Slow Day

I’ve got nothing to do and all day to do it
I had me some money and already blew it
So I bought me some gum and I’m planning to chew it
And I’m going to take it slow.

Got nothing to say and all day to say it
No game to play and all day to play it
No bill to pay and all week to pay it
And I just thought I’d let you know.

Yesterday was difficult
Tough as a nail
Pride went before a fall
But still I got through it
Got out of jail
Now today is for nothing at all

I’ve got nothing to sing and all day to sing it
No bell to ring and all day to ring it
Nothing to bring and all day to bring it.
And I’m just gonna let it flow.

(c) Ken Armstrong 2012

A Selfish Sort Of Grief

I’ve written once or twice already about my Father dying earlier this year.  Those pieces are further back in the blog, In normal cases, I would link to them but, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I don’t want to.

I always try to make the weekly blog post about something that’s on my mind in the week it appears.  This week, the consideration of ‘grief’ has taken up some of my head-time so what I would like to be able to do is to write a dispassionate series of lines on that subject and my own personal experience of it. 

Not so easy. 

It’s like a swimming pool… when you’re in it, it’s hard to write about it.

Still I’ll give it a shot.

And these few lines will be only applicable to one particular type of grief. That odd type of grief when an elderly parent passes away. I can’t speak with any first hand knowledge about any other colours of grief and, as you can imagine, I am glad about that.

Around the time that Dad died, in March of this year, somebody wrote a good blog post about this very subject. I wish I had a link for it, someone may be able to oblige. I remember the writer vividly portraying the weight of expectation one almost places on oneself to grieve. A sort of feeling like, “here we go, the grief will be along at any moment now, ‘better brace myself.”

But the expected forms of grief haven’t really shown up and, in my writerly arrogance, I am willing to bet that it isn’t just me. I bet the ‘non-arrival of the expected manifestation of grief’ is something that many of us experience. I could be wrong, you tell me.

You read about those ‘seven stages of grief’ (to paraphrase; shock, pain, anger, depression, turnaround, reconstruction, acceptance) and it doesn’t seem to apply in this case. It seems like ‘too much’. Does this seem horribly dispassionate? Let me personalise it a bit more in order to clarify. 

Dad turned eighty on the day he died, his medical advisers would not have been terribly surprised if he had died much younger. He had a full life, saw all his children grown up and fulfilled, met and knew his grandchildren, loved and protected his wife until she went before him, laughed, suffered, went to the football, got sick, got better, was sad, was happy… He had this great big full life and it ran a good long course and he died peacefully and unexpectedly in his own bed in his sleep.

How much grief should there really be?

This is perhaps the challenge that faces me; a perceived lack of grief on my part. Am I cold and heartless to be trundling on with my life, not broken, not even bowed all that much, by my loss?

That’s one side of the coin.

The other side is that there is grief, a low-level-but-still-very-real grief, which doesn’t seem to fit tidily into any of the ‘seven stages’ guidelines.  

There are three parts to this low level grief.  Two of them are obvious.  Firstly, I miss him. I just miss him around.  We had grown to be conspirators, me and my Dad, we would hatch plans and concoct little strategies and generally think alike (and often misguidedly) about most things. We talked on the phone every evening at the same time – ten o’clock. Sometimes I will still pick up the phone, my head full of some devious plan to share. That’s grief, I think.

Secondly, there has been a small draining of colour from the world. Nothing earth-shattering or fearful but something real and tangible none the less. It’s like someone got hold of the remote control and turned the vividness down a few notches. That’s probably grief too.

But it’s the third part of this low level grief that I’m experiencing… it’s the third part that I never see discussed by anybody. That’s the part that I most wanted to write about today, mostly because I never see it mentioned anywhere else. It’s what I would call ‘the selfish grief’. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t get talked about much, because it is so damned selfish.

It’s like this.

Life is like school summer holidays. When you are young and you get your school summer holidays, it is like they will go on for ever. There is literally no end in sight because no end has ever been defined for you. You have no personal experience of it. As you get older, though, you start to learn the ways of the summer holidays, that they are sufficiently long that the end of them doesn’t have to be worried about yet but also there is a growing understanding that they are naturally finite and will run their inevitable course.

As I get older, the course of my life gets more clearly defined for me. Obviously this is partly because much more than half of it is now gone but it’s not just that. The remaining part of our lives springs more clearly into focus by the nature of the experiences we have. Things like increasing aches and pains, worsening of eyesight, hearing, and memory. All of these draw faint lines on that subconscious notepad which we use  to define our lives. It creates an ever-clearer sketch of where our life is going and where it will eventually end up.

And, on the day that Dad died, that rather abstract sketch in that mostly-filed-away mental notepad, that rough rendering in charcoal and hard pencil… well it sprang into Technicolor, Widescreen, 3D and Dolby Stereo. There, in the sight of another parental life ended, lay the clear image of how the rest of my life would be.

Does that make sense? This mysterious third part of my low-level grief, it is actually for myself. The shell that Dad left behind in his bed on that morning that he left, that’s the shell that I will leave too. I awake and find myself in the exact same position in the bed as he was when he died and I quickly re-adjust myself and try to think other thoughts. 

It seems a large part of this grief is selfish. They didn’t tell me that, in their seven rules.

I’m not a great one for quoting Jesus but I think he had his finger on some kind of pulse when, on the road to his crucifixion, he told those weeping ladies, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves…” 

I could end this post there, on that rather negative tone but that would be disingenuous of me.  My self-understanding tends to come in layers (like Shrek’s Onion) and I know there is at least one more layer beyond the rather indulgent words which I have written above. 

It’s very simple. It’s this. In that list of seven stages of grief, which I so neatly disregarded, I actually reckon that I am currently residing in some low-level version of number 4 which, along with its headline also includes the words "Reflection" and "Loneliness". Perhaps there is, after all, some basic truth in the 'seven stages'.

So I know, deep down, that things will become better, as time passes, even though they’re not actually all that bad now.

I’m fine, really.

It’s just good to write about these things.

I think. 

The Opportunistic Fun Urge

I think I’m getting more serious as I get older. It’s probably a natural thing. Life gets more serious, doesn't it? Still, I was relieved recently to find that I still haven’t completely lost my interest in having a little off-the-cuff fun when the opportunity randomly presents itself.

Believe it or not, I’m actually quite a shy person in my own peculiar way. If required, I can be outgoing and effusive enough but my default setting is one of, ‘leave me alone and I will happily slip past you and be on my way’.

One exception to this is my 'Opportunistic Fun Urge'.  Only very rarely does it happen that a situation presents itself, a confluence of planets or something, which provides an opportunity for a moment of levity… if you are brave enough to take it.

Let me give you one of my favourite ‘for instances’. 

When I lived in London, as I did for fourteen years, I loved to catch the new movies in Leicester Square. If I was meeting someone there, I would tend to wait at the statue of Charlie Chaplin outside the Odeon. I think it may have moved a bit since then. One summer’s evening, I was standing there waiting for someone when I noticed that a yellow post-it note was stuck to Charlie’s body. It flapped in the breeze and then blew off. I chased it across the square, more out of curiosity than anything else, and eventually caught up with it and snatched it from the air. My aim was simple, retrieve it and put it back on the statue, perhaps a little more securely than before, so that the intended recipient might eventually find it.

As I walked back, I read it. 

It read, “Hi Marie and Sasha, sorry couldn’t wait any longer, see you back at the hotel. Jean.”

Fair enough.

Here’s where the fun opportunity arose.  When I got back to the statue, note in hand, there were two girls standing there, looking around anxiously. They had backpacks and it wasn’t hard to tell that they were American.

I think this sets me apart a bit from quite a lot of other people. This attribute where, despite my inherent shyness and reticence, I cannot resist the pull of a little opportunistic fun.

I approached the girls in my brightest, friendliest manner.

“Sasha? Marie?” I grinned, “is it really you?”

Sasha and Marie were as surprised and baffled as you might expect.

“It’s been so long. Too long. Are you going to see a movie? Are you meeting someone? (Stand back and admire) Can you believe us meeting like this?”  Then the pause, the hint of disappointment. “You don’t remember me, do you?” 

That’s about as far as I could take it.  I apologised, explained about the blown away note and how Jean was probably back at the hotel by now. We had a laugh and that was it. Nothing, really, in the scheme of things. Just a moment of impromptu fun which I enjoyed and which I remember fondly.

These things happen so rarely.

Then, just last week, I was given another one. A potential moment of unrehearsed fun. Out of the blue. I’m much older and sadder now then I was in Leicester Square but I still couldn’t resist. I’m glad about that.

It was the simplest of things.

I was rushing to a meeting, armed with papers and such, my head full of what I would have to say. My route took me along the river in Castlebar which has recently been treated to a new protective guarding made of stainless steel and thick horizontal wire.

As I plodded along, I saw a Dad and his little three year old son up ahead. Both were studying the fence in a very serious manner.  As I approached, as I often do with people, I tuned into their conversation.

“I was only kidding, Jack, the wire is not electrified. Touch it and see.”

Jack was reluctant, he kept extending his small fingers a little toward the wire and then drawing them back.

I was practically upon them by now so there was no time for rational thought or maturity. Here was a opportunity for a possible smile, a moment different to all the rest.  Stopping beside them, I wordlessly examined the wire then, still wordlessly, I grabbed it.

I twitched, a little at first, then juddered quite alarmingly, then lost my footing and fell to the ground still grabbing the wire.  Then I let go, stood up, dusted myself down and went on my way.  Not a word to father and son, just 'bang' and off.

Father took a moment, then he laughed. He laughed heartily. It was good to hear. I like a laugh and what I had done could have just as easily earned me a bang on the ear. I know that, believe me. 

As I strolled off, I looked back, Dad was still laughing. The kid was looking dubious, as you might expect. I am sure he got around to grasping the wire himself afterward, though perhaps not for a moment or two.

What is the attraction for me in these silly, rare, slightly dangerous moments? I can’t say. My instinct is that it is  one of those little parts of me which makes me a bit different to most other people and, for that reason mostly, I like it.

Roll on the next opportunity. 

I hope I survive it.

I Can’t Look My Best, I Feel Undressed…

If you’re ever wandering around my home town of Castlebar and you see some guy and you wonder to yourself, “Is he that fecker off the Internet?” you could give yourself a clue by looking to see if he’s carrying an umbrella.

I rarely go anywhere without my umbrella. It’s a source of amusement to quite a few people, this sight of Ken wandering up the main street in the blazing sunshine with his umbrella in hand.  People sometimes stop me and berate me about it, suggesting that my umbrella-toting in such good weather is somehow detrimental to the likelihood of the good weather persisting. I smile and move on.

All I know is this: if I ever leave the house without my umbrella, it is very likely to rain on me. It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, sunshine or snow, without my umbrella I will get drenched. And, in an existence where I find it hard to keep any faith that there actually is a God, this umbrella-thing allows me a small glimmer of hope. It just seems rather planned, this ‘let’s rain on Ken if he forgets his umbrella’ thing. It allows me to cling to the wonderful possibility that there might be some godly figure looking down and (even more fun) that he has a rather devilish sense of humour. “Look, bright-boy’s forgotten his thingie again… just watch this…”

The video clip I’ve included here, in place of the customary photo, is Leon Redbone singing about his walking stick. His sentiments can equally be applied to me and my umbrella. Have a listen, if you have time to dally. I love Leon and the song is good.

One of the troubles with constantly using an umbrella is that you wear them out quite quickly. Ireland is blustery at times and umbrella technology becomes tired and worn. Thus is it that my time with any given umbrella usually ends on a rainy, high-wind, day with my companion broken and torn and pulled inside-out then angrily dumped in the nearest litter bin, swore-at, and then abandoned.

This is not always easy. I get quite close to each of my umbrellas. Perhaps, in a ‘Third Policeman’ sort of way, my constant contact with the handle means that molecules of me are swapped with molecules of the umbrella and we pick up some of each other’s traits. For my part, I can sometimes be found standing in the corners of pubs and the umbrella may simply tend to open up to people at inopportune moments.

After an umbrella and me have finally parted company, there is inevitably a difficult time. There will be a gap period before I get a new one and I will invariably get pissed-down-on on every single day that this period lasts. Then the new one… well, it just won’t be the old one, will it? It will have its own quirks and foibles and it will take time for me to get know it. It’s a tentative moment.

Still I value my umbrella and would be lost without it.


Reading this back, I can see that it is just as I thought. It is quite easy to draw parallels between a person’s relationship with their umbrella and with their partner. Think about it for a moment. You get close, you come to depend on each other, you inherit foibles from each other, you shelter and support each other. Then, when it breaks down, it is usually in some tumultuous moment, one partner will get sworn-at and chucked in the bin and the other will stagger off, no longer protected from the storm.

Umbrellas and Friends, eh?

But wait, if there really is an effective umbrella metaphor to describe friendship and even romance then surely it is a rather depressing one. An umbrella, after all, will always eventually break down beneath the unbearable weight of the elements. Does this mean that any relationship must inevitably do the same? Is the only hope for unending friendship some vain aspiration towards some mythic indestructible umbrella?

Well... no.

Because friendships do sometimes go on for ever. Loving relationships do sometimes go on for ever. There is hope and possibility of never-ending friendship. So what of our umbrella-metaphor then? Where is this everlasting umbrella than will make everything right?

Well, there isn’t one, obviously.

But there is something…

When we find that umbrella, the perfect one, the one we want to keep forever… yes, it will break, dent, buckle, tear, turn inside-out… 

… but, if we care enough about it, we can repair it. 

Flying Ants

(To the tune of 'Run to Me' by the Bee Gees)

You know that you better lay low
The party is on but you better not show
The evening skies
are buzzin’ not with flies
But Flying Ants

And when you’ve already bought booze
Checked on the weather right after the news
It’s such a shame
to be called off-of your game
By Flying Ants

Flying Ants
I know that they hate me
Flying Ants
They’ve already ate me
In my pants
I know they await me
Oh curse you. You flying ants.

And there you are just making your plans
You feel that your fate is safe in your own hands
You better think twice.
The outside’s not so nice.
There’s Flying Ants

And tomorrow they’ll be all gone away
That’s no use to me cos I’m stuck in today
My lovely date
is gonna have to wait
For Flying Ants

Flying Ants
You’re totally hateful
Flying Ants
I’ve had me a plate full
Tonight I know
I will remain faithful
I’m trapped here by flying ants.

(c) Ken Armstrong 2012