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Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Quick: where were you when the Pope came to Ireland? Me, I’ve got no idea. Before I’m excommunicated, I should point out that’s because I’m not Irish, and wasn’t living in Ireland at the time of the papal visit.

Ask me, though, where I was for the Queen’s Silver Jublilee (two years before all Irish babies started being called John Paul) or where I was for Charles and Diana’s wedding, and I’m sorted. I can describe the bunting, my dress (no, I wasn’t invited, but that didn’t stop me dressing up), our village street party, the works.

Here’s the thing. I’m not Royalist, but I’m hugely pro big, communal events. It’s a relatively unfashionable stance, but I ADORE those nation-binding moments.  The non-demonstrative English most often break down the reserve (and break down) at sporting events. Jonny Wilkinson’s last-ditch drop kick in the Rugby World Cup. Tiny Michael Owen’s mazy run against Argentina in 1998 (if only I’d had to Google that date; but alas, no).  These are times when we drop our polite ‘each wo/man is an island’ masks and stand together, roaring our heads off. For me, nothing can beat that sort of collective emotion.

It’s something I’ve always liked about weddings, too. Whenever I’m on my way to a wedding, I think about all the other people who’ve woken up that morning and thought, ‘today I’m going to see X&X get married’. There’s something incredibly rousing about the collective spirit, the joint goodwill. I have no idea why it moves me so much, but it always has.

All together now...

(image c/o scripting.com)

God, even at the London marathon a couple of weeks ago, 24 miles in and feeling as if I was encased in a steel tube, I looked around at the crowds yelling encouragement at hordes of random strangers, heard the band playing (yes, really) and beamed a Cheshire cat grin of ‘I’m bloody DOING this’. Running long distances is the world’s dullest thing, usually. Running long distances with 40,000 other people and a crowd of probably double that is incredibly uplifting (though not so uplifting that I’d ever want to do it again).

It’s in that same vein that I’m looking forward to the Big Day today. I’m hardly going to be in my wedding finery, and I’m certainly not going to be down at Trafalgar Square, but it’s an Occasion, one that nobody is escaping, cynical or not. In this day and age, there’s a lot to be said for that.

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It seems like a positively antediluvian method of keeping in touch with people these days, but when I was 10 or 11, pen pals were all the rage. Of course they were the rage for a long, long time before that, too – but it saddens me that the old-fashioned pen-pal, where you actually wrote and received letters on ink and paper, is a dying art.

I’ve always loved receiving letters. There’s a magic about receiving your very own letters in the post as a kid – a magic that vaporises as an adult, when you begin avoiding the letterbox for fear of another dread-inducing bill. I suppose in a way, it’s one of the first times you can assert a sort of grown-up privacy as a child, although I’m sure that my nosey siblings rooted out my ‘private’ correspondence, as I did theirs. (For the same reason, I avoided keeping a diary of any sort!).

I was your typical bookworm nerd as a kid – the sort of child who’d ask for extra homework when she was off sick from school and who raced ahead in workbooks at home on the weekends. That behaviour was shaken out of me by my second year of secondary school (‘rough’ is understating it), but a love of writing and especially receiving personal letters is something that has never left me. Acquiring a pen-pal was the logical step, so I swiped my Dad’s copy of Buy & Sell and got applying to the least strange-sounding people in the dedicated ‘Pen-Pals’ section.

I exchanged many letters with random people from the UK, New Zealand and America, but only three managed to stick. The first was a girl of my age from Kent; England seemed so ridiculously far away at the time that I didn’t even bother looking it up. The other two were from even further afield in Canada; one from rural Alberta, one from Ontario. We exchanged letters, inane facts about our families and very different lives and cultures, and tat and fancy papers bought from the pound shop and the dollar store for a couple of years, until school, and life, and the important business of being teenagers took over. Our letters grew further and further apart, until finally, they stopped.

There is a happy ending, though. The other week, though, I got an email from someone with the same first name as one of my Canadian pen-pals, wondering if I was the same person she’d exchanged letters dotted with glitter and stickers over fifteen years ago. She’d found some of those letters recently, googled my name, found my blog and recalled that I mentioned that I wanted to be a journalist “when I grew up” (it must have been after my dreams of being a vet were dashed, after someone pointed out that vets occasionally have to put their hands up animals’ bums). Our lives are still as different as they were back then – she’s now married, with two gorgeous young kids and a photography business in the same town that she grew up in – but it’s strange and wonderful to be back in touch with someone who knew you, back when you barely knew yourself. And sure, email doesn’t quite have the same effect as the drop of a letter onto the doormat, but, well, it’s still better than nothing.

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The Guys Next Door

Judgments prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.  ~Wayne W. Dyer

I’ve always thought of myself as open-minded, especially when it comes to matters of race. As someone who is of mixed race (half-Japanese, half-Caucasian), I am the product of two people who come from very different countries and backgrounds yet managed to create a life together.

The high school I attended in California was predominately Latino and African-American; in fact, Asians and Caucasians were the minority there. I went to college in San Francisco, a city that prides itself on its political correctness and my classmates represented all races and cultures. The point is I grew up in a diverse community. So it was a surprise when I recently had to face my own racist views.

My boyfriend lives in an apartment block in Dublin and his neighbors are from Pakistan. There are four guys, all in their mid-20s, all living in a one-bedroom apartment. My partner’s bedroom wall is on the other side of their sitting room, and about 3-4 times a week we are awoken by loud shouting emanating from their side of the wall. It usually starts around 2 a.m. and goes for an hour or two or three. We can’t understand what they are saying as they speak in their native language and it’s hard to tell if they are angry or jubilant. We both sleep with ear plugs but it still keeps us from getting a decent night’s sleep.

When I first asked my partner about the guys next door, he just said they were four Pakistani guys and that he’d never spoken to them but that he was quite suspicious of them. They go in and out all hours of the night and they have a constant stream of guests who seem to crash there for long periods of time. This is incredibly difficult to admit – especially publicly – but in my mind I created several scenarios of what they were up to and why. Were they part of some underground extreme Muslim sect infiltrating Dublin? Did their late-night arguments stem from disagreements over who was the leader of the group? Maybe one of the guys was getting too “westernized” and there was dissension among the ranks.

How can a 30-something, well-traveled, educated woman come to such narrow conclusions about people she’s never even spoken to? I’m struggling with an answer to that question. I remember how hurt and angry I felt when a kid at school once called me a “chink” and asked me if I knew how to use a fork and knife, because he knew I was part Japanese. But at least that kid put his racism right in my face – it was out there for all to see. It would seem subtle forms of racism are what pose a real threat to the forward movement and progress of humanity as a whole.

With the Pakistani neighbours I’m basing my views on what I’ve picked up from the media; most of what I see in the news about Pakistan or any Middle Eastern country is negative. If the media reports are to be believed, young Arab males are all busy plotting uprisings of some form or another and are all Islamic extremists who want to take over the world. Even the recent spate of “Arab Spring” related stories and images are tinged with pessimism.

If the point is to breed hysteria, it’s worked. And if racism is based on ignorance and fear, I’ve got both covered. When I see a group of Middle Eastern men on a flight, the first emotion I feel is fear. The second is guilt. I feel both when I think of confronting those guys next door.

I actually had an encounter with one of the guys in the elevator a few of weeks back. He spoke first.

“Hi, I’ve seen you around. I’m Aziz,” he said, warmly. He had a kind and gentle smile. We talked for a few minutes. I mentioned the noise – albeit in a somewhat joking manner so that my true annoyance would not become obvious – and he was very apologetic and said he’d mention it to his mates. He said they all worked odd hours and therefore stayed up very late. He mentioned that sometimes they just get carried away in conversation but that he was very sorry it disturbed us.

I left the discussion feeling relieved and stupid. I felt ashamed for letting myself get carried away with all that nonsense before, and surprised at becoming the kind of person I always stood up to in the past – an ignorant, narrow-minded twit. But that relief and change of heart was short-lived; when I heard them shouting loudly the day after our talk, the fear came back. A couple of weeks and several more sleepless nights later, it’s still here. I so want to go next door and have a neighbourly chat with them, but both my boyfriend and I wonder if it’s such a good idea. He tells me to just leave it as he has to live next door to them and doesn’t want any drama. I still wonder if there’s something sinister going on over there and my imagination is running wild with possibilities.

This is not something I’m proud of. If they were white or Asian, would I hesitate to go speak with them? I guess it would depend on how intimidating they looked or behaved. These neighbour guys are not at all physically intimidating, they are average height and weight and dress in nondescript clothing and they don’t really stand out at all. It’s not unusual for a group of 20-somethings to enjoy their freedom and take advantage of being away from their parents for possibly the first time in their lives – they’re probably just having fun and being lads. Maybe they’re just inconsiderate, noisy neighbours and nothing else. Why is it so hard for me to see past their ethnicity and believe this?

Ironically enough, that question is the other thing keeping me up at night.

Clare Kleinedler is an American freelance journalist living in Ireland. She writes the blogs An American in Ireland and The Hollywood Craic.

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I’ve never been a huge fan of travelling. I can’t take people seriously when they talk about going away to ‘find themselves’ – I tend to want to point to them and go “Look, look, you’re right here! You don’t need to spend thousands of euros trekking across the desert or jungle, after all!”

A very large part of it is that travelling itself – actually moving from one place to another – does not agree with me. Boats make me seasick, while airports just depress me. This recent story about a six-year-old girl in the States being selected for an ‘enhanced pat-down’ while going through security dismays me, but honestly, fails to surprise me.

I’ve been on four short flights in the last month or so, to and from the UK. On the plus side, unlike travelling to the US, you don’t have to fill out wacky forms stating that you’ve never been involved with the Nazi Party. On the down side, there’s still the tedium of security to go through.

You can’t complain. No. You can’t complain, because then it looks like you’ve something to hide. I complained in a painfully polite way on one flight, when my contact lens solution was over the 100ml limit. Much in the same way as I wouldn’t bring the doctor’s original prescription with me if I had necessary medication – why on earth would you feel you needed to? – I didn’t have a letter from my optician stating the solution was necessary. I don’t stick things into my eyes on a near-daily basis for the fun of it, after all. But EU regulations are tricky little things – and, somewhat conveniently for those that work in airports, completely out of their hands. You can’t complain.

They’re small moments, but they accumulate. On another flight, a friend of mine had bottles of cosmetics tested. I asked whether they’d been under the limit. “Oh yes, of course they were,” she said calmly. “I think they were just doing a random check.” And then, seeing me getting cross and irritated by it, suggested we go for a cup of tea.

I freely admit that I’m not the most fun person to travel with when airports are involved. I do get annoyed. I do get bothered. I do get grumpy if I ask security folk what’s set off an alarm that necessitates my being patted down and they reply with a sentence that includes the word ‘random’. I do find the fact that you have a choice between the delay and expense of checking in a bag or having strangers scrutinise your hand luggage completely repulsive.

But I’m not apologetic about it. It should annoy us. It should seem invasive and intrusive – as many things in modern life are, of course, but there’s something particularly bothersome about airport security. It’s the way we accept it, grumbling quietly if at all, because we fear not being allowed to travel. Being labelled as disruptive or dangerous. Being troublesome. And we fear, perhaps, what might happen if the regulations weren’t there.

Only… I don’t feel safer travelling on a plane simply because a potential terrorist will have a limited amount of liquid. I don’t feel safer travelling on a plane because I’ve had a stranger (usually unattractive, alas) run their hands over me to ensure I don’t have a concealed weapon. I’m sure some people do. I’m sure that some of those who are nervous flyers find it vaguely reassuring to think that there are some measures in place to prevent certain kinds of disaster. I’m sure those who adore finding new places and, indeed, finding themselves, feel a bit of intrusion at one stage of their journey is nothing compared to the joys that follow. I’m sure that many people just get used to the strange dystopian universe that is airport security.

But I can’t. So I’ll continue to be grumpy, and complain. I’m honestly not sure what I can do about it, and I don’t travel enough to make it a mission of mine to pen endless letters or campaign or whatever might make some kind of a difference. (I suspect the answer involves getting the airlines on board, and lots of time that I don’t have.) I’ll just stay a decidedly un-fun person to be in an airport with. I still haven’t found a good enough reason not to be.

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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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In today’s Guardian, several music critics write, sometimes very movingly, about the songs that can bring them to tears. It’s a subject most of us can relate to, including me. Many songs have made me cry over the years; I’ve cried to Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, the Velvet Underground, REM, Palace, Bonnie Prince Billy, Mazzy Star, Johnny Cash, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Kristin Hersh, and countless others – indeed, there are few artistes who haven’t made me bawl at some stage. But the ones that stick in my memory at the moment are the ones that got to me last year, just after an old friend who was just a few months older than me died very suddenly of what was either an aneurysm or a heart attack (the post mortem couldn’t reach a conclusion). Everyone who knew him was stunned by his death, which didn’t seem quite real, like all sudden deaths. A day or two after he died, I was trying and failing to work so I went for a walk in my local park, listening to Hot Chip’s then recently-released album One Life Stand. And less than a minute into the third song, I found myself crying.

A pulsating dance song doesn’t seem like the sort of thing to bring on sobs, but this song did. It was the lyrics, particularly this section: “Nothing is wasted, life is worth living…There is a day that is yours for embracing, everything’s nothing, nothing is ours…”

I think what set me off was the “nothing is wasted” line, the idea that even if someone is gone there was a point to them being here, that their lives weren’t wasted, that everything goes to nothingness in the end but that’s okay. Anyway, tears started trickling down my cheeks as I walked along, but I didn’t stop walking. As the synthy strings soared, I somehow felt uplifted as well as sad, as if all that was needed was just to keep marching along to the beat. The combination of the bittersweet lyrics and melancholy dance music was, it turned out, just what I needed.

It wasn’t the only song that made me cry around that time. The day after my friend died I was listening to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s IRM on the bus on my way in to meet fellow stunned and bereaved friends for a drink, and half the songs on it made me tear up. ‘In The End”s sweetly sad melody combined with the words “who’s to say it’s all for the best in the end?” had me turning away from the person sitting next to me so he wouldn’t see how red my eyes and nose were.

It says something about both those songs that when I was checking those Youtube links and listened to them again, they still both made me cry. And yet, in a weird way, like a lot of the songs that make you cry, they made me feel strangely better afterwards.

What about you? What songs bring you to tears?

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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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A Tome Of Contention

I appeared at a literary festival in Washington DC recently, in which I was scheduled for a Q&A session about writing and new media.

I was, understandably, mad excited altogether. It was my first time in the States, and I so rarely get a chance to read my blog posts aloud, so before my gig I was hippity-hopping around my hotel room, jacked up on coffee and the sound of my own voice. “David Norris,” I intoned, between slurps of complementary instant. “Daay-vid Norrisss” (I was planning on reading one of my posts on David Norris; I don’t invoke him to ward off nerves, or anything).

All of a sudden, it occurred to me that I was bound to be asked who my influences were – my literary influences, those scribes who hacked out the path ahead of me. What other blogs I read, if I was lucky … but more likely, what other authors I read.

This was a problem.

I don’t read.

Oh, I read in the past. I was more paper than child at one stage, either growing out of or into a book, a muddle of stained fingertips and wild notions. I adored the classics (and still do) – Alice In Wonderland, Watership Down, The Brothers Grimm. I read all of Enid Blyton’s school stories (repeatedly) before moving on to YA Lit from the likes of Melvin Burgess and Katherine Paterson and Roberts Cormier and C. O’Brien. I read constantly. I would rather read than hang out with my friends. I would go over favourite passages whilst brushing my teeth. I would read after lights-out, standing by my bedroom door for the landing light (no torch), stalking like Nijinsky back to the leaba when I heard a parent’s footstep in the hall.

But as an adult? No. I don’t read.

This isn’t because I don’t love words and stories. It should be obvious that I do. It’s not because I haven’t found a wordsmith I admire; there have been plenty. I think it might be because I can’t allow myself the time to read. I wonder about writers who can, really. Does it not feel like reading is an undeserved pleasure, that dipping into a novel is an illicit affair with the words of another? Often, when I read, I get a nasty feeling that I’m wasting my precious time and should be putting words onto paper, not peeling them off on behalf of another writer. Like I’m cheating on myself, I suppose. “I could do better,” I tell myself. “Why am I not breaking me arse trying to outdo this bucko?”

Other times it’s as if I no longer have the ability to lose myself in someone else’s work, that being a writer has saddled me with a sort of cold detachment; I can admire the building blocks, the words they’ve chosen and how they’ve slotted them into place, but I can’t fall in love with them. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to distract myself from my own fiction … self-preservation? Maybe I’ll get over it when I’m finished what I’m working on.

Maybe I can only be me in between bouts of being someone else.

I was terribly ashamed of this, all alone in my hotel room. The general consensus – Jesus, the overwhelming consensus – is that a writer has to read to be able to write. Though I felt like I’d finished my apprenticeship and could learn no more from my elders (I’ve got to be writing to hone this skill, not perving on how other people do it), I couldn’t go around saying that. Not at a literary festival. People would think I was mental.

So there I was before my interview, desperately pulling author names out of the ether and trying them on to see who would fit. Whasshisname? Yer Wanno with the allegories? Jesus, what about all those Books Of The Year everyone’s supposed to have read? Maybe they wouldn’t ask at the reading. Maybe I’d get away with it.

I didn’t, of course. “What other writers have influenced you?” is a question bloody obligatory when you’re interviewing a writer. I despairingly replied that I hadn’t read anything that I didn’t write in the longest time, and someone tweeted it, and for a moment I looked like the most egotistical tosspot in the entire northern hemisphere.

A couple of weeks later, something strange and wonderful happened. I blurted the whole sorry confession to one of my Antiroom sisters at The Irish Blog Awards, and she gave me a huge hug and said, “You’ve just made my night.”

“How so?

“Because I don’t read, either.”

And y’know what? She’s a proper writer, too. She does things with words that would make W.B. Yeats blush (can you guess who it is yet?). I felt at once validated and liberated. There was nothing wrong with me, after all! I wasn’t egotistical, or deluded, or a great big fraudulent fake. Like, total yayz.

I used to get annoyed when I saw those Tips For Writers posts on blogs, or writers’ rules memes on Twitter, or quotes from successful authors who knew so much about the game, because there were none that matched what I was up to. They felt condescending and isolating – where’s the sense in barking You’re Doing It Wrong! at people who surely need to work this stuff out for themselves? But that moment I knew for certain that there is no Rule Of Writing that isn’t worth bending, no matter how sacred. I’m not ashamed of not being able to finish someone else’s novel. I’m not ashamed to say that my inspiration comes not from other writers, but from sideways glances, video game parameters, folk lyrics, the fashion crimes of people I see on the street.

I am a writer who doesn’t read. And there’s nothing wrong with me.

(I have to admit that I read an entire Melvin Burgess book on the train home from the Blog Awards, because I’m so rebellious I don’t even play by my own rules. Take that, establishment!)

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To celebrate our 500th post, we Anti-Roomers share how the internet has changed our lives for the better – and the worse. We’d love to hear your early internet stories, life-changing online experiences and whether you love or loathe the interweb…

Anna Carey

The first time I went online was in 1994. I had read in the NME that Courtney Love had been rambling wildly but entertainingly on something called a newsgroup, which as far as my innocent little arts student brain could gather was a way of writing stuff on a computer that could be read by lots of people on different computers all over the world. I knew about e-mail, though I didn’t have an account – at the time, only computer science and maths students at Trinity, where I was in first year, automatically had college e-mail accounts, and I was doing German and History of Art. But this public discussion thing was new to me. So I nagged one of my best friends, who happened to be studying computer science, to show me how to read Courtney’s ravings on a Sun computer in the Hamilton science building. I was unimpressed by Courtney, but mildly intrigued by the whole internet thing – not that I could do much about my interest down in my Arts Block home.

When I started my third year of college in October 1995, arts students finally got Eudora e-mail accounts (though there wasn’t enough server space to accommodate us, so we had to save our mails onto individual floppy discs), and I haven’t looked back since. By 1996, I had discovered the possibilities of hugely entertaining webzines (I miss you, Blair); by 1998, I was engaging in discussions on Hissyfit.com with people who, as I discovered when I met up with some of them while visiting the US a year later, were just as they seemed online: smart, funny and good company. Soon after that I became involved in the forums at a women-centric literature site called Chicklit.com (named before the term took off as a description of popular fiction). Through the Chicklit forums, I was introduced to dozens of authors who have since become my firm favourites and, more importantly, many people who have since become dear and close real-life friends. When I joined Livejournal back in 2002, many of my friends there were from Chicklit, and these days loads of us are on Twitter. We’ve all been talking on the internet, and sometimes meeting in real life, for more than a decade, and my life is definitely better for it.

Since I first read Courtney’s ravings in the Hamilton, the internet has changed my life in many ways. It’s allowed me to keep in touch easily with friends who have moved away. It’s allowed me to make genuine, real friendships with people from Canada to Edinburgh to Dublin, people who were once just words on a screen. In Twitter and indeed the Anti-Room, it’s given me the equivalent of an office full of smart, funny, thought-provoking people, some of whom have also become real-life friends, while I work alone at home. It’s made my job so much easier  – when I started my first job at the Sunday Tribune back in 1998, there was only one computer in the entire building with internet access, and the amount of information available online was much, much smaller. It’s educated and entertained me. It’s given me countless books and music that I would never have had access to before – I got my first credit card purely to buy American stuff from Amazon, back in 1999. It’s enraged me and upset me – there ain’t no drama like internet drama, and over the years I’ve typed a few comments and posts with hands that were almost shaking with rage. It’s made me temporarily lose my faith in humanity – just a few minutes looking at the comments over at Comment is Free robs me of the will to live. It’s distracted me not just from work – entire evenings at home, evenings I should have spent hanging out with my husband or reading a book or playing the piano or working on some art, have been sucked into the maw of Twitter and Google Reader. It’s tapped into my worst qualities – my innate desire for distraction and novelty, my procrastination, my need to have the last word. And it’s put pointless pressure on me – while I do love my iPhone, sometimes I genuinely hate the expectation that we should all be constantly contactable and online at all times.

But it’s also entertained me, made me laugh, given me good friends, and shown me how incredibly nice and kind people can be. And for that, I can only be grateful.

Sinéad Gleeson
Sometime in early 1996, I remember getting up very early one morning to queue in UCD for an email account. Not an internet one – the two were distinctly separate – but one solely for email, with no other web access. The idea now seems positively antediluvian. The only reason I wanted said account, was because my brother had just moved to Australia. Email was a far more affordable way of talking about records and gigs than 3am phonecalls when I’d wandered home from a club. The clunky, minutes-to-load account was life-changing, and a bazillion gigabytes away from today’s smart phones with their Sci-fi apps. My consumption of online life has intrinsically increased. It’s invaluable for my job, for music, for contact with distant friends, for rewatching TV shows, laughing at viral nonsense… But it’s also the biggest time sponge I know, and the reason why I have umpteen unfinished short stories sitting on my laptop. It’s a leveller and a curse; indispensable and completely disposable. You learn to live with the duality of something that is both an enormous help and a hindrance. I’ve killed my Facebook account four times, but Twitter is the most instantaneous news ticker I know. I’ve made lots of friends, from my early days as Editor of an online magazine (Sigla) to Arts & Culture blogging and now among the wonderful women of the Anti Room. The key is balance. To embrace it, but to also plug out more and remember that when you’re not online – like those Saturday nights in your early 20s when you were broke and had to stay in – that you’re not missing very much anyway.

Sarah Franklin
I thought this topic was an utter no-brainer for me. Gorgeous Twitter, which some days feels like my own personal version of Sliding Doors. Where else can I chat to people I probably sat next to in college French lectures, people I unknowingly drank alongside in Soho dive bars, people like, well, the ladies of the Anti Room, who I should have known years ago? All at once? Without even leaving my desk? (although, as Keith Ridgeway put it so mesmerically, beware the false sense of company).  Yep; Twitter’s changed my life more than any other section of the internet, I thought.

But then I thought back a bit, to the prehistoric times of 2005. Twitter was but a gleam in Jack Dorsey’s eye and both Skype and my elder son had both entered their infancy. We were living in Seattle, a good place for knowing about emergent technologies and a TERRIBLE place to be if you want to show your newborn child to your extended family, and they’re all 5,000 miles away. Skype honestly changed my life at that point. Post-natal blues were so much easier to handle with the baby and the laptop both wedged on my lap, my son’s head given a ReadyBrek glow from the screen as he slept and my grandmother gazed at him, rapt.

It’s a funny old thing, the internet. Sure, it means we can shop without leaving our sofa, that we’re never more than a mouse click away from knowing who wrote the song lyrics you can’t stop trilling, but that’s not really the power of it. Seeing people, real people, people you love, from thousands of miles away; watching that family bond come down the interpipes; that’s amazing.

Lisa McInerney

I can’t really say the internet has changed my life. It’s made my life; there wasn’t a time, from my teens on, when there wasn’t an internet to teach, and entertain, and distress, and provoke me. I embraced an online life from the beginning – chat rooms, message boards, amateur web design … blogging. Most obviously blogging. The fact that we’re living in The Information Age is something I find endlessly fascinating, and I think it’s shaping the world we live so radically it’s practically … biblical. No, honestly. I waffle on about this a lot. The Book of Genesis, in which ignorance was equated with beauty and innocence, to the Information Age, in which there are absolutely no limits to personal pursuit of knowledge; we’ve come 360 and that’s thrilling and kind of disconcerting, if you’re a superstitious type. Who knows what effect all this info will have on us? But that’s a subject for another day, possibly one spent in a cafe in Amsterdam. Personally, the internet has been good to me. It allowed me a platform to write, an instant audience to make me improve, the knowledge that shaped me as an adult. And gosh, have I met some really amazing people. Some of my closest friends were originally “internet people”. I can’t imagine my life without them. And as for those who moan about the “evils” of Facebook – learn to streamline your experience, read up on the privacy options, and make the bloody thing work for you. I have whole legions of far-away relatives whose faces I’d have forgotten if we didn’t have Facebook to weld us together. Play me off, keyboard cat!

Rosita Boland
The A-Z of my internet life…

@ the new 27th letter of the alphabet. Antiroom blog – a must-read, everyone!
Bewildered to know how I would live without the internet now.
Couldn’t live without the internet now – did I mention that?
Dial up – took forever and sounded like a freight train.
E-mail – it changed everything about the way I communicated with people.
Floppy disk – never really understood them. Facebook – never did that.
Galway – where I went to my first ever internet café, in Cornmarket Lane, about 15 years ago.
Help! – Sound I emitted many a time when I thought I’d broken the internet.
Information superhighway – remember that?
Journalism – I hope it never dies, no matter what the future of digital media holds.
Kansas – what I would rename the internet.
Letters – sadly, I no longer write them, although I used to write six a week for years.
Macs – been through two laptops so far.
Netbook – my latest on-the-hoof bit of gear.
Online. Online. Online – are we ever offline these days?
Paywall – we put them up at the Irish Times, we took them down; as busy as the construction industry in Ireland this last decade.
Questions – are there any the internet considers it cannot answer?
Real Player – more new language I now take for granted.
Skype – talking and waving to my faraway friends for free.
Tibet – the very first word I ever keyed into a search engine. Twitter – where I’ve found so many new friends.
Unknown – there are always so many new places the internet takes me.
Virtual – a dazzling experience the internet allows; it has let me see video clips from literally all over the world, and almost feel like I’m there.
Web – a word I’ve already discarded.
X – internet, I heart you!
YouTube – my favourite clip ever is the mad music video, Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.
Z – often difficult to get any when engrossed with The Twitter or any of the many joys of the internet.

Jude Leavy
Picture the scene; the romantic incomer – beguiling, charming and undeniably fascinating, with a metaphorical sweep of opera cape, a suggestive bit of eyebrow play and a mutter of sweet sentiments it snares me into its loving embrace where I swoon…

I am a fan of the internet.

Years ago it successfully courted and seduced me implanting itself into almost every aspect of my life. Work, leisure time, friendships, I saw the world with the tickets I’d booked online, attended plays and enjoyed concerts through it, reconnected with old acquaintances and kept in touch with new ones.

I made friends through the internet, true friendships sometimes with people from other ends of the globe; some I went on to meet up face to face, others I know I never will. It even played a role in introducing me to my fiancé (which I wrote about here) thereby changing my life in the biggest way possible.

I also have to it to thank for being here, writing with this amazing group of extraordinary women; the people I wished I’d known when I was becoming the adult I am.

Of late I’ve found my beloved internet to be a demanding lover, I’ve allowed it to muscle in other potential love interests in its quest to dominate. So have been forced to be strong and cut back on the hours we spend together, to recover more of my off-line life. I had expected it to cause me many a pang on leaving it, but strangely this hasn’t really been the case. Perhaps my red hot love is not the real passion of my life, but just a passing fancy?

I do hope not.

Eleanor Fitzsimons
Despite living a good portion of my life in the real rather than the virtual world I simply can’t imagine life offline at this stage. I remember the day we first connected, way back in 1996. Sneering in the face of a potentially skyrocketing phone bill the husband & I hooked up a laptop to our phone socket via a labyrinthine tangle of trailing wires that snaked across the living room and caused us to temporarily lose telephone contact with the outside world. I looked on sceptically as he typed in the long numerical string that he assured me was our IP address, no user-friendly front-end back in the day. I can’t remember what we looked up, something utterly innocuous I’d imagine, but I was hooked.

Several years later, while living in London, I was booking tickets to must-see shows and iconic sporting events, not to mention flights and train journeys all over a world that had become my oyster. I had serious RPS and my credit card was on fire. Before I knew it (and yes I am cringing as I type) I had signed up for daily internet updates on my first pregnancy.

Nowadays I simply can’t imagine life without the internet. You might as well ask me to live in a cave and forage for bush tucker. I use it for work and for connecting with friends, old and new. I tweet and blog and file copy and mess about and still book holidays and shows and sporting events. I’ve shaken off the shackles of the desktop and shed the weight of the laptop by getting an iPhone. Next step is undoubtedly an implant in my brain. There must be a website offering that…

Jennie Ridyard

Hail, hail the new religion, for is that not what the Holy Trinity of Internet, Facebook and Twitter are? Lo, on Sunday mornings we gather in the light of a screen, or sit alone in silent contemplation, picking out like a mantra our online prayer, “OMG”. We bow before the Gospel according to Google and Wikipedia, and confess everything to the all-knowing, all-embracing Status Update. Then we mutter endless Hail Mary Byrnes – is she really singing the next Bond theme tune? Some merely dip a toe in, checking church times online and googling their own names. Others are found in the pews morning, noon and night, tweeting each passing thought, blogging their sermons, and singing the praises of lolcats and failblog, while damning 13-year-old Rebecca Black to hell.

Like a religion, the plugged-in world offers an answer to everything and a friend to everyone. You can be reborn on Avatar, you can embrace kibbutzim on Farmville. Equally, you can cure diseases on WebMD, make your offerings via Paypal, and wage war on the sinners, the Muslims, the Bible-thumpers, the atheists, the smokers, the non-smokers, the obese, the anorexic, the ugly, the beautiful, and Justin Bieber. Oh, and you can wage actual war in Libya too, wielding the sword of eternal truth that is Twitter. Indeed, through the miracle of YouTube the scales fall from our eyes as we bear witness to modern miracles like Monkey Rapes Frog and Fire Fart Goes Wrong.

Yea, I tell thee, this is the way, the truth, and the light. It’s also how to lose your way, spread untruths and spend days alone in the dark.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Internet -The good: new friends (real & virtual); reconnecting with old friends; access to a world of information; being able to send things (manuscripts, photos) without the palaver of Post Office visits with kids in tow; online banking; online shopping (very important when you live in the sticks); literary blogs; freely available music; new audience for my books; cheap PR for cash-poor writers; speed of access to Important People in publishing etc.

Internet -The bad: e-mail pile-up; obsessing about being able to be online and/or feeling bereft if the internet connection is down; stalkers; reconnecting with old friends; people picking fights with you over innocuous/innocent statements; people being nasty in general; going online when drunk and being over-chatty; people knowing far too much about your life; time-wasting; isolation; Facebook competitiveness and boasting.

Antonia Hart

In about 1988, in the school computer room, in order to draw a green box on the black screen we had to type the following commands in LOGO:

TO DRAW
CLEARSCREEN
SHOW TURTLE
FORWARD 50
RIGHT 90
FORWARD 50
RIGHT 90
FORWARD 50
RIGHT 90
FORWARD 50
HIDE TURTLE
It was more fun than double R.E. but not much. I’m not a techno-refusenik. My credentials: at college I rescued a ditched black and white screened Apple Mac Classic (the nicest computer in the world, ever) from a skip outside the Physics Building and fooled around with HyperCard, running off a floppy disk. I met the World Wide Web proper in about 1996, and it seemed, as a series of pages linked to and fro by embedded directions, to be based on Hypercard. I discovered Telnet and FTP and wrote stories for the Sunday Business Post using Borland Sprint, an MS DOS based word processor. I did an MSc in Multimedia Systems at Trinity in 1997, the first year it ran, and it felt then as if we were part of the breaking news of the internet. I worked in web design, and online advertising. Got that? I practically invented the internet.
Of course it’s changed my life. Without it I wouldn’t be able to work from home, so would either have no children or no job. I wouldn’t be contemplating a summer house exchange. I wouldn’t be writing this post. My music would have ground to a halt at about fifty CDs. It’s changed my life for the better, but I want less of it, not more. I’ve read about six emails since I started typing this post. Getting to a point of concentration is like climbing down steps into a well, deeper and deeper until you can sense the water. You finally get a toe in. You’re aiming for submersion. With the internet, and the ways of working it makes possible, I find myself constantly climbing up again, down, up, down, up, and never reaching the water. Have I exhausted my metaphor yet? I don’t like the way it fractures my thinking, the shortness of its texts, the virtue it makes of hopping about. I don’t tweet, because I am guarding my time and I cannot afford to donate any more chunks of it to online conversations, no matter how relevant or witty they are. I think Facebook – despite its usefulness as a place to promote events and small businesses – is just vacuous, endless pages of self-promotion and self-portraits and all that information being sold to the highest advertising bidder.
I need time to do things for longer, to do them more slowly, to think about them in greater depth. I want more reflection time, more reaction time, more satisfying contemplation. I want to read slowly and with care, I want to take days to think about what I’ve read and what I think about it. I want to be in the world, not experiencing it through an online prism.
I also want an iPad 2.

June Caldwell

I can’t remember my first email in the same way I can’t remember my first roast potato, but I do recall getting addicted to random chatrooms very early on. Rubbish chatyack where you simply logged on and saw streams of absurd irrational messages dropping in real-time like plunging neon, before wasting eight hours of my working life, missing deadlines. Immediacy and anonymity were overwhelming features of my unspecified shadowy self on de web. Of course this would get me into trouble very early on. In the mid 1990s I mistakenly sent an email to my boss instead of the man I was having a fling with in the office, to disastrous consequences (especially as I was, er, mentioning what a prick the boss was at the time).

It was also the year I sat through a rather trite PgDip in Journalism, where I realised how easy it was to sift through cyber offscourings for feature ideas to sell. A tiny ancillary fact about an increase in unmarried fathers phoning Parentline about child access problems, turned into my first published article: ‘Clowning Around With Fatherhood’, published in the Big Issues in 1997. An article I wrote on narcolepsy a month later was picked up by a health supplement in the New York Times. I could barely fathom how any of this ‘global village’ stuff could happen! The ‘world wide web’ very quickly became a de rigueur necessity of both my working day and my off-duty life.

Flurry and melodrama surrounding this newfound instant access to info still manages to fool me, and I often fail to see the danger in mouthing off without reserve. A few weeks ago a 14-year-old girl hacked into my partner’s Facebook account, printing off all our private messages [some of which were unsuitably sexual, others which were raw and noxious drunken arguments dating back to a horrendous few years in Belfast) and is now claiming to be Pandora’s box disturbed by what she read. Her mother had ‘encouraged’ her to excavate this material, without any care in the world for how it might damage her. This is the kind of horrific payoff that seems tout de suite worth it in the midst of relationship breakup. The experience has made me feel sad and sick to the core. Likewise, the existence of trolls (even on this blog) upsets me immensely when they dig in claws for little or no reason. Or the flagrant paedo who keeps looking me up on Linkedin and any other website I’m registered to/with due to his lack of life, or the knowledge that I wrote things online very early on that I had no idea would linger everlastingly (rubbish poems, half-finished stories, crap ideas).

However, it’s not all bedlam and mobocracy, I have met some incredible new friends (antiroom peeps more recently), sourced much-needed work, shared opinions through Facebook updates, splashed about different demeanours and ‘frames of mind’ [especially on Twitter] I’d never get a chance to in the humdrum of ordinary daily life. A piece I wrote on depression won ‘Best Blog Post’ at the recent Irish Blog Awards – only a few short months into my newfound blogging life – and a poem I wrote was picked up and published by a UK magazine. As a writer, it’s becoming increasingly clear how vital an online presence is, not just for freedom of expression or the ability to rant, but to stay in touch with people who might want to hear what you have to say.

Digital stratosphere is also great for following other writers in the same genre I’m interested in. As a shy gobshite all my life, this type of connectedness is nothing short of love. Then there was the time I was being bullied by a paramilitary landlord in Carrickfergus and having got so totally bored with his daily intrusions, I lost my mind and contacted a local sex addict who took me to an abandoned salt mine where he did some ‘stuff’ that took my mind right off my ills for more than a day. But who wants to hear a glut of unsavoury details of how my cyber life led me astray when there’s so much goodwill and kindheartedness to mull over instead?

Claire Hennessy
I grew up with the internet, so I’ve never known what it’s like to be a grown-up without it. But a lot of the complaints I hear people make – the obligations to present a public persona, to update their various social media outlets, the busyness of it all – just sound to me like the sort of things adulthood seemed to be about. Being capable of making one’s own choices, but still having obligations and commitments, whether it was attending some work event or chatting to someone at the supermarket. Many of these things often sounded suspiciously close to fun, and if they were really that dreadful then why didn’t grown-ups just, well, not do them?

That little child-voice in my head that wonders why grown-ups talk about the things they ‘have’ to do when they don’t really have to speaks up a lot when I think about the internet and how time-consuming it can be, how we can feel under pressure to respond immediately to emails or represent ourselves in an interesting way on Twitter or whatever it might be. It’s the same voice that reminds me that despite all the complaining we can do, the truth is that for most of us, the internet, like growing-up, is infinitely better than the alternative.

Catherine Crichton

My contribution is all about Twitter. So, what have I got out of it?

  • A bottle of wine from @grapesofsloth, just for posting him a useful link
  • Two free theatre tickets from @darraghdoyle for entering a competition
  • A copy of Mary Poppins from @patomahony1, which I passed on in turn to @snastablasta

But those are just the added extras. Twitter is a source of news, information, fun, great conversations and recommendations for films, books, restaurants and music. It’s all out there if you follow the right people. TV becomes communal; many programmes just aren’t the same without a simultaneous Twitter stream of comments and observations.

I often work from home, and while Twitter can be a terrible distraction, it also helps to make tedious work bearable and lessens the feelings of isolation. During a recent hospital stay I was really touched by all the good wishes I received from my Twitter friends. And, sad though this may sound, I do regard some of my Twitter contacts as friends. I have met a few of them in the real world, and hope to meet more.

As @nickmcgivney wrote in this recent blog post, Twitter can help people to virtually meet their heroes. I have had a tragic middle-aged crush on actor David Morrissey (@davemorrissey64) since once briefly meeting him. Lo and behold, he joined Twitter and posts interesting tweets and an excellent daily music track of the day. Not only that, but he also engages with his followers including, occasionally and thrillingly, me. I have also had a few exchanges with the highly amusing @hughbon. Oh yes Downton Abbey fans, only Lord Grantham himself!

But the best thing about Twitter is that it inspired me to move beyond 140 characters and to start writing, on a (recently neglected) blog of my own, and here at the Anti Room. Nothing beats the feeling of someone commenting that they enjoyed something I have written. So I want to raise a glass to Sinead, Anna and all the other Anti Room women. Here’s to the next 500 posts.

Amanda Brown

Answering people’s social media problems in the Irish Times for the past year has taught me a thing or two.

Stuff I knew already: Irish people are intensely private, mostly because if it gets out their grandmother will know within five seconds, problems on the Internet feel as all-encompassing as problems off the Internet – they are real problems – and everyone’s compartmentalised social spheres are becoming  melded together.

Things that have impressed on me include; just how intensely personal problems on the Internet are, how little most people who use it know about how to protect themselves on it, how unwilling most people are to be rude on the Internet – except the copious amounts of people who become incredibly rude when they are on the Internet.

The ramifications of the move of large parts of our social lives online are profound and currently little known.

What we do know is society has always had technology and technology has always been a part of society. There are negative books  about the Internet being spat out as if the printed word were going out of fashion (snark), the most recent being a tome called Alone Together by Sherry Turkle. These types of books claim the revolution of social media on the Internet is making us socially poorer by creating an illusion of being surrounded by friends when the essential elements of real friendship (regular real world meetings, face to face communication etc) are not there.

There are other, more positive books, notably The Cognitive Surplas by Clay Shirky, which recognises the enormous power of good that has occurred from millions of people democratically connecting in order to entertain, inform and even encourage each other to give charitably and improve the real world.

The arguments against the Internet continue to rumble on ploughing the exact same ground as all those spouted against television.

My bottom line, having dealt primarily for the last year with people’s problems online, is that the Internet and more specifically Social Media, widens our lives out in a mostly positive way by making connection and meaningful, as well as meaningless, communication possible at the touch of a fingertip

As Adam Gopnik wrote in his superb New Yorker article on the subject, “Thoughts are bigger than the things that deliver them.”

Social media delivers far more people’s thoughts far more effectively than any previous media revolution.

That will take us where we decide to take ourselves.

Aoife Barry

My first forays onto the internet took place when I was in secondary school. I’d go online with a friend, using her creaky dial-up connection. We’d sit chomping on Pringles while patiently waiting for the beep-beep-brriing-buzz noises to signal that we were on our way to the super cyber highway. Though the internet seemed a huge and somewhat unfathomable beast, with an infinite amount of information at my fingertips, I always ended up doing exact the same thing – going to Alta Vista and searching for very basic items like song lyrics, or information on TV shows. Wild days, to be sure.

That said, at one stage, unsure of what else to do online, I’d just search for ‘chatrooms’. Not my finest moment, it has to be said – up there with when I used to think LOL meant ‘lots of love’. That naivety makes me laugh now, but back then the internet really was unchartered territory. Today, I’m wholeheartedly pro-internet. Just last night, I caught the end of a documentary on Robert Moog, the creator of the Moog synthesiser, on TV. That led me online, searching for Youtube videos about early electronic music; watching old Delia Derbyshire videos and marvelling, as always, at her perfect ear for beat-matching; and then discovering legendary Theremin players.

I believe the net has enhanced women’s lives immeasurably. Online, we can join communities, connect with people with similar ideals to us; find out more about feminism; and read about women’s rights in other countries. We can blog about our experiences, in private, using a pseudonym. We can talk about sex, contraception, relationships, in the ‘open’, perhaps for the first time in our individual lives.

Have a problem? Google it. It’s perhaps no surprise that type in the words ‘Am I…’ into Google and the first suggestion is ‘Am I pregnant?’

But just as the internet offers freedom, it offers constraints too. It’s not free of the prejudices which can plague life off-line – sexism, racism, homophobia. There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people online, and women are exposed to the same abuse on the net as they may be in real life situations, albeit in a non-physical manner. Though the internet offers anonymity, and that includes the ability to hide your sex, if you ‘out’ yourself as female, or male, or transgender, you leave yourself open to being judged on that.

I find the internet can also impinge on my real life – sucking up precious minutes and hours when I should be working, playing on my innate ability to procrastinate and sitting like the proverbial shoulder-devil, tempting me with just ‘one more’ look at a new site or Twitter feed.

But despite all of its pitfalls, I will forever be grateful for the internet – and do not take the fact I live in a country where I have uncensored access to it for granted. It gives me knowledge, it gives me space to vent, and has even been beneficial to my career.  And now that I’ve learned not to spend time arguing with people on forums (that’s a top tip there if you want to stay sane on the internet!), ‘surfing the net’ is a rather pleasant experience indeed, even if it does have its ups and downs.


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Feminism and the art of burlesque have traditionally had a complex relationship. It is empowering? Degrading? Subversive? Creative? Clichéd? Pandering to the male gaze? Subverting that gaze? Here feminist and burlesque fan and performer Ciara O’Connor gives her view.

The word “burlesque” has cropped up in polite conversation quite a lot recently. Christina and Cher’s affront to the word notwithstanding, every so often someone brings it up when out for drinks if I say I’ve just been to a show… and often there is a reductive remark about strippers. Take for example Maeve Higgins’ recent comment on the Tweeter : “Burlesque is so shit. Stupid middle class women stripping.” I’m not sure if Maeve has ever been to a show, but I know her comment was a reflection (if a slightly more abrasive reflection) of some peoples ideas and conceptions of what Burlesque is and is not. There are always people who are indifferent towards any medium, the decriers declaring Burlesque is dead, those who say it is anti-women, and those who couldn’t care less.

Feminist burlesque performer Blackbird, aka Emily

Because I’m a fan of the art form, and I occasionally perform at cabaret shows and see a lot of different types of burlesque, I thought I’d throw my two cents into the ring.

Burlesque’s etymology denotes a send up, it is a derisive imitation, grotesque parody. Burlesque is close in meaning with caricature, pastiche, parody and travesty, and, in its theatrical sense, with extravaganza, as presented during the Victorian era (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_burlesque). From the Wikipedia entry on Burlesque we see that it isn’t just all 1950s pin-up wither, its been around a long time: “”Burlesque” has been used in English in this literary and theatrical sense since the late 17th century. It has been applied retrospectively to works of Chaucer and Shakespeare and to the Graeco-Roman classics.“

Later forms of burlesque came in the popular variety show format. These were common from the 1860s to the 1940s, often in cabarets and clubs, as well as theatres, and featured bawdy comedy and striptease as part of the show. Burlesque has historically been seen as a cheeky, low-brow and very bold form of adult-only theatre.  Performers draw from theatre, mime, improvisation, movement to music, as well as all forms of dance. They are also usually loaded with cultural reference and spoof.

There has been a resurgence of interest in classical Burlesque in the 1990s which quickly became popular in the US, the UK and the rest of Europe. This resurgence also birthed what is referred to as Neo-burlesque (see Hot Press this month for a very interesting round-up of Neo-Burlesque in Ireland). Neo-burlesque often removes the nostalgic aspect of burlesque and uses contemporary music and themes, so you may find yourself watching Jessica Fletcher do a striptease to Gothrock. The beauty of burlesque is that it can be anything and everything, as creative as your imagination and the boundaries you put on yourself as a performer.

A friend writing a blog on fashion and feminism recently described me as “someone who I imagine came into the world screaming ‘I am a feminist!’.” As a feminist-from-the-womb – or at least a young age, I was needless to say not immune to the impressions the media give out about burlesque, and my inner feminist was in twitch-overdrive when I went to my first ever burlesque show. My twitching quickly subsided – and not only was I completely hooked: I was fascinated, enthralled and excited, brimming over with ideas after it – I was convinced that in my eyes, burlesque was decidedly feminist.

As I wrote recently in a guest blog for Dr Sketchy’s,  decontextualised women’s bodies are everywhere in society.  Disembodied perfectly round arses in Reebok trainers, floating breasts selling car insurance…. our world is saturated with nudity, implied nudity and women’s body parts, exposed, scrutinised, made grotesque and vilified… or portrayed as perfection and symmetry and the ideal we should all strive for/compare ourselves to. Burlesque shows are one place where you get to see real women’s bodies… not on display for the sexualised gaze, nor for “auntie Gok” to truss up like some Christmas ham and stuff into magic knickers to try to fit into normative beauty standards, but just – celebrated.  Cheered.  Whooped at and hollered for.  Breasts, bellies, smiles of all ages and types, none of them detached from the woman they belong to.  In fact, firmly in context as the performer is not only showing off her body but her creativity… her body can be tattooed, pierced, decorated with body paint, breasts all different shapes and sizes adorned with nipple tassels; they have meaning, they have context.  These are real bodies, (ab)normal, individual, all appendix scars and jiggly bits.  In a society where nudity has become so… meaningless… here it is loaded with meaning.

Also, the burlesque scene in Ireland is decidedly radical. The performers are smart, creative and quite amazing men and women who do fantastical things with the medium. A great example is my friend and fellow fabulous feminist Emily. She is a stunning performer – she creates acts that are thought provoking, political, visually stunning, sometimes hyperfeminine, sometimes very masculine, always impeccably costumed and gripping from beginning to end. She tells a story and makes a statement in a way that is firmly tongue in cheek and yet quick off the mark and very intelligent.

Lilly DeValle's barbershop act gradually turns from cute to creepy

Another burlesque performer, Lilly DeValle, cuts a striking figure on stage, playing a cheesecake cutesy character who has a dark and evil side – for example her cute barber shop act which quickly transforms into a bloodbath as she hacks up the poor unsuspecting customer in her barbershop chair. She is a true storyteller and has impeccable comedic timing. One of Dublin’s queen’s of the burlesque scene Miss Bella A Go Go is one of the most creative people I know, sewing and handmaking all her costumes, her  incredible mind is full of fantasy which she expertly brings to life on stage with incredibly intricate themed shows, such as her recent Steampunk Cabaret.

So for those who may reduce burlesque to “stupid, middle class women stripping” – I’d like to extend an invitation to come and see a show. The scene here is vibrant and bristling with life and energy. The performers (male and female) are dedicated to making you smile, cringe, cower and giggle like a kid. I asked my friends when writing this why they attend these shows, and the consensus was strong – the striptease element is the last thing on the list. They come to find something different, something entertaining, to find like minded people and to have fun. The nudity in the shows is a great leveller. It’s an opportunity to dress up, to drink cocktails and smoke cigars, to travel to another world for one night only. And who among us doesn’t enjoy some escapism now and then?

If you think you’d like to give a show a go, then I would highly recommend any of the following nights:

The League of Decadent Bastards

This will be the show of the summer – an all male cast and an amazing line up including some of my favourite cabaret artists, a proper treat for the senses!

Burlesque and Cabaret Social Club

The mainstay of the Dublin scene, mostly classical and vintage burlesque and music, monthly, at the Sugar Club

The Love Cats Burlesque

Fabulous troupe of burlesque artists, comedians and musicians in Dublin

Dr Sketchy’s anti-art school – for the artists among us – where life drawing meets cabaret

AND watch out for shows from: Sedition Industries, AWOL tattoo studio Galway, The Pony Girls, Midnight Burlectro, Sideshow Cabaret and many more over 2011.

Ciara O’Connor is an avid amateur cook and veggie. She has been working in women’s health and education for many years. In her spare time she likes to read, cook, drink wine, and is a student homeopath, sometimes cabaret performer and occasional yogi.
Her twitter is ciara_oc

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