Stepping Up To The Plate

This week was an anxious week in many Irish households, as State exams got underway for thousands of young people. Some might say the parents were even more anxious than they were. Many parents put their own lives on hold while the exams are happening, rescheduling work and cancelling social engagements. They pour all their efforts into creating an atmosphere conducive to study, filling the house with the young person’s favourite treats and removing all distractions.

 

teenager studying
Exam time is an anxious time for teenagers – and their parents.

Matters of State

A few years ago, one mother took her daughter’s wellbeing so seriously that she was willing to set matters of state aside. She was a senator in Ireland’s upper house and she was part of a committee responsible for selecting candidates who would oversee an enquiry into corruption. But she missed the meeting to decide who the candidates would be, so she could be there for her daughter, who was sitting her final State exams.

As a result, the government didn’t have a majority when it came to selecting the candidates, which lessened its chances of picking its desired candidate. The incident caused a storm in a teacup at the time. The senator claimed that she was not given enough notice about the meeting, so she couldn’t arrange backup for herself

But what struck me was that this woman had a husband. Why couldn’t he have stepped up to the plate? A couple of weeks later, he was asked that very question on a national radio show. I still remember how indignant he was. He repeated the host’s question in a tone that conveyed that he couldn’t believe he was being even asked the question. Given that the senator’s decision had had an impact on matters of state, the question was perfectly justified. But the only answer the husband gave was that the girl needed her mother.

My Attentive Parents

When state exams are happening, it’s natural to find yourself travelling back to your own experience. Both my parents were very attentive to me. I still remember the satisfying crunch of the turkey and coleslaw roll my mother got me at a local deli – a real novelty at the time.

But I also remember my father, on the morning of my first exam, handing me a neatly folded piece of paper with written instructions to guide me through the exams, which I carried into the exam hall. I don’t get worked up about exams, but if I had, my father would have been there with a reassuring arm and wise words. He was a husband who stepped up to the plate.

 

Artful Queue Dodgers

Recently, I had to go to a doctor’s surgery to collect something. Beside the desk, there was a sign asking people to stand back from the desk, so that people could have privacy while doing their business. As there was a woman at the desk, I obeyed the sign and stood in the doorway.

When she finished, I approached the desk, and an old woman came around me and reached the desk before I did, even though it was clear that I was next in line. She just had a quick question, she said, but the question required the receptionist to get up and look for a colleague who could answer it for her.

My item wasn’t ready, and while I waited for it to be printed, another older woman took the opportunity to ask her question, and the scrape and grind of the printer would have indicated that I was still being dealt with. Let’s just say that in both instances, it was lucky that I wasn’t discussing anything of a delicate nature.

Abusing the Privileges of Age

What is it about passing a certain age that causes some people to feel that signs and queues no longer apply to them? It’s as if a switch flips in their brain, and after a lifetime of caring, they decide they no longer care. In a way, this is commendable. It’s literating not to worry about what other people think. But you can take it too far.

Artful Queue Dodger
Some older people have mastered the art of queue dodging.

By and large, these artful queue dodgers get away with it. People let them go ahead, possibly because they don’t want to be seen to bawl out an old person in public. But also out of respect and out of kindness. And these queue dodgers trample on that kindness. They abuse the privileges that age brings. That’s what burns me about it.

There is a possibility that, if left to my own devices, I might actually let an older person go ahead of me. But don’t guilt or manipulate me into it. Otherwise, my walls will go up. Other people, far nicer than I am, have a more mellow attitude to it. ‘Can’t wait till I can get away with that,’ they quip. They speak as if the queue dodgers are children who don’t quite know what they’re doing. But they know exactly what they are doing.

To Dodge or to Wait

When I left the doctor’s surgery, I had to go to the chemist. As I arrived at the entrance, an old woman appeared. My dander was up by now and I thought, no way is this person going to get round me. So, I took ruthless advantage of my faster leg speed to get round her and reach the counter first.

And there was nobody there.

By the time the old woman arrived at the counter, there were two people there. One was attending to me and the second one attended to her. And she was finished before I was.

I realised that a stark choice lies before me. I can become an artful queue dodger myself, or I can learn to wait. By temperament, I fear I have the makings of a queue dodger. But I also wonder what the point of being alive for such a long time is if you haven’t learnt some of life’s lessons. If you haven’t learnt to be a little wiser, a little more patient, a little more tolerant.

I’m hoping that by the time I’m old enough to be a queue dodger, I’ll have learned that everything will happen in its own good time. And that I will have even gained enough grace to allow other people to go ahead of me.

 

Men Who Are Careful

In recent months, the media has been beaming its spotlight on men who do horrible things. The #MeToo and #IBelieveHer hashtags. Tales of Hollywood sleaze. High profile rape trials. The horrible deeds of men have been questioned like never before.

I’m not really into hashtags, bandwagons or campaigns. Instead, contrarian that I am, I’ve been turning my own spotlight on men who are careful.

Men who weigh up their words when they’re speaking to women

Men who hold open doors to let shoals of women through

Men who hoist children high on their shoulders so they can see a parade passing by

Men who leave room for women to speak

Men who make you laugh so much you can hardly breathe

Men who put an arm around a woman’s shoulder, and don’t let that arm stray any further

Men who tell you how beautiful you look, no matter what

Fathers who put their shoulders to the wheel

Men who cook succulent dinners

Men who see your lower lip trembling, then wipe away your tears.

Careful Men

These men are our fathers, our brothers, our other halves, our friends. The minefields they negotiate are just as difficult as ours. These are men whose deeds go beyond hashtags. These are men who choose to be careful with women. Let the actions of these men be a counterweight to the tales of sleaze. Let us raise these men up.

 

Does the Universe Give Out Parking Spaces?

I was going to a concert one night with a gloriously scatty woman. Knowing her propensity for lateness, I said I’d walk to the venue and meet her there. But she would not take no for an answer, so I diverted myself with an episode of Sex and the City while I waited for her to collect me.

Sure enough, her beep sounded in the street a full ten minutes after she was supposed to arrive. But since this woman is blessed with the luck of the gods, we still arrived at the venue with three minutes to spare. As she pulled in, she invoked the name of her dead mother to help her secure a parking space.

‘I always ask my mother to find me a space,’ she declared. ‘It never fails.’

And sure enough, a space appeared – just beside the entrance to the venue.

 

The Universe
A benevolent universe that supplies parking spaces.

Well, Does It?

Is the universe really that powerful? If we trust it, does it give us what we want? Or do good things happen because of decisions we make? These are the questions that ping-pong around my brain when I should be thinking of whether we need milk.

I love the idea of this woman’s mother acting as a sort of celestial valet, guiding the woman to the desired parking spot. Magical thinking, some scornful types might call it. Just the same, it’s a marvellous thought.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that the woman’s parking success was due to the timing of our arrival. We had arrived after most people had parked and settled themselves inside. And when they arrived, they probably assumed that such a premium parking space must be reserved for a musical VIP. Since it hadn’t, my gloriously scatty companion was able to snaffle it. Fortune favours the last-minuters.

Half Choice, Half Chance

In my experience, there’s no getting away from the fact that good things come through good decisions and hard work. But I do believe that if you make the right decision, and if you work hard enough, the universe may just give you a helping hand.

 

What Happens When You Park On A Double Yellow Line

At a one-day conference I attended recently, the MC told a story, as they do in their effort to fill the gaps. She told the crowd that in her determination to find the perfect dress for her brother’s wedding, she had parked on a double yellow line in front of her favourite clothes shop. She was heavily pregnant and due to be induced. The wedding was to take place a week after she gave birth.

I knew the clothing shop she was talking about, so I knew that there would only have been a narrow strip of footpath between her car and the buildings. As she spoke, and the crowd applauded her determination, I envisioned a few scenarios which I believe could have unfolded while she was in the shop.

Double Yellow Lines
Parking on double yellows: not a victimless crime.

The Scenarios

A blind man taps his way up to the car. His stick encounters the back tyre. He gauges the distance between car and wall and judges that there is not enough space between the car and the buildings. He taps his way around the car and steps out onto the road. Air currents swirled around his ankles, as cars whooshed past.

A woman approaches the car, pushing a three-wheeled buggy, the kind that can carry everything but the kitchen sink. The wheels jam in the space between the car and the wall. She can’t move forward. She has no choice but to go out on the road, inches from the cars.

An older woman comes up to the car, leaning on a crutch. She too finds that there isn’t enough room to pass. Out on the road, she holds her breath, hoping she’ll be able to move away quick enough if a car came up behind her.

A Victimless Crime?

People think that parking on a double yellow line is a victimless crime. I’ll only be two  minutes, they tell themselves. But a lot can happen in two minutes. And it only takes seconds to mow someone down.

If I were a driver, I might well be seduced by double yellow lines. Let’s face it – parking is a pain in the butt. And it takes extra minutes we may not feel we have. But we don’t live in bubbles. What we do does impact on other people.

How much extra time does it really take to find a parking spot? Maybe an extra couple of minutes. If you take those couple of minutes, it’ll mean one less obstacle for a stick user to negotiate. Nobody will have to hold their breath. And the buggy users, the MC’s fellow mothers-in-arms, won’t have to worry about the safety of their children.

 

Ten Little Lives

In recent days, news of a mass school shooting in Florida sent shockwaves around the world, putting America’s gun laws in the spotlight once again. At times like this, headlines scream numbers at us: 17 shot dead in Florida, 58 shot dead in Las Vegas, 20 shot dead in Sandy Hook.

It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around such figures.  Tragedies like this are best understood, if that’s even possible, by zoning in on one single life. This was something journalist Gary Younge instinctively understood when he wrote his book on American gun culture, Another Day in the Death of America 

Younge looked at the impact of gun crime through the lens of ten lives. The lives of ten children who were killed in ten separate shooting incidents throughout the United States. In one day. Every day, between seven children are killed by guns in the United States. It’s become so commonplace that their deaths barely make a blip in the media.

Bringing Them to Life

Younge picked a random day and traced the names of ten children who had been shot dead on that day. He then set about telling their stories. The story of their lives and the story of the day they died. They were all boys, aged from nine to nineteen. They lived in towns, cities and rural areas. Seven were black, two were Latinos and one was white.

teenage boy
Tribute to young lives cut short.

Younge visited the cities and towns where the boys had lived. In all but two cases, he spoke to their friends and families. He looked at their social media profiles. He researched police reports into their death. And from this, he created vivid portraits of their lives, using symbols that represented who they were. A bottle of Hennessy brandy. A recording of a rap. A T-shirt.

A Troubled Society

On a wider level, Younge gets under the skin of a society where guns are rife, where social structures have broken down, where poverty is a weight that is almost impossible to shrug off. He speaks to community workers and quotes from a rich variety of literature, from novels to research from sociologists.

As you read Another Day in the Death of America, you can hear the guns go off in your head. You can feel Younge’s quiet outrage pulsing through the pages. With these ten tender portraits, Younge reclaims the lives of these boys, so that they are no longer defined by the terrible acts that ended their lives. He shows us that their lives mattered. But he also makes you feel the real impact of gun crime, more effectively than any screaming headline.

Stopping Strangers on the Street

The voice was warm. It was a voice that invited you to stop, to help. It broke my stride as I made my way along the street. The voice belonged to a young man wearing a beanie hat, who said he was doing research about people’s favourite things to do in the town.

 

Thinking he was doing a project as part of a college course, I expounded on the delights of the restaurants. Picking up on his American accent, I said several of them served American food, because as a nation, we Irish were fond of all things American. Then I asked him what the research was for.

Turned out he wasn’t doing research. Turned out he was a missionary for a Christian church.

Missionary
Street missionary: selling to strangers on the street.

I didn’t turn tail and run. It would be hard to show that level of disrespect to a man of faith, even if he did have bad teeth. So I heard him out, extracted myself and went on my way.

Selling Your Wares

I couldn’t fault the friendliness of his manner, but as I walked away, my mouth was flooded with the sickly-sweet taste you experience when you realise you’ve been manipulated. He had presented himself as someone looking for help, when in fact he wanted to sell me something, in this case spiritual enlightenment.

It’s easy to come up with a retort in hindsight. I resolved that next time I meet a missionary, I’m going to ask them how long it will be before the Apocalypse comes. And if they say they don’t know. I’ll shake my head sadly and say, ‘You’re no good to me, so.’

Cruel, perhaps. But it’s better than being taken for a mug. Still, I don’t know if I’ll be using that retort. Because it’s likely that I’ll be walking faster from now on. When someone like that stops you on the street, it damages the chances that in the future, you’ll stop for someone who genuinely needs help. And that really does make me sad.

 

Slotting People Into Place

One Sunday, I found myself having lunch in a golf club. It’s not the sort of place I’d expect to find myself in. They’re usually places where the respectable burghers of a town congregate. But I had been invited by a friend whose family qualified as respectable burghers, with roots going back more than one generation.

Whereas I was a ‘blow-in,’ a word we use in Ireland to describe someone who has moved to a town from somewhere else. You can live in a town for thirty years or more and still be considered a blow-in. Having lived in this seaside town for a mere six years, I was definitely still a blow-in, the sweet grass of my native inland place still clinging to my skin.

The golf club was a comfortable, homely place, and despite my blow-in status, I was able to pass through its doors without incident. I sat at a table covered with a crisp linen tablecloth and enjoyed a tasty lunch of deep fried Brie, bantering with my friend and her three lively boys.

posh table
Eating with the respectable burghers

An Encounter

As our lunch came to an end, a woman approached the table and my friend greeted her by name. I knew of the woman, but hadn’t met her before. After the woman admired my friend’s three boys, she turned her attention to me.

‘And who is this?’ she asked.

My friend, a sunny-side-up kind of person, introduced me as ‘a great writer.’

‘Might I have your surname?’ she asked.

I gave her the required information, while red dots danced across my line of vision.

‘Derbhile was in Toastmasters (a public speaking organisation) with your daughter,’ said my sweet dove of a friend.

‘Oh, you’re one of those,’ she said.

‘That’s right,’ I said, grinning. ‘You have me now.’

Satisfied that she had the information she needed, she withdrew.

What’s In A Name

You may wonder why I bristled at the woman’s question. After all, a surname is hardly classified information. My surname is readily available on my official documents, business cards and social media profiles. But I knew why she was asking the question – so that she could slot me into the town’s hierarchy.

It’s human nature to try and define people, to assess how much like us they are. And some people will define you by your place of origin and family name. Such people love to recite a litany of names to each other, and to outline how those names are connected to each other. The problem is that they don’t look beyond the name, to the richness of the person’s story. Once they have placed you, they are satisfied.

Making a Connection

In a situation where we don’t know people, it’s often necessary to ask for a person’s name and where they’re from, to break the ice. But if we really want to connect with people, then couldn’t we use those questions as a springboard that will help you dive into a broader conversation. I’d rather know whether someone has an unhealthy penchant for Club Milks or likes swimming in a cold sea than what town they come from.

 

If the woman had asked how my friend and I had met, for example, she would still have received the information she wanted. I would have told her how we met in Toastmasters and how this had indirectly brought me to my new hometown. We would have made a connection, no matter how slight.

But afterwards, I remembered what my husband had told me about the woman, that she had arrived in the town as a young school teacher from a windswept coastal town on the other side of the country. Perhaps, all these years later, she was still a little anxious about her own blow-in status. Perhaps she was defining herself by the same narrow criteria. But when you broaden the criteria by which you connect with people, you can put down deeper roots.

 

Kindly Intentions

On a winter’s night, as a light drizzle fell, a cyclist came upon a homeless man as swished through the city streets. He lay in a doorway near a string of fast-food outlets. As the cyclist bent over him, she saw that he had a stash of food beside him, still in his packaging.

He made no movement, but she could detect the rise and fall of breath. She gently shook his shoulder, trying to rouse him. Still there was no response. A knot of people gathered around her. Some of them approached the man and tried to rouse him, but appeared to have travelled to a place beyond sleep.

homeless man
An effort to help the homeless.

Alarmed, the cyclist called an ambulance, and the group stayed with the man until it came. As the ambulance approached, the man awoke, blinking in surprise to find lights in his face and a circle of strange faces around him.

Did He Want Help?

When I first heard this story, I saluted the cyclist’s civic conscience. But afterwards, a question formed in my mind. Had this homeless man wanted help? Or was he just happy to have found a perch for the night, his food within easy reach. Perhaps he was sleeping his first real sleep in many nights. And perhaps that sleep had taken him to a place of warmth and light, a place filled with the sound of children’s laughter.

Was he grateful for the intervention of these kind strangers? Or was it a painful reminder that without a home, he could no longer shut out the world, and that he had lost the power to decide what happened to him. I still salute the cyclist’s social conscience. I myself would have picked up my pace, propelled by embarrassment and fear. But I wonder if the homeless man saw it that way. I wonder if ultimately she did the wrong thing, even if it was for the right reasons.

Ten Little Lives

Last week, a man opened fire at a church in Texas and killed 26 people. This was one of the biggest mass shootings in recent times. It’s hard to wrap your head around a figure like this.

Yet every day, up to ten children are shot in America. That’s the equivalent of a Texas shooting every 2.5 days.

In my first blog post, I talked about how you can gain an understanding of major issues through the prism of small stories. Journalist Gary Younge illustrates this point with devastating effect in his book Another Day in the Death of America.

 

Gary Younge book cover
Gary Younge examines gun culture through the prism of ten young lives lost.

Ten Deaths, One Day

An English journalist living in America, Younge was horrified when he came across this this statistic. He chose a random day, 23 November 2013, and set out to find out which children died on that day. When he tracked down the ten children, he told their stories, one chapter for each child. Ten stories, ten lives.

The children were aged between nine and nineteen. All of them were boys. Seven were black, two were Latino and one was white. Most died in urban areas, but one lived in a country town. One was shot when he opened his front door to his mother’s vengeful ex-boyfriend. Another was shot in a stairwell. And another was shot by his friend at a slumber party.

Little Lives, Big Issues 

Younge examines their deaths in the wider context of a culture where guns are rife, a society where young men can slip easily through cracks, where children are brought up without any real community support or a strong family structure. Yet there is no moralism in these pages, no judgement. And because of that, you can feel the full impact of what it’s like to live in a society where the fabric is torn.

As all good journalists should, Younge draws on primary and secondary sources. He interviews community workers and experts and quotes from relevant books. But above all, he uses the testimony of family and friends, and the words of the children themselves, to paint portraits of these children. He does not make saints out of them, but uses small details to bring them to life. A bottle of Hennessy brandy. A used car. A poem to a Valentine. A rap video.

Deaths of children like these garner a few lines in a local news bulletin, but then they’re forgotten because these types of gun deaths so commonplace in America. Younge demonstrated that their lives counted. He encourages us to see beyond the circumstances of their deaths, and to remember the people they were.