The trouble with tribbles

I wrote a second column for the Examiner for the same reason I wrote the first. Here it is:

 

The London School of Economics this week published a cheerful report under the title Does Money Affect Children’s Outcomes: An Update. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the update might only comprise one word – ‘yes’ – but it goes into a little more detail than that. Reviewing 61 studies from OECD countries including Australia and the UK, the study found direct correlation between money – or lack thereof – and a child’s outcome in life, including their cognitive development.

The report comes as great news for anyone of reasonable income who opted to have a sensible number of children – a figure between zero and two – but for those of us who opted to cross the Rubicon into legally needing a people carrier, the report was a further confirmation that we have too many kids.

In much the same way a human year is seven dog years, having a litter of four kids today is like having 12 or 16 back in the 1950s heyday of Catholic Ireland. While back then it was seen as some sort of blessing from God to have more kids than you need or want, having a large family in the modern age means you lack a fundamental grasp of either biology or economics.

When I tell people I have four kids I usually have to add ‘…with the same person’ as I worry it might make me seem like some feckless Johnny Appleseed wandering the hills of Munster, casting my wild oats about in every direction. When a friend of mine heard my wife was pregnant for the fourth time he declared ‘dear God man, she isn’t a clown car you know’. But here we are, with four kids aged from 14 to two and a half, arranging to sit down together for a meal once a fortnight, an event that usually gets cancelled as one or the other of us dozes off halfway through.

Discussion of our kids with other couples is along the lines of a movie character back from a tour of duty in Vietnam, complete with thousand yard stare, whispering to themselves about the filth and horror they have witnessed. Not that we get to meet up with friends much, as going anywhere with four kids is like Hannibal mobilising his armies to cross the Alps. And of course there is no babysitter equipped to handle four kids, as not even the fastest Formula One car can shift through the gears at the rate you need to cope with a toddler, a teen and two vaguely manageable ones in between whose names you sometimes forget.

Even a trip to the supermarket – which is now classified as a ‘day out’ for the kids – goes off like the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, chaos, screaming, someone missing a teddy. Charging up the cereal aisle in Tesco like you are storming a gun turret because you have to get six weeks worth of food in 15 minutes before one or all of the kids go off like a heavy artillery shell. Then when one of them finally does snap and realises they can do what they want and you can’t shout at them, you have to endure those looks from people who have forgotten what it was like to have kids; people who have used the Mandela Effect to convince themselves that their kids were better behaved than yours.  

Before I had four kids kids I used to think the parents in Home Alone should have social services called on them. Now I watch it and think ‘this is funny because it will quite possibly happen to me some day’. Not that we will be vacationing anywhere anytime soon – I couldn’t inflict us on air passengers, they are tense enough these days without six screaming humans creating an atmospheric tension that makes United 93 look like The Love Boat.

Of course, holidays aren’t even an option with four kids, because unless you are some sort of Celtic Tiger developer or Aztec god, you won’t have the money. My only hope is that when my kids grow up they can say ‘well, we didn’t have much, but we had each other’. It will be a comfort to me when they stick me in the cheapest nursing home they can find.

However bleak the picture painted by the LSE report, there is hope: A conference in the UK late last year found that most human misery is due not to economic factors but to failed relationships and physical and mental illness, so while my kids won’t get iPads, hugs are free – and I can hug the goddam hell out of them. And the organisation behind the conference that made this reassuring announcement? The London School Of Economics.

Will work for undercooked food

So I did a column for the Examiner, as their regular guy, Colm Tobin (please note, not the award-winning author Colm Toibin) was on paternity leave. So I wrote about office social events, a topic not selected by me but by my editor, and largely based on my experience of office bashes back in 2004-2007. So basically nowt to do with where I work now, who I work with, or anything else. Here endeth the disclaimer:

 

Office summer party season is here again, an event that blends two fun concepts –  summer and parties – with a sphere that is utterly devoid of both fun and sunlight – the modern office.

The counterpoint to the office Christmas party, which at least takes places in the dark evenings so no-one feels weird about being hammered at 8pm, the summer office party is really all about the build-up. The list is on the wall, who has signed the list, who has not signed the list, has anyone given even one cent of the five euro for the pig on a spit, or is everyone skipping that for a chicken snackbox al fresco at 3am? There is just so much giddy expectation, because deep down everyone is hoping that this goes off like the Red Wedding in Game Of Thrones, only with a charity raffle in the middle of the bloodshed.

Of course, the secret desire of the office drone to revert to some primal form after a few free drinks is the worst nightmare of HR execs everywhere. Office human resources departments run a tight ship, ensuring that almost no trace of humanity remains in the workplace – vows of silence, chastity and poverty are all in the fine print in your contract – so the summer party is a chance to take your business off site where HR can no longer see you, in much the same way French aristocrats, when devouring rare songbirds, used to place a silk sheet over their head to hide their delicious crime from the eyes of god.

Of course, for the socially awkward among us – and that is about 90% of the population of Ireland – the idea of going out with the ‘work crew’ is in itself hell. Who came up with the idea – spending time with the people you spend most of your time with anyway, only you’re not getting paid to be around them and you are drinking warm beer and getting food poisoning from an undercooked pig cheek. Not even the automatons of the accounting department could come up with such dry cruelty.

Then there is the office Iago, sowing seeds of discord and dissent ahead of the big night; are you going, well such-and-such wants to know just in case there’s any awkwardness. Then off to such-and-such to report the exact opposite of what was said, lighting the fuse on the powder keg of simmering resentment that comes from being stuck in the same grey space with the same grey people for more than a decade.

But in the run-up to the party – a period that spans the two weeks before the date but feels like it actually encompasses your entire life – you were asked so many times by so many people if you were going that eventually you just said yes, yes of course you will be there, all the while thanking god you have kids so you can cancel plans at the last minute and nobody judges you for it. In fact, you look even better as they think you am staying home to mind a sick child, as opposed to sitting alone playing Overwatch for ten hours straight. There comes a stage in life where cancelling plans is the sweetest drug of them all, and cancelling going to the work summer party brings a rush of endorphins that you haven’t felt since Sir Henry’s shut down.

When it comes to the office summer party, it’s probably best to adopt the same policy you did for the company’s manual lifting course, hand hygiene course and alcohol addiction awareness course, and just not bother going.

Sharks, Lupus, gluten free Jesus, bears

Indo col week eleven, in which I slowly lose my mind.

 

The alleged sighting of a shark in the shallows of a Mallorcan beach in recent days – the second sighting in a month – has caused much concern among holidaymakers. Along the beaches of Magaluf, anxious tourists stayed out of the water, as they knew they would make  delicious sharkbait, being stuffed with the full English and lightly flambéd by the sun, like sausage rolls on legs.

Of course, there was little point in reasoning with them that virtually all sharks are harmless. Of the 375 shark species that have been identified, but only about a dozen are dangerous to humans, with three strains being responsible for most attacks. Still, it is hard to shift the fear that Jaws is patiently waiting for us just off Costa Del Wherever, or that every sea creature larger than a pollock is planning our demise.

As a birthday treat I brought my daughter to swim with sharks. It didn’t matter that that the sand tiger sharks in the tank were just as harmless as most other sharks, people thought I was mad. But in she went, swimming about as the massive leviathans slid past, showing zero interest in eating my firstborn. I was almost disappointed by how peaceful they were.

Afterwards, she struggled to get out of the wetsuit, having been plagued for a few months with aches that, in typical dad fashion, I had put down to growing pains. When we got home, we went to the doctor, and then on to a specialist, who informed us she had mixed connective tissue disorder, an umbrella term for more snappily titled Lupus. I had no idea what Lupus was, save that I would prefer if she didn’t have it. A terrifying google later, I knew that it is an autoimmune disease that varies in severity, from skin-based to systemic. She has systemic, meaning that her own immune system can turn on her at any time. There is no cure.

As a species we foresee our deaths as being big dramatic occasions, like plane crashes, shark attacks, or bear maulings. It’s usually something gradual and mundane that brings about our demise, like driving when tired, running across six lanes of traffic to meet a friend for lunch in Costa, or just some random condition lurking within us. My daughter’s illness is potentially very serious, but in most forms it is manageable, provided you avoid the sun, which means at least she will never have to worry about being nibbled by a small shark on a sun holiday. Although if she announced she was off to Magaluf on a holiday I think a sharkbite or sunburn would be the least of my worries.

Health and faith intersected this week when the Vatican gave us a definitive line on the current fad for gluten-free foods, saying that gluten-free bread was not suitable for use as hosts. I believe it was in the first letter of St Paul to the Coeliacs that he told them to ‘eaten ye unleavened, normal bread, for this coeliac thing is just a fad, and if gluten was bad for you we would have made being gluteny a sin’. It’s great to see the Catholic Church cracking down on food fads, and hopefully they will soon excommunicate people who think kale, spirulina, or apple cider vinegar are things we should be putting in our bodies. God knows the Church needs to limit the numbers clamouring to join their ever-growing congregations.

Of course, sometimes our brushes with death are incredibly dramatic, as one Colorado teen discovered this week. Supervising a summer camp in the mountains, he was woken in the night by a crunching sound, which on further investigation turned out to be a bear – or shark of the woods as they are possibly known – trying to eat his head. The young man’s life was no doubt saved by the power of prayer, as the camp was being run by Seventh Day Adventists. Well, it was either the power of prayer or the fact that he punched it in the face and poked it in the eyes until it let him go and ran away.

In MySpace no-one can hear you scream

Sometimes I worry that I’m becoming one of those hot take guys, but then I remember that money of money and money money money #money. Anyway, this piece on Xennials went in the Indo today:

 

Is your name John Paul? Were you named after the guy from Led Zeppelin, or the artist formerly known as Karol Józef Wojtyła? Because if you were named in honour of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979, chances are you belong to a recently discovered micro-generation known as the Xennials.

Nestled between the wooly nihilism of Generation X and capitalism’s latest ground xero, Millennials, Xennials were born between 1977 and 1983 and are not to be mistaken for Xenomorphs, the monstrous creatures from Ridley Scott’s Alien, introduced to the world the same year the Pope came to Ireland. Unlike Xenomorphs, Xennials don’t have acidic blood, but they are strange beasts in that they came of age while the world transitioned from analog to digital.

They made mixtapes that were recorded on actual tapes, later they owned a first-gen iPod, and now have a retro fetishistic turntable and accompanying cool vinyl record collection. Unlike Millennials, they don’t need what LCD Soundsystem called ‘a borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered Eighties’, as they were actually there.

Coming of age at the dawn of the digital era means Xennials made all the mistakes so Millennials wouldn’t have to. Look at Tom Hardy – born in 1977, his MySpace page was still accessible until recently and was a treasure trove of terrible selfies and awkward braggadocio. Xennials also remember who Claire Swire was and why nobody says things like that in emails anymore (that’s what Facebook messages are for, and also, nobody really cares now). And thanks to the wonders of globalisation – a process accelerated by digitisation – the signs that you might be a Xennial are almost universal:

  1. TV: Your teenage years were shaped by the emo struggles of My So-Called Life, Party Of Five and Buffy, before you were cheered up by the humorously bourgeois debacles facing the guys in Central Perk. You transitioned from not having that many TV channels in your youth, to having too many TV channels, to Netflix removing the need to ever know how to Sky+ anything ever again. You remember when your parents’ outrage over Fr Ted’s sacrilegious take on the clergy became softened in the face of various reports into the fact that some members of the clergy might not actually have been a great bunch of lads after all. You also think that watching Nasty Nick get his comeuppance on Big Brother 1 was your generation’s moon landing.
  2. Internet giants: You once owned or possibly still own a Hotmail account, a sure sign that you are a Xennial. You remember the first search engines, when Ask Jeeves seemed like a sophisticated AI as opposed to the clunky mess you learned it was once you started using Google. You connected with people you didn’t really like on FriendsReunited.com, and people (and bands) you did like on MySpace. You remember the banshee’s screech of a dial up modem, the strange thrill of stealing music via Napster, and opening the floodgates of filth and wonder on the internet. You possibly even owned a Geocities page dedicated to Boyzone.
  3. Communications: You knew someone in national school whose dad had a phone in his car, and this was the most amazing thing, as anytime you weren’t at home you needed to queue up to use a payphone. You got your first mobile at the end of the Nineties and even though older people told you that using it was the equivalent of sticking your head in a microwave oven and setting it to high, you soon became utterly addicted. You transitioned effortlessly from making calls, to sending texts, to WhatsApp, but draw the line at Snapchat as you suspect it may be something like the voyeuristic tech in the noir sci-fi Strange Days.
  4. Consoles: You disobeyed your parents to go to the local arcade, when you blew your pocket money playing low-res Konami classics like Double Dragon, inputting your name as ACE (there were only three spaces) when you got a high score. But then you segued effortlessly into the age of the console, where you didn’t have to hang out with the school bullies in the local arcade, as you play 8-bit classics at home, learn the basics of computer programming, and become the geeks that inherited the earth.
  5. Attitude: The Xennials are mercifully spared the cynical mindset of Generation X, but also avoid the alleged ‘special snowflake’ mindset of Millennials, a generation who supposedly believe they can be anything, despite the fact that robots are about to take all their jobs. Having lived through the birth of digital and the dot com bust, followed by the 2008 global collapse, the Xennial is cautiously optimistic that things work out in the end, despite not being able to afford a house anytime soon.
  6. Music: As a Xennial you grew up on Spice Girls, Offspring and Blink 182, which explains why you found it easy to never pay for music again once you discovered Limewire.
  7. Movies: Every time you see a Millennial wearing a Goonies T-shirt you feel the urge to shout at them that you were there, you saw it first time round in a small town cinema with sticky floors and it scared the bejaysus out of you. You did not see some 75mm restored version on Imax at some festival of postmodernity curated by 16 year old hipster who owns an ironic Zune.
  8. Consuming: Just as Deliveroo has taken over from actually going out to eat, your trips to the shops and the shopping centre, once a central part of your socialising, have been flung into the dustbin of history.  Every day you are wearing a path to the sorting office or Parcel Motel to pick up your latest online splurges, secretly yearning for the days of the shopping trip so that you could control your relentless clicking and collecting.
  9. Chain reactions: You remember the first time you read Naomi Klein’s No Logo, your idealistic young mind being quite concerned by the idea of Starbucks outlets spreading like a virus. Now you claim Ireland is a Third World Country if you don’t have a Starbucks on every street corner, and cite the Geneva Convention if the baristas don’t write a humorous interpretation of your name on the cup so you can post it on Instagram.
  10. You feel like the before and after photos in an academic paper on how technology has dehumanised us. You remember real news, eye contact, speaking, and putting effort into writing letters. Now you can’t remember the last meaningful real-world interaction you had, and wonder sometimes if you are becoming less human, or just obsolete.

Rejoice then that there are some aspects of Irish society that weren’t affected by the digital transition, for just as you listened to your parents droning on about the X Case as you drove to Knock a quarter of a century ago, you find yourself listening to the exact same rhetoric now. So at least that hasn’t changed.

Ken?

As in, the Scottish for ‘y’know?’. But also a popular toy that got a makeover, promoting this work of genius in the Indo:

 

Is there any toy more tragic than Ken? Since his creation back in 1959, his life has been one tragi-comic misadventure after another. Initially created with authentic felt hair, he had to suffer the embarrassment of many follicularly challenged men when it turned out that his lush head of hair fell off when it got wet. Physically, he has the rigid upright stance of someone with a slipped disc, or perhaps one of the guys from Kraftwerk, but it is his personal life that is most rigid of all. Ostensibly created as a love interest for Barbie, poor auld Ken has been boxed off in the friend zone for decades now, with his creators Mattel never precisely specifying the nature of their relationship, leaving Ken to ponder his place in her life – gay best friend, purely platonic pal, or creepy flatmate she mistakenly let out the spare room in the dreamhouse to?

After a life of loneliness (even lone-wolf hero Action Man has his life partner, GI Joe) and confusion about his role in life, the death blow to traditional Ken was dealt by Toy Story 3, in which he was thoroughly lampooned as a preening narcissist. There was no coming back from it. So the good news is that Mattel have relaunched Ken for our modern times, with a selection of fresh new looks, body shapes, styles and, ultimately, lessons for the child of today.

Masculinity: The old Ken was a sexless prop in Barbie’s world. While his arch nemesis Action Man had a walk-on part in the war, poor Ken took the lead role in a cage. Granted, neither of them had any trace of genitalia, but while Action Man was out destabilising governments and having rocks thrown at him, Ken’s passive existence was a pity to behold. Not so now – the reboot takes him from ‘Ken doll’ to ‘Ken playfigure’, a huge leap forward for the toy world’s least popular eunuch. New Ken comes with attitude, and his fresh new looks show that he is more than Barbie’s accessory. He is still, of course, unrealistically perfect, but then living with no genitals means he has a lot more time to dedicate to sorting out his eyebrows, trimming his ear hair and treating his fungal nail(s).

Body image: Old Ken’s body shape was just as alien as Barbie’s; a study in 2005 showed that for the average man to have Ken’s physique, he would need to grow 20 inches taller and add nearly eight inches to his neck circumference, 11 inches to his chest and 10 inches to his waist. Thankfully new Ken has scaled back these unrealistic ambitions, with three new body types – slim, broad and original. Presumably slim suffers from Marfan syndrome, while ‘broad’ is that same euphemistic term that your mam used when she couldn’t fasten the cape for your CBS school band around your neck. Broad Ken – or Fat Ken as he will most likely be called by the other toys – is probably the best Ken of the new breed, as his portly frame teaches young girls that some day their prince will come, then get settled, then get fat, and that golf is not really exercise.   

Relationships: Ken’s new body confidence, man-bun, corn rows, and general swagger means he has his pick of partners, but given that he is still a child’s toy, he will presumably continue to be a bit part in a vague storyline about Barbie going shopping, standing around changing rooms while she tries on a selection of hats, like that scene in the hit romcom Sleeping With The Enemy. Ken is the non-threatening asexual longtime companion for Barbie, endlessly shifting and then perfecting his appearance in the hope that she will fall in love with him, but since he first met her back in 1959, she hasn’t shown the slightest interest. Perhaps it’s time for Mattel to release the poor guy from his loveless hell and issue a Tinder Ken – or Grinder Ken – because it doesn’t matter how many times he suggests they watch When Harry Met Sally, Barbie has no interest. It’s almost like her dead plastic eyes don’t even see him anymore.

Career goals: Most people would say that the only job Ken ever had was as bag-minder for Barbie, but he has had almost 40 occupations since his creation. Many of them are more hobbies than actual jobs – bodybuilder, beach bum, and fraternity member being the bottom scraping of Ken’s less than illustrious career. This in itself is a positive message for girls, as they can’t all marry princes, astronauts or even guys with actual jobs that pay. The new Ken comes in a selection of looks, all of which make it seem he is either a digital marketer or aloof clothes-folder at American Apparel, neither of which pay enough for Barbie to get that Malibu beach house, or even a mobile home in Bundoran.

The saddest part of Ken’s story is that this complete reimagining of him is Mattel’s last ditch attempt to make him and Barbie relevant. Kids today just aren’t interested in playfigures like Ken and Barbie, and they are fast becoming relics of a bygone age. Ken’s new look is really just a midlife crisis, as he tries to save his crumbling relationship and thus himself, because, like a lot of men, without his significant other, he is nothing.

 

Sunburn, smoking, Taylor Swift, Bonfire Night

Week eight of my award-defying column, and yet no death threats. What am I doing wrong?

 

Our traditional Leaving Cert weather finally arrived at the weekend. Much like the pagans of old would sacrifice the young to appease the gods, we sacrifice the mental well-being of our teenagers by forcing them to sit State exams while we barbecue ourselves outside until we are burnt raw on the outside and pink and unwell on the inside.

 

The recent blast of hot weather – or Summer Paper I as it is also known, with Summer Paper II being scheduled for when the kids go back to school in September – was a reminder that we do not belong in the sun. The tan was once seen as the sign of the peasant, toasted by the sun from toiling upon the land, until Coco Chanel accidentally came home from holidays with a golden brown hue. She did not, however, walk around a shopping centre with straps down and shoulders burnt to the point that they look like two smoked hams, nor did she go ‘tops off’ at the first sign of sun, showing off her terrible tattoos and a Pointillist canopy of future melanomas. And it isn’t just one or two people on the street who are waddling around like newly liberated rotisserie chickens – huge numbers of us clearly have no idea how dangerous the sun actually is, or how quickly it can ruin your skin. Much like back in 2014 when it you woke up to the horrible realisation that everyone you knew was a closet Garth Brooks fan, people who previously seemed sensible were this week showing up to work with raw necks and red legs, explaining that while they slathered the factor 1,000,000 on the kids to the point where they looked like Casper The Friendly Ghost, they neglected to do themselves the same favour, thus significantly raising the chances of developing cancer and becoming an actual ghost.

 

But what can we do? No wonder we get so confused by the big orange ball in the sky, as much like Hale Bopp, it only appears once in a while. Like the panic that sets in when Aldi  gets an especially good batch of Special Buys, we dash headlong into it in the hope that we look more exotic. Perhap RTE could wheel out Theresa Mannion to wander along Portmarnock beach dressed as the grim reaper telling people that they should cancel all unnecessary journeys to the beach and divert to their local dermatologist. Just as we say for most of the rest of the year, this really would be a great country if only we could build a roof over it.

 

Speaking of the extermination of all human life as we know it – Taylor Swift. It’s hard to know how she achieved a level of unpopularity that has made her the ‘Isis Of Pop’ – all she did was sing a few songs and possibly make some frenemies – but few people in music today draw such absolute loathing. However, I for one stand with Tay Tay, because for two thirds of 2015, she kept me sane.

 

I picked up my redundancy cheque on New Year’s Eve 2014, and a few days later, I bought her opus, 1989. The existence it portrayed, of giddily launching yourself into a world filled with possibility, was a million miles from the dole queues of my situation, with four kids and no job. As I trudged from job activation meeting to job liaison session, I played 1989 over and over to lift my spirits and remind myself that the turgid hell I was stuck in would not last forever.

 

After eight long months of playing it on repeat while I sent out CVs, cold called disinterested HR departments, and was talked down to by tan-shoed recruitment goons, I finally got a job, and I never looked back. But I still love 1989, and am thus one of the millions currently awaiting news of her new album. So even though Tay Tay only seems to make headlines for her on-again, off-again relationship with Spotify (it’s back on) or her Tupac-and-Biggie-style blood feud with Katy Perry (Tay Tay’s relationship with Spotify went back on the same day Perry released her new album, in what the kids would call a sick burn), I will defend her to the hilt, because, for eight months in 2015, her shimmering pop stories about young love stopped me from turning into Travis Bickle. Although I might have got a job slightly sooner if I hadn’t been humming Shake It Off in every interview.

 

Millenials may be feeling anxious that their jobs are all going to be taken by smartypants robots, but if the main street of every town and city in Ireland is anything to go by, they will always find work in a Centra, Starbucks, phone repair shop, or that most gaudy of shopfronts, the vape store. The explosion in vaping has seen a shift in the habits of the young, from the toxic, deadly habit of smoking, to the vaguely unsettling habit of vaping. Sadly, some people simply cannot give up the leaf. Good news then from a firm with reassuringly cheesy name of 22nd Century, who are working on a genetically modified variation of the tobacco plant that will offer all of the lethal flavour but almost none of the nicotine. The same firm is also working on a version of medical cannabis that contains almost no THC – the active ingredient that gives the high associated with its social use – and only offers the medical benefits. No doubt these two products will be a huge success, mirroring the massive uptake in creations like non alcoholic beer, softcore pornography and unsalted crisps.

 

Bonfire Night is upon us again, the annual tradition in which the people of the Rebel County remember the Burning Of Cork by the Black and Tans. It is a tragic moment in the city’s history that is honoured by  locals dragging old suites of furniture, tyres, and bags of household refuse into the middle of the green before torching them whilst sitting around with cans as the toxic fumes cloud the sky. Except obviously, Bonfire Night has absolutely nothing to do with the Burning Of Cork at all – it is actually the ancient feast of St John’s Eve, a sacred time of year when John The Baptist would drag old scrolls, parchments, and bags of goat horns into the middle of the green before torching them, quaffing mead and later on that night, throwing rocks at the fire services. The celebration is a reminder that whether it’s our own skin, an old sofa, sweet tobacco leaf, or just poor auld Katy Perry, we all secretly love to watch things burn.