Return to Aran

At long last our summer vacation of 2020 was upon us. This year was supposed to be the year of the French but alas, with covid restrictions that was not to be the case so we found ourselves spending four nights in the Connacht Hotel in Galway. To be honest, we were glad to have that as the hotel was only able to give us 3 nights when we originally inquired about a reservation. We have been to Galway a few times before “en famille” and always like the friendly and slightly off-kilter vibe of the place. However this time around, myself and my wife were determined to do something more memorable than simply Salthill and Eyre Square. So I delved into the memory bank of my youth and came up with the idea for a day-trip to Inis Mor, the largest of the nearby Aran Islands.

My only previous trip to Inis Mor had been as a youngster on a family summer holiday when I was as of yet blissfully unaware of the magical places outside of Ireland, so it seemed very exotic at the time. My wife Niki had been there much more recently doing the Aran Islands half-marathon, although she didn’t remember much of the place because she had been slogging through a grueling 21 kms. As if running 21 kms isn’t difficult enough, she chose to do it over extremely hilly terrain on a notoriously windy outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. Anyway despite the protestations of our children (Lochlan (9) in particular wasn’t keen on visiting a place where wifi was likely low on the agenda), we booked our return ticket with Aran Island Ferries and set off for an adventure.

The starting off point of Rosaveel was the same as 30 odd years ago.  This had the added significance that it meant we had to drive past Colaiste Chamuis in the Gaeltacht where I spent two stints in my teenage years. As we passed the school, I got a flashbacks to multiple games of gaelic football and in particular to an errant piece of chewing gum which was mysteriously placed on my seat during one of the numerous cheilis. I never found the culprit and certainly my Ionsai na hInse wasn’t up to scratch that evening! Rosaveel doesn’t seem to have changed much but the ferry to Inis Mor has gotten a lot bigger and thankfully swifter. My childhood recollections are of bobbing around on the Atlantic for over an hour before reaching the safe haven of Kilronan (Inis Mor’s only notable village), whereas this time round we powered through the waves and made the crossing in 40 minutes. Now there was still some rocking and rolling but it was of the theme park rather than life or death variety!

Once we had arrived in Kilronan we headed straight for the bike hire shop. Just like my last trip, the best way to get around the island was by pedal power so we got fitted up for our bikes. Ella (3) would be my strapped-in companion for the day, the boys (not for the first time) got competitive over what size bike they could choose, while Niki had to overcome her mistrust of all things 2-wheeled (justifiably it would turn out). After much saddle and helmet adjusting we headed out of town to the sound of Ella repeatedly saying “not too fast Daddy not too fast!”. She needn’t have worried, five minutes later at the summit of the first of many of the islands little hills I was out of puff and thankful that I wasn’t in a group of experienced cyclists. Fortunately the weather was stunning and already we were being treated to breath-taking views of Connemara, the Burren and the magnificent Atlantic. Ella wasn’t so impressed by the views but was overjoyed by the fauna all around her, “look daddy a real donkey / horse / cow / goat” was a happy and common refrain as we made our journey along the island. Our destination (once again like it had been 30 years ago) was the prehistoric fort of Dun Aengus.

So after 7kms of hill climbing and descending which involved yours truly pretending to be Stephen Roche (with my very own cheerleader) battling against my two elder boys (or Delgado and Indurain as I liked to call them) for the polka-dot jersey, we reached the blue ribbon beach of Portmurvy at the base of the hill which led to Dun Aengus. Niki and Oscar had taken a more leisurely approach to the journey and were sufficiently enticed by the white sand and luxuriant blue sea to forego a further 1km hike uphill, Ella was also delighted to be able to spend some mummy-time. So myself, Aaron and Lochlan parked the bikes and headed up the cliff-top perch, for Dun Aengus is situated directly 100 metres above the Atlantic, excellent for defending against raiders, not so good if you have a fear of heights! The views from the summit were once again stunning and it really did feel that you might be able to spot North America on the horizon, or at least Iceland! On the way back to Kilronan we took the much easier low road (not something I can remember doing 30 years ago mum and dad!) which passed along by a seal colony for bonus points. The seals were quite easy to locate as they seemed to be singing to each other in a similar manner to my own crooning to Niki in our courting days!

By the time we returned to Kilronan we had all built up quite an appetite so the food in Ti Joe Wattys was gulped down followed by ice creams in the local Spar (the one and only supermarket on the island). In between we did have our one and only fall of the day as Niki’s dismount left a lot to be desired but luckily she had only a bruised shin, damaged pride and a muddy jumper to show for it. Last but not least we headed to another beach for some relaxation and pebble throwing before powering back across Galway Bay to the mainland.

A wonderful day trip and great to be able to connect my own childhood experience with the next generation. Who knows, maybe they’ll be back again in 30 years time, I hope the experience won’t have changed much in the meantime.

It’s not just about American Football. Last Chance U is back and you should watch it!

July 28 is a date that had been pencilled into my diary for a very long time, well it’s been there since Netflix helpfully sent me (and I presume a lot of other people) the trailer for the new season of Last Chance U. You see Last Chance U is my favourite type of Netflix programme, the docuseries, a genre which Netflix has taken to new heights. In fact I was going to write about my Top 5 Netflix docuseries but found that I had so much to say about Last Chance U that it will have to wait, sorry The Last Dance and Tiger King!

Last Chance U – Now in its 5th season, Last Chance U explores the gritty world of junior college football in the USA. Now we will all be aware of the high profile US third level institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT and most people will have heard of the big US sporting colleges such as Auburn, Notre Dame, Boston College, Clemson, LSU and Ohio State, but I was completely unaware of a second tier of colleges in the USA called Junior Colleges (often referred to as community colleges) or JUCO for short. Last Chance U shines the spotlight on the american football teams and the surrounding drama in these Junior Colleges.

In the first season we are transported to Scooba, Mississippi, never heard of it, me neither and I’d say that goes for 99% of the people who don’t live within a 20 mile radius of the place. But Scooba is the home of the East Mississippi Lions, serial national champions and the most successful JUCO football team. In the middle of this tiny town of 732 people is a state of the art football stadium, all because of the sponsorship generated by the college’s sports programme. In fact the commercialisation of learning is one of the many themes explored throughout the series e.g. how can a small college afford a high tech, modern training facility but struggle to pay its teachers / professors? From Scooba, we are then transported to Independence, Kansas to take a look at the pressures associated with a less successful outfit and the new series leaves rural america behind as we head to Laney College in Oakland. Each college team has a larger than life head-coach who is full of Al Pacino “Any Given Sunday” type speeches but with a lot more swearing. Notably as the seasons have progressed and locations have changed the head coaches chosen have become a lot more likeable from the class A bully who gets results (Scooba seasons 1&2), to the loudmouth with the heart of gold (Independence seasons 3&4) to the straight talking local legend (Laney season 5). These alpha male types are off-set by prominent female teachers / guidance counsellors who provide the nurturing for these men-children looking to find their way in life. Not surprisingly, it is these heroines who get most of the plaudits from fans of the show.

You see the players who end up in JUCO are not your clean-cut Tommy Hilfiger types. They are typically from underprivileged (and in a large part african american) backgrounds or have been kicked back down from the division one colleges due to injuries or anti-social behaviour. For me the most interesting part of this series is how it explores the predominantly bleak backgrounds of these students / players in a tender yet realistic manner. A large portion of the show is spent interviewing family and friends to get a complete picture of where each individual player is coming from. The programme makers also get significant access to the players themselves and have obviously taken the time to build up a significant level of trust. So when the running-back opens up about his dysfunctional relationship with his father (another recurring theme throughout the show) it feels genuine and heartfelt. Behind all this is the knowledge that if success is not achieved on the football pitch (potentially leading to a scholarship at a division one college and for the exceptional, the NFL after that), then there is not a lot to fall back on (minimum wage in Walmart and a complete absence of a functioning social welfare system). In fact we learn in a follow-up programme that one of the players / students from East Mississippi ends up on murder charges relating to a drug deal gone wrong. Last Chance U also shines a light on the state of the general US education system where students can arrive at third level without the basics of reading, writing and math(s). The American Dream is for the large part noticeably absent.

Of course each episode is shot expertly with close-ups of agonised players’ faces contrasted with long shots of their surroundings (rural or urban), the music is excellent and everything builds towards the climactic episode ending which is the weekly match. It’s Friday Night Lights but it’s for real, even if you often get the feeling that it could be scripted, so yes the guy complaining about headaches beforehand is going to get hit high and could be concussed (the lack of head injury protocols is another noticeable factor) and the last minute replacement quarter-back is going to have a barnstorming match. But unlike a scripted drama, the featured teams don’t always win and in fact the season where Independence end up with a losing record is probably the most interesting, not least for the fact that the head coach keeps on firing his coaching staff in order to deflect blame from himself. He eventually ends up being fired himself for referring to a German player (what was he doing playing American football) as “the new Hitler”, although in reality this was probably just an excuse to get rid of someone whose ego had outgrown his surroundings.

I’m only halfway through the current (and last, wipes a tear from my eye) season and there is definitely a change of tone. This is principally due to the fact that the head coach seems to have an awareness of his duty towards the mental health of his players / students. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of swearing and shouting from the sidelines (similar to that heard at a Junior A match in your local GAA club), it’s just that defeats are not the end of the world.

So if you want to learn about the real USA I would strongly recommend watching this programme and if (like me) you also a sucker for coming of age, redemption tales with a sporting angle then Last Chance U is definitely one for you.

We’re going to the Zoo, how about you?

Dublin zoo has been a longstanding fixture in my home town, having opened its doors to the public way back in 1840 (although it was established in 1831, making it the fourth oldest zoo in the world). For generations, families have made the trip to the Phoenix Park (the largest urban park in Europe, see I do some research for my blog!) to get their fill of exotic and wild animals. Certainly I remember many trips during my own childhood when I was fascinated by the large tiger continuously prowling behind a huge glass screen and amazed by the sea lions as they splashed about their enclosure. I also seem to remember polar bears who liked to spray passersby with the fountain in their enclosure but unfortunately they had to be shipped off to Hungary in 2003 citing issues with their shared living space (I know that feeling). I can also remember the great excitement around the visit of the giant pandas to Dublin, ah Ping Ping and Ming Ming how I miss you (subnote; my favourite teddy as a child was a panda or Big Panda as I liked to call him). Although I do remember being unimpressed by the moniker “giant” pandas as they looked normal sized to me. It was only later that I realised they were only “giant” relative to their red panda cousins!

After my childhood years, visits to the zoo became less common with just the occasional trip alongside foreign visitors over the years who were looking for a few hours to kill. This all changed 11 years ago with the arrival of our first child and by the time numbers 2, 3 and 4 came along, we were fully signed up family members (excellent value €190 for annual family pass). Fortunately my return to the Zoological Gardens Dublin coincided with a significant upgrade project which created a number of much larger open spaces where the animals have much greater area to roam and mingle. Predators are obviously kept separately, so zebras can mix with giraffes and ostriches but not with lions, hey this isn’t the movie Madagascar! So now the zoo includes areas such as the the African Savanna, the Kaziringa Forest Trail (home to the much loved elephant herd), the Gorilla Rainforest and the Orangutan Forest. The viewing areas are excellent and provide good access to the animals without being obtrusive. My favourite renovated area is the Sea Lion Cove which allows you to see these wonderful creatures (still a favourite) underwater so that you can marvel at how gracefully they move, a bit like yours truly in my prime on Dollymount beach!!

We made our return to the zoo this week after the Covid 19 enforced break. Things are a bit different but the overall experience remains the same. You have to book your time-slot in advance and you are immediately greeted by a bank of sanitiser stations. Dublin zoo has implemented a very well signposted one-way system which I thought might cause problems but actually turned out to be a god send. Previously the biggest headache at the zoo had been trying to decide which animals we’d visit first. Each of my three boys have very definite ideas on how to traverse the 69 acres that make up the zoo and invariably one of them ends up annoyed and in a huff for the rest of the trip. But this time around I just had to shrug my shoulders and say “we have to go this way so let’s keep moving folks”. The indoor spaces are off-limits so no reptile house including crocodiles and snakes but all the other main animals were taken in by the one way system. We got to see a baby gorilla and a baby sea lion which is always lovely. I tried to engage the boys with my tales of seeing Californian Sea Lions on the wharves of San Francisco but they looked at me like I had two heads!

For me, the best thing about Dublin Zoo is seeing the wonder and amazement of my younger kids whenever they spot an animal, whether it be a nimble spider monkey, the hulking rhinos, the very cute humboldt penguins or the numerous ducks that have made the lake in the zoo their home. In fact we spotted seven ducklings beside the Gorilla Rainforest and that was nearly the highlight of Ella’s (3) day. It’s also nice that the older kids get to share in the enjoyment of their younger sibling. This time round my second boy Lochlan (9) was less enthusiastic about the zoo trip (he has developed a phobia of walking more than the length of a football pitch) but once we got there he was swept along by Ella’s buoyant mood and he even decided to become her personal guide complete with commentary and lifting service.

We spent an enjoyable two and a half hours in the zoo, the place was even cleaner than usual and the moist Irish summer meant that the foliage was lush without hindering views. The animals always look healthy and well cared for, evidence of this can be seen on The Zoo tv programme. Staff are friendly and happy to provide information about the facilities and the animals such as the fact that Dublin Zoo is home to the oldest Tapir in the world, Marmaduke is 35 years old but doesn’t look a day over 29, a bit like myself!

The Lost Bastille Day

It was Bastille Day last Tuesday and I must admit that I shed a little tear, for you see in a parallel universe without Covid-19, myself and my family spent le quatorze sunning ourselves in a Brittany camp-site with the prospect of a long French summer stretching out before us. Please forgive me this metaphysical musing as I’ve been watching The Umbrella Academy so timelines which avoid armageddon have been playing heavily on my mind! For you see, this summer was supposed to be our big break in France, our grandes vacances. For the first time in a while the stars had aligned to make this possible, I am obviously working at home so free from the constraints of annual leave while Niki (my wife) had organised for 6 weeks of parental leave in order to immerse ourselves in La Vie En Rose for the majority of the summer. Well I say immerse but really we were going for two weeks to the aforementioned camp-site and then for four weeks to a holiday rental is a small French town. So not quite a year in Provence but hey, it seems like paradise when I think about it now.

Myself and Niki have a strong affinity with France, we both studied French as part of our degrees in university. I enriched my soul with the works of Camus, Baudelaire and Victor Hugo while Niki learnt the French for Balance Sheet, Profit and Loss account and that most French of pastimes going on strike! But that’s not the real reason we have a such a strong personal connection with L’Hexagon (as the locals call it). You see when we first met in the bustling Market Bar in downtown Dublin all those moons ago, I’d say that the small chat was faltering slightly until Niki mentioned how much she loved Paris, “moi aussi” I declared. Suddenly cupid’s arrow had been notched and dispatched, the rest as they say is history.

In truth I think the plans for this year’s getaway were sown five years ago when we enjoyed a tremendous family holiday / life enhancing experience travelling to New Zealand for the wedding of Niki’s brother. On that occasion Niki was in the middle of a career break and I had a boss who was about to retire and thought nothing of allowing me take 6 weeks of annual leave over the Christmas period. Our trip which took in Singapore, Sydney and Hong Kong as well as the delights of New Zealand (both North and South islands) was truly remarkable and the fact that we were able to to share it with our 3 boys made it even better, although some of those long car drives across the rolling hills of the land of the long white cloud did drag. There were only so many times the boys would be impressed by another hawk sighting, “where are all the kiwis dad?” was a common refrain! The tales of that trip have been keeping us going through the many struggles of modern life, come on everybody let’s not have another fight about bedtime and daddy will regale you about the time we saw all those waterfalls in Milford Sound! However we felt that it was time to refill the book of family stories.

So five years down the line we have added another member to our happy crew and while the boys were keen for Ella to experience New Zealand, we decided to plump for the less expensive and slightly more convenient (memories of the endless flights with kids in economy class flashing across my brain) option of France. Now I’m not saying that myself and Niki were completely aligned in our visions of how this holiday was going to take place. Niki envisioned a full immersion into French culture whereby the boys would journey through vineyards to the local village and return with baguettes, croissants and tales of how Monsieur Bonmarche from the boulangerie had controversially won the local boules / petanque competition with an illegal over-arm throw all spoken in perfect French of course! I simply wanted a warm place where I could read a few good books, taste-test a few of the local organic beers and occasionally indulge my slightly unusual fondness for hypermarkets!

But alas it was not to be (but at least we got refunds), now all we have are the dates on the calendar telling us when we should be boarding the ferry, checking in to the camp-site, getting the keys for the house, etc. (I am always a bit trigger happy when it comes to putting stuff into the calendar in case it slips my over-crowded brain) cruelly reminding us of the joyful times that we are missing out on. But hey Aaron’s swimming lessons are back on so I can look forward to 6.15am alarms on Saturday and we have 3 days in a hotel in Galway in August if the country hasn’t gone into lockdown again by then! In the meantime I’ll just keep my French play-list on repeat, “Joe Le Taxi”, “Je ne regrette rien” and of course “Voyage voyage”.

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 top 5 Netflix Drama & Comedy Series

A couple of weeks ago I did my top 5 Netflix movies so as a companion piece, here are my Top 5 Netflix drama series (doesn’t include documentaries / docu-series such as Tiger King and The Last Dance which will form part of my next list, *warning* writing lists can become addictive) if you have a few weeks to spare now that your summer holiday plans lie in tatters!

Ozark (3 seasons of 10 episodes, 50 mins per episode). For those of you with a Breaking Bad shaped hole in your lives, this is the perfect filler. Taking the formula of mild-mannered guy gets himself into a Mexican drug-cartel shaped mess, Ozark tells the story of Marty Byrd and family who are abruptly forced to leave their cosy life in Chicago and move to the Ozarks in mid-west America. If like me you had never heard of the Ozarks, it is a geographic region in mid-west America, specifically Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. In particular the series takes place around the lakes and waterways that were created when the US government dammed a number of rivers in the area. This widespread damming created more waterfront than the entire coast of California and a whole tourism industry has grown up around it, with added red-necks and hillbillies (apparently there is a difference between the two as a Mexican drug lord finds out to his cost) to spice things up. Throughout the series, Marty is continually tasked with laundering a significant amount of drug money and is forever just short of his target, looking for one last piece of risky business to get his family’s heads above water. I really enjoyed the tight plot-lines, the consistent menace of the setting and the strong performances. Laura Linney is truly excellent as Wendy Byrd but the show really hinges on Jason Bateman (the aforementioned Marty) and whether you are able to wipe his Arrested Development heritage from your mind. Initially I struggled with this (and I know some who never got over it) but just like Bryan Cranston who was once the goofy dad in Malcolm in the Middle but will forever be Walter White, in my mind Bateman has made the tricky transition to serious actor! The series also has the added bonus of knocking off characters without warning (much like Game of Thrones) which always keeps you on your toes!

Community (6 seasons made up of 110 episodes in total, c. 25 mins per episode). For those of you looking for something lighter, this comedy series set in a US community college (a type of interim step between high school and university) could be your thing. The plot centres around Jeff, a disbarred lawyer who is seeking a legitimate legal degree, who sets up a study group so that he can spend more time with his object of affection. And thus our core gang of misfits is formed, ranging from Annie (Alison Brie of Mad Men fame) the young, anxious over-achiever to Pierce (Chevy Chase), a retired millionaire who enrolls out of boredom. I was drawn to it originally by Chevy Chase’s involvement (Fletch remains one of my guilty pleasures) but quickly realised that the joy in the programme came from the verbal sparring between the mismatched study group including constant pop-culture references and parodies. For example there is a recurring gag involving a holo-deck (taken from Star Trek the Next Generation) and a paint-ball episode which parodies The Matrix, Rambo and the movies of John Woo. The real clincher for me was the episode where the study group have to play themselves as characters in a platform video game, which in fact is a recurring dream of mine!

Maniac (1 season of 10 episodes, 26-47 mins per episode): I know this one is going to be marmite, you either love it or you hate it. For me, I definitely hate marmite but I absolutely loved this wacky show. Originally a Norwegian series (which probably explains some of its wackiness), Maniac is set in an alternate near-future (which looks very much like a 1980’s version of the future) and follows Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (the excellent Emma Stone) as people with “issues” who get involved in pharmaceutical trials for a mind-bending drug which purports to cure all mental disorders. Still with me? The joy of this series is in the dream-like sequences when Owen and Annie are brought under by the drug testing. If like-me you enjoy the juxtaposition of a scene involving a magician’s seance in 1940’s America with a fantasy quest involving elves, then this is one for you. These scenes enable our two main characters to explore and heal their pain. Back in the present / near future there is a self-aware, psychotic yet melancholic computer in charge of the whole process. Some people viewed it as a big mess, I just thought it was a wonderful mix of ideas brought to life by excellent performances by Stone, Hill and a strong supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne, Justin Theroux and Sally Field.

Stranger Things (3 seasons made up of 24 episodes, 45-70 mins per episode): Okay so you’ve probably already made up your mind about this one and you’ve either (a) binge-watched it as soon as it was released and are constantly scanning the internet for details about season 4, (damn you covid-19 for delaying its production) or (b) you can’t understand all the fuss about this 80’s nostalgia filled, science fiction horror romp. Well in the unlikely event you are not in one of these camps, I urge you to give it a try. As someone who tends to watch anything with even the slightest element of horror / shock through my fingers or preferably behind the couch, I was a late convert to this series with very scary monsters. Eventually my love of all things 80’s overcame the knots in my stomach and I soon became a fan. The series centres on the rural town of Hawkins, Indiana and investigates how the weird and not so wonderful experiments taking place in the local National Laboratory spill over into the lives of the residents with horrific consequences. In particular how a group of school friends who appear to have been taken straight from the set of ET befriend a mysterious girl with psychic abilities and repeatedly overcome the odds to save the day. The series is full of tension, has wonderful music, brilliantly explores the joys of childhood and has kids dressed up as Ghostbusters, what’s not to like!

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (14 seasons made up of 154 episodes, 20-25 mins per episode): This one may not be to everybody’s taste, indeed whenever I watch it Niki (my wife) will say “you’re not watching those horrible people doing horrible things to each other again!” and I must admit the first season is a bit rough (production values dramatically increase once Danny DeVito comes on board in season two). But having said all that, I can honestly declare that this is the programme that has given me the most belly laughs in my adult life. The series follows a gang of five narcissistic, unethical and not very clever friends who run an Irish bar (named “Paddy’s Pub” of course) in south Philadelphia. Most episodes detail how one of the gang comes up with a get rich quick scheme which from the outset is obviously not going to work. As the episode plays out it will involve some form of humiliation (self-humiliation in most cases but can also be directed towards another member of the gang) like when Dee (the only female in the gang) and Frank (her father played by Devito) pretend to get married in order to get their hands on some inheritance money and how low they will stoop to make this con believable. Some say the series is a metaphor for how ignorant America has become. I just like the corny gags, for example when Charlie gets drunk staking out a rival pub he is amazed and impressed that the pub has a room where pirates live, the door is clearly marked “private”. Well I laughed and I hope you will too!

That’s my Top 5 picks and I hope you give them a go, if they are not to your taste there is always Modern Family and Suits, they are quite good also!

 

 

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!