Tuesday 22 October 2019

OF THIS AND THAT

This article first appeared in Malta Today

Let the children come to me

A few diverse issues have come to my attention this week. One of the most disturbing concerns the arrangements made for when children who are in care have to visit their biological parent in prison. These visits, by the way, are mandatory, even for children who are still babies.

All the information that follows comes from very reliable sources. Picture a scene where the children and their social workers are kept waiting outside in the sun for 25 minutes, even though the prison’s control room had been contacted twice to advise them. They are then herded in with other inmates and their children into a cramped room with no privacy, air conditioning or facilities for babies. How is this in the best interest of an innocent child? I am informed that previously, these visits used to be held outside the prison and the parent was taken under guard to Appoġġ for the visit, which sounds like a more humane, child-friendly system. 

According to an article in The Times which dates back to 2014, inmates had themselves built a play area for their visiting children so that they can meet with their offspring in a more attractive environment. At the time the play area was described as being “packed with toys and board games as well as soft floor padding and crafts utilities.”

Apparently, however, things started changing with the appointment of the new prison director. I am informed that since the play room is located in the men’s section and he no longer wanted women passing through that section, the room is only used for those children who have a father in prison and not a mother.  In addition, while the toys and crafts are all still there, they have become dirty over time and children are at risk of infection.  My sources tell me that the ‘play room’ in the women’s section consists of a “carton box stuffed with soft flooring mats and another box with leftover Playmobile pieces”.

I strongly urge the Commissioner for Children to look into this matter because if there is one thing we can all hopefully agree on is that children of prisoners should not be made to suffer for the sins of their fathers or mothers. 

Quick, give me a statistic!

I have noticed that headlines from official Government press releases seem to thrive on throwing statistics at us in the form of percentages.  What mystifies me is how they come up with them. Take this one, for example, Triq Buqana re-opens; set to reduce travel times by 36% – Infrastructure Malta. Now, I can understand how it is possible to measure how many cars pass through that road per hour at the moment, since this is something which is done all the time.  But what has really impressed me is the fact that they can now forecast how many cars will be passing through in the future.  Does the board of directors have psychic powers?  Or do they just sit around the boardroom and toss around a few percentages until they come up with one which simply ‘sounds good’?

This is similar to those huge billboards telling us that we will be saving 12 minutes from our commuting time with all the new roadworks projects. This figure was derived from an economic impact study conducted by economist Gordon Cordina who studied the collective impact of the projects at Tal-Balal road, St Andrew’s, the Central Link project, the Marsa- Hamrun bypass, Triq Buqana, the Marsa junction, and the Santa Lucia tunnel. He calculated that this amounted to 18 million more working hours for the Maltese workforce. 

Again, I might as well claim to be able to predict the future by looking into a crystal ball.  And even if his computations are correct, 12 minutes…really?  Does this justify the nightmare over the last few days for anyone caught up in the road closures and traffic diversions, arriving not minutes, but hours late to their appointments? Are we creating all this upheaval so that when all the above-mentioned projects are finally complete, we will be saving the grand total of 12 minutes?   I’m really surprised that they thought putting that number on a billboard was a good idea, when the only thing drivers say to themselves as they sit fuming in bumper-to-bumper traffic overshadowed by these billboards is, “wow, big deal”.  

In any case, it has been proven time and again in other countries which have gone down this same route, including Los Angeles when it widened its notorious 405 freeway, that more lanes and more highways simply encourage people to use more cars. This is no prediction; this is based on a concrete analysis of what they thought would happen (less traffic) versus what actually happened (even more traffic).  

While it is possible to quantify with cold, hard facts what has already taken place, what seem like random numbers plucked out of thin air as projections for the future, which are thrown at us on a regular basis, have to be taken with a barrel of salt. 

Take a breath and just chill 

One thing which definitely depends on forecasts is the weather, and because the metrological field is an exact science based on the study of the atmosphere and climatic phenomena, the much relied-upon weather report often gets it right.  On the occasions when the report gets it wrong, the Met office never hears the end of it.   If this upcoming week’s forecast is accurate, then we are in for a scorcher.  “Temperatures across Malta and Gozo are expected to feel as hot as 39°C to 41°C every day until next Wednesday as searing heat from northern Africa stalls over the central Mediterranean!,” proclaimed one weather report. 

I am always intrigued by the reports which tell us that it’s 34 degrees but only “feels like” 41 degrees, as if that is somehow supposed to make us feel better.  “It’s not really 41 degrees you know, it only feels like it”, people tell you. Oh, alright then, let me just step back into my freezer.

The stifling heat is made worse by our extreme humidity, and I don’t need any weather report for that, I just need to look at my limp, lifeless hair.  I feel sorry for hairdressers at this time of year, struggling to tame thick, frizzy Maltese locks and style them into something presentable.   As for those who choose to get married in August – may God be with you (and your male guests who are forced to wear suits). 

The already fiery Maltese temperament is not exactly helped by these weather conditions either. It takes so little to make many people lash out like fire-breathing dragons, and their switch is easily triggered by the crazy traffic and what is now an over-populated country.  The whole pressure cooker situation is exacerbated by a general lack of driving etiquette even at the best of times, let alone the lethal combination of Sahara weather + road closures + hot-tempered drivers. 

So, although I doubt many will follow my advice, for what it’s worth, here is my tip for defusing a volatile situation.   Hold on to your steering wheel, because I know it is going to sound radical. 

Basically, I find the more I give way and let other drivers pass ahead of me at an intersection or while switching lanes, the calmer it makes ME feel. I make the internationally-recognised hand wave signal for “go ahead” for me, as much as for them. Some acknowledge my gesture with an incredulous but grateful “really?” look, while others don’t, and just dash out quickly in case I change my mind, but that’s OK.  In my mind, I like to think that the ones that smile and make eye contact, will do something nice to the next person themselves.  A sort of pay it forward for drivers.

It is the same with allowing someone to go in front of you in a supermarket queue who only has one item, or letting someone pass on a narrow pavement, or even going down the ladder at the beach.  The reason I do this is because I am trying to practice just slowing my life down in general. I find that we are simply in too much of a hurry all the time, and for what exactly?  

Even at a busy supermarket I notice that everyone is rushing to bag their groceries in record speed, in case the person next in line becomes irritable and impatient, so I often make it a point to tell them that it’s OK, they can take their time.  I realise that time is an unheard of luxury these days for so many people, but I feel that we also need to give ourselves permission to slow down our pace, even if it means we only get five errands done out of our list of ten.   Paradoxically, you will probably get even more done than you would if you were rushing around like mad.

Unfortunately, I cannot quantify with statistics or percentages how much you will get done if you take your hectic lifestyle down a notch, I can only say that you will feel 100% better.

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