Saturday 26 April 2008

Is it the HSE or our own priorities that are upside-down?

Was it in 2001, or 2002? I know I was living in north Mayo, but I forget exactly when it was that I took myself off to the village doctor about the thing in my nose.
Much like the rest of you, I might before leaving the house for an important social engagement just quickly check in the mirror to make sure my nostrils are not sporting any lemon meringue pies. 'Twas on one such voyage of visual exploration that I noticed my left nostril was about 80% blocked by a 'something'.
Hmm, thought I. If my nostril was 80% blocked, maybe I was losing out on 80% of that nostril's ability to draw oxygen.
Like, like, like it might be inhibiting the release my genius, man.
Our village doctor was a charming young Son of the Father Doctor, with time to chat, an acerbic wit and a permanent tan the like of which has rarely been seen north of Castlebar.
Apparently my 'something' was called a 'polyp', and nothing to be worried about. I could have it removed, but equally, he warned I should be aware that no invasive procedure was completely without risk, and one thing sometimes leads to another.
Secretly marvelling at his resisting the urge to go for some crass joke concerning illegal industrial action and pickets, I thanked him for his advice, and agreed that the sensible step would be to see an Ear Nose and Throat specialist; and so my name went onto a waiting list.
(Cue music: )
DUM dum dum de DUM.....
I heard nothing.
(Cut to the beginning of February this year.)
Oooh look, I've got a letter from the HSE.
"We are now in a position to offer you a consultation at a Private Hospital, under the National Treatment Purchase Fund, the cost of which will be covered under the NTPF."
It took me a wee while to spot it, but it somehow made perfect sense that the letter was printed upside down on HSE letterhead.
I wondered if that was the Health Service equivalent of a filing system?
(Scene: HSE staff meeting.)
'Right, lads and lasses, here's the story. The ones we pass on to the Private Sector, right, we write to upside down, right? That way we know what's what, right?'
Calling the freephone number to arrange an appointment for a consultation, I talked with an effusive and lovely woman, who treated me as if I had just saved her baby's life.
"Thanks so much, Charles. You need do nothing. We'll let them know, and they'll let you know. Thanks a million, yes, thanks for calling us."
Why was she so grateful? Bizarre.
A few days later I received another letter from the HSE, and was slightly saddened to read not the time of my new appointment, but rather an almost identical letter to the other, with a few less sentences; oh, and this one was printed the right way up.
Poopers. No appointment, and my HSE filing theory shot to ribbons!
No matter, because the very next day I received yet another letter from the HSE (also printed the right way up: those efficiency drives are clearly really kicking in!). This one told me that my nose had been transferred to a private hospital, which would contact me to arrange an appointment in due course.
That's all right. Although I'd like a professional opinion, my nostril's intake-of-air-to-effort ratio has thankfully improved substantially.
No rush. What's seven years between nostrils?
All of the blather written and spoken about the Irish Health Service can basically be split into two schools of thought.
There are those who believe Mary Harney has an impossible job that nobody else can do; that nobody else wants to do. They believe she is strong, brave and forthright in the face of great adversity.
Others believe she is a megalomaniacal Thatcherite spawn, on a mission to make the health service unworkable, so that, by comparison, the Private Sector looks preferable in every way.
Readers of this colyoom are offered another perspective, which offers you a positive and personal way to wrest yourself from this problem, and become part of the solution.
There are two extremely simple reasons why the Irish Health Service is in such a terrible state.
The first is so self-evident I cannot believe whining politicians are yet to exploit it: there are just not enough taxpaying adults in this country to support a health service as enjoyed in more densely-populated European countries. England has 60+ million people, and Ireland has 4.5. T'ain't rocket science.
The other reason we have such a degraded, under-equipped and under-resourced health service is not the fault of any government. It's your fault, and yours and yours.
Yes, this government is guilty of dumping the responsibility for the nation's health and welfare into their creation, the HSE. Akin to the Exorcist's possessed teenage daughter, the HSE is truly horrific, the unnatural C. Difficile Winter-Vomiting MRSA Ward Closing Cancer Test Mistaking People Dying On Trolleys Love Child of the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fail.
But governments do not exist to try to mend health services; they want only to win elections.
Each time we have an election, instead of demanding better pay for nurses; better hours for doctors; more beds on wards; more CT and MRI scanners, you vote for the party offering you the fluffy glossy lifestyle of more HDTVs, more PCs and SSIAs. Gimme the shaaany shaaany things and the free money. Hoo hooooh yeh! You have to love that free money from the government!
The great thing about a collective health service is that it is just that: down to us. A national health service cannot and should not be a distant separate entity to our own lives. We cannot decadently spoon the cream of our collective wealth over the yummy scrummy delights of a luxurious consumer society and then expect that our arteries will be scraped clean at the drop of a hat.
Until we take full and active responsibility for our own health, and choose to financially support through higher taxation the places and people we turn to when we need to save our lives, then the mess is of our own making, and whether you see Mary Harney as a political pioneer delivering us from waste and excessive bureaucracy, or a crazed stubborn rodeo rider atop a mad cow of a beast, it makes no difference at all.

Monday 21 April 2008

Just when I thought there was no hope, there came the Angel of Aer Lingus!

People persist in going
“Ohhh, hoo, hark at Mister Jetty Setty!”
if you dare to say out loud that you are so fed up with flying.
For some bizarre reason, even those who fly often keep cosseted in their brains a dream of perfect Pan Am Catch Me If You Can flying, wherein the whole process is quite heavenly.
That process is now big business, of which the fights themselves are the product, and we merely fill the seats.
Taking short haul flights in sudden and perfunctory fashion with the likes of Ryanair and Easy jet is as glamourous as feeling a bit vodka-and-white-wine queasy after a nightclub in the back on a minicab with a snogging couple who have forgotten you’re there.
Thankfully, we in Galway have Aer Arran, who are not cheap, but somewhere between the arcane whirr of their propellors, the slightly Alice in Wonderland mirage of their planes appearing just the tiniest tad too small, and the patient and pragmatic smiles of the cabin crew, the spirit of the West is wholly and rather wonderfully represented.
Indeed, Aer Arran do make some effort to nurture that ethereal and nonsensical notion of flying being fantastic darling.
They allocate seat numbers, which always helps make you feel more of a human being and less like a sheep at the boarding gate. They give you a newspaper, which, again alongside the West of Ireland, allows you to believe that you have won something just by being there.
Ryanair do exactly the opposite, but before Michael O'Leary gets all uppity, I’ll admit that they do exactly what they say on the tin.
They fly to from A to B on time.
Yes Michael, but I hate being one of your customers.
From your website onwards, we undergo a trying test of skill and stamina.
No I don’t want to buy your insurance. Yes I do have to pay to check in a bag. No there isn’t anywhere on my hard plastic seat to put a magazine or a bottle of water.
To some extent, I understand where Michael O’Leary is coming from. We are grown-ups, well able to buy newspapers and decide which airlines we want.
Yes, I’ll fly on your planes, Michael, but don’t take the piss.
The last time I flew Ryanair, from Knock to Luton, we were actually airborne only a mere and wonderfully short 55 minutes, yet also we were:
approached by a strained steward with trolley, offering ‘gourmet hot drinks’;
then bombarded by an announcement that there were also on board ‘gourmet hot snacks’,
approached by a stoically smiling steward with another trolley of food to buy; then bombarded by an announcement asking if we wanted to be millionaires, and why didn’t we buy a Ryanair scratchcard;
then bombarded by an announcement trying to sell coach tickets from Luton to London, followed by suffering cabin crew zooming along muttering a mantra of ‘coach tickets coach tickets’ at comically high speed, so they could be ready to do the same with the Duty Free that was already being announced and sold on a trolley up the aisle, while himself was preparing to announce the Gift Shopping, on special today (with an air of Shakespearian doom) essence of David Beckham and scent of Jade Goody;
then bombarded by an announcement trying to sell train tickets from Luton to London, followed by suffering cabin crew zooming along muttering a mantra of ‘train tickets train tickets’ at comically high speed, so they could be ready to put up everyone’s trays, get their seats in the upright position, ten minutes ‘til landing.
Michael, I’ll be your sheep, so herd me if you must, and I’ll even suffer your cheese grater pricing tactics that cut holes all over my wallet in a hundred different ways, but do us all a favour, eh?
Give your staff a break. Allow your customers to draw breath between attempts to score their hard-earned wads.
That flight was so short, there wasn’t even time for those ill-considered 2-for-1 Gin, Whisky and Vodka pouches you usually try to flog to your flying sheep.
People spend more when they’re pissed, do they, Michael?
Proud of those 2-for-1 alcoholic pouches are you?
Away from all these horrors, there exists the act of kindness from the professional who happens to love and be good at their job.
Long haul flights are as different to short haul as riding a bike is to driving a truck.
Well, ideally, but on a recent Aer Lingus flight from San Francisco to Dublin, nothing was going right.
The seat back screens that provide all the in-flight entertainment refused to work. For me, a minor inconvenience, but were I with three kids aged 5, 9 and 12, I might find it difficult to explain
But I wonder, would I let them play instead with my computer, screaming shouting yelling, keeping the whole plane awake for the entire 10 hour flight?
Then I was asked to put away a packet of cashew nuts, because there was a passenger on board who had a nut allergy, and were the subtlest whiff of my nuts - oh please, behave yourselves - to get into the air conditioning system, she’d go purple nasty,
I’d barely had time to consider this, when that old long haul chestnut, the medical emergency, (“Is there a medical doctor on board?”), came along. Poor old geezer two rows back thinks he’s having a stroke, and you feel terrible for being such a selfish bastard to be hoping he recovers and doesn’t die or get worse, because you really do not want to have to land at Cackahooppeee in the Andalusian Mountains to get him to a hospital, and on and on, this flight from hell goes on and on, into this darkest night.
Save for herself, the Angel of Aer Lingus!
Proving me wrong, and giving hope to the cynics of the world, she replaced my nuts with a tube of Pringles. Then, having apparently seen me grimace at the wine I’d bought, she appeared with a swish from behind the curtain to the Slightly Better People Than You Little People section, bringing me another glass of red.
“That might be a little better, Sir,” she smiles.
“ Mmmmm, dapppsh luvbberrrly!” dribble I, as she swishes and clips her way to make other people smile.

Friday 11 April 2008

Do you need to know 'Why?', or can you accept that 'It is'?

Oh boy. Lordy lordy Miss Maudy. I'm all over the place. Physically, mentally, spiritually, I'm splattered over London and Galway.
My poor old mind hasn't had a chance to take in all that happened on my American adventure, because I've been flying back and forth to my Dad's London hospital room, four days here, four days there, each time unsure whether he'll be there or not.
Lost in exhaustion, disoriented and dizzy, this afternoon my feet naturally gravitated towards the Prom, and took me up to Black Rock, where people of all ages sat on the steps, staring out to sea.
There are often people there, weather permitting, but today I found sudden and substantial pleasure from the sight of them.
My life is at the moment hurtling at high speed, and after being in California and London, where everything from feet to time itself moves so much faster, it was wonderful to be back in the west of Ireland, and see people pondering the ocean; contemplating.
Just, simply, being.
Despite ages ranging from 15 to 80, not one of these step-sitters was playing with a mobile phone. There were neither i-Pods nor Nintendos; neither books nor newspapers.
Just the view, the air, the peace and quiet.
Just being.
Whilst living with Yoda Casanova in the Claddagh many years ago, we sat in the kitchen drinking tens of thousands of cups of tea, smoking fags and snarfing disgusting amounts of chocolate biscuits, talking talking talking through the long wet dark afternoons.
The weighty matters of the universe were all given much respect.
As the months rolled by, I saw a rhythm emerging from our conversations.
Essentially Yoda was constantly asking:
and I was inevitably replying:
"It is."
It made me wonder if we did not represent two specific personality types.
Are you a 'Why?'. Warriors all, the 'Whys?' dedicate their lives to challenging everything.
Or do you, like me, seek to live in the Land of Acceptance, where It is. We too dedicate ourselves to trying to fully understand what is going on, but once we find out, we just want to accept it.
Having just returned from places where people believe they need constant artificial stimuli to get through their days, it was profoundly comforting to see folk happy to sit; gaze at Galway Bay; breathe; just be.
Recently I was at a poker party in a small town in California, enjoying around the table the company of an eclectic, witty and good-humoured assortment of locals and blow-ins.
As is common, the Deal passed from person to person, and Dealer called the game. Having been made most welcome, I relaxed in the company and kindness of relative strangers, and tried to follow the way they played cards.
Each Dealer called impossibly complex variations, and tiredness, beer and my very small brain conspired to combine and confuse me completely.
"Now, have it got it? The first queen to come out is wild, but 4/3/2 is the best hand, and if another queen comes out then she's not wild, and neither is the 3?"
"Yeh, that's it. We love to keep it changing so we don't get bored!"
No chance of that, but sadly, equally no chance of this bear playing for long either.
Never mind trying to work out the probability of getting a good card when cards were becoming wild and unwild at random, I was so tired I could scarcely blink, let alone follow the game.
So cashing in my chips, I then thoroughly enjoyed watching them having a great time.
But made me think.
The poker I love is that of Draw, 5 or 7 card stud.
From within the stark confines of those simple games there dwells a wealth of probability, skill, bluff and luck.
I don't need to change the game all the time.
I just want to understand the game really well.
Those fine and generous people preferred to keep their minds as flowing rivers, constantly changing, meeting new challenges and rhythms.
Mine own bonce is more like a lake, with me on a tiny boat, adrift in the middle of it, staring into its depths, revelling in how incredible it is.
My father is facing a dilemma.
Since his recent bout of illness, he is neither enjoying life nor ready or willing to die.
It has been very difficult watching him living in his shrunken world, but I hope that somehow he finds an answer to his question, a remedy to his fear. I hope he finds some peace, so that we all might share it with him.
The good Galwegians sitting on the steps at Black Rock were happy to be there and enjoy the natural stimuli provided by the Universe.
Once we are able to just be and enjoy that which is around us, we might become less fearful of dying. If we truly accept that we are part of it all, and that all of it just is, then there need be no fear.
Often in this colyoom, I have referred to myself as Jewish, but that's my blood and gene, not my whole.
When you drive through the American wilderness, every single radio station disappears, save for the Christian. It made no difference if the signal was blocked by towering mountains or lost in the vastness of the desert: rock 'n' roll' was a gonner; news and talk radio were nowhere to be heard; but the Christian message, in many of its more extreme forms, came through loud and clear.
I thought maybe 'twas the power of the Lord, until Yoda pointed out how incredibly rich and powerful is the lobby of the Christian Right over there.
Whilst I have the utmost respect for those who find solace and strength within formal religion, I feel utterly and completely spiritually complete within my atheism.
I love the Christian ethics of turning the other cheek, and loving thy neighbour.
As a Jew, I love to toast l'Chaim - to life!
Alongside Islam, I too know that much is beyond my personal control: Insha'Allah - God willing.
But more than all the above, as my anchor in troubled and tempestuous times such as this, as well as the key to my joy in happier days, I choose to believe quite simply and beautifully: It is.

Thursday 3 April 2008

Excuse me Mr Immigration Officer Sir, but which one is my trigger finger?

In the land of the free, people talk freedom a lot. Freedom to vote and freedom to choose what to eat, where to live, what work to do.
Trouble is, choices are only fun or substantial if they offer you two different things to pick.
The Democratic nomination has captured our imaginations here in Europe, because there's a black guy up against a white woman. We know that if there was a white guy in the mix, he'd win, so we're happy our cousins have more than their usual choice of a white guy or a white guy at the upcoming General Election.
To help out, the Republicans have chosen an older white guy, so all the runners and riders can score some kind of social cachet.
As I pull off the Interstate 80, on my way to Sacramento, I wish there was more choice of things to eat. Sure, there's seven different restaurants here, but they are all generic chains, and rather than stare at different colour piccies above yet another fast food counter, I yearn for the American Diner, where you can have just about anything you want cooked any way you want it, unless you're Jack Nicholson.
But walking around this suburban plaza, I feel the calm of these people, and see the smiles on their faces. This is Northern California, and there are many places in this vast country a lot less well-off. The sky is blue and even though we're a half mile from the 10 lane highway, their world feels quiet, calm and affluent. Their souls are replenished by suburban life, and all power to them.
Wish mine was.
After all the current hype about Immigration at US airports, I felt almost let down to be allowed through without even a bag thrown over my head.
You have to put your fingers over a lasery light that takes pictures of your fingerprints.
I was so jetlagged I couldn't remember which was my index finger, so I asked yer man in the uniform behind the tinted glass.
"Your trigger finger, Sir!" he yelled back crisply.
Turning my head to him once more, I looked at him even more sheepishly.
"Sorry, er, but y'see, that doesn't help me much!"
As he stamped my passport, I read his mind with my Extra Sensory Powers, and found out how much he wanted to tell me which goddam finger it was and where he'd like to put it right up, Sir!
The ticket machine at the airport's BART train station will not take my $50 note, so I ask the woman in the booth if she can sell me a ticket. She is black, 50something and, apparently has a father from Gort ... small world innit gosh wow.
She writes me a free ticket and points to the train I need, yelling out
"Say hello to the old country for me! My dad says there's too many foreigners there now!"
Awash with her kindness and generosity to me, I am bewildered and perplexed by her relationship to Ireland. She could not look less Irish if she tried. Were she to show up back home, she would be perceived as foreign in every way. Even I, an interloping English Yiddish and Rubbish Blow-in, might better pass for a local.
But as pure American, she was friendly, willing to help a needy stranger, just as upon the day of my return, another BART employee left her booth and helped me use the ticket machine, while she danced and sang and make light and easy chitty chat with me.
I tried to envisage either a worker from CIE or London Underground being arsed to behave similarly. No offence, but American people actually enjoy helping others.
Like all the best nations, America is packed full of contradictions. In a land totally dominated by car and truck, nobody has more respect than the pedestrian (except in NYC!). Stand by a crossing and every motor in sight stops 20 yards back. When they drive through a town, around schools and malls, they crawl at 25, uniformly and respectfully.
In a land where hierarchy rules, where getting to the top is of the utmost importance, there persists an informality that might grind on certain customers.
The young blonde behind the counter of the Holiday Inn Express insists on calling me 'hun'.
"Have you got your credit card, hun? Drivers licence, hun? Okay hun, that's it all done! Room 224, hun!"
Okay blondie. I am not your hun. Plain old 'Mr. Adley' would suffice.
Earlier that day I had driven several hundred miles in a straight line up US 5, and eaten at another of those food plazas.
KFC McDonald's Burger King Taco Bell Jack In The Box blind I was, and yearning for something that a cook in a kitchen made from scratch, when through the air-conditioned hermetically sealed car air supply came a vile putrid stench; a syrupy excretal cocktail of death and stagnation. For a minute I was scared that there might be a corpse in the car, because I could not work out how such a stink could make it through the A/C, but there, on the side of the highway, was my answer.
Mile after mile after mile of crammed motionless sad dirty and dishevelled cattle, standing packed as sardines on mud, no blade of grass in sight, stretching over the landscape like tens of thousands of tree stumps in a felled forest.
Truly, it was one of the saddest, most tragic and foul things I have ever seen.
Burgers in the making. Have yours just how you want it, as long as you're not a cow.
That night I went out of my way to find a restaurant, and ordered salad.
That's the thing about choice: good ones don't cause suffering to others.
A few days later, sitting on the rainlashed bus from Dublin Airport to Heuston Station, I'm fumbling in my bag for the last and millionth look at my trip file, well-crinkled maps and now-redundant route plans.
I'm looking for the Galway train timetable I printed out before I left.
And there it is, my welcome back to Ireland, in huge letters at the top of's own printout. At the top of the page, in bold blue ink on a black background, CIE tell it like it is:
'The party's over.'