Sunday, 30 March 2014

Bigger on the inside

Give me your hand, I said, and The Girl did. For tonight’s lesson, I said, I’m going to read your fortune.

She looked at me sceptically. “I’m pretty sure you can’t.”

Just watch me, I said, and I looked at her hand. The lines on your hand say that you have a very good heart, I told her, but occasionally you let your emotions get the best of you. You’re unusually intelligent and get bored easily. The lines on your hand say that if you wake up tomorrow with confidence and enthusiasm, the planets will grant you a good day. They say that you’re hiding a secret … one you’ve never told anyone …

“That’s private, Daddy,” she said gently, but smiling. “And you already know all my secrets, or can guess them.”

I’ll allow that I know you pretty well, I said, and I suppose that somewhat undermines my example. 

But say I were a stranger, or you were someone else – would you think I had read your mind?

“I’d think it a lucky guess,” said The Girl. “But some people might think you were really reading my fortune.”

It needn’t be a lucky guess, I said. You want me to tell you the secret? I asked, and she nodded.

The secret, I said, is that everything I said would be true of almost everyone. It’s called the Barnum Effect, after circus owner P.T. Barnum in the USA.

“But the same description can’t fit every person,” she said.

Just about, I said, or at least everyone thinks it describes them. Everyone gets bored, a lot. Almost everyone thinks they have a good heart, and lots of people have a secret, like a crush on someone …

“Even grownups?” she said. “They couldn’t – most of them are married already!”

Well, everyone has secrets, anyway, I said, I tiptoeing around that question.

“So don’t ever believe a fortune-teller,” she said.

Not just fortune-tellers, I said. You’ll see this in adverts on the telly – someone will look at the camera and say something like, ‘Are you feeling tired these days? Maybe you should try this new kind of drug,’ or something. That’s the Barnum Effect. You’ll see it in horoscopes too, I said.

“What are horoscopes?” she said.

Little articles that claim to tell you what your fortune will be, I said -- most newspapers carry them.
“In the newspaper?” The Girl said. “Aren’t they supposed to say things that are true?”

They’re supposed to, I said – and some people just consider it a game, or a handy way of making decisions. But a lot of people think it’s real, and it’s not.

My first job at a newspaper was writing the horoscopes, I said. My first night there I was just a teenager, doing what everyone’s job is at first – the things no one else wants to do.   And the editor told me to write the next day’s horoscopes. When I told her I’d never written a horoscope before, she said, “Have you seen a horoscope before?” I nodded, and she said, “Write it like that.”

“So how did you write them?” The Girl asked.

I wrote something that sounded like a horoscope, I said. The stars are in your favour today, if you take the opportunity. Work harder today, and you might get more done. You’ve done something you regret, but it’s not too late to set things right again. I didn’t realise it yet, but I was using the Barnum Effect; the sentences are all so vague that everyone thinks they speak to them.

“So all the grownups I meet …. They all have secrets like that?” The Girl said, and I could tell she was looking at the world differently. “They’ve all done things they regret? They all get lonely sometimes?

That’s right, I said – you’re not alone. We’re all just people, and see only a tiny part of each other. We’re all bigger on the inside.
Photo: The Girl sitting on the turf we cut -- our fuel for the next few winters -- and feeding the chickens. 

Thursday, 27 March 2014


Thanks for being patient while I was out a few days. The Girl and I are back and I’m typing this with a hand and a half – the other is stitched and bandaged. Short version: The Girl and I travelled to the great organisation Seed Savers to take courses in beekeeping and fruit tree grafting, and an accident put a very sharp grafting knife straight down my thumb.

What followed was quite an adventure; we had to find the country doctor in the nearby town of Killaloo, knocking on various doors to find the not-very-well-marked door in a row of houses. We sat in the doctor's office, The Girl holding my hand in the air as I read to her. The hand needed stitches, the doctor said, but she couldn’t do them there in the office – we’d have to go to the hospital in Limerick, an hour away, and I was unwilling to drive lightheaded or leave my daughter. Thus, The Girl got her first ride in an ambulance – for her it was like a carnival ride.

“Daddy,” she said as I lay on the stretcher, “Do you mind if I take some more photos of you lying there, to show the other kids at school?”

More photos? I said – you’ve taken some already?

She looked sheepish. “Well, just a few.”

Eventually we made it – I was wheeled into the emergency room, The Girl holding my (other) hand, and a nurse told us, "The doctor will see you in about an hour."

“An hour?” The Girl and I said together. “That’s a long time.”

Six hours later – around midnight -- we were still lying on the bed, with various other drunks and accident victims around us. We would later find out that this hospital was notorious for its waits – austerity measures had closed a number of other hospitals in the area. We passed the time reading the rest of Prince Caspian and talking with the other patients, and The Girl did a good job remaining stoic, considering she had had nothing to eat all day, and there was no way to get food.

Finally, as The Girl was sacked out on a gurney, I got stitched back together and wheeled her bed into the ICU, where I lay in the bed next to her and slept. We drove home the next morning.

I'll have the stiches out in a fortnight or so, and there should be no permanent damage. We really had a great time driving there and back again, singing and reading stories the whole way. We just had an unexpected adventure in-between.

The next morning, as we sat in our favourite café in Kilalloo, the morning light rippling over the waters of Lough Derg, The Girl and I talked about the people we had met in the emergency room. We had met a Limerick native who told stories of his days as a chauffeur for Saudi princes, but who was old now and recovering from a fall. We talked to a very elderly man from a nursing home, affable but clearly confused. We saw a toddler with a bandaged head, impatient to leave, and a woman fresh from a car crash, strapped to a bed and frightened.

“We were the luckiest people there,” I said, and she nodded solemnly. Then we clinked our cups together, downed our tea and were on our way home.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Back soon

I'm still dealing with technical problems, and haven't had as much opportunity, in time or internet access, to write or respond to e-mail The Girl and I are going camping in the West Country for the weekend, and will be back next week.

Sunday, 16 March 2014


A monastery founded in the 500s, nestled in the Wicklow Mountains.

Saturday, 15 March 2014


Note: I finally broke down and got a new computer today; I buy and use as little technology as possible, so this was a big deal for me. My apologies if I haven't responded to comments and e-mails quickly; I'll get to you. 

The village of Sallins in County Kildare, Ireland, lies on a stretch of road with two stone bridges — one over a railroad built in the 1840s, the other over a canal a quarter-millennium old. The bridges, canal, and railroad are sturdy and remain in use, but now they sit in the shadow of a modern office complex, a stillborn child of the recent economic boom. It opened just in time for the crash and instantly became a graffiti-covered derelict.

Ireland seems to specialize in this smashing together of the ancient and the modern. Just a brief drive from my house in Sallins, a new Starbucks overlooks medieval ruins, and a thatch-roofed pub has a satellite dish. But many of the new features are destined for a short shelf life. The country has seen the same troubles as my native United States — layoffs, bailouts, bubbles, and cutbacks — and the vacant office buildings reinforce the picture of desperation. Talk to the people, though, and a more complex picture comes into view.

The Irish have a lot in common with Americans, and not just because our globalized culture has everybody listening to Beyoncé and talking about the series finale of Lost. To a Missouri boy like me, many things seem familiar: faces and last names, crops and churches, country music stations and county fairs. This is where much of rural America comes from, the original of the species. In other ways, of course, Ireland is a European nation, with nationalized health care, coalition governments, no death penalty, and no guns.

And when it comes to attitudes toward economic hard times, the Irish could not be less American, owing to the country's unusual modern history. Ireland’s stark landscape of windswept plains and ancient monoliths draws legions of tourists, inspires New Age records, fantasy literature, and inspirational calendars. But we see those ruins out of context. When built, they were surrounded by towns, farms, and a cold rainforest like Oregon’s today. In medieval times, Ireland was a civilized and densely populated country compared to most of Europe. Even after the land was conquered and the forests felled, as many as 8 million people lived here — almost twice as many as today. Over the last 200 years, the populations of most countries increased dramatically — Britain’s by seven-fold, America's by a factor of 50. Ireland’s was cut by almost half.

The most important reason was the Famine, of course, and you can still hear the capital F in today’s Ireland. But that epochal crash was just the worst chapter of a history that emptied the land and made Ireland the world’s most famous exporter of sad songs and refugees. Perhaps no other people but the Jews have been so defined by tragedy and exodus.

In the U.S. and around the world, the descendants of the Irish multiplied until they vastly outnumbered the population of Ireland itself, and many retained an (often sentimentalized) love for their ancestral homeland. It’s the reason so many cities celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, why Ireland became such a popular tourist destination as the Land that Time Forgot. Even when Ireland’s cultural exports expanded beyond the Quiet Man stereotypes to U2 and The Commitments, the country retained its image of charming poverty.

Poverty looks better in memoirs or through the tour bus window. When my wife moved to County Clare in the 1970s, indoor plumbing and electricity were new and still not universal. Potatoes and cabbage really were the staple foods, and pubs and gambling houses were more common than libraries or grocery stores.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, most older people I talk to remember those days fondly. They recall a life that few modern people have experienced, spending the days working in the company of family and friends. They speak with pride of being able to provide their own food and fuel. They say that neighbors helped each other through the lean times, weaving a dense web of indebtedness. They too might be sentimentalizing a life most of us would find harsh, but they also tend to agree that in its prosperity, Ireland has lost something precious.

During the 20th century, the modern world slowly crept in, until most Irish had cars and televisions, and cracks began to appear in the old culture. Contraception was legalized in 1978, homosexuality in 1988, divorce in 1995. Then in the 1990s, a number of computer companies settled in Ireland, and the unthinkable happened.

In just a few years, Ireland went from being one of the poorest of Western nations to one of the richest, with double-digit annual growth some years. For the first time in centuries, poor immigrants flooded into Ireland, mostly Slavs who filled the service sector. Land prices in our area doubled, doubled again, and doubled yet again. Villages swelled with housing developments — the population of Sallins quadrupled in a decade. Traffic jams filled the newly built highways, traditional pubs remodelled as trendy nightspots. It was as if the whole country had won the lottery.

The shake-up gave a boost to other changes that were already in the works. It dealt a final blow to the Troubles with Northern Ireland, effectively ending a thousand years of conflict. It did the same for the Catholic Church’s once-uncontested power. By European standards, Ireland remains devout: abortion remains illegal, state schools are Catholic, and the national television stations take breaks for vespers. When my bus passes a church, half the passengers still make the sign of the cross. But most remember the Church’s sometimes abusive history, and few today rue the breaking of its political power.

But even the newfound excess was frugal by American standards. The Irish use less energy per capita than most Western European nations, and half of the energy per capita as the average American. Personal savings remain much higher in Ireland than in the U.S. Personal debt has increased, but only because so many acquired new mortgages in the last decade.

More significantly, few people here saw the boom as normal or permanent. No leaders announced grandiose plans for a 21st-century Irish Age, or invested their new wealth in forming a global empire. As religious as Ireland has been, no one decided that Ireland was now the chosen nation of God. In short, the Irish did not react as many of my own countrymen did to the rising economic fortunes of the U.S.

Most Americans don’t imagine themselves to have lived through a boom of their own, but they have — just one that has lasted a human lifetime, so few people now remember frugality. The current crisis has left many Americans feeling helpless and outraged: this isn’t supposed to happen to us. The Irish make no assumptions, and now that lean times have returned, any older Irish person remembers how to live through them.

Living on an island makes Ireland more vulnerable to a depression, fuel shortage, or food crisis, and yet the Irish seem more prepared to endure it. Agrarian self-sufficiency ran too deep, too recently to be fully abandoned. Many people here grow gardens, and until recently it was common for schools and hospitals to have a garden outside to feed the students and patients. Cities and towns are compact to the point of claustrophobia, so arable land is never far away. Public transportation is widespread and carries no stigma of poverty. Perhaps most importantly, everyone seems willing to help even distant relatives — and if they live on the island, they are never far away.

Finally, much of the old infrastructure is still functional, or could be put back into service again soon, and could last for centuries after the boom’s plastic and plywood have collapsed. The railroads still run through Sallins, and could be electrified or horse-drawn if needed. The old canal barges may be lying on the banks with trees growing through them, but new ones could be made. The 250-year-old bridges are used every day with little sign of wear. They were built before the throwaway world was even imagined.

No one in Ireland would find a post-crash world pleasant or easy, but their culture might allow them to cope better than most. Traditional Ireland, the culture that older people remember and that still exists all around, was a post-crash world, its institutions and customs shaped by the Famine experience. The boom swept away the uglier aspects of the old order — the institutional abuse, the Troubles — but did not fully replace the qualities that older people here miss.

Many Irish see austerity not as the end of the world but as the hangover after the party, after which life will go back to normal. They have been here before. This is where they lived.

Originally published by Big Questions Online

Friday, 14 March 2014

Gardening in March

This article originally appeared in the Kildare Nationalist, County Kildare, Ireland.

March can be a frustrating month, inuring us to springtime days of sunshine and green fields and then plunging us into the damp and chill again. Its unexpected turns make it difficult to judge the last days to prune, or the first days to plant or put delicate seedlings outside.

If you haven’t planted anything yet, there still might be time to order seeds and plant something for later in the year; buy seeds for more than one year to be on the safe side, but not more than a few years ahead, as after that some seeds tend to lose the ability to germinate.

Your first concern should be soil; in some places here, the soil can be solid clay, while other people have a wet and acidic bog. Gardening soil should usually be dark and mostly compost – that is, well-rotted plant matter – with some clay and sand. You can make your own compost and enrich your soil by composting kitchen waste or manure for two years, until it is dry, crumbly and feels like soil – and then mixing it in. Alternately, you can mix it in now and wait just a year, but then you would not be able to plant anything in the meantime.

If you have particularly boggy soil, you might want to build raised beds and lay down mulch or branches underneath and rich, sandy earth on top. This allows the bed soil to drain properly and provides nutrition for the plants as the wood slowly decomposes. Boggy soil can also be acidic, and many gardeners “sweeten” the soil with lime or some other alkaline – although such measures are said to increase the risk of disease in potatoes. Outside the beds you could plant crops that like acid soil, like blueberries.  

If you are experimenting with gardening for the first time, it is probably best to try small patches of the easiest crops – courgettes are famously easy and prolific. Other relatively easy crops that thrive in this climate include brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), alliums (onions, garlic, leeks) and peas. All of them should go in the ground quickly if they’re not planted already, along with other local staples like carrots, parsnips and lettuce, as well as crops that more Irish should experiment with -- artichoke, celeriac, chard, beetroot and asparagus.

Check your saplings and young shrubs, especially those planted over winter, to ensure they have not been rocked by wind --- you might have to pound a post into the ground and stake them. Remember that they need extra water when they are producing leaves. If your trees haven’t begun to bud yet, this might be your last chance to prune them this year; some trees react badly to being pruned with leaves or buds.

Since the March weather is so variable, it helps to plant seedlings inside first – ideally you should have had them going for a month or two now. A greenhouse or poly-tunnel is an immense help in growing veg, and allows you to grow year-round. If you can’t afford one right now, build a cold-frame, a box with a window on top that allows sunlight to come in – ideally slanted toward the south and placed in a sunny spot.

Inside your greenhouse, this is a good time to plant tomatoes, chili peppers, bell peppers and other warm-weather plants. Feed and water them well to prepare them for summer – remember that a greenhouse needs to be watered no matter how much it rains outside -- and check for greenfly, whitefly and other pests. If you get slugs, you have treats for your chickens and ducks. If you get snails, you can experiment with French cooking.

Most of all, look around for larger areas to garden, for yourself or your neighbours, for when times get tougher. We are surrounded by fields, most of which are used for grazing if at all, and growing crops generally feeds more people than animals on the same ground.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014


I'm working on an article and still having some technical issues, so not posting as much. In the meantime, enjoy this photo of Ireland's West Country.

Saturday, 8 March 2014


Our conversation takes strange turns some nights, and this week we’ve been talking about natural selection. We talked about the bits of our body that are left over from our ancestors – the tailbone, the appendix, wisdom teeth and the nictating membranes of our eyes. We talked about how many of the emotions we feel, as right as they feel to us at the time, are really just responses left over from our ancestors, and not necessarily helpful anymore. 

She was fascinated that each cell of her body contains a blueprint for her, and that it is the master-work of thousands of generations of survivors. Do you remember what the blueprint is called? I asked.

“Your haecceity!” She said, pronounced “hex-ay-ity.”

I’m impressed you remember that, I said – I just mentioned that in passing a long time ago. The Haecceity, though, is a term the Blackfriars used – Scotus, Ockham, Aquinas, those people . It was their word for your essence, the thing that makes you you.

What I was looking for, though, was your genotype -- your blueprint is written in DNA code, which make genes, which make chromosomes. All the genes together make your genotype, and the way they show up – all your qualities – is your phenotype.  

“Isn’t that the same thing?” The Girl asked.

Well, the haecceity is a religious idea, and the genes are a scientific one. People shouldn’t treat religion as science or vice versa – they do that too much these days.

“Is the haecceity like the soul?” The Girl asked, pressing the issue.

Well, I said, I don’t know if the monks thought of the soul the same way modern people do. These days we talk about it like it’s a ghost that lives inside us and floats out when you die, like you see in movies. They seemed to think of us more as an image that God projects onto our flesh, like the Mona Lisa on canvas or a cinema projection onto a wall. The painting is just powdered clay, the wall is plaster and we’re meat, but it’s made into an image, and that image is what matters.  

The Girl looked at me sceptically. Okay, I said – let’s back up and put it a different way. It’s like that Harry Potter book you’re reading, I said. It’s just ink on paper, except the ink forms letters, like DNA code. The words are the genes, the chapters are chromosomes, and the whole book of words is the genotype. But a book is just a book --- the actual story, though, is what scientists call the phenotype, and what the monks called your haecceity.

“So which one am I?” she asked.

All of those and more, I said. The story doesn’t really exist until someone reads it, and we don’t count for much unless we change the lives of other people.  

“I’m going to try to have a great story,” she said. 

I expect you will, I said. But it will surprise you, even as you’re writing it.