Retiring, but not shyly: some thoughts about work and worth

One of the unexpected pleasures that come with retirement is the freedom to laugh at people. It’s always there, but being ‘out of the active workforce’ allows one to speak without fear of retribution in the workplace. Right now, I’m having a good inner laugh as the so-called ‘working classes’. Before, anyone reaches for a vase to throw in my direction, I’m not going off on some classist rant about ‘unwashed masses’ or ‘those people’. I’m looking at the sizeable and growing mass of people who think that their ‘work’ puts them in some privileged position. 

One thing I really enjoy these days is answering the question “So, what do you do?” I often reply “I’m retired,” then add a rider, such as “But, I do pole dancing.” That’s usually good for a few minutes of interest. In ‘power towns’ like Washington DC, that question used to come out so that people would know to whom they should latch onto at cocktail parties so that a ‘good ‘connection’ could be set up. “We must do lunch. Call me!” Finger and thumb poised by the face. It was a tired set of lines, and would never rank high in the pick-up phrases of the century.

Many people, when asked, detest the jobs they have. This time, last year, the New York Times published a survey they had conducted with Harvard into the reasons; the results are interesting to read. Curious, then, how people cling to phrases like ‘It’s my job’, or ‘I’m working’ as if they give life. But, maybe, that’s it: the ‘job’ gives life. Without it, many feel and fear death, literal and metaphorical. Those of us ‘on the other side’ can send back messages saying “It’s alright, here.”

I was assailed by one those “I’m working” moments the other day. As an economist, I’ve thought a lot about work and what labour means in an analytical sense. One of the things I noticed, over the years, is that perception of work and its worth are personal and collective. One aspect of that is how the modern ‘I’m working’ brigade tend to be people who my grandparents would have called ‘paper shufflers’. It speaks to the shift in our economies and societies away from manual labour to service and thinking jobs. The brain is the new tool in many fields.  The output of such ‘work’ is often barely visible. The absence of long lines at counters may reflect the thoughtful plan put in place by a manager. But, it’s when we have to wait hours that we see a problem and think that people need to work better. 

I walked into an office building the other day and saw no one sitting at any of the desks; they were all out at meetings or working on site. Knowing what is work and when it is being done well, nowadays, is tricky. SSex worksers may spend most of their days lying down. Far be it for us to say that they need to get up and do some work. 

I can’t speak personally to the days when the tractor took over from the hand ploughs and if there was similar issue about those who used the new tools.

At various points in my life I’ve done physical or heavy labour for a living: on a building site and farm, for instance. I’ve also been around lots of people who worked in similar and more physically challenging fields: coal mines, fishing trawler, butchery, abbatoir, bakery, factory, were among those areas.  

What did you do, today?
never heard any of those people utter such a phrase as ‘I’m working’. I guess part of it was that their work was quite obvious.

When I played football in a rural part of Britain, if one of my football team mates came into the dressing room with his blood-spattered apron, he wasn’t asked or felt the need to say, what he’d been doing. In Wales, he might have said, with that Gallic lilt, “Chopping up some Englishmen,” if he felt the need to take a dig at someone.image

We’ve learned that people’s personal perception of their jobs is important. So, it’s interesting that surveys often point to the fact that many people ‘hate’ the jobs they have and how it restricts their ability to do what they want to do. Why do they stay? Many reasons, real and imagined. But, moving jobs is both a positive and negative in society’s eyes. The person cannot stay with a job? The person has outgrown the job and needs more challenges? The person is hard to work with. They dislike their home life. Much more. 

The current generation is challenging work notions more vigorously, it seems, if you look at the graphic above. But, challenge as they may, the stock of opinions is still not theirs to decide. The divide between personal and collective perceptions of work and attitudes to it are shown graphically in the chart.

One of the things that retired people as a group tend to discover is that besides doing ‘tasks’ for money, a bounty of opportunites exists to do things for other people, and getting paid for it is often far from their minds. Let’s call that ‘volunteerism’, for want of a better term. People who leave the workforce before retiring also discover this set of opportunities. 

Just yesterday, when a suden rainstorm hit Kingston in the midafternoon, I bumped into  a Canadian lady at school. Her husband is here on assignment, and she has her career ‘on pause’. She had a toddler in her arms, and two young children were holding her hands. She could not hold an umbrella and was getting soaked. I offered her mine as cover. She greeted me with a big smile and said it was such a long time since we’d seen each other. But, she’d been busy with having to complete some studies she was doing and with a lot of volunteer activity. She’s a hard worker.

One of the challenges that people are having to address is how to use their time with fulfilment, not just fully. A rat can run all day on a treadmill: that’s being busy. Is it fun? Is it fulfilling? I shouldn’t presume, but for a human, that seems less fun.

I took up golf about four years ago. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing myself with professionals or even very good amateurs in the following. Top golfers are reported to practise about eight hours a day. That’s a day’s work. Between two to four days of the week they play in tournaments; many practise afterwards, to correct problems they encountered during their day’s play. All have warm-up routines that basically practise the important techniques they need. Their work days are very long. Their skills show how well they have practised. We know, or at least profess to believe, that practice makes perfect. I’m in retirement, I try to play about two days a week, but I try to practise every day–in my yard, not at a range or on a golf course. I work on the weakest part of my game. I work on posture. I work on swing. I work on mental things, such as not getting excited about good shots or depressed about bad ones. I work to be consistent. That’s a lot of work. I do other things, too. Some I volunteer for, some I choose. I enjoy my work, in all its forms.

My suggestion to the ‘I’m working’ fraternity or sorority is to ensure that that ‘work’ is really fulfilling some purpose or personal objective in which you have a passionate interest, not just filling time. 


Back by popular demand, let’s hear it for David Simmons and the Simmonettes!

I’m not besotted by TV series, like Games of Thrones: few plots are hard to discern, and when they try to move away from what seems obvious twists, they often become just weird. Live events, like sport, and even court room proceedings, have many real twists that are better than fiction. 

Again, this week, Jamaicans and anyone who wants to follow the proceedings online, are being treated to another episode in the West Kingston Commsission of Enquiry. This time, we have another set of police officers, mainly in the form of the then-Deputy Commissioner, Glenmore Hinds.  

Former DCP Hinds giving testimony (courtesy TVJ)
I‘m not wont to talk about people’s bodies, but I like it that our top cops, have their tops cropped so short that they shine. Anyway, to the man’s evidence. He gave another insight into police thinking in trying to apprehend (police jargon) Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke in May 2010. What did we learn?

  • The JCF had plans in hand from at least the preceding year to ‘get their man’, whom they knew to head the most serpentine criminal organization in the land.
  • They had ‘intelligence’ (jargon for an informer) that gave them a great insight into the inner workings of the man’s gang.
  • They knew where he hung out in Tivoli Gardens and where he had a home in a plusher part of Kingston.
  • Tivoli lived with a ‘code of silence’, with no one saying anything bad about the area and its inhabitants.

Yet, with all of this ‘intelligence’ and concern about how Tivoli was run by a “surrogate government”, with Mr. Coke as judge and jury, and that the workings of the gang made ‘normal policing’ impossible for years, and how the gang’s ‘sub-franchises’ (makes it sound like a burger empire, or is it burglary empire?) were also making life hard on a broader geographical scale, the man remain untouched.

Now, I’m no hero, so when I hear that the police could cruise into west Kingston and be allowed to move freely, but when they tried to apprehend anyone, the citizenry would turn on them and stop them, I have to ask “What were you waiting for to get in there and restore normal order?” I’ve never heard of police tolerating such things unless under certain kinds of instructions. But, let that take you where it will.

With this background, however, I then find it bizarre that the police and security forces did not expect utter mayhem when they decided to mount an operation to arrest the man. THE WRITING WAS ON THE WALL!

Now, planning is one of those things that I happened to have studied. So, I look on in total disbelief when I hear about ‘plans’ that the police laid out. They knew the area was riddled with gullies (or in their terms, ‘waterways’–so floral). Yet, they did not put in place procedures to block them as escape routes, even though they knew these had been used this way in the past. Guess how Mr. C escaped? Give that lady a prize! If the ‘intelligence’ was so intelligent, why was it not informing police actions better? Oh, is that the meaning of ‘artificial intelligence’?

It’s ironic that this week saw the passing of one of the best mathematical minds of recent times, John Nash. He was famous for work on game theory. No time for nerdiness, now, but one of its elements is to try to figure out strategies to beat an opponent. It should have been known by the police that if the criminals could be inflitated by ‘intelligence’, then so too could the police force. We don’t need to look into spy dramas to see how that works. More than that, if the criminals got wind that their inner sanctum had been breached, then what better than to feed the crow what it wants and let it fly away but with nothing of much value? It’s spy versus spy, and in Mad magazine fashion, that often ends with stalemate. 


I cannot believe that the police would have relied on their ‘intelligence’ alone, but it’s hard to discern what else they were using to guide, or misguide, them. 

What we now have seen clearly is that the police did what often leads to bigger trouble: they tolerated that which they should have stopped. Like with all such behaviour, the action needed to stop it is much more over time than it would have been at the outset. People and organizations build strength over time. Your adversary gets bigger and hard to control. I’ve never been to police or war school, but it’s just an obvious fact of life. ALL the talk about how the country dis-served the people of Tivoli is good sounding but was aided and abetted daily by those whose task it was to serve the community and deal with crime. Like grease on a cooker that isn’t removed, it gets sticky and dirtier and harder to dislodge.

On top of those bigger picture aspects of the police’s activity, we were allowed to get a taste of the operations on the ground from another police witness. I did not see much of the testimony, but I watched the segment when an attack on the police was described. We were told of a ‘drive-by’ shooting and of gunmen ‘”shooting from trees”. We heard how the police took cover inside a building. The commission chairman asked if the police did not fire back. He was told yes. He then asked if any men fell from the trees, and if not whether that was a sign of poor marksmanship. Of course not! It was a sign of compassionate police work. Like with an ad agency, people can often believe too much in their own copy. 

But, all of this vivid insight is for what? The lawyers have their briefs, some of which are often so tight that their eyes are popping out on stems. But, they need not get into such a huff and puff. All they need to do is watch Sir David’s right hand and if his pen is moving. I asked JNN if they would put an inset screen up so that we could see when this was moving. In fact, they could go one better and have it toggled to a beeper so that when we are dozing off we can be alerted to pay attention to something that is really notable. Sir David said he’s not written much. That’s a lot of money to being paying for nothing much. No, I’m not going there…yet.

The land of ‘Wait a bit’ can’t move quicker? 

Jamaica has some wonderful place names. How evocative to live in places such as Cockpit Country, Wait-a-bit, I-no-call-you-no-come, or Put together Corner? It seems to reflect our just-so side. 

The world has become accustomed to our speedy inventiveness and ability to solve problems. Just yesterday, in some sudden afternoon showers, I saw this in action when the motorbike in front of me had a rider with plastic bags on his shoes to stop his getting wet feet. We are can-do people. Sometimes.


For a country so wrapped up in things biblical, though, it’s often odd how we don’t apply its lessons. We’re told that God made the world in seven days. Yet, give Jamaican bureaucracy any issue and it turns into almost a parody of Parkinson’s Law–tasks expanding to fill the time available; though, we go further and stretch and stretch the time. 

If ever we needed fast solutions, the people not to seek it from are government functionaries and politicians. Just look at the last few weeks:

  • Plans for logistics hub: Wait forever for promised progress. Then, get an MOU and give the parties 30 days to fess up. Deadline reached. Get a committee formed to ponder and ponder. 
  • Impose deadline of June 1 to cable companies to unscramble their pirated content. Feathers ruffled in PM’s office. Solution? Extend deadline for 90 days.
  • West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: are we there, yet? When will it end? It seems like 15 days on, 15 days off. My mother used to do shift work as a nurse and it was odd to not see her some nights or not some days. Will they be done by December 15, as the Barbadian chairman told us, yesterday? 

It just seems that like guests at a great dinner, we can’t resist just one more bite. 

Is it the laid-back syndrome? No problem, man? Take it easy, nuh bredda! Soon come! Being late for events? Leaving important things to the last moment? It all seems to be a spoke on the same wheel. 

Is it procrastination? Is it a mere inability to think through policy issues fast with clarity? My mind wasn’t fully formed in the Caribbean, so I have some awkward British habits, like being on time. I also do things that I commit to: I don’t need to be asked if it’s done. My feet are up because my work is finished. I try not to be surprised by the obvious. 

But, Jamaica seems full of the never-ending and everlasting. In my cynical moods, tempered by what economics taught me, I know that the root is often money. You get more by stretching things out, even if it’s not written simply that costs are by the hour. But, as it’s Jamaica, one also has to see the obstructionist tendencies at work: like good parties, “It cyaa dun, yet!” 

Maybe, it’s just a bit childish: “Aw! Do I have to go to bed, now?” 

Delay, delay. We are being served injustice, as in ‘justice delayed is justice denied’. But, is it just us? 

Fresh fish for sale: The media and the gullible public

I don’t know when the trend began, but many newspapers (and later, radio and television media) discovered that ‘juicy’ headlines and intriguing stories sell better than dull headlines and mundane stories.

Now, the world isn’t full of juicy stories and intrigue. So, when newspapers find something interesting to report, they will focus on the juicy and fleshy part and draw us in.

When you read ‘Boy pats dog and gives him a bone’ next to ‘Girl rides pony over cliff’, I’d hazard that you read about the girl and pony before the boy send dog story. Of course, we’ve livers of boy-dog stories, who can’t resist just one more. What the media also know is that most people are happy to take what they receive and not question that much.

Papers which have a reputation for extraordinary stories, such as National Enquirer, know that reporting on peeping through windows, or always being where aliens have landed, is not likely to be challenged by the few others who do the same and hardly at all by anyone else. That gives them time to run with bits of stories and by the time some think they smell a rat, they’ve moved on to reeling in other fish.

Many juicy stories have a grain of truth. So, the girl and pony did ride off a cliff, but it was part of a staged stunt to test a safety harness.  Other times, stories seem juicy because only one side of the story is presented, maybe with vague confirmation or denials from other parties. The reporter runs with the herring and the scent is strong and followed all the way. By the time the principals hear of the reports, the press, like a con man, has changed jackets and is not selling Rolex watches cheaply, but Cartiers.

The media know that public focus shifts fast and ability to press for facts is low. Even well-educated and well-read and well-connected people are prone to being caught by a scent. They may even help drag the fish, because they ‘know’ how the bodies involved operate. But, they forget that no matter how well they knew Adam and Eve, as tennis partners, they were never in the same bedroom. So, when Eve bought apples for the first time from Whole Foods and offered one to her beau, who took it, the press got wind of it. But, even in a garden in Paradise of only two people that’s no story. Enter the snake, invented by the fresh new cub reporter, Lucifer, who got the core of his idea of the apple being an evil offering accepted by his editor, Gabriel. The rest is history, or is it fiction?

Though not what sparked my thoughts on this, yesterday’s papers had elements of this. ‘Girl gangsters booted! screamed the Gleaner front page headline. We were taken along the trail of violent and intimidating behaviour at the all-girls Queen’s School. Shockingly, we were told it was an all-girl gang, and dubbed ‘Mafia gang’ by a teacher. I grabbed my coffee cup and peered at the poorly smudged images of girls from the school–not necessarily the gangsters, which begged certain questions.

Not gangster girls from Queens School (courtesy The Gleaner)

But, sip on.  I noted that the paper stressed that the school had refused to comment. I noted that there was no mention of police reports. I noted that there was no reference to any child protection agencies. I noticed a few gaps in how the story ‘tied together’. It may all be true, but, then again, it may not. Will the Gleaner run a follow-up? Will parents or school administrators comment? Will the JCF give some insight, as the chasers of gents and gangsters? In nine days’ time will we remember the story? Wait! What’s this? Head of Love March found in… 😳

Mickle Depreciates to 0.12 Muckles

Really, deadly funny post.

The Ungrateful Soup


In perhaps the clearest sign of the ailing economy since the news that it will now require approximately four four cocoas to fill basket, the Bank of Jamaica has released a report which highlights the free-falling value of the historically resilient mickle to muckle exchange rate.

Bryan Wynter, Governor of the BOJ, elaborated on the findings at a recently held press conference on the matter. “We regret to inform the nation that the mickle, previously believed to be safe from the fluctuations of the national economy, no longer holds the same stable relationship to muckles we have been taught to believe for our entire lives. This development will of course have immediate and long term effects on every single national and international transaction conducted between Jamaicans for the foreseeable future.”

The Governor went on to point out that the newly released data serves as a useful reminder that no standard of value…

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Benevolent eyes: Coach!

Monday afternoon was frustrating. I left my house earlier than usual to meet the school principal: we needed to resolve a few adult communication issues. Good intentions get misunderstood at the best of times. All sides spoke; matters were well aired; we needed to talk again and make sure all roles and points of view were well understood.

It was 1pm, and football practice should have started. But, a huge cloud had rolled in over Manor Park and was shedding its load. Rain was flying in and onto the verandah, so I couldn’t train there. The first preschooler came out of her class. “Coach!”

She ran to me and jumped into my arms. I explained that bad weather meant we couldn’t play today. She frowned. “Aw!”

Moments later, two classmates came running: “Coach!” I gave the boys a group hug and explained that no football would happen. Their eyes drooped.

My Monday afternoons usually have half an hour of frenetic activity as I try to teach little kids at the Centre for Language and Culture, mobility and balance, some simple football skills, plus how to share. It’s more interesting because the school teaches in English, French and Spanish, and I may need to coach in any of those languages. It’s fun to switch, almost in mid-sentence, between the three languages, plus some Patois.

When I don’t show up due to other commitments I get complaints the next time I see the kids. When weather beats us they understand but remain disappointed.

Next Monday is a holiday, so no coaching again. What a big gap I have in my life.

Benevolent eyes: a day as a CCRP director

I promised myself to focus only on good things Jamaican, today. It was going to be easier because I was due to assist in a presentation to a centenarian, in my role as a director of Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP). Ms. Esmie Mitchell was having a 103rd birthday celebration; she was born on Christmas Day 1914. My paternal grandmother would have been around the same age. That made me sad and excited.

I blotted out things that would draw me to the dark side. Notably, I hoped PICA would find a simple solution to a problem that was of their own making, having announced a 40+ percent increase in passport fees, but a week away. The swarm to beat the rise caught them by surprise. Why? It’s not hard to envisage what was likely to happen. It’s even more obvious after years of no increase. Surely, not an economist alone could figure it out? Did anyone walk through possible scenarios? How could business as usual be expected? 

I took a deep breath. I exhaled.

I read my notes ahead of the presentation. I practiced some golf shots. I ate a snack. I got ready to leave just after 9:30. The time arrived. As I left, the daughter of a guard waved to me. I stopped and asked why she wasn’t at school. She explained that school had closed, ahead of Monday’s Labour Day holiday. I asked her mother if she could go with me. She agreed.

We reached the seniors home, five minutes away. Things were being set up, a little behind schedule. We waited, patiently, as chairs were set out on a covered verandah. Then, a van arrived and men emerged with more chairs. They set up a tent and added these chairs outside. 

 Ladies were wheeled out and seated under the tent. They all looked in good health and alert. Then, the birthday girl came out, with a walker and assistants whom she soon shooed away. She was in a simple beige and cream outfit. 


We got started about an hour late. The programme was shuffled so that a CCRP colleague could make another meeting. I made a brief introduction, then we gave Ms. Mitchell a gift basket. 

I also had to leave before a group of young dancers performed and cake was supposed to be served. I gave the birthday lady a kiss.  

My young guest had been co-opted as a photographer and took great pictures during the event. It was education that wasn’t in the curriculum. 

As we drove home, she said how surprised she was to see older people looking so well. I agreed. 

We’re living longer and healthier lives. Jamaica has over 120 people older than 100; we also have the 4th oldest person in the world, aged 115; her son is in his 90s, the oldest child with a surviving parent.

I’d found some good things in Jamaica, today. Let me bask as I enjoy reflecting on them.

Jamaica: The land of the curate’s egg 

Jamaica is a country full of wonderful places and exceptionally good and nice people. It can give you experiences that take you to new highs. Yet,… It doesn’t take much to lose sight of all that. You can be dragged down to the lowest point within moments of hitting those highs.curates egg

When I wrote a few days ago about the country being more than stuck in a rut, it was based simply on a series of personal observations of things I could see for myself. I never drew on images fed to me, by media or other people. The heavy tinge of negativity came through stronger than the sweet taste of positive feelings. Why was that?

It’s because of what we have let happen.

In addition to my own observations, I could have added much from the pages of the daily papers. They tell me persistently about the very dark place that Jamaica has become. The place of murders. The site of horrific abusers of children. The land of corrupt public officials. A scammers’ paradise (on which, there’s a telling story in today’s Gleaner of how a good venture has been killed by association, i.e. the belief that all Jamaicans are scammers). Those are all aspects of how Jamaican people have become good at stepping on their fellow citizens, or those with whom they make contact. If I just looked at those papers I would see little of the good Jamaica. Those who do not know Jamaica see such reports and take away a more negative view. That happens whether those readers are far or near, white or black, rich or poor. Why? Because bad news sells. Good news about Jamaica isn’t what hits the headlines, even though the main newspapers make attempts to highlight some good and uplifting news.

But, I never drew on that source. What hit me was what I passed through on my own journey and it reflected several things, that I’ll try to summarize.

Environmental degradation

We’re passing through a dry spell and the land has become brittle. We’ve had the usual spate of bush fires, this time wreaking havoc on hillsides growing coffee. Economic and financial losses may be high. Some property may be lost. Some lives may be lost, immediately, or after a while. Whether fires were started spontaneously or by human action we don’t yet know. But, this is an annual event, and yet we do little or nothing to either prevent it or be prepared for it. Simply put, we’ve done little to safeguard our environment. Yet, it is essential to our livelihood. Taking (as opposed to talking about) measures to stop people burning bush for every single reason should have been part of our heritage. Instead, we see scarred hills, bare to the sticks after another fire has ravaged them.

The dry spell means that water for many purposes is scarce: rivers are low, catchment areas are feeding less to the reservoirs and urban areas are already under notice to conserve water or that water supplies will be limited. This is another annual event, and again, we’ve don’t little to prepare for, or prevent, it. For instance, making water catchment at homes mandatory could have been a policy introduced decades ago. Allowing people to erect water tanks to be filled with piped water isn’t water conservation. But, I suspect many people think it is.

I can talk about our willingness to discard waste with little or no thought about where it goes. (We are exhorted by the Ministry of Health to clear potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Yet, in the same vein, we can see public agencies doing little but create such breeding grounds by doing shoddy work, or not dealing with their public hygiene responsibilities).

Add to that an inability of the state or private enterprise to clear the discarded waste.

Add to that the inability to manage the waste collected. Again, we have an annual disaster in the form of fires at the Riverton dump. This year, it was the worst on record. Concerns go sky-high, just as the ash does, as air quality is obviously worsened and factually confirmed by scientific measurements. We see public agencies squabbling over blame. We hear that people who know who lit the fire won’t speak because the ransom is too low.

We have rivers and water ways polluted by effluent from industrial processes, as well as personal disregard for them.

“Environmental reports in Jamaica just fill me with gloom and despair. This is such a wonderful river. How could they?” That comment was a reaction by fellow blogger Emma Lewis, to a Gleaner story yesterday about how a river in Frome had been poisoned by toxic dunder from a nearby sugar factory. It’s not new, but the process has continued–been allowed to continue–unabated.

Fish stocks dying in river near Frome (Courtesy Jamaica Gleaner)
Fish stocks dying in river near Frome (Courtesy Jamaica Gleaner)

I can add the brewing story about possible mining in the biodiverse region of Cockpit Country.

We are just not concerned about, or conscious of, the damage we are doing.

When it rains…

The dry spell was broken a few days ago–at least in the St Andrew and Kingston Corporate Area. But, what does that give us? ‘Rain contributed to Corporate Area power outages, says JPS‘ ran the headline: ’caused by surges resulting from rainwater mixing with debris on power lines’, the story reported. Most people can see power lines strewn with debris all the time. Is it invisible to those who run the power company?

We know it will rain, and we go out without the means to stay dry. There’s a word for that. It’s another example of how thinking ahead seems to have escaped us.

Social dislocation and the tendency to be complicit

We are going through another period of hand-wringing about how society seems to be crumbling around us. This time it’s been triggered by a spate of nasty murders of young children. Yet, this is a society that sees ‘discipline’ by beating children as something to defend as a ‘cultural practice’. I’m no psychologist, but I can see the suggestion coming that I take a long lie down on the couch if I came for consultation holding those views. A society where adults often have difficulty drawing the line clearly between what is acceptable for them versus what is acceptable for, and with children, is a society on a very confused road. Why do you take young children into adult-rated films? Who turns the blind eyes to that? That’s just a for-instance. Jamaica is not alone on that journey. For example, the US and our CARICOM neighbours have it, too, but in different areas and degrees.

It’s common for us in Jamaica to leave children unsupervised. it’s part of a carefree life, where we feel that we can trust those around us to be decent. But, carefree can turn into careless. We know that we live amongst people who often are indecent. We’re then surprised that the unsupervised child encounters the indecent person. When I drive through rural areas and see a single child, aged no more than about 11, walking with a plastic bag, I know I see a potential victim. Alone. Far from home. No means of communication. Unlikely to be strong enough to withstand an adult. Yes, it’s a shame to lose that trust in those around us. But, it went years ago. Groups of 3 or 4 walking together, at least present a bigger challenge.

Our society has long held on to ways of meting out its own justice. Add to that a formal justice system that seems unable or unwilling to administer justice. What do you think you will get? I see ‘take the law into my hands’ as the likely response. We can look at that from several viewpoints, but they mostly end up with people being maimed or dead for transgressions. It’s swift and, in many cases, final. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is a well-known legal maxim: if legal redress is available for someone who has suffered some wrong, but is not forthcoming in a timely fashion, it is effectively the same as having no redress at all. Most people want to see that justice has been done. It’s really simple.

Why then, do politicians and public officials think that the way to address what they say are pressing problems is to make pronouncements about what they will do if it continues? Like the desperate parent who cannot control a child’s behaviour, or convince a child to change, the threat is issued. It rarely works. Yet, from top to bottom in Jamaican public management, it gets trotted out. To appease whom?

We have police ‘high command’ telling us last week about extortion by gangs in Spanish Town. Stating proudly that they know who does it, and the amounts of money they collect. This is 2015. I read the same or similar stories reported 10 years ago. The leading sentence back in 2005 was ‘NOTHING much has changed in the extortion zones of Spanish Town’. Who’s fooling whom?

As another adage goes, you can’t solve the problem if you are part of the problem.

Economic desperation explains many things 

It’s easy to blame it all on the economy. It’s not necessarily greed that drives much anti-social behaviour in Jamaica; need is there, too. But, being economically isolated and without means will lead most people to do things that are neither necessary or desirable if things were better. I won’t hide my cynicism on this, though, because it’s too obvious that many groups of people thrive from the fact that many people are economically and financially on their knees.

The simple call to have faster growth, if met, may change some of that, but a process has been well in train for a long time that has built dependency in many people and they are effectively unemployable. They’re saved by ‘handouts’, be they literal in the form of cash or goods, or figurative, in the form of ‘work’ that is parcelled out.

That process works well because people have not understood the trap they set for themselves by not being well-educated (and that does not mean going into tertiary education). Or they been unable to leverage their education and training, because a ‘spoils system’ (call it nepotism) is stronger than the merit system. A good example of that latter case is what happens in many areas of public sector life, where merit is not driving processes, but connects do. At its most extreme, we see cases such as in Lucea. But, that is an extreme and many similar points are passed before that is reached.

Have we resigned?

A caller on the radio current affairs programme, ‘Beyond the headlines’ , ended his commentary with a change of tone; it sounded resigned. The host noted that. The man said it was only her true professionalism that stopped her voice hitting the same tone. She gave no reply.

I think many people have resigned. It’s hard not too. But, it means that there are fewer who are prepared to fight to change. If you keep finding worms in what looks like a good mango, it’s easier to stop eating mangoes than to keep searching for a good one.

More than stuck in a rut?

I drove from Kingston to Montego Bay early on Saturday morning, and drove back on Sunday afternoon. My ride north was via the new highway and the vistas near Ewarton; the drive back was via Port Maria and the hills of St. Mary. As I often do on such rides, I try to take in my surroundings and think about what I see.

Jamaica is stuck. It’s not made as much progress as seemed likely, given where it was 50 years ago, just after its independence. One clear sign of that is how its older trappings don’t fit well with the modern world.

One challenge of development is blending past with present, harmoniously. If one looks at developed economies that are old societies, one sees the challenge of old structures making way for new ones. Countries like France, Germany, Greece, and the United Kingdom work hard to let history sit alongside modernity. It’s costly, but the belief is that culture, as represented by historic things, needs to be preserved. Of course, it’s easy to just tear down and rebuild. We see more of that style in relatively modern societies, such as the U.S., but there, too, strong pressures exist to harness modernity and let history have its place.

But, old ways being replaced by new practices is also part of the big challenge of progress. This is where Jamaica seems to have struggled. That struggle has been harder because our economy has been stagnant for decades. It’s chicken and egg, but the result is that economic change has been slow. But, we’ve also lost sight of, or ignored, the importance of education in helping people understand change.

When you drive around Jamaica, one notable feature is that old things often get cast aside, literally and metaphorically. Old buildings are more likely to be crumbling into ruin than restored. New structures get pressed next to them, in no particular order. Or, new structures are placed apart in selected areas. It all makes for quite a jumbled mess.

We live with tradition so much that it’s notable when it gets confronted by needs that cannot rely on it. One such instance is our roadways–for long, renowned for having many winding ways, but with few signs to help you get anywhere. Now, I notice that helpful signs are beginning to appear, and the need to guess which was is ‘straight’ or ‘up so’ has gone.

On my drive north, I took the highway, then took the road via Chalky Mount. Work to extend the highway–visible alongside the old road–involves rerouting the old road. One consequence is that some new curves and inclines are there; one set got the better of big trucks, which couldn’t pass and were lined up in both directions. I was lucky to be one of the first to find this problem and weave between the two ‘opposing forces’.  The truckers were directing traffic well. The road engineers should know the limitations of that stretch of road, and ensure that it’s monitored or controlled so that such blockages don’t occur. It doesn’t happen because the responsibility for it can be shifted, and fall squarely on users, who have few options but to grin and bear it. Sounds familiar?

A gap between two lines of truck, which cannot pass each other, near Chalky Mount

This reminded me of what driving on many rural roads is like in Jamaica: they’ve outgrown their original uses. Donkeys and carts, or light wagons, or small vans, or people walking, have few problems on such roads. They are narrow country roads, scenic, and tranquil. But, large 16-wheeler trucks are too big, fast, and unwieldy for them. We let that mismatch go on for too long. Many roads are in terrible shape because of it, and ordinary traffic can barely pass because of the extensive damage. We’ve all absorbed that cost–directly on public budgets, but indirectly in the lower quality of life that comes from potholed roads that flood and collapse with rains.

I’d taken my chances earlier to overtake heavily laden trucks simply to allow me to make faster progress; I was so glad to have done that.

Whatever we may think about new highways, the country needs them, not least to get such large vehicles onto roads better suited to them. It may not happen that they switch voluntarily from the old roads, because paying tolls add much to their costs. We’ll have to see if it’s forced on them. Such roads are long overdue, and their benefits won’t remove problems where such construction isn’t possible, but it’s a step.

When I reached MoBay, I was about 30 minutes ahead of my schedule. I then heard that others, headed to my venue were stuck behind the trucks and had turned back to take another route. Luckily, they could do that. They arrived in good time, still, and the event got off only a little late.

I usually stay with friends in MoBay, but they were away. So, I checked into a hotel. I chose the new Hyatt Ziva (formerly Ritz Carlton). My wife had been there on business twice, including during this past week. She’d also known it in its former days. She was impressed by the renovated wing. It’s an all-inclusive hotel. That appealed because I would have little time to worry about meal choices, but also didn’t want that adding to my costs.

When I got there late afternoon, all I wanted was some lunch and rest. There are two hotels on the site, one adults-only, the other for families. I’d gone to the wrong unit, but was able to check in and then walk to the family unit, with a porter helping me with my bags. I got my late lunch in the shape of jerk food and my rest on the sofa in my room. I was soon asleep. 

Sun down and rest time

The hotel food choices are wide at all times of day, with beach locations and more formal restaurants. I didn’t need free drinks all day, but I was glad to have the option. I asked my wife for dinner suggestions and went off to eat in the early evening. The food was fine, and the device attentive.

Evening entertainment wasn’t needed, but it was pleasant to hear live jazz coming from a keyboard played on the roof lounge. Maybe, it sounded better because I’d helped the pianist load and unload his equipment in and out of the elevator. I could also see the stage being set up for a later show. I found the deli and took an ice cream for dessert and walked to my room.

All over the resort people were relaxing and at ease. It’s not hard to see why such resorts are popular. It’s a no-brainer to enjoy the amenities that have already been paid for and are varied enough for most, with a good touch of local highlights. The local offerings outside the hotel are hard pressed to compete with the all-inclusive goods.

But, the quality of such places is not just their physical space, it’s as much, if not more the experience that comes from interacting with service staff. I was struck immediately and repeatedly by the fact that staff at the hotel seemed well-trained, were attentive, knowledgeable, and willing to help visitors and each other; for instance, a security guard was reminding a porter of things to do with the guest. It was ironic that when I got home one of the news items I read was about how Jamaica had slipped to its lowest level on an index of tourism competitiveness. We’re ranked 76 out of 141 countries, leaving us behind other major regional destinations. That position is not unlike many others we’re in–stuck in the middle, but maybe with a tendency to fall lower.

Along the north coast, we have plenty of hotels and resorts. Many of them look tired and run down. The few that are new or refurbished stand out. I’ve stayed in a few and know that looks are not deceiving. When you pass through Ocho Rios, for example, it’s hard to see how it can continue to competed for the modern tourism dollar. What was once modern now looks seedy and downtrodden. It doesn’t have the charm of a rustic setting. Admittedly, the market has many types of visitors. But, as budgets get squeezed, value for money or ‘luxury that doesn’t break the bank’ seems more important.

My notion about education and how we’ve let ignoring its importance trip us up hit me in the face on my drive home. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon. The roads were not very busy. Taxis were making good trade. I looked over at them as I passed them or, more often, they passed me. Each was filled to the maximum, if not more. Few had drivers who wore belts. Hardly any passenger wore a belt. I saw one mother in a back seat, cradling her little baby in her arms; no belt. I thought about the road accident figures. People do not understand the risks they take. Those who should know and care, either don’t know or don’t care. When people get in my car and I say “Put on the belt”, they do. So, either people aren’t asked to do so, or when they don’t they are not instructed to do so, either by drivers or other passengers. We wonder that we have nearly one fatal crash a day? But, let’s not lay blame of those whose business is transporting people. I see enough adults with children standing in their cars, often eating or drinking and talking with the driver as they peer through the middle space to get a better view. Not people driving old jalopies, but often people who’s standard of living has allowed them to have a more than decent car.

The National Road Safety Council tells us ‘the seat belt which, if used correctly, can reduce traffic fatalities per one thousand (1000) to one fifteenth of the level in accidents in which the occupants are not wearing seat belts. But, instead of enforcement of that being the thing that police focus on other things. I say that because I see the police, standing on the roadside letting the vehicles go by without batting an eyelid.

I drove past piles of leaves on the roadside in Ocho Rios. raked and left in neat piles. Some of the piles were smouldering; others awaited their ‘treatment’. Sure, the fires looked controlled. But, most do, till they are not. We have a nation raging about the destructiveness of fires that are destroying crops, and pontificating on how we should not burn, yet, it’s daily practice across the island to burn things we don’t want. We’ve not learned that other ways are safer and better, such as composting. We slash, we rake, we dump, we burn. We cry “Fire!” and have too few means to deal with the crisis.

These are just little markers. But, the island is full of them. The messy picture of ignorance piled on top of ineffective or inappropriate actions.

Fire burning in Jamaica, but no pork getting cooked, yet

Fire blazing at Mavis Bank (courtesy of Jamaica Observer)
(Cartoon courtesy of Jamaica Observer)

As days go by in Jamaica, I have a hard time figuring out if the country is run by, and filled with, incompetents, or if there are people who think that they are doing good things, but which seem to end up with bad results. I’m inclined to think that it’s neither, but a tendency to do what Jamaicans do a lot, which is to be just obstructionist. What that means is that people get more satisfaction from frustrating others (and processes) rather than actually seeing results. It’s a perverse game, but one sees it played out often.

At this time of year, when air is very hot and the atmosphere is full of high pressure, we are at high risk of fire, set deliberately or the result of accidents, or spontaneously by nature. Last year, we saw that with a very bad drought. So far, the water problems have not yet hit badly, but that time is coming.

In the south-east of the island, in the hills outside Kingston, we’ve had a week of bad bush fires, which have wreaked havoc on the landscape of rural eastern St. Andrew parish, but also taken much of the highly valued coffee crop at Mavis Bank, as well as people’s homes. The fires are not easy to handle because of their location and getting fire tenders, or four-wheel drive vehicles, and their water to the areas. Winds have spread the fires and made it difficult to fly helicopters in low to drop water. Away from farming areas, we’ve seen a series of the seasonal bushfires in the hills (such as Jack’s Hill), and sometimes we can see about 5 or 6 fires at one time.

Last night, I saw one closer to home in the hills above Norbrook. I watched it burn in the early evening and filmed it blazing all night. By this morning, it was smouldering. During the day, I read not one report about it. Was that just because it was another ho-hum spring bush fire?

Many of us get the negative effects of such fires, whether it’s a house with ash everywhere, breathing problems, the loss of crops, a burnt out home, or lost lives and livestock. We all look for help.

The process of not putting in place infrastructure to deal with such repeated events is one problem. We seem to take few lessons into the future. Another is how the farmers and homeowners stand exposed for lack of protection, like insurance. They bear the heavy burden alone, or nearly so. But, this is a persistent failing of how Jamaican society has developed.

If we look at many of the things that people now focus on, a common thread is how we have not dealt with obvious problems and a lack of ‘safety net’ in some form.

The lack of learning is complacency and being obstructive at work.

That missing net is many things. It may come in the form of lack of community cohesion. It may also come from the lack of support of the state or voluntary organizations (with the church or religious organizations putting themselves into the gap).

The complacency and obstructiveness are deeply ingrained and will be hard to shift. But, they make simple progress hard to achieve.

The absence of frameworks of support is especially hurtful now, as the economy putters along the long, flat bottom of economic stagnation, with tight budget constraints leaving little space for new support.

A worry I’ve had for a while is whether a point is approaching where so much burden-bearing by individuals push them to a point where they say “Enough!” In the past, political parties have relied on people’s complacency and their obstructiveness–which tends to see them arguing but doing little or fighting each other, rather than fighting for causes. They have also bought off much of the pain individuals and their communities face with a range of political patronage, but those opportunities are much less when budget measures exist that have limited space for ‘pork’. The smell of elections is as much in the air as that of burning bush, but will the scent of sizzling pork be added to it soon?

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