‘You’ll be waiting one hour’ – cue 13 hours in hell

After one half of a human day staring at the words Accident and Emergency painted red on the wall, they appeared to my sleep-deprived mind to spell out ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’. . .

Friday evening last week I went to my GP (general practitioner) with mild but persistent pains in my chest – I’d been having them on and off all week long. It hurt to eat or even to breathe too deeply. The doctor couldn’t pinpoint the cause and so, wanting to rule out anything wrong with the heart or lungs, sent me to the A&E for more tests. To the hospital I went, girlfriend by my side and book in my hand, thinking I’d have a wait of five or six hours.

It ended up a 13 hour wait to see a doctor – from 6.30 pm Friday evening to 7.30 am Saturday morning – and ne’er a wink of sleep in between. Now I realise that in any A&E department there are going to be backlogs and waiting times of a few hours, but this situation dragged us firmly into the realm of absurdity.

These people do their best with limited resources; I admire their cool and ability to handle stress in the face of aggressive drunks and hypochondriac junkies. But the fact is that it was an extremely quiet night; my girlfriend and I had been expecting truckloads of Friday night drunks. There was talk of popcorn to accompany the entertainment.

No need: there were only two drunks and two junkies in the whole 13 hours we sat there.

The title of this post comes from a seminal moment in the night when I asked a nurse who was taking my blood sample how long more I’d be waiting to see a doctor. One hour, she said (it’ll be grand, she said). Two hours later I went to the desk to ask an administrator why I hadn’t been seen yet. When I said that a nurse had told me (two hours previously) I’d be waiting an hour, the administrator laughed in my face. The insolence of bureaucracy is astounding, sometimes; she was lucky there was a thick pane of glass between us.

Eventually I was seen, diagnosed with nothing more than bad chest muscle pains, given a prescription and sent on my way. We then slept away our Saturday, my girlfriend and I.

As fumingly pissed off as I was at the time (we were near tears more than once), I see, now that a few days have passed, that it was not the fault of the administrators, nurses and doctor who dealt with me. They are hamstringed by their circumstances; understaffed and overworked, dealing with too much bureaucracy, often working with outdated practices and technologies. Their entire IT system was apparently down the whole time we were there, in fact. This is simply unacceptable in a hospital that deals with a catchment area of about 400,000 people.

All of this is because the Irish government has no clue how to effectively manage its healthcare system. Why not take a lesson from the Netherlands, France or Canada, whose health systems are lauded the world over? I realise the same economies of scale may not apply given the population disparities, but only by investigating new methods and implementing changes, however small, will things improve.

The Irish government not too long ago was praising itself for exiting its bailout programme, oblivious to the fact that this means absolutely nothing to the average citizen who faces the same bleak economic outlook as ever.

Successive Irish governments have treated their people with utter disdain, preferring to salvage corrupt and bankrupt banks than to ensure decent healthcare and education systems. They facetiously claim that unemployment is falling, not mentioning that this is because people are emigrating at an alarming rate.

A friend argued, not long ago, that the communist system failed when the Berlin Wall fell, and the capitalist system failed when the banks fell – and were bailed out.

I do not think he was wrong.

Anyone reading this from a different country, please comment and let us know how long you can expect to be waiting for treatment in an emergency department there.

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‘If you’re quiet, there’s something wrong with you’

This is the biggest and most frustrating lie on which just about all social interaction is built. If you’re not the loud, assertive, life-of-the-party type then there’s something amiss with you. Obviously. ‘What’s wrong with you, don’t you like having FUN?!’ Now this may be shocking to some, but what constitutes ‘fun’ differs from person to person. I’m sorry you had to read that, come back to me after you’ve had a cup of tea and the shaking stops…

I will now borrow some warped wisdom from Coolio (because, you know, why not?): Been spending most my life living in an extrovert’s paradise. We are living under a paradigm that Susan Cain, in her magnificent book Quiet, calls the Extrovert Ideal. It is pretty self-explanatory – the ‘ideal person’ (in the Western world, at least) is an extrovert; he is outgoing, loud, assertive, ‘fun’ etc. (I put ‘fun’ in inverted commas because people say it like there is only one version of it, like it’s an absolute value that everyone shares.) The problem is, though, that I’m an introvert. About one third to one half of everyone on the planet is, in fact. The prevalence of the Extrovert Ideal puts us quiet ones in a very awkward position indeed.

We are often and summarily accused of being no fun, of being too quiet for our own good, of being socially awkward. In her eye-opening book, Cain extols the very qualities that are so often the reason for which introverts are on the periphery – or altogether outside – of social interaction. Deep thinking and a propensity for quiet and meaningful conversation do not a party animal make. They do have their own set of advantages, however, which often come to fruition later in life.

Being a teenager is hard enough, and being an introverted teenager is harder still. I know this because I was one. While everyone was going out and drinking and discovering the world through socialising, I was happier most of the time to stay in reading and – dare I say it – studying. Persistence is a hallmark of the introvert, and I realise now that it is mostly thanks to this temperament that I have learned French and Spanish.

But I did of course have to learn how to interact with people too; it just took me a little longer to get the hang of it. These days, though, I’m very happy to go to a house party full of friends and have a great time, as long as I have some quiet time beforehand or the day after to unwind. Unwinding for me constitutes silence and a good book, or playing a video game for a few hours, speaking of which…

A friend asked me recently if I played any videogames online. When I told him that online gaming didn’t interest me, he surmised that I’d had a bad experience by getting killed too many times in Call of Duty or one of the other shoot ‘em ups. He got a good laugh out of his hypothesis but the reason I play videogames alone is that I want to get away from people, not interact with them more. Escapism, in a word.

Similarly, not being able to get away from people for eight hours every day takes a huge toll on me. I’m talking of course about the particular hell that an introvert suffers in a noisy open plan office. Oh for the days of cubicles! I hate small talk, and I especially hate the open plan office variety. I have no doubt this makes me seem distant and aloof to my colleagues, but the very way our workspace is set up is geared towards their (mostly) extroverted personalities.

And so if you’re an introvert struggling to fit in, take comfort from the fact that the world just isn’t geared towards your temperament. If you’re a raging extrovert, enjoy being ideal but for the love of god cut the introverts around you some slack, and maybe, just maybe, learn to be quiet every now and again!

The Ernest Nature of Bell-tolling

Disclaimer: this post is my personal interpretation of a work of literature. I accept no responsibility for anyone’s hurt feelings or offended sensibilities, especially those of fans of the author.

I’ve just read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. If you haven’t at least heard of this book or its author then please stop reading this post and go read a book – any book – right now. I’ll wait…

This tome was sitting on my shelf for a full five years before I deigned to tackle it, and I’m so glad I finally did. The story is that of an American academic, Robert Jordan, who is fighting with Republican guerrillas during the Spanish Civil War. His objective is to blow a strategic bridge before a major offensive so as to hamstring the Nationalists’ (read: Fascists) ability to counter it. Despite being almost 500 pages long, the narrative deals with a time span of less than a week. This fact alone should tell you most of what you need to know about Hemingway’s writing style i.e. it’s incredibly dense.

I won’t go into the plot but rather I will talk about the style and message of the novel. Hemingway’s writing is usually described as hard and clean, lacking all superfluity; I would agree that perhaps 90% of the novel adheres to this. With under a hundred pages to go, however, I found myself crying out for the end. I’d had enough of thee, thou and thy to last me a lifetime. The setting was firmly established, the characters were fully developed, the plot was ripe and yet there was narrative inertia.

Then, to my delight, it was the last forty or so pages that packed the real emotional punch; when the shit hits the fan you can feel it and smell it spattering all over you. Your heart sinks and, through the sadness, you’re just very happy you’ve kept on reading.

I’d already read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (a must for any Paris-lovers) before this. Yet if you’d asked me, half way through For Whom the Bell Tolls, would I read another of his books, it would have been a resounding ‘No’. Now with my next paycheque I’m going straight to the bookstore to pick up some more of his work.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a striking novel, as potent now as when it was first published in 1940. It casts a cold eye on the embellished horrors peculiar to civil wars, when small villages turn on themselves and vendetta-settling often takes precedence over politics. Nothing scars a country greater than civil war. With so many similar conflicts around the globe today, this novel is very necessary, as is its message.

I look forward to seeing, in the fullness of time, what rough-hewn literary gems such tragic conflicts as the ongoing Syrian Civil War might produce. I hope not to appear callous in thinking (for the purposes of this post) only of the literary output of such conflicts, but even the darkest clouds of war must have silver linings. War is, after all, the mother of invention, and this includes literary invention. Switzerland, for example, has been neutral for centuries now, and the most interesting things it has produced are a stable banking system and good chocolate. Perhaps these facts speak for themselves.

Back to Hemingway. Rarely has a novel’s title been better chosen: it is from a John Donne poem which stresses that one man killing another affects all of mankind for the worse. There is a fair amount of Albert Camus-like philosophy surrounding this novel in that it extols fighting for what one believes in, for the betterment of humanity. This is hardly surprising given that they were contemporaries and were essentially seeing the world burn around them.

Hemingway once said: ‘Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.’ Camus too abhorred violence, and would have believed that a bell tolling for the death of one man might as well be doing so for the death of all men, and that you should ‘therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’

‘It’ll be better before you’re married’

Most if not all Irish people will be familiar with this expression. Little Johnny has fallen and scraped his knee or cut his arm while playing. Mammy to the rescue, cleaning the wound and kissing it better with this adorable expression on her lips: ‘It’ll be better before you’re married’. It has been a staple saying of parents (read: the children-afflicted) for generations. Its beauty lies in the fact that its semantic value is on a par with ‘If you fall and break both your legs, don’t come running to me’. And what child hasn’t heard that one while trying to scale a tree, wall or fellow human being?

Back to marriage. The more cerebral child will be thinking, ‘It’ll only be better before I’m married? That’s years away! How serious is this wound, mother?’ Little Johnny is very precocious, you see. This vague future date is, you will soon come to understand, when all your dreams will come true, and not just the immediate wish for haemostasis.

And why must it be better before you’re married? Why is there such pressure on toddlers and preteens to settle down? We should be telling them that it’ll be better before bedtime or before the next time the ice cream man comes around; sometime in the near future. There should be something tangible for their minds to wrap around, to take them away from the blood and the pain.

But it’s a blatant lie in any case. It will not be better before you’re married. The scrape will heal of course and disappear in a few days. And yet it – life, existence – will, objectively, only get more difficult. Life is never easier for us than when all we have to worry about are cuts and bruises, contracting cooties, and where our next sugar fix is coming from. It is never better than when we can scream as loud as we want in public (try this aged 35), for no reason at all, and have people smile and laugh and not get overly annoyed at us.

Let me be clear in that I am not at all taking issue with this expression, I’m simply using it to illustrate the point that life is never as straightforward as everyone would have you believe. And I do mean everyone. School, college, job, marriage, kids; right? No, I’m sorry, but balls to that – there is too much variety and freedom in our world today for everyone to follow this rigid structure. There is in fact almost infinite freedom of choice which is, as it turns out, mind-freezingly terrifying. Nowhere is the crippling inertia and stuttering indecision that accompanies endless freedom better epitomised than in Jonathan Franzen’s magnificent novel… Freedom.

When just about anything is possible, how do we choose what to do with our lives?

Most of us simply go for what’s probable; the rigid structure referred to above is a safety net, a comfortable alternative to searching out what it really is that drives and excites us. We are taught – forced, almost – to want objects and the money that will procure them. We are taught to want marriage for the security and ‘status’ it brings. And so we pursue careers in such banal things as Accounting, IT and Insurance, the mental hazards of which I’ve already discussed here.

To highlight a perennial example, everyone and their mother keeps telling me about how important it is to have a smartphone. And that’s not to mention every second or third piece of advertising I’m assailed with. Important to whom, exactly? To Apple and their profit margins? No thanks, my ten pound (in both price and weight) prehistoric brick of a phone will do just fine. It can make and receive calls AND send these things called ‘text messages’. Magic!

What I’m trying to say is: enough of what they want us to want, what the fuck do we want?

Ming the Vandal

The latest lie they are trying to tell us is this: Luke Flanagan committed an act of vandalism in the Dáil. Now, when you and I hear the word ‘vandalism’ we think of graffiti, broken windows and burnt-out cars; damaged property, in other words. What we do not think of are the ring stains caused by a solitary glass of water on the poor, sacred wood of the Irish Republic’s government chambers.

So what did Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan do? He marched across the chamber and presented a glass of contaminated drinking water from his own constituency to Minister of State for the Environment, Fergus O’Dowd. He challenged Mr. O’Dowd – charged with toeing the government line in a debate on the incoming water charges – to drink the ‘glorified piss’. He declined and Mr. Flanagan then walked out of the chamber, his point made. This short incident, in all its parliamentary splendour, can be seen here.

Judging by their reactions, Irish politicians are not fans of show and tell.

Seán Barrett, the Dáil Ceann Comhairle  (chairperson or speaker), called what Luke Flanagan did an ‘act of vandalism’. Mr. Barrett’s grasp of the English language is bewilderingly tenuous for the lofty position he holds. Ming Flanagan is not a vandal, despite the fact that he would not look out of place on a battlefield of the Early Middle Ages. His trademark beard is impressive and is the source of his tongue-in-cheek nickname – the liberal Mr. Flanagan is about as far from Flash Gordon’s nemesis as you could get.

In keeping with their astounding knack for insulting the Irish people on a weekly basis, the government, through Mr. Barrett, called an emergency meeting of the Dáil’s committee on Procedure and Privileges. It will not have escaped notice that they failed to call an emergency meeting to discuss and resolve the presence of cryptosporidium in drinking water in a certain part of the country. No, they are far more concerned with disciplining Mr. Flanagan for his ‘outrageous and unacceptable behaviour’.

They’re a sensitive lot, those TDs, to get so worked up over the word ‘piss’ and a possible water-stain.

I believe that this incident highlights (as if there were any doubt) where the priorities of the vast majority of Irish politicians lie. Rather than tackle the piss-poor drinking water with which some parts of the country are afflicted, they are far more concerned with making sure that their comfortable existence – their procedures and privileges – remain intact. The only thing they take seriously is an attempt to rattle their cage.

In my opinion, Ming Flanagan is something of a champion of the people. He is an independent TD, not beholden to any party. He is best known for campaigning to legalise marijuana. With his comfy jumper and pointy beard, he is more down to earth than just about every other politician Ireland has to offer (read: inflict upon) its people. He is the only one to fight tooth and nail for his constituency – the people who elected him to represent them – and not himself, his bank account or anything else.

He is rightfully challenging the government’s plans to introduce water charges the length and breadth of the country. That they have the audacity to do this when they can’t even guarantee uninterrupted water supply to Dublin, the nation’s capital and biggest city, shows the utter disdain with which they view their people. These shortages of course have had the added effect of hamstringing the economy with many business and restaurants unable to function properly. Ireland is indeed a third world country when it comes to water, and even more so when it comes to the calibre of its politicians.

Suffice it to say that Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan is the one flickering candle of hope in what is otherwise the dank and dreary cellar of Irish politics.

 

p.s. I must apologise for the overabundance of links in this post – they’re for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with Irish politics and recent events.

‘Middle-class snobbishness’ curtails public transport use

This title I take from an article of the same name on the Irish Times website. I almost didn’t want to write this post, so obvious and telling is the lie with which it deals. But I’ve decided to give it a go anyway because silence (or a blank page, in this case) is precisely what politicians want.

And gods know they already get enough of that.

This is the most ridiculous and insulting article I’ve had the displeasure of reading in some time. Does this man think that all Irish people are idiots? Alan Kelly, Irish Minister of State for Public and Commuter Transport, is essentially trying to blame ‘the middle classes’ for the underuse of public transport. He says the vast majority of Irish people are too snobbish and proud to use public transport. I do not deny that this may be the case for some, but certainly not for all.

No, the main reason for which Irish people absolutely abhor using public transport is its blatant unreliability. In my experience, Bus Eireann buses are only on time very early in the mornings; as the day progresses all semblance of a timetable goes out the window. I am regularly waiting up to 45 minutes for a bus home from work in the evenings. There is meant to be one every 15 minutes.

When it finally does arrive and I hop on, the driver is by and large unbearably gruff, lacking the most basic interpersonal skills. And then there’s their actual driving, which more often than not is horrendous. I know a bus is much more difficult to drive than a car, but these people are meant to have professional training. They are forever scuffing curbs and mounting footpaths.

And their braking is just to die for, literally! Each one of the regular misanthropes I have the misfortune of driving with brakes too late, jolting their passengers forward – it’s only a matter of time until someone splits their head open on a grip bar. Or, for more hilarity, until an unintentional head-butt sends some false teeth flying.

And then of course there are the ever-increasing fares to contrast with the ever-dwindling services and quality thereof.

Alan Kelly would do well to climb down off his high horse – incidentally the only mode of transport known to Irish politicians – and get a clue. He and his ilk have no idea what it is to ‘rely on’ (read: be a time-hostage of) Bus Eireann every day, what with their chauffeurs and expense accounts and frequent Dáil bar sessions.

I despise the Irish state; I think it is a disgrace to the Irish people. The condition of our public transport system is but a symptom of an illness that runs much deeper. From politicians and senior civil servants to the Gardaí, Revenue and HSE (Health Service Executive), right down to Bus Eireann, the Irish state is a complete and utter farce.

I am certainly not alone in this opinion and it is little wonder, then, to find someone dancing on the grave of Charles Haughey, the undisputed godfather of Irish political cronyism. It is not from snobbishness that I write this post or that Haughey’s grave was danced on; it is rather from resentment, distrust and anger. It is from an average of 40,000 people leaving the country every year since 2008. It is from sheer indignation.

It is for shame and to shame that I write this post, and I hope you will share – or at least understand – my outrage. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (read: Coke and Diet Coke) have let their tribal bullshit drag Ireland down the toilet for decades now. Our elected officials do not so much represent us as rule us.

I would sincerely love to have all Irish political parties abolished for the next fifty years, and be governed instead by the EU or – why fight it any longer? – directly by Germany.

They couldn’t do much worse a job than is already being done, and let’s not forget: you can actually set your watch to the buses in Germany!

The Mid-Knight Cowboy

This post is going to be about a piece of theatre. And BAM, I’ve already lost half my audience! For those of you still reading, I thank you and I’ll try to make it worth your while.

This week I went to a one man play written and performed by one of my closest friends, Pius McGrath (stop laughing; we can take the piss out of his name later). It’s called The Mid-Knight Cowboy, runs just under an hour long, and was performed at the Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick city. He has also played ten nights at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and one night on Broadway so it’s doing incredibly well for a small piece of independent theatre. Its success is a testament to the quality of the writing and acting and to the effort put in behind the scenes; to know and to witness Mr. McGrath in action is to be reminded of the word ‘workhorse’.

The play opens in 1980s Ireland with Billy ‘the Kid’, eight years old, playing Cowboys and Indians. Frantic doesn’t even come close to describing it; his energy is explosive in a happy time full of childish shenanigans. All of a sudden, Billy is 21 years old. Having dropped out of college to get a job, he is now climbing the ladder with a multinational finance firm as we follow him into his thirties.

Thus are we drawn into a world of jet-setting, substance abuse and meaningless sex: welcome to Ireland in the 21st century. Money-hunger and instant gratification are the norm and the entire play can be read as the Celtic Tiger writ small. The crux of the piece is the comparison (and split-second switching) between Billy ‘the Kid’ – the carefree boy reared on his solid grandfather’s knee – and the man Billy becomes: William the conqueror of women.

Interestingly, the roots of William’s vicarious lifestyle are those same things which afflict every Irish generation to varying degrees: sexism and alcohol abuse. The individual character and his personal arc are quite well developed for a one hour, one man play; there is a great amount of historical and emotional depth woven in.

The Wild West cowboy theme is exceptionally poignant and brought a smile to the collective face of the audience. While it is an innocent playtime script for young Billy, it points to the cowboy developers, shady bankers and corrupt politicians that would eventually bring Ireland to ruin, with people like William along for the ride. The old stories simply don’t fit anymore; these days the banks (and the state, lest we forget) rob us to give to the cowboys. The eventual emptiness and cynicism of William’s adult years are portrayed as morosely as his youth is energetically.

The drama comes to a head when William’s grandfather falls ill. Faced with his idol’s and hence his own mortality, William is forced to some grave soul-searching. The line that sent tingles down my spine, after nearly an hour of lightning-quick dialogue, temporal leaps and narrative progression, was slow and sombre and delivered in Irish: ‘Ní sheasann sac folamh’.

It is William’s grandfather’s legacy: an empty sack cannot stand.

This is the beautiful underscore to the play and indeed to the entire Celtic Tiger ideal. The property bubble was indeed proven to be empty, and though it was warm and comfortable inside while it lasted, when it burst it left an entire nation out in the cold. William’s tragedy is to hitch a ride on the tiger’s back; the saving of him is to get out before he completely collapses.

Getting out in the nick of time – a certain smug and stocky former Taoiseach springs to mind. The lie that he and his revolting ilk fed us over glasses of champagne and (extra) helpings of caviar was this: the good times will last forever.

They didn’t, as this play ably and desolately attests. The Mid-Knight Cowboy is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre. Quite simply put, it has something to say, as should any and all art worthy of the name.