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.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

More Haiku for the Modern World

On Politics
People! Going forward!
I don't accept that! Yes! No!
It's democracy!

Well, it's broken now
And despite what you might think
They did it, not us.

If a party calls
For measures to be taken
Run! Run for the hills!

This side of the mouth
Says something different to
That side of the mouth

It's not my fault that
You saw fit to employ me
To watch this ship sink

Burble burble bup
And in conclusion...

On the Internet
Error Four Oh Four
This resource could not be found;
Check your spelling there

Such expressive rage
In one hundred and forty
Tweeted characters

I would love to share
Your link. But I am afraid
Of who might read it

Where is that email
Confirming payment
For crap I don't need?

In the Shop
Dear God, are you there?
Please get me to the counter
Before that slowcoach

Do you really save
If you buy so much of it
You throw it away?

There are bananas
Such diverse shapes and sizes
Beside the on'ons

I've come to spend cash
Please help me: I need a coin
For your damn trolley

If I stop the kids
They will scream in the trolley
Or hang off me. Argh!

How do people eat
Such healthy food and not sleep
Right there at dinner?

Garlic bread and wine
And pizza from the fridge there
They're away tonight!

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Preventable Death; An Absurdity

Reading this (TheJournal.ie), this (IrishExaminer Online) and this (Antiroom.com), but not any (RTE) of (Indo) these (Times); I am moved to write something about Rachel Peavoy, the 30 year old mother of 2, who died cold and alone in her flat. EDIT: You should also read this account (Political World Blog), from someone who lives in the area.
In the tradition of Irish misery, she died of the cold.  No other systemic issues were found by the coroner. She died of hypothermia in her apartment; neither the council nor her TD, who had been contacted, helped her. I don't know what had to be done to fix her heating, but anyone who can recall as far back as January will recall it to have been bitterly cold. What cost-benefit-analysis methodology decided that it was not worth their while fixing it, because some other apartments nearby were having some building work done?
 Perhaps it is because I am a father of 2 girls; perhaps because it has thrown into sharp relief my own problems (and cast them as comic asides in a veil of tears); perhaps it's because she was 30 years old. It would be sad, should she have been 70, but at 30, the story stops me dead in my tracks. Perhaps it is because I've had enough; and this is my yawp, my scream out the window: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not taking this anymore!"
I am angry for several reasons, but I'll stick to these: 1 - the lack of reportage, 2 - the political/social situation in which something like this can happen, 3 - despite, or because, of points 1 and 2, Rachel Peavoy and what happened to her will be forgotten (or overlooked) by all but her immediate family and friends.
So, why would one be angry at the lack of reportage? Having had to hide from the news during the weeks after Michaela McAreavey's death; from the bizarre voyeurism, which included 'live coverage' of her funeral; I am astounded to find there is no coverage of the Peavoy case. Granted, Michaela McAreavey was the daughter of a well known GAA manager. Also, she died abroad, on her honeymoon; which is all the more tragic. But that is the extent to which it is of public interest.
Isn't it in the public interest, that in 2011, someone could actually die of hypothermia in an apartment? That the reason why this happened was because the person's heating wouldn't be fixed?  She seems pretty enough to be splashed on the papers every day for a week. Why isn't she? Is it because she appears to have been living in a council-owned apartment? Perhaps that's a bad dollar.

Jimmy! Get in here!
What is it chief? Is it the story?
Yes, it's the damn story! What am I supposed to do with the panel opposite?
The panel opposite! What are we going to sell there? Nothing! Get me a murder, something that could sell shampoo or diet pills. Or a weekend getaway.
We don't have any more murders, chief...
No more murders? Well, get something from one of the political parties. Perhaps we can sell some insurance or a loan or something....
There is something very sinister about the lack of reporting into Rachel Peavoy's death. Not only in the case of newspapers, but also on TV and radio. I must have read the story at about 9am on Sunday morning and heard at least 3 full radio news bulletins during the day; and I heard nothing about Rachel Peavoy. I actually started to believe I had imagined it. But on Twitter, a number of other people mentioned it. 30 years old (this is younger than I). A mother of 2 (I also have 2 children). Dead. From the cold. After years of economic development. After all this talk of closing the poverty gap. After all the money spent on who-knows-what-services. How, in 21st Century Ireland, could a woman have her heating break down and nobody fix it? In the middle of the coldest winter we've had in years.
What political/social situation allowed this to happen? Everybody has it tough right now with the economy. People are cutting their own spending; the government will have to claw back more of what they spend and cut down on some of their projects and plans. One politician's greatest regret is that he didn't get his sports stadium built. Yet a 30 year old woman called Rachel Peavoy dies of hypothermia in an apartment.
Someone quite rightly pointed out that the problem is not just that Rachel Peavoy had even contacted her  TD (Noel Ahearn, one time housing minister) about getting her heating fixed - it was that the system is such that this was the only conceivable way of getting the heating fixed, after the council refused to do anything because there was building work going on in adjacent flats. This is absurd. It's beyond a tragedy, because there should have been no helplessness in the face of fate here. I'm sure the council are well able to fix a heating system. We claim, as a country, and a society, to care for the most vulnerable in society.  Wherever Rachel Peavoy might have been positioned on a scale of vulnerability doesn't really matter. If we claim to care for the most vulnerable, then we must care for those from that point on the scale to the other point on the scale. The least vulnerable, for example, who can claim €17,000 because they have a lack of ethical responsibility, but a keen sense of legal entitlement. All the while, at the time, we were bound up in Michaela McAreavey and whether Cowen would jump or be pushed.
I credit most of the people I know with caring more than this. However, I also think it's time that we had a better feedback route to the media. The Internet and social media platforms were allegedly going to do this for us; but evidently they didn't. We binge on news now. Rather than reading broadly and becoming well informed, we read deeply into stories that disappear in days or weeks. It is a single minded, over-wrought form of (to borrow a term from Julian Gough in Prospect) "wangst". This is the fault both of the reader and the media outlets. It's a vicious circle, the kind of which we see in local pubs across the country. Customers want a beer. Publicans want to sell beer. Everyone is quite happy with this arrangement. Problems arise where more beer is wanted than the publican feels it is safe to give (he is 'nannying'), or if the publican refuses to sell anything but beer (when a customer wants a whiskey or a wine). Or, as is often the case in this green land, both publican and customer keep at the beer until one has fallen off his chair and the other is mopping up the eructations of over consumption. It is a strange form of willed ignorance; a blinkering that allows us all to become economic dilettantes, but to know nothing of Rachel Peavoy, who at the age of 30, having had 2 children, dies of hypothermia in her flat because neither the council, nor her local TD would intervene to fix her heating.
I recall an interview with Tom Waits on the launch of his album Mule Variations (I cannot find this interview right now, but will add link when I do). He was talking about the song Georgia Lee; about how he came to write it. He had heard of a girl that had been found in a bush on the side of the road, dead.  There was little about it for a range of reasons - where were her neighbours, her preacher, her community etc. Indeed, the chorus has the stark lines "Why wasn't God watching, Why wasn't God there? Why wasn't God watching, For poor Georgia Lee). When they came to line up songs for the album, they had way too many.  They had to decide what to cut, and Georgia Lee was on the block. Except one of his children thought it was awful; that no one would remember this girl, she would forgotten completely. I remember vividly Waits' summation, saying he wouldn't want to be a part of that.

Indeed, neither do I with respect to 30 year old Rachel Peavoy, mother of 2, who died of hypothermia in a country that a few years ago was considered one of the richest and to have one of the best standards of living in the world.

(Georgia Lee, by Tom Waits.
Video by TraeCH on YouTube)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Thoughts on Paternity

On page 12 of the Sunday Times in Ireland on the 23rd January, 2011, there was an article about paternity leave in Ireland. I was quoted in this article, and I must say every word that was quoted was indeed something I said.

However, not every word I said was included. This is not to claim that my opinion was twisted in any way. I imagine the fact is, much of what I said was rambling; being interviewed at c. 530 on a Thursday, at the end of a very busy week and particularly a day that found me drinking coffee constantly. My hands were shaking, I felt under some pressure to 'perform', not only on my behalf, but also for dad.ie (for whom I write a blog about my experiences as a father), who had organised the interview.  In short, a lot of what I said was perhaps poorly phrased, confused or just couldn't make the cut if there is a word count to which one must work.  However, because some people have asked about some of the things I was quoted as saying, I want to lay out my position here.

The truth is, it is very easy to have strong opinions on paternity leave in Ireland - both pro and con. It is much harder to hold - and indeed explain - that you can see both sides of the argument. To try and discuss paternity is impossible without a mass change of attitudes and opinions is much more difficult again. I will often be accused of 'sitting on the fence', because the certainty-lust of others demand you take a side and fight it to win it. Not all these things are competitions or races. Quite often, the questions that face us in life are qualitative: there can be no "win"; so how do we come about creating a situation where the best possible outcome for competing sides can be achieved?

Very quickly, the points I would make in relation to paternity leave and rights in Ireland are:

  1. I was very lucky when M was born, as the guys I was working for at the time allowed me to take 2 weeks holidays (paid), starting from whenever M was born. This was taken out of my regular holiday leave. I know of at least 2 other people where this was not the case; where they took their leave based on the day their partner was due to give birth. If their partners went 'over', that was tough luck. And so it was for one, whose child was born on a Thursday; they had to return to work the next Monday.
  2. This (as pointed out in the ST article) does have an affect on you as a father. You want to spend time with your newborn, and these days, this is nothing to be ashamed of. In years past, the opinion was you should spend time with your children, but whether you should want to was beyond anyone's imagination.
  3. The other point (which did make it to the article) was that being at home for a good 2 weeks after birth helped me to better understand just how manic my wife's days were.  There is a lot of stress after a child is born (not just financial - after your first, I had an existential ping, reminding me of my adolescent searching to understand what it was all about; there is also the logistics of a child in the house, how normal household tasks are performed; and also (for us anyway), stronger organisation of our time was required to make sure we met all our feeding, nappy, bedtime requirements); so any kind of understanding between the parents/guardians of any infant helps to short circuit any major incidents that might arise as a result of this stress.
  4. I then pointed out that society has developed. Mothers are no longer expected to be purely domestic entities.  It is well known and accepted that women can earn their own money and take care of themselves. Of course, in a family situation, you all take care of each other. However, I think for fathers the role has not moved on. The father's role is still considered to be primarily material: to provide the financial/economic resources required to run the household. This is not to shy from one's financial responsibilities: it is to point out that fathers' generally want to be recognised as carers of their children, and they are often not. This is the case with paternity rights where parents are unmarried; but it is also not the case when people think about a childs needs in the immediate post natal period. Who should be there to care for the child? Just the mother. This opinion does both parents a disservice.
  5. However, I was working on contract jobs, generally sporadically at the time B was born. This meant after her birth I was almost immediately seeking work, being painfully aware that money would be required to pay bills, etc. Even were charm and good looks a tradable commodity, I would be broke. And so, one can see the problem, especially for smaller businesses and those (so many in Ireland) that operate on project work.  It is very difficult to 1 - allow people to take time off from project work, where suitable cover may be hard to find and 2 - pay those people who are not actually being productive toward the business (this of course excepts the idea that you might be taking holidays)
  6. My point about our obsession toward hyper-productivity was not a resounding yawp to return to a simpler time. Rather, it seems to me, social development has directed us further into our work, rather than allowing us to balance our work. When one considers that perhaps 40 years ago, many households had 1 person working. The idea that 2 people working might mean that both spend some time at work (a good thing for the sense of self, soul, creativity, imagination, &c.) and both spend some time at home (a good thing for appreciating life itself, family, etc.). However, this has not been the case. Instead, we find ourselves in the position that in most cases both parents are in work full time and the children are in creche; which is a horrible feeling for a parent. It's not like you're sending them out to the world to earn their living, but you feel lonely for them, and you worry how they will get on with 'other people'.  
  7. Finally, there was the question of whether I felt my employer would accept a decision to take 2 months unpaid leave. I think in all cases (unless the business could do with a payroll break without actually losing talent), this is considered a bridge too far. It has to do with the above point (6 - family life in a productive world), but also a question as to whether someone has dedication toward their work, if they are taking 2 months off. Quite frequently you will hear motherhood being cited as a 'life choice' that means women can't make it to higher executive positions in companies. I'm not sure I agree with the argument, but I am aware of it. I think the same sentiment can be applied to any time requested for family/personal purposes. There is a suspicion that you are not properly engaged with the company, not loyal enough, not committed enough. But this should be seen in the negative: It is not that one is any of these things, rather it is simply that one wants to take the time to spend with their family.
I recall Bertrand Russel's essay "In Praise of Idleness" where he argues that if everybody's working week was reduced, then more people could actually work. Of course coupled with this is a range of other social, political and economic issues that may be too much for any one person (except Bertrand Russel, of course) to attempt to bear. How does one reorganise a whole society in such a way? And what for the sparky entrepreneurs, whose efforts create employment? Any entrepreneur I know would baulk at the idea of being told they should work less. We live in an age when people will be on their deathbeds and will actually say "I wish I spent more time in the office". This is just a fact of life. But it then begs the question of how we adequately deal with implementing a decent paternity leave policy for the country; while squaring peoples desires to work, and companies needs to have people working for them.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reading Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

In the chaos, confusion and general comedy of Christmas in a household of 2 young children, I needed some refuge. Books and CDs have always provided this for me; and I certainly had books around. Receiving a new copy of Tristram Shandy (for the pages were falling out of the 3rd copy I had bought). My sister, who had sent over an Amazon voucher also bought me a copy of C by Tom McCarthy (which I am told is surely one of the best books of 2010).
But I had a hankering for something... I wasn't sure, I couldn't put my finger on it. I leafed through the books on our over-stuffed bookshelves. I wondered what book I was looking for; I knew I was looking for some specific book. There it was, at the back - two books in, over on the right: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer.

I had to read a few of the stories from this great Tome of hte Canon when I studied English in UCD. At the time, I both loved and hated it. I loved the idea - these string of stories tied together with the ingenious device that the people telling them were on pilgrimage. This allowed Chaucer to tell as many stories as he wanted, in as many ways as he wanted. A pilgrimage would provide a mix of characters; this mix of characters would allow him to write diverse types of stories in diverse tones. Some even included the C- word! When I left college, I had overinflated ambitions of writing myself; and Chaucer was the model I wished to follow. Not to re-write or re-create or re-configure The Canterbury Tales, but to write in short stories that would string together to create something greater than each individual piece.

I hated reading the Canterbury Tales because much of the concentration at the time as on translating it from middle English to modern.  This I found tiresome and close to impossible. I was really bad at it. So bad, that every small victory over the text would be celebrated with grand boasting and showboating. Always, I learned from myself, a sure sign of insecurity.  Anyone who studied it will remember the sheer size of the original text you had to work with. Three bibles thick and ten times as obscure. You had to first translate text, then research the context to finally provide a decent translation.  Then, you might (if you wanted a first) use the correct graphic formation for the letters.  For me, all of this was hopeless. The only chink of light was the knowledge that we would be examined on the content of the stories as well as the translation.

For understanding the stories, I had a simple solution.  My booklust had me in O'Mahony's in Limerick one rainy Saturday. I was 3 pints away from getting some money owed to me. I was in O'Mahony's to be sure I wouldn't drink those 3 pints and forget about the money, or - invariably in those days - claim that it was fine, I didn't want the money back.  Perusing the shelves, opening some books. Black ink floating on white, shiny pages; in others embedded in the cream, heavy pages. The smell. There I found The Canterbury Tales, in a modern English translation. Published by Oxford World's Classics, I believed it must be authoritative to some extent. The most important aspect was that as I leafed through the stories, I could understand every single word. No translation. Easy notes, stuck at the back, so I didn't have to trawl through each page and its associated notes.  I  made the purchase and sat down with a pint and The Knights Tale (which was on the curriculum).

That year, UCD had the privilege of hosting Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), who has written a book taken quite seriously, but often rejected, about The Knight's Tale. His thesis was that The Knight's Tale was a subtle satire on the morality of the time. Most consider the Knight's Tale to be the 'control' for the stories - the one that demonstrates Chaucer's ability as a writer, proving that the subsequent tales are true satire, using vulgar (in both traditional and more modern senses) language to throw light both on his characters and the words they use.

I think, when in UCD (it was a long time ago now), I had to read three tales altogether; some for translation, others for discussion. I read my three stories from the modern translation, and carried on with the 'real' interest books that modern, American, Canadian and Anglo Irish literature promised.  In a lecture on Joyce, the lecturer said he'd been told when first studying Joyce that he should wait ten years before reading Ulysses in full. This, he had been told, would increase his appreciation.  I thought that a good plan to try with The Canterbury Tales. Wait ten years to revisit the crushing, painful love of such a difficult text.

That was 13 years ago. But much of what has been written here came to me when I saw the book sitting there, at the back, on the right.  I'm only three tales in, enjoying it already.  I also think my appreciation has improved with time.

You never really know what you're reading. Not because the language is difficult, but because you need to gauge the character who is telling the tale. In many cases, each tale reacts to the one that went before. For example, the drunken Miller tells a story of a student who cuckolds a carpenter. The Reeve, insulted at the victimisation of the carpenter, tells a tale where the Miller is a scoundrel. Each character insults the next just enough to keep this momentum going.  Even in the modern translation, the verse has been kept. I'm quite the fan of verse, so this suits me well.  All the while, the narrator keeps reminding us that it's a book we are reading, and perhaps doth protest too much that he's telling it exactly as it happened - so has to use all this foul language and puerile detail, because that was what was told.

This time, of course, I don't have to consider important insights or witty quips to make in an essay. I can enjoy the book for what it is. Apparently, a reworking (rip off?) of The Decameron by Boccaccio.  But, hell, I'm enjoying it. And that's really what one should be doing with any book. Now in my Christ year, I believe that more than ever and am willing to stop reading the moment a book becomes unsatisfying.  I reckon I'll finish this one. Perhaps to revisit it in another 13 years.