Runner…

Eddie and Me

I’ve been running for as long as I can remember.

My parents are from Ireland, as in everybody I am related to, who aren’t my parents, siblings or kids, still live there. So every other summer or so, Mom and Dad would put me on a plane in San Francisco headed for the homeland. And when I say me, I mean just 12, 10 or 8-year-old me, to fly for hours and hours, and then change planes at JFK in New York, and then fly a bunch more hours.

Personally, I loved it. I’ve always been, how do I say, a little on the solitary side. I like my own company and am totally cool being alone for long stretches of time, and distance, so the five thousand miles to Ireland was no big deal to me. It was to others (like Mom) so I was typically placed in the charge of some group of adults, I assume known to my parents, who were headed the same direction. Sometimes it was the Irish Club that Mom and Dad belonged to, one time it was an order of nuns, and this other time it was Sister Michelle (the principle of my parochial school, and boy was that a long trip) but whoever it was, I always made it there, to the landing strip at the little airport in Shannon.

Remember how in the old days they’d roll a set of steps up to the plane and you’d walk down to the tarmac like you were coming down the stairs of a two-story house? Well it was the old days in Ireland more recently than it was in most other places, so that was still a thing when I was there. And when I got to the bottom, there would be Grandma, and her husband, Eddie O’Hanlon. Eddie wasn’t my grandfather (that guy had passed away many years prior, after a life spent mostly on the lam) but had married my Grandma after one of those later-in-life romances.

And Eddie was a character.

“Eddie” was short for Redmond, his namesake. Redmond O’Hanlon had been a highway robber who, legend has it, took from the rich (English) and gave to the poor (Irish). Think a local version of Robin Hood and you’re probably pretty close. You’re also pretty close in guessing that such generosity origninated from trying to keep said poor from sharing one’s identity with said rich, but that doesn’t make for as good a story – and in Ireland, it’s all about the story. I liked Eddie from the time I met him because he didn’t treat me like a kid – in fact he’d let me do things my parents wouldn’t dream of (nor later be told of) like fetch his drink at the pub (blackberry brandy with a beer chaser) or run his bets down to the bookie. I think he had me run bets because I could always get there in time to place them, even if he’d spent a little too long picking his ponies.

After collecting me at the airport in Shannon. Eddie would drive us back up to the north of Ireland to Grandma’s house, just outside a little village called Poyntzpass. Ireland’s funny in that just about everywhere that’s anywhere has a name, so the plot of land where the old house was had a name too: Corcrum. I loved Corcrum, with its sloping green hills, it’s rabbit and fox populated fields, and the little stream the ran through the bottom of the small valley below the house.

It was that same small valley where Eddie would have his eight greyhounds run up the steep slopes of the fields. They were chasing the rag constructed ‘rabbit’ I was rapidly retrieving via the tire-less back wheel of an upturned old bicycle I was pedaling – by hand – as fast as a boy could. Of course, the rope being wound onto the wheel that was tied to the rag rabbit kept jumping off track, so that scheme didn’t pan out as planned. But that was okay, as Eddie was an idea man. When some connivance didn’t quite come together, he typically had the next one ready to go.

And the next one after ‘fast dogs’ was, apparently, ‘fast boy’.

As a boy I was always the fastest kid in my class, and usually the fastest in the whole school. My Mom was a runner too, of the caliber that took her as far as training for the Olympics at one point, and I got a good helping of those genes. Between Mom’s genetics and the small mountain in my home town I spent summers running up, I was fast. Really fast.

And at some point Eddie O’Hanlon figured that out.

The little towns in Ireland typically held a fair in summer, and Poyntzpass was no exception. At the fair there’d be music, and baked goods, and prize animals and the like – and then there’d be stuff for the kids to do. One of which was a 50 yard dash. Which Eddie entered me in. And which I won.

After collecting that medal, just about every weekend to follow included Eddie driving me to another village’s fair, invariably in time for the 50 yard dash, which I invariably won. This went on until I had more medals than I could hold in one hand. It also had gone on to the point where it wasn’t really that fun anymore. I’m always up for a car ride, especially to somewhere I haven’t been, but the rides were getting longer, and then we’d just stay for the race.

And that’s how it went until one weekend Eddie took me to a big race in Belfast. This was no fair, this was a sanctioned sporting event. There were flag poles with the colors of different countries flying, and the kids I’d be racing against were accompanied by their trainers and were wearing track suits with their names on them – and the names of their sponsors.

And I was in my usual blue jeans and Keds sneakers.

I won a race or two but got eliminated pretty early on. I thought wow, these kids can really go, and I admired their athletic ability. I would have liked to stay and see some more races, and would have been interested to see how far the kid who beat me got. But we didn’t stay. We got back in the car for the long ride home, and that was the last time Eddie entered me in a race.

Which was fine by me.

After that it was back to fishing, which I adored, and playing in the fields chasing the rabbits, and riding the bike that Eddie and Grandma bought me. And on work days sometimes Eddie would take me with him, and then somedays we’d just ride around and find a little adventure or two. I loved that old man, and I know he loved me, though back then, back there, you didn’t really say stuff like that.

I feel silly admitting it now, but it didn’t occur to me until years later that Eddie likely bet on each and every one of those races. I hope he made a lot of money, and I hope he didn’t lose too much on that last one. I was older when I heard that Eddie died. I hadn’t been back there in quite some time, and it’s not like we wrote each other – still, that charming old rogue played a part in who I’d become.

When we got the call that Eddie was gone I went up to my room, to the top drawer of my desk where I still kept all those medals, opened it, looked at them, and smiled…

 

 

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I Used to Own a Phone (but now the phone owns me?)…

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What’s the longest you’ve gone without your cell phone?

Anymore it seems that our phones are also our internet portals – so maybe the question I should be asking is how long have you gone without the internet and your mobile phone? Here’s the reason I ask: I just went two weeks without turning on my phone/internet portal. And you know what? It wasn’t all that hard to do.

Now there was a time that feat wouldn’t have seemed so astonishing. We used to do all sorts of things, for hours, days or even weeks at a stretch, without checking the phone that was to become the omnipresent occupant of our pocket or purse.

For me my favorite “didn’t have a phone with me” story is about driving across country back to California after I got out of the service.

In 1986, when nearly every phone in existence was still firmly affixed to a wall by a wire, I was discharged from an Air Force base on the East Coast. My destination upon said discharge was the West Coast. At the time the only vehicle I owned was a very small, very old English sports car.

To say that car was intermittently reliable would be more than generous.

And when the day came to begin the 2,500 mile journey to my next destination I climbed in my little car, fired up its antiquated motor (which still had the option of starting via hand crank) and pointed it west.

Five days, two break downs and one sleepless night later I rolled into the town of Morgan Hill, California. That’s an adventure I will never forget. And it’s one that, in no way shape or form, involved a cell phone.

And while now that seems like an absolutely unthinkable thing to do without a mobile phone handy, the truth is we used to do it all the time – remember?

We used to go long stretches of time without pulling out our cell phones and calling someone, or taking a call, or looking up the weather, or driving directions, or videos of people getting hit in the crotch with golf balls, or, well, you get the idea.

And look, I’m not one of those “everything was better in the past” type people who believe the world has grown steadily worse in inverse relation to the amount of birthdays they’ve accrued, but I have to say – not turning on a cell phone or getting online for the last two weeks has taught me something:

We get online and use our cell phones way too much.

Now that’s not to say we don’t need our phones – of course there are times when we absolutely need them. Like say for example that time a while back when my kid broke down on the freeway in San Francisco during rush hour traffic – that was a time I was more than grateful to have a portable phone in my pocket. He got ahold of me and Loretta and we bailed him out of a bad spot before it had the chance to become a worse spot.

But how about other times? Like those times when someone is talking to you and yet you glance at your phone. Why do we do that? Didn’t that used to be rude? So when did rude become not rude?

And the reason we divert our attention to our phones, even though someone may be right in front of us and fully deserving of that attention, is that we feel we’re going to miss something.

But what are we really going to miss? An email with an offer for our dream job? A phone call from a long lost, very rich, dying relative?

Uh, no.

Based upon going 14 days without checking my phone I can tell you exactly what you might miss:

About 11 emails selling weight loss diets, 13 selling antidepressants, and 7 selling male enhancement pills (do all guys get these or is it just me?) and 3 emails offering deals in Ireland – and how creepy is it that the Internet knew I was in Ireland? Oh, and I even got messages telling me I’d won the Nigerian Lottery. Twice.

When I finally checked voice mail it was about the same story. The messages I feared might be there were not – you know, like the fire department calling to say the house burned down, or the IRS calling to say they’d like to chat about my last 3 tax returns.

What I actually had were a couple of random missed calls and a friend or two wishing me a fun time in Ireland.

And after all that here’s the analogy I’ve landed on: The phone and the internet are like the envelopes I get from my mail carrier – the vast majority of it is junk. And while that might be great for keeping the Post Office in business, it doesn’t improve my lot in life one iota.

I mean I don’t rush to open those “Mr. Gavin or current resident” envelopes, and I certainly wouldn’t open one as a real live human in front of me was trying to convey a thought.

So why do I do the same with the stuff on my phone?

The short answer is I don’t want to anymore.

But I have to tell you the weirdest thing happened when my plane touched down in San Francisco. When I turned my phone back on – after being off for two whole weeks – and watched it fill up with the emails and voice messages and text notifications, I started to fall back into the old habit.

You know the one, where you use the phone as a sort of distraction as you pretend that all the things happening on it somehow require your immediate attention.

And then it occurred to me that my phone is, much of the time, just that: a distraction. One that keeps me from being fully present where I am; keeps me from living totally in the moment; keeps me distracted.

Here’s to putting down our phones and living in the moment. And while my moment was two weeks long – I’m about to see if I can make it a little longer.

Don’t Shoot

If you’ve read my column before you probably know that I spent chunks of my childhood in Ireland, where my family is from.

My parents would make the arrangements for my summer trips: where I’d stay, with whom, and for how long — and then take me up to SFO to board an Aer Lingus jet for the long flight to their homeland. Even though pretty young at the time (10 or 14 — or in there somewhere) I’d make the trip alone because, well, that’s what they could afford. But I wouldn’t really be alone. Back in those days you could pull aside a flight attendant and ask her to look after your kid, and she would. Or, she would as well as she was able between making coffee and bringing all the food they used to serve on airplanes to the throngs of hungry/thirsty/needy passengers.

On some flights I’d have an attendant checking on me every hour or two. And on some flights I’d actually have someone my parents knew, or maybe a friend of a friend, who happened to be going back for their summer in Ireland, who could watch over me. It was usually easier when I was actually with someone, especially when we got to New York, where sometimes I’d have to change planes.

But however the trip went, I always loved the part where we broke through the clouds over Ireland and there were green fields as far as the eye could see. It was both weird and wonderful, being from California, to see long green grass growing in the summer time, and it served as a reminder that I was travelling to a very different place that was sort of like a fairy-tale. People there spoke much differently than I did, and the steering wheels were all on the wrong side of the car, and there were donkeys on the roads and roofs made of thatch. It was sort of like being in Oz, only it was all the Emerald City. Continue reading →

Secret Life of Boys

When I was little I traveled to Ireland every few years or so.
My parents are from Ireland and took me and my brother and sisters back there during summers to stay with our grandparents. One morning, at Grandma Tierney’s house in Tipperary, my brother Brian and I decided to head down the fields in search of adventure. At the time I would have been about 12 and Brian maybe 10 or so. Continue reading →