Tuesday 25 April 2017

Comparing eras

When I praise the Ireland that my elderly neighbours remember, or the America my grandfather knew, or any other time and place for that matter, I get some strange reactions; quite often people grow angry and defensive, and change the subject to something terrible from the same era. If I mention the self-sufficiency of traditional Ireland to someone, they often retort that people had very little money, which is true. If I talk about Americans being happier in the 1950s, and suggest we look at bringing back the values and habits that made them happier, someone usually sneers, ‘Sure, why don’t you bring back polio while you’re at it.’

The magic of these responses is that they can be applied to any time and place, as there’s always something terrible happening somewhere. I suppose the logic goes that if a society in generations past saw injustices or tragedies, they have nothing to teach us, as their advantages and disadvantages came as a package deal. Since no human society has ever been perfect, this provides a good excuse never to have to learn hard lessons from anyone.

Of course, sensible people learn from their ancestors without passing down their shortcomings. Strict Constitutionalists hold to the 18th-century ideals of the Founding Fathers, but don’t think they have to treat people with leeches in keeping with 18th-century medicine. Evangelists who admire the fire of the second-century Christians never think that they should try to bring back leprosy or barbarian hordes. 

It is true that polio -- just to run with that example -- devastated thousands of lives a year; surely certain families affected by the disease saw a decrease in their happiness, and everyone’s lives improved when the vaccine was found. Still, more Americans said they were happier then than say they are happy now, and those numbers remain true whether polio existed or not. They had no umbilical connection; if we brought back the things that made that era great, we wouldn’t be bringing back polio.

What’s more, no one ever applies the same logic to our own era. To keep going with the disease example, we have eliminated polio and other plagues, but new ones like AIDS have appeared to take their place, and AIDS kills more people than polio did. Yet if you point out the good things about life today – say, that we can easily call the other side of the world – no one sarcastically quips that you must be a fan of AIDS. Nor does AIDS dominate our lives, except for the fraction-of-a-percent of the population who have contracted it, and the same was true of polio a century ago. Nor does the existence of those problems make all the world’s blessings disappear.

I’m not sure why modern Americans get so defensive when I praise anything from any other era, other than that they think their own culture is entitled to first prize in every category, even ones they don’t ordinarily care about. I know many people who seethe when I suggest that our generation is not the most literate, for example, yet it would never occur to them to open a book themselves. When I point out that Americans today don’t know much about science anymore, people look outraged, even though they carry very little knowledge and a lot of misinformation.  

Even if people today don’t believe their country tops the world in every category, they tend to believe their generation to be the smartest, healthiest and best at everything, and that anything before them falls short. Certainly that’s the message we get from seeing Hollywood movies or television shows – which, let’s be honest, is where most people get their images of the past.

A typical Oscar-bait film shows a bygone era – 1950s America, Edwardian England, the 19th century frontier – as a time of ignorance and hatred, until a brave visionary stood for something vaguely like what Hollywood believes today. No wonder most people think they have nothing to learn from their forebears. 

Photo: local kids riding through town. Most go with cars, which travel faster; on the other hand, cars don't have good horse sense or a personality, can't live on grass, and don't make more of themselves.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Back on the bus

Recently I wrote about public transportation -- how important buses and trains are for a functioning society. Many countries, especially my native USA, once had flourishing rail, bus and trolley systems, and they were widely used – look at old movies or television shows and you see normal people taking the train instead of driving. That’s still the case here in rural Ireland; many people don’t have cars, or don’t want to commute all the way to the city, so they take Bus Eireann (Gaelic for Ireland Bus). The double-decker buses still look incongruous to me hurtling along the windy country roads, but they are quite stable, and once they get to the motorway they use special bus lanes to bypass the worst of the traffic. 

When I wrote about buses, I noted that our bus drivers had threatened to strike; shortly after that that article appeared the strike began, reminding us all how important the buses are. For us it was only the latest of a long string of problems with our heat, water, garden and many other things that needed fixing. I spent the last few weeks driving to work, getting no writing done, chatting to no neighbours and generally losing three hours every day, wishing for the return of the buses.

For about a decade I’ve worked in Dublin, and taken the bus to work each morning – about 90 minutes each way, so three hours a day on the bus. I’m not fond of commuting so far, but I can use to the time to write – almost anything you read that I wrote, I wrote on the bus. It’s where I create the home-schooling lessons I give my daughter. It’s where I correspond with friends and family – often the only place, as for a long time we didn’t have internet at home. For people with more talented napping skills than myself, it’s three extra hours of sleep.
For some of my co-workers, it’s their only means of transportation; one young lady at my office takes the same bus as I do, and she’s never owned a car and never planned to. When you have a good bus service, you don’t need one. Buses, moreover, allow me to chat for hours with neighbours who commute to the city as I do.

Occasionally, of course, something interferes with the service; a bus runs late, or it knocks against the branches along the tree-lined lanes, or breaks down. Sometimes they fill up fast and I have to wait at the bus stop for hours, or take a different bus to a different village and get a ride home.  One stormy night a few months ago our bus was inching through the long, single-road traffic jam of Celbridge, going over the old stone bridge across the River Liffey, when the high winds wobbled a sign so hard that it smashed against our bus window, shattering the glass. No one was seriously hurt, but the bus had to let all the passengers off – it was too great a risk to have all the glass around – and we had to wait an hour or so until the next bus came.

I did not feel any great inconvenience, and I just relaxed in the pub across the way – a pub that, by the way, has the splendid name of the Mucky Duck, and claims to be Arthur Guinness’ old pub from the 1700s, where he invented the beer that bears his name. As I sat on one of the pub stools, I took out a pen and did some quick math on a piece of paper == the bus drives past dozens of signs and tree branches every trip, and makes several trips a day, every day of the year, and that several hundred buses roll across Ireland. Something like this happened two or three times in the ten years I’d been riding, and on those occasions people tend to vent their frustrations at the buses and drivers. We don’t, however, pay enough gratitude for all the times they inch narrowly through Irish roads with no margin of error, avoid rocking signs and fallen branches, and get us there within five minutes of their predicted time.

It’s such a different experience than the USA; there, half of all public space is devoted to cars, the other half for people, and bus services are often paltry and carry a stigma of poverty.

Over Easter weekend the drivers returned to work and the services resumed, just in time for people to visit their families. Today, for the first time in weeks, I waited at the bus stop to return to work, and saw the old people who waited for the same bus, like a reunion of friends. An old lady who lives near me – we’ll call her Bridey – saw the bus coming in the distance and said, “Ah, isn’t that a blessed sight?”

“It’s been a long time coming,” I told her.

“And it’s Liam at the wheel,” she said with delight. Everyone loves Liam – he fills us in on the gossip from the buses, the local politics, and all the villages around. He’s a better source of news than the television.

The bus was still far away, though, and if I couldn’t make out who was at the wheel, I was quite sure the old lady couldn’t. “How do you know it’s Liam?” I asked.

“I just know these things,” she said, smiling, and I let her keep her secrets.

When we boarded, Liam (sure enough) was talking to the young lady I work with, and the four of us stood and talked as he started up again.

“Liam, I’ve never been so happy to see you,” I said.

“Sure, you should always be happy to see me!” he responded in mock offense.

“Always, but never more than now,” I said. “How’ve you been keeping?”
“Glad to be back to work,” he said, “I’ve spent the last few weeks outside, getting a tan.” Liam has a typical Irish complexion – he’s lighter than the cast of the Twilight movies.

“Ah go on with you – like you’ll ever have a tan in your life,” Bridey told him.

“But it’s true!” Liam insisted, showing us his sunburned ears. “My ears are like to fall off!”

“Was it a good Easter?” I asked.

“Sure it was grand, Brian,” Liam said. “I was worried about you, Bridey, you being in the country without the bus.”

I think I was the only one of the group who even had a car – when you have a good bus service you don’t need one. The loss of such a service has been devastating for country people, especially the elderly.

“Ah, my nephew brought me to church on Sundays,” Bridey said.

“So God was sorted,” Liam said with a smile.

“And I had the garden for food,” she said.

Most people around here would give those same answers, I said – they took the bus, knew neighbours and family they could rely upon, and had some self-sufficient skills to get them through small disruptions like this.

When I hear people talk about preparing for the future – whether left-leaning environmentalists or right-leaning “preppers” -- they usually talk about everything collapsing overnight, Hollywood-disaster style.  In real life, we face little chance of that, in the USA or anywhere else. Instead, people should think about what happens if they can’t drive for a while, or lose their jobs, or can’t drink the water that comes out of the tap, or lose their electricity for a while. Living here has many problems, but it teaches me that a bit of self-sufficiency, and a healthy relationship with neighbours, goes a long way toward getting us through when systems – as they inevitably do at some point –fail.   

Photo: Bus in Dublin behind horse carriage. This is purely for illustrative purposes; it was actually Bus Eireann that went on strike, not these green buses, but I don't have a photo of a Bus Eireann bus.