Keepin’ your togs on…and gettin’ girls into trouble…

Keepin’ your togs on…and gettin’ girls into trouble…

In reference to the impregnation of a local girl, an uncle of mine mentioned keeping your togs on, which meant very little to me as I couldn’t figure out how swimming had anything to do with babies. When it comes to the birds and the bees, early on in life, the advice can be confusing.

Today it’s a lot simpler, more clear-cut and there is a far more reality based, simplistic, intelligent way of teaching the important facts to children.   When I was a nipper, it was a very different story. My parents were not an option. All I knew before I even understood a single practical fact about sex, was that getting a girl pregnant was probably going to mean a good hiding (Beating for the non-Irish) possibly prison, the devil himself waiting at the gates of hell laying out the red carpet,  a suspicion one might fall victim to the plague or even worse.  The notion of discussing sex with my parents was ludicrous in the extreme.

At the age of thirteen, we were sent to learn about sex after school hours, in the monastery attached to our Christian Brother run school. Seven year olds today know more about sex than we did entering secondary school.  In theory a potentially valuable learning experience. In practice I learned that sex involved saying a prayer that one might conceive, the lights being turned out before the man enters the room, a woman ‘preparing’ herself whatever that meant, the act of intercourse (which went unexplained beyond the vague notion that a man and woman shared a bed almost fully clothed in the dark after prayers) and a final prayer to remind the Lord that the whole point of what just happened, was purely to conceive a child and to reassure him that neither of you got any particular pleasure from it.

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You can see I was confused as a young boy. Now in the absence of any practical or helpful advice, we fell foul of the rumour mill.  I couldn’t put most of them to paper without blushing, but among them there was a suggestion involving bodily fluids being collected from very strange parts of the body, not strictly connected to the reproductive organs and these being applied to other parts of the body in some bizarre ritual. I know that doesn’t make sense but you had to be there and really, you don’t want to know.

Most of my knowledge relating to female anatomy came from second hand copies of National geographic that were passed around school with titters and “a haw a haw a haw’s” from sniggering, filthy minded boys who hadn’t a clue either. One boy who shall remain nameless, but you know who you are Joe O’Reilly, actually produced a real dirty magazine at the back of the sheds one day.   I say ‘real’ but basically if was something akin to Playboy with  a naked girl centrefold.   To be honest, I was pretty traumatised by the whole thing, as nothing looked like I imagined it and I was still quite confused as to the practical application of the various working parts.

There was one girl who would flash her bra for money but I never saw that, not that I didn’t have the money, it just seemed a little frightening to me. I watched Pan’s people on Top of the Pops and that was even a bit too much for me, the little walking hormone that I became as puberty crept up on me.

Someone told me you could get a girl pregnant through French kissing and I was deeply concerned. I hadn’t actually French kissed a girl but as I didn’t know what ‘French’ kissing was, the whole notion that I might accidently do it unwittingly someday, frightened the life out of me.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. I was such an innocent, there would have had to be another immaculate conception for me to get a girl pregnant. The only way I would have got a girl into trouble back in the day, was if I told her mother she was smoking….

Obviously over the years I have gained much wisdom, so clearly if I was asked to give advice to the young boys of today It would be quite simple. Keep your togs on lads…

 

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Reeling in the Years…

Reeling in the Years…

Langadoc me gu gu chop and inkle up me goujons. I couldn’t put it better if I tried. No there is not a full moon and I haven’t gone crazy. There’s an element of misunderstanding that goes unnoticed for the most part, but it is all around us.  We misinterpret each other all the time, children in a big way and to a large extent, those who are at the extreme edge of what we consider age.  I re-blogged a blog I wrote on age earlier today, a year after I originally blogged it and it got me thinking.

We have a 91st birthday in our house today.  Known to the state as Mary, to most as Jomammy and to me simply as Joan, it is striking how alien the world has become to her. It is something most people never truly consider. Much of the world today, the change in manners, customs, respect and even simple things that she still insists upon doing ‘right’ are constantly changing. Born in 1925 the world in which she grew up wasn’t just different it was radically different.  My childhood was through the sixties and seventies and lord knows the world has changed dramatically even since I was a nipper. Imagine then how the world of today is alien to someone who is 91 today. The way she was taught, the things she learned and how she behaves are all deeply ingrained on her through tradition and upbringing. Today she lives in a very different environment.

Ireland as an independent country had only existed for less than three years when Joan was born, and we had to wait another twelve years for the Irish constitution. In America, the Scopes monkey trial where a teacher was put on trial for teaching evolution occurred in the same year she was born. When she arrived to this world, Winnie the Pooh hadn’t been written, there were no talking pictures, chewing gum wasn’t invented and no one had heard of Mickey Mouse.

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Joan was 5 when Pluto was discovered, six when Al Capone went to gaol for tax evasion, when the Empire State building was completed and ten years old when Penguin produced the first paperback book.  My how technology has changed. She was 14 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and 20 when the Second World War ended in 1945.

When Queen Elizabeth II of England became queen all those years ago, Joan was already Twenty seven years of age.  In the year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus, Joan turned thirty.

She was thirty three when Lego was invented, 36 when the first man went into space and by the time I appeared in this world, she was closing in on forty.  On her fiftieth birthday, there were no Muppets, Apartheid still existed in South Africa, Elvis and John Lennon were still alive, the first test tube baby was still to be conceived and there was no such things as a Sony Walkman.

When Joan was sixty, DNA had yet to be used in criminal trials, the nuclear accident at Chernobyl was yet to happen, the Berlin Wall stood tall and John Wayne Bobbit was still in possession of all his original equipment.

At seventy, she was not to know what lay ahead for Princess Diana, Viagra didn’t exist and while people were starting to talk about Y2K, it was still a ways off and beyond her interest as computers are still a mystery to Joan.

The events of September 11 occurred when she was seventy Six years old and how far back now does that seem.  Each passing year and decade have highlighted the divergence between the world she knew, grew up with and felt comfortable with and the world that she now inhabits.

I haven’t mentioned the most important events of course, but these are the personal treasures and sad memories for her.  Her marriage, the birth of her children, Grandchildren and Great Grandchildren, the loss of her parents and siblings and the many other personal milestones in her life.

That technology progresses so fast these days, must add to the alienation of her world. Computers as I say are a mystery, the technicality of operating a modern TV is something even I can struggle with and it sometimes seems as though people, places and things, have changed so much around her, that she does to some extent live on a foreign planet.

The things that ground her still, are the people who love her, the familiar faces and her treasured possessions.  Her piano, her personal trinkets and prized porcelain.  Her favourite plants growing in the garden, the right food, roast dinners with potatoes and two veg, nothing peculiar, all of the simple things that we can take for granted, are the keys to connecting Joan to the world.

I began by talking nonsense and saying that we misunderstand or misinterpret others frequently.  I see this at close hand every day and I know now that it is important to look outside yourself.  Reimagine the world when talking to those who have lived different lives, or who have experienced different generations.  I will never be Asian or Jewish or God forbid from Cavan, so I will never have to face the world as those people different to me  do.  But I will be old someday.  We all will, so think outside the bubble you live in… Oh and Happy birthday – cover girl Joan 💐 Here she is aged 21 in 1946.

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Exchanging secret smiles of kindness with a monster.

Exchanging secret smiles of kindness with a monster.

Dirty Aggie was a legend of sorts. Back in the day she represented all that was unpleasant about adults and she was very much a creature of time and place.  Rumour had it, she was from a rich family but nothing about her little corner shop or her appearance would support that theory. I was afraid of her.

She was a big woman with a permanent scowl, the sort of face you couldn’t live in without eventually turning sour from seeing your own reflection. I remember blues and pinks beneath a dirty haberdasher’s apron and I never once saw her feet, for she was a permanent fixture behind the counter. Aggie was fine agricultural sort of a woman… a terrifying, menacing creature that I was forced to confront for tins of beans at my mothers behest.

In a time when glass bottles were recycled for a few pennies, Aggie was the nearest source for returns. Some shops stopped the practice until eventually, the only place left to go to was Aggie’s shop.  She was supposed to pay you for the returned empty bottles, but whenever a child came in with one, she would offer goods instead of cash.  I say offer but this was not a choice.

The shop had three counters, one to the left and right of the door and one across the end of the shop facing you as you entered. Invariably 90% of all business was transacted to the right.  Here were the Fig Rolls, the sweets, bottles of red lemonade, Tayto crisps,  cakes cigarettes, matches, jars of bonbons and other assorted sweets, sherbets, liquorice,  penny toffees, black-jacks, dib-dabs, macaroon bars, bread, crackers and a whole range of dried non-perishable foods, which were the mainstay of her business. Sometimes she would have to literally brush the dust off a tin of beans before dispensing it to a customer.

To the left were oddities that I never considered. Here were the grown up, non-food related merchandise, shoe polish and the like, of no interest to a child like me, obsessed with the merest sniff of something that contained sugar.  The counter to my left held no joy for me and I can barely recall what lurked there.  Straight down the end of the shop was a meat slicer where Dirty Aggie would happily, thinly slice from a joint of ham that may have sat for days, festering on the wooden counter.   She could easily handle a bale of peat briquettes or a bag of coal and move directly to the ham slicing without gloves, or any notion of consideration for that thoroughly modern concept of hygiene.   I seem to recall a rather large block of cheese, but then again that may be my memory playing tricks on me.

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A wrap of greaseproof was the barrier to the many flies that seemed a permanent fixture These same buzzing pests, also had a particular preference for the tray of cake that  Aggie always had on display, covered in pink icing, acting as compensation for our refund on the empty lemonade bottles.  She always had to swish away wasps of flies, before slicing into the cake and handing it over to my disappointed hands.  But hey, back then sugar was sugar, you took it any way you got it.

Bigger boys liked to run past and toss stink bombs into the shop with a roar of “Dirty Aggie” as they quickly scarpered, in case she might vault the counter and beat the livin’ bejesus out of them. Aggie always looked threatening enough to be capable of such a thing, but she never did.

Rough looking boys as young as six or seven, would come in and purchase a single cigarette and match but only in the absence of adults. It was a clandestine exchange and Aggie was happy to facilitate the deal, no doubt making far more on the loose cigarettes and match deal, than she ever did on a full packet of Major.

Thinking back she was more a creature than a person to me. She was vilified by her name, useful in her ability to facilitate late opening and her ability to produce the oddest of produce from beneath her filthy wooden counters.

Everyone referred to her as dirty Aggie, children and grown-ups alike. There were stories and rumours of her great physical strength and a good sense that she could indeed crush a little boy like me for looking at her the wrong way, or for speaking too softly. The fear I personally had for her, made her seem more monstrous.

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I know she had a sister, an even older lady, thin from my recollection who never seemed to speak. It always felt as though she was a walking ghost, hovering in the background, never actually doing much, occasionally handing something to Aggie.

My grown-up self sometimes wonders about them. They were two relatively elderly ladies who had a life, a history, a past I sense, inhabited by sadness, crafted by loneliness and they lived a life beyond those counters, a life none of us dared think of or cared to bother considering.

They were not Dickensian times; no I’m afraid I’m not that old, but the world certainly felt a little crueller for people like Aggie and her sister. I was a kind boy and I remember smiling at her once.  She smiled back quite unexpectedly.  Perhaps no bunny-haired little boy had smiled at her for no reason before.  She didn’t say anything but she turned, waved her hand at a determined wasp and cut me a slice of pink cake.

Aggie handed it to me and told me to go on, a gift from a monster that took me by surprise. It is a strikingly vivid memory for me, a moment of confusion, added to all the more the next day, when her grumpy face returned as though we had never exchanged that secret smile of kindness…..

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What Oprah said the first time we met, the big Irish head on me and why I owe her five dollars…

What Oprah said the first time we met, the big Irish head on me and why I owe her five dollars…

Whatever you think of her, Oprah Winfrey is some woman for one woman. It is hard not to be impressed by her rise to fame and her ability to influence people.  For most people, meeting Oprah for the first time must be somewhat overwhelming.  In my case I frightened her at first and then she scared the hell out of me.

I’ve literally never been star-struck. It is partly an Irish begrudgery thing where you don’t want someone to think you’re impressed because they have something you don’t i.e. fame. The other part is a solid grounding as a child that led me to believe no one is any better than I am, so I can always feel confident and hold my own in any circumstances. That’s just the way I fly… You like that BS?

Before I explain how our meeting went, I have to put something on the table to put this in context for you. Growing up in Ireland when I was a child, meant that generally speaking the only colour face you saw was white, freckled or pink if the sun shone.  Today political correctness doesn’t allow people to open their mouths and simply apply a colour to a person, without considering if there is a more appropriate term one should use.  An American once told me, that she hadn’t seen many African Americans when she visited Ireland.  Of course she hadn’t!   The term she used does not apply to Irish people of colour.  She couldn’t bring herself to say the word black for fear of offence.

When I was a child, black was nothing more than an adjective. In the first place, back then there were hardly any people with different colour skin in Ireland and while there were a few of course, it was such a rare thing to see a coloured face, that had I encountered one, I most certainly would have stared. That sounds quite shocking to some I’m sure, but as a kid in a land of pale-skinned Irish, the novelty would have been too much.  In the Irish language for example, a man with dark skin from Africa would be called ‘Fear Gorm’ (Pronounced Far gorrum) or blue man.  Irish is a language heavily dependent on description and a gentleman emanating from equatorial Africa, may indeed have appeared more blue than black when the first Irish linguist decided to apply that term.  I’m not sure if they still use that version in schools today, but they certainly did when I was a child. Children speak of what they see, much as my naïve young self might well have back then.  I only saw people who weren’t white on TV and to me they were black, purely and simply from the lack of another descriptive option.

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Now there is a story I was told in a pub one day, about an American CIA operative who wanted to blend into Irish society so he could assume an Irish identity and work as an international spy. For five years he set himself up in an Irish speaking community (Gaeltacht) and at the end of this time, he not only spoke English with a thick Galway accent, he was a fluent Irish speaker with every nuance of the language perfected. He wore the right clothes and walked like a thick country farmer.

One day he went into a pub in Spiddal and ordered a pint. As the Barman poured he enquired,

“What part of America would you be from?”

Astounded, the CIA man shook his head and told the barman about all his efforts and the years of work he had put into appearing Irish. When he finished explaining all that he had done, he asked the barman what had given him away as American. The barman answered,

“Sure aren’t you as black as the ace of spades.”

Now this little joke has two points. One it pokes fun at Americans (sorry America) and two it demonstrates the wholly mono-cultural society that existed in Ireland at the time of its telling. In Texas, a person can walk like a Texan, talk like a Texan and say he’s a Texan and… he’s a Texan regardless of race.  To some degree this applies in modern Ireland. But when I was a child, this mono-cultural world was the one in which I lived. The result was that when I first began my travels, I had a dirty big, unworldly Irish head on me.

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When I landed in Chicago for the first time as a young man, I was quite literally shocked to see so many people who didn’t have pale white skin, freckles or sunburn. It was a monstrous culture shock. One day not long after I had arrived, my brother who lived in Chicago, agreed to meet me after he finished work and I foolishly chose to take the bus to meet him.  I had no idea where I was going and I quickly became lost.  I took another bus and ended up outside a museum having run out of bus fare.  I was in trouble. Back then we had no mobile phones, so I had to get my skinny, white Irish ass back to his apartment or to his place of work, all by my lonesome.

I decided to do something unthinkable and throw myself upon the mercy of strangers. This it turned out, was not the best idea I have ever had, as I appeared to be some brightly coloured, pan-handler, in a red yellow and green t-shirt, with long blonde wavy hair, a pair of cut-off denim shorts (it was a long time ago) and to add to my dilemma, I was the only white face in a sea of coloured faces in a very non-white neighbourhood.

I went up to a woman with two children and politely said, “Excuse me…” and was about to ask if she could possibly lend me one dollar so I might catch the bus. I fully intended to explain in my naievity, that I was on holiday from Ireland followed by a full explanation of my predicament.  Bear in mind, I come from a place where Irish people happily speak to strangers all the time, so I assumed the same of Americans.  Furthermore, never having experienced racial tension, my out-of-placeness in that moment never crossed my mind. For some reason she thought my intentions were far more sinister.

Jesus I only got two words out and she went apoplectic. She started screaming and yelling, I thought she might start beating me there and then in the middle of the street, so I made a hasty retreat, my problem unsolved, the crazy woman still shouting abuse after me as I walked away. I hadn’t even heard some of the swear words that she was using to berate me before that day.

Then it happened. I turned around and there she was, large as life, Oprah Winfrey. I had only just seen her for the first time a few days earlier, my brother’s wife being addicted to her show and it was her I knew it. I have no idea why, but I immediately walked up to her as though I knew her and she listened calmly as I began explaining my story. I was still traumatised by the previous lady and I spoke at one hundred miles an hour. Half way through my explanation, she opened her purse, took out five dollars and handed it to me. I’ll never forget the words she said to me.

“Get the F*** out of my face you pan-handin’ mother F****r, you’re lucky you haven’t had your skinny white ass killed already, comin’ up here like a stripy-assed funky zebra with your corn hair and your nasty-ass shorts… now go on get the hell out of here.”

Ah Oprah… fond memories, or at least they nearly were. That evening as I explained my tale to my brother, Oprah came on the telly. “There she is, there she is!” I said excitedly like I was her new best friend, only it wasn’t her.  It was someone else.  But that wasn’t possible? The penny dropped, I was of course watching Oprah on the TV, which meant the person I had tapped up for five bucks was someone else entirely. Now all the ‘mother-f****r’ talk made sense.   In fairness there really was a very strong likeness but my naïve young self, fresh and green, didn’t understand that it was highly unlikely that I would have met someone like Oprah on a Chicago side-walk. I had been so traumatised by the first lady who verbally assaulted me; it was only thinking back that I remembered she had been pushing a shopping trolley full of cans.

I needed to get out more; I needed to meet other people that weren’t from one culture. That’s long been rectified and I never met Oprah again. Of course it wasn’t her, but much like a realistic dream, I can’t help shake the memory as though it was really Ms. Winfrey herself that I met in my hour of need.  With that in mind,  I am grateful for the five bucks she gave me that day  and if I ever do meet her in real life, I promise to pay her back.  Oprah I owe you one…

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Forgetting what’s his face and twinkling like a cowboy…

Forgetting what’s his face and twinkling like a cowboy…

I twinkled because of a memory last night. I actually sparkled for a moment and I felt it. We were trying to remember the name of an actor who was always in the cavalry in old western movies.  He was blonde or silver haired and he wore those hats so well, you know the ones with the little toggles to the front, the crossed sword emblem and he looked handsome beneath its shade with his yellow neckerchief tied loosely against his sallow skin… what’s his face.. you know… Still can’t remember his name though. As we were thinking an image came to mind, more a memory and it was me as a little boy.

I reckon I asked for a cowboy suit every Christmas for at least 4 years. It was just a no-brainer. Every one of my peers was a cowboy too, but none as dedicated as me. Of course there were cowboy suits and there were cowboy suits. Not having a lot of money back then, my cowboy outfit, generally consisted of a plastic fringed waistcoat, a pair of plastic chaps, definitely a hat, one year a pair of plastic silver-coloured spurs, a sheriff’s badge and of course at least one gun and holster.

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Thinking of this last night, I felt my whole body smile.  It went through me to the core.  Every single item in the kit had significance.  My fantasy was to have a cavalry uniform, with the flap-over buttons, the stripe on the trousers, the toggled hat and yellow neckerchief and a Winchester rifle.  I never got to have my fantasy, so I made do with what I could have.  I more than made do because I had a little something extra.  I had my imagination.

One time, I had twin holsters with a tie string for my leg and I would practice tying it off like a gunslinger so I looked dangerous, even in the way I tied it. That I was a skinny little thing, with a wisp of fine blonde hair tussled on my head, didn’t matter one bit.  I knew how to look tough and make it look good, at least in my head.  The sheriff’s badge was once replaced by a Marshall’s badge, which was even better and my hats were never black. Black hats were for baddies and I was only ever the goody.

Drawing? Well partner, I sure knew how to draw me down any varmint that was mean enough to try to come into my town to take over. I spent hour after hour alone in my back garden, perfecting my speed, style, pose, facial expression and accompanying gun noise, until I was the most impressive cowboy on the planet.  No buzzard dared fly overhead, nor injun’ dared poke his head out from behind our shed. No siree! I could sense them from fifty yards away with my back turned and I could draw, spin, shoot twice before hitting the dirt, roll at least three times before shooting again, get back to my feet and dive for cover without even a breaking a sweat.

When I got my Winchester, well all bets were off. I went to war with the entire Sioux nation, killed a thousand Apaches scores of, Navajo, Blackfoot, Pawnee, Cree, Cheyenne, Crow, countless Comanche and half the Mexican army when they invaded my back garden in grey old Dublin.

How I walked, talked, the tilt of my hat, the swish of my chaps, everything held more importance than many of the things that have significance in my life as an adult today. Nothing else mattered when I was in character.  We built forts in my back garden to alternately attack and defend, taking turns, never falling out for fear we’d end the game, always finding that compromise that meant you got hit but not killed so you could carry on.  I was winged so many times; I should have looked like a pin cushion. The summers seemed long, even though they weren’t and the sun shone more in my memory than in truth.  Irish winters were spent making indoor forts or belly-crawling beneath couches, to sneak up on a campfire in our front room.

So this all came back in a blast to me last night and yes I twinkled. I twinkled as the shiny part of my childhood came back to remind me who I am and what lies beneath this ever crinkling, always creaking shell of mine. I still can’t remember who that cowboy was but it doesn’t matter.  Just trying to recall his name made me find one of my twinkles and that was priceless. Long may I twinkle…. No wait… Jeff Chandler!

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Nominations for Bloggers Bash Awards Are Now OPEN! — writerchristophfischer

Originally posted on Sacha Black: We are finally on the count down to the bash, peeps. I am so excited I really ought to be wearing a sports bra what with all the bouncing up and down. So far we have announced the totally-off-the-chart-gorgeous venue here. Then we announced our blogger extraordinaire and guest speaker Luca…

via Nominations for Bloggers Bash Awards Are Now OPEN! — writerchristophfischer