wait while he locked up the office.

Out at the car, we proceeded through the engine and safety checks at a more stately pace. Once inside the car, I was instructed to drive as I normally would (yeah, right) and start when I was ready. Deep breath and off we went.

I was instructed to take the second exit off the first roundabout and I was so Pleased with Self for having rung my instructor yesterday to get confirmation on how to use the lanes to reach that exit. I navigated the first street, which was clogged with parked cars, and then took the next right-hand turn without incident. We headed into a quiet residential neighbourhood, where I did my turnabout, although it took me 4 points rather than the traditional 3. (Not a problem though.) Back out to a main(ish) road, and up a steep hill, where I was instructed to park and roll down the window to go through the hand signals. No problem. Then I was instructed to move off. The dreaded hill start, which I'd performed flawlessly in all my practise tests after my instructor taught me how to feel for the kick in the clutch as my point for dropping the hand brake.

The instant I dropped the brake and eased off the clutch in favour of the gas, the car shot backwards. Not ideal, but sure, it's salvageable. I collected myself and tried again, only to shoot backwards. Deep breath and I tried again. And again. And again. Around try number 5, I just put my head on the steering wheel and started to laugh. As the hill start is one of the named parts of the test, I figured I had just failed.

I pulled myself together and gave it another try, but I couldn't understand what was happening as I didn't seem to be feeling that magical kick in the clutch. Either yerman too pity on me or he didn't want to wait for me to roll all the way to the bottom of the hill before the test could proceed. He said, "You want to check that you're fully in gear." Indeed I was not. "That would help, wouldn't it? Thank you." I said cheerily. Although the gear shifter looked like it was in first, it wasn't fully in. I nudged the gear into place and on my next start managed to stall the car. But then, on my umpteenth try, I managed to get the car moving up Heartbrake Hill and it took every ounce of restraint I had not to "Whoohoo" with relief.

I thought I'd be able to relax after that, knowing I'd failed. And I did for a bit. We returned to the roundabout near the test centre and I figured Monseiur Reno was going to put me out of my misery. But he directed me to take the exit back into town. I was still in this thing. The second I thought I had a chance of scraping by, my nerves kicked back in.

The rest of the test passed in a blur. I recognised some of my trouble areas from the practise tests and navigated them successfully. It wasn't the world's worst performance and I didn't hit the pedestrian who practically lept in front of my car near the construction zone. After the requisite five miles (yep, I zeroed out my trip counter before we started), we returned to the test centre. I nearly let myself hope that I'd passed, but, in my heart, I knew the Scarlet Letter L would be staying on my car for at least a few more months.

I followed yerman back into the office, where he told me that unfortunately, he didn't have good news for me. "The hill start?" I asked. "The hill start didn't help you, but you have some other problem areas. Namely the gears and the clutch." Seems I don't shift into higher gears quickly enough. He asked me was I more familiar driving an automatic and I nodded. He also asked me where I was from and I said "Chicago. We don't have hills there." He sent me on my way with a little advice, the results sheet, and more than a little disappointment.

Now that I've a little perspective, I can see I didn't really do too badly. Put me in an automatic and I'd have passed with a handful of Grade 2 faults. On the plus side, I had no Grade 3 faults (automatic fails). I had 14 Grade 2 faults (although, only 11 if you take out the repeated clutch and gear faults), so I didn't really fail by much since you can pass with 9. It was a good fail, if there is such a thing.

I'm reapplying for the test online after I finish this post and I've already scheduled 3 more driving lessons. Sod the test prep, I'm going to tell the instructor I want him to teach me how to drive as though I were a Martian who'd never seen an automobile. Next time, it'll be grand.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Nervous as a School Girl

The day I turned 16, my dad took me down to the DMV so I could take the written theory test to get my learner's permit. It was a multiple choice test, based on rules of the road and other facts the state of Ohio deemed important for drivers. I'd ben given a booklet to study in advance of the test, but I don't think I even opened it. The test was going to be so easy.

Well, the test wasn't easy. Instead of driving the car home with my dad cowering in the passenger seat, I was sulking in the backseat and indignantly sputtering about the stupid test. How was I supposed to know the legal tread depth for tires? If it it okay on a divided highway to drive past a stopped school bus on the other side of the highway? What to do if the engine overheated?

I was mortified that I'd failed the test and wasn't about to let it happen again. I practically memorised that booklet. A week later, I had my learner's permit. Driving lessons consisted of 8 hours of classroom time (which was usually watching the same movies and hearing dubious advice like if you prang someone's car, take pictures because they could take a sledgehammer to the car later and then say you did all that damage) and 8 hours of in-car instruction (four 2-hour sessions). My instructor was named Linda and she could have stepped out of one of those Adams family cartoons in the New Yorker.

I was decent at everything except the reversing exercise. We didn't have to parallel park for the test, but we had to reverse the car through this configuration of cones and then pull the car back out. If you knocked over a cone, you failed. If you rattled a cone, it was 5 points off. You couldn't rattle more than 4 cones or you'd fail. I was an absolute nightmare at this. I blamed the car. It was a big old boat of a Pontiac Bonneville and I had only the vaguest notion where the front and rear bumpers were.

My formal instruction was done within a few weeks, but my parents wanted me to get more practise before taking the test. So I waited. And waited. And waited. It seemed like forever. Remember, my birthday had been in July. Finally, in October, they agreed to let me take the test.

My test was on a Tuesday and I got to miss the first few classes of the day to take it. Because I was going straight to school after the test, I was wearing my uniform. An ugly double-pleated polyester skirt (like this one only mine was uglier because it was brown) and a pastel Oxford shirt. In school, the shirt had to be tucked in but I always had it hanging out until I crossed the school's threshold.

I'm sure I was nervous, but I don't remember that now. I remember being excited (although, now that I think about it, I was a little apprehensive about the reversing part). All my energy was going into picturing what this license meant to me. Freedom. I was one of the first of my friends to get a license and the boy I liked lived on the other side of town and didn't drive yet. Passing this test was going to change my life and I was so ready for it.

The on-road portion of the test went quickly but I found the roads around the test facility confusing. (I ended up getting points deducted for driving up the middle of the road.) The first time the examiner wrote something down, I asked her what she was writing and she told me to just ignore her and mind the road. I took that advice.

When the on-road portion was over, we returned to a sectioned-off area of the car park for the cone reversing portion. My hands were sweating and I just kept reminding myself that if I felt the cone, that I should adjust. I think that part of the test took me about six years. It was excruciating. I hit exactly the number of cones you could hit and still pass. The state of Ohio decided I was competent to operate a motor vehicle. Whooohooo.

My dad let me drive to school and I broke my first traffic law within 15 minutes of passing the test. I was at an intersection, stopped for a red light, waiting to turn right. I checked the sign, looked around, and made my turn. "That was a no turn on red," scolded my father, although in a mocking and amused manner since I hadn't done anything really dangerous. (It's not as though there was traffic bearing down on us when I made my turn.)

"Only on school days, during school hours," I replied. He started laughing at me. I had turned right on red, on a school day, during school hours, wearing my school uniform, while driving to school and then had tried to use it not being a school day as my defense. Clearly, I was lucky that hadn't come up on the test.

Why the trip down memory lane? My driving test is tomorrow morning and I've been thinking about the difference in my attitude. I'm extremely nervous about and pretty much obsessed with the test. Whereas 16-year old me focused on the benefits of passing (freedom, the ability to visit the far-away soon-to-be-first-boyfriend), 35-year old me can only see the hassles of failing (waiting for another test, having to spend more time and money on lessons, having the ignominy of admitting I'd failed).

It's no exaggeration when I say I've been thinking about this test all day. I even rang my driving instructor this afternoon to ask how to use the first roundabout on the test route if I'm instructed to take the second exit. (In my three lessons, we only did that once and he yelled at me for cutting right through the roundabout.) I've been whispering to myself "mirror-signal-manouver." I'm considering going out right now to practise turnabouts, reversing around corners, and hill-starts. I want to tatto "keep off the clutch" onto the back of my hand.

That last one, it seems, is my most serious bad habits. I didn't even realise it was a bad habit. Somehow, I missed the point that you could tap the brakes without using the clutch. My formal manual transmission training was courtesty of my pal Dave when he sold us our first car, a Mercury Tracer. My lesson consisted of cautiously scooting around the sidestreets and alleys near his house, because I was afraid to go higher than third gear. His lovely wife Amy was kind enough to follow us back to our place in their car, so Dave could coach me through any stalling on the major roads between his place and our apartment.

My Irish driving instructor told me that he calls riding the clutch "stall-a-phobia." I told him he was right - I'd learned to drive in a city where if you stalled the car, you had about 5 seconds to make it right before there were three cars piled up behind you, baying for your blood. I stalled the car on my first Dave-free outing, on the only area within 100 miles of our place that had any sort of grade to it. It was sort of like the nightmare of running down an ever-lengthening hallway. Every time I tried to restart the car, I rolled back a bit more.

I've been working on the clutch issue for the last few weeks. At the end of my last practise test yesterday, I asked the instructor what he thought my chances were. "If you concentrate, and you keep off the clutch, I think your chances for passing are very good. The biggest thing you have going for you is your age. It's the 17 and 18 year-old kids that they really want to crack down on and give a tough test to. At the end of the day, all you can hope for is a fair test and to do your best."

On second thought, forget the last minute practising. I think the best thing I can do now is have a bath and good night's sleep and then a nice run tomorrow morning before setting out for the testing centre. Possible the best thing I can do right now is to relax and get back a little of my 16-year old self.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Putting the Ex in Ex-Pat

On Friday, I had to drive nearly 40 miles to Blarney for my NCT, which is a sort or road-worthiness test that every car over a certain age has to pass every two years. My car is 11 and its certification was due to expire at the end of this month. I didn't want to leave the test too late, since I was worried about passing and wanted to have enough time to fix any defects and retake the test if I failed. However, since I'd waited too long to book the test, under the misapprehension that I would be sent directions for booking, I ended up having to go to Blarney instead of being able to go only 15 miles to Macroom.

When I pulled into the test centre, I was already annoyed. I'd spent a portion of the trip stuck behind a rental car, driven by an ancient tourist. When I'd managed to find a straight enough stretch of road to ditch old Grampsie, it was only to get stuck behind another rental car, driven by the far more annoying kind of tourist. I understand how it is to be a newbie on the roads in the wilds of County Cork. They're narrow and they're twisty and, on some of them, 80 kph isn't a speed limit, it's a suicide pact.

But that's only some of the roads. Other roads, once you get to know them, as long as you don't drive up the middle and you take it easy on the corners, they're not that bad. You should be able to go at least 60 on most of them. This annoying type of driver is annoying because they drive 30kph on the twisty bits, but then shoot up to 70 or 80 on the straight-aways, making it nearly impossible to pass them. When you're in a hurry, it is absolute torture to get stuck behind one of these Jeckyl-and-Hyde drivers.

To make matters worse, the map on the web site was less than useless, I'd gotten a little lost, and had to ask for directions. I managed to find the place on time, but I was cranky. And hungry. And was realising I had no paper or coin money on me, only my Laser Card, which wasn't going to work in the center's vending machines.

To their credit, the test was efficiently run and I was out of there in under a half-hour, happily clutching a certificate stating my car is roadworthy until September, 2009. But I was still cranky and hungry and I knew I was going to have to remedy that if I had any chance of making it home. The town of Blarney looked crowded and the parking seemed a bit nightmarish, so when I saw a sign for the Woolen Mills, complete with AIB Cash Station and parking lot, I figured it was my best hope for one stop problem solving.

Half-way through my right-hand turn into the place, I had a feeling I was making a horrible mistake. The place was mobbed with the worst kind of American tourist. The kind that wear fanny packs and and sans-a-belt pants and take bus tours and are just so overwhelming in their American-ness. They have no desire to blend in, to follow local custom, to quietly appreciate a place for what it is. They're the kind of people that make me shut my mouth up tight because I don't want anyone to think that I'm one of them. Usually, this isn't too difficult because they stay together and I don't usually end up places that are packed full of them.

But this is something I don't understand about some ex-pats I've met in my travels. People who join Democrats Abroad or the American Women's Club. Maybe if you're only here temporarily, or you're a trailing spouse with nothing else do do. But ex-pats who make an informed decision to live in another country, sometimes permanently, but then spend all their time seeking out their fellow ex-pats. I just don't get it. Couldn't you have stayed home, if you wanted to do that?

I knew a Canadian who was here first on a sort of temporary work permit and then she started to go through the rigourous paperwork and process to get a work permit to stay long-term, with an eye to making the move permanent. But she spent a huge amount of time seeking out fellow Canadians and feeling a surge of pride when she went by the Canadian embassy. She actually seemed a bit puzzled that I had no interest in seeking out fellow Americans.

I'm an Irish citizen and I've decided to make this country my home. There are days when I want to go into the American embassy, light my passport on fire, and walk out. (I don't because I've been counseled by many people not to and I'm no longer a hot-headed teenager.) I know I'm a goose, and that I'll always be a goose, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to be a swan. And nothing is going to make me want to hang out with a flock of geese.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mischief Managed

I've spent the better part of my spare brain power this week on my quest to find a grueling, physically and mentally demanding task to ameliorate my mid-life crisis. (Or at least give me something else to focus on.) I imagine Peter has gotten sick of my bizarre texts (Want to walk across Alaska?) as he has tactfully ignored all of them.

Finding a challenge I could complete safely by myself that would require sufficient endurance to satisfy my requirements was tough. One of the ideas I kept coming back to was running a marathon. I'm a long-distance runner trapped in a penguin's body and I love running. But it felt like a cheat - I've already done two marathons. I know I can do a marathon.

Then I remembered one of my co-workers who ran the Connemarra Half-Marathon last year. I remembered there was also a marathon. I remember the co-worker saying that the course was incredibly challenging - very hilly.

Both my marathons were in Chicago, where the course is as flat a course as you will ever find. There is one small incline, near the end, which is actually just the on-ramp onto Lake Shore Drive. Running a hilly marathon would be a new and difficult experience. I find hills extraordinarily difficult, since I'm not mentally accustomed to having to exert extra effort randomly throughout a run.

Not only have I never run a hilly marathon, I've also never trained for a marathon entirely alone. Although I did all my short mid-week runs alone, my long runs were always done in the company of my running group, which was organised by the Chicago-Area Runners Association as part of their excellent marathon training program.

So it seemed as though a marathon, under the right circumstances, could meet my requirements. The Connemarra Marathon web site didn't have a course map, but it did have a route analysis, so I decided to check that out. One look at the jagged peaks and infrequent valleys, culminating in a steep monster of a hill and I was a goner - I'd finally found my challenge.

The best part is the timing. Camogie is essentially over for the year and won't start back up until next April. The Connemarra Marathon is the 6th of April. I have about 10 weeks to build up a fitness base and lose some weight before I need to start training in the last week of November. (Which means I will also be able to finish NaNoWriMo without worrying about getting in long runs.) And I'll be training during the Christmas, so I will have an excuse for eating festive treats. Plus, my Thanksgiving trip to Ohio will allow me to stock up on shoes, Gu, and comfy running shorts at a friendly neighbourhood running store. (Although I wish I were going to Chicago so I could go to Fleet Feet. I miss those guys.)

The downside, of course, is training through the winter. Finding the daylight to run on the days I work and dealing with the inevitable bad weather will be challenges in and of themselves.

I'm excited and eager to start. I'm also relieved that I've struck on an idea that satisfies my requirements. And I know Peter is relieved that he won't have to hear about walking through Alaska or kayaking the length of the Nile or biking across the Outback. At least until the next mid-life crisis strikes.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Catching Up

It's been quiet in my little corner of the Middle of Nowhere, mostly because I've slid into one of my antisocial moods. Sometimes, I feel like I just want to fold in on myself and not talk to anyone for weeks. This feeling spreads even into the Internet realm, as I haven't been answering email or blogging or commenting on blogs for the last few weeks. The days are getting shorter and although the golden light of autumn is my favourite, I can't help but dread the Dark Womb of Winter.

As I'm waiting for tonight's dinner (chicken curry from the Avoca Cookbook) to boil rapidly until it has reduced in volume by half, I decided it was time for a little catching up.

August Reads

Harry Potter dominated my August reading. I read only one non-Potter book, Man of Fate by Brad Metzler. I found it confusing, uninspiring, and overall poorly executed.

Re-reading the Harry Potter books was fantastic fun and was well worth the effort. I've thought a lot about how I feel about them and how I'd rank them. In order from least favourite to most favourite, this is what I've come up with. (I will try to keep my reasons to under 25 words. I know I tend to be too wordy in my monthly reading recap.)

7. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - Too long, too moody, too little going on. It was necessary but depressing reading and it's one of the rare examples where the movie was leagues better than the book.

6. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Just doesn't hold up when compared to the quality of the others. I can't pin it on any one thing - Lockhart is a fabulous character and the world remains interesting and vivid, it's just missing something.

5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Numbers 5-3 were incredibly difficult to rank and really could get swapped around depending on how I feel on any given day. Azkaban is losing out today because I felt like the danger was too manufactured.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - An excellent entry into the world - introduces the characters in age-appropriate writing and it's gratifying to look back and see how much they've grown.

3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - The penultimate book in the series is a strong building block to the end. The Snape storyline, in particular, is a delightful shade of dark charcol.

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - I absolutely loved this last book. It did everything I wanted - tied up most of the loose ends and gave me an emotionally satisfying ending.

1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - Definitely my sentimental favourite. Goblet of Fire represents the turning point in the series. Harry has become a teenager and the dangers he faces are becoming more clear and more deadly.


We had a camogie match last week, which we lost badly. I couldn't even tell you how badly and it's little comfort that the team we lost to were at least the division champions. After we lost our championship match, our season sort of sputtered to a premature end even though we have a pile of fixtures left that we're meant to play before the proper end of the season. They get scheduled and then postponed with alarming regularity.

Peter came to the match with his camera and came away with a two half-decent photos of me. I'm a forward and the majority of the match was played in front of our own goal, so I didn't see a lot of action. I did get moved to wing forward for the second half, so I had a bit more to do then.

In this first photo, I am in the white shirt and blue helmet and am trying to block down my opponents shot. Note my very un-macho flinching face. I can't remember if I was successful in my blocking attempt. I did manage to block one shot in this match, but I don't know if this was the one.

In this second photo, I am the one blue helmet with the 7 visible on the back of my shirt. (In point of fact, I was wearing number 17 but my braid is obscuring the 1.) I'm trying to catch the ball in the air and although I was Out In Front when the ball started to come my way, that crafty half-back ran around from behind me and ended up batting down the ball. She was about 8 inches taller than me, all of it leg, and I found it nearly impossible to keep up with her. I see a lot of wind sprints in my winter off-season.

That photo also illustrates what I hate most about our uniforms - the ridiculous skirts. Even though we all wear shorts underneath, I always feel like I am one play away from flashing the world. Plus, the damn skirts make me feel even larger of ass than I usually do.

In Search of a Quest

The book I'm reading this week is Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, which is about his adventures in hiking the Appalachian Trail. I think I'm having a sort of mid-life crisis (and I know you'll probably be hearing more about it soon, because what is a blog for if not for self-indulgent navel-gazing). I find myself wanting to achieve some sort of grueling, physically and mentally demanding task, like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Only not that particular quest. It's not that I have a problem with the idea of hiking some 2,100 miles. Sure, arranging the 6 months off work would be tricky, but I think I am stubborn enough to haul my sorry ass (and a 40lb pack) all the way. But this has to be a quest I can do alone as Peter is not having a mid-life crisis (he's a good three years younger than I am) and people have been murdered on the AT, so the thought of hiking alone in that particular Deep Dark Forest gives me the heebies.

I talked about this with my youngest brother and he proved a fantastic brainstormer, but nothing he suggested hit the right tone for me:
  • hiking the Great Wall of China (potentially has some of the same problems as the AT)
  • horseback riding along the Trans-siberian railroad (impractical - I've no horse)
  • some sort of mad Florida kayak race with a 40 mile portage element (no interest in a race)
  • swimming the English Channel (no place to train and I'm also a bit afraid of the sea)
  • racing in the Iditarod (impractical as I've no dogs, no sled, no place to train, and I'm not real interested in racing)
  • climbing the highest peak in every European Union nation (unwise as I am the most inattentive, clumsy person)

    So, my search for a quest continues. Any ideas are most appreciated.