Life gives your lemons? Make lemonade. But, will you squeeze them for me?

I was in one of my “don’t give me that rubbish” moods yesterday afternoon, and two people got the brunt of it. I was set off by a request from my high command to get photos of our daughter taken for a visa application, lickety-split, when they could have been done over the weekend by the high command (when I was away from town). I was firing. I went to collect my daughter midway through her play date at a friend’s house, and headed to Barbican. While the photos were being processed, I went to a LIME store to pay my monthly phone bill.

It turned out that my bill had been settled. But, I took the opportunity to check on some information I had been promised several weeks ago, relating to a previous month’s bill. My phone usage changes little: I don’t spend much time talking on it, but I am often using the data package, which has a high limit included in the tariff. So, my bill is really unchanged each month; I’m within my usage limits. But, a couple of months ago, my bill spiked, and went to double its normal amount. That alone made my non-existent hair stand up. It bristled more, when the next bill went back to normal levels. Alarm bells went off. I checked the accounts online, and saw that I had exceeded my data package usage limits. Well, nothing much had changed. I had travelled but had switched off data roaming–a killer, if I ever met one. So, I asked LIME to give me the details of data usage, which I cannot see online. A manager told me that she would ‘investigate’ and get back to me.

Well, in the land-of-no-follow-through, I was a monkey on a pole waiting. I had no phone number for her so had waited for a return visit to check. This was it. A ‘representative’ got my “please do this now, and stop joshing” mood and went to a computer screen to look at my account. He saw what I had seen. Abnormal use. But, he had seen something else. “Your overage caused the spike,” he said, “We’ve had this problem with some other accounts.” Well, that was music to my ears. My suspicions were getting some support. Glitch. He told me that I would get an ‘adjustment’ for the excess usage and a refund of J$4007, once it was approved by a “second party”. He gave me his name and phone number. My daughter and I thanked him and went back to get her photographs. We got that done, and I took her back to happy land. I then headed to the hospital to check on my father, who’d had another emergency on Sunday while I had been on the north coast.

I walked toward the ward where he was lying. I met his caregiver, who had been following up on her own medical problem, and was standing outside the ward. I thought of her, and suggested I get her a chair to sit on: one was just a few feet away. She was with another lady and a hospital maintenance man. We all noticed that the plastic chair had its seat split by a corner. “Watch out, when you sit. You don’t want to cut yourself,” Mr. Maintenance told us. I asked him why it had not been fixed. He said it was not for him to do. Who told him to say that? I asked him if he could fix chairs. In typical Jamaican fashion, he did not answer the question but went on about who he would have to send it to and what processes he would have to pass through. I asked him to give me a one word answer, yes or no. I knew when that came out of my mouth that I was simmering.

Not the actual broken chair, but a good enough image of one
Not the actual broken chair, but a good enough image of one

I asked him again. Another long ramble. I tried a third time–I said he was being like Peter. We still never got one word. I tried once again. “No,” he said. Thanks. I asked if he knew someone who could fix chairs. He told me yes. I suggested he take the chair to be fixed. “Ah nuh so it go, here,” he then said. He went on about how he would have to fill in (work) orders, and get papers signed, etc. That was not his job. Oh, sweet mother of mercy. I had him in my sights now. “Not your job?” I asked. I asked if he was happier with the person sitting on the chair, cutting themselves, then having to be admitted to the hospital. He went on about how the chair should not have been there, because it was broken, and someone must have brought it there to sit on. Well, I knew where to go for our next astrophysicist. I took a breath. He added that someone would want to be paid for doing the job. That seemed odd in an institution full of paid employees. I did not presume that he meant that a bribe was needed, but maybe I was wrong.

I asked him if he had leaking pipes at his home. He told me “a little”. I asked him what he proposed to do. He said he was fixing them. I asked why he could not do the same with the chair. More of ‘the system’, blah-blah. I asked him why he could not treat things that were wrong at his work the same as those at home. “The home is mine, sir,” came the reply. So, we explored more. “This country is yours, too,” I told him, “Care for it the same way.” He went back to ‘the system’. I told him that I would take the chair and get it fixed and bring it back. “You can’t take it off the premises,” he told me. I said that was a different problem and I would be ready to deal with that. (If this chair was in the trunk of my car, no one would see it and the hospital security do not do car checks on exit. Contrast that to the golf course I visited at the weekend, where I was put under good scrutiny: “We do it as routine, sir”, I had been told.) I gave my man a few more nuggets to consider.

In my eyes, the maintenance man tolerated the broken chair and refused to do anything because he was afraid to have that responsibility for taking action. He was adamant that he was afraid of nothing, but ‘the system’ was hard to break.

More forms than substance
More forms than substance

Alright, I can understand the crippling numbness of a bureaucracy that may have him fill out forms in triplicate and make a report of how and where the chair was broken before anyone would life a screwdriver to mend it. Normally, however, someone would just do the right thing and fix the blessed chair. The same way that the man at the UWI pool had jerry-rigged a pulley lever to make the water fountain work, for want of the right part. He was still waiting for that after months, but swimmers needed water and the machine would give it, if the pulley worked. Bravo, for him. Boo, for UWI. But, back to the chair.

My basic point was that this lack of willingness to act on small fixes was pervasive. It was not apathy but the kind of paralysis one used to see in the Soviet Union, whose bureaucracy was like kudzu (see a recent article in The Guardian that suggest little has changed in Russia). Nothing would happen because there was no personal incentive for things to happen; the common good under communism was no driver of actions. The plan was in place and it would be fulfilled, even if nothing happened. Numbers would be created that made it appear that things had happened. No one got more rewards for doing more. No one suffered losses for doing less. In Russian, the way to reply if asked how things were going, is “Normal”. Don’t stand out. Don’t do what you are not told to do. The soviet system produced people who knew how to do everything but then put a huge premium on information, so it was better to hoard that. You never got a full answer, only information for the specific question. “Do you have the time?” Yes, would be the reply; no more. “What time is it, then?” might have followed. A good reply would be “Then? You mean now?” The process of extracting the information in droplets was part of the merry dance that kept people busy doing very little. If it came to that, we could spend weeks trying to get the answer to something that was stated on a piece of paper in front of someone, but would not be given unless and until the right questions had been asked. At its ultimate absurdity, people would even pretend not to be there so that they would not have to deal with more questions. I recall waiting with a team to see the finance minister in Moscow. “He’s travelling,” his secretary told us. We saw him through a glass partition walking into and out of his office. I guess that was travelling. We told her that we had seen him in the office. She denied that he was there. We waited and waited for hours. Then went back to our hotel and came back the next day for the same treatment. We got to see him on the third day. Our time had been lost. His time had not been wasted.

Jamaica had a spell when some elements of socialism was getting a foothold in the country, but we were never fully under such a system. Something else has been going on. It’s pan-Caribbean. It may be that the whole ‘jobs for people’ move to keep slots filled in the public sector, irrespective of people being able and willing to do work has a lot to do with it. Dead-end jobs. No thanks for jobs well done. Shoddy working conditions. Crummy pay. All of that and more may be playing out. But, the bottom line is that we have ended up disabling ourselves and our society. People may do things if they get some extra money for doing what they should do.

I get heartily annoyed when I drive along a stretch of Washington Boulevard. There’s a man at his ‘station’ by the stop lights. As the cars stop, he eases himself off the kerbside and goes to the windows to beg for money. He taps on the windows and puts out his hand. He wants a gift, no doubt about it. He does not plead. He is one of several I see at various points; he’s a bit better dressed than some. This is not about the problems that put people into desperate situations, and it’s not about whether someone can really do something that would warrant pay. It’s just the assumption of an entitlement and a willingness to prey on the good nature of any and all. I may be out of time and touch with the idea that if you offer to do something instead of just putting out your hand that would be a bit more respectful of those whose earned money you want to share. In that sense, I will never criticise the windscreen washers. They want money and are prepared to earn it. Our social safety net is not great so many can and do fall through the cracks. But, the system is also badly cracked and we do not seem ready in large enough numbers to put our fingers in the dykes. Rather, we let the leaks continue and eventually the dam will break.

I did not realise it at the time but I had seen two opposites at work. My LIME experience was in the end about how ‘the system’ can work, but maybe only in parts of the private sector. Problem seen. Problem analysed. Solution proposed (subject to ‘second party’ approval). MyUWI hospital experience showed that another world, maybe just the public sector, had ‘the system’ that was bereft of push to find solutions.

When we come down to it, our inability to be productive has been and is crippling. Not just for what it does to make our society function worse than it should do, but also in the mindset that is needed for people to endure and perpetuate it.bureaucracy_blogtownhall_com I told the maintenance man that he lived with a system that did not fix things because he lived with a system that did not fix things. No amount of saying that things don’t work differently would change that. He was called away by a student nurse to perform some task. He eventually came back to me and shook my hand and said “You’re absolutely right.”

I don’t need to know I am right, but I would like this country to see what is so simply wrong and get off its collective tush.

When I got home from hospital visiting and picking up daughter, I pointed out to my little one that the handrest on the chair that is by a desktop computer had been fixed. I’d been annoyed that it had fallen off, and the two screws that held it in place were nowhere to be found. While hunting for something else that a person who likes to touch people’s things had moved, I found two screws: one in a plastic cup containing a range of other gubbings, the other in a draw. I put the screws back into the handrest, and check that it was tight and not wobbling. I didn’t have to fill any forms and I don’t even use the chair myself much at all. But, that’s not the point of my motivation to fix the blessed thing. Like my man, I want my home to be right. I just want him to step past his own door frame and realise that outside is all his home, too.

The good, the bad and the ugly (August 11)

Good:

Bad:

  • The Jamaican public authorities who performed incomplete road repairs in Enfield, St. Mary, leaving a hole large enough to hold two men. It’s worth watching the TVJ coverage.
  • PM Simpson-Miller seemed to forget that Jamaica is a real democracy when saying that it would “make no sense” if voters in Cassia Park, St. Andrew, elected a parliamentary opposition party JLP councillor while having a PNP MP: the JLP candidate won the by-election.ed-cart-thurs-8-august_w452

Ugly:

Be patient with us

“Returning residents” to Jamaica were given special status in 1993, if they fit certain eligibility requirements; that status helps defray some possible financial costs and administrative headaches associated with moving home and family from one country to another. The government now has a unit to deal with the returnees. It’s not easy to measure this group or judge the importance of such persons to Jamaican society or if their influence is growing and positive: data on voluntary returnees were not collected before 1993 and they are incomplete, based on applications for Customs privileges and covering the applicant not the household. (In the raw data, deportees now far outnumber voluntary returnees.)

I visited Rockfort Mineral Baths on Tuesday morning, with my 9 year-old daughter. We’d planned to take her maternal grandparents to sample the waters, but their ailments were hampering them and they decided not to go. How ironic, I thought: the waters should make them feel better. Anyway, we arrived and got ourselves changed and into the main pool in no time. I reminisced about how things had been when I was a boy, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, when my father would take my mother and me on his motorcycle. I have a vivid memory of being ‘taught’ to swim at Rockfort, when my father threw me into the pool. You sink or swim 🙂

The bath water was cool and refreshing compared to regular Kingston heat of over 32 degrees C. As I waded and she did hand stands and splits, a man nearby started a conversation, after he overheard one of my daughter’s remarks. We ended up talking quite a while. He and his wife live in the southern US and his wife wants to return to Jamaica; he’s reluctant. We talked about the pros and cons. Would his health benefits be transferable? What about the cost of living? He noted that many goods and services are much more expensive in Jamaica (about 50% more, he estimated) and unlikely to be offset by cheaper goods such as local fruit and vegetables. He was especially concerned at how costly housing may be, even though he hoped that his long-time membership of one of the building societies would convey benefits in lower borrowing costs. He hoped that their US home would be paid off before any move, and the proceeds would then cover a large percentage of the cost of buying a home in Jamaica. He talked about how desirable Mandeville seemed, and I told him something about my parents’ return and how they had been very happy to have settled in Mandeville, which has a large population of returning residents. Great climate. Small town, but big enough to meet many needs. Nice pace of life. Not difficult access to most parts of the island, especially with the highway covering most of the journey to Kingston. He had plenty to think about. I joked with his wife and sister-in-law about the ‘burdensome’ decision he was trying to make. They laughed: “Jus’ come, man!”

I explained to this man some of my concerns ahead of our recent move. I’d wondered a lot about the disruption to my daughter’s education and other aspects of child development. I’d thought a lot about the level of crime, and had a firm refusal in my mind regarding living in any barred house. I’d reflected on my father’s experience of coming back to Jamaica and being considered a foreigner: I did not have a long history like him before leaving, but I could understand the possible emotional pain. It’s funny that a dear cousin called me an “alien” the other day. But, my concerns found their place on a shelf and I decided to go with the flow of enthusiasm that my daughter showed and her excitement for a new adventure.

When we came out of the pool and were getting dressed, we met two ladies who’d also been enjoying their baths; they were taking photographs. I asked if they’d take pictures of my daughter and me; they agreed. While we joked around, one of the ladies prompted me to point out that I had just returned to Jamaica to live. “Be patient with us! It’s worth it,” she said. She told how she’d returned in 1973, after living in NW London, and how friends had told her she’d go insane once she returned to Jamaica. “It nah ‘appen yet,” she told me, gleefully. I tried to reassure her that the patience needed here was much the same as anywhere, and the problems were usually people, people and other people 🙂 So far, my need for patience hadn’t really been stretched. She laughed.

Returning residents have no clearly identifiable marks, but that does not mean they cannot be identified. Stories abound about how they have been targeted for robberies: followed from the airport; trailed when they go to banks, building societies or post offices to collect or cash pension payments.

It’s easy to understand that it would be challenging for someone who had left Jamaica when was relatively peaceful and returned to find a social environment that is turbulent or violent, and an economy that is supposedly faltering most of the time. The police, for example, have realised that they have to the needs of the returning community, whose expectations are consistent with the countries from where they are coming.

My experience as someone who has returned to Jamaica–though not necessarily what is defined as a returning resident–leads me to believe that patience is needed, though not necessarily an extraordinary amount. Jamaican natural things happen in their own sweet time: the seasons are different from those in Europe and North America, but they give what they give, be it certain fruit or flowers. But, they are mostly worth the wait–mango season will soon be over and then we’ll miss the smell and taste we’ve enjoyed the past few months. Many local foods grow or can be stored so that they are around all year–I’ve never known yam or sweet potatoes to not be available. As fits a country with strong rural ties, people are also aware of the need to make best use of what is available, so pickling or preserving fruit and vegetables is still very common–I’m looking forward to more of my friend’s chutney. Sure, things like fish may be subject to weather conditions and other seasonal variations. But, nature is mostly kind in Jamaica. Will I feel the same as hurricane season takes hold and if we’re find ourselves buffeted by frighteningly strong wind and rain? The sun shines every day and sometimes it’s hard to remember when it last rained: having had two afternoons of heavy showers in Kingston, we’re blessed with really cool afternoons and grass that was browning and burning has a chance to revive.

But, people will try your patience. Every society has its systems or lack of them. The people working those and how they are constructed have often been the reason why the patience of Job has to be invoked. Jamaica has its special needs in this context. Taxi drivers will test the patience of many: stopping when and where they feel like a fare may be. Some bureaucrats will want to show you that they control your life and making seemingly simple tasks as hard as pushing a rock uphill. Some processes seem to be geared to move backwards not forwards: I’m still amazed at how long and tedious was the process of insuring a car, something I did with a short phone call in the US, but which took some two hours in an office in Kingston. I don’t relish the prospect of visiting a tax office. Things that cannot happen without cash payments, whether that is really to make it easier for the provider in terms of cash flow or procuring materials or if it’s to evade taxes, can test my patience: I’ve lived for decades with a wallet that was not stuffed with cash, knowing that my credit card was easy to use. Now, I ask “Do you take card?”

I went to the famous ‘Gloria’s’ restaurant in Port Royal1012452_10151594456149022_1581100695_n after the mineral baths trip. A friend had warned me that the wait for food would be long, “but it’s worth the wait” she’d added. I can’t remember when I’d last eaten there and I was excited to take my daughter, but gave her the warning. Shock and horror: our food arrived with no real delay–admittedly, the place was quiet, but things seemed to move well for others as it filled up.

Heavy rain seems to slow everything down: traffic leaving town last night was ridiculous at 7-8pm: it didn’t matter much when I was headed in the opposite direction, but I was shocked that it was still there when I was coming back an hour later. Don’t be in a hurry if it rains in Jamaica, whether the delays are caused by potholes or more caution or silly accidents or people just loving the rain.

Yet, by contrast, there are people who want to try to make your life easier and for whom one should have ample patience. On my way to the baths, I stopped at the Gas Products (Gas Pro) depot, which is just nearby. We’d been searching for a cylinder of propane for a barbecue grill. Simple enough in the US: pick one up from a gas station (not any, but many) or even a supermarket at certain times of year. No big thing. In Jamaica, it’s not so. One fruitless Saturday showed me that. When I asked around, none of the suggested places supplied them–hardware store, gas station, etc.. Go to the source, my boy! A very nice lady told me that I had to buy an empty cylinder from Price Mart and then I could have it filled. “A so wi do it!” Solution found.

Not every Jamaican emigrant left on The Empire Windrush in 1948, immigrants_450x300going headlong to help England. Not everyone fled a country that they felt was being pushed into the ground by socialist policies. Many left in calm and collected fashion. Many left to study or work and stayed much longer than they expected–that’s an aspect of migration to which many can relate. The decision to return voluntarily may have many causes, and will pose many challenges. Returning anywhere is not a simple turning back of the clock. We know that from several jaunts in different countries and managing the return to our home in the US. Nothing remained unchanged, and how one deals with that can be the answer to how much patience is needed. I have plenty of experience to draw on in that regard, but that does not mean it will be smooth and easy, but it does not have to be painful.