Thursday, June 26, 2008

I'll Turn This Car Right Around!

When I was a kid, family vacations meant one thing - piling into the family car and driving to New Jersey to visit my dad's family. We loved being in NJ: seeing our grandparents, aunts, and uncles; running around a backyard big enough to have both a basketball court and a baseball diamond; climbing the big leafy trees; trips into NYC to see musicals, the Natural History Museum or the Bronx Zoo... Being in NJ was fantastic.

Getting there, well, not so much. We didn't have a four-door car with air conditioning until I was a teenager. So most of these trips involved the three of us kids, wedged into a hot sticky backseat, squawking like a bunch of wet hens.

This was back in Ye Olde Days of Parenting, when parents did not reason with children. I don't really understand the people who reason with two year olds who are strapped into prams or car seats. When I was a docent at Lincoln Park Zoo, I had ample opportunity to observe these sorts of ridiculous moments in parenting. Like the couple and their two year old, who was in one of those fancy off-road sorts of prams. The mother had either been in a recent bar fight or had had a nose job. Given their designer clothes and fancy pram, I'd bet my money on the latter.

In a voice dripping with faux patience, the mother said, "Now Jordan, Mommy's boo-boo hurts. So we're going to go home after this." Jordan responded with the sort of ear-splitting screech that makes an air raid siren sound like the pleasant chirping of song birds. As Jordan wailed and his mother wheedled, I wondered why they didn't just leave then and there. The kid was strapped into a pram and a family isn't really meant to be a democracy. It's more of a benevolent dictatorship in which votes by the subjects are more suggestion than mandate.

When I was young, kids were kids and parents were parents. A parent did not reason. A parent issued declarations and you had better believe them. The declarations usually consisted of what I consider to be the golden oldies of parenting:
  • I'll turn this car right around!
  • I'll hit you so fast, your head will spin.*
  • You're going to have fun if I ever to break every bone in your body.
  • I'll give you something to cry about.
  • Don't make me come up there.

    *Middle Brother and I are pretty sure it's 'spin' although we did on occasion think that it sounded like 'swim.' We once had a long discussion about this and decided that it was usually spin but maybe, when we were going to the pool, it made sense for it to be swim.
I was reminded of these idyllic summer trips when I was driving my family around the wilds of southwestern Ireland. When the original plans were made, Peter was scheduled to do most of the driving in his 7-seater Nissan Patrol. Only he found out that he had to work, which left me figuring out how to fit 4 adult passengers into Leo, my tiny Peugeot 306 hatchback. (Thankfully, he's a five-door.)

I'm a Scanlan, so I love a good packing puzzle. I figured out that we could indeed all fit, since my dad would have enough leg room behind me. I'm so short, I sit right up on the steering wheel like a granny. My mom would have to sit in the back, given her nervousness. That left one aunt in the middle of the back seat and one in the front.

It went pretty well except that we'd all get frayed around the edges toward the end of an outing. The last few days were especially trying. On Thursday, we drove up to Clare via Listowl in County Kerry, then up to Tarbert to catch the ferry to Killimer. This route had the dual advantages of eliminating the need to go through Limerick city and cutting 85 miles off the trip, but it still seemed like the journey took forever.

Not only was poor little Leo hauling five adults, he also had a boot loaded to the top with luggage. I reckon we were pushing Leo's kerb limit by a good 150 - 200 pounds. The car was a champ although the suspension was squeaking and groaning from time to time. (A quick call to our mechanic assured us that the noise was only the result os springs that needed oiling.)

I drove up to Listowel about as fast as an octogenarian on barbiturates. I crept along at about 60 KPH and got out of the way of faster traffic whenever I could. The ride was squeaky and my mother's "Whee!" trick wasn't working quite so well. On the plus side, the backseat passengers were very cooperative and didn't fight at all. On the minus side, a certain passenger did a fair bit of backseat driving. (Finally, I snapped and said rather snarkily 'You know, I do process the same visual data as you.')

By the time we got to Tarbert, desperation was setting in. I sent Peter the following text: "Waiting for ferry now. Feels like this trip will last forever." The ferry was a godsend. As well as its aforementioned advantages, it also offered the most crucial ingredient for road trip success: novelty. It broke up the monotony of the drive splendidly.

In Clare, we found a place to have lunch and then set out for the Cliffs of Moher. Although lunch had resolved any impending low blood sugar levels, it had been a long day and everyone was getting a bit stroppy. At one point, I found myself saying, half seriously, "I'll turn this car right around." Everyone knew it was an empty threat, just like my brothers and I knew on those long trips to New Jersey. At least County Clare is not as long as Pennsylvania.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In Search of the Elusive Puffin

When we had our honeymoon in Scotland in 2004, I had a short list of things I absolutely wanted to do:
  • Go to a distillery.
  • Take a trail ride.
  • See puffins.
We went to not one but two distilleries. I spent a delightful albeit terrifying 90 minutes on the back of a speedy thoroughbred, racing through the hills and sheep fields near Kingussie.

The puffin seeing was not as successful. We skipped a trip to Handa Island, figuring we'd get to see puffins on our trip to the northwestern-most point in Scotland: Cape Wrath.

I suppose we might have seen puffins at Cape Wrath, assuming we'd been able to see more than five feet in front of us. The area was socked in by the sort of fog you'd think only exists in spy movies - thick, oppressive, and vaguely menacing.

We were able to take the boat across to the Cape and the bus ride up to the lighthouse, but it was something of an exercise in futility. We couldn't see the lighthouse until we were within a few feet of it. The only wildlife I saw was a one-eyed trouser snake, which I glimpsed when I blundered around a corner where a cyclist was using the Great Outdoors as a toilet. (There was a pack of cyclists on the trip and I guess one of them was meant to be 'guarding' the loo area but was derelict in this duty.)

Seeing puffins went onto my lifetime to-do list, but I always seemed to miss out. Peter got to see them when he took his photography trip to Iceland. Last year, I thought I'd get to see them on Skellig Michael, but weather prohibited the trip twice. So you can imagine how excited I was when I planned to take my family on the boat tour at the Cliffs of Moher.

When the morning of the boat tour arrived, it was raining and a little misty. My hopes of seeing a puffin plummeted. On the boat, I eventually made my way to the bow, which gave a much better view. Plus, one of the crew, Sean, was hanging out there and pointing out the sights. When Sean pointed and shouted "Puffin!", I craned my neck to follow his finger, only to have him retract his statement and declare the bird was actually a guillemot.

Disappointed, I still kept my eyes peeled for the tell-tale white and orange face. Before long, Sean pointed and shouted "Puffin!" again, only this time, it was the real thing. The puffin was swimming about 10 feet from the side of the boat. It paddled along and then, in a smoothly practised gesture, took off into the sky and flew away.

Excited doesn't even begin to cover how I felt. I had no idea they swam along on the top of the water. I don't know why I the thought had never occured to me, since I knew they had to dive to catch their dinner.

The most surprising thing about the puffin was its size. Much like when you see Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" in art museum, puffins are much smaller than you thought they were, but otherwise they measure up to expectations quite well.

Besides their cute little faces, I was also amused by and taken with their little orange feet. One of the puffins dove down under the water and I could see his bright little feet for longer than I could see his body, like they were waving good-bye as he plunged deeper and deeper into the dark water.

Sometimes, when you've waited so long to do something, the experience doesn't quite measure up to the myth you've built up in your head. I'm happy to report that finally seeing the elusive puffin was even better than I'd hoped.
Ed note: Peter took the picture above in Iceland.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Everyone is Somebody's Child

Stopping at the Famine Cottages on Slea Head Drive hadn't been planned. But we could see the sign for them when we arrived at Dunbeg Fort and my dad thought they sounded pretty interesting. We were seeing all sorts of Stone Age artifacts, might as well see some history of a more recent variety.

We pulled into the car park for the cottages. Only one other car was there and I could see the people lumbering down the steep hill from the cottages. I could also see a sign on the little port-a-cabin where you bought tickets. It read:

Adults 3 euro
Children 2 euro
Free Bag of Food to Feed Animals included

I was thrilled by this. Visiting petting farms and hand-feeding farm animals is something of a hobby for me. A rare and bizarrely thrilling activity that I usually limit to special occasions, like my birthday.

My dad paid for our admission and then we stood there expectantly, waiting for the bag of food. When no bag was produced, I asked for one and was told "That's for children." I used my best Polite Voice to point out that the sign just said 'Free Bag of Food,' it didn't say anything about limiting it to children. The woman was insistent and her tone implied that I was either retarded or greedy to be demanding to feed the animals.

My mother put on her best Persuasive Smile and said "She is a child. She's my child!" The woman said "She's an awfully big child" in a way that might have had me bursting into tears had I not lost all that weight years ago. At this point, there wasn't much left to say. As my dad said later, it's not like there were 500 kids clamouring to get into the place. It wouldn't have killed her to pass over a small bag of animal feed.

I brushed off the incident, reminding myself in my head that mean also doubles for stingy around here. And she certainly was a bit mean about it. As we climbed up the steep incline to the cottages, we passed a field with a donkey and another with a goat. But it was after we'd been into the first cottage that I really regretted not having the animal food.

The field up behind the cluster of cottages held a miniature horse and its even more miniature foal. The foal was nearly an exact and tiny replica of the mare. I climbed up to the fence and sat on the ground so as not to intimidate them. The foal came running over, stumbling on its impossibly long and skinny legs. The mother moved at more like a dawdling pace. When the foal came up to the fence, I pulled up a fistful of long green grass and offered it. The foal's velvety muzzle tickled my hand and I gave it a little scratch along the line of its mane.

The mare watched this interaction carefully, ready to shepherd her baby away if I proved to be dangerous. Everybody is somebody's child, after all.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008


After diversions due to voting on the Lisbon Treaty and Kodiak's birthday, I'm ready to get back to my vacation stories...

Both of my aunts had always dreamed of visiting London. Since they were so close, they figure a weekend trip to London would be a good way to accomplish a lifelong goal. My parents decided to stay in Ireland and I rented a cottage near Red Wine Strand in Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsula. Peter stayed home to work and look after Toby.

Our drive up to Dingle coincided with the one truly horrible weather day of their trip. When we woke up in the morning, the rain was coming down at a good, steady clip. It was the sort of rain that you just know could last all day and probably will. The entire family went to Muckross House in the morning, then to the Lake Hotel in Killarney for lunch. After lunch, my parents and I set off for Dingle while Peter took The Aunts back to the Middle of Nowhere since their flight didn't leave until the next day.

The drive to Dingle was marred by the weather, primarily, but also to my mother's reaction to it. As the old Volkswagen ad goes, on the road of life, there are Drivers and there are Passengers. My mother is most definitely a Driver, albeit a sometimes nervous one. She doesn't like highways, rain, or (in the States) left-hand turns. In Ireland, she had no choice but become a Passenger because she did not want to drive on 'the wrong side of the road,' especially not on narrow, twisty country roads.

I know she was doing her best as a Passenger, but my mother is the sort of person to have very big, emotional reactions to things and she's not shy about sharing them. When these things are happy things, like rainbows or puppies, my mother's joy is infectious and makes her a delight to be around. Unfortunately, the reverse of that statement is also true.

The drive up to Dingle was challenging but we were rewarded with sunny weather when we arrived at Ballyferriter. The next day, I minimised the driving as much as possible and my mother graciously agreed to spend the afternoon alone so I could take my dad on the most challenging, interesting, and hair-raising road in Munster, if not in all of Ireland: the Connor Pass.

My dad is an adventurous sort and he also enjoys car rides, so he was the perfect Passenger for this outing. Although most tourists seem to tackle the Connor Pass from the Dingletown side, I much prefer driving up through Tralee and then taking the pass from the more challenging side first. On the Dingle town side, you're treated to a beautiful, wide, multi-lane road with some curves. On the other side, you have a fantastically exciting road. It's narrow, only about 1 lane with little pull-ins to allow cars to pass. It's carved right into the side of the mountain. You've got blind turns, a wall of rock on one side, and a drop-off on the other side. It's everything you could ever want in Adventure Driving.

The other advantage of driving up the hard side is that when you have to back up to get to a spot to let another car inch past, you only have to roll backwards. (Pretty much, you just take your foot off the gas and brake and let gravity do its thing.) I wouldn't fancy having to reverse uphill in a manual transmission car.

We had a couple of exciting moments, like the local guy flying down the road without any regard to speed or whether there might be cars coming up the road. Or the tourist who froze in terror when confronted with having to inch past my car. In fairness, she was right up against the low wall that guards the drop-off edge, but then I was right up against a sheet of mountain rock.

When we got to the top of the pass, we parked in the car park and got out to admire the views. My dad bought me a celebratory ice cream cone and said that there should be a merit badge for driving the Connor Pass, that I had definitely earned one. After about ten minutes of freezing and admiring, we got back into the car and proceeded to Slea Head Drive.

If I were going to rate the scary roads in Ireland, this one would be near the top of my list, but it would also be the big winner for Most Fun and Favourite Scary Road. Not only does it have one narrow lane in places and blind turns and a precipitous drop down to the sea, it also has an actual stream that you have to ford. The stream is in the middle of a very sharp turn and I'm always amazed and amused by it.

The other nice thing about Slea Head Drive is that, aptly enough, it brings you to Slea Head, which is a brilliant little beach with rocky outcroppings and fantastic views. (The beach was used in the filming of Ryan's Daughter, which means precisely nothing to me but maybe you've seen it.) Usually when we go to Slea Head, there are loads of other cars and we park in the upper car part and then walk down a steep incline to the beach. You could drive down to the beach, but there's not a lot of room to turn around when you get to the bottom of the ramp. You could easily misjudge and end up mired in the sand (or worse, plunging into the water at high tide.)

When Dad and I arrived, the tide was out and the upper car park was empty. I decided to chance the incline and the gamble paid off since there was only one other car down there. The other people only stayed for about ten more minutes and then we had the whole place to ourselves. The weather was even good, so this was quite the unexpected treat.

When we arrived back at the cottage, everyone was happy. My dad was happy with the adventure, my mom was happy that she got to stay home and watch afternoon TV, and I was happy that they were both happy. I was a little concerned though, since I knew our plan for the next day would have us back on Slea Head Drive and I was unsure of how my mother would react to the road. If it was anything like the drive up to Dingle, it was going to be a really long day.

The next morning, we were greeted by brilliant sunshine and chirping birds. After breakfast, we piled into my car and set out for the various areas of interest on Slea Head Drive (like the beehives, Dunbeg Fort, and the famine cottages). On a minorly interesting part of Slea Head Drive, I heard my mother sharply inhale and could see in the rearview mirror that she was tense and anxious. Then inspiration struck.

I remembered how nervous I'd been for my driving test and how I'd learned that it was impossible to remain nervous when you're smiling. Something about the act of smiling is inherently relaxing. "Hey Mom, you know what, I bet you'd enjoy this ride a lot more if you played by the roller coaster rules. Instead of making that scared noise, how about trying to say 'WHEEEE!' instead?"

My mom gave it a try and agreed it worked. I think she might have even been able to steal a few quick peeks at the stunning scenery. Even though she seemed to be achieving a sort of peace with the scary road, I was still a little concerned about fording the stream. I needn't have been - she handled the stream like a seasoned trouper, marveling about how weird it was.

After we'd seen a few sights, a bathroom break was in order, but the restaurant near Dunbeg Fort was closed. (We asked when they usually opened and the answer from the woman at the Dunbeg Audiovisual centre was "when they open.") We could press on and hope to find one in the next village or backtrack. I knew there was a nice cafe with an outdoor seating area near Slea Head, so back we went.

If you'd told me after the drive up to Dingle that my mother would quite happily tolerate three trips across a stream on a narrow country road and would "wheee!" her way through blind corners, I don't think I would have believed you. But that's what makes people in general and families in particular so much fun - their capacity to adapt, change, and surprise.

Ed. note about the photographs: I took the first one with my mobile phone. Yes, that is my finger in the lower right-hand corner. I'm not the professional photographer in this family. My dad took the photo of Slea Head Beach.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

All About Kodiak

Earlier this week, I was listening to my favourite dog-related podcast, which was about cloning dogs. BioArts International has developed a rather interesting project called Best Friends Again. In July, the company will auction off their dog-cloning services and the five highest bidders will purchase the right to clone one dog. Since the bidding is starting at $100,000, this is out of the range of all but the super-rich. In addition to the auction, the company is also running a contest in which one lucky winner will get to have a dog cloned.

A few years ago, when the initiative to try to clone a dog was announced, I was skeptical and more than a little creeped out. I understood scientifically why someone would want to try cloning a dog (apparently, they're quite the little scientific puzzle.) But emotionally, I couldn't understand why you'd want to clone a pet. Sure, the duplicate would look like your original beloved dog, but it would never really be the same thing. It seems like people were hoping for resurrection and accepting cloning as a passable substitute.

But then Kodiak died and now I understand all too well. The ache to have him back, even in some bizarre genetic duplication, was overwhelming. I miss that dog so much and it still baffles me, seeing as how I lived 3,500 miles away from him the last two and a half years of his life.

By chance, my learning about this contest neatly coincides with Kodiak's birthday. Six years ago, on the 20th of June, we adopted Kodiak, who was then five years old. We were his third home, he was my first dog. I'd found him in a newspaper ad: "Free to good home, 4 year old Great Dane-lab mix." I had a special affinity for the mix, since my aunt had had one when I was a kid.

We'd been looking for a dog for weeks. Kodiak's owner had been looking for a home for him for weeks. We'd met an ancient German Shepherd and a Chow mix with the proclivity for biting children. Kodiak had a trial period with a family and had a few unsavory types out to see him. We'd both kissed a lot of frogs and were able to recognise our prince.

When his owner brought him over, Peter was still at work. I was reluctant to agree to adopt a dog without his approval, but he assured me that this was my dog and he knew I'd make the right decision. The owner understood the situation and promised that if it didn't work out, she would find him another home somehow. She clearly had such a deep sense of responsibility and love for this dog, it was inspiring and also a little intimidating. Would I be able to live up to it? Would he adjust to us? Would he understand what was going on?

I spent several hours in our family room, sitting on the floor with Kodiak. He was huge, a big fat sausage of a dog who weighed more than I did. He just stared at me with big wolfy eyes, probably confused about why he was sitting in the home of a perfect stranger. I just stared back at him, wondering who this big, semi-scary looking dog was and worrying that he'd never like me.
It didn't take very long to learn who Kodiak was. Kodiak was a lap dog in the body of a giant. He had no idea how big he was. His tail could clear the coffee table in a single swipe. His paws were as big as my palms. When he climbed into my lap, I couldn't move until he got up.

Kodiak was a teddy bear in a grizzly bear package. Sometimes, people crossed the street to avoid walking past him. He scared more than one mailman with his ferocious bark. Little did these people know that just a kind word from them (and a quick sniff by him) would have him wagging his tail and begging for pets.

Kodiak was a big scaredy cat in ferocious watchdog form. He was terrified of thunderstorms, to the point where he would need to be with Peter, the Big Dog. I couldn't protect him or set his mind at ease during a storm, but Peter could. He was also afraid of loud noises. When Peter put the new skirting board into the family room, he used a nail gun. The sound caused Kodiak to push open the wonkily latched screen door and run away to the safe haven of a neighbour's backyard party.
Kodiak was a therapist and a best friend who just happened to be a dog. He saw me through a major depression, a job lay-off, and the death of my grandmother. He couldn't talk, but he could listen and in his own way, he could understand.

My worries about him not accepting us were soon put to rest. He and I were soon best buddies, bonded together by a love of walks and ear scratches. Kodiak followed me from room to room. He liked to lean against me. When I'd been gone for awhile and came home, his tail would swing in giant 360 degree circles and he'd weaved between my legs, his enthusiasm and size nearly enough to knock me over, but not quite.

When we got Caper, we enrolled with both dogs in an obedience class. Kodiak knew all the basics already, but it never hurts to brush up. The place we went to was very strict and didn't believe in treat training.

A few weeks into the class, the instructor selected three people to bring their dogs in the middle of the room. You were to have your dog sit and stay, then walk away from him. The dog was supposed to stay where you put him until you called him to you. I was one of the (un)lucky subjects. I put Kodiak in the stay, walked away and knew within four steps that he was following me. I went back, gave him a correction, and walked away again. Same result.

The third time, the instructor came over to help me out. He explained that the corrections I was giving were too wimpy and I really needed to put some arm into it. I yanked up on the leash in a sharp motion, as instructed, and Kodiak yelped. Then I turned and walked away. I don't think I even got four steps away that time. He immediately followed me.

I went back and gave him another yelp-inducing correction. Before I'd even taken half a step, he was on his feet, grabbing my leg in his front paws like a child who doesn't want to be left at day care. I imagine if he could have talked, he would have begged me not to leave him. The class burst out laughing, as did the instructor. I was mortified that my dog wouldn't listen to me, but the instructor took this as a sign of our deep bond.

Despite all our practise, we failed the obedience test on the big day. Guess what we failed on. Yes, of course, on the two-minute down-stay. I was so angry and disappointed. (He had two tries. One was a disaster and one he came within 10 seconds of passing.) At the end of the test, they presented awards to the dogs that had scored the most points. Then the instructor gave out the award for most improved. Peter and I thought this was going to go to a golden retriever named Elvis, who had started class as an uncontrollable bouncing ball of fur and had ended class as a reasonably disciplined dog.

The instructor gave a little speech about how it was so interesting to him to watch the relationship between a dog and handler develop and about how during the course of the class, he'd watched a relationship develop that involved real love and partnership. I was floored when Kodiak and I were presented with the Most Improved award. (Peter says it should have been renamed the Cutest Couple award.) I was proud, but also a bit ashamed, since I'd been so upset with our failure. Kodiak didn't care, he was just happy to spend time with me. His love was unconditional and unwavering.

So, happy birthday to Kodiak in dog heaven. I wish more than anything that I could bring you back. It was nearly dark last night when I started crying at the kitchen table, after realising that 20 June was nearly upon us and what that meant to me. Then I saw a heron fly over the backyard, sort of low, just above the treeline. I don't think that was a coincidence.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Voting on Lisbon

Yesterday was a big day for Peter and me - we were both voting in Ireland for the first time. It was a bigger day for Peter, in a way, since this was the first time he was voting ever. He moved to the States shortly after becoming eligible to vote and Ireland does not do absentee ballots. (Sadly, we didn't get our acts together to get registered in time for last year's election.)

Voting on the Lisbon Treaty was perhaps not as exciting as voting on the Divorce Referendum or voting in a general election in a tight race, but it was an interesting exercise. The Lisbon Treaty is as long as a phone book, only it's less interesting to read. Trying to figure out how to vote was unreasonably difficult for me. I vacillated wildly and with absolute conviction.

Yes - I'm voting Yes because look at the loonies who are saying to vote No.

No - I'm definitely voting No because of the whole commissioner thing.

Yes - Wait a minute, the commissioner thing seems to have been set in the Nice Treaty, so that would happen anyway.

No - Oh no, I'm totally voting no. I don't like the possibility of moving to majority voting. I'm suspicious of aggregating power in a central government.

Yes - Hold on, if John Bolton is against it, I must be for it. The fecking wingnut.

No - Ah, but what about the unified tax rate. How is that even fair unless there's also a unified minimum wage?

Yes - Look at the Irish Examiner. Is that a picture of daft eejits dressed as gorillas encouraging people to vote No? How can I be a part of that. (I wish I could find a link for this - I saw it in the actual hard-copy paper edition of the Examiner on Monday.)

No - Back to the unified tax rate. Oh and the possibility of increased military spending.

After a long discussion with Peter, I started to lean back to Yes. A friend of ours said that he was voting "yes, but with reservations." Peter said there should be a box for "Fine, alright, YES. But I amen't happy about it." I'd have ticked that box in a second.

I seriously debated spoiling my ballot, but discarded the idea as a coward's way out. In the end, I voted Yes for reasons that are perhaps superficial and ungrounded:
1 - I couldn't shake the fact that voting No would be throwing my lot in with shadowy, bizarre gorilla-suit-wearing lunatics
2 - I had nagging doubts about where a No vote would leave Ireland in Europe. It just felt better to take my chances with what was on stage, rather than risk it on whatever was behind Door 2.

I'm interested in seeing the referendum results, but I still don't feel terribly invested in the outcome. (Unlike, say, the 2008 US Presidential Election.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Blowing My Cover

This winter, we had a short visit with two friends from Chicago who now live in London. While making small talk, I asked them if they went back to Chicago every year. Their answer was surprising to me: they haven't been back at all and won't go back until they move back permanently. Since their stay in London will be limited to a few years, they figure they'd rather spend their holidays seeing as much of Europe as they can.

A perfectly reasonable answer that made me realise both the difference between long and short term residency and one of my character defects. I tend to look at the world in my way, with my background and parameters, and it surprises me when other people come at issues from a different direction.

Ever since moving here, I've taken great pains to blend in as much as possible. I'm the goose who wants to be a swan. Intellectually, I know I'll always be just another American blow-in, but in my heart-of-hearts, I want to believe that I can become Irish through sheer force of will. (Well, that and playing camogie.) I don't advertise my nationality, but I don't hide it either, probably because I can't. My accent has stubbornly stayed deeply rooted in the Midwest.

It was a big surprise to me when my mother started announcing to all and sundry "We're from the United States!" I understand she was on her holiday, but I'm not the sort to proclaim the fact at every opportunity. However, as part of her traveling group, I was automatically included in her identification. It was weird for me, and a bit uncomfortable.

I figured I had three options. Option A - I could go the sullen teenager route, walk 20 feet behind my mother, and pretend not to know her. Option B - I could tell everyone "Yeah, but I live here now," as though that would have any effect in explaining my inexpressible feelings on citizenship, belonging, identity, and culture. Option C - I could just let it go and enjoy the time with my parents.

In the end, it wasn't really that difficult a decision. I had to let go of my self-consciousness and vanity and just enjoy being a tourist and spending time with my family. We did things I would never dream of doing ordinarily - like taking a jaunting car tour through Killarney National Park. (We did not go to Blarney Castle. There are some activities that are just a diddly-idle too far for me. That poxy stone and castle would be at the top of the list.)

When we were in a pub in Doolin, my dad and I went up to the bar to order dinner and drinks. As we were waiting for the bartender to pull the required number of pints, I somehow had cause to remark to my dad that Mom was blowing my cover. He said "I know" in a way that made me feel like he understood this weird place I inhabit, this place of wanting to be something I'm not, of blending in but not actually belonging.

The pub was quite busy and we watched a couple of bar staff scramble around preparing drinks and taking payment. They seemed to have a policy of requiring payment upfront. When the bartender gave us the pints, my dad's coke, and my Jameson. I had to remind him for the 'red' - a weird sort of soda called red lemonade, which is unreasonably delicious when combined with Jameson whiskey. The bartender handed me the 2-liter bottle of red and I poured a bit into my glass, then accompanied my dad back to the table. It was only later that we realised the bartender hadn't asked for payment.

Dad was convinced that my ordering Jameson and red had singled me out as a 'local' and that's why the bartender didn't require payment when we ordered. I'm convinced my dad was just being nice and that the bartender was swamped and made a simple mistake. I'm also convinced that Option C was the most enjoyable way to experience my holiday - everyone should occasionally try being a tourist in their own backyard.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What I Did on my Family Vacation

The last two weeks of this past May, my parents and two aunts (my mother's sisters) came to the Middle of Nowhere to visit. It was my parents' second trip to Ireland, but their first to Rural Ireland (TM) while my aunts had never been to Ireland.

Since My dad recently started to recount the visit in a travelogue, I'm writing a series of posts that focus more on the themes and motifs of the trip. (Fancy, no?)

But first, an overview. In the 12 days that my family visited, we traveled about 1,200 miles, nearly exclusively within the counties of Cork, Kerry, and Clare. (We did have to travel through Limerick to get home from Shannon, but I think that was the only time we were not within the aforementioned three counties.) To give you an idea of how far this is - if we were sea kayakers, 1200 miles is the distance it takes to circumnavigate Ireland. If my parents had gotten in their car in Cleveland, they could have driven to Miami.

In our 1,200 miles of traveling in rural Ireland, we visited the following:

Gougane Barra

Mizen Head

The Beehive Huts on the Dingle Peninsula

Slea Head

The Ring of Kerry

The Gap of Dunloe

The Cliffs of Moher

Poulnabrone Dolmen

Skellig Michael

Stay tuned for more posts on our terrific adventures. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll feel like you're trapped in the backseat of a 1996 Peugeot.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Then Diet Coke Came Out of My Nose

My brothers and Peter know all too well what happens if you make me laugh when I'm drinking something. It's never pretty and usually involves one or all of the following:
  • The drink comes out of my nose.

  • The drink is explosively spurted out of my mouth, sometimes uncontrollably and with hilarious results.

  • I choke uncontrollably, causing the comedian to feel momentarily worried and guilty for making me laugh in such a precarious situation.

  • Even with the risk of choking ('I don't know officer, all I did was tell her a joke and then she was dead.'), the other two possible outcomes are so amusing that trying to make me laugh when I'm drinking is a sort of game that my brothers and Peter enjoy playing. I take precautions when I identify that mischievous glint in their eyes and have been able to reduce the chances with quick reflexes. (Or at least minimise the damage by rushing to the sink or rolling down the car window.)

    Sometimes though, laughter comes from the most unexpected sources. I was home alone reading Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. It's about the disintegration of a marketing company in the post bubble world. Even though I worked for a software company at the time, the characters and predicaments are all too familiar. (I especially appreciated the guy who photocopied library books to read at his desk, an activity that looked like real work. On more than one occasion when I worked in tucked-away cubicles, I put small paperbacks inside technical how-to books. To the casual observer, it looked like I was working on learning XML when in reality, I was reading trashy novels. The curses of the open workspace put paid to this activity in later jobs.)

    Then We Came to the End is an amazingly well-written book with believable characters and situations. One of the things Ferris gets right is the way people find bizarre and whimsical ways to relieve stress in an uncertain and tense environment. The following two paragraphs got me mid-swallow and nearly caused a catastrophe:

    A fun thing to do to let off steam after layoffs began was to go into someone’s office and send an e-mail from their computer addressed to the entire agency. It might say something simple like “My name is Shaw-NEE! You are captured, Ha! I poopie I poopie I poopie.” People came in in the morning and read that and the reactions were so varied.

    Jim Jackers read it and immediately sent out an email that read, “Obviously someone came into my office last night and composed an e-mail in my name and sent it out to everyone. I apologize for any inconvenience or offense, although it wasn’t my fault, and would appreciate from whoever did this a public apology. I have read that e-mail five times now and I still don’t even understand it.”

    Monday, June 09, 2008

    May Reads

    It was great to be able to return to my old, trashy reading habits in May. I'd been a busy moocher the first few months of this year, but most of the books were sent to my parents house because the moochees did not wish to ship internationally. (Don't even get me started on this. I understand it can be costly and that's fine, but I think if you're not willing to send internationally, your mooching should be restricted to your own country.)

    I'm not sure I could rank these four books, since they were all enjoyable and interesting reads. Plus, since three of the four were Laura Lippman books, they'd all end up tied for first place anyway. So, in alphabetical order, May Reads included:

    Baltimore Blues - Laura Lippman - The first book in the Tess Monaghan series sees an underemployed, borderline slacker Tess accepting her first unofficial PI job - following a friend's fiancee to see if she is cheating. The book quickly develops into a multi-layered mystery after the fiancee's boss is murdered and the friend is arrested and charged with the murder. A good book, perhaps understandably not as well-written as subsequent books in the series, but still a good, solid mystery.

    By a Spider's Thread - Laura Lippman - In the eighth book in the series, Tess is working on tracking down the missing family of a wealthy Orthodox Jewish businessman. A subtle and well-written page-turner. If pressed, I'd have rated it the best book I read this month.

    In a Strange City - Laura Lippman - The sixth book, I found this to be one of the weakest in the series (though not the weakest, a dubious distinction I reserve for In Big Trouble). A complicated and juddering plot revolves around Edgar Allen Poe and a murder at his grave.

    Obsession - Jonathan Kellerman - The twenty-first book in the Alex Delaware series finds everyone's favourite shrink/police consultant attempting to verify and then solve the mystery surrounding the garbled death-bed confession of a former patient's adoptive mother. My dad finds Kellerman annoying because of his habit of outlining Delaware's driving routes. (I hopped on the 207, but finding it impossibly snarled with traffic, I diverted to the weirdly named surface streets in Topanga canyon. Only a poorly imagined example.) I don't mind that. I find these books sort of the equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese - not as good as homemade, but a passable and moderately palatable substitute when nothing else is available.

    Sunday, June 08, 2008

    Reading Dangerously

    I've not given up on my project of reading twelve challenging books this year, but I have found it to be....well....challenging. I've really been forced to admit the staggering depths of my intellectual laziness, but have also realised how much reading is a pleasurable pastime for me. It's my version of vegging out in front of the tv and this endeavour is the equivalent of limiting oneself to PBS and high-brow documentaries on cable.

    In addition to Moby Dick, I've read two more books: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Faust. That puts me dreadfully, behind schedule, but the project will continue. If it takes more than a year, than it takes more than a year. I will read all of those books within two years. That's definitely a better time line and it puts me exactly on course.

    I've also had to rethink my plan to limit myself to the twelve books. (I can hear Laurie saying 'I told you so.') I'm never going to be the sort of person who can have two books going at a time, so I'm going to take the summer off from reading dangerously. In the autumn, I will implement my new plan - to read one dangerous book a month. If I finish the book early, then I can read trash for the rest of the month. (I don't know what will happen if it takes more than a month to finish a book. I'll give myself a demerit or write 'I will not be so intellectually lazy' two hundred times.)

    Back to the books. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was okay, but it's one of those things where knowing the ending sort of ruins the book. It's a slim volume, with not much 'there there', if you know what I mean. The writing is engaging enough, but there's no impact at the end. Unfortunately, I can't really say much more about it.

    Even more unfortunately, I have even less to say about Faust except that I hated it. It took me longer to read than Moby Dick and I found it more difficult to understand and assimilate. I don't like verse and I had a nagging feeling that if something rhymed in English, after translation from German, the meaning had more than likely changed.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I can hear a Laura Lippman novel calling my name.