12th July

Somewhere way back, when we were first putting together the plans to celebrate 175 years since the foundation of St. Columba’s College, I had the idea that after all the balls and receptions and drinking and partying we should finish it all off with something that reminded us of our very beginnings back in 1843 and take a pilgrimage to Iona, the place most closely associated with Columba himself, after whom the College is named. It all seemed like a good idea at the time!

Some people will know all about Columba, one of the three patron saints of Ireland, along with St. Patrick and St. Brigid. Many will not. Born into a royal family in 6th century Ireland, he gave up his royal position in order to become a monk at a time when Ireland was, for the only time in its history, the centre of scholarship, learning and spirituality in Europe, following the collapse of the Roman Empire. However, in 563 AD, a battle was fought following a copyright dispute over the ownership of a Bible, and Columba, ashamed that he had not prevented the bloodshed, imposed on himself a penance, to go into exile from his beloved Ireland and take the gospel to Scotland, then inhabited by the pagan Picts.

The story goes that he set off in a leather coracle from the north coast, probably from somewhere near Derry, where he had established a monastery, accompanied by a band of fellow-monks. He landed initially either on Islay or the Mull of Kintyre but as he could still see Ireland he decided to carry on and reached Iona, a tiny island off the shore of Mull. Here he was granted land to establish a new monastery, which became the epicentre of outreach into Scotland, where the monks travelled to convert the Picts and ultimately brought their faith right down into the north of England, where they founded settlements such as that on Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland. As they say, the rest is history.

The plan therefore is to retrace the exile of Columba and sail from Ireland to Iona, where we will celebrate our heritage with a service in the Abbey, tour the island and experience a tiny slice of what inspired Columba and his early followers. As it happens, before anyone tells me that our voyage is not following the original route, we are sailing directly to Iona from Tory Island, on the northernmost tip of Donegal, a distance of about 100 miles and 24 hours, weather dependant…it could be shorter or a lot longer! When we arrive we will be met by a group of 25 fellow pilgrims, a mixture of staff, Fellows, Old Columbans and parents, who will be travelling by the land route, leaving on the following morning: fly to Glasgow, bus to Oban, ferry to Mull, bus to Fionnphort, ferry to Iona.

I am grateful to a few people as mad as myself for making this trip possible. My wife Cathy for planning the overland trip and the stay on Iona; Ted Sherwood, who has been just as enthusiastic about this caper as I am; and Dr. Michael Brogan, a wild-eyed doctor from Donegal, whose boat, the MacDuagh, a 40 foot Galway hooker, is our own leather coracle for our exile. Luckily he is skippering the boat and bringing his own crew to guide us across the Atlantic.

Let me introduce my merry band of monks, 2018 style:

Ted Sherwood             Former Head of Geography at SCC

Jenny Bulbulia            Old Columban and current Fellow

Trish Dunlop                Current parent

Ian Dunlop                   Current Parent

Jane Caldwell              Wife of the Chairman of the Fellows

We meet tomorrow morning, Wednesday 4th July, at 9.30 a.m. to drive up to Donegal to meet the MacDuagh. In my luggage I will have three items: a bottle of whiskey to present to the King of Tory Island, who will then bless our voyage, a leg of lamb, to be roasted on the journey (don’t ask me how…), and the Mioseach. This last one needs an explanation.

In 1843, when the College was founded, one of the founding Fellows presented the College with the Mioseach, a very early Celtic Christian artefact, a book shrine, for holding a Bible or psalter. This box was so valuable that it was loaned to the National Archaeological Museum, where it still sits, while a perfect copy was made, which sits in the Warden’s study at the College. The original was sold to the Museum in 2004 for 1.5 million euros! The copy will be on board, not the original!

So there we are. I will send updates whenever possible and a few photos.

4-5 July

We meet at 9.30 a.m. by the sports hall for the off. Wonderful to be presented with a pennant by Terry and Rosie Johnson, with SCC 1843 on it, to be attached to the mast of the MacDuagh. The drive through Donegal is glorious and we arrived at the Tory Island ferry in good time. We are met on Tory not only by the Mac Duagh and its crew but by the King of Tory himself. He does not disappoint. He has been King for 50 years and regales us with endless tales. He is delighted with his bottle of whiskey but disappointed that we are not staying for the craic in the evening, which is due to start at 10.00 p.m.

The MacDuagh is a fantastic boat. Originally built about 140 years ago it was fully restored in the 1970’s by Dr. Michael Brogan and is one of the small remaining class of Galway hookers. He and the older two of his companions have negotiated the north west and the north east passages together so we are not in the hands of amateurs! As it turns out that is a good thing.

We set off at 7.00 p.m. and are soon joined a school of porpoises, who have come to check us out. At that point I begin to feel distinctly nauseous and continued to do so for the next 15 hours! My visions of sipping a cool drink on deck, while watching the sun set were dashed! It was not a happy night. Those early Irish monks must have been made of stern stuff and I am delighted that I did not follow through on my early plan to row a leather coracle across the Atlantic. In the morning I am told that the crossing has been surprisingly rough and I am not the only one to have been struggling. Perhaps everyone is trying to make me feel better! By the time I am feeling vaguely human again we are approaching Iona and for the last two hours it is a sheer joy to sit on deck watching the islands slide by and cruising gently into Iona. We arrive at about 1.00 p.m. but stay on board for a further three hours cooking the lamb and snacking on crabs claws and lobster. Thankfully they stay down.

Meanwhile the larger party meet at Dublin Airport in the wee hours and everything goes like clockwork. They arrive at about 4.45 p.m. on Iona and we are there to welcome them. We are staying in the St. Columba Hotel just by the Abbey, a hotel with a fantastic view of the sound. What a place this is! A lovely dinner, then an introduction to Columba himself from our very own Adomnan (Columba’s biographer), Richard Brett, who has set the scene for the two days ahead.  Then impromptu music for a couple of hours in the lounge, with Michael Brogan on the fiddle, another of the crew on the squeeze box and one of the waiters joining in with his fiddle! A few contributions from the floor are also added. A great night and much to look forward to in the days ahead.

6-7 July

We meet mid-morning for a tour of the island, strolling off to the other side of the island. Some then choose to carry on to the far south to St. Columba’s Bay, where the saint is said to have first landed back in 563. Small green stones on the beach are said to be the tears of Columba, weeping for his beloved Ireland. Others return to the pier to have a ride out in the MacDuagh. A great day with lots of leisure time too. One of the dinghies coming in from the boat is accompanied by dolphins at touching distance. Another good dinner and then a singing competition between the tables. We rope in a couple of visitors to act as judges, much to their own astonishment and good humour. My table was definitely the best but some misses out on the big prize. The evening then turns quite lively and noisy and goes on and on…I am not sure when or if everyone gets to bed. Happily with a group of adults that is not my problem.

The next morning we meet early and get the boat to Staffa, a small island about 30 minutes up the coast, the home of the extraordinary Fingal’s Cave, immortalised by Mendelssohn. Again we are investigated by dolphins. The island has the most amazing basalt columns and massive caves, with nesting puffins as well. I hate to say it but it is much more spectacular than the Giants’ Causeway! A truly memorable visit in the most serene conditions. Wow, this place is beautiful! We can see north to Skye and south to Islay, west to Tiree and Coll, while everything to the east is Mull. But we could return a hundred times and never get the same benign conditions. We are truly blessed. In case one gets the impression that being a monk in the 6th century was a piece of cake in an idyllic paradise, it is worth remembering that for much of the year this place is bleak in the extreme and not for the faint-hearted. For now we are not complaining.

After lunch we all traipse off to the Abbey for a service of thanksgiving. The Abbey dominates the community, watching over the sound, while on the way one passes the graveyard which supposedly contains the graves of many of the kings of Scotland as well as some of the Norse kings. Macbeth is said to be buried there although it is impossible to know. A simple service, magical, simple, profound, a really special time, led by Daniel Owen, a short talk by Ninian Falkiner, lovely hymns. It has been good to remind ourselves of our spiritual heritage and our spirits have been uplifted and fed.

A few of us slope off to watch England beat Sweden in the World Cup quarter final…another spiritual experience.

8 July

Home…via the Tobermory distillery. Mull is so beautiful. What a privilege to spend these glorious summer days in this blessed part of the world!

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11th May 2018

There is a new question that prospective parents ask me almost without fail as I am taking them on a tour of the school: ‘What is the school’s approach to mobile phones and social media?’ When I go to conferences now there are speakers on the effects of social media and internet addiction. More and more studies are being done on the effects of obsessive gaming, the decline in ‘real’ communication due to social media, the release of dopamine that happens every time our phones ping. I am now reading ‘The Cyber Effect’ by cyberpsychologist Dr. Mary Aiken and apart from being a very good read and very interesting it is also extremely scary. It should be compulsory reading for all parents.

When our children were young my wife and I had discussions about how much TV time we should allow and when they should be allowed to watch videos. We disagreed at times as I was always inclined to be more lenient than she was, but at least we knew what they were watching and it was usually a choice between Disney videos or Thomas the Tank Engine. I think I can still recite the Disney version of Robin Hood off by heart. Those were discussions and challenges that our own parents did not have to face but ultimately we felt we had the tools to make those judgements, even though we made some mistakes. We learned to parent to a large degree by taking a cue from the way that we were parented ourselves. However what is true now is that the challenges facing parents are challenges that have never been faced before and they are not in the old textbooks. It is one thing to discuss whether to put on Robin Hood or Thomas the Tank Engine, another to feel totally as sea in a world of endless social media, internet pornography, cyber bullying, sexting, Netflix and trolling. Who knows who your children are talking to, who is grooming them, what sites they are on, when everyone has an extraordinarily powerful computer in his or her pocket and 24 hour access. As someone said, ‘if you want to teach your children to be safe on the road you can’t ban the cars. You have to teach them how to cross the road.’ True, but it is a very difficult road to cross.

Earlier this week I was interviewed on Newstalk, following an article in the Irish Times about boarding, in which St. Columba’s got some good coverage. I was asked why parents choose boarding nowadays and of course there are many different possible answers. I chose however to concentrate on the most topical one, that of being able to provide a safe space from the constant demands of the online world. It would not have figured in the past as a major consideration, but suddenly parents are looking for a place where there their children can be children and escape the addictive demands of an online culture which is exposing them to goodness knows what and sleep-walking them into a mental health epidemic. Boarding school suddenly looks like a bit of a safe haven and we want to keep it that way.

At St. Columba’s we are still formulating our approach to all these things and it will continue to evolve, but what is true at present is that the youngest pupils are not allowed their phones at night, nor are any of the pupils allowed phones around school during the day. The 8.15 a.m. start and the busy day, running to at least 8.00 p.m. means there is very little time for smart phone usage and none for gaming. Pupils talk to each other and are not seen staring at screens as they interact with each other.

I have always been a big fan of boarding but I now have a new reason to champion the cause. For busy parents, who work hard and are not always around to monitor their children’s screen use of all kinds, it might be a blessed relief to delegate some of that responsibility to a school that limits such access and encourages genuine communication and relationships in a world where that is increasingly rare. We may not ban all the cars but we are trying very hard to teach the children how to cope with the traffic.

 

26th April 2018

25th April 2018

Yesterday we celebrated the 175th anniversary of the day when St. Columba’s College actually opened in 1843. At the time there was a Warden and a few Fellows, but there were no pupils at all and the College was located in Stackallan House in County Meath. Things have changed. We had a relaxed and fun day, with a late rising, a special chapel service and the creation of a ‘175’ figure by the pupils on the cricket pitch, photographed by drone. Despite chilly conditions the arrival of an ice cream van after lunch was a major highlight! We finished off with a barbecue and a dance in the evening. In the morning I and a group of Columbans, together with Mr. McCarthy and the Chaplain, buried a time capsule behind the chapel, to be opened on 25th April 2118. In it I enclosed a letter to those future Columbans:

Dear Columbans of 2118

I earnestly hope that this letter is being read for the first time on 25th April 2118 and that the box has not been opened in advance of that date.

Greetings to you from April 25th 2018, the year that Ireland won the Grand Slam in the 6 nations rugby and the country was brought to a standstill by extraordinary snow in early March. It has been a long, cold, wet winter and we are longing for the warmth of spring.

St. Columba’s is currently a school of 320 pupils, 75% of whom are boarding, 60% are from Ireland and 40% from overseas. While we have very high academic standards and expectations of our pupils we prefer to be known as a school which has the highest standards of pastoral care, where young people are nurtured and encouraged and where they learn to live together in a caring and supportive environment. Everyone here matters.

As the Warden of this College I have a vision of producing young people who aspire to be successful, while remembering that they are privileged and blessed to be receiving such a good education. They should always try to be servants to those around them at school, at university, in their families and in the jobs they get in the future. The world of 2018 needs unselfish and servant-hearted young people, who will make a positive difference in a troubled world. I am sure your world will be no different.

The Columbans of 2018 are special young people and I believe in them and their future. As the Warden I send my greetings to you, the Columbans of 2118, and urge you all to be true to the Christian values of this great College.

Floreat Columba et floreant Columbanenses!

22nd March 2018

We are nearly at the end of what has been quite a strange term. The term was short enough already, with plenty to pack in, without the flu epidemic in the first half and the Beast from the East, together with Storm Emma, after the mid-term break. That caused great disruption and broke the continuity of teaching and exams, but at least we managed to keep going, albeit in a limited way. I am very grateful to house staff and their tutor teams for managing to keep their charges happy, as well as fed and watered, in part due to the heroic catering staff who trudged through the drifts when they could easily have stayed at home, because they were concerned about the welfare of the pupils. One of the maintenance team even came into work on his own tractor to help clear paths. On the Friday evening I went round all the houses to see how everyone was getting on and to make sure that everyone had enough to eat. Everyone seemed very happy and they had all fed well, even if there was a large emphasis on pasta. No one went hungry and I think most appreciated the efforts of the staff to look after them. A lot of the house staff also had their own children running around at home unable to get to school, to add to their stress.

I guess it would have been easy to moan and we all have a tendency to that at times. It made me think about the importance of being grateful for what we have as individuals and also as a community. If anyone doesn’t agree with me just turn on the news and see the suffering and the injustice out there. We are very blessed here.

There is a story in the gospels where Jesus meets ten lepers, outcasts from their community. They would not just be disfigured but they had to ring a bell wherever they went so that people could avoid them and they had to live in colonies outside of towns, so the disease destroyed every aspect of their humanity. These ten men came to Jesus begging for him to heal them. He sends them off to the high priest and as they go they all realise that they are healed. However, while nine of them rush off home, only one of them bothers to turn round and return to Jesus to thank him for having mercy on him. What is more it turns out that that one is a foreigner. The locals obviously didn’t think that they owed any anything to Jesus at all or even if they did they did not think to thank him. It is almost as if Jesus is saying that physical healing is one thing but unless your heart is also changed that healing is incomplete. Being grateful makes us better people and that is where the real healing happens.

My parents always made me write thank you letters after Christmas and, although I cursed them for it at the time, it was a vital lesson for me to learn. I think it is very important that our Columbans learn to be grateful for what they have and also to express it. We all know how it makes us feel when we are thanked, because it makes us aware that we are not being taken for granted. So I want to make a point of reminding the pupils to thank their teachers, the office staff, the catering staff, the cleaners, the nurses, the bus drivers, even the staff at Lidl’s. It does something to people when they are thanked and it does something to us too when we thank others.

6th March 2018

I guess we will remember this academic year for Hurricane Ophelia, the Beast from the East and Storm Emma. It would be nice if we could also have a wonderful heatwave next term to round it off, but perhaps that is too much to ask. To be honest Ophelia was a bit of an anti-climax around here, bringing down a few branches and making a bit of a mess. However the Beast and Emma certainly did live up to their billing and last week was quite extraordinary. I think that it was the heaviest snowfall that I have experienced in my lifetime and, combined with the winds, we did have some remarkable conditions. Life in the College came to a standstill on the Friday, when the red alert was out, but other than that we ploughed on with our exams. The major issue was the lack of kitchen staff to prepare the food, but we managed, with a bit of ingenuity and a blitz spirit.

In times of adversity one finds out about community spirit. It was great to see the maintenance team still fighting their way into the College, clearing roads and gritting paths, while many of the kitchen staff also managed to walk in to make sure that the pupils were fed and watered. The house teams all pulled together and kept morale up, as was evident when I went round all the houses on Friday night and found the pupils cheerful and understanding.

A friend of mine runs a church in Rathmines and he has a wonderful story. On Saturday afternoon there was meant to be a wedding in the church, but the roads were so bad that most of the guests were potenetially unable to get there under their own steam. There was a danger that the big day would be a huge disappointment. So that morning he went onto local radio and made a plea that if there were any listeners living nearby who had 4×4’s and would be prepared to run around the city collecting guests could they please come to the church. 15 4×4’s turned up, the Armada moved out over Dublin and the wedding went ahead, starting with a whiskey reception in the back of the church, with prayers and readings down by guests in wellies. He said it was one of the most memorable weddings he has ever been to or officiated at.

Things here are slowly getting back to normal, although our Arts Week has taken a bit of a hit, with a couple of key events having to be cancelled. There is still a lot going on. The snow is still lying deep on the pitches and we are still catching up on exams but no harm has been done and the pupils, the boarders at least, will probably have memories of the last few days for the rest of their lives. Seeing them sledging and snowballing and generally behaving like children was a great sight and hopefully a good reminder to them that there is plenty of fun to be had without social media.

31st January 2018

When I was a young teacher I used to think that whether my team won or lost on a Saturday was all that mattered and I would be depressed for a week if my team lost. It was what defined me as a teacher. As a Liverpool supporter I quoted Bill Shankly:

Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. It’s much more important than that.

Happily I grew out of that. But what is the purpose of sport in schools? Is it to hire in all the Ireland Under 16’s into the 5th form in order to have an unbeaten season, to win at all costs, or is it to teach the importance of teamwork and to develop resilience of character? Does one develop resilience by being thrashed every week and getting demoralised? Or by trouncing the opposition every week and never losing a single game? How does one learn to treat the two great impostors of triumph and disaster the same if one only ever experiences victory or defeat? The Victorians who codified all the great team sports and introduced them to the public schools were under no illusions:

And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat

Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame

But the captain’s hand on his shoulder smote

‘Play, play up and play the game.’

It was not about personal glory but about something much greater…the team, the honour of the school, playing the game in the right way, rather than just to win. Unfortunately the next verse makes it clear that this was merely the ideal preparation for young Englishmen going out to slaughter natives in the colonies, so let’s not get too idealistic about it:

The sand of the desert is sodden red

Red with the wreck of a square that broke

The Gatlin’s jammed and the colonel’s dead

The regiment’s blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed his banks

And England’s far and honour’s a name

But the voice of the schoolboy rallies the ranks

‘Play up, play up and play the game.’

(Sir Henry Newbolt)

One could argue that nowadays we live in an age of professional sport that could never have been envisaged by the Victorians and it is our obligation as educators to prepare our pupils as best we can for whatever careers they wish to pursue, including professional sport. They need to learn that success does not come without hard graft, that there is no gain without pain. They need to have an outlet for their aggression and energy and where better than on the sports field. They need to learn to work with the limitations of others and to work to the strengths of their team. Is there a better feeling in life than being part of a really good team? And if they happen to be good enough to turn their passion into a professional career, then surely that is a good thing.

Yes. But there is an increasing tension in school sport. Gone is the schoolmaster who taught Homer till lunch time, practised with the choir after lunch, then put on a tracksuit and ran a training session till dinner. He was competitive but still viewed the sport as part of the whole picture of educating a young person. Winning was great, but losing was not terminal. Now all good sports schools employ external professional coaches. They are not school teachers, with a wider perspective, and they want to win at all costs. They are not looking at the bigger picture but at winning the next match. How their team behaves is less important than the result. The crucial role of sport as a creator of character has been outsourced. It is bound to make a difference.

Captaining a rugger team at school is no longer considered a prerequisite for governing a large part of India or Africa. However being a team player is still seen as vital in almost every career that I can think of and that is why public schools have always placed a greater emphasis on the team sports than the individual ones. Playing in a team teaches you to work with others. That is a great thing.

Even in a cynical age, which justifies cheating to win, everyone loves it when someone displays true ‘sportsmanship.’ It is as if we all know, in spite of ourselves, that there is a better way to do it. Bunny Austin, who was the last Brit to reach the men’s singles final at Wimbledon prior to Andy Murray, was a friend of my parents. He told a story about playing in a big match, when he hit the ball onto the sideline. The umpire called it out but his opponent graciously intervened and said that the ball had been good and the umpire changed the call. After the game Bunny was furious with his opponent, despite the call having gone in his favour. He was angry because his opponent’s action had undermined the authority of the umpire and made him look silly. Really. Don’t you love it when a golfer calls a foul on himself,  which no one else has seen, or when a batsman walks when he is given not out? And don’t we howl in derision when a penalty is given when the player dives. The TV pundit then says, ‘well he touched him, so he had every right to go down.’ We know what is right, even if we rarely see it. Just imagine if Thierry Henry had turned to the ref after his double handball against Ireland in that World Cup play-off and said that actually he had handled the ball and he did not want to win qualification in that way. He would have saved France total humiliation in the tournament and he would now be considered the greatest sportsman who had ever lived. But no…he didn’t. The end justifies the means.

So what is the end of school sport? I would argue that it is to play as hard as you can, to teach your pupils to respect the referee and the opposition, to be gracious in defeat and humble in victory, to make friends and to learn the importance of the team.

When I was taking the 1st XI cricket at Wellington College in the UK we played Rondebosch Boys from Cape Town. They were very strong and won comfortably. In the post-match speeches their coach said, ‘going on tour is all about beating people.’ I wanted to rebut him publicly but I was decent and gracious and congratulated him and his team. But he was wrong. Totally wrong. Going on tour is about making friends, having new experiences and learning.

One year I coached the 1st XI at Ivanhoe Grammar School in Melbourne. Before the first game there was a cap presentation ceremony and they were given out by a former Australian captain, Graeme Yallop. I can still remember what he said because it was so awful and so against everything that I believed in. He told these young boys that they should not let anyone get in the way of fulfilling their dreams…that they should elbow aside anyone who got in the way…that they should be utterly ruthless and selfish to get what they wanted, by whatever means. I wanted to object but as I looked around the room the parents were all nodding with approval and I was just a Pom on a gap year and I couldn’t afford to lose my job…so I kept quiet.

Sport at school is about many things, but above all it should be about teaching values, teamwork, resilience and respect for others. I may be very old-fashioned but I still think it is about learning to meet with triumph and disaster and to treat those two impostors just the same.

14th January 2018

Every time that we think that Donald Trump cannot get any lower we are proven wrong. It would be funny if it were not for the fact that he is the most powerful man in the world. This time he has described Haiti, El Salvador and various non-specified African countries as ‘shitholes.’ (I don’t see the need to use asterisks to tone down the language.) I rather enjoyed the response of the Botswanan government who contacted the US embassy in Gaborone to ask whether Botswana was one of the shitholes to which the President was referring. I know Botswana well…it is a wonderful country, full of fabulous people. I also spent New Year’s Eve with a very good friend from El Salvador.

No one needs to be told that there are many countries in the world which are full of poverty, poor infrastructure and corruption. Sometimes those failures are due to no fault of their own and sometimes they are self-induced. A bit like all of us really. However for the loudest bully in the playground to start abusing the weaker ones says far more about the bully than it does about the bullied. It is good to remember that the USA is a country of immigrants, who often fled from poverty and persecution in their own countries. They are the lucky ones to live in a great and prosperous country, from which the indigenous population was ethnically cleansed to make way for them. It is also important to remember that much of the wealth of the United States was built on the backs of slaves from those shitholes, carried far from home against their wills and abused for generation after generation. Only in the last fifty years has the ‘Land of the Free’ ascribed civil rights to African Americans but there are still huge inequalities in the USA.

America itself was not a colonial power, at least not in the manner of the European powers, but many of the problems of Africa are the legacy of colonialism: random borders uniting traditional rivals and splitting traditional friends, uneducated people left after independence to run their ‘liberated’ nations, resources exploited by foreign powers and an understandable brain drain which has resulted in many of the outstanding people from African countries, unable to make a good living at home, nor give their families the security they wanted to, moving abroad. Many work in top professions in the USA.

I am sure that I am not alone in seeing the USA as, in some way, the bastion and champion of the free world. I long to be able to look up to it and to its president. But what sort of America do I want to look up to? I want to see an America that is wealthy but does not want to horde that wealth for itself; I want to see an America that is confident in itself and what it stands for, but does not despise those who are different from her; I want to see her setting an example in the harmony of relationships between ethnic groups.

One day, probably quite soon, the American people will look back at this time as an excruciating aberration. For now though it is just simply embarrassing.