Monday, January 31, 2011

A Preventable Death; An Absurdity

Reading this (, this (IrishExaminer Online) and this (, but not any (RTE) of (Indo) these (Times); I am moved to write something about Rachel Peavoy, the 30 year old mother of 2, who died cold and alone in her flat. EDIT: You should also read this account (Political World Blog), from someone who lives in the area.
In the tradition of Irish misery, she died of the cold.  No other systemic issues were found by the coroner. She died of hypothermia in her apartment; neither the council nor her TD, who had been contacted, helped her. I don't know what had to be done to fix her heating, but anyone who can recall as far back as January will recall it to have been bitterly cold. What cost-benefit-analysis methodology decided that it was not worth their while fixing it, because some other apartments nearby were having some building work done?
 Perhaps it is because I am a father of 2 girls; perhaps because it has thrown into sharp relief my own problems (and cast them as comic asides in a veil of tears); perhaps it's because she was 30 years old. It would be sad, should she have been 70, but at 30, the story stops me dead in my tracks. Perhaps it is because I've had enough; and this is my yawp, my scream out the window: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not taking this anymore!"
I am angry for several reasons, but I'll stick to these: 1 - the lack of reportage, 2 - the political/social situation in which something like this can happen, 3 - despite, or because, of points 1 and 2, Rachel Peavoy and what happened to her will be forgotten (or overlooked) by all but her immediate family and friends.
So, why would one be angry at the lack of reportage? Having had to hide from the news during the weeks after Michaela McAreavey's death; from the bizarre voyeurism, which included 'live coverage' of her funeral; I am astounded to find there is no coverage of the Peavoy case. Granted, Michaela McAreavey was the daughter of a well known GAA manager. Also, she died abroad, on her honeymoon; which is all the more tragic. But that is the extent to which it is of public interest.
Isn't it in the public interest, that in 2011, someone could actually die of hypothermia in an apartment? That the reason why this happened was because the person's heating wouldn't be fixed?  She seems pretty enough to be splashed on the papers every day for a week. Why isn't she? Is it because she appears to have been living in a council-owned apartment? Perhaps that's a bad dollar.

Jimmy! Get in here!
What is it chief? Is it the story?
Yes, it's the damn story! What am I supposed to do with the panel opposite?
The panel opposite! What are we going to sell there? Nothing! Get me a murder, something that could sell shampoo or diet pills. Or a weekend getaway.
We don't have any more murders, chief...
No more murders? Well, get something from one of the political parties. Perhaps we can sell some insurance or a loan or something....
There is something very sinister about the lack of reporting into Rachel Peavoy's death. Not only in the case of newspapers, but also on TV and radio. I must have read the story at about 9am on Sunday morning and heard at least 3 full radio news bulletins during the day; and I heard nothing about Rachel Peavoy. I actually started to believe I had imagined it. But on Twitter, a number of other people mentioned it. 30 years old (this is younger than I). A mother of 2 (I also have 2 children). Dead. From the cold. After years of economic development. After all this talk of closing the poverty gap. After all the money spent on who-knows-what-services. How, in 21st Century Ireland, could a woman have her heating break down and nobody fix it? In the middle of the coldest winter we've had in years.
What political/social situation allowed this to happen? Everybody has it tough right now with the economy. People are cutting their own spending; the government will have to claw back more of what they spend and cut down on some of their projects and plans. One politician's greatest regret is that he didn't get his sports stadium built. Yet a 30 year old woman called Rachel Peavoy dies of hypothermia in an apartment.
Someone quite rightly pointed out that the problem is not just that Rachel Peavoy had even contacted her  TD (Noel Ahearn, one time housing minister) about getting her heating fixed - it was that the system is such that this was the only conceivable way of getting the heating fixed, after the council refused to do anything because there was building work going on in adjacent flats. This is absurd. It's beyond a tragedy, because there should have been no helplessness in the face of fate here. I'm sure the council are well able to fix a heating system. We claim, as a country, and a society, to care for the most vulnerable in society.  Wherever Rachel Peavoy might have been positioned on a scale of vulnerability doesn't really matter. If we claim to care for the most vulnerable, then we must care for those from that point on the scale to the other point on the scale. The least vulnerable, for example, who can claim €17,000 because they have a lack of ethical responsibility, but a keen sense of legal entitlement. All the while, at the time, we were bound up in Michaela McAreavey and whether Cowen would jump or be pushed.
I credit most of the people I know with caring more than this. However, I also think it's time that we had a better feedback route to the media. The Internet and social media platforms were allegedly going to do this for us; but evidently they didn't. We binge on news now. Rather than reading broadly and becoming well informed, we read deeply into stories that disappear in days or weeks. It is a single minded, over-wrought form of (to borrow a term from Julian Gough in Prospect) "wangst". This is the fault both of the reader and the media outlets. It's a vicious circle, the kind of which we see in local pubs across the country. Customers want a beer. Publicans want to sell beer. Everyone is quite happy with this arrangement. Problems arise where more beer is wanted than the publican feels it is safe to give (he is 'nannying'), or if the publican refuses to sell anything but beer (when a customer wants a whiskey or a wine). Or, as is often the case in this green land, both publican and customer keep at the beer until one has fallen off his chair and the other is mopping up the eructations of over consumption. It is a strange form of willed ignorance; a blinkering that allows us all to become economic dilettantes, but to know nothing of Rachel Peavoy, who at the age of 30, having had 2 children, dies of hypothermia in her flat because neither the council, nor her local TD would intervene to fix her heating.
I recall an interview with Tom Waits on the launch of his album Mule Variations (I cannot find this interview right now, but will add link when I do). He was talking about the song Georgia Lee; about how he came to write it. He had heard of a girl that had been found in a bush on the side of the road, dead.  There was little about it for a range of reasons - where were her neighbours, her preacher, her community etc. Indeed, the chorus has the stark lines "Why wasn't God watching, Why wasn't God there? Why wasn't God watching, For poor Georgia Lee). When they came to line up songs for the album, they had way too many.  They had to decide what to cut, and Georgia Lee was on the block. Except one of his children thought it was awful; that no one would remember this girl, she would forgotten completely. I remember vividly Waits' summation, saying he wouldn't want to be a part of that.

Indeed, neither do I with respect to 30 year old Rachel Peavoy, mother of 2, who died of hypothermia in a country that a few years ago was considered one of the richest and to have one of the best standards of living in the world.

(Georgia Lee, by Tom Waits.
Video by TraeCH on YouTube)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Thoughts on Paternity

On page 12 of the Sunday Times in Ireland on the 23rd January, 2011, there was an article about paternity leave in Ireland. I was quoted in this article, and I must say every word that was quoted was indeed something I said.

However, not every word I said was included. This is not to claim that my opinion was twisted in any way. I imagine the fact is, much of what I said was rambling; being interviewed at c. 530 on a Thursday, at the end of a very busy week and particularly a day that found me drinking coffee constantly. My hands were shaking, I felt under some pressure to 'perform', not only on my behalf, but also for (for whom I write a blog about my experiences as a father), who had organised the interview.  In short, a lot of what I said was perhaps poorly phrased, confused or just couldn't make the cut if there is a word count to which one must work.  However, because some people have asked about some of the things I was quoted as saying, I want to lay out my position here.

The truth is, it is very easy to have strong opinions on paternity leave in Ireland - both pro and con. It is much harder to hold - and indeed explain - that you can see both sides of the argument. To try and discuss paternity is impossible without a mass change of attitudes and opinions is much more difficult again. I will often be accused of 'sitting on the fence', because the certainty-lust of others demand you take a side and fight it to win it. Not all these things are competitions or races. Quite often, the questions that face us in life are qualitative: there can be no "win"; so how do we come about creating a situation where the best possible outcome for competing sides can be achieved?

Very quickly, the points I would make in relation to paternity leave and rights in Ireland are:

  1. I was very lucky when M was born, as the guys I was working for at the time allowed me to take 2 weeks holidays (paid), starting from whenever M was born. This was taken out of my regular holiday leave. I know of at least 2 other people where this was not the case; where they took their leave based on the day their partner was due to give birth. If their partners went 'over', that was tough luck. And so it was for one, whose child was born on a Thursday; they had to return to work the next Monday.
  2. This (as pointed out in the ST article) does have an affect on you as a father. You want to spend time with your newborn, and these days, this is nothing to be ashamed of. In years past, the opinion was you should spend time with your children, but whether you should want to was beyond anyone's imagination.
  3. The other point (which did make it to the article) was that being at home for a good 2 weeks after birth helped me to better understand just how manic my wife's days were.  There is a lot of stress after a child is born (not just financial - after your first, I had an existential ping, reminding me of my adolescent searching to understand what it was all about; there is also the logistics of a child in the house, how normal household tasks are performed; and also (for us anyway), stronger organisation of our time was required to make sure we met all our feeding, nappy, bedtime requirements); so any kind of understanding between the parents/guardians of any infant helps to short circuit any major incidents that might arise as a result of this stress.
  4. I then pointed out that society has developed. Mothers are no longer expected to be purely domestic entities.  It is well known and accepted that women can earn their own money and take care of themselves. Of course, in a family situation, you all take care of each other. However, I think for fathers the role has not moved on. The father's role is still considered to be primarily material: to provide the financial/economic resources required to run the household. This is not to shy from one's financial responsibilities: it is to point out that fathers' generally want to be recognised as carers of their children, and they are often not. This is the case with paternity rights where parents are unmarried; but it is also not the case when people think about a childs needs in the immediate post natal period. Who should be there to care for the child? Just the mother. This opinion does both parents a disservice.
  5. However, I was working on contract jobs, generally sporadically at the time B was born. This meant after her birth I was almost immediately seeking work, being painfully aware that money would be required to pay bills, etc. Even were charm and good looks a tradable commodity, I would be broke. And so, one can see the problem, especially for smaller businesses and those (so many in Ireland) that operate on project work.  It is very difficult to 1 - allow people to take time off from project work, where suitable cover may be hard to find and 2 - pay those people who are not actually being productive toward the business (this of course excepts the idea that you might be taking holidays)
  6. My point about our obsession toward hyper-productivity was not a resounding yawp to return to a simpler time. Rather, it seems to me, social development has directed us further into our work, rather than allowing us to balance our work. When one considers that perhaps 40 years ago, many households had 1 person working. The idea that 2 people working might mean that both spend some time at work (a good thing for the sense of self, soul, creativity, imagination, &c.) and both spend some time at home (a good thing for appreciating life itself, family, etc.). However, this has not been the case. Instead, we find ourselves in the position that in most cases both parents are in work full time and the children are in creche; which is a horrible feeling for a parent. It's not like you're sending them out to the world to earn their living, but you feel lonely for them, and you worry how they will get on with 'other people'.  
  7. Finally, there was the question of whether I felt my employer would accept a decision to take 2 months unpaid leave. I think in all cases (unless the business could do with a payroll break without actually losing talent), this is considered a bridge too far. It has to do with the above point (6 - family life in a productive world), but also a question as to whether someone has dedication toward their work, if they are taking 2 months off. Quite frequently you will hear motherhood being cited as a 'life choice' that means women can't make it to higher executive positions in companies. I'm not sure I agree with the argument, but I am aware of it. I think the same sentiment can be applied to any time requested for family/personal purposes. There is a suspicion that you are not properly engaged with the company, not loyal enough, not committed enough. But this should be seen in the negative: It is not that one is any of these things, rather it is simply that one wants to take the time to spend with their family.
I recall Bertrand Russel's essay "In Praise of Idleness" where he argues that if everybody's working week was reduced, then more people could actually work. Of course coupled with this is a range of other social, political and economic issues that may be too much for any one person (except Bertrand Russel, of course) to attempt to bear. How does one reorganise a whole society in such a way? And what for the sparky entrepreneurs, whose efforts create employment? Any entrepreneur I know would baulk at the idea of being told they should work less. We live in an age when people will be on their deathbeds and will actually say "I wish I spent more time in the office". This is just a fact of life. But it then begs the question of how we adequately deal with implementing a decent paternity leave policy for the country; while squaring peoples desires to work, and companies needs to have people working for them.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reading Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

In the chaos, confusion and general comedy of Christmas in a household of 2 young children, I needed some refuge. Books and CDs have always provided this for me; and I certainly had books around. Receiving a new copy of Tristram Shandy (for the pages were falling out of the 3rd copy I had bought). My sister, who had sent over an Amazon voucher also bought me a copy of C by Tom McCarthy (which I am told is surely one of the best books of 2010).
But I had a hankering for something... I wasn't sure, I couldn't put my finger on it. I leafed through the books on our over-stuffed bookshelves. I wondered what book I was looking for; I knew I was looking for some specific book. There it was, at the back - two books in, over on the right: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer.

I had to read a few of the stories from this great Tome of hte Canon when I studied English in UCD. At the time, I both loved and hated it. I loved the idea - these string of stories tied together with the ingenious device that the people telling them were on pilgrimage. This allowed Chaucer to tell as many stories as he wanted, in as many ways as he wanted. A pilgrimage would provide a mix of characters; this mix of characters would allow him to write diverse types of stories in diverse tones. Some even included the C- word! When I left college, I had overinflated ambitions of writing myself; and Chaucer was the model I wished to follow. Not to re-write or re-create or re-configure The Canterbury Tales, but to write in short stories that would string together to create something greater than each individual piece.

I hated reading the Canterbury Tales because much of the concentration at the time as on translating it from middle English to modern.  This I found tiresome and close to impossible. I was really bad at it. So bad, that every small victory over the text would be celebrated with grand boasting and showboating. Always, I learned from myself, a sure sign of insecurity.  Anyone who studied it will remember the sheer size of the original text you had to work with. Three bibles thick and ten times as obscure. You had to first translate text, then research the context to finally provide a decent translation.  Then, you might (if you wanted a first) use the correct graphic formation for the letters.  For me, all of this was hopeless. The only chink of light was the knowledge that we would be examined on the content of the stories as well as the translation.

For understanding the stories, I had a simple solution.  My booklust had me in O'Mahony's in Limerick one rainy Saturday. I was 3 pints away from getting some money owed to me. I was in O'Mahony's to be sure I wouldn't drink those 3 pints and forget about the money, or - invariably in those days - claim that it was fine, I didn't want the money back.  Perusing the shelves, opening some books. Black ink floating on white, shiny pages; in others embedded in the cream, heavy pages. The smell. There I found The Canterbury Tales, in a modern English translation. Published by Oxford World's Classics, I believed it must be authoritative to some extent. The most important aspect was that as I leafed through the stories, I could understand every single word. No translation. Easy notes, stuck at the back, so I didn't have to trawl through each page and its associated notes.  I  made the purchase and sat down with a pint and The Knights Tale (which was on the curriculum).

That year, UCD had the privilege of hosting Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), who has written a book taken quite seriously, but often rejected, about The Knight's Tale. His thesis was that The Knight's Tale was a subtle satire on the morality of the time. Most consider the Knight's Tale to be the 'control' for the stories - the one that demonstrates Chaucer's ability as a writer, proving that the subsequent tales are true satire, using vulgar (in both traditional and more modern senses) language to throw light both on his characters and the words they use.

I think, when in UCD (it was a long time ago now), I had to read three tales altogether; some for translation, others for discussion. I read my three stories from the modern translation, and carried on with the 'real' interest books that modern, American, Canadian and Anglo Irish literature promised.  In a lecture on Joyce, the lecturer said he'd been told when first studying Joyce that he should wait ten years before reading Ulysses in full. This, he had been told, would increase his appreciation.  I thought that a good plan to try with The Canterbury Tales. Wait ten years to revisit the crushing, painful love of such a difficult text.

That was 13 years ago. But much of what has been written here came to me when I saw the book sitting there, at the back, on the right.  I'm only three tales in, enjoying it already.  I also think my appreciation has improved with time.

You never really know what you're reading. Not because the language is difficult, but because you need to gauge the character who is telling the tale. In many cases, each tale reacts to the one that went before. For example, the drunken Miller tells a story of a student who cuckolds a carpenter. The Reeve, insulted at the victimisation of the carpenter, tells a tale where the Miller is a scoundrel. Each character insults the next just enough to keep this momentum going.  Even in the modern translation, the verse has been kept. I'm quite the fan of verse, so this suits me well.  All the while, the narrator keeps reminding us that it's a book we are reading, and perhaps doth protest too much that he's telling it exactly as it happened - so has to use all this foul language and puerile detail, because that was what was told.

This time, of course, I don't have to consider important insights or witty quips to make in an essay. I can enjoy the book for what it is. Apparently, a reworking (rip off?) of The Decameron by Boccaccio.  But, hell, I'm enjoying it. And that's really what one should be doing with any book. Now in my Christ year, I believe that more than ever and am willing to stop reading the moment a book becomes unsatisfying.  I reckon I'll finish this one. Perhaps to revisit it in another 13 years.