Saturday, March 29, 2008

Caring not only a female role - four out of every ten carers is a man

Photo by Sea Frost (Flickr)

This is the text of my That's Men column which appeared in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 25th March 2008. A collection of That's Men columns will be published by Veritas this summer.

What’s your image of a typical carer? It’s probably of a woman looking after a family member and in most cases you would be right.

But census figures show that about almost 40 per cent of carers are men. For these, as for their female counterparts, caring has certain negative consequences but some of these consequences may be different for men.

For instance, research in Northern Ireland has shown that 24 per cent of men looking after a dependant at home suffer “a severe lack of support” (the quote is from a booklet published by Derry City Council) compared to 15 per cent of women.

This suggest to me that women are more likely than men to keep in touch with a friend who has had to get heavily involved in caring. Perhaps it also means that men’s friendships are more likely than women’s to be linked to the workplace – if so, then a man who has to give up work to care for, say, his wife or a parent loses not only his income but also his social network.

Maybe we men need to follow the example of women and do more to stay in touch with friends who disappear into the world of caring.

The research from Northern Ireland shows that both male and female carers experience “a great deal of stress” to a greater extent than those who are not involved in caring – 17 per cent as against 9 per cent. Note that we’re not just talking about stress here, but “a great deal of stress” and we could expect general stress levels among carers to be higher than 17 per cent.

In Northern Ireland, 49 per cent of those caring for someone at home have a long-standing illness themselves, possibly an indication that these carers tend to be older.

Illness contributes to stress, of course, but I suspect there are many other sources of stress for carers, male and female. For instance, family members have a tendency to leave the carer to get on with it – it’s so much more convenient to say “Sure isn’t he great?” and to maintain a safe distance than to help out. The carer notices this and resents it but often lacks the assertiveness to insist that other family members play their part.

Then there are the endless battles with authority to get social services – a nursing or home help service, for instance. And there are the long hours in A&E waiting to be seen, waiting for an X-ray, waiting for a bed.

And the person being cared for may not help. If you were a contrary, awkward, impossible so-and-so all your life you’re probably not going to change when you need long term care. And some previously reasonable people can actually get contrary and demanding when confined to bed. Pity the poor carer who bears the brunt of it. (Memo to my kids: cut out this article and read this paragraph to me if I ever get like that. Better still, go live in Manhattan and keep out of the way).

Because women are seen as more capable and caring than men, I suspect that male carers are in a better position to get help from the social services. I also suspect that men are more reluctant than women to ask for such help, which cancels out the advantage they would otherwise have.

Caring can be based on love, duty or both. I expect that caring based on love can be very fulfilling, though tinged with sadness if the person being cared for is not going to recover. Caring based on duty is, it seems to me, a far more stressful proposition.

Love or duty, men or women, carers get only a fraction of the support and recognition that is owed to them by our society. I wonder if this is because caring is perceived to be something that is done by an army of invisible women who can be ignored?

And I wonder would this change if caring also began to be seen as a men’s issue? Perhaps it would – but whether it would or it wouldn’t, caring is, indeed, a men’s issue too and this will increasingly be the case as our life expectancy goes up.

Got an opinion? Comment here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Irish rape survey - distinguishing between recklessness and the guilt of the rapist?

This is the text of my article in The Evening Herald on 26th March 2008:

It is too easy to dismiss as outrageous the views of those who believe that, in some circumstances, women carry part of the responsibility if they are raped and to leave it at that.

But the views expressed in the latest opinion poll are not those of a small, deviant minority. For example, the poll found that 37 per cent of those questioned thought a woman who flirted extensively was complicit to some extent if she was the victim of a sex crime.

Thirty seven per cent is a massive proportion when it comes to opinions in a society, so we need to look at what is going on here and at what these results might mean, unpalatable as they are.

I expect that almost all of those who see women in certain circumstances as having contributed to their situation, would also favour the current life sentence for their rapists.

I think that what people are doing here is drawing a distinction between the responsibility of all of us to ourselves for our own survival and the responsibility carried by criminals for their crimes.

There is also behind these figures, I think, a belief that in a society in which rapists usually get away with it, people need to look to and take responsibility for their own safety. This belief has nothing to do with reducing the degree of guilt belonging to the rapist. It is a question of survival in a dangerous world.

To me the most revealing finding in the Irish Examiner/Red C poll is that 38 per cent of respondents believe that if a woman walks through a deserted area and is raped, she carries some of the blame for what happened.

Does this mean, that 38 per cent of people believe the rapist is somehow “less guilty” in this situation? I don’t, for a second, believe it does.

I think those 38 per cent would regard the rapist in this situation as a predatory thug who carries one hundred per cent responsibility for his actions and who deserves a life sentence.

So what are they saying about the woman? I think what they are saying is that the woman who walks through a deserted area needs to take responsibility, not for the rape but for having comprised her own personal safety in a foolish way.

So there are two separate issues going on here. One is the issue of the rape which is completely the responsibility of the rapist. The second is the issue of responsibility towards one’s own personal safety.

It is a feature of this and all surveys that it’s hard to know just what is in people’s mind when they answer questions. Take the finding that more than 30 per cent of people would say that a woman is responsible in some way for a rape if she has flirted with a man or has failed to say ‘No’ clearly.

It seems to me that there is a major difference between flirting and failing to say ‘No’ clearly. If you are in bed with someone and you fail to say ‘No’ clearly, I am not sure how you would sustain a charge of rape, morally or in the courts.

But flirting? How can 30 per cent see flirting as making a woman somehow complicit in rape? Does it depend on what they mean by flirting? Even extreme flirting, in my view, does not excuse rape but we don’t know what was in the minds of those respondents and I assume – I hope – they do not mean ‘normal’ flirting.

The issues raised in the survey are complicated and emotional. They need to be debated. Let’s not walk away from these findings, uncomfortable as they are. Let’s talk about them.

Got an opinion? Comment here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Oddments No. 2

Weekly bric a brac from Padraig O'Morain

At last - a patron saint for procrastinators
In a church on Rue de France in Nice, a shrine to St Expedit. Never heard of him before but it turns out he is the patron saint of urgent business. In other words he's the guy to turn to if you want to get things "expedited." He's generally depicted holding a cross with the word "hodi" (meaning "today" perhaps from "aujourd'hui"?) and with his foot on a raven bearing the word "cras" (from the Latin, indicates "tomorrow" as in pro-cras-tination). So he's a patron saint for people who need to get things done fast. Since we procrastinators always need to get things done fast, he is the man for us!

Balloon man
Later, on Rue de France, in a café area, there are four sudden bangs. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Then there are more. The noise is made by a balloon seller whose balloons - twisted into novelty shapes but not very well - have failed to sell. So he kills them all - Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! To add to his woes, he's drunk. He shouts his frustration to customers sitting outside the nearest café. They feign interest. Then he turns towards a pharmacy across the road, gives them the finger and fucks them out of it (didn't think the French said fuck but this guy certainly did). Finally he is chased away by the security guard and leaves, calling down curses on all of us. I don't think he is cut out for a career in selling.

A pale lady on the subway
She sits on the subway from Canal Street to Times Square, a pale woman, her skin so white, so bloodless. She could be a figure from a wax museum before it is painted. A green, woollen, peaked cap on her head. A green, soft bag. She is leafing through a large book, what might be called a coffee table book. It is open at the chapter on floral cushions. Her eyes rest on the page with seeming scepticism. She has a sceptical mouth too. Now she's move on to "pretty aprons". Did she buy this for someone? No, it has "Brooklyn" and other words stamped on the edges of the pages. Borrowed from a library. Her eyes light on me for a second. I look away.

someone is dressing up for death today, a change of skirt or tie
eating a final feast of buttered sliced pan, tea

scarcely having noticed the erection that was his last

shaving his face to marble for the icy laying out

spraying with deodorant her coarse armpit grass

Click here for the full poem by Dennis O'Driscoll. Sobering stuff about the suddenness of death but a fascinating read.

The habit of ignoring our present moments in favor of others yet to come leads directly to a pervasive lack of awareness of the web of life in which we are embedded. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

a word has its own definite meanings. A word is its own little solar system of meanings. Yet we want it to carry some part of our meaning, of the meaning of our experience. Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen.

responds to some of its own supporters' emotional needs, yet changes nothing. Sydney Morning Herald on Kevin Rudd's apology to Aborigines.

(This is the complete post. Ignore "Continue reading" link below.)
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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Saving face - not just for the Japanese

Photo by Mike9Alive (Flickr)

This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday, March 18th, 2008:

You are at work and you make a mistake. Your boss is a bit of a bully and she berates you in front of your colleagues. Even customers and people from other departments can hear the dressing down you’ve been given.

It’s bad enough to be told off for making a mistake but to have it done in public is many times worse. Why? Because you have lost face in front of colleagues and customers. In the aftermath of such an event, you find it hard to look them in the eye.

We tend to think of ‘saving face’ as a particularly oriental preoccupation. And in our individualistic society we may even regard it as a redundant concept.

I think we’re wrong on two counts. First, saving face is more important to us than we admit. Second, a desire to save face has, in my opinion, a softening effect on an otherwise harsh society.

Each of us has a social face. Your social face is the aspect of yourself that you can show to other people without shame. Sometimes you can’t even look at yourself in the mirror but you still have a social face – behind which a multitude of sins may be concealed – to show the world.

Your social face can be physical. The sudden appearance of a blemish on your face will send you to your doctor faster than any invisible discomfort. I read in a recent New Statesman that many Iranian women see having a small nose as an essential component of an acceptable social face. In Teheran alone, 35,000 women had nose jobs in 2006. Even the Ayatollah Khomeini reckoned nose jobs were okay though I don’t think, on the evidence, that he had one himself.

But there’s more than this to saving face. Countries such as China, Japan and Korea which inherited the Confucian philosophy all have a strong concept of face and of saving face. There, your moral okayness and your abilities all contribute to your social face. If you lose face you feel shame. You can lose face in your own eyes because you know you have not lived up to an acceptable internal standard. You can also lose face because others believe your performance or your behaviour are not good enough.

It is losing face in public that is the most devastating – think of Japanese businessmen committing suicide when they fail spectacularly. Think of your own darkest, deepest secret being revealed and how hard it would be to walk down the street afterwards.

So when the bully mentioned in the first paragraph attacks you in public she is targeting your abilities in a way which hurts at a very deep level. This is why such incidents have a profoundly unsettling effect, especially if repeated.

It’s the same with the person who attacks their partner in public, making no attempt to spare their dignity in front of an audience. The audience, if they are half-decent at all, is embarrassed to witness someone’s social face being spat upon, so to speak in their presence. As an audience, they have been made to collude in what is going on.

Which leads us to the softening aspect of the culture of face-saving: it takes two to do it.

When people are polite with each other, they help each other to save face. If you are in trouble and someone you love treats you kindly, she is helping you to save face. Gardaí who are good at defusing situations are skilled at allowing people to save face while stopping what they are doing. Good negotiators in industrial relations know that enabling the other side to save face while climbing down is essential – otherwise there may be no deal. Doctors, nurses, care attendants, hospital porters and other health workers can be very good at helping patients to save face in otherwise embarrassing situations – and when they’re not the patients feel diminished and hurt.

Sometimes we’re silly about this. The waiter asks you if everything is alright and, though everything is not alright you say it is. I did that myself only the other week. It’s almost as though you are saving face for the waiter. Silly, yes, and very Irish.

That said, though, it seems to me that face-saving, far from being an odd, oriental notion is a core part of what we are. And if we play the face-saving game with compassion we can make life better for ourselves and for all those others who also badly need to present an acceptable “social face” to the world.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Old time management theory - the tense walk

Photo by JR Robertson (Flickr)

From the vaults: This article first appeared in my then column, The Other Side, in Business & Finance magazine in February 2004:

Many years ago I came across a colleague furtively reading a large, heavy book with strong, black covers.

I wondered if it was a Bible or a missal and as such a development would constitute a prime piece of gossip in our office I made it my business to take a look at it when she went to lunch.

It was actually a book on management. Specifically it was about how to behave at work so that the company will make you a manager and what to do after you get the big job.

One of the key strategies which the ambitious employee should adopt, it told its unfortunate readers, was to "cultivate the tense walk".

As you walked around the office - yes, once upon a time people used to actually walk from one desk to another instead of sending emails - you should tense up your muscles, especially those of your shoulders, neck and face. You should march instead of walking. Maybe you should tense up your buttocks as well, I don't remember, though I think you'd probably fall over if you tried that while marching with scrunched-up face, neck and shoulders.

Anyhow, there you are, marching around the office looking like the bad marine sergeant in one of those movies in which the sensitive guy always ends up shooting himself.

Your colleagues will be impressed by this, the book insisted. What a serious fellow, they will say, clearly executive material.

And one day one of the top men will see you marching around and will say, Make that man a manager and look sharp about it.

I say "man" because I have a feeling this book was written for a man's world - though, on reflection, I've come across one or two women managers who can do a pretty terrifying tense walk.

Now, the thing about this ridiculous book is that it buys into the idea that a manager should be one particular type of person and that particular type only.

Clearly the manager, in this vision of the world, should be Mister Tough - there he is marching around the place ready to leap into action at any moment. And he should by no means be a shrinking violent. He should be a tough-minded extravert who can put himself out there and not give a damn.

But is it necessarily the case that only certain types of people suit certain jobs? If you are building a team, should you surround yourself with tough minded extraverts and ban all sensitive souls from the premises?

After all, if you were putting a football team together you'd want it to be made up of tough extraverts, wouldn't you?

Would you really? Would you leave Roy Keane off the team, then? I've never seen the result of any personality tests on Roy Keane but he seems to me to be an introvert. Tough-minded, yes, but an introvert, inward looking, more likely to retreat into the kitchen during a party than clown around in the living-room. An extravert just couldn't have sat alone in that room in Saipan waiting for a plane to take him away from the world cup.

So keeping introverted people off your team makes no sense at all.

But would it be good for everyone on your management team to be a tough guy, of whatever gender and whether introverted or extraverted?

Not necessarily. Shut a whole bunch of tough guys in a room and ask them to agree on a project and you could still be waiting at Christmas. And when they finally emerge, having slugged it out until everyone's exhausted, there's a good chance they will have come up with the wrong approach.

Why? Well, without some introverted and/or sensitive people on the team, who's going to actually listen to what other people have to say? Who's going to take a thoughtful approach to what's going on? Who's going to point out the need to take account of the sensitivities of other people who are not in the room but whose cooperation is vital?

On every team you need a mix - tough, sensitive, extravert and introvert. Oddly enough, it's often the extraverts who recognise this and it's the introverts who beat themselves up for not being tough guys.

Remember that whatever your personality style is, you bring something valuable on the table.

So relax, accept yourself - and forget the tense walk. It's bad for your back.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Oddments No. 1

Weekly bric-a-brac from Padraig O'Morain.

Photo by genewolf (Flickr)

Le chien qui pisse
My meditations in Nice, where I have gone to escape reality for a week, are interrupted by yelps from my wife who is having her cornflakes on the terrace. I look up to see what appears to be water pouring down from a cloudless sky. We hurry to the edge of the terrace and stare at the balcony above. There's the source, a dalmatian dog with his leg cocked, pissing onto our terrace. On his face he has a "what's all the fuss about?" look. The pissing goes on for some considerable time. We wash the terrace. Then, phone calls to our landlady in Switzerland. Finally the dog owner appears, apologetic. She reprimands the dog who remains unmoved. He does not do this very often, she explains. The dog must remain on the terrace while she is at work but he will not reoffend, she promises. Our sojourns on the terrace are now accomanied by frequent glances up to ensure we are not in the line of fire.

A bedouin in Belfast
A man in arabic headgear browsing in a bookshop in Belfast. Black woollen shawl covering head and shoulders. Walking stick with a black and white fabric wound around it. Sunglasses. The scuffed trainers give the game away - this is no billionaire from the Gulf. The bag slung over his shoulders a womans' handbag. An identity cobbled together from what was thrown away and what he knows how to do.

A mysterious couple observed at Grand Central, Manhattan
A couple at Grand Central at night. She is the more striking. Tall, in her fifties, wears one of those FBI type raincoats, black slacks, slip-on shoes that could be a man's. Red hair. It is her animation, her affection for, almost her infatuation with, her companion whom she jokes with, smiles at, touches, holds hands with, that strikes me. She is the taller of the two. He is thin, same age as her, five o'clock shadow, glasses, almost skeletal-like grey face. Skin stretched tight. He wears a trilby and also an FBI-type raincoat. His hands are stuck in his pockets. His face is impassive but now and then he flashes a remark and a grin without actually looking at her. He could be a secret agent. She could be a controller of secret agents. Are they married? She wears a wedding and engagement ring. Are they lovers? They seem like excited conspirators, he holding his excitement in, she letting it out.

Fecklessness World War Two style
Sending the kids to the chipper for their dinner - modern fecklessness and money-wasting? Feckless but not modern. According to Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography which I'm listening to on CD, kids evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz demanded to be fed on fish and chips, sweets and biscuits. They couldn't wait to get back to the city either. Thousands returned every week despite the bombings.

.....The Buddha's declaration that disappointment, pain and apprehension of pain accompany all human activity like a shadow. Felix Holingren, Tricycle, Winter 2007.

Poems are not made out of ideas. They are made out of words. John Whitworth in Writing Poetry (A&C Black).

An object only acquires worth through memory and ritual. Explanatory notice in the National Museum of the American Indian, Manhattan.

(This is the complete post. Ignore "Continue reading" link below.)
Here is the beginning of my post. And here is the rest of it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cathal Ó Searcaigh - the questions

Photo by aNantaB (Flickr)

In all the furore that surrounds the documentary Fairytale of Katmandu about poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh's sexual relationships with teenagers and young men in Nepal, there is one piece of analysis that stands out. This is an article in Saturday's Irish Times by Dermod Moore who is also a columnist with Hot Press. The article is part of the Irish Times' premium content but Moore raises the following questions which I think go to the heart of the matter:

"Firstly, roughly what proportion of those men in his coterie has he had sex with? This goes to the heart of his motives for being there in the first place - was he a sex tourist, masquerading as a philanthropist? Or was he, as he and his friends claim passionately, a philanthropist who occasionally had consensual sex?

"Secondly, we need to establish whether or not his "legendary" generosity was conditional on having sex with him. Was it generally understood among his friends that "boogie-ing" was how to please him, in order to reap financial reward?

"Thirdly, concerning those who did have sex with him, what long-lasting effect did their relationship with him have?

And, lastly, what understanding does Ó Searcaigh have about their motives for having sex, never mind his?"

Ó Searcaigh raised money in Ireland for his charitable works in Nepal. A lot of NGOs in Ireland raise money for projects in the Third World. If it turned out that the chief executive of an NGO was, while visiting one of these projects, having sex with teenagers in his bedroom and then buying bicycles and other gifts for them, questions would be raised as to his ability/inability to maintain suitable boundaries between his sex life and his work.

There is no evidence in the film that Ó Searcaigh has established a structure in Nepal to distribute the money he raises. It may be that there is such a structure but that the film maker did not address this in order to keep the focus on his sexual activities. However, in all the protests coming from the Ó Searcaigh camp, I have not heard any mention of any such structure. A charity should have a structure and accounts. We have not heard of either in relation to Ó Searcaigh's charity. If these do not exist, if a structure does not exist, then that is a long, long way removed from best practice or even good practice in this field.

Three more questions: Was film-maker Neasa Ní Chianáin right to show the faces of Cathal Ó Searcaigh's sex partners? Wouldn't it be normal practice to blur them out in this sort of documentary? What consequences will their exposure have for them and their families in future?

(This is the complete post. Ignore "Continue reading" link below.)
Here is the beginning of my post. And here is the rest of it.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

All the world's a stage

This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 11th March 2008. A collection of That's Men columns will be published by Veritas this summer.

Have you ever spotted a young man and woman walking along of an evening and realised that they were on their first date? Assuming you were right, how could you have known that?

it is because they were playing a role you recognised. They were well scrubbed up. Although they were talking to each other and perhaps even joking there was a slight formality and unease about them. Each was on parade, under scrutiny by the other.

If such a couple goes on to get married, they often begin to play different roles. One may take on the role of being feckless, or domineering for instance. The other may nag or be compliant. One may be playful and the other may be serious. One may drink too much and the other may play the part of caretaker.

Neither necessarily enjoys his or her role and neither necessarily realises what is going on.

Then perhaps something fundamental changes. One goes off on a personal development course, or maybe just off the rails, and begins to play a completely different role. Maybe the compliant person becomes assertive. Maybe the nagging person quits giving out and leaves the other to get on with it. Maybe the drinker gives up the booze and becomes a health freak.

Changes like this can shake up a relationship no end - sometimes terminally.

The roles we play with each other are described by a theory called Transactional Analysis. According to this theory each of us, right now, is probably playing one of three roles: parent, adult or child.

You are behaving like a parent when you give out or lay down the law or act in a nurturing and loving way. You are behaving like an adult when you are logical, and reasonable. And you are behaving like a child when you are mischievous or playful or sulky or whiney.

If you and your partner are sitting there giving out about the bus service or Bertie or the HSE you are having a parent to parent conversation.

If one is talking down to the other, accusing them of being irresponsible, of wasting money, of never keeping the house tidy, then you are having a parent to child conversation.

So given are we to role-playing that if you are being treated like a child, there is a good chance you will behave like one – so you might respond to your bossy partner by storming off or whinging or whining or sulking. Similarly, if one partner actually wants to behave like a child, the other may very well take on the role of parent.

How would you stop this game playing? The advice from the Transactional Analysis people is to drop the complementary role.

So when you are being talked down to by someone in parent mode you could respond, not like a child, but like an adult talking to an adult. "If you have something to say to me I would be grateful if you would address me like an adult,” could be an adult response to someone in full parent mode. And when they say, as they will, “I’ll talk to you like an adult when you start behaving like one,” you could walk very calmly out of the room saying something like, “I’m behaving like an adult right now and when you’re ready to do the same, let me know.” By the way, if you’re in a relationship in which it’s dangerous to act like an adult, you might be in the wrong relationship.

But couples also get locked into parent to parent communications with each other and that can be stultifying, especially if the kids have grown up.

Their main topic of conversation is still the children who may be off on the other side of the planet. Worse, the “children” or one of them may be in the living-room on a permanent basis, having taken out a 99-year lease on the family sofa. The parents may grumble about this but actually the son or daughter who refuses to leave may be helping them, the parents, to continue their parenting role. If they want something better for themselves they need to step out of that role.

In that case, one of the partners might need to start acting like a child by coming up with fun things to do or just by refusing to take life quite as seriously as before.

They might even consider dating each other again. They might consider getting scrubbed up and walking out like they did on that first date. If reviving your winning performances works for ageing rock stars, it can work for you.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The DUP - change of leader, change of hairstyle?

Peter Robinson with small animal on top of head (left) and traditional look (right). Still likes great big specs though.

What is it with men and hair? We adopt a hairstyle and stick with it for far too many years while the women are changing their look every six weeks. Consider Peter Robinson, soon to be leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. That sticky-up hairdo looked just about modern when he adopted it and it was certainly an improvement on his traditional look. But it's reached the stage now where it looks like a small, distraught animal perched on top of his head. When he takes over from Big Ian, I hope Peter will fall in line with the rest of us who have reached a certain age and opt for the number two haircut until, well, death. And as the number two is favoured by large loyalist chaps in teeshirts it should give Peter street cred as well as getting rid of the wee, spikey animal.

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And here is the rest of it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Guilt - helping you get what you want

Photo by Ayala Moriel (Flickr)

This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 4th March 2008:

A couple of days after Christmas a few years ago I was away, along with my family, staying with relatives. I had arranged to return to Dublin on my own a few days before the others. When the day of my departure arrived, I found myself filled with guilt although nobody had raised any issue at all about what I was planning to do.

What was going on? I think I had two contradictory ideas in my mind. The first was that I wanted to get back to Dublin by myself, a wish which possesses many people at that time of year. The other was that proper parents don't abandon their families in the Midlands at Christmas.

One way to resolve this would have been to stay with them. But I came up with a better way, one that allowed me to do what I wanted while preserving my self-image as a good parent. That way was to go back to Dublin as I wanted but to feel guilty about it.

Only a cad would run off to Dublin without a thought for what he was doing. A good parent, on the other hand, would feel guilty about it. So by feeling guilty I could do what I wanted and still be a good guy. Guilt, bless it, oiled the wheels.

William Glasser, who invented Reality Therapy, and who takes as jaundiced an attitude towards guilt as I do myself, has suggested that when a person feels guilt about what they have done they are probably planning to do it again. Recognise that, dear reader?

Now, there's guilt and there's guilt. Sometimes you do a thing that's just plain wrong and guilt, accompanied by what the Catholic Church used to call "a firm purpose of amendment" is very much in order. What that adds up to is remorse which, it seems to me, is a powerful agent for change if you let yourself experience it when it's deserved.

Outside that, though, guilt is a tricky thing. Ever see a parent say to a child, "Alright, go on, do what you like, I give up"? The child protests and the parent says "No, no, do what you like, it's nothing to do with me anymore." What the parent is really saying to the child is "You can do what you like so long as you feel guilty about it."

So you end up with spouses who feel awfully guilty about having affairs and are thereby enabled to have more of them; with overweight people who will, simultaneously, have another slice of chocolate cake and feel a delicious surge of guilt and with sluggards who wrap themselves up in guilt and warmth as they abandon a morning's work in favour of another few hours in bed.

Irish Catholics used to be the world's great connoisseurs of guilt. A trip to the confessional got rid of your guilt and sent you out into the world squeaky clean. And when you sinned again you went back and got cleaned up again. You just had to make sure you didn't unexpectely depart this world before getting back to confession - otherwise you could expect a few thousand years in the flames of purgatory or an eternity in hell.

Now, so far as I can make out, guilt is frowned on in the teaching of religion in our schools, hellfire isn't talked about and purgatory is abolished. Everything is nice and there is no wicked Devil to tempt us into guilty deeds.

This is a mistake. We need guilt, for the worst of reasons of course. Guilt allows us to go on pretending that we're better then we really are while continuing to do whatever we want to do anyway. It allows us to get away with things by convincing others that we feel really, really guilty about whatever it is we've done.

Mind you, we have an alternative which is to be honest and open and to quit playing games with ourselves and with others.

Personally, though, I don't see myself going down that path anytime soon.

Now there's something to feel guilty about.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

High time to end the trek for the morning-after pill

This is the text of my article in The Evening Herald on Saturday, 1st March 2008:

Every Sunday, women make long journeys to Dublin to attend clinics run by the Irish Family Planning Association. Their purpose is to get the morning-after pill.

Emergency contraception is available in this country only on prescription, though you can get it over the counter in the UK. So in Ireland, the woman who has unprotected sex or who fears that her long-term contraception may not have protected her, must find a GP, and fast.

But there are many rural areas in which it is very difficult to find a GP on a Sunday morning – and many a woman would be embarrassed to go to her family doctor looking for the morning-after pill.

For the morning-after pill to be at its most effective it should be taken with 24 hours of unprotected sex. If that is done, there is a 95 per cent likelihood that it will prevent a pregnancy which would otherwise have occurred.

Within 24 and 48 hours, the pill is 85 per cent effective. And it is 60 per cent effective if taken within 48 and 72 hours.

So time is crucial when it comes to the use of the morning-after pill.

In the UK and elsewhere the woman can go down to her local chemist and buy the morning-after pill without prescription. In Ireland, we make them go through the embarrassment and expense of visiting a GP.

If you can’t find a GP on first thing on a Sunday, then too bad. You should have thought of that before you got yourself into this fix. You have had your fun and now you must pay for it.

This is not a view any reasonable parent would want to inflict on, say, their teenage daughter.

When the Irish Pharmaceutical Union commissioned a survey of 1,000 people on this issue, 75 per cent favoured making the morning-after pill available without prescription. Nowadays we accept that people have sex and that we should not punish them for by forcing them to make penitential journeys to family planning clinics.

The Irish Medicines Board is the key body when it comes to deciding whether the morning-after pill should be sold over the counter or not.

It takes the view that requiring a prescription for emergency contraception is “appropriate” because it means the GP can “monitor” the reactions of patients using it. What a load of old tosh. Either emergency contraception is so potentially dangerous that it should only be given out on a doctor’s prescription, or it is not.

The fact is that the UK, with a regulatory system just as good as ours has found nothing to suggest that the morning-after pill should be a prescription-only drug.

It seems to me that somebody in power should lean on the Irish Medicines Board to help them to take a difference view. Why should women have to go on paying the price of this policy?

Is the morning-after pill an abortifacient, as some have suggested? It isn’t, and if it was, it wouldn’t be available here even on prescription. So far as in known, the pill works by preventing ovulation or delaying it or by preventing a fertilised egg from settling in the womb. It doesn’t appear to cause an embryo already implanted in the womb to abort.

We live in an era in which you can buy condoms in your local Spar. Why should this other form of contraception involve, for some women, a penitential journey of 100 miles or more to a family planning clinic at the weekends?

We really do need to end this nonsense and we need those in authority to take note of the fact that most people want to end it.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Beware the joy of text

This is the text (!) of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on 26th February 2008:

“God, yes I….” began a text message I got on my way through JFK Airport after Christmas.
The gist of the message was that I was a fantastic lover and that the sender was, er, thinking about me and missing me already.

Clearly the text was not meant for me (my wife agrees). Sneakily, I looked up the number on my computer and nobody came up. Darn.

Naughty text messages sit in phones like unexploded grenades. The explosion comes when a nosey partner spots an unattended phone, reads the messages in the inbox and gets a shock. The result, needless to say, is rarely pleasant for anyone involved.

The text message is a sort of gremlin in the world of relationships. Gremlins are mischief makers which delight in tormenting the afflicted. So it is with the illicit text.

Now, there is nothing wrong with sending loving or even saucy texts to your loved one. It’s when the relationship ends that texting takes on a different complexion.

If one of the partners didn’t want the relationship to end, the texts are likely to keep on coming in a bid to reverse the break-up. If the two parted by mutual consent, the texts may still keep flowing, much to the discomfiture of new parties who, sooner or later, will take a peek into the inbox.

In other words, texting has meant the end of the clean break – splitting up is even harder to do.

There’s another side to texting and it’s linked with control. The day the mobile phone was invented was a red letter day for control freaks everywhere. The mobile provided them with the almost perfect tool for tracking another person’s movements. The control freak will ruin a partner’s evening out with friends by sending text after text demanding to know “where are you now?” “who are you with?” “what are you doing?” “when are you coming home?” and so on. Failure to respond to these texts can lead to a lot of unpleasantness later on.

And when the person who is at the receiving end of this nonsense decides to call a halt to the relationship, the texts and voicemails multiply like rabbits, necessitating an inconvenient change of numbers not once but perhaps a few times. This is because control freaks can be good at finding out your new number, especially if your friends are gobshites who can be plámásed by said control freak.

Needless to say, texting also offers a cowardly means of breaking up with someone. This can add to the pain of the person who has been dumped especially if that person’s texts elicit no response. And when the person who was dumped eventually forms a new relationship, a resumption of texts from the one who did the dumping – and who has now changed his or her mind – can create havoc.

If you’re not used to texting, this may all seem rather laborious. How can people have the patience to do all these things by text? Well, have you ever watched a dedicated texter – a teenager, say – texting? The really good ones do not even need to look at the letters on the keypad. They are like touch typists – their fingers know where to go. A secondary school teacher once lamented to me that she suspects the school’s anti-texting policy is frustrated by girls who are able to text without taking their phones out of their pockets. Needless to say, any attempt by the teacher to remove said phones from pockets could result in a costly trip to the High Court.

There’s something very human about all this carry-on. People stop and coort in cars which were designed to get them from place to place quickly. People use computers for playing games when, really, they could be using them to work out complex mathematical theorems. And people send dirty messages to each other on mobile phones when they could be exchanging uplifting lines of poetry.

We could be perfect. We could be uplifted. But, once again, humanity gets in the way.

And all I can say to that is, “God, yes I….”

Sunday, March 2, 2008

As vicious acts of violence grow we need a two-track approach to dealing with the problem

This is the text of my article in The Evening Herald on 26th February 2008:

The other day, as newspapers were writing headlines about the apparent involvement of teenagers in an incident that has led to the death of at least one man, a caller to Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme described a bullying incident carried out against his son at school.

The incident was so vicious and so without mercy that Duffy described it as evil. On other programmes recently we have heard of families from hell who pursue vendettas simply because a neighbour has asked the parents to stop their children behaving in an anti-social manner.

And it is not uncommon to hear of random acts of violence, sometimes fatal, carried out against people who are doing nothing more than walking home alone at night.

That is the context in which the involvement of teenagers in a fatal incident in Dublin needs to be seen.

Very often, the people perpetrating acts of violence and terror against others appear to have no internal set of values to prevent them engaging in such acts – or at least no set of values that the rest of us understand. Indeed, some perpetrators glory in the violence they mete out. Far from being ashamed of what they do, they continue to torment others in full view of their neighbours.

What is most frightening is that in all too many cases the violence perpetrated by an out of control young person is backed up by the entire family.

There are a good many streets of our cities in which people live in fear of just one violent, anti-social family. Those who stand up to them even in the mildest way pay the price of in verbal and physical abuse for years afterwards. Others are fearful of getting the same treatment and keep quiet. The Gardai seem unable to do anything much about it.

What seems to characterise some of these perpetrators is an absolute sense of their own entitlement. They and, indeed, their parents are entitled to do whatever they wish without any regard, good or bad, for the effect on neighbours. Neighbours who complain about this are, by definition, attacking them and must be punished.

It’s a perversion of how society is supposed to work.

What can be done about this? It seems to me that it the issue needs to be tackled from two angles. One is the law and order angle. The other is working with young children so they will not become perpetrators in their turn.

From the law and order point of view we need to find a way to give Gardai either the powers or the resources to deal with this “low level” thuggery and intimidation. One of the reasons for the success of the zero tolerance policy introduced by Rudi Giulani in New York in the 1990s was that these low level crimes were taken seriously. Another is that New York invests in policing. To the Irish visitor to New York the sheer visibility of police on foot patrol is truly striking compared to the comparative scarcity of Gardai on the beat at home.

Law and order is never the full answer to anything. We also need to be able to work with children from certain families to turn them away from this kind of behaviour and we need to start before they begin primary school.

Programmes working with pre-school children and their families have a proven track record of success in the United States. In Ireland we have only a handful of such projects compared to what is needed.

It’s not enough to lament the dreadful things that happen in our streets and neighbourhoods. We need to take these things seriously and to do something about them. Otherwise the innocent will go on paying the price.