Monday, October 18, 2010

Confessions Of A Recently Qualified Driver

I learned to drive this year. Yes, it took me until age 24 to finally get behind the wheel. I started not under the guidance of a parent, sibling or friend, but under the tuition of a stranger through driving lessons. I wanted to learn from someone I didn't know. When I was younger, I remember my two older brothers bitterly exchanging words over a failed project, where one had tried to teach the other how to drive. The student in this situation had warned me not to learn to drive from someone I know. Apparently, the whole event was marked with derisive sarchasm, insecure defensive snaps and intermittent automobile movement between sudden stops. In fact, seeing the car behave in such ways is something I can recall from my cautious peeking through the curtains at this particular 'lesson'. I always remembered that.

12 years later, I decided that it was time for me to face my fear of taking control of an automobile. My first driving lesson went quite well. My instructor had scoffed at my suggestion that I might not have been ready to get out on the road on the first day. I was thrown straight to the wolves in a
novice negotiation of a spacious commercial estate. The wolves though, didn't bite. I surprised myself. It all came to me so quickly. 'Ok. Foot gently off the clutch, simultaneously applying slight pressure to the accelerator. That's not so hard. Ok my braking probably shouldn't jolt me forward like that. Ok. I stalled a bit at that junction but the driver in that car behind me didn't seem to mind. I'll get better. Hey! It's only my first lesson. I can do this! Top Gear Baby!'

Over the following months, I steadily progressed. Hill starts, reversing around corners and 3-point turns became almost bi-daily exercises as I prepared in focused anticipation for my driving test. My confidence grew and grew. I was ready! My driving test took place in late June. Despite a few hiccups, such as leavin
g my provisional licence in the car after I had gone inside to begin the oral test, I felt the test went fairly well. I even asked that the examiner put on his seat belt after he sat in to the passenger seat. Upon return, after the 45 minute tour of Kilkenny residential estates, I was DELIGHTED to have him tell me that I had passed. In fact, I was so happy that I offered him an enthusiastic handshake, something he clearly wasn't used to. My other memory of that day is returning to my car as a fully qualified driver, beaming with pride. As I unlocked the door, I noticed another candidate who had taken his test simultaneously to mine with a different examiner. He and another man, presumably his father, sat in his car, somberly looking over the test score card. I really should have had the presence of mind to refrain from making any gestures toward him, but before I knew it I was offering two thumbs up, backed up with a elemental smile of excitement. I don't know what I was trying to communicate. I think it was something like 'How did you do? Mine went well!!'. The glum expressions that they returned signaled to me that they wanted me to leave their field of view. Immediately.

Brazenly, I took to the roads as a fully licensed driver. Without the spectre of the test hanging over me, I started loosening up on the road. I felt like an equal now; liberated of those almost self-derogatory L plates. Passengers would compliment me on my 'assured' driving and congratulate me on the relatively short period of time it took me to get a full licence. I really started to enjoy driving. I still do. I haven't quite gotten over the novelty of being able to drive people from one place to another. Once, a friend of mine cringed when, mid-drive, I turned to him in the passenger seat and said 'You know what Michael, I really enjoy driving'.

Of course, such self-assurance could only yield some kind of grief. One day, as I creeped down a busy urban street, I started day dreaming. It gets boring travelling at a speed of 5km/h. In heavy traffic, the power of the driver diminishes, unless one wants to cause carnage, and reep the consequences. On this occasion, my mind wandered away from my location. I was probably thinking of something menial, like what I was going to have for dinner or what my next blog entry was going to be about. It was only when I casted my eyes back onto where they were supposed to be that I noticed how the car in front was really close to my bumper, and getting closer.My mind suddenly awoke from the day-dream. Too late. THUD. 'Fuck'. Fearfully, I noticed the driver of the struck vehicle angrily scan his rear-view mirror as he applied the handbrake, opened his door and stepped expressively out of his car. I pre-empted our little chat with some apologetic facial expressions and 'guilty as charged' hand gestures. I measured him up. He was middle-aged man. His car looked newish. I was scared. He looked closely at the point of collision and turned to me for an explanation. I felt it important to get my apology in first. 'Sor..Sorry..Is it bad?'. His reply was swift. 'Have you no brakes on that thing'? I giggled a little at his sarcasm, hoping to find some basis for harmony. I explained what happened. 'Look, I'm really sorry. I just lost concentration'. When he heard that, he seemed to let his guard down a little, as if he had some understanding. His tone of voice became less aggressive. 'I'd say you were away with the fairies were ya?' I seized upon this, 'Yeah.... I'm really really sorry... Sorry.' I got the feeling that he was actually a nice guy and was only behaving in this confrontational way because he had watched too many episodes of Top Gear and was trying to do what Jeremy Clarkson would do. He turned back to look again at the damage. I asked him if it was 'okay?'. Resuming his previous posture of indignation, he told me 'I hope so' in the least nice possible way.

After a couple of days of increased concentration and appreciation of the dangers of complacency, I managed to regain any confidence lost. Soon, the angry middle aged man was a distant memory and driving was enjoyable again. Allowing old people to cross the street, giving attractive girls the right of way and of course, giving every one a lift. It made me feel important, like I was making a difference. Driving had really improved my life. It was with such aplomb that I approached a long-distance journey this past week. The requirement for such a journey was a meeting with fellow stammerers in a hotel in Mullingar. The two-hour drive up went very well. I even got out on the motorway for the first time. No problem there. The hotel parking was a bit tight but I manged to squeeze my Opel Astra into an awaiting space. Sprightly, I jumped out of the car, immensely satisfied with yet another a smooth running journey. As I entered the hotel, I fleetingly thought about how it might be a little tricky to reverse out of that space. 'Nevermind', I thought, 'I'll worry about that later'.

Four hours later, I exited the back entrance of the hotel in a similar way to how I had entered. The day had gone well. My stammering demon was silenced. I wasn't having those toxic thoughts of self-consciousness. I really felt in control. Like, more than ever, this life is mine to live. It was one of those moments where one felt genuinely grateful. I looked at my car as I approached it. 'And now I get to drive all the way back to Kilkenny!'. As I sat back in for the 2 hour return journey, I noticed that an orange jeep (I don't know what brand) had parked perpendicularly behind me, in his own imaginary parking space. In the rear view mirror, I noticed that it was actually fairly close. 'Shit, I hope I can get out here'. At this point, I probably should point out that parking and negotiation of tight spaces is something I still haven't quite got the hang of. It was with such background thoughts that I started to reverse out. I tried going one way. Nope. Then the other. No. Two cars, parked closely on either side meant I wasn't able to avail of the turning space I needed to compensate for the lack of room I had to reverse straight out. I kept trying. To no avail. 'Bollocks'.

After a good ten minutes of trying various turning combinations, I decided I need to step out. I looked at the jeep that was causing all this and cursed at it. 'Fuck you. Fucking...Jeep'. I walked around the back of my car, and surveyed the situation. 'What do I need to do here?'. I tried to gather my thoughts and dispel the frustration that was starting to cloud everything positive about the whole day. The liberated feeling of ten minutes earlier was quickly subsiding. I was out of control again, falling into the vicious circle of doubt and angry frustration. It was at this frail time that I noticed the sound of knocking on a window. The car park was at the back of the hotel and in perfect view of hotel guests in their rooms. 'I really hope that's not for me'. I looked up to see where the noise was coming from. On the top floor, I noticed three girls, of similar age, waving down at me from the top floor. Yes, I had an audience. They looked giddy, possibly drunk. They were probably part of a hen party or something, getting ready for their 'big night out'. They must of thought that this was all great 'craic'. 'Oh look a man who can't park!'. Unsure of how to handle my new followers, I decided to start playing along with their amusing points of view. I gestured to them in that familiar 'what can I do' stance. They all laughed. I pretended I was 'having a laugh' at the whole thing. Of course once I turned around and my face was out of their view I was quietly willing them to 'Fuck off'.

With the onlooking females and their birds eye-view now very much part of the equation, I decided I needed assistance. 'Get someone to back me out! Yeah, at least that will make me look less alone in all this'. I walked around the car park looking for the nearest man. There were already enough women involved. Eventually, I came upon a smoking hut filled with about seven hotel staff. As I approached the hut, I noticed the familiar sound of employee banter. I didn't want to have to interrupt their sacred escape from work. At this stage though, I had no choice. Hesitantly, I filled a rare silence in their chatter with a meek 'Sorry would someone be able to give me hand backing out down here, there's a jeep blocking me in and I can't really..'. Before I could finish, there was a man on his feet accompanying me down to the car. He was around the same age as me. Yet, I kind of got the impression that he was unsure of how he was going to help me. Maybe he thought I would tell him what to do. He wished. As I returned to the cockpit(sometimes I imagine i'm a pilot), I had some hope that I might actually get out of there.

And so we began to co-operate in this temporary alliance. 'Yeah..yeah..come on...keep coming....STOP'. Move forward slightly. Repeat. Despite the efforts of my new friend, I soon found myself in laughable angles, wedged diagonally between the two cars on either side. I was literally moving milimetres, forward and back, trying to seize any turning space I could. His barks of 'STOP' became ever more frequent, suggesting that the whole thing was becoming painfully futile. I felt so ridiculous. Every now and again he would say things like 'Now, just move up there and you should be able to get out'. 'Move up where?' I thought. 'Haven't you noticed that there is nowhere to move!'. Of course, I didn't say any of this to him. Instead, I replied with macho utterances like 'Right so' and 'No bothers'. Eventually he realised that we weren't getting the desired result. He stood my window, with his hand on his head, confusedly looking at the angle. I was just about to offer him a go when we heard the distant shout of a female voice. 'Turn back the other way. That Renault is too big!' The girls from above were now offering their advice. The man looked at me, almost as if he came up with it himself, and told me to 'Try going back the other way'. I knew it was no use. I had already tried that. But just to placate the awkwardness of the situation, I decided to go through the motions. When that was over, and the girls were quiet again, I asked him if there was anyway of finding out who the jeep belonged to. If I could get them to move out of their self-made parking spot, all would be well. 'Go into reception and give them the reg, they might know who owns it'. Off I went.

Inside, I relayed the details of the whole situation to the girl at reception. I was terrified that I'd see one of my friends, who had stayed on, and have to explain why I was still at the Hotel an hour after I had bid them farewell. It's funny, I have no problem opening up to these people about something as deep set and emotive as a speech impediment, but I wouldn't want them to know that I wasn't able to reverse out of a tight parking space. The girl at reception wasn't sure how to handle me. She asked me to point out my car on her CCTV image of the car-park. 'Why?' I thought. 'Do you not believe me?'. Eventually she decided to contact the boss. He would figure it out.

I waited around for a few minutes before he showed up. It wasn't hard to spot him. He was moving through the lobby at lightening speed, like only a Hotel Manager would. It looked like he had ten different things to do. He was already talking to me from about 10 feet away. 'Now, are you broken down is it?'. Obviously he hadn't picked up the synopsis from the girl at reception. 'No, I can't get out of a space there because there's a jeep parked where it shouldn't be parked'. Of course, he didn't mind that. He's managing a business that relies on customers. He would let them park on the roof if they could get up there. 'Right, shir I'll go out and have a look at it'. I knew what was coming. The final stage of my humiliation. He was going to do it for me. At this stage, with my pride so wounded, I was content with that. When we got outside to the car-park, I pointed it out to him. He wasn't even nearly phased. He never actually stopped moving. 'I'll have a go at it there'. I handed over they keys. 'Yeah, you'll have a go', I thought. As if this was going to be some sort of challenge to him. There was no go to be had. He was going to just do it. He sat into the driver's seat and revved up the engine aggressively. Now here was a driver. I looked around to see if my new girlfriends were still watching. Thankfully, they had dispersed. 'Maybe they'll come back, see that the car is gone and presume that I finally pulled it off instead of getting a 'real' man to do it'. As I watched him manouvere the angles, a part of me hoped he would have similar trouble to me. No chance. Within about 30 seconds, he had achieved what I had spent the past hour aspiring to. I'm not sure what he actually did. It all happened so fast. He jumped out and enthusiastically handed control of the car back to me. 'Got it first time'. We both had a big laugh. His laughter was filled with 'There you go now you retard, don't forget to come back again and pick an easier spot'. Mine was charged by a simple attempt to divert the pain into the laughter, thereby surviving that horrible moment. I quickly looked back up at the girls' window, just to confirm they hadn't seen the final shaming. They had. I didn't even wait to see what they would do. I took my control of my freed vehicle and scurried out of Mullingar.

As I drove nervously through the midland night, I tried to absorb what had just happened. The embarrassment was immense. I decided that I would never go to Mullingar again, or possibly even Co. Westmeath, for fear of meeting some of the witnesses. Then, I thought about how the guy that had done his test at the same time as me would have loved to seen this newly qualified driver guillotined with humiliation. I could almost see him and his dad on the road in front of me, laughing at me and mockingly imitating my two thumbs up. I thought of how the girls would tell this story for years to come. How they had watched 'this chap trying to back out of a space for an hour'. And how all their boyfriends would laugh and point out that the driving test isn't hard enough if it allows 'lads like that' on the road. The middle aged man who's car I had bumped was there too, pointing me out to Jeremy Clarkson who was making shitty jokes at my expense to his sheep (audience). Of course, the humor of it all was also beginning to dawn on me. Now, having reflected deeply on the whole experience, I can appreciate more than ever the healing power of laughter. What a wonderful thing it is that can strip me of so many of the vices that I've written about in previous entries. Pride, doubt and anger don't seem so strong in the face of the ability to laugh and not take it all so seriously.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Black October

In these recessionary times, lots of numbers get thrown around. 34 billion to bail out Anglo-Irish Bank, Government deficit of 32%, unemployment rate of 13.7%. The problems we face are so much bigger than any one of us. Our country, like many others, teeters on the edge of financial abyss. We are witnessing one of the most defining moments in our history. But what can we do? Without our swollen wallets, we feel so powerless. The human consequence of our depleted economy has been to drain us dry of any semblance of hope. Television and radio seems to be offering an endless re-run of national despair. There's a lethargy in the air, a distinct atmosphere of paralysis. And yet, there is no better time to change the future. It's in these uncertain times that new attitudes and ideas can be woven into the public psyche. Now would be a worse time than ever to succumb to our doubts and fears.

A few weeks ago, I watched Harry Barry, a doctor who deals with mental health issues, warn of the dangers of the recession on our mental health. One of his observations centered around the notion that there is a tendency amongst many Irish people (and probably many others) to evaluate their personal worth on their level of employment. If this is true, which I suspect it is, imagine the battering our self-worth is taking in the current climate. What must we be telling ourselves? The collective stream of consciousness must be awash with a vile negativity. Such assertions correspond to a 24% rise in suicides in 2009 from 2008, representing the biggest ever surge in the national suicide rate.

Of course, as mentioned in a previous entry, we would be naive to think that a swift correction of our economic woe would alleviate us of this concern. It's probably more accurate to suggest that the financial crisis represents a triggering mechanism for self-doubt, a sentiment already well-nurtured before the current situation arose. Without a job, people may feel that they have lost their purpose, that they have become a dreg to society. The simple remedy would just be to go out and find something else. Not in this recession. International economist, Paul Krugman, warned in April 2009 that Ireland is really and truly without options until there is an international recovery. In October 2010, he seems vindicated. Without the constant stream of employment that flowed through the previous decade, people may find themselves in an unfamiliar state of idleness. When combined with various pressures, like putting food on the table and keeping up with mortgage payments, some people may find this stagnation too much.

The impact of the recession has been all the more dramatic because of the context of what went before. In 2005, The New York Times described this land as the 'Wild West of European Finance'. The idea seemed to be that Ireland's rapid economic growth had fostered the growth of a dangerous laissez-faire attitude toward the financial sector, on both public and governmental levels. But it didn't matter, questioning wasn't in fashion back then. The vast majority of us weren't interested in why we seemed to becoming so wealthy, only that we were. Alot Done, More to Do. That sounded more like it. The year before the collapse of the economy, we elected Fianna Fáil to their third consecutive reign in power. We really did believe that they were in steady control of all our fortunes. It wasn't until late 2008 and early 2009 that we realised just how ignorant we'd been. Our failure to properly regulate the banking industry, described by Thomas Jefferson as the most dangerous threat to liberty, left us sifting through the rubble of our previous prosperity.

Recently, the Minister of Finance, Brian Lenihan, has been at pains to explain why we must sacrifice so much to ensure the confidence of international bondholders. Watching him on Prime Time a few weeks ago, I noticed how he dealt with a question on how he could justify public spending cutbacks to ordinary people who find themselves in desperate situations. In short, he didn't. Instead, he turned our attention to the national deficit. He saw it as more important to soften the blow of future cutbacks then to tend to the wounds of previous ones. This kind of diversion corresponds to a broader government strategy in recent weeks of trying to dissuade the pessimism now rife in the country.

Forward thinking. Turning the corner. If we pull together we can do it! Enough of all this Pessimism! National consensus! Come on get on that green jersey! We can have our economic independence!

And the bondholders can have all their money back. For what? Just so they can lend it all to some other maverick Government that will leave some other nation in peril? And so we can start blowing some other bubble that will eventually just burst again. Yes, it all makes perfect sense. For me, that has been the lasting impact that this recession will have. The absence of fairness and triumph of big business over the rest of society. Sometimes I wonder how we're supposed to retain any moral outlook in the shadow of what is happening. Our propping up of the very same institutions that landed us in this mess signals just how free we really are not. And don't be so quick to blame capitalism either. If the free-market was genuinely free, the banks would have been left to sink. But you wouldn't want to know what would happen then!

Therein, lies the real moral dilemma of the crisis. The banks and financial institutions have always championed the free-market. The less interference exercised by the State, the more
money there is to make. When the banks are benefiting from the free-market, the rest of us play along. We take out mortgages, borrow excessively and pay high interest rates. Yet, when the free-market no longer favours the banks, and exposes their gross levels of greed, they can hold the rest of us to ransom with the threat of their non-existence and the subsequent impact on our society. And so we comply. Banks are returned to the playing field of the free-market, their existence guaranteed by the state. For the rest of us, there is no half-time. Instead, we are left to run ourselves into the ground trying desperately to hang on to our futures. It's no wonder we get terms like 'patriotism' and 'consensus' thrown at us. If we are going to affect the future for the better, we cannot rely on it from the top down. Change has to come from the bottom up.

But do I really want to change this? Sure, if I was losing my home or getting jailed for falling behind on electricity payments, then I might get revolutionary. But do I really have the stomach to come up with credible alternatives to the way things work? Who am I to speak up anyway? I'll just keep my head down and hope that I can stay afloat. I'm sure neo-liberal economics will smile on me again. I might even get rich some day.

The rationale is strangely familiar. Caution, passivity, fear. Defensive coping mechanisms, repressing the difficulties we have with the world around us, in the meek hope that it might come good some day. The relationship between our collective and individual behaviors isn't so blurry. But what a bleak picture it is. It may not be just the recession that is vacating us of hope, it could also be our sheer inability to be anyway constructive about it. Just as we feel unmoved to confront our own personal fears, we are just apathetic about our collective problems. Does this explain the correlation of higher suicide rates and the continued descent into further financial trouble?

The truth is that there actually is so much we can do for ourselves. Broadly speaking, we can try
and ensure that we prevent, to the best of our ability, a similar situation in the future? This means education. Not an education that leads to degrees or doctorates, but one that empowers us as citizens. This means an individual responsibility to learn more about the world we live in. Economics would probably be a good place to start, since it bears such relevance to our existence. Personally, I was lazy about understanding economics because of the terminology involved. Now I can see that it is precisely such lazieness that allowed things to get as bad as they are. By taking that particular plunge, we can find out about things like Roosevelt's Glass-Steagall Act, enacted after the Wall Street crash to dissuade the fusion of investment and depositary banks, and to control financial speculation. By acting individually, we can also encourage the creation of stronger and more resilient communities. At a time when charities are over-run from the fallout from the economic collapse, there is so much we can do to contribute, and so many ways to do it. Our political system reflects how involved we are in it. If we have problems with the way the state is run, it is up to us to change it. That is the essence of a democracy. If there is no-one worth voting for, then spoil your vote. Let your voice be heard. No matter how small or seemingly irrelevant. If enough people agree with you, you'll eventually get a politician who listens.

If you're sighing at what you have just read, then I've beaten you to it. It's that 'doubt' problem again. I can't believe how 'preachy' I sometimes sound. I can't quite get used to idea of actually having something to say about all this. I've already visualised your eyes raising toward the heaven. What chance do I have of doing something when I carry all this baggage of fear. It's a problem I have with my perceptions. In Werner Herzog's film, Wheel Of Time, the Dalai Lama remarks how the centre of universe is at the subjective viewpoint of each individual person. Essentially, the world around us exists only as we are seeing it. This suggests that necessary abolition of commonly held inaccuracies. Learned inaccuracies. Take, for example the 'employment/self-worth' example mentioned earlier. If we choose to believe that we are worth no more than how much we are being paid, we are putting our lives in the hands of the fickle economy. Our existence is relegated to contingency on the self-serving whims of investors and bondholders. Is this a sane way to exist? Change won't come easy. But it starts within.