Category Archives: Married life

Obdud; or, The Story of Maeve the Dog

Many’s the time I have said that marriage is about learning to compromise and accept about 85% of what one wants–and to do so with authentic grace and satisfaction. If you sign on to the deal, but grump about it for the next decade, that’s not authentic grace and satisfaction. If, of course, the deal later hands you large rations of shit that you didn’t bargain for, but you bear up anyway, a certain amount of grumping is not unreasonable provided you don’t recriminate. It’s the difference between “We have the worst dog in the whole world” and “Thanks a lot for making it so we have the worst dog in the whole world”. The first is simply a judgment on the animal (in our case, justified); if true, it might be borne. The second blames the judgment on one’s spouse; whether true or false, it would open and jab at a painful bleeding wound in one’s spouse’s soul. People who do that crap don’t stay married long, nor happily.

Deb, who is a dog person, married me, who am dog-phobic. Not universally, not always, not every dog, not every situation; just mostly. This includes all unfamiliar dogs that bark at me, run at me, or otherwise inflict themselves on me when I am not bothering them. I often shorten it to say that I hate dogs, but that’s lacking in nuance. I should say that I dislike them, would rather never deal with any again, but that there are very few dogs I wish ill, and none that I wish mistreated. My respect for dogs’ abilities and varied talents is profound, and if they practiced them all far away from me, in full health and decent treatment, I would have no issues.

In our marital lifestyle compromise, dogs were what my labor representative wife would call a “mandatory subject of bargaining.” Until we bought a house, I staved off the question on grounds of lack of yard. When a yard came, I had to honor my side of the bargain. We got Fabius, a black Lab puppy. He lived thirteen years, the last of it apart from Deb due to our life circumstances (me holding the fort in Boise while Deb went ahead to get established in Portland, essentially glamping in a studio apartment that did not allow large dogs).

While I didn’t like Fabius (him being a dog, after all), I took care that he received humane treatment and, in his dotage, extra patience. His life had met a couple of my key criteria to earn some sense of respect, insofar as I can have that for a species for which I have no fundamental affinity. When he couldn’t easily process commands to which he once leaped with alacrity, I waited a bit and re-issued them. When his final days arrived, and it was clear he was suffering, I had him hospitalized and made comfortable until Deb could arrive to see him off. She loved that dog. I didn’t, but I owed him consideration and my wife good stewardship as well as respect for her feelings, and that’s as good as I’ll ever get concerning dogs.

As Fabius had aged, we obtained Leonidas the miniature Schnauzer. Fabius was obedient, cooperative, and when not attempting to coat me with nauseating salivas, a bearable klutz. Leo simply didn’t want to cooperate, and didn’t care how anyone felt about it. He was a canine Huck Finn and barn cat rolled into one small package of untrainability, insolence, and inconvenience. I liked Leo even less when he not only developed dogabetes, but due to Deb’s schedule I ended up with much of the duty to administer his dogulin shots. (Weird: his shots were the one and only soul-of-cooperation aspect of that dog’s life. Put another way, he was a complete jerk until you wanted to stab him in the neck with a needle; then he was fine.)

We could ill afford Leo’s illnesses, and we cut the budget in order to compensate. Not brutally, but he was a $200/month dog for the last year of his life, and that was $200 that didn’t get saved, or spent on something more fun (say, colonoscopies). To the very end, I maintained that Leo would have been much happier had he been able to manipulate his front paws such that he could raise a middle claw at us, thus making the physical gesture of his inner canine soul. But Leo’s last days came, and as with Fabius, I went along with Deb to see him off. (For some reason, both dogs had always considered me a reassuring presence. I wonder if they came to associate profanity with a protective figure. They had always run to me during fireworks.)

For the first time in nearly two decades, Leonidas’s passing rendered us (for me, blissfully) dogless. Deb knew that both dog situations had grossly exceeded our original understanding (“Okay, but it’s your dog, you deal with it”), extending me far beyond my comfort zones. Neither was her fault, nor the dogs’ fault; stuff had happened, dog stuff, life stuff. I knew that she understood my actions as motivated by a sense of duty and deep love for her; she’d said so, and she’s so rarely dead serious about emotions that her utterances in that area stay with me for decades. Deb hesitated to rush right out and seek a new dog. Part of it was a reward for me: she felt that I had earned a few blessedly dog-free months before the return of a semi-purgatorial status.

I milked it out as long as I could, and not just for selfish reasons. I wanted to consider dogs, undistracted (thus, currently uninfuriated with any) by them as I had not been for most of my middle age. My lousy relationship with Leo had done nothing to improve my life. I gave some thought to how, while remaining true to myself, I could have more influence over whatever dog Deb might bring home. Would Leonidas have behaved better had I invested a bit more time and energy in him? We’d never know, but here’s what I did know: two dogs we’d had, that were supposed to be my wife’s responsibility and problem, and I’d ended up as their caretaker, barf-cleaner-upper, one-time-late-night-ocean-of-barf-faller-into, and expensive-check-writer. Had I been unable by now to realize that this agreement would never hold in its original form, and that the future held more dogs I’d wind up looking after whether I liked it or not, I’d have been a hopeless boob.

It seemed time for a different approach. No, I would never, at heart, like dogs, want dogs, want to be around dogs, etc. Could I go so far as to at least let the thing be around me when Deb was gone, and accept its desire to pal around with me a bit? Up to a point. No, I would not embrace the dog as “our” dog. No, I would never tolerate dog salivas. Fabius had a tongue like a big wet raw steak, and could leave two acres of saliva on any surface he chose (including, one wretched time, my entire forearm). But would I recognize that on some level, I’d given Leo a reason to wish he could flip me off (unlike Deb, who doted on him, and received as much odious treatment as me)? Yeah. I believe in personal responsibility.

Decision made. If I wound up despising this one also, it wouldn’t be for lack of effort on my part.

When my approximately three-month dogcation came to an end, as it had to, I told Deb how I planned to do it differently this time. You can imagine her delight. Deb knows better than to push such things with me; she took her 85% and smiled. She is well aware that what was once a simple childhood dislike matured into an adult phobia and loathing partly due to smarmy and stupid things said by dog lovers, in part because of misbehaving dogs encouraged by dog owners, and sometimes both. She would do not one thing to push me in her idea of the wrong direction, and would change any practice I might reasonably ask of her.

We made a couple of trips to local humane societies, and we learned that Portland does not have a stray dog problem. Portland in fact imports strays from other states, and most of these land quickly on waiting lists. All those places euthanizing strays should study whatever Portland is doing. While we were there, a big ten-year-old German shepherd mix mourned at full volume for the people who had abandoned him. Before we finished our own adoption, even the mourning howler (too large for us; Portland is basically Tiny House Living) had found a new home.

I insisted that we prioritize chemistry and reactions over website pictures and descriptions. I wanted us to consider the dog who seemed to love Deb on sight, and to tolerate me at least. I also wanted a dog who looked like a correct dog, not an overgrown rat. Deb had a hard time grasping my appearance criteria, but I told her I’d know a correct dog when I saw it. Good enough. It had to be small; Deb is 58, and if young, this dog would likely see her to 70. Manageability mattered. No purebreds (hybrid health, please), none purchased from breeders, no puppies. We intended to adopt a rescued dog that needed a home.

Two visits to the nearest shelter were useless; they had only a couple of dogs. Maybe two dozen empty kennels, two dogs. I mean it when I say it’s hard to find dogs to adopt around here. Off we went to the Portland Humane Society, over in the Gothic wilds of northeast Portland near Ikea and the airport. It’s a beautiful facility that manages not to even smell like dog turds. One surveys the dogs, and may place a brief hold on a given dog for a nominal fee. If the dog already has a hold, and it expires, the next hold gets a phone call. Holds last for one or two days–better not fool around.

We met a tiny, dog-looking Cairn terrier mix called Mavis, a seven-pound yearling California import with a face resembling that of a baby monkey blessed with precocious facial hair growth. Mavis looked stressed, but was friendly. Excited, Deb paid the fee to get in her hold line. By the next day, if the people ahead of us didn’t pick up Mavis, our own clock would start.

There commenced about twenty-four hours of jitters, pins, needles, and anticipation as Deb could barely stand the wait. I assisted by reminding her that it was not a sure thing, and not to be too crushed if someone else got Mavis. Pointless on my part. When around noon the next day the society called to let Deb know we could come get her dog, for a moment there I thought my wife might go full puppy and piddle herself in excitement. Having promised, of course, I had to attend. Little Mavis would ride to her new home in my lap, resting on a towel I hoped would absorb all the bodily substances that an unfamiliar car ride might elicit (joyously, she emanated none; early gold star).

We bandied names. Leonidas and Fabius had received names from antiquity, and in their own ways had deserved them. The sexism of history means that there are fewer well-known historical women than men. Mavis did not really seem like a Cleopatra, Nefertiti, or Messalina. She didn’t really seem like much of anything except a seven-pound wiry-haired terrier mix, black and rusty brown, fairly chill. No ancient woman jumped out of my memory’s throng, very annoying to people with ‘history’ on their I Love Me walls.

Moving afield, I had an inspiration. I like Ireland and visiting Ireland; Deb loves Ireland and would move there next month if feasible. Maeve was an ancient Queen of Connaught, she who launched the Cattle Raid of Cooley (in Irish, Táin Bó Cúailnge), and I could think of far worse spirits with which to imbue this little dog. It sounded enough like Mavis, a pound name to which the creature hadn’t had time to grow attached. I advocated the Irish spelling of Meadhbh (also pronounced to rhyme with “pave”), but Deb rejected this cultural nod; I took my 85% and smiled. And thus was designated little Maeve.

Or Obdud. Longtime blog followers may remember that I’m not known for my embrace of modern telephone technology. I can text, after a laborious fashion and having zero fun while I do it. It was Deb’s first day away at work (Maeve’s second day in our place), and my doting wife was concerned about her new animal. She texted me to ask how it was going. My flip phone has a T9 Word function that offers some predictive text based upon the alpha/numeric keypad, though some words are futile and must be spelled out in the old style. Some of us won’t do that and simply expect our regular contacts to do some deciphering. “Fending” goes through as “demeio” and I expect poor Deb to figure that out by now. “Home” will always return “good” so if she gets a “Headed good” text, she knows to expect me. So I typed M A E V E (6 2 3 8 3). My little screen said: Obdud. You can see where it got those, of course: NMO ABC DEF TUV DEF. I said screw it and kept typing: Obdud is laying on her blanket by my office door.

My wife questioned this. I explained, again, the impact of T9. There’s no way I am going to spell out old-style a dog’s name, so at least in texted status reports, Obdud she is.

Maeve, sometimes called Obdud, is happy and feistier now that she’s away from a kennel full of other, noisy dogs she can smell but not touch. Deb is also happy and feistier.

As for me, well, we have a dog, and I’m trying. We’ll see how that goes. Right now it’s time to take my 85% and do as I agreed.

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The Hipster Nativity Scene: my holiday joy

Having grown up in a fascist religious household, in a Christian denomination in which the concept of fun received disapproving looks and frequent harrumphs, I entered adulthood mostly wishing to leave the holiday behind.

With a few spasms, that worked until marriage came along. You know how that is: it’s not just about you anymore. And as a husband, you learn quickly one of the great wisdoms of long-term marriage: don’t fuck up the women’s fun.

Sounds so simple, does it not? All you have to do is not find some creative or clumsy way to extract the fun from her world, and you’re golden? If it’s that simple, why can so many men not grasp it? Take “girls’ night” gatherings at your home. It should be obvious what you must do: make a brief appearance, offer polite and friendly greetings to the guests, and then pleasantly fuck right on off somewhere else. Yes. Do this. Off to where, though, ought one to fuck?

They don’t care.

It doesn’t matter. You are free. Sit in your office and drink beer; go to the library; hit the driving range; go out and eat guilt-free pizza; shop; watch the other TV; nap; if there are kids, lasso them into something fun. Just be elsewhere, accepting that it is not all about you all the time, so as not to impair the male-free time that the women want and need.

If you make them dinner, of course, without interrupting their fun, you’re off the charts. Same if you lasso the kids. But even the average guy can figure out how to be somewhere else. It is not all about him all the time. Sometimes he has to bend, and do so with dignified grace.

So when I married a woman who had a wonderful childhood and loved Christmas, it was time for me to learn how not to be a wet blanket about this. And in time, I came to like aspects of it (UW-themed ornaments, buying stuff for wife, overeating, supplying clever handyman solutions to adaptation and display problems, eggnog with rum) and be at peace with those aspects I might not like.

In some cases, that meant putting my own stamp on things.

Since neither of us are Christian, and since stodgy grumpiness and strife are parts of the holiday season I can do without, and since in any case there’s no historical reason to believe the attributed birth of Jesus of Nazareth occurred in December (April seems a better candidate), we can have a certain amount of fun with all this. And thus, the joy of my holidays, the funniest thing we do: the Hipster Nativity Scene. Since I’m helping them market it, I feel perfectly justified jacking one of their photos to include here:

Yes, I wrote about it last year. I live in Oregon. We recycle! Happy holidays to you all.

Myths (and truths) about Ireland

I like Ireland, though not everything about Ireland, and not as much as my wife does. She would move there tomorrow if I were to let down my resistance for an instant. I think some of that is how much she has enjoyed travel there, but traveling in a place differs very much from living there.

One suspects that a part of her perspective still buys into a little of the mythology. It occurs to me that Ireland is a very mythologized country in the United States. Maybe I can clear some of these up by stating the myth or perception as I have heard it, and clarifying the reality as I saw it.

Ireland is dangerous due to sectarian and nationalist violence. False. Even at the worst times of the Troubles, as they are known, most of Ireland was far safer than much of the United States. To get caught in the crossfire, a visitor would have needed a) tremendous bad luck and the worst imaginable timing, or b) enormous stupidity. A sensible visitor would have been, and would now be, far more concerned about an auto accident on a narrow road. Nowadays, concern about Trouble-related violence makes about as much sense as avoiding Midland, Texas for fear of Comanche raids.

All of Ulster is in Northern Ireland. False. In fact, three counties of Ulster are within the Republic. None of Leinster or Connaught’s counties are in Northern Ireland. (Munster does not border Ulster, thus sparing us that question entirely.) Thus, when you say ‘Ulster’ to refer to the North, this is imprecise.

The Republic is Catholic and the North is Protestant. Partly false. Catholics form a large majority in the Republic, but are also a strong presence in the North, which is about half Catholic and half Protestant. Of course, a percentage do not identify with either religious direction from the standpoint of practice, but may still identify with one as a cultural factor. Every religion has its own culture. Just as I know nominally Mormon people who practice almost none of the LDS faith’s strictures (yet still describe themselves as Mormon), you could find atheists and agnostics in Ireland who come by Catholic or Protestant identify through family heritage and upbringing. I would say that the Irish are less religious than Americans, but since religion is so connected to culture in Ireland, it conveys something of a misleading impression to the observing outside world.

Gaelic is a dead language. False on two counts. In the first place, ‘Gaelic’ is inspecific as a descriptor, as it could also refer to Scots. With regard to Ireland, the the suitable term is ‘Irish.’ Irish is not a dead language, though it may be fair to say it might have died out but for strenuous efforts toward its preservation. In the first place, the Republic of Ireland’s Bunreacht (constitution, in force since 1937) states that the Republic has two official languages, Irish and English, and that an Irish citizen may receive all official services in either language. What is more, the Irish version of the Bunreacht is the definitive original. You should be able to see where this goes. Gardaí (police), many government officials, and so forth must be capable of serving the public in Irish, thus must be conversational. Irish is spoken as a first language in certain areas, mainly in Connaught and Munster but also heavily in western Donegal, called Gaelteachts.

In my experience, while one may function well in English in Gaelteachts, locals will welcome a sincere effort to speak Irish. One would have to search very hard for a part of Ireland where one would need to speak Irish in order to function, but I am sure they exist. Some in Ulster also speak Scots Gaelic, which is very akin to its Irish sister language. I can tell you from experience that an American speaking Irish in the Republic is considered something of a wonder, though that American should take a little care in trotting out his or her ability. I found that many Irish felt they should be more proficient in the language, and that it embarrassed them a bit for an American to be more conversant with it than they. It’s never good manners to embarrass one’s hosts, especially hosts as patient as the Irish.

Ireland rains all the time. More true than false. Ireland is fairly rainy even in summer (though they tell me that is changing), and very much so in winter. Drainage and flooding are always issues. I doubt any part of Ireland uses, needs, or wants irrigation, in much the same way that few equatorial nations spend much effort on central home heating. However, even in winter in Ireland, there’s a fair chance of a sunny day. And a sunny day in Ireland is something to treasure and soak up.

There’s a castle everywhere you look in Ireland. Partly true. Ireland is loaded with old buildings and ruins, some of which are or were castles or forts. Some are open to the public some of the time. Some are open to some members of the public who know the right way to pose the question, which in Ireland is often not in the most direct way. In my experience, the best way to search for anything in Ireland involves a pub and some patience. In a pub, some locals get the chance to size you up and decide whether to refer you onward or not, make a phone call for you or not, give you directions or not. Once they make up their mind about you, in their own time and in a positive way, they tend to look out for you. Attempts to rush the Irish only serve to annoy them.

The Irish drink a lot. Depends on perspective. In terms of per capita consumption, the Republic stands slightly above the UK (which includes the North) and Germany, slightly below Australia, and well below much of eastern Europe. The French and South Koreans drink more than the Irish, for example. So if your perspective is American, on balance, drinking is slightly more. If it’s Ukrainian, the Irish are relatively light drinkers. I have seen a lot of people drinking in Ireland, but I have rarely seen anyone sloppy drunk, and in those cases I saw clear evidence of general disapproval.

What is true (though gradually changing): the pub is a social center. While some pubs still have the old ‘snug’ (women’s area), it’s kind of an artifact. Nowadays women and children are more than welcome, and it is unremarkable to see an entire Irish family having dinner at the pub. A non-drinker is still welcome in most pubs provided, as in most hospitality establishments, he or she at least buys something. A recovering alcoholic, if asked, might explain that s/he has taken the Pledge (a religious vow). This is an acceptable excuse for declining to have a pint with someone, as is a strict religious observation. The Irish understand that some faiths (LDS, Islam) drink no alcohol.

The Irish remember everything forever. True–both the good and the bad. There is a monument in County Cork to the Choctaw, who in response to the 1840s famines gathered up as much money as they could find and sent it to help alleviate the famine. Roadside markers show the points where Volunteers fell during the struggles for independence. Even during the Troubles, it was remembered which families had bought their land many years before, and which had appropriated it. The Irish build monuments to historians; I have seen them myself. If a fairy mound happens to be in the way of a proposed road, workers cannot be found to bulldoze it. The road will simply have to go around. Do good deeds in Ireland, and be remembered for them. Do wrong there, and be remembered as well. Cromwell has been gone for nearly four hundred years, and they haven’t even begun making an effort to forget his deeds.

Irish time is ‘-ish’ time. Mainly true. Business hours, where posted, tend to flexibility. The most pointless thing one can do in Ireland is try to pressure anyone to do anything faster; they will not comply, and it will only irritate them. If a flock of sheep is blocking the road, it will continue to do so until the shepherd gets them where he wants them. Honk and you prove yourself a fool. Wave in a friendly way and be patient, and the shepherd will be prone to get the beasts moving a little faster.

Ireland has made it easier to get to its most famous destinations. True, but at the cost of making them unappealing. The Cliffs of Moher? Newgrange? Giant’s Causeway? Blarney Castle? Killarney? All generously equipped with tour bus parking, the dreaded ‘Visitors’ Centre’ (except Killarney, all of which is a de facto Visitors’ Centre, thus it needs none) and suitable entry fees. Sweater and other traps, of course, for your shopping pleasure. The Giant’s Causeway so saddened us that we coined the verb “to causeway”: to take an otherwise appealing and beautiful place and garbage it up for money. I understand that everyone needs to make a living, that it is their island to do with as they choose, and that they don’t want or need my advice on that subject. I also understand that most of them despise this trend. Look on the bright side: there are many locations just as appealing and special that are rarely overrun by huge green tour buses labeled “Paddy Wagon” and displaying a large Disney cartoon leprechaun. I very much doubt that every worthwhile place in Ireland will become causewayed in my lifetime. I do not think the Irish will allow that.

Bless them.

The pure joy of repairing books

That I love books is probably no great surprise. Who else took a 15′ x 20′ room of his house and made the whole thing into a library? Three aisles…’the stacks.’

There is a continuum of thought about book care. At one extreme is the “they’re made to be read, not worried about or nannied” viewpoint. My mother is a good example of this. With any paperback book, her first act was (I presume still is) to break the spine–and I don’t mean halfway. I mean in such a way that the book would begin to fall into halves if it received any sustained use. At the other extreme is the hardcore preservationist viewpoint, which laments every scrape, every crease, and every corner. This viewpoint will die in a ditch defending the spine.

If you assign these views to 1 and 10 on a scale, respectively, I’m about an 8.5. The question of usability vs. perfection touches many aspects of our lives; the best example I could offer would be computer security. At the 1 extreme would be complete flexibility and usability, at the risk of security and support nudity. (If everyone gets to use whatever they want, however they want, IT support is problematic. And if no one ever makes you change your password, or even makes you use a password, you’ll get hacked.) At the 10 extreme would be security so tight it would defend the system from any risk of being useful. (If you had to change your password every hour, for example, and your browser refused to let any script run without approval from some security guru.) As in most endeavors, neither extreme is a good idea. Thus with books.

So, yes; I take very good care of books, the best care I can arrange. As I read, by habit, I will press a paperback book into a shape that from directly above me would look like a {, using my fingers to support the spine. That first crease in the cover bothers me, and you can imagine how I feel if I spill beer on the book (such as that time I anointed my copy of Joyce’s Dubliners while sitting on the can in a B&B bathroom in Ballymote, Sligo). Since I like to fix things almost as much as I hate waste, for many years I have done my best with scotch tape.

Those days are over. Thanks to my wife, I now have equipment that gives me dominance over more amateurish book repair souls. For Christmas, she got me a wonderful device called the C-27 Taping System Applicator. I keep wanting to call it the C-27 Space Modulator in the Looney Tunes Martian voice.

This thing is badass.

“What’s the big deal,” you ask? “Why the hell can’t you just put some quality packing tape on it yourself?”

The problem with that is getting the tape lined up, especially while fussing with a handheld dispenser. With tape on paper, you don’t get a second chance. What is not obvious from the picture is that this C-27 thing has several key moving parts. For starters, the tape sits but is not spindled, and those black guides you see are movable (see the grooves in the metal roller). This allows one to use multiple tape widths, move the tape left or right. In the picture, the end of the tape shows the tartan pattern, but that white thing just right of it is a sliding cutter. The long table with the deep groove down the middle hinges at the front of the device, so you can lay the book on it, press down at the tape end of the table, and rest one end of your book at a level below the tape cutter. Pull out the tape to the correct length, line it up to your satisfaction, and stick it down going back toward the roll. Your hands don’t have to hold the tape or manipulate a handheld cutting device. Slick down the tape all the way to just before the cutter, run the cutter across (only takes one hand, leaving you a hand to hold the book in place), free the book from the table, and slick down that last end of the tape. The stainless steel bars on either side of the table swing outward to support larger books. Here is a short video of it in very simple operation.

As you can see from the legs, one could bolt it to a desk. One could drive two screws into a desk designed to anchor it, leaving the other side free to move it at need. My favorite move is to first run a strip of tape down the spine, then turn the book 90° and run a single strip all the way along the top cover edge–slick down the first side with the spine toward the roll, pull out far enough for enough tape to finish the second side, take joy in the way this thing lets me line the tape up so perfectly, slick it down, cut it off, trim any excess.

The other part of the secret is book repair tape, which looks like clear packing tape but is somewhat elastic; enough that one has to be careful not to stretch it out of shape, but that it molds and tightens and adjusts and forgives. It also lasts much longer than scotch tape or packing tape. She also got me a supply pack including book glue, a bodacious plastic tape-slicking device that looks like a Jethro version of the 3-4 plastic picnic knives I break every time I eat at Chipotle, and sheets of vinyl wings and corners designed to fix frayed spines and torn edge/corner problems. Bubble I can’t slick out? I make a tiny stab with an exacto knife at one end of the bubble, and slick the tape toward it. Bubble? What bubble? Add in a set of bitchin’ sharp scissors I already had–great for trimming excess so that no one will ever know that I stuck the tape down 1/16″ off line–and I’m loaded now. No book in this house is safe from being assessed, repaired, and protected.

Since a lot of my books were in lamentable shape and some would be problematic to replace (do you have a handy source for big thick Bantam-Megiddo English-Hebrew and Hebrew-English dictionary two-volume sets, each the size of a hefty Bible? Didn’t think so), this brings me enormous joy. Those that were deteriorating will deteriorate no further. Those that are venerable but have been preserved by gentle, affectionate use will receive reinforcement. And I won’t have to look at a book and think, crap, what a shame that’s falling apart, but I don’t see what I can do about it.

Yes, they are meant to be read. And thanks to an effort that brings me fundamental joy, they will be readable for my lifetime, and well into someone else’s.

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.

Dear Ophelia, part two

(Continued.)

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.

Nah.

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)

GO MALL (guh MAWL)

SCOIL (SKULL)

“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.]