Monday 29 June 2009

Little Boy Time: Childhood under Attack

Perhaps it's because I'm just finishing off reading Huckleberry Finn, or maybe it's because my own son, Mac Thomaltaigh, at two, is beginning to develop his own little appetite for exploration (he seems to be particularly interested in the little area behind the wooden shed where I have put old pipes and bricks out of sight), or it could be none of these things, but I have been thinking quite a lot about childhood lately.

Maybe it's part of that nostaligia thing that I'm going through, these vivid imaginings of episodes and relationships from my childhood that I'm denying has anything to do with the concept of a mid life crisis! (In coversations with self I convince myself that my life isn't in crisis - this cannot be a crisis, for if it is then I can imagine that it will throw me into pure calamity when more nasty things happen, as they surely will. So not happy to concede on the term crisis, I tend to settle for the softer 'defining period'.)

One way or another childhood has been on my mind lately, which is probably what drew me towards Huck Finn (I had never read it). It's a beautiful and amazing work and I am enjoying its every line. But in this frame of mind a personal essay about Childhood by Michael Chabon in the NY review of books caught my attention.

In a beautiful piece Chabon talks about one essential component of childhood - the freedom to head off, through streets or woods, with others or alone, every or most days, and just conduct a little adventure. This aspect of childhood, according to Chabon, and I tend to agree, is, sadly, almost a thing of the past.

Chabon talks about his pursuits in Woodlands near his early home, and then antics round a more urban environment later on. The sense of adventure wasn't just spontaneous, but inspired by stories - from legend to history to childhood myths about other adventurers. He described this experience as being his "Wilderness of Childhood" and is now struck by the incredible degree of freedom his parents gave him to roam there. But ... "A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.".

Now it's all about control ...

Nowadays, "we schedule their encounters for them, driving them to and from one another's houses so they never get a chance to discover the unexplored lands between. If they are lucky, we send them out to play in the backyard, where they can be safely fenced in and even, in extreme cases, monitored with security cameras."

And it's all about irrational fear, especially the that seems to have taken over these days, fear of abduction...

Yet "in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was."

The freedom Chabon enjoyed was "a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible."

He then mentions taking his daughter for a trial on her new bicycle in their leafy neighbourhood on a beautiful afternoon. What stunned him most was the absence of other children. There were none in sight. The streets were empty.

It would be easy for us to lament the lack of community in the states and how different it is here. Thankfully, it is different, but the trend, in urban areas at least, is towards something approximating Chabon's descriptions of childhood taken over by adults and under continual surveillance.

Mac Thomaltaigh isn't old enough yet to be on the street, so I have no idea of the pressures involved or how real fears are of calamity or just malign influence. But from friends and neighbours who have kids I know that there seems to be a huge level of parental intrusion into 'child time'. In some cases it is security related - text me when you leave the concert, text again when you're on the bus, and I'll pick you up at the bus stop. And so on.

But some of it is pure ambition to create the best possible future for one's children. Here in South Dublin you are either careless or broke if you don't bother to send your kid to a good fee paying school. And bring them to piano lessons. And do three soccer runs a week, and two karate, or whatever. The kids must enjoy all of this. Surely there'd would be feedback from them if they didn't? And surely it would be heeded if it were given?

But in some instances I sense a parent who is living vicariously, seeing their own child as a vehicle for fulfilling the dreams they, the parent, had for themselves but which, life in all its vagaries, frustrated. A sense of pushing them - not in the direction they necessarily would like to go (as if they should have any choice!), but where oneself wanted to go once upon a time.

This is probably a real temptation - and isn't nessarily always negative. But looking at it as I just head for that territory, I feel myself wondering if childhood has been over colonised by adults. And if, by falling prey to hyped fears, and our own weaknesses for status and advancement, we aren't robbing our children of something that is precious;

Aparrently in Japanese they refer to childhood as 'little boy time' or 'little girl time'. It is precious territory and we would do well not to conquer it fully. After all, it is not 'little adult time'.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

The Anglo Truck

When I was a young fella we used to make little trolleys by fixing the axles and wheels of a used pram to a wooden frame that served as a chassis. We called them trucks. (In Donegal the word truck is never used in place of lorry.).

You steered the truck by pulling on twine that was attached to the left and right side of the front axle which could pivot to give direction. The truck was simple yet frighteningly effective down the steep hilly roads of South Donegal.

Our trucks had two flaws. One was born of youth's immunity to fear - they had no brakes. We probably could have fitted some kind of crude brake, say a lath that would press against the wheel, but we never did. No brakes were fitted because we never assessed the risk - and even when the risk of a potentially terrible crash was obvious (like long steep hills with a corner at the bottom, round which a car could appear at any instant) we ignored it. The bigger the hill you took on with your truck, the more daring you were, not the more insane.

The truck's second flaw was that it was hopelessly unstable: it was too narrow and, with one or more bodies sitting atop, its centre of gravity was too high. A sudden turn made a tumble certain, and many a time I took such a roll. The result was usually a lot of bruising, and often a torn jumper or trouser knee - which meant more pain later, particularly if they were new!

On a very large hill you sat at the top, peering down into the abyss. You knew your ride was going to be perilous, you nerved a bit, but your young mind was unable to muster enough fear to do the wise thing. You pulled left and right on your twine, like a pilot checking his rudder, then straightened up, lifted you legs, and away.

Even if you had launched from a particularly scary hill, there was no going back. You were rapidly picking up speed and hurtling towards some kind of disaster. You had only two choices - to bail now, which meant taking a certain amount of pain, or carry on gaining speed and losing control, and rushing headlong into an even greater horror.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

An Léitheoireacht agus Imní Fáisnéise

Uaireanta buaileann imní fáisnéise mé. Im' shúile, téann an domhan i méid, é ag fás agus ag borradh faoi mar a bheadh mórtas farraige ann. Agus tchím mé féin ag sleamhnú go tóin poill agus balla uisce ag briseadh orm, agus mé á bhá ag an aineolas agus ag oll-líon na gceisteanna.

Nuair a thagann an bhail sin orm is ionann mé agus duine nach bhfuil ach seal beag fágtha aige agus é faoi bhrú a oiread eolais agus is féidir a chur ar an tsaol. Brú ama atá i gceist. Sílim go gcuirtear ina luí orm na babhtaí sin go bhfuil saol an duine teorannta, go bhfuil deireadh leis, i mbeagán focal, go bhfuil an duine básmhaire.

Agus mé buailte ag an imní fáisnéise téim ar thóir an eolais mar bheadh fear mire ann. Ní féidir liom siopa nuachtáin a fhágáil gan gach nuachtán a bhfuil acu a cheannach. Braithním ar na hirisí, agus dar liom, bíonn fáisnéis agus eolas in achan cheann acu atá de dhíth orm. Ní hea go bhfuil an t-eolas seo spéisiúil - tá sé riachtanach. Gheobhainn bás gan é!

Smaointím ar fhiche réimse eolais a bhfuil spéis agam iontu nó atá tábhachtach chun mion-eolas a chur ar an tsaol - ar an chruinne, ar stair an duine, ar bhealaigh an tsaoil: an stair, an eolaíocht, an tsocheolaíocht, an pholaitíocht, an eacnamaíocht, an t-airgeadas, agus ábhair eile nach iad. Ceol, cultúr, cócaireacht. Matamaitic, tíreolas, teangacha. Agus sa deireadh caillim smacht ar m'intinn féin, bíonn an t-easnamh ar m'eolas ró-mhór, agus briseann an balla uisce orm, agus ansin, caithim seal, cúpla lá gruama, ag smaoineadh go bhfuil teipthe orm mar dhuine. Agus sa deireadh, de réir a chéile, éiríonn an ghrian, scaipeann na scamaill, agus tagann lonrú ar an tsaol arís.

Is ansin, agus loinnir ar an domhan, a thuigim nach féidir 'an t-iomlán' a thusicint. Agus níos fearr, gurb í an fhoghlaim an rud is tábhachtaí, agus ní an t-eolas féin : an turas seachas an ceann scríbe.

Caithim amach na nuachtáin (go minic, nár léigh mé), agus fágaim na leabhair fháisnéise, nó neamh-fhicsin ar leataobh. Agus déanaim an rud a mhol cara liom : "má tá tú ag iarraidh eolas a chur ar an tsaol nó ar an duine, léigh leabhar maith ficsin nó filíochta". B'fhíor dó.

Sin an rud a rinne mé cúpla mí ó shoin nuair a chuir mé an babhta d'imní fáisnéise tharam. Agus léigh mé rudaí a chuir iontas agus gliondar ar mo chroí: The Great Gatsby, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter, Stepping Stones, Out Stealing Horses, Cúirt an Mhéan Oíche, agus Huckleberry Finn.

Thursday 4 June 2009

O Heart!

I'm in the office, it's 4pm, and I'm utterly exhausted. I blame that swollen, fatty, beating heart that I saw a few weeks ago when channel four screened live open heart surgery.

Some of my readers will have seen that I suddenly lost my job 9 months ago. With it went the only exercise I ever get - cycling to work. For pretty much most of my adult life I've cycled to work or college. (In fact I only learned to drive a couple of years ago when Bean Thomaltaigh announced that Mac Thomaltaigh was on the way. It was an unstoppable train that no excuse could deflect- I had to learn to drive or else. I'm not, announced Bean Thomaltaigh, in a tone that sounded final, going to drive myself to the maternity hospital. That was that).

But even after I got my license I continued to cycle to work - and continued to enjoy it. Or most days anyway. Only a few times did I let the weather or a hangover serve as an excuse. And even then I preferred to take the Luas instead of the car. (You can listen to podcasts easier on the train or walking. I find that when I'm driving anything engaging is lethal - my concentration drifts to whatever topic is at hand. I confess to shooting through an unnoticed red light once because someone said something interesting on the radio. Terrible I know, but there you are. To remove the temptation of anything engaging I now listen to the impeccably boring Mary Wilson on drive time.)

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to find a job, but at a location about 50% further from home. My previous job was, I thought, at just about the right distance for cycling to work. I could tolerate a further kilometre or so but scarcely more. So when I began at the new place the bike never really figured. I would see it in the garage, and I'd often feel a faint nostalgia for it. The crisp mornings, the extra adrenalin from getting moving in the morning, the passing of motorists stuck in traffic. Though never far behind was the wet gear, the dark, damp winter mornings, the puncture. So in the end I found it easy enough to let the bike slip back, to let my cycling days drift back in memory, to shuffle all that back from a part of me that I still possess to a chapter of my history.

Then came the swollen heart. There it was live on TV, open heart surgery. By the time I joined the spectacle, the whole chest had been cut open. There was nothing but a red-raw, rather unreal cavity which contained a rather large and shapeless pulsating muscle.

They were about to repair a valve it seems, but in order to do so they had to drain and stop, yes stop the heart. When the artificial pump had been plumbed in they sucked out the remaining blood from the chambers of the heart and then the surgeon announced, in a way that someone would normally speak of a farm animal, that he was now going to put it to sleep. They poured a large jug of ice-cold saline solution over the heart, then poured and poured again. And all the while the vigour just ebbed away from the once impressive throbbing. Slower, slower and weaker until it just lay there like a fresh steak. Then they drained off the saline solution and proceded to repair the heart. (I didn't, perhaps couldn't, watch the nitty-gritty of that part of the episode but I heard later that they restarted the heart by simply letting it warm up, but that occasionally they have to give it a squeeze or two. At its most basic the life force is as mechanical as a coiled spring).

But it was the fat around the heart that shook me. This gentleman's heart was wrapped in a swathe of fat, big soft, globular, sinister fat. And I remembered I had put on several kilograms since I had put aside my bike, so I thought of my own heart, and I imagined that it too had become choked in fat. I could see it in my chest, tired, squelching in that same horrid fat, struggling to press the next beat-full of blood around my body. There it was, my life-force, straining to keep going, but not even getting a chance. I had to do something to help it.

And that's what made me return to my bike and make that first exhausting journey today, the first I hope of many. And by this I hope to support and fortify my own beating heart, to tell it, O great indomitable life-force, be strong, keep going, beat on.