Monthly Archives: January 2006

Where I Was That Day

Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 27 January 2006.

Space Shuttle Challenger is lost, 28 January 1986

Tomorrow will be the twentieth anniversary of the Challenger disaster, in which that spacecraft and her crew of seven were lost.

I was twelve at the time, and enthralled by every detail of space exploration, both real and imaginary. Later that year, I was allowed to stay up late to watch televised images of Halley’s comet on one of its rare approaches to Earth (in fact, observing the comet from orbit had been part of Challenger’s unfulfilled mission).

The loss of Challenger made a deep impression on me, in the way that certain events in childhood do, perhaps because they occur at a time when we are unable to resolve them by assigning them a place and a precedence in our view of the world.

Of course, I knew that what had happened was terrible and sad, but more than anything, what happened to Challenger was vertiginously shocking. In the now famous television images, Challenger is suddenly, sickeningly enveloped by a peach-tinged cocoon of smoke. Then, its contrail, which has been proud and steady, bifurcates crazily. In the next instant, smaller tendrils spring from the smoke. These carry little of Challenger’s original velocity, and curl out only briefly before declining, falling: debris.

There were aftershocks too; subtler repercussions that nagged and persisted like a symptom, insidiously suggesting someting. What was it?

It was more than the dutiful sombreness with which, at twelve, I contemplated the suffering and obliteration of the seven astronauts. It was a new and heartbreaking acquaintance with something that is as elemental to the universe as hydrogen, but which is concealed from children for a long time and which, I admit, I will try to conceal from you if I can: things just happen.

Things happen whether you were expecting them or not. Things happen to people whether they deserve them or not. Even if you’re an astronaut, or a teacher who has, improbably, managed to become an astronaut out of bravery, curiosity and love of knowledge; even if you’ve done the thousands of difficult and frightening things you must do before you find yourself lying on your back being thrust into the pale, emptying sky and the start of everything you’ve ever wanted to see and know; even then, when you are as complete and worthy and noble and loved as you will ever be, things can happen to you. Bad things.

It’s hard to say how much of this I could have articulated in 1986, how much of it is the inauthentic accretion of adult sophistication. Perhaps I felt nothing but a strange kind of shiver, as if I had strayed into the shadow of things I would one day learn.

I wonder about this because I know that our memories, even the strongest ones–perhaps especially the strongest ones–are unreliable. We reshape them constantly, sometimes over many years. What happened mingles with what we wish had happened, and what we wish had not. Details are merged or elided. Significance swells.

I had a memory, convincing in its detail, of coming home from school early to watch the Challenger launch, of closing the venetian blinds in our old sitting room against the bright sunlight, of sitting rapt, with the sofa to myself in the unaccustomed quiet of a weekday afternoon. Such are the details we summon when we draw on these memories, when we say, I remember where I was that day.

But this memory, it can’t be right. January 28th, 1986 was a Tuesday, so I would have been at school, that much is sound.

But Challenger’s final launch began at 16:37 GMT. In those days, school would have finished at 15:00, so there would have been no need to come home early, even if I had secured permission, which was, knowing your grandmother, in itself unlikely. And there would have been no bright sunlight to close the blinds against at 16:37 on January 28th; it would have been getting dark. Finally, it seems unlikely that I could have seen live coverage of the launch.

As James Olberg of MSNBC points out in this interesting article about the myths surrounding Challenger, relatively few people even in the United States would have seen live coverage of the event. It’s possible that BBC television, which we received in Ireland, might have carried the broadcast, but it’s unlikely. Perhaps someone who knows for sure will let me know.

In the meantime, I’ll pass this memory on to you just as it is. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps several memories have been distilled, leaving just an essence of how it felt to be twelve and to feel the first intimations of the world’s terror and chaos and majesty in the brightness and quiet of a schoolday afternoon.

I can’t say if or when you will first feel these things. You might be older than twelve, or a good deal younger. You might not care all that much about space ships. But perhaps you too will come to remember a day, a vivid and almost palpable day, when the surrounding brightness flickered as a shadow passed, a shadow of something broken and falling to Earth, or of something I can’t yet imagine.

And perhaps you will think of that day as the day when you began a crossing from one world into the next, when you swallowed hard, straightened your still-narrow shoulders, looked up into the vast, unanswering sky and began to become yourself.

Like, a Philosopher and Stuff

Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 19 January 2006.

You have an aunt who now lives in Düsseldorf.

Düsseldorf is, amongst much else I’m sure, the home of Kraftwerk, a band that matters to your father in a way that is perhaps not strictly healthy. But more about Kraftwerk later.

Your aunt complains that this Guide is neglecting Ireland, which is our home country, and will be yours unless something entirely unexpected happens before your due date. Of course, your aunt is what’s called an expat (it’s short for expatriate) and probably feels these omissions more keenly than those of us who live here. Still, she has a point.

So, Ireland. Well, there’s a lot to cover, so I think a series of topical vignettes is probably the best way to go. You know, short sketches of contemporary Irish life that offer insights into the nation and its mores (that’s pronounced like the eels) and what-have-you. I know, it sounds like a naff Sunday supplement feature, but I do work for a living, you know. And besides, you’re a foetus–how long can your attention span be, anyway?

Right, then. Vignettes. Well, this week Noam Chomsky, the famous academic and political commentator, visited Ireland to give some lectures.

Linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky

Chomsky originally came to prominence as a linguist. He founded the field of generative grammar, which is based on the idea that people produce sentences that are well formed by using a set of underlying rules that all humans are predisposed to possess. He suggested, too, that there might be what are called deep structures that are common to all languages. It’s fascinating stuff.

However, Chomsky is now better known for his political views than for his work in linguistics. You see, he’s an ardent critic of the foreign policies of the United States, and of its use of military force. He’s a very gifted and persuasive writer on these subjects, and seems to me to be right most of the time.

A lot of people in the English-speaking world (and elsewhere) agree, and feel that he articulates very well their concerns about the misuse of military and political power and abuse of human rights, particularly by America.

A lot of other people disagree with him. Well, disagree might not be quite the right word. They object to him. Disagreement implies a difference over the merits of a particular argument. Many of Chomsky’s critics prefer to avoid his arguments, or what he actually says, and to concentrate on his reputation, or what people say he says. This is a strategy that works well for them, because his reputation has for the most part been constructed by them in the first place.

This allows Chomsky’s critics to appear on television or radio talk shows and argue against Chomsky’s reputation for saying that, oh, America is the Source of All Evil. That’s nonsense! they proclaim. Or against Chomsky’s reputation for saying that President Bush is Just Like Stalin or that Everything About Communist China is Really Great. Outrageous! they thunder.

Well, quite. Of course, Chomsky doesn’t say these things. It’s not so much that they are simplifications of his arguments, although his critics are often charged with oversimplification. When you oversimplify, you restate an argument in such reduced terms that you begin to distort and misrepresent it. In fact, it’s more sinister than that.

It’s possible, too, to create a simple slogan that sounds like something someone like Chomsky might say (well, it sounds like all the other anti-Chomsky slogans), while bearing no relation at all, not even one of oversimplification, to what he really says.

Anyway, that’s Chomsky. Well, no it’s not; it’s oversimplification. But it’s better than slogans.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yes. He was here, as I was saying, to deliver some lectures. The main lecture was under the auspices of Amnesty International, but he also gave a talk at UCD, where I studied. Hmm? Never mind how long ago that was.

Suffice it to say that when I was at UCD, a visit by Chomsky would have been a Major Event. Okay, maybe the spirit of 1968 was already the merest faintness, but we were still proper students. We still spent three hours over one cup of coffee, talking earnestly, if not all that cogently, about Fanon or Foucault.

Of course, I had heard that things are different now. That students now, in these affluent times, are more careerist and less militant. But I was still unprepared, unprepared and more disappointed than I’m sure I have any right to be, when I heard the vox pop. conducted by RTE’s 5-7 Live radio programme on the day of Chomsky’s lecture.

The question: What do you know about Noam Chomsky?

The answer? Now, let me just preface this briefly. I am taking no licence here. I am not distorting things for effect. There were no better-informed responses than the one I present here, although there were some eccentrically entertaining efforts. And I really do think that I remember it verbatim, in all its affluent, incurious, globalised blandness.

The answer? (And it doesn’t matter if it was a boy or a girl.)

The answer: Oh, I dunno. Isn’t he, like, a philospher and stuff?

Not All Bad

Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 16 January 2006.

It’s not all bad out here, you know.

Sure, we have politicians who turn into celebrities and then into cats, but I don’t want to give you the impression that you’re going to emerge to find a planet thickly encrusted with morons. In fact, the thickness varies quite a bit.

Take astronomers, for instance. These are scientists who study space. Well, usually, they study the things in space, and not the space between things, but space, generally, is their thing, so to speak.

Astronomers are important people, or at least, the things they find out about are important. This is why astronomers, like Copernicus, sometimes used to be famous. There aren’t really any famous astronomers these days. Well, there’s Stephen Hawking, but sadly, he’s really only famous for being very clever even though he’s not able to move. And besides, he’s more of a cosmologist than an astronomer.

Anyway, there is much to admire about astronomers. In fact, I would have liked to be one, but wasn’t clever enough; their cleverness is one of the things I admire about them. That and the fact that you don’t often see them appearing on Celebrity Big Brother pretending to be cats.

The Stardust capsule returning to Earth yesterday (Image © NASA/Ames Research Center)

Yesterday, astronomers (and other clever people like engineers) succeeded in their mission to send a spacecraft to scrape off little pieces of a comet, collect some ancient dust from the formation of the solar system and bring all of this amazing and precious stuff back here, to Earth.

To do this, they had to make the spacecraft travel a very, very long way: about 4,640,000,000 (4.64 billion) kilometres. How far is that? Well, you’re about 84 mm long, or at least you were last week. So, the spacecraft had to travel approximately 527,272,700,000,000 times the distance from your crown (the top of your head) to your rump (er, the other end of you). Impressed?

And when it got back, they had to make it drop the capsule where it had stored the space dust onto an Air Force base in Utah. On a 4.64 billion kilometre mission, this is a bit like dropping a euro onto a particular square of a chess board from an aeroplane. As I say, these people are clever.

We’ll have to wait for a while to find out what’s in the space dust and what that might tell us about how comets (and the sun, and the planets, and us) were formed.

I’ll let you know as soon as I hear, though. Who knows, maybe we’ll find out together?

Decline and Fall

Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 13 January 2006.

You remember we talked about George Galloway? The British MP accused of taking bribes from the Iraqi government who has now decided to be a celebrity?

Well, on Celebrity Big Brother last night, it appears he pretended to be a cat.

George Galloway, MP, campaigning for social justice

Did I mention that MP stands for “Member of Parliament”? Yes, Mr Galloway was elected to the House of Commons, which is the lower house of the legislative branch of the British government. Legislative means that it makes laws.

So, the man miming the act of licking milk out of a bowl is a lawmaker of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, what remains of the once mighty British Empire, on which, it used to be said, the sun never set.

I think we’ll leave it there for today.

This Is How It Starts

Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 10 January 2006.

Your mother was still a little bit worried about you after the Ketones Incident, so she arranged for yet another mothers and babies (and foetuses) doctor to bounce some of those special sounds we talked about off you just to make sure that you were all right in there.

It seems she needn’t have worried. In fact, I don’t think we’re going to be worrying much about disturbing you any more. On the contrary, it looks like we might be asking you to keep it down in there.

You, aged 13.7 weeks

I wasn’t able to make it to today’s appointment, but your mother informs me that you were, to say the very least, highly active. Your newly acquired arms and legs, I’m told, were all being given some thorough commissioning tests. Throwing yourself energetically against the walls of your accommodation also appears to be a favourite pastime.

I can’t say I blame you. If I had no job and lived in what felt like a zero-gravity bouncing castle, I’d be just the same.

I’m sorry to have missed it all. It sounds like you’re already developing what bad film critics out here call screen presence.

It turns out, too, that you’re big for your age. In fact, your CRL (crown-rump length) of 84.6 mm is normally associated with a GA (gestational age – you can see these impressive-sounding measurements on the picture of you above) of 14 weeks and 4 days, almost a week older than you actually are.

Now, this is all well and good, and there’s nothing your mother and I want more than for you to be settling in and enjoying your food. However, this sort of thing does present us with a problem.

You see, we’re trying hard not to become what are called bores. In particular, we’re keen not to be boring parents, people who turn their conversations with their family and friends (and mechanics and check-out operators) into relentless and scarifyingly detailed monologues about the habits and accomplishments of their offspring.

We really are trying.

And then you come along, with your in utero martial arts and your fantastically precocious CRL, which are just begging to be worked into conversation with the next person to happen by the water cooler.

Oh, yes. This is how it starts.


Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 5 January 2006.

Here’s something you’re going to notice before too long.

We’ve become obsessed out here with something called celebrity. No, that’s not quite right. We’ve become obsessed with people called celebrities. In fact, it seems to be have been forgotten altogether that the word celebrity was ever just an abstract noun.

(We’ll come back to those when you’re eleven. No, when you’re eight. Okay, when you’re ten.

Actually, your mother says I’m to stop bothering you about abstract nouns.)

In the old days, longer ago than you can yet imagine, over fifteen years ago in fact, people still became famous (or attained celebrity) much as they had done for thousands of years: by doing something worthy of other people’s attention. Famous people, usually, were famous for doing something the rest of the people thought was artful, or funny, or moving, or beautiful, or courageous, or patriotic. And so on.

British MP George Galloway campaigning for social justice

Generally, a famous person was famous for doing something of this kind in a way that was considered exemplary or extraordinary. Thus, you might have expected to become famous for being, for instance, a very gifted composer (like, say, George Gershwin) or for making important discoveries in physics, like Albert Einstein.

On the other hand, it was perfectly possible to achieve fame by doing something that people enjoyed, like acting in films, in a way that was merely passable, like Humphrey Bogart, as long as you stuck at it. There was nothing wrong with this. Humphrey Bogart, people acknowledged, was a famous film actor (or movie star). This didn’t necessarily imply greatness of any kind, merely that acting in films was what he was famour for.

There was even an entire category, called infamy, for those who gained notoriety by doing bad things. Sometimes, these really were evil things (Adolf Hitler would at one time have been called infamous). Perhaps more commonly, though, infamy came to those who did things that were technically illegal, or at least morally reprehensible, but which people secretly found exciting, like aristocratic murderers. The point is that people made distinctions.

There was never any need for fame, of course. It must always have made people feel a little bit better, or they wouldn’t have bothered with it, but nobody needed it. It used to at least make sense, though. It was exclusive, because it recognised that without exclusivity, it had no meaning. And it had a kind of order that ensured it was proportionate. It was proportionate, I think, to the universality, if you know what I mean, of what a person was famous for; a designer of gardens might become somewhat famous, but only to other garden designers and those who could afford to employ them.

I’m afraid this has all changed.

We still have movie stars, of course. We still have great composers too, but they are not often famous. There are human beings in space right now, but almost no one knows what their names are.

What we have now are celebrities, and they are everywhere.

Well, the celebrities themselves are in one place at any given time, like the rest of us, but their images, moving and still, are everywhere. This is because everywhere the celebrities go, they are pursued and surrounded by cameras. (This is something called metonymy, or possibly synechdoche, which we’ll return to some time in your mid-teens. Of course, they’re really pursued by people carrying cameras.)

The people following the celebrities and carrying the cameras are called paparazzi, a word derived from Paparazzo, the name of a character in a film by Federico Fellini called La Dolce Vita who was a photographer of this kind.

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in a famous scene from La Dolce Vita

When celebrities pass through airports, or go jogging, or go to a juice bar in Santa Monica, or fall out of a pub in Croydon, the paparazzi are there, snapping relentlessly. When celebrities get married, which they do a lot of, or go to the beach, the paparazzi are in a helicopter or a boat, with a telephoto lens, snapping relentlessly.

They sell the pictures they take to the many magazines, television channels and Web sites that exist partly or wholly to display them. And these exist, of course, because a huge number of people want to see them. And want to see a lot of them. There needs to be a constant supply. Also, they need to get more and more revealing. It used to be enough for a celebrity to be photographed in a bikini. A bikini shot no longer suffices unless it reveals that a celebrity has Piled On the Pounds After Her Baby, or is Way Too Thin, or has cellulite (I really don’t know; ask your mother).

And this brings us to what’s called a paradox. These celebrities we have now: most of them are nobodies. Sure, some of them have been in soap operas, or had a parent who was the British Prime Minister. But most of them? They just seem to emerge, for no apparent reason. Once they become celebrities, though, their entirely ordinary status is obliterated, and their every move (not to mention their cellulite) becomes a subject of intense interest.

The paradox is that people want to see photographs of a celebrity’s cellulite because it reassures them of their ordinariness, of their human vulnerability, even though they were manifestly ordinary before everyone decided, for no real reason, that they were a celebrity.

It’s all a bit puzzling, and sometimes a bit depressing. There’s no great harm in it, but there’s no great good in it either, and it consumes an awful lot of time, energy and money.

What brought all this on, by the way, was the news the British MP (Member of Parliament) George Galloway is to appear on a television programme called Celebrity Big Brother.

George Galloway is a controversial politician. The controversy surrounds his relationship with a country called Iraq (which we’ll almost certainly be returning t0). Specifically, it is alleged that he opposed severe trade sanctions against that country (a position I agreed with) because he was, indirectly, paid to do so by the Iraqi government. These allegations have not been proven, but they, and the matter of the sanctions against Iraq and its subsequent invasion by the United States, are all pretty serious.

In contrast, Celebrity Big Brother is the opposite of serious. The word sometimes used as the opposite of serious is frivolous, but Celebrity Big Brother is less than frivolous. It has so little meaning or value that it sucks these things in from all around it, like a black hole, so that even normally intelligent newspapers are forced to write about it as if it were something and not nothing.

It is what’s called a spin-off of another television programme, simply called Big Brother, whose premise was that ordinary people would be filmed living in a house. No, that’s it; that’s the show. Then other ordinary people, the viewers, would decide each week who they liked the least and that person would leave the house. No, I’m serious. They’ve made five or six series of this.

The ordinary people who appeared in Big Brother are a good example of what we were talking about earlier, since many of them became celebrities by virtue of having appeared in this television programme about ordinary people, and then went on to have their cellulite photographed so that people could be reassured of their ordinariness. Yes, I know. I don’t quite know what to say about it either.

So, George Galloway, who may or may not have been involved in gross corruption related to one of the most serious ongoing political and humanitarian crises in the world, is going to be filmed pouring milk on his cereal, scratching his armpit and getting up to go to the toilet with other celebrities until the viewers decide they don’t like him any more.

For this, he will of course receive a substantial fee. This means that the controversy over whether he sold his political support to a corrupt regime (which, years ago, might have brought him the infamy we were talking about above) has enabled him to sell himself. In other words, he is now a celebrity.

What does all of this mean? I’m not sure. But what I think it might mean is that all kinds of distinctions are collapsing; that it no longer matters why someone has come to our attention. That perhaps soon there will be no movie stars, or suicidal rock idols, or Cambridge-educated spies, or venal and disgraced politicians.

There will just be celebrities, and all we will know about them is that we want to see them, and see more and more of them, until we tire of them (or vote them off). Then we’ll want to see someone else. No one in particular, just someone else.

It mightn’t bother you all that much, when you get here. You might dismiss all this as just another of your father’s foibles and obsessions. You might be right.

And who knows? You might be a celebrity.

The Ketones Incident

Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 1 January 2006.

You might have noticed a bit of a racket going on today while you were trying to sleep. Or perhaps you weren’t sleeping; perhaps you were just quietly contemplating all the new bits you’ve acquired now that you’re in your thirteenth week (congratulations, by the way). Ten of these and ten of these? What can they all be for?

Anyway, sorry about all the noise and bumping.

The thing was that your mother was rather sick today, the poor thing. At first, she had a pain in her stomach. A pain in the stomach can be bad enough on its own, but since the stomach is quite near to where you’re currently housed, we got a bit worried that you might be sick too.

She was so sick, in fact, that she had to miss going to a pantomime performance of Bugsy Malone she had been looking forward to. What’s worse, your aunt and your grandmother did go, and said that it was great fun, although they hadn’t really enjoyed it because they had been worried about your mother and you too. Then, while your grandfather was driving her home, your mother got violently sick into the nice new handbag she got for Christmas.

If you turn out to be a person who uses handbags, here’s today’s Earth Tip: handbags you throw up in are always Dry Clean Only.

At this point, I was on the way to an exhibition of the work of Albrecht Dürer with your other grandmother and grandfather, and we all had to rush back home to see if your mother, and you, were alright. (By now, four grandparents and two aunts, soon to be joined by an uncle, are worried about your mother and you.)

Well, we went to see a doctor, who wanted to know how old you were, and there was talk of ketones, whatever those are. Then, we went to see another doctor, a special doctor for mothers and babies (and foetuses) in a place called Holles Street. This is the hospital where we hope we’re going to meet you when you come out.

It turned out that the mothers and babies (and foetuses) doctor wasn’t nearly as concerned about the whole ketones issue as the other doctor had been, and took the view that you were quite alright in there (if we’d only keep the noise down) and that your mother just needed some rest and some soup.

We took her advice on the rest thing (your mother’s asleep now, which is why it’s nice and quiet), although not about the soup (only Chinese takeaway would do, apparently).

So, there you are. I know you’ve had a long day, so I’ll let you get some sleep too.

Sorry again about all the racket.