Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Saturday, January 31, 2009

All Together Now? How So?

As usual, I let things that don't make much sense trouble me. I heard a few days ago the remark, "we are all Christians, that's what matters". This was provoked by a remark I made about my choice of church in which to worship. I do not go to church regularly in Barbados and have written about some of the issues I have with the Anglican church here. My wife, with her own set of dislikes for the Anglican church here, has opted to go regularly to a Catholic church. Outside of Barbados, we worship together in our Anglican parish church in Washington DC (where we were both Vestry members at different times), or in her Anglican parish church in Nassau (founded by her family).

I know that the person making that remark (an Episcopalian/Anglican) does not feel allied to Catholics, Adventists, or followers of Churches of Christ, or Mormons, or Baptists, or Quakers, or Jehovah's Witnesses, just to name a few major Christian denominations. I know too that the remarker's family has some very strong views about faiths other than Anglicanism, especially Catholicism.

See http://godblessthismess.tripod.com/christiandenominations.htm for more and descriptions of Christian faiths.

Now, I have been raised in one Christian denomination all of my life and although it was never made to be an issue in my parents' home, I knew that there were many Christian denominations, and that their tenets and followers were very different. This was first drummed into me when I was friends with an Adventist girl and had to deal with that religion's unflattering view and treatment of outsiders, even though her family were always speaking to be nicely. Fortunately, our friendship was just platonic and we ran for the same track club so could meet and talk and socialise easily outside of that home atmosphere.

Most people know that even in the Protestant strand of Christianity there are many variants, and people adhere to particular teachings and tendencies within that. Why else would the Anglican Church be in such a mess as it wrestles with issues of gender equality and homosexuality? Because of these differences people will leave parishes and particular churches within parishes to try to find the spiritual home that fits them best. No problem with that.

So, my head is reeling. Most people who have religious convictions stand strongly on those major religious differences between say Christians, Jews and Muslims, even though we should know that they have common roots. Yet that commonality does not leave us comfortable worshiping in the other believers' place of worship, or following their tenets. It has never stopped one of these major religions to try to convert people from the other, even to the extent of doing so violently and through war: remember the medieval Crusades.

We know the heart wrenching discussions that occur when people intermarry across religious lines, even amongst Christians. For Anglicans and Catholics, for example, the marriage needs to be sanctified in both churches. The couple become one but their religions are not one. A major issue within the relation will be how the children will be raised, in one faith or both or neither? Few are flexible enough to leave it up to the child to decide when he or she can. The matter also arises over where to worship regularly, at one or both churches, together or separately.

So, much as I adore my Christian friends and acquaintances for who they are, I cannot take the liberty of saying "we are all Christians" and sweep away all our religious differences. In fact, I remember at a regular lime a very heated conversation between a group of very dear friends on this same subject and lines being drawn very clearly and vociferously between Anglicans and Catholics. Why else does the term 'sectarian violence' fill people with fear in places like Northern Ireland and Scotland, where Protestants and Catholics have been at each others' throats for centuries? Those who are worldly know that even among Muslims Shia and Sunni can be sworn enemies. But let me stick to my knitting.

So, with the bitter images of dead bodies in Northern Ireland now vivid in my head, and the horrible images swirling of bombed pubs and buildings and people being killed and maimed in some of the parts of London where I lived, I will think more about "we are all Christians". I will think on it too as I reflect on the Christians who fled Britain and other countries in Europe to North America and the Caribbean, a few hundred years ago, to get away from the clutches of other Christians.

It should be a thought-filled weekend, as ever.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to the diving board.

We have been having unseasonably wet weather in Barbados for all of the month of January; it is supposed to be the dry season. So, as the month comes to its end we have another long night of heavy rain, which followed a day of intermittent rain, and was followed so far by more intermittent rain. I don't know why, but I do care if it represents something that many believe is man's handiwork coming to bear fruit.

I know the plants love the rain much of the time and I am not a farmer so it really does not bother me when it rains. But the rain seems to have had a very odd drying effect. No sooner had we had an incredible downpour than I went to look out to see if we had any flooding. No. All seemed to have been absorbed. Hold on a minute, I said to myself. Where is the water from the swimming pool?

We have had a spate of strange disappearances in the island, the most intriguing of which was the disappearance of some houses built by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC). I still have not heard how on a 166 square mile island you lose properties. This place has few forests and no jungle. When you come in by plane during the daytime you can see almost every property on the island. Now, maybe UDC's houses were in caves and therefore not visible to the naked eye. Anyway, they have now been found, but we were warned that they may disappear again. Wuhloss! But UDC did not build the swimming pool at the house where I live.

I called my landlord, and tried to explain what I was looking at, and I went into a small hysterical cackle because it was dawning on me what I was really seeing. A swimming pool hold a ton of water, or more precisely in our case 15,000 gallons. With no heat wave it was not evaporation. Also, this was not Jamaica where people steal all sorts of things, like large amounts of sand from the beach. We do have praedial larceny, but who would mistake my pool for a black belly sheep and run off with its contents?

We needed help, because even with the dry season 's heavy rains there was no way that they could refill the pool in a hurry. The man who had come to clean the pool in the morning, who was my prime suspect, could not be found. Suspicious enough, though I have to admit that I could not figure out where in his van he could carry all that water and why he would take it. If someone else wanted a pool filling, I guess that there is some black market for pool water. It beat me. But, we found his brother and he came to look at our drained over sized sink. All was simple enough. His brother had done a thorough cleaning, and had disconnected some pipes but forget to reconnect them when he turned the pump back on. So there went about 14,000 gallons of water. A bit of carelessness, eh.

Now, we have to fill it up again. Anyone want to grab some buckets? No, we had to turn on the hose and I must admit that I am shocked that it takes a whole day and more to put all that water back into a pool. It is now refilled, and I will keep a keen on our pool man's activities from now on. If his trousers seem very damp you can bet I will check his pockets to see if he is taking a few gallons off the property stealthily.

Showdown, If Not Sundown, in Melbourne

I could not figure out how the Australian Open, being played again in blistering Melbourne, has been going on and I have not lavished a few boring words here about it. Then I remembered January 20. Oh, yeah. Most of my head space during the first week of the tournament was occupied with the Inauguration of you know who. I was watching the tournament from the start, in the freezing days in Washington DC--not that I was watching outside and had a congealed brain. We suffer badly at this time because given the 12+ hours time difference with Australia, it is always confusing to figure out when games are on: 'this morning' in Australia is 'this evening' where we live; 'tomorrow's match' may actually be played 'today' for us. That confusion gets worse as we try to prop open eyes to watch coverage from 10pm, and then maybe all the way through to 9am! Then work has to be fit it, or in my case in between and sometimes around. I have to take a few breaks from working or watching or choose to watch one session or the other--usually the early morning--not both.

Now the tournament is heading to its climax, with finals starting today and the big showdowns of women's and men's finals over the weekend. Sleep has been reduced so much that it's easier to just stay awake and nap when I can.

It's been a love fest of sorts for me, as 'The Federer' as he is called by another former number 1, Russian Marat Safin, showed that his bout of mono was probably a big part of why 2008 was less than stellar for him. His 'mere' one Grand Slam and two other finals would be stellar for almost any other player's whole career. 'The man' is truly gracing the courts again, gliding like one of the Bolshoi ballet, as he whipped his signature forehands, left and right at will and touching the lines as if on a string. He looked scary, and when he fed a 'double bagel' (6-0 twice) to another upcoming top 10 player (del Potro), I thought OMG. Then he was checked in the quarter finals, and quite literally by the Czech who had never quite lived up to his potential, Tomas Berdych. OMG again, but in reverse. TB put the hurt on RF and pulled him around like he was melted cheese in a raclette. No. This does not happen. And just like that, a two sets deficit had opened up. I could not watch and headed to bed, where I had a nice dream that a stunning comeback was underway.When I woke the power of dreams had been proved: Roger had made a stunning comeback and won in five sets. On winning, he displayed some un-Swiss-like emotions, more fitting for a soccer player; I think he has been trying to show more emotion and does look hungry for his wins. New hair do. New Nike duds. A few new dance steps. Could be a rocking 2009 for him.

He played Andy Roddick in the semis. Well, Federer 'owns' Roddick, no matter how well Andy plays and he usually plays out of his skin against the great man; he did so again but lost. When I looked at the stats, Roddick's were good enough to win virtually any match he played so far this year, but Federer's figures were better. So, a man raises his game to its limit and then gets spun around like thread on Rumplestiltskin's spinning wheel. So, a final place booked, and as I write we wait to see against whom it will be. Chances are it will be Senor Nemisis, Rafael Nadal; if he can beat a surprisingly improved fellow Spaniard, Verdasco. My usual 'partner in crime' during Federer matches came back from intense study and now she is on the scene again we shall be zinging BlackBerry messages point by point.

I haven't spoken much about the women's tennis for no reason other than I find it confusing as ever that there is no stand out in the rankings, and no real stand out on the courts. Yes, the Williams sisters are strong (as shown by their winning the doubles tournaments whenever they enter), but so inconsistent sometimes. This time, Serena made it to the finals, while her sister was dumped out ignominiously by an opponent who played very well. Her opponent will be Dinara Safina, she of the 'let me see if I can win after facing a few match points' fame, who did the Houdini again to get to the semis. No doubt, she has heart. Whoever wins the final will be the new number one in the women's' rankings; but I think there were at least four players with this possibility going into the tournament. The current number one, Jankovic? Dumped out by that strange French offering, Marion Bartoli, she of the double-handed everything and the father who trained her in some very quirky ways. Bartoli then fizzled in her semi as the heat turned her into a wilting leaf.

The women cannot figure out how to be good long enough for one of them to be number one for more than a few weeks. I guess that might be seen as good competition, but on watching you can see it's about inconsistency.

But I have to say a few words about the roof business at Melbourne. The heat has been hitting new records and it seemed that on court the temperatures rose to just below that of a steel smelting factory. It caused the brain cells of some Serbian and Bosnian fans, who decided that it was appropriate to carry on a war in the stadium grounds after the match between Djokovic (Serbia) and Delic (American of Bosnian heritage). See the movie:

No one can understand when the roof on the main court (Rod Laver Arena) will be closed. It's not when it is just very hot, and apparently there is a complex formula that takes into account the actual temperature and the humidity at the time. Whatever it is, when it's open, players seem to drop like dizzy flies or move as if it's slow motion--deadly when you have the slow coaches like Djokovic. When it's closed the neutral climate conditions change completely the nature of the game--very helpful for some players like Nadal, and the player run around like Energen bunnies. Anyway, tennis is supposed to be a summer sport and played in the sun, In some places, they try to take it indoor but that is really only acceptable for places and times that are bitterly cold. In the old days the players dealt with the natural conditions; that's what makes the tournament what it is. Yes, we have to be concerned about health, but if they feel bad, let them decide not to play or get into condition for it.

It'll be a fun weekend and I am prepared for the usual Federer-Nadal heart and gut wrencher on Sunday morning. If the game goes on for too long, I hope it does not compromise my napping again before watching the Super Bowl later on Sunday.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Child Does Not Just Grow, It Has To Be Built One Day At A Time.

One thing I really love about my children, and many of the kids I know, is that they really have absorbed many of the life lessons taught to them by parents and other adults, including those about self-confidence and showing their love. Now, I don't think that I am like those parents who produce champions like the Williams sisters, or many of the female tennis stars, by being over-bearing and running the kids' lives as if on a clear timetable to some goals. My approach is a kind of laissez-faire, with an emphasis on learning by doing and watching how those you should respect act. It's in line with the 'teaching to fish' approach: learn how to do it, not get me to do it for you. It applies a lot to thinking as well as doing. It means that you can move confidently that your child does not need you by his or her side to get things right; it's been figured out by them themselves. They then behave as you want and get applauded for their general manner and conduct.

Specifically, as a pertinent example, if my five year old asks me how to spell a word I work to get her to understand her letter sounds and their combinations; I tend not to spell the word for her. It's hard for some adults to not do the latter because when asked "How to" they interpret that as "Do for me" and it's quicker to just say D-O-G, than wait for the child to figure out the sound patterns. But I have a lot of time on my hands, some would say, so I go with my approach. I always found that the lessons were better cemented that way.

In the field of coaching, of course, I could not play for the under-12 girls' team, not least because I was a bit over age, so the girls had to learn the best they could at practice and try to apply the training. Parents asked me, enthusiastically, what they could do to help me. I would reply, "Care well for your child. Make sure she is well rested for practice and matches. Encourage respect for you and me. Make sure they are on top of their school work. Tell me of medical problems, especially their monthly cycles. Get in your car and come back in two hours." The message took a while to set in, but it meant that they did not try to 'play' for their kids--you know all that 'body English' you see as parents go through every action with their child, and almost die when the kid falls or makes a mistake. My other advice was, "Never argue with me or the child during a match. NEVER. Please do not arrive late. Enjoy watching them develop and encourage them and the team. Let me coach. Let the referee do his or her job." I like to think that those pointers explained why over seven years my team rarely ran into trouble with the league in general, or with officials or opponents on match days. My team parents were not those who ran onto the field when 'Katie' fell (not allowed), or yelled profanities at their child (you're gone from my team), or cursed the officials (you're gone from my team), or only cheered their kid (you get the disapproving 'look' from the coaches and the girls on the sidelines).

Life lessons extend to emotional expressions. I loved every kid on my team, and my first born daughter was not on the team for many years, which made me an oddball for some; most knew that I had coached boys teams for a while so wondered why I had not formed a team around my child. But in the USA you cannot go around hugging other people's children or some dolt is going to call you a molester or worse. So, I had to have all the right warm words, or I would use the parents to give the hugs for me.

My first born has never had grief from me for running up and offering to kiss me, or hug me, and even when she was in 12th grade and still now when she is at university she does it without a hint of embarrassment. When we have our spats now, we always part on a hug and a kiss.

My youngest is in my eyes another child who has already absorbed some of those same life lessons. I now tell her, "Never leave the house without saying goodbye or giving me a hug or kiss," and she gets called back into the house if she forgets on her way to school--school can wait. She smiles and says, "Sorry, Daddy," and plunks me with the kisser. Her affections are high and visible. But she knows herself well. She is encouraged to be the best, but gently. She is urged to improve, but not to gloat in surpassing others. Crying should be kept for things that are truly painful, not just because of disappointment: tears are too precious. Fall down? Dust off your hands and check for cuts. Her well known expression is, "I'm okay."

So, today, on one of those days that kids wait all year for, and adults seem to treat with a good degree of indifference once the number starts with a 3 or higher, my little ambassador showed me how she had learned some her life lessons. She had stealthily run around last night with a piece of paper. I saw evidence of writing with a Sharpie pen--marks on the kitchen counter and we had a 'chat' about paying attention to 'mess' you create. I heard her giggling and scurrying every time I was walking nearby before I put her to bed. This morning, she gave me the 'golden present' (see image--click on it to enlarge). Well, in her words, it was a card and a present. Of course, I love it. But then I asked her about the figures. This was really interesting.

She is the biggest person drawn, and with a huge cell phone too. (I take this as her seeing that she really is the 'grown up' she thinks she is.) Her parents are there, beneath her and small. (I take that as meaning that we are not dominating too much, but supporting her by our presence.) Her picture has a heart (not easy to draw but important as a sign of her love) and flowers (easier than picking and arranging and a sign of her desire to give something tangible) underneath them. It shows some good spelling, and the handwriting is neat. (At home, she and I are working on writing in a straight line, though her teacher wants to see smaller letters--she's about a year younger than most of the class, so I say, "That will come".)

Pride is supposed to be a sin, but I think that is meant to be pride limited to oneself. I am so proud of my children and others like them and their parents who are becoming ambassadors for many kinds of good upbringing.

Discipline is not about a stick, or a raised hand, or a raised voice, but about understanding how to act properly. It is best when it becomes self-directed. You have been shown "how to" now "do". With work. With speech. With play. And on each day.

And yes, while I am a strong advocate of 'it takes a village to raise a child', for me, the real seeds must be well planted at home.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Where Ignorance Is Bliss.

Summary: The media here do not inform or educate well. Recent reports on deaths of Nigerian nurses is a case in point. Are we being informed by CBC's report or warned or scared? Is the intention to give us a full account of the state of medical services or are we being merely encouraged to victimize? Good press reporting continues to elude us.

I feel bad when I see people wallow in ignorance. I dislike it when I know that people are being misinformed, worse if that is being done deliberately. I occasionally take on the role of 'teacher' because I believe better education helps one make better decisions.

So, I take it to the newspapers, television, and radio in Barbados every now and again, for good reason I feel, because they do not do the job that I am accustomed to. They seem to have little sense that they are meant to be our educators. If you have a wide-based media you can tolerate misinformation up to a degree because there is a lot of good information to counter it. In the UK or USA, and even in many poor or developing countries, there is a vigorous and broad-based press that is not government controlled or controlled by certain pressure or lobby groups. We now also have those who use the Internet to report.

I feel like taking it to the formal media more when there are incidents such as that surrounding a group of Nigerian nurses, recruited to work in the main national hospital, who were shrouded in suspicion and negative stories from their arrival here nearly two years ago.

Most of us living in this region know that it is full of suspicion and superstition. We should also know that it's full of ignorance, not of the malicious kind necessarily, but mere lack of real knowledge. We have beliefs that drive what we do regardless of other evidence to the contrary. For example, 'Don't go out in the rain, you will catch cold' (I understand there is a cold virus and it's not distributed in rainfall). We have also the kind of fears and foolishness about things sexual that lead to people misapplying 'potions' to raise their virility and end up killing themselves.

For me, one of the roles of the media is to seek to educate. So I remain blinking as I read of accusations that some of these Nigerian nurses died of AIDS. I hear loud protests by those who represent the nurses and read that some 40 nurses 'walked off the job', denying that this happened and asking their national nursing federation and the local union to deal with the issue on their behalf (see report). I hear accusations against the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that the story that they 'broke' on January 12 was 'damaging and false'. I read that a Nigerian government minister came to Barbados to investigate the story and found it to be groundless, and could have far reaching consequences for Nigerian nurses and other professionals working in Barbados, the wider Caribbean, or elsewhere in the world, if the Nigerian government does not take on headlong the position of CBC. What the government official has found is that one nurse died of breast cancer, another remains alive, and a third has a cause of death not yet disclosed to the them. All of that is informative but it really does little to illuminate anything other than confusion.

I have not seen a story with a government or hospital statement to say what were the facts--leaving aside any person's details. And so the pot bubbles and people get concerned and hot air rises and 'fires' are fanned.

Since the group of Nigerian nurses came to Barbados, there have been a slew of stories concerned about their being here, questioning their qualifications, questioning whether they had been screened for communicable diseases, and more. Remember, for whatever reason, this is a country that has some concerns about any influx of certain foreign workers (who funnily enough look mostly like the majority of Bajans)--Chinese, Guyanese, Jamaicans, Vincentians, etc.--though the voices are mute with regard to others (who oddly look like only a large minority of Bajans)--Britions, Canadians, Americans, etc.

I repeat that I have not seen any good information from the government or the hospital officials to deflect these stories, and I apologize if it was published and I missed it.

On top of the balls of news confusion we have some very interesting politics and policies. I have heard that the Barbadian government does not scan prospective foreign employees in the health services for communicable diseases. To me that is scandalous, given the sensitivity of that area of work; given that this small island has been free of certain such diseases for a long time, and given the risks that a spread of certain such diseases on a key part of the economy, its tourism. This small island has very limited medical resources, and it is irresponsible in my mind to play loose and free with the general health of the population. I admit that such scans would could also compromise the island's tourism industry because the natural extension would be to check the medical status of all incoming persons. But you know what? A lot of countries do this. In the developed world, the best know instance is Australia--another island, though a tad bigger than Barbados: if you are travelling from certain places known to have certain communicable diseases, and your medical certification and vaccines are not in order when checked at the airport, you are held in quarantine and may have to go back from where you came. It is also very common in African countries, especially for diseases like yellow fever, in part to protect those who arrive (you need a vaccine) and to avoid the spread or recurrence of a disease that the authorities are trying to control. I read today that Barbados' Health Minister has declared that the government has 'no intention of screening' health facilities workers. That worries me. Funny, we check on the health of imported foods but not on persons entering the island. 

For me, one issue is whether the media has done much to clear the waters. If a medical worker dies of AIDS, what is the relevance? Is the health of patients or fellow workers at risk? If so, how? What I heard of the CBC broadcast leaves the implication that something risky might have happened, but nothing is really ever mentioned, nor was there even a mention that if anyone had been in contact with these persons they needed to go to be tested and where that should be. CBC's concerns are what? 

The nature of the HIV/AIDS disease and its spread are known (exchange of bodily fluids and blood from contact between persons, tainted blood getting into a person, pre-existing condition with someone having HIV from genetic connection), but often confused with things that are believed not to apply (toilet seats, sharing food, living together, breathing the same air, etc.) I have heard people who host radio programs, discuss medical issues and completely misinform about the origins of HIV and AIDS, and laugh about the misinformation, and pander to some stereotypes about it (such as it being just a problem for gay people)! Irresponsible.

I have not heard discussions on the radio on the Nigerian nurses matter in part because I have travelled a good part of the time since CBC made their broadcast concerning the nurses. But I have read a mixture of rebuttals and opinions about whether CBC was acting properly, if the remaining Nigerian nurses who later went on strike were acting properly, and so on. But there has been little about the real facts and about what the country's real concerns should be. That's the fault of the media, the hospital authorities and the government.

But from the time that the nurses arrived in April 2007 there has been a schizophrenic attitude, even a reported smearing by the former Health Minister (see Nation report of April 7, 2008). If that story is true one has to wonder how government works in Barbados. The former PM recently used 'poor rakey' to describe Parliamentary activity. Looks like it was rampant already.

I do see a letter in yesterday's paper from someone who also questions CBC's motives and showing the need for more public discussion on health issues (see Nation report, January 27, 2009). Was the motivation all about sensationalism and victimization, rather than information? What has been done subsequently to straighten the record and allay fears?

What is clear is that Bajans, like any nation, have legitimate concerns, and these are going to be high when they feel that their health may be compromised. So, if there is a salmonella outbreak and shelves of food need to be cleared the important facts need to be known and the origins of the tainted goods discovered, and the cause of the contamination understand and hopefully corrected. 'What would happen if one read or heard a headline such as 'Chinese food tainted with salmonella', with very little additional information? Even if it only related to baby milk, people would start panicking as they tried to spit out the mouthful of chicken lo-mein they had just bought from the local Chinese take away. They would want to scour the labels of food they had bought to see if they were of Chinese origin. The Chinese diplomats in the country would be down on the news organs and the government like a ton of bricks seeking at least a clarification and perhaps correction. Nigerian nurses?

The media like 'hot button' issues. HIV/AIDS is one of these. Fears about foreigners is another. Compromised health care is a third. And so on. Mix them together carelessly and you have a nice little toxic cocktail. If it were me in charge of CBC I would not be sitting with a smile on my face, but would be wondering when my butt was going to be kicked and what my next assignment was going to be.

CBC seem stuck, standing by the 'truth' of what they reported. The point is not necessarily the truth but what are we expected to do with the information. Let me ask CBC a few questions. Do we hound the other nurses? Do we insist that all nursing/medical staff be screened for communicable diseases? Do we insist that no medical workers enter without such tests? Do we need to identify people who might have had 'at risk' contact with those who died? Will CBC tell us about cases of salmonella, chicken pox, small pox, TB, MRSA disease, air borne fungal infections, staff with erratic behaviour, incidents of stolen medication, staff with drug records, staff with dubious qualifications, botched procedures, legal cases pending against the hospital or doctors or nurses for forms of malpractice, etc.? If we are to be warned and informed, then let's be thorough.

Just this weekend, the PM called on the media and others to do more, some, any investigative journalism into government activities. His call needs to be generalized. But again, as I say often, you get to live with what you tolerate. I hope that the sword that he wields smites as far as is needed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wake Up And Smell The Coffee!

I am not a journalist by training, but I guess that by writing on almost a daily basis, I have become a journalist by practice. I am not an investigator by profession, but I do like to probe and my professional work has always been about finding answers or at least trying to ask the right questions. So, if I put those elements together then I suppose I could be called an 'investigative journalist'. In a few lines I have created my new employment category, at least for today.

With my new mantle, I feel ready to tackle the charge being levelled by Barbados' prime minister. I have to first thank a real journalist, Ricky Jordan, for reporting the story, and having spent time at Holders Hill listening to the PM give an account of his government's first year in office. I thank Mr. Jordan mainly because I was spending the time following world financial affairs and the Australian Open tennis, which due to the large time difference means that I should sleep by day and be up at night. Owls can do, so why can't I? But I'm actually up much of the time and will try to catch sleep next week.

The PM was reported (see Nation report January 27) to have said, 'Barbadian professionals, especially journalists and lawyers, must break the silence regarding several scandals left behind by the former Government.' To be fair, the gauntlet thrown down against professional journalists had in fact been thrown down already by fellow untrained journalists on some of the local blogs such as Barbados Free Press and Barbados Underground. They had in their way tried to show how the task should be done.When in today's paper, Mr. Jordan reports further on the meeting my heart skipped several beats. Why? He reports the PM as saying:

'Pointing to "a conspiracy of silence and indifference" across Barbados, he urged the mass media to take a look at itself in light of administrative scandals that remained un-investigated', and that, the PM also said,

"No editorial writer or columnist has to date commented on the squeaky clean Government we have run. No person doing business with this Government can accuse us of unfair practices," noting by contrast the "wastage" of $3 million in Hardwood Housing Inc., the Rural and Urban Development Commissions; contracts awarded without tender; houses built but not accounted for; as well as rampant cost over-runs to the tune of "hundreds of millions of dollars".

I know that these points have been taken up by some blogs, and yes NOT much by the editorial writers or columnists in the local papers. I am not claiming any special reward or prize, but before going on I will say that recognition is due to that group. Their style may not be pretty or polite--and I have my sparring with some of them when it comes to the tone of commentary that they tolerate, but they control their forums, but their approach is not a buried head in sand or gaze away in indifference approach.

Apparently--thanks again, Ricky--in a speech charged with accusations, the PM called for an end to hypocrisy ("Let's hear an Amen!"), stating "we have reached the sad, sorry stage in Barbados where people, in order to curry favour with a displaced political oligarchy or to position themselves for future handouts and benefits, would compromise all standards, ethics and principles on issues of transparency, accountability and morality".

In another article (see Nation report, January 27), the PM reportedly:

'also blasted lifestyles that were unseemly for people in high office, stating this had "everything to do with ability when the person or persons personifying Barbados are discredited and disreputable". Ho-ho! Those who listen to the radio call-in programs will remember that famous Sunday in 2007 when a certain minister decided that he did not want what he felt was public lynching and ran from the studio rather than deal with a question about 'millionaire lifestyles' on a government minister's pay.

Mr. Jordan adds, 'The Prime Minister also urged Barbadians not to be indifferent to the issue of rampant wastage, where rundown hotels were ill-advisedly purchased, renovated and supported at a cost of over $400 million, but which currently have a market value of only $40 million,' and that,

'Thompson boasted that a significant achievement of his Government had been the stamping out of corruption, the pursuit of transparency and the practice of accountability.'

Now, I do not know Mr. Jordan or the PM personally. The tone of the articles are friendly and I suspect that before long I may hear that Mr. Jordan is some DLP lackey or know BLP hater, which is why he has given all of this paper space to the PM's hammering on the drum of anti-corruption and responsible journalism. If that is so, it does not necessarily detract from the essence of what is being said and being called for.

My working life has been all about accountability. I was not necessarily in the public eye much of the time, but I was doing my public service and knew that the money was not mine or my friends and family's and that there was a certain duty of care and honesty that had to be preserved. Had I become a lawyer or politician--they do live in the same skin, often--I might have seen that my black-and-white view on honesty in public service needed to be shaded. I tried to do a good job and give good service. These are not concepts well accepted in Barbados.

Taking the word of our latest Superman, President Obama, which was already one of my own, "Look!". It's simple. You get what you deserve if as a people, public, society, or community, you put up with shoddiness and do not put feet to the fire for poor service, administration, governing, hygiene and more. More so if you say you run a service economy.

A letter I wrote a few weeks ago about the absurd activities of LIME/C&W, was published in the Sunday papers, and it elicited a call last night from an acquaintance at the company who having read the letter was incensed that the newspapers had dragged up a story from over a year ago to embarrass the company. When the first instance had occurred in early 2008, this acquaintance had resolved the problem I cited with painstaking patience with those in the organization and a sense of customer care that is virtually unknown here. So, over a long conversation, I had to explain that this was indeed a fresh instance. She gasped and was appalled that colleagues could not think through "how to serve the customer" as she put it. Much of the time she was in silence, and I imagine shaking her head.

Those of us who have decided to rail against bad or poor quality anything in Barbados--which is setting itself up as a place of excellence--know of what we speak. The PM's call may ring hollow because the general approach here is not to probe and dig and fight to correct, but to dissemble and shuffle and mutter and say "It's a mistake".

A friend called me twice within the past two days and began by asking me, "Dennis, tell me if I am over-reacting." She told me of a visit to the cinema during the weekend, with a group of children. Everything indicated the film would start at 3pm: the newspaper, the recorded message on the cinema phone line, the printed time on the tickets that she bought. But after sitting in the theatre for some 30 minutes she wondered what was happening. Cutting a long story short, she was told, "De flim goin' start at 3.30". When asking why this was so, she was told that the change had been made nearly a week ago and all of the films due at 3pm were now at 3.30pm. "Is a mistake. We neva change de recording or correct de newspaper ads or reprint de tikit." No one had said anything either when the tickets were bought, and no signs indicated this change. So, company policy? Let the poor paying suckers pay and waste nearly an hour because we are too lazy or uncaring to even put up a simple chicken scratch notice or say boo. Next.

Her second call was about UWI, where she enrolled for a course. SHe had heard nothing about her application. The response: "We have not heard from the dean of admissions". So, one day after the course was due to start my friend does not know if she should be studying in classes! As we say in Jamaica, "Is wha kin' a foolishness dis?" This is the foolishness that takes time to develop and you nurture it by being indifferent.

So, as I told my friend, write a letter to the cinema and UWI. Also send a copy to the newspapers, who may or may not publish it. Also, write about it on the Internet: that is free airspace and its contents are known and picked up; if you put in the key word 'Barbados' it may also get picked up by international interests and before you know it you are on Google's first page.

But, will any of this pushing against mediocrity make for change? The mantra of President Obama needs to be sung loudly in Barbados. This country must change and make that change seriously and soon.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

What in the Lamming lamenting?

This morning, as I drove to my place of breakfast, I was thinking about the problems of team building and individual excellence. If you have ever been on a very good team you will understand the problem well of keeping everyone happy. (A bad team is always facing the challenge of happy people.) A very good team usually contains many good and even some great individual performers, but the outcome is really about how the group performs on average, and it is especially important that no one has a bad moment at a crucial time.

But it is always a delicate balance to keep the team happy. Take a soccer team. It massacres its opponent 10-0, and two players score hat-tricks (3 goals). The goalkeeper never has a shot to save. The coach decides to let all the players allowed come off the bench and play in the game for the whole of the second half because at half time the score was already 8-0. Everyone happy? Who knows? The two hat-trick scorers are each cockahoop, but that soon turns into a bitter argument, with another player. That player did not score today, but one of the hat-trick scorers now leads the club standings for goals by one goal and with one game left to play looks set to take the bonus for that at the end of the season. The goal keeper enjoyed watching the game but never really felt part of the victory as he had nothing to do; he really wanted to coach to let his stand-in play from about 15 minutes into the match when the team was ahead 4-0. He thinks the coach should have realised this especially after the discussion at half time. He wondered if the team wanted to see him mess up. Some of the players felt that the goalscorers had been a bit greedy and could have set up other players to score, rather than just looking to pad their own statistics. And so on.

But the coach stepped in an in a rousing summary of the match explained how everyone had done to perfection what had been expected of them; that the team had executed the plan on which they had worked in training; and that because they had decided to stay unified on the field he could not see anyway that they could be defeated. With one game to go, the championship was theirs. Everyone cheered. Smiles appeared around the table and high fives and hugs were exchanged. The evening ended with a rousing rendition of "We are the champions". The goal keeper tore up the mental transfer request he had in his head.

When you are an individual performer you can usually easily judge how you have affected the outcome; it's not really about anyone else. You live and die with your own efforts. If you want to do team things then you will join a team. But you feel 'I'm alright as I am'. Anyway, joining with others may mean that they take some of what makes you good or may undermine what makes you good to get ahead. It's too much trouble. And so on.

Today, I read how acclaimed Barbadian writer, George Lamming, regretted that 'two generations after the failure of creating a genuine sovereign West Indian Nation, history is about to repeat itself' (see Barbados Advocate report). Lamming reportedly went on:

'...last year would have been the fiftieth anniversary of that event had it come to fruition...it would have lent itself to a richer, more triumphant cultural and political achievement for a family of islands made up of Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago.“But after four years of petty, insular disputes and recriminations, the experiment failed and that moment was lost...'

He suggested that to avoid any repetition of such a “catastrophe”, citizens must be trained at the primary school level to accept the customs of other nationalities and respect these.

Even though he did not make the allusion Mr. Lamming showed what it is to want to stay as an individual performer and not be part of a team. However, he highlighted the essential problem. For a team to work, everyone has to agree that they want the team to work. If not, it’s just a pipe dream. So, if the West Indies has a problem it is that after many decades of talking about unity it is still a notion that is not generally accepted.

Mr. Lamming has nothing to lament on this score except that his desire did not see fulfilment. He should be sad if there really had been a widely expressed popular desire for unity. But I have never heard that cry.

The legacy for our children

We often hear talk about the world that we will leave for our children and their children. At a very large political level, we talk about subjects like the polluted planet, the heavy debt burden, higher crime levels and more. But it is worth think about what we leave at a lower but no less important level. A conversation over breakfast highlighted things that I and my acquaintances recalled doing which our children may at best only read about. Remember that this was a crowd brought up in various places in the Caribbean and the UK.
  • Drinking the top part of a bottle of milk, where the cream had settled; and woe betide you if you take it instead of someone else or shake up the bottle.
  • Hearing the clink of the milk bottles being delivered to your door step, and in the winter time racing down to bring them in before the birds could start to peck at the cap to drink the milk.
  • Knowing that milk comes from a cow, not from a supermarket or a tanker truck.
  • Having you first sexual experience in the back of a car, and not thinking that you might get hijacked.
  • Helping your parents or grandparents grow, pick, prepare as jams or cakes, fruit and vegetables.
  • Having the 'bread man' bring fresh bread to the house. Or baking bread at home. Or knowing that the thickness of a slice of bread was up to you to determine. (Jamaicans and many in England, thankfully, still eat a lot of whole loaf, not pre-sliced, bread.)
  • Walking--sometimes miles--to/from school, with a group of friends, or alone with only your books for company.
  • Thinking of 'fast food' as something that your parents prepared at home in a hurry.
  • Thinking of bread and jam as a luxury.
  • Fighting and only fearing someone having a better punch or harder kick than you.
  • Seeing friends taking drugs or drinking underage and knowing indisputably that it was not for you. (A few of us grew up in London and recalled being in Soho/The West End a lot at night times and being surrounded constantly by all of life's social vices, yet never feeling that any of it had an effect on us.)
This list is of course no where near exhaustive, so I will be glad for more remiscences.

The sense we have is that life was simpler when we were children and we appreciated more.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Wasting the freedom dividend

As I start to reflect on the making of history, with President Obama now in office, I look at two areas where black people have had the chance to be 'leaders of the world'. I think of Africa and the Caribbean.

Much of the continent of Africa was under colonial rule for many years, in recent times, but the continent has had centuries of freedom of political and economic activity. The Caribbean countries were made up of slaves, and people gained their personal freedom with emancipation in the mid-1800s and gained political independence gradually from the early 1960s. But what have those two blocs done with their freedom? What have they done to advance any recent political agendas for freedom?

In the case of Africa, the perception is that oppression and limitation of individual and collective freedoms have been too commonplace; tribalism is often blamed for that. There is not really much fundamental difference between tribalism and racism as seen for many years in the USA. Few African leaders have really fought a strong fight for freedom (Mandela is a notable exception), but have often been seen as doing as much as possible to hold onto power and suppress opposition. This has often resulted into civil wars that have decimated the countries' abilities to advance as many young and able bodies have been killed.

Africa has then seen itself spiral down from a continent of greatness to one of abject poverty. It likes to blame others but I see much self-destruction.

In the case of the Caribbean, we seem to have focused a lot on what I would call 'small peas'. Our small physical and economic size can be used as some weak defence, but we have shown that these limitations do not matter as we have produced excellence in many fields: literature, music, sport, culture in a broad sense. We have sought to cement divisions between small islands and countries rather than embracing unity.

It's ironic that a true African-American (Kenyan father, American mother), with a name that bears no Anglo-Saxon tinge, who came from no slave background, rises to the top of the pile to lead a country so long identified as a power bastion of white people. he was not allowed to forget his African heritage, in part because he carried his true name; and it is a far cry from the created names now popular in some black communities.

We in the Caribbean have forgotten much of our African heritage, in part due to being Anglicized or Frenchified, or Hispanisized. In the English speaking Caribbean the names we carry are in a sense ridiculous, and we go crazy to find people with the same Anglo names, that came from slave owners and overseers. We are not Thompsons, or Smiths, or Williams, or anything else. But we do not know who and what we are; we lost our roots.

Maybe President Obama will help us in the Caribbean and those in Africa rediscover who and what we really are. We have lost a lot of time.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Flogging is a form of torture. Don't pretend that it is otherwise.

I suspect that on this subject I will find that my views do not coincide with some (or even many) in Barbados, or elsewhere in the Caribbean.

As a parent, I do not see that beating my child is part of what I will use to discipline my child, and I do not accept that anyone should beat my child to discipline her. I do not see beating as anything else but a lazy way to try to 'correct' behaviour, and it may work in that sense because fear of pain is very simply a strong deterrent--not total, as we see worldwide where death penalties exist and crimes are still high, including crimes that involve the killing or violent assault of people.

I was recently in Washington DC for the Presidential Inauguration. A few days after I left I read an article by Matthew Farley in the Nation (see report). For those who cannot see the link, I reprint the article:

In The Candid Corner – For God and the rod in schools


ON WEDNESDAY , I shared a podium with my professional head Chief Education Officer Dr Wendy Griffith-Watson. The Deacon's Parent-Teacher Association mounted a forum which queried Is it Time To Put The Brakes On Flogging In Schools? Given our professional relationship, I guess many people expected Matthew D. Farley and his Chief Education Officer to lock horns, but we are more professional than that.

It is not too long to recall that when I was president of the Association of Public Primary School Principals, we locked horns on many occasions in public on educational issues on which we held views that were diametrically opposed. We never got personal. We simply dealt with the issues.

I was strident in my view that primary schools were deprived of much needed funds. There were times when she told me bluntly that I was wrong on some issues and I often challenged the stances she took on a range of others, respectfully, of course!

Education in Barbados is a literal hot spot when it comes to issues. The Chief Education Officer and I share a common passion for the sector which has been at the centre of our human resource development. This sector needs people with passion. People who believe in the fundamental principles of education and who will not fall prey to the intrigues of whims and fancies that threaten to undermine the core values of our system.

The liberals among us will have us believe we must embrace methods and practices that have left other school systems in shambles and have produced nothing but criminals, incendiaries, and madmen. There is a sense in which we see schools as certificate factories. In the process we have carved the soul out of our educational system.

Successive governments in Barbados have invested no less than 20 per cent of annual expenditure on education. I am concerned that this investment is under threat by an anti-intellectual culture and storm clouds of indiscipline that have engulfed our schools across the board. I received an email from Patrick Porter, a Barbadian living in Canada in which he laments: "Crime in schools has jumped beyond reason . . . children have total control of the schools and if a teacher or principal says anything . . . they talk about suing and the law courts."

After concluding that the Canadian system of education is in shambles, he ends by praying and hoping that as a Bajan "we do not follow this terrible path".

The Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development in very recent times has appeared to be in a state of confusion in terms of the direction in which it wishes to take education. Earlier in the year, the minister indicated that consideration is being given to banning the use of corporal punishment in schools and homes. After endorsing the common dress code for schools, mixed signals emanated from the halls of central administration in Constitution Road.

Two secondary schools with well-known and outstanding track records of success in athletics and foreign languages were given a bad public image when certain comments seemed to have relegated them to the bottom of the educational totem pole.

At the same time, a measure of student empowerment came from an official podium in one of those same schools evoking rousing applause which seem to have encouraged the flouting of the authority of principals rather than urging compliance from their charges.

Schools in 27 of the states in America have outlawed corporal punishment. The other 24 states retain the practice. Britain and many countries in Europe have criminalised both teachers and parents and have reaped the whirlwind of chaos and indiscipline both in schools and the wider society.

Canada retains some measure of protection for parents and school officials. The lobby for Barbados to follow this pattern of pedagogical and parental recklessness is strengthening.

Dr Griffith-Watson's public assertion that corporal punishment will be retained as one of a range of options available to a limited number of school personnel is reassuring, especially in the light of the rising tide of violence and indiscipline that continues to wash our educational shores. Like my Chief Education Officer, I am vehemently opposed to any attempt to throw the rod and God out of our schools.

Matthew D. Farley is an educator, a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum On Education, and a social commentator.

Email laceyprinci@yahoo@com.

I am always wary when religion is put alongside an idea, because part of the intent is to give it 'God's blessing', and it gets hard to rebut because the twinning then makes it hard to argue that one is not going against a religious tenet. But, even if there is support for this idea in The Bible I do not accept that it is the right way to go.

After I read the article, I thought about the impending Inauguration of the 44th president of the United States of America, and that president-elect Obama wanted to close Guantanamo ("war on terror") prison as one of his first acts. Yesterday, President Obama signed three Executive orders toward that end. Among the things that happened at Guantanamo are a series of acts that have been regarded as tantamount to torture. According to a revised version of the US Army Field Manual, released in 2006, it explicitly banned controversial techniques such as beating, using dogs to intimidate [prisoners], electric shocks and waterboarding, which critics of the prison say are tantamount to torture.

If one is advocating flogging in schools then I suggest one thinks about what flogging really is. It is a form of torture. I have never seen a public flogging, as occurs in countries such as Iran. I have seen boys flogged at school. I know what I saw. I did not feel the pain directly, but I winced and sensed the pain that was being inflicted. I saw the faces of the floggers: never neutral and often somewhat angry. I saw the faces of the flogged: never smiling, often tearful and fearful. I saw the faces of the onlookers: few were smiling; most were wincing.

A dictionary definition of torture includes 'anguish of body or mind', 'something that causes agony or pain', and 'the infliction of intense pain...to punish, coerce, [or afford sadistic pleasure]. I am not going to the sadism aspect, but wonder where the real difference is between flogging and what is seen as torture. Of course, flogging can change behaviour, so can pouring boiling oil on someone. But I have a hard time seeing flogging as something right, and which should be retained in of all places a school, when it is not acceptable in a prison.

When I think back to the historic significance of President Obama's rise I think back to slavery, as many black people will, even though he did not come directly from a slavery background. I think back to days when my ancestors and the ancestors of many people now living in the US, UK, Canada, and the Caribbean knew a lot about flogging, being the offspring of floggers and flogged. I think about my ancestors possibly being flogged--in the fields, in the workhouse, etc. We have reports of adults and children being flogged and we know that there were many cases where that flogging went to the point of killing some (if not many) slaves. To me, these thoughts do not evoke pretty images, and I wonder what place such acts have in a school.

I hear people talk of a 'good' beating. For me, that is a contradiction in terms. I asked a friend to let me see film of a 'good' beating so that I would know what it looked like. I would also like to hear what the person being flogged thought, so that I get the real sense of 'good'. These things should be shared if they are for our good, like in a public information broadcast. Without being facetious, we should see regularly 'good' floggings so that we do not forget what they look like. If it is to be done then let's make sure that it is done right and well.

As far as schools are concerned, I asked myself whether flogging is part of the teacher training curriculum or if it is something that teachers are expected to learn on the job. If the flogging is the sole prerogative of the school's principal (head teacher), and he/she is not trained, from when and where does the experience come? Perhaps there is a manual and someone can illuminate me. I recall from my school days guidance to teachers on things like number of strokes of a cane, and places on the body to be beaten, but not much on the amount of force. If a child says while being beaten, "Enough teacher" will the teacher stop? If not, why not? In my mind, schools and teachers may be asked to do too much; teacher are trained to teach and I am not sure that they should be expected to be good at child care in all its forms.

But why do we think that beating people can possibly right? We abhor an act of physical violence and think that another act of violence is warranted? If the flogging is for anything other than to 'discipline' a violent act what is the real lesson being taught?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What the new US first family stands for

Women notice different things than men about other women, and I'm sure that you've heard women's conversations that start up as soon as a female celebrity hits the screen: "Ooh, look. That does nothing for her; it makes her look so thin/fat/wide/short/cheap/junglish/trashy...". These are often the same women who want men to focus on them for what they are not just their bodies and clothes. But I'm not going far down that road today. I even had to close my ears to talk of whether the dress worn for the Inauguration was appropriate because it was lined with some insulating material, and flapped open to show this. Am I missing something? Well, we can all argue about the desgn by Isabel Toledo, and the ball gown worn later in the evening, that was designed by Jason Wu, I understand. But, whatever happened to lauding the lady's double Ivy League school background; her work as a high powered attorney; staying firmly the mother of children of a high-ranking political figure, now historic icon; and now stepping out as America's first black first lady? All over for you, Michelle, as the focus is not really on you but on things like the Jimmy Choo shoes.

Women also notice different things than men about other men. "Obama walks differently to Bush", I noted to my wife, imagining the gait that the new president has, which is a softened version of the familiar strut of many black men. "Yes," she agreed, "He's more upright." I giggled as I thought that my wife was already focused on the new president's erection. It's not true, though, from what I have seen. Perhaps she is seeing in the new president a sort of Darwinian aspect, of the gradual maturation from simian roots to being more upright in stance and stride; in that sense it could be a subtle cheer that President Obama is more developed than his predecessor. The pictures that I have seen of the two presidents standing or walking side-by-side seem to show to me clearly that the 44th incumbent is longer than the 43rd for sure, but he is more rounded and bent over at the top when he walks, and he too has a shoulder slup, that I would say is more pronounced than W's. You can check for yourself. But, our man is perceived by at least one woman to stand up like a stiff stick not a piece of wilting celery. Perceptions are funny things, eh.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Don't Worry If Words Fail

I have decided to not try too hard to find the right words for today. Sometimes words fail you for a good reason. So much excitement and anticipation have been behind the build-up to today's Inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America. So much hope and expectation has been placed on his shoulders. So much grief has seemed worthwhile as a result of his rise to this point. I discovered two days ago that sometimes the onomatopoeic grunts can be the best descriptors, the 'oooh', 'aaah', 'wow', 'fhoouf', can say more that splendifereous phrases.

We will follow as closely as we can today's events (see schedule).

The ordinary is always very close to the extraordinary. While all await the realisation of many dreams, there are many who may have a nightmare beforehand. I see the television cameras showing long lines at train stations, and confused people trying to find out where to go to see the events. I see people with the names of their ancestors and many with children in their arms. The weather is really a backdrop and the bitter cold of this morning, around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 Centigrade).

My first born daughter is already on the Metro en route with her mother to the Mall, and is very excited too. She's done the most so far to be at event. The congestion in the system is already incredible.

The security processes are supposedly very time consuming.

We wait to see if our ball tickets and arrangements arrive; I have a feeling that they will be lost in the mail.

Today is another first step, and it will have of course its share of first words, most notably those in the Inauguration speech. As parents know very well, from those first words and first steps nothing is ever the same again. You may wish to go back to the time before those first important events, but like everything, it can never happen.

As I write, the presidential parties are headed to St. John's Episcopal Church, opposite the White House, called the 'church of presidents'; the Obamas are just about to head to the service from Blair House. It should have started at 8.30am, but it is already 8.33. The day will roll on.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Midway to where? Cogito ergo sum.

My wife says that she learns a lot about what I do from my blog. Now, frankly, I'm not absolutely sure if that is a comment that is a criticism or a compliment. However, being generally of a positive disposition, I will take it to be more the latter than the former. By extension, it also reveals many of my thoughts, and because of its nature, I attempt to do more explaining than is often possible.

The blog contains few if any basic untruths, so in that sense can be useful. I say that I try to be transparent, and in trying to be so what I like to do is bind people into a story because down the road they help validate it, in the sense of confirming, and helping keep consistent notions of what occurred. The blog has become part of that binding in that those involved in stories can see themselves and hopefully agree on how they are seen and what they have seen, or agree on what they have said and how it's retold.

I've had several discussions in the past few months with acquaintances who also write, about the value of recording current events. We don't agree on this, but not in any violent way. But I hold to my notion that the value of recording current events comes from those early impressions being close to how one feels at the moment and how things appear at the given moment. Time changes all, they say, and that means it also changes what we recall and feel about an event. Many stories, when retold, get transformed. They usually make the hero more heroic and the villain more dastardly. They often have the principal changed. Many people, and it may be more true of couples, often replace themselves as the principal in a story: "I did..." soon replaces the real "We did..." or even "You did...".If you don't believe me, think hard about some events and try to remember the various retellings of the story. But, all of this is digression.

Yesterday I made several discoveries.

My wife and I had a pretty vigorous 'debate'--not for the first time, we did not really have a meeting of minds. What was very different this time was the presence of one of the children. Poor love, she arrived to have lunch with us in one of the glitzier malls in Virginia and found herself in the role of 'referee'. She did a fine job, I have to say. Well, that does not surprise me much. She is in fact a qualified soccer referee, having taken some steps in the "join them if you cannot beat them" way, because her Dad is also a qualified referee. That link did allow us to make some nice parallel arguments about what it means to deal with people where you really know the rules while they do not but do have some strong, but wrong, beliefs about what the rules are supposed to be.

My first daughter also gave me good confirmation of a belief I have held for years; she would make a good mediator. Now, she and I have discussed whether or not she needs to become a lawyer to do this and therefore if she needs to go to law school. I am still not convinced that law school is best but it may be the route she has to take to make the journey.

I've thought a lot about relationships over the past year. The thoughts are rarely limited to small personal relationships, and have extended to larger relationships, such as are found in organizations. Whether such reflections are because I am going through some midlife transition I cannot say. (I do not like the word 'crisis', which to me connotes negative rather than neutral or positive events.) I've thought about such things most of my life, but I guess time and circumstances have given me more chance to do so over the past year.

I am not a psychologist, and really am very wary of a lot of potboiler diagnoses. I tend to think that they make people lazy by not really looking at what is going on simply because they see elements that fit some general description. I am particularly leery of such 'diagnoses' when trotted out to explain many or any situation, without there being much analysis going on that looks at the many causes and effects on people's behaviour. One often sees symptoms that need to be related to the right causes to make the right conclusion. Taking a physical example, shivering, can be caused by many things: cold, fear, exhilaration, physical disease, and several other conditions. So, to deal with it properly you need to know its cause. If you always go to fear as the cause, because say that is the condition you have seen the most, then you have misdiagnosed, and you will mistreat the 'patient'.

But back to my thoughts. One set of definitions I found about midlife transition (see Psychology Today), states:

Midlife transition can include:

  • Discontentment or boredom with life or with the lifestyle (including people and things) that have provided fulfillment for a long time
  • Feeling restless and wanting to do something completely different
  • Questioning decisions made years earlier and the meaning of life
  • Confusion about who you are or where your life is going
Such conditions are supposedly brought on my major life changes, such as divorce or the death of a parent. Well, I was divorced about 10 years ago, and I lost my mother nearly 5 years ago.

But, I have 'suffered' most of these conditions almost every day of my life, more so when I was young than in my later years. I was 'discontented' that I did not make it to international level as an athlete, or play full time for a professional football club. But I am very content with all the championships I won and records I set on the track and the people who tried to get me to the highest level. I really loved playing soccer in different countries--much of Europe, in Malawi, in Mexico (altitude sickness, apart), in the USA, in the Caribbean. I loved being on the university team, being coached by a former professional, and getting the chance to show how good I was against professional club teams in representative games every week for five years. I made it as a 'semi-professional' player in England and Wales, having chosen to work at another skill that could withstand time (academics) instead of one that was really of short duration (sporting prowess). I taught a great bunch of girls to 'be all they could be' on a soccer field, and most of them were able to move on and play varsity at high school and some now play at varsity level at university. I was taught how to play squash by a former world champion; cutting your teeth under the close guidance of the best in the world is as good a start as you can have. I went as high as I could and hope that I helped others get higher than they would have. None of that is meant to be pompous. But if being content means sounding immodest then that's one of life's constant conundrums.

I really believe that I am satisfied with my own sporting career, but the chapter yet to be written involves my youngest daughter, who may want to go into sports in some way and may look to me to be a good guide.

To deal with other 'discontentment' in earlier years I travelled a lot (Europe, Asia; backpacking; etc.), took bigger risks (moved country; changed wife; changed jobs), changed my looks (had an Afro; had hair straightened; grew a beard; wore elegant, expensive clothes, wore shabby or very cheap clothes, etc.).

I have never felt sure about the work path I took; I was not a child who wanted to be something and did almost everything possible to make that happen. My parents, typical of many in the Caribbean, wanted me to be 'somebody'. For them, that meant becoming a doctor or a lawyer, someone that people looked up to and possibly had 'stature' in society. I went along with the lawyer notion for a long time, and given a certain gift of the gab that was not too difficult. I never really took a shine to medicine, even though both parents and several relatives were in the medical field. In the end, I took the law route to the door of university, took classes for one day, then had cold feet. I went to enrol in the economics department. Yet, since graduation, I tried hard to not be an economist; I qualified as an urban planner. Then my first job? I was set to work as a transport economist. And after that I ended up working for more and more prestigious economics institutions--Bank of England, IMF. Was that fate? Unavoidable, no matter I tried?

As I've aged I have felt more assured about who I am: I guess I sound boring countering remarks that I am "English" just because I have a very strong English accent. I say that being born in a place counts for a lot (Jamaican), and it's where your heart is (Jamaican), not how your larynx operates (English mainly, Jamaican as needed, French quite often) that matters. I now take the comments as being ridiculous and have a hard time not being offensive in my defence: as I often ask, "If I speak in French do I suddenly become French?" That's one of those unthinking assumptions that can become burdensome.

I have a very clear idea about my sexual preferences: no man has ever excited me and no man approaching me has ever set me alight with fear because I thought he might kiss me passionately. I have been kissed by a man in those normal social situations that one finds in other cultures, and it has never appalled me. I have been excited by the closeness of many women, and I have avoided kissing many because I knew that the physical attraction was very strong so needed to be kept within bounds. My best friend, in terms of being able to share sentiments has always been a woman at different stages of my life. My longest relationship before I was married was a platonic relation with a girl/woman I knew from school days. I continue to have platonic relations, which are wonderful because they allow for honest discussion with the notion of sex put off the table. When I discuss topics of gender preference I cannot feel for homosexuals because I do not share their desires, but I also have no despise or fear of them.

I was convinced a long time ago that I was not a good bureaucrat: I could not play office politics and had difficulty with contorted talk. Much as I love language and its flexibility, I struggled with the way that it was nuanced in an institution--on reflection, I think that is more a reflection on its being used largely in the negative. Good words became negative assessments because they were not better words or superlatives, so 'adequate'= inadequate, 'good'= not good enough, 'prospects'=no prospects at all, etc. That, to me, smacked of pure dishonesty without courage. Glad to be out of that. It seemed clear to me that smiles were not the things they should be. It may be trite to say that how people interact in an organization is often an extension of how the institution really is, and vice versa: showing little regard within makes it near impossible to otherwise outside.

The midlife transition is supposed to be when small, nagging doubts may appear, with questions such as 'Is this all there is?' 'Am I a failure?'coming to the fore. Well, I'm pretty sure that there is more to come--I look at my children for affirmation of that and I look forward to each day as being a chance to deal with a new challenge. I'm not into 'headless chicken' activities, aka wasting energy, so sometimes I do a lot less than I used to, but I try to do things that make sense and make good use of limited time. I know that I am not a failure, nor is that the case for anyone close to me. My measures?

I managed to get jobs in places that are supposed to be hard to enter and very discerning about the quality of people they take, and managed to do more than stay in one position. Flexibility does not necessarily lead to fancier titles or bigger 'responsibilities', but it does mean feeling comfortable in most situations. Winter in bitterly cold, dark, post Soviet countries is really exciting. Think about dealing with the risk of being killed by falling icicles. Think about sitting in a bath of hot water to stay warm. Think about working on complex issues where you and your counterpart do not speak the same language. Thinking about drawing pictures to explain how to convert from a system of artificially low or fixed prices and five year production plans over 15 countries, to a system of adjustable prices and goods and services being produced in response to things other than a planning document. Think about sitting in offices for days on end seeing the person with whom you are due to meet walk back and forth and being told that the person is absent. Think of going to a black African country and being asked, "Did you see the IMF economist on the flight?", answering "Yes. It's me," then being greeted with, "Really? but you are black." Can't help that, my friend. Think about being huddled in a car with your aged father (on a holiday visit) with people throwing rocks at your car and placing burning tyres in your way and your Dad saying "I'm so glad I made this trip."

Other metrics? Three children who are well educated or on their way to being well educated. One may decide to go onto a totally different track and do medicine. That's a huge commitment, but it shows courage to not balk at challenges to get to where you want to be. One is deciding what next after graduation. That means that the glass for them is nowhere near full and they will seek to put more into it until they are satisfied. Think of a child who converses happily in at least two languages and is not yet six. Think of that same child having travelled already several times to five of the world's continents.

Other metrics? My wife is one of life's extremely capable people, who made one of her best choices when she met me :-). She managed to raise one child mainly on her own for some 10 years, hold down a career, took a chance on leaving her cozy island home to advance her career, had the courage to have another child in her 40s, went to Africa afterwards and continued as a mother of a baby and a volunteer, then project manager for the United Nations, and generally "organizer par excellence", often working in a foreign language. All of that reflects well on me as an enabler :-)

Coping with midlife transition apparently takes time and energy. But what doesn't? This is why I have problems and tend to think 'gobbledygook". But time and energy (both spending it well and saving it) are necessary parts of finding greater satisfaction in life. According to the experts, you can maintain an active sex life, keep fit and enjoy yourself as you mature. I have tried to stick to these things most of my life, as permitted by the law and my age. So, in that sense I have been taking 'treatment' for a long time. It always worked well so I have no intention to change.

I said to my first born yesterday that someone who claims to be a friend but seeks to disparage your other friends is not a true friend, but is someone competing for your friendship. True friends do not need to diminish anyone you have chosen as a friend. That to me is not very complicated. I just say "Watch out for people like that"; I cannot see how their motives can be called 'friendly' and they seem more like rivals or even enemies. When you cherish your family (who are to me at the top of the pile of friends) you should not tolerate them being diminished by others, even others within the extended family. There is a reason why you choose your friends, but think hard if you allow some of your friends to have a role in determining the worth of your other friends. Being in my 50s solidifies that view merely because I have seen it now for 5 decades that for merely four or three or two.

Life is one long transition: that is what growth should be. Whether it really takes a particular bad turn for the worse in the 40s is not something that convinces me.

I think today, from a cold wintery day in Washington DC, about the point in history where we stand, watching a great nation meet what could be cited as a midlife transition. The president-elect is 47. Nice to be in good company.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Taking A Piece Of History's Pie

I am among a band of history makers today, after a day among the ordinary and the heroic. I am in Washington DC, making the trip back to a city where I worked and in and near which I lived on and off for most of the last 20 years. It's the city in which my youngest child was born.

The getting there is always interesting. American Airlines did their part to make the trip interesting. I have no hesitation saying that they did not spoil the trip in any way. On the contrary, they did things, which if done more often would make their business better in the eyes of many travellers. My personal programme coordinator, who travels enough to have gazillions of miles for upgrades, graciously upgraded me to the denizens of business/first class. Being a Jamaican, I had to add my particular flourish. So, when the check-in agent came checking and explaining that the computer was down, and the line would move slowly, we smiled and showed that we understood. I then followed her to get the immigration forms. I had already ribbed her about how Barbados and Jamaica are converging, with the kind of breakdown she mentioned. Crime, was her response, lack of it in Barbados. but then she conceded that Jamaica was not all bad thinking of the Blue Mountains, the food, the music, the vitality, etc. "A Jamaican would use the fact that he is now at the head of the line to get himself checked in," I quipped. She smiled and asked for my passport. Yes, I was surprised, but not shocked as I looked back of the long line made up of British jazz band now headed to Brazil after apparently raving the night before. I waved to the PC to bring up the gear and went to pull up the luggage.

On board, we had the usual nonsense with people who have little experience flying. Those who put their bags in the first space they see and thing that like on LIAT the flights to the USA have open seating. "Dese seat big, man", or "Lucky me to get on early enough sit up front, bro'". I poked my nose deeper into Sudoku, and waited for the flight crew to clear the spaces.

I have never studied why American Airlines went into financial trouble but always thought that the food had a lot to do with it. Up front, it's almost always pasta or a chicken dish; I did recently get beef, but it was so raw that I could only nibble the edges. Air Jamaica or Caribbean Airlines win hands down in that area, with the little jerk chicken or fricasee. Sweet. This time, we had some trickery: vegetable lasagna or chicken teryaki, we were offered. I asked for teryaki and the reply "Chicken"confirmed that it was rogered. The PC went for the lasagna; again, "Pasta" confirmed her choice. Oooh, something exotic in the chicken line at least, I thought. About 10 minutes later, we chicken hopefuls were being told that there was a mix up with the paper work and in fact chickens had flown the coop but we had salmon instead. One passenger made his view clear: "I prefer chicken," he said. The "Salmon" reply confirmed that his preferences were duly noted. So, onto the main event. I gave them one more chance to salvage grace when I joked that rather than a measly glass of wine I would prefer the bottle. Now, I have said this many times on a flight and only with British Airways does it get the matter-of-fact reply "I'll bring it in a moment." My server smiled and looked at me coyly, saying, "I can't do that."I told her that my children are not allowed to say 'can't' because it's over used and badly misunderstood. Five minutes later she brought the near full bottle of wine. I did not drink it but gave it back near the end of the flight, telling her that she had passed the test with flying colours and would graduate with first class honours.

By the time we landed in Miami the fun of flying had become too much and the nearly two mile walk to immigration sobered me up literally and figuratively. Then the shock. We heard the news of the US Airways plane that had crashed into New York's Hudson River earlier in the day. Thankfully, everyone survived and the pilot was being hailed a hero. We then had the odd juxtaposition of that news being followed by the live broadcast of President Bush's farewell address. A man came and sat next to us, with the introductory "That's terrible, what happened in New York". Without hesitation, we both put him straight and said that it was indeed wonderful: no deaths, few injuries, lots of stories of how terrible it could have been. Don't make a tragedy out of a drama. He got the point.

Then on to DC. I slept all the way. I wished that I had slept longer as I felt the sub-freezing temperatures hit my face. But, quickly, we were driving into the city and walking into the home of a good friend who will host us for the next week.

I hope that I do not have to say why I am in DC. I really want to be part of the celebrations on January 20, and for once really know where I was on a particular day. I am really very excited and also grateful that whatever else seems hard to achieve, trips like this never seem hard.

I am going to 'multitask' by linking this to my little DC Inaugartion 2009 blog, and vice versa.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Owing No Man A Thing

It's really lovely to live amongst the high and mighty, even though I would definitely call myself among life's meek and lowly. As I walked my daughter away from school on Monday, she grabbed me and whispered, "That's the prime minister, Daddy". My head turned and yes, there was the prime minister--at least one time removed from office, since last year's election defeat. I was mildly surprised to see Mr. Owen Arthur, dressed in a neat dark blue shirtjak, and not a soul was throwing themself on the ground or waving a fist and saying, "Go, Owin. You tell dem. Yea. Poor rakey, fi true." I had not heard that the ex-PM's daughter was now at the same school, but let me say a belated welcome. None of the fuss and hoopla that one would get in a place like Washington, DC, where men in dark suits and things sticking out of their ears would be jumping out of large dark vehicles and would be looking around frantically or worse pushing people out of the way, saying, "Coming through. PM coming through..." No, we get the simple life. Mr. Arthur can mind his own business, so to speak. But it set me to reflect on the vagaries of politics.

The ex-PM, of course, has his crosses to bear and the political opponents are ready to remind him of his many failings (see today's Advocate article by Hartley Henry about the ex-PM's apparent lack of modesty). Just a snippet, noting:

Not only did Arthur promote only himself in his speech, but he also sought to bring into question the professional judgment of some of Barbados’ most celebrated economic brains. As far as Arthur is concerned, it would appear, there are Economists and there are Economists. He is An Economist and no one else is, according to the inference that could be drawn from his pronouncements. But what is the record of this self proclaimed Dean of the Economic Corps?

Mr. Arthur has brought a bit of opprobrium onto himself with his claim that Parliament has become 'poor rakey'(woefully sub-standard), alluding to the level of debate and intellectualising. Again, many have not taken this as a good reflection on the man who seems to owe no one (see Trevor Yearwood's article in Nation, January 12), even pointing out that his 50 percent absence rate from the recent Parliamentary sessions suggests less than full value for money for his constituency.

All of this should not let me detract from wishing Barbados' current PM, David Thompson, happy birthday, for his first year of government on January 15.Mr. Thompson went on the national airwaves last night for a press conference, in the cozy setting of Ilaro Court, with some of the usual suspects posing questions (a few of which I had helped frame). I did not see all of the broadcast, but my acquaintance, Mr. David Ellis, was lobbing the usual fireballs and seemed set to 'tek no nonsense': he is wonderfully abrasive, which is not the same as being confrontational.

But PM Thompson also had his biffs to deliver, (see Advocate report). He had found 'an awful mess' left behind by (is that right behind?) the previous PM and his government. He described several of these, including the ABC Highway, allegations of corruption at Hardwood Housing Inc., and the operations of the Rural Development Commission and the Urban Development Commission. He hinted that if culprits were could culpable they would be culled (that's how Bajans say 'killed'?).

Much to my disappointment, PM Thompson could not put traction under a major campaign promise on integrity legislation. He said that his government was still committed to freedom of information and integrity legislation, but the process has taken longer than anticipated. He said that the independent committee commissioned to draft the legislation has made significant progress. But we are still waiting to see any concrete movement on this, and I think that this hurts the government's credibility.

On the economy, I heard of construction projects and plans that will help boost economic activity but did not hear about strategy. That too worries me. It's interesting that, by implication the government-friendly Advocate has a similar viewpoint (see report), because it has nothing to say in its editorial about the administration's economic policies, even using a tortured phrase, that has to be read at least five times:

...it would be hard to fault the DLP government for the continued socio-economic progress which we have enjoyed over the past year (sic).

So, in our simple little world the former PM is readily accessible to his people by just seeing to be an ordinary 'Joe', and the new PM is trying to be readily accessible by letting himself be questioned--in a broadly friendly manner--in front of television cameras and microphones. I would like to see if he is brave enough to have a Bajan 'town hall' meeting in a rum shop, or series of them.

As PM Thompson said last night, this is a small society. It's good that this still allows for the distance between the big ups ad the rest of us to be quite small.