Thursday, September 28, 2006

"I am yours and you are mine"--Peter Shaffer, Equus

When I set foot on the West coast of Ireland, at the age of 20, I believed for the first time in reincarnation. Nothing had ever before felt so familiar and right.

Thus was launched a long-distance love affair, played out during my infrequent visits across the ocean.

However, that dewy, 40-shades-of-green country and I very nearly went into couples counseling when I made the mistake, some years later, of trying out an equine adventure on its misty shores. Those "lovely Irish ponies" that The Rough Guide raves about? Not so much. Nowadays, I won't even say the word "saddle"at the same time that I look at the color green, lest the two come together in some freaky synergy and cast me again onto the back of a pony in Ireland.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's the tale:

About seven years ago I was in Ireland (as we've established: the home of my heart), on the West Coast, staying in a little hamlet called Cleggan in the region of Connemara for a week, exploring the countryside, mostly on foot. I explored old dolmens (big rock gravesites), the ruins of abbeys, the local pubs. After a few days, I started hitch-hiking around the county and taking bus trips to nearby cities. But eventually, it was time to turn to a different form of transport: the renowned Irish pony.

Off I went, whistling and wide-eyed, to the the Cleggan Beach Riding Centre ; there I discovered that there were afternoon tour groups, wherein I and 15 other unsuspecting sods could rent horses and be taken on a jaunt around the area, particularly across the beach and out to a small island that is accessible by foot--or horse--only at low tide. Okay, cool. I was in.

Each client was then outfitted with his/her own horse. Why, I wondered, did the teenage workers snicker when they saddled up and mounted me on a horse called "Dino"? Was he really old and out-of-date like a dinosaur? No, the workers assured me, he was more like a camel than a dinosaur.

With that cryptic information given, they left me to figure out the reins. A camel, eh? I started musing about how he must have humps on his back or like to walk in rolling fashion across the sand, or maybe he'd deposit me at a rustic Bedouin campsite at the end of the day, where the natives would teach me how to make exotic bread that I would bake in the remnant heat of the desert sand. Little did I know he was a camel in that he had no need for or desire to be around water.

After a short training session (during which only one woman was thrown from her horse into a muddy corral at full gallop), we headed for the sea. That's right, my water-hating steed and I were heading for the sea. The SEA.

For the first hour, it was all tra-la-la-do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do on my part. "Hey, look at that shrub! I'm in Ireland looking at a shrub! Ooh, and that cottage has a very picturesque thatched roof, doesn't it? I can notice such things, even though my glutes are seizing up, because I'm in Ireland, and the sun is shining!"

Why, there, off in the distance, was Omey Island, our goal. The tide was low, so the sea had receded, laying bare a clear band of wet sand that we could saunter across to explore the island.

But the timing was off that day. As soon as we got out to the island, the tide began returning water to the shoreline. Bit by bit, the band of wet sand shrank down to nothingness, replaced by churning water. "Ah, pish posh," said our guide. "The water isn't so very high! We can just turn the horses into it and wade back over to the beach."

It was at this juncture that I discovered hard-hooved horses are, in fact, good climbers. At my first attempt to get Dino to turn and wade into the water, he reared and clambered straight up a ten-foot mound of slippery rock, with my carcass dangling off his back. My strangled yelps brought over one, then two, then three guides, all with panic in their eyes. They could smell the lawsuit.

When the three of them couldn't get him down or anywhere near the water, they bailed on me. As they scampered back to their own horses, they tossed out, over their shoulders, "Just keep trying. Really dig your heels into him." And by Jehosephat, I did. Spurs were not necessary that day, as my London Underground hiking boots did the job. I felt up Dino's internal organs with my treads and forced him into the water.

While the rest of the touring group tried to line up back on the island and make some sort of organized queue that could be led across to dry land, I gave Dino his head and made him keep trudging through the tide, now up to my knees, as I huddled on his back. My jaw was aching from being clenched, and I was ready to leap from his back and swim at the slightest provocation, leaving him to his fate with the mermaids and fishies. Have a happy life with Ariel and Flounder, you big dumb bruiser.

After what seemed like three hours--it was more like 8 minutes--I reached land. There, on the beach, was the owner of the Riding Centre, in his little van. Some of the panic he'd had on his face as he watched me subsided. When I announced, "Okay, someone else can ride this nag back to the stable. I'm getting in your van, and you can drive me back," he was composed enough to say, "Ah, lass, it's all right now. You've got the luck of the faeries on your side. Just think of pink stars and green clovers while you ride him back" before pulling out a bar of Irish Spring soap and rubbing it all over himself while humming "Frosted Lucky Charms: They're Magically Delicious."

I wanted to resist further, but then he pulled out a harp and started crooning "Danny Boy" in a lovely tenor as he drank a Guiness and ate a heap of potatoes; in the face of his Irish charm, I was defenseless. I stayed on Dino's back to the bloody end. And that night, I assuaged my nerves and my glutes at the pub with, *cough cough*, several pints of hard cider.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A crisis can be an ongoing frustration, and with our investment in an 88-ounce bottle of honey, my frustration was not only ongoing but also sticky.

Why did we buy a bottle of honey so ungodly big? Short answer: we're cheap. The longer answer is something eco-concious, wherein we're trying to save on the energy and manufacturing going into buying multiple smaller bottles. At any rate, we ended up with a bottle of honey that, if filled with gasoline, could have topped off a lawn mower's tank. No whimsical teddy bears for us! Nay, our household had a bottle so big that I could have cut the top off of it and used it as a gift bag, come Christmas...just dropping a v-neck sweater for Aunt Nancy right into the thing.

But I have to give the bottle its due: the thing held its honey and held it for a long, long time. I'm not sure our three-year-old son has ever experienced a different bottle of honey during his lifetime, in fact (and it's big enough that he gets to do his time-outs inside of it, too! "You broke Mommy's diamond tiara? Into the honey jar with you, son.") The downside, of course, to our long-term investment in the bottle is that the honey aged, not like a fine Merlot, but like ice cream in the deep freeze. It became crystallized.

Towards the end, there, the bottle lived upside down in the cupboard (we're just that clever!), but that made no difference. I could open the spout and try to start a flow into my steaming travel mug of chai, but three minutes later, not even a drop would have touched the tea.

The bottle was constipated in a way that no Metamucil would ever help.

So then we had to get aggressive with the thing, unscrewing the cap and fishing around inside with spoons, clothespins, and finally even paper clips. After a few days, even these helpful tools could no longer pry out even a tidge. There was honey in there, but it was recalcitrant. We could not beg it out, bribe it out, or yank it out.

At one point, my husband circled the bottle with a pair of scissors, stabbing and jabbing at its weak points, but even that effort was rebuffed by the Fortress of Crystal. We couldn't break into the thing.

Thus, after a loooooong, hot soak in the sink, the honey bottle now lays in our recycling, bracing itself for its imminent reincarnation....perhaps as a child's little red wagon. Now that would be a worthy corporeal being for such a stubborn spirit.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Animals Under My Feet:

Let me preface this entry by saying that I do like animals. We had two dogs and a cat in our household as I was coming up, and the dogs in particular were my special pals. I would hug and seek solace in them as I shed quiet tears to Steve Perry singing "Open Arms" after all the boys I had crushes on weren't impressed by my gauchos and clogs and therefore didn't like me back. The dogs and I? Sympatico.

However, nowadays my puppy time has changed tenor...

Because we have kids living in our house (they happen to be ours), we have a whiteboard easel set up in the tv room. After a run the other week at Hartley Nature Center, I was compelled to write on the easel:

Jocelyn's "Why I Had to Scream on My Run" Scorecard

Wild Dogs Off-Leash: 3

Dead Shrew Corpses On-Path: 6

This scorecard raises two issues of mini-crisis for me:

1) I don't care if your wet and foaming-at-the-mouth 70-pound black lab is "very sweet, and he wouldn't hurt anyone." Don't tell me that as your d*&% dog has its paws on my shoulders and is attempting to teach me the doggie quick-step for our appearance on "Dancing with the Pooches."

Instead, keep your dog on its leash, as Article 1, Sec. 35-2 of the Duluth city code requires. If, for some reason, the leash has broken--most likely because your rabid beast has gnawed through it--feel free to fall back on voice commands, drawing upon the training any domesticated creature should have before being brought to a public place. If and when your dog ignores your voice commands, put into place an immediate consequence, such as grabbing him/her by the collar (once you finally come around the bend in the trail and spot your dog mauling me), telling him/her "NO," and then dragging him/her promptly back to the car, all out-for-a-walk privileges revoked for the day. You might also consider apologizing to the hapless victim as she brushes muddy pawprints off her running togs.

This little behavioral plan comes easily to my mind, for, you see, I have two smallish kids, and so help me, neither of them will ever be in your personal space, much less licking your face, in an open public space like a nature center. I was able--get this--to train certain things into them. And there are not even leash laws in place for preschoolers. I'm just that civic-minded.


2) The first cold nights hit in September, and every year, these nights result in Shrew Carnage on the paths of Hartley. Indeed, little shrews--bewildered, perhaps, by a world where fashion icons are wearing leggings again, AND OFTEN UNDERNEATH DRESSES--tend to climb up onto trail and, well, die. Seeing a rodent in its death throes does not make for a pleasant run, especially when you're like me and have a total fear of small, scampering creatures with pointy tails. Thus, if you're ever at Hartley in the autumn, you might recognize me as the person who's shrieking and hopping around out on the path, raking her fingernails over her cheeks, leaving bloody tracks behind on her face. Despite using my new "Dead Shrew Detector 2006" (purchased at a bargain price off E-bay) to bypass the shrew corpses, they still keep cropping up in my way. And some of them, natch, have been half-eaten by 70-pound black labs, who kindly finish their trailsnack and leave behind a mash of a few toothpickish bones and scattered internal organs. Can we have a group "EWWWWW" here now?

Such are my travails.

Monday, September 18, 2006

O Mighty Crisis

Let me tell you the tale of an old college acquaintance--let's call him Joe-O. Now Joe-O is a character in and of himself; he's strident about leaving the smallest "footprint" he can on the planet, to the point that he only buys in bulk, composts everything, and, if he does create some small amount of garbage, he just burns it every few weeks. When he lived 30 miles from his job, that was not enough to make him drive a car...instead, he viewed the 60-mile daily bicycle commute as an opportunity for fitness. In addition to biking, Joe-O is a fan of all silent sports, cross-country skiing, in particular. For more than a decade now, he's been into ski racing, with his season capped off by racing the American Birkebeiner, held in the Cable/Hayward, Wisconsin, area every February.

Many of you are doubtlessly acquainted with the Birkie, and some of you may have skiied it yourselves. You would then know that upwards of 10,000 skiers participate, and because of the heaps of steaming humanity standing on slippery pointed boards with sharp sticks in their hands, the race start takes place in "waves." That means that it's not a mass start, but rather large groups (each one a wave) begin the race in staggered fashion, every few minutes. The waves are also seeded, which means that the elite American and international skiers are put into the First Wave, and then successive waves are populated by skiers who have achieved certain times in previous races. The sum effect of these waves is that the best skiers start first, the next best skiers start second, and so on, all the way back to the final wave, which is populated by 85-year-old-retired pastors, 8-year-old Boy Scouts, and women in labor.

For old Joe-O, the first year he entered the Birkie, he had no race record and, therefore, was seeded in the last wave. This was a bit frustrating to Joe-O because he had proven himself to be a gifted skier, but he knew he had to rack up a tremendous race time this first year, in order to improve his start position for the following year. With skill and strategy, he knew he would, with a good race, be starting in one of the first few waves in successive years.

So he took his place on the course, having been up late the night before waxing his skis perfectly for the conditions, and now he was primed, waiting for the starting gun, the Eye of the Tiger glinting in his gaze.

And then.



He, shall I say it discreetly? He felt a sudden, undeniable, overwhelming need to void his intestinal regions.And, naturally, with 9,999 other jittery and nervous racers feeling the same way, the line at the port-a-johns was not short. Suffice it to say, by the time Joe-O got back to the start line, his wave--the last wave--had already started. He could still begin the race, but his shot at a stellar time, one that would move him up in future years, had gone down the drain with his intestinal evacuation.

Here is the crux of my story, so stop slouching and pay attention: Joe-O took a moment to huff and stomp and mutter, and then he regrouped and came up with Plan B (this moment is also known as acceptance that Some Things Cannot Be Changed). His plan was this: since he was going to be the caboose in this train of 10,000 skiers, he would make the most of it--the sheer amount of detritus left behind by all those participants could be a windfall for Joe-O. He would, quite simply, forget about racing and, instead, pick up every discarded item he could find along the course: water bottles, ski poles, hats, mittens, fanny packs, and the like. Why, he'd never have to buy another cheap pair of UV-blocking sunglasses again, after this day! He'd never again have to invest in safety pins, or fleece neck gaiters, or half-eaten bags of gummy bears!

Hours later, after covering the 50K course as a lurching stop-and-start scavenger, Joe-O crossed the finish line; his one-piece lycra racing suit had been transformed into a bulging crap-carrier. Early on, he'd realized he couldn't carry all the loot in his hands, so he'd unzipped the front of his suit and started stuffing in every wayward item he encountered, until, at the end, he looked like a red Michelin Man staggering away from a particularly fruitful rummage sale (one that didn't happen to have any bags for customers).

What do we learn from Joe-O and his "let's make espresso out of chicory" approach to the race? First, it ain't over 'til it's over, so continue to hang in there until the bloody, or junk-filled, end. Second, even if the race isn't shaping up as you'd hoped, with the right attitude, you can reap unexpected rewards. Third, don't shove a broken sharp metal ski pole tip so far down into your ski suit that you nearly become a soprano (or, more correctly, a castrato).