The Caged Bird – Why Humans Baffle Me

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by John Carpenter

The first thing I couldn’t understand about this world was birds. More precisely, why it’s in our nature to cage them.

At five years old, I went to a zoo for owls with my primary school. I don’t remember the name of the zoo, or where it was, I hardly remember my teacher’s name or appearance. However, I distinctly remember seeing Barn and Snowy owls in small enclosures. They were beautiful and the curvature on their face, mesmeric. We even got to pet them, which for a five-year-old, is a VERY big deal. Unlike many things from early childhood, the image has stayed in my mind to this day. Had they not been caged, I’d have never seen owls so up close in person. I wouldn’t have one of my earliest memories. Yet, is a moment of beauty in my memory worth a lifetime of confinement that those birds endure? That is a question that never went through my mind as a child, I was just happy to look at the pretty birds. Continue reading


The Island of Amazonia

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Imagine this. One day you travel to an Island, “The Island of Amazonia” where the entire population is trying to sell you their story, be it fact or fiction. They may even have a few stories for sale. Some will be short whilst others will be long. Some will be funny whilst others will be sad. Although every story will be different, everyone will have a story to sell.

You don’t know most of the inhabitants or heard of their stories. You’ll only have heard of the celebrities, those whose stories are well-known outside of the Island. Chances are, you have come to see the celebrities and buy their stories. Unlike other nations, the celebrities on this Island are not hard to find. As soon as you get off the plane you will be greeted by the them. Like everyone else on the Island, they will tell you a brief introduction about themselves and hope you’ll buy their work before you leave. The celebrities are the most important source of income for the Island’s government; outsiders know their work and are far more likely to purchase their work than the work of the inhabitants further away on the Island. If they do buy their work, the government will take anything from 30% to 70% of the fee in taxation.

Without the celebrities, the Island would be very poor. Therefore, the celebrities are always in the airport, because they make the most money for the government. The celebrities often change and occasionally someone from the further reaches of the Island would be invited into the airport to sell their work after rising to fame. This was rare as it required visitors to leave the airport to discover them, a similarly rare occurrence.

There are millions of visitors to this Island every day and without visitors, the Island would soon decay and cease to exist. The living population of the Island is a little over five million. Not all visitors come to the Island to sponsor an inhabitant, many come merely to sample some of the inhabitant’s stories before leaving again on the plane. Visitors don’t give their money out easily; the natives know this all too well. Most know you will probably not make it out of the airport before returning home. For most visitors, there is no need to explore the rest of the Island, it is a barren yet densely populated place. The visitors know the best stories are often found conveniently in the airport which is why those far away can remain idle for days, months, even years; without ever meeting a visitor.

There are ways for desperate inhabitants to make it inside the airport, or at least closer to its shiny polished floors and neatly dressed inhabitants. It requires money, something which those outside the airport rarely have in abundance. For a price, anyone can buy their way into the airport. The government accepts bribes to allow you in─ if you pay for your stay. This will guarantee people to hear your pitch, it does not, by any means, guarantee any buyers of your work. Being closer to the airport or even getting to the very epicentre of its thriving heart still won’t make you a celebrity and you’ll probably stick out like a sore thumb for the duration of your stay.

You’ve come to see the celebrities. Everyone else is a mere distraction and unless their plea is something special, you will keep walking past them and forget them in an instant. The celebrities are the wealthy few and many arrive with the sole intention of purchasing stories from them and leaving on the plane immediately after. It is unlikely you will ever see the vast majority of people or hear their pleas, even if you devoted your life to it. Few travel to the Island and sponsor those without endorsements, from previous travellers. If a traveller likes an inhabitant they can endorse them, thus, you─ are a very special guest and you can help them get closer to the airport, but you won’t. You’ve come to see the celebrities.

No one is born on the Island. Nor does anyone move here on a whim. It can take years of planning and hard work to reach the Island. It is a strange place if you make it, there are few children and no pets. Most inhabitants are older than forty and your work must first be approved by the government before you’re allowed take up residency on the Island. This isn’t the hard part; nor is the hard part making the work you’ll be selling. The hardest part is selling. The Island is only a few years old but is growing day by day, people arrive with such smiles on their faces, such hope, such blissful unawareness to what life on the Island is really like for most. Sometimes I want to tell them to turn back, but it’s too late. Once you make it to the Island, you’ll never leave. You can, but you won’t. You’ve spent too long trying to make it here to ever even consider leaving.

Many of the inhabitants on the Island are dead. Nonetheless, the government will still want your sales, unless they’ve been dead for a very long time, then they’ll probably just give out their work for free. One of the perks of going to the Island is this illusion of immortality. No one truly dies on the Island; your stories sell long after death. If the Island remains, so will you, forever bound to sell and be sold to the Island’s constant stream of visitors. Of course, if you never received many sponsorships in life, it’s unlikely you’ll receive many when you die.

I know this Island well, because I myself, am an inhabitant. In a favela of hundreds of thousands far away from the rich airport capital, I see little to no visitors. I dream of getting closer to the capital but it’s impossible to get past the strict border patrols set out by the government to allow the highest grossing inhabitants more accessible access to the visitors. Life is never easy on the favelas on the western side of the Island., hundreds of miles away from the affluent east. I only moved to the Island six months ago, after two years of hard work, and already I’ve begun to question why I ever bothered coming to the Island. Then I remember that I didn’t come to the Island to make money, I came to share my story. Every now and then I like to go out and offer my story for free to tourists who sometimes take me up on the offer. The government doesn’t like this. They rely on tax income to fund the airport, to keep making it bigger and to keep making their own pockets deeper. Thus, I only give out my story free for one or two days every couple of months.

I’ve seen people spend their whole lives trying to become an inhabitant. Rarely hearing or seeing anything other than the celebrities who adorn magazine covers and television screen, thus having a contorted view of the Island. They don’t hear how some might go their whole life on the Island without making a single penny. If you want to move to the Island, you should be prepared for that.

The government here isn’t made up of politicians but businessmen. There are no planes to this Island. There is no physical airport. The favela I live in is not one of poverty but one of forlornness and disappointment densely populated by storytellers. Of course, this Island isn’t a real country but it does, however, exist. Anyone with a smartphone can travel there. To the Island, the Island of The Amazon Kindle Store.

A Million Strands of Orange-Coloured Keratin.

I am six foot four and I will never fit inside a biscuit tin. It’s also mildly ironic that Ginger Nuts are my biscuit of choice, and a chant reminiscent of my childhood was never enough to spoil them for me.

That said, being Ginger does restrict you in other aspects of life. For starters, I cannot, under any circumstance whatsoever, wear orange. Thankfully, I’m not a Dutch sports fan. Similarly, colours such as red and yellow are to be avoided. Green is also off the list of wearable colours─ unless I want to become a human embodiment of the Irish flag. Thankfully, I’m an Irish sports fan.

The week of Oxygen was always the worst to be Ginger. I distinctly remember whenever it was on. It wasn’t the faint sound of Chris Martin drifting into my back garden I remember most. It was the motorists. Every year, at least once, and without fail, I’d walk home from primary school, only to be hit in the chest with the feeling of a premature heart attack.


Because some jackass would shout “GINGER” at that little boy, my younger self, from their car window. The scare wouldn’t last much more than a second but the sense of embarrassment lasted far longer. All in the name of good light-hearted laugh, of course. To this day, I still look back on those times and wish I hadn’t jumped, if only for the sole purpose of not giving those in the car the sadistic sense of self-satisfaction at scaring an innocent schoolboy of less than ten years on his way home from school.

I only started using the term “Ginger” a few years back, and there was a point in my life when I entirely despised the term and would grimace at the use of the word. I associated it with all the time’s someone had used it to cause offense, something which every Ginger knows all too well. Hair, that’s all it is. It took me a long time to realise that. As I got older, and the motorists died down with the dissolvement of Oxygen or natural causes (they were often dangerous drivers), I could finally see Ginger as a term to describe used to hair and not inflict hate, just like “brunette” or “blonde”.

As people get older, and humour develops past the sophistication level of fart jokes, people tend to resort less to using “Gingerness” as a comedic device. I don’t have statistics, but over the years I’ve come to learn that those who drop out of school to pursue a passion in Dutch Gold and childbearing are far more likely to use Gingers as the butt of their jokes. A perfect example of such is this: a group of greyly clad young men stand together in a park. One man, upon witnessing a redheaded human approach their way, decides to use his quick wit to dastardly formulate a cunning joke of the highest stature: “Gingerrr, Gingerrr, Gingerrr!” The man would shout. Laughs all round. A guaranteed success. Sadly, much like my experiences with most skits on “Ms. Browns Boys”, I’ve never really gotten the joke.

Of course, being Ginger isn’t ALL bad. Sure, what other race gets free entry into The Zoo to celebrate World Orangutan Day? Do black-skinned people get free admission on World Black Panther Day? I think not. That would be racist. What about sperm banks? Do Ginger’s ever have the inconvenience of frequenting a pesky sperm bank? Nope, us Gingers are banned from the leading sperm bank- because who in their right mind would want a Ginger baby? Idiots! Idiots I tell you! As you can see, Ginger’s are excluded from pretty much all forms of racial discrimination. You sure as hell can’t shout n****** at a black man (for good reason), but please, go ahead and shout “GINGER” at a young child all you want. It’s morally permissible and no one will stop you.

Being Ginger outside Ireland, the U.K., and perhaps America, can have its positives. People might want to take your picture or even touch it, as my friend experienced during his time in the lesser travelled parts of Asia. In Korea, people often dye their hair ginger. They WANT to be Ginger. Could you believe that? Up until a few years ago, I couldn’t. In fact, I used to hate my Ginger hair and curse the Gods for bestowing it upon me for most my life whilst my mother went her whole life without it and my father spent only a couple of his early years with the affliction.

In first year, I followed the path laid down by my two older sisters before me and dyed my hair. Black. To be more precise, I got my Mam to dye my hair black. Even if it’s embarrassing to look back on it now, I’m glad I did it. For a brief while, I could see what I looked like without the great mass of orange peaked on the top of my head like an African sunset overcoming a hill. After I got my hair dyed, I decided to go out into the big scary world and accompany my mother on her trip to the shops. It was here, in the glass door in the frozen foods section of Tesco Extra, that I saw my reflection look back at me like a stranger. It was the first time I truly saw my new hair, my new persona.

Despite my ghostly white skin (which made me look quite emo with my new jet black hair), I felt normal. I felt as though I’d finally dug myself into the inner reaches of societal acceptance, be it artificially. It was in this moment, that a breakthrough in self-acceptance occurred. Looking in the mirror, I may have felt normal in society, but in no way, did I feel normal in myself. I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t me anymore, I had lost a pivotal part of my very being. It was in that moment, that I wanted it back with all the negatives that came with it. I wanted to be Ginger again. I got my mother to drive me to the barbers and I got the barber to give me the shortest cut I could get away with, serving to make the whole operation hardly noticeable. Despite the odd few look I got in school at the time, I got away with it. Even if by stating all this, the cat is well and truly out of the bag. A Ginger cat, I hope.

From reading this extract you probably think I hate being Ginger. I don’t. Being Ginger is, in my eyes, a reflection of my personality. If I hated being Ginger, I’d be hating a large part of myself, even if it is only the hair on my head, it’s something I’ve had all my life (99.999% of it) and has become an integral part of my identity. I write this hoping that at least one of the few Gingers in this world will read this and take something from it. Don’t think I wrote this piece for pity. I wrote it so you, the reader, if not Ginger, won’t ever find yourself shouting at a kid on their way home from school because of their hair colour, or any other of the many benign thing a child can’t, or shouldn’t have to change. Clairol makes enough money as it is.

(A piece written as part of my “Creative Non-Fiction” class in college.)