Tag Archives: Ageing

I love that book – what’s it about?

What was that last book about?

‘What was that Camus novel about?’

Four months ago I read Haruki Murakami’s short novel South Of The Border, West Of The Sun.

Today I can barely remember a thing about the book. The characters (I’m sure there were male and female ones, maybe one of each), the plot (a quest of some sort, maybe involving travel across borders?), the ending (not happy, I’m fairly sure of that) – it’s all a blank page.

Now the book sits on a shelf, needling me from across the room. The problem is that it’s stacked alongside a Dave Eggers’ short story collection and a Jay McInerney wine book – and I can remember very little about those either.

What’s going on? Do I pick forgettable reads? Is my empathy through the floor? Or my concentration shredded? Am I reading on autopilot?

Part of this is age-related, of course. At 38 I’m likely experiencing the onset of age-related memory impairment. But I read Ask The Dust after Murakami’s novel and I recall every rooming house, bar and street corner.

About a boy. And a girl.

About a boy. And a girl.

Sitting on my shelf next to Murakami and Co is Patti Smith’s memoir M Train. In this account of her mid-life years, Smith is often preoccupied with the irritants of ageing. At one point the poet-singer (a Murakami devotee herself, incidentally), re-reading Albert Camus over her black coffee writes of “an intermittent, lifelong enigma”.

“I finished many books in such a manner…closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content…I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember”.

That’s the thing. If I forget writing that was forgettable to begin with, that might be understandable. But some of the great long and short works that I’ve loved – Goodbye, My Brother; Great Expectations; The End of the Affair – are lost to me, in details if not in spirit.

The downside of this is that I often have a vague notion that a book is great but can’t really recall why. The upside? I’ve an excuse to read it again.

But not South Of The Border, West Of The Sun. It turns out it’s about a boy and a girl. The boy travels on a navel-gazing quest into his own past and winds up at sorrowful, empty ending. Sometimes your memory – or the lack of one – is enough.

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Drink more coffee? I’ve bean there…

A cappuccino from Kaph on Dublin's Drury Street

The  cappuccino at Kaph on Dublin’s Drury Street

So coffee’s good for you, again.

In moderation, of course.

Or with butter.

Or between the hours of 9am and 11.30am only, from a custom-made insulated mug, using only beans that have passed through an elephant, while wearing a Clooney-on-The-Riviera face. Maybe.

Because it’s another week, another ‘coffee and your health’ report. This time the advice is that five cups a day will, it’s reckoned, free up your clogged arteries.

Combine this with daily glass of red wine we’re told is good for us, the steak that we didn’t eat for 30 years but now can, and the eggs that were once going to kill us but now provide excellent daily protein, and we’re on the pig’s back again (as they say) – even pork is good for us, maybe.

I’m sceptical. As a journalist barely a week goes my encountering another food advice being debunked or reinforced, or the reinforcement debunked. If I was a cynic I’d suggest all this is geared to keep university science departments and news organisations busy.

Instant in the communal kitchen.

Instant in the communal kitchen.

Of course put-upon doctors regard the whole ‘eat/don’t eat/eat less/eat without butter/eat with your fingers crossed’ advice cycle to be pointless, sensibly arguing that the best policy is moderation.

Which is also the dullest possible approach for the sort of person who drinks five cups of coffee at day. Almost as dull as that more extreme concept – abstention.

When it comes to coffee I’ve grappled with both, which has led up some blind alleys – usually involving the dubious dark arts of decaffeination.

But well into my fourth decade I’ve hit on the cure, and it’s got nothing to do with willpower, or advice from Heart, or my proximity to a decent cappuccino.

Detail from 'Nighthawks' Edward Hopper (1942)

Detail from ‘Nighthawks’
Edward Hopper (1942)

It’s age. Twenty years ago student me fuelled up on half a dozen cups of treacly Buttery coffee daily. Now I’m on two hits, an espresso before breakfast and a latte at lunchtime. On weekends I may stretch to a cappuccino.

That’s all the coffee I need. No more desperate sipping of my ‘fix’ from crumbly polystyrene mugs at service stations, or dipping into gallon jars of freeze-dried, taste-bypassed, caffeine granules in communal kitchens.

I got old. I didn’t adopt moderation, it adopted me.

I’m liberated, free of the worry, the shakes, the stains, the burned lips and the acid reflux, the queuing and the spilling.

But most of all I’m liberated from the next breathless, heart-racing report on how and why coffee is going to kill me. Or not.

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Lifehack #1 – the human chain

"...part of the great human chain." Beneath the Parrotspitz, Alps, 2010.

“…part of the great human chain.”
Beneath the Parrotspitze, Italian Alps, 2010. 
Pic: Cormac Looney

“Only connect” wrote EM Forster. But with what? What is it that links us, that bridges the gap between each of us as we exist, in Patrick Kavanagh’s words, “alone in our loneliness“?

Does such a comfort even exist? If so, does this common thread transcend place, language, gender, even time?

How easy is to access this ‘oneness’? Is it as simple as a look or a conversation, or is it realised only after a long period of communication, by way of friend- or relationship?

Identifying, describing and celebrating this human connection has always preoccupied writers and poets, of course.

But seeking and finding the connection often comes easier, in my experience, to musicians. Perhaps this is because music can be, for many, a more direct and immediate form of emotional transfer that the written or spoken word.

It’s apt then that one of the best descriptions of human connection, its origins, reality and reach, came from a man who has spent a life singing his poems.

Leonard Cohen, 1988. Pic: Roland Godefroy

Leonard Cohen, 1988.
Pic: Roland Godefroy

On being asked if melancholia produced better art  Leonard Cohen, who turned 80 this week, took the question and answered with hardened, learned insight.

His response is a description of what links us, often despite ourselves, as we push on through – the feeling of a ‘human chain’.

“We all love a sad song. Everybody has experienced the defeat of their lives. Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it to. We all begin as the hero of our own dramas in centre stage and inevitably life moves us out of centre stage, defeats the hero, overturns the plot and the strategy and we’re left on the sidelines wondering why we no longer have a part – or want a part – in the whole damn thing.

Everybody’s experienced this, and when it’s presented to us sweetly, the feeling moves from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain which is really involved with the recognition of defeat.”
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Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

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