Thursday, October 6, 2016

Intinn: The Worst Pain


I'd heard of chronic pain before. It was people with sore knees who couldn't walk long distances. And it only happened to people after a nasty accident or in old age. There were drugs for it. Of course there were. It was an inconvenience. But nothing to really worry about. 

In recent years though, I'd had a couple of episodes of poor health that suggested to me that suffering may not be so manageable. They were nothing too serious. In 2010, I had a dodgy stomach for about six weeks, which was almost funny really. After visiting Morocco two years ago, I got this really unpleasant feeling of having something caught in my esophagus. That lasted about a month. Make no mistake about it: these were not life changing experiences. But they did make me think a little differently. In both cases, I had the feeling that the Doctor didn't really know what was wrong with me.

I also recoiled when another friend told me about this acute and inexplicable back pain that left her incapacitated for about six weeks. 

Then, while looking around for another topic to make a podcast about, my friend John told me about a guy he had met at a party in London.I know what John is like at parties. He's especially interested in people he hasn't met before. Specifically, he finds out what their passion is, and then proceeds to harness it through insightful questioning, until he's thoroughly enlightened. He has a good time. 

At this particular party, John had talked to another Dermot. That one, unlike this one, was a facial pain specialist. Their conversation had left a real impression on John. More than usual. And he suggested I track Dermot down for an interview. So I did. 

Pearse and I went to his surgery in Dublin and interviewed him for about an hour and a half. I had done a little research beforehand, but the depth of his knowledge was intimidating. Through the course of our conversation though, it became obvious that Dermot had a particular interest in a condition called Trigeminal Neuralgia. Without going into it here, let's just call it "Hell On Earth", or maybe "Hell in your Face."  

Dermot helped us get in touch with TN sufferer Avril Hitchens, whose story underpins the episode. It's not exactly easy listening, but I think there's a lot to be learned from it. Our aim was to strike a balance between Avril's personal story and Dermot's medical expertise. The sum of the parts is a harrowing account of one person's experience with chronic pain, and how pain itself, in general terms, is still quite mysterious. At the end of the day, people with chronic pain seem to be the real authority on what works, and what doesn't. 

On this episode, we had a total of three interviewees, as well as our own two voices. So there was a lot more weaving involved than Addiction. From a production standpoint, Pearse demonstrated a real getting to grips with things. Let's just say if he wasn't involved, this whole project would be limited to me watching YouTube about how to turn on a microphone.

The same John who started the ball rolling was also the one who put us in touch with Niamh Purcell, who's illustrations, such as above, are truly excellent.   

October 7 is International Trigeminal Neuralgia Awareness day and, in conjunction with Sarah Heavey and everyone at TN Ireland, we are looking to spread the word as much as jpossible. Look out for buildings around the country being lit up in the colour teal. And, of course, please listen in - Intinn: The Worst Pain

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Intinn: Addiction

Intinn is the Irish word for mind. It's also the name of a radio documentary series that I've been working on for a few years. Yes I know. It shouldn't take that long to make podcasts. But it has. The project is the brainchild of Pearse O'Caoimh, a lifelong acquaintance with whom I have shared many's a moment. His work in the world of radio/podcast is fruitful. Intinn is just one example. 

As is so often the case with creative endeavours, our list of suggested topics seemed at first endless, bristling with potential. Each meeting seemed to end with a sense of real affirmation.

"Yeah.. Definitely!"

"I'll email you!!"

"Have a great weekend!!!"

There were a few of these morale boosting coming-togethers before we set down to the nitty and gritty of actually putting something together. 

At first, the thinking was that we'd make something about gambling and/or online gambling. The approach would be holistic, with one part dealing specifically with brain mechanics and how they become altered by addiction. That was my particular brief.

So I set about tackling issues that most definitely did not tally with my skill-set. Science was always a weakness in education. So sifting through articles about the latest advancements in our understanding of the brain was always going to be a challenge. I spent days staring at my laptop trying to make sense of a language loaded with terms I'd heard of, but never really grasped.

Neurotransmitters, opioids, dopamine... ??

Slowly though, a picture started to emerge. In cognitive terms, the crux of addiction seemed to rest on an obscurity between "liking" and "wanting". 

There is, of course, a lot more to it than that. And by now it was clear that the ins and outs of the hijacked brain were holistic enough by themselves. The brain, it seemed, was enough to analyse. 

The American voice is that of scientist Dana Smith. Being able to get in touch with her, interview her and use her contribution in the final piece is a testament to the times we live in. I began on Twitter..

We interviewed Dana using Skype recording software called Pamela. It was a while ago now but I remember being extremely nervous. The notion of talking to an expert about neurology was daunting. Afterwards, Pearse and I noted that we had actually not heard her opening answers, so conscious were we about how we appeared to her. But after calming down and listening back to everything she said, we knew we had something we could build the piece around. 

Once we recorded the basic tracks, we started adding sound effects. Pearse showed a lot of originality on this one. I think he got a real kick about making our own effects. Most of what can be heard, and there is a lot, is very much DIY.

The music was composed by Colm O'Caoimh, Leo Pearson and Andy Byrne. In those early stages, Andy was also leaned upon heavily as Pearse and I struggled to figure out why “that microphone isn't responding”, or problems to that effect. When you embark on a project like this, it's helpful to know people whose help turns stubborn impasses into temporary stalls.

Colm and Leo's soundtrack captures the mood of the piece superbly. Certain parts remind me of something like On The Run from The Dark Side Of The Moon. They probably knew that I'd be easily bought in that respect.

There's also voice acting from Michael Norton. He's the one who asks the free-flowing tour guide “where the jacks is” and encourages the addicted user to “Go on... Just one more time”. Recording those parts was definitely the funniest part of our experience.

That Intinn is online at all is very much down to another old friend of mine, John Roche. John had originally planned to set up the site himself and had gone a long way to doing as much. Unfortunately, he was unable to keep it up because of doing too many things that he actually gets paid for. But he was able to direct me in setting up the site on Squarespace. John also called in help from illustrators Colm Brennan and Halley-Anne Kennedy. Their work, which is on the finished site, speaks for itself. A list of credits is in the About section

The second episode of Intinn will be online soon. In the meantime, if you care enough to have read this far, you might as well listen in on number one.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

McGregor Rising



I was around eight years old when I saw 1916 Dublin depicted in a TV offshoot of the Indiana Jones saga, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. It was one of my favourite programmes, probably because it coloured my young mind with things masculine and militaristic. And when this was fused with an historical event that had actually happened in Ireland, I was transfixed. It was the first time I'd heard of the Easter Rising. 

I'm nearly thirty now. And although I'm the same, things have changed. Yes I still think guns and rebellions are cool, but I've also delved a little deeper into things. A few years ago I wrote a blog entry that asked on what grounds people could claim pride in being Irish. I'm not sure I feel quite the same now. But I'm still an uncomfortable side-taker, normally too full of analysis to get down off the fence. (Don't vote for me)

Of course there is one realm that invites even the most uncertain of us to be part of the flag waving group. And things are good in Irish sport. Our footballers have qualified for the European Championship, which makes up for the familiar false dawn of the Rugby World Cup. We also have boxers vying for Olympic glory next summer right? How are the cricketers doing these days? Does Rory Mcilroy still think he's British?

No need for that. Something else has come along. While not being an expert on mixed martial arts, I'm pretty sure Conor McGregor is “the” ultimate fighter. All the experts say so. And anything I've seen of him in action suggests as much. Yes he has an almighty ego, but only because he needs to. Anyone doing what he does needs to draw from mental reservoirs overflowing with self-belief. Quite simply, he wouldn't be as good otherwise.

Honestly though, what I really like about Conor McGregor is how Irish he is. It's something that he refers to regularly. He's even got The Foggy Dew playing over an entrance draped in green, white and orange. It's all very bombastic. Such is the big and bold world of professional sport in America.

Of course, despite McGregor's ability and strength of character, the brutality of UFC is something that can't be ignored. But even though it's not always easy to watch, these fighters embody fitness, technique, focus and discipline like few other athletes. It's not for young children, but it's most definitely a sport.

In fact, it's precisely the danger of UFC that makes Conor McGregor even more interesting. Watching a proud Irishman ruthlessly dispose of his opponents with precision is indeed alluring. It challenges what might be one of our biggest insecurities, that, when all is said and done, we are best known for “having the craic” with pints Guinness on St Patrick's Day.

In the aforementioned Indiana Jones' episode, a young Séan O'Casey questions the protagonist upon hearing him sing a bar of "When Irish eyes are happy". "Indy" tells him he's been to the theatre, whereupon O'Casey presumes he's been treated to a painfully cliché depiction of Ireland laden with shamrocks and shillelaghs. 

"What's wrong with that" asks Indy. 

"Everything" replies O'Casey. "Because it's a phoney. And a lie. The kind of thing that makes us a laughing stock."

'Look at the Irish aren't they a scream'" he jibes sarcastically. 

"It makes my blood boil. Because I am an Irishman."

It's ironic that in sifting through an Americanisation of Irish history, I find one of the best descriptions of my own national frustration. I should also mention that O'Casey himself turned out to be one of the Rising's biggest detractors. Nonetheless, Easter 1916 represents an Irishness that is still so seductive. Maybe it's why we're so preoccupied by it 100 years later. And maybe it's also why Conor McGregor is so appealing. Because, in a strange way, he embodies the same idea of Ireland as a force to be reckoned with.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cuba

I went to Cuba knowing not too much. Having spent two weeks there, I am but a little wiser. That it was the most amazing place I have ever seen is not to imply that I or my friend John enjoyed every last moment. But I knew, even after a few days, that this was a holiday I would not forget.

But forgetting was how it all started. After a day or two in Havana, I realised that my habitual engagement with the online world would have to go on hiatus. My fledgling command of Spanish was also put to the test by the fact that English on the island is still relatively scarce. There were hand gestures and monosyllabic words a plenty as I remembered that essential communication is fundamentally based on common sense.

For the most part, the people of Cuba come across as tremendously likable. Even if many we interacted with saw us as a pair of walking cash machines, there was less of the aggressive salesmanship I've encountered elsewhere. There was almost the sense that, underneath the toil with which they obviously grapple, Cubans don't take it all too seriously. The truth, I know, is much less simplistic.

But that disarming lack of seriousness leaves a lasting impression. One night, a group of four men sat down nearby in the bar we were drinking in. The barman asked them where they from, to which they said they were Italian. “Ah Italia,” replied the host, “La mafia”. In a Havana restaurant, a local patron unloaded cúpla focal on us when we told him where we were from. He was an ex-boxer, who had trained in Ireland under none other than Michael Carruth. “Póg mo thón, indeed.”

Tourism is Cuba's lifeline. And not just for those wise enough to avail of impending change. In Santa Clara, around three hours from Havana, we passed by a school yard where teachers and junior students were conducting class outside. When one teacher noticed us, she gestured to know if we had any pens. I had three, and after taking my bag from my shoulders with earnest affirmation, I tossed her a black bic and continued on my way. This was a memorable dose of reality: a teacher begging tourists for pens. I tried to ward off the smugness that inevitably followed.

More grit was evident on our journey to Trindad in a 1950s Dodge Taxi. Through the Sierra del Escambray mountain range, the driver navigated potholed roads that had to be seen (or felt) to be believed. After a snail's pace ascent, we gathered some speed on the way down. From the back seat I had just about enough time to anticipate our subsequent collision with a cat rising out of the ditch. I'd call the event fitting if it didn't trouble me the way it did.

Trinidad welcomed tourists like no other city we visited. Old men with cowboy hats sat on corners smoking giant cigars, ready to charge anyone who considered them photo-worthy. In every bar, the resident band sent out their often beautiful singers to boozy customers with cap in hand. On one occasion, I donated three pesos and was met with disapproval because I had used the wrong, much less valuable, currency. John, ever the diplomat, defused the situation with two convertible pesos.

With notable exceptions, the food in Cuba was the worst I've eaten. Generally, the restaurants ranged between average and terrible. A pizza in Santa Clara was certainly the most disgusting meal I've ever been served. Thankfully, the guesthouses, or Casa Particulares, were of a much higher, if still basic, culinary standard. As a vegetarian, I lived functionally on rice, eggs and vegetables. John's experience of meat was more volatile. In Cienfuegos, he suffered a night of vomiting that left him even lower on energy in unforgivable heat. Enough said.

And then there's la revolución- the preverbial “two fingers” extended by the Cuban state to the world's most powerful country, with only ninety miles of water to keep them apart. Although Cubans still practice Catholicism, it takes only a few days to figure out who Christ competes with. The famous print of Ernesto “Ché” Guevara is omnipresent, reminding citizens of their role in one of the Cold War's most remarkable episodes. The martyr takes his place along side the still living Fidel and Raúl Castro, a sort of Holy Trinity for Cuba's declining version of Marxist-Leninism. With recent events in mind, it would interest me to see Cuba again in about ten years' time.

Underscoring this recent experience was the ever emitting sound of Cuban music. As no kind of expert, I am still prepared to agree with popular opinion, that the island's musicality is a particularly strong attribute. A classical pianist in a Trinidad bar, flanked by his bored looking wife, summed up so much of what, here, is so difficult to convey. And that kind of thing, in case you think this entry has been a bit negative, was the incommunicable highlight. Go and find out for yourself. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Marrakesh

Three days in Marrakesh isn't a bad way to start the winter. Not least when you can get there for absurdly low prices. In fact, my housemate Colm and I were so vocal when we discovered the €60 return flights that our other housemate, Stephen, and his girlfriend, Klaudia, also penned in a trip into their yearly planners. In the event, we ended up paying €70 in the midst of inexplicable fluctuations on the airline's website. But to retain our sense of achievement, we lied to anybody who would listen that we were going to Morocco and back for "SIXTY EURO!!!"

Upon our arrival on a wet evening, Colm's negotiation with taxi drivers was an introduction to the commonly ambiguous treatment of just how much something costs. Taking place in French, the conversation evoked in me the inadequacy of only really speaking one language. For the record, apart from Arabic and Berber, the citizens of Marrakesh demonstrated proficiency in French, English, Spanish and Italian. And when we replied to one enthusiastic kid in Irish, he mistook it for Greek. "We are Moroccan" he said as he finally deduced our first language, "we are inteligente!" 

Our hotel was in the newer part of town, a cosmopolitan quarter filled with a mix of comforted westerners and aspiring middle-class Moroccans. Dress ranged between everything from Islamic conservatism to label flaunting glamour. And this occurred across lines more blurred than male, female, local or "blow-in". Actually, the area's hybrid of western consumerism and Arab tradition was among the most intriguing aspects of our visit. 

In the old town, or Medina, the situation was altogether less decipherable. Arriving in Africa's biggest market, the Jamaa el-fna, we were immediately subjected to the famously relentless salesmanship. Eating a nice meal for example, only happened after we were made feel like we couldn't really refuse.

But watching the sheer chaos of unregulated trade was enough to make amends for the incessant hassling by every second merchant. One memorable image was that of food sellers, bellowing at every tourist within earshot, commanding huge assemblies of fruit and vegetables, like conductors surrounded by their orchestras.

However, the undoubted talking point of our trip to Marrakesh was an elaborate scam, whereby Colm and I were lured into the "tannery" district for what was initially presented as an unmissable opportunity to experience authentic Berber culture. Before we knew it, we were following a middle-aged man, through ever deteriorating slums to see a tannery at work.

I didn't really know where we were going until we got there- a grimy yard where the fumes of rotting animal hide filled the air. The sight of a chained sheep awaiting its inevitable slaughter should have signaled to me that I was in one of my most dreaded places, but Colm and I could barely think as the "guide" reeled off his explanation of just how leather is made. 

Next, we were brought inside the tannery store and subjected to a showcase of animal rugs. Still unaware of our roles as pawns in an impressively sophisticated racket, we were more concerned with how we were going to tell our hosts that we weren't interested in their produce. The inevitable showdown came in the guise of a debate between Colm and the shopkeeper over how much he should pay for a belt. But the longer the discussion went on, the more obvious it became that we were negotiating the terms of our departure. 

When brave Colm eventually told him that we would have to leave without buying anything, the shopkeeper, a stocky enough man, grabbed both of us in turn and pushed us toward the door. "Hey" we exclaimed as we were ushered back into the yard. When we made for the gate, he followed us shouting: "Fuck you Man!" We were then surrounded by all the characters from the story, and it dawned on us that our whole visit was no kind of accident. It was time to pay up. 

Ten euros from each of us now seems like a menial amount for what kind of felt like a mugging. Subsequent research revealed that the "tannery scam" is commonplace in the Medina. The tactic, ever more obvious the more I think about it, is no less than the total manipulation, and intimidation if necessary, of the tourist's naive mindset. We were had. 

Still, Marrakesh was one of the finest holidays I've taken in a long time. The rough and tumble of the Medina, while not without hassle, was ultimately the most enjoyable part. Life manifests in a degree of activity that really has to be seen to be understood. It's what academics and the media might call the developing world- human beings that simply don't have time for the egotism and self-consciousness of affluence. To witness this and drop out whenever "I need to" is a privilege that can't really be quantified.

This entry is nothing but a brief impression of one Moroccan city. And just in case I haven't done its people justice, I should add that the vast majority were warm, courteous and helpful in the utmost. Add to that things like an exotic sounds-cape emitting colloquial Arabic and the regular call to prayer, Marrakesh is an unforgettable place. If you haven't already been, it's definitely worth a look. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Idea of Me

I've written these words carefully. I want them to earn your attention, to stand out from whatever else it was you've just been scanning over. I've tried to make this piece have that "little bit more" about it. I'd like to make you think, to get you to see things from a different perspective. So says the idea of me. 

But I can't quite explain how terrified I am of coming across as pretentious. I would hate to think that you might consider me in such light. The idea of me says that my work should be more subtle. So subtle that you would never suspect my motivation of being something as fickle as self-advancement. 

I'm very attached to the idea of me. It's something I've invested a lot of mental, physical and emotional effort in. It's a habitual thought-pattern that's become the starting point for everything I do. And with much less consciousness then other mental processes, it relentlessly dissects, analyses and evaluates the happenings of my life. 

The idea of me wants, above all else, to reconcile the situation of my life with what it considers better. Quite predictably, it has a profound influence on my relations with other people. It prescribes an affable disposition, behind which its insidious ways remain undetected. But at times of vulnerability, it disregards concealment and manifests in guises of anger, frustration and melancholy. 

So how is it doing? Is there evidence to suggest that the idea of me exercises influence enough to cause satisfaction, happiness and fulfillment? Not really. Many times the idea of me has found itself undermined. But it has escaped outright falsification by adapting to ever-changing circumstances. This it does by alluringly promising a future brighter than the past. Some might call it hope. The idea of me calls it expectation. "I'm still not complete. Life still hasn't started." That kind of thing. 

The idea of me exists because of a strange discomfort with the reality of me. Diverting attention away from existence as it happens, it traps my mind in the quagmire of past only to overstretch itself into the uncertainty of future.

Before, I would have referred to it as an inevitable facet of human nature. But lately I've begun to look at it as an inhibitor of nature itself. After all, the idea of me has consumed most of my life.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Travelling Spain: Meeting, Memories & Mérida

There was one more city to visit before Madrid. I had considered crossing eastwards to Valenica or even going over the border into Portugal. In the end, I decided to keep things simpler and start making my way inland. From Cádiz, I journeyed 300km north to the Extremaduran capital of Mérida, where there was added incentive to stop and explore.

Since telling my parents of my trip to Spain, they had been tirelessly reminding me that I have a cousin in Mérida. But this wasn't someone I had spent Sunday afternoons with in childhood. Frances was raised in London by my father's oldest sister and her English husband, who, I will always remember, had once told me about living through the Blitz. Despite being first cousins, circumstances meant simply that we had never met. 

Nevertheless I decided, with relentless encouragement from my father, that I would try and make contact with him. But upon reaching only a Spanish lady who didn't seem to speak English, I thought I had been given the wrong phone number. Tired and uncertain, I went to a nearby bar and tried to order a tapa of goat's cheese, only to end up with a full plate of salad.

The next morning, I tried the same number and was relieved to hear Frances complimenting my "brave attempt" to ask if it was right. It was, in fact, a babysitter I'd been talking to the night before. Upon first meeting, Frances confirmed that I indeed had the “head of a Tobin”. His own resemblance to his father was equally faithful.

Frances' marriage to fellow Londoner Rupee in the summer of 1995 had actually been the cause of my first trip out of Ireland. While my parents attended, my older brother and I stayed with my Gran Aunt in her London apartment. I recall her talking about how Real Zaragoza midfielder Nayim had defeated her beloved Arsenal with that audacious lob over David Seaman in the 1995 Cup Winners' Cup Final. 

In the meantime, Frances and Rupee had two children of their own. On meeting them, the younger daughter turned anxiously to her mother and commented: "I don't know Mum, he's a bit big". Afterwards, Frances took me to see the Roman ruins that Mérida is famous for. They were just as compelling as anything I had seen in Moorish Andalusia. 

That afternoon and evening, I was treated to amounts of food probably sufficient until I get home. In between were conversational insights into Spanish society that I could have never incurred on my own or in hostels. Spending time with my cousin and his family turned out to be biggest education of my whole Spanish adventure.