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In her how-to-be-a-writer book, Bird By Bird, the American author Anne Lamott has a section called ‘Publication – and other reasons to write’. My favourite chapter within this section is one that I hadn’t ever thought about until I read the book a decade ago: ‘Writing a present’. Lamott, who writes funny, true fiction and non-fiction, actually wrote her first published novel as a gift for her father, who was diagnosed with brain cancer. Her father didn’t live to see the finished article, but read each chapter in draft as Lamott wrote them.  The consequences, she says, were better than any publishing deal:

‘It helped my father have the best possible months before his death and the best possible death. I can actually say that it was great. Hard, and fucked six ways from Sunday, but great’.

Ever since I first read this, I’ve thought about presents that go beyond the obvious. One of my favourites is right next to me as I type this; a hand-made bookshelf given to my husband and I as a wedding present by a carpenter friend in Seattle. It always holds our preferred books, and every time I look at it, I think of its maker.

This week, I’m attempting a thank you of my own. I’m forty next month (shhhh) and feel like it’s probably time to own up to being grown up. So rather than (as well as) the parties and gratuitous celebrations, I’m running the London Marathon.

Next time, let's just buy everyone a bunch of flowers or go for dinner

(photo c/o http://www.providingnews.com)

The money I raise will go to a charity which offers residential help to little kids who are so vulnerable that even foster care isn’t an option for them. And the reason I’m doing this? To say a huge thank you to my parents, who got me through childhood in the best possible way; always securely and happily, with encouragement that stayed just the right side of supportive and never veered into pushy.

It’s not a novel, but it’s been a hard slog. Every single time I’ve gone out to train, I’ve thought about my folks; pictures from our past, things they’d say to keep me going; their faces smiling at me and not letting me give up.  And Anne Lamott’s right; having a broader reason for doing something has brought so much more to the goal. It’s not just a bloody long race; it’s a 26 (.2) mile thank you to people who’ve done the equivalent a hundred times over.

How do you say thank you? Or what’s the best gift you’ve ever received?

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It came out of the blue. At a family Sunday lunch in a local trattoria, my eight year old daughter made an announcement; “I want to be a thin girl”.

Her dad and I exchanged significant glances. Where was this coming from? Food, weight and dieting have never been an issue in our house. We own a set of scales but they spend most of their time covered in dust. We all love food and have been visiting restaurants regularly as a family since the children were babes in arms. They eat everything, from Chinese dim sum to big bowls of mussels on holiday in France. We encourage healthy eating but are not puritanical about treats, and have never forced them to finish everything on their plates.

Not something an eight year old should be doing

The thing is, she is a thin girl. She’s tall for her age, slim and, most important of all, healthy. The last thing I want is for her to start obsessing about food or feeling guilty about eating the things she enjoys.

Slightly floored by her declaration, I told her that she is already a perfect size. “But I want to be thinner” she replied. At this point I felt like shouting “Where are you getting these stupid notions?” My mind was racing. What is she hearing at school? Is it the American teenage comedies she watches on TV? Or is her desire to take up less space in the world the inevitable outcome of being surrounded by images of ridiculously thin models and celebrities? I bit my tongue and just told her that if she carries on dancing, cartwheeling and rollerblading she’ll be fine.

We moved on to other topics of conversation and she happily finished off her pasta and ice cream cone. No need to worry then – for the moment at least.

(Photo by puuikibeach on Flickr)

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When I was little and we got the giggles in ballet class, the teacher told one of the big girls off for saying we had laughed so hard that we “literally hosed ourselves”.
We hadn’t, obviously.
But then we hadn’t had sex, been pregnant, given birth to children, or had hysterectomies yet either. Nowadays, one in four of us probably do “literally hose ourselves” every time we get the giggles. It kind of robs the joy out of life. We also hose ourselves if we try to sneeze and walk at the same time, or if we shout at our offspring, the very offspring who popped our poor bladders into our vaginas when the ingrates were in utero, ever after rendering us vaguely incontinent, then adding to the mortification by demanding we jump on the trampoline.

Oh, that'd be nice...

Jump? God knows, even dancing is getting embarrassing. Perhaps that’s why so few gals over 30 are found in night clubs: it’s not that we’re too tired, but that we’re scared of piddling a little while in the clutches of the boogie-monster. No one wants to be the old lady in the night club smelling faintly of wee and broken biscuits.
And as for exercise, if another gym bunny yells “cardio” at me I’ll scream. That’s why all my workout sweatpants are black. You try jogging with your bladder dripping every step you take. You try the step machine when every ten strides needs a change of knickers and a change of gyms too due to the sheer shame of it all. One optimistic bunny insisted we go outside to do some leapy little sidesteps. Did I say leapy? Should have said leaky…
“You obviously never did your pelvic floor exercises,” she said haughtily.
“I’m doing them as we speak,” I snarled back. I’ve been doing them ever since I gave birth at the age of 19, and then again at 27, and all the way through that second pregnancy, particularly after staying with a physiotherapist aunt who reminded me constantly, saying I’d be sorry if I didn’t.
A friend with four children of her own said memories of me post-birth had ensured she still does her own merry Kegels every day — she recalled how every time I stopped at a red traffic light I’d shout “Pelvic floors, ladies”, and we’d all start squeezing. I did it at traffic lights when on my own too, and sometimes I even did it at green lights for good measure. I did it, oh yes, and I still do

But for what? To be in my thirties and unable to run, or jump, or even dance with any feeling? To be terrified of tickling contests with my bloke or playful rugby tackles and bear hugs from my boys?
I never spoke about it because how could I? I didn’t want to tell the people I love that sudden movement makes me wet myself. I’d rather be on a pedestal than in the litterbox, and what woman wouldn’t?
I finally mentioned it to my doctor who said “pelvic floor exercises” then looked at me knowingly when I protested that I did, that I do, that I can (sort-of) stop my urine mid-flow so I know I’m pulling the right muscles. “Keep practising,” she said very unhelpfully, because if 20 years of traffic light Kegeling ain’t helped yet, then it ain’t going to, frankly.

The forecast is wet.


So I looked into it, and that’s when I discovered the one-in-four figure and realised I was not all alone in a corner with the old ladies, air freshener and a maxi-bag of incontinence pads. No, instead I am in the esteemed company of numerous mothers — whether they’d given birth by Caesarian or naturally, because it’s the hefty baby in the womb that juggles the bits down below. I am also in the company of hysterectomy patients, prolapse sufferers, and both overweight people and serious sportswomen (it’s the bouncing again, the hardcore gym-bunny bouncing!).
It seems to be a flaw in the very design and manufacture of women, and a mortifying one at that. Are you listening, God, because I’m shaking my fist, gently though so as not to pee myself?
Apparently, tragically one of the main reasons old women end up in nursing homes is incontinence.

 

But is it actually fixable? I don’t know. I know you can have an operation. I know it’s not always successful, and if it fails it’s not easily repeatable. I know online there are countless pelvic floor toners. I know they offer results in anything from two to twelve weeks. I know I bought one based on positive reviews, and it arrived on Monday, all parcelled up in surreptitious brown paper. I know it takes batteries and comes with a probe and now I know it makes me squeak if I set the power too high.
Yes, I am trying to fix my fanny by electrocuting it.
Bet that made everyone squeeze the old pelvic floor…
I’ll let you know how it goes, or maybe you’ll just hear my whoops of joy as a bounce ever higher on the trampoline.

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Jean Harrington on why she couldn’t consider buying a daffodil for Daffodil Day – until now…

Credit: Youghal OnlineJean Harrinton on why she could not - until now - consider buying a daffodil for Daffodil Day.

I’ve always been a great sport, and would consider myself an altruistic person. I have enthusiastically fundraised for different charities over the years, and partook in dinner dances, fun-days, table quizzes, sponsored fasts, sponsored walks and parachute jumps (just the one actually!). When a friend suggested that we run Dublin’s Mini Marathon for the Irish Cancer Society, I didn’t hesitate. I had seen thousands of women running for them year after year and was aware of the amount of people whose lives were touched by cancer. I always considered myself lucky that I never actually needed their services.

One day, this all changed.

When my father was first diagnosed with cancer in May 2003, his consultant decided not to do chemotherapy on him, but said that to remove his tumour first would be the best course of action. I didn’t know anything about cancer, so I decided to ring the Irish Cancer Society’s helpline to see if they had any advice they could give me.

The lady who answered the phone was very polite and concerned, but said she was unable to help, and there was no nurse present who could take my call, but she took my number and said I would get a call back.

Two weeks later my Dad was admitted to hospital, where he underwent microsurgery, to allow the surgeons ascertain the size and extent of the tumour. He told me that everything appeared to be fine, and they scheduled his operation for 23 May. Dad assured me that everything was under control, but I like to get a second opinion. Just before his operation, I rang the cancer helpline again, seeking reassurance that this was the best course of action. Again, I was told that there was no nurse available to take my call, but once again a kind lady took my name and number and said I would get a callback.

The operation to remove the tumour from his stomach was deemed successful by his surgeons; even though they were surprised to discover that it was the size of a football. I expected that this was the beginning of his recovery, and that every day after that would be a day of healing. Once again I was wrong.

He developed an infection, and his body started to shut down in shock and protest at the scale of operation. Ten days after they removed his tumour, he was put onto a life support machine. I was inconsolable. I was angry. I prayed for a miracle.

I wanted someone to blame. I rang the Irish Cancer Society’s helpline for the third time; I wanted them to tell me that it would be okay; that he would come around. Once again, a kind lady told me that no one was available to take my call, but that a nurse would call me back.

When the nurses switched off Dad’s life support machine, I still hadn’t spoken to anyone in the Irish Cancer Society. They clearly were short of resources, but rather than rally round them and start fundraising so they could help the next person, I’m afraid to say I lost myself in grief and blame. When I saw anyone selling daffodils for them, I would glare at them, willing them to ask me to buy a daffodil so I could tell them my feelings. Luckily the volunteers were wise enough to let me pass by unobstructed.

This grief and anger stayed for many years, longer than I expected it to. When I heard the ads for Daffodil Day year after year, it brought back my familiar feelings of loss, pain and grief. This year, however, the anger was missing. I seem to have finally accepted that my Dad, Robert Harrington, who died at 55; six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer, is no longer in my life. I miss him SO much, and I feel a great sense of loss that he is not involved in my life. But I also accept it. This year, almost eight years after my father’s death, I think I’m ready to buy a daffodil.

NOTE: A friend who was fundraising for the Irish Cancer Society made contact with them last year on my behalf. They apologised for the situation I had been in (no apology was needed), and they said they have remedied the personnel problem. People who need to talk to someone about cancer should have no problems getting through to the right person there, and shouldn’t be put off by my story. My mother had a cancer scare late last year, and when I rang them, I was immediately put through to a nurse who advised me on the best course of action.

National Cancer Helpline: 1800 200 700 (Mon-Thurs 9-7, Friday 9-5)

Jean Harrington still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. For that reason, she does lots of things. She thought she’d like to be a writer, so she writes books. She thought publishing might be fun, so she also publishes other people’s books. Musicians are cool, so she plays the cello with a band and an orchestra in an attempt to stay cool. Then she started dabbling in teaching, as she thought that would be a suitable career for a mother (which she is). She should be too busy to blog, but when she started Tweeting (@jeanharrie) she realised 140 characters just wasn’t enough for what she had to say so she blogs at http://jeanharrington.ie

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I have two daughters aged nine and nearly seven.  And I think they’re gorgeous.

That’s all the validation I need – my own Mammy-eyes, which would view my children as gorgeous no matter what they looked like.

I don’t need to enter them in pageants for strangers to assess them and decide whether or not my two measure up to some one else’s notion of beautiful.

It seems, however, that one woman is of the opinion that there are enough parents in Ireland who disagree with me for her to make a few bob. This woman, Jorja Gudge, is hoping to bring a beauty pageant for girls under the age of 18 to Ireland next month.

Entitled ‘Miss Princess Ireland’ this pageant is slated to take place on April 30th in Dublin. According to Ms Gudge,

‘There will be three rounds which are; Sportswear this is any sporting wear (with a glitz touch). It  could be dance wear, swimwear, football, gymnastics etc… any sport at all.’

Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think dancing is a sport, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of young girls parading in sports wear – whether or not said sportswear has a ‘glitz touch’.  Virtually all sportswear is form-fitting and skimpy.  I don’t think it’s appropriate for little girls to be dressed in bikinis or leotards and paraded in front of strangers who will then grade them on how beautiful they are.

Wearing form-fitting sportswear for actually playing sport is, of course, a completely different matter.  I am happy to acknowledge that not all  sports outfits that are form-fitting, but I’d be willing to bet that any child turning up in a tracksuit won’t win a prize.

Next up in this pageant is what Ms Gudge calls ‘wow’ wear/ outfit of choice. This can be ‘anything at all – fashion wear, occasion wear, fancy dress or theme wear.’

This is a bit vague, but I’d guess that the idea is to dress your girl in her most eye-catching gúna and hope she catches the eyes of the judges.

Last of all will be formal wear. Formal wear for children sounds innocuous enough – it makes me think of lovely summery flower girl dresses from Monsoon, but I don’t think that’s what Ms Gudge means. I googled ‘Beauty Pageants for Children’ and got lots of very disturbing images of little girls in flouncy, tacky, meringue-y, dresses that were obviously styled along the lines of ball gowns for women.

‘Also make up, hair pieces, tans etc are all permitted as this is a glitz pageant, but I will leave the decision to you on which level of glitz you decide to use,’ the organiser tells me.

Again, this is disturbing, because it implicitly tells children that they are not good enough or acceptable just the way they are. Why on earth would anyone want to use make-up, hair pieces or tans on their children in an attempt to win an ‘American-style crowns, sashes and tiaras’? What does that do to the self-esteem of participants?

When they grow up, how will these girls view themselves? Their sense of themselves, surely, will be very extrinsic? Surely, their confidence – instead of being bolstered will be damaged? And what is the use of telling a child that their worth is based purely on how they look – or how they can make themselves look by the addition of chemicals and synthetic hair-pieces?

I’m also disturbed by the fact that people attending will also be able to bring their video cameras, although they will only be permitted to video their own children. I do wonder, however, how the organiser hopes to police that one.

I don’t think that these kind of pageants do the children who take part any favours at all. I don’t think they learn any positive lessons from them – and I think they are more about satisfying the desires and dreams of their parents (usually their mothers) than anything else.

I am hoping that the parents of Ireland will avoid this pageant – and ones like it – and spare their children the damage that could potentially be done to them.

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We girls loved St Patrick’s day when we were little. We always went to the parade, green rosettes pinned to our best coats, our hair tied with green ribbons. The parade was fairly harmless in those days, mostly consisting of bands, majorettes and people waving unenthusiastically from the backs of flatbed trucks. But we never missed it. It was Dad’s job to take us along, our mother always stayed home, probably glad of a break from childcare.

In 1975 Mam was even more glad than usual to see us off for the day, as she was heavily pregnant with her fifth child. Dad had arranged to meet a long-lost American cousin of his in town, who was here ‘doing’ Ireland and the St Patrick’s festivities. The look on my mother’s face when he dragged this cousin home for tea, unannounced, was memorable.

Dad, a traditional Irish man, brought the honoured guest into the ‘good’ room to entertain her while tea was prepared by his nine-months-pregnant Mrs. But unbeknownst to them, the Mrs was already in labour. Not wanting to make a fuss in front of the guest – God forbid that we wouldn’t show her some Irish hospitality! –  Mam called me into the kitchen where I found her grimacing in pain. Womanfully making the tea between contractions, she instructed me to run to a neighbour up the road and ask her to mind us while she went to the hospital. This I did, tea was served, and it was explained to our American relative that Mam and Dad were unfortunately required to absent themselves.

Off they went to Holles Street, arriving barely ten minutes before our only brother made his appearance. Everyone said they’d have to call him Patrick, for the day that was in it. But having waited so long for a boy, they had two other names in mind.

So, Raymond Xavier Patrick Boyle it was. Catherine Crichton

 

There are advantages to living in a small town in East Galway; one of them is the Paddy’s Day Parade. I grew up in Dublin and quickly learnt that watching the parade on the telly was better than going to it: you weren’t jostled by tall people; you could actually see what was going on; you weren’t wet from the rain.

Where I live now, the local parade may not have fantastical floats or twirling, exotic American bands, but it’s real and sweet and half the people marching in it are your own kids, friends and/or neighbours. There is watching-room for everyone and it’s a genuinely happy and positive event in what can often be a dull market town. Last year the parade of vintage tractors was outstanding, as was the sight of a hundred kids tap dancing down the main street.

I grew out of the need to get drunk on Paddy’s Day years ago but I do love the party atmosphere that the day encourages and I always wear green clothes and a bunch of shamrock. I even forego my usual rice and pasta for a plate of spuds.

I like that Paddy’s Day endures and that mostly it hasn’t gone all glossy on us. It’s a great day to put ordinary concerns aside and just wallow in some of the positive things about being Irish, one of which is that we like a celebration and are happy to invite the whole world to the party. Nuala Ní Chonchúir

 

I don’t go to the St Patrick’s Day parade much these days, having slightly overdosed as a child. But this year, for the third time, we (two adults, two children) are taking part in the St Patrick’s Festival Treasure Hunt. This is a brilliant event which has you crisscrossing Dublin city on foot to various museums and historical sites. At each spot you have to answer a question and get a card stamped – once you’ve all of them completed, it’s a race back to City Hall. We were shattered last year and the year before, struggling back from maybe ten locations after a good three hours, stunned and disappointed to find we were nowhere near the winning time.

A bedraggled bit of Thomas Street, on the way up to Guinness's for the first clue.

One of the things I’ve liked about the treasure hunt is that it’s a great way for children – or someone unfamiliar with Dublin – to get a feel for the geography of the city. Though my children live in the suburbs, I want them to grow up knowing the city, feeling part of it and at  home in it. They’re going to have to walk it, and often, to get that.

Anyone else thinking of doing the treasure hunt? This year’s has a literary theme, so we can probably have a good stab at what the destinations will be. And I’m also thinking that Dublin Bikes would be a good way of getting around – though not, alas, for us, with a two-year-old who needs a seat.

Oh – but if I see your team out on Saturday, I may have to trip you up.

PS Have a look in the RTE archive footage of St Patrick’s Days past if you want to try and spot an eight-year-old you lining the streets or twirling a baton, spot the Abel Alarm floats of the eighties, or remind yourself of the 1999 parade of 25 yards in Dripsey, Cork. Antonia Hart

 

A rough guide to Paddy's for tourists

My enduring memory of being on the streets of central Dublin on Paddy’s Day is the curious mix of American and European tourists, and gaggles of heroin addicts sluicing along on a kaleidoscope of green & purple sick. Searching for a parade that’s long since passed them by. Down by the Four Courts, shocked and disappointed Americans in chequered trousers with neck hanging cameras bulging off their paunches, trying to take in the sight of Dublin’s invitro zombies drowning their Shamrock with a concoction of opiates and arguments. They must’ve kicked themselves [and Aer Lingus, along with the ham sandwich] for the cost of getting here. Diddly iddly melded with Carroll’s Gift Shop rebel songs blasting out of Liffey-side pubs, red-haired kids crying, sharp rain and wet dogs pissing on slashed tyres of crooked parked cars. By 5pm the junkies were gone until the Christmas shoplifting season, replaced by GAA foghorns, screaming police sirens and radio soundbytes of stabbings. You’d steer clear of the city centre for a few days afterwards, unless you were a civil servant who’d no choice but the brave the pastry lumps outside the Revenue building. I never really got it and never will. No-one I’ve ever spoken to knows the lowdown on the real St. Patrick (a Romano Briton who lived in Wales), if there were ever snakes in Ireland or why there’s so much emphasis on bottle green icing and orange fur.  It’s as odd to me as Marian devotion on gable walls in recession, but have a good one all the same! June Caldwell

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I should be…

As I sit here writing this I should be putting the towels in the washing machine.  I should be sorting through the rest of the washing, putting colours on one side, whites on another and delicates somewhere else. I should be hand washing the delicates.

I should be reading the children five books six times a book, squeezing out metres and metres of Play Doh poop out of the new Play Doh poop maker, building a train track for precipitating disasters, digging the sword for the Playmobil pirate out of the dust bag in the vacuum cleaner and teaching them to play the violin and piano in unison. (The children or the pirates, either way it’s my job)

I should be vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen, washing up and washing down the floor. I should be ironing.

I should be sorting my drawers so I don’t go into the jumble every morning and come out dressed like I’ve been to a jumble sale.

I should be organising the never-ending re-registration of my car and a savings account online.

I should be budgeting for the rest of the month and sending a long email to my friend who I haven’t seen in ages.

I should be baking something wholesome for the whole family.

I should be grooming the dog whilst paying the bills over the phone (“EIGHT ONE OH ONE..SIT!…no, sorry, not you”).

I should be writing up pitches and sending them to all the contacts I can muster and following it up with cheery positive phone calls that result in arse-aching rejection.

It’s endless, what I should be doing instead of writing this.

Or should I?

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