Being in control isn’t as much fun as you think

I signed up to Netflix recently. I thought it would be empowering to decide when to invite Don Draper into my living room. After all, how better to embrace the modern trend of Taking Control of Your Life, than by streaming on demand?

Or so I thought. As it turns out, being in control isn’t as much fun as you think.

You’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise. The idea that being in control is something worth aspiring to is shockingly widespread. In fact, many people seem quite obsessed with it.

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine published an article titled Six Ways to Take Control of Your Life. That was one-upped by, which managed to come up with 7 Ways to Control your Life Today. The Huffington Post went even further with its now sadly out-of-date 12 Ways to Take Control of Your Life in 2014.

Apart from the confusion about the exact number of steps required to take control of your life, it’s far from clear whether it’s worth the effort at all.

When I was a teenager living in Ireland, the state broadcaster RTE showed Ally McBeal every Monday night at 9.30 pm. My sister and I would race to the television at the appointed time, curling up beside the fire with a Cadbury’s flake bar to discover the latest shenanigans taking place at Cage and Fish.

It was a ritual made possible by our helplessness. Monday at 9.30 pm was the only time to catch up with Ally. Miss it and miss out. We were prepared to wait a whole week for her. Not like nowadays, when Ally just paces around, ready to appear on demand as soon as I tire of Don.

People tend to forget that being in control means missing out on some of life’s most primal delights. Like the excitement and unexpected pleasure of hearing your favourite song on the radio, for example. Come on, we’ve all been there: you’re washing up, scrubbing a stubborn layer of grease off a saucepan with the radio on in the background, only to shriek in delight, rip off your rubber gloves and have a 3-minute boogie -break to Uptown Girl.

You could have just played it on your phone, couldn’t you? But it wouldn’t have been the same, would it?

Being in control all the time prevents you from committing what psychologists call a “fundamental attribution error.”

It sounds like a bad thing, but fundamental attribution errors (in laymen’s terms, blaming anybody and anything but yourself) let you get away with murder.

Back in the day, you could get away with saying things like: “Sorry I can’t make your boring cocktail reception on Monday; I have to stay at home to watch Ally McBeal.” Now, you have to say something like: “Of all the possible times available to me, I’m choosing to stream Ally specifically to coincide with your event.”

It’s hard to argue with the first. Asking someone to sacrifice their weekly ritual is a pretty big deal. Refusing to adjust your streaming habits just makes you sound like a jerk. So much for empowerment.

Help! I am an insufferably smug gardener

Okay, I admit it. Ever since I planted some radish seeds and bought a pot of dahlias, I’ve become quite insufferable.

I’d been looking for a new hobby, you see. My small, north-facing balcony was looking sad and bare so I decided to take up gardening. But before you could say “from seed to sprout” my hobby had become an obsession and I was finding myself boasting about my zucchinis at social events.

My plant-purchasing habit has since spiralled out of control and my balcony can no longer accommodate my botanic buys. The obvious solution might be to stop acquiring vegetation but instead, I have directed my attention to house plants.

Look at my beautiful plants!!! Aren't they just wonderful?

Look at my beautiful plants!!! Aren’t they just wonderful?

I recently signed up to the Berlin section of Freecycle, an online portal where users offer to give away items they no longer want. You can imagine my excitement when I discovered that someone in Friedrichshan was giving away a Crassula ovata, known more commonly as the “money tree.” He also mentioned that he intended to shed two spider plants (or Chlorophytum comosum, to nerdier naturalists).

The kind stranger lived on the sixth-floor of an uninviting block of flats close to Alexanderplatz. Upon disembarking the lift, I encountered several entrances boarded up with concrete. It occurred to me that the promise of a free money tree may have lured me into a murderous, Communist-style Venus Fly trap. But soon enough a young man appeared and led me to his doorstep, where the three potted plants were ready for collection.

This money tree is NOT a desk plant.

This money tree is NOT a desk plant.

The money tree turned out to be several times larger than I had expected. It became clear to me that this was not going to be the desk plant I had envisioned.

My benefactor was slight and shy and appeared quite keen to keep our encounter brief. He expressed some sympathy with me for having to ferry the portly plants across the city and advised me to re-pot the money tree.

As well as receiving quite a lot of attention on the tram, I was a little concerned about the fact that I was on the way to a work social event and would not have time to stop by at home to drop off my tree.

Needless to say, arriving at a bar wielding an enormous plant proved an ideal opportunity once again to regale my colleagues with my latest botanic news.

It would seem wrong to sign off without mentioning that my oregano is doing well, that my cress is developing nicely and that both made a flavourful appearance in my omelet this morning.

My radishes are ravishing! And my cress is far from crass.

My radishes are ravishing! And my cress is far from crass.

American Diary:Part 3 Underground Culture

November 2nd was my birthday. It began at a subway station in New York when the digital time display switched from 23.59 to 00.00. I didn’t notice because I was transfixed to an old man, who was playing the flute. He had a hunchback, a grey moustache and sad eyes. I gave him a dollar.

LSB saw the time change though. He’d been watching it. “The first act of your birthday is a noble one: Typical Katzi”, he said, flattering me, because it was my birthday and because he is kind.

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.

They are full of crazy people and sad stories. At every stop you can see the same slumped figure: somebody with their arms folded around their knees and their head tucked into their chest, motionless. You can find them on benches or hidden away in the corners.

New York is a busy place so the forgotten people talk to themselves. I counted about half a dozen men – all black- who were having conversations with themselves. I even checked their ears to see if they had any fancy devices. They didn’t.

There are so many faces on the subway that it’s hard to remember any. I stared at one lady because she looked ordinary. I wondered if I’d recognise her face if I ever saw it again. She was middle-aged, with shoulder-length auburn hair. She had peach-brown skin and a round face. I don’t remember the colour of her eyes and I might not know her if I saw her again.

The rudest man in the world works at 103rd Street station. He sits in a plastic box. His job is to advise commuters who don’t know how to work the machines or who would like to purchase a ticket but don’t have the correct change.

If you want to talk to him, you have to speak into a little microphone through the screen, which means that everybody around can hear what you want to say.

This man is the rudest man in the world because when you approach him, he roars into his microphone “ASK”.

He doesn’t say “Hello” or “How can I help you” or even “Yes?”

When LSB approached him, he yelled “ASK”

LSB was a little taken aback. LSB is polite at all times.

He bent tentatively towards the microphone.

“I was wondering if it’s possible to get a one-day metro ticket”

“NO”, the man replied and banged his fist on the counter.

“Oh…” said LSB

The man snarled and yelled “SECOND QUESTION”.

He said it as a statement, not a question.

But LSB didn’t have a second question, because his first seemed to have caused grave offence.

“You’d never get that in Ireland” we said because Ireland is small and flat and as my mum says, it’s a good place to be an eejit.

At another subway stop one evening, a young musician was playing guitar. I didn’t give him any money but LSB did. LSB is quiet and noble. The rifs followed us onto the train. It was cold and dark outside but the carriage was musty and cramped.

I have another story about the underground, but that will have to wait, because LSB and I have something important to investigate.

First-time Buyers

When 22-year-old Natalie Dylan who is auctioning her virginity on the internet appeared on the Adrian Kennedy phone show recently, she was unperturbed by the outraged callers that labelled her as “cheap” and “immoral”. She took it all in the stride of an enlightened feminist and responded with the confident ease of the pseudo-intellectual American. A graduate of Women’s Studies at Sacramento State University, Dylan’s aim is to use the money to further her education and to pursue a Masters degree in psychology with the ultimate intention of becoming a family and marriage therapist. Despite receiving in excess of 10,000 bids, and an offer of $3.7 million, Dylan is keen to stress that she will not necessarily offer her services to the highest bidder: “It’s not like an eBay auction…I don’t have to take the highest bidder. I’m taking time to get to know the guys.” Bids for Dylan’s virginity are being laid on and should a suitable buyer be found the service will be provided at the famous Nevada brothel, the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. To guarantee the authenticity of her claim, Dylan has taken two polygraph tests and is willing to undergo a gynaecological examination. Dylan cites not only her economic opportunism but also her charged intellectual drive as her inspiration. Speaking on the Tyra Banks show, she explained that she “wanted to study the dichotomous nature between virginity and prostitution. There’s (sic) really been so few case studies of it…I stumbled upon this article of a Peruvian woman who wanted to sell her virginity and she was offered an exorbitant amount of cash…$1.5 million.” In years to come, Natalie’s contribution to the intellectual world may be marked by the confirmation that our society has put money before all else: Brian Cowen and his social partners can relate. It will all be worth it however, when those privileged enough to study the dichotomous nature of virginity and prostitution are blessed with one extra case study to peruse. Feminism lives.   

Natalie Dylan is open to offers

A Last Resort

“Maybe we are snobbish and judgemental”, I say to my boyfriend as we walk into the foyer of our apart-hotel in Salou in the northeast of Spain. It is the last night of our weeklong package holiday and we have spent a considerable portion of it complaining. I wasn’t impressed with the puddle of hair that greeted us on opening the door of our apartment, and even less so with the used tissue we found behind the bed. He became fixated one evening by a quest to procure a plunger to unblock our onion skin-filled sink and I refused to take off my flip-flops in case I was infected by the maladies of the previous occupants.

We agreed: Salou is a place characterised by an unforgivable tackiness. ‘Locals’ do not exist there. It is a town dedicated to the English-speaking world – a culture of drinking and cheap entertainment.

Dotted by the seafront are identical shops selling playboy beach towels and offering hair-braiding services. Restaurants advertise ‘real’ fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding while the supermarkets are painted with the colours of the British flag, luring customers in with their sign-posted promise of ‘REAL BRITISH FOOD’.

On our way home one night we stroll into a dingy market stall posing as a tattoo parlour. There an English woman leafs absent-mindedly through the design catalogue picking out a tattoo while a little boy swings around her leg as if attached to a totem pole. Continuing home, we become distracted by a disturbance on the side of the road. In the exposed entrance area of an apartment block, two women are attacking each other in the lift. We arrive as the doors open and the scene explodes out onto the reception, where the rhythmic beating of the hands that accompanies the terrible screaming of their children sends a chill down my spine. Eventually, the two are separated and sent off with their respective set of children in tow.

Looking beyond the pile of vomit on the pavement, the incessant hum of a bad Kylie interpreter and the call for audience participation in singing The Fields of Athenry however, Salou has something to offer. Clean, golden beaches. Proximity to Barcelona. A fantastic theme park within walking distance. Cheap accommodation.

Perhaps our oh-so-middle-class attitude represents no more than an unpleasant and bitter superiority complex. While other people enjoy themselves, we spend our time cringing and as they dance the night away- intoxicated by their home beverages at discount, ‘international’ prices, we stay in and talk about literature.

So, on this our last night, we think ‘Let’s give this place and its people the benefit of the doubt’.

We walk into the foyer and past the reception desk, freezing at the scene before us. At the top of a crowded bar, a loud lady with a microphone faces a captivated audience. Four men stand in a row: they are rivals. ‘WHICH OF THESE MEN IS THE FI-EST, MOST MANLY FELLOW HERE TONIGHT?’, she bellows. This is to be determined by a series of ‘rounds’. Round one sees the four desperate men rush around the room kissing strange women for points. We hold our breath for round two. She pauses and then asks  ‘WHICH MAN CAN COLLECT THE MOST BRAS FROM THE LADIES IN THE AUDIENCE?’.A group of grannies shields their chests in girlish delight as around them, women rip off their undergarments and hand them to their candidate of choice. At the top of the room, as the candidates are lining up to be counted, a little boy plays with the bras his father has collected.

Before round three, I turn to my boyfriend.  “Maybe we are snobbish and judgemental”, I say as we walk away to pack our bags.

Our Apart-Hotel in Salou