Friday, June 21, 2013

The Sale of Coillte Harvesting Rights - Kudos to Simon Harris TD

When it comes to politics and politicians in Ireland, I am as disillusioned as anyone out there. The post-election performance of the occupants of Leinster House - most of whom very quickly forget who put them there and who pays their wages and outrageously inflated expenses - typically leaves a lot to be desired. However, I am a strong believer in credit where credit is due.

Some months ago I wrote via email to one of my local representatives, Simon Harris TD, to express my concern at the proposed sale by the Government of the harvesting rights in Coillte. My letter was prompted by a video I had seen on Facebook (where, of course, everything you see and hear is true) which told of the impending sell-off by the current Government of the harvesting rights in our national forests to overseas interests. I asked Simon is this was true. If so, then I wanted to object in the strongest possible terms. "As a nation", I went on, "we are being bled dry by Fine Gael and Labour and the time has come to say enough is enough."

At this stage, I was just warming to my task. It had taken me many decades to find the passion in me to write a letter to a politician so I was bally-well going to make the most of the opportunity. "For the record", I added, "I voted Fine Gael in the last general election and I have rarely regretted anything as much as I regret that vote. The lack of true leadership from Enda Kenny is astounding. Our country and it's citizens have been hung out to dry. Now it looks like our treasured forestry and the wildlife it supports is next on the list to be sacrificed."

There. That told him. And for my grand finale I decided to add a cameo mention for the decimated Fianna Failers. "While I accept that Fianna Fail landed the country in the financial scenario it faced, the way that Fine Gael and Labour have chosen to sell out the citizens of this country to right the wrongs of the past is nothing short of criminal and will be judged by history as such."

Satisfied that I had gotten it all off my chest, I hit 'send'. I had heard several stories of people who had taken the time and trouble to write to their local TDs on issues of concern to them, only to have their efforts disappear apparently into black holes. So I wasn't holding my breath.

Fast forward three hours and an email arrives in my inbox - from Simon Harris TD. While I held out a glimmer of hope for a reply at some distant time in the future, the fact that one arrived so swiftly certainly caught me unawares. But is was not the swiftness of the response, impressive though it was, that grabbed my attention the most. Simon responded on all my points, in a level-headed, clear and respectful way. He outlined that he had met with many people who shared my concern on harvesting rights and reassured me that he was raising these concerns, which he himself shared, through Parliamentary Questions.

He could easily have stopped there. But to his great credit he did not shy away from my attack on his Government's performance. He was not defensive about it - which so many of our politicians are when it comes to both their personal and party performances. Rather, he urged patience and asked that the government be judged at the end of their term. He briefly outlined some of the focus areas for the next 3 years.

So, all in all, a very decent reply from Simon Harris TD. That was that, as far as I was concerned. Or so I thought.

Fast forward to today. A letter awaited me on my return from work. Not an email - a proper letter, from Simon Harris TD. Yesterday, the Government took a decision not to proceed with the sale of Coillte harvesting rights. The letter was to inform me (and presumably others who had expressed their concerns to Simon) about the Government's decision. The letter included the full statement on the matter by Minister Coveney. Now, I am impressed at this level of follow-up, not only by Simon but by his office - someone had to take the time to look up my mail address as I had not provided it in my email to him.

I am delighted at the Government's decision. But I am probably even more delighted at the performance of Simon Harris. I remain very angry and very critical of both this and the previous Government for what they have done to our country in the cack-handed way they dealt with the financial crisis and for the corresponding financial punishment they have meted out to the innocent citizens of Ireland. However, criticism is only valid if we are also prepared to recognise when the Government and individual politicians actually get it right.

Well done to the Government on what I believe to be the right decision on harvesting rights. Let's hope that remains the situation for the long term. But even more so, congratulations to Simon Harris for the way he conducts his business. If you are not careful, Simon, you will end up giving politicians a good name.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zenith

How often do we come across a word that in one sense sounds 'difficult' yet can have quite a simple meaning behind it? Zenith is such a word. We do not encounter it regularly in daily speech, yet most people will have an inkling of what it means. A dictionary will tell you that it typically has two meanings. On the more technical level it means that point in the visible celestial hemisphere which is vertical to the spectator; the point of the heavens directly overhead. On a more figurative level it also used to refer to the point of culmination; the greatest height; the height of success or prosperity. Perhaps the best summation of these meanings that I came across was 'the highest point'.

Whenever I hear the words 'the highest point', however, it is not 'zenith' that comes to my mind. The phrase is far more evocative to me than a mere technical term. Let me explain. For a number of years a group of us have met in various places (usually but not always one of our homes) to share some food and wine, inevitably followed by a late night session of music and song. Typically as these evenings draw to a close a call will come up for Donal to give us his rendition of Jimmy McCarthy's "The Highest Point". He will occasionally protest, but will eventually reach for the guitar, check his DADGAD tuning and deliver passionately. For me the song is hauntingly beautiful, and only Donal's version will do.

It is a love song, a terribly sad love song:

I was dreaming of my love,
With her hair tied up above,
That fair face that lights my soul
She must have stolen it from an angel.

We were dancing by the sea,
Said how she'd been missing me,
The sweetness of a song set free,
A song sung over and over and over.

Nights in dreams of heaven blue,
Stitched and fused as one we flew,
Till I awoke again a knew
That my heart is always waiting.

Still I wonder why I follow her
And I wonder why I care,
As I lift my face up from my hands,
Still I find her there.
She's the dread of my nightmare,
She's the love of my life.
You see, a dream can be the highest point
We reach within a life.

What a powerful statement - "a dream can be the highest point we reach within a life." Whether it is unrequited love, or failed ambition, or a myriad other possibilities in life that will only be achieved within our dreams.

I've been fortunate in my life to have so many dreams come true. Important to remember too that it doesn't always happen exactly as in our dreams or ambitions. Just because something doesn't work out as you envisaged does not mean it's working out badly. For me, it's about recognising when good things happen to you and being grateful for that. Family, friends, achievements - all of these bring their own 'highest points', if we let them.

Still, I guess it's good to dream, though there has to be a devastating sadness for a person where the the 'highest point' remains within their dreams. Unattained and perhaps unattainable.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for Young at Heart

I recall as a youth being what you might call 'conservative'. I'm referring here not to conservatism in the political or religious sense but more in relation to the sort of things you might have expected an average teenager in the 1970s to be getting up to. I dabbled in neither smoking nor drinking. Other substances were completely out of the question too. Dating only really kicked off when I got towards the back end of my college degree. Not that I was a stuff-shirt by any means - I enjoyed a laugh and a prank as much as the next lad or lassie - but overall I would have been regarded as a responsible, upstanding, sensible young person.

So where am I going with this? I'm sure you have often heard the phrases "you can't put an old head on young shoulders" and "youth is wasted on the young". Well I'm probably the exception to the first phrase and as a result the second phase is probably true for me. I don't mean I wasted my youth in a bad sense - in many ways it was a wonderful time - but I often wonder could I have done more or spent my time differently. To give one example, as I exited college, top of my travel bucket list was to visit China - and I wanted to do it quickly while it still had the air of a forbidden destination. I did all the research, spoke to people who had visited but to cut a long story short the procrastinator in me won out and I have yet to realise my dream of going there.

Another phrase you often hear is "you're never too old" for whatever. While I agree with the sentiment behind this, the reality is that options do become more limited the older we get. Don't get me wrong - there is still much to be done, much to be achieved and plenty of opportunity as we get older. However, physical constraints do begin to kick in at some point (dodgy knees and a long-term bad back in my case).

What I am driving at is - if you have an inkling that you want to live life to the full, do it now. If you are young, appreciate the fact that you are most likely in the prime physical condition of our life. Take advantage of that to live out your dreams that may become a little more difficult as your joints stiffen up. If you are a little more 'senior' like myself, accept the fact that perhaps you can't physically do everything you could do 20 or 30 years ago but there is nonetheless a lot still to be experienced and achieved.

And one of the secrets to that is remaining young at heart. Don't lose the inner child. Sure, you can't put an old head on young shoulders but an old head can and should learn something from the exuberance, the abandon, the risk-taking of youth. It just might hold the key to some of the best experiences of your life as you get older.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for X-Factor and X-cuse

Owing to being very under the weather today, I've been unable to get a decent post written. I had settled on X-Factor as my topic but my thoughts on that require my brain to be in a less muzzy state in order to articulate them with any compositional skill.

So, I feel I have a reasonable X-cuse for taking the easy way out today. As tomorrow is a day off from blogging I may use that opportunity to write a better X post. Either way, normal service (whatever that is) will resume for Y and Z next week. I can't believe we are so close to the end. Where did the month of April go to?!!

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for Writing

I've written elsewhere in this A-Z Challenge about social media and what it means to me. As I said in that post, I'm pretty certain I would never have taken up blogging were it not for the fantastic bloggers and writers I met on Twitter. Let me tell you, there are some exceptional bloggers there. I think the fact that they were very encouraging and generous towards me when I first floated the idea of blogging is what really made me take the first steps.

The first thing I had to do if I wanted to stand any chance of survival as a blogger, was to make up my mind that it is not a competition. I'm not trying to write something that is as eloquent or as knowledgeable as someone else. The fact is, I couldn't. That acknowledgement led me onto the second thing I needed to consider - what would I write about? I quickly made up my mind that my blog would not have a specific theme or subject matter.

Therein lay my first challenge - without a subject matter, I would have to dream up topics to blog about. I'm a somewhat dispassionate person, so it takes a lot to get me ranting about something, or at least feeling strongly enough about something to 'put it put there'. I thought about combining my blogging with my photography - and to an extent I have done that by, most of the time, including one of my photos in my posts. But I wanted to avoid it becoming a pure photo-blog.

I think the best piece of advice I received was from my Twitter friend and blogger extraordinaire - Barbara Scully (From My Kitchen Table). She said, simply, "write from the heart". This has stood me in good stead during both the fruitful and the barren times (take it from me, they happen!) of blogging. The only problem with writing from the heart is that it requires a certain amount of baring your soul, your inner thoughts, and as you know if you read my 'T' post recently, that is something that does not come naturally to me.

This probably raises the question in your mind - why? Why did I decide to start writing a blog? There's no easy answer to that. However, I have long had an interest in words - puns, limericks, etc. For example, I delivered most of my best man's speech at my brother's wedding in limerick form! So, to some extent my interest in starting a blog developed from this. But on a more serious level, life is too short - if you have an inkling to do something, then go for it. So I did!

I've turned out to be a bit of a hit and miss writer. Until recently I've barely managed a post per month on average. This is hardly going to set the blogosphere alight! However, on March 31st this year I heard of the A-Z Challenge for bloggers. Initially I said 'no', not for me. How could I possibly find time to write a post a day for a whole month. My track record was certainly against me. But I woke up on April 1st and played the biggest April Fools trick on myself - I signed up for the challenge! Life is too short - remember!

I don't know where my blogging will go after this challenge reaches it's conclusion next week. One thing I do know - I will continue (though definitely not at the rate of one a day!!). I will continue to incorporate my photos where possible. I will mostly steer clear of discussing the great issues facing us as a nation - there are bloggers in my circle of friends who address these things far more eruditely than I ever could. I won't promise to stay away from religion - too much invested in that for me not to express an opinion. There may even be the odd rant. But above all, I will be trying to stick with Barbara's advice and 'write from the heart'.

PS: if you would like to sample some of those fantastic blogs / bloggers I alluded to above, just scroll down on the right to the 'Blogs I Follow' section. They are all linked there. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Variety (is the Spice of Life)

You will have learned from my T post, dealing with my Enneagram personality type, that I am a No.5 - I observe and I think. I drink in information and I analyse.

I typified this in my student days. I wanted to know the deep minutiae of my subject matter. I would research the latest and greatest books on my chosen topic and in many cases actually acquire them. If you read my ‘T’ post, then this may come as no surprise to you. I remember wanting to go to the deepest level of understanding how computers worked. Outside of my studies, I developed a great interest in classical music. I subscribed to the best music review periodicals and took up singing in my local Choral Society to turn some of the theory into practice.

When I started work, I firmly believe my personality type held me back, or at least got me off to a slow start. I was afraid, yes, afraid to offer opinions or to challenge the views of others lest I was found deficient in the knowledge and understanding. Pretty pathetic, when I reflect on it now.

But experience has changed me. I'm still basically a No.5 - in fact, they say in the Enneagram that you never change your basic personality type - once a 5, always a 5. But your personality develops and can go along both healthy and unhealthy lines. My healthy development path is towards a No.8 - which is self-confident, decisive, willful, and confrontational in nature.

For me, the key to this has been variety. These days, it is more important to me to have a wider range of interests rather than to be deeply knowledgeable in just one or two areas. For me, this is what adds colour and interest to life. I no longer crave the isolation or reclusiveness that can come with being an unredeemed No.5. This is not an overnight conversation - it has taken years to realise, for me, the real meaning of 'variety being the spice of life'. That realisation has opened more doors, more friendships and more possibilities than I could ever have dreamed possible.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for University

Well, I had it all planned out as of 6pm this evening. My U post was to be about University. I was going to wax on about how I didn't really enjoy secondary school, lost the knack of studying right in the run-up to the Leaving Certificate but subsequently found my academic mojo in University College Dublin. Those were days I would gladly live out again. There was so much I enjoyed about it, from meeting great people, making great friends to finally figuring out for myself how to study effectively.

Yes sir, I had the post all planned out. Then, about an hour ago, a friend from our Folk Group posted on my Facebook wall. That's when I realised there is far more to the humble 'U' than I had thought. The background to this post is that, for the first time in many a year, I am missing practice tonight due to being in London. So, in honour of it being the day for U in the A-Z Challenge, Maria kindly posted this to let me know what I was missing. So, as a 'thank you' to Maria for her thoughtfulness, here is her post:

"Well John I'm not long home from choir practice and I thought I would fill you in on the night in a suitable way! Tonight's practice was Unusal in that U were not there and it was slightly Unnerving not having piano to accompany us. In saying that Stephen was a great Understudy for you in his own Unique way and we coped quite well but we won't let him Usurp your position!!

I do hope you aren't too Upset at having missed our tea party. Jacquie's lemon drizzle cake was Unbelievably good and was Utterly demolished by everyone, (I Understand if you are a little jealous!). I think Jacquie is going to make one especially for you. Poor Teresa and Mary G were too Unwell to join us so Undoubtedly you will have to share it with Teresa :).

I hope work is not too hectic and you get a chance to Unwind in the evenings. I have the Urge for a cup of tea so I'll finish now. I hope you don't think I'm a bit of an Upstart writing this and I have no intention of trying to Upstage you, I certainly don't have the talent you have for writing!! So I'll say goodnight and see you on Sunday as Usual, Unless something Urgent or Unexpected happens in the mean time. Have a safe trip home :)"

Many thanks Maria. Fantastic stuff. I think you should start your own blog and take on the A-Z Challenge in 2014. To get you even more in the humour for it, maybe you could write a V post for me tomorrow? :-)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for Thinker

I've referred elsewhere in this blog to the fact that I am a procrastinator by nature. Rather than leave it at that, let me use the opportunity of this post to explain that a little bit more.

Have you ever heard of or experienced the Enneagram? The Enneagram of Personality, or just Enneagram (from the Greek words ennea [nine] and gramma [something written or drawn]) is a model of human personality which is principally used as a typology of nine interconnected personality types. The Enneagram is not commonly taught or researched in Psychology but is widely promoted within business management and spiritual contexts. Of many such models I have encountered, for me the Enneagram has much merit. I won't use this post to describe the concept or it's background in any more detail (indeed, I could not adequately do that in a few paragraphs), but I strongly recommend you look it up on the Internet where you will find many resources and even tests to help you determine which of the nine personality types best fits you.

Long before I ever did a test myself, others who had studied the Enneagram told me with great conviction that I am a Number 5. But what is that, exactly? Well, a No.5 on the Enneagram is summed up as a Thinker, an Observer, an Investigator, a Sage. It may come as no surprise that based on this description, the animal associated with No.5s is the owl. At first I was a little dismissive and sceptical - and although I did not fully dismiss these labels I did wonder how could people with knowledge of the Enneagram really sum me up so quickly. After delving into a bit myself, I have to say they were spot on.

No.5s are private and solitary by nature. Studious and scholarly, they develop expertise in any area that is of interest to them, often in more than one field. They think things through before offering their perceptions and insights regarding systems, people or how the world works. That's pretty much me to a tee. You'll never catch me, whether at work or at play, waxing on about something I feel I don't know much about. You will find me, though, listening intently to those who know something. That said, people who waffle on because they like the sound of their own voices tend to annoy me just a tad!

The greatest strengths of 5s are clear objectivity, instinct and penetrating insight unfettered by emotions. Underneath what appears as shyness and reserve, they are kindhearted and giving people, very loyal to and supportive of those they trust. On the flip side, they also possess a certain avarice. They can greedily hoard themselves, their time or things. They have a tendency to withdraw into their ivory tower of ideas (is it any wonder I named my blog as I did!!). Others may see them as arrogant and unfeeling. Being dispassionate and ‘cool as a cucumber’ is good in an emergency but hard on relationships.

I could go on but I'll leave it at that. My main purpose was to introduce the concept of the Enneagram using my own personality type - The Thinker - as an example. Despite the private nature of No.5s, I hope I've shown through my blogging that we can redeem ourselves too (as indeed can all the personality types) by sharing a bit about myself. Indeed, social media in general has helped me a lot in that regard, enabling me to overcome some of my inate shyness. So the next time you see me being a bit withdrawn or aloof, just know that I'm in observation mode, and more importantly, thinking about what I'm taking in - which may appear sometime in a blog post. You have been warned!!

I'll leave you with the names of some 'famous 5s':

Isaac Asimov, Samuel Beckett, The Buddha, Agatha Christie, Daniel Day-Lewis, Albert Einstein, T.S. Eliot, Greta Garbo, Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, George Lucas, Sam Neill, Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Jean-Paul Sartre, Scrooge, Sister Wendy, Jules Verne, Max Von Sydow.

Make what you will of that list!!

Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for Social Media

Let's get the definition out of the way first, shall we. To what are we referring when we use the term 'social media'? Well, according to the trusty Wikipedia, social media refers to the means of interactions among people in which they create, share, and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks. Simple enough concept really.

Or is it? Well, the concept is simple but believe me what goes on in technological terms to enable this post to be instantly accessible to you on your digital device, is nothing short of mind blowing. I should know - I work in the digital industry!

But to focus on and marvel at the technological wonders that enable us to communicate and interact in so many innovative ways is missing the point. No matter how much we rail against it, there is no holding back the tide of progress and therefore it becomes important to use the digital tools at our disposal to our best advantage.

Let me bring this down to the personal level and speak from my own experience. When we speak of social media, perhaps the two words that come instantly to mind are Twitter and Facebook (note - there is an awful lot more to social media than just these two behemoths). A mere half dozen years ago I hadn't heard of Twitter and had barely heard of Facebook. I was encouraged by some younger colleagues at work to dip my toe in the social media waters by joining Facebook. It was an uneasy start - all my 'friends' were work colleagues initially - all three of them. But gradually, I discovered I knew more people who had taken to Facebook and so the process of connecting and widening the circle had begun.

A few years later I heard of a thing called Twitter. Now that I was a social media junkie, I signed up. And for a year I had less than 5 followers and didn't really understand what a 'tweet' was and what you were supposed to do with one. I wondered would I ever reach the lofty heights of acquiring 10 followers. Almost 1,000 followers later and I think I've figured it out!

The naysayers hark back to the days when social meant face-to-face, because leaving aside the telephone (wired ones at that) being social invariably meant actually being there with people. The argue that the word 'media' is killing social. If you take a narrow view of things, then you might see that point. However, I see a glass very much half full. In my own case, I can say hand on heart that I would never have been inspired to take up blogging had it not been for the fantastic and very encouraging bloggers and writers I met on Twitter. While I would most definitely have taken up photography without social media, the reality is very few people would see my photos if it were not for the likes of Flickr and Facebook. And, let's be honest, it is nice to know that some people actually look at them!

I'll end on the point that some people make that by engaging in social media we are making ourselves too accessible. It's like an 'always on' environment. There is no switching off and therefore we are losing out on interacting with those who are physically around us. To an extent, yes, but like most things in life it is about finding the right balance for you. Again from my experience, if it were not for social media, I'd have missed out on interacting with (and meeting in 'real life') some of the finest, most talented, most intelligent, most kind-hearted, most humorous (add your own favourite superlatives) people that it's been my privilege to know. Now, that's too good an experience to miss out on! And when you think about it, it's really just a digital age equivalent of gathering round the water-cooler for a chinwag, and as my photo shows, occasionally there's wine involved!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for Relaxation

Do you ever feel that there is just no let-up in life? Do you ever just want to shout "stop the world I want to get off"? I occasionally have days like that - I'm sure most people do.

However, I find as I get older that I tend to pace myself a bit better than I did in my younger days. I don't work as many long hours as I used to. I rarely, if ever, these days do work over the weekend. My personal time has become more precious to me and I guard it more jealously than I used to.

But here's the thing. I now get days when I have so much to do even as regards my personal interests that it sometimes becomes too much. I honestly cannot remember the last time I had a whole day completely to myself, simply to do nothing, where there were no expectations of me, no work commitments, no music to be prepared for a choir, no photos to be processed. A day where I could choose to do absolutely anything I wanted to do, or indeed to do nothing at all, and it wouldn't matter to anyone.

It's fair to say that, apart from work commitments which I am employed for and paid to do, much of the work I do related to my personal interests is self-imposed. I choose to do them because I enjoy them, by and large. But even with that, I feel there is something amiss if there is rarely room for just a day of absolutely nothing to do.

Having said all that, I'm not sure what would be gained overall from taking a day out to do absolutely nothing. Usually, it means more 'stuff' piled up for the next day! So perhaps it is a futile thing to pursue. Still, wouldn't it be nice!

I often think it would be great to be a cat. They seem total experts at spending hours on end of doing, well, nothing really. Take a look at our cat in the photo above. I'm convinced he spends about 23 hours a day in that position. It doesn't seem to do him much harm. Yes, I want to come back as a cat.

Anyway, time to stop writing and go do nothing for a short while at least. But wait, what's that noise I hear? Oh, it's just the cat - looking for someone to feed him. I'd best go and get him some food. Maybe tomorrow I'll get that day of complete rest. Then again .....

Friday, April 19, 2013

Q is for Quality of Life

This is a post that I believe I could not have written when I was a mere lad, starting out on my adult journey through life. There are some things that take time to appreciate fully and ‘quality’ is one of them. I have inferred a few times in my blogs that I have become disillusioned with the world of work. Sure – we need to work to pay the bills and put food on the table. But far too often I have seen this basic necessity taken to extremes, where the goal becomes the ‘work’ itself.

At its simplest level, it is the difference between ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’. Quantity is how much more money can I make, how much further I can climb up the corporate ladder, can I get that bigger car, and can I earn that bigger bonus. You could well argue that in order to achieve these material rewards, you have to deliver a ‘quality’ performance and to an extent that is true. But when I refer here to ‘quality’ I mean something that does not have mere material gain as its ultimate goal.

Quality of one of those nebulous things that mean something different to each individual. What might scream ‘quality’ to you may well mean something completely different to me. As a young college graduate emerging into the wider world, I soon got caught up in concerns like ‘how do I advance to the next level’? How do I get to earn more money? These were the yardsticks by which I (and many others, including my paymasters) defined success. Now, 30 years on, these things are of lesser concern to me. Yes, I still have a mortgage to pay and mouths other than my own to feed. But I have also learned that life is very short, very short indeed.

In the past few short years, I have witnessed too many friends and neighbours depart this mortal coil at premature ages. I’ll wager that if they were granted a few more years on this earth, they would have a very balanced view of quality of life. And it is a balance. I’m not one of those ‘rose tinted glasses’ people – constantly upbeat, see no downside. There are lots of challenges, setbacks and disappointments in life. But ultimately, all I can tell you with any certainty is what I have learned.

When it comes to ‘quality of life’, I have learned that it is about doing what makes you happy – really happy. And fair enough, if clambering up to the higher echelons of the corporate world really turns you on, then good on you. But I have learned that this is not for me. For me, quality of life is about time – time spent with family and friends, time spent in appreciating all that is around us, time spent in the pursuit of what makes me happy and those around me happy.

What does ‘quality of life’ mean for you? I’d love to hear your comments.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for Photography

Until relatively recently, I would never have used the word ‘creative’ to describe myself. That changed during the summer of 2011 – a time during which stress and pressure caught up with me, mentally more than physically. I needed to take my mind off things and off myself. I felt the need to do something new and different. With some encouragement from my wife – a lifelong enthusiast of photography – I decided to try my hand with the only camera I possessed – my iPhone!

During the summer, as I travelled around Ireland and, closer to home, around Co. Wicklow, I took photos which I felt represented the beauty and character of the places I visited. At the end of the summer I compiled two photo-books (“Ireland by iPhone” and “iPhone Home”) using the best of the photos I had taken combined with brief words about the shots.

And that was it – hooked - so much so that I decided to acquire my first ‘proper’ camera that autumn. I was still a little scared of the ‘big’ cameras so I settled for a ‘little’ one but one which allowed me to take some control. I haven’t looked back since. I would be considered quite an observant person but until I took up a camera I didn’t realise just how much I was missing. I literally began to see the world with new eyes, looking for angles and opportunities that would be interesting to capture.

My ‘day job’ calls for quite an analytical approach and any ‘creativity’ is very much related to solving business problems. Most of my pastime pursuits, including my other great passion – music – were approached from an analytical rather than creative angle. Photography, however, affords me the opportunity to explore my ‘artistic’ creativity, something that lay dormant in me until now. I’ve also discovered that the process doesn’t begin and end in the camera. The old days of darkroom film processing have given way to computer processing of digital images and that’s something that fascinates me greatly. The creative possibilities are endless.

Photography and the creative process around it have been very good for me, helping me achieve a great balance and perspective in life. To my surprise, it has also enhanced my social life. There are regular meet-ups with local friends who share a love of photography. Additionally, I have found a great affinity between my love of photography and my social networking. I really enjoy connecting with people on Twitter and Facebook and I have found the latter to be an excellent way to connect with people who share a love of photography. Here I must also include Flickr – a kind of social networking site for sharing photos where, during 2012, I undertook a ‘Project 52’ – taking and posting one theme-based photo each week for a year. Through that project I was able to engage with and enjoy the work of many photographers from around the world. Many of them have now become personal contacts on Flickr and some even on Facebook. I’ve since moved on to more projects for 2013 but I’m making time to put the finishing touches to a photo-book of my first ‘52’ journey.

There is a long way to go and many more aspects of photography to be explored. I also feel ready now to move on to a ‘bigger’ camera. I sense it will be a lifelong learning experience but that’s a good thing. It will help me to keep looking outward at the world and the people around me in search of inspiration. I know it is going to be a very exciting and fulfilling part of my life and the great thing is the journey is only beginning!

If you would like to see more examples of my photography, here are some links to my online presence:

Flickr: - my main online portfolio

500px: - just starting to build this portfolio

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for Opportunity Knocks

Do you remember the ITV talent show, very popular in the 60s and 70s, hosted by Hughie Green and featuring the good old ‘clapometer’? Yes, that’s right – Opportunity Knocks – one of the forerunners of today’s multi-million dollar global talent show empires. And yes, unfortunately I remember the show but if you are of a younger age you may need to use Google to figure out to what I am referring.

But don’t worry – that is not the subject of this blog post. I am referring here to the old saying that ‘opportunity knocks but once’. The idiom intends to convey that you usually only get one chance to achieve what you really want to do. It may not seem too pertinent a piece of advice for those of you in your younger years, when your whole life stretches out ahead of you like a blank canvas and you seem to have all the time in the world to colour it with experiences. But believe me, the older you get the more apt this saying becomes. The time for an opportunity to present itself anew is ever decreasing. But let’s not get too morbid!

I have already written during this A-Z Challenge about the opportunity I had recently to start up a community choir in my home town. The timing of this just seemed so right that I could not pass up the chance to take it on and there was certainly no guarantee that the opportunity (or indeed that the absence of a community choir) would be there in the future. So, I decided to ‘go for it’!

That particular example is a rather big one – involvement in a group like a choir, whether as musical director, as a singer or in any other capacity, has the potential to be life-changing and it is certainly changing my life! But opportunities are not always as big or as obvious as that example. Let me tell you about a couple of smaller opportunities that came my way in the past year that I could have passed up but am delighted that I did not.

Last summer, the Tall Ships race paid a return visit to Dublin. I drink coffee with friends every Saturday morning and the owner of the coffee shop where we meet knows that some of us are into photography. He himself is owner of a yacht and he kindly invited a couple of us to join him, with our cameras of course, on a trip into Dublin Bay for the departure of the Tall Ships. I knew this was an opportunity highly unlikely to occur again so I said ‘yes’ and the next day had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. The weather was fantastic; the ships were resplendent as they embarked from the quays of the River Liffey and approached us as we waited out in the bay. As soon as they hit more open waters, they raised their sails. We set our own sails and raced alongside these splendid vessels as they took their leave of Irish shores. The photos I got that day I will treasure for the rest of my life. Here's another one, with one more at the end of the post:

The second opportunity I want to relate is again pertaining to photography. I got a call a few months ago from our local Arts Club saying they’d had a cancellation for their next monthly Arts Show and would I be interested in doing a presentation on my photography. I was actually a little more nervous about this opportunity than I was about setting sail out into Dublin Bay! Apart from posting my photos online on Facebook and Flickr, I had never really publicly presented my shots before. But I decided to ‘go for it’.

Thankfully, the audience was very warm and welcoming which helped me overcome my trepidation on the night and they were very kind in their reaction to my photos. While this may not seem like a ‘big’ opportunity as such, had I turned down the invitation it may not have come my way again. It turned out to be an important step for me in terms of building up confidence in my own photography (I tend to be my own harshest critic) and in making some new contacts on the local arts scene.

So, a couple of personal examples of how it pays to recognise opportunity when it comes knocking. Now, off to think about tomorrow’s post. It may come as no surprise that, being P, it is about Photography!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Phew – half way through this A-Z Blogging Challenge. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The reason for my confusion is that each day often ends up as a sprint to get my piece written and posted before midnight!

Being the mid-point, it is probably a good time to take stock of how I’m doing – a self-assessment, so to speak. If you recall from my introductory post to this challenge, I very nearly did not take up the baton. I went to sleep on March 31st having decided that this challenge was not for me. I’ve struggled to do, on average, one post per month since I started this blog at the end of 2011, so why would I think I could do almost a post per day for the month of April 2013? I awoke on April 1st and took the snap decision to go for it. What was there to lose?

It turns out there was absolutely nothing to lose – and very much to gain. For starters, I have discovered among the almost 1,800 bloggers who signed up, some absolute gems of blogs – and due to time constraints I’m only scratching the surface. When I have a little more time available, I look forward to exploring more from the list. Furthermore, I discovered some of my Twitter buddies also took up the challenge. It has been tremendous getting to know them and their blogs a bit better. Their creativity, imagination and sheer writing talent are a joy to behold and their encouragement has played a large part in getting me this far.

Have I learned anything about myself so far on the journey? I suppose the main thing I’ve learned is that, to my great surprise, I have been able to sustain a daily post at least for half a month! Some days have been difficult – trying to think of a subject for the post and, more often than is good for my blood pressure, rushing to get the writing and posting done at the last minute. The really difficult bit for me is yet to come – I will be away on business next week so I have to figure out how I deal with that from a blogging point of view. The blog must go on, come what may!!

Nothing ventured, nothing gained as they say. That is certainly true for me in relation to this challenge. A key yardstick after this challenge is whether the experience will encourage me to blog more regularly and whether my writing skills have improved. But that’s for later. Right now, am I glad I made that snap decision on April 1st? You bet! To date it has been all positive. I will write again at the end of the challenge about my overall experiences – assuming I make it that far! Actually, I am optimistic that I will get there. To be honest, I’m struggling to think of a downside to the whole thing.

And now, the challenge rolls on, relentlessly. I need to come up with something for ‘O’. Talk to you tomorrow :-)
* Today's photo has nothing in particular to do with the topic of my post, but I rather like the shot so thought I would use it as decoration. I suppose, if I think about it, if I hadn't ventured up the Wicklow Mountains in the cold and snowy conditions, I wouldn't have gained this panoramic shot. Ok - tenuous link but hey ho!

Monday, April 15, 2013

M is for Man in the Mirror

Today’s post is inspired by the Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror”. It’s a song with a catchy refrain that I have often hummed to myself when it was at the height of its popularity. But like many songs, how often did I listen to the lyrics - I mean, REALLY listen?

The song refers to the plight of people living on the streets and our reaction to it:

I See The Kids In The Street,
With Not Enough To Eat
Who Am I, To Be Blind?
Pretending Not To See
Their Needs

But the song is one of redemption. If you want to really initiate change in the world around you, then you have to start with yourself:

I'm Starting With The Man In The Mirror
I'm Asking Him To Change His Ways
And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make A Change

It tells us that in order to effect real change we often have to start with ourselves. But the words that really rang true for me this past week were the following ones:

I've Been A Victim Of A Selfish Kind Of Love
It's Time That I Realize That There Are Some With No Home,
Not A Nickel To Loan, Could It Be Really Me,
Pretending That They're Not Alone?

We live, undoubtedly, in times of austerity. More people are out of work; those in work mainly taking home fewer euros. I’ve seen the effect on myself. Fewer pennies getting dropped in the paper cup of the homeless person. Standing orders to charity organisations cancelled or not renewed. The fact that this is a scenario repeated up and down the country came home to me last week when a young representative from Barnados called to my door. I was about to tell him what I told countless charity cold callers over the past few years – no spare euro here. But he managed to get his story told. Due to reduced government funding and charitable contributions, they were faced with closing a number of their centres around the country. They had begun an initiative to try to save at least one of these, in Arklow.

Then it came home to me. These organisations trying to help people in need are struggling, just as much as households across the land. I momentarily reflected how much, despite austerity, I manage to spend on coffee each week and I loosened the purse strings a little. My few euro alone will not make much difference, but a collective change in outlook just might.

To broaden the context a little, how many of us see things that could be or need to be different. We can opt to be passive and assume that others will bring about the change we want to see. Or we can recognise that if something is not as it should be or as we want it to be, often the only way to change it is to take action ourselves.

The scary thing is that often, this requires us to first change the person in the mirror – ourselves. Perhaps it is no wonder there is so much inertia.

* The photo above was taken last September for a self-portrait challenge. I decided to do something a little different with the shot and use a bit of 'photoshopping'. The main reason I've used the shot for this post is that it is a picture of my reflection in a mirror!

Listen the song with lyrics here: Man In The Mirror

Saturday, April 13, 2013

L is for Laughter

How often have we heard the phrase ‘laughter is the best medicine’? Have you ever wondered is this just another old wives’ tale - a myth, or is there really something to it? It is certainly true that we all love a good laugh but is there more to it than just a momentary reaction to a funny story or situation?

Well, with a little bit of digging around the internet, it appears there is something to it alright. Studies show that there are both physical and mental benefits to having a good old chuckle. For starters, your first reaction to something funny might be a smile and this involves a degree of facial muscle exercise. But it’s more than that – depending on the degree of laughter you will actually get to exercise your stomach muscles (yeah, the good old ‘belly-laugh’!), your back muscles and even your arm and leg muscles. Even more than that – your heart rate will increase slightly and your blood flow increases to all the tissues of your body. It may also lead to an increase in antibodies thereby boosting your immune system.

Now that’s a lot of physical benefit right there. But what about mental or psychological benefit? Well, laughter also helps to produce endorphins (think ‘happy chemicals’) which work in the brain to give an overall feeling of well-being. And here’s the thing – once the laughter is over, that feeling of relaxation and well-being can persist for up to 45 minutes. So there is a lot to be said, both physically and emotionally, for just letting go and having a good laugh.

I remember several years ago in a department I ran in work, I would hold a weekly management meeting. Amidst all the serious business of the day we usually found time for a bit of a laugh as well. On one occasion as we emerged from the meeting room, one of the staff approached me and asked what did we do at our meetings as most weeks all he heard was laughter coming from the room. I told him we were having fun – as that was one of the best ways to get the work done. Unfortunately, the business environment is a lot tougher now and it is sad that there is not so much laughter in the workplace. Goodness knows it is badly needed – there are far too many people on sick leave due to stress and strain.

Apart from the workplace though, it is a pity that as we grow older we generally seem to get out of the habit of laughing. Studies tell us that children laugh several hundred times a day whereas adults manage it only about 10-15 times. Now, I’m sure you are saying to yourself, that’s all well and good but sometimes it can be difficult to find genuine laughter-inducing situations and we are at the mercy of chance and circumstance for something funny to happen. True, but did you know that, apparently, the body cannot distinguish between real and fake laughter. This has given rise to the concept of Laughter Yoga.

Laughter Yoga is a unique concept where anyone can laugh for no reason, without relying on humour, jokes or comedy. Laughter is initiated as an exercise in a group, but with eye contact and childlike playfulness, it soon turns into real and contagious laughter. It is called Laughter Yoga because it combines laughter exercises with yoga breathing. This brings more oxygen to the body and the brain which makes you feel more energetic and healthy, giving the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. It was started by a medical doctor, Dr. Madan Kataria from India in 1995. There are now thousands of ‘laughter clubs’ in more than 65 countries including Ireland. I have to admit, I’m not sure laugher clubs would be for me. I much prefer a naturally-induced fit of the giggles.

But no matter what works for you, my message today is simple - let’s try to take life a little less seriously. So come on people, let it all out – smile, laugh, have fun. You know you want to!

It would seem appropriate to end this particular post with a wee joke:

Two elderly couples were walking down the street, the women a couple of metres ahead of the men. One man told the other that they'd had a wonderful meal the night before-great food, reasonably priced. His friend asked for the name of the restaurant. "Well, I'll need your help on this. Let's see, there's a flower that smells great and has thorns on the stem?"
"That would be a rose," his friend responded.
"That's it!" the man replied. Then he shouted to his wife: "Hey, Rose! What's the name of the restaurant we ate at last night?"

Friday, April 12, 2013

K is for Kerry – the Kingdom

Ok, so I’m resorting to what is mainly a photo-blog post today, but what better location to choose for a selection of photos than Co. Kerry – the Kingdom.

My first visit to Kerry was many, many years ago. My parents took me and my two brothers, plus our Spanish student, Juan. We travelled there in a rather basic, un-air-conditioned Volkswagen Beetle – the four boys in the back, luggage under the bonnet, engine in the boot, and my parents on the bench seat in front. My one memory of the trip was my discovery that something in Kerry induced asthma attacks in me – something I was to discover again in my early twenties when I re-visited.

Thankfully, I eventually grew out of asthma and I can safely visit Kerry these days – something we do now at least on an annual basis. And I love it. There is something really special about Kerry – something that has to be experienced. I certainly do not have the skill with words to express it adequately. So, I’ve decided for my A-Z Challenge post today to express Kerry in photos rather than words. I will keep returning to Kerry in an attempt to capture it more fully and more expressively with the camera. In the meantime, here is a small selection of shots that I captured during my visit last year.

Gap of Dunloe

Road through the Gap of Dunloe

St. Mary's Cathedral, Killarney

Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park

Market Day in Kenmare

Shronahiree Beg, Co. Kerry

Fungi the Dolphin - Dingle Bay

Thursday, April 11, 2013

J is for John

In yesterday’s post I wrote about the Information Age and how we have phenomenal amounts of information literally at our fingertips. For today’s post I thought it would be interesting to explore some of this information by investigating something that I have not really bothered to look into much – the meaning of my given name. So today, J is for John and with the help of t’internet let’s take a (somewhat tongue in cheek) look at the origins and meaning of my name.

Let’s start with, which announces that John is a boy’s name, pronounced jahn. Well maybe it’s pronounced that way in the good old US of A but not where I come from! It’s john, as in jon. I’m glad to know it’s classified as a boy’s name – when one of your middle names is Mary you need some level of reassurance to avoid any gender issues. According to this website, my name means “God is Gracious” and it is possibly the most popular name in history. Very well put, don’t you think – sounds a lot better than ‘common as muck’.

It goes on to tell us that kings, popes, saints and heroes have all borne the name. Well, I mean, it goes without saying. But – wait a second – it goes on to include villains in the list and every degree of character in between. Well, that just about covers everyone! I think this website is playing it safe.

Across numerous websites, I learn that there are many translations of the name. Having been born in Ireland, I am John or Seán (as gaeilge, an dtuigeann tú?). If I had been born a German, I could be Johann or Johannes. Had I been Breton, I would be Yannick. In Spain, they would call be Juan – though in the Catalan region that would probably be Joan, but that might be stretching the gender thing again. I could go on – but I won’t.

Referring to another kind of dictionary altogether – the urban kind – I find many different usages of the word ‘john’. I won’t go into them here (sighs of relief all around), except to mention that in the good old US of A, what we refer to in Ireland as the ‘loo’ or the ‘bog’ might be referred to as the ‘john’.

There have been many famous Johns throughout history – oh, sorry, I should have explained – I’m back talking about people again. To name a few – John F. Kennedy (assassinated), John Lennon (assassinated), John Ivory (ass). Well, at least I haven’t been assassinated – yet.

Having said that, I wonder how long my name will actually be around. Looking at some statistical websites, what once was possibly the most popular name in history appears to be on the wane. For example, in England and Wales, between 1998 and 2010, the name dropped from being ranked around #50 as a boys name to being ranked #94. In the US, records started much earlier – back in 1880. At that time, more than 8% of boys were christened John. Today, it is less than 1%. But then, who wants to be named after a toilet?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I is for Information Age

I recall back in my primary school days, an encyclopaedia salesman called to our home. My parents wanted us to have more opportunities than they had and they saw education, learning and qualifications as the key to a better future for us. Money was tight but they looked on an investment in the latest offering from Colliers as an investment in the future of their children. And so, several weeks later, a consignment of beautifully bound volumes arrived and took pride of place in a custom-made book case in our sitting room.

My father passed away in 1990. I often wonder, if he were to be granted a return, what he would make of the many technological advances that have happened since then. Bear in mind that in 1990 we had just about seen the introduction of the analog mobile phone network in Ireland (with handsets the size of shoe boxes). He would have been aware of laptops computers. I had the unimaginable excitement of bringing one home from work one weekend – a magical device with a flat screen in glorious amber monochrome. He would not have been aware of the internet – few people were, really. It was the mid-90s before I understood what it was and got to experience the long wait times while you downloaded one of the few websites available.

These were early days of pioneering technologies being deployed to the masses, which have evolved into the amazing wirelessly interconnected environment we live in today. My generation witnessed the change as it happened. Gradually we adopted it and adapted to it. For my son’s generation, however, they will never know a world without a personal computing device at their disposal through which they can connect with people and access information anywhere. I don’t imagine they experience much wonder in it – it’s just the way things are.

For me, though – and perhaps it is because I am a self-confessed geek – I never cease to be amazed by the impact of technology on our lives. In particular, I am constantly wowed by the unprecedented level of access to information. Perhaps it is because I have experienced the ‘before and after’. The aforementioned encyclopaedia collection could now fit on my mobile phone. That would have astounded my Dad! But who needs it stored on their phone? All you really need is a browser – there is practically unlimited information out there in the ‘cloud’ awaiting the click of your mouse (or the tap of your finger, if you’re on a phone or tablet device!). The world is, literally, at our finger-tips.

I think if my father were to return he would be shell-shocked at how society has changed. We are truly in an information age. We can be online and connected 24x7 if we so choose. Sure, this brings its challenges. We are social beings and while virtual connections have taken hold in our lives (and they certainly serve a purpose), there can be no substitute for direct human interaction (I’ll say more about Social Media in particular when we reach ‘S’). Let’s use the automaton, not become one.

I leave you with a final thought. Once I finish writing this post on my PC, I will upload it and publish it to my blog site. It will then instantly be available to anyone on the planet who has a browsing device connected to the internet. Isn’t that amazing? If anyone bothers to read it, that will be even more amazing!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

H is for Homeless

Many years ago I was taking some money from my account at an ATM close to where I work. When I completed my transaction and turned around, I was confronted by what looked like a homeless man asking for money. I gave him a few quid and went on my way to the shops. I returned an hour or so later and saw the same man, lying on the ground underneath the same ATM with a partially consumed bottle of whiskey in his hand. The incident had a profound effect on me. For a long time afterwards, I refused to give money to anyone begging in the street.

Fast forward some years and I find myself deeply involved in my local parish as part of a music group. Our local church, like many others, had become a magnet for homeless people. They would beg outside the masses and sleep at night under the overhang at the front door. I could tell you lots of stories but there was one character in particular whom I got to know reasonably well. His name was Stephen. He wasn’t that old but he’d had a hard life. Drugs and prison featured in his story. I haven’t seen Stephen for several years now and given the very obvious poor state of health he was in when I last saw him, I fear the worst may have transpired.

During all these years, and despite my one bad experience of giving money on the street, I came to have a great appreciation for the work of agencies helping homeless people. Operating at a national level, one such agency is Focus Ireland. You can find out more about them here. At a more local level, an initiative that began in my own parish is the Wicklow Homeless (WH) Five Loaves. They do fantastic work and I’ve been privileged through my involvement with music to have helped with some fundraising for them over the years.

Moving forward to the present day and we find ourselves in the aftermath of a severe economic collapse. All bar the richest households are feeling the effects of austerity as our government leaves no stone unturned to ensure that wealthy risk-takers are paid back in full for the unsecured money they invested in bank bonds. Agencies trying to help homeless people, like most charitable organisations, must surely be feeling the pinch too. At the very thinnest end of the wedge, those poor souls left on the streets must surely be finding their caps are much lighter these days as there are fewer spare euro to throw in them.

Where I live, I haven’t noticed any great increase in the homeless on the streets. However, I have become more aware of it when I walk the streets of Dublin, as I often do while pursuing my interest in street photography. I have never set out to photograph homeless people but while merely observing the streets in general I can tell you that I have seen some down and out people in situations that I just could not bring myself to photograph. But I do have two photographs I want to share relating to the topic of this post. The first one, at the top, was taken at the entrance to the Brown Thomas car park in Dublin (if you’re not from Ireland, think ‘Harrods’). I had given him a few bob and was about to walk away when I remembered I had my camera with me. I asked his permission for a photo and he kindly agreed. He then promptly ignored me (thankfully) as I sat on the pavement to get a low-angle shot. I was really taken with the dog in his arms.

The second photo, below, was taken on Dublin’s Henry Street on a cold and very wet Sunday afternoon in late November 2012. The guy sat like this for ages and I couldn’t decide if he was asleep or awake. So I just took the shot and left him undisturbed.

Homelessness. Poverty. Dublin in the 21st century.

Monday, April 8, 2013

G is for Go For It

Well here we are, at the start of the second week of the A-Z Challenge 2013. What have I achieved so far? What have I learned so far? Well, as someone who in 2012 managed to blog on average just once a month, I’ve proved to myself that I can actually compose and post far more frequently than that – when challenged and motivated to do so. Of course, for many reasons this is not sustainable. I appreciate the support of my readers especially during this particular challenge but to expect readers to consume a post a day indefinitely would be stretching loyalty to breaking point. Apart from that, finding the time to write a post each day is equally not sustainable given my current circumstances.

If you read on my prelude post to this challenge, you will recall that I initially decided against taking part. But a week on and I am so glad I decided at the last moment to participate – to ‘go for it’! From my first post in this challenge, you will also have learned that being an adventurer is not well represented on my CV. For much of my life I have had a tendency to find reasons why something could not be done. I would dress this up as simply identifying the hurdles that had to be overcome – and then I would promptly fail to overcome them, most of the time.

To give one example, I remember in my 20s being stationed in London by my company for six months. A colleague there organised a day out gliding. For someone like me, with a lifelong interest in aircraft and flying, the decision to take part in this should have been a no-brainer. Yet, I found a dozen reasons why I couldn’t do it. I promised myself I would get around to doing it at a later date. Of course, the opportunity to do so has not arisen since. I should have gone for it when the chance presented itself. For this blogging challenge, I told myself that I’d never find the time to do 26 posts during April. In reality, what probably scared me more than failing to meet the challenge was the thought of having to put myself out there on the blog fairly constantly during April. That’s really what I had to overcome.

Contrast this with the mindset that recognises where the obstacles are and then works to remove them or works around them in order to make something possible. People like this tend to ‘go for it’ – to make things happen. I am a bit more like that now – more likely to take on a challenge, more likely to do something out of the ordinary, to play it less safe and to ‘go for it’. And you know what – I would consider it some of the best advice I could give to young people. Don’t always seek the safe options; don’t always go the road most travelled. Take a risk every now and then in order to mark out your own path, to be the person you want to be rather than what other people would want you to be. As Steve Jobs said:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

So, what is your dream? What is stopping you achieving it? Is it fear? Is it conformity? Is it lack of motivation? There are many ways to overcome these obstacles but sometimes it pays just to …..

Go for it!.

* The photo above shows one of the regular participants in the Annual Bray Charities Sea Swim as she makes her way to the icy waters at Bray Seafront last New Year's Day. As the eldest participant she is proof that you are never too old to 'go for it' and to be an inspiration to others.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

F is for Felines

“Felines, nothing more than felines…” – or was that song about something else? Of course, I jest. Although the term ‘feline’ is often used to encompass all varieties of cat including lions, tigers and so on, I am referring here principally to the domestic cat.

Growing up, I don’t recall at any stage myself or my two brothers ever wanting a pet. Well, not a four-legged one anyway. We did get a goldfish at one point – mainly because of its inherent inability to wander at will around the house and leave traces of itself. Pets of the more free-roaming kind were not encouraged and we didn’t ask for one. It wasn’t until I met my wife that I gained a greater insight into what a house with pets looked and felt like. She grew up with a dog and a couple of cats and so was well versed in the benefits that come with having pets, not least of which is learning about and appreciating at first-hand some the more common animals with which we share the planet.

After we got married and acquired a place of our own, almost the first thing on the agenda was the procurement of a pet. A house close by was advertising that they had a couple of kittens so off went Teresa to bring home one for us. As is her nature, she couldn’t take one and leave the other – so all of a sudden we were a household of two adults and two grey tabby kittens or perhaps I should say we became two adults lodging in the home of two grey cats! As it happens, our favourite musical at the time was Cats and so our new family members received names which were first penned by T.S. Eliot. Mistoffelees and Skimbleshanks were a bit of a mouthful (no, sillies – we weren’t trying to eat them, just pronounce their names!) – so we shortened them to Misty and Skimble.

Misty was the timid one of the two. Skimble was the highly intelligent one – he even learned how to open doors by jumping on the handle and applying his weight. On more than one occasion he caused me to jump out of my skin when, thinking I was alone in the house, I’d see the handle turn on the sitting room door, the door gently push open - followed by Skimble slinking into the room.

I recall vividly the day I came home from work to find Skimble lying by the kerb outside our house. He’d finally run out of lives and his altercation with the neighbour’s car proved an escapade too far. I was gutted – way beyond my own belief and that’s when I truly appreciated how much a pet becomes part of your life and part of your family. Misty followed him to the Heaviside Layer a few years later.

Of course, our house is now owned by a different cat – this time one chosen by our son when he was 6 years old. Simba (no need to explain where that name came from) is a ginger tabby. If Misty was one of the most timid cats I’ve come across and Skimble one of the most intelligent, then Simba is by far and away one of the laziest – and one of the sneakiest but he gets away with it as he is rather cute looking! Yes, that’s him at the top of this post – posing while I took his picture last year.

If circumstances had been different and if we had someone around the house all day, I think I’d have plumped for a dog as my first pet. But cats were perfect for us really, being so easy to keep and apart from filling their bowls at their command, they are largely self-sufficient. We may well get a dog at some stage but I can’t ever imagine living in a house without a cat.

Friday, April 5, 2013

E is for Evenings

I’ve decided that E is for Evenings because I thought it would be nice to post a picture of a sunset or an evening scene. If you’ve been following this blog since the start of the A-Z Challenge then you will have realised that I am subtly trying to find a topic (= excuse) each day to post at least one of my photos to the blog!

But now that I think about it, evenings are worth writing about anyway. It’s not that I wish my time away, but I live for my evenings. My days usually start with bleary-eyed ablutions followed by a last-minute drive to the station where I make the train by the skin of my teeth. By that stage, I’m already looking forward to the journey home and to whatever the evening may hold. It might be choir rehearsal, it might be a bit of photo processing or, as in the case of this month, it might be (= is) some time spent thinking and writing for my blog.

Sometimes, though, it is nice to have nothing more to do on an evening except sit and relax with a glass of wine. Of course, in the summer time, that glass of wine could be imbibed sitting in the garden. Speaking of summer time, it’s great to see the long evenings coming round again (assuming you are reading this in the northern hemisphere, that is!). Long evenings mean an opportunity after work to get out with the camera and capture some soft light.

How do you like to spend your evenings? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear from you – and if you leave a link to your own blog I promise I will pay a reciprocal visit!

* The photo at the top of this post was taken at sunset during summer 2012 at Sally Gap in Co. Wicklow. Here are a couple more evening / dusk shots I took last summer. The first is at the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin and the second was taken at Bray Golf Club, close to where I live.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

D is for Dublin

I have been fortunate over the course of my life to have visited many cities abroad. Each has its own unique style, culture and atmosphere. New York, Paris, London, Rome, Melbourne, Toronto, Bangalore … I could go on. The vast majority of these visits have been in the context of work. I unashamedly admit I have fallen out of love with the corporate world of work but if there is one thing I am grateful for it is the opportunities I was afforded to visit and to fall in love with so many wonderful places.

That said, if I was told that I could feature only one city in my A-Z Challenge, then it would have to be Dublin. A city steeped in history, it has undergone enormous change over the past 20 years, very much a symbol of the new-found prosperity that Ireland enjoyed during the recent boom times. The good times have gone and while Dublin is now clothed in its Celtic Tiger facelift it also retains much of its quintessence.

Here is a view of just some aspects of Dublin, as seen through my camera lens.

Dublin – A City of History and Tradition

The GPO (General Post Office), in the centre of O'Connell Street, is one of Ireland's most famous buildings and was the last of the great Georgian public buildings erected in the capital. During the Easter Rising of 1916, the GPO served as the headquarters of the uprising's leaders.

"In Dublin's fair city, where the girls are so pretty ..."
Statue of Molly Malone, she of cockles and mussels fame from the song, stands at the end of Grafton Street, with Trinity College in the background.

A flower seller taking a break on Moore Street. The famous Moore Street open air fruit and vegetable market is Dublin's oldest food market.

Built in 1816 over the River Liffey and originally called the Wellington Bridge (after the Duke of Wellington), the name of the bridge changed to Liffey Bridge. The Liffey Bridge remains the bridge's official name to this day, although it is still commonly referred to as the Ha'penny Bridge.

Dublin – A changing City

A view at dusk along the River Liffey shows the changing face of Dublin. The Customs House, built in 1791, is flanked on the left by Liberty Hall (at one time Ireland's tallest building) - 'classic' 1960's architecture. On the right is the IFSC (International Financial Services Centre), developed in the late 1980s, which today houses more than half of the world's top 50 financial institutions.

The New Face of Dublin

The Samuel Beckett Bridge, one of the newest bridges to span the Liffey, is one of a number of modern structures that now grace the urban landscape of Dublin.

The ultra-modern facade of the Bord Gais Energy Theatre which stands in Grand Canal Square.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

C is for Community Choir

If you read my first post in this A-Z Challenge in which I wrote about adventure, you may recall that I alluded to new adventures / challenges for me in the world of music. Well, that’s what this latest post is about.

My interest in music developed while I was in my teens. While most of my peers were busy bopping to the output of Status Quo or the Bay City Rollers, I was happily listening to the great classics and to the big band sounds from the 40s. By the way, this statement is not a judgement on the musical tastes of my fellow teens. On the contrary, it is more a reflection of how conservative I was as I grew up. These days, however, I am more likely to be found listening to U2 or Dire Straits than to Beethoven or Bach. I often wonder what my erstwhile colleagues are listening to at this stage of their lives. But I digress.

My own personal musical journey began mainly as an armchair interest. My first practical steps (aside from a couple of failed attempts to learn piano) were taken at the age of 21 when I was invited to join our parish Folk Group. It was all jeans and Icelandic sweaters and it was great fun! It encouraged me to take up acoustic and bass guitar – the latter quite accidently when the group bassist handed me his instrument one day and said “here, play this – I want to get back to the 6-string”. I just about managed to keep my head above water!

Fast forward to the present day – the Icelandic sweaters a distant memory – and via many other musical experiences that I will write about in a later post, I find myself at the outset of a new musical adventure. Last month I took the first steps to set up a Community Choir in our town. The reasons for doing so are many and varied but consider this – in the UK, singing is the second most popular activity after sport. Yes, thanks in large part to the efforts of programmes like ‘Last Choir Standing’ and the Gareth Malone reality series, choirs have become cool!

Leaving aside the cool factor, singing is an activity that plays not just to the physical but also to the emotional side of us. As such, many people find it a tremendously beneficial holistic experience. But what exactly do we mean by a ‘community’ choir? In short, it is characterised by being open to all and having a sense of community about it. There are no auditions (everyone is able to sing to some degree), it is not affiliated to any particular culture, organisation, church or style of music, no prior musical knowledge is required and people are not excluded on the basis of age, race, gender, disability or sexual orientation.

Of equal importance to the music though, is the sense of community. It will be important that we develop this aspect of our new choir for the benefit of the members. But a community choir can and should also be an important focal point within the wider community. There is the potential to give back a lot to the local area in terms of public performances, fundraising for charity, representing the community locally and nationally in choir festivals, to name just a few of the opportunities.

All of this will take time to build up but as I said in my post yesterday, it is important to ‘be brave and begin’. That’s exactly what we have done – made a start. And what a start! We decided to recruit initially by word of mouth – no poster or media campaigns. In my mind, I would have been delighted with fifty singers showing up on the first night. We had over sixty. By the end of the second rehearsal, we had ninety names on the register. Phenomenal – and we don’t even have a name yet!

So, that’s my latest adventure – a community choir. Now, if you will excuse me, I must rush as I have a rehearsal to prepare!

* Today's photo is a shot I took, not of a choir director, but a conductor of a junior orchestra that played last year outside our local library. I call it 'Bum Note' as someone seems to have played something to displease her. I hope I look a bit happier than this when I stand in front of my choir!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

B is for Be Brave and Begin!

Yesterday’s post was on the theme of Adventure. Until this evening, I had no final decision on what my ‘B’ post would be about. I had thought about ‘Blogging’ or ‘Beginnings’. Earlier, I tweeted to some fellow ‘AtoZ’ers that I had no idea what I would be writing about. An immediate reply from my Twitter friend @cagssoc simply said ‘be brave’. So, with apologies to another friend, @David_Ferrie, who suggested ‘belonging’, my theme today is a mash-up of ‘Beginnings’ and ‘Be Brave’.

The turn of a year marks a new beginning for many – new resolutions, new plans, new dreams. Like many people, I set out some things I wanted to accomplish. You can read about them here. Surprisingly enough, I have made progress on most of them. At least they have all begun.

I could equally tell you many dreams and aspirations I had which never made it out of the starting blocks. I think most people have their own stories along that particular line. But what is it that holds people back from achieving their dreams? Sure, financial wherewithal can often be a big inhibitor. But, at least in my case, there is something even more fundamental than that. If I am completely honest with you and with myself, I will openly admit to enormous self-doubt and lack of confidence. I know I am far from alone in feeling that weight of that burden when it comes to moving forward in life.

Being brave in the face of these doubts is not something that comes naturally or easily to me. I have never possessed any great belief in my own abilities. Yet, in many ways I have achieved so much, particularly in the past ten years. In many cases it has involved stepping way outside my comfort zone to start something new. For example, overcoming my lack of formal musical training to direct choirs; shaking off my professional self-doubt to achieve a management-level career (when many believed I would not); convincing myself that I perhaps do have a creative side in the form of photography.

Perhaps the best example I can give is the very act I am engaged in right now – blogging! I always enjoyed ‘words’ but usually restricted it to writing parodies and limericks to poke harmless fun at friends or family members at special occasions - a safe audience in many ways. Then along came Twitter and through it I learned about blogging and met many exceptional bloggers. I was inspired by them – to the extent that I decided to be brave, step outside my comfort zone and begin a bit of blogging myself. Overall, while it has been slow progress, I have thoroughly enjoyed it and I feel it is something I was meant to do.

So, is there something you feel inspired to do? Are there dreams and aspirations you want to fulfill? Are you a little nervous (or a lot nervous) about taking that vital first step? Yes – I’m that person too and the best advice I can give you is Be Brave and Begin.

* The accompanying photo above (which I call 'Bangers and Mash' - taken in Cafe Kylemore on O'Connell Street, Dublin) is a great example of stepping outside my comfort zone. During last year I developed a great love of street photography. I try to remain unobtrusive but occasionally someone cops what you are doing. I believe the lady in this shot suspected something, but the scene was too good not to shoot it. This is definitely not comfort-zone stuff and requires a bit of bravery but it's great fun - and no one has accosted me yet!!

Monday, April 1, 2013

A is for Adventure

So, here I am – at the start of a new challenge. As if I don’t have enough challenges on my hands as it is! However, I prefer to look on this particular challenge more as an ‘adventure', though it feels more like a ‘mystery tour’ as I start out.

You see, I signed up for this ‘A-Z Challenge’ for bloggers pretty much at the 11th hour. As a result I’ve really had no time to consider it in any great detail. Anyway, what is it all about? Well, basically it is a challenge put out to bloggers to make one post each day for the month of April. With Sundays off for good behaviour, that makes 26 posts. To add to the challenge, we are asked to blog thematically from A-Z over the course of the 26 days. So here I am – starting with the letter A – for Adventure!

Those who know me well would most likely not use the word ‘adventurer’ to describe me. In fact, I would probably be considered a ‘risk-averse’ sort of person. That’s not to say I haven’t stuck my neck out at times during my life but I usually do like to know roughly where I’m going. However, apart from having made the momentous decision at the last minute to sign up for this challenge and deciding that A stands for Adventure, I really have no idea where this is going to go.

But, you know, that’s part of the fun. It reminds me of the first real adventure I undertook in life. Back in my college days in the early eighties, I decided to spend my last summer as a student travelling through the USA by bus. I traversed from east to west and back again by an alternate route. During one particular stretch, 4 out of 5 days were spent sleeping on the bus. It seemed a better use of time than stopping to overnight in some hostel or the like. All in all, it was a wonderful 5 weeks. At the end of it I was convinced I was born to live a life of travel and adventure. Instead, I graduated and took all the roads most travelled, including a permanent, pensionable job. To this day I work for the same company. As you can see, Adventure is not my middle name.

As I come closer to the end of that career, however, I see priorities changing. My career has reached its plateau and as I begin to look ahead to the foreseeable future when I will retire (hopefully early), I have already realised that new beginnings are possible and that it is never too late to embark on new adventures. Within the past two years I have discovered a completely new hobby for me – photography. I have also discovered recently that there are new challenges for me in the world of music. These are the new adventures that I hope will sustain me (mentally at least, rather than financially) when I eventually get fed up with the ultimately futile and frustrating corporate world of work.

I still hold a glimmer of hope of living out some travel adventures. Time will tell. You never know what is around the corner - it could be good or it could be bad. One thing is certain, everyone has bad times in one way or another and therefore I increasingly realise the importance of making the most of the good things that happen. So if opportunity comes knocking – seize it. You may never have another opportunity like it again. It’s all part of the great adventure that is life!

And with that, I'm off to think about what B might stand for ......

* I was looking for one of my photos to accompany this post. I chose the one above, recently taken in Sally Gap in the Wicklow Mountains, as the deserted road leading into the hills portrays a sense of venturing into the unknown.

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge. Please click the link to see a list of participating blogs and hopefully take the time visit a few.

My New Challenge

Yesterday, a friend on Twitter posted about this thing called A-Z Challenge for bloggers. I read it with interest. However, before finally heading to sleep last night I decided I wouldn't participate. I have a busy month coming up and I convinced myself I would not be able to find time to compose 26 blog posts during April. This is a reasonable conclusion to reach, considering that I have managed only about half that amount of posts in the past 15 months!

I woke up this morning and the first question that entered my head was had I enrolled for the A-Z Challenge. Now, I reckoned there was something in the fact that this thought was in my head. So I reconsidered and decided to enroll for the challenge. Sure - I may not complete it, but what have I to lose?

My first real post for the challenge will be coming up a little later. Beyond that, I have no idea what I will be blogging about, but I'll make it up as I go. I can't promise anything profound or even interesting but given the time constraints I can probably guarantee plenty of random ramblings - and some random photos too!

I hope you can find time to dip into my posts during April and leave a comment here or there. And don't forget to visit other bloggers taking on the challenge too. Click on the A-Z Challenge logo over on the right to find a list other blogs participating in the challenge.