County Kerry

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Here’s a question

Do you know which year marital rape became illegal in every state of the U.S.? How about the year when the last US state ratified the 19th amendment (not including Alaska and Hawaii)?

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who are we, if we’re not our stories?

The Irish playwright Brendan Behan once noted that while everyone else has a nationality, the Irish have a psychosis. Of course, if you delve deeply enough into any culture, the level of dysfunction reveals itself quite readily, but Irish writers tend to take a no-holds-barred approach to laying open the particular madness to which Irish culture can lay claim. In some ways, it’s refreshing to see a people so matter-of-fact about societal ills and cultural trappings, while so many other people pretend theirs don’t exist.

Last week I had the opportunity to catch a play called The Walworth Farce, by writer Enda Walsh. It’s been performed a few times in the past few years, both in Ireland and the US (and elsewhere), and has always been well-received. The story revolves around a father and his two sons, originally from Cork, who live in a dingy apartment in London (on Walworth Road). As it opens, there’s a bit of confusion as to what is happening, but quickly you realize that the characters are themselves acting out stories, taking on other characters, and possibly re-enacting past events. There’s a bit of hysterical absurdity, a lot of physical slapdashery, and a sense of deeper currents; within this story of a story, there’s possibly yet another story occurring.

So some things are laid out straight – the father is Dinny and he’s nostalgic for the auld country. The elder son, Blake, seems suited to taking on the female roles in the stories they are creating/re-enacting. The younger son, Sean, seems to be the only one to leave the apartment ever, every morning as he goes to Tesco to pick up groceries (which are apparently used as props in the story-within-the-story). As the play opens, this morning, Sean seems to have picked up the wrong bag of groceries, and the next two hours follow the slow devolution of the family as cracks appear in the facade. When Hayley, the checkout clerk at the Tesco, stops by, the rollercoaster continues its freefall into both chaos and tragic and painful truth-telling.

Now take all of this raw potential and channel into one of the finest acting families in Ireland – the Gleesons. Brendan Gleeson plays the father, and his own sons play Blake and Sean. It’s not only so very meta, it’s also a casting coup, and a brilliant decision all around. They are first of all excellent actors,  but it’s discomfiting to watch a character who is violent towards his own children knowing that all of the actors are related. The whole thing is at times more real, and at times more absurd.

As an American, I’m fairly certain I missed a significant amount of the jokes, and the accents were sometimes difficult to follow as well. I’ll take the word of other viewers and critics that the play shines a critical lens on a number of issues current to Irish society – the nostalgia of the Irish abroad, dysfunctional families, money and all the troubles it brings, and many others. But one thing that really stood out for me was the fluidity of both the actors and the script in switching between the comedic and serious/tragic elements (something, I think, is well done in Irish literature). At times, the transition was so smooth that the audience was still laughing before realizing that an act of violence or a harsh comment was not part of the story being acted out, but actually occurring in “real life” for the family. Realizing this makes the production both more engaging and more disturbing.

As an aside, we saw the play on its last night. Proceeds for the show went to St Francis Hospice. We paid more for the tickets, but hospice is one of those causes where I just don’t think you can give enough. So it was an amazing opportunity to both be able to see this play and support an amazing cause.

(note: post title is a line from the play)

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The Walworth Farce

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Brendan Gleeson and his sons Domhnall and Brian performed The Walworth Farce (a play by Enda Walsh) at the Olympia Theatre recently. Beautiful theatre, intense and gripping story, brilliant and engaging acting. Picture is post-show, during announcement of raffle winner. Proceeds from the raffle and tickets that night went to St Francis Hospice.

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facebook free february

For the month of February, an Irish NGO issued a challenge to quit Facebook. Just for the month (though you can go longer if you’d like). The idea behind it is to examine your connection with social media (vs the real world). The hope is that, for the month, a person can reframe their relationship with online and outside, and maybe fill those now-vacant hours with other activities (going for a walk, a show, dinner; learning a new hobby; writing?).

I’m not one of the people who think Facebook (and other forms of social media) is a menace, though I can certainly see how it can be addictive for some, or a replacement for “in person” interaction for others. I can also see how it can create a skewed perspective of the world (a la internet trolldom). Of course, the things we see in others are often the last things we see in ourselves, so I could be fooling myself when I say I think my relationship with social media, although very deep, is healthy. Nevertheless, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, are useful tools for me to stay in touch with friends from around the world. They are also great sources of information – either through links posted, or through status updates/tweets/photos from people “on the ground”, as it were.

Of course, social media’s big drawback in all of this is that you curate your feeds. You only see what you wish to see, and if you don’t wish to see it, you can unfriend, unfollow, block, mute, etc. In some ways, I can see how this can polarize further our societies, and also how it can translate to “real life” in the sense that people can find it so easy to turn away from things they find unpleasant or distasteful. Of course, we do this all the time, turning off the TV or not reading the newspaper, but the difference with social media is the social aspect – it is a conversation with others that is being turned off, not a one-way push of news.

I do think social media can be a means by which “offline” life could be bettered. For example, social media could be a place to learn to skillfully manage conflict such that could be applicable in real life, but unfortunately, it becomes a way to tune out. It also becomes a way to hide behind anonymity or firewalls and not have to take responsibility for, or face the consequences of, hateful or offensive speech. People say things on the internet that they would be unlikely to say to another person’s face. The internet free-for-all, while a great equalizer for free speech, also becomes a breeding ground for hate. I suspect that in coming decades, we will learn to harness the strengths of social media for better in-person interaction, but for now we’re just children with new toys and we’re still trying to figure out the rules.

So, I’m 8 days in now on my own social media experiment. I’ve stayed off Facebook this time, though I’ve been tempted to log on and see what my friends are up to. One thing I realized is that I can use this time away to have some more personal interactions with people, so I’ve started reaching out to people to set up skype calls. Another thing I’ve noticed is that I seem to have a lot more time to watch Netflix and read. For the former, I’ve made a queue of interesting documentaries that I hope to check out in the coming weeks. But on the reading front, I managed to read 2 books since late Jan to now, and I’ve got a whole list in my Nook app to still check out. I also bought a book recently (actual tangible pages to touch!) and I’m excited to read it too.

I do miss talking to friends, and there are a few who I know are going through difficult times and I regret not being there to see how they are doing. I could do it on email, but sometimes the collective approach of the group is more comforting. Of course, this “ban” on Facebook is not absolute, and I could always go back if I wanted to. But for now, I’m exploring the possibility of taking this time for myself, and seeing to some personal needs.

One thing I thought would happen though – I thought I would have more time for writing. I do seem to be getting more work done, so maybe I’ve filled some hours with that, and I am spending more time on Twitter (something that should be addressed too, though Twitter fills a different niche for me). But I haven’t been blogging more, so I think it’s time I turned my attention to that.

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book review: brain on fire

Whenever I consume media based on true stories, I end up googling a lot to fill in the blanks (or to verify certain events). Wikipedia says that last year, Charlize Theron optioned Brain on Fire, to be made into a movie starring Dakota Fanning. It’ll be interesting to see how she manages to adapt this “memoir” to a more visual medium, given that the book is essentially a recollection (pieced together from other people’s recollections), and its strength lies in the insight you get from peering inside Susannah Cahalan’s head (as a journalist, she has a wonderful way with words). She refers to CCTV footage from her hospital stay, so if that could be worked into the film, it could be a very poignant and haunting production.

So here’s the thing – I am a huge fan of the TV show House. I love the whole patient-presents-with-seemingly-unassociated-symptomology-but-it-turns-out-to-be-all-related bit. Someone almost dies, some organs might need transplanting, much drama ensues amongst the hospital staff (usually unrelated to the case at hand), and it all is tied up in a neat little bundle at the end.

But it’s a whole other thing when you’re reading the story of how this happens in real life. Brain on Fire is the story of Susannah Cahalan, a NY Post journalist who descends into a bizarre illness that takes a month, lots of tests, and half a dozen doctors to figure out. Due to her age and initial presentation, it might seem that she has had a psychotic break or otherwise is suffering from a mental illness. But with a few other symptoms (particularly seizures), her medical team and family persist in identifying the illness (essentially an inflamed brain) and treating it.

The book is less about the progress of the disease or its diagnosis, and more about the human element. Cahalan essentially lost a month of her life – a huge gap in her memory that she painfully reconstructs as if she were investigating a story for her paper. This results in lots of interviews with the medical staff as well as her family and friends, who are arguably suffering as much as she is. With the video footage from the hospital, she’s able to see what she was like during that time; with her dad’s journals, she was able to see how her condition deteriorated and how that affected loved ones; and with the medical records, she was able to see not only how her symptoms progressed but how they were able to finally identify her illness.

So, spoiler alert (not really, as this isn’t a mystery book): the disease is called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. It is extremely rare, and just three years prior to her affliction, it was fairly unknown as a singular entity. It is essentially an autoimmune disorder- an inflammation of the brain caused by the body’s immune system attacking NMDA receptors in the brain. NMDA and its receptors are involved in the process of memory formation, so Cahalan’s loss of memory is characteristic. She suffers other symptoms as well, both psychiatric and physical.

But book is really about what it is like to live through this experience, and how one goes about filling in missing pieces. The journals are useful because, after the fact, it is of course easy enough to revise thoughts and emotions from that time period. Cahalan reflects significantly on the experience of her loved ones, as well as how those relationships change. But I think the most striking part is her own self-reflection during her recovery: how it feels to return to the hospital, be in public again, be reassessed for cognitive functioning, display flashes of her “old self”. That last part I think is the bit that sticks with you afterward (especially when you consider how the book was written by her “recovered self”) – those moments of lucidity being blocked by a “broken brain” or “broken body”. Her personally is there, intact, and struggling to get out, and the betrayal of her body is poignant and hard to bear witness to.

I found myself reflecting a lot on how much we don’t know about the brain and its functioning. And in fact, it’s usually only when things go wrong (and we can pinpoint where in the brain they go wrong) that we can learn about what the various parts of the brain do. I thought too about how little we know about how the phenomena of thought, emotion, and memory arise, particularly from what is essentially a system of electrical impulses and stop-and-go chemical reactions. How does it all work in such complex and fragile ways? The juxtaposition of Cahalan’s inability to form simple memories (such as drawing an image she was just shown) with her ability to make advanced leaps of logic highlights the wonderful and mysterious workings of the brain. With each of these cases (she mentions a few in the book, which of course, prompted another round of googling), we’ve inadvertently learned a little bit more, but still have a ways to go.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this book. It’s a fast read and very engaging. I hope that, when its translated to film, they can accurately capture the pre- and post-experience, particularly the changes to Cahalan’s personality and cognitive functioning, without just turning it into another feelgood “overcoming obstacles” type of story.

(note: this book is one of a list I’m planning on reading by end of June)

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january check-in

January was an up and down month. I had two big projects I needed to finish, and got both of those done, but to the detriment of other things I wanted to do this month (such as working out!). So it’s not been great with the goals, but here’s a check-in:

  • Run 1000 km in 2015: Well, I got in exactly 12 km for January. February is going to be killer.
  • get back to weight lifting (2x a week): Not a single weight.
  • yoga reboot (this one requires further exploration): I went to pilates a few times, but no yoga classes.
  • make some ice cream (with the ice cream maker): Well, it’s kind of cold now. :)
  • 2 week Spanish immersion: I will think about this a bit this month, I think.
  • learn something new (or maybe re-learn something from previously?): I’m thinking I’d like to learn how to knit and how to drive stick. I’ll tackle both in February.
  • get a job: I’ve started looking around a bit for this. Will update more in March, I think.
  • write a novel: I have half an idea. I’ve given up Facebook for February, so I hope this means I have more time for writing.
  • knock out the rest of the ones I haven’t seen on the Things Not to Miss Ireland list: Nope
  • accomplish one more activity on my 10-year plan: Learning to drive stick and learning to knit will clear this one out.

So for February, I’m going to focus on yoga, running, and getting back into weight lifting. I’m also going to look into knitting and learning to drive stick, as well as outline my novel idea.

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man’s inhumanity to man

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, considered the largest and deadliest of the extermination camps established by the Nazis during WWII. There aren’t hard numbers, but an estimated 1 million people died at the camp (950,000 of the 1.2 million Jewish people sent there; the rest comprising Romany, Polish, and Soviet POWs). Most of us know the general history and horror of WWII, but we really only get a simplistic and somewhat sanitized view. Even when you visit the Holocaust memorials around the world (such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC) to bear witness to the atrocities that were committed, there is still a gulf between what happened “back then” and today.

Auschwitz wasn’t the only concentration camp; some were also extermination camps, and others were work camps. Nazi doctors experimented on prisoners in horrific ways in the name of “science” (or more accurately, simply barbarism, as there is not a lot of consensus that the experiments done hold any sort of scientific validity, aside from being completely immoral, unethical, and horrendous).

But seventy years is not a long time. Less than a lifetime, really, especially for someone who lives in North America or Western Europe. A mere blip in human history. But still we seem to relegate what happened in WWII to some distant past, feeling secure in our knowledge that something like that could never happen again.

Of course, it has happened again. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, only to name a few. Some are still ongoing: Syria. NE Nigeria. South Sudan. And these only name the large-scale conflicts that descended into genocide. Even while WWII was happening, and the Nazis were promulgating their theories about racial superiority, the US was in the middle of its own eugenics programs: sterilizing women with mental illnesses or living in poverty. The Tuskegee Airmen. Guatemala.

It’s easy enough to say “Never Again”. But one need only look at the plight of the Romany in Europe, the school-to-prison pipeline in the US, and the not-too-distant legacy of state-sponsored violence in Latin America today to wonder: did we really mean it? “The World’s most unfulfilled promise” is one way to look at it.

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