Friday, January 20, 2012

Netflix, and it's impact on a naysayer

Now I'm a believer....

For years I fended them off with excuses, “Takes too long to download”, “I don’t like watching films on my laptop”, “It’s illegal you know” and various other pleas all intended to shut them up and stop them trying to tempt me with their fancy new means of film watching. What could I say? I was a traditionalist and despite the extra costs involved I still enjoyed the now seemingly archaic practise of going into my local retail or rental store and perusing the shelves before paying cold, hard cash for a physical copy of whatever film I fancied viewing. Oh how they laughed as they watched films not even out in the cinemas yet while I steadfastly refused to join them in their deviant ways. I may have been out of pocket but I was on the right side of the law and when the whole thing came crashing down and all their homes were being infiltrated by the FBI I’d have the last laugh.

I’m not sure why but I’ve never taken to the idea of downloading movies for free on the internet. My above excuses were only applicable to an extent. As broadband speeds in Ireland became fast enough to download even the biggest of files in a matter of minutes my first excuse was rendered utterly obsolete. I don’t like watching films on my laptop though, that much is true. “You can hook it up to your TV or put them on a USB stick”, I was told before muttering something about ‘too many wires’ and skulking back to my DVD collection to pick out an old favourite. As for the legality issue?! Half the stuff I watch online is probably illegal anyway so I couldn’t lay claim to being any kind of law abiding citizen that was for sure.

Other issues such as picture quality, virus threats and the simple fact that I liked to pick and choose what I wanted to watch rather than cold heartedly pinpoint a target before downloading it in a clinical manner all played their part in ensuring that I never once felt like joining all those law breakers and was content to live in a relatively bygone age. However as the recession hit and lavish spending in local stores became a thing of the past so I felt my choices becoming constricted. Whereas at one time I would have had no issue forking out a tenner, and sometimes more, on a film I now baulked at retail prices and the few purchases I did make invariably came from online stores. Although I was still reluctant to fully embrace the digital age I was at least making an effort.

Vowing to no longer pay the exorbitant prices offered by high street stores I found myself turning to other avenues. Having a digital video recorder in the comfort of your own home is a tremendous luxury and I trawled the TV listings ensuring that any film that may be of even the slightest interest was recorded and stored for my viewing pleasure at a later date. This was all well and good but save for a few interesting indie flicks on Film Four and the occasional gem on the terrestrial channels I was left with pickings of a decidedly slim variety. The other option was of course the rental store and trawling through the foreign cinema section was, and still is, a pleasure that I’m always happy to avail of. But again the cost element was proving increasingly prohibitive. New releases for €5? You’re having a laugh! Two new releases for a tenner and we’ll throw in a carton of popcorn? Sure what would I want with yeer shitty popcorn when I have mountains of goodies from Dealz waiting for me at home.

So this was my state of affairs. A film lover in no man’s land, neither here nor there. And then Netflix arrived. Seeming from nowhere and with very little fanfare. Casually scanning the list of new apps on my XBOX, of which there seemed to be one every day, I came across the blood red logo with Netflix emblazoned in white. *adopts tone of Victorian detective unveiling a new, exciting clue* “What could this be”?  I wondered to nobody in particular. “Net? Hmmm, methinks this relates to the internet. Flix? Could it be movie or film related?” I pondered no more and downloaded the app using my super fast Irish broadband. Arriving at the welcome screen I was asked if I’d like to begin my 30 day free trial. God you’re a bit forward aren’t you? I hardly even know you!! I quickly backed out of this eager provider of flix but vowed to return once I’d found out a bit more about it.

Further inspection revealed all sorts of interesting details about this mysterious newcomer. Apparently it provided the opportunity to stream movies through your XBOX, and in High Definition no less! I felt the first quiver of excitement. There was no limit on the amount of content you watched. Another quiver, this time more pressing. After your free trial was over it was only 5.99 per month to avail of the service. Gimme a pen, where do I sign up!! My enthusiasm was dampened somewhat by grumblings over the array of films and tv shows available to watch. I checked it for myself and found a few grumbles emitting themselves despite my best intentions. Maybe this wasn’t for me after all. Time to return to the rental store then. But wait! You can access the American Netflix I was informed, and by jove they were right. A few simple settings changes (was this legal? I cared not) on my XBOX and away I went.

The choice on offer still couldn’t compare with the sheer volume of options offered by the file sharing sites, or the rental and retail stores for that matter , but here I was getting the best of both worlds and not only was it legal it was also free, at least for now anyway. I joyfully flicked through the genres cooing gently to myself as I went and wondered how I was going to watch all of the stuff on offer in whatever free time I had. After a solid hour of deliberation and playing around with all the features I watched my first ever film using the internet as means of consumption. That it was a low budget Norwegian fantasy/horror entitled ‘TrollHunter’ is irrelevant, I was now watching movies in the manner of a modern day man and by some strange quirk it actually felt good. But not only was I a convert I now wished to bring new followers to this shiny new chapel. I texted friends and relatives asking them if they’d used this new means of movie watching and urged them to get right on it. Netflix had created the perfect storm and I was determined to ride each and every one of its waves.

It’s early days yet though and I’m determined not to get carried away. I’ve been told that access to the American Netflix only lasts for seven days before us unfortunate souls are consigned to the less attractive European model. What then? I don’t know how good or bad the European version is but I’ll certainly be willing to give it a try for at least the remainder of my trial run. Aside from the movies on offer there are countless TV shows in which to immerse yourself with the possibility of watching an entire series via the Netflix app. Documentaries also feature for those moments when you wish to be entertained and educated at the same time. When you couple Netflix with Muzu, the recently added music app, it seems only a matter of time before Microsoft’s claims about gaming consoles being ‘entertainment hubs’ capable of servicing all our needs comes to fruition.

On a wider scale the arrival of Netflix, and the ease at which even the most cynical of people can be converted, looks set to drive another nail firmly into the coffin of the local retail store. I for one will decry the demise of physical shops where you can walk in and while away the hours browsing to your heart’s content. But when HMV up their special offer on DVDs and CDs from two for €12 to two to €14 like they did at the turn of the year it’s hard to feel any sympathy for them. Sadly it’s only a matter of time before the last remaining stores disappear from our streets altogether as more and more people figure out that there’s cheaper and more importantly easier ways to acquire their goods. Because no matter how much you try and resist change it will eventually find a way of burrowing into your psyche and revising your opinion no matter how deep-set. Take it from me I should know.  

Monday, January 16, 2012


Depression in modern day Ireland...

If you were to roam the streets of any major city throughout the world and ask the locals to sum up the Irish in a few, short sentences the chances are that terms like jolly, friendly, laidback and fun would  surface on numerous occasions. Inevitably less flattering adjectives such as ginger, drunken and imbeciles would also be used but hey nobody’s perfect. All in all the general consensus would be that we’re a quite likeable bunch the presence of whom would be sure to enliven even the most sedate of evenings. The accuracy of this stereotypical view is up for debate but like it or not that’s how we’re generally viewed by those on the continent. Much in the same way that Americans are viewed as brash ignoramuses, Italians as gesticulating Mother’s boys and Germans as humourless prudes so those of an Irish persuasion are seen as the merry buffoons of the world.  But just as our perceptions of other nationalities are generally far wide of the mark so the depiction of the average Irish person as a beer swilling, life and soul of the party type is, for the most part, wildly inaccurate.

One of the great intangibles of Irish culture is the omnipresent air of melancholy which resides all around us. Perhaps a remnant of the Saints and Scholars (or more likely the years of hardship and poverty brought about by our eventful history) this sense of barely concealed misery permeates Irish life at every turn and is much a part of us as Guinness, potatoes and the Ole, Ole chant. But not being the type to complain we take a deep breath, put the head down and just get on with things. For better or for worse this was the way of things for many a year and while the country made huge steps economically and socially there was still one great taboo in Irish life which went unspoken. I’m talking about the word which up until a couple of years you wouldn’t dare utter in public for fear of being openly mocked and derided and told to ‘get over yourself’. I’m talking about the Big D. Depression.

In some ways it almost feels like mental illness is a relatively new phenomenon in this country. We’ve now become accustomed to being continually buffeted with adverts advising us to look out for tell tale signs among friends and family and numbers to call should we be concerned about those we love. But for many years this simply wasn’t the case and those who suffered did so in silence. The notion of being open about succumbing to depression simply wasn’t plausible and if you feared negative connotations then you were most probably justified in doing so. For those who struggled for a voice within an archaic society the current explosion of ‘depression awareness’ must be bittersweet. Better late than never you might say but there is a certain irony in the fact that it took the fall of the Celtic Tiger and all that came with it to bring about this new found sympathy for those in suffering.

What can’t be denied is that more and more people in this country are presenting the classic symptoms of mental illness and requiring the help needed to overcome their difficulties.  A nation which rode high upon the wave of the nineties and early noughties has come crashing down to earth and for many the fall out has been simply too much to take. Are we the victims of our own greed? It may seem like a harsh thing to say but for those people whose illness stems from horrific childhoods, traumatic ordeals or being unfortunate enough to inherit depressive tendencies from their parents the idea of having all your cares washed away by the easing of financial woes is incomprehensible. I am not for one second suggesting that the woes of those most affected by the recession are in any way less serious than that of a person struggling to come to terms with the events of a harrowing childhood but I can’t help but wonder how quickly the focus would move to another topic should the country find itself flourishing economically once more.

 On a more positive note the offshoot of this heightened awareness is that the shame and stigma once experienced by those who suffer from depression has lessened somewhat as we as a nation have become better educated about what it is to be suffering from any form of mental illness. More and more people in the public eye have come out and spoken openly about their battles and no longer should anyone feel afraid to discuss their innermost fears with friends and family.  All of this is incredibly positive and we can only hope and pray that our country is putting a system in place which will be able to offer the kind of specialised support required by those afflicted. Traditionally most vulnerable the twentysomething male is still considered the most likely to suffer from forms of mental illness and paradoxically the most unlikely to seek help but even they must feel that they are not as isolated as they had once imagined. But as is so often the case in modern society there is a danger that we might be going too far and in the process harm those who we wish to protect.

As someone who has firsthand experience of this terrible disease, and that’s exactly what it is, a disease, I tend to notice any mention of it in the media and have found myself somewhat bemused by the sheer proliferation of features on this topic over the last couple of years. From a position where sufferers welcomed the exposure which mental illnesses were receiving it now appears that we have gone from one extreme to the other. Is it actually possible to go an entire day without hearing at least one news item relating to depression in Ireland today? I fully appreciate the need to inform those in need of the options available to them but I can’t help feeling that we are in serious danger of overkill. How long will it be before we begin to mirror the situation in other Western countries where even the slightest downturn in fortunes sees people scurry to the doctor for help when all that’s required is some patience and resolve.

Allied to the danger of convincing every second person that they may indeed be suffering from depression is the far more sinister threat of haunting those genuinely afflicted by the disease. Attempting to piece your life together once you’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression, or any other form of mental illness, is a particularly hard process and a battle that can span the entirety of a person’s life. In a scenario like this the sufferer may be glad of those all too precious times when they can simply forget about their troubles and live their life in much the same way as anyone else. But when the media insist on filling each and every outlet with reminders of this terrible disease it must sometimes feel like there’s no escape for those who are affected most deeply. Nobody is saying that these issues should not be highlighted by those charged with providing our daily news but when it gets to the stage where it feels like stories, features and adverts are just being shoehorned into the news because it’s the current hot topic then we have a problem.

While it may feel like the tone of this article is a negative one it is in actual fact more cautionary. Now that we have, belatedly, addressed the issue of depression in Ireland the challenge is to move forward and not repeat the mistakes made in other countries. Chief among those mistakes is the quick fire prescription of anti-depressants as a means of treating those with deep rooted issues or worse still prescribing them to those who did not require medication at all. By learning from these errors and ploughing our own furrow we may in time be able to boast a system which deals efficiently and sensitively with those who suffer. But no matter how much professional help may or may not be currently available to sufferers one thing which each and every person dealing with this illness needs is a strong circle of people around them. The role of family and friends in the life of a person dealing with depression can never be understated. Because ultimately it is they, not any of the health service executives or earnest politicians, who will be the ones to provide the sort of comfort and reassurance that not even a million awareness campaigns could hope to reproduce.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My first love

Everyone remembers their's..

 I can still vividly recall the first time I met her. I’d only just turned eighteen and now that I no longer needed to lie about my age I could sit unhindered in the pub and quaff pints to my heart’s content. On this particular night, a Friday if I recall correctly, I was out with a few of my closest pals when I bumped into a mate from school whom I hadn’t seen in months. We got to chatting and during the course of the conversation he mentioned a girl who he reckoned would be perfect for me. With only a couple of pints of board I wasn’t awash with the kind of Dutch courage required for scenarios like this but I thought fuck it why not, you only live once, etc. My mate promised me that she was totally unlike any other girl I’d ever met before and we’d get on famously he was sure of it.

Upon introduction I failed to see what all the fuss was about. She didn’t appear to be anything spectacular to look at and I wondered whether my friend had pulled a fast one on me. I patiently sipped my pint and waited for the ‘spark’ or indeed any kind of chemistry but in truth I was already thinking about heading back to my mates and having a quiet word with my old school friend for introducing me to this dullard. But then after about twenty minutes of politely nodding and listening something a bit odd happened. My palms became sweaty, my foot started tapping uncontrollably and, most inexplicably, my stomach seemed to be ready to lift right out of my body with the amount of butterflies in there. Was this the chemistry my friend told me we’d be sure to share? I was still unsure but looking at this girl again I found myself seeing her in a different light, she still wasn’t quite the radiant vision of my most fantastic dreams but I was gradually warming to her.

It appeared that this girl wasn’t one for sitting quietly in the corner of the local pub for within less than an hour of us meeting she had convinced me that we needed to go to a nightclub and we needed to do so with no little haste. It was only 11.30 but I didn’t need much convincing and so it was that I confidently sauntered into an almost empty discotheque with this newly acquired mysterious woman friend. I soon found out why she was so eager to get me into an auditorium where loud, thumping music was the order of the day, or night as the case may be, as she dragged me onto the dancefloor and proceeded to contort and gyrate herself against my now pulsating body. The sweating palms and slight feeling of unease that I’d felt earlier had imperceptibly given way to a sense of inner calm and wellbeing which was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I looked her dead in the eye as she grooved into my heart and said “You’re the one for me”.

And so it was. I fell into her loving embrace as we sashayed around this new found mecca for the next three hours and happily professed my love for her at every available opportunity. She wasn’t like all the other girls, she understood me, I felt like I could share and expose every inch of my soul to her without any fear of reprisal. To coin a phrase, I wished the night would never end. But end it must and as the lights came up we spilled into the night air bleary eyed and legless. I introduced her to my friends and found to my displeasure that not only did they not share my affection for my new paramour but they seemed to be outright critical of our coupling. Well what did they know, this was my new girl and quite frankly I cared not what others thought. As she bid me farewell for the night I promised that we’d meet again the following night before heading home barely comprehending what had just happened.

Upon awaking the following morning I felt strangely empty, almost forlorn. The memory of the previous night was still fresh in my mind but despite feeling a tinge of excitement at the prospect of meeting up with her again my prevailing mood was one of desolation and all I really felt like doing was curling up in front of the TV for the day. But it was Saturday night and I had a hot date so I quickly shook off my inertia and prepared myself for what I hoped would be a night just as memorable as the previous one. Thankfully she didn’t let me down one little bit. Again our early offerings were a little strained and tense but once we settled down things seemed to pick up from almost exactly where they left off the previous night. I was better able to appreciate the time spent in her company this time around having spent the entire day anticipating what lay ahead of me. Not that that made the night any less mind blowing or intoxicating, much the opposite in actual fact. Familiarising myself with each and every facet of her being I felt myself attaining a level of sensory euphoria which I never knew existed. I was only eighteen but I failed to see how life could get any better than this.

Then it was morning again. She had long since gone and just like the previous morning I was left with nothing more than some majestic memories and a body suitably exhausted from the night’s exertions. There was no doubt in my mind that she was worth it but I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would always feel this way. As the week progressed and we made plans to meet again the following weekend I found myself questioning the point of many of the things which were supposedly the mainstays of my life. Her influence on me was so consuming that almost unbeknownst to me my entire mindset was undergoing a subtle, but revolutionary, transformation. The world seemed like a different place to me now. I saw it for what it was. A massive, continuous stream of bullshit occasionally punctuated by something which made you realise what the point of living actually was. For me that something was her.

After that we met every weekend without fail. Such was her effect on me that I daren’t risked us meeting on a week night, and anyway waiting all week to see her kept things fresh and exciting. We continued in this vein for over a year and amazingly it never once felt stale or remotely mundane. Sometimes we went on weekends away and other times we didn’t even go out at all but one constant was the music, and the conversation. She introduced me to all sorts of sounds which I’d never have accessed in my previous iteration as a clueless teenager with a mildly insouciant attitude. Again I sensed my horizons expanding and a dawning realisation that when I was with her I actually liked the person I was. I knew I needed her far more than she needed me but that didn’t bother me as something about her told me that our time together would be all too brief. This only strengthened my desire to make the most of our time as one.

Inevitably this honeymoon period came to an end and when it did so it was as abrupt as it was painful. Spending our weekends solely in one another’s company barely pausing for sleep or food had begun to take its toll both mentally and physically and it was with this in mind that I suggested we take a break. She seemed as reluctant as I but for once my head ruled my heart and an agreement was made wherein we wouldn’t meet up again until we had gotten the rest of our respective lives in order. This time apart hit me hard. I drank to excess, chased other women and generally behaved like a complete idiot. Friends told me she’d always be there for me if and when I needed her and on more than one occasion I almost caved and gave her a call. But I stayed strong and sought to move on, although admittedly she never left my thoughts for very long.

But eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and in a booze fuelled frenzy I searched her out in that same nightclub where we’d spent our first night together. There she was, with that same mutual friend that had introduced us and within minutes we were chatting again. Before long we settled back into our familiar pattern but things felt different, not markedly so but enough for me to notice. No longer did I feel like dancing in her arms all night long, instead I preferred to just sit and talk like we used to and tell her the kind of secrets that I never thought I’d have been capable of sharing. It was during one of these long heart to hearts that we came to the realisation that this thing we had going on could never become serious. It had always been at its best when it was a casual weekend tryst where neither party was obliged to the other and we resolved to keep it that way if there was any chance of us remaining as close as we now were.

This arrangement worked better than it had any right to, partly because she was so understanding and partly because we never allowed ourselves to get too wrapped up in one another. During our times apart, and sometimes during our times together, there were other girls but her spectre always loomed large and the prospect of any serious relationship ever forming seemed impossible while she was still in my heart. By now my disapproving friends were settling into long-lasting, loving relationships and my reluctance to follow suit was almost a running joke. Although they never said it to my face I knew that they were all patiently waiting for me to grasp the fact that she and I had no future and that the longer we kept up this charade the more damaging it would be for me. But I had nothing else in my life, there was only her. We found ourselves attending house parties looking around the room and realising that we were almost the oldest people there. Visits to nightclubs were no longer the heavenly experiences of old as we no longer seemed to fit in. All we had ever done together was party and without that we found that we shared little in common.

Stubbornly I refused to accept the writing was on the wall and against all reasoning I always found myself coming back to her. Now in my mid twenties and with a life going nowhere fast I felt like I needed her more than ever. Instead of being my good time girl she had now become my refuge, my only source of solace. I’m sure my Mother knew of her but she never mentioned a thing and it was only after a heated argument which left me in hospital that I told the other important woman in my life about this temptress who was threatening to consume me completely. My Mother, as Mother’s do, urged me to dispense with ‘this harlot’ and start anew. I, as Son’s do, nodded in agreement whilst secretly planning to meet up with her again. Looking back on it the problem lay in her total lack of respect for me. I couldn’t see it at the time but she cared not one jot for me and to her I was but a mere distraction in a life less ordinary.

Our tipping point finally came as I entered the latter stage of my twenties. Having moved away from my hometown in an attempt to start afresh I was finally ready to leave the past behind and do some growing up. But like a bad smell she just wouldn’t disappear. For a short time I thought I could incorporate her into this new life but it wasn’t long before I realised that not only could she play no part in my new surroundings but that she could play no part in my life ever again. There was no long drawn out goodbye, just a mutual understanding that after one heady last night together the jig was up. At the time I probably didn’t even realise that we’d never see each other again, at least not consciously anyway.  She had given me some of the happiest moments of my life and changed me as a person in every imaginable way. But there had also been some bad times, some terrible times which had most probably had an abiding effect on me also. The time was right for us to part ways and now almost four years on I don’t for one second regret leaving when I did.

Oh I almost forgot. I should tell you her name. You must want to know her name? Well some people call her Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. But I just knew her as Ecstasy.