Category Archives: musings

Things to worry about

About this time last week, my list of things to worry about looked like this

  • Being killed by terrorists.
  • ISIS expanding to take over all of Europe and then the USA.

and far down below those and everything related to them, quotidian things such as

  • Dying in a fiery car crash on the Beltway.
  • Being killed by a random gunman because I live in the USA, or having that happen to my husband at work or my children at school.
  • Having the house broken into (while B’s away).
  • Having the house broken into (while we’re all here).
  • B dropping dead while running, leaving me ignorant of passwords to online bill paying, so that as well as being bereft and lonely and bored with nobody to make up appropriate lyrics for any song at the drop of a hat, we would have our electricity cut off and freeze to death.
  • Getting stuck behind a fiery car crash on the Beltway so that I’m late to pick Dash up from school, and discovering that my phone refuses to hold any contact numbers any more so I couldn’t even call them to say why I’m not there.
  • Mabel refusing to open her mouth at her upcoming dental checkup.
  • Cancer.
  • Meningitis.
  • My turkey being dry on Thursday.

and so on, in descending order of terribleness or likeliness; you get the idea.

This week my sense of statistics has righted itself and those first two have dropped down to somewhere below the others. Climate change is in there somewhere too; I’m never quite sure where. And maybe the zombie apocalypse, sure, if I’m in the mood for fretting.

Of course, statistics are no comfort to all those families in Paris, in Mali, to a family not far from here who lost someone. To everyone who has died in car crashes or mass shootings or all the other terrible things that happen and continue to happen.

So, in conclusion, this isn’t a very comforting post, is it? But I really like how everyone’s tweeting cat pictures in Brussels. That seems like a very good way to deal with the tension. I’ll be over here trying to keep my worry weebles the right way up.

Asshole-proof

Mostly, my Facebook experience is a happy one, filled with other people’s amusing anecdotes, pictures of delicious food, heartwarming snippets, cute kids, and kittens. I carefully curate my friends list and those whose notifications I see to keep it this way. I know it’s a bubble, not representative of humanity as a whole – and that’s how I like it.

This week I’m seeing chinks in my bubble, if I may mix metaphors. Of course, my friends are all lovely right-thinking (that is, left-leaning) people; but some of them, through no fault of their own, have other friends or relations who are not. I’m also in a neighbourhood Facebook group that does not screen for membership on the basis of whether or not you’re an asshole.

So it’s disheartening to discover that there are actually lots of Americans out there who conform exactly to the stereotype of the closed-minded, ignorant, xenophobic American the rest of the world often thinks of. The type I never encounter, to my knowledge, in real life. And, because they conduct their Facebook business mostly in their own hate-filled bubbles of like-minded people and jingoistic militaristic gun-totin’ Fox-news-watching memes, I can’t tell whether there are in fact more of them out there than sane, decent people or not.

Which is worrying.

I don’t think Irish people are inherently better than Americans. I imagine the ratio of assholes to non-assholes is probably about the same everywhere, give or take a few culturally specific beliefs or practices. And Facebook assholes might even seem like perfectly nice people if I met them out and about, seeing as how I’m a non-threatening white soccermom type who doesn’t fly the flag of her feminist anti-gun tree-hugging liberal pro-equality leanings at the supermarket checkout. I don’t often even wade into the fray online, though I’m not above a little passive-aggressive point-scoring grammar/punctuation/spelling correction when moved.

A friend asked this morning whether things are getting worse or she’s just getting older. I have to confess to having the same thoughts myself lately. On the whole, to save our sanity, I believe we have to decide that there’s just as much good as bad out there. That sometimes, often, there’s more.

 

Trust

The kids are doing ceramics this term. Dash had no interest in the “hand-building” class, but thought pottery on the wheel sounded like a lot of fun. I had to ask specially for him to be allowed in the class, which is meant to be for ten year-olds and up, but I’d heard it was in danger of being cancelled for lack of interest, so I thought they might take an enthusiastic nine and a half year old.

Yesterday was the fourth class, and Dash was a little less enthusiastic than previously. Turns out, pottery on the wheel is hard. It takes a while to get the hang of. You have to keep at it. Every day so far he’d ended up with more or less the same splats of clay that he’d started with, in spite of all that time it had spent spinning around between his hands.

This week, when I peeked into the room about 20 minutes before the end of his class, the teacher beckoned me in and said “Show your mom what you made!” Two pots – real, round, proper, smooth, lovely pots – were proudly on display on the drying shelves. He acted all nonchalant, but I knew he was bursting with delight at finally proving his worth on the wheel. True to form, twenty minutes later he was regaling us with tales of how he’s probably the best potter ever.

I hope he remembers this, because if he learns to trust the process before he’s even ten, he’ll be saving himself a lot of angst later on. It’s a lesson I’m only just starting to appreciate. I know I said it in my last post about writing, but the more I think about it the more it applies to so much of my life.

Running round the lake is boring, but every now and then I notice that I’m not thinking about how boring this is or how soon I can stop, and that I’ve gone further than I expected. I just had to get through those first two weeks of seeming non-progress first.

Writing a book sounds daunting, but I think I can do it now, and I’m just going to plug away and trust that I’ll get there. Sometimes you just have to keep going, one step after the other, one thing at a time, and it’ll turn out that you’re not a freak of nature but that, in fact, what was true for others is true for you too. You can do it.

I don’t mean you should keep doing what you hate for the sake of it, or pigheadedly refuse to change a course that’s not working. Don’t flog a dead horse. But if you can have faith in something that you know will take time, it will come. Trust the process.

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 9.25.13 PM

So this was obviously absolutely the wrong image to use for this post. But here it is.

Telephonically

I never ever phone someone for a chat any more. Is that weird? That’s probably deeply weird. It’s possible that I’ve turned into the Sandra Bullock character from The Net, if anyone else even remembers that film. She hid away in her room and even ordered her pizza online, so she didn’t have to talk to people.

I order my pizza online too, but it’s a nice friendly website and I’m not sitting alone in a room lit only by computer screens when I do it, so I think that part’s okay. Also, I go out and pick up the pizza, so I do interact with the people at the pizza place.

But I don’t ring anyone up just to talk to them; except my parents, because they’re not so au fait with the internet and I do admit that there’s a certain level of intimacy that hearing someone’s voice achieves that seeing their words appear on a screen doesn’t. And my husband, I ring him up at work, but not so much for chats as for those “Please buy milk/beer/wine/biscuits” conversations that have to happen to prevent me needing to make a last minute dash to the shops with two children in the worst part of the day.

I could just ask him by e-mail or chat. Sometimes I do. But I don’t avoid ringing him up.

I do avoid ringing other people up. I’m okay with business calls, like scheduling a dentist’s appointment or something. I’ll put it off for a few days, but then I’ll just do it. But the idea of ringing a friend, randomly, at any time of day, seems uncivilized now. It feels very self-centred of me to assume that they want to talk to me, and that they can just drop everything and do that, whenever I choose to ring them. And if I leave a message and they ring me back, then they’re doing the same to me, and we could play phone tag for ever. So much more considerate to send an e-mail that they can read and respond to whenever it’s convenient for them. Also, then I don’t have to ring them.

My father never liked being at the beck and call of the telephone. This seemed to me a ridiculously old-fashioned objection back in the day – sure, wouldn’t you always be only delighted to chat to someone if they rang up wanting to talk to you. I wasn’t one of those teenagers who was always hogging the line, but I did ring friends for chats back then. Apparently since then, I’ve come full circle back to my dad’s point-of-view for a more modern reason – I prefer the convenience of the Internet for my interactions with friends.

Maybe it was because I moved to America that I stopped making phone calls. I called my parents, but I had nobody else to call, really. I could keep in touch with Irish friends by e-mail. With the time difference, it made more sense. Those who weren’t into e-mail, well, our friendships languished, sometimes. Some of them were easily picked up every time we went home; some weren’t. I didn’t have new American friends to call on the phone yet. I didn’t need to ring my boyfriend every night because I lived with him now. His friends and their girlfriends became my friends, but I didn’t ring them and they didn’t ring me. Then we moved, then we moved again. We had a baby. Somebody said we should join Facebook because that was how people kept in touch these days. I joined Facebook.

It was a bit of a momentous thing, now I think about it. I have more friends now than I ever did before, if by friends you mean anything from “people I have encountered on the Internet and seem cool” to “bloke I am married to”. I can hide the depths of my weirdness behind my quick quips on Facebook and nobody will ever know.

But if you’re my friend, don’t be offended if I never ring you for a chat, okay? I’m just bad that way.

The family nose

The older I get, the more often I look in the mirror and see my mother’s face looking back at me. I’ve got over the shock now. It’s okay. I’m resigned to it. I know my Dad’s family is in there too, somewhere, but one side’s genes predominate as time goes on; at least from where I’m standing.

On Facebook, I see my cousins and my cousins’ children, and I see my place in a pattern that goes on and on, waxing and waning, being diluted and returning with vigour a generation down the line. We all look alike, and some of us more than others. “The O’Connor is strong with that one,” I comment, and they tell me about someone else’s young fella who look just the same.

(Of course, it might not be the O’Connor. That was my grandfather. It might be my grandmother, it’s hard to tell. And before her I don’t know whether it was Spencer or King, and I’m not even sure that King was my great grandparent on that side anyway… but someone, somewhere, had strong genes and they’re still around.)

Then I look at my husband’s cousins’ Facebook babies, and they look like my daughter, or my son looks like one in particular of his cousins more than all the others. The family lines prevail: the hair, the cheeks, the nose, the chin. The particular distance from the upper lip to the base of the nose. That way the corners of the mouth go whenever they smile.

We’re all just points on a continuum. We all take our place in the line, the tree, the human race. It’s comforting, really, to be a part of something that persists, regardless.

Even if I’m still not so happy about my nose.

Airport philosophising

This is the first time I’ve flown transatlantically alone since before I was married. Since I emigrated, in fact. That’s … counts on fingers… almost 12 years. It’s the first time I’ve had this much time to myself, without more than a few sentences exchanged in passing with a stranger, for… a long time. (I’m not the type to strike up a conversation, or have one struck up with me. It’s either a personal failing or a triumph, depending on how you feel about strangers.) B dropped me off at the airport at midday Wednesday, and I’ll get to my dad’s house around 10am tomorrow. Subtract the five hour time difference and you get 17 hours. Seventeen hours to myself. (Fine, I hope I’ll be asleep for some of them. Not as many as I’d like.) Seventeen hours where I don’t have to say more than please and thank you if I don’t want to. Seventeen hours where I only have to think about feeding myself, and my own bathroom needs, and when nobody else’s disinclination to sleep will impinge on my own. For the first time in 12 years? Well, maybe in 8 and a half, since my husband is not such a demanding person as my children and allows me quite a lot more autonomy than they do.

I’m in Boston airport, enjoying the luxurious free wifi. This is the end of the terminal with all the Irish flights, so I’m surrounded by Irish accents of varying hues and the people in the duty-free shop all look unnervingly familiar. What sounds almost jarring in its unfamiliarity now will become commonplace in a day or two. Every time I see a small child I smile at how very cute they are: it’s true that I’m missing my two already, and the two little ones they used to be when we would do this journey and I wouldn’t have a moment to think for myself. If only you could dip in and out of bits of life; you’d appreciate it so much more that way.

Before I had children I was so clear: ready, organized, on the ball. For a few years, then, I was just fuzzy and blurred through lack of sleep and constant distraction. I’m putting it back together again, the clarity, now that I get to function in public alone more and more often. I have my card ready to swipe at the checkout because I’m not restraining a toddler who wants to climb out of the cart – no, in – no, out – or arguing with a preschooler about who gets to press the green button. I have my boots off at security and I’m waiting patiently with my one bag, plenty of time and all in order with crisp, swift movements. The days of overseeing the folding of the stroller and the taking off of other people’s shoes and holding the baby and stopping someone from running through before it was time but then getting them to walk the right way when it was; those are gone.

It’s easier every time we travel; why on earth am I hankering after the stresses and excesses of back then?

Maybe it’s just that humans are bad at endings. We don’t like doors that close firmly in our faces. We like to leave the opening ajar, so that we can peek a head around and check things out, just to make sure we’re really happy with what we have. And even though time never lets you do that, we pretend it does. We pretend we’re still young when we’re not, we do the things we used to do because we still can, just to show that we’re still that person.

I am still that person, but I’m simultaneously enhanced and deflated. Fuller on the inside, not so smooth and new on the outside. Still learning. Still moving. Still wanting to open the doors to the past that are firmly shut. Looking for the door that goes the other way instead.

Unsmart: Not an early adopter, not yet a luddite

I don’t have a smartphone.

At least, technically I do, but I don’t use it smartly. I have a little Samsung that has smartphone capability but I don’t have a data plan so unless I’m at home or somewhere with free wireless, it’s not smart. And even then, I don’t bother. I tried to set up Facebook and Twitter when I got it, but on the rare occassion that I try away from home, they don’t seem to work .

When we were on vacation last week, others were amazed that neither of us have iPhones. As far as they’re concerned, an iPhone is a constant requirement, much like food or oxygen. How could you survive without one, we were asked? But we’re both usually within spitting distance of a laptop, so why would we court arthritic thumbs just for the joy of doing it all on a smaller screen for a hefty monthly fee?

However. There comes a point when you’re actually falling behind on the technology curve. What starts out as a somewhat smug and superior, money-saving “I don’t need that fancy newfangled thing” can turn into a much less desirable “The idea is actually a little scary now, because everyone knows how to use it and I don’t.”

But I’ve felt like this before. I felt like this when I was 20 and some of my friends at college were playing around on the tiny Apple Macs on the third floor of the library and I had no idea what they were doing. I felt this way in about 1995 when I didn’t yet have a mobile phone but most people did. Both times, I got with the program a little while later. I’m just not an early adopter: that’s okay.

I don’t see myself getting an iPhone any time soon, simply because I hardly ever use my phone even as a phone. It sits in my bag and runs out of batteries for a couple of days before I’ve noticed. Unless I start spending a lot more time out of the house, I’m more likely to get an iPad first, probably; but the technology’s much the same, so that would work out equal, right? And even at that, just now the idea of an iPad mostly makes me think of an annoying keyboard and another thing for the kids to demand to play games on more than anything I’d regularly want to use myself.

Finally, I spend a lot of my day online. If leaving the house provides me with my offline time, I’m wary of getting an appliance that takes that away. Then I’d have to practice some sort of self-control, and that’s just not my bag, baby.

How about you? Could you live without your iPhone? Do you think someone who doesn’t have one by now is beyond all hope for survival in the modern world?

 

 

Less is more

One of the things I struggle with as a parent is trying to get my kids to be content with less. Less stuff. Fewer toys. A smaller serving of ice cream.

Sometimes I feel that good parenting has to be saying “No” a lot. No to stuff, no to more toys, no to incessant whining. I’m sure that when I was a child I didn’t whine for new things every time we went out. I didn’t feel an outing wasn’t complete if I hadn’t brought home some new piece of crap to fill up the house. I got new things for Christmas and for my birthday, which were conveniently at opposite ends of the calendar. In between, barring unexpected visits from far-flung relations, I played with what I had already.

I remember, though, very much wanting to have lunch in a snack bar when we would be out on a Saturday, and to get a sausage roll, instead of the “horrible” picnic my parents would pack. Because children don’t appreciate anything, a boring sandwich in the car, watching the waves roll in over a deserted beach in County Wicklow, was not interesting to me. A lukewarm sausage roll, on the other hand, flaky and golden outside, salty and pink and spongy inside, eaten at formica tables under buzzing florescent lights – now you’re talking.

I rarely got the sausage roll, but when I did, it was a treat.

I remember trying on a new duffel coat in Dunne’s. My mother wanted the grey, because it was a sort of heathered colour that would “hide the dirt”. I wanted the navy – it was smooth and sophisticated and … oh, I have no idea why it was so much nicer in my mind than the grey one, but I wanted the navy. I tried them each on, and when wearing the navy I pranced with a spring in my step and a smile on my face; in the grey I slouched and dragged my feet. I was making them laugh, though, not really being a brat. I knew I was trying it on in both senses of the phrase.

They bought the grey one, and I wore it and thought sadly of the navy that was denied me for at least two winters.

As an only child, I probably had more than most. But we didn’t have a lot. Some years were harder than others, I know; but I never saw it in the food on the table or my Christmas presents. My parents are frugal people who hate waste and will never buy something just for the sake of it. (My mother’s handbag purchases excepted. Once or twice she shocked me to the core by buying two handbags in one day. I have not yet reached those heights of flathiúlachas.)

And now I have these children with all this stuff. They can’t go to Target without assuming the right to something from the dollar section; and I think it’s okay because it’s only the dollar section and there’s still the entire toy department for me to have to say No about. They both get an allowance now, and Dash is scrupulously saving every penny he has – not for anything in particular, but just to see how much he can get, I think. He likes to count it and gloat, Scroogelike. Mabel forgets to put her two quarters away and they float around the kitchen for a few days, or she turns them into parts of her game and I find them in the dollhouse a week later. She spent her previous amassed fortune on a mama and baby fox in Ikea a while ago, even though originally she’d been saving for an Anna or Elsa doll. But she’s not really interesting in saving for something else. It takes too long, when you’re five.

When we go to the thrift store or a yard sale, they know they can get something; though I try to enforce an exchange system – they have to bring a toy to donate. And it’s so very hard for them to choose – it’s so difficult to give up their Stuff, even when it’s totally crap stuff, because it belongs to them and they take ownership so very seriously.

It’s impossible to give your children the childhood you had. And for plenty of the time I don’t even want to. I’d still pick the sausage roll, though I’d go and watch the waves afterwards. Maybe so long as I can get them to appreciate the waves, or the flowers, or the rainbow, it’s okay to go to the yard sale once in a while too. I just need to purge these shelves when they’re not looking.

Bursting toy shelves

Life, apparently

Life, apparently, is about bringing the person I am closer to the person I want to be, or accepting the chasm between those two things.

For instance, I want to be a person who plans the week’s meals before she goes shopping, who makes family dinners in the crockpot, who runs or otherwise exercises regularly, and who damn well writes a few hundred words in That Other Thing when she sits down to do it.

Instead, I am a person who builds some sort of half-assed plan for dinner as she roams the supermarket, who casts about for inspiration an hour before dinner time, who runs (ahem) once every two weeks or so, and who comes over here and writes a blog post instead.

These are all things that are within my control. I can change them. Sure I can.

If I actually want to.

Geese in a blue sky

Thin skin

I think I’ve lost a layer of skin since I had children. Or maybe having children had nothing to do with it; maybe I just got more empathetic as I got older. But when I listen to the news these days it’s as if someone has taken a potato peeler and removed whatever defences I used to have when I heard all the terrible things: “It’s not here.” “It’s not me.” It’s not my family.” “It’s nobody I know.” “It couldn’t happen to us.” They don’t work so well any more.

Maybe it’s just that things keep on happening, and my radius increases as time goes on, so that “here” spans a lot more than just the town I grew up in, and “us” includes a lot more people than just me and my parents. Maybe it’s that the law of averages indicates that some day it could just as easily be me, or us, or here, as anywhere else. Some parts of the earth may be less prone to natural disasters, and some parts of the state may see less crime than others, but as my mother would tell you, you could leave the house tomorrow and walk under a bus. There are no guarantees.

But even when I’m not appreciating how lucky I am, and wondering how long I can reasonably expect that luck to hold, those other people whose luck has run out seem closer now. I don’t want to hear about them; I certainly can’t let myself think about them. Imagining my way into their skin is not something I’m going to begin to try to do.

The news is more real, maybe: when I was a child it may as well have been fiction. I wasn’t sheltered from the news as a child. I remember earthquakes and hijackings, shootings and bombings and stories about terrible things happening to children. I remember being more upset about stories of mistreatment of animals than of people. My mother was shocked when I mentioned this, but my rationale was that animals can’t ever speak up for themselves. I suppose I didn’t know about all those people who can’t either, for so many more complex reasons. I was scared of the house burning down, mostly, or random robbers coming to steal – I don’t know what, we had an eight-inch black-and-white television and my mother had costume jewellery. I didn’t know about all the other things there were to be scared of.

Mabel looks at my face sometimes and asks me why I have lines on my forehead. She thinks they’re funny. She wonders why she doesn’t have any. I pretend not to mind them, and tell her matter-of-factly that as you get older your skin doesn’t bounce back so much, and so the lines show that I’ve been smiling and frowning and making other funny faces for lots of years now. I make her some funny faces and she laughs.

My skin got thinner because I used some of it up, making two amazing people and smiling and frowning and wondering and worrying about them. So I suppose it’s not going to stop any time soon.

Maud and Mabel making faces