Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sweet Dreams

When The Kid is concerned that he might have nightmares, he has a method to try to prevent them. He talks and thinks about all the good dreams he could have instead, and drifts off to dreamland with happy visions in his head.

One evening, Middle Brother and The Kid were discussing the various good dreaming options available. It was suggested that The Kid might dream about being Spiderman. A reasonable suggestion as The Kid loves Superheros and who wouldn't want to dream about acrobatically gliding and swinging through the streets of New York City.

The Kid considered this suggestion, but then expressed a concern. "But Dad, what if the bad guys come and I have to fight them? The bad guys might be so scary, it could turn into a bad dream."

Middle Brother had anticipated this concern and he offered The Kid a dreaming loophole. "Ah, but you could dream that you were on vacation. Think about lying out at the beach, in your Spidey-suit, drinking ice tea."

The image of The Kid, sunbathing in a Spiderman suit while on vacation cracks me up. I think I've also found a way to prevent bad dreams.

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Monday, October 27, 2008


Middle Brother was telling me about his experiences working the phone bank at an Obama office near Cleveland. MB explained the general outline of the script, how you call and sort of feel people out. If a voter is undecided, then you ask them if they're considering Obama. Then you sort of ease into a discussion about what issues are important to the voter or what's holding the person back from voting for Obama.

One of the things volunteers can do is send out campaign literature on the issue of importance. MB told me that there's even an entire brochure just to state, perfectly clearly and once and for all, Barack Obama is a Christian. That amazed me, that you'd have to have an entire brochure printed up to dispel the Muslim-myth.

My parents have also decided to volunteer for Obama, on the phones last week and going door-to-door next weekend. My mom reported that she made a call to a woman, ended up talking to her husband instead. When my mom asked him who he was considering voting for, he reported that he was undecided.

"Have you considered voting for Barack Obama?" asked my mother. The guy said that he'd thought about, but wasn't sure he could do it. His concern was apparently having "jihad running around in my backyard." (My mom told me that she wanted to ask what a jihad was and why he thought it would be in his backyard, but instead she did the telephone equivalent of backing away slowly.)

I related this story to Peter, who first rolled his eyes at the guy's comment, then paused and said "Wait a minute, this guy is worried about having jihad running around in his backyard but he's still undecided? That says a lot."

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Agriculture Advice from The Kid

When my mobile rang this afternoon and the display said it was an Anonymous Call, I knew it had to be my parents. They call every weekend, around the same time, and hardly anyone else comes up on my phone as Anonymous.

I answered with my customary "Good Morning, Sunshine!" and was greeted with a confident "Hi, Auntie Ann!" What a pleasant surprise - a phone call from The Kid. I was excited to ask him for agriculture advice regarding my recent pumpkin difficulties.

First, he was bursting with news. He wanted to tell me that he was wearing his clone trooper costume because he was going to Boo in the Zoo. After a detailed description of said costume, I had an opportunity to consult my favourite expert.

Me: "Hey, The Kid, I need some advice on pumpkins. Do you think you could help me out?"

The Kid: "Sure!"

Me: "I'm having a problem finding nice, big, orange pumpkins here. Do you know what I can do to get a nice, huge pumpkin to carve for Halloween?"

The Kid: "OK, what you need to do is not pick the pumpkin so soon. Leave it on the plant for as long as you can, that way it will grow bigger."

Me: "That's great advice for when I grow my own pumpkins, but right now, I can only buy them in the store. And the store only has little pumpkins and most of them are half-green and don't look very nice."

The Kid: "Why don't you just go to a pumpkin farm?"

Me: "We don't have pumpkin farms in Ireland."

The Kid: "Really? Oh. Then I guess you will have to grow your own. Just make sure you leave them on the plant for a really long time because the longer they're on the plant, the bigger they'll grow."

This is what I love about The Kid. No matter the topic, he's able to come up with cogent, practical advice without any hesitation.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Do You Have Prince Albert in a Can?

I have the Magic Internet Phone, which allows me to make international calls for free. Middle Brother and I talk at least every week. By some quirk of fate, his work phone number is only two digits different than the number one of my best friends had in high school. Memorising MB's work number was incredibly simple, he works regular hours, and nearly always has a few minutes to spare.

Youngest Brother (YB) is another kettle of fish entirely. He's not one for regular communication with anyone, as near as any of his blood relations can tell. My mother says that she's convinced he never checks his voicemail. He's prone to doing things like calling my parents from the airport to tell them on he's on his way to Honduras or Guatemala.

The last time I talked to him was when he rang me in July on my birthday. We talked for an hour and agreed that we should talk more often, maybe even make it a regular thing, but that hasn't happened. He's a busy guy with lots on his mind and we've got a five hour time difference between us, so it seems like I'm condemned to spend a lifetime leaving messages for him.

There's one other thing you need to know about YB. He's a bit of a trickster, especially when it comes to the phone. He once rang MB, pretending to be a printer salesman. MB bought the act entirely.

It was a combination of this lack of regular communication and his propensity for hucksterism that led me to make this embarrasing faux pas this evening when I tried to call YB. I was stunned when the phone was picked up after three rings.

Me: Hey! YB! I can't believe I got ahold of you.
Him: Who is this?
Me: It's your sister.
Him: You have the wrong number.
Me: No I don't.
Him: Yes, you do.
Me: Beardog! Knock it off, this is your sister.
Him: Who are you trying to call?
Me: My brother, YB.
Him: This isn't your brother.
Me: It sounds like my brother.
Him: Look, my name is Chris. I live in Saint Augustine, Florida and I'm a massage therapist.
Me: Oh. Shit. I'm so sorry. You're not my brother. But he's exactly the kind of guy who would pretend that I had the wrong number, just to wind me up.
Him: Nope, sorry, you really do have the wrong number.

I hung up the phone and double-checked the number I dialed on the Magic Internet Phone against the number I had stored in my mobile. Sure enough, I'd gotten the penultimate digit wrong. Ooops.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Boxer with a Death Wish

One of the most unnerving things that I've had to adjust to when driving in rural Ireland are the crazed farm dogs who apparently think it's great sport to try to herd cars. Usually, these are bored border collies and they tend to have an unsettling way of running straight at your front wheel. Every once in a while, I meet a Jack Russell terrier with delusions of grandeur, but they're the exception to the border collie rule.

I've been told by more than one person that the best thing to do is to stay the course, ignore the dog, and hope for the best. It's the dog's responsibility to keep itself alive and the dog apparently has certain expectations regarding the traveling trajectory of your car. You're more likely to hit the dog (or someone or something else) if you swerve than if you just stay the course.

There's a pair of these demonic dogs on a road I travel with some regularity. They're border collies and I call them the The Twins, even though they probably don't look anything alike. The look like twins when I'm driving and I can see them lining themselves up on the other side of this stone gateway. Their butts wiggle and they hunker down like Olympic sprinters waiting for the starter's gun.

Whenever my car passes the magical line, they both lunge out into the road. Even though I can see them in advance and I know what they're going to do, it still freaks me out every time.

Last Saturday, I was finishing up my last graveyard trips for RAOGK. I was up near Rathcormac in north County Cork and was headed home. The quickest way would have been to hop on the M8, drive down around Cork City like the early spacecrafts sling-shotting themselves around the moon, and then head up northwest to my little corner of the Middle of Nowhere. But I'm sure you can agree, the quickest way is rarely the most run way and I instead set out to bumble along little squiggles of tertiary roads and rutted farm tracks.

With the help of my trusty GPS, I was quite happily rolling up and down hills past acre after acre of farmland. Toby was in the backseat, hanging his head out the window. My car doesn't have electric windows in the back, so I always roll down the window behind the driver's side for him. That way, in a pinch, I can reach back and roll it up if necessary. Plus, it allows me to see him in my side mirror. With his hair flying and his contented yet focused expression, he looks like an early aviator in an open-cockpit airplane.

At one point in this journey, we were on a potholed, single-lane track with grass growing up the middle. I came around a corner and started up a hill, only to find a boxer standing nearly in the middle of the narrow lane. I edged over as far as I could, but was still directly on course to hit her if she didn't move. I gave the horn a little beep, but she stayed her ground.

I slowed down, hoping that she would move. When I was close enough to see every fold in her muzzle, I knew she wasn't going to move. I crept over even more into the edge of the road, so that brambles were scraping the side of my car, and bought myself enough space to pass her. I could see her house on a small rise to my left and a chubby yellow lab was lumbering down the driveway to join the fun.

The boxer ran along side my car, barking and leaping. The lab joined and took a position behind the car. Toby was going nuts in the backseat, lunging to the side window to check out the boxer, then swinging around to look at the lab. The boxer then ran along in front of my car, tossing the occasional bark over her shoulder.

I didn't like that move at all. I slowed down and beeped the horn, hoping perhaps someone would come out of the house and call off the dogs. No such luck and I knew I'd have to keep driving and trust the boxer to stay out of my way. I accelerated slowly and the boxer drifted off to the right side of my car. I used her change of lane to reclaim more of the center of the road and sped up a bit more, figuring my best bet at this point was to outrun them.

I saw the lab fall back soon after. I couldn't see the boxer in my right wing mirror or in my review, but I could still hear her barking. My foot pressed down on the accelerator and I watched my speed climb to 20 mph. The boxer breezed in front of the car again like I wasn't even moving. She almost looked like she was skateboarding in front of my car, effortlessly moving forward while looking back at me and barking.

I slowed down and she again drifted off to the right side of the car. I saw her drop back in my wing mirror and then take up on my rear bumper. At least I think she was on my rear bumper. Toby had leapt up onto the back window ledge of my little hatchback. His entire body, hackles up, filled my rear-view mirror.

I took the chance to accelerate again, pushing the car close to 25 mph. And again that crazy boxer came up along the left-hand side of my car and crossed over in front of me. I was hoping this would play out the way the previous front-of-car encounters had. I slowed a bit, allowed her to drop off on my right side and waited until I knew she was on my rear bumper. Then I gunned the car, pushing it up over 30 mph. I kept my eyes glued on the road in front of me, which was straight, offered a lot of open space, and was blessedly clear of other cars and dogs.

When Toby collapsed onto the back seat, I was pretty sure we'd lost our boxer friend. Sure enough, when I checked my mirror a final time, she was standing in the middle of the road. I didn't know boxers had that much stamina and speed, to be able to hang in there for that distance at that pace.

I thought bored border collies were scary and dangerous, but I'd take an encounter with The Twins over the boxer with a death wish any day.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

My First Foray into Political Debate

My undergraduate degree was in Political Science. Looking back, it wasn't the most practical option, but it was a whole lot of fun to study. My parents took me to my first political rally before I was even born, so I suppose it should be no surprise that I grew up to be fascinated in all things political.

My first political memory is from the 1980 campaign, when I was an 8-year-old third-grader. I was in the school bathroom with a classmate and we were washing our hands. Looking back as an adult, I've no idea how we ever got onto the topic, but at the time, it was the most natural thing to discuss.

The classmate told me that she was for Ronald Reagan and so were her parents. I shrugged and said that I was for Jimmy Carter and so were my parents. The classmate's mouth dropped open and she looked at me with a combination of horror and pity. "But you can't be for Jimmy Carter! My parents told me that Jimmy Carter kills babies."

This revelation puzzled me. "How does Jimmy Carter kill babies?" Her response was a curt "I don't know. He just does." So I tried to figure it out myself. Was it like a Bible story, like when the Pharaoh decreed all the boy babies would be killed? Did he creep into nurseries and smother babies himself?

The thought of it, of Jimmy Carter killing babies, just didn't square up with what I knew of him from the television. He seemed like a nice man, a gentle guy. He had a daughter of his own, after all, who wasn't that much older than we were. He couldn't be so against kids that he would kill babies.

Maybe in this day and age, I would go on the Internet to fact check my classmate's claim. But back in the day, there was only one arbiter of fact at my disposal - my dad.

I know that I asked him, but I can't remember what he told me. I asked my dad today what he told me. He remembered my reporting the story to him that day, but he couldn't remember what he'd said either. Today, he said "I probably just told you that was absolute nonsense and that she didn't know anything and that you shouldn't listen to her."

I don't know what this classmate is doing these days. Her parents and my parents used to be friendly, but I think the last time I asked after her was at least 10 years ago. I think my mom told me that she was moving to Nashville to try to be a country singer. Looking at the election this year, I think her talents would probably be better spent as a maker of negative ads.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Life is Better Inside My Head

A few miles outside Tralee is a garden centre and nursery called Ballyseedy. I'd driven past it a few times in my travels and always had a bit of a chuckle over the name. Last weekend, I was in the area and saw that they had a sign up advertising their "Halloween Howl."

My inner child perked up at the mention of Halloween in conjunction with a garden centre. One of my largest disappointments of life in Ireland is the lack of decent pumpkins and Halloween activities. I used to look forward to October for our yearly pilgrimage to Honey Hill Orchard. Now I spend the shorter evenings lamenting the pumpkin-shaped hole in my life.

But the Halloween Howl sign, it gave me hope. I pictured it perfectly in my head. It looked a big like Mapleside, the place my parents took me when I was a kid. Not as big or exciting as Honey Hill, but full of giant pumpkins and hay bales and all the accoutrement of Halloween. I knew I probably couldn't count on a roaring fire or hot apple cider, but I held out hope for big, gregarious pumpkins. If the Halloween Howl panned out, we might have a new tradition to look forward to each October.

I had a few stops to make before I went into Ballyseedy to check out the Halloween Howl. The place is much more posh inside than your average nursery and garden centre. I suppose that should have been my first clue.

My second clue was that the Halloween Howl was indoors and seemed to consist of a large tent filled with crappy costumes and cheap decorations. In front of the tent was a display of decorative pumpkins. They were tiny, sad little creatures, not much bigger than a baby's head. Half of them were still mostly green.

My final clue, the great big bucket of water over my imagination fire, was when I asked one of the workers outdoors if they had pumpkins. "Ah yes, sure we do. I'm only after seeing them on the pallets this morning." Then he proudly marched me inside, directly to the aforementioned pathetic display of pumpkin produce.

I stopped at the Tesco on the way home, but they were sold out of the large pumpkins so I decided to hold out for another week. Next year, I'm going to have to get off my butt and plant my own damn pumpkins. That's going to have to be my new Halloween tradition.

P.S. - If you're lucky enough to be in the Chicago area, you owe it to yourself to visit Honey Hill. You also owe it to yourself to visit Richardson Farm, home to the world's largest corn maze.

P.P.S - Happy Anniversary, Big B. I'd marry you all over again. In fact, I already have. :)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

In a Grave State of Mind

While we're on the topic of decidedly depressing thoughts, like retirement, let's talk about death. Yes, it's all fun, fun, fun here at For the Long Run.

Earlier this year, I signed up as a volunteer for Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK). As the name suggests, RAOGK volunteers help people out with genealogical research. I found out about them from a radio interview with the author A.M. Holmes and thought it sounded interesting. One of the volunteer areas is going to cemeteries to take pictures of tombstones. Since I'm not particularly interested in the X begat Y family tree aspect of genealogy, I thought that being a cemetery volunteer would be a better option for me.

I pictured this as a way to help someone out whilst exploring Counties Cork and Kerry. In my imagination, requesters would provide accurate and precise locations for their ancestors and then I'd zip out to take the photographs. In reality, this hardly ever happens. 85% of the requests I've gotten have been for assistance obtaining parish records or other genealogical research, which isn't my thing. 5% of the requests have been bizarre, off-the-wall, or indecipherable questions.

My favourite in the bizarre category was from a guy who wrote:


I don't know why he was shouting at me and I don't know what he was talking about. My response was a puzzled (and I hope polite) "Sorry, I don't know of waterfront, though I'd be surprised if it were in Tipperary seeing as how the county is landlocked. Could you possibly mean Waterford, which is both a county and a city. County Waterford borders County Tipperary. Perhaps a Google search could help you?"

Only 10% of the requests I've gotten have been for cemetery visits and of those, only one person had the exact row location for the relative. It's been quite an adventure showing up at these small, poorly maintained, ancient cemeteries and stumbling through them, hoping to find a particular tombstone from 1829.

It's also made me think about things I've never thought about before. It's quite unnerving to see these poorly maintained gravesites, especially since the Irish tend to be quite reverential about their dead. One of the Christmas traditions here is to go to the graves of your relatives. When you walk through an Irish cemetery, the newer graves are always meticulously kept. I've even found some that were landscaped more nicely than our house in Wheaton.

To wander around and see graves from the turn of the century that are poorly maintained isn't particularly surprising. But it is odd and peculiarly distressing to see a recent grave in poor repair. It bespeaks a person who is alone in death and may also have been alone in life.

And all of this gets me thinking about what would happen to me if I died tomorrow. About how I'd have nothing to show for the last 35 years. No remarkable accomplishments. No great achievements. No children. Nothing.

I can push these thoughts out of my mind pretty easily. I'm relatively young, fit, healthy, and have excellent genes. My Nana Anna lived to be 90 and a half, after all. Unless I become 'carnage on the roads,' My goal is to live to at least 100. I still have time to make my mark on the world, to leave behind some passably entertaining books or something of lasting value.

But outliving everyone has its own sadness. What happens if you're the last one standing? If you've no children to bury you? If you've no friends to come to your funeral? I want to be cremated, but what happens if there's no one left to pick up my ashes?

Thoughts like this freak me out. Thoughts like this are the reason I will shortly be resigning my post as a RAOGK volunteer. I thought that this lark would be a great way to find interesting places in the surrounding countryside. I never expected to get a window into my own thoughts and fears about death.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Risk Adverse

I don't really like thinking about retirement. Back when we lived in Chicago, I participated in a focus group for the Gallup organization. (I believe they were working on behalf of a government agency.) The focus of the group was retirement planning and 401(k) participation. The twelve participants had two things in common: all of us were willing to give up two hours of our time for $125 and none of us were actively saving for retirement.

I had a good excuse. I was only 26, fairly recently married, just in my first Grown-Up Job. I was more worried about paying my student loans than saving for retirement. We each had to go around and talk about what we thought of when we thought of retirement. Most people had grand, idyllic scenarios of golf and relaxing in warmer climates.

"When I think of retirement, I get quite anxious and I don't want to think about it because I know I'm not doing anything for it and I'm terrified that I'm going to have to eat cat food so that I'll be able to afford my medication."

Yes, it all came out in a big rush, just like that. Because when I get anxious, I talk fast and in a stream of consciousness. I want to get the thoughts out of my head as quickly as possible and then think about something else.

The upshot of this focus group was that I did start participating in my company's 401(k) program. Not very much, but at least it was something. Then I got a new job at a company that wasn't quite a start-up but was swimming in $24 million of venture capital. The slick HR guy extolled the virtues of maintaining an aggressive portfolio. He'd made something like 35% return on his 401(k) investment in the last year.

I rolled over my meager portfolio and selected the very aggressive growth funds from the prospectus. This was in February of 2000. By November of 2000, the company had imploded, I was out of a job, and I had lost half of what I'd put into my 401(k). In Joe Biden style, let me repeat that. I lost half of my actual 401(k) contribution, not half of its mystical imaginary money value.

It was a valuable lesson about risk. And it was much better to learn it at 28 than it would have been to learn it at 58. Fast forward now to March of this year. Just before Easter, I signed up for my company's pension plan. As near as I can figure the Irish system, there's a public pension, which is similar to Social Security, and then employers can offer pension plans, which can be sort of like a 401(k). You contribute a certain percentage of your salary, your employer contributes, and then you make designation for which funds you want the money to go into.

I was out the day that the kindly people from the pension company came, so I missed all of the Important Advice that they distributed. I can't remember the exact rationale I used when I made my designations, but I think my breakdown went something like 10% aggressive risk, 30% high-moderate risk, 40% moderate-low risk, and 20% safe. Whatever it was, I was pleased with my selections.

I spend pretty much all day, every day listening to NPR, either by streaming it online or by downloading podcasts to my IPod shuffle. At the time, the talk was dominated by news of financial difficulties due to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the soaring gas prices, the rapidly inflating prices of everything else, and the weakening of the dollar.

I'm no economist, but it didn't sound good to me. What particularly scared me was that because all of these credit-default swap and mortgage-backed securities and credit derivative thingies were pretty much unregulated and privately traded, no one knew what was on anyone else's books. I think it was Warren Buffett who observed that "you don't know who's swimming naked until the tide goes out."

After I made my designations for my pension, I pretty much forgot about it. Until the office administrator told me that a letter had come from the pension fund administrator. You might think that this letter would have been marked "personal and confidential" and addressed to me. Nope. This letter was addressed to the pensions contact person in our office and it acknowledged receipt of all the pension paperwork for the company. Then it went on to name me in particular and express concern that my portfolio was too risk-adverse for a person of my age, that it was a horrible mistake to have chosen such conservative allocations, and that I should contact her immediately to remedy the situation.

I was fuming mad. Not only had this person impugned my financial acumen, she'd also done the equivalent of posting the allocation in the company canteen. I boiled about it for a little bit and then thought about what she'd said. Yes, it was fairly risk adverse. And I'm old enough to be flattered about the 'person of my age' comment, in the given context. But I still felt that things were too unsettled, that too many smart people were saying that Bad Things Could Happen.

So I drafted a snarky letter about sharing personal concerns with an entire workplace, but I never sent it. To send it would be to invite a dialogue with this person and I did not want to have that dialogue. I did not want to think about retirement. I would not like to in a box, I would not like to with a fox. I would not like it Ms. Judgment, I won't think about retirement.

After the last two weeks, I could feel all smug and pleased with self for having a slight clue about the depths of the financial predicament. I could, except that I feel too depressed and unsettled and nervous. But at least I have a good glimmer of hope that should I ever be able to retire, I will not have to decide between medication and cat food, and not just because medication in Ireland is free if you're over 65.

If you're still confused about how we ended up in this dark place, I encourage you to check out the following NPR shows:

  • Fresh Air - Our Confusing Economy, Explained- from April, does what it says on the tin.

  • Fresh Air - Was Adult Supervision Needed on Wall Street? - from September, recorded just after Lehman Brothers collapsed

  • Fresh Air - The Wall Street Bailout, Conflict of Interest - also from September, a critical look at the initial $700billion bailout plan

  • This American Life - The Giant Pool of Money - from May, explanation of how the subprime mortgage meltdown effects the wider economy

  • This American Life - Another Frightening Show About the Economy - from last week, a truly excellent, in-depth explanation of how we got here

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  • Monday, October 06, 2008

    Travels with Toby

    "Hey Toby, do you want to go on a holiday? Who wants to go on a holiday?"

    Toby's ears perked up but his face belied the confusion of a dog with a limited English vocabulary. He knew enough to know that 'do you want to go...' and 'who wants to...' usually result in the best things in life, namely food, walks, and car rides. But he also knew that sometimes these seemingly great things had bad side effects, like the car ride that ends at the kennels or the cheese that is only given after a bath.

    Toby didn't know it when we asked him, but 'holiday' was going to get filed under the best things in life. The plan was to rent a cottage near Killarney so Peter could spend a week beefing up his photography portfolio. I'd go with him for the weekend and also take a few days off at the end of the week.

    I asked Peter to look for a cottage that allowed dogs so that Toby could have his first holiday. Even though a photography field trip is not a holiday, Toby's a dog, so any day he's outside his usual element is a spectacular adventure. The place Peter found was perfect - an old farm cottage with a cosy stone fireplace. It was up in the hills, at the end of a narrow, pot-holed farm track of a road. (If anyone's looking for a cottage to rent in the Killarney area, send me an email and I'll give you these people's contact information.)

    When I let Toby out of the car, he went nuts examining all of the interesting new smells. The stone outbuilding held a surprise, a sweet little farm dog called Rosie. She and Toby didn't quite know what to make of each other and seemed to eventually settled into a sort of doggie detente.

    When we could, Toby and I accompanied Peter on his searches for good photo-taking locations. Toby took great joy in hanging his head out the window. He was especially mystified by the jaunting cars and would whip his head back to check out the horses. When we got to a location, Peter would scout it out and Toby and I would dutifully tag along.

    Sometimes, Toby hit the jackpot and would get to romp and frolic off-leash. We especially enjoyed Rossbeigh Beach, a fantastic stretch of beach that includes an area of moderately high sand dunes, which give way to waist-high grasslands. Toby and I found a piece of driftwood and played fetch for ages. I'd toss the stick way up into the dunes and Toby would scramble after it.

    Then I decided to scramble up after him and chuck the stick into the tall grass. Toby went bounding off after it, excited, but couldn't quite locate it. It took both of us stumbling around in the tall grass to find it.

    Other times, Toby had to wait patiently in the car or on the leash for Peter to get his work done. Toby took these downtimes in stride, although his copious sighs and little whinges always let us know what his preference would be.

    The best time we had was on our last day when we hiked into the Hag's Glen, near the base of Carrantuohill, Ireland's highest mountain. The hike had just about everything a dog could want - bogland to squish through, rocks to scamper over, sheep to watch, and rivers to cross. You may remember that we used to have trouble with Toby and sheep. I had grave reservations about using the shock collar to train him to stay away from sheep, so Peter took care of it.

    The training didn't take very long at all. A few shocks and Toby quickly figured out that as fun as they looked, sheep were not worth it. He's now quite reliable around sheep. He knows exactly where they are. He knows exactly how much he wants to chase them. But he knows exactly how wrong that would be and that Bad Things would happen. I don't know if I'd trust him 100% if he were by himself, or even if it were just me and him, but when Peter is around, Toby knows where his place is regarding sheep.

    About the only thing that the hike to Hag's Glen did not have was a supply of sticks. Toby searched for one, but since there are no trees, it was pretty difficult to find a stick. He did find a nice specimen of bog oak, but that was fairly big and well-rooted. When we got to the flat plains just before the two lakes in the glen, Toby found some burned up firewood that he thought would do nicely as fetching sticks. In actuality, well, not so much. The sticks just disintegrated and left black cinders everywhere.

    In the evenings, Peter would build a fire and we would relax after a long day of work (for Peter) or scampering around being silly (for Toby and me). Toby enjoyed the warmth of the fire, but was quite suspicious of the sounds it made, especially the periodic crackles and snaps. And he really didn't like when the wood would give way and collapse.

    This wasn't just Toby's first holiday. It was also our first outing with a dog. Sure, we'd take Kodiak and Caper to visit my family in Ohio, but that's not quite the same thing as a holiday or photography field trip. Having him around increased the fun of the outing exponentially. You couldn't help but feel happy when you saw the absolute joy he had running unfettered and exploring new smells and sights. I cannot wait until the next time we can take Toby on holiday.

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    Friday, October 03, 2008

    Toby's New Friends

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    Wednesday, October 01, 2008

    Party Line

    I do not like parties. It's not that I'm a totally asocial hermit who wants to spend the rest of her life living in a cave, wearing moth-eaten sweaters and letting all personal hygiene fall by the wayside. I like having friends. I like getting together with my friends.

    But I like to get together and do something with my friends. Bowling. Paintball. Running Around and Hitting Things with Sticks. I'm up for quieter pursuits too, like painting-your-own-pottery or going to the movies. But the idea of just standing around and talking to people for hours does not appeal to me one bit. I always end up feeling awkward and out of place.

    The older I get, the less parties appeal to me. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the older I get, the less I drink alcohol.) Christmas parties are the bane of my existence, particularly the work variety. It's just a big staff meeting with drink and dancing. I enjoy my co-workers, but I already get to enjoy them 40-hours a week. Let's keep a little mystery in our relationship.

    Peter seems to really enjoy parties. He enjoys all the conversations and debates. He's understanding though and he knows I have a limited number of social interactions in me. My party attendance rate has probably hovered somewhere around 50%. And since we moved to the Middle of Nowhere, it's become something of a moot point since all of our friends are back in Dublin.

    This year, I have implemented a no-party policy. Up until this year, I've dodged and danced, come up with excuses, negotiated attendance. ("OK, I'll go to the party with you, but unless I'm having a fabulous time, I'm going to leave at 11.") The approach wasn't very satisfying for anyone. I hated coming up with excuses and I'm a terrible liar.

    Like every policy in the world, this one also has an exception - weddings of close friends. I can't explain it, but I love weddings and have a great time at them. In July, Middle Brother and I had so much fun at my high school friend K's wedding. I even danced, which is something that rarely happens in public since I have to co-ordination of a drunken hippo on roller skates.

    The first test of my no-party policy came last month, when my football team won the county final. It was easy, in that I was able to do send my regrets via text and didn't actually have to speak to anyone. The coach was understanding about it and a teammate called when the team was on the way to the second stage of the celebration, the parade into town. Unfortunately, at that point, it was 9.30 and my pajama-clad body was just about to go to sleep.

    After seeing pictures of the team riding through town on the back of a truck and the celebratory bonfires, I felt like I'd maybe missed out on something special and exciting. But my dislike of standing around awkwardly and how miserable that makes me outweighs the regret I have about skipping the parties. (I found out later they were in the pub until 2.30 and then at someone's house until 6. I'd not have been able for any of that.) I realise this makes me something of an oddity - the only person in the world who will weasel out of parties while quite happily attending training sessions - but I'm comfortable with my decisions.

    The first real test of the no-party policy will happen soon: the office Christmas party. I missed it last year because they had it the day that I needed to go to Dublin for the start of the Cox Family Christmas celebrations. I don't want to have to lie or invent excuses. I want to just be able to say "Thanks for the invitation, but I won't be able to attend."