Year Out, Year In

Ghosts come out at Christmas.

Less so when you’re young. Perhaps there might be a ghost of a well-loved cat or a lost teddy bear. Not much more, if you’re a lucky child. As you get older, though, your ghosts tend to accumulate. I don’t mean the ‘hide around corners and shout ‘boo’’ type of ghosts. It’s mostly just the benevolent spirits evoked by memories of those who have gone on ahead of you. They don’t rattle chains or huff cold breath on your neck. They just sit in a corner with an eggnog and smile at you though the reflected fairy lights of the tree.

These days, I try to hold on to Christmas for a while. After having such an interminable build-up, it seems a shame to let it go in one day. My Mum used to do that. At about three o’clock on Christmas Day, she would let out a little sigh and say, “well that’s it for another year.’ It was almost as if Christmas hadn’t been there at all. A magic trick with a massive introduction and a lengthy round of applause at the end but with no actual trick in between.

So, yes, I try to hold on to it.

But it’s six days out now and even a stalwart like me has to admit that the spirit has largely flown for another year. The songs have dropped from the radio playlists like a stone and the television has become much more about the year that was, rather than the insular forced goodwill of the season. Christmas may have gone but it has served its purpose. There is now a slight lengthening of the light available at the end of every day. An equinox has been successfully passed. A storm ridden out, beneath an eiderdown made up of spicy meats and sugary delights and, of course, family.

The magic of Christmas is family, As you get older, this magic of Christmas can often be at its strongest when everyone else is asleep.

You awake in the dead of night. It is 3.15am. You listen. Somewhere, out on the street, a bird is caroling incongruously to a streetlight. But, other than that, the house is silent. But there are five lives under this same roof, breathing quietly. Ensconced under an extra blanket for weight and a jacketed hot water bottle for an excess of heat. A dad, a mum, two sons and a stray cat in the hall, all dreaming their way towards morning. Magical.

But now that magic is slipping away again, as it must. The drizzle outside is no longer imbued with romance and possibility. It is, once again, only drizzle.

The parts of the brain where work matters reside start to stretch and groan and click their joints. The things on the desk that would be fine in the New Year will not now be fine. Not by themselves, at least. They will need attention and care and sorting-out. The gears start to grind again. The stomach starts to turn over as the harder things make themselves known once more. A new year is about to begin. We’re going to do it all again. Same stuff with a different number.

Christmas is slipping out the door and, as it leaves, many of the ghosts will slip away too. But one will remain. The ghost that haunts you most throughout the season is here to stay now. It has moved in and will not be easily removed. This ghost is you.

We are not just getting older. We are turning into ghosts. Sail past sixty and you can feel it if you hold your finger up in the wind for long enough. We are fading, becoming less. Our powers are fewer, our challenges ever greater. We are already part ghost. Spending time in the ether world where an ever-increasing list of our friends and family members now reside. We have a finite number of Christmases left. This is, of course, true of all of us. But some are more finite than others.

One year is going out. Another one is coming in. All that really matters is that we do something worthwhile with this coming year. Can we love the people we need to love? Can we stand up for what is right, knowing we may end up being stoned for it? Can we create something good? Can we unearth a little joy?

Can we even make it through another year and, if not, can we be remembered for something other than the indentation we may leave on the sofa?

I believe we can. On all counts. And it’s nearly time to get on with it.

Happy New Year.


I really like Christmas. Always have. The best part of Christmas is… Christmas. The worst part is how it starts far too early. All of this is largely written in stone by now. What is relatively new is the preparation for Christmas and, more specifically, how much I’ve come to embrace and enjoy it.

Oh, I don’t mean the November hype that lands the exact moment that Halloween ends. I don’t like that at all. A whisper of a Christmas song an inch before December can give me profound shivers. I neither like nor want any of that.

But these days, the ten days or so before Christmas, I’ve come to embrace them as an integral part of the season and, yes, almost one of the best parts. Anticipation, expectation, even a little nervousness. Let the planes fly on time, let the nasty bugs keep at bay, at least until January. Getting there can be half the fun.

I think this valuing of the pre-Christmas melee has only really come along since the guys started to live elsewhere. One in Dublin, one in London now. It seemed to sneak up and become a real thing without ever fully announcing itself. I think their absence and the promise of their arriving back at the wreath-bedecked door makes the promise of the holiday almost as good as the fact.

You have to get the stuff out of the attic some days before you do anything with it. Otherwise, the coloured lights tend to suffer some kind of electronic heart attack and refuse to work. Until this year, I really thought that the annual deterioration of the box that contains the fake second Christmas tree was a feature particular to me. But, this year, I see memes and online pictures that confirms that the tatty, over taped, box is a largely universal thing. There is comfort in this. I’m not as slack as I thought or at least only as slack as many more of you.

The main tree is a real one. The man who sells the Christmas tree gives me my annual personal five-euro discount and recounts to whoever else is in the vicinity that I am indeed the ‘Man Who Gave His Christmas Tree Away’ (his capitals, not mine). It was nothing much. The tree man had just presented me with the most beautiful tree I had ever seen when a Mother and Child came into the shop and looked wistfully at it. She actually shed a tear when she saw my tree. “It would look so lovely in my window,’ she said. Call me foolish but I saw something deeper underlying her wish for the tree. Some unspoken grief perhaps... who knows? In any event, I gave her the tree and took another, slightly lesser one. I told her that the tree was too darned big for my front room anyway. It was nothing, really, it was a decade ago. But, every year, the tree man recounts the story with something close to awe and slips me a fiver back. This year, a friend, Coleman, was buying his tree and lining up to carry it the couple of streets to his house. I carried it with him. We chatted along the way, from pointy end of tree to butt end of tree, and it was pleasant and seasonal. The trees all seem a little light on top this year but it’s nothing that a couple of sets of pre-warmed-up lights can’t fix.

The word is out. The Baileys is on offer in Supervalu. Get down there and get a few bottles in.

The Christmas Radio Times is very expensive at over eight euro but the shopkeeper and me both agree it has to be done. The Irish version, the RTE Guide, is great but I love my RT too much to switch now. Bring it home and shake all the advert sections out. Put it under the tree but not before noting that the Christmas University Challenges have already started, and I’ve missed two already. Get a series link on the others. Only Connect too.

Put on Sky Cinema and cancel it again the day after so you have it for just the month. Catch up on all the movies you missed through the year. I’ve already really enjoyed The Fabelmans. What were you thinking of, not liking it?

Carols singers gather in the shopping arcade. Nobody has any money for them. We’re all tapping our cards and our phones these days. It’s a crisis in wassailing.

Work. Everybody wants everything by Christmas even though they won’t do anything with it until the New Year. Keep a cool head and a dry trouser. Holidays are coming.

Buy lots of books. Books are great. They are so easy to wrap up too. The corners of the sheet fold in at the ends so nicely.

This week, despite a spate of panics, the last day of work will surely come. I will be alone in the office as I shut it down and I will play Thomas Hampson singing 'O Tannenbaum', just as I always do. Then I will lock the door and it will be Christmas for real.

Enjoy it when it comes and enjoy the coming of it too.



Parenthood – A Sort of a Film Review

It’s funny how old movies pop up sometimes. They seem to do it in several places all at once. There’s probably a good logical reason for that but I'm damned if I know what it is.

I was driving to Dublin early the other morning and I had Marty Whelan on the radio, as I often do when I’m early morning driving. Marty goes around the houses a bit and he tells truly awful jokes but, man, he knows and loves his music and he always plays a gentle but eclectic mix. So, as the show's new running gag goes, mine is a Marty car.

The other morning, Marty announced he would play something from Randy Newman that he hadn’t heard before. It was the closing theme song from the 1989 film 'Parenthood'. The song was called, ‘I Love to See You Smile’. Marty played it and was far too polite to point out that it is, for all intents and purposes, an early version of ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ from Toy Story. For the later film, Randy seems to have just swapped in some new lyrics and got on with it. Fair enough. If it works, it works.

This got me thinking about the movie ‘Parenthood’ as I drove along. I’m pretty good at remembering when, where, and with who I saw a movie and I knew, straight off, that I had seen this one with Patricia as part of a Double Feature in an arty little cinema in St Kilda, Melbourne, which only ever showed double features. That’s good rememberin’ but it bugged me that I couldn’t remember what the other half of the double feature was. Maybe we didn’t stay for the other part. We did that once for ‘Days of Heaven’ and ‘The Milagro Beanfield War. We only stayed for Days of Heaven because I very much wanted Patricia to see it. But I digress. I think the other half of the Parenthood feature might have been ‘Heathers’. Not entirely sure though.

So, anyway, that was Parenthood, on the radio. The end, right?

Well, no.

Friday evening, late, and I’m flicking around some channels and, golly-gosh, there it is, on RTE2. Parenthood. Maybe it’s not pure serendipity. Maybe Marty’s people spotted it in the TV schedule and hauled out the music for it. I reckon that’s probably it. Nothing fateful, nothing magical. But, still, you know… there it was, on my TV.

I watched what was left of it, which was quite a chunk. It kept me up later than I had intended but, sod it, it’s the weekend.

It’s funny how old movies pop up sometimes. But it’s also funny how old movies interweave themselves into your life in such intricate and inextricable ways.

On the most obvious level, Parenthood is a fairly run-of-the mill, pretty schmaltzy, late Eighties entertainment, which allows Steve Martin to work through some of his better known physical and facial talents. It has a strong cast and it is almost unbearably saccharine at times. But, at other times, it is quite spectacularly rude, in a funny way. In among all the ‘importance of Family’ business, there are a number of gags which seems to have fallen in from a much more adult entertainment. Recall, if you will, the blow*ob and the vi*brator gags, both very funny. It has a sort of a 'Richard Curtis' feeling, where warmth and cosiness can migrate to outrageous cringe at any moment and at the drop of a hat.

Watching one of these scenes reminded me that I had actually seen Parenthood twice before.

 The second time was a couple of days after my Granny had died. I was home from London for the funeral and my Aunt was home from Boston and we were all in my parent’s house on one of those stunned, dull, evenings that you tend to get after you’d bit farewell to a loved one. My Aunt suggested that I go and rent a video for the grieving cohort to watch, just to take our mind off things and, although it had been a couple of years since I saw it, I had remembered it was a warm family film with a good quality Granny figure in it.

The screening was not a success. The more edgy scenes went down like a lead balloon, and were made considerably worse by my Boston Aunt guffawing her way loudly through them. The parents trooped off to bed stony-faced afterward and my Aunt, still guffawing at the vib*ator scene, reassured me that I had tried my best.

Reflecting on this in the kitchen yesterday, I momentarily wondered if my Mum and Dad still cringed over this episode as I apparently do. That was the briefest of brief moments. In the next moment, I remembered, of course, that both Mum and Dad are long gone from us now and any concerns they might have had over the screening of a slightly-unsuitable video has long ago become completely irrelevant.

Therein lies a sneaking sense of how movies manage to intertwine with our lives. That point seemed more emphasized by my second rewatch of Parenthood on Friday evening. The film is all about Life and Family and so it perhaps not surprising that it can bring altered resonances with it, when viewed again, 33 years later.

When I first saw it, I wasn’t married and I didn’t have any inkling of ever having children of my own. My parents were alive and well, my Granny was also kicking around. All of these things were natural and true.

Decades later, that entire older generation has long gone and the sons which didn’t even exist back then are grown men and are gone from the homestead.

In the movie there is a young kid with some issues. A clear-faced cool kid. There is also a gangly teen, swigging soda from the fridge door and angling his body to help make his points. These two actors are, respectively, Joaquin Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. River, brother and friend, was still around, forging his own stellar career. The decades between then and now seem to have somehow shaped the film to fit the revised facts of our lives without ever changing a single frame. It is our world which has changed.

Jason Roberts, as the elder male, had some of the best lines. At a kid's baseball game he tells his son how a father is, always and forever, a father, no matter how grown the sons and daughters become, “There is no end zone. You never cross the goal line, spike the ball and do your touchdown dance. Never.” That meant little or nothing to me, back in 1990 in Melbourne, Australia. Now, I guess I know a little more.

I stayed up to see the end titles of the film and to hear the Randy Newman song again, just to see if it really was just Toy Story with different words. Well, maybe not just for that reason.

I should have known better. RTE2 doesn’t bother with end titles. It just plasters up an unforgiving ‘The End’ sign and packs you off to bed. Not to be outdone, I called up the end credits on YouTube on my phone, held it up towards the TV and watched it that way.

Toy Story? Yes, definitely. If you had asked me, I would have practically sworn that the end titles also featured some outtakes from the film, but that was not actually the case.

Memory, eh?