ESRI, Chris Rock, iPhone, filth

Week 19 of the column:

 

Signing our son up to the the Economic and Social Research Institute’s sprawling Growing Up In Ireland project seemed like a great idea when he was born back in 2008. As reasonably civic minded people – ie, not quite at the Tidy Towns level, but not fly tippers either – we thought it would be exciting to have his life tracked as part of a social document that could go on to influence Government policy. As part of the Infant Cohort – a wonderfully dystopian title for the phalanx of children born in 2008 – the ESRI call to us every couple of years and ask us a series of questions. Except, as the years have gone by, the visit has become a long dark night of the soul. They weigh and measure us to remind us that we are getting both wider and shorter, and then begins the survey. How much time do you spend playing sports with your son, how often do you read to him, do you bring him to art galleries or libraries, all are met with a resounding ‘not much’ or flat ‘no’. All it’s short is the survey taker pulling out an acoustic guitar and cracking out a heartbreaking rendition of Cats In The Cradle while you sob about all those lost moments.

Once you’re done feeling like an emotional failure – which seems to be about 95% of parenting generally – it’s time to move on the economics, where my repeated acts of professional harakiri are laid bare for all to see.

Then on to the truly awkward questions – the confidential ones you do on a laptop – where you are asked how often you fight in front of the kids, how often do you mention divorce, do you shout at each other. It’s like doing one of those multiple choice questionnaires in a magazine to determine which EastEnders character you are. But in the end, we are happy to take part. We see it as an important social document, even if our input skews the results downwards by several points. My only hope is that when the ESRI swing by in another four years or so, we are all still alive and well, still bickering about money and feeling like failures whilst trying our best.

Chris Rock’s decision to ban phones at his upcoming Dublin gig is a bold move, as it seems impossible to attend any event these days without some goon lofting a phablet in front of your face so that he can catch shaky footage of a solar eclipse, holy apparition or car crash.

Rock’s point was that the footage shot at his gigs ruins his punchlines, but it is the fact that they ruin them in such an atrocious manner that is so awful. Nobody engages in good quality piracy anymore. Back in the 1990s, bootleggers used to smuggle microdisk recorders into gigs and stand at just the right spot to capture the audio. Now, thanks to smartphones that we are never quite sure how to work, we have terrible audio, terrible footage, and terrible photos that make every event seem like we missed nothing. So if you want to share your gig experiences with friends and family – or complete strangers on the internet – please try to do it well, or not at all. If you want to share gigs, buy another ticket, as your Blair Witch style camera work makes everything look like you strapped a webcam to a small dog and sent it crowd surfing. Let’s just hope that Rock’s gig is one to remember and that he doesn’t just phone it in.

The ubiquitous iPhone is about to be born again, this time in its eighth iteration. Rumours abound as to the capabilities, but for non-techies – ie, most of us – it’s the name that is of interest: The iPhone X. This alleged title is to mark the fact that it is the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, rather than the fact that it has been the greatest conduit for pornography since those late night films on RTL in the 1990s.

Back in the days of yore, before the internet, one had to forage for tattered copies of H&E magazine across wasteland, or rely on a school chum whose dad had a dog eared collection of jazz mags that dated back to Famine times. Nowadays it’s all just there for the taking on your phone, rather than on a pack of playing cards someone brought back from a holiday in Greece in 1978, which you had to barter your Subbuteo set for. Spoiled is what ye are.

Congratulations to Hugh Maguire from Meath, whose entry to the 22nd Golden Fork Awards in the UK – a smoked black pudding – saw him take the top title of Great Taste Supreme Champion. Congratulations in a more general sense to whoever it was who realised that ‘black pudding’ is a fantastic rebrand for something that should really be known by the more accurate name of ‘blood sausage’, a terrible name that still manages to sound less weird than iPhone X.

 

 

 

Coffee, Uranus, gas, spoilers

‘Week 18 of my column’ – words I thought I would never write.

 

Finally science is starting to give us some good news. After a week of terrifying weather events, there were glad tidings for those of us who are unable to function without coffee – it may be helping us to live longer. A study of 20,000 men and women found that three to four cups a day may help us to live one third longer.

This is great news for the caffeine junkies among us, who are unable to have a civilised conversation in the morning before they have at least one pharmaceutical-grade coffee, and possibly two on Mondays. The lead researcher in the Spanish study said that it is the antioxidants in coffee that provide the benefits, which I – like all sensible people – take to mean that I should get dosed up to the gills on premium grade Java to the point where my heart is jackhammering and the veins at my temple bulging.

Of course the only problem is how to come down off this obvious health kick – well, science has done it again, this time via the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which has published a study that says moderate drinking may be beneficial to us physically, apart from helping us unwind from a day of guzzling black gold until our eyes pop out of our heads.

Moderate alcohol use in this study was considered to be less than 14 drinks a week for men and seven for women, and was associated with a 25 percent lower risk of overall death. Our path to a longer, healthier life is clear – jugs of the strongest coffee available without prescription, and a healthy dose of grain alcohol to wind down of an evening. After all, having fallen from first place in the year 2000 to an embarrassing 12th in an EU survey on national alcohol consumption, it’s important that we all don the green jersey and start chucking down the Irish coffees. We need to stagger back up the rankings, otherwise the Public Health Alcohol Bill might seem a little unnecessary.

Our frenemy science also gave us a wonderful headline (or terrible chat-up line) this week with the revelation that Uranus is stuffed with diamonds. Perhaps you thought that the light emanating from it was the sun shining out of there, but no, it’s far more exciting than that.

Uranus, despite being the butt of jokes since German astronomer Johann Elert Bode named it after the Greek god of the sky, or possibly after a co-workers backside, is a massive gassy cloud, but one that produces huge diamonds in its interior which then sink to the centre. It was a nice moment for a mass that for centuries failed to be recognised as a planet as it was considered too dim and too slow. The upside of the planet’s goofy name is that people in the mainstream media actually like writing about it – perhaps if we had named all the other planets of the solar system in this manner we would pay more attention to them, and gaze up at the night sky sniggering about the beautiful brown rings of Shaturn.

Bathers along the Sussex coast at the weekend were hit with a mysterious cloud of noxious gas (not from Uranus this time). The occurrence had a slightly apocalyptic feel to it, coming as it did after another bi-annual ‘storm of the century’ pummelled the southern states of America into the mud, while a scaled down version tried to wipe Donegal off the map. A cloud of poisonous gas seems unlikely to be the result of anything other than human endeavour, you can’t help but worry that maybe the planet has really had enough of us trying to kill it.

Perhaps it had this secret defence mechanism all along, much like in the incredibly weak M Night Shyamalan film The Happening. Aside from the moment the credits roll, the high point of the film – an ecological scare story of a sudden wave of human self destruction sparked by nature itself – was Marky Mark Wahlberg pleading with a houseplant to give humanity a second chance. If the Sussex gas did happen to be belched out by an angry planet, I think I would rather smother in its noxious fumes than have to explain to my decrepit vicus about why watering it once a fortnight was too much hassle, or explain to my velociraptor-friendly lawn about how ‘work has just been really crazy recently’.

If you haven’t seen The Happening, firstly, lucky you, and secondly, sorry for not offering a spoiler alert. However, there is a Shyamalanesque plot twist here – a study published by the US Association for Psychological Science showed that people actually preferred watching films when they knew the twist was coming. Some 800 subjects were recruited by the University Of California, where they were read stories by authors like John Updike and Raymond Carver, some with the plot twist revealed beforehand and some without. It transpired that the listeners enjoyed the stories more when they knew what was coming, and could see the machinations of the writers, as they conspired to misdirect them and camouflage the looming reveal. Perhaps we can console ourselves with this when scientists the world over say ‘we told you so’ as the planet self-combusts.

 

Twitter, Caravaggio, eclipse, swearing kids

w1500-Caravaggio-Taking-Christ.jpg

Column week 17:

 

Twitter gets a lot of stick. In existence for eleven years, it has been accused of everything from facilitating Nazis to allowing anonymous abuse and harassment. But its enduring contribution to modern culture is the hashtag. Used as a means of linking discourses across the platform, the hashtag turned ten years old recently, but it was one this summer that showed how Twitter can be a force for good. #NoWrongPath allowed Twitter users around the world to share their stories of how they came to their current careers, with the vast majority showing that few school leavers have a clear idea of what they want to do with their lives. It was a hashtag I can relate to. All I wanted to do in college was art, but, after failing to get into art college, I did what many people did when they aren’t sure what they want to do, and committed to an arts degree. I dropped out after four weeks. I went back to college in my early 20s, got my masters and started working in the media. I wonder what path I would have taken if I had been accepted into art college, but that’s something I will never know, largely thanks to Caravaggio.

The Taking Of Christ had been hanging in the dining room of the Leeson Street Jesuit Community for decades. Considered a copy of the original, in the early Nineties it was discovered to be the actual work of the great master, and was handed over to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1993. Art was one of the few subjects I was good at (incredibly, English was the other), and we were guaranteed that Caravaggio was going to come up on the higher paper when we sat the Leaving Cert in the summer of 1994. We even went on a school trip to see the painting, staring in awe at its scene of chaos, betrayal and loss.

Caravaggio’s short life was easy to study – he was a drunkard, a violent thug, an outsider who seemed utterly at war with the world. In his paintings he used labourers and prostitutes as life models for religious figures, wrapping the divine in the pasty flesh of profane humanity. All his paintings remind us that we are just haunted meat, and everything passes.

Being typically difficult, Caravaggio didn’t come up on the Leaving Cert higher paper (he did on the ordinary level), and I failed to get the points to study art. I have no doubt that I am better off for not becoming an artist, not least because my arse is too big for skinny jeans. My career hasn’t been what I would call a success, yet here I am, writing for one of the biggest selling newspapers in the country. However, my favourite quote about success come from Dicky Fox, the sports agent mentor of Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Maguire: “I don’t have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I failed as much as I have succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success.”

Our mortal enemy the moon also proved that there is #NoWrongPath by moving its enormous mass directly into the path of our sun, cutting off our meagre supply of Vitamin D and attempting to give us all rickets. The occasion provided for many stunning images, but few were as beautiful as the one of Donald Trump staring directly into into the eclipse, presumably because someone told him not to do that exact thing. Perhaps we should all start telling him that he is doing a great job and to stay there forever. Although something tells me that it won’t work like that, and that impeachment is the best way to drag the whole sorry mess of the White House into sunlight.

A study this year by Marist College examined the correlation between verbal fluency and swearing, with the result that those who were more adept at swearing had greater language skills. I tried to console myself with this thought on Monday night, when I happened upon my two and a half year old son shouting ‘f**king tractor’ over and over again. It’s one of those moments where you try to A) hide your laughter and B) try not to get too angry, before turning to your spouse and declaring ‘this is your f**king fault’, because clearly, swearing is an equal opportunities employer: This week the popular site Mumsnet has advertisers concerned over their ads appearing next to posts with snappy titles like ‘I can’t f**king do this anymore’ and other howls of despair from parents at their wits’ end.

Perhaps my son will decide he wants to go to college, and will eke out a career as a sweary, boozy artist like Caravaggio. Hopefully, he will be a more sane version, as, despite all his talent, Caravaggio killed someone over a game of tennis, went on the run and died from fever aged 38. So perhaps there is #AWrongPath after all.

No Pain, No Gain

 

Wrote this for the Examiner:

 

When it comes to achieving your sporting dreams, there are no shortcuts. Except obviously there are – steroids. Aside from big name busts like Lance Armstrong, there are more and more whispers of big names across the sporting world using pharmaceutical enhancements to gain an edge on a competitor. But of all the sports tarnished by steroid abuse, bodybuilding is one that seems synonymous with the practise. However, there are those within the scene who utterly reject any medical shortcuts – to an almost forensic degree.

The World Natural Bodybuilding Federation was founded in the USA back in 1990 with the aim of offering those who wanted to take part in bodybuilding in the most healthy way possible a platform for their achievements. From humble beginnings it has become a worldwide phenomenon. The Irish wing of the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation held their annual competition in the Everyman Theatre last Saturday. There among the gold gilt Victorian splendour, competitors, clad in the tiniest scraps of in velvet and sequined cloth, flexed and posed as they showed the judging panel just how perfectly defined their bodies were, while backstage there were drug tests and polygraph tests to make sure that nobody had been tempted to use steroids or growth hormones.

One of the organisers, Mark Lee, a champion natural bodybuilder, explained the motivation for this purist approach: “Bodybuilding has a stigma associated with it which is what we are trying to break.

“But you will have some people regardless who will turn up and try. We would love to test everybody who takes part, but it costs a lot of money, the testing alone costs up to 2,000 euro per show, so we need to get a lot of bums on seats here.

“You won’t see our shows as heavily attended as the other shows in terms of competitors – we have about 70, normal competitions would have about 140, because we have such guidelines and rules, people just won’t come. But we don’t want them obviously if they are using steroids.”

The Natural Bodybuilding Federation of Ireland has seen competitors start out with them and then move on to pharmaceutical enhancements – but the NBFI does not tolerate anyone who has used steroids previously in their life: “You have guys who would have gone natural who then would have moved on to other things. There are other associations out there that have a seven year rule – whereby they allow you to compete naturally in their association if you have been off any banned substances for seven years, but ours is a lifetime rule. So if you ever in your life had any steroids, you can’t take part in our events.

“For us it’s a lifestyle – our people want to eat healthy and train healthy.”

 

They train healthy – and they train even harder because of it. There are no shortcuts here. Take Aleksander Grynia, a 23 year old who travelled down from Wicklow for the contest. His muscle mass isn’t just for show – he works making industrial equipment and needs to be as a strong as possible. He works a nine to five job, then trains from six to nine every evening and more at the weekends. In the week leading up to the event he doubled down on his efforts, cut down on his food intake, and took bronze in the under-24 category.

From the outside, bodybuilding seems like an odd pursuit. There is a sense amongst some that improving the physique to this degree means the intellect will atrophy. But then you talk to a bodybuilder and realise that their understanding of the human body is far greater than the average person. They are like mechanics, fine tuning and boosting muscle and sinew until they achieve perfection – this is the body as machine. Unlike team sports, it is often a solitary affair, as they strive to be the best they can be: Rise before dawn, protein shake and gym. Everything is controlled, from the diet to the routines to the reps. The self discipline is extraordinary, but once people get the taste for it, it becomes a vocation.

The show itself is split into categories – based on age, height, weight and gender. Competitors are asked to do a series of poses to show certain muscles or muscle groups, and this is where genetics come into play. While some people build muscle more easily than others, some people are simply blessed with, for example, sizeable lats, so when competing they can fan them out like the Archangel Gabriel spreading his wings.

Then there are posedowns, where competitors have to freestyle a variety of poses, showing their best assets to the crowds – you find yourself holding your breath as they flex and strain to get each muscle to pop. The brown colouring they use on their skin enhances this effect – the darker colour shows the contours. But this is about something deeper than skin – it is the human form stripped bare, all muscle and sinew as visible as it would be in a medical textbook.

One person who has made a career out of capturing muscle and sinew is Shaun Barry. From Carlow, the young photographer travels the country covering bodybuilding events, and his moody monochrome portraits have become highly desirable, as they transform their subjects into classical godlike figures. Having got into photography five years ago, in the last three to four years he started to focus on fitness photography and found his niche, although as he points out there are a few more people getting into it now – to this end he pays to secure image rights on events. There is a whole micro-economy around fitness – gyms, shops selling supplements, home training equipment, clothing. As our working and home lives become more sedentary, simple things like going to the gym are becoming part of our lives, and a dedication to feeling and looking your best is less of a prideful sin and more a medical necessity.  

The Everyman was packed with families of competitors – from grandparents to infant children. Conor McCarthy travelled with his parents and girlfriend from Mullingar and was beaming with pride in the lobby. Only two years after starting bodybuilding, he took first place in the Men’s Physique (Tall) category.  While he has youth (and height) on his side, many of the competitor are in their 40s and 50s. All want to be the best, but in the small scene of the national circuit, they all know each other well. They all want to win, but they all have the same aim – to win clean. In a world that seems to be facing an epidemic of shady practises across all sports, the NRBI have shown that the most powerful muscle of all is the mind.