Monday, July 28, 2008

Are We There Yet?

After the exciting boat tour of the Cliffs of Moher, we were all hungry. So we piled into the 'family car' and I set off for Ballyvaughn. I'd given everyone a choice - we could go to a place that was closer but more awkward to get to or a place that was further away, but on better roads. The choice to go with the better roads was unanimous.

I'd forgotten that this particular national road included one of the more trying stretches of road in a country that's full of difficult roads. Built as part of a Famine Relief Project and called Corkscrew Hill, it pretty much does what it says on the tin. It's a series of hairpin turns, twisting down a steep hill, all packed into a mere 180 meters.

Let's just say that in places, I had to use the Wheee! method to keep my composure. At one point, I came around a blind curve, hugging my side of the road, and found myself face-to-face with a big truck. My father later reported that his mother would have said "He wants his half in the middle." I eased little Leo as close to my edge of the road as I dared and (I am ashamed to admit this) closed my eyes and hoped for the best. That we got past the truck without evening scraping a mirror is a minor miracle.

We had lunch at a seafood place in Ballyvaughn. By the time we were finishing up lunch, it was a bit past 2.30, creeping up onto 3. My mother desperately wanted to get to the airport hotel, partly because I think she was afraid they'd give our room away if we weren't there by 6 and partly because she was just understandably sick of being in the car.

I didn't feel like spending too much time in the hotel, since there's nothing to see there and, from past experience, I knew it wasn't even a very nice hotel. My dad and Aunt P were happy to sight-see along the way back to the hotel and Aunt L wanted to cram as much vacation fun as possible into their last day.

I'd plotted a course that took us to Pol na Brun dolmen and mentioned that there were a few other sights on the route to the airport. Aunt L and I were both interested in the Burren Perfumery, because Lonely Planet reported it had lots of good information about the wondrous and rare wildflowers that somehow make their home in the rocky, barren landscape. My mother was less enamoured of this plan and there were grumblings come at me from a few different quarters.

We all piled back into the car and visited the Dolmen first. When we got into the Burren, everyone was quite taken with the landscape. We were also driving through some truly Irish weather - sun and rain at the same time, then flat grey sky with pouring rain, then mist with a hint of sunshine. The weather seemed to shift every ten minutes or so.

We were pulling into the car park near the Dolmen when my mother first informed me that she needed to use the bathroom. "Why didn't you go before we left?" The answer was a predictable "I didn't have to go then, it just sort of snuck up on me." I told her there were no facilities here and if she wanted to go, I would drive her to the next village and then we would return to collect the rest of the family. She demurred, insisting that she would be fine, just fine.

I let them go ahead while I stayed in the car for a few minutes to check maps for the nearest toilet and also to get my temper in check. I didn't want to be the one who ruined the whole holiday by having a meltdown. First, a quick ring to the hotel to confirm that the rooms would be ready and waiting for us, regardless of when we arrived. Then I consulted a few maps to find a bathroom.

It quickly became clear to me that I had the opportunity to fulfill two travel desires with one stop. It turned out that the nearest village was also the village that had the Burren Perfumery. I rang them and asked if they had toilets there. The woman laughed at me (not in a mean way, maybe it was with me) and assured me they did.

I had another look at the map and could see my only challenge was going to be successfully navigating to the Perfumery on minor roads. For many of our car excursions, we'd had the luxury of Peter's GPS, whom we call Emily. My mother loved Emily because she could see how long it was going to take to get places and she would get especially excited when the checkered End Route flag appeared on the screen. I'm no Emily and I had no idea how long it was going to take us to get to the Perfumery, so I decided not to say anything about my plan, just to say that I had located the nearest village and knew of a place there that had toilets.

When the sightseeing at the Dolmen was over, we headed, unbeknownst to everyone but me, to the Perfumery. We ended up traveling over some blessedly straight but cursedly steep and narrow roads. Occassionally, my mother would ask how much longer until we arrived. I tried not to get snippy, but I was sweating this whole gambit enough without getting amped up impatience from the backseat. And I'm no Emily. I had only the vaguest notion of where we were and the best hopes that we were traveling in the right direction.

After an interminable amount of time, which was in actuality only about 15 minutes, we reached the village and I spotted the first sign for the Perfumery. A few turns and several kilometers later, I pulled into the long driveway of the Burren Perfumery. It was an enchanted little place, an English fairy garden dropped into the middle of the Burren, no less strange and surprising than Dorothy's house landing in Oz.

My mom and dad both headed for the bathrooms while the Aunts checked out the Perfumery. I had a look at the wildflower displays but was disappointed to find that they only had some pictures and that their real info was contained in a 12-minute filmstrip. (I knew there was no way I was going to get my mother to agree to stay that long.)

My father came out of the bathroom first and gave me a big hug. "You're the smartest person I know! You managed to find a solution that would please everyone." That made all the sweating it out worth it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Message from the Birthday Queen

Once again, it's that magical day for me, my day to rule my own world as the Birthday Queen. We've had to scale the celebration back this year, since Peter has to work. But never fear, we're still having the traditional obligatory visit to a petting farm and I will get to have an entire day to be a proper Birthday Queen in September.

In the last week, I'd approached this day with some trepidation and ambivalence. I was trying to pinpoint the problem and it boiled down to this: I felt like I hadn't achieved any goals, particularly in the area of writing. I was sliding down a slippery slope of self-recrimination when two things happened.

The first was a football training session last week with a guest trainer. This guy is an amazing coach with a soft-spoken and humorous way of getting players' attention and commitment. He could be (and probably is, for all I know) someone's cuddly grandfather. He's helped out at three sessions over the last five months and everyone plays harder and better when he's around. He just has that effect on players.

After a warm-up, he gathered us around. "There's two things that you need to know are always going to happen: you're going to make mistakes and you're going to get beaten. Accept that and know it's not important. What's important is what you do after you make a mistake or lose a match." He went on to tell us the story of a hurling team he was on, that lost a match 10-14 to 2-8 (44-14). Twelve of the fifteen players on the field that day stuck with the game and within three years, they'd won the county championship.

The point resonated with me. So I didn't finish NaNoWriMo this year. I didn't make any big achievements or breakthroughs. I haven't been great about writing in my dream journal. My weight seems to be stubbornly clinging to its current number, despite my best efforts to change it. I suppose you could call those my mistakes, but now it's time to take The Coach's challenge: forget about them, move on, and focus on doing the small things needed to get it right next time.

The other timely kick-up-the-pants that I needed happened this morning. To prepare to write this year's message, I revisited the messages of birthdays past. I'd somehow forgotten that the goal this year was to back off the goals and focus on experiences. To collect memories, thoughts, and observations to use in future writing. Looking back on the year with a new prism, the trepidation and ambivalence vanished.

This is the year I learned to be alone. I learned to live inside the silence of an empty house. If you had told me a few years ago that I would spend a month alone and enjoy it, I'd never have believed you. I miss Peter when he's gone, but I've gained a sort of self-sufficiency that had been elusive.

I learned how to have adventures alone, or at least alone with Toby. I learned how to overcome my anxieties around being out alone in a strange place. I know now that I can deal with things like a flat tire. The film that used to run in my head, of my car breaking down and something terrible happening has been replaced with one in which, if the car breaks down, I'm able to handle it without incident.

This was also the year that I learned how to be with people, particularly my family. I learned how to listen to my mother. We all successfully survived and enjoyed two weeks together, even though a lot of time was spent crammed into a tiny hatchback, careening around the blind turns of country roads in the Middle of Nowhere.

So, to paraphrase Tori Amos, it's been a pretty good year. I collected plenty of life lessons and experiences and can safely say I accomplished the objectives outlined in last year's birthday missive. I think the challenge for the next year is to take The Coach's advice to heart and pursue my writing goals with the understanding that I'm not going to be perfect, but I need to keep doing it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I'm Not Stalking You, I'm Stalking Your Dog

For five years, I was a vet clinic volunteer at the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago. Each animal that came into the shelter was given a veterinary examination, which determined whether the animal was physically and temperamentally suited for adoption. Even though there were some sad moments (like seeing a pit bull that suffered horrible burns or having to take a sweet but elderly and arthritic dog to the euthanasia room), I loved my time at Anti-Cruelty.

I learned a lot, especially about dogs. My responsibilities included selecting a dog for examination, waiting in the hallway with the dog, holding the dog during the exam, and then delivering the dog to the next destination. (Usually, when all went well, to the adoption kennels.) A popular sport at the clinic was trying to guess the heritage of various mongrels. Several illustrated posters of dog breeds lined the hallway where we waited for exams and I often studied them.

Peter makes fun of me because after all the time I spent with him at airports for his helicopter and airplane lessons, I still cannot identify many aircraft. I know about 3 helicopters and a handful of airplanes. But I can spot a Kuvasz or a Puli at a hundred paces.

When we were at the Cliffs of Moher, Aunt P and I spotted a very interesting looking dog. It was biggish and rangy, with long legs, a boxy yet pointy head, and scruffy black and white fur. Intriguing and exotic yet somehow familiar, we were both struck by the dog's appearance and immediately started to puzzle over its breed combination.

After discarding a few options, inspiration struck. "It's a lurcher of some sort, my guess is a border collie," I told Aunt P, further explaining that 'lurcher' is just a fancy name for a greyhound crossbred with something else. The lurchers I'd come across in the past tended to be crossed with terriers, wolfhounds, or deerhounds. I'd never seen a border collie lurcher before and the mix was quite striking. We admired the dog from a distance and then carried on with our sightseeing.

The next afternoon, we were sight-seeing at Pol na Bron dolmen. As were finishing up and walking back to the car, Aunt P and I spotted a familiar lanky dog striding along the path. It was the very same lurcher. As we were going to pass his person, I decided to confirm my suspicion.

"Excuse me, " I said. "He's a lovely dog. Is he a border collie lurcher?"

The guy looked suspicious, puzzled, and impressed, all at the same time. "Yes. How'd you know?"

"Oh, we saw him yesterday and it took me a few minutes to figure it out. Not the usual mix, but he's so handsome, we remembered him."

Aunt P and I pet the lurcher and his little friend, a terrier. They were both lovely dogs and the guy was quite friendly, after he'd gotten over the shock. It did take every ounce of self-control I had not to blurt out "I'm not stalking you, I'm stalking your dog!"

Monday, July 21, 2008

Running for a Reason

I don't need a reason to run - it's something I just do because I'm stubborn, enjoy being alone, and am maybe (like all runners) a few sandwiches short a picnic. But thanks to Barbara, I'm going to run the Cork Women's Mini Marathon* and use the opportunity to raise money for Amnesty International. This is the sort of thing I've always wanted to do and was just waiting for the right kick up the arse. I mean opportunity, I was just waiting for the right opportunity.

And not only do I believe in what Amnesty does and feel that they've never been more needed in this screwed up world, I'm also thrilled that the Internet has made fundraising easier. You can check out my fundraising page and donate online with a credit card. It's all very secure and professional, handled by a well-respected payment processing company.

I'd appreciate any donations (as I'm sure Barbara would as well) and will write up a blog post after the big event.

*Ed. pedantic footnote: I hate the term 'mini marathon' because a marathon is a specific distance: 26.2 miles. 'Mini marathon is arbitrary and meaningless. The mini marathon in question here is 4 miles.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Different Perspective

I seem to remember hearing on Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me something about couples being way more likely to fight in places like Ikea. The dubious factoid was based on a survey done around Valentine's Day and the speculated cause was that something about all that domestic perfectness illuminated the flaws in their lives. Or something. (It's entirely possible that this was not a real survey and that it was one of those Fool the Listener stories, but for whatever reason, it lodged in my brain so just go with it.)

I'd love to see a similar survey done on the Cliffs of Moher. Peter and I are 2:3 in the fights to visit ratio. We managed to avoid a fight the last time, but I think that's because we know all about the Cliffs' reputation and were on our best behaviour.

We'd gone with Peter's sister, her husband, and their son. The Nephew's temper was getting a bit frayed around the edges. He was terribly disappointed that he was unable to march right up to the edge and dangle his feet off the side, the way his mother had when she was young. At one point, I had to stop him from climbing over the barrier at the end of the official path. He pouted and said "Life is just one big disappointment." But aside from a little whinging, we all made it through the trip without incident.

I warned my family about the possibility of fights at the Cliffs. Given that we'd been traveling, packed like clowns into my town Peugeot for 8 hours when we arrived at the Visitor Centre's car park, I thought for sure we'd end up with at least one minor fight. So I was pleasantly surprised when we skated by with just some complaints from those that wanted to make it a short trip and those that wanted to explore a little more.

This dichotomy, between The Walkers and The Non-Walkers, was a constant concern throughout the trip and we did our best to search for compromises. In this case, the Non-Walkers went back to the car while The Walkers had a longer look around. Everyone was happy and we all knew a special trip awaited us the next day: a boat tour to see the Cliffs from a different perspective.

When we set out for the Jack B the next morning, my mother was nervous. The sky was grey and I guess to her, the ocean looked threatening. I could empathise since I'm a bit terrified and intimidated by the ocean. But I figured that the operators of the Jack B weren't going to go out if it wasn't 100% safe. It's hard to make a living from tourism if tourists hear that you've accidentally killed a few.

I sat in the open back of the boat with my aunt. My other aunt and my parents went into the covered seating section in the middle of the boat, although my father came out to the back shortly after the boat left the dock.

About ten minutes into the ride, my aunt looked into the covered area for my mom, but she wasn't there. We were surprised to see that she was out on the bow of the boat with Sean the Friendly Crew Guy. I was shocked to see my mother riding easy on the rail. This was not the mother I thought I knew.

I had to go up to the bow to check it out. It was no optical illusion - my mother was comfortable out on the bow. Sean was entertaining her, pointing out birds and telling silly jokes in a conversational style, so you were never quite sure what was real and what was a joke.

"Are you surprised to see me out here?" asked my mother.

"Yeah, of course I am."

"Ah sure, she's a salty old sea dog, so she is," declared Sean. "We'll be offering her a job before too long. She'll have her Captain's ticket within two weeks, so she will."

The view of the Cliffs from the boat was even more impressive than the view of the ocean from the Cliffs. The towering sea stack was more visible and even more impressive. The people on the top of the Cliffs looked like small, brightly coloured dots.

I'd say they don't get many fights on the boat. You're way too busy marveling at the spectacle and enjoying the thrill of being out on the water. Changing your perspective can really change your whole experience. Just ask my mother, the Salty Sea Dog.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Pack that Howls Together

When we were kids, we often hung out with the kids who lived across the street. It was more a matter of proximity than shared interests, which pretty much boiled down to snowball fights in the winter and leaving bicycle skid marks up and down the block in the summer. Another favourite activity was to go behind Across-the-Street's garage and make the dog in the next yard howl.

The dog was a beagle, so this wasn't very difficult. "Howl, dog, howl, howl, howl, howl!" we'd yell and the dog would happily oblige. We called him Howl-Dog and he was always good for a few minutes of entertainment. I don't know if we were teasing the dog, I'd like to think that we weren't, that we were just encouraging him to sing.

I didn't think much about howling again until we had Kodiak and Caper, and I discovered that by howling, we could get the dogs to join in. I loved doing this. There was something primitive and wolf-ish about it, something deliciously and inexplicably feral. For those minutes that we were howling, we were a pack. It reminded me of the time we went to Brookfield Zoo's Mexican Wolf exhibit.

One wolf sat atop a pile of heated rocks. As the sun began to set, the wolf started to howl, a plaintive directive that was slowly matched by similar cries coming from different directions. The sounds converged as the pack assembled on the rocks. It was magical.

Toby is not a howler. We've tried a few times, but he looks at us like we're crazy. Once, when he and I were alone, I tried to see how long I would have to howl before he would get the idea. My throat gave out before a single sound had issued from him.

Shortly after I arrived in Cleveland last week, Middle Brother told me he had a picture that he'd wanted to send me, but didn't know if it would upset me. I asked why and he said because Kodiak was in it. I love seeing pictures of Kodiak, especially if I'm in them. The memories are enjoyable now, a comfort, a reminder of a good friend.

Middle Brother tappity-tapped-tapped on his laptop and produced a picture of Kodiak, the Kid, and I. We're all bunched up together on Kodiak's dog bed and the camera has captured all of us mid-howl. I remember doing it, remember how amused The Kid was that we could all sing together like that.

It's not as weird being here without Kodiak as I thought it would be, probably because I lived in this house for many years before he did, so he's not a central force to all my Cleveland memories. (It would probably be much weirder and difficult to go back to Wheaton.) But there are still little reminders of his absence - the fact that you can open the side door without trigging a volley of deep-throated guard dog barking or the fact that you can leave food unattended. Saddest of all, to me at least, is the fact that if I start howling, no one will join me.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

To Be Continued...

I have a few more family travel stories that I hoped to get out before my trip to Cleveland for one of my best friends' wedding. But then I got crazy busy at work, so the stories will have to wait. (Annoyingly, I've got one of the stories written out in long-hand and I've left it at home, so you might be waiting a while for that one.) I should have some time during my holiday to post a few stories of family travel, from both past and present trips.

I know some people are a little paranoid about announcing that they're going away. Since Peter and Toby are staying behind to guard the house, I'm less paranoid about it. (Unless your grand plan is to steal Peter, then I'm in trouble.)

Now, I'm off to sit on a plane for many hours. It's actually much nicer than it sounds, as long as you have the right reading material.