Insider Magazine – The One Where I Wonder Why We Don’t Do Massages

Sadly, this is my final column for Insider Magazine as the current edition was the last.

You can read all the old ones HERE.

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Perhaps you will consider the following sweeping generalisation of a question – why don’t men get massages? I don’t mean manly sports rubdowns because you’ve torn something unpronounceable playing rugby or to fix that thing you twinged going on that grueling 10k run up a mountain, I mean massages purely for enjoyment.

The idea only really hit me full on last weekend when I was in a spa with my other half staring off into the distance in a sauna waiting for our massages. Since I went to my first spa for one in my late 20s I’m usually one of a tiny minority of men in the room. A couple of times, like last week, I’ve had the whole men’s changing room to myself. Why don’t we see it as being something fun, relaxing, enjoyable?

My wife studied to be a massage therapist in her early 20s and her theory is that a lot of men don’t want to try the Zen bliss and incredible endorphin buzz you can get from a really good massage for what’s known in the industry as “fear of the unwanted erection”.

Some men have a genuine fear that even the touch of a professional working the muscles in your back will be enough to set off their hair-trigger of rampant masculinity. Apparently it’s a thing, if you’ll pardon the expression.

I had a similar experience of wondering where my own sex were a few weeks back when we went to have brunch down at the Whitefriar Grill. At one stage I looked around a packed room and there were only three of us there (the two other guys were halves of couples and had faces that looked like they were being made endure the delicious food at gunpoint) – the rest of the room was all female including three large tables comprised entirely of women.

I scoped around my wife and a few friends and came up with a few “things men should do more often but unfathomably don’t” I might not have thought of myself. Reading fiction for one. I know men read, but ask yourself out of all those you know who do how many spend any time with books other than a sports autobiography or just non-fiction in general? When the vast majority of Irish men ever stray into novels it’s mostly thrillers, crime or, for a rare subsection of us, SF/fantasy.

This is one I only twigged when I tried to start conversations with friends and guys I worked with about some of the incredible general fiction I’ve read and have just been met with blank stares. Like I was suggesting they try learning Latin over the weekend.

We should ask to see pictures of babies too! One of the guys in the office became a father for the first time the other day. Every single man embraced him with varying degrees of handshake or manhug congratulating him as if he himself had just gone through a 33 hour labour and a C-section (true story). What was the first thing every woman did that the men neglected to bother themselves with? Ask to see a picture of his newborn son. Nothing says “we’re happy for you but… I’m bored now” like that.

Yeah, look I know all of this nonsense is based on sometimes baseless stereotype, but a lot of it isn’t. I’m one of those guys who, through circumstance or genetic glitch, slipped through the “man” net. I’ve never worked in a mostly male environment, don’t go out for pints with the lads, play 5-a-side and I’ve never been on a stag (for my own I brought my friends, dad and son out on a boat trip and for a pizza.  Let’s face it, 100,000 years ago on the African savannah I would have been lunch for a lion fairly early on.

The most boggling suggestion I was given that men should (literally) grab wholeheartedly with both hands and try was flossing. One colleague said her husband will never engage in it no matter how hard she tries. Even I’m guilty of that one.  My wife does, I don’t. I just see it as 90 seconds I’d rather use staring off into the distance over my coffee first thing in the morning. I’m going to give it a go just for the craic. Sure what do I have to lose?

 

(This column originally appeared in Insider Magazine in the Irish Independent)

Insider Magazine – The One Where I Give Up On Going To The Movies

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Losing your first love is never easy. You’re a teenager, you want to spend all your time together, everything seems new and the possibility of your future life limitless. You can’t imagine why you would ever go your separate ways. Then it happens, you’ve drifted apart and hanging around with each other gets to be a bit of a chore. It’s only just happened to me. I think it’s over. I don’t want to go to cinemas anymore.

I know this might sound like I grew up in a Hovis ad set in the 20s, but when I was a teenager I used to queue for movies when they opened on Friday afternoon. There were queues for stuff like Tim Burton’s first Batman, Dead Poets Society, Terminator 2 and Silence Of The Lambs.

Yeah we had nothing else to do, I grant you (no, seriously, I love the look on my kids faces when I tell them there was no internet, no satellite TV, no Netflix, no box sets, no mobile phones…) but in my head the amount of total dross being put up on the big screen these days is constantly on the rise.

As I type this I am now cripplingly aware just how like someone’s granny this makes me sound. Stop me when I start rambling on about how much cheaper stuff used to be (note to self – write column about how much cheaper stuff used to be).

I think everything changed when the screen in my house became the same shape as the screen in my cinema. TV itself hasn’t helped the equation. If there wasn’t American Horror Story, Breaking Bad, True Detective, Buffy, The Bridge or Sherlock I might drag myself out to a cinema more often, but the lure of a great story told in longform, sometimes over years, while you can curl up in your PJs with a beer is a strong one.

Hell is other people, too. Why go out and lash out 30 quid for the two of you to be surrounded by idiots asking each other what just happened because they seem to have the attention span of a distractible goldfish or blinding you like an old-fashioned usher by checking Facebook every ten minutes? Don’t get me started on the “running commentary” merchants.

Forcing me to watch things in 3D didn’t help either. Throw in a few times where stuff was out of focus or with the sound too low (or on one memorable occasion being screened UPSIDE DOWN for 15 minutes!) and I’m off. There’s the added advantage that I don’t even have to wear clothes at home. They make you do that in most reputable cinemas.

There are exceptions to all this, the last flames of my lingering desire for the hidden velvet dark. The Lighthouse and IFI in Dublin are still those sort of places with decent coffee, interesting movies and where everyone gets that if you’re lashing out the bones of 30 lids, you should probably shut up and watch the film.

Mostly though I think it has to do with movies being a bit shit in the last few years. For every Avengers or J.J. Abrams first Star Trek, Django Unchained, Her or Midnight in Paris honestly how many times have you gone to the cinema and come out going “yeah, that wasn’t terrible”. Is that the bar we’ve set these days?

I started to lose the will to go when it seemed that every time I scanned what was on in my local multiplex it was full of sequels to what were average original movies, romances with guaranteed happy endings (probably in the snow, rain or in an airport terminal) and things where Liam Neeson beats people up. Again.

What really brought it home to me was Interstellar. I went to see it recently and was blown away in a way I haven’t been since… well Dark Knight or Inception (there may be a pattern here). I had animated discussions about it for days afterwards in the office. It reminded me about what it used to feel like when I came out of my dark, quiet cave and into the light years ago feeling only the need to run out into the street and tell everyone I knew just how brilliant what I’d seen had been. That doesn’t really happen anymore.

Cinemas, I love you and all, just I think it’s time we maybe took a break.

 

(This column originally appeared in Insider Magazine in the Irish Independent)

Insider Magazine – The One Where I Want A Death Watch

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It’s very sweet of you but there’s no need to ask, I’ve already decided. For Christmas this year I want a death watch.

“Tikker” does just as you would expect it to: you enter some basic details about your age, vital statistics, health and habits and it calculates the estimated date of your death based on the information it’s been given. Then, in a presumably not unexpected turn of events, it starts counting downwards.

It’s brilliant – what would happen if we all had a little digital display on our arms showing just how much time we had left before all the lights are supposed to go off? Facebook friends would be ruthlessly culled overnight. Pictures of the first day of school of the third kid of some guy you once met on holidays and haven’t seen in twenty years or a platitude-filled picture of a cat clinging to a washing line saying “hang in there, it’s almost Friday” from the receptionist bring you ten seconds closer to oblivion, my friend. That kind of nonsense will be a crime in the dictatorship of the dwindling dial.

In fact the list of things that might disappear overnight is fairly large. Just off the top of my head I had TV ad breaks, polite small talk with strangers, parent-teacher meetings, queuing for Santa, work brainstorming that lasts longer than eight minutes, two-pull pints and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd rounds of the F.A. Cup. As for ironing? Screw that. I choose being rumpled and having a little more time to breathe.

I’m pretty sure full-day hangovers would go the way of the dodo. You think you have The Fear on an average Sunday evening at 7.15? Imagine if your wrist reminded you that you were one day closer to your check-out date with nothing to show for it but 5 toast crusts, an empty two litre of Lucozade and twelve forgettable episodes of Come Dine With me?

Being honest there’s probably little chance you’d waste two minutes reading this column out of the ever-decreasing stock of sand in your personal egg timer. I certainly wouldn’t waste the four minutes out it takes me to write it. (Note for my lovely editor – this is humour and not a reflection of the real amount of time this column takes. I handcraft it over many, many days and nights of painstaking love, effort, tears and toil.) Therefore with a death watch I definitely wouldn’t be writing the bloody thing.

My theory is that fireworks displays and rollercoasters would become incredibly popular. They give a huge amount of bang for very little time invested. Similarly, drag racing would become the biggest sport in the world. Who in their right mind is going to waste hours of mortality on a scoreless draw with penalties in the World Cup or pretty much any game of baseball?

So what would be worth the time it takes to do it in the brave new world of the death watch? Travel is always worth every moment, but not the time it takes you to travel there (sitting in a Piazza watching the sun go down over Florence good, Pisa airport bad.) Sex will pretty much always fall into this category too. I’m pretty sure it will never be a wasted 90 seconds for most of us.

The technicalities of all this are problematic, true. My friend Cormac mused as to whether you’d get a refund if you accidentally stepped out in front of a bus and were smushed on the road one idle Tuesday when ole Ticky says you have 54 years left. Best hope we never have to test that one, we agreed.

Still, even though the watch exists it’s just a load of nonsense and you’d never want one on your wrist constantly rolling ever closer to you kicking the bucket. However now that I’ve gotten you thinking it doesn’t mean the same principles don’t apply. You are three minutes closer to checking out than you were when you started on the left hand side of this page. You don’t need a watch to tell you that.

Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock. See you in two weeks. Maybe.

 

(This column originally appeared in Insider Magazine in the Irish Independent)

Insider Magazine – The One With The Goldilocks Zone

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My wife came up with an idea recently about the Goldilocks Zone for gigs. The idea that you’re still young enough to pass unseen in the crowd at Ed Sheeran or a festival but old enough not to look like the weird young lad at the National Concert Hall, The Abbey Theatre or a Tony Bennett concert. She thinks I’m still within the boundaries; I love testing a good theory.

To start with, you should know I have a slightly unusual history of going to gigs. I went through a real Benjamin Button phase when I was a kid because the songs around me that I ended up falling in love with all came from the past for one reason and another. Before I was 21 I’d been to see the varyingly poor to brilliant performances of the likes of Van Morrison, Lou Reed, Christy Moore and Dire Straits. Dire Straits was the poor one, what was I thinking? I ended up spending most of the gig in the bar listening to 15 minute Mark Knopfler guitar solos. Probably the best place to listen to them to be honest.

Jesus, I even remember being at a Bonnie Raitt gig in the National Stadium at one stage. I was 55 before I was 25. While people I knew went to Blur or S Club 7 you were more likely to see me at a mumbly two hours spent with Bob Dylan, before he got good again, most likely alone. Just me and oul lads trying to pretend it was still the early 70s.

My musical resurrection and mid-life crisis all in one came much later. From my late 20s to early 30s you could have found me at Florence And The Machine, The National, Fight Like Apes, Beyoncé, Bloc Party, The Go! Team or Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip. I was at the first gig The Streets did in The Ambassador. Worryingly, I didn’t go to my first Oxegen or Picnic until I was at least 32 but at least at that stage of my life my tastes tended towards the new or non-mainstream. In tents or rainy fields in the space of a few years I saw everyone from Seasick Steve to Too Many DJs.

Sustaining that sort of “sweat and whiskey consumption” level gets tiring after a while so things have slowed down recently. The last couple of years I’ve been to and been blown away by Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen and even seen 3 of the best gigs of my life in the RDS with Bruce Springsteen.

Recently the glorious Tony Bennett played the Bord Gais Energy Theatre and I’m pretty sure me and my wife were the two youngest people in the crowd, in some cases by a few decades. It wasn’t a dusty, creaky performance of nostalgia by any means and when he sang I Left My Heart In San Francisco I could have closed my eyes and been back the Fairmont Hotel in 1964. It was beautiful, elegant and a thing from another time but maybe the first ever time I’ve felt out of place at a live event.

On the way home I was rattling about all of this to my wife and she said in that offhand fashion of getting straight to the point in a few words that she has “you’re in your Goldilocks Zone.” I thought about it later. Seems to make sense, right? So why not test it? Why not prove it to myself that for a few more years at least I was still in my Goldilocks Zone and not rapidly becoming Papa Bear.

It was only when I stacked it up that I realised I’ve become someone who’s only really likely to be seen in The Olympia at a play or Vicar Street or The Iveagh Gardens at a comedy gig. This might seems perfectly fine for a normal guy my age, but I play loud, mainstream pop music for a living. I can tell you an obscene amount of things about the recent singles of Ariana Grande, Sam Smith, Labrinth or Professor Green and pretty much everything David Guetta has ever had his hands on.

There was a symmetry, it seemed, given that Tony Bennett has an album out with her at the moment, to go to Lady Gaga a couple of weeks ago. The two of us arranged to go with my wife’s younger, trendier mid-twentysomething twin sisters as cover. I didn’t tell them I was using them in an experiment. I always find that family relations work better that way.

We’d go to the gig, I’d blend in seemlessly with the crowd and prove finally to myself once and for all that the Goldilocks Zone is a real thing and that I’m in it, slipping seamlessly between the entertainment worlds like some sort of gig-going super-spy. These things seem plausible in my own mind when I’m drifting off at my desk of a morning, y’know?

Then one of my sisters-in-law threw her back out at work. She’s 27. I’d had an exhausting week at work and decided a Friday night on the sofa reading made more sense. I’m going to Morrissey and The Who in a couple of weeks. Goldilocks was a bloody fairy story.

 

(This column originally appeared in Insider Magazine in the Irish Independent)

Insider Magazine – The One Where I Tell You To Get Rid Of Your Beard

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Men of Dublin, please feck off and stop growing beards. Thanks.

You mean I have to fill this with another 800 words and in some way explain myself? Apparently that’s the difference between good old-fashioned standing in the street and yelling stuff at randomers and having a national newspaper column. Fair enough.

Once, beards were a sign of radical left-wing politics, a love of folk music, an earth loving hippy sensibility or not giving a shite about your personal appearance. Occasionally all of the above. These days it’s like pregnant women. You don’t notice one for ages until someone points one out to you and then they’re all you see.

I was sitting in a coffee shop the other day (not a hipster in sight) and every man there bar one had a beard of some kind. Every last one. As a bearded man for the last 5 years it’s a disturbing trend I’ve noticed on the rise in for the last while now. First it was the trendoids, not long after it was the Mumfordpocalypse, George Clooney even caused a spike in interest and now, post-Hozier, there are hoards of facially hirsute young lads everywhere you look. It’s not fair. That used to be my thing.

Not that I’ve had a beard forever, or even for that long a time. If there was one thing I was sure of when I was a kid (besides a future career as an astronaut, the invincibility of Liverpool FC and just how cutting edge computer games that loaded on cassette were) it was that I was never going to have a beard. My dad had one for all of my childhood, thus if there was one small act of rebellion that was going to be mine, it was that there was no way I was going to have one too. Yet, here we are.

First it was just laziness, letting the stubble grow for a few days because I hated shaving, next thing I knew no-one could remember the last time they’d seen me clean shaven. It’s been over four years now. I’m so attached to it now that I won’t even do Movember because it would mean shaving part of it off for a month and flapping my clean-shaven chin to the world. What happened to me?

One of the things I liked about it in the early stages (apart from it hiding a multitude of sins when it came to having a fat face) was that few men my age around had them. No, I’m not one of those “I liked the band before any of you guys had heard them so now I don’t like them anymore” merchants of the personal appearance brigade. Well, maybe a little. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life observing what goes on in the middle of the motorway, quietly, from the pathway on the side. Well, more from a nearby hill really. With binoculars. Then running away. Now I’m smack bang in the middle of the white line and people think I’m a beardy bandwagon jumper.

But why do so many lads have beards and why now? I’m the sort who asks that question of colleagues at random, say 9.30 on a  Tuesday morning in the canteen whil they’re eating breakfast (they’ve come to expect it now). One of them gave me the theory that Irish men are bearded by default and that we only get rid of them in times where we lose the run of ourselves with money, comfort, vanities and notions of clean-shavenness. It would explain Peig Sayers. Thus in the 80s, when I was growing up, lots of men were unemployed and bearded. The Celtic Tiger saw that off for a while but fairly soon our natural hairy chins returned.

According to that hypothesis, if you believe all the post-Budget hype you just need to leave it another 6 months and beards will be only for trad bands again. I’ve already instructed my broker to invest my extensive portfolio in Gillette. It’s only a matter of time before they invent something with one more blade than the last one. Again.

Actually, now that I’ve written all this out, I’m not sure what the problem is that I have with so many men 25-45 having a beard. In fact, maybe I’ve even been a trendsetter in this regard. If you could see the slap I just gave myself for typing something that stupid, you’d laugh. The beard did cushion the impact, though.

 

(This column originally appeared in Insider Magazine in the Irish Independent)

Insider Magazine – The One Where I Switch Off The Modern Day

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Imagine for a microsecond you’re in a house in another country for seven full days. Just you and your partner with no TV, no internet and no other people. You put your watch away in a drawer and don’t know what time it is shy of guessing where the sun is in the sky. You have no idea what’s going on anywhere in the outside world and your phone is switched on once a day for 2 minutes just to make sure there are no  family emergencies.

Other than that it’s just quiet, calm, isolation and, to all intents and purposes, it may as well be the 1920s. The incessant cluster of invisible communications that is both the greatest miracle in modern civilization and the biggest ball and chain weighing down the future of the human race, the one that never stops interrupting every heartbeat of every waking day just… disappears.

I finally took my week’s holiday recently and what you read above is pretty much how it panned out (with some food, 6 books and plenty of wine thrown in). Usually any time we go on holidays it’s to a city to do stuff like walk around, visit museums, try the sights and eat in little restaurants. Neither of us has ever been on what you’d call a conventional “lie around the pool doing nothing” sun holiday and we were pretty sure we never would be. We did what we did this year because it was cheap – the cutting off of the 21st century was an afterthought, an experiment. It was liberating.

I really did know nothing about the world. We joked once that there could have been a civilization ending event and we wouldn’t have known until we went out to the supermarket to restock and found wandering dazed survivors of a swift pandemic clawing at our car.

It was only when we got back to Dublin that I saw that Scotland had stayed in the U.K. and that someone Irish had won the Euromillions. Did I really need to know or care about either? Not really. All of the stories that we minutely obsess about in the news media and online seemed so very, very unimportant in the small scheme of a human day lived the way people used to before instant news, gossip, infotainment, outrage, blip and communication became not just an option but an enforced requirement.

The day after we arrived back we were walking through town on the Sunday of the all Ireland Football Final and I had what I can genuinely describe as a little panic attack on O’Connell Street. There were so many people, crowds, noise, throngs, colours, horns, traffic. It was a bit like what I’ve always thought it would be like to put a man from the Middle Ages smack bang in the middle of Shanghai. It was a sort of culture shock and I’d only been away 7 days.

Monday was a challenge too. I went from not having looked at an electronic screen of any kind for a week to being clown-suited up and put under the spinning plates of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Gmail, websites and e-mail at my desk. I felt bewildered by what Naomi Klein calls in her new book ‘This Changes Everything’ “the never ending feed of the perpetual now” after one week away.

Yes, I am aware of the irony of finding a life like that so blissfully fulfilling while typing my column on my tablet and talking on the wireless for a living, but it’s something I genuinely believe you should try if you’re interested. Don’t just do a digital detox for a day, try detox from the modern day for a week.

Go somewhere, go off grid, do human things like eating, drinking, talking and reading for a while without the constant whining child of TV, web and phone.

You might come out a different person on the far side.

 

(This column originally appeared in Insider Magazine in the Irish Independent)

Insider Magazine – The One Where I Question If I Have Any Skills

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Billy Bragg had a brilliant new album out this year called Tooth And Nail; in case you missed it. It’s not like his earlier, angry “New England” stuff, it’s the gentler almost country ramblings of a man in middle age. Still with loads of furious political thought, mind. The lyrics of Handyman Blues are lovely…

“I’m never gonna be the handyman around the house my father was / So don’t be asking me to hang a curtain rail for you, because / Screwdriver business just gets me confused / It takes me half an hour to change a fuse.” He follows this on by telling her what he’s good at, writing words and songs, and how his talent is using those to put a roof over their head. It got me thinking.

I’m from a generation many of whom are absolutely shite at the manual skills their parents would have found necessities.  For instance, my dad once built, with some help from men in the family, the kitchen extension to their house which has stood, unchanged, since I was a little kid. I wouldn’t know which way up the bricks went even if you put a gun to my head. Similarly my father-in-law’s never-ending DIY projects around their house involve talents of building, measuring, hammering and wiring which to me  are almost the equivalent of translating a papyrus filled with ancient Sanskrit. To be honest with you I’d probably stand a better chance with the Sanskrit.

To give you a rough idea of my manskills – I can wire a plug. If it still has the little bit of paper on it that tells me what goes where. Once, many years ago, I was dealing with a tricky lamp that had gone dead. I tried checking the bulb, not that, figured out it was the socket the bulb goes in (it was a bit out of shape and needed to be bent). I tried that with a screwdriver and forgot to unplug the lamp first. My best guess is that it was about 20 minutes later I woke up crumpled on the opposite side of the sitting room.

Recently I started reading a great book that might help me be a bit more useful in the practicality department recently. It’s Lewis Dartnell’s “The Knowledge – How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch” and takes the form of a thought experiment about what you’d have to do to reboot civilisation after a pandemic or the like. You know the sort of thing – making chemicals, weaving fabric for clothes, growing crops, agriculture. It’s fascinating stuff even if I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about most of the time.

So what can I really do? What do I bring to the table? What skills do I actually have? I tried asking my wife but she came back with the holy trinity of my talents – I kill spiders, I get stuff off high shelves and I can zip awkward dresses up. There has to be more to what I bring to the world, right? After ten days hard thought here’s what my notebook had.

Making lists – this I am world class at. Or at least I thought I was until I realised I had mislaid the list I’d made about things I was good at. Point taken. Then there’s knowing where to find the latest episodes of major American TV shows on torrent sites – not that I would ever download such a thing because that is illegal, immoral, theft and makes baby Jesus cry. True, I have a bladder like a camel. Wait, do camels never have to pee? If so, that’s me.

One that might be a bit helpful is finding my way around the public transport systems of foreign cities. I’m pretty decent at this one actually; slap me in the middle of wherever with a rudimentary map of how their Underground/Metro/Subway works and I’ve been told I wander with a sure stride like I know what the hell I’m doing. Then, of course, I can talk and I can write – but sure when is stupidity like that ever going to make me a living, eh?

However, now is the time to change. I’m determined to gain a new, useful, real-world skill this year that will stand in my stead and make me a better “man”. Give me more practical skills that will be handy in society. I must get started right after I finish this book I just bought that’s going to help me learn Latin.

(This column originally appeared in Insider Magazine in the Irish Independent)