Archive | November, 2011

Incredible Shrinking Man

30 Nov

Before leaving SF I had spent quite a bit of time not-rowing and consequently had put on a bit of extra weight.    But part of this adventure has been geared to crafting a more ideal lifestyle, and in my mind that involved being trimmer and healthier.

So as soon as we had made the commitment to come here, I started eating better and doing a regular morning calisthenics routine.  Once I got to Ireland, joining St. Michael’s rowing club was top of my list.

Without getting into exact numbers which might be too shocking (for me to admit), we’ll say that between my wieght when I arrived here and my ideal target weight, I am currently a little over halfway there.  Woo hoo!

I think you can see the difference, and fortunately enough, I took a picture on one of my first mornings here and the other day I was sitting in the same place, so I snapped another one.   Here are the two pictures side-by-side:

Not to get all ego-involved, but I think I’m starting to look a little fitter.

I give a great amount of credit to Tea.  Also some credit to Nick King for getting me onto “The Guinness Diet” before I left because frankly that is probably also partly responsible.  The concept of The Guinness Diet is that it is so filling that you have a pint before dinner and you eat less.  I suppose it’s like the concept that if you start your meal with a cup of soup it will fill you up more and make you more satisfied so you don’t overeat.

Unfortunately, for many reasons I haven’t been drinking the Guinness regularly enough for it to have had a major impact on my diet.

Thus I credit the Tea.  Not the actual tea itself which is pretty good, but, as I explained before, I drink coffee more frequently than tea.  No, not the beverage but the break.  I credit my health with “Tea” the meal, instead of “Tea” the beverage.

“Tea” the meal is more complex than it might seem at first.  There appears to be no consistency in what a given meal is called in Ireland.  Everyone I talk to seems to have different names for different meals, but ultimately, the system we have gotten on involves five “meals” a day, of which “Tea” is an important one. 

“Tea” most often appears to come between breakfast and lunch – corresponding to the historical (but seemingly forgotten) American “Coffee Break”.  Tea also seems to involve not only a warm beverage but some kind of snackfood.  The food is frequently a “Biscuit” which also has a correspondingly broad range of definitions ranging from a more-or-less bland cookie-like object (sometimes called a “digestive biscuit”) to chocolate covered objects more like a candy-bar.   I have heard all sorts of things called “a biscuit” as well as all sorts of meal complexities called Tea, but most important is that there is a smallish meal moment in the late morning around 11am that might be confused with lunch. 

So we have breakfast in the morning, tea around 11, and lunch happens a bit later like 1:00 or 2:00 and is consequently much smaller than a full meal because of the Tea.  My Lunch most often consists of a bowl of soup and a couple pieces of Brown Bread if it’s available.  So I have a smallish lunch around 1:30 and then a larger meal between 4:00 and 6:00 depending on my work schedule.

Mary has gotten in the habit of cooking the “Dinner” for the girls when they come home from school so the large meal happens quite early in the evening.   I have been confused for a long time about what meal the Irish call dinner, and I now understand a little bit more.  Typically I would have called the evening meal “dinner” regardless of what it consisted of.  The Irish (or at least the ones I live with) use the term “Dinner” for whatever meal is the largest most main meal of the day regardless of what time it happens.  Thus “Dinner” in our household could just as likely happen at the 1:30pm meal, the 4:30pm meal or the 7:00pm meal depending on which was the largest and most fully appointed.

So Mary cooks the “Dinner” for the girls when they come home from school and if I’m there I join in, if I”m working a full day, she’s taken to having it for me when I get home.  She call this habit “prehistoric”, I call it “the way it should be” but either way it makes the later evening meal much smaller, again a sort of soup-type thing in the evening.

I’ve heard tell that smaller more frequent meals are good for your health and weight control and now I’m seeing that it actually appears to work in practice – as long as you don’t treat each meal opportunity as a chance to stuff your face with as much crap as possible. 

So fingers crossed I manage to stay on the healthy path – seems to be going well so far and I’m digging all the Brown Bread.


First Dance

28 Nov

The Ennis National School had a dance the other night.  This counts as the “First Dance” Tara and Grace have attended.  Big milestone.  Fortunately for me and Mary, they are young enough that we were actually welcomed to come along (which is good because we’d have gone anyway to see what it was like).   I guess we haven’t fully arrived at the “Daaaaad, go away…you’re embarassing me…” phase.  Although we were forbidden from dancing or singing along with songs.

The event took place at the Auburn Lodge Hotel and a great cross section of the school attended.  All the students put on outfits that they each must have considered to be their coolest most rockin’ styles.  Which was amazing because there was a VERY large range of outfits at the dance.  Here’s what Tara and Grace looked like when they left the house:

Yes, we chose our own outfits...aren't we too cool?

Now, regardless of what your own personal sense of style and taste is, all of the girls at the dance were thrilled with the way they looked.  I’m just glad our two came up with outfits that didn’t have blinking fairy-lights in tutu-esque skirts or tube-tops or high heels or various other unusual or inappropriate trimmings that were evident at the disco.

The full range of style and culture were all present at the disco in full force.  There are kids whose parents emmigrated from Africa and Poland (and…ahem…the U.S.).  There are kids from farms in the outlying areas around Ennis, kids from the town, from richer homes and poorer homes….and there are also the Traveller kids.

This is something I’ve had a hard time understanding, and I can’t say I feel anywhere close to figuring out the complex relationship between contemporary Irish culture and the Travellers.  For starters, I don’t even know if I’m supposed to call these people “Travellers” or if the politically correct term is Itinerants.  Either way I’m pretty sure that Tinkers, Knackers, Knacks or Gypos are not the correct terms although they may be more commonly used.

My first problem is that I come from America where prejudice tends to be based on easily identifiable racial traits such as skin color.  It’s easy to tell if you are in a slum in America because usually the people there are Black, or Latino, or Indian, or some kind of minority that is visually different than the dominant group in town – whatever that may be and pretty much in the US that usually means white.

Here, everyone is white (except the few newly emmigrated Africans). But seriously, the two main groups here that are prejudiced against are the Polish and the Travellers, and to me, they all look just like the Irish, so I have no idea who they are talking about when someone makes some kind of prejudiced comment to me.

But apparently there were a number of Itinerant children (and their families) at the disco.  So I ask one of the mothers there in all seriousness “how can you tell which ones are the Itinerants?” and she frankly tells me that the best way is that if you see a kid or a parent wearing an outfit that is clearly inappropriate, it is most likely you are looking at an Itinerant.  It wasn’t a particularly racist or prejudiced response, it is simply the only way to tell which group of white people you were looking at.

It didn’t make it any clearer to me on a macro scale how the two cultures have such disdain for each other, but it did make me think a lot about how we judge other people so quickly by such small and irrelevant criteria so often.  I’ve really spent a lot of time pondering how things like accent and style of dress can completely change your prospects in life based on the biases of other people.  I’m sure I’ll write a lot more about this subject as the year goes on.

In the meantime, we’re in the Auburn Lodge Hotel, lurking around the edges of the ballroom trying not to dance and not to embarass the kids.  I’m talking with Grainne’s mother who happens to own the hotel in whose ballrom the disco is taking place.  She is a very elegant and matronly lady who is expertly splitting her attention between the conversation she is having with me and observing the busy busy mayhem “Where’s Waldo” style goings-on happening all around us.

DJ! Pump up the Jam!

So as I’m talking with Grainne’s mother Angela, somebody’s little brother come toddling past us at full tilt.  I know he’s somebody’s little brother because he isn’t old enough to be in school, he’s probably only about three.  But he’s also not really old enough to be running around a hotel ballroom full of dancing maniacs without any parental supervision (I’m pretty sure he was a Traveller).

But as this little guy runs past me at about knee-cap level to me, Angela – without a break in the rythm of the conversation – casually reaches down and grabs a small silver christmas tree ornament out of the little guy’s hand.  He screeches to a halt, shocked by the sudden absence of his silver ball.  He looks up at Angela in that little person way like “why did you just take my beautiful thing away from me?” and she looks down at him and she says very calmly and rather sternly:  “It’s mine.”  and there’s this silence and the kid looks at Angela for a second, evaluating whether he thinks he has a chance at getting his silver ornament back, or if he’s going to cry or what.  He rightly decides to let it go and runs onward, and Angela looks at me and says “It is mine, it came from the tree in the lobby.” and I think “wow! that lady is sooooo on-the-ball – I never would have seen that ornament running by”.   But the look that the two of them gave each other there in the middle of the mayhem was one of the funniest moments of the night and I still chuckle to myself thinking of it.  

All told, the kids had a fantastic time, got all hopped up on sugar-y treats and soda, danced their heads off and stayed till the music was over, and then we stayed around a little longer, to mess around in the lobby until everyone else was gone home and the clean-up was underway.

A great first dance for everyone.

The music plays on in our hearts

The Magic of Thomond Park Part 3: The Play

27 Nov

A long time ago, when I was a kid, my family and I attended a Cal Bears football game at home in Berkeley against arch-rival Stanford.  The game was a tightly fought contest and in the final seconds Stanford were up by a single point.  Seizing the moment of imminent victory, the Stanford marching band descended from the stands to rush the field in celebration.   Unfortunately, there were a few seconds left on the clock and the Berkeley team hiked the ball into play and – using the tubas and bass drums as interference – ran the ball via a series of lateral passes into the endzone for a touchdown to win the game. 

They called it “The Play” and people talked about it for years.

The Northampton team had less brass

I have a feeling I witnessed something like this at the Munster game the other night.

Northampton were up 21 to 20 with less than a minute of play left on the clock, the only hope for Munster was to score in the last 45 seconds and it didn’t look too good – but they were almost in range of a dropkicked field goal which would score them 3 points and win the game – if only the Northampton team would make a mistake and allow them a clear shot at it.

One of the amazing things about Rugby is the way that the play keeps going when American footbal would stop and start.  The Rugby ball can go down, the player carrying it can fall and yet there are ways to keep the play going and get the ball moving again.  You would see this kind of play happen throughout the game with three or four or five “phases of play” as they are called.  I thought about my grandfather playing American football back in the thirties and forties and thinking that what I was seeing here probably looked more like what Grandpa played than what you see in modern American football these days.  I think he would have loved watching these guys playing this game. 

Another interesting thing about Rugby is that when the clock runs out on the game, the game continues until the play in progress is over.

And here’s where these two unique aspects of Rugby combined to form a play that was nothing less than magic.  The Munster team passed the ball laterally and backwards, and ran it back and forth and front and back and were tackled and pushed the ball forward and pushed the ball backward and ultimately played flawlessly for a full ten minutes with over 40 phases of play – that’s like 40 downs in American football – and they kept the play going long after the clock had run out and tried over and over and over to get a clear shot at the goal and the ball into the hands of their star kicker Ronin O’Gara.

And then, after all this astounding effort, as the fans were holding their hands over their eyes and pounding each other on the backs and nearly weeping with the agony of the striving in front of them…..O’Gara was in the clear…..they passed him the ball….

Don't pay any attention to those huge mean looking guys...

and it was like O’Gara was in his own world…a calm island in the middle of a raging sea of huge men straining against each other bring the game to an over due end….O’Gara tosses the ball in front of himself to set it up for the kick….

Perfect form!

The stadium fell silent once again, but it wasn’t the respectful and studied silence of the penalty kick.  The silence that fell over the crowd at this final moment was one of pure shock – of breath held – from both sides – as everyone stopped to see if the kick would make it – which way would the game go? it was all, literally, up in the air – and the crowd was silent for that few seconds as the ball left O’Gara’s foot….

I love this picture of O’Gara after the kick because it looks like he is floating from elation – and this is pretty much what the entire staduim did at the same moment (there weren’t very many Northampton fans there).

Walking on Air

So the magic of Thomond Park held true and the miraculous victory was earned once more. 

Frankly, I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to go to another Rugby game after this: the box seats, the Munster crowd, the gorgeous stadium and The Play….oh The Play. 

Even if everyone else eventually stops talking about this game, I’ll always be quick to re-tell it…it was just too good.

The Magic of Thomond Park Part 2: The Place

26 Nov

You may be wondering “Who are these people who told Tom about ‘The Magic of Thomond Park’?” and you’d be right to wonder because it’s not like it’s a subject that everyone talks about all the time, but like the various other things people around here seem to take for granted, Thomond Park’s “Magic” seems to be known and accepted by just about everyone I talked to in the time between being invited to the rugby match and actually attending it.

Mostly it would kind of happen like this: I would be talking to someone about the weather or something and then I’d say something like: “Well I hope the day is mild on Saturday since I’m headed to the rugby, and by the way, what color do the Munster team wear?”  I wouldn’t want to show up looking like I was supporting the wrong team.  And they’d say “Oh, you’re gonna go experience the Magic of Thomond Park are you?”

Where the Magic Happens

It would seem that the Munster team have a pretty astounding winning streak at home.  But that could only be part of “The Magic”  When I was there it really was a special night: the weather was fair, the sunset was glorious and the park itself is a high-class structure with all the amenities you’d want to find in a world-class sporting arena.   Plus we were sitting in the corporate box so we had waitresses who would periodically ask if you needed another beer to be delivered to you.  “Class” as they say.

But in the middle of the game there will be occasions when the play stops for a minute and the ball is placed on the ground for a penalty kick.   What happens here really does feel like magic though, because this huge stadium full to capacity with 24,000 or so people in it becomes silent.

I mean real silence, like “moment-of-silence-for-the-departed” style silence.  The stadium became nearly silent as our kicker stood back and eyed the ball, preparing for the kick.   I say nearly because some of the Northampton supporters were still making some (possibly heckling) noise.   From around the stadium the normally spirited fans started Shushing the Northampton fans who were making noise until there was complete and utter silence throughout the place.

I heard someone clear their throat on the other side of the stadium.

I’m told that this silence is so absolute, that visiting teams’ kickers find it oppressive and nerve-wracking.  I’m told that Thomond Park is the only place this asolute silence happens and that this is part of the magic.

Someone once told me that “Soccer is a gentlemen’s game played by thugs, and rugby is a thug’s game played by gentlemen”.   The absolute focus on the game during those kicks was definitely a gentleman’s move.

Noisier when it is nearly empty than when it is full!

Oh and here’s another thing that impressed me: The Fields of Athenry.  Look it up on iTunes or somewhere, but this is not your typical march march fight fight kind of anthem.  In fact it was sung at the opening by The Irish Tenors which seemed to be the appropriate type of voice for this melodic and lyrical ballad about a guy who stole an ear of corn during the famine and is shipped off to Australia on a prison ship.  If there was ever a song to get the local supporters riled up against the english, this was it, but I’ll tell you it wasn’t a song I was expecting as a team anthem.

The whole event: the singing, the silence, the sunset and the service all contributed to what was clearly “The Magic of Thomond Park” but what really put the icing on the cake as-it-were was the play on the field.

That will be the next entry.  That’s all for now.

The Magic of Thomond Park Part 1: The People

25 Nov

I don’t make this stuff up….well, mostly not…but seriously, I don’t have to fabricate things to write about because there’s plenty available all around me. 

Such as “The Magic of Thomond Park” which is what people had told me about before I went to the Season opener of the Heinekin Cup Rugby series in which Munster, our Provincial team, is competing (quite well I might add).

Ready for the Magic!

My arrival in Ireland coincided with the Rugby World Cup so I got an initial introduction to the game by watching the Ireland team fight their way into the quarter finals only to be knocked out.  Nonetheless, I managed to follow the championship games from a seat next to Jim Lyons in his living room early in the morning before anyone else was up (the games were in Australia or somewhere in a much different time zone) and through this I absorbed a good bit of appreciation for the game.

Now fast-forward to the other week when Dominic invited me to “the match this Saturday down at Thomond Park”.  I was so flattered to be included in the invitation that I completely forgot to ask where Thomond Park was, who was playing there and what sport it was that we were going to be watching.  I immediately responded that I would be thrilled to go before I had even asked Mary if we had plans. 

It was true, I frankly didn’t care what sport it was, who was playing, or what other plans Mary might have had in store for us, this was the first time since I’d arrived that anyone had invited me to something on my own, without Mary or the Lyonses and I was thrilled to go and would have scuttled pretty much any other event to be there.

Now I hope I don’t sound like a complete loser or something, but when you drop yourself into a new place out of the blue, it is more difficult than you’d think to develop a social life.   The people in Ireland are renowned for being friendly and open and their reputation for this is well deserved but, that said, they are like anyone anywhere in that fully-developed adult-type humans tend to have a pretty full slate of friends, acquaintences and pretty busy lives. 

No matter how open and friendly you are, it is still difficult to find the time and opportunity to include someone new into your full social schedule.  So while I’ve been very busy meeting as many people as possible for professional purposes, my social life has been pretty much limited to Mary’s friends and relatives – who are totally great by the way, but at the end of the day, they are Mary’s friends and relatives and while I am very happily growing my own relationships with them, I think it’s important for me to develop some relationships of my own.

So total props to Dominic for extending the hand and inviting me to “the match this Saturday down at Thomond Park” which turned out to be Rugby and I fortunately knew a tiny bit about the game.

Dominic was introduced to me through a friend of his, John, who is a friend of Jim Lyons’. But if Jim hadn’t asked John to connect me to Dominic, it seems I might have met him through any number of other possible paths because – like Paddy and the rowing – when I talked about my professional plans here, a whole variety of people had said “oh, you should meet Dominic” and eventually I did and they were right: he has a great entrepreneurial energy and an innovative mind that seems to break out of a lot of conventional Irish conventions and he has been very helpful and supportive of my professional goals and aspirations here, but I’m sure I’ll write about that some other time…for now back to Thomond Park…

Through Liam via Dominic via John I ended up in a very sweet corporate suite at the season opener for Munster Rugby because Jim’s friend John introduced me to Dominic who knew Liam who generously provided the awesome tickets and whose wife was just recommended for a job by Madeleine and (breathe)….can you say small world!

But, small world or not, the company was excellent and the craic was mighty (that’s Irish-english for “we had a great time”).

Oh and the game….I haven’t even talked about the game yet….this post is long enough though… I guess I’ll make another post for that..

Thankfully Giving Thanks

24 Nov

Happy Thanksgiving.  Yes, in fact, this is a very happy Thanksgiving, and we have more than ever to be thankful for this year, and not just here in Ireland, but the love and support we have received from family and friends this year is astounding and we are so very very grateful for it.

Although it’s been a few days since I posted here, it is partly because the awesome events that I would normally post about have been happening at such a pace that I haven’t had time to sit down and process them into the blog yet.  I am thankful for this cascade of wonderful memory-making-moments and I will share them with you soon but here’s a teaser of some posts I hope to write up this weekend: The Magic of  Thomand Park; First Dance; and Double Digits.

In the meantime:

Why are the Yanks ordering their Christmas Turkey so early?

We have come up to the Burren for the Thanksgiving weekend.  If you are reading this from the States, you will remember that Thanksgiving is onloy celebrated in the US thus we have stolen the kids out of school for two days because we felt it is an important part of our culture that we’d like to keep up.  Plus we have so much to be thankful for that it will take at least two days of no-school to cover it all.

That said, I ordered us a proper sized turkey from the butcher, and I don’t know if it’s an Irish thing, or if it was just this butcher, but the turkey we got was not shaped like the Thanksgiving turkeys I’m used to in the US.  In the first place, it is more vertical than horizontal.  I mean that at home, when the turkey lies on its back in the roasting pan, it is wider than it is tall.  Here, it is more of a wild game shaped bird, very vertical, thin from shoulder to shoulder and high.   Plus the legs were super duper long.  In fact, they didn’t fit in the oven, so I used this opportunity to cut them off, and roast them separately since I read somewhere that they don’t take as long to cook as the breast so it actually makes for a juicier and more delicious dinner if you cook the legs separately from the body. 

So, organic-free-range-wild-shaped-turkey, you have caused us in spite of ourselves to cook you perfectly.  Dinner is on in about ten minutes, so I better get to it.

Thank you so much for reading this, it makes me so happy that I am able to share our wonderful experiences with you.


Feather-free Fare

18 Nov

If you recall my previous post about finding feathers in my eggs, you will be interested to know that I have followed up on my theory that there is a guy in the factory placing a feather in each carton of eggs.

First off, I gathered anecdotal evidence by speaking to numerous Irish egg consumers: primarily consisting of my extended family and several other acquaintances I’ve made since I got here.  Most of them had no knowledge of ever getting a feather in their egg-carton.  This would either indicate that none was there, or that they just didn’t notice.  That said, a large percentage had, in fact, noticed the occasional feather but tended to consider it a rare, accidental and rather un-remarkable occurance.   Few people, in either camp were as amazed or amused as I was by the presence of feathers in my eggs and none had considered the idea that the feather was purposefully placed in the carton to indicate authenticity.  I guess “The Celtic Tiger” didn’t completely coat Ireland with commercial cynicism.

But anecdotal evidence is not worth as much as scientifically generated empirical evidence.  So last week in the shop when Mary had wandered (carelessly) away from me and into the meat section, I noticed that I was pretty much on my own in the egg section.  Seizing the opportunity, I opened up as many cartons as I could without being caught or reported. 

And one small aside for U.S. residents, you will notice that in spite of weighing things in “stones”, this really is a metric country: observe the eggs in packages of 10, not 12.  It’s the little things that matter.

Anyway, I didn’t find a single feather and I managed to document my efforts photographically (as quickly and discretely as possible):

"What do you think that guy is doing over there in the egg section?"

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