It’s my son’s birthday today. He’s three. I’m nearly 45. Not necessarily a problem, but my back is not as good as it could be when he’s climbing up on my shoulders…
Yesterday the downstairs neighbour phoned at 7.45am to ask if we could get the child to not run along the hall so loudly. Not the child’s fault. This nice 1860’s house we live in, though, tends to reverberate like a 13kilo kid is Harrison Bergeron stomping through the rooms.
It reminded me of a poem I wrote a while back, though. I’ve plenty of ex-students who, though fifteen years younger than I, started having their kids at the same age as I. They didn’t get the good sense from their former teacher, but they’re showing their intelligence all the same!
Regardless of your age, I hope you enjoy. Sorry I’ve no photos of actual kids – mine aren’t allowed on the internet.
Reasons to have kids in your 20s.
They’ll say you’re stupid; it’s too early,
But don’t listen to their insistence on
Being stable, for kids are earthquakes
Set to undermine any well-laid foundations
So have them while your world is still whirling.
Forget that financial comfort buffer,
Which could crack as easily as the flat-screen
You can finally afford. It’s easy to deny
When you don’t have to give. Best let their
Screams of injustice at the sound of no
Echo in an empty house you don’t even own
As you spend decades in a shithole renter
Which becomes somebody else’s problem
Once you leave the safety deposit behind
Along with crayon on the wall and peeled paint.
Better that than they destroy the decent
House you deserve by your forties, and tears
Are indecent in front of a toddler, no matter
How he gouges the hardwood floor, or
Scratches the CDs you kept all those years
Nor tears the copy of the Hobbit you took
To three continents before “settling down.”
Children’s laughter sounds sweeter living
In a house where there’s nothing much to break.
The sleep you’ll never get with young kids
You don’t even need yet.
You’re awake all night now, so why not
Stick a bottle in a baby’s mouth while
Watching midnight marathons of Netflix films?
In your forties, eight hours is no longer a luxury;
It’s a necessity. But they’ll be out at pyjama parties,
If you’re smart, in other people’s houses.
One thing you learn when you become a parent, is
You’re never ready, nor ever could be
No matter how long you wait
So have them early and
When everything steadies, you’ll be ready for
Relaxation while you’re still young enough
To be worth going on holiday with.
After all, all the energy you yet have
Once they’re grown up and gone,
They’ll have use of just as much as you;
When the grandkids come calling
And they’re crawling and climbing, finding
Fragile items for pawing, and falling.
News at Nine, now. And our first story of course is
What everyone’s talking about today. The weather.
Yes, winter has hit, and hard. Lots of traffic
Snarl-ups this morning, with tailbacks of two hours,
Cars sliding on the icy surface after the first snowfall
Of the season. Hundreds of hub workers literarily
Frozen in gridlock on their way in from the suburbs:
Even those who left well before dawn to get a jump
On the rest forced to a slow crawl behind snowploughs
And salt spreaders – an army of which were out
All night, trying to keep the cars moving, and will be
In force for the rest of the cold snap.
Yet, it didn’t get
Any better during this evening’s commute, people
Still on the road as we speak. We’ll be taking you
Live, later to our on-site reports from a host of
Highways and byways, where there’s not much
Headway being made at all.
And what a shock
To the system; suddenly, the hot weather
We were all becoming so accustomed to, has gone
For now. The beer gardens and restaurant
Terraces, that were teeming last weekend, now
Deserted but for a few forlorn sparrows seeking
Crumbs under the drifts of their new white home.
While we’re faced with a whole lot of inconvenience
For the foreseeable future. Especially those travelling
Long distances, another thing we’ve become used to.
Wheel chains compulsory on certain routes; time to
Change to all-weather tyres and fill up on anti-freeze.
Perhaps only the kids are happy, with a delayed
Arrival at school and perhaps a free day tomorrow,
As it’s set to freeze hard again, especially in the hills
While the rest of us just shrug and get on with it,
Hoping there won’t be a power cut and we can get
The drive shovelled before our extra-hour-long drive.
Nevertheless, it’s worth reminding ourselves
That we used to be used to this, this used to be usual,
And for once we can go skiing or sledding, so get that sleigh
Out of the shed, and if you have kids make a snowman –
Making sure to film them, for they mightn’t remember
All this in twenty years, and think it a fairy tale.
Take them to the woods at least, for the first time
This year, perhaps, without worrying about tick bites
Lyme Disease and the other nasty bugs they transmit.
The flies, too, are dropping like they’re famed to, but
Have been plaguing us on our patios till now, and
The mosquitos are also finally dying so Deet isn’t needed
To keep West Nile virus and Yellow Fever at bay, till spring.
Next spring there might be fewer lines of those
Poisonous processionary caterpillars for your dog to
Get mixed up with, if this hard frost penetrates their nests,
Giving foresters a break in their pine plantations, too.
The farmers will also be happy, since the grasshoppers
Aren’t nibbling at their sown winter cereals now, and
Perhaps a crop will come up green before next year’s
Eggs are hatched and ravenous at the sprouting stalks.
As for traffic, well, better have your car buried
By snow, which at least you can dig out of, than have
It carried off down the street by a flash flood, like
We saw during last month’s devastating torrential rains.
So, before we go to our roving reporters, a quick
Recap of international news, including new warming
Recorded in the Greenland icecap, and a typhoon
Threatening the already soaked and suffering Bengalis.
I sit upon a hotel terrace,
Gazing out at grebes
Diving between white and yellow
Water lilies, trying to grasp our universe.
This Dark Matter they say
Gives gravity to our galaxy
Must mingle with us here on Earth,
Else why do I feel such linking
With other species, the lake life teeming?
I am entwined with these trees
More than merely exchanging molecules.
Reincarnation is reality. A part of me
Exists outside myself, with which I can commune;
Fragments of my former lives abound in this pond,
Fine portions of prior bodies populate the forest.
There’s a strand of me in that serene swan
Stately sliding, signets drawn behind like magnets.
These geese gliding in on the twilight and I
Share atoms. The stones under our feet,
Still throb with the vitality of ancient seas;
Our electrons once spun in the same shells
And yet retain the memory of those orbits.
Since the energy of starbursts vibrates on in ourselves,
These connections are impossible to erase,
We are one: our earth, the stars and empty reaches,
Really only fractals of an elementary existence.
I wrote that a couple of months ago while staying in this hotel, having breakfast on this terrace. Just to show there are positive poems going round my head too!
It was in the Netherlands, and the lake was man-made, created when dredging to make higher land elsewhere in town. The motorway went past behind those trees, but it was still wonderfully quiet and peaceful, and the waterfowl didn’t care how their home was made. It shows that nature can come back strong when given a chance, even in the midst of our habitations.
Here’s another in the same vein, one of a few I was inspired to write that week…
As you can see from the photo at the bottom, it’s hard not to be inspired in that light.
Twinned with an Egret
They say every electron has a twin;
In space and time, while even atoms
Exist in two separate places at once.
Well, that would explain this affinity
For egrets and owls and willow trees.
Motes might not have the energy to
Escape gravity, but bits of bodies split:
My twins vibrate in other entities.
Zen and the Art of Gardening
What better training for meditation
Than training vines along a trellis,
Winding each tendril through the
Frame, gently threading the trails
Under other branches to dangle
Just enough in the sun to shoot more,
The stems too short enforce a wait:
Patience until they can be tucked in,
Behind a stronger stick, weeks or longer
But soon, after some years, just, fronds
Hide the structure; lost like thoughts
Through the training, green grace gaining.
Acceptance of constraints and learning
Yet, for every yin a yang and yearning
To grow we know some still unable
To conceive the concept of what a
Plant implies, portents to be, and see
The straining ungainly, slicing at green
With a pair of shears, wreaking
Destruction tsunami like, leaving
Tender tendrils to push forth once
Again, taking time to train, regain
The sense of self through restraint.
The idea is to make this concrete retaining wall disappear beneath ivy and honeysuckle. Somebody with a shears thinks that the best way is to cut back the new growth to stimulate more growth…
it’s an ongoing situation. Time is hopefully on my side…
The Man with the Shears
Seems the man with the shears will always win…
We coax and encourage fronds to sprout forth,
Watching, enjoying each tiny new leaf burst
In a verdant self-creating sculpture, we wonder
What shapes it will take as we wait while it grows
Doing our best to protect from frost, but we know
The pruner needs pounce only once a year
Undoing all our efforts with his sharpened shears,
And we must go back to coaxing, and just hoping
The trunk grows a little stronger in between setbacks,
Each year more resistant to withstand these attacks.
At the End of the Days
Ultimately, if our civilization
Can’t continue without further
Ecological destruction and
Genocide of tribal peoples,
It’s not very fucking advanced.
I wrote this the other day after Reading Gary Snyder’s The Old Ways.
Then I heard that August 9th is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
The main point about allowing people to live the way they always have is to understand that they are not “Stone Age,” nor primitive, and that if they have not already become part of our globalised civilisation it is because they do not want to, not because they’re too ignorant to know better. They do know better. They have heard of the ways of the world outside and they have rejected it. Sometimes because of a very real fear for their lives.
Second thing is to understand that the land they live on, if it belongs to anyone, belongs to them. We need to stay the hell out of there – and that mostly includes loggers, miners, ranchers, palm oil producers… all those nice people…
Here’s another video. As it asks, how long could you last alone in the forest?
On the other hand, how long do you think it would take one of the Yanomami kids, currently being affected by a measles epidemic, to figure out how to play FIFA on your playstation?
Five minutes, is the answer to both….
As Snyder said back in the 70s, to be able to survive off what the land under your feet provides is a sign of extreme advancement. Our society can’t do that. it needs so much more…
here’s another poem.
Balance comes in all we observe;
It is a fundament of our Universe:
Strong forces and electromagnetism
Keep atoms unified or flimsy, gravity
Balanced with a satellite’s speed keep it
Spinning instead of spiralling away.
So too on our planet, as the mountains
Rise, so the earth underneath goes ever
Deeper. In our humanity we see the same
Climbing by pushing down others: leisure
Comes only by enslaving or exploiting,
Creating peasants and proletariats;
Cites spread by denuding vast areas outside;
And imperialism depends upon
I donate 10% of my royalties on the Silver Nights Trilogy to Survival International.
The planet needs them, and they need us.
Turning on a mountain track
We stumble upon a lepidopterist’s dream:
Butterflies abounding, bouncing from
Bramble to buttercup, clover to cornflower;
A dancing profusion of colour in heat
Haze of August morning amplified
By the addition of dragonflies, damsel
Flies, hoverflies and bumblebees, with
A host of other insects humming and
It occurred to me, that there were once
Such sights in my own suburbs, along
The hedgerows down below and beyond.
That once everywhere outside the city
Centre was an entomologist’s dream, and
The countryside the same for ornithologists
Now they lament the stark scenes
Silent callows empty of corncrakes, and
The bees barely seen in park trees,
Moths no longer litter windscreens
Of a night drive, and these hills, though
Still roamed by pigs and roe, seems so
Similar to those of South Africa, they should
Also hold antelope, lions and leopards
And once they did, until all were lost,
Along with the bison, auroch, and rhinos.
As for the sea, it also should be teeming
They say in the seventeenth century,
Thrashing tails were seen from shore.
Now trawlers roam for days, and only
Coral reefs this century remain, as
The bramble banks of the sea. Yet
How long can its rainbow dance continue?
We watch their wonderful choreography
Holding on to those tiny joys to keep going
But the world is crumbling, we are bumbling
While the coral is bleached clean. Unless we care
More than before, these brambles will be as bare.
if you zoom in, you should be able to see some of the hundreds of butterflies up along this track. I took a video, but it wasn’t very steady…
I’ve been away from my blog for months now. But I have an excuse. I was studying for the “Oposiciones” in Education here in Navarra, where to get the scant few permanent teaching positions offered by the local education dept. once every two, or three, or four, or five years (there’s no rhyme or reason to the timing) dozens, or hundreds (depending on the subject) of teachers all compete against one another to see who’s the best teacher in the whole wide world and the lad at the top of the heap after the cage fight gets his pick of the jobs.
Sounds like a great system, I hear you say. The teachers must be the best in the world – eff you, Finland!
Eh, no. As you might have guessed, it’s a pile of shite.
Anyone who’s watched The Maze Runner, or The Hunger Games or a load of other flicks, knows it’s no way to choose a teacher. This wasn’t even like that. It’s more like the Japanese flick, Battle Royale. If you haven’t seen it, well, watch it. Japan is up there with Finland, after all!
I whinged against the system when I went to get my driving test renewed. Why tell you all this sorry tale? Well, just to get it off my chest. See, I didn’t win. I didn’t go home with a prize job.
I know I shouldn’t have bothered with the whole process, if I’m just going to call it bullshit. And yet many tell me I should be happy with my performance, that I’ll do well enough next time.
These same folk say that I didn’t spend much time on the exams, to have done so well (I am the nearest to passing – so I am like the best loser!).
There are some who spend years studying for this process. They take time off work to study, put off having kids till they’ve won their job for life.
But I did spend a couple of months of my life doing sweet eff all else with my brain than thinking about this exam.
I spent my life learning English, for one.
I spent a month on and off writing up a curriculum plan for a school year in the subject, and a unit plan from that.
I spent a weekend doing literary analyses of texts,
I spent two months going through the 69 areas they could examine us on. Reading reams of information on everything from linguistics to the circulation figures of the Daily Sun, with the history of the British Isles and America in between.
And let’s just say I’ve been studying a lot of that since I was able to turn on the TV and stare up at the test signal of the BBC till the Saturday morning programs started.
I also decided to read through Leaves of Grass, since Whitman was on the list (got through most of Song of Me, but there’s a good 80% of the book left to go). I found a PD James novel on my shelf, which was a good read, and I went back over my Wordsworth. There wasn’t time for more. Henry James was a bad idea to even try. The Ambassadors went back to the library after the event with just two chapters waded through.
I had the first exam on a Saturday evening at 8pm. Seriously. At least the heat was lessened compared to the sauna the other exams before us must have been. That was the bright side. God forbid they use a school with AC for exams in the end of June and July.
A bingo selection told us which five topics we had to choose from out of those 69 we’d all prepared.
I got lucky.
The Lost Generation. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner.
Now, I’ve never read Faulkner. He’s on the list, but hasn’t made it onto the bog with me yet. But the rest. Well, I’ve been studying those lads for a long time!
I’ve read all of Hemingway, have read his Biographies, been to his house in Oak Park, visited the Hemingway room in the JFK library in Boston and read his letters from the woman who inspired A Farewell to Arms (well, his injuries inspired it, probably, but the girl is more interesting!)
I studied Gatsby for the Leaving Cert., have read most of Steinbeck, including the unfinished Arthurian works. That’s years of study on this topic. I’d gone over the material on the exam website I’d found a few days before. It was all fresh in my head.
We weren’t allowed to take our own pens, so I wrote with a tissue wrapped around the bic, sweating and sliding.
I gave them details that weren’t in the website.
They gave me 5.9 out of ten.
Now, considering I was writing in my first language (and I’ve a bit of practice with the old writing lark…), you can imagine that most of the poor Spanish folk around me fell at the first hurdle.
Except the few who’d been studying the system, however they found out about it. And gave the tribunal exactly what they wanted. I clearly didn’t.
Turns out the people correcting the exam are just some poor sods selected out of a bingo ball, and know no more about the topics than anyone else in the system. Less than me, in the case of the three novelists mentioned. But they have a rubric, and anything off that rubric, be it valid info or not, is irrelevant.
Can we see the rubric?
Can we see our exams to see where we went wrong, what we could have improved?
Don’t be stupid! Of course you can’t.
Do you think the idea is to help people get past the post?
You’ve not been paying attention.
As an aside, at this point, let’s think about how often I’ve used my extensive knowledge of the Lost Generation in an English as a foreign language class… or in a Literature class in Spain…
Apart from reminding Pamplona inhabitants that their town is super famous because of the guy whose statue stands beside the bullring, who was an American writer, absolutely never. Nor would I have used my knowledge of the various channels making up ITV, or the details of Cromwell’s stint in power in the UK (though of course I always take any opportunity to tell anyone who’ll listen what an absolute bollox the man was).
The next exam was called the practical test.
I passed that too.
I got 5.125.
So did one other person in my tribunal. The one who knew the system, had studied. I don’t know her, but fair balls to her. She got 8.4 in the first test.
A practical test, let’s remember. On how well your English is.
Well, I got 3 out of 3 on Use of English. Filling in blanks. A breeze for me. Took ten minutes, so I had an hour and a half or more to write the answer to the literary analysis. I wrote my maximum 400 words and explained the shit out of the text.
I got 2.125 out of 5. A fail. What did they want from me? Fuck knows. Perhaps blood. I took a rubber penholder with me, so my fingers didn’t bleed.
Then I spent ten minutes pissing in the wind, as if I could pick up any of the remaining two points.
I know most Spanish teachers who studied English as a language to teach would have studied that, but I only went through the main ideas on the Internet page. It’s not something a native speaker needs to know. In fact, it’s pretty redundant nowadays.
Nevertheless, the task was to translate a text into phonetics.
RP, the tribunal president asked us politely. Please use Received Pronunciation.
I know how to speak in RP when I need to.
I tell my students not to copy the way I say cup, or bus, or Dublin. Instead I show them how to say it the way Donald Trumps newest fan would as she walks along with him admiring the horses.
But when I read the phonetics, it says the symbol is pronounced like you say ‘Mother,” with the same sound for each syllable. Try say it. Go on. I can’t even write how to do it. I’d have to know more phonetics. But I can say it. Though in Ireland those two syllables are very very different! Muder.
Anyway. It was like translating into Braille or Morse code. If you knew it, well enough.
But I was one of only 24 who got through the first round. Out of 300, divided in three tribunals.
So all congratulated me (they’re accustomed to hearing about failure). But as I said, I’d studied most of my life for those exams. And I wasn’t impressed with my scores.
Nobody was impressed with their scores. They were marked down like a deadbeat professor who flings the exam booklets down the stairs and gives the ones which reach the bottom an A and the rest a C.
The oral defence of the programs I’d handed in were the next hurdle.
Everyone seemed to pass that part, if they got to it.
I spent a week going over the thing, memorising it, writing out notes to later transcribe in the preparation time they give you.
But I was nervous. I needed to do this well.
I did it well.
I went in with a smile, stood up on the teaching platform and told them all about my planning, how to do the unit, what the students did, how it helped them, how they were evaluated, what I’d do for kids with higher or lower levels than the average.
All that good stuff.
And they nodded and smiled and took notes. The president filled out her rubric. And when I asked if they’d any questions, I got just one, given in a pronunciation I found hard to understand, after 11 years teaching English to Spanish people.
I answered it. She seemed to accept the answer.
Nobody else spoke, bar the president, who thanked me and I left. I never heard the other three English teachers speaking a word of English. Maybe I intimidated them. Who knows.
I went home happy, and even wondered where I might have to work next year.
I didn’t allow anyone celebrate, but everyone saw it as a given, a foregone conclusion.
But I got 4.15 out of ten. Not the 5 I needed to pass and get that job.
How a tribunal can let someone who’s failing in front of their eyes walk out without asking them a question is beyond me, as a teacher, and it should have been beyond them as teachers (and as folk who’d been through the same process in their own time).
It was a defence. With 15 minutes for questions.
I could have defended anything they objected to.
If I’d been given the chance.
But being given the chance is not the process, of course.
It’s being so perfect that they can’t avoid giving you the point, or they’d be breaking the law.
It’s being forced to have someone take the teaching position (which is open, which needs a person to teach some real kids in a real school in a real town in the region) because it’s simply unavoidable.
So of the 300 people trying to get 31 places, 20 got places (four people failed the defence, me with the nearest to passing).
And the 12 unfilled positions will go to temporary posts, changing each year as new temps come and go. A great way to be educated, with a new teacher every year.
I’m sure the Fins would be impressed.
by the way, you can still get all my books on sale with Smashwords!
Where Should I Plant this Sapling?
They say a man plants
A tree, not for himself, but
For his descendants. Well,
I agree, and have seen
The benefits of a mulberry
Planted by a man I never met,
More than a century past.
As the sentinel starts to sag
I’ve saved a sapling from
Between its roots and would
Take the next step for my
Generation before it falls.
But where would it prosper?
I fear the weather
Will not favour the same spot
As its forefather for much longer
Than half its lifetime,
And ere it gives fullest fruits
Will stand in different clime.
So, where should I plant this sapling
In a changing world?
Where its roots can anchor the eroding soil
As farmers harvest down to the last?
On a slope so the children of this village
Can reach the lower limbs
To stain fingers and lips on
Summer afternoons, should
Any remain after rains have
Deserted the landscape?
In a ditch to take some advantage
Of rich dampness as the rest
Of fields blister in the sun?
Or on a high knoll to stay dry
While surrounding ground soaks
Under incessant thunderstorms,
Turning this aridness instead wet?
It seems a bet to hedge;
I should plant a score
From hill to shore.