Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mark at the Movies: The Judge

Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall
Plot: Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a highly successful if decidedly amoral defense attorney and estranged son of Judge Joseph Palmer, returns from the big city to his small town roots when his mother passes away. There he must deal with an angry and unforgiving father (Duvall) as well as his two brothers, who have their own history with Hank. Intending to stay just the one night for the funeral, his time at home is extended when his father is accused of murder the next morning. The balance of the movie is a riveting mix of trial testimony, dysfunctional family dynamics, and back stories that ultimately portray a deep story of forgiveness and family.

Players: Robert Downey, Jr. plumbs familiar character ground as Hank. Robert Duvall is his usual gem as the titular Judge. Vincent D'Onofrio plays brother Glen with a quiet pain and grace. Vera Farmiga is Hank's old flame, Samantha Powell, now owner of a local tavern. Jeremy Strong gives an understated performance (and serves as mild comic relief) as Hank's mentally-challenged brother, Dale. Billy Bob Thornton is on hand in his slick corporate guise as the prosecuting attorney, with Ken Howard as the judge presiding over the murder trial and Emma Trembley is Hank's daughter, Lauren. Finally, Dax Shepard also lends some light comedy as naive and part-time attorney C.P. Kennedy.

Pilot: David Dobkin directed and co-wrote the story with main screenwriter Nick Schenk. Schenk was also the main writer of Gran Torino, so he is experienced at writing complicated drama and relationships. Dobkin previously directed Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up, and Shanghai Knights, all comedies and action comedies. This appears to be his first effort at helming a straight-up drama.

Performance: The thing that stands out right away is that Robert Downey, Jr. is either completely incapable of portraying a "Joe Everyday" character, or is brilliantly using his well-known (and well-worn) cinema persona of a rich, smart, compassionate, snarky and often condescending jerk and making it work in a real-world setting (as opposed to the Marvel or Arthur Conan Doyle Universes). This is a Robert Downey, Jr. we all know and, mostly, love. It works in counterpoint to the small Midwest town (a fictional Carlinville, Indiana) in which the movie is set, but it was hardly breaking new ground for the actor. Duvall, on the other hand, has gotten crusty old codgers down to a "t" and while his, too, is a character we've seen before, he plays it with such integrity and nuance that it's like seeing an old friend. The heart of the movie is the relationship between these two and in the end, you respect them both. This is not an action movie, it is an actor's movie.

Point: I very nearly felt that this movie was a complicated and mixed retelling of the Gospel's Prodigal Son story, if the bitter brother who stayed home and the forgiving father traded places. In the end, it is a movie and a message that is life-affirming, family strong (but not family-friendly), and reminds us that no matter how far we go, there's always a place called home, filled with the people who know us and love us best.

Particulars: The film earns its "R" rating through its language - including more than two dozen "f-bombs" - with a liberal use of vulgarities and reflects a people who don't spend much time in church. There is one quite uncomfortable scene in which Hank is helping his father deal with the after-effects of a medical treatment, and it's not pretty. Both Hank and his second, C.P. Kennedy, throw up on the courtroom lawn several times before entering. And while sex is talked about and a couple of frank (but not graphic) makeout sessions occur, there is no nudity.

Raymond's Rating: I give The Judge three out of four stars. If the language had been toned down even a little, and had Downey produced a character other than an angry and petulant Tony Stark, I would have gone the whole four. At two hours and twenty-two minutes, it's a long film but there was so much story to be told - all of it intricate to understanding the relationships involved - that I didn't mind.

+++

Mark's Musings is published on an occasional basis but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. "I choose you." You'll see.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Diabetics: We Can Rebuild You

Image courtesy of HuffPo Healthy Living
What I saw today around the world and the web:

Medicine has now given those with Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus a fighting chance to not obsess over their disease. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, a combination of an under-the-skin glucometer, a hard-wired bionic pancreas, and an iPhone - of all things - can be used in combination to effectively lift most of the burden of the disease. The original article is here and a more reader-friendly version is here.

In a nutshell, the glucometer constantly monitors your blood-sugars and sends a wireless signal to the iPhone, which then tells the bionic pancreas - which consists of both insulin for when sugars go too high and glucagon for when they dip too low - which component to send into the bloodstream. No more finger pricks, no more insulin needles, no more worry about crashing after a workout at the gym or a brisk walk or going too long in between meals.

I'm sure it will be some time before the product becomes commercially viable, affordable, and/or covered by insurance ... but it's good to know there is hope for my fellow diabetics.

I've always felt that diabetes was, in some respects, like cancer. There is no cure for it, only treatments, and in the end it will kill you just as surely. We know enough about it and have fairly good treatments that it does not need to define who we are, and for sure it doesn't carry the stigma and emotional weight of The Big C, but it is becoming a larger and larger problem in the world - especially for Americans and our consumptive lifestyles.

THIRD WORLD PROBLEMS

While folks here in the U.S. worry about which venue they will use to watch the U.S. Soccer team take on Ghana in the World Cup. Cable television? Online? Smartphone? Meanwhile, folks in Ghana are worrying about if their country will have enough electricity to power enough televisions to watch the contest. Apparently most of the electrical power in the country comes from hydroelectric plants and there has been a water shortage recently.

If this doesn't clearly define the difference between "First World Problems" and "Third World Problems," I don't know what will.

+++++

Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Just a couple of little things today.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Impressions and More of Ireland

From inside The Rock at Dunamase (Dunamase Castle).
As Dad and I prepare to fly back to the U.S. this Easter afternoon, here are some impressions, thoughts - and with Dad's input, as well - some tips and tricks for traveling here.

First off, the people are grand. You will not meet a kinder nor more polite population than we have encountered.

Secondly, it's gorgeous here. The fields are nearly all partitioned off into neat squares with stone fences, hedge rows, or tree lines. You will see more sheep, cows, and green, green grass than ever you will at home.

Ireland seems to have figured out that the rest of the world is entranced and enthralled by the old and the religious, and they have both in abundance here. The artifacts, historical sites, and religious icons all call to something deep inside our souls to which we have to respond. I think it's part of the charm of this "Emerald Isle" that will keep calling us back to it.

Now, on to more mundane observations.

The Irish brogue, or dialect, is such an easy and comfortable way of talking that by the end of the week you find yourself falling into it without even trying. Beware that you don't accidentally offend a native, lest they think you are mocking them. With that in mind, here are a few translations I've noticed:

"Grand" = Good. Fine.
"Brilliant" = Very good. Excellent.
"No Worries" = You're Welcome.
"No Problem" = You're Welcome.
"That's No Problem at All" = I'll take care of that right away.
"Petrol" = Gas.
"Slip Road" = On or Off Ramp from a motorway.
"Motorway" = Divided highway.
"Ramp" = In Ireland, a ramp is a wide, large speed bump. They are strategically placed to keep traffic from reaching a breakneck speed in the neighborhoods. The Irish do like to drive fast.

Ireland does have signs on the side of the road, but they also paint the roadway with directions, warnings about upcoming ramps, and times you should go slow. And they will often paint which lane goes to which road, designating them with the different Regional or National road numbers. (Such as N-50, with an arrow.) You read these painted road signs from the bottom to top. Not top to bottom, as you would if it was a vertical sign. And there is never a right turn on a red light, such as we have in America. Here, red means stop and stay stopped until you get the green.

A word about roundabouts. In the United States, we use electronic controls (traffic lights) or 4-way stop signs to manage intersections. In Ireland, traffic light use is generally reserved only for the larger cities and villages. And the intersections are nearly all controlled by something called a roundabout, which I'm sure you've either heard of or seen in the movies. A roundabout is a large, circular piece of cement - usually grass covered and pretty - set smack dab in the middle of the intersection, around which traffic flows. Roundabouts have no stop signs, only Yield signage. So, essentially, at Irish intersections traffic never stops. Barely even slows down. You enter the roundabout and go around until you reach the road you want. If you miss it, go around again.

Personally, I think roundabouts are brilliant and possibly the greatest form of controlled chaos I've ever seen. I wish we used them more here in the States. They have only recently begun to become popular with American traffic engineers.

The toilets. That's what they are called in Ireland. Not bathroom, not washroom (as they are called in Canada), and not W.C. or water closet. Ask where the toilets are. Most of them work the same way they do in the states. You pull a handle or push a button and the thing flushes. But one or two of them - in our hotels, at least - worked on the pump method. You pump the handle until enough water is in the tank to flush it. And many of the more modern toilets have *two* buttons. A small one and a larger one. The small one is what you use if all you are flushing is, umm, a water-based byproduct. The larger button is used to dispose of solid waste.

Washcloths. Also called face cloths. Irish hotels, for whatever reason (I could not divine one, though I asked Mr. Google for help), rarely if ever provide face cloths. You get a luxurious bath towel, a large hand towel ... and that's it. Pack a few and something to stash them in for traveling when they are wet. Dad and I stayed in five different hotels - four and five star resorts, mind you - and only *one* provided washcloths.

Irish city, town, and village names. Do not try to pronounce them. You will only end up sounding as though you are deep in your cups which, come to think of it, may be how the Irish came up with the names in the first place. The way the alphabet works here is not like any other language I've seen and what research I've done indicates it would be easier to train my cat to use the toilet than to try and reprogram my brain to learn the different pronunciations of the consonant and vowel sets here. Your best bet? Ask someone who lives here how to say the names.

I would highly recommend getting a cell phone (called a mobile here and in pretty much the rest of the world), and having it set up for international use. Being able to make a phone call from the road - especially during one of the times we got lost - would have been incredibly helpful, but neither one of us had an internationally-capable cell.

OTHER TIPS FROM DAD AND I:

  • There is very little in the way of what we'd call "fast food" in Ireland. I think we saw maybe three places with a drive-through window. If you'll not be eating at the hotel, you will generally need to eat at a public house (called a pub). And they usually do, in fact, look just like someone's home, only they've been made into a bar/restaurant on the inside.
  • Take about twice as much money as you think you'll need. An American dollar is only worth about 65 cents in Ireland. In the south of the island - where most of the tourist traffic is - they use Euros. If you're going to travel to Northern Island, you'll be using British pounds. 
  • We found food to be our biggest expense, which was surprising to us. We had thought that gas - about $8.00 a gallon here - would be our largest expense, but we only had to fill the tank once and top it off before returning it to the rental agency. Diesel engines are very common and popular in Ireland and from our experience, they get *great* gas mileage. You just have to make sure you give the engine enough "revs." See my blog post from earlier this week. And to be sure - petrol stations are few and far between. Gas up when the tank approaches half-empty.
  • Bottled water. There are two types here. "Still" water and "Sparkling" water. Still water is what you are used to buying in the states. Sparkling water is pumped with carbonation and fizzies. It's what you might mix with fruit juice.
  • Bring a rain coat. And layered clothing. Dad and I enjoyed remarkably mild and sunny weather this week. I even got a sunburn. Twice! But we're told that Spring weather is wildly changeable and gray skies with cool, wet weather is common.
  • If you're going to be driving, a Global Positioning System (GPS) is not a luxury. It is an absolute necessity. However, as you know if you've been reading the last few posts, it is fallible. So don't depend on it entirely. Nevertheless, we could not have had the trip we did without. It was, in fact, worth twice what we paid to rent the thing. Road signs that tell you where you are or what road you're turning onto are nearly nonexistent.
  • Most everything here uses the metric system, so if you're used to feet and miles, get to know the conversion factors pretty well. You'll need to be comfortable with kilometers and meters and how far that is to know what you're doing.
  • A good pair of walking shoes is essential. If you're on your own, you'll walk a lot. If you're with a tour group, you'll walk a lot. If you visit Dublin, you'll walk A LOT. So wear comfortable yet rugged footwear.
So that's it. I am finishing this in the Dublin airport as we wait to catch our flight home. I hope this edition of "Travels with Dad" was worth your time reading it and, if you do get to go to Ireland, I hope you have as much fun and make as many memories as we did, and I hope what I've written here helps.

At least a little.

+++++

Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. A week ago Friday, we left Chicago at 8:00 p.m., arrived in Ireland at 9:00 Saturday morning. Today we leave Ireland at 3:45 p.m., and arrive in Chicago at 6:05 Sunday evening. Time zones are a funny ol' thing.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Travels with Dad: Trouble in Dublin

We left Waterford in good spirits, as you can see. Dad's wisdom with his finances and life choices are certainly the driving force in bringing us to Ireland for this once-in-a-lifetime trip. I owe him so much.

We also left Waterford with a small sense of melancholy, knowing that we had just one last night here on the Emerald Isle. Our mission today was to return our rented wheelchair, and make time for one last tourist stop in Dublin. And the two-hour trip began well, with over 100 kilometres of M-road (4-lane divided expressway).

I have to admit I was looking forward to tackling the roads of Dublin once again. The last time I had been here I had basically been up for about 30 hours straight and was operating a right-hand drive vehicle from the left-hand side of the road for the first time. It was, to say the least, NOT fun. So now, fully awake and aware, I wanted a second crack at driving in Dublin.

Oh, what a fool I was.

Things started out well enough. Thanks to our trusty GPS and memory of having been in the area once before when we rented the wheelchair, we had no issues finding the place again and returning the chair. We didn't use it often, it turned out, because most of the attractions we stopped to see had a better one they let us borrow, but it was good to have along. And bonus! We found out, with a little exploring, that our GPS had attractions and hotels preprogrammed, so we didn't have to rely on trying to find an Ireland street address from Google or some other resource.

So with our confidence high, we set out to find the Dublin Zoo. I didn't recall any of my friends having been there and thought it would be a good day - the weather was still very sunny, mild, and mid-60s here - to kill a few hours before heading out to our hotel in County Meath.

The first sign that something was going to go wrong was that all the handicap parking spaces near the front entrance were full. A sign said there was "more handicap parking in rear." So we set out to find the rear. Turns out the Dublin Zoo is not just big, it is HUGE. We could not find the rear. With both hands. Wound up driving into Phoenix Park, watching the joggers.

Finding a place to pull off, we then programmed our GPS for Trinity College in downtown Dublin, hoping to see the Book of Kells, which was highly recommended by friends back home.

Now, a word about Dublin. On Saturday. On Easter weekend. Driving through downtown Dublin in those conditions is like trying to drive through the crowd at Woodstock. It is not impossible, but it is nearly so. Every person in Dublin was out today, I swear. And they all decided to ignore the pedestrian crossings, en masse, at once. By the time we made it to Trinity College, my nerves were half shot. The next problem was parking. There was none that we could see. Anywhere near Trinity College.

Before we arrived, I had read online that there was no need to drive in Dublin. Public transportation was inexpensive and plentiful. And, in fact, having seen the city I now believe it is best viewed on your own two feet. You can walk nearly everywhere you need to go. However, when you travel with an 81-year old companion who can barely manage three city blocks before needing a moment to catch his breath, you drive.

So we drove to Trinity College but the nearest car park we found was blocks and blocks away. At a downtown shopping mall. We made the best of what was quickly turning into a bad situation. We found a restaurant and had some lunch. This mall, by the way, was the only place in Ireland we had found both a Burger King and a KFC. We had passed a couple of McDonald's, but saw no other fast food the entire previous week.

Well, by now it was time to head out to our hotel in County Meath, about half an hour west of Dublin. So we programmed the GPS and set out through the narrow, congested streets of Dublin once again.

What we hadn't counted on was construction that blocked streets, diverted traffic, and generally made a total confusion out of our poor GPS, which was "recalculating" about every second block. So my Dad is telling me one direction, the GPS is saying a different direction, we wound up going the wrong way down a one-way street, and then the engine warning light comes on again - a different one this time. By the time we left Dublin, this is how I felt (see photo).

I had one nerve left. And then the GPS unit robbed me of that. To reach County Meath, you have to pay a toll right before your exit. We did that, then proceeded to the exit indicated by the GPS. We went through the first roundabout per instructions, then went through the second roundabout exactly as it told us to - only to find ourselves BACK ON THE TOLL ROAD, headed in the opposite direction. And even though we made an appeal for leniency, we had to pay the (insert appropriate adjective) toll again. To add insult to injury, the GPS told us our destination was "300 meters ahead, on the left." About where the toll booths were.

So it was once again time to play "Pin the Tourist on the Hotel." We blindfolded our GPS and went in search of our lodgings through the gorgeous Irish countryside. By this time my teeth were grinding so badly I could have chewed my way through a concrete block and had a box of nails for dessert.

We spotted a petrol station. Dad went in to ask directions to find a very lovely and polite woman from India behind the counter who spoke only a little broken English. She took us over to the attached barber shop where ... we could not find the proprietor. But there was an older woman there, sitting under a dryer and reading a magazine. She pointed toward the door in the back. I waited. Dad went in search of other help.

We both found someone who could give us directions at about the same time. A few minutes later, we got back in the car and compared notes only to discover the directions that each man gave were in the complete opposite direction from one another. My guy had an Irish brogue, Dad's guy had a Jamaican accent. So I trusted my gut and we followed the Irish guy's orders.

Thank God for Irishmen who know their way around the county. About 20 minutes later, we were at our hotel, despite some misgivings and a couple of disagreements with each other about how to get there and exactly which road(s) to take out of the roundabouts.
So this is the Johnstown House Hotel and Spa. A lovely facility situated pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Or so it seemed.

The restaurant on the site was completely booked for the entire evening so our porter told us about a pub just down the road that was fairly inexpensive and had good food. He was right on both counts and it came as close as Dad has come to being in a genuine Irish pub. Too bad there wasn't a band tonight.

And yes, I had a stiff drink.

+++++

Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Tomorrow: The flight home.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Travels with Dad: Waterford Wonders

Dad showing two basic glass cuts.
As I may have mentioned yesterday, it was the highlight of the trip for Dad today, and an incredibly educational experience for me, as well, watching how this exquisite and world-renowned crystal is created from start to finish. I have put pretty much the entire process on my Facebook Page, for any interested parties.

The photo at the top is of Dad holding a glass that demonstrates the two basic glass cuts used in Waterford Crystal: The flat cut (the oval shapes on top) and the diamond cut (the bottom, Lismore Design).

The crystal works here have had a long and bankruptcy-filled history. The business was started by the Penrose Brothers in the late 1700s, who made their fortune selling salt-pork to the shipping industry. They realized that Ireland was one of the few countries that had no tax on exporting luxury items, and the amount of raw natural resources was plentiful for making glass, so they were off and running. They made a fortune and built a strong reputation for themselves but in 1851 Ireland passed a massive luxury goods tax and, seeing they could make no real profit anymore, closed the business. It lay dormant as a company for nearly 100 years.

In 1950 a Czech glass-blower bought up the assets and began making glass again. As there were no qualified glass cutters in Ireland at the time, he brought in countryman Miroslav Havel, who designed the Lismore pattern, which is still in use today and is the bulk of the company's retail focus. At that time the company began an apprenticeship program. Apprentice glass cutters would study for five years, at the end of which they were given three attempts to recreate what is called "The Apprentice Bowl." (Photo to right) This bowl
has 600 cuts and all 10 patterns in use by the company. If the apprentice was successful, he would study for an additional three years and become a Master Cutter. If not, he could quit or take the five year apprenticeship all over again.

A few years later, a consortium of Irish businessmen injected some much needed capital to improve the facilities and they were moved away from Waterford. Over the next 40 years, the company exploded, building new facilities, winning awards, purchasing other companies, and becoming a publicly sold and traded company. When the dollar crashed in 1990, the company recruited new investors and new cash, retooled, and invested heavily in new technologies until 2008, when the economy turned sour again and they declared bankruptcy in 2009. At that point they were purchased by an "equity firm" from New York called KPS Capital, who were looking to expand their holdings to European markets.

KPS struck an agreement with the Waterford City Council and moved the main production of the Crystal back to the City Centre in Waterford, where to this day they continue to melt down 7,500 tons of crystal and produce - mostly by hand - some 45,000 pieces.

And you know Dad and I couldn't leave without purchasing a couple of pieces to ship back home.

BISHOP'S PALACE

Our next stop was the Bishop's Palace, built by the Bishop of Waterford but he died before it was finished. It was eventually purchased by the architect - Richard Castle - and finished in 1741, recently renovated back to its original floor plan design in 2011. The fun part about this museum, which specializes in "Georgian Life" were the tour guides, who played the
parts of the head housekeeper and the butler. Here I learned that at the height of the religious feud between the Catholics and Protestants, the British Parliament passed a law that effectively said no Catholic could become King of England. When the current ruler produced no heir, they had to scramble to find a suitable candidate. Eventually they picked "German George," a German nobleman who was - get this - *56th* in line for the throne but the only Protestant. He was dubbed King George I, and it is his lineage that you can trace right down to today's Queen Elizabeth.

There was a huge portrait in one room of Daniel O'Connell, an Irish political leader in the early 1800s. He argued passionately for two things: The independence of Ireland through peaceful means, and the right of Catholics to hold office and be treated equally. A devout Catholic, he ordered that when he died his heart be cut out and sent to Rome, and the rest of his body be sent to Dublin for burial in his beloved Ireland. And so it was.

MEDIEVAL MUSEUM

Right next door - part of what they call the "Viking Triangle" - is the Medieval Museum. Here you can see relics and the history of Waterford from roughly 1065 up to 1650 A.D. The entire second floor is devoted to religious history and some of the vestments worn by the Bishops over the years are just amazing. (See photo)

*****

About this time Pop and I were pooped and our brains were full. We crept back to the hotel for a good nap and then a short walk along the river before dinner. Unfortunately, right about then Dad's sugar gave out and he had a hypoglycemic episode that had me handing out glucose tablets and heading for the bar to get him a Coke. We got him into the restaurant for dinner and he eventually rallied and by the time dinner was done, he was back to himself again, but exhausted. Being a diabetic myself, I am intimately acquainted with that feeling.

So he hit the hay and I - as is our usual schedule - stayed up late to get the blog and Facebook photos done, as well as check on home correspondence.

We head back into Dublin tomorrow to return our rental wheelchair and maybe pick up one more tourist destination before we head out to our final hotel.

+++++

Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Tomorrow: Back to Dublin. Well, for a wee bit, anyway.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Travels with Dad: Lost in Waterford (Sort Of)

Today was a leisurely day with no activities planned, other than to travel from Blarney northeast along Ireland's southern coast up to Waterford, where tomorrow we will take the Waterford Crystal Factory Tour, which should be the highlight of the trip for Dad. He's been looking forward to it ever since we booked this gig. Ran into a little hiccup as we got into Waterford, however. Let me preface it by saying that while traveling with Dad a little over a year ago, I wrote this piece - and many more - about that trip. In it, there's a paragraph that specifically applies to our day in Ireland today:
Traveling with Dad sometimes means "Adventures in GPS Programming." Occasionally Dad will program Shortest Route into the Global Positioning System (GPS), instead of Fastest Route. Usually this is by accident, but sometimes we do it intentionally. Setting your GPS for Shortest Route is about the same thing as saying, "I want to get there, but I want to see every backwood, neighborhood, county road, train crossing, and two-lane track in between where I am and there." We have literally gone through neighborhoods where I did not feel safe and where the road has gone from blacktop to gravel to dirt road and back again. It's the scenic route, for sure.
After following our Irish GPS through neighborhoods, suburbs, narrow country one-track lanes, and all manner of "R, N, and M" roads (Regional, National, Motorway - the U.S. equivalent of 4-lane divided expressway), I am now convinced with this trip to Waterford that it is programmed for "shortest route." Plain and simple, we got lost. 

As the GPS - which had so far been a stalwart companion and gigantic boon to our journey - directed us through another small neighborhood in Waterford, it told us to turn right down Alley. That's what it called it. No name, just "Alley." The problem was there were two strong gate doors blocking our way. The "Alley" was clearly closed. So we drove on, waiting for the unit to "recalculate." It did.

And then directed us to take three lefts and return to a right turn onto "Alley."

So we switched it off and drove on, hoping by blind chance and dumb luck to run into something sign-posted that might give us a clue about how to reach our hotel, which we knew was right up against the river.

We drove for about five or ten minutes, then realized that relying on a vehicular game of "Pin the Tourist on the Hotel" wasn't working. And the streets were getting considerably narrower and the neighborhoods considerably more run down. So finally, we spotted a city bus. Deciding that it must have to stay on major streets through the city, we decided to follow it. Eventually it led us to a petrol station. Take note, if you ever decide to drive in Ireland, gas stations are few and far between.

Now, let me inject a word here about the people of Ireland. They are, quite simply, the nicest, kindest, politest, finest people group I have met in my travels. Without any need to be kind to strangers in their land, they have done so and gone out of their way to see Pop and I put right. Granted, most of the Irish I've met have been in the service industry and reliant upon the good will of the tourists and their customers, but you get a sense that they would be this way even off the clock. At any rate, the petrol station attendant gave us quite solid directions back to the City Centre and 20 minutes later (we had wandered that far off our path), we found our hotel and checked in.

After getting settled and letting me have a good lie down to get rid of my headache, Pop and I took a short walk around the hotel. This place, which claims to be the largest hotel in Ireland (in terms of number of rooms), looks like it was knitted and patched together with add-on wings and renovations over the years. Don't get me wrong, it's very nice, but I think the reason they have more rooms than any other hotel is because they have the *smallest* rooms of any hotel. At least that we've been in, so far.

But they have three things going for them: 1) They are less than two blocks from the Waterford Crystal Factory. Dad can walk there fairly easily, if we go slow enough, and the Factory has a wheelchair we can borrow; we checked this afternoon while we were out.  2) There is actually room between our twin beds to walk between them. The other three hotels we've been in ... well ... let's just say the beds are so close together that if we got cold Pop and I could have a pretty good cuddle and warm up.  3) The food in the hotel restaurant is not totally unreasonable Euro-wise and, in fact, it is delicious.

However ... no washcloths. Weird.

Waterford is Ireland's oldest city, having been founded and settled by the Vikings in the 800s. It lies on the banks of the River Suir (pronounced "Shure"), and it was here that the Irish flag was born. You can find a few more photos and some shots of some nifty - and expensive - Waterford Crystal products on my Facebook Page.

+++++

Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Tomorrow: We get to see how that expensive Waterford Crystal is made!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Travels with Dad: Blarney Castle

I forgot one thing about yesterday: Driving down to County Cork and Blarney from Lahinch, we passed through the western end of Limerick (our GPS unit pronounced it "Lime-Rick"), which prompted me to write this bit of fluff and nonsense.


Two men in a car passed by Limerick 
Said one, "My poor stomach must simmer; sick 
These roads make me ill
I'll soon need a pill
My anxiety has made me slimmer, quick!"

I won't give up my day job. And this will be the last I write about Ireland's roads.

Nah, probably not.

BLARNEY CASTLE

Today Dad and I drove down into the village, around the green, and there was Blarney Castle and surrounding gardens in all their 300-acre glory (well, once you parked and paid for admission). Blarney Castle is actually the third structure to occupy this site. It was originally built from wood in the 900s. Around 1210 it was replaced with a stone structure. Then, in 1446, Dermot Carmac McCarthy, the King of Munster, used the old castle stone to create the foundations for the current structure and rebuilt it one final time.


The Blarney Stone, of which this place is most well known, has a long and questionable history, with many origin stories. The one I tend to trust most - since there are Druid ruins on the castle grounds - is that McCarthy was being sued while the castle was being built. Before he went to court, he appealed to the goddess Cliodhna (pronounced Cleena), who was Queen over the fairies in Munster. She advised him to kiss the first stone he saw in the morning on his way to court. McCarthy did so, successfully argued his case with great eloquence and won, and thus the Blarney Stone came to be known as a stone that would bestow "the gift of deceiving without offense." McCarthy had it incorporated into the parapet design at the top of the castle.

Blarney, the caretakers are quick to point out, is not "baloney." It is, as they explain, the "varnished truth," whereas baloney is an unvarnished lie.

Dad did his best to climb up into the castle, but we soon learned that the only way to reach the top was to take a winding spiral staircase that narrowed as it got higher and had 110 steps. So he patiently waited below, chatting up the other tourists and enjoying the marvelously mild Irish weather (sunny and 60s all week, so far), while I took his camera and made the climb, snapping photos as I went and wiping away the sweat.

To kiss the Blarney Stone, you have to lie on your back, then hang over the edge of the parapet above a hole in the structure (about six stories off the ground) to reach it. A staffer hangs on to you and they have installed a pair of iron rails you can grab for support, but it's still not an easy thing. Then there were the rumors. Before we arrived, we had heard that some natives use that hole in the parapet to ... umm ... relieve themselves of a full bladder.

However, as I spoke with the staffers there, they assured me - before I could even get past the word "rumor" - that there was absolutely nothing to it. The facility is secured at night and it was a nasty, ugly story started by the locals disgusted by all the tourist traffic. Part of me thought, "Well, they *have* to say that," but it also had the ring of truth to me.

So, after making a circuit of the parapets twice to twist my courage to the sticking point, I ... well, you can see.

THE ROCK CLOSE

After touring the Poison Garden - and, as always, you can see a bunch of photos from today at my Facebook Page - Dad and I rolled and strolled past the Blarney Mansion, a beautiful four-story gothic structure that was, unfortunately, closed until June. From there it was a quick bite at a cafe built in the old stableyard, the purchase of a few more souvenirs, and then on to "The Rock Close," a site just beyond the stableyard that the Druids used as a gathering and worship point before Christianity came to the Isle.

There were Druid Circles, Druid Stones, several stories and artifacts from "witches," and something called the Wishing Steps. See the photo below.
It was said that if you walked down these steps backward, with your eyes closed, everything you wished for came true.

No, I did not try it. The only thing I would have wished for is that I wouldn't die while trying it.

+++++

Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Tomorrow: On to Waterford!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Travels with Dad: Cliff at the Cliffs

Lovely weather, but windy and cold on the cliffs!
My Dad's name is Cliff. So a stop at the Cliffs of Moher was certainly in order while we were in Ireland.

Now Dad doesn't get around so well, anymore. He can walk with a cane for balance just about the length of a parking lot to a sanctuary without getting too winded, but beyond that, he can only go for very short distances without stopping for a breather. Which is why we have rented a wheelchair for us to use when we stop at a tourist attraction that requires a lot of walking.

The Cliffs of Moher require, as you might guess from the background of that top picture, a LOT of walking. I will give the people who lead, plan, and manage the attraction big marks for making it as handicap-friendly as possible. What they have not managed so well is the placement of the wheelchair ramps. Specifically the steep angles at which they rise and decline. To use a wheelchair at the Cliffs of Moher you either have to rent two strapping young lads to power the thing, or be pushing a hamster.

We did neither of those things, so our time at the Cliffs was not as extensive nor as enjoyable as it could have been. However, to be fair, I realize that this is nature right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and there's only so much terraforming possible to accommodate the tourists and maintain your environmental responsibility to the Cliffs' natural majesty. So Dad enjoyed what he could and, as you can see, he did get a pretty good look at things. We payed our respects to this wonderful piece of Irish geography, payed even more with a gaggle of souvenirs at the gift shop, and took our leave. A few more pictures, as always, are at my Facebook Page.

LAHINCH

From the Cliffs, we made an all-too-brief stop at St. Brigid's Well, which is a sacred place of quiet contemplation in a cemetery behind a pub. Quite lovely and peaceful, really. I would have enjoyed it more had I not missed the turn and not seeing a place to turn around quickly, I stopped in the middle of the road, backed up, pulled forward, backed up, pulled forward, backed up, and finally was able to complete the turnaround. All under the watchful eyes of a lorry driver, who patiently put on his hazard lights for the motorists behind while he enjoyed the show. To be fair, there wasn't ANY traffic on the road when I began this foolhardy maneuver.

At any rate, we eventually found ourselves in Lahinch, where we met the daughter of my good friend Tim - Amy - and her toddler daughter Estlin. Because you can't go all the way to Ireland and not stop to see someone you know from back home.

I had known Amy as a young girl and had watched her grow up into a lovely, charming, and intelligent young woman. She eventually found herself living in Portland, Oregon, where she met the sister of her husband, Helen (who was here for a visit and kindly snapped this photo for us). It was through Helen that Amy and Vinnie met and their relationship blossomed into marriage and now Amy lives here in Ireland, in a nearby town, with Vinny and Estlin and they are making a happy home for themselves. By the way, Amy is one heck of a wordsmith herself and writes deeply and passionately about her life at her own blog - I Will Arise and Go Now. Recommended! And, by the way, the Cliffs of Moher are the background on her page.

ON TO COUNTY CORK

Then it was a nearly three-hour drive down winding Irish roads (with a gorgeously wide 20-minute divided highway segment) on to Cork and, more specifically, the "biggest little village in Ireland," Blarney.

One word to whomever it is that plans and signposts Irish roads. You do not need this sign:
That sign, which we see every few miles, is totally superfluous. This sign is, in essence, merely a drawing of the entirety of Irish roads. It is, you could say, the natural state of things here from inside a motor vehicle. What the Irish need - really need - is this sign:
Now *that* is a sign to inspire hope, stir the heart, and bring audible sighs of relief to any who sit behind the wheel of a car on the Emerald Isle. Traffic Engineers of Ireland - make it happen!

P.S. - No washcloths in our hotel room tonight. I'm starting to think it is the main difference between a four-star hotel and a five-star hotel.

+++++

Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Tomorrow: Blarney Castle!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Travels with Dad: Connemara, Kylemore Abbey, and Car Trouble

Today we drove up into Connemara, which is west and northwest of Galway. Here we encountered the infamous roads of which we were warned. Narrow, winding this way and that, uneven, bumpy, no shoulder and always on alert for wayward sheep. BUT ... they were all well-paved!

And the drive was certainly worth it. We drove the road cut through the Twelve Bens (Pins) mountains. I suppose some might call them really large hills - the highest being 730 meters (about half a mile) - but the Irish call them mountains and who are we to argue? They are certainly gorgeous. Our hotel concierge told us he thought this was the prettiest part of Ireland and he wasn't far wrong.

At first it reminded us of Michigan's Upper Peninsula but by the end of the drive, we were into a section that reminded us more of a dry western part of the U.S. Everything was brown, lots of scrub grass, rocks, and sheep. They call them the Twelve Bens because there are a dozen mountains, rising to points, good hikes if you're into that sort of thing. And they were the reason the road was so dang windy and uneven, as the engineers simply cut in between and around the hills.

I must admit this driving from the other side of the car on the other side of the road carries with it a certain element of ... fun. It's just such a huge change in perspective that it's challenging and I find myself rising to the challenge each day. There is, however, also a very real element of ... terror. Serious, bone-gnawing anxiety. Not since I was 16 years old and behind the wheel of a car for the first time have I kept my hands at "10 and 2" so often for so long.

In Connemara, Dad and I found ourselves driving slow. As in, really, really slow. Not only was Pop wanting to snap photos often, but the nature of the roads kind of demanded you keep your foot on the brake as much as on the accelerator. And then those little fluffy roadside umm, "speed bumps" (see photo) would be lurking around the corner and force you to slow down. 

Our route was sign-posted at 100 kilometers per hour. That's about 63 m.p.h. Yeah, sorry. No. No. Way. Only a fool, madman, or the Irish would drive that fast on these roads. Today was, in my mind, known as "you show me a straight stretch of road, I'll show you a bunch of angry Irish motorists passing me."

KYLEMORE ABBEY

We were told that, for the most part, Abbeys fell into disuse as religious fervor waned and they were eventually purchased by a rich nobleman who turned the place into a castle. In this case, the reverse happened.

Mitchell Henry, an Englishman (whose family was from Cork so he always claimed Irish allegiances) would frequent Connemara and stay at Kylemore Lodge, a hunting cabin on Kylemore Lake. He fell in love with the area and when his father passed, he received a large inheritance and purchased 13,000 acres of land and built Kylemore Castle. 

He developed the land and invested heavily in economic reforms in the area, eventually becoming an M.P. (Member of Parliament) for Galway. The castle was finished in 1871. At the same time, he built a Victorian Walled Garden, the largest of its kind (6 acres) in Ireland. Just three years later, his wife died of dysentery while they were vacationing in Egypt. Deeply in love, Henry had the same architect that designed the castle build an accompanying Gothic Chapel in honor of his wife. Eventually, Henry went broke from losing money on his local investments and maintaining the property and sold it to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester in 1903.

The Duchess was an American woman and her father, Eugene Zimmerman - a wealthy businessman - bought the place for them as her dowry. The Duke, however, was a gambler and in 1914 he lost the castle and grounds in a game of cards. A caretaker was installed and the property was eventually purchased in 1920 by the Catholic Church on behalf of an Irish arm of Benedictine Nuns, who have their own interesting back story. You can read more about that here by scrolling down just a little.

So that was how (and when) a castle become an Abbey. There are about 20 new photos up on my Facebook Page with more from the Glenlo Abbey, some views from Connemara, and Kylemore Abbey (with the Victorian Walled Garden).

CAR TROUBLE

On the way back to our *other* Abbey, suddenly a trouble light chimed and began flashing at me from the dashboard. We pulled off the road and yanked out the owner's manual to discover it was a "glow plug" (spark plug) issue, and we were advised to proceed immediately to the nearest repair facility.

Fortunately, we had just gone through Oughterard (about 15 minutes from Galway) and went back to a petrol station. They let us use their phone to call the rental company and get authorization for a garage to take a look at it. We were directed to a place just one block away where a fella named Gary Higgins took a hard look at things. If you're ever in trouble with a vehicle and near Oughterard ("oot-a-rard"), stop at the Esso Station and ask for Gary.

He checked. And checked. And fiddled with some things inside the engine. Checked again. Then took it for a drive. Later, my Dad explained something to me that made more sense of what Gary told me. Our car, you see, a Skoda Octavia, used a diesel engine. Dad informed me that diesel engines are "workhorses" and need to be driven hard.

What Gary said to me, after all this checking and a test drive, was, "It's not the glow plug. I think it's a sticky EGR valve. It just needs revs, yah?"

Revs. Revolutions. The engine needed to turn over faster. In other words, on these narrow winding Irish roads, I needed to be driving *faster.*

Ulp.

+++++

Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Tomorrow: the Cliffs of Moher!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Travels with Dad: Rumors, Ruins, and the Road

Dad in his Ireland green.
Had to get a chuckle here yesterday. Dad had picked up a rumor online while doing his Ireland trip prep. He had read that visitors should bring their own washcloths, because the hotels in Ireland don't provide washcloths.

My response was, "Dad, we are staying in four- and five-star hotels, for goodness' sake! Of *course* they're going to have washcloths!" He said he'd pack a few, just in case.

Heritage Golf and Spa Resort? In County Laois? Five-star hotel with three restaurants, huge spa area, fantastic golf course, live music in the lobby as the guests registered and all evening, fireplace in a comfy lounge area off the lobby where guests could mingle and relax with a refreshing drink? Yeah, that place. In our room there was a gorgeously appointed, large bathroom with a separate large bathtub, large towel-drying rack, large fancy shower with glass doors, huge sink and counter with all the amenities ... and not a washcloth in sight. I am still getting the taste of crow out of my mouth. (And, by the way, the crows here are HUGE. I think they've been genetically modified.)

After saying goodbye to The Heritage, we made our way down into and through Portlaoise, and thought about stopping at the Methodist church in Mountmellick, which was just a lovely little town, but we were there about an hour after service started. It was Palm Sunday, after all, and we knew there'd be no time for a service on Easter, which is when we have to fly home. Then - thanks to our trusty GPS unit - we went looking for and found The Rock of Dunamase, also known as Dunamase Castle.


I've put up plenty more photos on my Facebook page, but here's a selfie as I climbed up and into the castle ruins. This is what's left standing of the Barbican Gate with the Main Gate in the background.

This fortification was built by Christians in the 800s and later pillaged by the Vikings, then taken over by the Normans, who held it for many years. Later it was forfeited to England, then eventually returned to the Irish O'Moore family, who essentially ignored the holdings and they were abandoned. You can read a bit more about it from the County Laois Council.

From there it was on to Galway, on Ireland's west coast, where we will spend the next two nights. Not being dead on my feet, it turns out, greatly improves my ability to drive a car, and we arrived safely (thanks, Garmin) without a single person honking at us. It probably helped that it was Palm Sunday afternoon, and you could count the number of cars on the road at any one time with two hands.

I must give a shout out to whomever is responsible for the condition of Irish roads. Every one we have been on (so far) - even the narrow, windy, country lanes where we traveled a bit when we missed our turn while getting to know the Garmin - have been in *excellent* condition. I think we've seen ONE pothole, and the roads and countryside have been immaculate. No litter. And not one. Single. Billboard. On the whole, the choice to drive has been a solid one and the beautiful thing is we can stop whenever we want, with no timetable or tour schedule to keep.

Full disclosure - I did train postal employees how to operate a right-hand drive vehicle and taught refresher driver training courses for almost 20 years with the Postal Service, so I am definitely seeing where that experience has given me an edge in driving here.

GLENLO ABBEY

When we arrived in Galway, our next hotel was the Glenlo Abbey Resort in Bushy Park, which could not have been more distinctly different in scope and feel than The Heritage. Where The Heritage felt nearly brand new, the Abbey is built on the grounds, site, and remains of a monastery created in the 1700s. Several of the rooms used in the 1700s were simply refurbished into a Business Centre, Library, and Lounge area.
A testament to the age of the Abbey - they still use real room keys!
Out behind the Abbey they have placed four antique railroad cars that have been remodeled into a diner. These railroad cars were once used on the Orient Express. And, of course, Ireland wouldn't be Ireland without the requisite golf course at the resort. All in all, it's lovely and some of the doorways still have the pointy arched lintel that marks it as a former House of Worship.

And yes, they provided washcloths.

+++++

Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Tomorrow: Up into Connemara!