Archives for posts with tag: life

Among the things I think about sometimes is how we got here as a species, and where we’re going.

We tend to think of ourselves as a young species, having only discovered writing (and with it, history itself) in the past 5,000 years, and civilisation (with its permanent monuments) 5,000 years before that. Earlier than this, our history as a race of humans goes quite dark. Archaeology tells us a few things, but the further back we go, all we have are fragments from our past. We can quite easily forget that we are a very old creature indeed. How long ago was it since we discovered language, since we started singing, since we started praying, since we discovered a sense of humour? It’s hard to say, yet it’s quite probable that such traits predate homo sapiens, going back through multiple ancestral species. Were we to travel back a couple of million years, maybe we would still see ourselves in our austrolopithical forebears.

I remember reading a book some time ago, that one group of our ancestors (or possibly close cousins) spent over a million years fashioning an early stone tool with practically no development in all that time. That’s tens of thousands of generations just hammering away with little sense of innovation. They were rooted in the animal world – lives full of fury, struggle and passion, but not one given to legacy or creative accomplishment. Maybe there were stirrings there. Maybe, every so often, one of them came up with an idea, but they were quickly hit over the head, or eaten by a lioness, before that idea (or their genes) had a chance to spread. 

I ask myself if that’s where we’re ultimately going back to. If anything has been successful in the long term on this planet, it’s been that patient toiling away with little progress through the generations. Among all the animals, a sense of constructive wonder seems to be selected against. In the single case where it has succeeded, it’s lead to an exponential increase in technological development, resulting in a potentially untenable situation full of nuclear weapons, over-population, resource depletion, multi-species extinction and the prospect of disastrous climate change. Maybe our ultimate fate (if we survive this time at all) is a return back to the animal realm. Maybe, 90,000 generations hence, our distant children will be back in the trees, or scurrying around in holes, or hammering again on rocks with little thought for art and music. 

I think about the last person in that line, looking around at her species and wondering about it all, before death finally takes her away and the universe once again becomes dim and distant to humanity.

In the beginning, we were Important.

God made a whole Universe, just for us.

He spent a few days at it, then we arrived.

Us, the pinnacle of his creation.

 

He told us not to fuck around

And not to fuck with Him

Do that, and we could live forever,

Because we were Important.

 

Life was simple with God.

Somewhat shit,

And somewhat short,

But uncomplicated.

Anyway, Important people shouldn’t ask questions.

 

Then a Polish priest asked a question.

What if?

What if we were not Centre of the Universe,

But off a bit, to the side?

Ever since, that’s been the story.

More questions,  more sidelining.

Turns out we’re not that Important after all.

 

This made a lot of people Very Angry.

But what about Creation?

And what about the Rules?

And Life after Death?

And what about God?

Good questions,

From people not supposed to ask them.

 

So here we are, not Important,

Life’s not so simple anymore

But better,

And full of hope.

We’re important to each other

And that’s what counts.

 

 

I recently arrived at my 48th year on this planet. With a good bit of luck, I can make it to 2050. Thirty five years. It’s as far away from me now as 2015 was when I was 12 years old.

In 1980, people wore jeans, t-shirts and runners. They had colour TVs, digital watches and Tupperware. Star Wars was already a thing. The big difference, of course, was computerisation and mobile technology, but even so, there was a familiarity about those times. In the same way, 2050 may not be too foreign to modern sensibilities when it eventually arrives. We are well on our way to this future date.

By now, it should be obligatory for me to tell you that the years fly by too quickly, and that I remember the 1980s like they happened yesterday. But honestly, it was a long time ago. I was a child back then. I can’t lay claim to that title anymore, however hard I have tried to delay the onset of adulthood.

I think this feeling of ‘tempus fugit’ is something of a delusion. Life doesn’t fly by as fast as we think it does. Days might whizz by, but there are a few hundred of them in each year. It’s a lot of time. 10 years is a whole heap of time and 30 years practically an eternity. It’s just that our brains make the past seem so much closer than it really is.

I’m pretty sure that this sense of time passing by quickly is a function of a memory system that best remembers the things we remember the most. Music, particularly the most popular tunes, seem recent only because we hear them often. So too with places visited regularly, like my mother’s home, or local schools and shopping centres. We recall distant events there clearly only because we are minded to remember them quite often. The gap in time is shortened only because we frequently remember the memory, not the event itself.

Maybe it’s where I am now in my life. With my children now passing into teenagehood, I seem to remember their earlier years as a transient blur. But in reality, I don’t think it was quite so speedy. There was plenty enough time there for my father to fall sick and pass away; for my marriage to crash-land and for a while, chaos to take the place of security. It’s just that I have forgotten so much. Perhaps that’s the real tragedy of ageing: so many experiences have been scattered to the four winds. What remains now are bare threads.

Life is long. It’s long enough for us to make big mistakes and to recover from them. It’s long enough to breach the surface after diving the depths of despair. It’s long enough to see green shoots where once there was bare earth. Even in middle-age, there is still time to find peace; to make life more livable for those around us; perhaps to yet follow our dreams. 

Despite the awfulness of forgetting, maybe  there is more time there than we normally appreciate. And in that, I think, there is hope.

I was about 13 years old when I came out to my dad. I’m sure he had known it for years already and had probably prepared for the worst. He must often have wondered what he did wrong to have a son like me. He had his dreams, but alas, those aspirations would never be fulfilled.

He had to face the truth. I was utterly useless at hurling.

Now, it wasn’t all bad, because I was equally rubbish at football, tennis or golf. In fact, almost all sports eluded me. For a man of sport, in a county where the ability to play hurling was more important than winning the Nobel Prize or landing on the Moon, his first son was an unfortunate freak of nature.

The thing was, my dad was exceptionally good at sport. In his youth, he played Minor hurling for Kilkenny (which made him a minor god in the locality). He loved nothing better than to go to a game, or watch a match on the TV. I remember going to many matches with him during my childhood – and being bored out of my wits – while he savoured every puck of the ball. There was no-one quite like my dad to read a game and explain how a team won or lost. For me, it was just a mass of confusion.

In my teens, he encouraged me to take up golf. Surprisingly, I loved it. I was never much good at it, of course, but I enjoyed the game and I enjoyed being with him. We both loved ideas, so in between shots, we debated endlessly with each other – science, politics, religion, current affairs: you name it. In a time when I was learning how to be an adult, these games brought us both together.

That’s one of my memories of dad. He passed away ten years ago this month, after a long illness that slowly sucked any quality of life away from him. I miss those games of golf. I miss going with him to hurling games listening him talk about the tactics, the heroes and the mistakes. Most of all, I miss him.

Now, with sons of my own – all of whom, incomprehensibly, are very talented sports players – I feel that an important part of him has been passed on. It’s a nice feeling.

Every Saturday, Granddad obliged us to go on walks with him down to Gyles’ Quay, a  mile’s walk from our house. We would do anything to avoid these walks, hiding in wardrobes or scooting under our beds, fervently hoping he would give up and go without us. It never worked. Inevitably we were discovered and soon we had our coats and boots on, all the while grumbling against the injustice of it all.

The Gyles’ Quay walks formed the backdrop to our childhood. Granddad would tell us about life at the turn of the century. He would regale us with stories about the Titanic and the two World Wars. Occasionally he would bump into friends he grew up with – we would while away these interludes playing with Major, a small mongrel dog who always accompanied us on these journeys. In truth, we always enjoyed these walks, especially since there was a treat of a chocolate bar for us at the end.

Today, I visited Gyles’ Quay with my 10 year old daughter. I talked to her about Granddad and Major, the old people we would meet, and how I nearly gave my Granddad a heart-attack, running in front of an oncoming train on one occasion. I was amazed how much I remembered from those years. To her, it was like a window opening into the past. It was a memorable walk for both of us.

Little has changed in the intervening thirty years. For sure, there are more houses on the opposite bank of the river. The railway no longer carries passengers between Waterford and Rosslare. Otherwise, it’s the same place. The smells, sights and sounds are as they were. The plants and the trees, the old lighthouses, Waterford Castle, the tiny fresh water spring bubbling up from the road by Halpin’s farm – all frozen in time. This is my childhood. My trip down Memory Lane.

Image by Jerry ツ

Yesterday, a man called around to the door to do a job. As soon as he had set foot inside the doorway, he started talking. And talking. And talking. He spoke about the government, the police, the criminals, the immigrants, the travellers. He gave us his views on how the law should be changed to benefit the victims and not the criminals. If we thought things were bad now, he said, just wait. They were going to get a lot worse.

It must have gone on for ten minutes. With him just inside the door. No pause in conversation. No chance for us to get a word in edgeways. No realisation that, instead of looking at him, we were staring on the middle distance.

By the time he had finished his work, the world had been set to rights. This would probably have involved the incarceration and expulsion of large sections of the Irish, and non-Irish, population.

Do these people realise they boring the pants off other people? Do they realise how offensive they are being? Do they not pick up on the hints? The lack of feedback, the glazed eyes, the silences that follow their diatribes? Don’t they realise that, if nobody seems interested in what they are talking about, that the correct course of action is to stop? Just to take a breath and listen to what others have to say?

May all of you have a bore free day today.

(Image “Boring” by Jerry ツ Flickr / CC Licensed)

I must be the slowest person ever to join Toastmasters.

My first meeting was in 1988, when I was a student in University College, Cork. I was terribly shy, somewhat socially inept and going through a very difficult period of adjustment in my life. Why I went along, I am not quite sure. Toastmasters just seemed like something I needed to do.

Having arrived late at Moore’s hotel in the centre of Cork city, I blushed awkwardly while asking the receptionist where the meeting was. I clearly remember her gawking at me and giggling as I self-consciously made my way to the meeting room. The people there were a bit older than me, but from the first day, they made me feel welcome. I joined up soon afterwards and very quickly I set myself the task of presenting an Icebreaker speech – the first speech you will do in a Toastmasters club. It was one of the most unnerving things I have ever done. Talking to the audience was almost like an out-of-body experience. I could not believe that this was my voice and that I was commanding the attention of a roomful of people.

Over the next two years I worked through more speeches, performing different roles in the club. I barely missed one meeting during that time. Toastmasters offered me something that I was not getting from college – a chance to express myself, to follow my own interests and to interact with friendly people from all different ages. It just seemed to suit.

After leaving college, my work found me in Belfast for a few years, then Prague and finally Dublin. Five years had passed since my last Toastmasters meeting, but despite the crazy hours I was doing in work, I had a yearning to go back. I joined the Dublin Toastmasters club in Buswells Hotel and I spent 3 years there, slowly grinding my way through the remaining speeches in the manual. I completed my tenth and final speech just before I relocated back to Cork.

It was now 1997, and marriage, babies, a house and new job opportunities were to take pride of place in my life until 2003, when I joined the local club in Midleton. I’ve been there ever since, and I’ve enjoyed almost every minute of it. Despite having served in all sorts of roles in the club and entering every competition that has been going, I’ve taken the advanced manuals at my own slow pace. I’ve yet to get any Advanced Toastmaster qualification. What I have gained, however, are great friends, a good deal of self-confidence and a relative proficiency in public speaking and presentation skills. I’ve gone on to set up a skeptics club in Blackrock Castle Observatory and to dabble in podcasting in my spare time. I am currently president of two clubs: Midleton and the club at my workplace.

Toastmasters for me has been a great experience. No two meetings are ever quite the same. You never know what is going to pop up that might give you a laugh, a jolt, or a pause for thought. The people who attend the meetings, irrespective of their backgrounds, all have fascinating stories to tell. I have learned to underestimate nobody. I have also learned the secret of good presentation skills: practice. The more you present in front of people, the easier it gets and the more polished you become. Toastmasters offers nothing except an opportunity to improve your abilities in a supportive environment. It’s the best way to learn.

I have only the vaguest of ideas where I go from here. I’m hoping to complete my first advanced stage in the next few months and to complete my presidency with two reasonably strong clubs by the end of the year. Beyond that, I don’t know. Maybe a new and scary challenge will present itself. I still have lots to learn and new challenges to take on. Here’s to the next 23 years.

Find a Toastmasters club in your area. World / UK Ireland

Walking into the hotel was like going backwards in time. The wood panelling, the cubist picture on the wall, the brown leather sofas. All perfect. All preserved like an ancient fly in amber. Here, the 1970’s were still alive. Little consideration was given to the peculiarities of our present age.

We had not expected to stay here. We were in this hotel because our car was undergoing emergency surgery. While driving through the Palatinate forests east of Pirmasens, we heard a bang from the engine. A battery light appeared on the dashboard and I lost power steering. We ended up in a petrol station waiting for the German AA man to arrive. He quickly diagnosed the problem. The alternator V-belt had broken. This was not something he would be able to fix by the side of the road. A trip to the garage was called for. The repair would be neither fast nor cheap. Our plans had changed.

An elderly man was waiting for us when we went downstairs for breakfast the following morning. He was dressed in an impeccable but dated waiter’s outfit. He reminded me of the butler in that perennial German favourite “Dinner for One”. The lady of the hotel, presumably the architect of this situation, was of a similar vintage. She wore a bright orange dress with her hair tied up in a beehive. Clearly, she was a beauty to behold in former years. As we were coming downstairs to check out, we could hear her tapping away at an old typewriter. I wondered to myself what had happened to cause her clock to freeze in time some forty years ago.

The train came to a grinding halt just outside Aulendorf. I instinctively thought that someone had pulled the emergency brake. Two attendants ran past with somber looks on their faces; something very serious had taken place.

In Ireland, a canned statement would follow an hour later, about an unavoidable delay “for operational reasons”. But this is Germany. Here, in this railway line between Ulm and Friedrichshafen, we were told what happened almost immediately. Someone had ended his life, throwing himself in front of the train. When the engine came to a halt, his body was some distance behind the carriages, in a state I dare not imagine.

Sitting opposite us was a rather odd man. He was somewhat elderly. A few long whisks of grey beard intermittently jutting out of his wide chin at strange angles. A few times during the journey, he would turn to us and declare “Es regnet” (It’s raining). Most of the time he spoke quietly to himself. Occasionally he would take out a book, seemingly a yearbook of 2009, read a few lines, then replace it back in its bag. While disconcerting, we paid little notice.

When the train stopped, he abruptly became animated, asking us what had happened, as if we had some special insight into the accident that he did not possess. After being told about the suicide, the man asked us if the criminal police would interview all of us. He seemed perturbed by the prospect.

The train attendant quickly became his object of attention. This young woman, clearly upset by the incident herself, was harangued by the man every time she passed by. He wanted to know when the train would go again. He had to have lunch, you see, in Friedrichshafen. Then, he wanted to know if the train back to Ulm would be on time. No comprehension in his eyes that someone had just died.

Emergency workers and police were now making their way down the track to photo the body and determine the circumstances. He started banging on the window. “When do we continue our journey” he would shout. At one stage, an official pointed to his watch, intimating that we would be going in 20 minutes. It wasn’t enough for the man. He got up from his seat and followed the beleaguered train attendant down the carriage. “But I have to eat in Friedrichshafen”, he would say.

The train finally got underway and we finally arrived in Friedrichshafen. Descending from the train, he started shouting at other passengers. “Out of my way” he would yell, at one stage adding an racial expletive to a black man ascending the steps. He barked another order at an elderly woman in crutches at the doorway of the station.

Then he was gone, presumably to eat a rushed lunch, harassing some unfortunate waiter or waitress in the process; oblivious to what had happened or to how other people might perceive him. A strange man indeed.

1) I had The Talk with my 11 year old son last night. I think I did well and I got some great questions from him. We talked about lots of stuff: DNA, puberty, the menstrual cycle, conception, contraception, XY chromasomes, how twins come about and teenage pregnancy. It was wide ranging and after a few brief factoids, I let him direct the conversation, to ask any question he wished. The only confusion that happened was when he couldn’t understand how eating a condom each month would help prevent conception. I had to go over that one with him one more time.

2) I have been suffering from a large mouth ulcer that has been lodged in the back of my throat over the past week. It is near the opening to my inner ear, so I have had an earache as well as a bad sore throat. I went to the doctor and I was prescribed antibiotics, which in hindsight was a fairly poor diagnosis. What I had was viral, not bacterial. It’s as useful as throwing a life-belt onto a road to help in a car accident.

3) I went for a medical test yesterday. The results indicate that I need to make some big lifestyle changes regarding diet and exercise. This is no surprise to me, but given my current daily and weekly routines, not to mention my love-affair with high cholesterol food and lack of exercise opportunities during the week, I am not sure where I start. It’s a huge challenge for me. Huge. No, really.

4) On the plus side, I had a meeting with my dermatologist and the result is terrific. Over four years, no recurrence and nothing suspicious looking on my skin. It means I’m now out of the danger zone. Long may it last.

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