Thursday, August 28, 2008

All Hail the Opposable Thumbs

Peter and I have slightly differing levels of comfort when it comes to the topic of disciplining our dog. If this was actual child parenting we were talking about, he'd be more of a spanker and I'd be more of a time-out giver. In terms of dealing with dogs, this means Peter's more likely to go with physical corrections while I'm more likely to put the dog out of the room.

It's just a different style, but that style combined with innate personality led to a little problem in pack order with Toby. Without a doubt, Toby saw Peter as The Boss. But Toby definitely saw himself as the Assistant Regional Manager. No matter how hard I tried to explain to him that he was an assistant to the regional manager, he didn't quite get it.

With some dogs, this might not have been a problem. With Toby's sensitive disposition, it was a problem. Toby felt that if it were just me and him, then he was the boss. He made poor decisions when he thought he was the boss (like trying to protect me from old ladies and puppies.) He also didn't want to be the boss.

Being the boss gave Toby anxieties, which he funneled into chasing his tail and making high-pitched whining noises at me. It was not a pleasant experience for either of us. Peter kept telling me that I had to convince Toby that I was in charge, that I was more forceful than he was, but I wasn't willing or able to make the dog think I could hurt him.

There had to be a language that dogs speak, other than force. Turns out, there is.
Two weeks ago, I was listening to the Good Dog Podcast, which had an interview with Penny Locke, who calls herself a dog listener. Her specialty is acting as a sort of interpreter between dogs and their humans, to train the humans to understand how to communicate in a way that dogs will understand.

My big take-away lesson from the podcast was that dogs understand the idea of resources. Whoever controls the resources is in charge. We'd already implemented one concept of resource management purely as part of good canine manners. Toby only eats when he is told to eat. He only takes a treat from the hand when he's told to take the treat. I once dropped an entire glass pan of lasagna on the floor and sat there, drooling and sniffing the air, but he never budged.

Penny pointed out that another resource in a dog's life is the open door. She suggested standing in front of the door, with your hand on the door handle and just wait for your dog to sit. When the dog sits, start to open the door, but stop immediately if the dog even so much as leans forward. Don't say anything. Let the dog figure this out for himself.

I decided to start doing this with Toby. And not just with the door to the outside. I've been quite consistent in doing this with every closed door in Toby's life. Sometimes (like when I wake up in the morning) I nearly forget, but I've been concentrating hard on getting it right.

This small modification in my behaviour has caused a tremendous change in Toby's behaviour. He is so much more relaxed and calm. Peter was out of town one night last week and that was always a recipe for tail-chasing disaster. Not so, this time. Even though Toby spent most of the day by himself, he was still calm and manageable. He didn't whine for attention or chase his tail or pace around hyperventilating.

I'm so pleased that I've been able to find a way to tell Toby that it's okay, he doesn't need to make any decisions. I'm here and I'm well capable of looking after both of us.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Biting Off More Than He Can Chew

Toby loves sticks. When we take him the forest park, he will chase a stick just about anywhere. He'll leap into water without much thought about how deep it might be. His focus is entirely on the stick.

I like throwing a stick into a pile of other sticks. Toby always comes back with the original stick. He will accept no substitutes. "Close enough for government work" is not part of Toby's vocabulary.

When Toby retrieves a stick, he's the King of the World. He prances with joy and pride. He's accomplished his mission and he knows it.

Toby especially loves large sticks. I'm talking about tree trunks, fence posts, and two-by-fours. He has a little routine that he goes through to get a handle on a large stick.

By lucky coincidence, I found small tree trunks from the landlord's hedge trimming project on the same day I learned how to use the video feature on my phone. So I dragged one out of the thicket behind the garage and put it on the grass. Then I let Toby outside and watched the magic happen.

(Just a warning, I need to work on my video skills. I'm trying to figure out how to rotate the clip so you won't have to turn your computer sideways to watch, but I haven't cracked it yet.)

First, he sizes up the task:

Then, he has a few 'words':

At last, success:


Monday, August 25, 2008

Sage Advice

I was a little surprised when MB told me that he took The Kid to see The Dark Knight. It seemed a little dark and spooky to me, even before I watched it. MB told me that "unlike some adults I know, The Kid has a good grasp on what's real and what's pretend." (I think MB might have been talking about me, who had to leave the bathroom light on for a month after watching The Sixth Sense. I also had to leave the book Red Dragon in the car because I was convinced the character in it was so evil, the book would contaminate my house.)

After I saw The Dark Knight, I rang MB to tell him that The Kid was made of sterner stuff than I. The Joker gave me nightmares for three days and if Peter even pretends to lick his lips, I lose it. Part of me feels cheated that Heath Ledger's untimely and unfortunate demise means no more perfectly realised and downright terrifying Joker, but the other part of me is breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Today, I got snail mail from The Kid, a small envelope with an Obi Wan Kenobi stamp. Inside was a card with a cartoon of Batman on one side. On the other side, The Kid had given me this sage advice:

Dear Auntie Ann,
The Joker isn't real. You shouldn't be afraid of him. But if you're still scared, next time you see a Batman movie, close your eyes.
The Kid

The Kid is a fantastic dispenser of tips and advice. I think newspaper advice columnists around the world had better hold onto their seats, because if The Kid decides he wants their jobs, they are in trouble.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

TBU Apple Pie Recipe

I've spent the last few weeks inventing an apple pie recipe that I hoped would win a prize in the village show. This was my first time entering the contest, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect or what the judging criteria were.

The pies that won were quite beautiful. Artistic even. My pie was what I like to call Tasty But Ugly (TBU). Peter said it looked like a comic book pie, like it should be sitting on a window, with steam rising off of it, tempting a neighbourhood cat to steal it. But it wasn't quite in the same class as the spectacular pies that won.

So, lesson learned. It seemed like the pies were cut, but I don't think they were tasted. I'm fairly confident I've made a better showing had the judges tasted the pies, but that's okay. I'm happy with my recipe because it really is delicious and interesting. Don't believe me? Try making it yourself. :)

Tasty But Ugly Apple Pie Recipe

Crust Ingredients
1 cup plain flour
1 glass of ice water
2 tsp fresh squeezed lemon

1 cup powdered sugar
3 cups plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup Crisco

Filling Ingredients
6 apples, peeled and sliced (I go for between 1/2 and 1/4 inch in thickness of slices. I also like to use different kind of apples. I love Empire and Northern Spy but can't get them here, so I usually use Braeburn and Granny Smith)
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
2 tsp fresh squeezed lemon juice
100 grams crystallized ginger, diced into tiny pieces

Preliminary Crust Instructions
1.) Put 1 cup plain flour in a small bowl.
2.) Add 2 tsp lemon juice.
3.) Add ice water slowly, mixing in between. You're looking for a slurry, sort of the consistency of cake batter. Try not to put in too much water though.
4.) In a separate bowl, combine 1 cup powdered sugar, 3 cups plain flour, and 1 tsp salt.
5.) Add the Crisco in chunks, mashing it in with a fork.
6.) Add the slurry to the Crisco mixture and stir.
7.) The dough should start to come together. Mold it together by hand if necessary.
8.) Separate the dough into 2 balls of roughly equal size.
9.) On a floured surface, smoosh one of the dough balls, aiming to get a flattened disc a big bigger than your hand. Repeat with the other ball.
10.) Take your two dough discs, dust with flour, and wrap in either plastic wrap or tin foil. (Or place in large freezer bag.
11.) Place dough discs in freezer for at least 10 minutes.

Filling Instructions
1.) Line a bowl with paper towels.
2.) Add apples.
3.) Add 2 tsp lemon juice, mix by hand.
4.) Add 4 tablespoons brown sugar, mix by hand.
5.) In small bowl, combine 1 tsp cinammon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, and 1/4 tsp cloves.
6.) Add spice mixture to apple mixture, mix by hand.
7.) Add 100 grams crystallized ginger, mix by hand.
8.) Add 1 tablespoon flour, mix by hand.

Pie Assembly Requirements
2 chilled dough discs
Apple filling mixture
1 pastry brush
1 egg white, slightly beaten
2 tablespoons milk
a few teaspoons of granulated sugar
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees

Pie Assembly Instructions
1.) On a floured surface, roll out one dough disc until it's large enough for your pie tin.
2.) Place rolled out dough in pie tin. Pull off extra dough. (In our house, someone is always willing to eat raw dough.)
3.) Brush dough with egg whites.
4.) Bake crust for 10-15 minutes.
5.) Roll out second dough disc until it's big enough to cover top of pie. You will have left-over dough.
6.) Remove crust from oven.
7.) Add filling.
8.) Place second rolled out dough on top of pie. Cut off extra dough, shape crust as you like it.
9.) Brush milk on top of pie and sprinkle with sugar.
10.) Cut venting hole (I like the X) on top of the pie.
11.) Bake for 20-30 minutes until top is golden brown. Keep an eye on pie, turning as necessary. Also be prepared to put tin foil over edges if they start to bake too quickly.

So, that's my recipe. I just tasted my pie and I think it's quite delicious, even if it's not the prettiest pie in the village. Sorry the cooking times are so non-specific. I'm working with a recalcitrant electric oven that uses Celsius, but isn't very accurate. You basically want a hot oven for 10 or 15 minutes and then a slightly less hot oven. I've found it usually works best of the pie is more towards the bottom of the oven, but your mileage may vary.



Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Metamorphosis

I've been thinking the last few months that we need to either buy or rent a power washer and give the outside of the house a good blast. The swallows love our house and apparently, swallows show their love by pooping all over everything. Plus, we've spiders everywhere, mostly little spiders so I'm happy to let them work away. Houses over here don't have screens in the windows and since most of the spider webs are near or around the windows, it's like we have Mother Nature's screens keeping the insects out of the house.

Then I saw a biggish spider hanging around outside the backdoor. It didn't quite look big enough to rob my lunch money, but it was big enough for me to take a second look and start thinking about the power washer. About a week and a half ago, as I was locking up the back door, a dark grey thing caught my eye. It was attached to the window pane of the big kitchen windows, which make the kitchen more like a conservatory.

At first, I wasn't quite sure what it was. It didn't look like the snack-savers spiders use after they catch a victim. Then it dawned on me. I was looking at a chrysalis. If spider webs are Mother Nature's screens, then the chrysalis is her magical sleeping bag. I was excited, thinking we might get a butterfly out of the deal.

I sent a message to my friend the Science Teacher (ST) to ask him how I could tell if it was a butterfly or moth and when I could expect it to hatch. He cracked open his books and was able to tell me that judging from the time, it was most probably a butterfly and it would hatch soon, so long as it was dry and warm. Dry and warm. In Ireland, this summer, that's been a fairly unobtainable dream. I figured I might be waiting on this butterfly for quite a while.

A few days later, as I was working from home, I saw something on the side of the house, about 12 feet up the wall. I thought it was more bird poop, except that there was something familiar about its shape. Bingo - another chrysalis, another chance for a butterfly.

Last weekend, ST suggested that I get the chrysalises both inside, maybe put them in a box or a fish tank with a sponge soaked in sugar water. (A food source for when they hatch.) I made up my little chrysalis nursery in an old fish bowl. Then there was nothing to do but wait. And wait. And wait. ST was encouraging although realistic about their chances. The weather had been so miserable, they might be dead.

Even though they were in the house, it still wasn't what I would call warm. I had them on the kitchen windowsill, so if we ever got some sun, they'd warm nicely. But we had no sun. I worked from home on Thursday and knew I was going to be doing laundry throughout the day. The laundry room heats up nicely when the washer and dryer are on, so I put the fish bowl in there.

Thursday afternoon was gorgeous - sunny blue skies and warm. It was the nicest weather we've had in weeks. I put the fish bowl back on the kitchen window sill. Friday morning, when I was at work, I got a text from Peter, informing me that one chrysalis had hatched.

I raced home to see it. It was on the sponge, its dark grey wings folded up. Grabbing my handy Irish wildlife book (a birthday gift from Peter last year, one of the best gifts ever), I looked through the moths and butterflies pages. I was having a hard time determining which category it was, let alone which exact species. The body was furry, so that seemed to indicate moth, as did the dark wings, but I could only see the underwings. I couldn't see the antennae, since they were folded up and flattened against the top of the body. They looked sort of stripey, but I couldn't tell if they were clubbed or not. The insect also didn't seem to be eating, even though it was on the sponge.

I hazarded a guess that it was a Straw Underwing moth and sent ST another message telling him the great news. Then I went back to work, because, well, "my chrysalis hatched this morning" isn't really a viable excuse for staying home. ST rang my mobile to tell me that if it was a moth, it wouldn't eat sugar. A small slice of fruit would probably work. Then he told me more in 2 minutes than I ever knew about butterflies and moths, about their lifecycles and how their wings work. (The man's a good teacher - knowledgeable and able to impart information in a coherent and efficient manner.) ST said the insect would be flying around by the time I got home.

Six hours later, when I arrived home, I parked my car parallel to the kitchen windows that hold my plants and now my chrysalis nursery. I saw a fluttering near my chives and saw a butterfly, a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, flapping its wings and bumping into the window.

Since we leave the backdoor open for Toby, it's possible that the hatchling flew out and a new guy flew in, but I'd say that's unlikely because the butterfly was completely flummoxed by the window. I spent about ten minutes trying to guide it to a window or the door, but it was always drawn back to the window. I gave up because I was afraid that my help was going to end up killing it.

My giving up lasted about five minutes, then I was back at it, this time armed with a pint glass and a piece of paper. I managed to get the butterfly into the pint glass and cover the opening with a piece of paper. Then I went outside and removed the paper, but the butterfly was sitting in the bottom of the glass. I shook the glass and then it was out, fluttering straight up into the sky. I watched it until it was just a tiny, nearly indistinguishable dot.

The other chrysalis, which may well be a few days younger, remains. I've been procrastinating washing the sheets and duvet covers for the guest room beds. Perhaps this is the day to do it.

UPDATE: I went to move the fish bowl into the laundry room (since I started washing the guest room sheets) and was pleasantly surprised to find a butterfly on the sponged. I can definitely see the clubbed antennae. The hatching happened sometime between 8.00am and 10.45am. I remain amazed that such a large creature can emerge from such a relatively small container. I spotted a caterpillar on the front of the house this morning, so I'm hoping I might get another chance at seeing a chrysalis hatch.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

This is the Life!

As soon as I realised the full implications of visiting Cleveland in the summer, I rang Middle Brother and asked "Can we take The Kid to Cedar Point? Can we? Can we? Please? Please? Pleeeeeeeease?!?!?!" Predictably, he asked "How old are you?" but my enthusiasm was not to be quelled or slowed by sarcastic hypothetical questions.

I had but one goal in mind for the Cedar Point trip - to ride The Big Swinging Boat as many times as possible. I wasn't worried about getting sick on the ride. I was worried about men in white coats with butterfly nets carting me off to the insane asylum after the Cedar Point workers became concerned about my unhealthy fixation and repetitive behaviour.

The Wheaton Fall Festival featured carnival rides, which they set up in the parking lot near the commuter train station. When I got off the train the day before the festival started, I scanned the lot carefully, looking for the tell-tale pieces of my favourite ride. When I spotted the sturdy mast, I could barely contain my excitement. The next day, I dragged Peter up there as soon as I was able to and bought a big old pile of tickets, intending to 'spend' them all on the Big Swinging Boat.

The operator was an enormous man who could have been Mr. T's long lost twin brother. Except for a more moderate hair cut, the man matched Mr. T in both looks and style. What I remember most is the large cobra pendant the man had on a thick gold necklace. The cobra was striking, fangs glistening gold, and its eyes were rubies.

I rode the Big Swinging Boat three times consecutively. On my fourth go, the man said to me "Girl, you must really like this ride." I told him I did, that it was my most favourite. "But why?" he asked, genuinely puzzled.

Because it gives me the most perfect combination of freedom and flying and floating, all rolled into one. It gives me the butterfly funny-tum feeling without being terrifying. It's like the ride on a swing you always wanted to have, but were afraid to pump too hard or go too high lest you end up wrapping yourself around the bar, Fred Flinstone-style.

If the Big Swinging Boat was a bowl of porridge or a bed, I would definitely be its Goldilocks. It's Just Right to me and not getting my yearly fix has been one of the few disappointments of living in Ireland. Thanks to the generosity of my mother and her economic stimulus check, I was going make up for three years of being without the Big Swinging Boat.

When we got to Cedar Point, I knew exactly where I was heading first. MB didn't think The Kid was going to go in for the boat, since they're both prone to motion sickness. Instead, they went off the Planet Snoopy, an installation of kids' rides quite close to the Big Swinging Boat.

It was everything I'd remembered and more. Floating and flying, funny tum and freedom, if I could bottle and sell the pure joy that ride creates for me, I'd be a billionaire. I rode the Big Swinging Boat six times in a row, unabashedly stepping off, trotting through the exit and around back to the entrance, daring the gatekeeper to call the men with the nets.

MB and The Kid stopped by just as I was having my sixth go. MB took a picture. I'm in the yellow shirt, in the top half of the boat, on the end of a row. (I wore the yellow shirt on purpose, so that I'd be easier to find in a crowd since I knew that MB and I would be splitting up from time to time.)

After my Big Swinging Boat-stravaganza, I met up with MB and The Kid. We had some cheese fries (thanks again, Mom) and then rode the Bumper Cars. After that, we headed to the Frontier-land area, with some vague notions of finding the petting zoo and the Mine Ride. Instead, we came upon Thunder Canyon. I was 12 when this ride opened and it was advertised as a thrilling white-water rafting experience. I'd never been white-water rafting and was quite excited about the ride. When I went to the park with my friend Betsy and her family, all of us kids were anxious to ride Thunder Canyon.

Since the ride was brand new, we expected a long wait. But it was a miserable day, just barely 60 degrees, with grey skies and a brisk wind. So the wait was nonexistent. Soon, we were sitting in the seats of the round raft, drifting down choppy water towards the waterfalls. Even at 12, I quickly realised that the ride was the equivalent of having someone dump buckets of slimy lake water on your head. It wasn't very thrilling and the only thing it did with any regularity was make sure you were soaked to the bone. I spent the rest of the day walking around in wet clothes and ended up with a sore throat that turned into strep throat and kept me sick for two weeks.

When The Kid proclaimed that he wanted to go on Thunder Canyon, the smart part of me told me to find a bench and enjoy the wait. But he was so excited about it, dancing around and waving his arms. I wanted to see what he'd think of it, wanted to be there to watch him. So I pulled my shoes off, stuffed them into one of the thoughtfully provided cubby holes, and trailed after The Kid and MB.

Because it had been raining in the morning, I'd put a ziplock bag in my pocket, just in case we needed to protect our electronics. The bag managed to hold two cell phones, a digital camera, a set of keys, and a pocket watch. Since I was wearing my hiking pants, I had a big pocket on the leg that held the ziplock bag. So we were ready, even if I was dreading the inevitable.

The wait was short, less than fifteen minutes, and numerous signs warned "You WILL get wet on this ride." Still, I stubbornly clung to hope that I'd be in the one seat on the ride that gets spared the worst of it. Soon, we were sitting in the circular raft, drifting to the first waterfall. The raft swung around and around and I knew within seconds that I was going to get the worst of the first waterfall. Buckets and buckets of slimy lake water cascaded over me and I reminded myself that my first instinct is nearly always right.

I looked up with an expression that MB later said made me look like an angry wet cat. MB and The Kid were laughing at me. I shook my head and smugly thought that they were in for it next. Sure enough, the boat swung around and MB and The Kid disappeared behind a curtain of water. When they came out, The Kid was shrieking and laughing, like he'd just had the best experience ever.

This went on for the length of the ride, me hating getting wet, The Kid loving it. I undoubtedly was the most drenched person to step off the ride. The Kid immediately asked to go again, a request that MB indulged while I went to find a sunny spot to start the drying off process.

After their second ride, we wanted to find Cedar Point's version of the log ride, Snake River Falls, which we discovered was like a log ride on steroids. Instead of a skinny log that can seat 8 people, their log ride uses very wide, very large cars. On the log ride they used to have an Geauga Lake, you could get through it pretty much unscathed if you ducked down when you hit the water. Snake River Falls, well, let's just say that they also have signs that claim "You WILL get wet on this ride."

The wait for the log ride was a little bit longer, but moved quite quickly. The Kid was still excited, still dancing around. When it was our turn, we sat in the back of a boat, the three of us sharing a bench seat. The boat climbed up and up a steep hill. I didn't mind the height of the hill - I like heights and like being able to see into the distance. After the hill, the boat floated around a bend and then made for the thrilling hill.

It sounds silly to say it, but I've never been so afraid on a ride than when we were hurtling down the 50-degree angle of Snake River Falls. (Not just a clever name, apparently.) Where the Big Swinging Boat makes me feel like I could fly, this ride was making me feel like I was going to be flung out into the abyss, where I would drop like a rock.

After what felt like an eternity of hurtling, the boat hit the water at the base of the hill, creating a spectacular tidal wave that undid any of the drying out I accomplished while waiting in the sun. When we got off the boat, The Kid was ecstatic, more excited than all his Christmases combined.

To get out of Snake River Falls, you have to walk across a bridge, which is built in such a way that it takes the brunt of the tidal wave created by the ride. I scampered across the bridge like a hare across a busy road. I was taking no chances on getting even more wet than I already was.

The Kid and MB lingered on the bridge, waiting to experience the tidal wave. When the wall of water came, The Kid shook his little fist in the air and shouted "This is the life!"

The Kid and MB would ride each of the water rides another time, while I checked out a brand new fast-high-swinging-in-the-air-ride that was just nowhere near as fantastic as the Old School Big Swinging Boat. Just before it was time to go home, I returned to my favourite ride and had four more goes, thinking that, as usual, The Kid was right. This is the life.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, August 15, 2008

June and July Reads

June was a fairly light reading month for me, since we had friends visiting and I was very active in both of my sports. I did manage to read these four books, listed here in order from worst to best:

4. Alibi Man - Tami Hoag - Self-loathing, whining narrator ruins decent mystery.
3. Bloody Mary - JA Konrath - It's probably a bad sign that 2 months after reading it, I cannot remember a single thing about it.
2. Butcher's Hill - As always, Tess Monaghan does not disappoint.
1. Then We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris - Hilarious look at corporate America.

What my reading lacked in June, I certainly made up for in July. Keep in mind I was on holiday for two weeks and took a round trip transatlantic flight (always good for at least 4 books in total). Plus, since I was in the States, books were cheap and plentiful. Listed in order of worst to best:

18. Fuzzy Navel - JA Konrath - Like a fifth-rate B movie, but not as enjoyable.
17. Reservation Road - Jonathan Burnham Schwartz - Overwrought
16. Darkly Dreaming Dexter - Jeff Lindsey - Perhaps I was ruined byt the US television series, which I thought was much better than the book.
15. Lady Killer - Lisa Scottoline - Yawn.
14. Compulsion - Jonathan Kellerman - Overly complicated plot with too little pay-off.
13. No Time for Goodbye - Linwood Barclay - Great premise but it falls flat and unravels about halfway through the book.
12. This Champaign Mojito is the Last Thing I Own - Ross O'Carroll Kelly - Enjoyable enough self-absorbed D4 satire.
11. Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill - Creepy ghost story, perfect airplane reading
10. Dirty Martini - JA Konrath - Fun little read (although it might make you think twice about eating out)
9. Daddy's Girl - Lisa Scottoline - Enjoyable with fun characters
8. Little Stalker - Jennifer Belle - Good if you can overlook the skeevy Woody Allen overtones and parrallels.
7. Dry Ice - Stephen White - A solid read.
6. Dead Time - Stephen White - A twisty and twisted page turner.
5. Fourth Comings - Megan McCafferty - Jessica Darling is back and better than ever.
4. Another Thing to Fall - Laura Lippman - Another exciting Tess Monaghan mystery.
3. Year of the Fog - Michelle Richmond - Atmospheric book about memory and loss.
2. Charm City - Laura Lippman - Tess Monaghan's humble beginnings.
1. The Ghost - Robert Harris - Fantastic, fast-paced thriller.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Grand Day Out

Since we moved to the Middle of Nowhere, there's one thing I've wanted to do more than anything else. Even more than getting a Great Dane puppy or seeing the Fastnet Lighthouse up close(ish - it's not open to the public and I'm not exactly sure how close you can get).

A trip to Skellig Michael has been my personal Holy Grail. I can't quite explain it, but something about its isolation and starkness appeals to me. Even though I think that anyone who'd make the journey in a currach is certifiable, I have a lot of respect for the monks in the 588 who did so. Think about that for a minute. Nearly 1500 years ago, a bunch of guys climbed into currachs, ventured 8 miles into the ocean to a jagged bit of rock, and built structures that are still standing.

Getting to Skellig Michael is highly weather dependent. If the seas are rough, the boats won't go. We tried twice last year and were shut out both times. My dad lucked out on his first attempt, but I stayed behind with my mother and aunts. I had another opportunity in June, when our Minnesota friends were visiting, but the weather was bad at the weekend. They got to go on the Monday, while I got to go to work. (No one ever said life was fair.)

Even though Peter had been twice this year, he was still eager to go again and we made plans for my birthday. Plans that had to be reshuffled because of his work schedule. I looked at the calendar and realised that if I waited on Peter for a Skelligs trip, it probably wouldn't happen until next year. I decided I would make a booking each weekend until I achieved my goal. Yes, it would mean going without Peter, but I'd gotten pretty good at solo outings in the last year. Of course, it also meant going without Toby, so it would be my first solo-solo outing.

I made the booking for Saturday and waited, hoping for decent weather. It's not been a great summer and the days leading up to this weekend made it look like the whole weekend could be a washout. It's a two and a half hour drive to Portmagee, and the deal is that you ring the boat at 8.15 to find out if the sea is passable. So in order to be on time for the boat, I had to leave the house without knowing if the trip was even going to happen.

I tossed my Lonely Planet guide into the backseat, figuring that at least I'd have it if I needed to develop a Plan B. When I rang the boat operator at 8.15, I fully expected to be told that the trips were canceled for the day. When the nice woman told me that it was a lovely day and I should be at the dock at 10, I was astounded. I had to ask her to repeat herself, just to be sure I'd heard her right.

I arrived at Portmagee at 9.20, which gave me more than enough time to change into my hiking boots, use the toilet, and buy extra water. There's something everyone needs to know about Skellig Michael - there are no toilet facilities on the island. I'm the sort of person who sits on the aisle in airplanes and movie theatres because I hate the idea of not being able to go when I need to. I'd carefully managed my fluid intake to ensure that I would be alright for the visit, but that I wouldn't be totally dehydrated. (This is when long distance running comes in handy. Water management is a key skill you learn when training for a marathon.)

After taking care of everything, I ambled down to the dock. It was a lovely day, warm with the sun and some patches of blue sky peeking out between fluffy clouds. I found my boat operator and was directed to his boat.

The boats used to transport people to the Skelligs are uniformly small, typically licensed to carry 12 passengers. If your only experience with boats are river cruises or other large vessels, these boats are a bit of a culture shock. They also require a minimum level of athleticism and grace when boarding. (No gangways here.) The boat I was directed to had nice bench seats and I settled in to read my book while we waited. Another boat, owned by the operator's brother, pulled up and moored alongside our boat. The passengers for the second boat had to board our boat, then climb over the railings of both boats to board the second one. Just before it was time to go, I was asked to move to the other boat, since I was the only singleton on the trip.

I managed to transfer myself, book in hand, over to the other boat. But I found that all the outdoor seating was occupied. I was a little bummed about having to ride in the cabin, since I love being out in the fresh air, especially on the sea. I have a weird relationship with the sea. I love it, but I'm absolutely terrified of it. Even on a flat, calm day, I still find its immensity and depth quite intimidating.

The captain unmoored the boat and off we went. The first part of the journey was through a sheltered harbour area, where the water was glassy smooth and we puttered along with no resistance. The captain encouraged me to sit up in the high co-pilot's seat, which I did. I was a little worried he would be too chatty, but he wasn't. Plus, the cabin was quite loud.

We sailed behind a few small islands and got to see basking seals. Then we left the shelter of the islands and headed for the open sea. It wasn't a horribly rough day, but it wasn't dead flat either. The waves were maybe 1 to 2 feet tall and sometimes the boat jostled hard off the crest of the swell. I loved it, especially the occasional feelings of funny-tum when the boat rose and dropped quickly.

We headed first to the Small Skellig, which is a protected bird habitat. It's home to over 50,000 gannets as well as some assorted other sea birds. It's a squat island with several peaks. If you'd told me Dr. Evil had a secret lair inside of the Small Skellig, I wouldn't have been surprised. The noise of the sea birds is deafening and we once again got to see some basking seals, including a mid-sized baby seal.

Then finally, we approached Skellig Michael, which has only one landing site. We had to wait while the passengers of another boat disembarked. I left the shelter of the cabin and discovered that I'd definitely had the best seat on the boat. The majority of the outside seating area was just a big, backless square, with a hand hold bar that would have been a bit lower that ones' knees. Plus, someone had puked on the trip over.

When it was our boat's turn, we sailed in and the captain tied up the boat, then helped us each off over the railing and onto a very narrow, very wet open staircase. I held onto the railing for dear life and scrambled up the cramped stairs. Then I was on a small concrete dock and was able to start walking up the road.

In the 1800s, they built two lighthouses on the island, which necessitated building a sort of access road. The road is narrow but well-paved with a wall on the open side. I was so excited to be on the island that I nearly skipped up the road. I was about five minutes into my joyous journey when I realised that I didn't know when the boat was going to return for us. I dashed back to the dock, but the boat was already gone. Ah well, I figured we'd have at least two hours and that if I saw someone from our boat, I'd ask them.

The road winds along the side of the island and terminates shortly after the lighthouses' outbuildings. (Then you get to scramble up the very stone stairs that the monks built all those years ago. The climb is steep and the views are breathtaking. You can still see the mainland, but it's a distant, hazy dream.

Skellig Michael is quite rocky and rugged with several interesting rock formations. But it also has a fair bit of grass and little spots where you can comfortably rest and take in the views. But I wasn't interested in resting. I was interested in scrambling up, up, up as fast as my little legs (and my heaving lungs) would allow.

It was surprisingly hot on the island and I soon had to take a break to remove some of my layers. Given the climb and the out-at-sea location, I'd expected the place to be a bit chilly. I later learned that the climate on Skellig Michael is quite mild and the monks were able to grow vegetables rather easily.

After my dad's visit, he told us that one of the most amazing things about the place is what it does not have: guard rails, danger signs, and other safety equipment. The island has a single sign that warns of "an element of danger". After that, you're on your own. On the way up, it's not that big a deal. You just trot (or trudge) up the grey stone stairs. The biggest risks on the way up are tripping on uneven ground or collapsing in a heap due to the exertion.

I don't know how long it took me to get to the monastery. I know I didn't rest very much, maybe a handful of pauses to soak in the scenery and catch my breath. I did marvel that my dad, he of the wonky knee, was able to climb the stairs. (Later, when I asked Peter how Dad managed it, he responded "He rested a lot.") Eventually, all my scrambling paid off and I reached my destination.

I walked through the entrance, through the monk's walled garden, and into the monastery proper, which consisted mainly of several beehive huts, a chapel, and a stone cross. A docent was giving a talk about the history of the island and people were sitting on a stone wall or stone embankment that almost seemed like it was purposely designed to act as amphitheater seating. (I missed part of the talk, so I doubt it, but it served the purpose well.) The sun was beating down on the place and I wanted to explore, not listen to some history lecture.

I ducked into a beehive hut and downed half a litre of water in what seemed like a single gulp. The hut was cool and dry and very dark, even after my eyes adjusted to it. I could picture living in it, although I don't think I would fare very well sleeping on a hard slab of rock. (I'm a Simmons Beautyrest sort of girl.)

After appreciating the construction of the hut and collecting myself, I stepped back outside and found a spot on the edge of the audience. The woman was great, very well versed in the history of the island, but I was still impatient. My ears perked up when she talked about an experiment they ran a few years back to see what the monk's garden could produce. It turns out that the soil is of very good quality and the garden gets an excellent amount of light. The vegetables flourished, much to the delight of the local rabbit population. (The rabbits were introduced in the 1800s as a food source for the lighthouse keepers and their families. Due to automation, the lighthouse keepers are gone, but the descendants of the rabbits live on.)

The other interesting point the docent made was that the monks were quite brave to venture out to set up their monastery, and she wasn't just talking about the journey. The island has no natural spring or other fresh water supply. The monks studied the topography of the island and built two cisterns to collect rainwater. I think she said that each cistern held 100 liters, but I could be wrong on that.

Finally, we were released to explore the monastery. I was quite taken with the walled garden. I don't know why, exactly, except that it was a cosy, sunny spot with great views. I also liked that you could look over the edge of the wall and see some other sort of lower habitation. (Since I missed the construction part of the history talk, I don't really know what it was.)

I smiled as I remembered a diorama depicting the garden, which I'd seen at the Skellig interpretive centre. One monk tended to tidy rows of vegetables. Laundry hung on a line. A pair of goats grazed. A cat lazed in the sun. And my favourite bit: a monk with an upraised club snuck up on an unsuspecting seabird that was perched on the wall.

Since I hadn't seen anyone from my group, I still wasn't exactly sure when the boat left. I decided not to linger too long. I knew I'd be back sometime and I didn't want to be responsible for holding up the boat. Plus, I had no idea how long it was going to take me to get down to the boat dock.

As a runner with wide hips, I can say with great authority that down is always harder than up. Up might be more obviously taxing aerobically, but down is a killer on the joints. And that's just on a normal road with a moderate pitch. Going down the steep sides of Skellig Michael is an adventure and a half. I'm not afraid of heights but I was unable to put the idea of falling out of my mind. As I made my way down, I was quite aware that one false step would lead to a painful tumble down the rocky embankments.

I took several rest breaks on the way down. I had a good long rest at the spot where you can see the hermitage. Clinging to the top of the highest peak, with only enough room for one person to sleep, the hermitage pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. It's the place where a monk went to have some serious meditation and prayer time. I would have loved to have gone up there, but, for obvious reasons, it's not open to the public.

When I talked to Peter after my big adventure, he asked me what had surprised me most about Skellig Michael. I didn't even have to think about the answer. It's the way the island is able to absorb 200 people. It's amazing to think that the boats disgorge all of these people, who have to travel up and down the same narrow, steep path. But you have many moments were you swear you're the only person on the island. Because the path must twist and turn sharply up the steep incline, the sight lines are rather limited. This creates loads of places where you can sit and not see anyone. There might be 10 people within 10 meters of your resting spot, but you'd never know it.

Although I don't know how long it took me to reach the monastery, I can tell you that it took me about 30 minutes to get back to the boat dock. I was taking it easy though, creeping down the stairs like a toddler who has just learned to walk. My caution paid off, since I survived the trip down. (I did have one tiny nerve-wracking wobble, but I bet everyone does.)

Back at the dock, I soaked in the sunshine and read my book, taking periodic breaks to enjoy the scenery and watch the various boats pull in to collect their passengers. One boat really made me laugh. The crew consisted of a long-haired captain, maybe in his early 40s, and five dachshunds. After the boat tied up to the dock, the dogs stood on their hind legs, with their front paws on the railings, barking instructions at the passengers. I imagine they were saying things like "Mind your step! Careful now! Welcome aboard!" That's the boat I want to take next time.

If I have a regret about the trip, it's that I went down to the boat dock too early. I could have spent more time in the monastery or had a more leisurely ascent. The thought crossed my mind as I read my book, but I decided to forget about it. I'd had a fantastic visit and it was nice to have a little quiet time by the water. Next time, I'll remember to ask when the collection time is and I won't be so concerned about missing the boat.

Soon enough, my boat did arrive. I returned to my nice comfy co-captain's seat and enjoyed a last look at Skellig Michael. The ride back was smooth and I found myself drifting off to sleep (then jerking awake in a panic as I started to fall off the seat). Now I can say with great authority that Skellig Michael is absolutely something you must see when you visit Ireland.

A note on the pictures: the beehive huts and the last picture of the island are my dad's. Thanks, Dad. The rest are mine, taken with my mobile phone.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 11, 2008


Peter and I had big plans yesterday to see The Dark Knight. We'd tried on my birthday, but the timing hadn't worked out. The next weekend, he was away again, this time teaching a group workshop. We tentatively planned to see it during the week, but I got sick and wasn't up to evening outings, so that pushed it out to this past weekend. Friday night, Peter had a workshop and Saturday night, I had a football match. Finally, this Sunday looked nearly perfect.

I say nearly because Cork were playing Kilkenny in the Hurling Semi-Finals in Croke Park. To understand the importance of this pairing, think the Red Sox playing the Yankees in Game Seven of the ALCS and you're on the right track. The thrown-in for the match was at 4, which made movie timing a bit complicated.

Our choices were to either A.) go to the closer cinema for the 9pm showing or B.) go to the farther away cinema for the 1.10PM showing, listen to first half of the match on the way home and then hope that we arrived back in time to watch the thrilling conclusion. Option A was a non-runner, since I'm absolutely hopeless at staying up late. As much as it killed the Cork hurling fan in me, I knew this was our last chance to see the film until late September, at which point it might be difficult to find in the cinema.

We were out the door according to schedule and even the Sunday drivers couldn't keep us from getting to the cinema on time. We bought our tickets, purchased some snacks, and went in to get seats. When we opened the door to Theatre 2, the unmistakable smell of urine slapped us in the face. I looked at Peter in disbelief and he nodded his head in disgust. The message on his face was clear: No, you're not going crazy, it reeks like a pub urinal in here.

We chose seats about half-way down the aisle and waited for the smell to abate. Only it didn't. I was also disappointed to note that screen was rather small. With about 5 minutes to go before the start of the film, I left to use the bathroom. On my way back to Theatre 2, I noted that The Dark Knight was starting in Theatre 1 at 2.00PM. I toyed with the idea but reminded myself that the earlier show was crucial if I wanted to catch any of the hurling.

Back in Theatre 1, Peter leaned over and said "Do you know what I love most about going to the cinema? The smell of urine!" I told him "Maybe it's Smellovision. I bet this is exactly what a sleazy dark alley in Gotham City would smell like." Peter suggested changing our tickets for the 2.00 showing. One more look at the tiny screen and another whiff of the malodorous surroundings convinced me that I was not going to be able to enjoy the film under the current conditions.

I waited in the cinema's cafe seating area while Peter tried to exchange our tickets. It seemed to be taking an awfully long time. I became concerned that some bizarre policy might force us to pay for new tickets. Unreasonable and unlikely, but not outside the bounds of possibility. Finally, Peter returned with two fresh new tickets for the 2pm showing.

Me: What took so long? I was starting to get concerned.

Peter: Well, I had to wait for a manager. Then, when she finally arrived, it was quick and easy to change the tickets.

Me: So why did it take so long?

Peter: Because she kept insisting on telling me that I wasn't smelling what I was smelling.

Me: Then what were we smelling?

Peter: Popcorn!

Me (after taking a good sniff of Peter's medium popcorn): Popcorn, me fecking arse!

Peter: Yes, she kept insulting my intelligence by insisting that it was just popcorn and that the theatre always smells that way.

Me: But we've been here before and it's never smelled like that!

Peter: Exactly.

When it was time to go into Theatre 1, I went in with some trepidation. What if this theatre reeked as well? I didn't smell anything in Theatre 1 although Peter insisted he could still detect a faint odor. (It could very well be possible that he was smelling something as I'm still getting over my head cold. So you know that Theatre 2 had to have been really bad to have it bother me so much.)

Our cinema story has a happy ending. We were finally able to see the film and we both enjoyed it. (I think it has rocketed to the top of my all-time favourites list, even though The Joker terrified me.) My hurling story has a less happy ending. I was reduced to listening to the second half in the car and Cork were resoundingly defeated. Even so, changing our plans was the right thing to do. I don't think I would have enjoyed the film as much if I'd been distracted by the conditions.

At one point, I had to take a bathroom break during the film (2.5 hr film + tiny bladder = at least one and more probably two breaks). A few of the ushers had congregated near the stairs and I overheard their conversation. It went a little something like this: "I told her popcorn smells quite differently when it's burnt, but I don't think she believed me."

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Technical Difficulties

I'm a menace when it comes to having nice things. I'm particularly rough on shoes. I'm also not great with electronics. More than one perfectly good mobile has gone to the Great Electronic Graveyard in the Sky because I accidentally dropped it.

In January, I managed to do something to the power supply of the kitchen laptop. The name 'kitchen laptop' is probably something of a misnomer since it doesn't exactly live in the kitchen but it does see a lot of use in the kitchen, especially for looking up recipes, converting measurements, and checking my email while I cook or bake. It's Peter's old Mac PowerBook and it's also quite good for playing NPR shows since its speakers are far better than my little laptop.

But I digress. The point is that while carrying the kitchen laptop and its power adapter from the kitchen to our bedroom (a journey of maybe 30 feet), I managed to damage the bit of the cord that you plug into the laptop. Don't ask me how; I've no idea. The little pin/prong thing inside the connector was bent by about forty-five degrees and the encircling metal had a bit of a dent. I managed to straighten the pin and the power adapter seemed to work as usual.

A few months ago, I dropped the kitchen laptop, but again, it seemed fine. It didn't fall that far, maybe two and a half feet. The fall didn't cause much visible damage except for a slight bowing out of the screen, but it popped back in pretty nicely. In fact, it was a few weeks before Peter noticed anything was amiss.

But then a few days ago, the kitchen laptop started acting up in the charging department. It would be plugged in appropriately, but would still be running on battery. I found that making sure the connector with the pin (you know, the one I damaged) was snugly secure would make the laptop start charging the battery. This trick worked until yesterday, when the battery ran all the way down to 3 percent, despite my best efforts to stop it.

We've ordered a new power adapter and are hoping that will work. In the interim, I figured I could press my little laptop into service. I've been reserving little laptop for writing duty only, so he's been neglected for the last two months. (Bad writer girl, bad bad.) I've only got two problems with little laptop.

The first isn't really little laptop's fault exactly. I have half-written a post about a trip I took last Saturday, but all the pictures are on the now dormant kitchen laptop. While the photos are still on my phone, I don't think little laptop has Bluetooth and I don't have a connector to physically move the photos off my mobile and onto the little laptop. So that post will have to be on hold until either the kitchen laptop works again or I find a workaround.

The second problem is the little laptop's fault. The Enter key does not work. The Backspace key has also become only semi-reliable, as have the backslash and the up and down arrow keys. This is a new development and I don't understand how it's happened. Peter took the keyboard apart and gave it a good cleaning, but the Enter key remains stubbornly out of commission.

The little laptop already had a problem with the five key, but that had an obvious cause. Ages ago, Peter was emptying the dishwasher and he went to put the hand mixer's attachment into the press. Only the attachment was full of water and some of it dribbled onto the little laptop, which had been sitting on the counter. The water was quickly cleaned up, but in the next days, it became apparent that the five key was DOA.

Not too much of a problem, since I could opt to spell out the word or, if I needed the symbol, I could copy and paste it in. Not having an Enter key is much more troublesome, since I use it quite frequently. Copying and pasting a carriage return from a Word document is a handy workaround, but it's still a pain in the ass.

My blogging, commenting, emailing, and Facebooking might be a bit sporadic until I have a fully functioning laptop again. I just hope the new power adapter does the trick. Peter's told me I can also get a new keyboard for the little laptop, which might be a worthwhile investment. But I still think I need a separate laptop for the kitchen, which is clearly a Danger Zone for computers.