My Wife is a Zen Master

We’ve been doing a lot of travel lately. Since March, we’ve been to Ireland, Montreal, New York City, we ran a 150 mile relay race in Southern Ohio, and last weekend, we went to New Orleans. At first, I expected to write some travel-related posts about these trips, but as you might imagine, home life has kept me pretty busy in between. I mean, we have to work during the week to foot the bill for this Instagram lifestyle. Honestly, we’re a bit tired. We wouldn’t have chosen to do all of that travel in such a short period of time, but several of the trips were not really our plan. In fact, almost all of these trips were to celebrate birthdays of other people. We’re all for celebrating other people. But with so much travel and none of it really specific to our plans, I can get knocked off my game.

During the trip to New Orleans, we met several other couples to help one of my wife’s college friends celebrate her 40th birthday. We casually knew most people involved, but this wasn’t exactly a close-knit group for us. How bad can it be? We’re flexible and congenial and can get along with most anyone. Well… at least my wife can. I on the other hand, seem to invite controversy. When I talk to people about my past and the amount of arguments, threats of physical harm, and actual fist fights I’ve been sucked into, people are astonished. In fact, I wrote a whole other post – nearly 2000 words – about this topic but I have opted to scrap it because it sounded like a bit of a sob story. I’m not one for that. But suffice it to say, if a street bum is going to pick out someone from a group of 10 people and start messing with them, it is going to be me. I know, because I’ve seen it happen. Repeatedly.

OK, we get it, you seem to have a tractor beam for aggressive-types; so what’s this bit about your wife being a Zen Master? I’ll get there. So let’s say the trip to NOLA was not without its controversy. I actually handled it in stride during the trip. I took the grief I was given and offered myself up for a bit more. In the midst of the grief-handling, my daughter called me while crying because her car had broken down on a fairly busy community road. She and I worked together to sort it all out, and the bill was going to be in the $1200 range. I’ll come back to this in a minute. So, fast forward to Monday and people at work asked me how my trip went. I started giving one person some of the details about the grief I got and he was aghast. He said, “if that was me, I probably would have ditched the group and gone to the Jazz Fest on my own.” While I was rehashing the story, my Mom sent me a text. Over this same weekend, she took a break from the move into her new condominium, went to a casino for a couple of hours and won $1200 on the slots. I congratulated her good fortune but thought a bit more about it. I sent my wife the following text, “I spent the weekend as a social pariah and it cost me $1200 on our daughter’s car. My Mom played the slots for a few minutes this weekend and won $1200. She is definitely living righter than me.” I was mostly being funny, but many a true word is spoken in jest. My recap of the weekend to some of my co-workers had set the wheels of self-pity in motion.

At first, the Zen Master who is my wife played my comment down as funny. But then she said that I wasn’t a social pariah. What? You were there! I was incredulous. I began to recount to my wife the events of the weekend as if she hadn’t experienced them first hand. How could she say that I was not the outcast? She let me moan on for a bit all the while saying “OK” and “Sure.” If a man wants to dig a hole, there’s no point in standing in his way I guess. After I had more or less exhausted my digging, she hit me with this: “I don’t know why you’re upset now. You’re a nonconformist and you’re fine with the attention that it brings. I thought we had a nice weekend together.” She was right of course. We had a great breakfast at a lovely little French cafe. We had an incredible dinner at an Italian restaurant. We hung out together at a rooftop bar while the sun set. The weather was perfect. We held hands and walked around the French Quarter. I was down there for her, and here I was picking at the tiny dark spots on an otherwise amazing weekend. I let it go.

That evening, I was re-reading Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, and about 10 minutes into my reading, the following passage hit me squarely between the eyes:

We try so hard to preserve the very thing that’s making us miserable. We cling hard to our pain because we mistakenly think that that pain is who we really are. We define ourselves by what we don’t like or we define ourselves by what we like. Either way we miss the truth. We harbor some inexplicable fear that if we start to enjoy everything about life without picking and choosing we might cease to exist.

– Hardcore Zen, Kindle Edition; location 2089

So my wife is now doling out the same advice as an ordained Zen Master. That psychology degree is starting to pay off. All joking aside, this is one of the multitudinous reasons why I profess my undying love for this woman. She makes me a better person.

If you’re wondering, I was able to simply let go of the “pain” I was holding onto. While my wife triggered my letting go, it is my study of Zen Buddhism and practice of Zazen that has helped me to shorten the the cycle of letting go. I’ll focus an upcoming post on how a middle-class kid from conservative and deeply Christian Southern Ohio wound up nosing around a Japanese “non-religious” tradition and how it might help you be a little happier. But until then, let’s make with the questions from this post… 

How does your significant other make you a better person?

Are you holding on to some pain that feels like it defines you? What might letting go of that pain look like?

Looking back on 42

42. That is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least according to Deep Thought, the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ seminal work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is. Those who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide… will already be snickering with this reminder. Those who have not, should. Having recently completed my 42nd trip around the sun on this tiny blue planet, I’ve decided to have a look back on my Ultimate Year.

  • It was my first full year without my Dad. He died in 2016, and looking back, his death has had a huge impact on me. Most notably, the circumstances of his death had a profound influence on my mindfulness practice.
  • A year of seniors. My son is now a senior in college, my daughter a senior in high school. My, how time flies.
  • I ran my first marathon. And my second, and my third, and my fourth. I can be obsessive.
  • My first full year of eating a plant-based diet. Inspired by Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, I’ve got better health numbers now than I did in most of my 20’s and all of my 30’s.
  • It was a good year for my career too. I want to keep my career separate from this blog, but it was a good year following a promotion to a leadership position. I have a fantastic team full of amazing individuals. I wouldn’t trade a single one.
  • My mindfulness practice tipped – in a good way. I read several insightful books this past year, but two of the best were The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Gaining insights and simply fumbling my way through it, I have taken control of my emotions and want for almost nothing. I would by no means call myself enlightened, but it is a fascinating state of being.
  • I supportted my wife as she pursues her passion: a Master’s of Psychology from Harvard University.
  • I fell in love with trail running. Previously, I had only pounded the pavement. In my 42nd year, I ran several trail races locally and, perhaps most life-altering, I got the chance to run the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. This is where I took the lead picture of this post.
  • I was able to go whale watching. Surprisingly, this was the highlight of our trip to the Massachusetts beach house in Marshfield. I expected to like seeing whales. I didn’t expect to be mystified.
  • We finally took the trip to Montserrat. After years of traveling to Barcelona and always thinking about it, we finally took the day trip to Montserrat. The monastery houses the Black Madonna and my Mom was speechless. The views from the mountain are stunning.

As I wrap up this short post, I find myself in a state of complete gratitude. My wife and I both hail from small towns (I’m not even sure “town” is the right word for these places) in the Appalachian Ohio Valley, home of economic backwaters and the opioid crisis. Sometimes we look at each other and just shake our heads in awe of what the Universe has provided. The views at 42 were pretty grand.

The view from the Marshfield, MA beach house:

Whale Watching on Cape Cod

James and me (right) in Chamonix before heading up into the Alps

My homemade veggie paella

Looking down from Montserrat

Reflections of Ireland Part 4: Bloomsday in March

I know I’ve mentioned it in other posts, but I’ll say it again. I am a huge fan of James Joyce. With this year’s major trip going to Ireland, there was simply no way I was going to miss out on having a Joyce / Ulysses experience. Readers of James Joyce will know that June 16, aka Bloomsday, is THE big day for fanatics. For the less initiated, Joyce’s book, Ulysses takes place over the course of this single day in the city of Dublin. I couldn’t be in Dublin in June, so I celebrated my own Bloomsday on Sunday, March 5. While doing my trip research, I was delighted to find not only a James Joyce Centre but also a Ulysses Walking Tour. I have taken several walking tours in the past and they feature in some of my fondest travel memories. After getting my private walking tour set up with David Halpin, Owner and Guide of Dublin Ulysses Tours, my day was set. I was ready to geek out.

The Centre

Before the walking tour, I decided to visit the James Joyce Centre. I’m glad I experienced the Centre before the walking tour. While I want to support the Centre in its efforts to preserve and promote the works of James Joyce, it honestly left a bit to be desired. There are three floors to the Center and the unguided tour is started by climbing the stairs to the top floor to experience the museum on the way back down. The top floor has an interesting Ulysses publication “family tree,” which traces the various Ulysses editions relative to their publishing houses and publication dates. There is also a video that plays three short documentaries about Ulysses. On the second floor, there are several painted portraits from the Joyce family as well as visual schema of each of the chapters of Ulysses. The ground floor has the gift store and a viewing parlor with John Huston’s movie, The Dead playing, but the display lacked any indication as to how it tied to Joyce. So… the James Joyce Centre was good but not great. At €5 per person, I think it’s priced right for the value delivered. If you go, plan for about 1 hour max. The short documentaries on the top floor, which I haven’t found to be available on the internet, take just over a half an hour to watch in total. The rest of the museum will take no more than 30 minutes to walk through.

The Walk

Having wrapped up the time at the museum, it was time for the main event. David and I had arranged via email to meet at The Palace Bar on Fleet Street in the Temple Bar neighborhood. We recognized each other fairly quickly and settled into a back corner over pints of Guiness. Note that David provides customized, personal tours and he’s constantly looking to improve, so if you go (and I highly recommend it regardless of your experience level with Joyce / Ulysses), your experience will likely differ from mine.

The Palace Bar is a time capsule with wood paneled walls, a hardwood bar and a friendly curate to match. While there is a single mounted TV, it was turned off. This is no sports bar. The Palace is an old fashioned pub meant for talking and to add to the ambiance, its walls are adorned with pictures and portraits of the writers and artists who have frequented it over the years. The seats are comfortable and we were free to arrange them as we pleased. The bar was about half full and the other patrons paid us no mind as David pulled out his hefty copy of Ulysses to call out specific quotes and points. During our chat, David and I discussed our own stories and how we came to experience this tremendous author and his seminal work. David is a polite conversationalist and he really takes his time to make a connection. We chatted for nearly an hour. Then we packed up and headed out into the early spring Dublin weather for Bloom-style walk around Dublin.

Immediately outside, David pointed out the gold colored memorials built into the sidewalk commemorating four of the Irish writers who frequented The Palace. He explained their connection to literature and to Joyce. At this point, I had been in and out of The Palace twice and hadn’t seen these gold colored plaques. As I would soon discover, I had been walking over similar commemorative sidewalk features for the previous several days.

After leaving The Palace, David took us down backstreets pointing out Dublin street art dedicated to Irish literature. We stopped by the statues outside of Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Bar and viewed the murals on Bloom’s Hotel.

From there, we walked out to College Green and headed toward Trinity College Dublin. David is full of insights about the roles the characters and buildings played in literary history. I wouldn’t do it justice, so you’ll just have to take the tour. From here, we turned right onto Grafton Street and picked up the trail of Ulysses fictional protagonist, Leopold Bloom. This was my third time to Grafton Street in as many days because it is the main shopping district; however, like those plaques outside The Palace Bar, it was my first time seeing the gold colored Bloom plaques embedded in the pavement. Pictures of three of the plaques follow.

These plaques mark the walk of the fictional Bloom as he traveled the very accurately portrayed streets of Dublin during the course of the day and night of June 16, 1904. Experienced readers will already know from the pictures above that the plaques quote passages from Ulysses at the time in the book when Bloom was at that real life juncture. Off of Grafton, we turned left onto Duke Street, which is where I learned not only that Davy Byrnes still exists in a modern state, but also that there is a Ulysses Rare Book Store. I would later visit the store and purchase one of several vintage copies of Ulysses available for sale. For vintage book lovers, this place is worth the trip just to get a glimpse of the Ulysses first edition that is stored under glass behind the counter. But there are plenty of more accessible vintage books by a wide variety of authors on the shelves that the average wallet can afford.

We then followed Bloom’s footsteps over to the National Library, where David brought Bloom and his arch rival, Blazes Boylan, to life with a quick reading of the corresponding parts of Ulysses. From here, we traveled to a neighborhood hotel for a quick stop and a view of what is perhaps the least known – and by far the best rendering I have seen – memorial to Joyce and Ulysses. David’s narrative perfectly illustrated the quoted text as we made our way around the 360 degree monument. Given that this piece isn’t yet called out on Joyce sight-seeing website lists, I’ll keep this spot concealed and again refer the reader to David’s Dublin Ulysses Tour to catch a glimpse.

From here, we made our way to Sweny’s pharmacy, which is where Bloom fictionally picked up the lemon soap for his wife Molly. Sweny’s is no longer a working pharmacy, IMG_2558but is rather a standing homage to Joyce and societal home to – these are my words – a loose knit group of local Joyce volunteers who are committed to keeping the sights and sounds of his work alive. Inside, David introduced me the volunteer in chief, PJ, who shook my hand and inquired about my surname. After providing him with my four nearest related family names, PJ rattled off a brief and authoritative geographical history of my 4 bloodlines. After that, he sat down and sang me a song in Irish as he strummed along on guitar. And with that act, I’m pretty sure I joined this Joyce “society” in whatever form it exists. My tour with David had concluded, but my evening was far from over.

The Reading

There was almost no question as to whether I was coming along with David to “the reading” after my whirlwind initiation. PJ just looked at me and said, “We’ve had to move the reading across the street to Kennedy’s because we have a good sized group. This is good because we’ll have some pints as we read. Grab a book and let’s go.” So, I did.

“The reading” as the name would suggest, is a group of people sitting around the table each with the same book in hand and each taking his or her turn to read a page. The book was Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which I had never read.

IMG_2559
David Halpin, me, and other “readers”

What I did know about the book is that it took Joyce 18 years to write and that the language was almost entirely Joyce’s own amalgamation of various languages around the world. It has a reputation for being nearly unreadable. There was no time for me to be intimidated. About 4 minutes after I sat down and caught the place in the book, it was my turn to read. It is said of Joyce’s work that one of the best ways to access it is to simply read it aloud. I’m sure I got most of it wrong. Others sounded more authoritative in their readings. However, I’m sure that the pints of Guiness that were flowing helped all of us “just go with it.” With one loop round the table of 9 readers, I settled into the process and had a great time. After several loops and a few pints, PJ signaled that it was time to wrap up the reading and he gathered up the books to take back across to Sweny’s.

As the books closed, the discussions opened. I formally met most everyone around the table and we quickly leapt into topics large and small: gun laws in America; US Presidents Trump, Obama, and a sprinkling of Bill Clinton; Irish social classes and Dublin neighborhood distribution relative to the River Liffey; the movie Pulp Fiction, and on and on. Unfortunately, I had to wrap up the evening and get back to my family. As I made my rounds and said my goodbyes, it was a bittersweet moment. I had immediately connected with a Joycian tribe and after a few delightful hours, it was time to go.

Finding Joyce’s Dublin

Through his works and his correspondences, we know that Joyce was fiercely committed to the human experience. After all, what landed Ulysses on the banned book list in all English speaking countries as soon as it was published is the fact that it is an odyssey of the human body and mind. Joyce wrote about things that – at the time – just couldn’t be written about. My day up until that point had been committed to knowing more of Joyce and the Dublin of his time. I was focused on facts and figures. But as I reflected on the day during my long walk along the Liffey back to my Airbnb, I began to realize that my evening at Kennedy’s Bar, connecting with David, PJ and others who share a common interest as we discussed the politics and issues of our day, was as much taking part in Joyce’s Dublin as anything I have done. This is Dublin City. Constantly renewing while celebrating its rich history. Today’s Dublin is Joyce’s Dublin. To experience it, one needs to find a pub, grab a pint, and start a conversation.

Reflections of Ireland Part 3: The Day Dublin Stood Still

Friday, March 2, 2018. If I were to believe the headlines and talking heads on the news, this day was supposed to be filled with danger as the “killer storm” Emma which gave way to #thebeastfromtheeast settled in on Ireland. And yet somehow, we’ve made it alive. Dublin is our third and final leg of our cross-country tour of Ireland. We had significant plans to see various sights and do a bit of shopping. But… Mother Nature has thrown us a snowball. The snow was predicted to be as deep as 10 inches (25 cm) in Dublin City. By my estimates, we’re right around 4 inches total over 2 days of snowing. For a country that gets roughly 2 inches of snow per year, it is a lot. They’re not equipped with snow plows and such, so they do a little grit-spreading and hope for the best.

Closed for Business, but Open for Craic

All major tourist attractions were closed, as were all public transit systems. Essentially all businesses were closed and very few taxis were operating. This vibrant, mischievous city eerily rolled up its sidewalks for a bit of snow. However, the residents of Dublin were not to be deterred. Being from Ohio, where we get plenty of weather of all types, I happily went out in the weather several times and I encountered loads of people. In fact, at the height of the storm on Friday morning, I set off on a run from Sarsfield Quay (pronounced “key”) along the River Liffey and out to the ocean via Irishtown. The round trip run was 10 miles and took me a little longer because I had to check Google Maps from time to time. Travel Tip: When traveling to a city outside your home country, I highly recommend downloading offline maps of your destination. It will allow you to see where you are and navigate streets without using data. Its a handy replacement to using a physical map. I want to be clear here: when I say “navigate” I’m not saying that it will give you turn by turn directions like navigation, but it does allow you to see your “dot” on the street and you can zoom in on your location to see street names and notable locations. Every time I ventured out, I found people walking their dogs, searching for open grocery stores, or having a bit of craic (Irish term loosely meaning “fun;” pronounced “crack”). I came across people building snow men and several “gangs” of teenage boys itching for a snowball fight.

Snowballs Thrown

I was hit with several snowballs during my travels in the city. I took it for what it was – boys having fun. I noticed that only men who appeared fit enough to defend themselves were targeted, so this wasn’t a situation where kids were out being bullies. As I made my way in the streets, I would catch a glimpse of someone making a snowball and turning away. It was a sure sign that one was coming my way. A couple of times, they’d miss and I’d talk a little trash about their poor marksmanship. Usually, they rose to the challenge and fired a few more my way. Only once was I hit in a malicious way. I was walking past an older teen with grocery bags in both of my hands. I noticed the snowball in his hand and made a mental note that I’d brace for the throw about 15 paces after we pass one another. It didn’t take so long. Right after he passed me, he smashed the snowball into the back of my head. For a second, I considered dropping my bags and retaliating. But I’m sure that’s what he wanted, so I just kept walking without giving him the satisfaction. Not everyone took the same turn-the-other-cheek approach that I did.

Things Heat up in the Cold

On two occasions, I saw the snowball situation escalate. On one occasion several boys pelted a van with snowballs. The driver stopped, words were exchanged, but not much more came of it. On another occasion, a boy threw a snowball over a car – to be clear, it didn’t even hit the car – and the driver pulled over. This was in the midst of “The Beast” and the driver hopped out in only a t-shirt and jeans. He was itching for a fight. Muscle bound and shaved head with a chain connecting his wallet, he got out and gestured at the boys. I couldn’t hear the words, but he clearly wanted a fight. The boys – there must have been 8-10 of them – all stayed out of arms reach and I thought that it was over. Nope. The man made a “That’s what I thought” gesture and started to turn around to get back into his car. And that’s when they hit him with three snowballs at the same time. I was laughing out loud, incredulous. I live in a de-escalated world where this simply doesn’t happen. Furious, the man rounded on the boys and took a few steps in the direction of the snowballs. The boys scattered, but it only lasted a few steps. When the man dind’t get hold of anyone they turned back around and fired off more. I kept thinking that this is going to end in fisticuffs if someone doesn’t layoff. That’s when the girlfriend got out of the car.

Apparently muscle man had a significant other in the vehicle and she was tired of seeing her man pelted with snowballs while not one of the snowball-hurling kids being willing to physically fight him. So she jumps out of the car and into the street while making wild hand gestures and – although I only wish I could hear her – yelling madly at the group of kids. She’s egging them on to either fight her or to hit her with a snowball, which thankfully no one does. I assume at this point if she gets hit with a snowball, muscle man is going to run someone down with his car. This Mexican standoff continues down the road in front of the Guinness factory, and then well beyond our ability to see it with the car moving about 20 yards at a time. Here’s what I know: I didn’t read about it in the papers the following day and I didn’t see a snowball fight-related murder on the news. So I can only assume it all ended peacefully enough.

Slow Down and Have a Laugh

In the end, I think this incident was a perfect microcosm of Dublin. It’s a vibrant city full of young adult things to do but it lacks a bit of maturity. Yes, there is an incredibly rich literary history, but if you look into those authors, few of them were above a bawdy joke or a long night of hard drinking. And that’s just fine by me. I know that I’m certainly guilty of taking myself too seriously from time to time and this mischievous city with its public shutdown and wild snowball fights is just the reminder I needed to sit back, have a drink, and enjoy the ride.

– Sláinte!

Reflections of Ireland Part 2: On the Road to Tralee

If you’d like to connect with a people and their culture, spend a couple of days in the hospital. I know, I know, that sentence didn’t end the way you were thinking. Our trip hasn’t exactly gone the way we thought it would either. On the second half of our bus tour of the Ring of Kerry, my wife started getting sick. By the time I got her back to our Airbnb in Killarney, she was literally green and feverish. After she had a nap and overcame her fever, we consulted WebMD and discovered her symptoms checked all the boxes for an appendicitis. Having never experienced a health problem away from the US, we called her insurance company for some direction. The response was swift and admirably simple: go to the hospital and save your receipts for reimbursement.

On the Road to Tralee

Our stay is in Killarney, which is a lovely little town of about 14,000 residents and no hospital. The closest hospital is about 30 minutes drive into a neighboring town of Tralee. We consulted our Airbnb hosts and they confirmed that Kerry General Hospital in Tralee is the place where they go if needed. So, we packed up and headed out. I was raised in the US so driving a sizable right-side drive, manual transmission vehicle on the left side of the road is a bit disorienting. Luckily, I’ve had a few days practice so I was able to deal with the added stress of driving my wife to the hospital at night on roads I hadn’t seen. However, I’ll readily admit that my knuckles were white from time to time over the half hour drive. Over the next 36 hours, I would make this drive in both directions several times as I made provisional trips to and from the hospital. Travel Tip: Planning to drive in Ireland? On top of allowing yourself some time to orient to the left side of the road before jumping into city traffic, I HIGHLY recommend paying the extra fee for the GPS. It took the guess work out of reading road signs (written in Irish first, English second), navigating countless roundabouts, and helped me keep track of the not-always-noticeable speed limit signs.

Irish Healthcare

In hindsight, I’d have looked up the information before traveling to know what to expect. What I learned in our exhaustive time in waiting room of the Emergency Department is that Irish Healthcare is among the slowest in Europe. My wife was seen promptly for admissions and was seen by the triage nurse within 35 minutes. After a very short interview, she informed us that it would be a 4-5 hour wait before we could see the doctor. It was closer to 6 hours. Having arrived at the hospital at roughly 9 PM, we were able to see the doctor at 2:45 AM. Other than taking blood and urine samples and a basic interview of symptoms, no diagnostic work was done until the next morning. At least she had a bed. After sitting in the aluminum bleachers in the waiting area for hours on end, getting a bit of rest in a hospital gurney helped her feel a little more comfortable. I spent the early morning in minimally padded chair next to her and only nodded off briefly once or twice. Over her 36 hour stay, she had an ultrasound, a CT scan, and several consultations with knowledgeable and caring nurses and doctors. The amenities left a little more to be desired.

Other than during her initial consultation with the doctor, she spent the entire time on a gurney in the hallway because the hospital was over-full, which we’re told is quite routine. I promptly lost my chair when she moved into the hallway and either had to go sit in a waiting room away from her or stand in the hallway near her bed. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the visit was the delivery relative to commitments. For instance, after learning that her ultrasound did not help with the diagnosis at 10 AM, we were told she would have a CT scan by 3 PM. She actually received a CT scan at 5:30 PM and was later told that only emergency CT scans are read after 5. That was when we realized that she’d be spending another night in the hallway. Thankfully she didn’t require surgery and was released the next morning with prescriptions. In the end, I would rate the care received as very good, the amenities as less-than-adequate, and the wait times to be longer than average. Travel Tip: If you need hospital care in Ireland, Americans can expect quality care comparable to what we receive in the US but with significant wait times.

The Human Connection

Spending 36 hours in a hallway gurney along with other patients and their families provides significant opportunities to connect with people. We met, among others, a 12 year old girl who broke both wrists in an elliptical bike accident, an elderly lady who was denied an oxygen tank because she hadn’t demonstrated that she had “given up the fags” (stopped smoking), a retirement-aged mother who personally thanked me for the existence of Bon Jovi, and a nurse who wondered what we thought about President Trump. We also got the chance to sit quietly for a bit and listen to conversations among locals. There is a wonderful, polite rhythm to the Irish conversation. It might go something like this (the reader will have to insert the Irish lilt):

  • Man 1: Alright John?
  • Man 2: Never better. You and the missus?
  • Man 1: Nary a complaint
  • Man 2: Where’s that no good partner of yours?
  • Man 1: Did ye check the canteens and pubs?
  • Man 2: I ‘spect he’ll be shutting ’em down later
  • Man 1: Dontcha know
  • Man 2: Alright, gotta get on with it
  • Man 1: Good luck to ye
  • Man 2: T’anks a million, take care

I mentioned in my last post that Ireland and her people reminded me of my childhood home in Southern Ohio. Never was this more apparent than in the hospital. The spoken and body language communicates so much with so little. There is a wonderful wit and wisdom communicated with a sense of humility in these little exchanges. Briefly, one can let the another know that he feels for him and that “we’re in this together.” My wife and I discussed this at length. We believe this comes with the homogeneity of culture that permeates much of rural Ireland. Because of their shared culture and vernacular, they’re “hyper-communicating,” which is my term for sending paragraphs of dialogue in verbal and non-verbal shorthand. And while our accents are different, this brand of communication is very much a part of Southern Ohio’s Scotch-Irish culture. In fact, we even share several colloquialisms. To illustrate, I was giving one of the nurses a hard time and she didn’t respond, feigning frustration. My wife told her to not take me seriously and I said, “Ah, she knows I’m only just funnin’.” This prompted an almost immediate reply from a third party nurse: “Where did you say you’re from again? Because you’re clearly Irish.”

Welcome Home

I wouldn’t wish an appendicitis on anyone. My wife experienced intense pain and I’m sure she was “this close” to having an appendectomy while in the middle of our vacation. However, the experience – without question – gave us a chance to better connect with our host country. And when you boil it all down, that human connection, that rediscovery of the common thread that binds us all together, is essentially why we travel. In the waiting room, as we were chatting with the mom and her little girl with the broken wrists, an elderly lady overheard us and asked if we were American. We said that we were. She smiled from ear to ear, looked at each one of us and said, “I’m sorry for your trouble, but welcome home.”

Reflections of Ireland (Part 1)

Ireland has been on my bucket list for quite some time. Like many in the US, and like most people from the town in which I hail, I have more than a little Irish heritage. I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland and have a look around. My favorite author, James Joyce, is also famously Irish. Walking around Dublin and seeing the sights of Joyce’s epic Ulysses has been of dream of mine for several years too. Our trip plan is to start in Galway and see the Cliffs of Moher. Then we’ll travel to Killarney and tour – among other things – the Ring of Kerry. Having checked the box on beautiful countryside, we’ll move on to Dublin for several days. I’m a few days into the tour and I wanted to pause for a few reflections.

Ireland feels like home

I’m originally from Southern Ohio. Think, “foothills of the Appalachian Mountains along the banks of the Ohio River.” My part of Ohio is dominated by Scotch-Irish culture that has had time to ferment in a small town environment for a few hundred years since our ancestors predominantly migrated from Ireland. Our people are a heavily accented, slow-paced, kindly folk who are fiercely independent and suspicious of “outsiders” who might be selling solutions to problems that they likely don’t understand. The Southern Ohio landscape is dominated by lovely rolling green pastures, forested hills and plentiful natural water sources that support farming and outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing. I honestly can’t say I was surprised to find a very similar land, culture, and people. Admittedly, I haven’t made it to Dublin yet, but what I have experienced feels like my rural Ohio roots. What I have been struck by is the amazing beauty of the Emerald Isle.

Did I mention that Ireland is Amazingly Beautiful?

So far, I have driven from Dublin to Galway, taken the Cliffs of Moher tour, driven from Galway to Limerick with a brief stop for lunch and a tour or King John’s Castle, and then on again from Limerick to Killarney. The sights are absolutely a.maz.ing. In just a couple of days, we’ve been able to see (pictured in order) 1. The River Corrib in Galway, 2. The Cliffs of Moher, 3. The rocky coast of the The Burren, 4. King John’s Castle in Limerick, and 5. Muckross Lake in Killarney. I am absolutely enamored with the beauty of this country – and, while Southern Ohio cannot totally compete – the sights are at least reminiscent.

The River Corrib in GalwayThe River Corrib in Galway

The Cliffs of MoherThe Cliffs of Moher

The rocky coast of The Burren

View of the River Shannon from atop King John’s Castle

Sunset over Muckross Lake

Until next time… Sláinte chugat!

Traveling with a Parent

Sunset over Valencia

Traveling can be a great way to share fun and exciting experiences with a parent by following a few simple rules.

The Backstory

I must get my adventurous spirit from my mother. She had always wanted to travel with Dad, but his declining health after retirement made it impossible. Sadly, he passed away about 18 months ago. After allowing herself ample time to grieve his passing and after getting things settled, I’m grateful that she accepted my invitation to go to Spain. So about 8 months ago, my wife and I took Mom to our adopted home away from home, Barcelona and added on a brief stay in Valencia. While in Spain during a casual conversation at dinner, Mom listed off her dream travel destinations: England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. I lovingly pointed out that all of her dream destinations have the English language in common, to which she replied, “Oh, I didn’t even think about it, but I guess that’s true!” Oh Mom, I love you. Anyway, I got the message loud and clear. This year we’re headed to Ireland.

Planning the Trip

There were definitely some lessons learned from the trip to Spain. Most of it went very well. But through a little trial and error, I settled on some general rules for traveling with a parent.

Rule 1 – No third wheels

My wife and I love to travel, but taking others along with us can be tricky. I credit my wife with the stroke of genius to invite her “aunt” (actually a very close second cousin) to go with us on the first trip to Spain and now again to Ireland. My mom and her aunt have a fair amount in common.

IMG_0905
Four of a kind on a train in Spain

Like Mom, my wife’s aunt is also a recent widower and a retiree. They’re both very much involved with their adult children and grandchildren and are active in their communities. My wife’s aunt is a year ahead of my mother’s widowhood, so I think it also helps Mom see the light at the other end of the tunnel. At any rate, having a fourth person in our party means that there are no third wheels. If I want to do a specific activity with just my mother, my wife and her aunt are perfectly happy to go off on their own little adventure. Likewise, this is my valuable time away from work, so my wife and I enjoy sneaking away for a walk on a beach or the a glass of wine in a romantic setting. So it’s nice to not feel guilty about leaving any single person behind. In Spain, the retirees skirted off on their own adventures from time to time, and they really developed a nice bond. So – as I will repeatedly say over the course of this blog – my better half got it right. Thankfully, my wife’s aunt will be joining us again during our trip to Ireland and there will be no third wheels.

Rule 2 – One big thing per day

My wife and I try to stay in decent shape. So when we travel, we’re quite active. It isn’t that uncommon for us to log 40,000 steps or more per day while exploring a new spot. I want to recognize both Mom and my wife’s aunt for their fitness as they age, but these ladies can’t – and probably don’t want to – move around at that pace. So we’re scheduling “one big thing” per day with the option for mini-excursions before or after a main meal. For example, early in our trip to Ireland, we’re going to take a bus tour to the Cliffs of Moher. The term “bus tour” doesn’t exactly elicit the idea of strapping on running shoes and breaking a sweat, but there are several on and off bus stops along the way with roughly 90 minutes to explore the Cliffs on foot. The terrain isn’t paved and it will be somewhat taxing. The six-hour tour will be done by 5 PM and, if my wife and I were on our own, we’d certainly line up something else afterwards. But that’s not the trip we’re on. So we’ll leisurely make our way back to our Airbnb and either eat in or find a quiet spot for dinner to reserve our collective energy for the next day’s one big thing.

Rule 3 – Everyone needs her space

We’re a social bunch, but when away from home for a significant period of time, it can be taxing on the mind and body. When traveling with a group it can be tempting to skimp on space and double up on bedrooms or to have someone sleep on a pullout in a common area. That might work for college age folks, but we’ve each had enough time and life experience to get into our routines. Therefore it’s important that each of us have some personal space. That means renting places with 3 bedrooms (my wife still agrees to room with me) and 2 bathrooms. It’s obviously a bit pricier in places like Europe where space is a premium, but it’s pretty important to give everyone some down time to keep the peace over a two-week long, cross-country trip.

Rule 4 – Find the adventure in things that everyone likes

My wife and I are relatively adventurous. As examples, we rented bikes for our main transportation in Sevilla, Spain; we waltzed out into a chilly Lake Michigan in Traverse City in late September; and I was in my element trail-running the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. These are not things I will plan to do with my mom. My mom is more comfortable having a quiet moment in a cathedral or sipping coffee in a cafe. That can work out great too. After several years of traveling to Barcelona, we finally took the train to Montserrat on this most recent trip with my mom. We were treated to an up close view of the Black Madonna. In Valencia’s central cathedral, we saw what the Catholic Church claims to be the chalice used by Jesus during the Last Supper.

 

In both cases, I wasn’t even aware these exalted artifacts existed until we prioritized visiting cathedrals to help suit my mom’s travel tastes. So… Rule 4 was born. Pick an activity that suits everyone and commit to finding the adventure.

In summary

My lovely Mom and me

Both Mom and I have found it to be extremely rewarding to travel together and we’ve shared experiences that will last the rest of our lives. Importantly to me as well, I’ve also shared these experiences with my wife, so we’re able to maximize our vacation time and make memories with loved ones. By following these few simple rules, I’m confident that we can keep going for years to come.


All pictures in this post were taken by Troy Gregory