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Archive for February, 2011

I Want All Her Clothes

I can’t remember which red carpet she was walking down, but recently I saw a photo of Michelle Williams and thought (after the usual “man, I can’t believe the girl who played Jen Linley on Dawson’s Creek turned into such a good and credible actress), “Wow, she always seems to wear really great clothes”.

Oh Sofia, your films are vacant self-indulgent hipster bollocks, but your clothes are awfully pretty...

And I realised she had joined the select group of Famous Women Whose Wardrobes I Covet. Yes, there are many appallingly dressed celebs (thank goodness), but there are few who tend to step out in the sort of clothes I would instantly snap up myself if I were much, much richer (and a little bit taller).

This wardrobe-love has nothing to do with the women themselves – while the aforementioned Ms Williams seems like a talented, smart, likeable woman, and I love Charlotte Gainsbourg’s music as much as I adore her effortlessly cool style, I find almost all of Sofia Coppola’s films incredibly irritating, and she comes across like a boring whiny brat in interviews. Yet I think she’s beautiful and it is she whose wardobe I covet most of all. She always looks amazing. It’s not fair, really.

Sadly, in reality I am smaller, scruffier, and infinitely less stylish than all of these people. But I bet if someone gave me an unlimited supply of Marc Jacobs I could at least give it a try. So what famous wardrobes do you covet?

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Growing up in Midwestern America, one of the first school assemblies I can remember being corralled off to was the annual presentation on the topic of Stranger Danger. This talk was carried out with heroic indignity by an ever-shifting but always-cheerful entity known as Officer Friendly, a for-hire, aw-shucks, perennially unthreatening police officer from the local precinct whose job was to instruct an unruly herd of squirming six and seven-year-olds that we should always listen to our parents and teachers, but never, ever talk to strangers. Particularly perilous were strangers offering candy. A curious child, I’d wondered if it was OK to ask the stranger what sort of candy he was packing in the backseat of his Ford Abductor (a handsomely wrapped Twix might be worth breaking the rule for). But Stranger Danger’s laws were absolute. The world was a dangerous place, but as long as you went straight home after school and didn’t talk to Them, you would be all right.

Traveling solo really can be this fun and carefree...

Officer Friendly may have been particular to my region, but its message is one drilled into every child’s brain. The world is a nuthouse, says the message, and you never know what nut you’re going to crack, so best not to crack at all.  Stranger Danger’s iron-clad rules may have worked wonders for the small set but they seemed hardly practical for adult life. If you didn’t talk to strangers, how would you ever meet new people? The answer came boomeranging back to me in sturdy, Midwestern black-and-white logic: you wouldn’t.

Then in my late teens and early twenties, I developed a chronic case of wanderlust. I’d always enjoyed our family road trips to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, but for the first time, I was booking flights and staying in houses or hostels without my parents for company. My first transatlantic journey (and by no means the last) was to Ireland, where my friend Kate and I spent a gregarious month cavorting in clubs and pubs, Officer Friendly a dim hologram from a dull and innocent age we had no use for anymore. Spend a month in Dublin? And not talk to strangers? You’d sooner go to a brothel to cure yourself of a sex addiction. No, not only was it was far richer to talk to strangers, it was virtually impossible not to.

So began my highly fruitful, well-traveled, stranger-infested decade, because as that notoriously unsociable W.B. Yeats once said, “There are no strangers here, just friends you have not yet met.” In the Troubadour Café in London my friend Rachelle and I passed an hour talking to Nino the Crazy Croatian with his titillating tales of fleeing KGB tanks and his as-yet-unrealized invention, the Karl Marx shoe polisher. In Cambridge I traipsed with a scruffy, soft-hearted busker who serenaded me with Oasis songs. I discussed the weather with a weathered woman in Connemara and traded travel tales with an Australian adventurer in Amsterdam. A med student in a death metal band showed me an autopsy on his iPhone in Phoenix, Arizona, while a bandana-clad bouncer in Amarillo, Texas confessed his life’s ambition to wrestle bears.

Not all exchanges, I’m afraid, have been so lively. James Joyce said he never met a bore. Lucky him, for he never sat next to the rubber band salesman from Pennsylvania on a six-hour flight. Longing for noise-cancelling headphones, I endured a litany of mind-numbing salesman’s minutiae. I responded with cheerless monosyllables, and when I feared I’d been too forthcoming in my responses, resorted to grunts. I longed for a decoy diamond ring to ward off any ideas he might be getting about me, a young woman travelling alone. By the time the red-faced rubber band raconteur had ordered his fourth baby Jameson’s and had started to lean lecherously over the all-important armrest, nothing short of brass knuckles would’ve done to help my predicament.

I suppose without the leering and leeching strangers, there’d be no need to sharpen one’s street smarts. Though it shames my social side to say it, I’ve learned that when the going gets truly rough, there’s no harm in popping in the earbuds and feigning deafery. Even so, I can’t help but wonder, as I tune myself out in the name of so-called self-protection, what stories I’ll miss out on from friends I’ll never meet.

Therese Cox lives in Brooklyn and lurks in Dublin. She is a fiction writer, indie rock accordionist, and volunteer writing mentor for Girls Write Now, an organization that supports at-risk teenage girls in New York City. She blogs about cities, road trips, and architecture at http://ampersandseven.blogspot.com and has just finished a coming-of-age novel set in Dublin, now making the rounds. Twitter: @ThereseCox


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Political art has come into its own (and moved on to the streets) in recent years. In the run-up to this year’s General Election, the excellent Upstart campaign asked for submissions from artists, illustrators, writers, designers and film-makers to come up with an antidote to the candidate election posters. Anti Room’s Nuala Ní Chonchúir wrote an election haiku (seen here, nestled cosily between posters for Labour and Independent Paul Sommerville) and gave us an idea.

Photo: Unkiedave

We want you to embrace your inner Yeats and tap that Seamus Heaney vein and hit us your best election haiku.

We’ll even offer a mystery prize for the best one.

Let the 5-7-5 syllable madness begin!

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For seven years, I was what I used to call an inadvertant ex-pat. I’d skipped off to the US from London because it seemed like a bit of an adventure and, you know, why not? I was unmarried, childless, in a transferable-enough industry, and the opportunity was there. A few months overseas, then back to our ‘real’ lives in England, that’s what we thought. But then one year turned into another year; Seattle turned into Dublin, and before we knew it, we’d been away for the better part of a decade.

The view from my sofa in Seattle. Look, I never said it was *all* hard...

So, although I’m not remotely Irish, I have huge empathy for the ever-increasing number of emigrants setting off for foreign climes. And in case it helps just one person a tiny bit, here’s what I learned in those years of being the foreigner:

  • Milk the overseas-ness. We got really lucky in the Pacific Northwest, a funky, laid-back region of the country where the Americans go to escape America, but avoided by the Europeans bedazzled by the promise of New York or San Francisco (or, to be fair, anywhere where it doesn’t rain as much as home). People loved to talk to us just because we weren’t American. And that American over-friendly gene? Who cares if it’s skin-deep? You don’t need everyone to be your new best friend, but finding your feet in a country full of cheerful, helpful people is actually really, really nice. I wrote about this my first year in Seattle, and I stand by it. Embrace your other-ness, let people be friendly to you, and suddenly it feels less like exile and more like a holiday.
  • Accept every invitation; and the parent-friendly version of this: Nobody made friends sitting inside. For the first six months in a new place, we made a rule that we accepted every invitation that came our way. I’ve lived overseas four times, and each time, I’ve gone to a country where I’ve known nobody. So when those random hanging-out suggestions come in, I take them. Sure, time alone’s great; but when it’s your only option, it always feels a bit more…naked. Going out, even if it’s to something you wouldn’t ordinarily choose to do, gets you out of the house, provides a focus, and, who knows? Occasionally you might even enjoy yourself. At a barbecue thrown by a gun-toting Republican, I met one of my favourite-ever Americans, still a dear friend years later. You never know what’ll happen if you’re out; but you’ve got a relatively predictable idea of what will happen if you don’t leave the house…. Once kids are part of the deal, this obviously becomes trickier to manage; so I just suggest leaving the house daily, rain or shine. Again, you never know who you’ll bump into…
  • Don’t miss the funerals. Look, you’re Irish. You don’t need an Englishwoman telling you this. But if you’re away for an extended period of time, things happen at home that you miss. I couldn’t make it back to England for half a dozen weddings and countless births, and I was really, properly sorry about that because those were major things happening to my oldest, dearest friends (and however much you make new friends in the new places, it’s not like the old friends are replaced. They still matter). But in terms of actual, long-term regrets, it’s the two funerals I didn’t get to that upset me the most. There’s no chance of a do-over if you miss a funeral; no real way of saying your respects. And nothing makes you feel further from home than sitting at your desk working whilst, hundreds or thousands of miles away, your friends are following the coffin of the person you’ll never say goodbye to.  I’m not saying, come back for the funeral of your Mum’s neighbour’s uncle’s  dentist; but if someone ever mattered enough to you in life that you’ll miss them in death, it’s time to pack your black jacket and get on a plane.
  • It’s often better and worse at the same time. That’s the mad thing about living abroad. There are things you miss so desperately you think you’ll go crazy from it. And then there are the bits that are so, so much better. We all end up with a hybrid country we’d want to live in – the ace neighbour from that life, the eternal sunshine from this one, Mum’s homecooked roast dinner in all of them. And the bugger of it is, none of us would be able to live in the same country. We’d just all have to go visit each other’s private Utopias. Which brings us back to where we started…

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Pomelos are those fruit that look like melons with grapefruit skin. Asian in origin, they have a very mild citrusy taste and are certainly nowhere near as bitter as grapefruit.

In Thailand, pomelos are used as a salad ingredient and that’s my favourite way to eat them. Here’s my recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 1 pomelo
  • 1 fresh red chilli
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 2 limes, juice of
  • 1 stalk finely sliced lemongrass

Directions:

  1. Peel and segment a large pomelo (this is a bit of work – it can take 15 minutes to do one fruit) and place the pieces in a bowl.
  2. Make a dressing by combining the other ingredients.
  3. Pour the dressing over the fruit and garnish with fresh coriander.

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With 6 out of 67 candidates female running throughout Cork, the odds are certainly not stacking up at 50-50. As Mary Minihan wrote in yesterday’s Irish Times, Mná na hÉireann are losing ground.

But that’s all set to change, if a new group set up in Cork before Christmas has its way. The 50 50 Group has been set up to campaign for equal representation for women in politics and they’re not going to go away. We’ve been promised that. At the group’s media briefing with Cork’s seven female candidates yesterday morning, member Mary Roche said determinedly “We’re going to see this through to the very end”.

Founded late last year, the group has not had time to get properly to grips with this election, and that is being acknowledged from the off. But they are determined to be in this for the long haul, and are seeking members, money and ideas to ensure that women can be seen in political life.

The target – suggested by both elected female TDs in Cork, Deirdre Clune and Kathleen Lynch – should be the local elections in 2014.

‘It would be more in my line to be at home minding my children’

Attended by a range of journalists (including a few men), the group met for a Q&A with media and the female candidates. Some of the answers made grim listening.

Cork North West Fine Gael candidate Áine Collins, who has never held any elected office, and has two young children, said she is finding women toughest to deal with on the doors. “I’ve been told it would be more in my line to be at home minding my children”.  Deirdre Clune, also Fine Gael, and a TD since 2007, agreed: “I get that all the time”.

Difficulties for women, including the five Cs identified by the 2009 Oireachtas report into Women’s Participation in Politics (cash, culture, confidence, childcare and candidate selection procedures) were discussed, with Labour TD Kathleen Lynch suggesting that confidence really was the bottom line among both women voters and women politicians.

As a reporter, I have shadowed a number of candidates in Cork (all men) this election and have been rather startled by the difference in responses of men and women. I asked the panel whether they had found women were more likely, even in this election, to say “what will you do for me”?

Cork TD Kathleen LynchIn my unscientific straw poll, they were, almost uniformly so. The men we met knew party policies, knew party ideologies, and had largely thought about the possibilities of their votes contributing to a government, and how that government would stack up. Women were influenced by direct personal contact with the candidate, whether they knew them personally, what they were like as a person and as a worker, as well as whether they would do a job they were personally asked to do.

Kathleen Lynch’s answer was insightful.

“It’s a confidence issue. Women are managers in their world and confident in that world. Women manage their families, their children, their elderly parents, their lives.”

It’s a long-term project to extend this confidence, she said, but pointed out that it proved how differently women think, and how crucial it is that the thinking of 50 per cent of the population is reflected in its representation. “Historians have mostly been men, and they report on big events. The women have been at home trying frantically to make the bread, while he was off saving the world. We have no record of that lived experience in history. Women’s concerns are more immediate but that doesn’t mean they’re not worried about the future.”

‘Girls believe that politics is what boys do’

Lynch also said that a Minister for Education with this mindset, and the teaching of politics in schools,  would change things. “Girls believe that politics is what boys do,” she added. She and Deirdre Clune TD had been in a local secondary school recently, and it had clearly been an eye opener for girls to see women on the podium. “When the two of us walked in, there was a lift in the room,” added Deirdre Clune. Both acknowledged that there was far less “what will you do for me” in this election than in any previous election.

Notably, there is no female Fianna Fáil candidate throughout the five constituencies in Cork. Fine Gael has two – Deirdre Clune in Cork South Central, and Aine Collins in Cork North West. The Greens had one, Jennifer Sleeman in Cork South West, who was found to be ineligible due to British citizenship (at the age of 81, she was a self-acknowledged paper candidate and was rather horrified at the prospect she might get elected), but she has been replaced on the ticket by a man.

People before Profit has one, Áine Foley in Cork North West. She said at yesterday’s meeting that gender is a key focus for People before Profit, and four out of their nine candidates are women (a fifth had to drop out to look after her elderly mother).

Sinn Féin has one, Youghal Town Councillor Sandra McLellan, in Cork East, and there is one Independent, Claire Cullinane, in Cork East, who is running under the banner of new democratic movement CPPC.

Labour has two – Kathleen Lynch in Cork North Central and Paula Desmond in Cork South Central.

‘It’s tough going, but it is doable’

Desmond has been a councillor for 25 years and her mother was a much-respected Labour TD in Cork. Her outlook on women in politics is clearly heartfelt and borne of long experience within her own life. “We can’t let society tell us that politics is too hard for women. It’s harder, but it’s doable. We have to have a vision of the kind of Ireland we want to live in, a vision of how it should be as a woman living in Ireland. It’s tough going, but it is doable.” There were more women on Cork City Council in 1985, the year she became a councillor, than there are now.

I was born in 1985, and my first political memory is one that was evoked by Kathleen Lynch yesterday; Mary Robinson wearing a purple suit in a sea of black-clad men.

But that first hopeful political memory has not been borne out by many women of Mary Robinson’s generation, or of my own. Yet.

For more, see 50: 50 or find them on Facebook.

Deirdre O’Shaughnessy is editor of the Cork Independent newspaper, Cork’s largest circulating free weekly newspaper and a regular contributor to Newstalk 106-108fm. She blogs about society, politics, and media at http://www.deshocks.wordpress.com and makes up for a very short attention span with youthful exuberance, sometimes. @deshocks

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Yesterday, bored and stuck in traffic on a no. 47 bus, I started reading the advertisements. There were only two – one an ad for building your confidence and becoming successful through the wonder that is Scientology and the other for a cash-for-gold operation (‘Beat the Recession!’).

Now, how’s that for a picnic?

Image copyright: Natalie Dee

Before this nasty recession, there were ads for tracker mortgages (remember those?) and buying a property in the sun, not only on the buses but everywhere we looked. Don’t get me wrong – I can see that these ads were just as cynical. They asked you to part with your money for a ‘better’ life; they promised happiness. These current ones promise happiness too – but they have a much harder task. They offer success and money in exchange for your mind and your memories. I exaggerate, but not much.

We are a nation floored by disappointment. Despite the ugly trappings and the blatant opportunism of the boom years, we had the possibilities and opportunities back then to create a good life for ourselves, however we defined that. We took institutions, companies, newspapers and money for the arts for granted. They would be there and we would live our lives around them, using them to give ourselves a foot up to achieve what we wanted in life. The loss we are now experiencing has something to do with money and not having a lot of it. But the overall feeling, I think, is disappointment.

The word disappointment has a certain innocuous tone to it, kind of like ‘unfortunate’.  It appears to gloss over catastrophic events, life-changing events.

But ‘disappointment’ is really a heavyweight bruiser. Even the phrase ‘I’m not mad, just disappointed’ is about disappointment being milder than anger, in terms of immediate consequences, but also deeper and, boy, does it linger.  Disappointment can knock the wind out of you and leave you like a flat, flabby balloon.

Disappointment involves the loss of something you took for granted or something that contributed to your happiness. It could be hearing that the job you really wanted went to someone else; that the person you thought you knew is actually someone else. It could be having your fiancé walk out on you a month before the wedding; it could be the death of someone close to you. It could be that you expected to have a pension fund waiting for you when you retire and now you don’t. Disappointment happens when the world you had built up in your mind, where your expectations are fulfilled and life ticks along within your control, has been undermined or shattered. Disappointment comes down on you like a sledge hammer, along with its minions – sadness, grief, anger, even despair.

I have recently been subsumed in thoughts about disappointment, due to a personal experience of having an achievement I’d been aiming for almost handed to me and then taken away (the recession again).  It’s a bitter pill and its effects take ages to fade. But you’ve got to have perspective.

So, what better way to gain perspective than to whip out that old faithful – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory in psychology which is often displayed as a pyramid. Working from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, Maslow explains human needs, from the basic and essential to the need to reach our full potential in terms of intellect and talent. On the lowest and widest level of Maslow’s pyramid are our physiological needs – food, shelter, water, sex, sleep, etc. Just above that is our need to be safe and secure − employment, health, property, resources, morality, the family. Then there is our need for love and belonging –friendship, family, intimacy. The top two levels are esteem (confidence, achievement, respect) and self-actualisation (creativity, problem solving, etc.) respectively.

While my personal disappointment has to do with the top part of the pyramid (if it was a food pyramid, my disappointment would be buns with icing and cherries on top), the disappointment in households and families around the country is linked to loss at the more essential and basic levels.

An interviewee on Prime Time the other night, a teacher in the West of Ireland where the exit turnstile is constantly turning, admitted that she felt ‘let down’. Rural communities are diminishing. Families who always assumed they would be together, working and living in close proximity, are now watching loved ones emigrate.

You’d think at this point I’d turn this piece around and start looking on the bright side. Sorry to disappoint, but sometimes it’s good to tell it like it is and to chart this part of our history for what it is.

Elizabeth Brennan works in book publishing as a commissioning editor. She likes books. She also likes writing (mostly fiction). She was pretty much the only person in the National Library on Valentine’s night.

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