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.

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)

 

A Quick Visit to New York City

Earlier this week, I made a quick trip to New York City to do a work presentation for a potential client there — my first visit in 11 years. After my professional responsibilities were taken care of, I was able to slip away to roam about for an evening and a morning and reacquaint myself with the city that has insomnia.

Tuesday evening, I dropped by the TKTS booth in Times Square to see what I could get admission to at a reasonable rate. I decided upon the play Jerusalem after speaking with the knowledgable and helpful staff member stationed by the signs, who claimed that it “changed [his] life”. The play was wonderful: terrifically funny through the first two acts, concluding with some great human drama in act 3 — an ideal balance. The show was well worth seeing, though probably not one for the younger set, due to an avalanche of blue language. (Though at least it’s English-style cursing, so it might go over the heads of young Yanks.) As a bonus, on the way back to the apartment where I was staying, I got to watch the police clear Times Square due to a “suspicious package” that had been found there. It turned out to be benign. They let everyone back in 10 minutes after I left, though I was wryly amused to notice that they left the people in the Abercrombie store, which appeared to be within the presumed blast radius, right where they were.

Wednesday, I decided to explore Central Park before I had to leave to catch my flight. This turned out to be an excellent decision. In spite of the fact that I spent my four college years only about 30 miles up the road, I’d never really ventured much into the park, aside from the 1990 Paul Simon concert, for which I camped out the night before — a sleepover that, on this trip, I learned was illegal. Oops.

Starting at the southwest corner of the park, I zigzagged my way to the northeast corner, with many a detour along the way (some intentional, others due to my execrable sense of direction). Central Park is fabulous, and within 20 minutes, I was in love with it. Numerous terrific playgrounds, beautiful lakes, boats and bikes for hire, wonderful rambles through the woods, elm trees (which are fairly unusual after Dutch Elm Disease demolished the American population of these lovely behemoths), museums, pine forests, a carousel, castles, running trails, cafes, and theaters all vied for my attention as I passed, munching on an everything bagel with cream cheese and lox, just to get the full New York experience. It made for a delightful morning, though a bit exhausting, as I was lugging all of my traveling supplies on my back with me. (Fortunately, I travel ruthlessly light.)

It was great to get to spend a bit of time in this marvelous city. Crime rates have dropped precipitously over the past 10 years, and, most surprising of all to me, New Yorkers seem to have actually gotten quite friendly since I last visited. I don’t know if 9/11 had a tenderizing effect on gotham’s soul, or if there has been some other seismic cultural shift, but nearly everyone I spoke with was delightful.

So thanks, New York City, for a great time. Let’s not put off our next rendezvous another 11 years.

South Padre Family Vacation

Last week we all took a break from our usual goings-on to head down to South Padre Island, the southernmost beach town in Texas. This was a big deal for me, as Emily is now 19, graduated from High School, and is making plans to move out before long. Thus, this would likely be the last time we would all be under the same roof, doing a trip together as a family, and I wanted it to be a special time.

On our way down, Emily’s boyfriend Andres joined us. The extra vehicle gave us more space for packing, and we all enjoy Andres’ company and were glad to have him along for the first few days of the trip. (Unfortunately, he had to return to San Marcos for work, and wasn’t able to stay longer.)

One thing we did this time that worked out well was to designate an “Entertainment Committee” that was responsible for taking the money that we budgeted for fun on the trip and deciding the best way to spend it. This had a couple of important benefits: 1. Everyone on the Committee got a chance to work together and have a good voice in how our money would be spent. 2. I didn’t have to be on the Committee.

The biggest single expense that the Committee decided was that we would all go parasailing. (This was not something I would have chosen, but the pleasure of not having to be responsible for making the decisions far outweighed any angst I felt about the outcome.) After we signed the terrifying liability waivers and set out to sea, our boat’s crew immediately managed to dunk the parachute into the water, expressing their bafflement as to what was going on in the strongest (and bluest) terms. They eventually got it up in the air properly, and Liam and I mounted up for the first ride.

We soared above the waves, able to see miles in any direction, buffeted about by the gusty wind until I got motion-sick. While I generally have decent sea-legs, and the boat had given me no trouble, the bouncing about we received up in the air was more than my stomach wanted to deal with. Fortunately, it didn’t get to full-on, reverse peristalsis, fish-feeding revolt, but it did diminish my enthusiasm for the time aloft. Abigail and Emily went up next, and both had a grand time. Maggie and Kathy brought up the rear, and were promptly dunked in the water as soon as they were off the boat, nearly submerging Maggie at the same time it pulled her swimsuit askew. Once they were in the air, however, they had a great time as well.

Another highlight of the trip for us was a visit to Sea Turtles, Inc., a rescue center for various sorts of Sea Turtles that nest in the area. Favorite bit of sea turtle lore learned: the leatherback turtle, which weighs up to 1,500 pounds, must eat approximately its own weight in jellyfish each day to survive. As we enjoyed the jellyfish-free beach, we were grateful to these reptiles for their diligent culling of the less-pleasant sea denizens.

The best part about the sea turtle experience, however, was probably getting to see a nest of about 70 Kemp’s-Ridley turtle hatchlings released into the ocean for the first time. Kathy took some great photos and video, which I later edited together to show friends:

(See it here if the embedded video doesn’t work.)

Other highlights:

  • Body surfing with the whole family.
  • A visit from my cousin Tanya.
  • Watching a movie projected on the side of the Port Isabel lighthouse.
  • Gathering shells on the north beaches where the sand dunes are steadily subsuming the roads.
  • Playing “Fortress”, where we build sand castles imprudently close to the waves and then see how long we can keep it from crumbling by building levees and moats around it.
  • Browsing the art galleries and import stalls in Port Isabel.
  • Delighting in the fact that, for the most part, the kids really got along well and even enjoyed each other.
  • Playing lots of games and reading together.
  • Watching “True Grit”, one of my favorite movies of recent vintage, as a family.
  • Playing guitar by the pool with Maggie singing along.
  • Designing, creating, and play-testing a new card game with Liam.

It was a terrific time, and a great start to the summer. Thanks, family, for the splendid vacation!

15th Anniversary Weekend

Kathy and I spent this past weekend down in San Antonio to celebrate our 15th anniversary. We had considered traveling farther afield in recognition of the significance of the milestone, but after recently replacing both our van and our home’s air conditioning system, we decided that something more modest would be in order. Since we love the Riverwalk and being able to comfortably walk around a downtown, we decided that would be a great destination for us.

Our plans to start off with tubing on the Comal River — at 3 miles long, the shortest in Texas — were foiled by the recent flooding in New Braunfels. We instead spent the day lounging about the hotel, enjoying some terrific food, and walking the Riverwalk with Adam, my stepbrother, and his wife Celeste. Since we rarely have opportunity to spend time without a juvenile escort from one side or the other, it was a rare treat to simply meander about and have conversations with actual pauses.

I had an idea that on Saturday we should do something truly grand. We started with a game of Carcassonne, got some mexican pastries and a huge glass of horchata to share (yum!), chatted with a photographer we met, did a little shopping for gifts for the kid, and then went back and took a nap. Given how much we have going on around the house most days, the luxury of being able to have a snooze at the same time was a nearly unprecedented delight.

We ate some more wonderful food that afternoon, went out to Mission Concepción for a bit, and then prowled the Riverwalk some more, reveling in the unhurried pace and the chance to soak in each other’s company at length.

Sunday saw us heading for St. Thomas Episcopal Church for a Jazz Mass service, at which our friends Barry Brake, Darren Kuper, and Greg Norris (a.k.a. The Jazz Protagonists) provided the music. We were delighted to also bump into Paul Soupiset and Jason and Erin Young, who had come down for the mass as well. The service was terrific, the music both organic to the service and thoroughly delightful. We afterwards enjoyed the afternoon with the Youngs, Barry and his wife Catherine, with a too-brief stop to visit my dad, my step-mom, and my sister Meara before finally heading back home for a happy reunion with the kiddos.

Our excellent, unhurried, relaxed weekend, full of good friends, good food, and beautiful places was just what we needed. Many thanks to all with whom we got to visit over the weekend, and especially our dear friends who were gracious to take good care of our spawn while we were gone: Faith, my Mom, Steven & Christina, and Sam & Alba. You guys are great, and we deeply appreciate the generosity and love you showed us and our young ones.

Magnolia Conference 2009 Report

This is a lightly tweaked version of the report I submitted to the University after returning from Magnolia’s first-ever conference, in Basel, Switzerland. I realize I need to write up a more general-interest trip report, but have been dreadfully short on time since our return. I have, however, recounted our adventures often enough now that it should be a straightforward bit of writing; I’ll do it soon!

In September, my friend and coworker Jeff Snider and I attended the 1st conference for the Magnolia CMS, on which our Gato system is based, in Basel, Switzerland.

We presented two talks at the conference: Case Study: Magnolia at Texas State University (mostly Jeff’s work) and Surfacing External Data through Magnolia (mostly my work). Our talks were well received; people seemed to particularly enjoy the window into our implementation experiences.

Other presentations covered various open-source Magnolia modules that may be of use to us, Apache Sling (which looks like a great foundation for building web-service-based content applications), some basic details on clustered instances that will serve as a good starting pointing for setting up a clustered editing environment, and the new UI and architecture for the upcoming Magnolia 5. (We were unable to attend the last, since it was opposite our own, but the slides cover the information fairly well.)

The most valuable thing for us, however, was to get to meet the Magnolia staff and community. We were able to put faces to many of the names that pass across the user support list, and to discuss lots of aspects of Magnolia with the folks who are directly responsible for implementing it. (And one of them saved Sean during his presentation when he made a mistake in my data entry — thanks, Philipp!)

While the conference itself was not without the occasional hiccup — to be expected, given that this was the first time it had been held — the chance to build relationships within the community, learn from the other presentations, and to present Texas State’s experiences made the trip a worthwhile one.

Honor Roll

Kathy and I are just back from a 10 day trip to Switzerland which was alternately the most amazing and the most harrowing experience of our recent lives. I’ll write more on the trip itself later, but wanted to post immediately about the extraordinary kindness and care we were shown by a variety of people over the course of this trip and to publicly thank the folks involved:

  • Thank you to my brother Chris, who stayed with our kiddos for the first half of the week, and to his wife Becky for being willing to share him!
  • Thank you to my mother Diane, who took several days off from her pediatric private practice to care for our kids the remainder of the time we would be gone. When we missed our flight out of Switzerland, she  stayed another night to make sure the young people got off to school OK the next morning.
  • Thank you to Karl, the proprietor of Transcom Accommodation, who came in after hours to check us into our rental apartment and was extraordinarily friendly, patient and helpful when the B&B where we were supposed to be staying lost our reservation. Thanks also to Eva, his neighbor, who invited us into her kitchen while she called around and found Karl after hours.
  • Thank you to Boris, the CTO of Magnolia, and his family. Not only did they make us feel very welcome in Basel and give us some great ideas for things to see and do, but they also had us over for dinner and treated us to a delightful evening of excellent food and conversation. It was one of the high points of our time away.
  • Thank you to Daniel and again to my brother Chris, who surreptitiously did an entire garden installation in our backyard while we were gone. We were astounded to find two large raised beds and an irrigation system (complete with a new water supply line) installed, with Bok Choy, lettuce, and Swiss Chard (appropriate!) already sprouting, where the remnants of our pool had been when we left. Amazing!
  • Thank you to Mike McGinnis for picking us up from the airport when we came in a day later than anticipated and bringing us home.
  • Thank you to all the friends who offered thoughts, prayers, and words of reassurance while we were on the road. They meant more than you can imagine!
  • Thank you to Leslie for staying with the kids after school on the day we were returning and greeting us with a big hug and a bigger Mexican food meal — just the thing to make us feel well and truly back home. (Thanks also to Charles & Lydia, Faith, my Dad, and the other folks who offered to help out that afternoon!)

We are amazingly humbled and grateful to have friends who are far better than what we deserve. Thank you all for your love and your very concrete support.