Thursday, 24 July 2014

The world is a little less

Outside of my conversations with The Girl, I don’t talk about our private lives much. I do, however, want to devote some space to a relative from America who died recently, both to explain why I've been distracted from writing this week and because she deserves as public a memorial as I can muster.

Lucky children have not just dutiful parents, but a trusted confidant – someone who will hold a crying toddler and quickly set them right again, who will listen to a seven-year-old talk about dinosaurs or a fourteen-year-old unload their existential burdens. They have someone who will not judge them, who will keep their secrets, who will make everything better. For hundreds of children over three generations – me, my cousins, my second cousins twice removed, and kids of people who used to live down the street -- that person was Imy. ­

Children pass through the valley of the shadow of death many times in a month; their lives have far more drama than ours, and its cuts them more deeply. On one such day, when no one else understood, Imy put her hand on my back and said, “You know, everyone tells you this is the best time in your life, but they’re wrong, aren’t they? It’s no fun being a child.”

On that day, and on many days before and since, only Imy understood.

In full name she was Imogene, twin sister of my grandmother Normagene – both named, I’m told, after 1920s boxer Gene Tunney. She never married and always stayed close to her twin, often living in the same home as my grandparents. A tiny grey wisp of a woman, possibly weighing less than some of the children she babysat, she was the rock around which the rest of the world revolved.

We laughed affectionately about her many quirks; singing old show tunes in her high warbling voice, sometimes misremembering the words and passing them down to us as mondegreens. One of the last children of the Depression, she hoarded everything, in case she might find some use for it later. She  she was allergic to everything, it seemed, although we suspected that included anything she just didn’t like. She loved birds, especially cardinals, and collected knick-knacks with pictures of them. She loved mystery novels and read the end first -- to find out who-dunnit before reading the rest -- and when we protested, she would only respond primly, “It’s my book.” We had to concede the point.

Other things we never found out until we were older, and then by accident. She tutored children at the local Catholic school, and did the same for girls in her neighbourhood. She volunteered for years at a local hospital on weekends – we think she delivered mail to patients, sat with them and kept them company. I say “we think,” because she never talked about these things with us; she just did them.

On our last trip to the USA, I made sure we stayed with them a few weeks, when The Girl was young enough to fully appreciate Imy and old enough that the memories would remain with her for the rest of her life, long after most of us have gone. Since then The Girl and I called them every weekend to chat, and when Imy took sick recently we called her hospital room.

“You called me in the hospital from all the way over there?” she asked, delighted. “Well, that does it – I’m just going to have to get better now.”

On her deathbed, she was still comforting us.  

Photo free to use courtesy of

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Published in Grit magazine

How to make your bad wine into good vinegar:

There are three ways to do it yourself. First, you could buy mother of vinegar, a slimy glob of the bacteria that makes acetic acid, and mix it with your wine. Second, you could buy unfiltered, unpasteurised vinegar that still contains the bacteria – effectively, it has a bit of the Mother still in it – and mix that in. Third, you could take the long way around and leave your wine out like sourdough, hoping that the right bacterium floats by on a wisp of breeze, lands on your project and goes nuts.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Another milestone

The Girl turned ten last week. I have a tweenager on my hands.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The neighbour's car

When we first moved here, he showed me around his lovely fields and the old barn where he kept his cows. Without offense to him, it looked and smelled like a lot of cows lived there. Then he lifted an old tarpaulin and showed me his prizes -- a set of old cars, well maintained and passed down from owner to owner. Once in a while he takes it for a drive, and I get a picture.

For generations of people around here -- until relatively recently -- cars were something for emergencies or show. Yet people got around just fine, and the roads were safe for walkers, bicyclers and horses. One old person said that two people in town had motorbikes -- the doctor and the priest -- and they knew by the sound in the distance which one it was, and so which neighbour had fallen ill and how serious it was.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Modern Soundtrack

I spend eight hours a day in an office in Dublin, three hours a day on the bus there and back, and an hour or so sipping coffee and talking with friends at lunch, and I just figured out how much of that time I spend without a radio blaring loudly in the background.

It’s zero. Virtually every public and corporate space I visit -- lift, office lobby, grocery store, doctor’s office or petrol station, every space -- has overhead speakers and a piped-in sound system, which has no reason to exist but seems to grow louder each year. Most places play the same songs over and over, but the choice of music is not the main issue. The problem is that most people I know have ceased to notice this background and talk over it --- again, more loudly each year.

When I ask if they could turn it off, most people look at me befuddled; they are unaware the noise exists. They are obviously not enjoying something they are unaware of, so you might ask why they play the speakers at all. Yet when I ask bus drivers and store managers to turn the noise off, or even down, they look offended.

My co-workers moved into a new office recently, and the first thing they did was to turn on the radio; I asked why, and one said, surprised, “Well – we need to have something on.” When the radio was off and he heard only the hum of computers, the click of keyboards, the whirr of printers, the chatter of co-workers and the distant murmur of cars and horses outside, he felt unnerved.

We live with a great deal of background noise – a city bus idles at 90 decibels, and as the decibel scale is logarithmic that level is 10 times louder than 80 decibels. Many people today, who grew up with rock concerts and background construction, can expect to lose their hearing at a much earlier age than earlier generations -- a 1997 study of the elderly found that hearing loss doubled in the 30 years between 1964 and 1994, and we are almost 20 years further on from that. The constant noise of speakers might be an attempt to drown out the increasingly loud background, but it stacks the mountain of cacophony ever higher.

Most of us can only choose to buy our own headphones and MP3 players, meaning that I and all my fellow bus passengers spend the hours locked in our private reveries. Everyone has their own musical tastes, of course, and at six in the morning most people do not feel the mood for conversation. The problem is that everyone around me feels compelled to isolate themselves inside headphones; even worse than everyone being forced to listen to the same electronic media, everyone is forced to listen to their own.

I do get to hear some of what others are listening to, though, as their music is turned up louder than their earpieces can contain. In what Atlantic magazine writer Brian Eha called “bleed-over, collateral aggravation from the personal consumer choices of others,” living in the presence of ubiquitous noise creates a kind of arms race between eardrums. We turn up the volume on our MP3 players or IPods to drown out the loud bus speakers or office radio, and then have to turn it up ever more loudly as everyone else does the same thing.

More than that, though, this ubiquitous noise brings a psychological toll. We all live in a kind of enforced solitude now, yet cannot enjoy the tranquillity that made solitude desirable. Eha cites studies by developmental psychologist Lorraine Maxwell, who found that excessive noise warps children’s attention and memory, and makes them withdraw from talking with peers. Yet she also found that, when they are accustomed to working with noise, they cannot work without it; the quality of their work deteriorates. Finally, she found that when children learn to passively accept “uncontrollable noise” in the background, they show a “learned helplessness” to changing the world around them.

No other society has ever performed this kind of giant experiment on themselves over generations, so no one has ever measured the long-term effects. I do know, though, that between the earphones, the MP3 player and the earplugs, a normal life is getting expensive.

Originally published in 2012.

“An Increasing Prevalence of Hearing Impairment and Associated Risk Factors over Three Decades of the Alameda County Study, by Margaret Wallhagen, PhD, RN, CS, William J. Strawbridge, PhD, Richard D. Cohen, MA, and George A. Kaplan, PhD, American Journal of Public Health, March 1997, Vol. 87, No. 3.
“The Effects of Noise on Pre-school Children’s Pre-Reading Skills,” by Lorraine Maxwell and Gary Evans, The Journal of Environmental Psychology (2000) 20, 91-97.
“The Sound of Solitude,” Brian Eha, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2012.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Grafted apple trees

Learning to graft saplings of different species together almost cost me my thumb, and cost The Girl and I a night in the hospital, but I'm getting two fine trees out of the deal. I'll be taking cuttings of various trees of ours in the coming months, and seeing how well I can do this on my own. More on grafting in future posts.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Charlie and Lola

The Girl turns ten next week, and is becoming an adolescent in many ways – not yet old enough to put away childish things, but old enough to take them down and look at them wistfully. I like wistful; it makes a good alternative to regret.  

“Do you remember reading these to me?” she asked, holding up Charlie and Lola, part of a series of books and BBC cartoons she loved a few years ago.

I would prefer children not watch television, but I had to make compromises, so I made sure she watched limited amounts of healthy shows. The BBC has many great programmes, all advertisement-free and many focusing on subjects I’ve never seen in US cartoons, like rural life (Ballamory, Postman Pat, Fireman Sam); gardening (Mr. Bloom’s Nursery); or science (Nina and the Neurons). Even a “first-words” series for toddlers like In the Night Garden was made oddly fascinating by their choice of narrator: instead of any voice actor, they got Shakespearean veteran Sir Derek Jacobi. Picture “Dick and Jane” read by Alan Rickman and you’ve got the idea.

Her favourite, though, was Charlie and Lola, whose simple line drawings and real children’s voices reminded me of the Charlie Brown cartoons – but sweeter and less gloomy. Lola was a vivacious pre-schooler, by turns charming and exasperating, and Charlie was her extremely patient older brother who guided her through life. Each 10-minute episode– Lola’s first day at school, delaying going to bed, refusing to try new foods – perfectly nailed the single-minded obsessions, creative logic and intense drama of childhood. The series often ended with them exchanging good-nights, and The Girl and I often did the same as a running joke.

I remember them, I said – you used to call me Charlie.

“I still think of you as Charlie,” she said. “You’re like my big brother.”

I’m pleased we’re that close, I said – as long as you know that I’m your father first, and I’m still going to lay down the law for you -- even more so as you get to be a teenager.

“You always lay down the law,” she said reassuringly. “Why more when I’m a teenager?” 

That’s when you’ll want it least and need it most, I said.


"What’s for movie night?" she asked. 

You know how much you loved Robin Hood? I asked. How would you like those same people – Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, everyone --- in a pirate movie?

“Even Basil Rathbone?” she asked.  You bet, I said, and it has the best pirate movie title ever -- Captain Blood.

“That doesn’t sound very scary,” she said.

Not scary? I asked, laughing. How can you have a better title than Captain Blood?

“Say it in an ominous voice?” she asked.

CAPTAIN BLOOD, I said slowly.

“Okay, it’s growing on me,” she said.


When she came downstairs for her teddy bear I let her have a sip of the elderflower champagne I made. It’s okay, I said – it has hardly any alcohol yet.

“It tastes great,” she said. “What’s the white stuff at the bottom?”

That’s the yeast, I said. It’s eating the sugar and turning it into alcohol, and do you know what their growth rate is?

“Um … exponential!” she said, pleased at knowing the answer.

Right, I said. What's their reproduction model? "R," she said.

Good, I said. What happens next?

“They go into overshoot?” she asked, tracing a steep curve in the air with her finger, and I nodded.

“How long before die-off?” she asked cheerfully. It will look fast to us, I said, but will probably seem slow to the yeast. Right now, I told her, it’s time to go to bed, and we’ll have another lesson tomorrow. We have a lot of lessons to get through before you’re grown. 

"That won't be for a long time yet," she said. 

It seems a long time to you, but will feel short to me, I said. 

“Goodnight Charlie,” she said, kissing me.

Goodnight, Lola.

Monday, 23 June 2014


"Most young people today have no real skills -- adults can't do even the things kids small children used to do, building and making things with their hands -- isn't done anymore, so the hand-eye coordination is gone."

-- from "The Many Lives of Steve Manary," interview on RTE radio.