Hallelujah, Kids GAA Training is Back!

The boys are back GAA training with our local club Na Fianna and it is a joy to behold. More importantly, it is a great to see my three boys playing with and against boys of their own age / size instead of constantly battling against each other. Now I’m all for a bit of sibling rivalry and I recognise that this has been around since Cain decided that he didn’t like the cut of Abel’s jib, but the last 3 months have been a never-ending competition (primarily football matches) between Team A, made up of myself and my youngest boy (Oscar 7), and Team B, my two other sons (Aaron 11 and Lochlan 9). This arrangement is far from ideal as it typically boils down to Aaron and / or Lochlan knocking Oscar over while trying to get to the ball and then daddy knocks Aaron and / or Lochlan over in retaliation (sometimes this retaliation is pre-emptive). Everybody gets grumpy about being repeatedly knocked-over which leads to “escalations” and daddy picks up the ball and brings everybody home! So much for the joy of spending more time with kids during lockdown. Ella (3) hasn’t really gotten involved in matches yet (apart from one unfortunate incident when she stood in the goal at the wrong time) and will occasionally take corners but I could sense that this wasn’t really cutting it in recent excursions to the park! Occasionally we would try something that is less contact based such as frisbee, but it would only be a matter of time before the elder boys would get jealous of Oscar’s impressive throwing technique (I think I may have found his niche) and fling the disc at his head from close range.

So it was with great excitement (for everybody) that the boys headed back to training last Monday. I didn’t even mind that the scheduled training times clashed with our usual dinner time (as an experienced chef, meal timings are very important to me) or that Aaron and Lochlan’s training times overlapped with each other meaning the family had to depart to different areas of Glasnevin simultaneously. In pre-covid days, this would have seen me sweating while continuously refreshing my friend / wife tracker app to see if Niki would make the trip from her office in Dublin city centre to the suburbs in time, but at least now that she is working from home I only have to track her coming down the stairs (working from home has some benefits). In the new normal, there are some extra requirements to complete before training such as hand washing and sanitising (much much sanitising), updating the boys’ health status on the GAA app and repeating the mantra not to share anything, in particular water bottles, but essentially it is back to boys running around a field, getting some exercise and having a good time. That definitely doesn’t take away from the huge level of organisation and commitment that comes from the mentors who make sure that everything is run like clockwork. From what I can see, the sessions over the past week have been some of the best, and after speaking with one of the mentors, he reckons that the boys are being really well behaved because they are afraid that training might be taken away from them if they don’t! Amazing how absence makes the heart grow fonder! Also the pitches are in the best condition that I have ever seen, with pristine lush grass that wouldn’t look out of place on the PGA golf tour in the US!

It is also noticeable how the boys all seem to have sprouted an inch or two, shoulders are broader, hair is longer or extremely short for those who have access to a barber’s razor! Most interestingly I have observed that some of the boys accents had changed during the past three months. Obviously spending more time with parents (many of whom have their origins outside of the greater Dublin area) meant that those with more musical ears now have a lilt that would be best described as rural or simply as culchie by us Dubs. It brought back memories to me of how after my year in Oz during my 20’s I came back with an intonation that would always go up at the end of a sentence as if every statement was a question (see “Australian Question Intonation”). Thus causing no end of amusement among my so-called friends!

Another advantage of the return to GAA training is that it provides a signpost as to what day of the week it is during summer! In my youth you could always tell what day it was by the programmes on the television, Glenroe on Sundays, Thursdays for Top of the Pops, etc., but with modern Netflix culture, programmes are watched randomly throughout the week and now with live football matches on every day, even the weekends are hard to distinguish! So double training means it is Monday, training for Lochlan equals Thursday, Aaron on Friday and Oscar on Saturday, at last the calendar has some meaning again.

Now I’m sure there will come a day when we will look outside and see those typical symbols of an Irish summer i.e. grey clouds and drizzle and the groaning about potential physical exercise will start. But for now I’m just basking in the joy of return to some sort of healthier normal. Thank you Na Fianna!

 

Our Guardian Angel of the Lockdown

The last 3 months of lockdown have been hard for all of us. As a family, we have made it through it largely unscathed and hopefully can now look forward to better times ahead (without a dreaded second wave, fingers crossed). I’d like to say that the reason we were able to persevere was a strong sense of parental common purpose, with a consistent approach to keeping the kids occupied and no small bit of love, but undoubtedly I’d be lying. Yes we kind of ticked some of those boxes, but the reason we survived lockdown is mainly down to my sister-in-law Orla or aunty Orla as she is known in our house. At the start of lockdown, Orla found herself to be in housing limbo, in between apartment rentals. So when we agreed that she could stay in our spare room, I think she was under the misguided perception that we were doing her a favour whereas in reality it was completely the opposite!

Orla is my wife’s youngest sister and despite the fact that she works for the dark-side (AIB), she has always been held in high regard due to frequent babysitting and organised day trips with the kids for birthdays (the fact that she is a big Liverpool supporter is also a big plus in my book). However the last 100 days have been on another level altogether. Now I won’t go into the intricate detail of how managing the home-schooling of three primary school boys is a pretty full-on job and isn’t really compatible with simultaneously minding a 3 year old (including frequent toilet breaks and endless requests to go upstairs to interrupt mommy’s non-stop work video calls), but the release valve of having Orla there has been a godsend. Just when I’m about to lose the rag altogether, Ella (my 3 year old) will ask if she can go and visit aunty Orla’s room. Being a female, Ella is quite adept at perceiving when Daddy is near boiling point and in particular when it is best to vacate the area, a gift her brothers are certainly not blessed with! In fact towards the end of lockdown, Ella wouldn’t even bother to ask and would just disappear into Orla’s room for hours on end happily building a pillow fort and playing with her toys.

The other area where Orla has excelled is by entertaining the boys by playing board games at the end of her work day. I’m not sure if you are aware what it is like to play Monopoly with 3 hyper-competitive brothers, well I can tell you that in the words of John Barnes advertising a well known sports drink “It is 90 minutes of pure hell!” and I say that as a hyper-competitive board game player myself. All board games quickly descend into an endless squabble over rule technicalities, illegal dice rolls and occasional cheating. In the end, whichever brother wins (normally the eldest) will gloat without shame while the other two will spend the next hour in a huff. Despite this set of unattractive circumstances, Orla would continually step up to the plate and become the perennial board game victim (just like Dr Black in Cluedo) allowing myself and Niki some precious minutes of piece and quiet, well unless it was Trivial Pursuit in which case I would happily join battle with my progeny (strictly only first answers accepted).

All parents will know that kids bedtimes are a traumatic time full of complaints, stalling and general misbehaviour. The usual scenario is that after half an hour of cajoling, threats and eventually physically dragging our kids into bed, myself and my wife would collapse into the sofa downstairs. Eventually one of us would glance into the kitchen (let’s be fair it was always Niki) and see that all the post dinner cleaning still needed to be done. Like zombies we would trudge towards the kitchen (me trailing behind Niki or being pushed by Niki depending on my motivation) to finish the daily chores. That all changed once Orla arrived, while we were fighting the good fight upstairs she would be cleaning up, doing dishes and even hoovering like some magical genie summoned from a lamp but without the blue skin! Then as the cherry on top of a very tasty ice cream she would compliment the chef (usually yours truly) on a very tasty dinner and I’m directly quoting her here “I like all the food that is cooked in this house”.

The benefits of having an extra adult in the house didn’t end there. The fact that we had a live-in babysitter meant that myself and Niki could actually leave the house at the same time without a whole troop of kids tagging along and this did occasionally happen (twice for a jog and once for a takeaway date as per my previous blog). There was also an extra person to go to the shops when we inevitably ran out of milk (I always underestimate how much milk 4 kids can drink!), or bread or cheese or other staples.

So where is Orla now? Well she departed our house at the end of June and was last seen in an isolated cottage on the Wicklow and Wexford border (this is true). Undoubtedly recuperating and recharging her batteries and probably just enjoying the sound of silence. Come back soon Orla, keep away from that tricky property market for as long as possible, the guest room is “Orla’s Room” from now on.

My name is dublin_viking74 or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love e-Gaming

Cards on the table, my number one vice is video gaming. Ever since I first typed Load “”, pressed play on my cassette player and heard the high pitched whine of a video game loading on my ZX Spectrum (48k) I have been enthralled by all things joystick related. Back in those days (the early 80s for context), you had to wait many minutes for the game to load, from an audio cassette of all things, onto your incredibly simple 8-bit computer. There was nothing so frustrating as waiting the 15-20 minutes for Daley Thompson’s Decathlon or Ghostbusters to load, only for it to soon crash into a thousand pixelated pieces. Unfortunately this was quite a regular occurrence on the far from stable Spectrum. Despite these minor setbacks, I was hooked and would cherish those moments when I rushed through my homework and was allowed have some precious computer game time!

After the ZX Spectrum went past its “best before date” I wasn’t allowed another gaming platform (maybe my parents were concerned by my burgeoning addiction) so the Nintendo and Sega console explosions passed me by and I had to manage my craving by occasionally sneaking into arcades around town. After this hiatus from home-gaming there came a moment that would change my life forever, a friend became bored with his PlayStation and asked if anybody would be willing to take it off his hands for a reasonable fee. I jumped at the chance and soon was besotted. Sure it was a temperamental machine and occasionally it had to be placed upside down or the games wouldn’t load properly, but it transported me to a place with infinite possibilities where I could be a Japanese undercover assassin or a space racer pilot and not a banker on the northside of Dublin. Since then, the PlayStation in its various iterations has been pretty much a constant feature in my residence of choice, I have even managed to convince a girlfriend and a wife to each buy me one over the years (rumours that the PlayStation formed part of my pre-nuptial agreement are completely unfounded!).

While I have had dalliances with other genres of video games (GTA Vice City will forever have a special place in my heart), there is one type that I always return to when I need a true virtual fix and that is football simulation games. My first love was Match Day on the aforementioned ZX Spectrum. It was pretty basic to say the least and involved generic monochrome players walking around with the ball stuck to their feet. Directional control was erratic and that is putting it kindly, but you could generally get the ball to go towards the goal. As for the goalkeepers, trying to get them to dive in the correct direction required more coordination than a juggler on a unicycle. However the sheer fact that I could play out scenarios involving my footballing heroes (Dalglish, Souness and Rush) meant that I was caught by the bug. As time passed, and I progressed to the more modern consoles, my football game of choice became a toss-up between the more technically proficient Pro Evolution Soccer (“PES”) or the more glamorous FIFA football franchise. Initially I went with PES but there were only so many seasons I could play as Merseyside Red (PES did not have all the required licensing agreements in place) before I was tempted by the authentic teams, kits, players, stadiums, commentators and graphics of EA sports’ FIFA. Once I switched, there was never really any chance that I would go back, so fast forward a few years and by the time my three boys came of video game playing age, I was a fully signed up member of the FIFA world, the only mark of my PES heritage being that I still used the button configuration of that game rather than FIFA (I realise there is a nerd alert button flashing furiously somewhere!).

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of playing it, let me say that there are many different game modes on FIFA. It’s not just about playing endless matches of Liverpool vs Man Utd or trying to win the FA Cup for the 100th time. The most popular game mode on FIFA is Ultimate Team or FUT for short. In FUT you have much more control over your team including jersey, stadium, formation and most importantly player lineup. You start off with a random and fairly basic set of players but by winning matches and completing challenges you get improved players which enables you to win more matches / challenges to get even better players and so on (you can also make in-game purchases to upgrade your team which does call into question the fairness of it all). Players are not just restricted to those currently earning their corn on the soccer pitches of the world. In fact my team (Addison United) has current players Alisson in goal and Messi on the wing but is supplemented by legends Paolo Maldini at centre-back and Ruud Van Nistelrooy upfront (ignoring his Man Utd heritage because I need to win)!

While it is possible to play FUT solely against AI / computer opponents, the real challenge comes when you pit your wits and finger dexterity against other real players online. Now there is something quite humbling about being defeated 6-0 by BarbOs4 (damn you whoever you are) in front of your children, a wake up call if ever there was one. It’s hard to describe the emotional hole I fell into during that match! All of a sudden you can forget that you are a well adjusted middle-age man happy with your place in life and become a nervous wreck complete with heavy arms, weak knees and sweaty palms (subtle Eminem reference without the mom’s spaghetti). All my tricks which had worked so well against the AI proved useless against this footballing mastermind (probably a teenager in some darkened bedroom) who seemed to be able to predict my every, pass, move and dummy. Then whenever he / she / it got the ball there would be a whirlwind of step-overs, back-heels and rainbow flicks which would leave me mesmerized and ultimately a further goal behind unless Alisson could pull off a miraculous save. From that lowly beginning I realised that I needed to up my game. YouTube tutorials were scoured from experts with extravagant names like TekKz and BorasLegend. New skill moves and defending techniques have been learnt, who knew tactics were so important in virtual football, up until this moment I had been happily playing kick and rush like a neanderthal Jack Charlton!! My moment of final redemption came last weekend when I qualified for the appropriately named FUT Champions tournament. This is an online competition where you can play up to 30 games over a weekend (Friday through Sunday) and you are rewarded for the amount of wins you achieve. Given where I was coming from I figured that 14 wins was the top end of my potential range. Armed with my new found knowledge like Kung Fu Panda after his training sessions (and probably as rotund) I accumulated 13 wins from 24 matches, only one to go to reach my goal. Then disaster strikes, Pique Blinders wipe the floor with me, Eliott FC sneak a victory with a late goal, I have a complete mare against Marinho 1906 and CARP Allstars beat me in extra time. All too quickly I am down to just 2 available matches and the clock is heading towards midnight on Sunday! Monk Toad Utd stand in my way but crucially I have tip-off. Thinking fast and fingers working furiously, I work the ball down the wing to Carlos Vela, who spins and plays it to Van Nistelrooy, who dummies and then lays it off to a sprightly (considering he is 42) Gattuso who crashes it to the net. I regroup and prepare for the onslaught from my opponent. Then the sweetest thing happens, a message appears on the screen informing me that Monk Toad Utd has forfeited the game or as us gamers like to call it, a Rage Quit! Success, redemption and the ability to look my boys directly in the face on a Monday morning. My name is dublin_viking74 and I’ll see you online if you dare!

My Top 5 Netflix Movies

The television has always been my friend (I remember the arrival of Channel 4 like the birth of a new sibling) but never more so than in the past few months. Whether it is sitting down with the kids after a hard day home-schooling, or relaxing with Niki after the exhausting bedtime routine is completed, or just kicking back for some escapism / nostalgia on my own away from the harsh realities of the outside world, the TV and in particular Netflix has been my lifeboat in the icy waters of the real world as the Titanic heads towards the depths. So without further ado here are the 5 Netflix movies that have kept my head above water over the past three months.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. A triumphant celebration of the possibilities of youth, particularly when you have access to a high powered automobile! John Hughes’ masterpiece has its own particular resonance for yours truly. More years ago than I care to remember, I was brought to see Ferris as my special confirmation day treat. There was only one problem, for some reason the Irish film censor (a notoriously contrary fellow who previously denied us Irish folk “The Life of Brian”) had categorised the movie as 15 rather than PG 12 (from a quick bit of research I see that it has been re-categorised as PG 12 in the past 35 years which makes my sense of injustice even stronger). This meant that despite the fact that my parents had already seen the movie and were quite happy for me to enjoy its delights, the staff at the Adelphi Dublin were not so obliging. I had to wait until it came out on VHS before getting a glimpse of that red Ferrari. Boy was it worth the wait. I watched it again with the kids when it came out on Netflix and I remain baffled by the original rating but hey, the Adelphi is long gone so who is laughing now!! Anyway the movie about a charismatic teenager playing truant hits all the right notes (i) a super musical number involving a parade and the Beatles, (ii) a truly excellent villain in dean of students Ed Rooney (with special mention to the maitre d’ at the snooty restaurant) (iii) a life affirming themes which although a bit schmaltzy at times still leaves a warm glow all these years later and (iv) a great soundtrack which is well worth a listen. The movie is also a great advert for Chicago which remains on my list of places to visit, not sure I’ll ever get to drive that Ferrari though!

Groundhog Day. First of all let me state that I’m a big Bill Murray fan and this list could very easily have turned into a Top 5 of his movies. In the end I had to settle for just two, with this tale of a man having to re-live the same day over and over again getting the nod as one of my choices due to Murray’s immaculate comedic performance, even by his standards. For me Murray’s ability to perfectly blend blatant selfishness with charm is what sets him apart, well that and his comic timing. Frequently you hear of stories where he rips up the script and will ask the director (in this case his Ghostbusters’ co-star Harold Ramis) how he wants the scene to work and then takes it from there. In this tale, set in rural Pennsylvania, we are introduced to the groundhog (a type of squirrel who doesn’t climb) which can predict the weather and the annual ceremony associated with this (always reminds me of Dorothy meeting the elders in Munchkinland). Although the reasons why Phil (BM’s charachter) is stuck in this time-loop are never made explicit, it is clear that he is going through some type of purgatory where he initially uses this knowledge for self-advancement before coming to the realisation that this ego-centric behaviour is ultimately unfulfilling. What makes the movie stand out for me is the number of wonderful set-piece sequences, in particular the progression with old college friend Ned Ryerson, the restaurant scene where he recites French poetry (actually a song by Jacques Brel, as someone who studied Jacques Brel and French poetry in college, I appreciated this) to impress Andie McDowell and not forgetting the slightly darker but still hilarious multiple suicide attempts! Even the ending which does have a saccharine sweet element to it manages to hold the tone of the rest of the movie thanks to Murray’s delivery. I could watch this one again and again and again and again!

Lost in Translation. Again this one has some personal relevance for me. I watched Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece in San Francisco while I was travelling home from a year in Australia. Like the protagonist in this movie, I was thousand of miles from friends and family and while San Fran isn’t exactly Tokyo in terms of a clash of eastern and western cultures, it is definitely not leafy Clontarf on a drizzly day. The movie tells the story of Bob Harris (a toned down Bill Murray giving a career best performance) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson before she became mega famous) while they are both staying at the same hotel in Tokyo. The whirling music and the sweeping cinematography perfectly capture the dream-like quality of being all alone in a strange land. There are enough pieces of comedy from Murray to keep his die hard fans happy, such as the scene where he gets trapped on a runaway cross-fit machine and the interactions with the whisky advert director (on the rare occasions where I drink whisky I still feel obliged to say “for relaxing times make it suntory time”). However it is ultimately a love story with some beautifully tender moments between the main protagonists, particularly in the karaoke bar where both Johansson and Murray excel using their varying vocal talents. Interestingly, when I first watched the movie I had more in common with Charlotte whereas when I watched it recently, I was definitely more aligned with Murray’s character (obviously without the marital infidelity). A great movie to watch when you want to drift away to somewhere different.

Marriage Story. So what happens when Kylo Ren and Black Widow decide to get married!? Well you get a bittersweet story of how even seemingly good relationships can go wrong! Seriously though, it did take a bit of time for me to get used to Adam Driver in his non-Star Wars role but once I got over the fact that he couldn’t move things with his mind, I really enjoyed his performance. In fact this movie is full of strong acting performances with Laura Dern well deserving of her Oscar as the street-smart divorce lawyer. There is also Julie Hegarty (of Airplane fame) adding comic relief as Scarlett Johansson’s mother. The plot is not an unfamiliar one with the successful male being gradually eclipsed by his aspiring actress female partner and how this shift in power exposes cracks in the relationship. There are also echoes of Annie Hall with the shift in focus from New York to Los Angeles and how Driver struggles in the new environment. The movie is also a study of the conflict between getting the best deal for yourself while also being able to live with how this can negatively affect those who are or were close to you. In the end Marriage Story finds a balanced and humane way to deal with this. Bring a box of tissues when you set back with this one (Niki had to hand plenty to me).

El Camino. If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad then this one probably isn’t for you but if you are like me and think that the story of Walter White’s descent into hell is the greatest piece of modern television, then this one is essential viewing. El Camino deals with what happens to Jesse after the events in the finale of Breaking Bad. It is filled with the same gut-wrenching tension that made the series so watchable and has plenty of flashback moments so that we get to see some of our favourite characters for the last time (assuming they don’t all make an appearance in Better Call Saul at some point). Aaron Paul is excellent in the familiar role as Jesse but for me it is Jessie Plemons as gang member Todd who is the standout performer with his casual and under-stated menace. The movie is a breathless journey with Jesse moving from one crisis to the next while seeking a way to extricate himself from the mess that Walter White entangled him in when he chose him as his partner in crime all those years ago. The movie is an ultimately satisfying end to a great journey.

So there you have my 5 picks. The first two I watched with my boys (7, 9 and 11) and they thoroughly enjoyed them, the second two are great for curling up on the sofa with a partner and well, the last was just a treat for yours truly. And remember, life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while you might miss it!

 

Tales from Lockdown Part 3

 

In previous weeks I have discussed how online quizzes and jigsaws have helped me and my family (Aaron 10, Lochlan 8, Oscar 7 and Ella 3, not forgetting my ageless wife Niki) get through this incredibly strange period of our lifetime. This week I want to explore an area of modern culture which had completely escaped me before March 13th, that is tik tok dance routines. As bit of background for the uninitiated, tik tok is a social media app which originated in China and is ideal for short-form mobile videos. It seems to have filled the void that was created by the fall of Vine (I miss those 6 second tidbits of fun) and run with it in a big way! Of course the fact that it comes from China has led to some concerns about data privacy but hey, ain’t that just a fact of life these days! I first came across tik tok when people started to post various tik tok challenges on twitter, which is where I pick up most of my pop culture these days. These challenges were typically short choreographed dance routines to a popular piece of music (although quite often the piece of music would become popular because of the tik tok routine), and so began my brief obsession with young folk dancing to “My hips don’t lie” while going down escalators in shopping malls (check it out). All too quickly, I found myself down the rabbit-hole of YouTube compilations of the best tik tok dance routines of 2020 parts 1 through 10. Then I began to wonder how to turn this craze that appeared to be sweeping the youngsters of the planet to my own benefit?

I have always loved to dance, I remember fondly my days on the dance-floors of my youth, Peg Woffingtons, Hollywood Nights and Club USI seems to stand out, but there were so many other places where I would get caught up by the late night flow of a thumping base-beat. Happy as Larry, I’d flail my arms around, bite my lower lip and try to keep my legs going in time to the rhythm of Children by Robert Miles or some other Euro-dance classic. Happily I seem to have passed this affinity for dance to my kids because when I floated the idea of synchronised tik tok dancing, they didn’t give me their usual response to my suggestions i.e. a gasp of exasperation, eyes to heaven and bodies thrown to the floor as if they have been shot (can be used on their own or more commonly, as combinations of two or all three elements). Choosing a tik tok routine is fraught with danger, they come in all shapes and sizes and can vary from the very basic to the extremely complicated (not quite sure if the boys can handle a back flip to splits just yet). There is also the added danger that a number of them have content which could not be considered “child appropriate”. Bearing this in mind I put together a medley of “Blinding Lights”, “Say So (clean version)” and “Toosie Slide (also clean version)”. To be honest, it was Say So that got the kids hooked on it, in particular the line which allowed them to throw fake punches at or near their brothers!

The training was a slow process, I began to see myself as that dance teacher from “Fame”, the one who says that you have to pay for fame with sweat! The boys quickly told me to put my dance stick away! After repeated viewings of the routines and the multiple variants on YouTube, we learned that perfection was never going to be achievable and that putting an individual spin on things was vital. Importantly for yours truly the constant working and re-working of the routines kept the boys busy yet physically active at the same time! I hope you enjoy the fruits of our labours and hopefully it will display correctly!

So apart from endlessly practicing dance routines we have also had some other significant changes to our daily routine. Gone from our lives are the usual maddening rush of the school run and the multiple drops to after-school activities. Instead our days are measured by Joe Wicks’ PE routines and the arrival of the post man usually around 11am and the DHL guy usually around noon. Every day we hope that there is something new and exciting for us but we are nearly always disappointed when it is another package for mommy! More recently our exasperation has grown as we are awaiting series 5 of Survivor in dvd format. These dvds are only available for shipment from the US and seem to have fallen foul of restrictions around Covid-19 so can take months to reach our shores. We started to watch Survivor pre-lockdown as I bought myself season 1 as a Christmas present for myself. I had never seen the original “you’ve been voted off the island” series and given that it was something involving a screen, my boys were drawn to it. They quickly became engrossed, they were impressed by the regular back-stabbing and in particular the highly competitive elimination challenges. This definitely appeals to their sense of sibling rivalry and I think that each one secretly hopes that one day they will have the opportunity to vote one of their brothers out of the family! The only problem with watching dvds of Survivor is that the ultimate winner is always placed front and centre on the dvd box cover, based on the assumption that everybody had watched it already back in 2005! This does tend to take away some of the suspense as good old Jeff reads out the results of the elimination votes, particularly from the later episodes. This time round I’ve promised to intercept the box and hide it away before the boys can see it so they can have a genuine first-time watcher experience!

A Good Christmas but watch out for the Grinch!

Just like that, the Christmas holidays have come to an end. Looking back on it, there have been many highlights offset only by the odd bit of familial tension, mainly relating to a couple of disagreements which resulted in yours truly being left behind by the Doyle-mobile (once voluntary and once enforced). But my passenger seat privileges have since been reinstated so all is well that ends well.

The Christmas period began with a trip to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre for a performance of The Snowman complete with accompanying orchestra. This gave us our first indication of how this Christmas was going to be an absolute joy for our two year old Ella. She was thrilled by the dancers, the singers and particularly, the comedy routine which involved Santa inadvertently taking the MC’s bike. She still talks about it a full month later.

We always aim to include one Santa trip in the Christmas programme so choosing which Santa to visit is always a great source of discussion and debate. This year we went with Luggwoods which can be found in the Dublin hills just beyond Saggart. Our kids range from the aforementioned Ella to Aaron, who is well into his eleventh year so we may struggle to get another year out of these Santa trips without grumbling, petulance, tantrums and the other phenomena which usually accompany any family journeys. So there were plenty of fingers being crossed as we headed out the door. The day started well enough in that it wasn’t raining and the temperature could have been described as crisp but not quite cold enough to be uncomfortable. After our elfin check-in we had a brief wait before being herded onto a large converted trailer (think old style school bus without an engine) which was pulled by a pretty sizeable tractor. Once we were all comfortable we headed off towards an enchanted forest. All going well so far as we passed the fairy village, the reindeer house and the elves’ washing line but uh-oh here comes the Grinch. Cue somebody in a green mask shaking his fist at the passing traffic and Ella almost losing her life. Now there has been a long history amongst our kids of being afraid of people dressed up in costumes. I can still vividly remember Lochlan having conniptions when a man dressed up as a teddy bear (while collecting for charity) approached him in Blanchardstown shopping centre. The tightness of the hugs I received that day have yet to be surpassed! From recollection, Disneyland Paris was also a bit traumatic but at least they had the rides and the endless merchandise shops to take their minds off the demons in fur!

Having calmed Ella down from the Grinch encounter we had a very pleasant time at our destination, a sort of Santa’s grotto / barn and we even managed to get a group photo with Ella on Santa’s lap (see above) which I had believed to be beyond the bounds of the possibilities a few minutes earlier. Unfortunately there was a dark cloud hanging over us during this joyful time. We all knew that the only way back to our car was via the enchanted forest and the lair of the Grinch. Although this time we were more prepared for the trailer / bus / tractor ride, we positioned ourselves in a circle around Ella and assured her that the Grinch would not be getting on the vehicle and if he did Daddy would just flatten him with his ever widening Christmas girth (the start of 2020 is not going to be fun for yours truly). Thankfully the Grinch seemed a whole lot happier the second time around, his medications were probably working a lot better and in any event, Ella had burrowed deep under her mommy’s coat. So Luggwoods got the thumbs up from us, until Niki hears about somewhere better to go next year.

After that, it was back to the usual mix of trying to meet up with friends and family while providing enough entertainment for the boys so that they wouldn’t start attacking each other. Star Wars was decent although I’m a bit confused on what the rules are around reincarnation, resurrection, glowing and not glowing during the whole death process as it seems to change depending on the movie and indeed the character. Jumanji the Next Level was enjoyable, particularly the bit where they explain what a eunoch is, that’s one less awkward future conversation with the boys (please see the movie for context!).

Myself and Niki did manage to get a night away by ourselves during the madness as we manufactured a trip to Seafield Hotel in Gorey, a return to our wedding venue. It was only for one night so upon our arrival we quickly made our way down to the pool and spa area. It must be said that the Seafield pool and spa area harks back to a previous Irish era with plenty of black and gold on display. The place was packed and clearly full of people who take swimming pools a lot less seriously than Niki or me. She was the only one wearing a swim hit and I was the only one wearing goggles! Although the fact that my goggles were tinted meant that I came very close to banging my head into the end of the black-tiled pool on numerous occasions! So my goal of powering through 20 or so lengths was quickly abandoned. It was our first time away together from all four of the kids (big shout out to Nanny, Grandad and Aunty Orla) and I couldn’t get over the quiet. We could have conversations without the constant interruptions and we even got to read books together at the same time. Such is middle-aged bliss!

 

The Slippery Road To Becoming An Overly Competitive Parent

First and foremost let me make one thing clear, I know that I am a competitive person and always have been, so much so that my childhood nickname (and occasional adult one also) was “spoiler” because of my relentlessness towards every task or event which could be perceived (or even barely perceived) to have a competitive element to it. In this manner, I would wear down all and sundry and generally take the fun out of even the most trivial of pursuits, well actually in particular Trivial Pursuit, in which I remain unbeaten since before I developed the dexterity to place trickily shaped wedges in a relatively flat cylinder!

Now I’d like to think I have mellowed a bit over the years, so I have come to realise that eating my dinner at breakneck speed in order to be first, or acting like Usain Bolt to sprint to the car before everybody else, are not the most efficient uses of my energies. However there are certain occasions when my competitive streak overcomes me, in the same way that mild mannered David Banner is completely helpless to control his bouts of rage. At the lower end of the scale this can manifest itself through mutterings at the viewing area of a swimming pool while I urge one of my boys to overtake the child ahead of them as they complete another length of the local pool. Although there could be an element in this of just trying to combat mind-numbing boredom, I currently spend up to five and a half hours poolside each week so anything to liven things up is welcome. There is something surreal about watching countless youngsters attempting the breast-stroke without using their arms. Just a procession of bobbing heads in a pool.

By far the most common scene of this emergence of “competitive rage” is on the sidelines of the many fine GAA pitches on the northside of Dublin. In my mind, I am merely trying to pass down a certain level of wisdom which I have garnered over hundreds of matches, either as a participant or as a spectator, to help my offspring be the very best that they can be. Surely Aaron (10) should be informed that switching play from left to right is the best way to overcome a blanket defence in gaelic football, or that going in tight body-to-body is the best way to tackle in hurling (while also being the best way to avoid injury from a stray hurl). Well that’s what I thought until Aaron ventured over to the sideline on a cool and crisp Malahide morning and told me in quite a forthright and plain way to “shut it”. Now I was slightly taken aback by this, in my mind I was just being a supportive parent, but in hindsight I can see how the constant chatter / roaring from the sideline might become slightly irritating. So now we have an agreement that unless I am cheering on some positive play, he doesn’t want to hear my voice. I should point out there is a high level of irony here, given that the games in which my boys play are non-competitive i.e. nobody records the scorelines and there is no league at the end of it.

In fact I am always amazed at the amount of “medals” which my boys have accumulated in these non-competitive competitions. I mean the amount of single-use metal / plastic on display in their bedrooms would have Greta Thunberg on red alert in whatever bat cave she lives in. Hey I had to earn that faux-marble trophy for top player at the Dublin Millennium (1988 for those who can’t remember back that far) soft tennis tournament (Clontarf area), it wasn’t just a case of turning up! Try telling the youngsters that nowadays, “what, you actually had to win a match!”, bloody snowflakes.

So in order to find a safe release from my competitive parent syndrome I have had to turn inwards and take shelter behind the safety of the four walls I call home. Now I know the PS4 and gaming consoles of its ilk get a bad rep, but where else can a man in his mid forties compete against his children on a level playing field. You may point out that I have been playing these console type games for well over 20 years (indeed much longer if you could call the ZX Spectrum a pre-cursor for consoles) and that this gives me a slight advantage when I am zooming around some racing circuit in Japan or playing a deft one-two on the edge of the penalty box as Bohemians FC defeat Barcelona (see I am handicapping myself) once more. In my defense, I do often play collaborative games with my sons against the computer AI and will often go through detailed slow motion replays explaining where they invariably went wrong. Well they have to learn somewhere.

Those of you who are regular followers of the blog will know that last week I received a bean-to-cup coffee machine as a birthday present. Well this week Niki (who is also quite competitive by the way) struck back by purchasing a soda stream. Actually this nearly got me more excited than my own present. My childhood friend Conor had one of these amazing contraptions and it would be a veritable treat to see what wonderful concoctions we could make out of his available flavours, hmmm a lovely Canada Dry ginger ale and cherry cola melange! Niki says she bought it so she could stop buying plastic bottles of sparkling water but while the cat is away myself and Ella will be trying out some mixology!

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Just Another Mid-Life Crisis

Well this week I celebrated my birthday and like so many anniversaries of this kind in my forties, it brought on another bout of existential anxiety. This time last year I was so overcome with ennui that I decided to quit my job and become a stay-at-home dad so now, instead of getting annoyed that a Dutch frozen foods manufacturer hasn’t sent in its monthly financial accounts on time, I get annoyed that my youngest son (aged 6) can walk around oblivious to the fact that his school jumper is on inside out and back to front! Of course the year before that, I decided to get a PS4, which in my view (although not my wife’s) was an equally momentous occasion. For the latest celebration of another lap around the sun, my reaction has been more in the latter category, a nod to consumerism rather than a seismic change of lifestyle. I asked for and received, through the benevolence of she who now pays the bills, a bean to cup coffee machine! Notions I hear you say and you are probably right but isn’t that what a mid-life crisis is all about!

I think I can trace my desire for regular intakes of a superior quality coffee to the frequent trips I used to make to Coffee 2 Go on Mespil Road. Now I’m not saying that I’ll be able to match that fine establishment (that was able to withstand and see off the opening of a Starbucks a couple of doors down the road) which offered a perfect combination of scones, pastries, paninis and sandwiches along with the coffee, but at least I’ll be in the same ball park. Not that Coffee 2 Go was perfect, I mean the queuing system was quirky to say the least, as you invariably had to stand outside the building twice during every visit, first while queuing to place your order and then like some soul on his way through purgatory, journey back into the elements to join the queue for picking up the coffee, in the Irish weather this can be a challenge. But perhaps this added an extra bit of charm to a thriving independent café. But back to my own topic of the day, I had been using a Nespresso machine for just over a decade (thanks to its place on our wedding list) and while its produce was miles better than the instant Nescafe that I grew up with, it just doesn’t cut it anymore. I suppose tastes change over the course of a decade (don’t mention this to my wife), besides why should I deny myself when there are relatively cheap alternatives available. So now I can ease the pain of being in my mid-forties (and closer to 90 than my birth) with a soothing and tasty caffeine brew whenever the fancy takes me.

There are however a couple of downsides to the new machine. Firstly it is a good bit larger than the old Nespresso machine which has led to a significant debate about where it should be situated within the kitchen. I have been making the argument that with a bit of re-arranging and a slight adjustment of the toaster, it can fit neatly in beside the sink and the kettle (seems logical to me). However this suggestion has not gone down well and there has been significant push-back for a number of reasons, the main one seems to be the potential that our toaster could now become a fire hazard! I’m not sure if this is because the toaster could now become so jealous as it is no longer the shiniest thing in the kitchen that it may self-combust or if there is some other more scientific explanation. Anyway my new toy / baby / coffee machine is facing potential banishment to the utility room, i.e. the room where we put the dirty nappies before onward transport to outside bins. No facilitator of Nicaragua’s / Colombia’s / Kenya’s finest deserves that! Secondly it is very loud, which sends Ella (2) running for cover whenever I turn the thing on. Now I find the whirring of the motor quite satisfying when it is grinding the coffee and I can tolerate the sound of the water being heated and pressurised but I am on Ella’s side when it comes to the milk frother which has a high pitched whine like one thousand mosquitoes coming for blood. But I guess like all things in life you must take the rough with the smooth.

Of course now that I have a bean to cup machine I need to purchase some roasted coffee beans. I could just head for the coffee aisle in the nearest supermarket but I feel that if I am to follow through on my “notions” this doesn’t cut the mustard or should I say the smashed avocado! So independent coffee roasters of Dublin watch out, my cute daughter and I will be paying you a visit soon to sample some of your fare.

Of course hitting my mid-forties means that I am likely to be more prone to senior moments. Sure enough I was reminded of this on Wednesday morning when our merry band was scooting through the early morning puddles towards school, think of an antarctic explorer driving a pack of huskies across some snowy wastelands and you roughly get the picture. Our march forwards was halted when Lochlan (8) realised that he didn’t have his school-bag on his back, a fairly standard piece of equipment I’m sure you’ll agree. Now I know I could say that Lochlan is old enough to know better and indeed he did get a blast of my displeasure, but really the blame for this one lands squarely with yours truly. Let’s hope that this doesn’t become a recurring event, at least not after I’ve had my second cup of coffee of the day!

In Praise of Libraries

One of the things I have been able to do over the past year is reacquaint myself with the Dublin library system. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly I have regained my passion for reading. My job used to involve a lot of heavy reading, whether it was a due diligence report on the intricacies of the German sausage market or a multi-currency cross border loan agreement, after a day of that, the last thing I wanted to do (or was physical capable of doing) was read a book in the evening. Secondly, there is a library right across the road from the boys’ school in Drumcondra which means I have superb ease of access.

Now my previous encounters with libraries date back to my own childhood, when the most pressing thing on my mind was whether there would be any new Asterix books in the fairly small kids’ section of Raheny library. Come to think of it, why did I have to trek all the way to Raheny from my home in Clontarf to visit my nearest library? Surely Clontarf should have had a library, god knows we have enough “litterati” to justify one. And the home of Brahm Stoker deserves a library (yes I know there is one in Marino), has anybody been in contact with Joe Duffy about this?! Anyway I digress, back to my main topic of libraries. Raheny library was fine at the time but I always recall that the books seemed old and beaten down by time and circumstances, well it was Dublin in the 80s after-all.

Fast forward to the present day and I have been blown away by how good the service is. First of all I think that the Drumcondra library building itself is quite beautiful in the art deco style of the 1930s (see above). So much so that I have tried to get it featured on the Accidentally Wes Anderson web-site http://www.accidentallywesanderson.com which features buildings that look like they are from a Wes Anderson movie set (Grand Budapest Hotel, Royal Tenenbaums, etc) but so far to no avail. Secondly not only does the selection of books on show include all the usual classics e.g. Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities but it also has a very sizeable selection of modern fiction, young adult fiction and the kids’ section is really excellent and all sections are constantly renewed. There is also a truly excellent app where you can renew your books with the touch of a button and most importantly, reserve books which take your fancy. The system is pretty foolproof, although I did manage to reserve the audio-book of Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay instead of the actual book, so I managed to bring home a whopping 10 audio CDs.  This caused a number of problems, not least where to find a working CD player in our house and also how to find the c. 10 hours required to listen to the bloody thing. Suffice to say that I couldn’t tell you a lot about the plot, a bit like the time I tried to read Ulysses, in both cases all I can say is that I definitely finished them! On the app you can also track where you are in the queue on a real time basis which adds a small level of excitement to the process.

The library also has the advantage of being almost exactly half way between the boys’ school and the nearby playground, which means it frequently acts as both a convenient shelter from the unpredictable Irish weather and a toilet stop for unpredictable young bladders. The library has embraced this wholeheartedly and has recently replenished their stash of crayons for the young at heart. My gang instinctively turns right on entering to grab a blank picture of flowers, or stars, or unicorns, or whatever came out of the photocopier that morning and start to colour like little Rembrandts or Picassos (actually probably a lot more like Picassos). Ella (2) particularly enjoys this aspect of the library, that and playing hide and seek which she has become particularly adept at. She pretty much always knows to find me at the Food section leafing though Joe Wickes’ selection of quick and lean recipe books in a forlorn manner. I did actually borrow one when I was going through my experimenting with food phase but the boys were having none of his healthy, green, chunky ideas!

So if you haven’t been down to your local library in the last 30 years or so, I recommend you give it a try. To finish things off I thought I’d give you my top three books from the past 12 months.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Theo who as a boy loses his mother in an explosion at an art museum, but gains a priceless painting. The painting acts as an anchor for Theo as his life spirals through New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam. A beautifully written exploration of loss and hope. Not sure I can bring myself to watch the film version though, it cannot improve things.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Another novel which won the Pulitzer Prize. This one charts the lives of a blind french girl and a mathematically gifted German boy as they journey towards one shared crucial moment in St Malo, Brittany after the Allies have landed at the end of World War II. One of the few books that has moved me to tears in both its forensic detail of the barbarism of war and the simple beauty of perseverance. Netflix have the rights and are going to turn it into a mini-series which at least has greater scope for exploration than a 2 hour movie.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack. This is probably my favourite book of all time, a title which was held for a long time by The Lord of the Rings (I still love you Frodo). A stream of consciousness tale (it is a single sentence) told from the point of view of middle-aged Mayo man and civil engineer Marcus on 2 November 2008. This book made me feel like I had been dropped in a vat of real “Irishness” and connected with me on many levels as a father, son and brother. It took a while to get into it but well worth the effort.

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In The Comfort Zone

I can’t believe it has been a year since I took the momentous decision to leave my nine to five (more often six and quite often seven) to focus on the kids. Now that the September (or rather late August) return to school has been successfully negotiated, I have had some time to ponder what effect this change in tack has had on myself and those around me.

The first thing I have noticed about myself is that my tendency to turn towards, let’s call it indulgent (others may call it slob-like) behaviour is strong. I mean how could I have forgotten that tracksuit bottoms were so pleasant on the skin and that elasticated waistbands are so forgiving. These last 12 months have brought me back to a phase in my early teens when I totally rebelled against denim for some reason which seems hard to place now. My early morning decisions have gone from blue or white shirt to black or navy tracksuit and I don’t mean any of those lycra based efforts either, it has to be some form of natural fabric and preferably with a hood, yes I know that “convention” has it that I’m too old for a hoodie but begrudgers be damned, if I want to look like a hooligan out for a morning stroll, well that’s my prerogative. Although in my defense I haven’t gone full northsider and started doing the school run in my pyjamas or even gone full Homer and tried a mumu (not yet anyway). Shaving has become optional and at 7am in the morning with four kids running around me, the option is pretty much always no. Although in an effort to demonstrate to everyone that I haven’t gotten any hipster notions, I do tend to set aside five minutes of mid-morning shaving two or three times a week.

The ease of access to media is a constant temptation. I mean if I’m doing the ironing or folding clothes or preparing food, I might as well do it in front of the television, sure what harm am I doing (as he nearly chops off his finger while watching the second Ashes test match and dicing some carrots). I have also over indulged myself and probably traumatised my children in the process, with my dictator like control of music during the past year. The advent of wifi and the emergence of music streaming has given me so much greater access to so many more banging tunes than I could have dreamt of in my formative music loving years (teens and 20s). And in all honesty, who does not love 90’s dance classics being played 24/7 at high volume. When Ella (2) can pretty much recite the chorus of Mr Vain verbatim I know that I may have overdone it “I know what I want and I want it now!”.

I have definitely become more shouty than when I was in Bank of Ireland (open plan and loud voices were never a good match). For some reason, it seems that unless the decibel level has been increased to above 100 the boys will simply ignore what I am saying, they also seem to have developed a system where my first two requests are deemed irrelevant (like that character in the Austin Powers movie). I find that this means I have become completely immune to the effect that high volumes have on third parties around me. Quite frequently I will find myself shouting at the top of my voice “Oscar (6) be careful on that climbing frame” from 20 yards away while the whole playground turns to stare it me. Oscar will of course ignore me as he knows my powers of parenting are severely weakened when I am out in the open, but other kids generally seem to act with less abandon around me! At least I think that’s why the other parents tolerate me.

Being in control of my own food intake means that I have been able to further explore my affinity for savoury pancakes. I’m not sure exactly where this fondness began but I think it can probably be traced back to a Bank of Ireland “Enterprise week” which saw an actual farmer’s market set up outside the old head office on Baggot Street. One of the many stalls on offer was an artisan creperie which provided pancakes with ham, cheese, rocket and red pesto. Well I was hooked and now I am a regular at Drumcondra’s finest creperie, Le Petit Breton (the owner hails from Brest). Myself and Ella are always welcomed with a broad smile and while I have yet to convert her to the savoury pancake (she prefers a croissant with jam), I know that the seeds have been sown.

Not that I have constrained myself to pancake-only based fodder, I have learnt that Glasnevin, Drumcondra, Finglas, Santry and Phibsboro have many delightful places to spend time with my little lady. And that brings me to my favourite indulgence, spending time with Ella. Maybe it’s her age, maybe it’s because she is a girl or maybe it’s because I was working while the other three were in their pre-school phase, but I have to say that any moment spent with her has been the most rewarding part of the last year. So perhaps I’ll walk a bit slower on the way home so that we can chat about the ducks in the park or I’ll take a bit longer in the treat aisle of the shop so that she can tell me which are her favourites or perhaps I’ll read her another story when I know that the hoovering needs to be done (sorry Niki). The terrible twos are supposed to be hitting about now but so far we seem to have avoided it. The highlight of the week is invariably water babies class on a Friday where I get to splash / swim / play with Ella for half an hour in a lovely heated pool. This week after another excellent session I told her “Ella I love swimming with you” to which she responded “I love swimming with you Daddy”, I will forever be wrapped around her little finger!