Here's the column for September 2008. It went through a few revisions - I think this is the final one, but I find I'm wrong, I'll switch it around.
5.30am. ‘This passport is out of date’ will not make you happy. Unless you’re being extraordinarily renditioned.
At the check-in desk we discover our youngest son’s passport has run out. We knew this last year, we think. A nice lady looks at us like the sort of ne’er do wells who shouldn’t be in charge of a banana. She suggests one of us goes ahead with the bags and eldest, while the other takes our youngest to get an emergency passport and catches a later flight. There’ll be a charge, but apparently ‘this happens all the time’.
I volunteer to stay behind. Later I will realise that having to travel to a European country without your baby and feckless husband, while having to manage all the heavy luggage and without a syllable of the language is not fun, so eventually stop congratulating myself on my selflessness. At the ticket desk, another lady sends my wife and eldest to the gate immediately to catch their flight. The youngest and I will fly later that day. Getting a new passport will be simplicity itself. We are delighted to pay for two new tickets. Tearful goodbyes made, lips wobbled, we go our separate ways.
We have to get a form signed by a Garda. The airport station is closed. That’s fine. We’ll get a bus into town and do it there. The passport office is on Molesworth Street anyway. This makes sense. I text my wife that I have sorted everything. I am amazing.
7.15am. At the police station, a Garda tells me the airport police station is never closed. Her look communicates my lack of credibility. I rethink my pink jumper and silly hat. Both my wife and I must sign the form. She is baffled that I didn’t know this. I try my best pathetic look – not difficult – but to no avail. Kidnapping risks, etc. Later I realise she let a man and small child who were urgently trying to leave the country walk out of a police station without having any idea who we were and where we were going. This amuses me, or would, were the world not ending.
8.00am. I go home. I call our local police station. A nice Garda says that perhaps with an affidavit from a solicitor who knows us, he could sign the form. But we have to check if this will be acceptable to the passport office. This holiday is great, I think.
9.30am. Solicitor and passport people confer. I think this is a twisted plan set up by the world to make sure that I never forget to renew anything else again, ever. It won’t work.
A solution: If my wife goes to the local consulate and her consent is witnessed and faxed to the passport office, then the friendly people at the passport office will be happy and our passport will be rushed in the four hours before our plane takes off. Cue frantic telephone calls to my wife who has just landed, blissfully unaware of what’s been happening. Fortunately we have a friend who speaks the language, and magically it all comes together.
12.00pm. I buy my younger son a CD player. He says I’m a silly old goose. I concur.
4.00pm. Somehow we make it and are several thousand feet in the air before I remember I’m afraid of flying. I look around the clouds for more silver linings and thank every star for nice people in positions of authority. Best of all, I discover that while we’ve been away it’s been raining all the time.
As probably many people already know, David Foster Wallace was found dead on Friday evening at his home in California. That's a link to the LA Times obituary up there. He was 46.
There's a strange wrench when you are faced with the death of someone that you didn't know, nor were ever likely to meet, but who nevertheless had a profound impact on your life. I first came across Foster Wallace's work after university, when I was working a fairly dead-end bookshop job. I had spent the majority of my time in college messing around, pretending to be an actor and living vicariously through whatever fictions allowed me to continue to imagine that future, but then life happened, as it so often does.
My girlfriend and I had a baby at the end of my time in college, and like many young parents before us, panicked about our futures. We were still crazy enough that we spun out our dreams for a year or two, but both of us thought that the bell had rung for a particular period of our lives and now we had to make money, fast. Being Art & Arts graduates meant that all the high-paying jobs weren't exactly banging down our doors and so we (or at least I) found our way to what Sartre might have called the hell of humanities graduates: crappy retail jobs.
Much as I hated it - when you feel like you've failed in life, there's nothing like then having to serve people who you know - working in a bookshop gave me a second chance at hoovering up words and obsessing over writers in a way that I never had in university. I read everything II could of authors that I knew already, however peripherally: Eggers, Stephenson, Rowling, Gaiman, Smith, Banks, Moore, Easton Ellis, Mitchell, Tartt and lots more.
Some authors I decided that I could never love: DeLillo, Pierre, Ellroy, Boyle.There were many authors that I developed crushes on: Murakami, Ishiguru, Safran Foer, Chabon, Roth, Ware, Burns, Clowes, Auster, Martin, Wolfe, Wolff. I read the way book-lovers do when they are in their late teens and early twenties - more or less freely, obsessing on new loves, harvesting up every book I could find, every online interview I could trace. I lived in their heads, as I imagined them, and daydreamed of the day I and they would chat as peers, because that's what you do when you find something you love. I think everyone's like that, whether it's movies, music, sport, politics or stamp collecting. You immerse yourself in your chosen world and identify with it. You adopt those characteristics, so that the world knows you are that person, of that tribe. You are a goth, a punk, you are straight-edge. You're a rugby head. You're a chav. You are tattoos and fixed-gear bikes. You are Grand Designs and a deck in the back garden. You are nu-rave, you love nu-metal. You are SF down to your Star Wars socks, you are horn-rimmed glasses, impeccably tailored clothes and the new McEwan. Usually, you are several of these things at once. But when you are a certain age, one of them takes pole position. I was a book geek. At that time, there was no higher voice, for a certain sort of reader, than David Foster Wallace.
His was an unusual sort of hero-worship. With Gaiman, I looked at his work and thought: "Here's a clever guy, but I understand how his stories work. I could do this." I was wrong, but I've always been arrogant. With Stephenson, there was so much detail, structure and complication that you couldn't begin to imagine getting there. As an English student, it was like a discussion of the LHC given in French: clever, but impenetrable. Other writers, like Roth, were like being mugged by a symphony orchestra, with this wall of knowledge that stood between the lowly reader and The Great Writer. I admired him, but I don't know that I loved him.
What was always special, in the subjective way that these things go, were the moments that I found a writer who was awesomely talented, yet sounded somehow like me, or how I might imagine myself on my best day. The sort of writer that could be honest and passionate about a subject and make that subject your passion too. David Foster Wallace, from about a sentence into Infinite Jest, was one of those writers. It was through reading his work, especially his non-fiction, that I eventually grew up and started to look outside my head every once in a while. It was certainly Foster Wallace who helped me imagine a future in writing things down, because even if my work would never reach his standard, I could at least make it mine and keep it true.
So. That was a very self-indulgent post. I suggest that you go and read this. It's a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon University in 2005. Then, because it's worth doing anyway, go to Amazon or your local bookshop and buy his books.
Normal, snarky and indeed, inane commentary will resume when I feel less depressed about all this.
It's already been a week since my last post, and that was just a collection of links. Blog title aside, links are easy and cheap, so I don't think they really count as blogging. So in the spirit of finding other loopholes, here's my column for Totally Dublin this August. I will start writing actual blog posts very soon, oh so merciful Internet.
'There are moments in everyone’s life when you realise that you aren’t a child anymore. Obviously, there are lots of giveaways, like when you’re issued an over-60’s bus pass, or when you’re tried as an adult, but the one I’m thinking of is to do with shopping. When I was a kid, and I saw a sale, it meant that I could buy things for cheap. Now, I see sales everywhere and I’m thinking only one thing: ‘ohgodohgodohgodrecessionrecessionrecessionhelphelphelp’. This is not a position that has a great deal of support in the rest of the house. Apparently toys are much cheaper now, and my diminutive financial advisers think that I should invest heavily in fully poseable action figures and Lego. Or some sort of console. They have visitation privileges to a Wii in their grandparents’ house, and applications have been issued for full custody. However, I think that one full-sized couch potato is more than any family needs, so there won’t be any surprises under the tree this Christmas.
So this, in a nutshell, is the latest excuse for not dressing as a grown-up. Apparently, my personal style has erred towards what might charitably be described as ‘studenty’ for some time now, a designation that many actual students would probably experience a coughing fit over. It has been put to me that it might be time to set aside childish things, or at least all my grubby trainers and faded t-shirts in favour of well-tailored trousers, crisp shirts and shoes that I might even polish more than once in my lifetime. The suggestion (Inference? Implication? Threat?) being that many things in my life and relationships might be improved by my not looking like I’ve just finished a shift in Tower Records. I think this is unfair. I could never get a job in that shop.
By doing a reasonable impression of someone who is actually concerned about money and hiding all the coffee shop receipts, I’m able to delude myself and others (okay, just myself) that the buying of adult clothes is not merely indulgent, but fiscally speaking, dangerous, in these choppy economic waters. I find, incidentally, that nautical metaphors and overwrought language is really the only way to go when you’re talking about money and don’t know your arse from your elbow. Another example: ‘ But sweetheart, there’s a tidal wave of credit available from Ireland’s estimable banking industry. I say we haul anchor and sail the good ship Cunningham to the nearest widescreen TV outlet.’
I should stress that the wearing of armbands, swimsuits and naval hats during these conversations is not recommended. One can be too Method.
So, an impasse. I didn’t want to actually go out and buy anything remotely grown-up, and even my three-year old was in two minds about being seen with me. I’m sure everyone who’s still awake can guess what compromise we came to.
No, I wasn’t kicked out of the house.
One day last week I came home to find a bag filled with new clothes, all bought in these panic sales that are dotting the city as retail companies everywhere pretend that they always have half-price sales in the middle of July. All the clothes were ‘adult’ (in the ironed sense, not the PVC one) and fitted well. My first thought was: ‘But I buy my own clothes. I’m not a child. I feel emasculated.’ Then I thought: ‘I didn’t even have to go shopping. This is what people mean when they talk about living the dream.’ Finally, I’m a man, I thought. I wonder, if I get really bad at doing my job, will someone else do it for me too?'
The dangers of mixing music & politics, or why white male voice choirs and hip-hop is both reckless and amusing:
Advertising - the new driving menace:
Finally, a 40-odd minute seminar by Neal Stephenson on speculative fiction. How it's different from literary fiction, what makes a good SF actor, et cetera:
If that floats your boat, here's a link to his somewhat famous Beowulf & Dante writer analogy, which he did on Slashdot some years ago. It's interesting. Sometimes I find Stephenson more cerebral than I can cope with and he certainly seems like a fearsome interviewee if you are as intellectually undisciplined as I am, but it's a good idea and worth sharing:
Okay - I'm aware that this is extremely lazy, but in the absence of having an idea for a post, here's the column I did for the July (i.e. current) issue of Totally Dublin. I might actually post all of the columns up on the blog, if only so I can have them archived in some way, should I ever want to use them as evidence that I can write (in order to get a job).
Needless to say, if you don't think that they represent evidence that I can write, you can of course, if you don't mind, that is to say, this is just my opinion, take it or leave it: piss off.
July 08 Column:
'This morning I did something to my back. By ‘something’, I mean that it hurts and by ‘did’ I mean that no one in my house has any sympathy. Many years ago, when I still laboured under the delusion that fitness (translation: looking good with my top off) was a goal that I could achieve, I walked into Argos and bought weights (the purchase being step 1 in my relentlessly upward trajectory towards being ripped, cut, pumped and indeed, corrugated if possible). It was quite some time ago, so I can’t be absolutely certain, but I’m fairly certain that I may have used them at least once, maybe even twice, before they were hidden away in my own personal Pit of Shameful Diversions, otherwise known as the back of the wardrobe. Incidentally, I plan someday to write a retelling of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, only this time a group of offensively prissy children will find themselves in a magical world populated with rusty gym equipment, rollerblades and people in Xworx jeans.
But the thing about products promising some form of personal improvement that I have bought is this: they tend to hang around, like that guy at parties who everyone else thinks is someone else’s friend (until, after he’s drunk all the beer and destroyed the living room, you remember that he’s your friend). The weights, a guitar, innumerable books that I’m embarrassed to let people see I have not just bought, but read and reread, clothes that represent not just a different time but a whole other dimension; each of these and many more embarrassments greet me every day as I attempt to dress myself. The weights in particular hang around, as if to say: ‘Look at how unmotivated, shiftless and plain lazy you are, You can’t even lift me up off the ground. Loser’. I don’t know why I do this to myself. I’m already married with children and they are really all anyone needs to feel old and out of touch. I thought I’d made my peace with self-improvement, then I entered the completely arbitrary milestone of my thirties a few months back.
Suddenly I found myself reading the covers of magazines with titles like ‘Men’s Health’. I discovered that no longer could I pretend that I came from the same species as these monochrome adonises, even when squinting from behind frosted glass. I appealed to those who knew me best for sympathy in my hour of need: ‘You’ve got a fat belly, Daddy.’ The weights came out that evening.
The main problem, I have found, with working out, is that I have no idea how to do it. I’m a lot like a panda trying to read the newspaper when it comes to bodybuilding. Much of my understanding of the process has been gleaned from watching movies like Spider-Man. So it should come as no surprise that when I discovered this was a long and tedious process, my enthusiasm dipped down until it rated somewhere below banging my head against a door. If I had accepted my limitations this would be a very different column. Instead, I chose to hide them under a pile of newspapers for a month, then in a rush of energy brought on by yesterday’s hangover I chose to streamline my routine by getting rid of extraneous things, like stretching. ‘Shouldn’t you be warming up first?’ asked my wife. As a sportsman, I instinctively knew I was the best judge of what was good for me, so I ignored her.
Later on, when I was complaining about the pain, she chose not to rub it in, which I think was more thoughtful than the three year old who demanded piggybacks. If I’ve learnt anything this month, then, it is that self-improvement is a reckless folly, which is exactly what I shall tell my children when they come to visit me in the hospital.
I lied in that last post. Clearly I'm a liability in front of a laptop. Or behind one. I did send off a few of those, ever so delicately labelled, query letters, and received one reply. SO FAR.
Anyway I've sent a collection of pages, linked, if not by a terribly well-organised story, then at least some seriously impressive staples. I figure if they aren't blown away by the prose, there's a chance of an opening in the stationery department.
I shall no doubt maintain an eerie and mysterious silence about what happens next, unless someone starts offering me lots of money, in which case you'd better get some sleep now.
Okay, well, this post hasn't really been about anything, but let's see if I can start some sort of a habit here.
I seem to have a problem with keeping these things up. Still, I think it's worth another go.
So hopefully this marks a Brave New World in internet blogging from yours truly. Although, probably not. After all, I've been trying to write the same novel since August 2003, which is now the wrong side of five years ago (5!). If you're not coming out the other side of that with either Ulysses or some sort of transmogrification device, you probably should take a long hard look at yourself.
Fortunately, I like what I see, and everything else, I look at from behind my fingers.
So, going to have a go at the '3 chapters, synopsis & cover letter' strategy this week. I'm hopefully going to do a postal blitz by Friday, which means that the rejection letters should start appearing by June, or some equally ridiculous month that isn't right now, or better, yesterday.
I haven't even finished the sodding thing yet.
Honestly, though, I have been doing other things in that time: had my second child, bought first home, got married, worked some good and some not-so-good jobs, and of course, had some terrifyingly pretentious haircuts.
(I should point out that I was aided in the first three achievements by someone else. Fortunately enough).
So. I'll post more news as I get it. Or at least, when I'm next avoiding bedtime.
Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.