Accessible magic

One morning last week the world was painted with a brush dipped in frost. I cycle past a primary school on my way to college. After weaving my way through the mess of cars trying to push their way as close as possible to the school gate, I crossed into a park right beside the school. There’s an estate on the other side of it, which means a good few families can opt to walk along the winding tarred paths through the park with their kids. To watch these littlies interact with the suddenly slippy world was simply delightful.

The excitement on those glowing faces, as they slid their feet along and slip-slid to school. What an amazing experience it must have been! The sensation of cold on your cheeks, of the snug warmth of your coat, hat, and gloves, of Mom or Dad’s safe hand whenever you needed it for a moment before dashing off to explore the unfamiliar familiar once more. The balance lessons, as this slidey world met your feet. The stimulating sights as you explored the delicate ice patterns on grass and leaves, as you listened to the crunch of frost beneath your feet.

Is it not heartbreaking that this burst of pure joy is denied most of the children in Ireland? That most of them were instead locked away, on their journey to school, inside a metal box cutting off all these awesome sensations, these valuable stimulants for growing little brains?

Imagine if these parents were given an environment they felt was safe for them and their children to negotiate outside the padded, isolated loneliness of their moving prison. Imagine if society prioritised family wellbeing and adapted hours and expectations to allow the parents to walk or cycle to school with their littlies before going on to work.

Wouldn’t that be grand.

Drivers, drains, and brains

My route to college includes a road with a Z bend: sharp right followed immediately by a sharp left. That exact section of road also has a number of recessed drains probably about twenty metres apart. Therefore, even cyclists who don’t believe in the merits of vehicular cycling* have to move to a position in line with where motor traffic’s closest-to-the-kerb tyre would run.

On Thursday two car drivers overtook me on the turn, one giving an oncoming driver a near heart attack because overtaking on a blind bend is not a good idea. No accident, but a close call. What took the cake was that I joined a queue of waiting traffic at the T junction about thirty metres after the bends… right behind both cars that had overtaken me dangerously.

Now, I get that people are frustrated by cyclists slowing them down to a fraction of the speed they are capable of and allowed. What intrigues me is what foundational thinking framework is lodged in the mind of a driver that results in them making the split-second decision that overtaking the cyclist is worth the risk of one of the most dangerous types of collisions: head-on with a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. The situation Thursday highlighted the pointlessness of this risk: these drivers gained literally nothing. I don’t believe in overtaking traffic on the left, but it would have been my legal right to do so and to cross that intersection before them. As it was, I stayed in the queue of traffic, so they risked collision, injury, death for the sake of making a right turn at best thirty seconds before me.

There is no logic here, so what prompts such folly? I am convinced that dangerous road user behaviour doesn’t start with the moment in which poor decisions are made. Therefore, changing such behaviour will not start with addressing the moment in which poor decisions are made. The key lies in shifting the springboard from which these decisions originate. I believe also that this behaviour is most visible in road user interactions involving cyclists, but that the “bakermat” – the place of origin – of a lot of dangerous road user behaviour resulting in injury and death is the same.

Imagine if we could address that core, if we could shift the launch pad to direct decisions into a safer trajectory. It could save so many lives.


*Vehicular cycling means you cycle as part of the traffic stream, placing yourself in line with other vehicles for visibility and predictability (our eyes are in the front of our heads, so cycling as close to the kerb as possible takes you out of the line of sight and focus of drivers, and violates the Road Safety Authority’s advice to “Be Safe, Be Seen”. It also places you in the lane with the highest number of obstacles, increasing your risk of swerving into oncoming traffic – drain covers, holes, debris, pedestrians stepping into the road without looking which yes, happens unbelievably often. A British qualitative study mentioned cyclist unpredictability as a major stressor for drivers, so putting yourself in a lane where you’re more likely to swerve unpredictably does drivers no favours, even if they don’t realise that). Segregation (separated cycle lanes) seems to work better for cycling safety, but in a situation where you have no other choice but to share a surface with motorised traffic, many argue it is the safest practice.

Say it with clothes

As part of research for my Honours thesis I have looked into clothing as a form of communication. I’ve long suspected that what we wear speaks as loudly as our words, and it was a pleasure to see that confirmed in academia. Clothing can tell those around us about our affiliations, our activity, even something about our personality. Just look at advice for dressing for an interview to see how much what we wear matters in shaping what others think of us.

What specifically intrigues me, though, is how what you wear speaks to you. It can, to a large degree, shape what you feel about yourself. In the years I worked as fulltime parent, when social isolation was one of my greatest enemies, I had a rule to never wear track suits. My aim was to always dress casual but nice. I often got it wrong, but looking back, days that I didn’t dress well, I didn’t feel good about myself inside.

I also, over the years, discovered the power of clothing in helping against the occasional bout of the blues. Colour psychology is important here: on a day when you have to drag yourself out of bed, choose brighter colours, and those on the warm side of the spectrum.

Finally, I discovered that when your view of yourself is a little off track, you can start dressing the way you see yourself, which reinforces the skewed self-image, which reinforces the dress tendency. One of the most uplifting things I did in a recent phase of reconsidering the direction I was heading professionally, was to realise I was dressing like someone I wasn’t. Part of recalibrating myself involved reconsidering my wardrobe. I started loving what I wear again. Every day, choosing my outfit for the day is a joy. It’s a way of being creative, a way of expressing myself, of sharing my joy in being me with everyone around me.


The cost of avoiding a short walk

In a June article, Talk of the Town reports that the place where I study, Dundalk Institute of Technology (DKIT), has suffered massive cuts to its funding. This is placing a huge strain on staff, who struggle to continue doing their jobs with less money, but more students. A saving of €31,200 would no doubt be welcomed, even if it’s just a drop in the bucket, it’s a drop that can pay for an extra staff member, or for upgrades to ageing equipment, or for a number of other needs.

Instead, €30,000 of that money is spent on sparing Catholic students a journey of 1.1km. That is how far they’d have to travel to get to the nearest Catholic church. You can walk that in about two minutes. Should the student not want to walk, they can instead hop on the local bus. If they get the Halpenny service, the bus will literally drop them directly in front of the entrance of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

If students are Presbyterian, DKIT cares a lot less, but they still care. They pay €1,200 to a minister from that church to be on standby to rush over so anyone belonging to their organisation won’t have to travel the horrifying distance of 3.3km to reach the nearest of their churches. Should they take that same Halpenny bus, they’d have to walk roughly 260m from where the bus drops them to their church. Can’t have that, now. Let’s pay for the minister to travel to campus!

If you’re a member of any other religion, DKIT doesn’t give a crap how far you have to travel to see one of your priests/ministers/overlords. Fuck you, student, there’s this thing called a bus. Only Catholic and Presbyterian stuents are considered too stupid to take one.

Let’s give more to men

I’ve been bothered for a while with how we talk about sports. It’s rugby, and women’s rugby. Cricket, and women’s cricket. The assumption is built into this way of talking that there’s the real sport, then there’s the other version. Like the priceless oil painting, then the amateur copy.

How do we solve this, though? It’s a fact that physically, men and women are different. Even beyond gender, we have different limitations which require acknowledgement for everyone to get a chance of recognition for excellence. There need to be different categories, the broadest of these being men’s, women’s, and parallel. We can’t avoid the need for categorisation.

There’s a very simple solution: a complete embrace of those categories. Why not start referring to men’s sports the same as we do to other categories of sport? Why not call it men’s cricket, men’s rugby, men’s football, on television news and in written reporting, in announcements of upcoming games, in every official and controllable way available? There will of course be massive resistance initially, but this would be nothing new. With persistence and patience, we can reach a place in a decade or two where the name of a sport doesn’t automatically mean the men’s version.

This is one matter in which fairness and equality will be helped not by giving women equal status, but instead by giving men equal status. It’s a simple matter of changing a small issue of language, but it can bring about a huge change in how we think about sport.

With “friends” like these…

You are Facebook friends with Jack. You’ve never met in the flesh, you connected because you had a mutual friend, or maybe you got talking in a group you both belonged to and discovered you had mutual interests. One day, you open Facebook and on your timeline it tells you Jack liked this:

I think blacks are awesome. I have one in my toolshed, next to my lawnmower.

If you’re anything like me, you would see that Jack liked a “joke” that is excruciatingly callous about the history of slavery, that expresses the view black people are not human, that celebrates and condones racism. I understand enough about white privilege to realise joking about such issues is like Marie Antoinette criticising starving masses from the isolation of her opulence. Clearly, our hypothetical Jack is ignorant and lacks enough higher brain function to feel empathy.

So when this morning I opened Facebook and saw a “friend” had liked this:


…I unfriended him. I didn’t unfriend him because I think he’s a misogynyst, but because he is clearly either ignorant of the extent of the suffering, persecution, bias, violence and objectification women endure around the world every single day (with gay women experiencing even more intense suffering), or he is aware but lacking in the necessary higher brain function that would enable him to empathise enough to be repelled by a “joke” like that.

And if for a second you think: “Oh, but we’re laughing at the idiot who thinks that way, who can’t make a distinction between relationships and pornography, who doesn’t have a clue,” do me a favour and THINK HARDER. When we portray haters as clowns, we portray them as harmless. There are few more dangerous, enabling things we can do.

I can’t celebrate with you

There is nothing like an outsider to look at something a society does and go: “What the hell, people? Ew.” It can pop a bubble around you, inside of which something was just normal, just the way things have always been done, and open your eyes to how weird it really is.

I had a similar epiphany about Afrikaner school anthems a while ago, and when I mentioned to a Northern Irish friend that as a child, black adults would refer to me as kleinmies (little miss), and my brothers as kleinbaas (little boss). Believe it or not, my family were considered progressive, because we were required to be respectful to black adults, but while we were required to address white adult men as oom and women as tannie (literally uncle and aunt, but in practice simply a less formal title than sir or madam), black adults were addressed by their first name. It never occurred to anyone that this was strange, because it was the norm. The sheer, staggering brokenness of what was simply normal when I grew up, simply the way things were done, never really hit home until someone else said: “What?!”

You wouldn’t think, coming from a society as messed up as Afrikaners, that I could look at anything Ireland does and go: “What?!” You’d be wrong. In the same way you might describe the weird habit of Slovakian men whipping women with willow branches at easter, I describe the utterly bizarre Irish ritual of dressing their kids up in wedding outfits and dedicating them to their church.

To me, the horror is confounding. Here is an organisation which has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide the sexual abuse that was rife in its ranks for decades (centuries?), that ran slave camps for women who dared fall pregnant without being married, that ran schools which indeed filled a gap in education, but was a gift wrapped in brutal abuse which caused festering trauma people still suffer from to this day.

This organisation then used the deference of the government of the time to make sure the victims of their abuse paid their own compensation. Let me repeat that: these feckers raped Ireland in every sense of the word, then cosied up to a spineless bastard to add insult to injury and make sure the long-suffering Irish paid for their abusers’ wrongdoings again. They were cynical, calculating and absolutely put corporation before people, more so than the most slimy banker you can imagine.

Parents across the country respond by dressing their little boys and girls up as brides and grooms every year, and watching in delight as they declare themselves dedicated to this stinking, corrupt pile of manure.

Forgive me if I don’t show enthusiasm for your kids’ confirmation pictures, or clap my hands in delight at how pretty they looked in their little outfits for their first holy communion.