Friday, May 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Peter!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Adventures of Frick and Frack

The planning for my family's visit started way back in February, when I compiled a list of places they might like to see along with a suggested itinerary. It takes at least an hour to get just about anywhere interesting (with the exception of Gougane, which is just up the road) and I was careful about mixing up the days so that they didn't feel they were spending all day, every day in the car.

Along with the usual suspects like the Ring of Kerry and the Lakes of Killarney, I included what is reported to be the most magical and amazing place of all: Skellig Michael, which is a monastery carved into the top of a jagged rock island sticking up out of the Atlantic, about 8 miles off the coast of West Kerry. How can you read that description and not want to see it? It has everything I look for in a traveling destination - remote and practically inaccessible location, amazing scenery, a boat ride, and historical importance. (Important in that it was built nearly 1,500 years ago and has survived pretty much intact since then.) Peter and I tried to visit the Skelligs twice last year and were shut out by the weather.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did warn my family about the dangers and discomforts involved in visiting Skellig Michael. From the PDF I sent them: A WOW sort of place, but it's very difficult to get to. No facilities (inc. bathrooms) on island. The boat ride can be dangerous and uncomfortable, not for the faint of heart. Lots of steps on island, might have difficulty getting on/off boat depending on tide.

The only person to read that description and think "oh boy, I've got to go there!" was my dad, he of the ticking heart and recently wonky knee. Over the last year or two, he's developed a condition in his knee whereby it fills with blood and has to be drained. He and his doctors have decided that it's time for arthroscopic surgery, which has been scheduled for June. He had a flare up shortly before the trip, so the knee was drained and he got a cortisone shot, which made him feel good as new.

Peter and I had had several discussions about whether or not it was safe for my dad to go to a place with such steep steps and possibly dangerous terrain. I was leaning toward the more conservative no-way-nuh-huh approach and Peter was advocating a more measured give-it-a-try option. Since no one else wanted to go, the Skelligs were shelved as a possible destination. I found out that the Skellig Experience, an interpretive centre near Portmagee, does boat trips around the island. You don't get off the boat, but you at least get to see it. This sounded like a good compromise so I added it as a stop on the Ring of Kerry tour, which we did on Monday.

We arrived at the Skellig Experience in the late morning only to find that the boat trip wouldn't happen until about 3pm. Calling the place an 'experience' is a bit grandiose. I suppose the best description is a glorified gift shop with a few exhibits about the island. The highlight was a 15-minute movie, which presented an historical and ecological overview. The images were stunning and I was ready to jump in a boat and go.

After my dad saw the movie, he was wide-eyed with excitement and was also ready to jump in a boat and go. I asked him if the boat ride around the island would be enough to make him happy, but he was a man who was willing to except no substitutes. I looked at him and a plan was hatched. A few texts later, Peter and my dad were provisionally booked to go on Wednesday, when the weather was excepted to be amenable. (One of my aunts also was booked, but later decided she'd give it a miss because of seasickness concerns.)

We did not tell my mother, because she would worry and possibly kick up a fuss. Operating under the universal code of teenagers, It's Easier to Get Forgiveness than Permission, we secretly plotted and schemed. It was to be a photo safari, with Peter taking my dad to picturesque places near the Ring of Kerry. We said that they were going to make a day of it. All of this was technically true, but missing key details. I was sweating having to lie to my mom, but she never asked a question that couldn't be handled with precise and Clintoneque usage of the English language.

I stayed behind with my mom and aunts, since my going would essentially strand them at the house. We had a nice Girls Day Out, which mostly involved running errands and having a nice lunch at the cafe in Gougane. I was quite worried and concerned about the intrepid travelers, especially about my dad. Peter sent me texts to let me know they were on the boat, then to let me know they were on their way home.

The boys arrived back in the late afternoon, all buzzing with excitement and tales of adventure. My dad asked me quietly if my mother knew, and I told him that she didn't. Somehow, we'd all managed to get through the day without slipping up or blurting out the secret. My dad decided to let his pictures do talking for him, showing my mother a couple of the best pictures. The second time she asked where they'd been, he had no choice but to finally reveal the secret.

To her credit, my mom took it quite well. The shadow of a thunderstorm passed over her face as she processed the information. Since they'd arrived home safely, it was a case of no harm, no foul, but there was a risk of causing offense, since everyone else had been in on the plan. But my mom weighed it all up and decided to let it pass, understanding that we hadn't wanted her to worry. We had a great time seeing the pictures and hearing their tale of adventure, including hustling back down the steps to make it back to the boat in time.

Every so often, my mom would drop little hints that she was slightly annoyed to have been left in the dark. When she christened the escapade "The Adventures of Frick and Frack," we all that she was calling it the adventures of fricking... and we waited for the last word. I haven't quite decided which one is Frick and which one is Frack, but I'm happy that they had such an excellent adventure.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Home Alone

While I was in Dingle with my parents, Peter was having some fun with Toby. The things they get up to when left to their own devices...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Best Sound in the World

In 1999, my dad found out that he needed to have his mitral valve repaired. He was 49 at the time and in excellent physical shape. My brothers and I found it somewhat ironic and disheartening that the man who exercised, ate right, was super skinny, and never smoked needed heart surgery. During the testing, the doctors also found blockages in two arteries, so they decided to do a bypass as well, as long as they were in there.

I probably don't need to tell you that open heart surgery is a big deal. That the doctors have to break your breastbone and pry your rib cage open. That your blood actually leaves your body and is oxygenated by a machine. That you wake up on a ventilator feeling worse than if you'd been hit by a truck. We knew all this, were worried about it, and didn't want to think about the things that could go wrong.

The surgeon did the double-bypass and sewed a small plastic ring into the mitral valve to provide the support it was apparently lacking. Dad came through the surgery just fine and his recovery was exactly what you would expect of a man that (relatively) young and fit. Plus, he had Nurse Mom (my mom, not his mom) to look after him. In an amazing bit of timing, my mother had quit her job just a month before they learned about his surgery. (This was the place she worked for nearly 25 years, so it's not like she's the sort of person who runs around quitting jobs. It was the sort of timing that makes you believe that someone has a plan.)

Within three months, Dad was back at work and everything seemed fine. Until about a month later when he found himself breathless when climbing the stairs or walking short distances. His heart and the ring sewn into it were not a love match. The ring had somehow failed or come loose, resulting in a hole in the valve. The hole was causing the blood cells to get battered, leading to their breakdown, which is what was causing the shortness of breath.

My dad always told me that the second parachute jump is always the hardest. No, he wasn't into skydiving - it's a metaphor. The first time you have to do something scary, it can be a little bit exciting or at least interesting. You don't really know the risks or the discomforts you're going to face. Adrenalin carries you into and through the unknown. The second time, you know exactly how hard things are going to be and don't have the same sort of natural chemical assistance to carry you through.

So it was with the second open heart surgery, which was a mere five months after the first. My parents found a different surgeon, one who was able to go in through the side and eliminate the need for the whole cracking-the-sternum thing. My dad had the choice between a mechanical valve and a pig valve. The plus side of the pig valve is that you don't have to take anti-coagulants for the rest of your life. The downside is that the valves have a limited shelf life, so you'll have to do it all over again in about ten years. If you're just coming up on 50 and you might live for another 20 or 30 years, that's a few pig valve surgeries waiting for you. Since my dad was on the young side, he went with the mechanical valve.

So now my dad is like the bionic man. Or at least the man with the bionic heart. (He also got a pacemaker in 2002.) The little flaps of the valve click when they snap open and shut. The result is that my dad ticks, sort of like the alligator in Captain Hook. If he's wearing winter clothes or a business suit, the sound is muffled and you can only just make it out. If he's wearing a t-shirt, it's like sitting next to a clock.

To my family, it's the best sound in the world. He's a tall guy, a bit over 6 feet, so my ear is at just about heart-level. When I hug him, I like to press my ear against his heart and just listen. (More than once, Peter has had to remind me when I hug him that I'm not going to hear what I'm listening for.)

That click-click-click reminds us of what my dad went through and of the great care he got, from the doctors, nurses, and, most of all, Nurse Mom.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Learning to Listen to My Mother

On Monday, my parents, two aunts, and an uncle arrive for a nearly two-week long vacation. I am jumping out my skin with excitement. My parents are the only ones in the group who've been to our big sham church wedding.) I am looking forward to showing them around my new life in the Middle of Nowhere. The flowers and trees are blooming, the fields are full of young calves. I'd say it's my favourite time of year, except I say that about all the seasons except winter.

I love my family and the single best thing I ever did for our relationship was move 3,500 miles away. The space has allowed me to mellow, to learn to value our relationships, to understand them all better. It's given me a valuable perspective that I wouldn't have been able to see if I were still living in my old bedroom. Sure, I don't get to see them that often, but when I do, it's special and we're able to enjoy each others' company without getting wrapped up in petty arguments.

During the weekly phone call, I've learned to listen to my mother. Not just to her motherly advice (Stay with the group....Be nice.....No speeding!), but to what she actually means.

Middle Brother, my mother and I are wired exactly the same way - we react to what we think we hear. Youngest Brother and my dad have the ability to step back and calmly consider a response, or to automatically reach for a measured, situation-defusing response. MB and I are two years apart, so our teenage years were sort of tumultuous at times. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being a Leave It to Beaver/Father Knows Best sort of situation and 10 being Cops/Supernanny/Jerry Springer territory, I'd say we probably evened out at about 5, but I can remember a couple of incidents that would probably rate at least a 7.

It's not that my parents were horrible ogres or that MB and I were wild hell-raisers. It was more the misunderstandings that could derail perfectly nice days. My mother worked in a nursing home for 25 years, so she spent her whole day talking very loudly to the near-deaf. Something like that's hard to turn off when you get home. If you're wired to react to what you think you hear, and you think you hear someone shouting at you, it's easy to react to what you perceive to be an unprovoked attack. If the other person wasn't intending malice or anger, then, guess what, it's easy for that person to react to a perceived unprovoked attack. I realise now that so many of our arguments were vicious circles of overreaction.

It wasn't just volume either. My mother has this thing she says, which I heard quite badly for the longest time. The conversation would go something like this:

Me: I'm going to drive 200 miles at night to go do some weird and interesting thing.
My Mother (in an incredulous tone): Can you do that?

What I heard: Are you capable of doing that? I don't believe that you are.
What I now realise my mother meant: Wow. That's really something. I don't think I could do that.

It took me about 20 years to realise that my mother wasn't continually accusing me of being incompetent, that in her own way, she really meant it as a sort of compliment. I regret not being able to figure this out sooner, but I'm glad that I figured it out at all and hope I have at least the next 20 years to listen to my mother.

Stay tuned tomorrow for a post about listening and my father.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Before we moved to Chicago, I spent a weekend babysitting a friend's children. In return, she gave me an old couch, two full sets of plates, a set of cutlery, and a bunch of other kitchen implements. We both were quite pleased with our swap. I was especially pleased because besides our bed and a bunch of books, Peter and I owned practically nothing.

I wasn't too fussed about it. As we could afford it, we purchased more furniture. Peter was always suggesting handy things to have - a dish drying rack, a small litter bin, a soap dish. As long as it was cheap and functional, I didn't care what it looked like.

This all changed when we bought our first house. Suddenly, it became unreasonably important to me that the kitchen towels match the oven mitts. I wanted seasonal hand towels in the bathrooms. I liked the idea of having a grown-up, matching furniture in the living room.

This nesting behaviour continued the whole time we had our house. It had always been difficult to get out of the Target for under $100, what with the kitty litter and the super-huge boxes of detergent. After the nesting started, it was nearly impossible to keep the Target costs down, especially when they had things like cute fleece blankets and matching pillows. (Patterned with moose and snowflakes - how could anyone resist that?)

For me, the strangest part of my nesting phase was my fixation with throw pillows. On more than one occasion, I'd lose my mind and buy a pile of throw pillows at the Target, only to return them the next day when buyer's remorse kicked in. I'd always laughed at girly-girls who covered every upholstered surface with throw pillows. But I suddenly found myself powerless to resist their velvety, fluffy allure. (In my defense, I did stick to blues and greens - I didn't dive into the girly pink deep end.)

In one of my favourite books, Sight Hound, a wise wolfhound observes that "buying throw pillows is in my experience the single best indicator that a female human being is feeling pretty good." I think the dog must be right because I was quite happy in our little house in Wheaton and now I'm fighting the throw pillow urges in the Middle of Nowhere.

I was thinking about nesting this morning, as I watched swallows gather materials for a nest. Toby is shedding like a fiend these days. When I brushed him this morning, I removed enough fur to make a good-sized puppy. Since I was outside, I let the hair just drop in clumps on the ground.

Those sharp-eyed swallows spotted the fluffy deposits and spent the morning swooping in to gather them up. I don't know where the nests are, but I like to think that Toby's fur is the comfy throw pillow of the place. On its own, it's not exactly functional, but combined in a well-created nest, it should provide warmth and comfort to all who live there.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Playing with Dirty Dogs

I love word games. Love them so much, in fact, that no one will play with me anymore. Some nonesense about me being too competitive. The only person who relished challenging me in Scrabble was Nana Anna. She always accused me of being a "dirty dog" for nefarious acts like dropping down a triple word score with an X and Z in a spot she'd been planning to use.

She also had a charming habit of inventing words. You could never tell when she was bluffing either, because she would sometimes read the dictionary for the sole purpose of mentally stockpiling words to use in Scrabble. It is because of Nana that I know the word "qua". Nana and I had great fun playing against each other, even (or maybe especially) when accusing each other of bottling up the board or moaning about lousy letters.

Nana didn't mind that I was competitive. I think that was part of the draw for her, she enjoyed the challenge of being the underdog up against the dirty dog who always won. We played a few weeks before she died and I had to work at losing the game. I let all sort of borderline words slide through and played lower scoring words than I ordinarily would have. She thumped me by a sound 20 or 30 points and if she suspected I threw the game, she never said anything.

After Nana died, there was a Scrabble-shaped hole in my life. I even joined a Scrabble club at Sallynoggin library, but then I got a full-time job and was unable to attend meetings. I filled the word game void with the puzzles in the back of Pick Me Up magazine and didn't realise how much I missed interactive games until this week when I started playing Scrabulous on Facebook with Laurie and Babaloo. To further feed my word game addiction, Babaloo also introduced me to Scramble, which is Facebook's answer to Boggle. (Geez, let me tell you that Babaloo is a more than worthy Scramble opponent. Now I know how Nana felt!)

Due to this new word game outlet in my life, I've been craving even more word games. Especially when I'm away from the computer. I decided to buy a game for my phone - Wordox. It's sort of like Scrabble in that there's a tiled board and you have six randomly drawn letters. But unlike Scrabble, every letter is worth only one point and you can "steal" points and letters from your opponent. So if "cheer" is on the board, I could put down "ful" at the end of it and get 8 points while my opponent would have 3 points deducted.

A great premise and it even has a multi-player option. The problem is that in the single-player mode. the computer/phone player uses its own internal dictionary, which contains some words that are patently and egergiously not English, like koria, inia, etwee, and kevil.

Then it refuses to accept some perfectly valid words, insisting that they are not in the Wordox dictionary. Words like bit, pine, and lede. For a while, I thought that perhaps the programmers of the dictionary had some moral concerns, since the words queer, tart, and sex were disallowed. But then the dictionary accepts titi and mojo, so I don't think it's down to morality.

I wondered how it would deal with foreign language words and the answer is haphazardly. Fait doesn't get through, but lido does. Pere and weng were rejected, but beau and yeti are A-OK.

I've been looking up some of these bizarre words and it seems that they are either in the Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary (which means they exist, but I'd have to pay for their definitions) or they are in the regular dictionary but are not very common. These words might be variants of common words (swob instead of swab), are Latin words, or are little known words like indri.

I wouldn't be so peeved except that when a word is rejected, you lose the points. It's a special kind of annoying to lose a game you should have won because your opponent refuses to accept that pine is a word but then wins with something like etwee. I know what Nana would say to the phone player: "You're a dirty dog!"

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Church of Solitude

When we first moved to the Middle of Nowhere, I decided it would be important to start going to church. Not because I felt a great affiliation with the Catholic Church, but because I realised the Church was a focal point of the community. That lasted exactly one week. Even though the Mass was short, I found that the next week, I just couldn't bring myself to go.

I haven't regularly attended Mass since I was able to drive. Middle Brother and I would go to Mass together, only instead we would go through the drive-thru at McDonalds and buy ice cream sundaes. Then we would park in the church lot, listening to music and talking while we enjoyed our sundaes. When it was about Communion time, one of us would go into church to grab the weekly bulletin, check the songs, and see who the priest was. That way, we could pass the did-you-really-go-to-Mass test. (Sorry, Mom and Dad, but on the Teenage Rebellion Scale, you have to admit that it's not that bad. At least it didn't involve drugs or alcohol.)

One Sunday, I can't remember why, I went to Mass alone. But without MB, I didn't want to sit in the parking lot. Instead, I drove to a nearby park and walked on the little fitness trail. It was late spring and it had been a rainy one, so there were puddles everywhere. In one puddle, I saw a pair of ducks swimming around. It was quiet in the 'woods' and it felt like I was the only person on earth, no small feat in a suburb of nearly 100,000.

In English class, we'd been reading Thoreau and Emerson. I was (and still am) quite taken with the philosophy of American Transcendentalism. The simplicity, the solitude, the closeness to nature...these were all things I yearned for instinctively. Standing on a sad little asphalt path that wound between a clump of trees and watching ducks paddle through a puddle made me feel more peaceful and spiritual than the hundreds of hours I'd spent in Church.

Now, almost 20 years later, I live in a place that's quite amenable to my transcendental aspirations. The outings I take with Toby have allowed me to recapture those feelings of wonder and solitude in places that are much more breathtaking and inspiring than a suburban fitness trail. Last month, I took Toby to one of my most favourite places in the world - the Gap of Dunloe and the Black Valley.

We arrived at 8 am and parked at Kate Kearney's cottage with plans to hike the 7+ miles to Lord Brandon's cottage. The grey sky and brisk wind gave the place a comfortable feeling of desolation, if there is such a thing. We walked for almost two hours before we even saw another person. It was just me and Toby, numerous flocks of sheep and acres of rocks.

Solitude in beautiful, remote locations recharges my batteries better than anything else. The sense of wonder, the paradoxical sense of connection despite the aloneness, the sense of being part of a mysterious larger universe...I get so much from these outings. We spent five hours hiking and by the time I returned to the car, I felt a strange combination of muscular weariness and spiritual alertness.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Rise of the Machines

A few weeks ago, Peter got a new laptop. Well, I guess it would more properly be called a new-to-him laptop since he and a friend did a swap. Peter traded a big, heavy laptop with a ginormous screen for a little, cute laptop with a built-in tablet. The new laptop is easier to lug around and the tablet allows for fine-detail photographic post-processing on the road.

The laptop has another feature that Peter thinks is the best thing since the invention of the Internet. Instead of typing in a password, you can just swipe your thumb on a sensor to log in. I don't think this is a nifty feature at all. I think it's the tool of the nefarious Satan of Technology.

Peter offered to set me up with an account on the machine. I accepted, but warned him that there was no way I was going to give that thing my thumb print. We got off on a tangent, arguing about the pros and cons of biometric logins.

Peter thinks I'm being silly - it's just the login to a personal laptop. I use horrible cliches I learned in law school. It's a slippery slope....It's the thin edge of the wedge. You start with just a simple login to the personal computer and then one day you find that some Electronic Big Brother knows everything you've bought in the last year, every web site you've visited, every thought you've had.

You might argue that such things can be tracked anyway, but the difference is that there's no way to establish a definitive link between the user and the actions. If you're logging in with your thumb print, then "wasn't me, must have been somebody else" becomes a more difficult argument to make.

Maybe it's just the contrarian in me, but I am leery of entering into a process that makes definitive identification and tracking easier. I don't want my thumb print scanned to use a computer. I don't want a passport that carries biometric data like an iris scan.

Peter reminded me that I had to get my fingerprints done to work in the financial industry in Chicago. It's part of an SEC regulation and I remember detesting the thought of it, but grudgingly accepting it to gain employment. I'm a practical person, sometimes you have to give up a right or a little bit of privacy to get something that you need. But the trade-off has to be equal. Giving up my thumb print to use the home computer is not a fair deal.

Peter's bemused by my refusal and heated anti-biometric rhetoric. I'm surprised by his shrugging acceptance of it. (What's worse is that I suspect he thinks the scanner is a bit cool, a little James Bond-esque addition to a gadget.) He's called me a Luddite, but that sort of catch-all is far too broad for the situation. If I were a Luddite, this wouldn't be an issue at all because I wouldn't be anywhere near the computer.

The situation hasn't really been resolved. If anything, I've given Peter a new button to press when he wants to see me fly off into high dudgeon, waving my arms and lecturing about the dangers of giving up privacy and your identity to the all-knowing, all-seeing Satan of Technology.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Window into Parenthood

When I talk to people with children, I always try not to compare raising children to raising dogs. Some parents can get really touchy when you equate their offspring with canines. On one hand, I understand, since raising children is several orders of magnitude more challenging than raising dogs. (For example, you can't just lock a child up in the bathroom when you want to go out to the movies. Not if you don't want social services involved.)

On the other hand, I think people who have children but don't have dogs are sometimes incapable of seeing the importance of dogs in the lives of those who love them. A dog is a responsibility, a trusted friend, a beloved member of the family. If you're a dog lover, there's no such thing as 'just a dog.'

Dogs and children might not be on the same planet in terms of familial importance, but they're definitely within the same universe. Some of the skills are transferable, some of the lessons are universally applicable. And sometimes, having a dog opens up a window into parenthood, allowing me to get a better idea of what having a child would be like.

Last night, I was vaguely aware of the clickity-clacketying of Toby's paws on the wood floor in our bedroom. He was pacing, but he wasn't whining or barking. Peter told him to lie down and he did.

"Do you smell something burning?" I asked, since Peter's reprimand had brought me out of groggy awareness into more alert wakefulness. Peter replied with a terse "No", but I could still swear that I smelt something. As has been amply recorded here, I have more issues than a library and more neuroses than a psych ward. One of the things I'm terrified of is fire, namely losing everything in a house fire. Once the idea was in my head, I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep until I checked it out.

I hauled myself out of bed and headed for the door, only to step right into a puddle of something. And then another little splash of something. And then a bit more something. It was as if the path to the door had been the victim of a freak spring shower that left little puddles everywhere.

I knew Peter was already annoyed with Toby for making noise, and with me for having to do my OCD checking thing, so I was trying to be as subtle as possible. Rather than turn on the bedroom light, I opened the door and turned on the hall light. From the light cast into our room, I could see little puddles and drops everywhere. The poor dog had apparently been bursting for a pee, quite literally.

Toby was lying on his bed in abject mortification, his ears down, his head low. We've had him nearly a year and a half and this was his first accident. I called him out of the room and let him outside, where he took off like a shot to finish relieving himself.

I started cleaning up the mess and Peter got up to help me. One roll of paper towels later, it was clear that I'd have to mop the floor and wash Toby's bed. When Toby came in from outside, he was slinking, still exhibiting the "oops I messed up" body language. Whether the dog knew he'd done something wrong or was just reacting to our annoyance is irrelevant. He still needed a little bit of reassurance that although he'd messed up, it wasn't catastrophic. He also needed a bath, which Peter took care of while I did the mopping up.

We'd taken Toby to the sea earlier in the day, where he'd been quite excited and distracted. He drank some fresh water (and some bottled water) at the beach. When we got home, he drank nearly an entire large bowl of water. He was exhausted and was more interested in sleeping than going outside. Before Peter went to bed, he let Toby outside, but I guess Toby didn't take the opportunity to pee. He tends to go a bit Attention-Deficit-Disorder sometimes, getting too distracted to take care of his business.

Disturbed sleep, cleaning up messes, someone who insists they didn't have to go before they went to sleep, the faint odour left behind that we've been dealing with today....I'm sure these are all to familiar to parents.