Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Moving on...

Sorry I've been quiet for a while. I'm moving this blog over to Wordpress, where I have also started a new blog called craichouse.

I also write regularly (more regularly than anywhere else) for http://www.dad.ie/blog

Thanks for visiting, and I hope to see you over at http://brensshorts.wordpress.com

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Reading Sometimes a Great Notion

I'm reading Sometimes a Great Notion again. This is a (huge) book by Ken Kesey (perhaps better known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; or the infamous acid tests).  I read it first in college; it was hard work.

The story itself is a huge cycle, centring on a town called Wakonda in the Pacific Northwest of America.  The town's income is almost exclusively derived from lumber and logging. The union, comprising almost everyone in the town (except the extended Stamper family) go on strike for better pay and terms from the lumber mill. The Stampers (who aren't on strike) are the hard-headed centre of the story.  They not only continue to work, but extend their contract, promising to deliver the lumber that the striking workers would have provided.  Were this not enough animosity to drive a storyline, Kesey also adds a dose of intra-family animosity, centred primarily on Hank and Leland, two brothers from different mothers.  While Hank lives and works in Wakonda, taking on the family business from his father, Leland lives back East. He comes out to Wakonda, ostensibly to help the family meet their contractual obligations with the lumber mill; but also to wreak some kind of revenge on his brother for injuries from the past.
The hard-headed approach of the Stampers is beautifully crystalised in an early moment:
Kesey winds through the story of how the first Stampers came to move to Wakonda. Jonas, a religious man who worries about his family's "curse" of always pushing further west moves out to Wakonda with his young family. He soon moves back to Kansas - he simply can't hack it. Everything he tries to cultivate over-grows with weeds - all his attempts at controlling nature fail. He returns to Kansas, taking with him most of the money the family have. His son, Henry, takes over the running of the family and the business.  Some time later, Henry has a child, Hank, who becomes one of the central figures of the story. Henry's father sends a religious plaque for the baby with an inscription reading "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth". Henry takes the plaque and paints "NEVER GIVE AN INCH!" over the inscription in yellow machine paint.  The humour here (the meek, who moved back to Kansas, is still convinced the meek shall inherit the earth) is also shot through the whole book - although, I'll confess, sometimes it's hard to pick up on, because the narrative is pretty dense.
The narrative style makes the book both engaging and enraging.  Kesey stitches each chapter together with threads of narrative from different characters' viewpoints. At first disorienting, the approach becomes really engrossing once you can get your concentration into gear. The voices start to spread into your own mind, much like the natural environment in the story, growing over all the attempts humans have made to cultivate and control it. 
I often think of the writing styles of American literature in terms of spreading - from the long lines Walt Whitman used in his Leaves of Grass right up to Jack Kerouac's manic, seemingly uncontrollable prose (I don't mean to ignore the minimal, and shorter forms - such as Carver, William Carlos Williams, etc; just in this context, I'm coming from this style).  The prose 'spreads' or reaches out, reflecting a discovery of the land and landscape and people.  This works really well for their narrative, as almost all their heroes have real adventures; overcoming great difficulty thanks to their own ingenuity, hope and physicality. Of course, all these ideas are played with - so you can point out nearly any book where none of these things all fall together - but the point is they play off this idea of going off to find a fortune or a good living, and the discovery and attempt to master nature.
In Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey's characters are already at the edge - there is not much further for them to spread. On one side is the Pacific Ocean; on the other, land that has already been discovered, conquered and mastered; which of course is no good to them. Where they are just keeps growing. This works well for the lumber men,  because there are trees to fell and product to sell. For others, coming from out-of-state, it's almost horrific. Those from Wakonda live a tough life in constant struggle; those from elsewhere are infected by the romanticism of this savage landscape, but soon withered by it.
This modernisation of the dream is reflected by the narrative style. The threaded voices, each telling their own story with their own motivations are like channels swirling in water. Like water, the narrative gets deeper and deeper - you don't realise until the end that you are introduced to much of the story in the first 50 pages. Rather than reaching outward, Kesey brings us down further, exploring the relationships between all these people that are on edge in so many ways.
Within this framework, Kesey deals with a huge number of themes, which all ripple outward (yes more water) - for example, antagonisms between man and nature blend into antagonisms between authority and submission blend into antagonisms between community and individuals blend into antagonisms between family members. There is a major East vs West(ern United States) theme that ripples into civilisation vs savagery, touches on family, the idea of playing it safe and striking out on your own, and so forth. This is the easiest way to describe it, but I've described it poorly - the book is not simply a series of dualities set up to duke it out. While there are many opposites fighting for control, the swirl of narrative really adds something very rich to the whole experience (and it feels like an experience - not a simply activity of reading a book).
All of this adds up to many unresolved contradictions and paradoxes and (god save us!) human hypocrisies. When I say unresolved - I don't mean storylines are unresolved - I mean that he reflects some of those questions about our life that are unresolved; and he does it in a pretty robust way. You stick with it because the characters are so human, and the prose so beautiful.
It really is a tough book, with timelines and ideas all jumbled together. Great concentration and - frankly - discipline is required to complete it, but when you do (and you actually don't) - it is well worth the toil.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On The Queen, Garret and Barack (and doing it for ourselves)

It has been a remarkable couple of weeks in Ireland, with first the UK head of state and then the American President visiting in close succession. We also lost Garret Fitzgerald.

For the queen, we pulled out all the stops - stops for traffic; stops for nefarious characters, who were duly searched; stops for our cynical hearts, which embraced the Queen of England's presence with startling warmth.
I am proud that our country has moved on to the extent where our neighbour's leader can come to our country and not be under constant criticism or threat for personal security. But we went a bit beyond this. For all the talk about equals, there was a wavering balance. Like having your girlfriend's ma'am turn up to meet you.
"Nothing serious!" she says, "just a little chat! I know you've been seeing each other for a while, and I just realised - we've never really had a" - here, the face scrunches up, lips pushed out, eyes peering over nose to you - "proper chat."
And duly, in our role as young lover, having shifted the face off England on and off over the years, as well as had a few rides here and there, we put on our best clothes and maybe some coffee and said "Yes! It would be great to talk!"
"Like equals" she says. And you know she means it, talking to a self sufficient young man; but you think to yourself Do I? You're nervous because you want to put forth your best face. After all, you've been in the house, and passed it a hundred times. You know about their strange ways, their traditions and etiquette, which are slightly different from yours. They remind you of the porcelain figurines on the modern wood mantlepiece, opposite which you both sit. You don't need to defer to her, but you want to. For your lover. And you know this woman has seen you round the neighbourhood, back when you did things you're a bit embarrassed by now, smoking fags with the big lads outside Tescos just a couple of years ago. But here you are now, settled.
You chat for a while; still nervous. She asks how you are, and seems genuinely interested. You tell her. You ask her about herself. It dawns on you: your both nervous. She knows how you hurt her child, and knows how her child hurt you. But you're putting that behind you - and you've been neighbours for as long as you remember; and while you've never spoken to this woman - your lover's mother - properly - you both know each other. It's a painful, but joyous moment, almost... intimate. So you move on and she says "Well, I hear you play the guitar!" Oh Christ. You know you'll have to play the guitar. While you're OK with it, you have much greater talents you could show. But this is what she knows about you, and this is what she asks for. So you play You Raise Me Up and secretly know you're going to be really embarrassed about this when your friends find out.
But it all passes on well enough. She smiles and you smile. You get so comfortable - it's like you're on the same wavelength - she's really talking your language. As she leaves you think "I'm going to do my best by her - her kid deserves the very best I can do" But then you have to ask yourself - why can't you just do it for yourself?

I must confess to witnessing some republicans (with a small r - into the "nation for the people", but not the murderous psychopathy) wavering in their own beliefs. I woke up in a cold sweat on Thursday morning - I had to get out of town before the Queen came in, and I was sure Mary McAleese was going to be crowned. Or attempt to adopt the Queen, for taxes and little-old-lady-with-the-belly-of-a-lion-leadership. But, more luck for me, this never came to pass.
I drove the startlingly well surfaced, clean roads from my home in Co Kildare out to Dublin. The traffic was still a bit heavy, but with well-tended shrubs and a beautiful morning, it didn't seem all that bad. We cleaned up pretty well here.  Sadly, not for ourselves. If only we kept the place clean, there wouldn't be that nervousness whenever someone comes to visit.

Then we heard the news.  Garret the Good had died. I know of at least half a dozen people who hoped in his last hours, he might have heard the Queen's speech at the State banquet in her honour. We reflected on the timing - so apt that he might go, just after it's confirmed that his work was done. A stickler for detail, it seemed he'd had his homework closely assessed, and outside a couple of stray grammatical errors, it was of a first class honours standard.  If the Queen was our lover's mother, Garret was surely our Grandad. Like a grandfather, everyone seemed to have a story about him; some event that demonstrated his warmth, intelligence or generosity.  Tiresome in our youth, but making more sense as we grew older; until ultimately, he calmly (having seen it all before) explained where he thought we were going wrong, as we laughed and continued doing it anyway. And when it all went wrong, rather than hold it up to us, he told us: Well, you'll have to make it right now. As we fumbled with that task, he calmly and meticulously tried to explain what it was we should be doing. Like all grandfathers, we listened but pretty much ignored his advice (some even mocked it) until he died. I have no idea if he was right or wrong - but I do know he was talking to us all the time until he did die. Then we exclaimed his broad genius.  In fairness, we always held him in our hearts; if not our minds. A true statesman and grandfather to the nation.

It was just as well our buddy was coming over. He'd cheer us up. He always did. A bit of craic, the President of the USA. This time in teh clothes of Barack Obama. Your big brother or sister's friend. No - your big brother or sister's cool - no coolest -  friend. The one that was always sound out. Dressed like they did in the movies and never apologised for it. Confidence, they had, and everyone wanted to be around them.  They asked you how you were doing, what you were up to (making you feel like everyone might want to be around you too). The one you once spent ages in the pub talking to. Then, when you were walking home, you realised (with embarrassment) that you never asked them how they were doing. But you were pretty sure they were doing OK. They were always (and still are) sexy, confident. Everyone in the room looks at them. They pay their own bar tab. Your older now, and you know they're only human; they have their problems, but you don't want to talk about that.  You want to impress them instead. They come over, full of  confidence and optimism. They tell you what you need to hear. Some hard truths, some softer, all a bit something you know in yourself, but somehow you still need to be told. Then you want to say something to them, but you're nervous you'll say something stupid (even though you know they're pretty generous of spirit, you don't want them thinking your stupid). Say something smart. Say something. SAY SOMETHING! You tell yourself over and over. And you tell them something you know they've heard before, because they said it before. But you say it anyway - repeat back to them something they've already said - to show how cool you are now. How you're getting it together. They make you smile, maybe laugh a bit. And like your big brother or sister's coolest friend - they have to hit the road too soon! They leave, but you feel confident. You think, "Yes, I can do it. I'm no dork".

And we have to hold onto all these things. It is sad that we can't generate this confidence within our own country.  Confidence in our status, the conviction of our values, the courage to go on. And we must go on. If we don't nurture this new-found self esteem, it will be gone again, and before we know it, this mad weekend will be over; it will be Monday again, and we'll be hitting Snooze because it's just a struggle to get out of bed and face that day ahead.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some Thoughts...

I Wanna Be An American
Barack Obama produced his birth certificate. End of what was a long and non-existent story. I would like proof that Donald Trump's hair was either grown or manufactured in America. I doubt this will be forthcoming. Can we trust an American who can't account for his own hair? Especially one who espouses transparency from the tips of his toes to the top of his strange translucent head blankets. On the other hand, he and whatsisname getting married in England might be in some kind of conspiracy involving people rich in money, but poor in follicle activity.

Publicans at the Gate
Some (long) while ago, Sacha Baron Cohen, in the guise of Ali G, did an interview with someone in the North (Wikipedia tells me it was Sammy Wilson, but hand on heart I could have sworn it was David Ervine). He asked what everyone had against the "publicans". Much hilarity ensued. Of course, it may not have been that funny, but Ali G was a show I consumed after a bellyful of pints in a pub that had an upstairs "niteclub" (a spelling I have always abhorred). I would often be told it was time to go home by men who bore no similarity to my mother.  Wearing their branded tee-shirts and a steely look probably formed somewhere in the army ranks, they were sound enough guys. But couldn't risk any "incidents". Through the threat or use of force, they were willing to preserve the peace of the raucous "niteclub", where punters evidently did not discuss the poor spelling under which their entertainment laboured.
Instead they were drinking and dancing and, probably, shifting away, as I staggered home in my steel toe capped boots pondering the inherent absurdity of that threat or use of force protecting peace and restricting my own, completely rational freedoms. Older now, one sees it percolated throughout any civilised society. Perhaps "force" is too strong a word, but the idea that you can be made to do something you don't really want to (pay taxes, or a fine, community service, go to prison, etc.) does have some element of "force" to protect those who may be victim to the cruel whims of others (excepting, of course, the cruel whims of those in high political power. There is no protection for us against them it seems). All our freedoms must to some extent be restricted at the point where they may infringe on the freedoms of others. Depending on whether it is your freedom being protected or being threatened, we all love or hate this situation. Some of us love or hate it on a daily basis.  All because we can't trust ourselves to be responsible enough to not encroach on other people's freedoms.
Tied up in this absurdity is the fragile idea of hope. Hope, tied up, kidnapped. There is hope because, even though it seems inescapable, we know it is absurd - therefore we know there is either a better way or another way, or some other situation which might not be quite so absurd.  Such were my drunken philosophical meanderings as I wound my way down perfectly straight, properly surfaced roads.
At home, Ali G would be on the TV, perhaps on a rerun, asking difficult questions that were difficult because they were utterly pointless. Back in those halcyon days, we were all about peace on this island. Hold on...
...we still are. Who are these guys standing in their balaclava helmets reading out speeches threatening everyone who isn't one of them? On what basis are they demanding a return to bloodshed and mayhem? Who are they proclaiming to protect or represent? They come across as latter-day bouncers, protecting the revellers in something. But what? Answers on a postcard, please (addressed to 1981).

Labour Get Left
Much commentary over our new coalition has mentioned that Labour have lost their "leftist" credentials. Well, that was a mistake, as they've gone Stalin on our asses now.
Joan Burton has said she's going to cut payments to anyone on social welfare who doesn't take a reasonable offer of work (read: the first job they're offered). Rather than give someone with decades of specialised experience the chance and space to find a new opportunity, they'll chuck them into some low-grade career-starter role, or perhaps a position with no career prospects at all!
The time for all this bullish "cut your benefits" talk was when the country was at near-full employment. When those on the dole - or at least a large number of them - simply did not want to work. These people will always exist, there is nothing you can do about them not wanting to work. But now is not the time to invest money and resources into getting them to work. The situation is completely different now. Most of those on welfare don't want to be on welfare. They are getting close to despair not being able to work - not being able to ply their skills and exploit their talents and experience. They don't need to be forced into jobs. They want jobs. Perhaps they need to be upskilled to learn entrepreneurial skills; or given the tools that will help them sell a service based on their talents and skills. Pushing them out the door could well push them out of the country. And that wouldn't be a terribly smart economy.
On the other side, we have Ruarai Quinn. Before the election, Labour promised investment in education (for the Smart Economy, which now looks the size of a Smart Car), he's now said the money isn't there. But we can improve by simply being better. So we'll have a world class education system for nothing. If only we had have thought of this earlier!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

International Women's Day: A Dad's-Eye View

I just wanted to write some words about International Women's Day. These would be those words.

I'm not qualified to write on the plethora of issues that have been raised throughout the day, but I understand some very interesting facts and figures can be found on the We Are Equals and the UN International Women's Day websites.

This morning, as I was driving into work, there seemed to be a fair bit of scepticism/cynicism about the whole concept of International Women's Day. Typical questions included:
  • What do they (i.e. women) need it for?
  • Is it really relevant now, in the West?
  • Why isn't there a men's day?
  • You have to accept biological differences, this is PC gone mad! 
So, what is International Women's Day for? In the West (our great enlightened concordance of ideas), I suppose it is for men like me. Up until about 3 years ago, I fell in with those arguments listed above (except "why don't men have a day?"; that feels to me like arguing against a perceived victim mentality by claiming one). Women seemed suitably represented. Our president (and previous president) were both women. I worked for a while for Yahoo! whose CFO was a woman.  I knew at least 3 women who either owned their own business, or were their own boss. Outside of the guys I was working for at that time, and 2 short term contracts, every boss I had was a woman. My wife earned considerably more money than me at the time too.

Then, we had a girl. Then, we had another. Then, in the courses of various conversations, I wondered what would become of them. It wasn't until then that I really considered it. I honestly believe if I had boys, I wouldn't have considered anything further than they can do what they want and be happy. For my kids, I had to go from this belief to they shall have to do what is required to be happy enough. My kids can't do what they want. Just the other day, someone talking on the radio said "It's a choice women have to make: have a career or have kids." (someone also said that this morning). Other people say women are happy with a restricted career so that they can have kids. The underlying assumption being that women have to take more time out during and after pregnancy to look after those kids, which means they aren't in the office as much as their male counterparts. This is all fairly logical. And, as already mentioned, biology determines these issues. There can be no "socialisation" of sexuality and reproduction. And nor should there be.

However, all these arguments are founded on the idea that business needs to grow exponentially and forever, like some kind of continually aroused phallus, growing and growing until it has screwed every one of us. We haven't stopped (or even paused) to think about this at all. Why must we continually work longer hours? Labour saving devices and technology were meant to give us better lives with more free time. To allow us to become more 'human' in the sense that we enjoyed our human lives; were protected to some extent from our human frailties, and could enhance our human experiences. Instead, we saw the efficiencies gained and thought - we could fit some more in there. Make a bit more money, develop a bit more stuff, sell a bit more crap. And we did that. Over and over again. We live in a time when - as they lay dying - people will wish they spent more time in the office. We're casualties of our own success, our ability to do the things we want to do and earn money doing them. We soon neglect, or forget our families, or have to prioritise work over our time with them (which is ironic, because we tell ourselves we are working to make things better for our families). Our lives facilitate our careers, rather than our careers facilitating our lives. We haven't considered the idea that we could slow down a little, spend a little more time with our children and families and enjoy life a little more. 

I'm not qualified to write on the issues that have been raised throughout the day, but I am qualified to write about my wishes for my children and the world in which I would like them to live. I would like them to be happy. I would like them to have children if they want to; but not feel they have to choose between having children and having a career. If they have children, I would like for them to give those children the love and care they'll want to give. I would like for them not to be told, or to decide that they 'have to choose' between being the best they can be both professionally and personally.  And I would like that this lifestyle is not achieved through sheer luck (because they are lucky enough to work for people who are sympathetic to the idea that employees have families). Rather, I would like them to be in this situation because that's just the way it is.