Back to School Again

“My teacher wants to talk to you” my daughter (Ella) informed me recently after school. Alarm bells started ringing in my head but Ella wasn’t crying so unlikely to be any bad behaviour or injuries. It seemed my name had been drawn from a hat to be one of two parents to accompany the class of junior infants (5-6 year old girls) on a field-trip to the nearby teacher-training college. I vaguely recalled volunteering so let it be clear that this wasn’t some Hunger Games style sweepstake with death a virtual certainty to all but the sole victor!

The day in question began with myself and the other parent in question being shown to the staffroom for tea / coffee / water. This was more of a trip down memory lane for the other parent as she had attended the school and therefore the staffroom had that strange aura of a forbidden inner sanctum. For me I had never been in the staffroom of a girls’ school before, so I just wandered around looking at the various notices and was slightly startled when morning prayers started over the intercom. A call to morning prayer always conjured up minarets and mosques so it was unexpected to hear small voices quietly thanking God for spring’s bounty.

After about 15 minutes we were summoned by the padding of little feet outside the doorway. The teacher took control at the head of affairs and the other parent patrolled the middle of our merry bunch while I was assigned the role of minding the rear of the group, making sure stragglers kept up the pace. I decided to approach this in the manner of a steward at a GAA match, arms out, making myself as big as possible and frequently uttering “move along now girls”. I also used one of my favourite golfing sayings “keep up with the group in front of you don’t just stay ahead of the group behind”. Although I think this may have been lost on my audience.

Immediately I was asked the not unreasonable question “who are you?”, “Ella’s daddy” I responded and that seemed to suffice. Ella being my fourth child, I am now well accustomed to being described only in terms of my children, the days where I can simply reply “Eoghan” are long behind me. I noticed Ella smiling somewhere in the middle of the line, now I’m sure there will be plenty of days to come where she will be hiding her head in shame at the mere thought of being associated with me in front of her friends so I’ve got to cherish these moments while I can.

Google maps shows the journey from my daughter’s primary school to the teacher-training college as being roughly 1km in length and indicated a timeframe of 11 mins. I think google maps should also have an option showing how long it would take to “herd cats” along the route as this would be more accurate. Don’t get me wrong, the girls were all very well behaved but the distractions of being outside the school with their friends were non-stop and not to be ignored “ooh look a sign”, “ooh look a bus”, you get the gist.   

It wasn’t long into our journey when another question was being fired at me “what are rabies?”. I did a quick double-take to make sure I’d heard this correctly as visions of Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to explain the facts of life in Kindergarten Cop came flooding through my brain. Apparently somebody had mentioned mice / rats and the danger of rabies. I explained that rabies was a disease but there was no need to worry as we didn’t have it in Ireland. My response barely registered with the girls as by then the conversation had moved onto Captain Underpants and potatoes, I wasn’t sure of the link and I don’t think I will ever find out.

Eventually after much cajoling and many stops to take deep breaths to calm down (mainly required by teacher and parents) we made it to our destination. There the girls were greeted by an array of female trainee teachers, me and my y-chromosome felt strangely out of place like that guy who stumbles into the island inhabited by the amazons at the start of the Wonder Woman movie!

The exercise for the day was to programme bee-shaped robots “Beebots” to navigate various different scenarios. The girls took to it with great gusto and really enjoyed the learning / game in a different environment. I couldn’t help thinking that if I had accompanied one of my boy’s classes on a similar trip, the Beebots might have been encouraged to move in a more forcible manner.

I was also impressed by the mantra that was used whenever the girls were rotated to a different learning station. Hands on head, hands on shoulders and then hands on knees. While initially this did seem a little bit like instructions at Guantanamo Bay, it clearly had the desired affect as everyone really calmed down afterwards. I’m definitely going to incorporate this “re-set” mechanism as part of my my own daily life!

Before long it was time to say goodbye to the Beebots and trainee teachers and make our way back to school. I think by this time some of the group had gotten fed up with my constant refrain of “keep moving girls”, at least I assume that’s why I was informed that one of Ella’s classmates had a brother who is a boxer. Still I got very friendly thank-yous and a wave good-bye when I left them at the school gates. Ella seemed to enjoy that whole experience although she did inform me that I wasn’t allowed join her class the following day when I joked that my presence would become a regular thing.  

Parenting Styles; Just Call Me DS Dad

My eldest child recently turned 13 and as I contemplate the drama of the teenage years that lie ahead of me, I am currently examining my own parenting style, in particular how it can be best adapted to this notoriously difficult period. It has not escaped my attention that parenting styles have changed significantly over the years. The olden days of “belt and stick” being replaced with a more caring and compassionate doctrine, trying to get behind the reasons for acting out rather than confronting them head on. I have watched this progression with interest and probably a tinge of regret but hey we all have to move with the times (silently puts on his “Make Parenting Great Again” cap).

As my family grew larger and more Von Trap-like, I recalled that glorious scene in the Sound of Music where Captain Von Trap introduces his children to their new nanny by means of a whistle. I’m not sure why this particular scene from the movie was embedded in my psyche but I thought it was the very pinnacle of parenting 101. Apparently not, and I was horrified to find this was an example of how not to do it, but cutting down curtains for dresses was to be applauded, now that’s horrific!

My first foray into parenthood coincided with the emergence of television shows like Super-nanny, which led to an outbreak of children across the nation being put on timeouts and brought to the naughty step. I briefly tried to put my children on the naughty step but the problem was that they just kept running away from the damn thing and going off to play with their toys upstairs. Invariably this would lead to a harsher sentence of more time on the naughty step and a befuddled conversation with my wife, “how much longer is X supposed to be on the naughty step for?”, “hmmm I think he’s got another 17 hours to go but I’m not sure if that includes toilet breaks or not”. In the end all four of my kids just started hanging out and fighting by the naughty step which kind of defeated the purpose.

Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that it is once again to television that I have turned for my latest inspiration with regards to my parenting style. I present to you Ultimate Hell Week, the reality show where ordinary members of the public (or more recently “celebrities”) are put through a gruelling series of tasks by an elite army ranger crew, all while being sleep-deprived and malnourished. I have long been a fan of this show, principally because it brings back many memories of living with a newborn!

Central to the whole process are the DS or “Directing Staff”, they rule over the participants with an iron fist giving instructions that must be obeyed immediately and without question (actually this is harking back to Captain Von Trap but let’s forget about that). Any non-adherence is usually punished by a series of physical tasks, such as push-ups, uphill sprints or my personal favourite, crawling around on the floor through whatever rubbish was not cleared away after meal time. While they do not quite reach the level of sadism shown by drill sergeants in movies like Full Metal Jacket (I mean they never physically hit any of the participants, at least not on camera), they are not far off it. An example of a typical interaction during an inspection of the participants’ sleeping quarters would be as follows “Oh so you didn’t clean your area properly, well let’s strip down to your underwear and go down to the ice-cold basement plunge pool and see if you remember to do it correctly the next time”. I can definitely see this working with my boys, god knows nothing else has. Time for me to start digging a trench in the back garden!

Of course it is not all about the stick and punishment with the DS. They do occasionally show a softer side, like when they interrogate a participant (complete with a switch from black-out hood to bright lights) to such an extent that the participants inevitably burst into tears before they tell them “you’re actually doing quite well”. The other area where they show a less authoritarian side is when a participant finally caves in to the unrelenting misery of their tasks and throws in the towel by removing their arm band. At this point the DS will smile, shake the participant’s hand (this hand will already be shaking due to the hypothermia) and wish them well on their way back to the nearby ambulance. I see myself in a similar position when my kids move out of the house at some point in the future (hopefully without the ambulance).

Another “innovative step” on Ultimate Hell Week is that everyone is only referred to by their number (I think they got this brilliant idea from Jean Valjean in Les Mis or as I like to call him 24601 but I could be mistaken). Next week I will enforce this with my own children but I can’t call any of them number 1 as this will cause bitterness and resentment and that’s just from me!

Escape from Paris (How we almost missed our ferry home)

Picture this: a man’s screaming face, he is trapped in an underground carpark in a Parisian suburb. He has just spent 6 weeks in overly close proximity to his family on an alleged holiday and now it looks like this “vacation” will continue indefinitely because somebody has locked the keys (with the underground carpark fob) in the apartment.

But I have gotten ahead of myself, first a bit of background. On the previous evening myself and my wife had calculated that in order to make the journey from the not so leafy (best described as up-and-coming) suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine to the ferry port of Cherbourg, we needed to depart at 9am. Google maps had indicated a 4 hour journey (albeit sans traffic) and a 9am departure would give us two and a half hours of wiggle room for petrol and lunch breaks and a bit of leg stretching before our 3.30pm (latest) check-in.

It has to be said that I’m the one in our family who is the stickler for punctuality and my nerves were starting to tingle when my wife arrived back 15 mins late from her pre-breakfast walk and pastry pick-up. But hey, breathe deeply sure we have 150 mins to play with! An hour later I was definitely breathing very deeply as my wife realised that in an effort to achieve an efficient key drop-off, she had left us without a way to get out of our underground car park. A frantic phonecall revealed that our landlord was at least 40 mins away so intercom buttons were haphazardly being pressed trying to find a knight in shining armour who could release us from our dungeon. Then our hero (me) stepped up to the plate and found a manual override on the car park exit. It involved cutting power somewhere but needs must, who cares if Jacques couldn’t toast his croque monsieur that morning (insert gallic shrug). So after a lot of pushing and shoving we got the gate open and we were free! Now all we had to do was get the roof box on top of the car and start to pack stuff into it (note: roof-boxes are not underground car park friendly).

By the time we were ready to leave it was 9.50am but we still had 100 minutes to play with. Then we asked Google maps to plan our quickest route to Cherbourg. The previous night it had suggested going along the Paris ring-road (the infamous peripherique) and we had mentioned to the boys the possibility of seeing Parc des Princes, where PSG play. Now however there were red traffic indicators everywhere and it was clear that we would have to take a more circuitous route. The overall estimated time for the journey had also gone up to five hours. Yikes, only 40 mins to play with.

Things did not get any better once we hit the road. But travelling around Paris on a Saturday in August, what did we expect?! Every Thierry, Dominic and Herve was heading to their breezy summer retreat escaping the intense Parisian heat. Every toll-both (and there were loads of them) had a 5km tail-back, Google Maps kept sending us down alternate routes to beat the traffic but I think it was also sending thousands of other vehicles at the exact same time like a shoal of fish in the ocean.  

When we eventually managed to escape the greater Parisian area our estimated time to reach the destination was 15 mins past our latest check-in time. At this point, the mood in our car was slightly frosty and the tension could have been cut with the proverbial guillotine. Then just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, our Volvo decided to tell us that our tyre pressure was low. Now to say that our Volvo has a heightened responsibility towards all things safety-related is like saying my children are kind of fond of screentime! All you have to do is try to reverse into a moderately sized parking space and the amount of flashing buzzers, lights and sirens that go off are similar to an early 90’s rave. Not satisfied with a reactive approach to safety, the Volvo will also try to grab control of the steering when it feels you are moving out of your lane, think Kit in Knight Rider without the American vocals. Hence when the tyre-pressure warning light went off I was less than concerned and assumed that my wife would be of a similar opinion. Think again, the announcement that “I have to pull in at the next stop” sent a shiver through the collective spines of the other car occupants. At this point I had a decision to make, (i) try to talk my wife out of a totally unnecessary stop or (ii) calmly grit my teeth, nod my head and try to make the quickest pit-stop in French motorway history. For the sake of my marriage I went for the latter, luckily the service station was jam packed so we couldn’t get near the air pump, a quick kick of the tyres later and we were back on the road.

At this point we needed to travel 250 km in 2 hours on roads with a 110 km / hr speed limit (the maths didn’t quite work). Nevertheless we pressed ahead just relieved to have some consistent forward progress. With about 150 km to go we encountered a vehicle with a Carlow registration, similarly packed to the rafters and from the overwrought look on the driver’s face, in a similar situation to ourselves (i.e. dead late for the last ferry out of town). Thus began the great Hiberno-Normandy car rally, think Cannonball Run without the humour, with yours truly as Burt Reynolds and my wife as Farrah Fawcett. Thanks to the expert driving of Mrs Doyle / Fawcett we made the port at 3.35pm (leaving a string of French police voitures in our wake*), only 5 mins after cut-off and crucially they were still checking-in cars. We gave the Carlow car a satisfied fist pump as we both pulled onto the WB Yeats ferry (just like the Italian and Qatari chaps sharing the Olympic high jump gold medal). We had escaped / won / survived, never have I been so happy to board a ferry (note: I hate ferries).  

*This may not be true!

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!