Waking up to Smell the Coffee

There is nothing like take-out coffee;  its cardboard warmth, its frothy goodness and the biting cold with which it battles. It’s 8.00 a.m. and I am thinking  about it with intensity while power-walking into town. Alas, I am wanting what I cannot have: I am too late to stop for coffee.

Since Tuesday, I have been attending a TEFL course in North Great George’s street, whose buildings boast impressive bursts of red ivy which are modesty excluded from its otherwise ostentatious (yet merited) title. I haven’t seen morning-time for months and so I am slightly smug as I accept a few too many copies of Herald-AM, which those directionless enough still to be asleep must forego. The damp and golden leaves on Mount Pleasant Avenue and the chill in the air suggest a sludgy promise to me; for the next month, my compulsive google job -search sessions are on hold as I join the pleasurable rank of those with a place to go each morning. 

My speed-walk is a collage of brown and orange coffee cups with a backdrop of swaying morning drunkards, slick black business suits and slowly-moving traffic. A man is walking his shaggy sheep dog and his husky down Camden Street and there is a bag of brocoli waiting to be stewed into pub grub outside The Bleeding Horse. I feel like I am watching over the city as it wakes.

In the back of my mind, I am thinking about the class I have to teach later on and whether my clothes are on the right-side up, which is not a given, since I left the house on Tuesday with my dress on inside-out. Andrew Bird is giving me an aural massage as I flick through the Herald AM and decide whether, hypothetically, given the time, I would get a white chocolate mocha or a caramel machiato.

And then –  at the end of Harcourt Street –  leaned against the Postbox, I see her slouched. I have been watching her for months now. She has on every day an off-white fleece and blue jeans. Bent over and biting a cigarette, I see cupped in her hands an empty coffee cup.

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Generation X Factor: Reeling in the Years

It’s October 25th, 2023 and I’m curled up with a glass of red wine and a Potential Life Partner (PLP) watching 3D Reeling in the Years. Brian Cowen’s epic nasal congestion interview of 2010 is clogging up the surround sound, and sexy PLP, who has been absent-mindedly  playing Snake Fourth Dimension on his iphone 32 looks up and gasps. “That’s Biffo from Fair City!”, he shouts with excitement, “he looks so young and sober there!”

I sigh. “He used to be a politician, honey”

He is incredulous. “No way! Are you joking me?”

“He was the Taioseach.”

“Are you serious?” I nod, remembering that I love him for his culinary expertise, but not his intellect.

Now they are showing old news clips of the thirty-three miners who were trapped underground in Chilie for 69 days, as they emerge to embrace their loved ones. The images ignite a flash of recognition in me. I had completely forgotten about those poor guys! I wonder what they’re up to now and how many of them are still miners. The old RTE format is so quaint – before the six-one news begins they show a series of 2D images of people pausing as they go about their daily business to observe the Angelus. The Newsroom backdrop is completely flat and Sharon Ní Bheolain has blonde hair, which she wears in loose shoulder-length curls. Though it suits her, I prefer her as a mature brunette.

And then -oh the memories – the old X Factor theme music comes on. PLP perks up. “Aw, d’you remember?” he sighs as a close-up of a young Simon Cowell’s gritty stare fills up the screen. I nod; “Yeah that was a golden year, wasn’t it?” I cosy up to PLP and giggle “You’re wearing Simon Cowell’s aftershaveright now, aren’t you?” He smiles sheepishly. “Is it the one I got you for Christmas last year?” I ask.

Simon Cowell in 2010

He nods; “Yeah, it’s his XY Factor range. It says on the bottle that it’s genetically proven to make you smell like a popstar for at least eight hours.” I look at him fondly. I can smell the success in our future.

We begin to smell burning.

“Shit!”, PLP exclaims, rushing out to the kitchen to take out of the oven the chicken that we purchased earlier as part of Tesco’s Mary Byrne-patented €10 meal deal.

PLP manages to work his magic though and serves me up a second glass of wine with my burnt chicken and side of mashed potato. He puts his arm round me. It’s almost time for Fair City, when Biffo the barman will finally have to face up to the trouble he has got himself in to; having borrowed more for a late license than he can afford to pay back. “I’m dying to know how he’s going to get himself out of this mess”, muses PLP as he sings along to the Fair City theme tune.

Drama Queen and The Ghost in the Machine

I am massaging my jawbones, thrusting by body forward and shouting an emphatic “Ah”. Then I am on the floor, hoisting my left arm up and down mechanically while grunting. Every few seconds somebody jumps in and joins with a repetitive movement justified by a plausible industrial buzz. The time is 7.20 pm, the place Rathmines town hall and the evening class I signed up for: Drama and Acting. 

Rathmines Town Hall

Today’s project; a warm-up and opening of the vocal passages followed by the creation of a giant 20-person-linked machine, which becomes progressively more complex as new members join it, is proving highly successful. Beyond the layers of mechanics, the ghost in the machine is concentrating hard.

Since we twenty odd locals – many of international origin – joined the class, we have been engaged in weekly displays of prepostrous behaviour. In week one we were asked to select a partner and decide which one of us would be the bossy one and which the submissive. The bossy boots was to lead their partner on daily adventures of their invention employing only the language of command. I partnered Sherry, a lady twice my age and thrice my grace. I was the boss and she my subservient. I led her around, making her jog by my side, pass me over her food in my favourite restaurant, and finally, bury a cat which I found lying on the roadside on the way home.

The predominant focus of these classes has been on improvisation, which Julie Poland, a business-coach blogger describes as “art with a strong foundation in science”. She is right, because to improvise is to create but also to reflect the maxims that guide successful interaction. Whether that interaction be with music, movement or other people, the key is to recognise patterns and to glide around them, using instinct as your guide.

My formal introduction to improvisation happened last summer, when I was studying as part of an international programme at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. I was only there for four weeks, but by the end of it, I was a proficient waffler in the German langauge and able to jump into a situation at just the right time to alleviate a waning scene. On the final night, there was to be an international farewell celebration and the drama group was to perform a selection of its improvisation-themed antics. “Kate”, said Thomas, the drama student and Bayreuth- local who had run the workshops, “We’re going to get you up to perform the object-imrov by yourself, mm kay?” “mm, WAS?” I replied, slipping firmly back into Kate Katharina Ferguson. ” I don’t vanna”.

He was having none of it, and stymied by my stiflingly sweet self, I couldn’t even make a scene. Ten minutes later, 150 people are watching in a dimmed performance area as I am called up to represent the drama group. Super-cool Teutonic Thomas explains the premise of the game to an eager audience. “Kate is an alien and this is her first visit to our world. She will be given an object and has to use the communication and motor skills indigenous to her own planet to make sense of it. Kate does not know what object she will be handed”. He motions to me to come forward.

From behind his back, he produces: a deodrant can. No biggie, sure don’t I love the attention. That’s it. Secretly, haven’t I always wanted to be an extrovert, and sure, haven’t I been waiting patiently for years and years for the chance to emerge with a can of deodrant and be… extrovert.

There is no option but to stop being Kate Katharina Ferguson. I detach myself in miliseconds and begin to make noises I consider eastern -European-sounding. With gestures of varying intrigue and reservation, I manipulate the cylidrical object in my possession. I have never commanded this much sustained attention in my life. The more I move the more I lose myself in the moment and when Thomas’ clap comes, signalling the end to my performance, I feel Kate Katharina gradually regain possession of body and mind as I shuffle a little awkwardly to the edge of the crowd and make mortified eye contact with my friends. Yonder though, the feeling of delight.

My improv performance in Germany

As somebody who is damned if I’ll shout to be heard, improvisation is an ideal way to command but not demand attention. Like the sensation of intoxication, improvisation interferes pleasantly with the inhibitory areas of the brain, which usually remind you not to order Sherry to bury an imaginary cat, regardless of how much it would amuse you. 

So forget the psychobabble  – sometimes trying to be something you’re not is the greatest favour you can do yourself. What do you think?

That is like so funny, NOT.

Try as I might, there is little in this world I find less funny than Anchorman. In these two minutes and twenty eight seconds, designed to tickle my funny bone and whet my apetite for more, the temptation to lol is absent and the possibility of lmaoing and rofling out of the question. But why then do I find frumpy Maeve Higgins and her sister having the banter while baking hilarious when  Ron Burgundy’s string of faux pas invariably leaves me straight-faced? Is what you find funny not more than simply a matter of which way the cookie crumbles?

Cognitive Psychologists believe that what you find funny depends on your interpretation of the incongruous. Which incongruities in particular amuse you depend on the level of intellectual effort required to recognise the inconsistency. Let’s take Stand Up comedy. It’s thought that jokes about rape get a laugh not on account of particularly twisted audience members but rather due to their acknowledgement that a taboo is being flouted and that on top of that, the Unspeakable is being treated with flipancy.

I have been thinking a lot in the past few days about the things that do and don’t make me laugh. Sarcasm never does.  The mental effort required  ro recognise the blantantly incongruous: that somebody is saying the opposite of what they mean just doesn’t cross the threshold of intellectual toil necessary to cause me to chortle. (Each to their own I guess….. :NOT?!) 

I am reduced to convulsions of laughter however by anything that approaches the Ridiculous, as long as it is left discreetly packaged in the Understated. Rape jokes don’t do it for me, but hidden camera shows, in which those taken in treat their pranksters (sometimes even consciously) with the sobriety appropriate to a genuine situation make me laugh. In these scenarios, you’ve got the obvious incongruity of the joker acting as something he’s not. In addition however, you have the intellectual pleasure of watching the punked-ee respond in accordance with the conversational and societal maxims they have imbibed through experience. Furthermore, the possibilities of their own moulding of the situation and the potential to ‘play along’ with the prankster leaves an element of unpredictability which itches my funny bone.

Speaking of the Unpredictable reminds me of the eighth wonder of the world: the apparent hilarity of a short clip that my parents watch without fail, every New Year’s Eve on Bavarian television. The clip is a black and white British sketch of the title “Dinner for One” and dubbed into German for maximum comedy. It portrays an imaginary dinner party given by a senile lady of royalty- status. The lady, imagining that she is surrounded by prestigious guests orders her butler to fill their glasses and heap their plates. The catchphrase of the dopey butler is the polite question:”Same Procedure as Last Year?” which is invariably answered by the delusional hostess in the affirmative. As well as that line, what makes my parents hysterical is the increasingly intoxicated state of the butler as he downs the drinks of the imaginary guests and falls repeatedly over the head of a tigerskin mat. Before I set off in hope of actual intoxication last New Year’s Eve, I watched with incredulous amusement as my parents came close to rofling off the sofa.

Given that I am pretty certain of my genetic relationship to those I call my parents, I cannot but conclude that there is no such thing as “Intelligent Humour”. What I can say without a doubt though, is that what you find funny is a representation of the way you view the world. And that may well depend on which way the cookie crumbles.

Pendulums and Prodigies: Sorry Love, You Just Don’t Get It Yet.

Last Friday night I grabbed some plastic clothes hangers from my wardrobe. I cut some string and attached to it a blob of red playdough. Then I tied the string to the hanger and asked my mum to hold it high and steady as I set my little pendulum a-oscillating. I was preparing for my Psychology class the following morning, where I was to introduce my prodigies to Piaget’s theory of child development.

Piaget believed that cognitive development happens in distinct stages. Fundamental shifts in thinking patterns lead to the simultaneous development of ever more sophisticated competencies. For example, when a baby is born, it relies entirely on its reflexes; it clutches and sucks to survive. In the months that follow, it learns that it is a phsyical entity separate from its surroundings, that objects continue to exist even when out of sight and that control can be exercised over the same objects. These realisations, or shifts allow the baby to experiment with its toys, to imitate those around them and to co-ordinate its movements to achieve a goal. 

Piaget also believed that the developing child is active in its own development. No blank canvas, salivating stimulus-response theory for him, thank goodness. He proposed that at age 11 or 12, children reach the most sophisticated cognitive stage, which changes little into adulthood. He called this stage the Formal Operation period and characterised it by the ability to think in the abstract, to hypothesise, to form ideals and to employ the scientific method.

To test whether children had reached this stage of reasoning, he devised The Pendulum Problem, which brings me right back to my plastic coat hangers, playdough and string. Piaget set children the task of investigating what factor affects how quickly a pendulum swings from side to side. He gave them strings of different lengths and provided them with objects of various weights, alongside professional-looking hooks rather than plastic clothes hangers. If the children were able to test each factor (weight, string length and force) by keeping all other factors constant, and come up with the correct answer: that oscillation rate depends only on string length, he deemed them Formal Operataionalists and capable of learning algebra, pondering human existence and reasoning empirically.

As I stand at the front of the class on Saturday morning, armed with my coathangers, playdough and string, I am amused at the uniformly perplexed expression on the faces in front of me. Before I distribute my materials, I ask sneakily, as if it is an aside, whether anybody in the class is under 11. Three put up their hands. As I am dividing them into groups, I unite, casually the three youngest, and watch with pleasure my very own scientific method in progress.

An older group of boys in front isolates the potential factors immediately and adds a further variable to the equation; the position on the coat hanger from which the string swings. Another group is moulding its playdough into the shape of feline heads, but sensibly keeping their size and weight constant. I alight at the youngest group and watch them operate. I am steering the groups, without giving anything away. “So what factors may you have to change?” I prompt them “Weight”, says one. “Good!” say I, “what else?” “The length of the string!”, says another. “Let’s change them both”, choruses the third. I watch in facsination as they take a short piece of string, attach to it a light weight, before comparing it to a long piece of string with a heavy weight.

 I never dreamed that I would vindicate old Piaget. Of course it wasn’t super-scientific, but it made me think seriously about whether fundamental shifts in thinking may really occur throughout the lifespan. David Anderegg, an American child therapist blogged last year about the death of developmental psychology. He describes a kindergarden teacher, who with the best intentions, refuses to allow her charges to move around the room because they are getting ready for school, where they will have to sit quietely. Rather than allowing the little ones to enjoy the challanges of their natural developmental stage, he argues that this policy only robs children of the intrinsic joy associated with exploring more about themselves and their environment.

As I am explaining all this to my scholars, I wonder whether the Under 11s are insulted by Piaget’s inference that: Sorry Love, You Just Don’t Get It Yet.

Hair today, where tomorrow?

Echart Tolle is all about living in the present and listening to the senses. I hear him speaking on the John Murray show before rushing out (naturally..) to get my hair cut. Although I am power-walking with intent, I pretend that I am hanging out sensualy without purpose. I take note of the dark and crunchy leaves on Mountpleasant Avenue and mould the relative smoothness of its concrete path into an aesthetic pleasure. Before I can wait for the little green man, the traffic at Portobello has glided to a sublime appreciation of life’s industrial hum.

I arrive in Stephen’s Green breathless but full of life. Unfortunately I have no cash, so after a mindful trip to the ATM machine I arrive a respectable seven minutes late for my appointment. As usual, I am getting my hair cut by trainees. You can tell that they are trainees because they listen carefully to what you tell them you want done and before they begin, they ask you if your scalp ever gets itchy, because they have been told to ask this question. As I am getting a bib wrapped around me like a baby, I watch the group of ten girls who are taking a class in the corner of the salon. They are creating elaborate ballroom styles on uniformly attractive mannequin heads. Agreeing with Michelle, my stylist that I am a ‘medium-dark blend’ of a person with a penchant for autumn colours, I begin to flick through Marie Claire and alight at the few pages which boast sustained passages of prose. I stumble across three articles on the same theme: living in the moment. It seems to be the mantra of  my day. One is written by a woman who had a lesbian relationship with her best friend after (and later while) being in a relationship with the father of her child. The next is a story of contented single life by a woman in her late 30s, who now befriends rather than resents her many exes. The last tells of the regrets of an Oxford graduate for feeling intimidated by her toff-ee friends for three years instead of quitting after one and joining Smash Hit magazine as had always been her dream.

I like self-help. I think the idea of ‘living in the moment’ is fascinating. The scientist in me wants to find out:can it be? Is Echart Tolle really motivated to have a chat with Dawkins, Gaybo and Murray by an appreciation of the quotidian or is he, like most of us, drawn to the notion of acclaim? It’s difficult to ‘live in the moment’ when you are a (nearly totally) unemployed graduate still living at home. After yet another job rejection yesterday morning, I think I may be ready to disregard the future though.  The past; dull and continuous might just have to come second to the present, which (while tense) is reassuringly habitual. I am not getting started on the conditional, but Echart Tolle would be proud.

Echart Tolle and purple flowers

Me shorn.. for the moment

Being Made or Maid?

Rarely a day passes that I do not crave the spongey intellect of my eight-year-old self. It was a time when the pursuit of knowledge was its own goal and when quality entertainment constituted Sabrina Spellman turning Libby into a goat. It was a period of unbounded potential: I could grow up to be whatever I wanted.

I grew up; Sabrina went to college, dyed her hair red and Harvey Kinkle retreated into the obscurity of dubious work as an extra. I took the liberal arts route, with a minor in Psychology and a major in English literature; I began to scavenge for work. The world ceased to be my oyster. Open doors glided firmly, frustratingly to a close.

But what about the gritty, perverse cosiness of graduating into a Recession? The hopelessness and indignation I connect almost nostalgically with historical novels in which hardship is accompanied by the image of a struggling family gathered around an open fire, discussing wistfully their unfulfillable dreams for the future.

There’s a lesson in humility to be had from it all too. The innocent yet ostentatious certainty of worldy success possessed at age eight has become tainted by the knowledge that being a graduate does not confer on me the automatic privilege of joining the working class. 

And why should it, when 72 million children in this world do not have the privilege of an education and 1.1 billion people have inadequate access to water? They are employed trying to survive. My struggle is healthy while theirs is a heinous injustice. Perhaps it is them and not myself that I should be attempting to serve. It’s something that never occurred to me at the age of eight, when the world still worked on magical principles.

When magic plans fall flat and food is scarce.