How will the ultimate American feel-good format land among down-to-earth, practical Germans?
Living in Berlin, where the sky at this time of year is unyieldingly grey and the branches determinedly bare, Spring still feels achingly far away.
Yet in Ireland, the first day of February – St Brigid’s Day – has, for centuries, marked the arrival of Spring.
Against a backdrop of perpetual grey, it’s a particular joy to be taking part in tomorow’s Brigidfest, a celebration of Irish female creativity hosted by the Irish embassy in Berlin.
The event showcases the work of seven female Irish writers: Elaine Feeney, Wendy Erskine, Hilary Fannin, Olivia Fitzsimmons, Roisin Kiberd, Audrey McGee and Louise Nealon.
And I, lucky duck, get to read the specially commissioned German translations of some of their work.
The good news for you, reader, is that you too, can join the celebration. For free, from anywhere in the world. Online, widely accessible events: the tiny silver lining in this grey pandemic.
Sign up and read more about it here, and perhaps, see you tomorrow at 19.00 CET.
Happy New Year! Guten Rutsch!
I write from the couch. Outside, the fireworks are already going off. Every few minutes, the room lights up in pink and green and purple. We keep meaning to get curtains, but it is never important enough. Sometimes I suspect we don’t want them that much.
The new year begins in less than an hour. The news alerts coming in talk of an “anxious world” ringing in 2022.
LSH and I have opened a box of Butlers chocolates, gifted to us at Christmas. I choose a white chocolate flake, followed by a pink himalayan salted caramel.
Someone got to name them all.
Earlier, we watched coverage from the Brandenburg Gate. Two moderators in the rain, pumping up an imaginary crowd. Live crosses to appropriately small gatherings in people’s living rooms. The revellers too tipsy, sometimes, to unmute their microphones.
We changed the channel. Now Mr Bean is on. Our little one is hiccoughing as she rocks on LSH’s knee.
He is wearing a nice, patterned shirt, on my request. It has been so long since we dressed up. I root out a fancy dress, which I have worn hoisted up most of the night, feeding our baby.
She is eleven weeks old now. When she smiles her gummy smile at me, everything inside me melts. Gah, she says now. Uw Goo.
This time last year, she was only a dream.
LSH has gone to get us some drinks, placing her in her little bunny-shaped nest before he went. I’m shaking the toys that dangle above her with my toes.
There is so much one could say about 2021 but I don’t have the time to find the words. Where even to start? I have nothing to add about the political. And the personal would be too raw, at twenty minutes to midnight.
An older friend of mine said time takes on a whole new dimension when you have children.
It’s true. Everything is at once more precious and more fragile.
I think back to New Year’s Eve 1999. My father in his study, eyes on his clunky computer as the clock struck midmight. Waiting to see if the millennium bug would materialise. The scariest things are rarely those we see coming.
This time two years ago was the last time I was in Ireland. If you’d told me then that the world would soon be hit by a plague that would kill millions and shut down life as we know it, I’d have passed you a glass of water, and offered to order you a taxi home.
Four paragraphs later, the drinks are here, and LSH has scooped up our little one again.
Through the wall, I listen to him singing Scarlet Ribbons as he changes her nappy.
Mr Bean is throwing a sponge at a headmaster. I have not been paying enough attention to understand the context. Outside, the bangs are becoming more frequent.
LSH is back now, and has set our Schatz down beside me on the couch. She’s in her sleeping bag. I mute the television and all I hear is the fireworks, and her breathing. Ten minutes to go now.
Happy New Year! Guten Rutsch!
Time, time, time
One second, maybe two:
Her head up close to mine
Her mouth stretched into a yawn
Her milky breath igniting
Some long-ago memory of porridge
Since I last saw my parents
The foamy layer of a pint
The Irish Sea
One hour, thirty minutes:
The length of a Netflix documentary
about a man and an octopus
The revelation that a mother octopus starves herself to death
to save her offspring
made me cry
Hours upon hours:
Stop-start feeding on the couch
My body itching to move, trapped
Sending Whatsapp messages
Since my mother gave birth to me
All of a sudden
I feel desperately old
as I hang up laundry
black boxer shorts
a tiny knitted hat
since she arrived
in the early hours of a mid-October day
It was a Sunday
After my waters broke
Soaking the maternity jeans
I borrowed from a friend
The length of time I was outside the house today
The longest stretch without her
I had to go to the gynaecologist
When I got there
my boobs were
with stored-up milk
You need to pump
the doctor said
before we’re in a nursing home, somewhere
By then, my husband says,
will be feeding us
The length of time it took to make
this evening’s dinner
half-price spinach and ricotta tortellini
“I’m just going to stitch you up,” said the doctor. “You’ve lost quite a bit of blood.”
She was kneeling on the floor, looking between my legs.
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”
It was just before 5 in the morning, Sunday three weeks ago.
My newborn lay on my belly, and looked right into my eyes.
“We’d usually take you to the operating theatre for this, but I think you’re still numb enough from the epidural.”
I held my daughter against my chest. After a brief, reassuring cry, she inched herself upward, searching for my boob.
I looked at my husband, incredulous. His eyes were shiny bright.
For 36 agonizing hours of labour, her head had not moved. But when she finally came – coaxed out by a suction cup and my pure desperation – she seemed fully formed.
Eyes open. A head of dark brown hair. My husband’s face in hers.
She was perfect.
“Do you want to keep the placenta?” a midwife asked.
The bloody mass she was holding up like something you glimpse in the back of a meat delivery truck.
At once tremendous and terrifying.
“No thank you,” I said.
“I’m scared I won’t be able to produce any milk,” I told the nurse hours after delivery.
She pinched my nipple until a tiny bit of yellow goo came out. “You’re fine,” she said.
I wanted to hug her.
Tiny, tiny drops of it fell from me during the night.
The joy and terror of my body sustaining another.
The womb was a timeless swamp. No such thing as night and day.
We get up late in the mornings. Eat breakfast in bed. Our baby girl between us, making us smile.
Everything is fluid
My bedsheets stained with milk. Huge pale yellow patches of it. Big clumps of blood still emerging from me as my organs squeeze back into place. And then the baby spits back up the milk.
There is a concept here called Wochenbett . It sounds old-fashioned to a half-foreign ear. But the idea is that new mothers need weeks in bed to recover. We don’t take it literally. But for the first three weeks, my husband does all the cooking. And nearly all the nappies, too.
The way he talks to her, as he changes her.
I knew he would be a good father. I always did. But he is far better than I could even imagine.
I listen to the stories he tells her. The softness of his voice. The way he looks at her. She could cry all night and his tone wouldn’t change. He has always had the patience of a saint.
She has his face, I think but when her expressions change, I see flashes of myself.
She can look kind of impish sometimes, nonplussed.
And there’s this luxurious stretch she does .. an act of gentle obstinanace.
And then she purses her lips like she’s mimicking someone haughty and posh.
All with her eyes closed.
And then sometimes she looks utterly heartbroken. Like she is watching tragedy unfold.
All of humanity is in her sleeping face.
She makes the most amazing sounds.
Eh? she asks. Eh? Eh?
Usually she is looking for food.
Eh! I reply.
As I unclip my nursing top her breathing gets faster, heavier. The pant of hunger.
We already have many nicknames for her.
Feral squirrel, when she lunges at me and bashes her little head impatiently against my boob.
Milkworm when she emerges sleepy with a red face covered in milk.
Spooky Sally today, when we dressed her in the little ghost costume my sister sent.
I’m so used to looking down at her little face when she feeds that when I look at my husband now, his face seems huge.
The algorithms are changing, too.
How to bathe newborn. How to clean umbilical cord. Newborn diarrhoea.
Yesterday, we looked through a photo gallery of baby poo.
“Was it seedy though?” I asked.
“Hmm. Keep an eye on it then.”
“Have you taken her temperature?”
“37.2. In the normal range.”
Writing this has been stop-start, all evening long.
Our little one has been especially unsettled.
We fed and we walked. We snuggled and we talked.
I insisted on finally doing some cooking.
Pumpkin risotto, for the day that’s in it.
Served seven feeds and three hours later than I’d hoped.
I knew it would be like this.
A few words at best, here and there.
Scraps of life.
As I type, in bed now – my eyes are closing.
As husband and baby sleep.
Outside, a late-night bus drives by.
Parenthood is more poetry than prose.
No coherence. Or conclusion.
Just the hard-won knowledge – imperfectly expressed –
That life is the most beautiful, fragile thing.
In Germany, you’re legally obliged to stop working six weeks before your baby’s due date and for the eight weeks following its birth. The period is called Mutterschutz, literally “mother protection” and for me, it’s been a gift.
As I write, there are ten days left before my little one is expected. I have spent the majority of my Mutterschutz hard at work on my final novel edits. There is nothing quite like impending labour to focus the literary mind.
Some time ago, I stumbled upon this LitHub article about famous writers and their attitudes to having children. Opinions range from Doris Lessing’s “No one can write with a child around … It’s no good, you just get cross” to Lily King, who says: “My first novel took eight years—much longer than my novels since then. . . Once I had kids, my sense of self was no longer completely defined by my success or failure as a writer. It’s given me confidence as a writer to try things, and worry less about failing.”
The debate reminded me of how Robert Louis Stevenson defined the relationship between literature and life:
Books are good enough in their own way but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.
For me, writing a book has been a years-long labour of pain and love.
In just a few days – perhaps sooner – another labour of an entirely different magnitude will begin.
Nothing I have ever read can possibly prepare me for what is to come.
Progressive policy, regressive society: Germany’s parent trap
Post originally appeared here
I was having lunch with a friend the other day. Both in our third trimester of pregnancy, our talk turned to parental leave.
“How are you and your husband doing it?” she asked.
I told her that we were taking the first three months off together, that I would then take a further six, and he the final two.
In case you haven’t been counting, that adds up to fourteen months, the length of time the German government will pay up to 65 % of your salary — or a maximum of €1,800 ($2,100) monthly — for you to look after your child.
Her situation was somewhat different. Her husband, an employee of a major German multinational, had recently been told — by a female boss, incidentally — to forget about a promotion if he took parental leave. His previous superior, himself a father of four, had been similarly obstructive when he chose to take three nonconsecutive months off after the birth of their first child.
I would have spat my baba ghanoush out in indignation had I not become so used to regressive attitudes throughout my pregnancy. They are pervasive around the world of course, but all the more notable within a system that is designed to be progressive.
When I recently called my insurance company to inquire about my contributions during parental leave, the man on the phone took it for granted that I would be taking a year out and inquired politely whether my partner was opting to take the final two months, a requirement by law if you want to avail of all fourteen.
Last weekend, my husband and I went to a cobbler who, after taking a long look at my belly, informed me that I was having a boy. I replied cheerfully that while none of my scans had suggested as much, I would return to let him know if his intuition proved correct. In response, he winked conspiratorially at my husband.
“Don’t be too disappointed,” he said. “Girls are an insurance policy! They’ll look after you when you’re old!” He leaned over the counter and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Boys are different. All they care about is money! In my family, all the boys leave to work and the girls stay to look after their parents.”
Having told us to come back for our wares in half an hour, I explained we would need a little longer because we were on our way to a birth preparation class.
He raised his eyebrows.
“Are you going as well?” he asked my husband.
“For sure!” he replied.
The cobbler smiled broadly and gave me a glance that seemed to suggest that I had nabbed myself a particularly indulgent man.
I took a deep breath, the kind I have been advised to practise in preparation for labor. My daughter kicked in solidarity.
Exhaling slowly, I considered the principles underlying these small but not insignificant instances of patriarchal nonsense.
The first is that a progressive system is no guarantee of a progressive society. Last year, German mothers applied for an average of 14.5 months parental leave and fathers just 3.7. (If you’re confused about the math, there are additional options to take more than fourteen months off, albeit at a significantly lower rate).
While this inarguably works out far better for both parents than it does in most other countries, the difference between the sexes is remarkable when you consider that the system allows mothers and fathers to decide freely about how much time each of them takes. The faux celebratory press release put out by Germany’s Federal Statistics Office in response to the figures was also remarkably cringeworthy. It reads, in translation:
“Changing nappies instead of having a job — at least for a temporary period? What was unthinkable for earlier generations, was actively chosen in 2020 by 462,300 fathers, who applied for parental benefits.”
Apart from the fact that it’s both ludicrous and offensive to reduce the profound and complex task of child care to changing nappies, the tone of the statement reinforces the idea that a man showing more than a passing interest in the birth of his child is a rather amusing novelty.
So what’s behind it all? Why — when faced with an equitable system — are German parents choosing to stick to traditional models of child care?
Let’s get biology out of the way first. One thing a few girlfriends have mentioned, and which has also come up on the dad podcasts my husband listens to, is that many fathers feel useless in the first few months of their babies’ lives. Too often, this is because for the first time they are forced to encounter the reality of their own breastlessness. Intimidated by their partners’ newfound and superhuman ability to produce a highly coveted baby beverage on demand, they conclude that their presence is surplus to requirements and that they might as well return to their office desk as nature intended.
I am being only partly facetious. Apart from the fact that many women can’t or choose not to breastfeed, the reality is that men are simply not conditioned to see themselves in a nurturing role. As we say about women ascending the heights of corporate management: You can’t be what you can’t see.
This brings us to another important point: the fact that our collective value system continues to privilege economic achievement over all other forms of fulfilment.
This bias is so pervasive we don’t even notice it. Consider how obsessively occupied we are with the gender pay gap compared to the gender child care gap. We are rightly outraged when we hear that women continue to earn less than men but not at all inflamed by the idea that fathers spend significantly less time with their children than mothers do.
When we hear of a full-time stay-at-home dad, we offer up praise, as if the choice represents a noble sacrifice rather than a genuine desire to privilege family over fortune. When a woman does the same, we may privately pity her for her lack of enlightenment.
I myself have been robustly shaped by this idea. Like many women of my age, I spent years in a spiral of anxiety wondering about how to balance motherhood with a career. It was only when my fear of leaving it too late became even greater than my fear of not having it all, that it became clear that the time was right. Or, at least, as right as it would ever be.
My husband, who works for a large e-commerce enterprise, is less prone to obsessive rumination. When I bring up the issue of how our identities are about to forever shift and the possibility that our professional lives may never return to their previous glories, he regards me with a benign and patient expression that I hope he will one day direct towards our daughter too.
“I sell furniture,” he says gently. “And you make reports about shipping containers. It’s not exactly life-or-death stuff.”
Not like, say, having a baby is. But you wouldn’t know it, based on how we talk about it.
At this point, you might be wondering why, given my distrust of the patriarchy, we’re not dividing our parental leave up exactly equitably: seven months each. The honest answer is that it’s the boobs, not the economy, stupid.
I am hoping to breastfeed for at least nine months and I really don’t fancy the whirr of a breast pump accompanying my return to the office. Firm in the belief that those reports on shipping containers warrant my full attention, I have negotiated an additional two months of leave away from my husband.
“Not fair,” he says, moodily contemplating his return to writing headlines about sofa sets.
“It never has been,” I reply.
Do we need robot lawn mowers?
This year, due to the pandemic, the furthest I could travel was to the state of Brandenburg, just outside of Berlin. While there, an encounter with an inept robot lawn mower made me question the advantages and pitfalls of automation. This post originally appeared here.
On a recent visit to the German town of Rheinsberg, my husband and I stayed in a charming bungalow with a beautiful garden whose central feature was a wooden swing which hung from a large, old tree.
The young man who greeted us on arrival was solicitous, guiding us through a well-stocked country-style kitchen, a cozy living room lined with books and a map detailing the main attractions of the town.
Just as he was preparing to leave us to settle, he issued an apology. “I’m sorry about the grass,” he said. “We’ve been having some issues with our mower.”
Not that we would have noticed ourselves, but the lawn did indeed look a little unconventional, with streaks of wild growth co-existing alongside impeccably trimmed sections.
He motioned in the direction of a hedge, where a small, disc-shaped machine was parked. “It’s not performing as it should,” he said.
Over the course of our three-day stay, the robot lawnmower became an uneasy presence in our lives. Once, as we were enjoying a dinner of tortellini on the terrace, I got the fright of my life when from the corner of my eye, I spotted a free-roaming object emerge from the shadows and begin to roam clumsily around the lawn.
The garden, with its unforeseeable bushes, swing and tree was a challenge to the machine, whose response to unfamiliar objects was to back off, startled only to pursue doggedly an alternative course. The result was an intensification of an already comically irregular pattern.
The more conscious we became of our own robot lawnmower, the more we noticed its brethren elsewhere on our travels. In the lakeside town of Bad Sarrow, its kind were abundant, often employed to manage the lawns outside restaurants and villas. In some places, signs had been erected to warn passers-by to heed the machines. Their creeping whirr became a soundtrack to our waterside drinks.
Like many others I suspect, I have an ambiguous relationship to automation. I marvel at robots performing complex surgery, disposing safely of bombs and reducing time spent on boring, repetitive tasks. At the same time, I shudder in horror at the idea of Amazon’s unstaffed grocery stores, where cameras monitor your every move and sensors identify how many packets of tofu you pick up. Similarly, I am frustrated by my own propensity to feed big tech companies with my data, only to complain when it is spat back out at me in the form of uncannily appropriate advertisements for electric pianos, nipple cream and furniture I can’t afford.
If automation was on the march before the pandemic, it has now accelerated into a gallop. According to the International Federation of Robotics, COVID-19 has been the single biggest driver of change within the industry. At a time when human-to-human interaction became hazardous, nothing else was to be expected.
With so many people still suffering because of the virus, it can seem like a luxury to discuss more abstract questions, like what trends represent progress and which regression. But we are doing ourselves no favors by neglecting to observe the bigger picture, especially during a crisis.
Over the past few years, there have been some spectacular examples of the failures of automation. The two Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019 which killed 346 people were caused by a software problem that lowered the nose of the plane, causing the pilots to lose control. Human failings, including cutting costs on safety were undoubtedly also to blame.
A similar shortage of investment in humans alongside technological advancement has led to spectacular failings in social media algorithms too. In 2019, Facebook’s content moderation system failed to detect the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, resulting in a 17-minute live video of the horrifying incident being streamed on its platform.
These are two extreme examples of failed automation. But even in more benign cases, it’s worth asking: does the benefit outweigh the cost?
In 1997, we learned that a machine could beat the world’s best player at chess. Nearly a quarter of a century later, we have not developed a tournament for machines, and the name Garry Kasparov slips off our lips more easily than Deep Blue, the computer that defeated him. Perhaps this is because chess, unlike work, acknowledges human fallibility as a key component of its modus operandi.
Naturally this brings us back to lawn-mowing. As I watched the robot discs bumbling their way across pastures, bumping into hedges and loungers like an apprentice gardener plagued by performance anxiety, I realized I had been overlooking one of the most essential qualities of automation : a near-human capacity for imperfection. As we rush to share more pastures with our robot colleagues, we would do well to take heed of this particular characteristic.
How to get an agent for your first novel
This post originally appeared on authorTony Riches’ writing blog.
When I wrote the final words of my novel last September, I published a post reflecting on what I had learned in the five long years it took to complete my manuscript. Nine months on, having just signed with an agent, I’m ready to share the next part of my journey.
After taking a little time off, I began the process of redrafting. Some of this was fun, but most of it was tedious. Re-reading your own work can feel a bit like biting into a rotting apple. You do it because you cannot afford to let good food go to waste. But the lack of freshness makes it almost unpalatable. Also, the risk of encountering an existential crisis in the form of an enormous worm looms large.
Some wonderful friends, acquaintances and family members offered to read the manuscript. I collected their feedback greedily, compiling their comments in a Microsoft Word document. I was fascinated by the diversity of approach. While some honed in on small logistical details or individual moments, others took a far more sweeping perspective. How you read is how you see the world.
I also shared it with my writing group. The three of us have been meeting virtually throughout the pandemic and are already well-versed in each other’s works. We know about the joy and torment of writing a novel and they know my strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else.
Finally, I sought professional guidance in the form of a manuscript assessment. I was lucky enough to know someone who offers this service. The person in question is a novelist herself and has previously offered me invaluable advice on structure and character development. If you can afford this, it is worth the investment. Just make sure that you check the individual or company out first. They’re not all worth the money.
Her comments left me nodding in recognition. It is wonderful to agree on what’s wrong with your work because it means you are looking at it through the same prism. She had wonderfully encouraging things to say, too. She believed it would be published but the crux of her advice was: don’t send it off just yet.
I took her advice and made a plan. I knew I couldn’t solve every problem, but I picked out the main areas of weakness and approached them systematically. This was not particularly enjoyable but it was necessary. With the support of my writing group, I looked afresh at my subplot and at one particular character whose interior I had not sufficiently inhabited. I worked and I improved, but it still wasn’t perfect. It was, I decided, 80 percent there.
It was an annoying, arbitrary metric. So near and yet so very far. My enthusiasm began to wane and there came a point where I could no longer bare to open the document. I abandoned it for a while, and tried my hand at some short stories. It felt good to delve into other worlds for a bit.
But still, it niggled at me. I didn’t want to have spent five years laboring on something that wasn’t going to see the light of day. What plagued me most of all was my opening chapter. I had agonized over it, for years. One night, in a fit of literary mania, the product I expect of weeks of low-key restlessness, I scrapped it.
It was, probably, the best thing I could have done because the ruthlessness of my decision buoyed me forward: yes, this novel wasn’t perfect but what work ever was? It was time to send it out. Years could go by before it was at 90%. A lifetime would pass without it reaching perfection. I picked up the 2019 Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook my sister had gifted me for Christmas two years ago and opened the agents listing section. I would work alphabetically.
The Internet is full of advice about how to find a literary agent and I devoured it all. I familiarized myself with people’s lists, took careful note of submission guidelines, and wrote a cracking synopsis. I wrote a personal but professional cover letter which I tailored to each individual agent.
I have been a while out of the dating scene, but for me, the process of finding an agent has been analogous. One of the most bemusing and prevailing features of a standard agency’s website is something along the lines of ‘Please don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear from us. We get thousands of submissions every week! Just because your work isn’t right for us, doesn’t mean someone else won’t love it.’ Then, a few lines down you get something like: ‘However, please let us know IMMMEDIATELY if you are offered representation elsewhere!’ The translation of this is: we’re probably not interested. Unless someone else is, in which case we’ll assume you’re the hottest thing since Sally Rooney.
In April, I sent about half a dozen submissions out. Most agencies tell you to assume it’s a no if you don’t get a reply within six to eight weeks. Having not yet heard anything, a month later, I sent out another bunch.
The next day, something extraordinary happened. An agent, wildly enthusiastic about the first three chapters, requested the full manuscript. Then, a few hours later, another I had written to the month before did the same.
The next two weeks were a whirlwind. The first agent who had replied offered me representation. Since I had researched agency etiquette, I knew that at this point, the polite thing to do was to write to all the other agencies to which I had submitted.
Almost overnight, I became a literary hotcake. A number of other agents requested the full manuscript. I gave them a week to get back to me. The audacity. Me – giving an agent a deadline! After five years of lonely labor, the whole thing was wonderfully preposterous. Some rejected it, but nicely. Others said they were interested. I talked to two other agents on the phone. In the end, in the most ridiculous turn of events imaginable, I had more than one offer to choose from.
I went for the first agent who had responded to me. Her enthusiasm was unbridled, so much so that at first I couldn’t quite believe it. But a literary marriage is nothing without passion. Two weeks on from signing, I am still in the best kind of writerly shock.
Right now, we are working together on a line edit – the first of many. Of course, there are no guarantees. Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain was rejected by 44 publishers. But for now, none of that matters because what a privilege, what a treat to have someone by my side as I once again, begin afresh.