A Farewell to Uli

This week, I had the very sad experience of having to say goodbye to my friend Ulrich Martin. 

I wanted to write a few words for him, as I do, but it’s not entirely easy. It was always clear that there were several versions of Ulrich and, although I had the privilege of knowing him, I was always aware that I really knew only one version.

The Uli I knew was the West of Ireland Uli. Twenty years ago Uli and Heike came to live in the beautiful home they made for themselves in Lecanvey, between Westport and Louisburgh, just a stone’s throw from the wild Atlantic ocean. They divided their time between Switzerland and here and, as the years marched on, more time was spent down by the ocean. 

I knew this Uli well and liked him very much. The other ‘Uli’s were a little like his shadow. They were always subtly there, always complimenting and adding to who he was without ever for a moment getting in his way. 

There was Political Ulrich, who could sometimes be glimpsed on his Facebook page, railing against some moral injustice in his assured and level way. There was Family Ulrich, who showed himself in the pride that would sometime betray in his countenance when he spoke of them. There was Professional Ulrich, the shadow of whom travelled very lightly beside him when he was on our side of the water but who was obviously a major part of him in those other worlds which he inhabited. 

Professional Ulrich was a highly accomplished man. An eminent figure in his long and full working life. But you would never know this because he told you. You would have to find these things out for yourself. West of Ireland Uli did not wear his professional accomplishments loudly on his sleeve, as others might have done. 

Uli was a fun-loving man, an outdoors man, an adventurous, daring man and a most engaging conversationalist and raconteur. He was more Irish than I am, in many ways. 

Last night, there was an event in Staunton’s Pub in Levanvey. There was music, singing, and stories, laughs, hugs and smiles. It was an evening that Uli would have loved and, of course, his spirit was there, carried by us all. In many ways, it was an interesting group. A collection of  people who might not normally have ended up in the same room socialising together. Hard bitten men of  the sea and soft spoken patrons of the arts rubbed shoulders and bounced off each other amicably. It is another sound measure of the man, this diversity of folk who interested and engaged him and who befriended him easily. Each as comfortable in his company as the other. 

At the event, Heike told me a story. Heike and Uli were together forever, husband and wife for many great years. Here in Ireland they were an inseparable double act of vivacity and fun, of warmth and friendship.

That little story that Heike told may paint a picture of Uli better than I can. Forgive me if I embellish it a little, it’s what I do.

Uli had almost forgotten that he had a hang glider but he got it out of the shed one day and set off on an impromptu flight, volunteering Heike to follow along beneath him in their car so that she could cart him home after he landed. Heike tried to watch the skies and drive at the same time, struggling to keep up with the multi-coloured dot in the sky. It wasn’t easy. An errant wind drove Uli a little off course and Heike had to negotiate some little-used laneways to keep up with him. Eventually he came down, somewhat ingloriously, in a boggy field to the side of a tiny stone cottage. As Heike pulled up in her car, a small round woman dressed entirely in black ran out of the cottage and accosted Uli where he lay on the ground beneath the lurid fabric of his glider.

“Hey,” she shouted, “hey, you, no camping here. No camping!”

This was West of Ireland Uli. Action Man. 

Uli bought himself a yacht, in need of some repair. I’m not a sailing person but it was one of those bigger ones that required a team of six to sail it. Through trials and tribulations, he saw the  boat repaired and made seaworthy. He assembled a crew and they sailed her through many summer evenings in Clew Bay out of Mayo Sailing Club in Rosmoney (53° 49.45'N, -9° 37.12'W). They competed and won  trophies for their sailing. It is easy to see how this became a large part of the joy which the West of Ireland brought for Uli. This amalgam of ocean and adventure, of kinship, teamwork and achievement. 

Uli was a great encouragement to me in my writing. Heike and he would turn up in odd places, unannounced, if some little play of mine was on. They were always kind and supportive. As with everything they did, they always brought this natural air that they were simply enjoying themselves and not fulfilling any kind of social obligation. At one of my plays, Uli was clearly genuinely moved by the story that was  told and he referred to this often afterwards. It meant a lot to me. 

Uli and Heike would arrive back in Ireland and would pop in to my office, just to say hello. It was always a treat to see them coming. Sometimes Uli would have a ‘find’, some obscure brand of whiskey that he could add to his formidable collection. A collection, we knew, he took more pleasure at looking at than imbibing.

Perhaps my fondest memories will be of Patricia and me, sitting with Uli and Heike in their wonderful oceanside home, quietly watching the lights on Clare Island pop on, one by one, as the summer light faded away. Those are not evenings you tend to ever forget. 

We, his diverse band of friends, all liked Uli very well indeed. How could we not? He was a lovely man. A man worth knowing. We all probably liked him for many different reasons, in the same way that there were so many different facets to his own life. 

I can only speak for myself.  I guess some of the reasons I liked him so much were actually quite selfish ones. 

I liked him because he came here to where I live and he just saw the very best in the place. While we ,who were here all of the time, might have become jaded and disillusioned with our home, he continued to revel in it. He effortlessly bore quiet witness to the wildness of the place and to the beauty of the people here. 

He always saw the best in us.

And, for my part, let’s be honest here, it was not just the place. It was me. Even when I was crashing a party, or reading something foolish to a disinterested room, or twitching nervously before some little play went on. He always smiled and his eyes always seemed to betray that he thought I was all right, really. 

He always seemed to see the best in me.

Perhaps that, right there, is the very definition of a good friend.

Farewell Uli and thanks.

All the Fun in Just One

Quite near to the end of August, my Wife and I went on a holiday together. The boys are old enough now to easily fend for themselves so we waved goodbye and off we went. 

It was a great holiday. There was long walks on deserted beaches, leisurely food in posh surroundings, a quite pint in a venerable old pub. There was a lovely room that was only a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean. There was a wild drive through some unbelievable scenery. There was a  quiet time too, just reading and listening to the waves. 

Then we went home again, all refreshed and revitalised. 

Our holiday provided a break from the routine, an opportunity for a little down time, and some great, potentially lasting, memories. 

Our holiday lasted one day.

It’s a little lesson that I’m constantly trying to remind myself of and one which I constantly fail to remember. Perhaps if I write it down like this, it might anchor a little more steadily in my mind.

All of the pleasure, all of the fun, can exist in just a tiny part of something.

Earlier in the summer, I went to London. I met old friends, saw great stuff in a museum, had some nice food, perused  some shops, got rained on,  rode trains, flew planes... again the trip was just twenty four hours all in. 

This sounds like the opposite to a  'humble-brag'. A sort of a 'humble moan'. As if life is not as good as it could be but I'm not going to acknowledge it. That's not it though. That's not it at all. Life is great. The tiny bits are particularly great. You've just got to appreciate them a bit more.

It also sounds like I'm really good at all this. The extracting of pleasure from small things. I'm really not.

Supposing I bought a bag of sweets, Jelly babies, for instance. Supposing I kept them in that side compartment in the door of the car. Something to have a treat from on the long drive. (This might not be complete supposition.) I would eat all of those sweets. Invariably. Every last one of them. I would even be considering the eating of the next one while eating the current one. 

But, here’s the obvious thing. The thing I’m always forgetting. All of the sweetness, all of the taste, all of the joy, if you will, is there in that very first jelly baby. All the other jelly babies are simply more of the same. A series of repetitions leading invariably to excess. 

If one can extract it, one can get all of the great jelly baby experience that one could possibly need from that  first single sweet. The rest are largely redundant.

So can it be with pretty much everything. Our holiday was a single day and yet it was this perfect, leisurely, exciting thing. Like that first jelly baby, we really ‘tasted’ it. We weren’t thinking of the next day because there wasn’t a next day to think of.

It sounds like bullshit, I know, but it isn’t really. I think it’s a useful mindset that can help me to appreciate the tinier joys that are thrown at me. It isn’t about buzzwords like ‘mindfulness’ or anything like that. It’s just about enjoying whatever tiny part of something the fates allow you to have.

The next time I encounter a bag of jelly babies, I’ll probably dispatch the whole sodding bag. But I’ll try not to. With the very first one, I’ll really try to get what I want from it and then settle for that. 

I’ll probably fail.

I nearly always do.

But, man, that jelly baby is gonna be sweet…

There is a Tide

I was thinking about what I would say to The Mayo Team, if I had to say something to them, before they set foot on the hallowed turf of Croke Park for the 2017 GAA Football Final. 

What could I say to a team who have fought so hard and so well for months and for years to achieve their goal and who now, once more, stand on the threshold.

I would take a little Shakespeare, Julius Caesar in fact, and I would shamelessly iron it out a little to take the tang of ancient language from it. 

And I would say this:

Like that great ocean by which we choose to live our lives, 
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Take it at its flood and it will carry us on to great fortune.
Miss it and the voyage of our lives will be confined forever to shallow waters.
On such a full tide we are now afloat.
We will seize this current.
And on it, we shall win.

And what of the hoards of travelling fans? So many years they have trooped to Croke Park, hoping against hope, supporting with faith ,respect and boundless enthusiasm. Each time met with cruel failure at the final hurdle. What could I say to them?

Again, I would mangle up some lovely Shakespeare to suit my purpose. This time, it would be a famous speech by Prince Hal from Henry V. For the good Mayo Folk who will once more go to Croke to stand with their team, I would say this.

We come with high hopes.
We could not wish for more.
And anyone who has no stomach for this fight,
Let them leave now. We won’t stand in their way.
For we would not wish to fail in the company of anyone who fears to fail with us.

This day will be called ‘Mayo’s Day’.
He that survives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand up tall whenever that day is named,
And will rouse himself at the name of Mayo.

He that shall live through this day, and see old age,
will come to his neighbours every year on this Eve,
and say 'To-morrow is Mayo’s Day'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I got on Mayo’s Day.'

Old men forget much but they will well remember
The things they did on this day.
Then shall those names.
Familiar in their mouth as household words
O’Shea, Keegan and Moran,
Higgins and Dylan, O’Connor and Clarke,
Be in their flowing glass freshly remembered.

This story shall every good man teach his son;
And September shall never again go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered
We few, we happy few.
We Band of Brothers;

And gentlemen in Mayo now safe in their bed
Shall think their own selves cursed that they were not there.
And they will hold their manhoods cheap 
While any man speaks.
That stood with us.
Upon Mayo’s Day.

Maigh Eo AbĂș!

Handle With Care

I erected a small Social Media weather vane the other day, to see how the breeze might be blowing. It was nothing fancy. Just a tweet or two, in fact.

All I did was tweet a link to something then, straightaway, I sent a second tweet. The second tweet had a simple poll in it. It more-or-less said. “I just tweeted a link. It’s not interesting and I don’t want you to click on it or anything like that. I would be interested to know if you saw it though.” 

55% percent of the respondents chose the option “Link? What link?” Over half of the people who are linked to me on Twitter, who were online at the exact time I tweeted, did not see what I put up. 

Truth to tell, I don’t care too much about that. Not anymore. I have recognised the selective methods of Social Media sharing for some time now so I no longer see it as a personal affront and I certainly no longer get irate over it. What it does do is worry me. It worries me quite a bit. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

When I first started using Social Media, about ten years ago, it felt like something else. It felt like shouting to the entire world with the real potential that anyone at all might hear you. It felt like fishing in the deepest of oceans, where you never knew what bulbous and exotic fish you might haul out.

It feels quite different now.

The Social Media platforms we all use are now carefully controlled and balanced so that the user experiences the things that suit them best, the things they most want to see… according to the platform owners. Facebook is best known for it. When you post something on Facebook, I believe about 8% of the people you are connected with will be shown it on their screen. Some types of posts will be favoured over others. Photos seem to do well. Links to outside websites, less so. If someone ‘likes’ something you post, then some more people may see it but it’s hard to get ‘likes’ when nobody sees it initially. 

Historically, Twitter always seemed better at showing your stuff to people. It has always seemed to be the great leveling field where, ignoring filters and such, everybody sees everything their friends and contacts choose to show. 

But Twitter has its tricks too, as illustrated by my little poll. The most overt trick is that little box in the settings that is generally ticked by default. It says ‘Show Me the Best Tweets First’. It sounds like a nice idea but whose ‘best tweets’ do you get shown first? Is it the people with the most followers? Is it the most famous people? What about the poor sod with seventy followers who has actually got something meaningful to say? Who will see her?

This is starting to sound like a diatribe and that’s not what I started out to do. I didn’t start typing this to complain about how Social Media now discreetly corrals us into the little boxes it wants us in so that it can sell stuff to us more effectively. (Whoops, there I go again).

What I wanted to type was not a complaint, it was a warning.

People know that Social Media can be damaging but they tend to focus on how it can evoke envy and dissatisfaction with one’s own life. We see people smiling and apparently living it up when our own reality seems  far from smiles and the high life. It can be not much fun. That can be certainly a thing but I don’t think it’s the biggest thing. The biggest thing that I see on my Social Media, day on day, is isolation. 

It’s one thing to be put in a little box by Social Media. It is quite another thing to not have any idea that you have been put in there. I see this regularly. Ordinary good people in a state of isolated bewilderment.
  • The Mum who puts up a Facebook photo of her kid and his first day at school and only a handful of people liked it.
  • The terrible news shared on Twitter when nobody offers a word of support.
  • The message from an old and valued friend, very late one night, saying something like, "One little ‘Like’ now and again, that’s all I ask. It would mean so much to me," when you never see anything from them on your screen.

I fear that some people, who do not know the truth of algorithms and marketing strategies, view the changes in Social Media on a dangerously personal level. They simply see it in terms of old friends who don’t acknowledge them any more. They wonder what they could have possibly done wrong to warrant such a negative response. They see their friends only communicating with the great and the good, not realising that the great and the good are the only people that their friends are being shown. 

Sure there are buttons we can press, settings we can adjust to help us see more. But we don’t push buttons, do we? We come on and we see what we are shown and then we move on. Our friends of old become like the elderly neighbours in those adverts. People who need to be ‘looked in on’, from time to time, at Christmas or when it freezes. They become a chore rather than the vibrant interactive cohort member they used to be. They are in their own little box.

I’m not writing to try to change this. It will never change.

I am writing to try to let at least one person know. When your friend doesn’t reply to you or like your news or even randomly chat to you any more, 99% of the time it is not because the friend thinks any the less of you or has been wounded by you. It is just good old Social Media going about its business. 

Social Media... yeah. Use it, enjoy it, but stay painfully aware of its limitations and you’ll be fine.

Start to take it personally, and it can slice you like a blade.

Just so you know.

Handle with care. 

Planet of the Apes Thing Goin' On

Continuing my nasty little habit of trying to write song lyrics from interesting and eye catching tweets.

This evening the lovely @loreleiking said she had a 'Planet of the Apes thing going on'...

Well, I had to give that a go, didn't I?

Planet of the Apes Thing Goin' On 

Sometimes I shout at monuments
God damn you all to hell!
Then I shout it at the people
And the dogs and cats as well.
There’s no need to be all anxious
There’s no need for dance or song
(It’s just me)
I've got this Planet of the Apes thing goin' on

Sometimes I get my hopes up
I think I’m done with being alone.
And I shout it to the Heavens
Oh my God. I'm back. I'm home!
No need to call the lawman
Or run hither and yon. 
(Can’t you see?)
I've got this Planet of the Apes thing goin' on

In Planet of the Apes
They say those funky lines
Cos they thought they were in space
But were on Earth here all the time.

Sometimes I get so angry
Feel like there’s no real escape
And I shout at random people
Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!
There’s no need to seek no mental help
No need for Doctor John
(Let me be)
I've got this Planet of the Apes thing goin' on

Embracing the Finite Things

This is going to be as obvious as hell. There’s not much I can do about that. It’s just where my head is, at the moment. It’s about how much more we tend to appreciate things as soon as we remind ourselves that they will all-to-soon come to an end.

I could see it very much in evidence around my town in the last week or so. In every green spot, around the lake, at every shop corner, you could see gaggles of young people desperately meeting up, shopping, laughing, joking. They were simply trying to extract the last vestiges of fun from their summer as it drew inexorably to a close.

It’s the same pattern I see every year. The summer holidays begin and, just as they do, the kids become omnipresent, all around everywhere.  They are finally free, the world is now their oyster and they are going to do everything they promised themselves they would do when the summer finally came. 

The summer seems to be some sort of an infinite thing, at that point. As a result, so many of the things they promise themselves will never happen. The sunny rendezvous, the nights under the stars, the cycle trips down to the beach, the lazy back yard quarrels. There is so much time to do it in that none of it needs to be done right now and so it never gets done.

A couple of days after the holiday has begun, there are no more gaggles of kids. The park is sunny but deserted. There are endless days ahead in which to sit out there and shoot the gentle breeze. Today need not be one of them. 

There are other reasons for the vanishing, of course. People go off on holidays, to summer camps, to grannies for long biscuit-laden weekends. Others cannot get to their friends, the school transport system shut down for the holiday months. They are stranded in their rural homes.

Mostly, though, I reckon it’s the comfort of the illusion. The lovely feeling that this time will  go on for so long that time no longer matters. When, of course, it does. It always does.

And then, quite suddenly, the infinite summer has all but gone. Without warning, the summer is a precious bauble again, rather than the over-inflated beachball it had previously been. Suddenly it is a thing to be clung to and adored and milked for every possible remaining drop of experience.

But here, boof, it is gone. The town green is once again swarmed with school-uniformed kids, hoisting their far-too-heavy schoolbags towards their labours. The thing that they took for granted as being eternal has ended. The only comfort is that Summer Holidays will come again, one fine day, and they will be wiser the next time. They will know better. 

We’ll get together then, guys, you know we’ll have a good time then.

You don’t need me to say the moral of the piece. We all know it. It applies to everything in our lives, however tiny or enormous. What to do about it, though? What to do?

I think I might try to imagine that something is nearly over, I don’t know what yet. Then I might try to enjoy it all the more for that imagining. Perhaps I’ll try it with Autumn.

Autumn is here at last. I will see it again next year, probably. Let’s just pretend I won’t though. What can I do with it this year, now that it's here? I can’t stop it from slipping away. I can only taste it a bit more than I normally would.

Look, a golden leaf. That's cool, isn't it?

Dark Parts of the Sea

Claire on Twitter (@Novembervivi) tweeted to me last night that she was worried about the fish in the dark parts of the sea. 

It was apropos of something else so not as random as it may sound here. The thought resonated in my head. I thought there might be one of my crap song lyrics in it.

So here it is.

Thanks Claire. :)

(Anyone got a tune?)

Dark Parts of the Sea

I worry for the fish
In the dark parts of the sea
How do they find their way about
How did they come to be

I wonder are they lonely
I wonder do they frown
Alone there in their icy lair
Eight thousand metres down

Are they always rather anxious 
Do their jaws ever unclench
In the unremitting blackness
Of the Mariana Trench

I worry for the fish
In the dark parts of the sea
They remind me of the way we are
You and you and me.

(September 2017)