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The Last Man Walking

Today I did something a bit crazy. Not crazy like twenty years ago crazy but still… I decided to get the train home from work. That is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. The train station is more than an hour’s walk away crossing slip roads that merge onto an interstate and two other major highways. Even when the crosswalk appears to be working you can wait forever for a green light but no drivers expect pedestrians so you still have to have your wits about you, especially if they are turning right.
And then there are parts with no lights so that is an adventure in itself. I have done this part before though.
What I like in a way is the peace I get knowing that I am the last man walking and the only person getting from A to B without depending on some kind of vehicle. I know the drivers look at me like I an a madman or a tramp but I really that I am the only sane one because you see we are actually surrounded by the natural world in this part of Illinois. On every walk I see squirrels and wild ducks and swans. I am oblivious to the drone of the traffic, it is noise, focus, control, I am doing my thing.
I just missed a train so I went to an Italian and had the most delicious thin crust pizza (with pepperoni and jalapeños) since the days when I used to visit my bro in that wooden hut near where I lived in Düsseldorf. I was getting kind of fretful as it was already pitch dark but I got the next train back to Deerfield. I got off there and walked another forty minutes crossing a twelve lane (6 x 2) interstate on the way back. I was wearing all black which is none too bright without reflective armbands but there was just one stretch to cross by jaywalking. I made it back safe and knackered and ready to watch Love/Hate and then get to sleep so that I can get closer to going home because really business travel is not what you could call glamorous especially if the highlight of your day was the (long) journey home.

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One Day in Chicago

After my flight yesterday I took the 40 minute walk to Deerfield village, did a bit of shopping, and then made the reverse hike which is devoid of any other pedestrians (only Europeans walk in this part if the world). My body was suitably exhausted that no jet lag could waken me in the middle of the night. I awoke at six and looked out on a sunny day which was good news because my last visit to downtown Chicago was on the rainiest of days. After a fine buffet breakfast I walked back to Deerfield to get the train in to Chicago. The suburbs are predictably boring and where I spend most of my time when I am over so getting in to the city is a treat indeed.
As there was a Bears game today the train was packed to the gills with fans heading to Soldier’s Field. There is none of the menace you get with groups of soccer fans, it’s all very tame to match the middle class ticket prices.
I arrived at Union Station and the mammoth skyscrapers stared down at me again like old friends. Chicago is very walkable but you need a bit of stamina to get from A to B. I had a nice itinerary planned out but I didn’t do half of what I had planned in the end.
The first stop for me was Chicago 360 formerly known as the Hancock observatory. When in the city of tall buildings you have to experience life at the top some time and this place gives you super views all around Chicago. It’s really nice to look down on some of the other giants. You pay $18 for the privilege but not much is free on the land of the free. It’s worth doing for the tourist value.
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My next venue was close by at the Museum of Contemporary Art where they were doing a David Bowie retrospective. I normally hate museums but this was a very different experience. You are given location sensitive headphones which match video being projected but leaving the sound on all the time gives a very disjointed dreamy effect. There were loads of artifacts and costumes tracing the phases of his career and the manifold influences. I really loved the Berlin part (no surprise if you know me). The sound effects there were industrial electronica and what took my breath away were Bowies’s expressionist paintings of Iggy Pop. Art doesn’t normally grab me like that but I just kept staring at one of the paintings as it brought back so many feelings from my twenties. It was a really marvellous exhibition and it was well worth the $25 entrance because it was so wonderfully arranged and engaging.

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I had no tine to go to Navy Pier as planned but instead I went to the Gene Siskel Film Theater to finally watch Richard Linklater’s magnificent “Boyhood”. I don’t have heroes as such but Ethan Hawke has long been a favourite artist (with Jared Leto for company) so every film I see that he in is a coming home. This film is uncanny because the characters literally grow older before your eyes like in a documentary and so much of what is said is prescient without it being after the fact. Like a lot of Linklater’s work there is no real plot. It is a film that observes and does not judge, the classic show not tell. The real hero of the film is Mason, the boy’s, mother who is the battler holding it together while Hawke’s character drifts in and out of the children’s life like a slacker, hipster, adventurer. There is lots of great dialogue and beautiful moments. It is a fantastic film that is much longer than a regular feature at almost three hours!
In fact it was so much longer that I near ran back to Union for my train home afeared I would miss it. It was a fine way to spend a day in Chicago which is not my favourite city in the world but is big enough to always have some cool things going on.

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Concert Review – London Grammar @ Heineken Music Hall, Amsterdam (October 8, 2014)

We haven’t been to the HMH since the amazing OneRepublic concert in March so I was looking forward to getting back there to see one of my favourite new(er) bands. The crowd was very much a mix of ages indicating London Grammar’s cross-generational appeal.
The support was a revelation. They are a fusion band called All We Are who have a wonderfully eclectic mix of influences. They use Bee Gees-like vocal harmonies overlaying a complex mix of styles. At their best they combine catchy choruses with an entrancing ‘wall of sound’ effect. I had goosebumps for the first four songs! The set was weaker towards the end though but I would like to see this group again.
London Grammar are an interesting case. In Amsterdam the emerging bands move up from the Paradiso to the much bigger HMH but not every band is set up for the bigger venue. Ed Sheeran provides a template for what to do, big lights and effects, lots of distortion and echo effects. Unfortunately London Grammar were not ready for the leap. Their show is much too short and the production was missing the power needed for the HMH.
Hannah’s voice was wonderful and the boys were both excellent musicians and they did their best to engage the crowd. The songs were generally too small with too little variation from the recorded version which is a pity because “Flickers” stood out because of the fact that they arranged it to ‘fill’ a bigger venue and it worked! Of course the bigger hits like ‘Hey Now’ held the crowd but it was screaming for a more theatrical production. Hannah was dressed in jeans and a top but it would have been fitting for the show if she took a tip from goth rock bands like Within Temptation because their music lends itself to baroque costume dress or suchlike to feed the escapist desires of the crowd. The best concerts take you to another reality after all.
The band said that it was their biggest indoor gig ever. They do deliver great music but not yet scaled for this size of venue. They come across as three really nice young people but, for me, they need to move away from ‘the voice’ and bring more to the show. Hannah is a beautiful girl but sometimes it seems as though she wants to be in the background and lets the boys take the lead. I don’t know if it is shyness but London Grammar can evolve into a much bigger act if they just let loose all of their potential.
I was saying on the way home that we were lucky the support was good because unfortunately the London Grammar played too short a set with too few standout moments (and no ‘When We Were Young’ or ‘Maybe’) I still love their music but I would hesitate to watch them in a larger venue again.

OU Diary #39 – The importance of context

Although my course hasn’t officially started I have already covered quite a lot of ground. It took me a long time to get through “Sunset Song” by Lewis Grassic Gibson but the book got surprisingly engaging towards the end. Once I had finished it I was able to dive into the analysis and what really strikes me is that the social and historical contexts are so appealing to me that I find myself really grateful that the OU led me to this work. In essence this is what the study of literature is all about and I am starting to see that what I was looking for might really be possible.
Any reader of this blog will know that my life choices have often been purely pragmatic and not based on what truly interested me. It’s valid to question whether this is a useful way of living or not. In essence the depression and mass unemployment that prevailed in the Ireland of my youth led me down a route that put a premium on the mathematical and the rational and condemned the artistic and the aesthetic to the category ‘nice to have’. The end result is that my engineering education opened up a world of opportunities and gave me the chance to earn enough to have as much as anyone needs materially. I might well have ended up in the same place by other means but a scientific education is a key that opens many doors.
Although a lot of my twenties can be written off as depression comingled with debauchery I did keep learning throughout all of those years and collected foreign languages like playthings. Even at the very worst times when other parts of my (Dublin) life were falling apart education was always there like an anchor of sanity. By my thirties my thirst for language acquisition continued and married life led to children and years of learning about multilingualism. I took an MBA through Webster Uni in the first half of the noughties and somehow managed to finish that despite my wife’s accident in 2006 that turned everything upside down for a while.
Whatever was happening there was always learning. There was always a yearning to fill this emptiness but it became clearer that I needed to focus more on what really makes me tick. The dilemma I faced was that learning languages was not enough. The main reason I wanted to learn other languages was to gain entrance into other worlds. Although I should have done it much earlier it never occurred to me to read novels in French until I was in my thirties, and then came Dutch and German books and Spanish short stories and poetry. The decision to study English Language and Literature through the Open University had many impulses but ultimately it provides a framework that allows me to go on now and study more literatures.
In a sense now I see with a perspective that I never could have had before. If I can spend the rest of my life acquiring language skills that allow me to swim in the associated literatures and art forms then at least a part of me will be content. It might seem like a long journey to find a kind of answer that some people find earlier. Maybe I could have studied foreign languages and literature from the start when I was 17 but I wonder if I would I have studied in the same way. Maybe you need experience to truly grasp the importance of context

Gymnastics – On luck and existentialism

Parents of children spending a lot of their time devoted to any sport are more likely than most to suffer from the kind of existential angst that is normally the preserve of Camus-reading teenagers. In our case the question of whether it is all ‘worth it’ comes up regularly. Since parents can make the kind of decisions which encourage their progeny’s budding talent or alternatively stop it prematurely in its tracks this is not a trivial matter. With this in mind a ‘gym mom’ shared a link to the comedian Tim Minchin’s Occasional Address to graduates of the University of Western Australia in September, 2013.
In his speech he provides nine ‘life lessons’ which gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s definitely worth fifteen minutes of your time. To an extent his speech has to be consumed with the rather large proviso that he is a success story. Most people don’t achieve any degree of fame in their lifetime, most people don’t earn an awful lot of money and most people don’t get granted honorary degrees. That being said the particular lesson I was pointed to was this one:
“You don’t have to have a dream. Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams. Fine if you have something you’ve always wanted to do, dreamed of, like in your heart, go for it. After all it’s something to do with your time, chasing a dream. ………
I never really had one of these dreams and so I advocate passionate, dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up. Just be aware the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.”
If we translate this to sport then the question is whether any boy or girl should devote themselves to a sporting dream. It takes considerable dedication to be nationally competitive in most sports, never mind about being internationally competitive. Minchin’s argument is that the focus on a bigger dream detracts from enjoying all kinds of opportunities along the way. I can see where he is coming from to an extent but I think that the flaw here is assuming that most people think that dreams are achievable. The reality is that most of us know in our hearts that our ultimate dream won’t ever come true. That’s why it’s a dream.
I used to have this recurring dream where I would climb up a ladder and go for a walk on this rooftop where I would meet this girl I was infatuated with. In the dream I would talk to her like I never did in real life and finally kiss her. I always woke on the kiss and tried to go back into the dream because the reality was that she was unattainable for me. I did what I could to make her want me, I wrote poems and letters, the only tools I knew, but to no avail. What purpose then the dream? Maybe that dream kept me going at a time when I was miserable as hell, wearing black and listening to The Cure. Maybe there wasn’t anything shiny glimmering in the corner of my eye. Life sucked, thank God for dreams.
The worry with elite sport is that your children will give up too much and miss out on a normal childhood. Of course there are many things your children miss out on from parties to school tours to other activities they could be doing. In my childhood I tried my hand at almost every sport you could imagine. I had great freedom and no commitments beyond getting my homework done. So my children are growing up in a manner that is diametrically opposed to the way I was brought up with no pressures other than those which I put on myself.
I agree with Minchin that there is a lot to be said for the periphery. I don’t think it’s ideal for a child just to focus on the distant (and quite often impossible) dream of a medal in the Olympics. At the same time I think that most children are smart enough to understand their level in sports and other pursuits pretty quickly. The dreams of being a medal winner regionally, nationally or internationally are just possible destinations but it’s the journey that counts and for me the beauty of gymnastics is that it gives you satisfaction far beyond the podium. I have written many times about the aesthetic and artistic beauty of rhythmic gymnastics and the challenges of group work add elements of collaborative achievement beyond what an individual can do. Acrobatic gymnastics is by its nature collective and synergistic, the satisfaction of contributing to a greater, wonderful whole is surely a fundamental source of human happiness. The fact that these arts all tie in to a global gymnastics and circus arts movement which has a quasi-religious dynamic also rewards the effort, the sacrifice needed to become a player on this stage. Building friendships in your club and travelling to events in your own country and abroad make the connections real. Gymnastics is not about money, there are no million dollar contracts and especially not in Holland. For us as parents we do see a payback that makes the hours devoted worthwhile especially when our girls are coming home from training smiling and wanting to show what they have learned.
There are no right answers really. As a parent you make choices for your kids which inevitably leave you open to criticism further down the line. Especially in the years before children fully know their own minds every path might be considered the wrong one. As Minchin says, it’s all luck, for better or for worse we just get to roll the dice, we don’t dictate the numbers that come up.

Gymnastics – A Year of Change

The summer holidays are scarcely over but we have been swept along by a torrent of activity since school started again. With gymnastics we have had something to do almost every day since starting back. Luna has RG training in Amsterdam four times a week, Nadia has RG twice, swimming and now Acro on Saturday, Daisy has Acro training four times per week in Leiden but her demo team has shows almost every weekend to collect money to go to the World Gymnaestrada in Helsinki in July. Basically it means that we are non-stop on the go but luckily we love gymnastics too so it’s not like we are being dragged along to something torturous. It’s hard to get tired of the amazing skills gymnasts learn to execute.
For Daisy there has been a really big change because all of the acro teams in Leiden merged and that means that her training has moved more towards the sessions at what used to be Groen-Wit. This has really worked out for her and there are many familiar faces too because various people she trained with before are also there. It looks like she will be competing in a mixed pair with a boy that she knew well a couple of years ago and she is really excited about starting to learn new routines with him. The demonstration team is really exciting for her too because they have so many experienced people who can quickly improvise and put elements together. We haven’t ever seen her as happy as she has been these last weeks. The girl has a passion for Acro and she is getting to do what she loves regularly, what more can a kid ask for?
Luna has settled in really well at her new team. It helped a lot that she already knew the girls her age but the club has been really welcoming and she is really happy with how things are going. It is really exciting for her having so many girls showing her different techniques and she comes home after almost every session wanting to show what she has learned. It will be a few months before her first competitive outing of the season but so far she is enjoying learning the choreos in the new environment. Nadia is also enjoying things. She is still too young to be able to focus for very long. As long as she keeps learning and gains more competitive experience she will have a good season. Although she is left-handed she seems to favour doing certain actions on the right hand side which makes her a bit of a challenge sometimes but it is all fun for now so keeping her smiling and enjoying her sport is the most important thing. She got her A diploma in swimming in June so we are hoping that she can do B and C in the next six months so that the schedule is a bit less hectic. Right now we can hardly pause for a breath.

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Gymnastics – The Point of It

My children could have been a lot of things. They could have been musicians or dancers or hockey players or stamp collectors or computer gamers. They could have chosen to refrain from organized activities altogether and enjoy their own company and maybe even inhabit a fantasy world like the Bronte sisters. They might have devoted even more time to developing their ‘looks’ and make up skills and maybe we would have made trips to the market on Saturday for materials to cut and sew with the machine they insisted on getting for Christmas. They may have been lots of things and they will be many more things in the future but for now they are gymnasts and that has made all the difference.
Becoming a gymnast means that you begin a journey with no clearly defined ending, no guarantee of any success and certainly no prospect of financial reward, You will spend time training when other girls are skating on the ice or playing in the snow or sunning themselves or swimming in the lake on the hottest day of the year. You will miss school trips and birthday parties and maybe even stop getting invitations to anything because you always ‘have to train’. You might be laughed at, you will certainly be misunderstood, you will have to justify your dedication as will your parents who will become a target for those who just don’t see ‘the point of it’. Your gymnastics career might well result in serious debilitating injuries that will provide painful reminders of your halcyon days when you get to the age (or stage) that you even have trouble touching your own toes.
I am no gymnast and nor have I ever been one outside of my imaginings and yet I think that I know something about ‘the point of it’. I don’t have a drawer full of medals. My modest sporting career yielded a gold medal in swimming for finishing a one man race and a host of county championship medals won for being ‘on the panel’ and coming on in the last few minutes of a final already won. I had my days in school debates but the books and scholarship were about all I was good and yet I have known beauty.
What would you remember if it were the last day of days? I am ten and coming out of church after serving mass and my black Labrador Sooty is waiting loyally in the pouring rain. I am thirty four and it’s only the regional eighth division but my volley smashes against the cross bar and I’ve already scored three, I am fifteen and I have spent four hours writing the perfect poem before R reads it and tears it to pieces because ‘I couldn’t have written it myself’, I’ve just sung a translated version of Queen’s ‘I Want to Break Free, at the Irish College in 1984. All the things that come back are moments that I felt somehow to be sublime.
In my own life they have been few and far between which is no doubt related to my lack of creative talents and my natural conservative tendencies. That’s what makes it so fine to have three daughters who have more sporting talent than I ever had but who are also risk seekers and adventurers. In my heart I urge them to be nothing like me so that they can have far more of those moments that define a life.
The beauty of gymnastics is that everybody is ultimately competing with themselves and seeking out their own borders and possibilities. Every gymnast has a journey and the minutes of competition in a year are a tiny fraction of the training hours. Yet all the time a girl is testing herself to go a step further, to do a little more and the coach is subtly altering the ingredients that culminate in the choreographed routine that is used in competition. If a girl is really lucky there is a day or maybe there are days when the recipe comes together so perfectly that she shows something unique and perfect and irreplaceable to the world, it may or may not be the case that others will remember those golden moments but she does and that’s the point of it.
As a parent you cannot know if your child will look back on their childhood with the same perspective that we have as parents in the here and now but if I look at the pictures on our walls or more importantly if I look within and remember the joy that their sport has brought to us these past few years I can only hope that in future days they will let their minds travel to flashes of the sublime at summer camps and events and competitions, that’s the point of it.