Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

I just can’t help myself. Despite writing a feature for the Galway Now Magazine on why NOT to make New Year’s resolutions, I still find myself lying in bed with the laptop thinking about how I’m going to up my visits to the gym starting tomorrow, drink less, save money and all the usual resolutions that are only ever good for making you feel guilty in the end. My big one is the get fit lark and given that it was last years resolution too, and the year before and they year before that, I should have learnt by now that it probably won’t work. If I were to look back at what I consistently achieve year upon year I should really resolve to put on half a stone, not finish my novel and be sure to have dipped well into my overdraft by the end of the year with a drawer full of unpaid invoices to boot. And come to think of it, if next year ends like that too, it might not be a bad place to be. In fact, the more I think about it the more attractive it becomes. You see, all of those predicaments are just normal run of the mill things so it means that actually everything is going just grand, and I'm not trying to manage a crisis nor am I having trouble coping with every day life.
Besides, you can’t ‘resolve’ to make your highlights happen either, and there have been a few of those this year. I definitely didn’t make a New Years resolution to have Gerry Adams come up to me and buy my book; to sit in my living room with the fire blazing and feel that the whole world is OK because I can hear my son play guitar in the next room; to make a commitment to my beloved; to find a day job that I actually like; to see the screaming red sunset over Galway Bay without having to be on holiday.  I could go bore people with more, but my point is this: instead of beating yourself up making resolutions to be a better person why not think about all of the things this year that made it special. You’ll notice that most of them weren’t planned, or the result of resolutions, which means that next year you are bound to have similar joys thrown at you.
Of course you can choose to pick out all the bad things that happened and tell yourself that more bad stuff will come along. But the good thing is that the New Year means you are leaving all of that behind. And that also means that if anything unpleasant does happen this year that you can remind yourself that you always get over it anyway and it will, indeed pass.
So given all this optimism I still can’t figure out why I can’t stand the 10, 9, 8 lark at midnight and the Auld Langs Isle carry on. I like to hide around five minutes before midnight, normally in a toilet, and reappear once the formalities have been dealt with. But for those of you who are not adverse to the celebration of same, Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Recession Conspiracy Theory

The recession is a complete conspiracy. I know, because I lived through one before. You see, it’s like this, if you think about paid employment it’s not difficult to realise that that’s all a hoax too, and that’s where it all begins. To keep people down you have to keep them busy, and to do that, you have to reward them for being busy. So someone invented the idea of jobs. You go somewhere every day and get given a few chores, and then you get rewarded for doing the chores. With the money you get, you start to build a nest, but very soon that nest is built, so you build a bigger one and when that’s built you start refurnishing it and getting new doors and windows and conservatories and all that, and then you buy a memory foam mattress and a massage chair. Soon you begin to realise that you are wasting your time and you begin to question the meaning of all this.
Then the conspiracy begins. The people at the game factory, who write the rules and design the board, decide that the game needs some new rules. So once you have passed Go enough times that you are ready to tip over the game on it’s side, they bring in a new dimension. It is this: work gone card. Suddenly you are free not to work and go start living, but the thoughts of not having a job fills you with fear and then you want to work even more, and although you don’t need to, you keep at it and you hoard the money this time, just in case you ever need to buy a topper for your memory foam mattress or a tin of beans.
This is the only way I can make sense of people who haven’t worked for years and never worked during the boom times when you needed to bring your own personal translator with you if you wanted to get served in a coffee shop, now demanding the right to work and marching to Parliament with banners and clenched fists claiming they are entitled to jobs.  The same people also claim that they never got a piece of the Celtic Tiger because they have been long term unemployed. The thing is though, even if you were unemployed during the boom, you were still benefitting from it, in that the money was there to pay for you not having a job, and even if you had a lousy job with the minimum wage, that minimum wage was a lot better than if you were working in say, rural Hungary.
One way or the other though, having had various different salaries at different times, I’ve noticed that no matter how much or little you have it always ends up with being broke at the end of the year.After all, that's the nature of money, it flows in and out like the tide, and then when the tide is way out so far that you can't see it anymore, that is when the Sales are on in the shops, which is probably not a conspiracy, but more like a streak of retail sadism. They know you have no money so they offer it for half price.
In many ways I like the recession. People are more interesting when they’re boasting about how poor they are than how rich they are, and at least this time round I can participate in the conversation. Then again, I do prefer the way terrorism goes down during a boom because the freedom fighters and idealists are too busy buying leather sofas and 50 inch TV screens. I suppose that’s why you always see war going on in poor places. So hopefully it won’t be too long before the nice people who write the rules of the game give us our boom back. After all, I still haven’t gotten round to that four wheel drive.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Is Not For Kids

Christmas is not for kids, it’s for grown ups, and I should know, because I’m a grown up who used to be a kid, so I’ve had quite a few Christmas’s at this stage.
As a kid, you spend the whole year being told that Santa’s helpers are watching you, that you’ll get a bag of soot if you’re not good and that you have to go to bed early or Santa won’t come. You write a note to Santa in the hope he’ll bring you what you want, and mostly he does, even if it is the wrong colour or a different brand to the one you asked for. The house fills up with fizzy drinks and biscuits but any time an adult sees you enjoying same, you are told that if you eat or drink any more of that stuff you’re going to get sick. And yet, those same adults who pat your head and tell you how much you’ve grown are allowed to sit around the table with your parents, playing poker and drinking whiskey until their voices get louder and louder and then one of them gets sick, and nobody even gives out to them for it.

Give me Christmas for grown ups any day. I’ve spent the past few months avoiding paying my car tax in order to buy an X-box Kinnect for the kids, and there is definitely more pleasure to be had watching their excitement and seeing them enjoy it for that half hour before taking it over myself and telling them to go play Monopoly or something.
The whole month of December is a great excuse not to write your blog, due to the time investment needed for the baking, house decorating and shopping that all goes into the big day.
Then there’s the crib that I’ve set up on the hall table. Modern child has no interest in cribs because they are not computer games and don’t come with a remote control. For me though, the nativity is the one part of the bible that I can relate to: it’s about how broke people down on their luck normally don’t get any support but are told to get lost, and although I’ve never given birth in a manger, I have been homeless, even if that homelessness was the time I slept on the beach in Greece on a backpacking holiday years ago, and granted it didn’t involve childbirth nor was there a wise man in sight, but still…
Christmas dinner is for grown ups. Most kids don’t like brussel sprouts, and a lot of adults don’t either, the difference is this: if you’re a kid you are told you have to eat them and that they’re good for you, if you’re a grown up you just say ‘no sprouts for me thanks’. And what about Christmas crackers? This year a law came out that you should be over 16 to buy them, but if you ask me, you’d want to be at least over 60 to enjoy hearing a little bang sound, wear a paper crown, read a corny joke and get a little plastic key ring.
This year has been a particularly good Christmas for me, as I didn’t get a single book, so I don’t have to feel guilty about not reading, and the hazardous weather conditions meant that I pulled out of doing my traditional Christmas swim. Given that reading and swimming constitute two of the main traditions I’ve kept with, I’m making sure not to break with any other ones, so I’ll be off now to make a cold turkey and cranberry sambo and eat it in the messy living room. Then I’ll have  a fight with the kids about how none of them appreciate anything they got for Christmas and how I’m the only person around her putting any effort into making things happen, because after all, why should they enjoy themselves when Christmas is not for kids; it’s for grown ups, and I’m loving it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Goat is for Christmas, not for Life.

My best ever Christmas present came from my kid brother back in the 80’s. I had taken him Christmas shopping which meant waiting impatiently outside some shop while he insisted on running off to buy me something with his life savings of 74p. Eventually he emerged  with a big grin and a brown bag. “You’re going to love it” he said, “it cost all of my money”. I was raging. I imagined he’d just been done by some crook who’d sold him a stick of incense in return for his life savings. I said nothing though, after all, it was the season to be merry and all that, so I paid no more attention to the brown bag which by now had been replaced by gift wrap. Then, on Christmas morning I opened it to find a beautiful brown wooden jewellery box. I knew those boxes; I’d had my eye on one for a while, so I also knew that at the time they cost about £2 each. The little rip, I thought, he probably nicked it, or worse, stole money somewhere to buy it. I was wrong on both accounts though. It turned out that he too, had seen the £2 tag and had suggested to the shop assistant that if she put it behind the counter, he might save up and buy it for his sister’s birthday. She asked him how much he had, and when he told her, she replied “well fancy that, that one there in your hand has actually just been reduced to exactly 74p!” We all know the story. It was a small shop, the proprietor was probably a mother or a big sister herself, he was a little boy and it was Christmas. 
I still have that box, and like the few other material things that have survived my journey into middle age, when somebody admires it I can say ‘it was a gift’, which translates as ‘this is something of sentimental value’. To me, that’s what presents are all about. They’re about surprising people with nice things that they’d like to own and perhaps would not have bought for themselves for whatever reason. What I like most about giving someone a gift is watching their face when they open it: especially if it’s a kid. And as for receiving, despite knowing how impractical it is to give somebody something they don’t really like or want, to me, even the most hideous ornament will have a certain sense of sentimentality, even if it spends most of the year hidden in the attic.
Of course I know all the arguments against. First of all, the one that you can really only select things for people you know, and that come Christmas you end up buying things for vague in-laws and cousins who you really don’t know much about other than that they’ll be calling over for mince pies, mulled wine and hand over the Christmas gift please. So surely it’s more realistic to give them a voucher or money in a card, maybe even a hamper? Well the thing is, of course they would prefer it, but that’s not really what gifts are all about. To me giving money or vouchers doesn’t feel like a present. It feels like paying compensation money for the fact that we all know so little about each other that we just can’t rack our brains to think of something to buy. It also feels a bit materialistic. If I invited somebody out for dinner and a drink, I wouldn’t expect them to say ‘would you mind giving me the price of the early bird menu and a bottle of wine instead? Because then I can cook a nicer dinner at home and use the money for something more practical.’

Then there’s the argument that it’s a waste and that we, the consumers, are all being ripped off when we spend our money on stupid gifts that people don’t want anyways. Certainly, there’s a point to be had here. Believe me, the best place to buy gift sets of body lotion and bath salts along with scented candles, is in the Charity Shops shortly after Christmas and also at the end of June, when every primary school teacher in the country has received enough of them to fill a wheelie bin. But the counter argument to that one is that we just have to use a bit more creativity when setting off on the task of buying gifts, and if you don’t know the person well enough to come up with one thing they might like, then you have to ask yourself the question if it’s really appropriate to be buying them anything at all?
A few years ago I made a deal with some friends. We agreed that because we were all broke to varying degrees, that we’d put a cap on the cost of the Christmas presents to each other. We set it at €10 with the rule being that it was a competition to see just how well you could do on a low budget gift. I was convinced I’d win, having bought one friend a brand new Aran Sweater (label still on and all) in the Charity Shop for €7 and then extravagantly spending the other €3 wrapping it, while another was given a collage of photos from our student days that cost very little to make, along with three books and a CD, all second hand. First prize went to the friend though, who had hauled her unwanted wedding gifts from the attic and presented me with a set of Waterford Crystal glasses, all still in the box. I would be lying to say that I’m a great fan of Waterford glass, but like I said earlier, they’re of sentimental value and I like the story behind their journey.
The worst Christmas present I ever got was also from my kid brother. He grew up and became a lot wealthier than his 74p. But this particular year there were no fancy jewellery boxes, what I got were three goats.
They were delivered in the form of a card that more or less explained that rather than buy me a gift this year, he would use the money to donate three goats to an African Charity. My heart sank. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking, how could I ever, in all conscience,  suggest it to be more fitting that I receive the latest version of the iphone, when truly, the three goats in Africa are paramount to saving lives? But that wasn’t the point. Sending goats to Africa is hugely important, and I myself have been involved in similar projects. I do feel, however, that when one wishes to make generous and altruistic contributions towards improving the world we live in, that it just doesn’t sit right to say ‘I’m making a donation, not out of my own pocket money though, I’m using the money for your gift to do it.’ It means that the person making the charitable donation isn’t out of pocket, but you might be out of a pressie.
So this year I’m giving goats for Christmas. Knitted goats with button eyes, made by my good self, in Ireland. Because after all, a goat is for Christmas, not just for life.