Tree topplers

Ever since I was a kid helping decorate the tree (and the one year where my toddler sibling and myself had the misapprehension that ornaments were meant to be stomped into the carpet for fun and noise; our parents issued correction), tree toppers have struck me as stupid. Not because the idea is stupid, but because none of them fricking work. They all assume the top of a tree to be ramrod-firm and straight, capable of supporting an ornament. I call them tree topplers because what they mostly do is fall over and piss me off.

This year, I finally did something about it.

We use a plastic tree (we don’t really need to kill one and clean up a lot of fir needles) and it already has integrated lights. Just like a real tree, its tip sucks for a tree topper. This year I threw away our old one, which I remembered only as a source of pissing-me-off; it was the kind where the insertion hole was a sort of spring, which sounds like a great idea until you try to use it for real.

First, I went out and got a new topper–I didn’t even care how heavy it was–with a straight-up hole in the base rather than a spring. I then bought a dowel that fit the hole, and cans of spray paint: black, forest green, and flat clear. I already owned spring-loaded clamps in great surplus and could easily dedicate two to solving this annoyance for me forever.

Then I spray-painted dowel and clamps green, let it dry, and added a mottling of black splotches. On the clamps’ rubber tips and handles, the paint was very tacky even when fully dry. The flat clear coat changed that. I sprayed every cranny I could hit with it.

When it was all dry, I brought the dowel in, put it on the back side of the ‘tree’s’ ‘trunk’ with the top near where I wanted the topper, and clamped it to the ‘trunk’ from behind. On with the topper. It fits perfectly, stays straight, is at zero risk of falling off unless the whole thing goes over (for example, someone sets off fireworks and our miniature schnauzer decides that his fate depends upon burrowing into its lower branches), and looks great. The clamps and dowel blend in well. You have to look twice to notice anything special about the topper.

Nearly fifty Christmases of irritation, problem at long last addressed. If you have experienced the same irritation, this post is your Christmas present. Happy topping.

Ho ho ho.

This, by the way, is available for $100 at Gorilla Goodies.


I know that’s what they taught you in school; I don’t care

We still use language for the same purposes we did when I was a child. For that reason, I’m generally averse to changing a term’s definition, especially when we need that word (like ‘literally’; without it, we have no way to separate metaphor and exaggeration from accurate recitation), or when the word has been redefined not because it needed redefinition, but due to basic sociopolitical cowardice.

What we don’t do the same is commit language to record. We do not type on manual typewriters, where it took physical effort to begin a new line. We do not type on electric typewriters, where one used to hit a button for that purpose. If we wanted center justification, we did elementary mathematics. Younger people who never used typewriters would be astonished at how much of Word’s superficial presentation originates in the typewriter, such as tab stops. The earliest word processing was meant to imitate what people understood best, and that was the typewriter.

We also don’t write with a pencil or pen in our dominant hand. Many of us can no longer write a word of cursive English beyond our own signatures, and schools are discontinuing its instruction. One day the ability to read cursive English will be a specialized skill for wonks only.

Nowadays, we either type on a computer keyboard, a laptop keyboard (I only consider laptops as half a computer), or some tiny chiclet-sized key images on a glass surface. We do have to hit the space bar after a word or punctuation–the space itself is a character–and we have had some more years to debate the way punctuation inflects meaning.

We also don’t so often print the words on paper. We often send them electronically. No one–at least, no one whose hands are not too arthritic to type in the first place–is going to type several hundred pages of text, revise it with multiple rewrites, and send this ream-sized manuscript to one publisher at a time, awaiting its return and enduring its entire loss if it is not returned. We can wave the mouse and make the whole document double-spaced. We can enforce a paragraph-opening indent. We don’t need underlines or caps for emphasis. We have proportional fonts with automatic kerning. We don’t even need font cartridges, as we used to use in the earlier days of inkjet printers.

What we learned as kids, and in typing class, was what teachers of the day were conditioned to teach us. Some of it made sense. Some really didn’t. We got marked down if we did it differently, conditioning us to consider it ‘correct.’ Then: the way we committed language to record transformed. Those of us in ‘the industry’ transformed with it. Those not, mostly did not, obstinately insisting that what they learned in 1963 must still be right, and if you don’t like it, get off my lawn and stay off my Social Security.

It is time they–you, if you are reading this, and you are over fifty–awaken to what you are doing wrong. This is especially true if you start a blog, or start shopping your manuscript. If your editor tells you we don’t do it that way any more, believe him or her and cooperate. I would not lie to you about the industry standards, and if I tried, I could not get away with it.

Most people over fifty are doing some things wrong.

The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford. I have often vented about my refusal to recognize Oxford’s moral authority over the English language, but this comma phenomenon exists by any name. When presenting a listing with commas, our grade school teachers taught us to omit the comma before the conjunction (typically ‘and’ or ‘or’). Thus, “Seattle, Pullman, Eugene and Corvallis have I-A football teams.” They and we were doing it wrong most of the time, and here is why: failure to use this comma creates an association between the last two items in the list. If we want that association, we should omit it. If we do not, we should use the comma. There is no mindless rule yea or nay. So no, TCFKAO is not always required, but is usually appropriate; intended meaning must govern.  We were taught wrong, and rather than continue to do it wrong, we must improve. I don’t care what Miss Unruh taught you back in school. Start doing it right.

Two spaces vs. one space. This did not exist for me until I began to type. Our typing teachers taught us: two spaces after a period, exclamation point, or colon. One after everything else. For some reason, my age group and those older cling to this obsolete usage as though it were heavenly gospel. It existed because, on the typewriter, all fonts were fixed-pitch. A font consists of a typeface (Arial, Times Roman, Courier) and a pitch (size; typical number of characters per inch of printed text). Courier 12 is a font, as is Arial 8 or Times Roman 24. A typeface is proportional or fixed-pitch as one of its basic properties; most are proportional, because proportional was what we always wanted but could not do on a typewriter. Professional typesetting used proportional fonts because it could, and because it was more readable. To see what every one of my college history papers looked like, pull up a document in your word processor and change a paragraph to Courier 12, which is a fixed-pitch font. Our typewriters could not handle proportional fonts, like this blog’s. Because they could not, Courier was harder to read, and we learned to use two spaces after certain punctuation marks. This is no longer Mrs. Overley’s freshman typing class. In modern documents, an extra space is just pointless air. Let it go. Even Mrs. Overley probably has.

Underlines and caps. Gather round, children, for a tale of the days when we were one step above writing with flint knives, burins, mastodon grease, harvested ochre, and dried stretched deerskin. We could not make text bold on a typewriter. We could not italicize it. Only on later typewriters could we change fonts at all. Even then, we could not change their size as issued. If we wanted emphasis, and we were too lazy or illiterate to make our word choices convey the emphasis–or, in fairness, we were writing dialogue and needed the occasional emphasis–we had underlines, and we had all caps. This led a generation of kids, mine as it happens, to use these methods even into their middle age–when italics were available and didn’t cost a nickel. Stop it. There are very few reasons to use underlines. Debate goes on about book titles, but I think the underline is a holdover from when we would backspace and hold down the underbar key. There are even fewer reasons to use all caps, unless one wants to scream in text. When I see underlines and caps, I don’t see a good writer. I don’t give a damn what your IBM Selectric let you do; start doing it right, won’t you?


I would be diabetic except for the cinnamon

This is difficult. I feel it is my duty.

Technically, I am a Type 2 diabetic. For those unfamiliar: in Type 2, one’s pancreas is producing enough insulin, but one’s body creates resistance to it. The most common cause of this, I believe, as in my case, is what we call “being too fat.” If I were thinner, I might no longer manifest Type 2 diabetes. But unless/until that happens, I will.

Except that I don’t; my symptoms are in check, so well that it’s easy for me to screw up and forget that I have a chronic illness. My solution costs about $1.25 per day, so it’s a lot more expensive than the medication, but a lot less expensive than if one has Type 1 and has to give oneself insulin shots, test blood sugar, and so on. It’s also a lot less expensive than neuropathy, heart disease, amputation, and so on.

Cinnamon is the secret, and if it ever becomes generally known and believed in–if it works for others as it has worked for me–it’s going to screw the diabetic drug industry real hard. So let’s get screwing, because our precious pharmaceutical companies need a good ream.

First, please know this: I am not the person who runs up to you and suggests a decoction of cohosh root, pennyroyal, powdered goat crap, cumin seed, St. John’s wort, and/or spunkwater (if you get the reference, comment and take your bow) as the solution to any health problem from hemorrhoids to Stage 10 kneecap cancer. I don’t place automatic faith in any kind of medicine, conventional or alternative. I’d go so far as to suggest that my skepticism toward most medical treatment tends to self-fulfillment, as in, belief helps and lack of belief perhaps harms. Drugs work worse on me partly because my default belief is that they won’t.

I also don’t like talking about my medical history in public. I am a more intensely private person than anyone in my world imagines, except for my very few closest friends. This post feels deeply uncomfortable. It has taken me some months to nerve myself up. I’m doing it because I have adequate experimental proof of what worked for me, and thus may work for other Type 2 diabetics, and I feel a duty to share.

It’s not as good as losing forty tons of flab, of course, but it’s good while figuring out how to do that.

Okay, I admit that there’s another motivator. I am capable of despising corporations like few people can. Most of our major corporations should hope and pray that their fates never rest within my hands. One group of corporations I consider especially rapacious is the pharmaceuticals. If I have a chance to play Robin Hood with them, I simply must. It is my duty.

Every day, for lunch, I open a vanilla- or coffee-flavored yogurt, mix in a spoonful of cinnamon, and eat the resulting tannish/mauve substance. The cinnamon is not some special strain of cinnamon from some obscure Central American country (there are people making a mint convincing consumers of this). It’s fricking bulk cinnamon powder from Fred Meyer (Kroger, to much of the country). The yogurt is Tillamook, mainly because I like it better than other brands, with flavors chosen because they mix bearably with cinnamon. If you are going to eat this stuff every day of your life, you may as well like it.

I’m going to tell you about my experience, so that skeptics will have some fairly concrete reason to believe that I haven’t just gone off and become an herbs-cure-everything True Believer.

Back when I was diagnosed, in about October of 2016, I had amazing levels of thirst. This happens when Type 2 is untreated. After diagnosing me, my doctor put me on a drug called metformin, a glucophage–in essence, a sugar eater. It somehow reacts with the sugar in your bloodstream. This helped, but by itself, it didn’t knock my A1C down far enough. The A1C test result determines a Type 2 diabetic’s life. The goal is to get it below 7 (mine was nearly 10 when diagnosed, which is ‘killing you softly’ A1C). After metformin, mine was down around 8, which is still worrisome–this means the condition is not under control, and is damaging the body. My doctor prescribed a pancreatic stimulant. The very idea made me nervous, but so did the potential for dying of diabetic complications, so I tried it.

During that time, my wife mentioned that some people had reduced their A1C by taking a teaspoon of cinnamon per day. It didn’t sound as if it could cause harm. I have put far more than a teaspoon of cinnamon on vanilla ice cream and didn’t keel over. Of course, one doesn’t just eat a spoonful of cinnamon by itself–not twice, at any rate. I tried mixing it with coffee; most of it sank as a sludge. (Probably would have been okay on a couple pieces of toast, in hindsight.) Cinnamon is a tree bark, usually ground to powder, and is not soluble in water. After a couple of other misfires, I hit on mixing it with yogurt. This proved an efficient, endurable way to get the spice down. It became my daily lunch.

Soon came my next appointment. As one should, I had my blood test shortly beforehand. Imagine my surprise when my doctor came into the consultation room and began to exult: my A1C had fallen to 5.9. She couldn’t believe it, nor could I. To make it a little more comical, my doctor is an Englishwoman from Northumberland (near Scotland). She sounds like Scotty’s daughter instead decided to follow in Dr. McCoy’s footsteps: “If we kenna get yae bledd sugur doon…” I thought for a moment she might actually give me a hug.

When you find a doctor who cares that much, treat her right. Don’t let her get away if you can possibly help it. And do what she tells you, or you don’t deserve to feel better. But she didn’t yet know about the cinnamon.

Then I told her the truth. My most marked shift in symptoms (as in, end to all night thirsts) had come when I had begun a disciplined cinnamon dosing as I described above. Her eyes said: ye’ve got tae be kiddin’ me. However, people tend to take me at face value; in person, I seem to radiate an intense earnestness. I explained what I had done and why. I suggested we discontinue the pancreatic stimulant and see what happened. If my A1C rocketed back up, we’d know the cinnamon hadn’t helped much, if at all.

Three months later, I came back in. My doctor was even more surprised than before. A1C had fallen–yes, fallen–to 5.5. There was no other reasonable interpretation but that cinnamon helped, the pancreatic stimulant probably had not, and that between metformin and cinnamon taken with disciplined consistency, I could conceivably live as a non-diabetic equivalent until such time as I managed to pack out some of the pork. (If you are waiting for me to use euphemisms in order to coddle feelings, you may stop. I may describe myself as I choose. Period.) Now my doctor had gone from skepticism to cautious optimism; we had gotten my bledd sugur doon. (I am not mocking her. This is affectionate kidding, a lost art in our hypersensitive society.) I don’t think she will go prescribing cinnamon to other patients any time soon, and I think she suspects I’m an anomalous case, but she certainly does not discourage my regimen. She canceled the pancreatic stimulant prescription, and I discarded the rest of the pills.

I said, I discarded the rest of the pills. I did not take more pharmaceutical products. Some megadrug company’s loss was Tillamook’s gain.

If disciplined use of cinnamon can help overcome insulin resistance in Type 2 diabetics, the drug companies are going to hurt like hell. Of course, I’m not promising anyone a cure, nor am I offering medical advice. I’m just telling my story. For the record, whatever you do, I recommend you do it under medical guidance and with concurrence.

When we went to Ireland, the cinnamon theory got another test. I figured it would be awkward to haul around a large amount of bulk cinnamon, and to go find stores and buy yogurts, so I chose to make capsules. I figured three per day was at least close to a teaspoonful, and taken in disciplined fashion, would give me the same benefits.

Of course, my wife and I both got fairly ill in Ireland, and by the end of the trip, I was waking up with the old night thirsts. Hadn’t experienced them in many months. I wasn’t sure whether to blame the illness or the decreased cinnamon intake. When I got home, I went back on the usual cinnamon regimen. Even though the worst of the (truly horrible coughing respiratory flu-like) illness awaited, the night thirsts promptly vanished. Evidently they weren’t caused only by the flu trashing my blood sugar.

I could admit of no other rational explanation: a teaspoon of cinnamon per day, in combination with the glucophage, allowed my system to handle blood sugar in such a way as to give me a non-diabetic life. Rather less was not enough.

Why don’t more people try this? Their doctors, many of whom are absolutely beholden to pharmaceutical companies, will not recommend it. I suspect not that many people have experimented with it in consistent, conscientious fashion, for most people are not consistent or conscientious. I have so experimented. If I stopped eating this cinnamon, I have very good reason to believe that within two weeks I would feel all the standard effects of blood turned to Grenadine. I believe this because it happened when I merely cut back on the spice. I cannot say how long or how well this will work, but one year into the diagnosis, so far so good.

It’s not for everyone, thanks to human nature. Most of the time, most people jake. By this I mean that most people slack off, fuck off, ease off–and they command everyone around them to be as feckless, and to say that it’s okay. Pressuring others to lower their standards is so much easier than raising one’s own. Most people don’t keep to conscientious regimes of any sort. Most people aren’t timely, don’t care about keeping commitments, and generally cannot be relied upon. Few people will do the right thing no matter who is looking, do the best possible job whether it makes a difference or not. It follows, then, that most people will not go so far as to eat a spoonful of cinnamon mixed with a cup of yogurt each and every day for three months. They might do it for a week, then say screw it, this is hard, I don’t like anything hard, forget it. They would rather eat a tablet and hope for the best. It may not have occurred to them that if they have a get-out-of-diabetes-cheaply card, and they jake on using it, they are very foolish. Diabetes leads to neuropathic pain, amputations, heart failure, and death.

As for me, it’s common for grocery checkers to look at my eight yogurts and comment: “Wow, you must really like that yogurt.”

“Not really.”

“Why buy it if you don’t like it?” (There must be some sort of brand on my forehead that says, ask me about my merchandise.) Then I explain.

90% of them don’t believe me. If you don’t believe me, that’s okay. It is your body.

What you do is up to you.

Dear Ophelia, part two


I learned why Guinness traveled badly by asking at Elliott’s Bar (in Leitir, about ten minutes’ walk from our cottage), which is only open from 6:00 PM to midnight daily. Friday night is traditional music night. Daniel Elliott, the pubkeeper, was a friendly young gent who for whatever reason seemed to like us very much. He explained that in some pubs, particularly hotel bars, the Guinness might spend a long time sitting in the lines. It never sat for long in the lines at Elliott’s. The craic (banter) was always strong at Daniel’s establishment, with a motley assortment of locals glad to engage us at any given time. Turf (peat) fires produce an unmistakably Irish smell (think rich burning earth, which of course it is), and for a Gaelteacht pub in west Donegal it would be the norm. It is at Elliott’s. Daniel’s father founded the pub one year before I was born. Considering how few people live within easy walking distance, its prosperity speaks volumes. I’ve never been to a better.

It can happen this quickly: on the first night, we were somewhat novelties: down-to-earth tourists with in one case some slight proficiency in Irish, and the locals got to take their time discovering us. Over those days, Daniel hinted rather often that I might be called upon to sing on Friday, when there would be traditional music and an open mike. I gave all the expected and quite truthful evasions: I have a lousy voice, I tend to forget the lyrics, I’m not good at singing at all, I could clear out the pub in half a minute of atonal wailing. All dismissed, of course. It’s one of those cases where you know you will be had, but at least you are given fair warning.

Friday came, and most of the band was German (plus Daniel’s mother on the accordion, and now I can see where he gets his kind heart). After a few of those in attendance gave us some rather pleasing renditions of traditional Irish and American rock tunes, Daniel arranged somehow for my dragooning in the direction of the mike. (Yes; MIKE. I don’t give a damn who spells it ‘mic’; that in my view is pronounced ‘Mick,’ and I refuse to do so. People need to learn their phonics. It’s a damn MIKE-ro-fone and the short form is MIKE—thus, ‘mike,’ and I hope we won’t have to have this discussion again.)

Perhaps a few days of unease got to me. I started with a southwestern American number originally from the Kingston Trio, but faltered a pint too far on the lyrics. I figured that was the time to retreat in modest disgrace, but the crowd would not have it. I wasted a lot of their time looking through the songbook for something Irish to which I could do moderate justice, then gave them the first three stanzas of Back Home in Derry, a lament with at least neighboring historical overtones of Ireland’s past anguishes. All good, except that the songbook page misplaced the final verse, and by the time I found it and tried to continue, I had the tune misplaced with regard to the lyrics. I prepared to get back to the bar and let a competent entertainer take over, but again they would not have it. I looked about the pub, and they were shushing one another, not a scornful face to be seen.

All right. I knew one short song I could get right, one from my own homeland, the state song of Kansas: Home on the Range. I told them what it was, then delivered it as well as I can ever deliver a song. The assembled gave me a lusty round of applause. I got up, thanked everyone, and let an actual musician take over. I saw nothing but smiles. At first I didn’t understand. Not even two more pints of stout helped.

At first I felt like a flop, but over the next couple of days I came to see that for what it had been: an initiation, however voluntary, into the society of Elliott’s Bar. What mattered was not how well I sang, but that I kept after it upon request until I managed at least to sing up to my own modest level. In the days after, I could see a change in the locals’ approach to us; no longer novelties, we were as near to regulars as any tourist could ever be. The patrons began to tell stories of ways in which other tourists acted: either marveling that rural Ireland had things like electricity and flush toilets and Internet, or braying in the typical American outside voices, or very uptight and unsure what to expect. “Yous’re genuine,” said Daniel, a kind word I’ll treasure along with every other memory of Elliott’s.

Two days before we prepared to head south, the word was all out: Ophelia was coming. Ophelia, an Atlantic hurricane, looked to centerpunch the western Irish coast (Leitir included) come Monday. Forecasts varied, but in general the forecast called for sustained 40mph winds with gusts up to 80. It would slug Counties Cork and Kerry, then Limerick and Clare, then Galway and Mayo, then Donegal and Derry and Antrim. The whole country would be hit, on one level or another. Bus services, flights, and schools were canceled. Gardaí (‘gar-DEE’, guards; the national police) asked people to stay indoors if they possibly could, and off the roads unless urgently necessary. We let the local small shopkeeper (the town’s only one) know that if fate and fortune deposited any scared and lost tourists on them, our rental cottage could easily take four more people, and to send them up. I could just imagine a couple of terrified young tourists guilty of poor situational awareness having fetched up at the shop in a panic about where they might shelter for the night. If there were nothing else we could do to help our new friends, we might lift one small worry from their ready supply of concerns about life and property.

It is the Irish way to commiserate with the traveler about any bad weather or inconvenience, apologizing as if they’d had personal responsibility for designing the weather. In the first place, what mental defective would go to Ireland in October unprepared for wind and rain? We tried to tell people that they needed not worry about us; while we understood that the disaster potential was real for a country not built to stand winds clearing 80 mph, we had spent a good portion of our married life somewhere that weather like this could be expected about thrice yearly. Our ‘holiday’ was not spoiled. If the power went out, we’d light a candle. If the satellite TV went down, we’d use the radio if it were operational. In the evening, we’d at least go down and see if the pub was open, and join in the usual fun. Whatever happened, we’d battle through.

The satellite TV stayed up into early evening, giving us some news of what Cork and Kerry had experienced. Trees down, roads blocked, over 300,000 people without electricity. Ministers on TV taking media questions. Government acting like adults (in the US, we are beginning to forget what it felt like to be governed by honest adults who at least felt the obligation to make a show of desiring our best interests). Only two reported fatalities by the time it began to grow dusk, rather miraculous in a country unused to such a storm.

In the end, it was exhilirating to be shot at without result. By the time the eyewall reached our latitude, it had veered out to sea. We got high winds and plenty of rain, but didn’t lose power. The worst thing that happened was I aggravated a hamstring pull from before the trip, and it would slow me for the rest of our time in Ireland. It could have been far worse.

Our second week was less adventuresome, mostly due to illness: first Deb’s, then mine. This was worsened by our unfamiliarity with available cold remedies, as well as the inability of Irish pharmacists to adapt recommendations to our situation. Everything they had was probably great for someone who could take a few days of paid vacation and let the disease run its course. They were not equipped to help people who would be glad to suppress as many symptoms as possible and save up the suffering for later. We had to buy a random assortment of medications with which to experiment. By the time she began to feel better, I was feeling horrible, and that’s how it was when I entered the airport for the twenty-two-hour trip home. (Fourteen hours in airplanes, four in a layover, three at the airport before, one riding home with our house-sitter back in Portland.) Our second town had more amenities than Leitir, but much less charm, and pubs are less fun without your wife. She felt up to some exploration a couple of times, so we had to settle for that.

In future installments, I’ll get to some of our other observations, and Ireland’s peculiarities for the traveler.

Dear Ophelia, part one

The trip was, in a way, misbegotten.

Maybe it fits well that I drafted this account in a hurricane that appeared destined to centerpunch our location.

Like most people in the modern age who are comfortable with computers and the Internet, Deb and I handle our own domestic travel arrangements. It isn’t that hard, and a travel agent can’t offer much value helping you plan your dream trip to Wichita. We knew the travel agency industry was in decline, but for a trip to Ireland using some unfamiliar means through an unfamiliar entry point, we felt it was of value to consult a specialist.


We went to one of the longest-established travel agencies west of the Willamette (the river that divides eastern and western Portland, Oregon), and contacted the individual billed as their Ireland/England specialist. On everything we could as easily have done ourselves—flights, car rental, hotel nights at the airport—she seemed to perform fine. All that remained was to pick out two cottage stays, a week apiece. We had given her a three-week window and asked her to time our two weeks of travel so as best to fit the cottage schedules.

That seems logical, right? Flight day, jetlag airport hotel stay, then pick up rental car and head for cottage. Week later, transition to next cottage. Departure day, drive to jetlag hotel, drop off rental car, enjoy last day in town using mass transit, fly out in morning.

She sent us three options for cottages. In all three cases we thought perhaps we could do better, and asked for more options. What naïfs we were. We waited patiently, and time marched on. Options were disappearing daily as places booked up. After a week’s strained patience, we contacted her and asked could we please move this forward. She made a number of unverifiable excuses, the kind of plausible deniabilities one usually hears from people who have learned how to lie by habit, including that she had not forgotten about us. I grew uneasy, but presumed that she would not simply cease to bother helping us to complete our plans. A blistering review online—and if I may say so, when a professional writer wants to blister someone, he or she knows how to make sure the marks hurt like hell—would be exactly what she did not need.

It is a weakness of mine to underestimate human stupidity, laziness, and shortsightedness until nearly too late. I show no signs of improvement.

After another week, she sent us a batch of .pdfs of cottages, nearly all without prices. A rather important bit of information, one would think, and I contacted her to explain that this was hardly workable. She ignored me. I went over and over in my head: had I done something wrong, somehow alienated her? Or, more likely, had she just decided she had gotten all the money she cared about, and that we could now fuck off until her convenience allowed her to deign to finish booking our trip?

I was sure I had been very restrained and non-alienating to this point, but in case I had somehow been socially ham-handed, I asked Deb to take over the interface. Deb got no better response, not even with a message for the owner. Now we saw that the firm’s rot seeped from its leadership. After one full month since first meeting and arrangements, and with barely that long to go before departure, and no further anything from the agent or her chieftain, we realized that we must book our own cottage stays. All right; go to hell, lady, we’ll muddle through without your expertise.

We soon learned that she had botched the flight dates. Irish cottages typically run on the calendar week with Saturday as the beginning and end, and she had scheduled our flights so that the two weeks did not fit calendar weeks. After checking dozens of cottage prices, we learned was we were welcome to book an available cottage any time that suited us, but that each cottage stay would mean paying the equivalent cost of two full weeks. It would transform about a $650 experience into well over $1100, exactly the sort of blunder we had expected a travel professional to avoid. As I’ve often said to errant vendors (especially contractors), if I wanted it all fucked up, I could have done that all on my own without professional assistance.

It was either change the days off, the flights, the hotels, and the rental cars, or swallow the cost. The flight alone would be problematic to change without a large cost.

Nothing for it but to pay up and hope, and we did. Our plan was to fly into Dublin (mistake #1; we saved a lot of money we later wished we had not, as Shannon is far easier to deal with), hotel stay, then pick up the rental car and take it deep into the wilds of County Donegal. That part at least went well enough, and after overcoming the lunacy of getting out of Dublin with right-hand drive, we were free and making for the village of Leitir mhic an Bhaird (in Irish; say it, LAY-chur WICK-a-word, in English, Lettermacaward pronounced LET-er MACK-a-word).

Ireland doesn’t have much freeway kilometrage, but most of the roads have good enough surfacing. There often is no shoulder, so there’s the rock wall or dropoff to avoid, and oncoming trucks can be harrowing when their right tire is over the line and won’t move. It took about four hours to reach Leitir, as locals call it, complete with confusion over directions to the cottage. This being a Gaelteacht (Irish-speaking area), some of the signs are in Irish alone, some bilingual. Our turnoff was at a place called Dooey Beach, and had I not seen the sign saying ‘Dumhaigh’ (roughly, ‘Dooey’) and figured out that part, we wouldn’t have known where to go.

The cottage had a number of disappointing aspects; no Internet (I admit that failing to note this in advance was my bad; I had been very flustered), an odd mixture of interactions between electrical devices (where you had to turn on this switch over here to make that device work, but please kindly turn it off as soon as you are done), an absentee owner, and a local caretaker who seemed put upon, leaving us to figure out much of the house for ourselves. We gave serious consideration to just leaving and finding B&Bs, but we decided to buck up and make the best of it. There we were, on a one-lane country road without Internet service, a forest behind and north of us, a pasture to the immediate south with rooks (think of a crow with a light gray beak) scavenging all around the livestock, and not much of anything in near walking distance except an elementary school. Oh, and an obviously closed-up bar. There had been a bar just after the Dooey turnoff, though, which looked like about a ten-minute walk. Fine.

One way you know you’re in a Gaelteacht: the school zone signs are in Irish alone. Just south of our cottage, painted on the road in big letters:

AIRE (AR-rah)



“Attention, slow, school.”

Over the next few days, we explored western Ulster by day. By night, we became part of the scene at the local pub; we’ll get to that later.

One of our trips was to the southwest Donegal coast, to visit the cliffs of Sliabh Liag (‘SLEEVE LEAGUE’; I am not going to render all the Irish names in English as well, but I will help you say them right). Great slate-layered rocky upthrust headlands gazing down talus slopes and sheer faces into the North Atlantic, with coppery sheen in the broken black stones at your feet, astonishingly white quartz chunks here and there, and of course Ireland’s ubiquitous grazing sheep. One might say, with justice, that any attraction where there is no risk of stepping in sheep crap isn’t very Irish. True to form, one had to pass a gate posted with a fógra about keeping it closed in order to avoid letting the sheep out.

I had better explain about fógraí, which means ‘notices’ or ‘warnings’ (depending on how one chooses to take them). At antiquities, the Fógra advises one in Irish and English that the site is under the protection of some state ministry, and requests visitors’ aid in preserving them. It then advises that there are severe penalties for doing the opposite. Last time we visited, Deb and I picked up the habit of giving each other ad hoc fógraí as we perceived each other’s demeanor and actions demanded it.

Another day, we took a drive up to Ros Goill (ROSS GULL), a narrow rocky peninsula sticking out of north Donegal. On Donegal’s coast, which is part of a long drive called the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s hard to find an ocean view that does not offer some kind of holy-shit-you’ve-got-to-see-this scenario. That happened to be my birthday, a fact which my treasonous wife revealed of course to our waitress during a wonderful early dinner in Dunfanaghy (dun-FANN-a-hee). Irish food has gotten a lot better since the early 2000s, though hotel bar pints are still the soured monstrosities they once were. Guinness does not travel, and responds badly to long supply lines not merely between keg and tap, but brewery and delivery.

Other trips took us to Beltany Stone Circle near Raphoe, the Giant’s Causeway in north Antrim, and Killybegs, an important port for the North Atlantic fishing fleet. The latter had delicious seafood, eaten in sight of the giant looming trawlers. We will have a lot to say about the Causeway later; what has been done to it, and to other Irish signature sights, deserves its own cross-hairs.

Back in Leitir, I learned why Guinness traveled badly by asking at Elliott’s Bar… (To be continued)


[The title is a stupid self-indulgence. Stupidly self-indulgent titles are a peeve of mine, and I deal with them in clients on a regular basis. The client thinks she has just come up with the coolest title ever. She should kill this Faulknerian darling, but she will not, so she ends up with a garbage title. In this case, the title is stupid because it barely says anything clever about the story, and in fact is just a lyric from an Abney Park steampunk song. It’s like the author had only heard two instances of the word ‘Ophelia’ in his life and decided that somehow they deserved connection even when every reader would be left asking: “and what was the point of this?” However, I went through a lot to bring you this story, so I am stupidly indulging myself in this, covering the privates of my indulgence with the fig leaf of intellectual honesty.]

An abnormally long absence

I do not normally go this long without posting.

Here’s what happened: I was preparing for international travel. It is clear to most people that if you are about to leave your home for a couple of weeks, what you don’t do is announce it to the entire world. That invites criminals to come visit you.

Deb and I were in Ireland. I did not post from there for a number of reasons:

  • There was no Internet at our first week’s stay.
  • The Internet at our second week’s stay was glutinous.
  • About halfway through, Deb grew very sick, and I had other things on my mind. As she began to improve, naturally, I got sick.

Having to spend fourteen hours in aircraft seats, plus seven hours sitting around airports, doesn’t do much for a sick person–especially one who has not had access to familiar remedies. When I got home, I was ill enough I could not sleep reclining, and every cough created a ripping feeling all the way up my trachea. A couple of times I even coughed up tissue. In short, I have not really had a very good time since returning.

I do have some material I composed in Ireland (when your wife wants only to lay around and suffer and be helped by you, you have a lot of leisure time), and will sort it out and publish it as I regain strength. For now, that strength is limited but improving daily. I also have some client work that is due soon, and I trust the reader to appreciate that such has first claim upon my finite energy supplies.

Thank you for your understanding. I have not forgotten my regular readers, and I am grateful for each of you.

The dumbness of single-bit binary logic: everything that is not this, is not necessarily that

My bro JT, one of the most unconventional thinkers I know, has long commented upon the problems with single-bit binary logic. I understood this, but I’m embarrassed at my failure to process it until very recently.

In binary notation, everything is a 0 or a 1. They is a this or a that, as the old umpire used to say. This is a base two system, and it is the basis for digital electronics. If you don’t know what base two means, that means there are two numbers before you have to start a new column. We count in base ten, logically since we have ten fingers.

Binary notation works fine as the basis for our electronics. In the world of humanity and issues, where things are rarely so clear and exclusive, it is an indicator of feeble-mindedness. Consider: “If you aren’t for us, you are against us.” “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Stop and think, as I believe in doing any time someone trots out a glib saying repeated so many times that people assume it wise. This is dumb. Just because I am not for you does not mean I am against you. If you’re dumb enough to construe me as your enemy because you can’t bully me into signing onto your cause, that’s your problem and mistake. And just because I am not participating in a solution does not automatically signify that I am part of the problem. I may be neither. I might be a little of both. I might be in the process of using my brain to make up my own mind without consulting you. And this attitude isn’t adding luster to your side, I might add.

The fundamental problem with single-bit binary reasoning: it allows only two categories, choices, alignments, what have you. When applied to a human issue, that’s feeble-minded. It oversimplifies the human condition down to a moronic level. It works only for those who yearn to be spared all nuance. Is Bill Gates an evil man or a good man? He made a fortune by monopolizing our computing environment with increasing mediocrity. Then he decided to retire and use his wealth for such good causes Warren Buffett said “here, take mine, too.” He left behind his company still doing all the same things, growing more mediocre by the year, but no less monopolistic. Hate or love? Respect or disrespect? It is not so easy. It confounds feeble thinking. It makes modern America’s brain hurt, so its members just apply selective amnesia. They derided him back when his software company was strangling every possible competitor, and he was an evil guy, but now that’s old hat and he is a good guy. Nuance is hard. Absolutes provide comfort of the shallowest kind.

Look at the United States’ political system, which embeds and defends single-bit binary logic. If you aren’t one of these, you are one of those. This is idiotic. There are lots of things to be other than those two. Single-bit binary logic works fairly well on life and death (it’s very rare to be neither dead nor alive, I’ll concede), sports events on the field (can’t really play for both teams at once, I’ll go along with that), and other such clear-cut situations. Most matters of opinion are not so.

Thus it is with public demonstrations. Not every failure to join in a public demonstration of homage amounts to disrespect. Only single-bit binary logic can conclude that it does. Suppose that my national anthem is on television before a hockey game. I could choose to stand, interrupt my activities, pay attention, even sing the song: that would be respectful. I could choose not to pay attention, but to avoid doing anything overtly self-indulgent or gross. I could talk with someone about the imminent game, look at a magazine article, or simply sit in silent passivity; that would be somewhere in between. Or I could choose to scratch my groin, flip off the TV, use bad language, drink cheap beer, chomp tortilla chips, and/or make a snide remark; that would be disrespectful. It’s feeble-minded to think that all non-respect is disrespect, just as it is feeble-minded to think that all the different forms of respect can be conflated into one term.

(One of these days I will go into depth on that. There is the respect born of fear (s/he can and might hurt me), that born of affectionate regard (s/he has done great deeds I admire), and that stemming from positive regard without affection (s/he may be a bastard, but in some ways I respect him or her). In some situations, more than one may apply in some proportion. Our error occurs when we fail to qualify what we mean by respect.)

Single-bit binary logic works fine for dogs. If you are a dog, I recommend it without reservation. In most cases, a dog not mistreated either likes you (you are best pal for life) or hates you (you are intruder, competitor for scarce affection, etc.). My friend Jim had a rather ratty little dog named Willie. Willie liked everyone. I mostly don’t like dogs, and I didn’t like Willie. Willie didn’t care; he liked me.

(And lest you think Willie had no importance, let me tell you, Willie was an impact player in one of the funniest pizza-related instances in the history of the faux-Italian menu. I think I’ve told that story on here. If I have not, I must. If I haven’t, you are permitted to rag on me until I do.)

Why are so many issues presented to us in single-bit binary logic? Because it’s easy–and because it makes us easier to manipulate.

Who’s a good boy? Good boy!

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