Category Archives: Mind

Tom, Sean, and me

Sean Hughes

Sean Hughes

I’ve spent plenty of time in the early 1990s recently, pulled back there by the deaths of Tom Petty and, yesterday, Sean Hughes.

Both men were sides of a coin – or squares on a Rubik’s cube (this was the Nineties, after all) – to a teenager like myself, growing up in a smallish town in Ireland which seemed a million miles from Mulholland Drive or the Edinburgh Festival.

Reading tributes to and – more immediately – watching clips of both performers from 25 or more years ago, led to mixed feelings, some nostalgic and some of – ‘was it really like that?’

Sean’s Show ran on Channel Four, one of the nine or 10 channels we had at home back then. Not owning a CD player, I listened to Full Moon Fever on tape – so much so that I wore out the frail spool. It was one of about 20 cassettes I possessed.

After digesting the obituaries and watching the YouTube clips, and spending too much time chasing teenage memories, I was left with an unanswered question: what the hell did I do with the rest of my free time in 1992?

Tom Petty. Pic: Takahiro Kyono

Tom Petty. Pic: Takahiro Kyono

Nowadays it’s often a struggle to carve out 30 minutes to listen to a piece of music or watch a TV show; back then it seemed that I was the lord and possessor of vast amounts of time, some of it spent playing soccer, some with my head in Tolkien or Thomas Harris, and none of it linked to anything digital.

Was it a better time? Or a happier or healthier one? Who knows? I can’t really remember. Then again, I can barely remember the album I listened to yesterday on Spotify, or the last long article I read, because both have already been drowned out by the online noise I surround myself with.

Watching an episode of Sean’s Show last night, I was struck by its feeling of space, the slower pace, the unfilled moments devoted to a confused look, a wry glance, or a cut scene. There was nothing pressing about engaging with the show, it was easy to slip into its pace.

An hour later, I made it barely 15 minutes into an episode of Family Guy, because the jokes weren’t coming fast, or funny enough. Maybe it’s me? Or maybe it’s what I’m watching?

Tom Petty sang that ‘the waiting is the hardest part’. I’m not sure that 2017 me would have the patience to sit through some of Sean Hughes’ quirkier set pieces, or the filler cuts on late Eighties Heartbreakers’ albums.

Perhaps that’s no bad thing. But I still have a feeling that – minor as it is in the face of mortal news  – something’s been lost.

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On returning to visit Ireland

On Dollymount Strand, September 2017.

On Dollymount Strand, September 2017.

Every emigrant believes that their story is new.

It’s a conviction woven through the fabric of the emigration itself; a new start, new beginnings, a renewal of outlook and perspective – all these are critical to the experience, and my experience was no different.

As an Irishman, I’m aware that millions of people departed my home country for the United States over the past 200 years, under many circumstances (and a great many of those unhappy). And yet, because I’m me and this is my life, I can’t help but put myself front and center in my own story.

So, when I returned to Ireland for a visit last week – my first since leaving the country more than a year earlier – I expected (naively, of course) the insights to fall like rain from an Irish summer sky. I would see myself, and the country, cast in a new, deeper light; I would achieve understandings that were impossible in the 38 years I’d lived there.

I may not have forged the uncreated conscience of my race since I’d left, but I would have strongly held beliefs on what makes a good taco, for example, among other things.

Dublin, 2017.

Dublin, 2017.

What I found was what I already knew, but perhaps didn’t appreciate enough before. It’s obvious to some I’m sure, but it wasn’t to me.

For all the tourist ads and Instagram pics, the Ireland I returned to wasn’t a place. The place was there (I was standing in it, after all), but what made it ‘home’ was the people.

And my wife and I tried to meet as many people as possible. Over a short number of days we spent time with family, met old friends and former work colleagues, and even shot the breeze with the owner of our favorite coffee shop.

We didn’t do, or speak about, anything different or groundbreaking or radical to what we had before. The ‘T word‘ may have been raised once or twice, but we got over that quickly enough.

Instead we just hung out, eating and drinking, walking and talking, covering a great number of topics. Not least the greatest Irish conversation starter: the weather. (For the record it rained most days – which added to the sense of homecoming.)

There was no pretense or argument or oneupmanship – just connection.

When I walked into departures at Dublin Airport a few days later, I hadn’t come into possession of any great emigrant insights. I wasn’t taking off with a razor-sharp concept of the 21st-century Irish psyche in my pocket.

My insight was simple enough – that Ireland contains some of the greatest people, who I love and I miss and who I look forward to returning to. Sin é .

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Hiking the ‘geography of hope’

Mount Hood. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Mount Hood. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

“We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

So wrote the novelist Wallace Stegner in 1960, in an appeal to a U.S. government official involved in a policy review of America’s ‘Outdoor Recreation Resources’.

Stegner’s point seems self-evident 60 years later. In 2017, after hundreds of years of human erosion of natural resources, the wild country in public ownership is clearly worth more than its simple economic value.

While this is clear to many – particularly those who’ve visited a national park – the country’s current president may take some convincing. Meanwhile, hope seems thin on the ground these days.

But, as Stegner argued, it’s still there – for now. With this in mind we recently travelled from our home in urban north Portland’s to the Mount Hood National Forest, and specifically to the Lolo Pass Trailhead, a waypoint on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

From there, my wife and I hiked the PCT for a couple of hours, before turning off on the Timberline Trail, which we cut away from to ascend Bald Mountain.

In the course of the hike we met a handful of people, who quickly passed with a nod; at times, we seemed to be the only people standing beneath the gargantuan west face of Mount Hood above us. The higher we hiked, the quieter the undergrowth sounded – even the fauna appeared to clear the way.

We felt, to borrow another phrase from Stegner, “single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals…”

After months in the cities, and traffic, living with ambient freeway noise outside our home and multiple screens within, the hours also felt like ‘sanity restored’.

On Bald Mountain.

On Bald Mountain. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

We ate our lunch yards from Bald Mountain’s summit, where the only imprint of civilization was the few stone remnants of a 1930s fire lookout, facing the huge hanging glaciers on Mount Hood. The scale of the view was vast and silencing; our meal over, we sat and breathed and just looked on, a part of the landscape ourselves.

Having hiked in Europe, the British Isles, and Ireland, I’ve long been familiar with the restorative powers of the outdoors – whether in a blizzard on Ben Nevis, crossing a sun-bleached glacier on the Monte Rosa, or on sunny moorland in the Wicklow Mountains.

I still agree with the elderly man I met when descending Croagh Patrick in heavy weather on a November afternoon, who shouted to me above the wind: “It’s good for the soul!”

It was, and it still is. The wild places – to borrow a term from Robert Mcfarlane – remain repositories of peace, beauty, and natural communion. But they’re also places of hope – regions that remind us that – despite everything else that confronts us in 2017 – we’re still part of something awe-inspiring. For now, at least.

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Greatness in the grind

Mo Farah, seconds after winning the men's 10,000m

Mo Farah, seconds after winning the men’s 10,000m

Winning is easy. If you’re Mo Farah, at least. The British runner made his final sprint to the finish in the men’s 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships look like a breeze.

He rounded the final corner and then – boom – after 26 minutes of running he easily dipped into his reserves and pulled out a final 200 meters that left the field scrambling in his wake.

That’s how it looked. In reality I’m sure it was likely anything but easy, despite’s the Briton’s ability to cheerily push through fatigue and pain.

While the final 20 seconds of Farah’s greatest race – or the one that cemented his standing at Britain’s greatest long distance runner – were the ones celebrated, repeated, and reported on worldwide, they weren’t the ones that won him gold.

As the most amateur of amateur runners (yours truly) knows, the end is often the easy – or easier – bit. Getting there is the hard part – the fifth and sixth kilometers are often where the race is run or lost, whether you’re competing in front of millions of viewers, or just hauling yourself around north Portland on a Saturday morning.

Farah’s greatness lies in these fifth and six kilometers, as he displayed in London yesterday. Under siege from younger competitors, who appeared to be running as a team against him, he was forced to step up the pace.

Farah's sprint to the finish

Farah’s sprint to the finish

Watching on, at times it seemed that the British runner was dropping back, only for him to rally again and again, responding to the faster pace, battling back.

Such running goes far beyond physical form or fitness – it demands deep mental reserves, an ability to remain focused and work to a plan, when every external (and most internal) factor wants to pull you off course.

If there’s a lesson to be read from the ability and greatness of Mo Farah, it lies here. Yes, preparation is vital; yes, performance is critical; of course, your finish is often key, but most races are won in the grinding, unexciting, off-camera, mid-sections.

This takes focus and self belief, two hard-won traits that are too easily and too often bandied about in life and sports. And even the world’s best athletes struggle to maintain them; as Farah himself said afterwards: “At one point in the middle of the race I wasn’t thinking I was going to lose, but I thought ‘this is tough, this is tough’.”

“Il faut d’abord durer” (“first, one must endure”) was a motto adapted – in very different circumstances – by a well-known American writer. It came to my mind in the final moments of yesterday’s race. If, like Farah, you can bounce back often enough the challenges – eventually – will dry up.

And they did, in those final 200 meters, when Mo Farah kicked into his sprint, the crowd roared, the flashbulbs popped, and history was made. But that was the easy part.

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Lost memories of Death Valley ’99

Death Valley, August 1999.

Death Valley, August 1999.

The older I get, the more I forget.

What was the 21-year-old guy standing near a small copse of joshua trees in Death Valley thinking about, as the shutter clicked on an August afternoon in 1999?

For a kid from drizzly Athlone, Ireland, visiting the area, aware of some other Irishmen who claimed the joshua tree for themselves, must have been a big deal.

It was, but all that remains now is an ageing print, the negative lost, which is itself decaying. Is that a moon over my right shoulder, or just a mark on the print?

My shadow indicates that it was shot in the late afternoon. I can’t remember who took the picture – it was one of a group of friends I was travelling across the States with at the time. More to the point, I can’t recall where it was taken – though, given the heat, I’m sure it was just a few meters from the blacktop of highway 190.

Hindsight might tell me that is a photograph of a young man staking a claim of some sort – to an interest in the outdoors, or to a love of travel, or to the country where I would relocate to 17 years after this shot was taken.

It’s nice to think of such explanations, but, in truth, I’ve no idea. It’s more likely I wanted to get out of the 110 F heat and back into our air-conditioned van. (The only clear memory I have of this day is from hours later, when we approached Las Vegas as a lightning storm broke over the city.)

Looking back today, on finding the picture in an old folder, I see a kid starting out – on a journey across both a country and something vaster. I still feel like I’ve just started.

Which puts me in mind of a song we listened to in the van that summer:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

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Lou and Laurie’s rules for life

'Here he comes, all dressed in black.' Lou Reed, 2011. Pic: Man Alive!

Lou Reed, 2011. Pic: Man Alive!

I don’t associate Lou Reed with lifestyle advice. Nor his wife Laurie Anderson. Groundbreaking, avant garde, rule-shredding music – yes. How to maximize your living minutes – not really.

Until I came across, via an Open Culture post, Lou and Laurie’s three rules for living well. Anderson revealed these during her acceptance speech at Reed’s 2015 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

She and Reed developed them because, as she warns, “things happen so fast, it’s always good to have a few, like, watchwords to fall back on”.

The rules are short and simple.

  1. Don’t be afraid of anyone
  2. Get a really good bullshit detector
  3. Be really, really tender

And what better to accompany them than Reed’s great song of empathy, his “hand in the darkness so you won’t be afraid”?

There – you’re living better already.

 

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An Adult’s Christmas in Oregon

dylanMy Christmas rituals are few. I tend to spend December 25 in different places – in recent times Wexford or Los Angeles; this year, Portland.

One of my seasonal constants is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, the Dylan Thomas short story. Every Christmas morning I take 20 minutes to “plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find,” as the narrator puts it.

This year, for a change, I’ll listen to Thomas reading the story. The poet, ailing and alcoholic, made a recording of the piece in 1952. It’s a remarkable piece of audio, as Thomas, leaning on all the intonation and nuance of his Welsh accent, tells his tale of a young boy’s Christmas in a snowy, seaside village.

But while searching for the recording this week, I across the poet’s other great evocation of childhood, whose lines are probably more pertinent for a man in his late 30s, far from his childhood home (“the farm forever fled”), remembering Christmases past.

“Fern Hill” is not a seasonal poem. It’s set in a time of plenty, a period of huntsmen and herdsmen, when the grass is green and “the hay fields as high as the house”.

These years have passed, and Thomas remembers them with a mix of nostalgia and affection and fatalism. “I was young and easy under the apple boughs,” the poem famously begins, while, a few verses later, we read that “time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace”.

All of which seems oddly suitable for an adult’s Christmas in Oregon. Having long since strolled out of the fields of grace, I rarely run my heedless ways these days. Which is why the bittersweet reality of “Fern Hill”, and not the comforting nostalgia of “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”, is a more fitting read this year.

“Once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

Once is enough to be thankful for. Happy Christmas.

Portland, OR, December 2016

Portland, OR, December 2016

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‘All together in a sudden strangeness’

NE Alberta Street. December 2016

NE Alberta Street. December 2016

Portland is many things but it’s not quiet. At least it’s not in the area of north Portland where we live.

Traffic is fairly steady in the streets around our end of N Mississippi Avenue, where the nearby I-5 provides a fairly constant background hum in the daytime hours. It’s not intrusive, just an ever-present feature.

It’s also one you don’t notice until it’s gone. Which is what happened over the past 48 hours, as a winter snowstorm hit the Rose City.

And so, confronted last night by sub-zero temperatures, slick streets and frozen pavements, I did the first, if slightly reckless, thing that came to mind: I stepped out for a five-mile walk.

What struck me was the silence.

Earlier that day I had read a Guardian article on the theme of walking through an urban area at night. One of the most common observations of those who undertook such outings was the lack of noise, the absence of traffic, other pedestrians, construction activity.

Walking down N Alberta Street now, there was no evening rush. MLK was quiet – the motorists who had ventured out were sticking to a crawl as they navigated frozen, untreated roads. There were few pedestrians on the slippy pavements, and the cafes and bars of the Alberta Arts District were forlornly empty.

And so I walked. For miles (more than five, to be exact), across snowy pavements and intersections, meeting only the occasional dog-walker or stubborn pedestrian. When I did, as Pablo Neruda wrote, we were all together “in a sudden strangeness”.

This was a different Portland, one I hadn’t seen and one which appears only very occasionally. It showed me a different city, the physical structures and thoroughfares standing apart, freed from the constant, sometimes choking, activity that passes through and around them.

One of the contributors to the Guardian feature wrote that, at night when the streets are deserted, “the empty city feels like it’s yours…you feel outside the world”. So it was for me, for one night at least, in snow-struck Portland.

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Sounding out the best music to work to

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

Blame the iPod. The ubiquity of that little device in the mid-2000s changed the working lives of many of my generation.

That, and the noisy open-plan offices we worked in. Steve Jobs’ little white box provided a perfect way to drown out background noise, focus on the task at hand, increase focus and productivity.

Didn’t it?

Perhaps it did, for some. As a working journalist in those years, listening to music wasn’t an option. The time you spent after phoning and meeting contacts was used to write, usually against a deadline. Fidgeting for the new Coldplay song five minutes before your copy was due was not advisable.

Outside the office it was different matter. At home I’d write and read to a constant soundtrack, and still do. Over the years I found some recordings worked better than others when it came to cognitive function.

For months I read at night to Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. But when I tried to do the same with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” it was a no-go. I’d barely last five minutes. Beethoven’s sonatas? No problem. Bob Dylan? Not a chance.

After years of hit-and-miss listening I recently investigated what works and what doesn’t.

With the help of a couple of articles, from Inc and Time, I’ve narrowed it down – for myself at least.

Here’s the secret:

  • Listen to music without lyrics (no Dylan, more Beethoven)
  • Don’t listen to new music
  • Don’t listen if you’re trying to learn something new (the line between this and reading for pleasure is blurred, I find)
  • If you’re learning something new, listen before you start
  • If the task at hand is repetitive, listen to music (even if you’re a surgeon)
  • If there’s a lot of background noise, music you’re familiar with will calm your brain, improving focus

A case in point: as I write this I am listening to Caribou’s album Swim. It’s a recording I know pretty well, with songs whose lyrics are simple, few and repetitive. Hearing the music raises my levels of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin), which relaxes me and helps me focus. My thought process is smooth and my output is consistent.

As a test I’ve now switched it out for one of my favorite non-cognitive tracks, music I use during workouts but not elsewhere – Slayer’s Raining Blood. My foot’s tapping but my concentration’s shot.

My perfect music while working is somewhere between these two poles – Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or Dustin O’Halloran’s Lumiere are two albums that spring to mind.

Of course there’s a simpler way to improve your working focus, your reading and your writing: work in complete silence and listen to nothing. Modern life renders the first impossible and, frankly, where’s the fun in the second?

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As I walked out one Portland afternoon

Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge

Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge

Three months ago I arrived in Portland, Oregon, stepping out of a taxi at Glisan Street and 11th Avenue with my wife, both of us laden down with bags.

Since then I’ve walked. I’ve walked downtown, I’ve walked circuits of the bridges, I’ve walked up to the Pittock Mansion and down from the Japanese Gardens. I’ve walked in shorts, in temperatures of 100 or more, in the rain on gloomy Sundays, through the aisles of Powell’s bookstore and up the narrow path that leads to Multnomah Falls.

The reason for this constant perambulation is partly exercise-driven. Walking two or three miles is a lot easier on my body that pounding out the same distance running on the pavement.

But it’s also down to curiosity, to uncover the city from the ground level, from the veterans’ statues in the South Park Blocks to the skid row at their northern equivalent, from the moneyed glass towers of the Pearl to the dives along West Burnside.

First Avenue, Portland

First Avenue, Portland

The same impressions recur: the city is undergoing a rapid gentrification, Portland is a mecca for tourists, drivers here are more polite than in most other cities. Other things are also clear: the homelessness crisis is beyond anything I’ve witnessed in Europe, graffiti and stickers demanding rent freezes abound (“Keep Portland Weird” sounds more like “Keep Portland As It Was”).

And then, all about, there’s the fall. Putting complaints about the influx of rebuilding, prices and the decline of old Portland to one side, the city has looked and felt beautiful in recent days.

Last Friday I walked from Mississippi Avenue to downtown, across the Broadway bridge and down 2nd Avenue to the sunlit park at Lownsdale Square. In shirtsleeves too, despite it being early November.

The low light reminded me of walking in St Anne’s Park in Dublin at the same time of the year, the warmth October days spent visiting family in Los Angeles.

The onset of winter and its attendant rains will curb my outings, I imagine. Try as I might, I can’t warm to the Portland habit of venturing out into the rain without an umbrella. Last December I crossed the bridges on an icy mornings, braving northerly breezes down the Willamette River – not something I’ll repeat too often.

Until then though, you’ll find me out and about, crossing streets, dodging cyclists and checking signs, just walking.

Downtown Portland

New paths – downtown Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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