The Longest Month Of My Life

February, usually considered to be the last month of winter and renowned for being the shortest month of the year. However not this time round for yours truly, with hand on heart I can definitely say it has been the longest month of my life. The reason for this apparent contradiction is that we have had builders / painters / plasterers / electricians / plumbers / carpenters / acrobats (this last one may not be 100% accurate but I do have a vague recollection of someone swinging from a ladder at some point) in the house for the last five weeks. For me this is akin to having my fingernails pulled out with red hot pliers while jumping up and down on my son’s most pointy lego blocks!

There is a old saying that ‘a man’s home is his castle’ and this is especially true in my own case (even if a quick google search reveals that this piece of wisdom may have recently been hijacked by the far-right). Everyone has a different way to recharge their own internal battery, for some it is going on the tear with friends, for others it is an extensive shopping spree in Kildare Village, for me it is sitting in the quiet of a place that I call home (well actually it’s playing golf for 5 hours but that really isn’t practical with four young kids). These moments of recharge are pretty rare and therefore exceedingly precious which is why having a month of the year taken has brought me to the edge.

We bought our house 14 years ago in those early blissful months of marriage. While it wasn’t a new build it was only five years old so definitely didn’t fall into the category of a fixer-upper. I can still remember fondly the day we got the keys despite an issue with the house alarm (which the previous owners had cruelly left armed), I took a look around my new home and thought “perfect, this is the place where I can raise a family and grow old (and recharge my batteries when required)”. My wife Niki on the other hand subscribes to the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen or ‘continuous improvement’, goodness knows how she still puts up with me! She saw the house as a foundation open which she could build.

Jump forward 14 years to a house somewhere in Glasnevin. The room is dark and children are bickering in the background. Outside there is a storm raging, its name is Gobnait or Morag or something like that.

Wife: Ah sure haven’t I bore you four fine strapping childer and given you the best years of my life, but you won’t even let me have some men in to fix the place up nice and clean.

Me: I think the place looks really nice as it is. Didn’t you just buy one of those egg-seats and the air-fryer has been a revelation.

Wife: Alas ,no, no, nooooo, sure my mother, god bless her, is ashamed to come visit, never mind my friends from south of the river with their kitchen islands and boiling water taps. And doesn’t Dermot Bannon have a new show on the TV, putting ideas in folks’ heads so if we don’t do something now there will be no labourers had for love nor money.

Me: But we don’t need any of that fancy stuff, sure the boys will just break it anyway or scribble all over it. Wife: Ah you are feckin useless, can’t even mend a tap or wire a plug. I have to call my poor old father from down the country to get even the simplest matter fixed. If only I listened to him when you came courtin’ all those moons ago!

Me (sighing): Well what exactly do you want done and how long will it take?

Wife: Oh just a little piece of work on the utility room and a lick of paint to brighten up the place, that’s all. It’ll only take two weeks maximum and the house will be better than new.

Me: I suppose I can live with that (famous last words).

It is now five weeks later, feels like five years, I have certainly aged at least five years. Doors have been moved, walls have been built, cupboards and plug sockets have multiplied like rabbits. Five long weeks and let me remind you that one of those weeks was mid-term break (including three storms) with the kids at home full-time. Niki has been insulated in her home office while I have been left to the ravages of the paint fumes, dust and buzz saws!

The weekend before the builders arrived (in a more pleasant time when the largest European conflict since WW2 had yet to break out) we moved the collective clutter which had built up around the house into the living room so that the workmen could have a clear run of it. Now I am not unaccustomed to clutter and would never have been known for my neatness but the deterioration of the living room into a mass of coats, school bags, toys, scooters, bean bags, batteries and even pogo sticks made the daily search for the TV remote control an almost impossible task. The living room seemed to suck everything into it like a swirling black hole. I can’t find the ketchup, oh it’s probably in the living room between the Succession box-set and the key for the garden shed.

And that wasn’t the worst part. Some time ago and as our family grew, Niki and I discussed the possibility of getting an au pair. I vetoed the concept on the basis I didn’t like the idea of having a stranger constantly around my living space. So now instead of an au pair think of having three burly men with questionable musical taste inhabiting my space from nine to five. This was the opposite of my happy place and only dignity stopped me from rocking back and forth in the corner of the kitchen.

So now like a character from a Beckett play I am waiting, but instead of waiting for someone to arrive I just want them to leave. I have been told they will be gone tomorrow. I’ll believe it when I see it!

Highlight of 2021 – A Weekend in Berlin

Looking back on 2021, one of my fondest memories is a weekend break to Berlin in November.

Well it finally happened, I succeeded in escaping the island of Ireland. It had only taken 2 years and 4 months but I had at long last managed to overcome the barriers that surrounded me and what better place to celebrate this fact than in Berlin, a city notorious for its infamous barrier.

Since my wife Niki was coming along with me, our first task was to find someone who would look after our 4 kids while we were away for the weekend. Thankfully Auntie Orla stepped up to the role and was ably assisted by my in-laws who between them managed the Friday school run and various weekend sporting fixtures. A feat which had seen lesser mortals gnash their teeth in agony.

The reaction of our kids to our imminent departure was wide-ranging and varied from a shrug of the shoulder (Lochlan 10) to a tearful “I’m going to really miss you” (Oscar 8). Oscar in particular seemed to think we were going on a 6 month round the world trip rather than a 2 night city break! Once the kids had been sorted, we then made sure that we had checked all the Covid related travel protocols – digital covid vaccination cert in phone and backed up, a new travel app installed and linked to the aforementioned vaccination cert. The vaccination cert is quickly becoming more valuable than your actual passport. I can see why it has already become a black-market item.

Given that this was to be both my and Niki’s first trip to Berlin, I brushed up on my knowledge of the German capital in advance with the Rough Guide to Berlin (borrowed from the library and an excellent decision) and a non-fiction audiobook about the East German secret police called Stasiland (a one way ticket to paranoia and probably not such an excellent decision).

Of course in all the excitement about travelling abroad to a new city we kind of glossed over the fact that our flight was at 7am, thus check-in was 6am and wake up time around 5am (not an ideal start to a relaxing getaway). Given that this was our first flight in a very long time we were also uneasy about check-in queues and security backlogs, however we needn’t have worried. The Aer Lingus set up in Terminal 2 was very efficient, we even managed to check-in our own bags without any human assistance. I have seen the future.

The airplane itself was surprisingly full. I had somehow imagined that all planes were now travelling half full in these pandemic times but this was certainly not the case. During the flight I made an unpleasant discovery, my ears (and in particular the bit that attaches my ears to my head) do not like being encumbered by a mask for 2 hours non-stop. Initially I experienced a slight pain rising to a sharp throb by the time we were over Berlin. I kept trying to pull at the elastic to loosen the mask but to no avail (damn those surgical grade 3-ply masks). Just another physical frailty to add to my ever-growing list!

Berlin has a brand new airport and as one would expect in Germany, it is well served by local railway lines. So half an hour after leaving the airport we were stepping off a reasonably priced train (certainly not the Heathrow Express £££) and into the heart of Berlin. Like fully fledged tourists we stopped at the first bakery and I bought the biggest pretzel available while Niki went for something a bit smaller with almonds and raisins, both were excellent. We took the short walk to our hotel across Unter den Linden and through a shopping street which could have been out of any large European city. It was only when we noticed the only audible noise was the clacking wheels of our travel luggage that we realised that the shopping area in question was only accessible to pedestrians, bikes and scooters (thumbs up Berlin city planners).

Our hotel was very central so it was ideal for myself and Niki to indulge in one of our favourite pastimes, strolling around, taking in the sights and sounds of a new yet strangely familiar place. On that first morning we took in Checkpoint Charlie and Hansa Studios. For those of you who don’t know, Hansa Studios it is where Bowie recorded his Berlin trilogy of albums and also where U2 recorded the bulk of Achtung Baby and where this memorable moment took place (, it still gives me goosebumps watching it.

After lunch in a very trendy/ hipster cafe with old racing bikes hanging from the ceiling (probably too trendy for us but hey I booked it online) we then went to the Holocaust Memorial, Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. Having done the obligatory David Hasselhoff impersonation, exhaustion overcame us and we headed back to our hotel for a nap (a nap ladies and gentlemen, in the middle of the day, we really were spoiling ourselves).

Sufficiently refreshed, we headed out to experience some of the famous Berlin night-life and no, despite many pleas from yours truly we didn’t go techno clubbing! Instead we ended up in a lovely restaurant which serves German style dishes in tapas style portions. Curry-wurst, blood-sausage (or black pudding as I like to call it) and the rest were all served with a modern twist and more delicate flavours than we had expected. It got a big thumbs up from the two of us.

The rest of the weekend passed by in a blur of sight-seeing including the Wall (what’s left of it), the Berlin TV Tower (the tallest structure in western Europe apparently), the Tiergarten and a personal favourite the Hackesche Hof (a set of interlinked early 20th century Art Nouveau courtyards). Mainly we just enjoyed the fact that we were out and about in a new place and out of the monotonous regime and sure there was a bit more mask wearing and vaccination cert checking than on previous city breaks but it didn’t restrict our enjoyment (well at least until we go back to Berlin airport but more of that shortly) . Also I got to spend some precious alone time with my wife which has been far too rare in the past 2 and a half years. While we did miss our 4 kids, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that things (meals, shopping trips, long walks or indeed any kind of walk) are a lot easier to organise without their long-list of individual preferences and dislikes.

So after 3 days of enjoyment we made our way back to Berlin airport for a 7.50pm departure. Luckily we had given ourselves plenty of time because despite having checked-in in advance we were lumped into the same queue as everybody else in order to drop our bags. Then we headed towards what we imagined would be the ultra efficient German security process, wrong! Berlin airport does not have the usual doorway type metal detectors but instead has those ones where you have to stand like a logo for a 90s boy band while it bombards you with invisible waves of some sort. Despite having 7 of these machines in place the process was hideously slow and I can definitely say that 2 metre spacing was not in place. People were cutting queues to make flights and fraught exchanges were being had with security guards. There was little or no flexibility, it was as if the system had to be obeyed and could in no way be incorrect. It was by far the longest and worst 45 mins of the trip.

We arrived home late on Sunday tired yet refreshed if that makes any sense. Ready to take on the humdrum routine again and hopeful of seeing more of the world in 2022. I just need to figure out how to provide relief to my ears in the meantime.

Bread Wars

Sourdough, wikipedia tells us has been in existence as far back as 3700 BC, but in modern times (certainly in Ireland) it had been something that we only encountered in fancy restaurants, artisan sandwich shops and occasionally in the houses of acquaintances who were also savvy bakers. Then all of a sudden about 18 months ago it was everywhere, recipes were exchanged, shops ran low on wholemeal and strong flour, the internet was flooded with images of crusty bread. Nuances in flavour and texture were discussed constantly and good quality sourdough starters became treasured possessions to be shared only with those deemed worthy to join the cause.

My wife Niki was an early adopter (thanks to a kind neighbour who shared some of that sought after starter!) and had been consistently knocking out quality loaves from the early days of lockdown one. Despite the fact that she is on a low carb diet she approached the daily task with great gusto, finding peace of mind in the regular routine of bringing something nutritious into the world for her family. Then at the start of this summer I noticed in her a certain apathy towards bread baking or maybe it was just that she had become like The Little Red Hen in the fable and she didn’t fancy knocking-back the dough at midnight once again so it could be ready for consumption by everyone else in the family. There was also the fact that providing a daily loaf often required an early start and of the many careers which Niki would be able to pull off, a baker is not one of them, early mornings not being her forte. So about a month ago a set of incredibly detailed (in my opinion anyway) instructions was placed in front of my face and the starter was unceremoniously landed in my lap. The message was clear, this is is your baby now!

Quite miraculously my initial attempt was a success. I correctly identified during the mixing stage that the dough was somewhat light in terms of liquid (100ml light to be exact) narrowly avoiding disaster, and the end product was given the thumbs up by all. Emboldened by this success, I started to express my artistic side by trying out different patterns on the bread. Niki had always been consistent with her # design but I decided to experiment with a Celtic swirl, a shamrock, a loveheart and even a question mark depending on how the mood moved me. Niki seemed to tolerate this expression of artistic temperament but she was less fond of my lack of rigid adherence to her instructions.

As time went by I would sense a presence behind me as I weighed out the ingredients. “Do you know how to zero the scales?” she would add helpfully, “Did you put the full 400g of strong flour into that?” was less appreciated and “How long are you knocking that back for?” was greeted with hostility. I’m not saying that Niki missed her calling as a DS on the RTE programme Ultimate Hell Week but she definitely doesn’t like it when instructions aren’t followed to the letter. When I probed this a bit further it turned out that she thought that the crust on my sourdough wasn’t hard enough.

I was taken aback by this, surely the issue that everybody has with sourdough is that the crust is quite often a bit on the concrete side. I explained that I had been cooking it at 5-10 degrees lower to get a softer crust. Well this seemed to hit Niki like a rock-bun between the eyes! This showed a level of disrespect for her instructions that could only be viewed as insubordination at best and treason (punishable by death) at worst. It was as if by my non-adherence I was endangering the lives of her children (like that chef with the Japanese fish that nearly kills Homer Simpson by not adhering to instructions).

The questions started to flow thereafter, she wasn’t quite shining a torch in my face but it felt like it; how long do you leave it to prove the second time? how much salt do you add? what speed setting is the mixer at? do you add lukewarm water? Finally I had enough, “lukewarm water!” I whimpered “there is no mention of lukewarm water in the instructions, at least I don’t recall seeing it there, please don’t beat me”. Niki grabbed her sacred directives from my trembling hands, “oh” she muttered, “well it should do”. At this she retreated, sensing her moment of weakness I grabbed a wooden spoon and hid in the utility room.

For the next couple of bakes Niki just happened to be around when the bread was put into the oven. The heat was turned up and she was able to munch on the extra crunchy sourdough when it emerged (her low carb diet becoming a casualty of war). But I will have my revenge, wait until she finds out (probably when reading this blog) that I’m planning to add some raisins into the mix! This bread war is just getting started!

TikTok & Ping Pong

Well the kids are back at school and there is a hint that normality might be around the corner but I’ve decided to steer clear of all that boring stuff about routines and sleep patterns (way too useful) and talk about something completely different, TikTok. Now I first became aware of TikTok when all those dance crazes flooded social media at the start of lockdown and of course Donald Trump (remember him) brought it to our attention that he wasn’t a fan (probably couldn’t do the Blinding Lights choreography). I even got the boys to give one or two of the dance routines a try, thus helping to while away some otherwise uneventful hours before cabin fever set in. I was intrigued but put it in a box marked “to be revisited”.

Fast forward to last week and every second video I liked on twitter seemed to be TikTok generated content so to prove (to myself if nobody else) that I am still down with the youth I signed myself up and decided to have a look around. After answering a few generic questions about my interests, TikTok then proceeded to point me in the direction of a few accounts that it thought I might like. Straight away my senses were assaulted by some very loud videos of boy-racers going through Donegal (Letterkenny being a particular hotbed), Russians (good looking ones at that) pretending to be Avengers and very large boats crashing through some even larger storm waves like a Perfect Storm but (spoiler alert) without the unhappy ending. I’m not sure what algorithm they’ve got working in the background but I quickly searched for some TikTok dancers and that got me back on the straight and narrow.

A couple of searches later I discovered something that would change my life forever (or at least a weekend until I got bored), a man named trick shot dav or at least that is what his TikTok handle indicates, who specialises in elaborate trick shots involving ping pong balls and a lot of saucepans. The man’s slogan is “Impossible. Is. In. Our. Minds. muscle emoji” which indicates a strong sense of determination, if not a strong grasp of how punctuation works. But he definitely had something going with this ping pong malarkey, now this was something I could get my head around and also use to impress my increasingly apathetic boys. I quickly learned that there are three essential parts to setting up a trick shot (i) getting a consistent bounce, (ii) repetition and (iii) patience (the last two being intrinsically linked). We definitely had enough saucepans but we were way short on ping pong balls. An order was quickly placed for more balls and to be honest I feel that we could still be a bit light in this area but I couldn’t bring myself to purchase more than 6 at a time, it’s terrible to feel that the world is judging you for your table tennis addiction!

I tinkered with various different formats for my trick shot, the depth and diameter of pans each having an affect on the velocity and flight path of the ping pong balls. Initially I was tempted to go with a criss-cross scenario before settling on a slightly less challenging step-by-step (still causes me to go into New Kids on the Block falsetto) type formation. Once the pots were in place it was then a matter of dropping the ping pong ball at the correct height and then capturing the magical process on video, easy peasy you might think. However a slight variation in spin or drop height would set ping pong balls careering off around the hard floor of our kitchen jeering me with their machine gun laughter. It was then that I utilised my secret weapon, for trick shot dav on TikTok only seemed to operate by himself whereas I had a crack team of minions, I mean children, to ensure a constant supply of attempts. Even better was that each one wanted to be the one to successfully complete the task, generating a constant desire for self-improvement that most successful corporations spend millions striving for.

On this occasion Lochlan was the one to rise to the challenge and his moment of triumph is now captured forever as my first TikTok. Hey my 6 followers must be absolutely thrilled!

The End Result

Enjoying the Sound of Silence

It’s Friday morning, I sit in silence and it is just plain weird. For the first time in three months, the house no longer has a non-adult presence and I don’t mean those precious moments when the kids are outside playing on the street, I mean full-on somebody else’s responsibility absent. I can actually gather my thoughts and make a plan for the week, well only the one week between now and Easter holidays. Of course during the Easter holidays the kids get a full fortnight to fall back into old patterns again. But what an interim week that will be!

Sure there are some downsides to the kids returning to school, the main one being that I have to drag them out of bed at the ungodly hour of 7.30am! To be fair I only have to drag one of them out, Aaron, Lochlan and Ella are normally decent early risers with Aaron usually being the first one up in the morning even ahead of yours truly. He clearly inherits his early morning fondness from my Dad, a notorious early morning person who would regularly wake me and my sister with verses penned by Gilbert O’Sullivan or was it Donovan. Oscar, our 8 year old, on the other hand is definitely not a morning person (apparently he gets this from his mother). Our first interaction of the day normally goes along the lines of this:

“Hi Oscar, it’s morning and time to get up for school”.

Grunting noises from under the covers.

“Oscar, your brothers are all up, the sun is shining and it’s a school day so you need to get dressed”.

“I’m not going to school”.

“Oscar you know you have to go to school and besides you enjoy it there. Also it’s the law and if you don’t the guards will take mommy and daddy away and put us in prison”.

“I don’t care, I’m not getting up”. Covers are grasped tightly like a hedgehog defending itself.

At this point I can feel the red mist descending as Roy Keane would say, so I exit to start the packed-lunch making process while Niki takes over the negotiations with Oscar.

But these little traumas aside, the transition to mornings sans enfants has been a smooth one. The amount of shouting between the hours of 9am and 2pm has certainly decreased dramatically. I mean how many times can someone forget when they are due to have a zoom call with their teacher, it was at the same time every day for god’s sake. Also what is it with older siblings getting distracted by telling their younger brother how to do his school-work. They certainly seemed to be way more invested in this than their own work. Originally I was under the misguided illusion that this was done in the name of helpfulness but soon realised it was more along the lines of “I’m so much cleverer than you”, I think it was the repeated use of “idiot”, “eejit” and “dumbass” that tipped me off to this.

So instead of roaring and raging while trying to remember my 12 times tables and “cupla focal as Gaeilge” from my youth (this inevitably ends up with me telling stories about my days in the Gaelteacht to my bemused offspring), I now have time to catch up on world events (not that much better to be honest) and scour the internet for online short story competitions. I think my niche is flash fiction, I mean how far wrong can you go in less than 500 words!

Then there is my quest to complete as many jigsaws as possible in a rolling 12 month period, or my attempt to read every Booker prize winner since the competition’s inception in 1969 (15 down, loads to go) and not forgetting my never-ending Ultimate 90s dance music playlist on Spotify. Niki thinks I should probably start looking for a job now, but whoa there is way too much uncertainty going around for that. What if a fourth wave hits and we are back to homeschooling in May (screams silently).

Of course it would be nice if this new found freedom was accompanied by the ability to sit down in a cafe somewhere or meet up with friends for a chat but hey that’s the new normal as they say. Just for now I’m thankful that I can hear my own thoughts.

And most importantly of all, for the first time in ages I have the couple of hours of silence required to write this blog!

Unlikely Nostalgia For 2020

It seems like such a long time ago now but staggeringly, it was less than a month ago that I was crouching in a woodland field in Longford, eyeing a seven year-old through my cross-hairs, wondering about the moral complexities of gunning him down in front of his parents! Naturally my competitive instincts kicked in and I let fly with an infra-red barrage of destruction, not ceasing until the electronic cry of “Medic I’m down” had been emitted from my target’s device. The briefest of smirks appeared on my face before I moved onto my next target, a mother wearing a luminescent scarf, the fool!

I should explain that just before Christmas, we spent two nights in Center Parcs Longford. We had booked the trip as a treat for the family back in September in order to have something to look forward to after a pretty discouraging year. Little did we know how quickly things would go downhill post our trip, back then COVID cases were still in three figures and travelling between counties was not some narco-esque pastime. Sure, we were denied the full Center Parcs experience in all its glory as the tropical swimming paradise including the water slides was closed and the zip-line experience developed a mysterious technical fault but hey at least we were able to go to restaurants and have food served to us.

I must admit I wasn’t sure what to expect from a holiday resort in Longford, my previous recollections of the county were limited to viewing a grey St Mel’s Cathedral through a damp car window (it always seemed to be raining in Longford) as I passed towards the more pleasant environs of Westport or Ballina or even Belmullet. I’m pretty sure I have never been on the road to Ballymahon (for this is the nearest town to Center Parcs) before and I was very impressed by its straightness, in fact I did wonder if it had been enhanced to attract the resort. However a quick check on wikipedia informed me that the R392 (for that is the road’s official title) closely follows the ancient ceremonial route known as the Slighe Assail, as such it formed one of the legendary Five Roads of Tara. This largely accounts for the remarkable straightness of the R392, so no Padraig Flynn style influencing here!

Anyway I digress. My initial impressions of Center Parcs were positive, our accommodation was very clean and of good standard (to be expected since the place only opened in the summer) and everything was clearly sign-posted. The hub of the resort is beside a small lake and it is here that most activities take place. Indeed the lack of traffic, the cleanliness and the constant sound of music (Christmas carols of course) brought to mind Disneyland (albeit a colder and wetter one than I had experienced previously). Another enjoyable part of the experience was the ability to walk along the tree lined paths without the constant hum of traffic (cars are only allowed into the resort for check-in and check-out). We even managed to spot a few red squirrels, something that is a bit of a rarity in Dublin where the larger grey squirrels reign supreme.

The boating on the lake was good fun as was the slightly water-logged mini-golf, the food was decent although I simply enjoyed the fact that we were able to go to a restaurant and Ella really liked the Christmas village including the animatronic singing reindeer. The highlight for me was undoubtedly the aforementioned laser-tag which luckily we kept until the morning of our departure so we were able to finish on a high. I got to be on a team with the three boys so while they ran about like lunatics helpfully distracting enemy fire I was able to pick off opponents with ruthless efficiency. The battle where I eliminated 7 out of our 8 opponents remains a personal (err, I mean team, well done my sons) highlight for 2020.

One month later it is such memories that help sustain me through multiple google meets sessions, endless homework exercises and not forgetting the excruciating Joe Wick’s sessions. Who’d have thought that nostalgia for 2020 was possible!

I Don’t Care About The Bugs On The Ceiling!

Now a number of years ago, I made the decision to go against tradition (and according to my wife Niki, all things natural) and buy a fake plastic tree. I dreamt of a time when pine needles were no longer a feature of the festive period and I thought by making a wise investment this utopia would be within reach. Indeed for six or seven years this was the case, the hoover lay silent just like Jesus in the manger.

Sure there was the odd difficulty getting the overweight lump of plastic in and out of the attic. And there was that time when the stairway carpet received a slight incision as I tried to slide the thing downwards without fully assessing the consequences. Boy do I never get to live that one down!

But over the last few years Niki has mounted a very successful political campaign to get the children on board (bloody snowflakes) with her idea that natural trees capture the true essence of Christmas, i.e. celebrating the birth of a baby in a stable in the middle east with a gaudy evergreen bush! So slowly but surely the natural tree (and the associated pine needles) has made a return to our household. Well at least I thought that would spare us the ordeal of getting the fake one (I swear it gets heavier every year) in and out of that attic hatch (I swear it gets smaller every year). But oh no, now we have a situation where we are doubling up on trees, twice the fun for all!!

This year, not happy with rubbing my nose in it about our double Christmas tree situation, Niki decided to raise the stakes even further. This year we were going to chop down our own Christmas tree, when I say chop down I mean watch a man chainsaw it in front of us. So last weekend we headed north to somewhere between Swords and Ashbourne to track through a muddy field and choose our own tree (Niki and the kids chose the one the farthest distance possible from our car) to be slaughtered in front of us. It felt a bit like choosing a lobster from a tank before eating it. I think Niki was trying to make an argument that this was more environmentally friendly, a bit like a hunter eating his own prey but I was too busy listening to the tree screaming as it was ripped from its roots. The kids seemed to enjoy it though!

Previous trips home with a Christmas tree had been of the very short variety so there was a quite a bit of hand-wringing as we strapped the tree to the roof of our car and headed back home. I say “we” but really Niki strapped it while I just stood there going “I’m not sure we’re going to make it on those bumpy and winding roads of north county Dublin, we might as well just donate the tree to the people of St Margaret’s!” This improved Niki’s mood enormously, not! Thankfully after only a slightly stressful journey we made it intact back to Glasnevin.

It was at this point that I took control, ferociously wrestling the tree off the roof-rack and carrying it slung over my shoulder into the house like a mountain buck! It was then that we discovered it wouldn’t fit into our Christmas tree stand, damn those wide trunked north Dublin trees! Out came the saw (probably for the first time in a decade) and we took turns to hack away at the very sap heavy bark. A good half an hour later we managed to just about wedge the tree into the base (although probably not far enough in to reach the water reservoir Niki had prepared for it, this remains a bone of contention). At this point we decided to take a break for lunch.

After we had our fill of luncheon meats and cheeses we returned to the fun part of the day, decorating the tree. As Niki was cutting through the netting to allow our tree to emerge from its man made chrysalis, Oscar (age 7) noticed that the inhabitants of the tree, mainly small flies but also a beetle and a ladybird or two, were now happily settling in to our living room, well mainly the ceiling. Our kids, being very definite city-types and not likely to be in a field unless it has goalposts at each end, are not big fans of creepy crawlies so this immediately sent them into fits of wailing and hair pulling (themselves and each other). It was then that Niki issued the immortal and highly exasperated line “I don’t care about the bugs on the ceiling!” She may have followed up with something along the lines of we are going to enjoy decorating this tree if it’s the last thing I ever do but I was too busy sitting and singing sweet melodies under my fake plastic Christmas tree to care!

Editor’s (Niki’s) note: we are very happy with our Christmas Tree and would recommend Wade’s Christmas Tree Farm!

Is this the real life or is this just fantasy?

I have been drawn back to the world of fantasy football and this time the stakes are way bigger than ever before, for this time I am playing against my sons!

I suppose in these strange times we are all looking for distractions from the daily update of covid cases and fantasy sport has provided one such outlet. For those of you unaware of the concept, it generally follows the same format whether it be football, golf, american football or whatever is your sport / poison of choice. You are granted an initial budget with which to buy players, the better the player the more expensive he is. Often the key is to unearth the jewel in the rough, that player who is about to outperform all expectations. Each week your players will earn points based on their performances which gives you a team total. Your team can compete in public leagues where prizes can be quite substantial (the winner of the official premier league fantasy football with over 7 million teams gets a 7 day break in the UK including tickets to two matches, assuming that is possible, amongst other things) or simply just the pride of beating your friends and / or relatives in a private league.

Now my initial dalliance with fantasy football harks back over a decade ago to simpler times when I was a young, single man with plenty of time on his hands. A man who thought nothing of switching on his TV and lap-top simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon and waiting to hear who had scored the goals and provided those all important goal assists. Then I became embroiled in romance and property, and children followed. Suddenly spending all of Saturday afternoon glued to multiple screens became frowned upon! But then last year I realised something very interesting. My two eldest boys were listening out for the football scores the way I used to when it was Des Lynam on Grandstand, I had a lightbulb moment and casually mentioned to them the concept of fantasy football weaving in tales of the delights of the triple captain and the clean sheet bonus.

Let’s say it didn’t take much persuading to get them on board and I quickly got them set up in a private league with their aunt and cousin as rivals. Initially I didn’t enter a team as I knew that I would be too busy to spend all the required hours doing the necessary and extensive research! I limited my role to that of advisor / troubleshooter for when things got tricky. It’s safe to say that the boys took to it like ducks to water, there were a few anomalies when in particular Lochlan (9) would go with some daring transfer strategies or choose his goalkeeper as captain, but in general they kept within the top 10% of players which was quite an achievement for rookies.

Then back in March lockdown happened, causing a general hiatus and a fixture pile-up. When football finally returned, everything seemed a bit disjointed and that included fantasy football where things (results, player form, goal scorers) got a bit more unpredictable. Aaron (11) made the wise choice to bring Danny Ings (his jewel in the rough) into his team and he promptly scored a bundle of goals allowing Aaron to ride that particular wave to private league glory. Then the bragging started about the depth of his football knowledge and his Mourinho-like understanding of tactics and formations! Of course this was like a red rag to a bull so that when Fantasy Football 2020-21 rolled around there was a new player on the field, Eoghan Doyle (or Daddy Doyle as he is known in Fantasy Football circles) made his long awaited return to reclaim the crown.

I rubbed my hands with relish as I surveyed the options before me using my c. 40 years of footballing knowledge to assemble a crack team of elite players at reasonable prices. No Manchester teams playing for the first week made player choices that bit easier and I promptly rushed into an early lead. Move the clock forward 6 weeks and I am a broken man, continuously banging his fist at Aubameyang’s complete lack of form and cursing my lack of faith in everything Everton. Worst of all is my dismissal of Kane and Son (the two highest scoring players so far) as nothing but makeweights in Mourinho’s defensive system. Needless to say I am now fourth in a league of four, with my sons and sister-in-law all peering down on me from above.

Everyday I scour the football press for tidbits that might improve my chances, I listen to podcasts endlessly trying to ascertain the best strategy not just for the coming gameweek but also for the next month and even beyond. Every week I am closer to playing my wildcard (the ability to swap your entire team for a new one of equal value) but so far I keep on holding off for another week. In fairness I did come out on top in the latest gameweek but only by a small margin and definitely not enough to get me out of my rut!

I like to imagine that my subconscious has deliberately sabotaged my initial selection (who knew that 3 of my original 15 players would have yet to play a single minute) to pile pressure on myself and in this heightened environment I will thrive. But in fact I’d much rather have the league wrapped up already and be able to coast towards the title in a Liverpool-esque fashion. Unfortunately it looks likely that I will be more like Burnley scraping for points than anything else but at least it takes my mind off other things! Not quite the fantasy I had hoped for but beggars can’t be choosers!

Time time time, see what’s become of me!

Time is a funny old thing and I say that as someone who has placed great store in the concept of time, I still remember my first watch with great fondness, a navy digital thing with a spaceman on it. Indeed I am always at a bit of a loss if I don’t have a watch on me, even in these days where the mobile phone is a constant reminder of time, I like to be grounded by a watch on my left wrist. Although I must say that in the past couple of years this faith in time has been shaken first of all by my change in working circumstances, do weekends still hold the same magnificence when you don’t work Monday to Friday? Secondly this unease has been exacerbated by the emergence of Covid 19 with everybody including my wife, working from home, summer holidays being cancelled or foreshortened and of course lockdowns that are forever extended with restrictions heightened. What use is time when it can’t even tell me if the football season will start or end anymore?

I used to like the whole package around Time and I mean not just Time defined as the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole, although I am big believer in that also. But Time as the measure of when and indeed where we are at any point in the day, month or year. I like the way Time grounds us within our universe, how a birthday represents another trip around the sun.

Needless to say, this reverence for Time means that I am generally regarded as a prompt person. I can definitely say that I inherited this characteristic from my father and not my mother. I know this because my childhood is littered with occasions of waiting with my dad! Normally this waiting would occur at a shopping centre. The Ilac centre springs to mind, endlessly waiting by the indoor pond with the fountains that sprayed water like see-through toadstools. Staring at the nearby ice-cream counter with all those exotics flavours while the scent of cheap donuts filled the air. Watching the world go by and waiting for my sister and mother to return from Arnotts, Roches Stores, M&S or some other equally diabolical place.

This desire for promptness has caused some friction in my relationships over the years but has also given me plenty of scope for what the modern wellness gurus would call self-analysis, in other words wishing I hadn’t forgotten my walkman / discman / ipod / mobile phone so now I have to think about the state of my life while waiting for my girlfriend / friend(s) / wife to arrive! Obviously I try to not to meet my girlfriend and wife at the same place!!

So back to the current situation and 6 weeks of Level 5 lockdown which coincidentally has aligned itself with the moment when we put our clocks back by an hour. Usually I would be delighted for the extra hour sleep but not this year. Yay, even darker evenings when our kids can’t go outside and play with their friends. Days merge into days and the only way of telling where we are in the week is from the memes on the internet, you know the ones where Tina Fey goes “what a week, huh?” and Alec Baldwin replies “it’s Tuesday”, this informs me that it is Tuesday!

The kids seem remarkably resilient around this discombobulation. I mean Oscar (7) never seemed to know what day of the week it was anyway. Five out of seven days he’d be disappointed to find out it wasn’t the weekend, tough odds! But this week they took to writing Santa letters in October without a complaint. In fact they seemed to attack it with relish, perhaps this is because Oscar now believes that Christmas has been brought forward this year! There was a further element of confusion in that the boys managed to unearth last years Smyths’ catalogue and had already prepared a draft of their letters before I spotted this year’s version lying at the bottom of a shelf in their bedroom. This was followed by an in-depth discussion around why Santa would require us to use this year’s catalogue, but I think we got away with it on the grounds that Santa is insistent that he only produces the latest models otherwise the elves might get confused around specifications!

So now we head into the mid-term break and I can’t believe that we’re already halfway between the start of the school year and Christmas. I also struggle to believe that this will be the only break we’ll have before the end of December. In my gut I felt that we should have kept going with school as now we are out we may never get them back in but maybe I am being too pessimistic. Only Time will tell!

No one told us life was gonna be this way!

I miss my friends. The passing of time may have scattered my core group of childhood / young adulthood friends to the four corners of the planet (due to jobs and relationships), but over the past 25 or so years we always made time to meet up whenever possible and had more recently gotten into the habit of planning one annual trip away together. But COVID 19 and its related lockdowns has taken that away from us and now we are left with the occasional Zoom calls and our WhatsApp group.

As WhatsApp groups go, it is definitely one of the better ones (currently competing with my “dad, aunts and uncles” WhatsApp group for top content). First of all we have a broad geographic spread with residents in the US and Belgium and a bonus Asian living in Ireland to give us a global perspective on any hot topic. Although we probably could do with someone from the UK for full coverage given Brexit and all that. A full screening process will be required for new entrants, please see Ewan McGregor interviewing potential housemates in Shallow Grave “what on earth could make you think that we would want to share a WhatsApp group like this with someone like you?” I jest of course, we’re not interviewing at present!

We also have a broad range of professional backgrounds from law-talking guys, to pharmaceuticalists (I know this isn’t a word but feels most appropriate for people who know about pharmaceuticals but don’t work in a pharmacy), to civil servants, to law enforcement officers, to doctors and yours truly as financial services person and wild card! In truth everyone on the group thinks of him or herself as the the wild card. We have a female within the group which I find keeps things on the straight and narrow when they are threatening to get out of control, actually scrap that she is likely to be the one sharing the less than PC stuff. There is pretty much an interesting take on every subject from amorous snails to the best movies of Jack Black (High Fidelity for me). There are a few recurring themes, the top seven of which would probably be (i) bad jokes, you wouldn’t believe the amount of times I’ve checked my phone for something urgent to find a pun about Fergal Sharkey in a fireplace store looking for a good hearth or something similar, (ii) reciting our favourite lines from Modern Family, needs no explanation it’s just so goddam funny, (iii) decrying the high humidity levels which have made our alcohol disappear, seems to be especially a factor in Belgium and the US, (iv) nostalgia for TV programmes of our childhood, did you know Floella Benjamin was on Desert Island Discs last week? (v) anything which involves a poll particularly if it’s on the Guardian web-site, please see the greatest UK no.1s of all time which nearly tore the group apart! (vi) Trump and anything Trump related, actually our US member tends to steer clear of this one probably because it’s too close to home but safe to say we normally have a good chuckle and eye-roll at his latest outburst (I have personally championed Sarah Cooper’s approach on a number of occasions) and last but not least (vii) COVID 19, enough said really, we used to talk about it a lot, particularly on our zoom calls, but now like everyone we try to avoid it because it’s just so damn depressing.

Then just when we think we have exhausted our stock of witty banter and repartee one member of the group will butt-dial us all for a group call (actually he clearly is the wild card) and then blame his young daughter. It’s like the moment when the bar staff would drop and smash a pint glass and everybody in the pub gives a cheer. We all smile and shake our heads and go back to our daily life.

Still much as the WhatsApp group provides a great source of amusement and I actually know far more about my friends’ daily lives than I ever did before (like they don’t spend as much time working as they should), it still doesn’t match the enjoyment of meeting face to face. In fact the last time a few of us got together was back in late January / early February in the excellent Boco pizzeria on Bolton Street and I can remember asking our resident doctor what he thought about this coronavirus emerging in China? He shrugged and said nobody knows but it doesn’t look good! Of course we did have an ad hoc Irish meet-up during the summer lull in COVID 19 cases but I chose not to go as cases had just spiked to 200 that day. The increases since then and subsequent lockdowns have shown that perhaps that was a bad call on my part!

Anyway we shall keep going on our WhatsApp group, who knows maybe this blog will generate some discussion. And perhaps next year we will meet up again to sing some songs, drink some beer and play Belgian charades!