Sunday Miscellany or “My Week in Review”

Monday: 8.45 pm Anticipating Fade Street

There have been no new Vatican scandals to report this week, and so the crusade against my mother, who likes to watch Would You Believe instead of Fade Street needs not be fought. I am walking home from Harcourt Street, where I have been instructing a group of fourteen foreign aupairs on the Third, (and hopefully ultimate) Conditional of the English language. Having survived another session, it is always a treat for me on the way home at this time to direct my thoughts from lesson planning to game theory as I analyse Louise’s next career move, due to be revealed at the later time tonight of 22.50.

Tuesday: 6.10 pm Yoga in Rathmines Town Hall

There are bits of mashed potato on my handtowel and so I lay it out near the back of this expansive yet unassuming space, just beneath the Rathmines clock tower. Around me the shapes of sleepless breathers are stretched in voiceless vertical lines. Their soft mats outlie with intuitive grace the length of their bodies. I curse my loose interpretation of BYOM (Bring Your Own Mat) and hope that my LSB enjoyed his surprise meal of potato mash during my lunchtime visit to Dundrum, from where I have come. In spite of the five layers of tinfoil which I wrapped around the bowl, some sneaky particles have managed to slither their way up toward my towel where they rest, content to be squashed but not devoured. As I inhale into my yoga cat pose, I resolve that by week two, she will have a Davina McCall mat, just like her feline contemporaries. I meeow mentally and exhale.

Tuesday: 8.05 pm Start Your Own Business in Rathmines Town Hall

“Does anybody need the terms ‘Sole Trader’ and ‘Limited Company’ explained?” the teacher; a banker with fourteen years of managerial experience across the road in Bank of Ireland asks.
A tired arm at the back creeps up; my left.

Thursday: 9.15 am “Chat about my CV” at a language school

I call in at reception and am greeted by an amiable country man in his sixties. “Just a minute”, he smiles after I have told him who I am.
Several minutes pass and finally I am escorted upstairs to a little office.
Inside a lady is sitting on a gym ball. There are scrunched up balls of paper scattered all over the floor.
“Do take a seat”, she says, “sorry about the mess, I was just tidying actually”
I recline.
“So…” she rummages on her desk. “I have just printed out your CV”
It is fresh off the presses, indeed.
She skims it and pauses.
“This is an informal chat”, she says. I sigh in relief, having interpreted the scrunched up bits of paper and the gym ball as cognitive obstacles designed to weed out the weaker candidates. We have a lovely chat and she vows to keep my details on file should a vacancy arise. I thank her and leave, relieved that I considered only for a few seconds the night before whether I should wear slacks and a jacket for the occasion.

Thursday 9.45 am: St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre

The Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre is empty, except for a few old men, who have arrived early to rest on its benches with the morning Metro. Shop shutters are beginning to lift open as bleary eyed staffmembers clock in. I rush in the direction of Argos, which beams at me with the catalogued promise of fulfilment. I leaf through its yoga mats and alight on the second cheapest one. The cheapest, at €7.00 did not advertise its potential to be rolled up and carried and as I learnt earlier this week, I am in no position to make assumptions on these matters. I am flooded with dopamine after my purchase and decide to browse the clothes section of Dunnes Stores. My beahviour becomes increasingly impulsive: I purchase a piece of rowing apparatus and a pair of grey tights.

Blue Yoga Mat with guaranteed roll-up mechanism

Friday 7.15 pm Faire le babysitting

I am waiting outside the door of the house where I babysit and so is the economics editor of The Irish Times. I am vaguely tempted to tell him who he is, but restrain myself and beam instead, announcing that I am the babysitter and so we are probably both in the right place. The door opens and we are greeted by a mad labrador and an adorable red haired and precoscious little girl. The dog makes a run for me and I grab reflexively her front paws and we dance, wildly. “Don’t mind her”, the little girl tells me, “she is pubescent”.

Saturday 10.45 pm: Fade Street

“Fuck your Honda Civic, I’ve a Horse Outside” is blaring through the bar of the Mercantile hotel. I am imagining tourists leafing wildly through their pocket dictionaries, wondering whether things really are so bad and whether this is what the commentators mean when they talk of “Irish resilience”. We end up in the Market Bar of Fade Street and as I nurse my Paulaner, I think of the pleasure that awaits me, 48 hours from now.

All that glistens is not Gold

Dún Laoghaire bay glistened pale blue and brilliant white. On my way there, on board the 46A bus, a schoolgirl sat next to me eating salt and vinegar crisps for breakfast. She was small enough, with wavy brown hair and a chequered uniform. When the bus pulled into Dún Laoghaire, I avoided gripping the point on the pole where she had smeared her greasy fingers. I was early for my appointment in the yacht club so I found a café and bought myself a hot chocolate. I felt as if I were back in London being an early-riser cosmopolitan-type enjoying the sunshine with strict purpose. I took out some books and a notepad with the intention of planning the class I was to teach later on.

Next to me two ladies sat down opposite each other. Fortyish – the two of them – I would say. The one I had a good view of was blackish-grey-haired and had that bowl-cut hairstyle known from childhood. She had an intense look on her face and told her friend and confidante that she needed to use the bathroom. Off she went. I read some more about the Third Conditional and took some notes. The lady came back and the coffees they had ordered arrived. They began to stir their drinks and what they talked about was crying. The blackish-grey-haired lady has spent her life not allowing anybody see her cry and this had to stop. She resolved to cry in front of friends and family. Her friend, or therapist nodded and added “You need to change, Margaret”.

Time up and I had to tear myself away from the scene. All kinds of backgrounds to it had danced around my head- was this an exposure session for a patient suffering from OCD who had a fear of drinking from dirty vessels shared by the general public? Or perhaps the dialogue represented no more than an unbalanced friendship. Or perhaps a marital crisis.

I came out of the yacht cub two hours later the honorary editor of a new website called and smiled when I realised that there may be a genetic component to holding such a title: my father has been honorary editor of the historical journal, The Irish Sword, for years.

I was too timid to ask to use the facilities in the yacht club and so I went in search of a bathroom in the village. I was striding down the main street in the hope of finding a MacDonalds when an elderly man startled me. He came from nowhere and barred my path. I swerved apprehensively.
“Excuse me, love”, he said. “Do you know where I can get a box of sweets around here?”
An extraordinary request, I thought and all that popped into my head was: “I don’t know. I’m sorry, but I am new to the area”.

My mind was still bouncing with ideas from my meeting in the yacht club but my bladder was speaking with a singular urgency. I conquered a cubicle in the Bloomfield shopping centre and emerged, relieved.

On my way out, I passed a gaudy ‘Cash for Gold’ store. Inside, the salesperson was sniffing and mauling a golden chain. Before him was parked a large wheelchair where a young man lay on his side, paralysed. His father hovered above, observing with shifting resignation the sniffing Shylock.

The Jibbertalky

I have few accomplishments to recommend me; I cannot draw, my recitals on the pianoforte are clumsy at best and I have neither a talent for embroidery nor the gift of graceful movement. The one area in which, after much searching, I have found myself to excel is in the ability to produce plausible-sounding Gibberish at will.
Though it is far from my best, you may have a listen here.

I have found that the children I babysit for nextdoor can speak Gibberish fluently but that older, more refined people sometimes struggle with the language. My Long-Suffering-Boyfriend (LSB) for example, speaks only pidgeon Gibberish, but enough to get by in most situations. I can only aspire to match some day the eloquence of Charlie Chaplin, the world’s only native speaker of Gibberish as he introduced the world to Sauerkraut.

I think my good friend Stephen Pinker would have a lot to say about Gibberish. He mentions Lewis Carroll’s 1872 nonsense poem The Jabberwocky in his book The Language Instinct as appealing to our hard-wired knowledge of and acquired predictions about language. If he were to condescend to read my blog and then stoop even lower to follow its links, I imagine he would point to the patterns of intonation in my speech as consisting of a mad mishmash of the grammatical structures of the languages I have been exposed to and that he would herald subtleties in prosody as indicative of uniformity in the portrayal of emotion through language.

I believe that my penchant for Gibberish is also connected to my tendency toward deceit. Let me explain. In order to compensate for my shockingly limited general knowledge, I periodically fabricate bizarre facts and relate them to my nearest and dearest. Once, for instance, on a rather dull bus journey from York to London, I turned suddenly to my LSB and said, “Did you know that T.S.Eliot was the first known poet to use the word peanuts in a poem?” A look of intelligent surprise crept over his face. I knew he would remember it for life.
“Really?”, he asked rhetorically.
“No”, I said, “I just made it up”. He looked at me, searchingly.

On another occasion, I broke a comfortable silence with the slow, dramatic outburst: “On gelded wheatgrass glides the linnet’s wing”.
“What’s that?”, he asked.
“Oh, just Milton”, I said with the nonchalance of a pouting fish.
“Really really?”
“No. Sorry.”

Since I always confess my wrongdoing within seconds of a Gibberishish utterance, I rarely suffer the consequences of my perjury. Having pondered the matter privately at length however, I have come to the conclusion that at the root of my silly amusement lies my inability to see the trees for the wood.

Looking for the Trees in the Wood.

You see, as I’ve mentioned before, I like to take a fly’s eye of the world. I find pleasure in understanding how people work, how language works, how the brain wires itself. My ineptitude resides in my lack of interest in the details; I am perfectly content to marvel at brain plasticity, but I’d be damned if I memorise the precise nature of the neurotransmissions that allow me to type this prepostrous post at four in the morning.

I may never be afforded the opportunity to advertise my unconventional charms to Mr Darcy, as Lizzy Bennett was, but were the opportunity to arise, I would do my very best to present my bad habit as an … impediment.

A Brief Treatise on Colin Firth’s Possession of Charm

Interaction of eyes and lips to produce Charm.

Colin Firth has made me cry eleven times in the past week; once while gazing with melancholic resolution toward Elizabeth Bennett, once while strolling with her through the grounds of Longbourn, once on the occasion of his wedding day and eight times as vexed and sensitive King, battling with a speech impediment.

It’s the rare interaction of eyes and jaw that does it for me. When the subtly determined curl of his lips is softened by his lost, intelligent eyes I become an emotional wreck. In these instances, he brings to life Ezra Pound’s definition of the ‘image’ as that which presents “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”.

A Charming Metaphor

Charm twirls itself about you like a ribbon; its intellectual appeal lies in its emotional reserve; it is a tease. Natalie Portman has it as does the German political interviewer Sandra Maischberger. Bryan Dobson possesses it and so too does Alexis Bliedl, but only when she is Rory Gilmore.

Charm, though extremely useful as a sexual tool need not take a seductive route. It’s interesting to note that when a brash young man accosts a lady at a bar with a chat-up line below her dignity she will often remark saractically “… charming” to her girlfriends after he has departed. Furthermore, it is customary for members of the general population to find scantily- clad women parading in stillettos and clutching bottles of Corrs Light as lacking in charm.

Potentially charmless girls

The perception of charm requires a little effort and as such the fruits of its identification carry an emotional value: we place worth on that in which we invest our energies. This is not to reduce charm to a mere self-serving bias but rather to highlight that intellect and emotion or “head and heart” are not always as far removed as we believe them to be.

To be charmed is one matter; to be charming another. Countless pamphlets have been penned on the latter so I thought it time to thrust open the question to the blogosphere: what charms you?

Why Plastic is Fantastic

Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself is already inspiring me to get off farcebook and engage in mental gymnastics, and I am only on page 92. In his book, Doidge documents cases in which people have benefited from the plasticity (the ability to change) of the brain.

Let’s take the example of Cheryl Shiltz, because hers is a nice-sounding name. Because of damage to the area of her brain dealing with balance (or the vestibular apparatus), Cheryl constantly feels as if she is falling. So great is the sensation that she is unable to sustain a career or maintain a conventional daily routine. Along comes the researcher Paul Bach-y-Rita and gives her a hat, as well as a thin strip to wear on her tongue. Attached to the strip are small electrodes and inside the hat is a device called an accelerometer. The accelerometer sends signals to the electrodes and both are connected to a computer.

Most of us keep our balance because tiny hairs in our cochlea, or inner ear respond to movement in the fluid canals that surround them and communicate this movement successfully with a clump of neurons, whicn in turn tell our muscles which way to move in order to maintain balance. Since the tiny hairs in Cheryl’s cochlea are not working properly, the accelerometer in the hat detects movement instead and conveys this information to her tongue, which then sends the signals to the specialised clump of neurons in her brain which then advise her muscles which way to move. The journey simply changes from the conventional Hair – Neuron clump – Muscles to become Hat -Tongue- Neuron clump – Muscles. In other words, the hat and the electrodes attached to her tongue allow her to stay balanced.
Nobody wants to hang out in a construction hat and attached to electrodes though. The marvelous, wonderous thing is that with repeated wearing of the hat, Cheryl’s brain developed a residual effect of increasing time periods, until eventually she learned to balance herself without wearing the hat. What this means is that her brain managed to change itself to find new pathways to that clump of neurons. Nice one.

Cheryl’s case illustrates what every road-tripper knows: if you miss your turn, you can take a roundtrip and still reach your destination.

The idea of brain plasticity was long contested among neuroscientists because of their success in assigning areas of the brain to specific functions. This idea, known as localisation assumed that the areas of the brain associated with specific tasks were fixed and that once certain critical periods were passed, if certain cognitive feats had not yet been mastered, they would never be.

Now that I’m curled up, hanging out with Cheryl and many others with inspiring stories, I am thinking about the possibilities of the human mind and that maybe some day, I really will master Arabic. As soon as I get my hands on that €13 teach -yourself set my boyfriend found but did not hold on to while he was stacking books into a pyramid at work, I’m on it. I may be unemployed and not up to much, but that is no excuse not to learn to turn mental somersaults in the middle east. Never before have nerds been so plastic.