Honeymoon, Day 5: The Giant’s Causeway and a Train Trip

We earmarked Friday for The Giant’s Causeway. We loaded up early and headed north, stopping only for a quick breakfast along the way. After our arrival and my first Irish Magners cider (which lived up to my friend Jason’s enthusiasm for it), we started our hike down to the Causeway.

I had, of course, heard about the site before, but was still amazed by the reality of it. The regular hexagonal basalt columns are like nothing I’d seen in creation before, and it was easy to see why it is one of Beki’s favorite places in the world. (As a reader, I gave it the highest praise I can offer a place: “I’d love to bring a book and sit here for hours.”) We clambered happily over the rocks for an hour or so, and then hiked up the hillside to enjoy some spectacular views overlooking the causeway and the land around.

We then dropped by the ruins of Dunluce Castle, a nearby site that was beautifully situated on a large outcropping over the sea. We learned a bit about the history of the place, read the slightly self-congratulatory quotes about the importance of the archaeology there, enjoyed more spectacular views, and dodged enthusiastic schoolchildren who were barreling around taking selfies in every cranny of the place.

Randy and Beki then dropped us off in Coleraine to pick up the train to Derry/Londonderry. (Evidently the Irish Republicans call it the former, Loyalists the latter, and there’s strong conviction about it. “There’s no such place as Londonderry, but I can sell you a ticket to Derry” ticketing agents might tell an unsuspecting traveler.) Michael Palin described this as one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world. We enjoyed gliding past verdant green fields filled with content cows and sheep, as well as vibrant fields of yellow rapeseed crops, and lamented that we didn’t have time to explore Derry before hopping back on the train to Belfast.

Our last stop for the day was The Crown Liquor Saloon, a downtown pub that was restored in 2007. Decorated with elaborate tile, stained glass, and woodwork, and featuring a number of semi-private booths, it was an ideal place to enjoy a drink and dinner.

Honeymoon, Day 4: Travel & Belfast

Thursday was a travel day. We spent the earlier part of the day getting from Ballymoney to Belfast, where we’d be staying for the next couple of nights. The drive was lovely. More of the country unfolded before us as we listened to our new friends Sammy and Kylie. Kris was delighted by the signs that directed us not only to the nearest gas stations but also to the nearest castles, which seemed equally numerous.

Once we got to Belfast, we took a black cab tour around town. This brought home the history of The Troubles in a visceral way, as we saw shrines to those slain on both sides of the conflict. Our guide was in his teens during the peak of the tension and violence, and while he was careful not to skew his account, had clearly seen things that left a mark during that time. Sad and sobering that, while most of the violence in now nearly a generation in the past, that there are still Belfast residents who live in the shadow of “The Peace Wall” and who won’t go to the other side to have a drink. There are few past a certain age who haven’t lost someone to the violence of this conflict.

After the tour, we reconnected with Randy & Beki and enjoyed naps and a hike up the hill to Belfast Castle, a beautiful structure with a bistro and gardens overlooking the port and much of the rest of the city. We were struck by the cat motifs in the decor, and were later delighted by the discovery the legend that, like the ravens in the Tower of London, Belfast Castle would remain safe as long as a cat lived there.

We then headed back into town for dinner at “Made in Belfast,” a delightfully quirky restaurant with locally sourced deliciousness of various kinds. (My Ploughman’s Burger, with Irish beef, Irish cheese, and Irish ham was outstanding!) We then dropped in at The Dirty Onion for a couple pints (my first Irish Guiness!) and live music. It turned out, suprisingly, to be bluegrass. It also turned out, unsurprisingly, to be excellent.

Honeymoon, Day 3: Shipwreck Hike and New Friends

Wednesday dawned bright and early. We started the day with a planning session for the rest of our trip, and then a fantastic walk/hike/climb up the beach to a nearby shipwreck. The mix of terrain was delightfully different from the beaches I’m used to, with beautiful schist outcroppings thrusting through the sand and out into the water. We had to choose several times between a carefully timed run around a rock face while the tide momentarily sucked back out to sea and an ambitious bit of rock climbing.

We then made a foray into Gorey for lunch at The Book Cafe, which combines delicious food with a wonderful, quirky bookstore, full of general-interest and Irish author tomes. It would have been easy to lose myself for hours there and to miss the rest of the town. Beki and Randy next took us down to the wood turning shop of Robert O’Connor, who creates stunningly beautiful wood pieces in his shop and has lately started to craft wooden pennywhistles as well. I spent a happy quarter hour trying out various instruments while his dog Maggie looked on reproachfully when I hit high notes.

A trip to Tesco left us well-supplied for a dinner of African potato soup. We then stopped by friends that Beki & Randy had toured with, Sammy & Kylie, for a quick visit. We enjoyed the pleasures of good conversation and the storied Swedish confection, “Plopp”, of which they had a stash they willingly shared. (It’s better than it sounds.)

I was delighted to discover that Sammy was the singer for The Electrics, who were my introduction to Celtic rock around a dozen years ago. I went a little fanboy on them, and they were kind enough to send us on our way with a couple CDs and a thumb drive full of music, which has been the soundtrack of our honeymoon since.

Honeymoon: Days 1-2

After spending the day packing and saying farewell to the last of family and friends who had come for the wedding, our friend Ron drove Kris and me to the airport. We enjoyed a last American meal, visited with Savannah, whose flight was going out an hour after ours, and loaded up, waving to Savannah as we boarded.

The flight was long but uneventful. British Airways was great, taking good care of us while we watched La La Land and Doctor Strange. The in-flight entertainment included several other movies I’d had on my to-watch list, but I was exhausted, and even Marvel and Benedict Cumerbatch couldn’t keep me awake. We each enjoyed a few hours sleep by the time we touched down at Heathrow.

Our layover there was surprisingly pleasant. We walked a couple of miles, visited shops we couldn’t possibly afford, poked around the Harry Potter store, enjoyed the airport extension of Hamley’s (my favorite toy store), and grabbed a healthy lunch at Wagamama, which I’d remembered from the trip to my brother’s wedding 12 years earlier.

We landed in Dublin mid-afternoon, gathered our things, and visited the tourist information shops, collecting our own weight in brochures and maps, before jumping into the rental car and heading south. The beautiful green hills and mountains unfolded before us, hedgerows and sheep lending extra charm. It reminded me very much of England, but with mountains.

After leaving the motorway and whizzing past several other drivers at impossible speeds on the tiny roads, we finally made it to our dear friends and hosts for the first part of our trip, Randy and Beki. After exchanging enthusiastic hugs, we decided to take a walk down to the beach to fight the jet lag and to keep us awake until at least 9:00pm.

The shore is beautiful, with a sandy beach nestled among rocky crags, and I immediately stripped off my shoes and socks to wade into the frigid Irish sea. We didn’t last long, however, before the chill won out, so we strolled back up to their flat, where they had a wonderful vegan shepherd’s pie waiting. It was fun to try Sriracha that didn’t come from Huy Fong and lacked the accustomed rooster on the front. The unpretentiously named “brown sauce” was also novel. All was delicious. We enjoyed tea, Irish cheese, and excellent company on the patio until five minutes after 9:00, at which point we decided we had fought the good fight against jet lag and fell into a deep, exhausted sleep for 9 hours.


Thursday afternoon, Kris Spilker and I got engaged.

I am, of course, delighted. It’s hard for me to articulate what I appreciate about this woman without sounding like a Jane Austen novel. She is kind, true, steadfast, and lovely. She embodies hospitality both in her home and in her conversation. The trust I have placed in her has been validated many times over; when she says she’ll do something, she follows through. She takes seriously and lives out the great commands of Jesus: “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” And we have a fantastic time making music together.

For those curious about the details: I took Thursday afternoon off work and took her to Wimberley where we had lunch at The Leaning Pear, a beautiful spot on Cypress Creek with marvelous food. We then climbed up a nearby hill (known variously as Old Baldy or Prayer Mountain) that affords beautiful views of the surrounding Texas Hill Country. When we reached the top, there was a drunk man and a tattooed woman doing yoga up there; not quite the cast I had envisioned for the occasion, but arguably the quintessential Texas Hill Country experience. We found a shady spot not too far from the yogi, pulled out the guitar I’d hauled up, and sang songs together for a while, drinking in the beauty of the place and laughing at ourselves as we stumbled over lyrics only half-remembered.

If John Hughes has taught us teens of the 80’s anything, it’s that Peter Gabriel songs are the proper way to profess one’s affections. Accordingly, I played and sang “The Book of Love,” which ends with the line “You ought to give me wedding rings.” (Note for pedants: yes, I know this wasn’t originally a Peter Gabriel song, but the John Hughes joke doesn’t work otherwise; just play along, OK?) I then pulled the ring from my guitar case and presented it to Kris, saying some inarticulate things that I mercifully do not remember. Fortunately, the prop carried the day, and she said yes.

Thus begins a new chapter of our lives. I very much look forward to continuing to better know and love each other’s families, kids, and other dear people, to further adventures in art, music, food, dancing, play, exploring the world, reverent silences, much laughter, and to serving the people around us and each other for many, many years to come.

Reflections on the Gains and Losses of Maturing Children

I found this on my hard drive this morning: a piece I’d written a first draft of almost exactly four years ago, but never got around to publishing. While it’s outdated in several ways now, I still thought it worth sharing belatedly.

Last month, I walked one of our kids to school for what will be the last time.

The occasion is not catastrophic. I have no fatal illness. Our kids have not been thrown out of school. We’ve not decided that public education is irredeemably flawed, nor are we starting out own magnet school for gifted children with our own surname. The cause, in this case, is the same one we all face: the march of time.

Maggie, our youngest, has just finished up her 5th grade year at Crockett Elementary. The school she will be attending next year is Miller, a Middle School which lacks Crockett’s one-block proximity to our home. Though we still have many years before we face the challenges of an empty nest, this melancholy-tinged march was a foretaste of things to come.

Already I have marked with sadness milestones along the way. Loose teeth are far less frequent around our house than once they were. I’m reminded of one exceptional day when Liam loudly announced that he’d lost a tooth, proudly displayed it for all to see, and then went back to jumping on the trampoline, only to announce 30 minutes later that he had lost another one.

I often see activities coming up on the library’s calendar and get excited about taking the kids, only to realize belatedly that our kids are all past the age where they would hold any interest. “Ooh, hey, a puppet show! The Billy Goats Gruff! Great Story! Oh, wait…my youngest child is now eleven, and billy goats now lack their former charm.”

Saddest for me is the fact that having an adventure becomes progressively more difficult. When a child is young, merely being in the world is a grand, continuous process of discovery. The bar is then raised a bit, but is still easy to clear: a simple walk through the neighborhood yields deer sightings, fascinating clouds, nests of insects. Later, once the neighborhood has become familiar, going to the park or down to the river is necessary to renew that sense of wonder and excitement. And, of course, it’s natural that doing something with one’s parents moves from a consistent delight to something less wonderful. (We have been singularly fortunate in that regard, as even our teenagers seem to still enjoy our company.)

But with these miniature tragedies also come a variety of joys. Each of our young people has such a rich, distinct personality that discovering them is a constant, unfolding delight, like watching a tree bloom and mature over the course of years. One develops an interest in music, and does great in band. Another has a sly sense of humor that continuously surprises and delights me. This one does amazing art; that one takes up theater.

And while adventures become more difficult to come by, they also become bigger and more exciting. We get to go SCUBA diving together. We play open mics together. We design and produce computer and card games. We build (and blow up) a huge variety of things in lumber and lego. We travel and explore the world around us. We explore other worlds that we have invented, tell each other stories that get more engaging with each passing year, and challenge and spur each other on to richer and deeper relationships with those around us.

With each swing of the sun across the sky, I have fractionally less of a child, and a tiny bit more of a friend. And that’s a trade that, while it comes with a bit of sadness for opportunities lost, is well worth making.

Love’s Lonely Offices

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

– Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays” (via Bob Fischer)

My father and I had a contentious relationship during my growing-up years. He and my mother divorced when I was six, and weekends with him devolved over the years from fun to difficult to dreadful.

There were some good times: discovering Doctor Who together. Going down to Brackenridge Park where he showed my brother and me how to trigger the crossings for the miniature trains, slowing baffled motorists. Building small wooden boats out of scrap and chasing them down the gutters during a rainstorm. Eating imprudent amounts of Taco Bell after church. Afternoons at Lake McQueeney with my step-mother and her family.

But those good times were too often overshadowed by conflict. When I was young, the stakes were fairly small and our battles correspondingly benign. My refusal to try three bites of everything on my plate resulted in long hours at the dinner table (and late night surreptitious runs, often intercepted, to the kitchen for crackers and tuna). My reluctance to help around the house brought loss of Star Trek privileges. And my arguments with my step-mother over the utility and value of dish soap caused difficulty for him as he tried to support his wife while attempting to keep a straight face.

When I graduated to my teenage years, things got tougher. Though he didn’t impose a curfew, I thought it absurd and unreasonable that he would require me to call to let him know where I was. I balked with a mule’s stubbornness at lending any kind of help with household chores. I was loudly exasperated and petulant whenever he planned something for the family that interfered with what I wanted to do.

These bigger battles resulted in more substantial casualties. For a period of time, I got into a shouting match with my dad nearly every weekend my brother and I went to visit. When those arguments escalated enough, I would stalk out of the house, walking miles to stay with friends, dodging behind dumpsters to keep my dad from spotting me as he scoured the neighborhood in his blue pickup truck. One memorable time, my dad pinned me to the floor with enough vigor that my retainer popped out of my mouth and sat on me until my defiance was temporarily exhausted. Even when quiet descended on the house, it was a Cold War, with the threat of explosion hanging heavy over us all.

At the time, the only way I knew how to interpret my dad’s actions were as a tyrannical dictator, only interested in keeping his power unchallenged. (And with the zeal of a misguided freedom fighter, I rose to challenge it at every opportunity.) But as time has passed and I’ve had kids of my own, I’ve gained some perspective on those difficult times. While his approach wasn’t always optimal, I now understand how much of what he did during that span was motivated by love; not a sentimental sort, but a hard-edged, steely desire for my ultimate goodness and well-being. As C.S. Lewis said, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”

With that additional perspective, I want to thank my dad for arguing with me when I was wrong. For making me sit at the table for eight hours until I finished my zucchini. For having my brother and I over every other weekend when I gave him every reason not to. For disabusing me of the notion that I was the most important and smartest person in the world. For miles driven in that blue pickup looking for me (again). For disconnecting the TV when I was being an ingrate (also again). For sticking around when there must have been no small temptation to disappear across the country. For never giving up on me even when it would have been the far easier course. For being more interested in giving me what I needed than what I wanted. And for all the other lonely offices of love that I still, to this day, haven’t recognized.

Thanks, in short, for being a father, and for teaching me something of how to do the same.

A Belated Mother’s Day Reflection

I think it was seventh grade when I told my mom that I wasn’t very fond of classical music because I felt like it was too repetitious and predictable. This was the same year that I spent hours in the car on the way to or from school repeatedly listening to Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey”.

The fact that I lived to eighth grade is ample evidence of my mom’s character and restraint.

Christmas Letter 2013

(This is the non-illustrated semantic HTML edition. Also available: the fancy photos-included PDF edition.)

Dear family and friends,

It has been quite a year for our family. We’ve enjoyed some great times together  with family and friends, a few promotions, a terrific (though slightly bittersweet) family vacation, a visit with alligators, an eviction from our house, a repatriation, and a new addition to the family. Read on for all of the details!

Kathy began the year working at Horizon Bay, an elder care facility around the corner from our house, as a caretaker. While she has a fantastic affection and gift for interacting with older folks, this was not a completely ideal appointment: it demanded a fair number of overnight shifts and other times that were inconvenient for her and the family, and it didn’t make much use of Kathy’s Therapeutic Recreation degree. After proving her worth and presenting her case to her boss, he appointed her Program Director for Clare Bridge, the Alzheimer’s community at Horizon Bay — a role that hadn’t existed before. She has received a number of accolades in her new position and, more importantly, loves it.

Emily continued her schooling, taking a few more art classes at ACC where she turned in some excellent work and continued to expand her artistic skills. In the middle of summer, she completed a long-planned move to Baltimore, which has the dual attractions of an art school that she’s interested in and portions of her family that she wanted to spend more time with. Her first few weeks there were a trifle rough: her car was broken into the first day she was there and the rougher sections of the city had her feeling a bit ill at ease. After selling the car and moving to a better section of town, she began to feel much more comfortable with the city, and is now enjoying it a great deal. She’s taking classes there and has been working a job at The Pratt Street Ale House for several months now, and has enjoyed the opportunities to visit with family and friends up in that part of the country.

Abigail is now in her Senior year at the high school. She’s taken up swim team this year, and has done quite well. She is turning in solid times on her events and enjoying her team and teammates a good deal. She has also been learning ukulele (it’s easier on her fingers that guitar was) and continuing to do some singing. One of her favorite classes at school has been a Special Education PE class, where she helps the kids there to stay fit and engage with others. Her plans for next year are still a bit murky, but we’re talking about and weighing the advantages and expenses of work, travel, college, etc.

Liam is halfway through his Freshman year. He has found the transition to High School easier than he expected, though the demands of marching band came as something of a surprise to him. In the month before school started, the band would arrive at 7:30, march until noon, and then practice inside until 5:00. During the first week of that, he would come home, eat a bit, sit in a chair in the living room answering questions in monosyllables, and stumble off to bed around 8:00. His playing is excellent, and he earned second chair among all the French Horn players at his school, beaten out only by one senior. He’s pulled straight A’s so far, and has also been learning some programming in his spare time, writing a few iPhone apps with a little coaching from Dad.

Maggie is now in 7th grade. She continues be a great favorite of her teachers thanks to her sweet nature, generosity, and willingness to work hard. She loves animals, and was delighted at the opportunity to have a lengthy horse riding lesson over the summer thanks to some friends of ours. (It was accompanied by a shooting lesson as well, at which she did startlingly well.) She also continues to enjoy art a great deal, and created several lovely pieces for family members at Christmas. Stories are also a favorite of hers. She’s enjoyed reading and rereading Maximum Ride and Harry Potter this year, in addition to reading through Jurassic Park, Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, and All Creatures Great and Small with her Dad.

Sean is finishing up his second year at Mutual Mobile, where he has been writing iPhone and iPad apps. He recently moved to an Associate Director role, which means less day-to-day programming and more strategic work and caring for people there. He’s also playing music with O’Malarkey, a local Irish band, whenever he can squeeze in the time, and has been enjoying cooking for family and friends more this year. The building of a 25′ tall trebuchet, some delightful long hikes, and a train trip to Chicago with Liam and Sean’s brother rounded the year out nicely.

Over the summer, knowing that Emily was planning her move to Baltimore, we pulled together a last big family trip: a week in New Orleans, where we had spent a day as a family a few years back and all really enjoyed. The vacation was terrific. We stayed on the edge of the Vieux Carré, and enjoyed rides around town on the streetcars, trips to the botanical gardens, aquarium and insectarium, and one of the most memorable meals we have ever enjoyed. (At Jacques Imo’s — “Warm Beer, Lousy Service” and highly recommended.) A particular highlight of the trip was a boat tour through Honey Island swamp, where we met a family of friendly warthogs and saw a number of alligators up close.

Alas, when we returned to San Marcos, it was to a home with a broken toilet supply line which had flooded a good portion of the house. Some of our good friends were checking on the homestead while we were gone and discovered the problem before it got even farther along, but it still ended up causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage. We moved to a three bedroom apartment for “no more than 45 days.” That ballooned to three months before we finally got home. Fortunately, USAA (our insurance company) was very helpful, one of our church friends was gracious enough to build us a beautiful new built-in bookcase, Kathy was able to replace the abhorrent pink tile that has lurked in our bathroom since we moved in, and the house now looks better than when the whole ordeal began.

During our exile, Maggie got stuck sleeping on the couch for much of time time which, understandably, became tiresome for her partway through our stay. As a thank-you for her forbearance, we (perhaps rashly) promised her a kitten upon our return home. Hewing to the family tradition of absurdly named animals (“Fluffy” the hermit crab, “Llama” the gerbil, “Hasenpfeffer” the rabbit), she christened her new black kitten “Mayonnaise”. He’s quickly made himself at home, and has even won over Liam, the most pet-skeptical among us.


As we review our year, it is apparent how blessed we are to have such terrific family, such wonderful friends — what a different year it would have been without those of us who give us regular support, and those we know are further off in the wings, ready to offer friendship when it’s needed. Thanks for being a part of our lives, and for allowing us to be part of yours.

May all the joys of this blessed season be yours in full measure. Merry Christmas!

The Clan McMains

(San Marcos Chapter)