I’m not a fan of the motivational images that are forever appearing on my Facebook timeline, telling the reader that everything will turn out right with hard work, belief, faith and gratitude. I find them terribly reductive. So in October, I started my own version and I’m really pleased with how they turned out. I’m not as cynical and jaded as these posters suggest, I just don’t think anyone finds the solution to their problems in some pseudo-inspirational words on a pretty background. Here’s all twenty of them. Feel free to print them out and stick them up around your office. I promise you won’t get in trouble.
I’ve had Crohn’s Disease since I was 18. It’s an incurable chronic illness. It’s called an invisible illness because people don’t see the effects it has. I’m fortunate in that most days for me are fine. But some days are pretty tough. It can feel like your digestive system is tearing away at you from the inside out. I didn’t tell people I had it for years afterwards. Too personal. Too private. Too embarrassing. Too scary. When I did finally tell people, they were uniformly supportive and kind. Of course they were. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t be. But getting to the point where I felt okay with everyone in my life knowing that I had a serious illness, well, that took a long time. I didn’t care for people knowing that I had this physical fragility.
I’ve had an extraordinary 2015. I did a few jokes that went viral, I’ve been given all sorts of terrible nicknames by newspapers and websites which my friends now insist upon calling me (“Hey, it’s The Irish Jokester” is a particularly common greeting), I received incredible writing offers that I never thought would come my way and I’ve got to write with people that are far too good to be slumming it with the likes of me. But the thing of which I’m most proud is that I’m now fine with people knowing that I’ve got Crohn’s Disease. That’s been no small thing for me. In fact, it turns out that it can actually be quite useful.
I think I spent a lot of time over the last several years being extraordinarily lazy. I had great ambitions of writing something of which I was really proud and that resonated with people but my laziness tended to get in the way. “I’ll write tomorrow,” I’d frequently tell myself. “I have to catch up on my podcasts and TV shows tonight.” I was consuming really good work but never creating any. It led to a deep unhappiness. But a combination of my Crohn’s Disease and my advancing years is what finally gave me some urgency. I think most of us have a desire to leave something behind for which we’re remembered. In my mid-30s, single, childless, never creating anything anymore and with an illness that will probably mean I don’t live to an old age, I felt like I was leaving nothing behind. I thought of myself as a creative person but if that was the case, I was a creative person who didn’t create anything. Some fucking legacy. I concluded that I had to stop being such a lazy fucker.
And I guess that’s been the story of my 2015: I stopped being a lazy fucker. Of course, I’m still lazy in lots of ways but I consumed less and created more this year than I ever had previously. And some of what I created is, I think, really good and I’m so proud of it. It’s been a good year for me health-wise but I know that that’s ephemeral and there’ll be years to come that aren’t like that. But whatever comes, I finally created some stuff that I think I’ll be okay with being remembered for. And honestly, if I hadn’t had Crohn’s Disease, I don’t know that I’d have done that. And I’m totally okay with people knowing that that’s what it took for me to stop being a lazy fucker.
There was a period in my life during which I was paid to review television shows. This was the equivalent of a pyromaniac being told that he’d be financially rewarded for every building he burned down – of great personal convenience but probably not in anyone’s best long-term interests. A lot of what I watched was so terrible that it destroyed a large chunk of my soul which can never be recovered. Luckily, though, some of it was magnificent and I’m now at a point in my life where I can recall those moments without suffering a PTSD blackout caused by having watched too many episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys (one). Here’s the first three.
Freaks and Geeks: Baseball game from The Diary
There’s an argument (to which I’m amenable) that Freaks and Geeks is the most underrated show in TV history. It’s an 18-episode masterpiece. In The Diary, Bill – after years of misery – convinces Coach Fredricks to turn the tables and let the least athletic kids captain the teams for a baseball game in PE and it’s glorious.
Sam pitches hopelessly, Neil sledges a fellow classmate (“I sure had a lot of fun with your wife last night”), Bill fulfils his long-held ambition of calling a meeting on the mound and, ultimately, the three celebrate what feels like their first ever victory at school. They’ve finally achieved a moment of triumph and while it proves incredibly minor and ephemeral, it works because they’ve ascended to a place that’s less unhappy than their usual place and that’s enough for now.
Better Off Ted: Beating a Dead Workforce (full episode)
Better Off Ted was a rare and intriguing show. It was a subversive, left-leaning sitcom whose central theme was the soul-destroying victory of corporations over people. It had its ups and downs but it was unlike any other sitcom and when it was good, it was magnificent. “Beating a Dead Workforce” is one of its finest hours. A barely known mid-level office guy called Gordon Jenkins dies on the job and upper management propagandises his death to encourage everyone else to work longer hours for no extra reward (“do it for Jenkins”, “it’s what Jenkins would have wanted”). When Ted decides to go home at 8pm one day, it’s met with incredulity (“But it’s still dark out?!”).
The vast majority of TV shows and movies that deal with work life try to ram home one point: “If you just work harder, everything will work out great.” It’s bullshit, of course. It’s the mantra of the uber-wealthy who repeatedly reinforce the message, “If your life isn’t as great as mine, it’s because you don’t deserve it like I do. So don’t worry about structural reform or creating a society that affords everyone the same opportunities. Just work even more hours and have even less leisure time than you do now and then you’ll get the same riches I have. And if you don’t, it’s because of some character flaw you possess. But just remember that the system itself is fine.”
Better Off Ted undermines that drivel brilliantly and says, “Fuck that. Capital hasn’t just triumphed over labour, it’s massacred it. And now you’ll eke out an existence if it pleases the company which so kindly pays your wages. You should be grateful we allow you to work long hours in return for enough money to barely cover your bills.” This episode isn’t the funniest episode of Better Off Ted but it’s the most culturally important.
Seinfeld: George’s reaction to Susan’s death in The Invitations
The sitcom I hate most is The Big Bang Theory. Not because it’s the worst comedy on television but because it’s so lazy, formulaic and ritualistic in its insistence upon always delivering an ending that tells us that the characters have learned a lesson from this week’s antics. Seinfeld was the opposite. These characters learned nothing and liked it that way. There was no personal growth to be found anywhere and it was never better illustrated than The Invitations.
At the start of Season 7, George proposes to Susan in a moment of impetuousness that he almost instantly regrets. He then spends the rest of the season hoping to find a way out of his predicament that doesn’t involve him having to tell Susan (of whom he’s afraid) the truth. In the final episode of the season, he’s rescued when Susan dies from licking toxic envelopes for the wedding invitations. George’s reaction to the news from the doctor is a hilariously dark moment in sitcom history. He’s delighted. He’s surprised (because good things don’t tend to happen to George) but it’s really the ideal solution to his problem. This kind of low-level sociopathy as a comedic device would never, ever cross the minds of the writers of The Big Bang Theory. It’s too complicated. But here, George Costanza’s fiancée has just died and he’s turning emotional cartwheels. I love everything about it.
It’s a phrase said about a kitten who does something particularly cute. Or a dog who can count. Or a baby who can moonwalk. Or a man stuck in a hammock. “It’s going viral,” people say. You don’t expect to hear it about yourself. But there it was. Websites and radio stations saying, “a Waterford man named Michael is going viral.” The most bizarre week of my life was now in progress.
Things were pretty normal until the morning of Friday, July 3rd. That’s when things took a turn for the bizarre. Joe.ie did an article about the A4 sheet of paper that will probably feature in my obituary (“He was the karate wedding guy. He probably did some other stuff too, we’re not sure”).
That was picked up by some other sites and by the afternoon, my phone was sounding almost constantly with notifications. And not just the usual ones telling me it’s my turn to play a move in Words With Friends. My Twitter notifications were going crazy, friends were messaging to ask if I knew about it and people I hadn’t heard from in years were getting in touch to tell me they’d seen it and knew immediately it was me despite the ambiguity of it being a character known only as Michael. It was a strange day.
Things quietened down over the weekend but then came Monday morning. And holy fuck, Monday morning was insane. The other ads I’d done had now been picked up by news sites and the story was no longer just about an unhinged request for a wedding partner, it was about the person who was writing that and the five ads that accompanied it. We all know that things must always be personalised for the sake of narrative in modern media and The Daily Mail – that most reductive and hateful of publications – wanted my contact details. That allowed me to fulfil a long-held ambition.
Then it was in The Telegraph and on Mashable and The Daily Edge and The Poke and Lovin’ Dublin and The Lad Bible and other sites I can’t remember. And, most bizarrely of all, it was a small item on an American TV news show. Radio stations at home and abroad wanted to interview me, including one I used to work for and who were reading the ads out on air to much hilarity and intrigue. That was cool. I turned them down, though. I turned all of them down. I can’t add anything to the joke verbally. It has its own voice. It stands on its own and I like that.
People have asked if I read the comments underneath the articles and on Facebook. I did. Quite a few of them anyway. I couldn’t resist. It’s a strange thing to see people who don’t know you decide that they know what you’re like and why you’ve chosen to do something. The overwhelming majority were really positive and it meant a lot to me but negative ones stick in your mind too. Off the top of my head, I saw, “Michael sounds like a loser”, “what a freak”, “any1 going on this date gonna get raped”, “Michael is a W-anchor” and “sad twat” (more amusingly, there was also, “he should learn a real martial art, karate is for kids” under the Daily Mail article, naturally). I’m 35 years old, relatively self-assured and comfortable in my own skin. If I wasn’t and if I’d seen those things said about me when I was younger, I’m sure I’d have struggled and taken them to heart. I can see how unpleasantness and vitriol from anonymous commenters would affect people who go viral in other, much bigger ways. You have no control over how you’re perceived by thousands of strangers and it’s incredibly unnerving.
I’m a natural introvert. This kind of attention was a little too much for my brain to comfortably cope with. By Wednesday, I withdrew from most online activities that didn’t involve reading Guardian articles and playing strategically excellent moves in online Scrabble. Wild, I know. But I needed calmness and ordinariness. And that’s the great thing about being temporarily internet famous. As soon as you turn your phone and laptop off, it’s exactly like being not famous. Life just carries on. You’re still you. Your family still pester you to solve their computer problems. Your friends still make fun of you for being an idiot. Your life is the same. But you appreciate quietness and normality a little more than you did previously.
So yeah, this week’s useless thing I know about is what it’s like to go viral. It’s been one of the weirdest, most exhilarating, occasionally unnerving weeks of my life. As a friend pointed out, I’ve written plenty of things over the years that were clever, well-researched, thought-provoking and I hope of intellectual merit but hardly anyone read them (thank you to those who did and who are still with me). But they read this absurd, frivolous joke. And I know that probably doesn’t say anything great about us on a sociological level but it was a fuckload of fun. It’s weird the way things work out.
A thing I know about but isn’t useful is The Panenka.
The Panenka is a type of penalty in which the kicker chips the ball softly to the centre of the goal. It’s named after Antonin Panenka who did this when taking the decisive penalty in the final of the 1976 European Championship.
Balls of steel, right? It’s an incredible thing to do at such a tense moment. Panenka described it as “the falling leaf” penalty. The ball had to float slowly enough to ensure the goalkeeper’s dive had taken him out of the path of the ball but quickly enough so that he didn’t have time to change course and save it.
When it works, it’s beautiful. When it doesn’t, it’s cringeworthy. A missed Panenka is invariably derided as the height of stupidity and hubris.
That’s Andrea Pirlo unsuccessfully attempting a Panenka. He does everything the same but the result is different. And that’s the thing about the Panenka. It’s entirely relative. If the goalkeeper moves, it’s a work of art. If he stays where he is, it’s an act of self-inflicted humiliation.
And I find that interesting because it’s a reminder that everything is relative. All our actions are dependent upon something else. The joke that made one colleague laugh? Well, it’s insensitive to another. The part of your personality that infuriates some people? It’s endearing to others. Your work that was deemed worthless at one company? Another company really values it. The high point of your day? Maybe it was hurtful to someone else. Your idea that was rejected by 100 people? Well, one person likes it enough to run with it.
And that last one sums up my week. I’ve had a lot of rejections for writing projects over the last fifteen years. Like, seriously, a LOT. It was hard not to take it personally. But this week I got one accepted. And I’ve learned enough to know that it doesn’t mean it’ll come to fruition, that it’ll all work out or that any success is permanent. But it was good to get it. We’re all just taking Panenkas. Sometimes the goalkeeper dives out of the way and sometimes he stands up and makes us look stupid. But the important thing is to keep taking Panenkas nonetheless.
A useless thing I know about is how to solve other people’s problems. This week, I’m donning my (stolen) doctor’s coat and offering helpful solutions to the pressing concerns of four troubled readers:
Dear Doctor Michael,
I awoke this morning to find my husband dead on the kitchen floor. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t mind but we’re due to host an important dinner party tomorrow night and I know that his death would really bring the mood down if people were to find out. Is there anything I can do? Linda, 36
Doctor Michael says: Yes, Linda, I believe there is. You need to rent a copy of seminal 1980s documentary Weekend at Bernie’s, which details the exact steps one should take in this situation. I don’t want to spoil it for you but the first item you’ll require is a pair of sunglasses for your deceased husband to wear. Then, you’ll just need to get him to wave occasionally and possibly be part of a conga line at some stage. If my ’80s viewing habits are any guide, your guests won’t suspect a thing.
Dear Doctor Michael,
There is a long history of brain aneurysms in my family. Just recently, I’ve started to experience severe headaches and dizzy spells. Should I get it checked out immediately? Rory, 42
Doctor Michael says: Good question, Rory, but there’s absolutely no need to bother your doctor with this issue. Doctors are busy people and they don’t need hypochondriacs like you wasting their time. Take two Junior Disprin and you’ll be fine.
Dear Doctor Michael,
I suffer from debilitating agoraphobia. It’s ruining my life. What can I do? Nicola, 24
Doctor Michael says: Nothing to be concerned about, Nicola. Lots of people are scared of spiders. You’ll be fine.
Dear Doctor Michael,
Recently, while repairing my girlfriend’s laptop after a trojan virus had infected the hard drive, I noticed numerous disturbing pictures of animals that had clearly been malnourished and mistreated. I could tell from the background that the pictures had been taken on her father’s farm. I really like her and I know that by reporting this mistreatment, her father will be in a lot of trouble and may even go to prison but I can’t let these animals suffer like this. What should I do? Andy, 26
Doctor Michael says: This is an easy one, Andy. You need to ensure that your girlfriend installs a good anti-virus program on her laptop. There are several good free ones available online that should prevent any similar problems in the future. Hope that helps.
I wrote this tweet last month:
That’s true, by the way. May 25th 2005, when Liverpool won the Champions League for the first and only time in my 29 years of supporting them, was the happiest day of my life. I’ve had experiences of love and creative achievement since then that have meant the world to me but for sheer exhilaration and unexpected joy, that day in 2005 probably won’t be topped. I’m not saying that’s a positive reflection on my character or my sense of priorities, incidentally. I’m really not.
My worst day was March 23rd 1998. I was at the doctor’s. I hadn’t been feeling well for several months. My GP sat across from me solemnly and said, “You’re going to be okay. And I want you to hang on to that sentence because the rest of what I’m about to tell you is pretty awful. You’re very, very ill. I’m almost certain you have Crohn’s Disease and I need to get you into hospital.”
I don’t remember how I found out the details of Ernest Hemingway’s death. I’m unsure if I read about it somewhere or heard it mentioned on television. I was in my twenties because it was after I had read The Sun Also Rises but I couldn’t narrow it down much further than that. I was stunned. I’d never thought about it but I’m sure I assumed that he had died a contented elderly man, leaving behind a body of work of which he was immensely proud. How could he not be? But no.
“He shot himself? Hemingway? Ernest Hemingway? No fucking way. That can’t be right. Why would he do that? He had no reason to. He was amazing.”
But of course, that’s spectacularly missing the point. You never really know what someone else is going through. We forget that frequently, I think. I certainly have, on far too many occasions. The overarching lesson I took from the Hemingway revelation, though – and the useless thing I know about – is that everything is a snapshot; a temporary photograph, fading and dissolving from the moment it’s taken. Your current situation. The people in it. Your state of wellbeing. How happy you are. How sad you are. How successful you are. How unsuccessful you are. It’s Snapchat, essentially. Snapchat is a microcosm of life. If someone as utterly masterful at his craft as Hemingway could conclude that he didn’t want to live another day, well then, every accomplishment is merely a fleeting moment in time and every triumph is transient. Just like every failure.
Ten years on from my best day and seventeen years on from my worst, those things are flipped. Liverpool are terrible but my health is excellent. So, you know, that strikes me as a pretty good trade-off. But neither of those things are permanent. They’re just snapshots of now, already fading and dissolving.