A quarter-life crisis, a Familienfest, the land of the free, my first real job.. Here are the highlights of 2011

January

I was: unemployed, restless, devilish

What I said: “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…” more

February

I: found a job, was still devilish.

What I said: “I check my e-mail before going to sleep and there’s a Valentine e-card in from LSB! I think: “Aw, what a sweetie”. I open it up only to find a Fine Gael cartoon canvasser tell me that “Labour are red, Fine Gael are blue, we won’t raise your taxes like they want to do”. Then he winks and looks shiftily (seductively?) to the side. I send one to every member of my family signing it Eoghan Murphy xxx, the name of the Fine Gael candidate in my constituency who topped 98 fm’s “hottest election poster boy” poll…” more

March

I: had a quarter-life crisis

What I said: “There was once a raven-haired fortune teller who, tracing her forefinger over my palm, told me that I would live to be in my nineties. I was alarmed when I realised some time ago that I had reached quarter age in spite of her promise of longevity. This realisation, coupled with acute post-graduation panic (PGP) has propelled me to a life crisis…” more

April

I: tried to forget about my Quarter Life Crisis by taking a trip to Sligo with LSB

What I said: “We’re leaning against a stony wall by the riverbank. I’m unzipping my camera case gingerly because I want to remember the stillness and his solitude when a blonde-haired man of about thirty staggers, stony-eyed towards us.
“Don’t you dare take my picture”, he yells. “You’ve no right, you sons of bitches. You’ve no fucking right at all”…” more

May

I: thought about my younger and more vulnerable years.

What I said: “I was 16 and practically the same but for a hideous mane of long, straggly brown hair with orange highlights. I had just finished struggling through The Satanic Verses. I’d taken it to Germany where I spent many a journey on slow trains, puff-puff-puffing their way through the Bavarian countryside, with the battered book on my knee, trying to make sense of it all. Bizarrely-named angels, and evil and the Muslims didn’t like it: it went something like that…” more

June

I: took up a political cause

What I said: “As they beat their hammers on their oak writing tables and whisper “Objection” in advance of September’s Referendum, the twenty-two dissenters will inevitably privately concede that the scrapping of Article 35.5 represents good riddance to bad rubbish. Objection over-ruled…” more

July

I: thought about pens and penises

What I said: “Unless it’s accepted as equally scandalous that the proportion of male nurses is equivalent to that of female corporate executives, a discussion of gender can never be detached from a social weighting in favour of money…” more

August

I: attended the annual Familienfest

What I said: “As I was tucking into my vegetable bags (or Gemuse Taschen) I had a sudden sinking feeling: I had forgotten to pick up the bag of black sausages!…” more

September

I: admitted that I don’t have the first clue about the economic crisis

What I said: “Every weekday morning, I brush my teeth while listening to the business news on Morning Ireland. Once the weather comes on, I know it’s time to spit…” more

October

I: realised that there’s nothing quite like an Irish Presidential election.

What I said: “The struggle for the presidential candidates to find many more words than the Queen of England herself during the “Irish Language” debate revealed the incongruities that are still gripping this little nation, which – desperate for an export-driven recovery from economic ruin- continues to struggle with its own identity…” more

November

I: went to America.

What I said: “Subways in New York are grubby places. They are for poor people and for people who read large books with city library stamps printed on their spines…” more

December

I: finished learning the Arabic alphabet!

What I said ““That is a beautiful and new car!”, I said pointing to a rusty 1993 fiat punto. “I am Kate Katharina.” “Pleased to meet you.” “Give me a falafel please”.”… more

………………………………………………………..

Thank you all so much for making 2011 lovely and for taking time out of your much more exciting lives to leave comments. I appreciate you all enormously. ❤

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My boyfriend is a savant

My boyfriend is a savant. He can multiply enormous numbers by each other in seconds and can list the members of my expansive German family in order of age without ever having been formally taught. He can recall facts about obscure historical figures I’ve never heard of and whenever we share a book to read, I have to skip paragraphs to keep up with his page turning.

Of course he denies it. He shakes his head with a bemused smile, masking the beginnings of faint frustration and says, “I’m not a savant, Katzi”. Then I ask him to multiply 678 by 78 and he says “52,884”.

“Is it really?”
“I think so”, he replies modestly.
I check it on my phone. He’s always right. I have found that he finds it difficult to refuse an offer to compute.

Being a savant’s girlfriend has its complications. One becomes idle. Instead of whipping out a calculator, or typing something into Google, or even better lifting one of my enormous encyclopaedias, I call him.

Another problem I have found is that it is extremely difficult to find a fault or defect to offset the genius quality. As well as knowing lots, he’s also unbearably humble.

The difference between us is that I don’t like to let the facts get in the way of a good diagnosis. I understand that according to the Strict Diagnostic criteria, LSB unfortunately does not qualify as a savant. However, this does not stop me from addressing text messages to him with “What’s up, Savantface?”

In an effort to refute my hypothesis, this Christmas he gave me a book with the title “Islands of Genius” with a foreword written by my hero Daniel Tammet. I fear he thought that reason was the way to a change of heart. This book, like most academic works, disguises interesting and insightful points with dull prose.

Peculiarly, though I received it last week, the inside cover claims it to have been “first published in 2012”. I see this as nothing more than further evidence of LSB’s preternatural processing speed.

Why Ireland must ban smacking children

Texan judge William Adams enters his daughter’s bedroom. On the wall next to the computer in the corner is a poster of Bart Simpson writing lines on a blackboard. In front of Judge Adams is his daughter’s bed, covered in a red and black spread.

His daughter Hillary is wearing thin grey pants and what looks like a pyjama top.
“Bend over the bed”, he says, quietly in his southern drawl, “Bend over the bed”. She’s whimpering now. “No. Dad”, she pleads.
“BEND OVER THE BED”.

He’s swinging a belt.

He thrashes her on her thighs before shouting once more “BEND OVER THE BED”.

She folds herself over the bed. She’s cowering, weeping, screaming. He keeps thrashing her. Crack, crack, crack. She’s flailing so he presses down on her back, to force her onto her stomach. He strikes her again and again and again.

He moves away. She sits up. Her shoulders continue to jerk forward; still flinching from the attack. She starts wailing. Her father stands before her and regards her for a second. Then he lashes out again. With each crack of the blow, there’s a gasp as she tries to find air. Her mother, from the corner of the room watches on and tells her daughter to “take it … like a grown woman”.

Hillary’s crime was to download music illegally from the internet.

The abuse continues for six minutes. The footage emerged in November when Hillary, who had secretly set up a webcam in her room to record her father’s ongoing abuse decided to release in on the internet.

Though he’s being investigated, there’s a good chance that William Adams won’t be held to account for his actions because of the time that has elapsed since his crime; the footage was taken in November 2004 when Hillary was 16. Judge Adams and Hillary’s mother have since split up, the latter claiming that she was”completely brainwashed and controlled” in her marriage. Hillary and her mother now have a good relationship and have appeared on chat shows together.

I found it impossible to watch the full seven- minute clip posted below but I forced myself to watch enough to decide that what Judge Adams did was a disgusting crime deserving of a prison sentence. Alarmingly, there are many who, having watched the same clip, disagree that Adams is even guilty of abuse.

While Judge Adams was abusing rather than ‘spanking’ his child, the case illustrates why it is socially important and morally necessary to protect children under law.

The Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald is considering bringing in a blanket ban on smacking children.

She should do so as soon as possible.

Most of the generation before me was beaten. Many were sexually abused.

In Ireland today, parents still smack their children in the middle of the street.

The purpose of a law is to create a boundary of social propriety. Broadly speaking, when a democratic society prohibits something, it sends a signal out about what is right and wrong.

Smacking children is wrong. It is not necessarily abusive, or worthy of criminal pursuit but it is still wrong.

Many who were smacked grow up to say “well, it never did me any harm”. Many of them use this as an excuse to smack their own children, claiming that “spare the rod, spoil the child”.

There is no evidence to suggest that smacking a child is beneficial. As children develop, they learn to model their behaviour on that of the people around them. Researchers have found that children who are smacked are more likely to grow up to be violent themselves.

Smacking a child is a poor parental strategy. It is a lazy, uncreative way to stop undesirable behaviour and leads to long-term damage to both parent and child.

I have heard the weak argument expressed that children under three have failed to reach the “age of reason” and can therefore only respond to discipline in the form of corporal punishment.

While it is tself highly contestable that children under the age of three cannot “reason”, this argument falls through because it is certain that children from the moment they enter the world, copy the behaviour of the people around them. Unless violence is desirable, children’s exposure to it should be prohibited.

Supposing a toddler lacks the capacity to understand that throwing food from their high chair is wrong. If he or she is smacked, they still don’t make the connection. Instead they learn that when their parents are upset, or angry, they respond by lashing out.

“But what if a child is running into the middle of the road and a car is coming and you lash out to stop them?” I hear people cry.

This is okay, you will not be prosecuted.

This is an uncomfortable topic for plenty of people. Many ‘good’ parents smack their children and admittedly the long-term damage might be minimal. Nevertheless, the message is ineffective and the means in itself infantile and unsophisticated.

Parenting is not easy. The temptation to smack will arise. In the majority of cases, at least a handful of smacks will be administered.

Where the law comes in is in changing perceptions. The fact that many people in America and beyond can watch a video as horrendous as that of Judge Adams’ assault of his daughter and claim that it doesn’t constitute abuse is utterly alarming.

It shows that laws – like parents – must set clear boundaries. Physical punishment is wrong. Apart from the unusual case where a child is innately violent (not having learnt the behaviour) and when a parent must use force in self -defence, it is unambiguously unacceptable.

In eighteen of the forty-seven member states of the Council of Europe, it is illegal to inflict physical punishment on children in all settings, including the home.

According to the Irish Times, enforcing the same ban here is problematic because of the constitutional guarantees afforded the family.

It is ironic that in an attempt to protect a child from an abusive family, the rights of that same family could be infringed. It is the same kind of logic that protected the institution of the church over the abuses it perpetrated against its flock.

Unfortunate back story? YOU could be the next big thing!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the misfortune of watching “Germany’s Got Talent”. It wasn’t my choice; I was babysitting and the parents had decreed it. The three children had permission to watch the show provided they ate up their salami baguettes and promised to be in bed by 9.30 pm. As I tossed salami slices onto their French sticks, I prayed for a hunger strike, but it was all in vain: they tore through the bread and the youngest even asked for seconds.

If its British counterpart is objectionable, Germany’s Got Talent is downright offensive. It’s even more slow-moving and features considerably more sexually provocative performances and an unacceptably broad definition of talent.

I asked the children whom they were rooting for. “The piano player” they answered. Oh, how nice!

Turns out he’s a Brazilian-German with a red Mohawk known as “Punker Jorg” who’s been up to no good; for the last few years he’s been living on the streets and getting in trouble with the police. Somewhere along the way, he started playing Yann Tiersen songs on the keyboard and now he wants to turn his life around. We see some teary tributes from his grandmother and an emotional appeal from his family to quit his path to self-destruction.


Before he performs we must watch a Russian lady showing off her uncanny ability to change outfits in seconds while covered by a sheet her husband drapes over her; an unfortunate man who is besotted with the main judge, whom he describes as his idol; and a blind lady whose dog sits beside her panting as she sings.

The kids’ eyes get bigger and bigger with each story of an unfortunate life about to be transformed by a winning performance.

This all came back to me tonight because I stumbled upon a clip of Korea’s Got Talent on youtube. Sung-Bong Choi is 22 and was abandoned as a child. He’s spent his life working on the street selling gum and sometimes the public toilets are the only shelter he can get.

One night he’s in a nightclub selling gum when he hears a vocalist performing with such emotion that he decides he wants to sing too and turn his life around. Korea’s Cheryl Cole gazes at him with adoring pity while the camera pans out to audience members, who are wearing uniform expressions of patronising compassion.

Sung Bo, self-contained and humble starts to sing and the crowd goes wild. Cue millions of youtube hits: the boy goes viral and he’s the next Susan Boyle (with that name, he has to be).

Well-intentioned youtube comments beneath videos of this kind remind us “not to judge people by their looks” and thank the Su Bos of the world for having talent despite adverse life circumstances and lack of physical attractiveness.

They’re called “feel-good” videos and they travel around the world in seconds and bring tears to people’s eyes, which they then tweet about with a link back to the video.

Pity that these superstar moments rely on the gross assumption that talent and good looks and fortune are usually correlated and where this is not the case it’s legitimate to make an enormous deal out of it.

Much to the kids’ disappointment, Punker Jorg doesn’t win. An African panflautist who hasn’t been able to afford to see his family for eight years does. Magically, before his winning performance and after an elongated series of clips conveying his unfortunate life-story his mother appears on stage, having been flown over courtesy of the show to hear her son perform the melodies of his native land.

He begins to play. The pretty judge wipes a tear from her cheek with her perfect nail. He’s crowned winner and embraces his mother.

By this time, the kids’ eyes have glazed over. As I tuck them up, I ask whether next time they’d like to play make-believe “Das Supertalent” instead. They nod in excitement. When I return downstairs, I notice a piece of salami stuffed down the side of the sofa.

My left-leaning Christmas tree from Crumlin

If there is an awkward, complicated way of accomplishing an easy task, the Ferguson family has found it. At Christmas, this means leaving buying a tree until very late and then refusing to bring the car out to transport it home. And of course refusing to buy one close by, because they can be found more cheaply further away.

This year was no different. Given that it’s only four days until Christmas, today seemed like the appropriate time to acquire a tree.

“Dad, we should get a tree”, I said stuffing a potato waffle into my mouth.
“Righteo. Let’s go”
“What, now? I’m eating!”
“We’ll leave in five.”
“FINE.”

Grabbing my coat and boots, I found my dad at the door.
“I’m cycling. Will you accompany me?”
“Nyee… No.I’m wearing a skirt.. and these boots aren’t suitable. You can wheel your bike there and then we’ll carry the tree on it in on the way home.”

He seemed to be okay with this.

Until we were making our way down the canal and he cycled off, leaving me trotting behind, fuming, resentful and futile. I chased him all the way around Harold’s Cross but we found none of the usual haunts open for business.

Dejected, we parted. I dared him to return home without a Christmas tree.

Sure enough, an hour later, I heard the gate creak open and caught a glimpse of my father’s head bopping between a mass of bushy branches.

We argued about the best way to fit the tree through the door. He heaved it all the way into the dining room, where he dumped it unceremoniously against the bookcase. “Got it in Crumlin”, he boasted before announcing he had to dash out again.

Alone now, I took a look at the specimen before me. An absolute beauty. Totally symetrical, full-bodied and tall, with a well-endowed base. This was the Beyoncé of all trees. My Papsi had done well.

The rest of my day went something like this:

I went to the garden and found a large green pot full of earth but without signs of vegetation. Armed with an enourous spade, I emptied it out and marvelled at the reflexive movements of the pinkish-blue worms which resembled varicose veins. Then I boiled several kettles of water and washed it down. My favourite part of the day happened next.

While I returned to the kitchen, I left the pot on the grass. I’d poured in some boiling water and a little cloud of steam was rising from it. When I came back, I found a robin perched at the edge of the pot, with its little red breast all puffed up and its head errect, enjoying a sauna.

I spent a long time cleaning that pot and making the acquaintance of a number of worms, who didn’t seem to want to engage in small talk with me and even, on a few occasions, phsyically recoiled with fear.

When I had finally finished, I brought the pot inside, and lined it with a collonade of bricks, which we happen to keep in our garden.

I took a firm hold of the tree and lugged it over to the window. Employing every ounce of strength my small and under-exercised frame would allow, I lifted it up and tried to jam it into the pot. It didn’t fit.

I breathed in deeply, turned on Mooney Goes Wild and relined my pot. This time it slipped in seemlessly, and, while it is now stable, it leans slightly to the left, which is a position I can identify with.

I was so happy alone in the house today, carrying one box of German Christmas decorations after the other up the stairs and unpacking it all to find it all just as I had packed it away last year. I whiled away six or seven hours dressing my full-bodied, left-leaning tree from Crumlin.

My heart did a little skip when I found my favourite decoration again. It is a little baby (probably Jesus) wrapped in a pink blanket, sleeping inside a walnut shell.

I am incredibly attached to the walnut baby. I would dispense with all our straw stars, our wooden horses, our glass presents and our golden baubles just to save this little one. It’s so simple, so lovely, so constant.

I hung it up on a protected branch near the top of the tree and this evening, in my armchair sipping a glass of spiced apple wine, I watched it swing slightly under a white light and thought that the best moment of Christmas was passing before my eyes.

The only Iraqi man I’ve ever met.

I wrote this piece on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning when news of the withdrawal was still in the headlines. Today I clicked on to BBC news to see that co-ordinated bomb attacks in Bagdhad had killed 63 and injured around 185.

A couple of years ago, I sat opposite an Iraqi man while he cursed at me. I was volunteering with an asylum-seeker mentorship programme and I was supposed to be teaching him English. He was showing me video images of bombings in his town that he’d taken on his mobile phone. He had a brutal glare and I was scared of him. He was hissing something at me that I can’t recall. I remember his eyes were lit up and that I didn’t know what to say. There was another student at the table, fidgeting.

I thought of him when the war in Iraq was declared over last week. And then again when I listened to a commentator on Pat Kenny talk about how the withdrawal of American troops was muted, because the operation hadn’t been a success.

In 2006 the UN estimated that over one hundred Iraqi civilians a day were being killed. In the end the number for that year turned out to be 34,000, amounting to 93 per day. On a single day in November, 200 died in an attack on Baghdad. According to antiwar.com, 4484 US soldiers lost their lives since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The last fatality was on November 14, just before Thanksgiving.

And there was the suicide of David Kelly in July 2003. I remember watching the coverage of the Hutton Inquiry in my pyjamas and wondering what a “sexed-up” dossier was.

In 2006 I was starting university. I counted balancing writing essays on Jane Austen with late nights out as one of my greatest concerns. I didn’t lose sleep over the 93 a day.

And yet, like everyone else, one of my biggest fears is losing somebody I love. It’s impossible to imagine the suffering of war, the little dominoes of grief tumbling as one life after another falls to pieces.

I follow the official blog of the British troops in Afghanistan. They use a WordPress account, like this one. Every few days the death of a soldier is announced, with a short bio, featuring his or her military rank and how their death occurred. You can leave comments. People do.

It makes me realise how little I know about the world, how, against the odds, my life has occurred in a peaceful place at a peaceful time. I don’t give thanks for this often enough.

I’ve no idea if the Iraqi was granted asylum. Most likely, he’s still in a centre somewhere, awaiting his hearing and measuring his life out in insipid cantine meals.

Confessions of an Arabic student: Ordering Falafels And Sounding Like A Pirate

Monday was a very important day for me. It wasn’t Christmas, or my birthday, or the day I competed in the Slovakian jousting championships. In fact, it was an occasion of much greater significance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, and she-who-serial-googles-‘snails’-to-land-here, last Monday evening, I learnt the last four letters of the Arabic alphabet: ط, ظ,
ع and غ.

Those final four characters had been hanging over my classmates and me for a full three weeks. Our Mudarrissa (مدرسة) kept promising we’d get to them the following lesson, but we got tied up learning how to attach possessive pronouns to objects like chairs, bags, chickens and doors and how to ask for falafels.

The four offending letters had been left until the end because native English speakers tend to mispronounce them because we lack an equivalent sound. The most felonious one is: غ.

“Who wants to pronounce this one?” asked the Mudarissa, pointing at the lone-standing, three-shaped character with a hat she’d printed on the board.

(Teacher tip: Never, ever ask open questions)

An eerie silence descended.

“How about …. you. Kate?”

“Agggghhhrr”, she said.

“Aaarr” I replied, as if I was at the dentist. She shook her head.

“Agggghhhrrr” she repeated.

“Rrrrrrrrrgh” I tried once again, only to cause her to shake her head more violently.

“No. It’s AGGGGHRRR. Not “RRRRRR”.

“AAAAGRRR?”.

“No.”

This went on for some time. I estimate that I voiced the letter incorrectly seventeen times before she gave up on me. I was prepared to continue indefinitely but the other students were beginning to shift in their chairs and smother giggles.

It might not seem like a big deal to seasoned polyglots, but I am pretty glad I’ve got this far. You might remember that Arabic has twenty-eight letters, which change shape according to their position in a word.

What’s now happened – since Monday- is that I can look at a word and actually read it –albeit incredibly slowly. Of course as most standard Arabic script doesn’t mark vowels, what I’m reading could have a myriad of actual pronunciations. The point though is that I’m now in a position to consider those possibilities.

Today I started using facebook in Arabic. My profile picture was immediately transported to the other side of the screen and the ads offering me Masters Degree Courses in John Hopkins University switched to the left. In an effort to learn new vocabulary, I diligently copied and pasted some of the Arabic characters into Google translate. The Arabs, I’ve learnt have a way with words. They may not have the time to mark their vowels, but they do translate ‘unlike’ as “cancellation of admiration”.

H-A-L-A-L

Life for LSB has become yet more tedious since my initiation into the Arabic language. We can’t pass a kebab shop without me reading “H-A-L-A-L” (حلالا) extremely slowly while missing the English translation that accompanies it. The other evening, on Camden Street while we were on the way to meet a friend for a hot port and a natter, I reeled off everything I could say in Arabic complete with elaborate supporting gestures.

“That is a beautiful and new car!”, I said pointing to a rusty 1993 fiat punto. “I am Kate Katharina.” “Pleased to meet you.” “Give me a falafel please”.