Ireland: You had to (have to) be there

I lived in Ireland the summer of 2002, right after I graduated from college. I shared a house with a gaggle of girls on the outskirts of Galway; worked in an old men’s pub in the evenings and a coffee shop during the day; and left town as much as I could on the weekends to see the neighboring sea cliffs, sheep fields, matchmaking festivals (events run from “after Mass, till late”), and all the other things that make this diminutive green country so very Irish. (I would paste up a photo or two here, but they were all taken with real film!!)

When Arthur was tasked with going to Dublin for work earlier this month, I happily packed up my laptop and tagged along. While he was in the office, I worked from our third-floor walk-up accommodations in the amazingly named neighborhood of Ballsbridge, venturing occasionally to our local chapter of Insomnia Coffee for a sweet treat and some B-grade European pop music. We took a couple of days off at the end of the week to travel around, and I could shower you for hours with anecdotes of all the wonderful Irish-ness we encountered, but you probably only have time for a wee dose, so I’ll just pick a few.

Killarney National Park: Meeting of the Waters

Killarney National Park: Meeting of the Waters

  • At a Thai restaurant in Killarney, after we finished an excellent bike ride through the area’s drop-dead gorgeous national park, we were tapped by the group of middle-aged guys at the next table for our opinions of one guy’s sock-and-shoe choice (a potent combo of orange and blue striped stockings with tan leather Oxfords). Our hearty approval touched off a good 15 minutes of conversation, in which our suspicions that the Irish and American definitions of “salty” and “spicy” vary considerably were confirmed. (Arthur used to work with an Irish woman who, in fact, told him of their famously bland food, “Ah yes, we do consider salt a spice.”) One of the men pointed to the bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce on the table and called it “Kill a Man.” When another asked if I’d tried the Sriracha and I said we had a bottle in our fridge at home, he just put his head in his hands.
Paddy Fahy's pub in Galway, Ireland

Paddy Fahy’s pub in Galway, Ireland

  • It was fascinating to go back to Galway and see my old haunts. Or really, try to see them. I found I remembered relatively little, at least geographically, of my time there. Thankfully, I still had the address of the pub stowed in my mind, and we were able to find it without trouble (though it was shut tight on a Saturday night—Paddy, where are you??), but I couldn’t locate the big yellow house I’d shared with the girls, the town’s centerpiece Eyre Square could have been dropped in from Barcelona for all I knew, and I realized I had no memory of the routes I’d walked between home and my jobs every day. (The locally owned coffee shop, we deduced, was gone, most likely replaced by a Mocha Beans, the national chain that seems to be everywhere now.) I’m sure I’ll be stewing on the reasons for this mental blank-out for a while; for now, I can only chalk it up to all the other stuff I’ve crammed my brain with in the past 15 years putting the squeeze on older memories!
Bobby Sands mural in Belfast

Bobby Sands mural in Belfast

  • We took a “black cab” tour of Belfast, something I’d wanted to do but been a little nervous about when I was last in Ireland. I’m so glad we did it this time, though it did indeed put me on edge to hear someone who had lived through it tell of the decades of violent struggle the people here have endured—as well as the fact that, despite never hearing a word about it in American news anymore, the conflict is still not resolved. Aside from the sights we saw (which included many haunting murals, images of the frightening bonfires still held in Protestant neighborhoods today, and the “peace wall”), it was the nature of the tour I found so arresting: a professional cab driver, a Catholic native to Belfast, was our only host, so the tour was super visceral, emotional, and biased. I loved it. Yet I was so caught off guard by everything I internalized in such a short time (such as the concept that this isn’t so much a religious conflict as one between colonizer and colonized) that, even though I had about a hundred questions flying through my mind, I noticed myself keeping as mum as the Swiss couple who shared our cab. Stupefying though it was, the experience was a pointed reminder that, no matter how well we think we’re keeping up with news from abroad, there’s no substitute for being there to help round out our understanding of the world.

By the end of our trip, I had absolutely drunk the Irish kool-aid (and, this time, I don’t mean the Guinness!). Despite some pretty crap weather and a few meals no amount of salt or hot sauce could save, I felt the magic and soul of this little dewy island that’s seen so much. Thanks for having me again, Éire.

Bearded Men O The West postcard Ireland
Red window with pink flowers in Galway Ireland
Near the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in County Antrim

Betty White, aliens, & OMG! Puppies: Tripping through Big Foot Land & beyond

Blue Wonder Woman mug with purple flowers

This sums a lot of it up

Over a ten-day span last month, Arthur and I ate supernaturally fresh produce among the Sequoioideae in California; viewed a surprisingly large number of Krylon-wrought, alien-themed murals on corrugated metal in the deserts of Nevada; and moshed in the pool with the hundreds of other metalheads attending the Psycho Las Vegas festival at the Hard Rock Hotel in so-called Sin City. (Okay, I did not mosh in the pool, and I am not even a proper metalhead—but I did survive among their throngs for several days!)

I’ve had the great good fortune of taking many epic trips in my life: I’ve driven Australia’s Gold Coast, seen the sunrise over Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán, made it through Iceland’s Fimmvörðuháls hike in one long day, gotten lost on a mountain bike in the Judean Desert, soaked in mountain onsen ryokans in Japan, even hobbled around the Great Pyramid of Giza in an air cast. I’ve been so happy and grateful for them all, but I’ve noticed that what makes a trip especially enjoyable and memorable can’t always be predicted. The most potent travel magic, I’ve found, isn’t necessarily made by combining a greater number of days with a longer flight and a more impressive to-do list. Not to say I don’t retain vivid memories of drunken late-night singing with locals in a rural Russian dacha, or speeding in a Jeep through the jungles of Cambodia with a bunch of brawny Aussies—I absolutely do! Just that, sometimes, a relatively unassuming trip will pack a bigger than expected punch of awesomeness.

Such was the case with this recent voyage west. I guess it was a few things: the combination of great food and great company throughout; the right balance of activities and downtime; and a rotating kaleidoscope of natural and social environs that kept my brain keyed up without making me dizzy. Well, some things did bring on at least momentary vertigo:

Toxic waste alien sign Nevada

Toxic waste, Nevada

Bellagio fountains show

Bellagio fountain show, Las Vegas

Goat Rock California

Goat Rock, California

Oh, and I think I touted these guys, too:

Per usual, I came home with too much show-and-tell to fit in one blog post—good thing this WordPress subscription automatically renews!

Until the next brain dump, thanks for the unassuming but epic embarrassment of riches, western U.S. I’ll be back for more.

Poll: Without the talking seal with a Boston accent, is the NEAQ still worthwhile?

My husband hails (more or less) from the Boston area, and told me some time ago about Hoover the Talking Seal, once a fixture at the New England Aquarium. Though we were 30+ years too late to catch him on our recent visit there (d’oh!), I was still tickled to imagine the salty guy toddling and lounging around the same pools we we were now walking past, imploring visitors to “Get outta here!” or simply asking “How are ya?” with his famous Beantown inflection.

Sad though we were, the bodacious anemones, giant leopard-spotted ray (housed in a tank where you could reach in and touch it if it got close enough!), and mesmerizing schools of small, speeding silver fish did help to fill the Hoover-shaped hole in our gawking consciousnesses.

What say you? Are you too crestfallen by Hoover’s absence to enjoy a day at the aquarium without him? Or might you also be able to find sufficient joy in the cauliflower-like jellyfish, leg-diameter pythons, and tiny bopping spiky-haired penguins? No judgment either way.

2,000 miles of driving, 26 feet of truck, & uncountable marionettes: Mom’s miraculous move to Brooklyn

My mom had thought about moving back to Brooklyn, New York (from whence she came in the 1940s) from her adopted home of Colorado for many years. But when the time finally came to load up a big, bad Penske truck and drive it the 2,000 miles over here, my husband and I noticed something.

She hadn’t packed. At all.

Man and woman standing in moving truck

Arthur & Mom share a “ruh roh” moment in the Penske

As we walked around the large house she’d owned for almost 40 years, the house we’d budgeted about two days to liquidate before starting our drive, our thoughts were roughly split between, “Whaaaa?” and “How in god’s name are we going to do this?”

I chalk my mom’s lack of prep work up to a few things: not having moved in decades and forgetting how long it takes; deciding to take the relocation plunge on relatively short notice; and having struck an agreement with the buyer of her property that she didn’t have to leave it empty. Still, it was something of a jaw-dropper.

Fortuitously for us, my best bud from junior high, pictured above (who served as Gay of Honor at our wedding last fall), has orchestrated a few large-scale events in his time, and knew exactly how to pack a moving truck to perfection. Equally wonderfully, my mom was decisive about what she wanted to keep and what could stay behind, and my amazing huzz shuttled furniture and boxes to and fro for two straight days with a smile on his face.

After I’d snapped photos of my childhood home from every angle I could imagine, and taken one last soda-buying trip to the 7-11 behind our house (site of untold quarters spent on video games and untold numbers of dental cavities brought about by its bountiful, cursed pouches of Big League Chew), we were all loaded up and ready to go—a whole half day ahead of schedule!

Man screaming as woman drives moving truck

Mom takes the wheel

Farm silos from a car on the highway

The great Midwest

The week that followed, as I look back on it now, was a blur of $100 diesel fuel tabs, nights spent on midwest relatives’ couch beds, and the seemingly innumerable marionettes that hang from the ceiling of Rudy’s Tacos in Waterloo, Iowa. In other words: an ideal vacation.

Now it’s back to work (which I love), fixing up our house (which is fun), and teaching my mom how to use her new smartphone (which is… gratifying, at times). But a little piece of me will remain back at Cubby’s Convenience in Gothenberg, Nebraska, reflecting on our miraculous, once-in-a-lifetime road trip over a burning hot basket of fried something.

Colorful bunny shaped Easter treats

Bye for now, road bunnies

A reluctant blogger finally gets into blogger-hood

If you know much at all about me, you know that I’ve never had a Facebook account or an Instagram account. I signed up for Twitter in 2009 so I could join Medium, but I’ve so far tweeted exactly once (to my local NPR morning show host so I could recommend he do a story about the awesome combination washing machine repair and rock collecting shop in my old neighborhood). I have been on Flickr for the past decade, and have somehow posted over 18,000 photos there in that time, but I have also accrued only 18 followers, which says something about how much I care to advertise it. The list goes on thusly.

Galah bird in Onkaparinga, Australia

One from the Flickr archives: 27-year-old me about to receive a finger bite from a gas station owner’s pet Galah bird in Onkaparinga, Australia. That’ll learn me to poke!

All of it to say that as long as blogs have been around (probably 20 years), people close and not so close to me alike have suggested that I start one. Of course I understood the idea (I’m a writer! we have the Internet! therefore, I should write on the internet!), but my reluctances ran several:

1) I’m not particularly techie, and wasn’t particularly interested in learning how to blog from the software standpoint.

2) While I have come to love writing in many genres and spend a lot of my days doing it, my most favorite writing pastimes involve composing personal work for specific audiences (journal entries that only I see, letters and emails for friends…). I didn’t want to feel like this supposedly-fun pursuit was actually work.

3) Conventional wisdom holds that the best blogs are somehow focused—on food, travel, relationships, the world’s largest collection of taxidermied frogs depicted in various everyday life situations*, etc. Since I like to write about all of those things, and many more!, how would I ever imbue my blog with a sense of focus, purpose, and cohesion?

Most of those reasons finally stopped stopping me in January of last year. At that time, I was a half-year in to my new full-time freelance writing life, for which I’d already gone through the learning pains of setting up an entire website (with a lot of help from friends like Claire here!), so the tech thing was no longer so intimidating. I found I was actually enjoying challenging myself to write in different genres, and slowly became more and more curious about how blog writing would compare to the other types I’d recently gotten practice with (including ghostwriting, post-translation polishing, and drafting static pages for websites). Plus I now had a natural focus for my blog: my life as a freelance writer! And since that in itself encompasses a lot of topics, I felt I could justify squishing them all into one blog with “freelancing” as the overarching umbrella.

Blog tags

A screenshot of my blog post tags. Too eclectic? Nah.

Since the start of 2015, I have come to enjoy these weekly diversions from writing blog posts for inspiring nonprofits and newsletters for unique conferences to reflect on the work I’ve recently done and life I’ve recently led.

As a (somehow unexpected) side benefit, I’ve also found myself crossing paths with some awesome fellow bloggers. Here are two I believe are worthy of sharing with you now: they also got roped into the Liebster Award madness recently, and both (to my amazement) took the time to post responses to the 11 funky questions I posed when I nominated them!

Have a look?

  • Nicholas Peart, aka The Slider, a British-born painter, musician, songwriter, poet, filmmaker, photographer, and traveler who wrote some stuff about his time in South Africa that I very much enjoyed.
  • Neil Scheinin, who goes by the handle Yeah, Another Blogger, a fellow self-described dabbler who writes thoughtfully about a range of fun topics, including pizza, beer, and rock music (mmm!).

In response to their responses, I will just say:

  1. Nicholas, one of my favorite popcorn toppings is a solution of garlic, olive oil, and crushed red pepper. Heat that up in a pan while the kernels are popping, then drizzle it over the bowl, sprinkle a bit of salt, and you’re golden!
  2. Neil, regarding the number of seconds by which you’ve been known to extend the three-second rule (“thousands and thousands”), I can only say: NICE WORK.

Thank you both for your camaraderie, and your good writing, in this big old Internet world. Knowing I’m in the company of such excellent dudes makes me a less reluctant blogger every day.

*Okay, Froggyland is a website, not a blog. But I’ve been dying to mention it, so I just shoehorned it in here. Apologies to the purists. (But aren’t you also speechless??)

Labor Day fantasy fun-times: The famous river surfers of Munich

Perhaps you are preparing to engage in a water-related activity of some kind this holiday weekend: a little frolicsome jet-skiing, some picturesque ocean snorkeling, or just a lazy rowboat ride around the lake.

If you are, mazel tov! But if, like me, you’re poised to stay largely indoors this weekend, deluged with work (always a good problem to have!), planning your wedding, and perhaps freaking out about a possible upcoming house purchase, then you will want to identify some good Labor Day fantasy fun-time water activities that you can enjoy by simply imagining yourself doing them. Right?

I already found my go-to, courtesy of my excellent cousin Geoff, who was in Europe for work a few months ago and sent me this photo, with the included caption:

River surfers in Munich Germany

“Yesterday, I saw the famous river surfers of Munich in action!”

I loved what I saw, but had evidently been living under a rock and was not yet aware of this exotic species. To ensure I would be absorbing only the most objective and rigorously fact-checked information on the topic, I turned to Vice, which explained that the powerful wave in the Eisbach River (a small, man-made arm of the Isar River) where these dudes do their thing is “the result of a rare mistake in German engineering.”

Apparently, a series of concrete blocks was submerged in the Eisbach in the ’70s to slow its flow before it reached the calm canals of Munich’s English Garden, located a ways down the river. An unintended effect of the blocks was the creation of a rapid. That plus some additional manipulation of the area by surfers (in the form of lashing their spare boards to some nearby bridge pylons) worked together to form the Eisbachwelle!, now Germany’s premier surfing wave.

So there we have it: legendary inland surfing (sometimes inland nude surfing, according to Vice) in a country otherwise not well-known for its beaches. What a lovely plot twist!

If that type of unanticipated wonder is possible, maybe I should hold out hope for scoring a little outdoor time (and maybe even some water time?) this Labor Day weekend after all.

A late summer toast to old friends, new books, and… Ragnarök?

The Tricksters Lover

I’ve been friends with the hilarious, curious, adventurous, and all-around lovable Samantha MacLeod* since I think third grade. We grew up together, playing anthropomorphized tigers on the playground right up until adolescence, getting into some real questionable music in junior high, and eventually self-publishing a book of our high school poetry before parting ways at college-time.

In the years since then, we’ve both seen the world as WWOOFers (she in Italy and me in Belgium), held a few real questionable jobs (she was a barista at the University of Chicago Divinity School coffee shop, Grounds of Being; I threw my body and soul into many “healthy patient clinical trials” in Boston), and have now settled into pretty awesome lives in our respective climes: she’s a Maine-based mom of two with a kickass chemist husband; I’m a good-times Brooklyn girl who gets to work in my pajamas by day and plan my wedding with the world’s handsomest bass-playing vegan bicyclist at night.

I’m so tickled and happy that Samantha and I have stayed friends all these years. (The fact that I can’t find any e-photos of us together should be no comment on the quality of said friendship! I attribute that mostly to digital cameras’ nonexistence for the first 20-ish years of our knowing each other. To make up for this awful dearth, I am happy to present instead this adorable photo of Samantha’s daughter carrying their cat Maxwell Finnegan up the stairs in the summer of 2013.)

Toddler carrying cat

Girl with cat

Now, a new chapter (pun annoyingly intended) has begun in Samantha’s life, and I want to shout it from the rooftops: she’s a serious published author with a juicy new paranormal romance heating up the shelves!! You can find The Trickster’s Lover right here.

Classic Samantha, the book combines a grad student’s wavering commitment to a career in Norse mythology with a scandalous visitation from Loki, “the enigmatic and irresistibly sexy Norse trickster god.” Mayhem (and many steamy love scenes) ensue as protagonist Caroline wrestles with her choices, her sanity, and Ragnarök—the mythical apocalyptic battle that will ultimately submerge the world in water.

On the grounds that she is a fantastic human being and because capping your summer reading list with an unusual and super-hot book like this sounds like good advice, I hereby urge y’all to order a copy today! And check out Samatha’s blog. It’s also really hot, in the way that funny, clever, and endearing things are really hot.

*Not her real name! Who knows when this romance author might want to run for President?

I got some kind of award!

It’s called the Liebster Award, and the entirely-too-kind Pooja Gudka at lifesfinewhine nominated me. Thanks a ton, Pooja!

Liebster Award 2016

The certified seal of approval

For the uninitiated (which included me until this happened), here’s a little primer courtesy of Jen There Done That:

What is the Liebster Award?

“Liebster” is a German word meaning beloved or dearest. In the blogging world, the Liebster Award is online recognition given by bloggers to other new bloggers for enjoying or valuing their work. It is meant to highlight and credit favorite new up and coming blogs within our writing community.

Once nominated, a blogger is asked to answer 11 questions provided by the nominating blogger. They are then expected to nominate 11 other favorite new bloggers and come up with a list of 11 new questions for those nominees. This keeps the love going!

If I’m about one thing, it’s keeping the love going, so let’s do this!

Here are Pooja’s 11 questions for me, with my answers:

1. What is your greatest achievement in life?
Buying a studio apartment in New York City as a single 20-something lady. I hope this accomplishment will be usurped by the eventual production of my Magnum Opus.

2. What is your favourite movie?
The Big Lebowski.

3. Who is your biggest role model?
So many! Lately I’ve been super into Elizabeth Streb (whom I had the great good fortune to interview in 2008).

4. Where do you want to travel to most?
For perspective-upending culture shock, I’m intrigued with visiting more of Africa and the Middle East. For soul-breathing hikes and eye-expanding vistas, I’m drawn to the Bavarian Alps and Scandinavian coastlines. Oh, and a friend recently introduced me to these crazy mountains in China that positively beg a visit!

5. Who is your favourite musician and why?
Another stumper! I’ve been super into Beck lately, particularly the track “Beercan.” Also Bowie’s “Fame.” Because they’re so deeply good.

6. If you could change one thing about the world what would it be?
Hmm… Could we try… No more greed? Just for a day or two to start. Take ‘er for a test drive.

7. What is your favourite T.V show?
Since I haven’t watched much TV since the ’90s, I have to say The Simpsons. Though that answer might not be different even if I’d kept watching.

8. Who inspired you to start writing?
I don’t think it was a person as much as the desire to commune with my experience of the world in a (sort of) tangible way.

9. What is your favourite time of day to write?
Those reflective bookend times: morning and night. And any time the itch strikes in between.

10. What is your biggest goal in life?
To feel like I’ve met my potential creatively and altruistically.

11. What is your favourite quote?
I hate to pick just one! But here’s a beaut, I believe from A. S. Byatt: “The writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone, and they were alone together.”

Here is a non-inclusive montage of some of the people and things referenced above:

Now, here are my 11 nominees!

Samantha MacLeod
Sarah Van Buren / Mototripping
Mirka Knaster / exploring the heART of it…
LJ Gormley / My Latin Notebook
Jem Arrowsmith Designs
Nicholas Peart / The Slider
Neil Scheinin / Yeah, Another Blogger
Wandering Wives
Masala Vegan
M.Funk : Photography
Amy Deneson

And my 11 questions for them:

  1. What’s the coolest award you’ve ever gotten? (You can say the Liebster Award if you want.)
  2. When did you last ride a public bus?
  3. Have you ever slipped when getting out of the shower and felt older than you actually are?
  4. Which of your childhood friends are you saddest to have lost touch with, and what you do think they’re doing now?
  5. Honestly: Do you really consider it the three-second rule? Have you ever extended it to more seconds? If so, how many?
  6. Why do you think all those houseplants have died under your care?
  7. Please describe the time you sung most humiliatingly in public.
  8. Best popcorn topping. Go.
  9. Would you rather dream of a spider infestation or a snake infestation? Why?
  10. What is your least favorite color? Explain.
  11. Should 7-Eleven have discontinued their Sour Patch Watermelon Slurpee flavor? Why or why not?

Lastly, I am obliged (and happy) to provide the rules of the award in this very post:

What are the rules for the Liebster Award?

Once you accept a nomination, you are expected to complete the following steps:
– Thank and link to the blogger who nominated you
– Create a post on your blog, displaying the Liebster Award logo
– Answer the 11 questions assigned by the blogger who nominated you
– Provide rules/instructions for accepting the award
– Nominate 11 new favorite bloggers for the Liebster Award
– Come up with a list of 11 new questions for your nominees
– Notify the nominees
– Post your Liebster Award blog post link in the comments of your nominator’s Liebster Award Post

That should cover it. Thanks again, y’all! I am proud to be among ye.

Russia! For those with and without their marbles

Guys on a bench in Moscow

If the heat waves and presidential election tomfoolery have spared you any of your marbles this summer, you probably won’t want to trudge through my 857 photos of Russia, the country I was recently fortunate enough to hang out in for two weeks. Then again, if you find yourself sweating, anxious, and entirely sans marbles, it might be pleasant and calming for you to see some objectively beautiful architecture, funny signage, and delectable Russian meals featuring beets, beets, and more beets. If that’s the case, then by all means have at it!

But assuming you are retaining at least a couple of those precious mental stones and would rather spend your time elsewhere, I’ll do you the sanity-solid of offering a brief summary of this epic excursion in words and pictures below:

Left: Our friend Oleg’s favorite cathedral in Moscow. (What was its name??)
Right: Arthur reads in a barn in the “historic rural locality” of Kholmogory.

Left: A cow parade in Kholmogory. (Not pictured: The sample Dixie cups of fresh milk).
Right: Arkhangelsk’s last living angel?

Left: Warning: This club uses Face Control. It doesn’t sound like we should go there.
Right: Man, this is a long story. Let’s just say we were “strongly encouraged” to write and perform a skit about the birth of our country for a group of Russian villagers on the 4th of July… while wearing Putin party t-shirts. God bless the USA.

Putin dog statue at the Hermitage

Putin dog

And finally, rub this one for good luck: A little sculpture of a dog at the Hermitage that bore some immediately-apparent resemblance to you-know-who.

Readers! As you can see, my Russia was chock full of bright colors, international whimsy, and universal good times. Have you spent time in Mother Russia? Tell me about your trip.

Notable signs of Atlantic City—not including Don Rickles and Regis Philbin

I thought the story here would be: “Group of friends goes on anthropological voyage to Atlantic City. Boardwalk Motel 8 and show featuring Don Rickles and Regis Philbin live at the Borgata feature prominently. Antics and possibly regret ensue.”

But, while all of those things did happen, I found that the textual signage enveloping us at every turn was the real star of this June outing. With all due respect to Messrs. Rickles and Philbin (however much that is), here are some of my favorites:

Readers! Hit me up with your best Notable Signs of summer.