Sunday, 27 July 2014

New article at Mother Earth News

"Under the green and rolling hills of Scotland, several people lay buried for four thousand years. Around them lay what we guess to be their keepsakes; beads, a bronze knife, tools and a battle-axe. Most interesting, though, was that at least one of them – a teenager when he died, curled up like a baby – lay in what was guessed to be a wicker coracle, like those used on these islands into the 20th century. He was buried in his boat.

Stop and consider a few things about this. First, its antiquity: Before the Ancient Greeks or the Hebrew prophets, before all but the earliest pyramids, there were Scots. Also, you don’t see boat-burials every day; perhaps it was the youth’s most prized possession, the Stone-Age equivalent of being buried in your Rolls-Royce. Finally, consider this was a giant basket, woven together by hand, and that it carried people safely across the cold waters."

My latest article, "A Short History of Woven Boats," is live at Mother Earth News: check it out. 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Waking our loved ones

When someone dies – as my great-aunt did a few days ago – the world burdens us with certain expectations; we are expected to sombrely mourn for a matter of days or weeks, and then move on and go back to normal. For most of us, though, grief has its own timetable and logic, and will be no more ignored than any other aspect of love.

Sometimes you feel relief that someone’s suffering has ended, or satisfaction at their life well lived. Sometimes you feel nothing most of the time, but once in a while, for the rest of your life, sharply feel their absence. Quite often we need celebration and catharsis, even when we feel obliged to conform to long faces and whispers. For that reason, I’ve always admired the Irish wake.

Wakes give you a certain license to do all the things that people actually need to do when they feel loss, and which might be frowned upon at your conventional funeral – to tell jokes, laugh, kiss, drink, and even behave a bit inappropriately, surrounded by your community in an upwelling of comfort and joy. Most of all, you celebrate the person that was, and it is their presence, rather than Death’s, that hangs in the air around you.  


A few years ago, after a friend of ours died – the husband of a woman I just hugged an hour ago at a friend’s farm, in fact – The Girl had many questions.

“Papa, what does it feel like to die?”

I don’t know first-hand, honey, I told her – I’ve never died.

“Why do we have to die?”

If we didn’t, I told her, no new babies could be born.

“I wish it didn’t have to end, though.”

I know, I said. But that’s what gives it value.

Photo: The Girl, around the time of the conversation.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The world is a little less

Outside of my conversations with The Girl, I don’t talk about our private lives much. I do, however, want to devote some space to a relative from America who died recently, both to explain why I've been distracted from writing this week and because she deserves as public a memorial as I can muster.

Lucky children have not just dutiful parents, but a trusted confidant – someone who will hold a crying toddler and quickly set them right again, who will listen to a seven-year-old talk about dinosaurs or a fourteen-year-old unload their existential burdens. They have someone who will not judge them, who will keep their secrets, who will make everything better. For hundreds of children over three generations – me, my cousins, my second cousins twice removed, and kids of people who used to live down the street -- that person was Imy. ­

Children pass through the valley of the shadow of death many times in a month; their lives have far more drama than ours, and its cuts them more deeply. On one such day, when no one else understood, Imy put her hand on my back and said, “You know, everyone tells you this is the best time in your life, but they’re wrong, aren’t they? It’s no fun being a child.”

On that day, and on many days before and since, only Imy understood.

In full name she was Imogene, twin sister of my grandmother Normagene – both named, I’m told, after 1920s boxer Gene Tunney. She never married and always stayed close to her twin, often living in the same home as my grandparents. A tiny grey wisp of a woman, possibly weighing less than some of the children she babysat, she was the rock around which the rest of the world revolved.

We laughed affectionately about her many quirks; singing old show tunes in her high warbling voice, sometimes misremembering the words and passing them down to us as mondegreens. One of the last children of the Depression, she hoarded everything, in case she might find some use for it later. She  she was allergic to everything, it seemed, although we suspected that included anything she just didn’t like. She loved birds, especially cardinals, and collected knick-knacks with pictures of them. She loved mystery novels and read the end first -- to find out who-dunnit before reading the rest -- and when we protested, she would only respond primly, “It’s my book.” We had to concede the point.

Other things we never found out until we were older, and then by accident. She tutored children at the local Catholic school, and did the same for girls in her neighbourhood. She volunteered for years at a local hospital on weekends – we think she delivered mail to patients, sat with them and kept them company. I say “we think,” because she never talked about these things with us; she just did them.

On our last trip to the USA, I made sure we stayed with them a few weeks, when The Girl was young enough to fully appreciate Imy and old enough that the memories would remain with her for the rest of her life, long after most of us have gone. Since then The Girl and I called them every weekend to chat, and when Imy took sick recently we called her hospital room.

“You called me in the hospital from all the way over there?” she asked, delighted. “Well, that does it – I’m just going to have to get better now.”

On her deathbed, she was still comforting us.  

Photo free to use courtesy of

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Published in Grit magazine

How to make your bad wine into good vinegar:

There are three ways to do it yourself. First, you could buy mother of vinegar, a slimy glob of the bacteria that makes acetic acid, and mix it with your wine. Second, you could buy unfiltered, unpasteurised vinegar that still contains the bacteria – effectively, it has a bit of the Mother still in it – and mix that in. Third, you could take the long way around and leave your wine out like sourdough, hoping that the right bacterium floats by on a wisp of breeze, lands on your project and goes nuts.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Another milestone

The Girl turned ten last week. I have a tweenager on my hands.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The neighbour's car

When we first moved here, he showed me around his lovely fields and the old barn where he kept his cows. Without offense to him, it looked and smelled like a lot of cows lived there. Then he lifted an old tarpaulin and showed me his prizes -- a set of old cars, well maintained and passed down from owner to owner. Once in a while he takes it for a drive, and I get a picture.

For generations of people around here -- until relatively recently -- cars were something for emergencies or show. Yet people got around just fine, and the roads were safe for walkers, bicyclers and horses. One old person said that two people in town had motorbikes -- the doctor and the priest -- and they knew by the sound in the distance which one it was, and so which neighbour had fallen ill and how serious it was.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Modern Soundtrack

I spend eight hours a day in an office in Dublin, three hours a day on the bus there and back, and an hour or so sipping coffee and talking with friends at lunch, and I just figured out how much of that time I spend without a radio blaring loudly in the background.

It’s zero. Virtually every public and corporate space I visit -- lift, office lobby, grocery store, doctor’s office or petrol station, every space -- has overhead speakers and a piped-in sound system, which has no reason to exist but seems to grow louder each year. Most places play the same songs over and over, but the choice of music is not the main issue. The problem is that most people I know have ceased to notice this background and talk over it --- again, more loudly each year.

When I ask if they could turn it off, most people look at me befuddled; they are unaware the noise exists. They are obviously not enjoying something they are unaware of, so you might ask why they play the speakers at all. Yet when I ask bus drivers and store managers to turn the noise off, or even down, they look offended.

My co-workers moved into a new office recently, and the first thing they did was to turn on the radio; I asked why, and one said, surprised, “Well – we need to have something on.” When the radio was off and he heard only the hum of computers, the click of keyboards, the whirr of printers, the chatter of co-workers and the distant murmur of cars and horses outside, he felt unnerved.

We live with a great deal of background noise – a city bus idles at 90 decibels, and as the decibel scale is logarithmic that level is 10 times louder than 80 decibels. Many people today, who grew up with rock concerts and background construction, can expect to lose their hearing at a much earlier age than earlier generations -- a 1997 study of the elderly found that hearing loss doubled in the 30 years between 1964 and 1994, and we are almost 20 years further on from that. The constant noise of speakers might be an attempt to drown out the increasingly loud background, but it stacks the mountain of cacophony ever higher.

Most of us can only choose to buy our own headphones and MP3 players, meaning that I and all my fellow bus passengers spend the hours locked in our private reveries. Everyone has their own musical tastes, of course, and at six in the morning most people do not feel the mood for conversation. The problem is that everyone around me feels compelled to isolate themselves inside headphones; even worse than everyone being forced to listen to the same electronic media, everyone is forced to listen to their own.

I do get to hear some of what others are listening to, though, as their music is turned up louder than their earpieces can contain. In what Atlantic magazine writer Brian Eha called “bleed-over, collateral aggravation from the personal consumer choices of others,” living in the presence of ubiquitous noise creates a kind of arms race between eardrums. We turn up the volume on our MP3 players or IPods to drown out the loud bus speakers or office radio, and then have to turn it up ever more loudly as everyone else does the same thing.

More than that, though, this ubiquitous noise brings a psychological toll. We all live in a kind of enforced solitude now, yet cannot enjoy the tranquillity that made solitude desirable. Eha cites studies by developmental psychologist Lorraine Maxwell, who found that excessive noise warps children’s attention and memory, and makes them withdraw from talking with peers. Yet she also found that, when they are accustomed to working with noise, they cannot work without it; the quality of their work deteriorates. Finally, she found that when children learn to passively accept “uncontrollable noise” in the background, they show a “learned helplessness” to changing the world around them.

No other society has ever performed this kind of giant experiment on themselves over generations, so no one has ever measured the long-term effects. I do know, though, that between the earphones, the MP3 player and the earplugs, a normal life is getting expensive.

Originally published in 2012.

“An Increasing Prevalence of Hearing Impairment and Associated Risk Factors over Three Decades of the Alameda County Study, by Margaret Wallhagen, PhD, RN, CS, William J. Strawbridge, PhD, Richard D. Cohen, MA, and George A. Kaplan, PhD, American Journal of Public Health, March 1997, Vol. 87, No. 3.
“The Effects of Noise on Pre-school Children’s Pre-Reading Skills,” by Lorraine Maxwell and Gary Evans, The Journal of Environmental Psychology (2000) 20, 91-97.
“The Sound of Solitude,” Brian Eha, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2012.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Grafted apple trees

Learning to graft saplings of different species together almost cost me my thumb, and cost The Girl and I a night in the hospital, but I'm getting two fine trees out of the deal. I'll be taking cuttings of various trees of ours in the coming months, and seeing how well I can do this on my own. More on grafting in future posts.