Archive for January, 2010

The city, the airport

13-1-10 Omni south park hotel. Austin TX

The drive from the lake house to Austin was fairly uneventful. Most things about scenery in Texas seem to be uneventful. Everything seems to be either dead or dying or covered in tarmac.

Perhaps we only saw the worst bits. I saw no oil wells at all. I though that’s what this place was all about.

Quick note to all that when booking your Omni hotel in Austin check it’s the one in the city and not 5 miles out. 5 miles out is just lovely for business travellers but not so good for us tourists looking forward to walking everywhere.

On a plus point the room had it’s own coffee maker. Better than a kettle and some Nescafe.

Spent the evening floating in and out of bars on 6th street trying to see which ones would let us in as one member or our party (to remain unnamed) forgot their ID for the night…

Austin is cool. Or maybe it’s not cool but just cool in comparison to the cultural wasteland that is most of Texas that I’ve seen so far.

14-1-10 Austin TX

Little City is a pretty funky cafe right beside the Capitol building in the centre of Austin and does exceptionally cheap coffee and food for brekkie. And free Internet which is always a bonus.

That wasted a few hours in the morning till we conducted our own tour of the Capitol building and historic sites of Austin. They were nice. If not very historic. Europeans win hands down against Americans for history. If they hadn’t wiped out all those native Americans then they might have a better history…

We ended up in the Texas history museum all prepared for learning. Instead we found they had an IMAX cinema in the museum that was showing Avatar in 3D. Education be damned I want exploding aliens.

Avatar has a predictable plot and some truly awful dialogue but it is very, very pretty to watch. Even more so in 3D.

So after our extensive Austin cultural experience we retired to another funky coffee house for more of the Grapes of Wrath.

Our last night in Austin was spent watching blues bands and the bizzare texan concept of dueling piano bars.

16-1-10 Connolly railway station 1740

Central station waiting for a train… That kind of vibe.

We left Austin in the rain. As the sky brightened and the interstate packed.

I dreamt of Dad. That we got some kind of slightly dim, confused version of him as a replacement but then he was sick too and we had to work out what to do.

I dreamt of cerebellar tumours and dysdiadochokinesia and kind smiling faces and me bearing my suffering well with smiles and witticisms.

We drove. Aquaplaning the deluge, more nervous, more alert. Conversations held without eye contact, eyes not wanting to leave the road.

It was dry in Dallas. The arched concrete and web of junctions and turnpikes sent us the wrong way, we tried again.

We turned our trusty steeds over to the rental guy in the airport. Hundreds of miles covered effectively without incident. And then We put one of the cars into the front of the car in front actually in the rental car park. Actually as the rental guy looks things over. Actually.

No damage. They make bumpers of this plastic these days – so that it crunches in and crunches out again.

Something like that anyhow.

Our party splits. Some to keep driving, some to fly one place, some to fly another. Goodbyes are weird. I think most are irrelevant. For the folk I know I’ll see in 2 weeks then I don’t see the point. For others who know when you’ll see them again? There’s no plans (we love our plans even if we know they’ll never work out), there’s no fixed date. There’s ones and zeroes thrown across little glass fibres under the ocean but that’s hardly the same.

So we say goodbye. And some feel sad but, we go through our rituals. Mainly I feel awkward. That seems to be my default emotion for a lot of situations.

Maybe that’s what men are better at doing. Substituting a certain unease for lack of genuine engagement.

America seems much happier to be letting us leave than welcoming us into the country. No 2 hour queues. No questions, no invasive DNA tests, no polygraph, no full body cavity searches.

Just when I thought that America and I were entering a new phase in our relationship she goes and ends it like this. The silent treatment. Not even a stamp in the passport.

We flew from London on the way out. We had one of those 3-4-3 formation planes with little TVs in the back of the seat in front. You felt you were going somewhere classy.

Now we’re flying home to Dublin and we’ve got a bod standard Boeing in a 3-3 formation and air con so loud you’d think someone had left one of the windows down.

It’s full of parents and their young kids. And they are excepionally well behaved. Hats off to them.

The sky brightens out the window. As we head full tilt at 450 miles an hour into the approaching sunrise.

Ireland is still white where she makes the effort to throw up a hill or two. The Wicklow hills watch our descent as we turn to land from the ocean. The plane bumps down. Every time we don’t die it amazes me.

Kind housemates picked us up and brought us to maynooth. And made us tea and toast and let me sleep in their bed till I could at least form a cohesive sentence.

I missd my train home. I thught they still let guys run along side trains as they left and climb on the back of them. Instead they quote something about health and safety.

So I sit in Connolly waiting for a train. Watching the corner of Amiens St. and Talbot St. with the spire in O’Connell St in the distance. The endless buses veering as they make the corner.

I shelter behind my guiness. Headphones in. Watching the endless movement of our glorious humanity. All the fears hopes and joys. With my head full of the grapes of wrath and steinbeck’s implicit humanity and dignit of the people he writes about. With all that and all this I still hide behind my guiness and my head phones and my phone.

Still. I’m back at least.

In a big country

11-1-10 Clear Creek Cove, Burnet, TX

Texas is not used to temperatures below freezing. Ireland is used to them but just completely useless at dealing with them as has become apparent.

So Texan houses are made from wood frames and with central heating systems that are more designed for the air conditioning aspect than they are for the heating part.

They work. They do heat the place to a degree but they’re all vents and fans and make an unholy racket while you’re trying to sleep. It’s like a million hair dryers pointing out of the wall.

Being the middle of winter there is no one here, the surrounding houses are quiet and dark’ the speedboats under their awnings and the boat houses empty.

The squirrels and the ducks don’t seem to mind.

We made a brief journey out in the car to see the Buchanan dam (this whole lake and state park is the result of damming the Colorado river to provide electricity – in 1937) and see that while the dam was pretty damn impressive the lake behind it was more like Spelga on bad day.

We went and saw Longhorn cavern. Which from what I gathered from the museum was a big hole in the ground that the army, fresh back from WWII with no one to invade till Korea, decided to make a whole lot bigger.

As holes go it was kind of nice. And I suppose it’s got to be better than WWII. Amongst the many photos I found one on some of the training they received. For what the mind can only boggle…

Back in the house for want of food I devoured a Kurt Vonnegut book of essays and stories on war and found these couple of lines

there can be no doubt that the allows fought on the side of right and the Japanese on the side of wrong. World war II was fought for near-holy motives. But I stand convinced that the brand of justice in which we dealt, wholesale bombings of civilian populations, was blasphemous.
That the enemy did it first has nothing to do with the moral problem. What I saw of our air war, as the European conflict neared an end, had the earmarks of bring an irrational war for wars sake. Soft citizens of the American democracy learned to kick a man below the bel and make the bastard scream.


if jesus were alive today we would kill him with lethal injection. I call that progress. We would have killed him for the same reason he was killed the first time. His ideas are just too liberal.

This followed by pizza, beer, lighting of the fire and a quick cigar on the veranda. And who would have thought that there was such a thing as good American whiskey. The world does not begin and end with scotch it seems.

12-1-10 Clear creek cove

Is there anything better for breakfast than cold pizza from the night before. If there is I haven’t found it yet. And even if there is I’m not sure I want any.

Incidentally this is perhaps the longest I have gone without Internet since I got the iPhone. Two whole days. I don’t even notice. Only because I’m right where I want to be. If I was back in my normal context then I’d be getting all twitchy and shaky from the withdrawal.

It got sunny today. Sunny enough to lie on the jetty in a t-shirt.

I found a canoe at the side of the house but it was chained up and even then I couldn’t find any paddles. Would have been nice though.

BBQ for dinner in a Texan style BBQ – seems to be a metal trash can with the coals so far from the grill that it takes an age to cool anything. But it gives everything a great flavour and at least there’s not the “burnt on the outside, bleeding on the inside” you get in Irish BBQs.

You know what i want to know

For those interested, just found this BMJ app for the iPhone. Despite having to pay a fiver for the privilege of it i think it’s worth it. I always love the idea of differentials but never really get round to them.

This wee app seems kind of useful for that.

A punch up at a wedding

5/01/09 1815 – somewhere over Canada. I think.

It has been a while since I was locked in a little steel tube flying over an ocean.

I got back from NZ about 2 and a half years ago. I have made a couple of trips to England and Scotland but haven’t been any further.

I put a moratorium on travelling for a while. Part by choice part by circumstance.

It is truly a bizarre experience. To be able to cross thousands of miles at 30000 feet and arrive safely and on time on virtually every occasion.

It is just such a fundamentally bad idea – flying. This is not something hairy monkeys should be able to do with such frequency, precision and safety.

The view from up here continues to blow me away. I never get tired of staring at distant cloud formations. At the sun setting over the horizon.

Yet I get to do this. Me and this exceptionally wealthy and privileged portion of the human race. It is truly odd.

I’m flying to the states for a friends wedding. I’ve never been to America. For someone who’s been pretty much everywhere else I find it odd that I haven’t been there.

I suspect it will be just like home with better weather, more fried chicken and an underdeveloped sense of irony.

I am disappointed by the selection of movies, the frozen vegetables and the fact they charge you 4 quid for a beer.

I like the chance to sit in one place for 8 hours and read books and listen to tunes and watch movies. I would prefer a comfier seat and some salt and vinegar crisps but I will take what I’m given.

1850 somewhere between Philadelphia and Dallas.

America has not been welcoming so far. We waited two hours to get through immigration. Not the most pleasant of experiences. If you’re a terrorist intent on violence it must take even longer. Maybe it’s the long queues that put them off.

We arrived in Philly to find that our bags didn’t follow us and are presumably somewhere over the mid- Atlantic right now. Better over than under I say.

We then had a further last minute dash to the gate to get to the next flight on time. That’s been a theme today.

I’d love something to eat that doesn’t come in a pre wrapped plastic packet. I’d love a glass of water. Though perhaps I’d be better communicating that to the crew than writing it here…

Chrissy – we must love you to come all this way to come to your country that doesn’t seem to want us here

6/01/10 1840 Dallas, TX

Apparently Paul Simon has a house near here. I thought I caught a glimpse of an old bald man mowing next door’s lawn but I wasn’t sure.

We have the great pleasure of staying in someone’s house here. All 12 of us or whatever. This is clearly an act of great trust and mercy.

We arrived (with no bags, a lot of stress and no sleep) to a warm house and bed with a well stocked fridge. We have been very well looked after.

Driving on the wrong/right side of the road freaks me out a bit. Even the “compact” saloon we bought is huge. It’s wider than the Volvo.

There were a few near misses and one episode of going down a 3 lane highway the wrong way. But just the once and it was easily corrected.

America is worth it if only for the pancakes and bacon and maple syrup. Immense. I found a burger called “the coronary”.

With no luggage as yet arrived, people are progressing into their second day of underwear and borrowing toothbrushes. So we headed to one of America’s great defining institutions – a supersupermarket called Target.

This place was colossal. It did everything. I think it had more staff than customers.

I bought socks and pants and more razors than I needed – if only cause it was cheaper for 10 than 2. This is presumably why our planet is falling to pieces.

I am so tired I am losing fine motor skills – struggling to get the coffee machine into working order. I’ve skipped the stag do (or bachelor’s party as they call it here) to get my head peace and a decent night’s sleep.

The challenge is to stay awake till 9 or so and then sleep proper till morning.

Incidentally the hen do is still here in the house eating chilli and drinking margaritas before they head out. I have barricaded myself in the room as a means of staying alive.

9/01/10 Dallas, TX

What happens in Dallas stays in Dallas. So the standard rule goes. So the antics of the stag and hen dos are consigned to the records of the local police departments. Or something like that. Having chickened out with a lame ass fun-killing early night I have no right to comment.

Dallas seems like one big suburb so far. Everywhere we drive seems miles of similar, wide open freeways bordered on either sides by chain stores and restaurants each surrounded by vast tracts of parking.

Parking is never an issue there is just always so much space.

Driving is more of an issue. Sat Nav has it’s uses but sometimes tells you the turning just as you pass it. Would be quite literally lost without it otherwise though.

The wedding itself is tonight.

I look forward to hitting the road proper and get out of the city and see why GOD is more interested in this country more than any others… I expect great things.

9-01-10 Dallas TX

Tried to go to a Dallas mavericks basketball game the day after the wedding.

Had a bit of a mare trying to get tickets online and ended up just driving down to the arena to try and get some at the door.

Unforunately only the 70 buck tickets left and while I was keen on experiencing some truly American culture I wasn’t so keen on paying 70 bucks to watch a sport I had no real interest in. What sort of country would make me pay so much to come and insult one of their national sports while lambasting their excesses…

However it turns out that Dallas does have some kind of a city centre and is not just large stretches of suburb connected by vast motorways.

Ended up in a smoky bar watching the Dallas cowboys game with a bunch of baseball cap wearing baseball fans who thought we were just great.

I’m not entirely sure why but listening to odd accents mispronounce commonly known words such as Armagh and Smithwicks is still funny.

In fact this may be one of the things that stopped various groups of human beings wiping each other out at their first meetings – everyone laughing at how the Persians mispronounced toga.

Maybe not.

10/01/10 Clear creek cove, Burnet, TX

Cleared out of the salubrious Mansion we’d been squatting in this morning leaving a trail of dirty sheets and a nicely wrapped bottle of Irish whiskey and Irish tack in our wake.

Rarely have I felt myself more welcomed and looked after than in that house. While Dallas may not be the most inspiring city in the country (or even the state) then at least the hospitality put a positive spin on it.

So with an hour or so getting lost round Dallas-Fort-Worth airport (it has two toll motorways dedicated purely to the airport, it is a colossal and scary place…) and having dropped off one of our party and picked up a new one we were on the road south.

Via a Waffle House of course. We hadn’t had our daily ration of eggs, bacon and saturated fats yet. We sat at the bar of a diner. Nice.

Driving is fun. Directions not so much. GPS gives you more confidence than you should have. You presume it’s bringing you the right direction and you assume you’re on the interstate even when you’re on a two lane highway with traffic lights and junctions every few hundred yards. I was sure I saw tumbleweed at one point.

Problem was the car on front had the GPS and the car behind knew we were going the wrong way. Cue comedic light-flashing-horn-hitting-overtaking-gesture-making-manoeuvres-that-are-misinterpreted-as-some-kind-of-joke…

We worked it out in the end. Good old fashioned maps are sometimes more useful.

Finally we found ourselves beyond the endless suburbs and chain restaurants, finally able to see the glorious rolling Texas landscape… Well sort of.

There doesn’t seem to be that much of a glorious rolling landscape. There’s just parched grass and endless fields, occasionally interspersed with grey scraggy trees and bush – these reminding you that this was more like it always looked.

And so we arrived at our quaint little lake house just after dark to find the heat already on and the world’s comfiest sofas. We have landed.

Selective memory

I’ll admit, the ideas in this book get better as I read on.

This chap spends his life trying to track down the functions and processes that make up consciousness and memory. If nothing else that is undeniably cool.

He’s a physicalist – like most of what we understand about life – it’s matter that matters. Organs, made from cells, with proteins, made from amino acids, made from molecules, made from atoms, made from whatever the LHR comes up with.

We explain everything by matter and it’s interactions. There are physicists who challenge the basic lay-understanding of this. That perhaps matter is not quite as easily defined as we think.

But where matter has always struggled to find its role is in our consciousness, our memories, our personalities and all that complex humanity, that brief period in our biological existence over the last few thousand years when we’ve actually been interesting.

His issue comes here:

i have been puzzled by my ability to remember my childhood even though most of the molecules in my body today are not the same ones I had as a child… if memories are stored as changes to molecules inside brain cells – molecules that are constantly being replaced – how can a memory remain stable over 50 years.

[I’ve always loved this concept of the recycling of our physicality – that we are quite literally what we eat.]

If memories are not stored in the physical molecules then where the flip are they? His suggestion is that perhaps they are found in the extracellular space, the components of the neural cellular exoskeleton, the bridges and the joins – perhaps it’s here we remember where we were when JFK was shot.

We have found ourselves comfortable and knowledgeable when it comes to our beating physical hearts and oxidative metabolism and the basic laws of thermodynamics but we have always maintained some distance between the flesh and the mind. It always seemed too close to the soul as such. This mind-body dualism is everywhere, both in secular and religious culture (not that the two are that easily separated).

NT Wright pointed out a lot of the Christian heresy (that there is a soul-body dualism) on the issue in Surprised by Hope which basically said lots of things that Christian Orthodoxy has said for years but we’ve somehow distorted since the middle ages onwards.

My feeble little bunch of interconnected molecules in my skull is simply overwhelmed by such concepts. Reason is great for interpreting the physical world but reason to interpret reason is somewhat circular in argument and hard to feel secure on.

Lots of people are looking into this right now – we may get a better answer than the current one. Just not yet.


January 2010