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I started writing a comment on the highly thought-provoking guest post by Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller, ‘Women in the Media – Not’ and Motherhood v Careers, but it began to balloon, veer, swoop, and all sorts of other alarming things, so I decided to make it a post all of its own.

The discussion in the comments on Anna-Lena’s post is riveting and wide-ranging, as debates about parenthood and paid work tend to be. To tell the truth, I have a habit of shying away from such debates, because the emotions they evoke in me are fairly raw.

The Job of Being a Parent But what the hell, she said defiantly!

Here’s my experience:

I have a permanent, public-sector job, from which I’m currently on my second career break. I’ve done the work/parenting balance various ways since my two children arrived. At first, I went back to work full-time, then cut to four days, then took a one-year break. When I went back after that, it was half time, and when my second baby was born I took the career break I’m on now.

(Where is the father? I confess we fit a modern stereotype: he’s a committed feminist, an engaged parent, who earns considerably more than I do, in a career that doesn’t accommodate the kind of chopping and changing that I’ve undertaken – and even if it did, he wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about the idea. And at the same time, he is uncomfortable at being the sole earner in our household. Hooray.)

So, yes, obviously I’m enormously “lucky” to be in a position to do all this – the “family friendly” options available to me are a privilege denied thousands of other parents.

(The quotation marks around “lucky” and “family friendly”? We’ll come back to those.)

When I was working full-time in 2005, with my baby in a crèche, the economics of it angered me: the only reason why the crèche was “affordable” to us was that the women (yes, of course they were all women) who cared for our child were paid far less than my partner and I were. Their work, which was so utterly crucial to our family’s wellbeing, was apparently of considerably less “value” to society than ours.

To me, this is outrageously messed up. Yet in our current system, in the absence of free childcare from relatives, it’s usually the only way in which parents can sustainably work for pay – and as we know, a second or third set of childcare fees puts it out of reach for many.

(At my job, incidentally, I edit scholarly journals and monographs. I believe passionately in the effective dissemination of peer-reviewed research. But I don’t believe it’s intrinsically more valuable than providing a loving foundation for the development of a whole new person.)

Many children are happy in group care – and more are happy enough that it’s a good solution for the family.

Ours wasn’t.

I took my first career break largely for personal reasons: I had ignored my physical and mental needs to the extent that I was close to a breakdown, and in fact it was the HR manager at work who first suggested that I apply for time off. But within weeks, it became clear what a beneficial change it was for my child, too. I’ll never forget the transformation, in fact – from timid anxiety to … well, a much less heartbreaking native caution.

Lesson One: insofar as possible, parent the child you’ve got. One size does not fit all, and the size that seems a good fit for the parents may be overwhelming to the child.

Lesson Two: if the current setup isn’t functioning, it’s OK to try something else. (I wish I’d learned this one about six months earlier than I did.)

On career break, my anger became more raw. Suddenly, I was seen as “not working” – despite, from my perspective, working harder than I ever had in my life. The same caring tasks that the women in the crèche had done for low pay, I was doing for no pay and (it seemed) largely invisibly. The drop in status was as much of a shock to the system as the disappearance of my income.

We may note that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool-privileged-middle-class daughter of two (full-time) academics: nothing in my life had prepared me for the notion that my chosen contribution to society might be seen as anything less than completely worthy and valuable. Call me naive! It was an awakening.

Even my parents didn’t seem to get that I was doing “real” work by caring for my child. And actually, even I didn’t get it at first. My mother has worked full-time all my life, as did hers, and as I settled into the so-called “stay-at-home” routine I was shocked and ashamed to find myself revising my unarticulated opinion of my aunts, who had left their jobs when they had children. Oh my actual god, said I to myself, all these years, they were working, and I never knew!

Ah, but is it really work, Ted?

Some people – including feminist friends whose opinions I hold in high regard – disagree with me that caring for one’s own children is “work”. In my experience, though, that’s exactly what it is. I’m talking about things like changing nappies, preparing and serving food, managing hygiene, mediating conflicts, administering first aid, handling emotional squalls, providing a safe (and age-appropriate) environment to explore, introducing and enforcing behavioural conventions, maintaining a social circle, and so on. As far as I’m concerned, these activities are work. They might often be enjoyable, or feel vocational, but plenty of paid work fits those criteria.

I mean, if they’re not work, what are they?

LEISURE?

I don’t think so.

The fact remains, of course, that caring work, especially if done for no pay by parents or close relatives, is largely invisible. The reasons for this are complex, but chief among them is a widespread preoccupation in our culture with tangible, preferably measurable outputs. At the end of a day with my children – and I imagine the same is true of caring for a sick or elderly relative – all I really have to show for my work is their own inscrutable selves, one day older.

And yet Studies Show (no, seriously, they do) that the quality of care, particularly for younger children, matters enormously. Not to be sentimental about it, children thrive on love, and on the practical manifestations of love that a committed carer provides. Children who aren’t given a loving foundation are at risk of developing affects and behaviours that are harmful to themselves or others.

(NOTE, incidentally, that I am BY NO MEANS suggesting that this care need come exclusively from a parent – never mind a mother. Any loving adults with whom the child feels safe and happy can potentially provide it. Furthermore, children do best when their caring adults feel good about their choices. So you can put that straw man away, please.)

That’s all very cerebral. Where’s the anger?

Partly, it’s in the disconnect between society’s description of me as a “non-working mother”, on the one hand, and on the other hand, my experience of working enormously hard all day (and all of the night, too – neither of my children was “a sleeper” … though the elder one figured it out eventually, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the younger one does).

Paid carers generally get to do things like, oh, arriving at work and, concomitantly, going home again, after all. Many of them even get unaccompanied loo breaks – which in my recent life have been for considerable periods a halcyon dream.

So, to summarise, if you do a job that allows breaks every day, weekends, sick pay, holiday pay – and, in fact, pay in the first place – you’re “working”. BUT if you perform exactly the same tasks, without any of the breaks or the pay and with a 24/7 on-call clause, you’re “not working”. Run that one by me again?

Partly, it’s in the resonant unease I feel at the phrase “stay-at-home mother” – as though I’ve completely withdrawn from some notionally bounded space called “the world” into a mysterious sphere called “the home”, from which I rarely emerge. See also: feminist discourse of the last two centuries.

Partly, it’s in the fact that my paid work is totally incompatible with my unpaid work: I have to make an either/or choice, and even though my employer is “flexible”, relatively speaking, that choice feels very constrained. (Here, by the way, is why calling myself “lucky” to have such a “family-friendly” employer isn’t exactly straightforward for me.)

This is about the traditional workplace, which conceives of a “worker” as being free to devote uninterrupted chunks of daily time to the employer. You can’t do that while actively caring for a young child. The problem is often articulated as the assumption that a “worker” has a “wife” – in other words, is supported by somebody doing care and maintenance work in “the home”.

Partly, it’s in the idea that by choosing to care for my own children, rather than pay someone else a meagre sum to do so while I go and sell my labour to a third-party, I am in some sense no longer “contributing”. My work isn’t reflected in the gross national product at the moment, ergo it’s “less valuable” than when I was earning a salary. Bizarrely, this would be true no matter what I might have been doing to earn that salary.

Partly, it’s in the way our current structure for rewarding work completely precludes the possibility of anyone ever paying me for the (difficult, valuable) work I’m doing at the moment. The “product” of my caring work, if you like, will be my adult children. (This is of course a collaborative project between me, their father, and several other adults in their lives, but currently, I’m putting in the greatest number of hours.) If we do a “good” job, the children are more likely – though not guaranteed – to grow up to be happy, functional, thoughtful members of society. What’s that worth? Classically, nothing, because nobody is prepared to pay for it.

Hello, rage.

I think we need to do two things

First, we reframe the concept of “work”, so that it encompasses more than just labour sold for money.

Some of my starting points:

  • Anything I could reasonably pay someone else to do is work. (Yes, this unsettles some categories, such as “hobbies”; I’m OK with that.)
  • Work can be joyful or arduous, or anything in between, and this bears no relation to pay.
  • Everybody deserves opportunities to perform joyful work, and to be fairly compensated for some or all of the work that they do.
  • The cultural bias against unpaid work is strong: we need to pay attention to where we unintentionally fail to see such work and thereby denigrate those who do it.

Second, we restructure the traditional workplace to get rid of the notion that a worker needs a wife.

To do this, we might adapt my favourite approach to the “problem” of maternity leave – change the default so that every worker is treated as though they were pregnant – and treat every worker as though they had caring responsibilities.

(Actually, when I put it like that, wouldn’t it be fabulous to live in a society where that were true? Where the burden of caring for those who needed it was in fact shared by everybody who could contribute? Let’s do that, shall we.)

What this might look like, I’m not sure. On-site care facilities in all companies? Across-the-board reduction and flexibility in working hours? A move away from the traditional obsession with working at a specific time and place? Massively increased carers’ allowances? Mandatory burden-sharing agreements between the employers of co-parents? Bring Your Child to Work Day, every day? Certified Work-Life-Balance Counsellors helping to design an individual solution for each family?

I don’t know. It’s a huge question. Perhaps, in our lifetime, we won’t get there from here. But I’d like to think that we could try.

Meanwhile, while waiting for the revolution, ahahaha, and in parallel with my caring work, I’m pursuing various creative and entrepreneurial projects (fiction writing, textile art, blogging), which may or may not bear fruit before I return to my job next spring. I have all kinds of complex feelings about work, pay, value, and so forth, and I don’t imagine they’ll get much simpler as time goes on.

Note on language: You may have noticed that I didn’t state either my children’s assigned genders or my marital status in this piece. This was deliberate. They’re not relevant to what I’m saying here.

Right then. Off we go.

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We decide, over Christmas, that we will get married. We both want to. But there’s a big difference between getting married and having a wedding. We agree instantly on the ceremony aspect of things, and agree, after arguing (because being engaged is not all about necking fizz) that we want to have some sort of celebration, to mark the day and have our families and friends celebrating with us. A small party, we both say. Tiny, in fact. Restrained. No ice sculptures. No owls bearing rings. But we are still unsure. Neither of us feels it is natural to celebrate ourselves.Disney bride

We set a date, the minimum three months from the date of our licence. People seem chuffed for us, and express themselves with such sincerity we know we’ve been right to include them. “You must be so excited,” they grin, uncorking with abandon (because being engaged is partly about necking fizz).

In the face of their chuffedness and sincerity, I am graceless and awkward, and perhaps inappropriately honest: “Actually I think I’m dreading it.” The grins drop. I don’t think any of my mates have been expecting to have the Are You Sure About This chat with me. “Not the being married bit, the getting married bit. Getting trussed up in a frock. People staring at me. Listening to us doing something private. Seeing how much weight I’ve lost, or whether I’ve managed to make my hair look tidy.”

It takes my sister to be appropriately brisk. “What do you mean, people looking at you like that? Who the hell are you asking to this wedding?” She is right. I realise we have not actually invited anyone who works for  the Daily Mail. “Just do what you want,” she says, and friends echo her.

We are both Dubliners, and want a city wedding.

The One Bad Thing About Father

We keep numbers small, but when it is announced that the Obamas will be in Dublin (and Moneygall) in late May, I send them an invitation, along with a gift for their daughters, a secondhand book I think may amuse them. They do not reply. How am I to know whether to include them in the vegetarian option? Perhaps they have been offended by the mention of Teddy Roosevelt.

There will be no big white dress. I have been married before, and am pushing forty, or brushing lightly against it, anyway. I decide against bridesmaids. I will not be given away. Can I be given away a second time anyway? We decide against a first dance, a cake, speeches. We change our minds. And back. We are like willows in the wind.

Despite the simplicity we intend, I have to go shopping. I realise there will have to be some sort of dress, or at least that I will have to be clothed. I listen to other people and pay for a dress that doesn’t suit me; my patient sister mops my tears over the wasted money, the foolishness, and takes time off work for a mercy shopping dash. I enter younger sister mode, plodding behind muttering sulkily how pointless it is, but she ignores me and marches around Brown Thomas collecting armfuls of dresses for me to try on.

“Just try it for shape. Just try it for colour. Just try it for length. Just try it for the beading.” We find two dresses, and when I buy one for the wedding, she buys me the other “because you always need a party dress”.

I try a spray tan. I cannot stand the look of fake tan. I know this as I make the appointment. I do not want to be brown but I want to see if my skin tone will be evened out. I stand like a starfish in front of a beauty therapist who mists a chemical all over me. “This one has no smell,” she says, gesturing for me to turn my thighs out like a ballerina. It reeks. It makes me bright brown and does not give an even skin tone.

“Are you wearing fake tan?” asks the man I am about to marry, partly amused and partly horrified.

“Yes – it’s a trial run.”

“Please don’t wear it for the wedding,” he says kindly. He rarely sees anything negative in the way I look; when it comes to me, these words from his lips are as harsh as they come. My shins are patchy, my wrists and heels grubby. My brown hands on the steering wheel look old and stained. Pippa Middleton and I would struggle to find common ground. I will have to spend a week exfoliating. Down the plughole with thirty euros in the shape of scrubbed-off bits of dyed epidermis. At least I will be married in my own skin, though.

I cannot find a cream leather shoe or sandal. Friends text me pictures covertly snapped in shoe shops around Ireland. One suggests I go barefoot. “Romantic,” she points out, and it would be, were I eighteen, with daisies woven into my waist-length hair.

My sister phones. “I was thinking about that dress last night. You need a wrap. I can make you one if you like. I have to go now, I’m at work.”

A friend organises a makeup lesson and invites my sister and mother as well as other friends. She provides supper and wine and refuses to let the visiting makeup artist do her face or eyes. “Nope. This is for you,” she says. “Bridie.” I have known her since we were about five. She offers to make me a necklace for the wedding day. We neck fizz.

I have a hen night. We neck fizz. A friend has come over from London. My future sisters-in-law have made me a collage of photographs of my future husband as a child. A friend gives me a bag of luxury beauty treats. Someone who has returned from India brings bindis, and we decorate one another. We have dinner. More people come. Someone fastens a necklace around my throat. Everyone is good company and looks beautiful and I am delighted that they are my friends. I neck more fizz and start to witter softly and tearfully about how much I love them all. I am that sort of drunk. My shoes are killing me and I cannot walk to the nightclub. A friend produces a pair of pumps from a bag and I spring about Dawson Street. I dance in the pumps until three in the morning, when my bindi slides away on a film of sweat. The following day I have barely swallowed a coffee before a friend has emailed around Bracelet of Friends, a commemorative hen night poem she has composed.

After the hen night I know I am looking forward to the wedding, though I still feel traces of awkwardness about being the centre of attention. I have not been a bridezilla, but my reluctance and awkwardness have been another form of self-obsession. When I raise my eyes from my own irregularly tanned navel I am overwhelmed by the generosity, good will and sense of celebration that surround us.

The 30-Day Shred has improved my arms (slightly), but even in the dimmest candlelight they could not be confused with Michelle Obama’s. Perhaps it is for the best that she is not coming. Anyway, a stranger’s face would be out of place among those of everyone we love.

Yes, I am definitely looking forward to it now: our exchange of vows, our bracelet of friends.

Next Saturday, when Leinster wins the Heineken Cup, we will be married.

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There’s a delightful video doing the rounds this last couple of weeks – a cover version of Chris Brown’s Look At Me Now by a band called Karmin, notable because Karmin singer Amy Heidemann does an amazing interpretation of bullet-rapping Busta Rhyme’s verses. I watched it, loved it, shared it with my friends. And as I was doing so, I thought, “Chris Brown, eh? He still has a career?”

Yes, as it happens. You might remember Chris Brown as the young man who battered (now ex) girlfriend Rihanna a couple of years ago. Due to the celebrity status of both the victim and the strutting arsehole who beat her up, it was an unfortunately public assault. Some argued that this was a good thing in that it raised awareness (amongst young people who up to then had thought that it was ok to beat up their partners? Dunno). The rest of us flinched at the leaked photographs of Rihanna’s injuries, wished that the press would leave her alone to come to terms with what had happened, and hoped that Mr. Brown soon entered the market for a large boulder he could wedge his bulk under.

And yet this hasn’t happened. Rihanna’s career has gone from strength to strength, and oddly enough, so has Brown’s. Not that I generally keep up to speed with hip-pop artists, but I don’t even recall there being much of a sabbatical. He’s as popular as ever with fans, and has no problem attracting other artists to work with on musical projects.

One might say that Brown is entitled to forgiveness and entitled to move on with his life and career. And indeed he is. But how could a fan bring themselves to support someone who severely assaulted his girlfriend and was never quite convincing in subsequent public apologies? Indeed, at the end of March he threw a dramatic hissy fit backstage at Good Morning America when quizzed about the assault, reportedly breaking a window, leaving the building in a shirtless huff(!) and tweeting afterwards, “I’m so over people bring this past s**t up!! Yet we praise Charlie Sheen and other celebs for there[sic] bulls**t.”

This may be the thing, though. Are the public “allowing” Brown a career because he’s such an entertaining little Veruca Salt?

Social media has made it possible for a celebrity to have virtual one-on-one relationships with his or her fans – Twitter, tumblr, whatever. A celeb now has the power to make connections with the wider world without the deft swipe of a publicist’s whitewash brush. Before, celebrities flourished in stone fortresses, pampered and bubble-wrapped and told marvellous tales about how their personas were received in the outside world. Nowadays it’s like the poor, narcissistic things are kept in Wicker Men in a madhouse garden. Should they wish to say something out-of-character (as in, not becoming of a public figure), it will be seized upon and flung halfway around the world well before their publicist’s spidey-sense gets going. And they may well wish to say something out-of-character, because the fans will lap it up and egg them on, rubbernecking on a delightfully careening ego.

Recently, we’ve seen Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, and Lindsay Lohan making headlines for pretty horrific behaviour; Charlie’s hired an entourage of porn stars to live with him, Mel admitted to domestic violence, and Lindsay practically lives in court these days.  Yet the public hasn’t denied them their celebrity status, or let them know that such behaviour is not socially acceptable. The public would rather Charlie and Mel and Lindsay kept making asses of themselves. Who wants to see Charlie get well? Who wants to see the erstwhile holier-than-thou Mel get his act together? Who wants to see Lindsay reinvent herself as an indie darling? No one. They’re far more valuable as clowns. No matter if Charlie keels over from an overdose or Mel breaks his girlfriend’s teeth or Lindsay dies in the gutter. Collateral damage.

Do we condone bad behaviour from celebrities simply because they’re celebrities? I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that, but the answer isn’t on par with rocket science, either. Celebrities who behave badly cannot presume that the public will remain empathic, forgiving – even interested. Celebrities who behave badly in a ridiculously over-the-top fashion can, though. We can be entertained as well as feel superior. Is this why Chris Brown still has a glittering pop career?

Or do we really think that battering women isn’t really that big a deal? Do we think that proud patronage of the sex trade isn’t really that big a deal? Do we think that a young woman drowning her talent in alcohol isn’t that big a deal?

[Of course, the other condition under which the general public will forgive a misbehaving celebrity is if that celebrity has a talent that is not interchangeable with a hundred other pretenders (as in Brown’s identipop career). I suppose Roman Polanski would be the prime example here. If he was not a brilliant storyteller and visionary, would we have forgiven him for raping a child?]

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Here’s a bizarre dichotomy to consider: corrective rape. Yes, raping a person to make them see the error of their ways. I wish I could tell you I’d made it up, but it seems it’s all the rage at home, in South Africa. Now take a moment to consider and remember the following women, all victims of corrective rape, all black, all young, all lesbians, all dead:

* Noxolo Nogwaza — raped, stabbed and stoned to death in an alleyway in Kwa-Thema, near

Eudy Simelane - murdered.

Johannesburg, in April, simply for being a lesbian. She was also a mother. Her eyes were pushed out of her skull, used condoms littered the scene, a paving stone lay near her crushed head, and there was a beer bottle against her vagina. She was 24. Her name means peace.

* Luleka Makiwane — contracted HIV when she was raped by a cousin hellbent on trying to “prove” she was a woman, not a man. Cock does that, you know, it sorts the women from the men. Luleka ultimately succumbed to Aids.

* Nosizwe Nomsa Bizana — gang-raped by five men, and now dead from crypto meningitis, believed to have been contracted during the attack, or possibly as a complication of the trauma she suffered.

* Nokuthula Radebe — strangled with her own shoelaces and found in an abandoned building with her pants pulled down and plastic covering her face, at the age of 20.

* Eudy Simelane — gang-raped, brutally beaten and stabbed to death at the age of 31 because she was a lesbian. Eudy was a talented footballer who had played for the acclaimed South African national women’s team. She worked with the handicapped and was an HIV/ Aids counsellor. Her naked body was found dumped in a ditch.

These are some of the 30-odd women known to have been murdered in my homeland in the last decade merely because of their sexual orientation. Countless more have been raped for being lesbians, a crime now dubbed “corrective rape” because the perpetrators seem to believe that a violent, demeaning shot from the old meat injection is all it will take to make lesbians see sense and realise that a penis is what they needed all along. This is precisely what happened to Millicent Gaika (pictured), a lesbian who was raped and beaten for five hours by a man she knew who said he was going to turn her into a woman.

Millicent Gaika after being repeatedly raped and beaten for five hours.

Yes, I know: it’s about as logical as suggesting a gang of gay thugs raping a straight bloke will change his sexual allegiance, but some people really are pig-ignorant, illogical and deluded, while bloated with dangerous machismo and immense hubris.

Stupidity and ego are a toxic combination. Some men think their love is all you need.

Let me get one thing straight though: on paper, South Africa is one of the most progressive places on the planet when it comes to gay rights. The country’s post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to stipulate that nobody may be discriminated against due to sexual orientation, or gender or race for that matter. South Africa was the first country in notoriously homophobic Africa (where 37 countries outlaw homosexuality completely) and the fifth country in the whole world to legalise same-sex marriage. There’s none of that civil union lark. Lest the First World feel smug, please note that 42 Commonwealth countries still have homophobic legislation on their statute books.

Equally, South Africa was the first republic to provide non-heterosexual people with the same rights regarding adoption and military service as heterosexual folk. We’re very proud of our constitution. Well, some of us are.

In the thriving cities and metropolises, being gay is pretty much accepted, while there are Gay Pride parades, and there is a thriving gay scene.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t always filter down to the boneheads on the street, to the cretins who see lesbianism as a direct affront to their manliness, an insult, a rejection of the lads, and something they must self-righteously fix with a brutal beating from their own beloved love truncheon. It’s a growing problem as the poison of homophobia seeps through the dust and the shantytowns.

Yes, rape as therapy.

Gay rights' protesters remember Eudy Simelane.

Countless women are raped each day because of their sexual orientation. One estimate based on calls to a Cape Town-based action group alone puts the figure at ten a week in that city’s informal sprawl. Last Thursday (5 May), a mere 13-year-old girl was raped in Pretoria’s Atteridgeville because she was open about fancying girls.

Yet, very obviously, rape is not a cure for anything at all, and being raped has never changed a person’s mind — except, perhaps, to confirm a woman’s suspicions that some men are barbaric and, in the case of gang-raped lesbians, to confirm that they were right all along.

Finally,  possibly ten years too late, the South African police are setting up a task-force to tackle the issue.

What is needed, however, is a complete change of mindset, a realisation that in every civilization since the beginning of time between three and ten percent of the population were gay. It’s seen in frescoes from Pompeii, in ancient Greek mythology, from Michelangelo to Marlene Dietrich, from Ottoman sultans to Oscar Wilde, from King Shaka to Billie Jean King… It’s frequently seen in the animal kingdom too. It was rife and widely accepted in Africa before the missionaries came.

And why should anyone care what another adult does with their own genitalia anyway? What goes on between consenting adults is nobody else’s business at all. Not that any of this is consolation to the families, friends and lovers of all the victims of corrective rape, or any salve to the jagged memory of Luleka, Nosizwe, Nokuthula, Eudy and Noxolo, whose name means peace…

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The Guys Next Door

Judgments prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.  ~Wayne W. Dyer

I’ve always thought of myself as open-minded, especially when it comes to matters of race. As someone who is of mixed race (half-Japanese, half-Caucasian), I am the product of two people who come from very different countries and backgrounds yet managed to create a life together.

The high school I attended in California was predominately Latino and African-American; in fact, Asians and Caucasians were the minority there. I went to college in San Francisco, a city that prides itself on its political correctness and my classmates represented all races and cultures. The point is I grew up in a diverse community. So it was a surprise when I recently had to face my own racist views.

My boyfriend lives in an apartment block in Dublin and his neighbors are from Pakistan. There are four guys, all in their mid-20s, all living in a one-bedroom apartment. My partner’s bedroom wall is on the other side of their sitting room, and about 3-4 times a week we are awoken by loud shouting emanating from their side of the wall. It usually starts around 2 a.m. and goes for an hour or two or three. We can’t understand what they are saying as they speak in their native language and it’s hard to tell if they are angry or jubilant. We both sleep with ear plugs but it still keeps us from getting a decent night’s sleep.

When I first asked my partner about the guys next door, he just said they were four Pakistani guys and that he’d never spoken to them but that he was quite suspicious of them. They go in and out all hours of the night and they have a constant stream of guests who seem to crash there for long periods of time. This is incredibly difficult to admit – especially publicly – but in my mind I created several scenarios of what they were up to and why. Were they part of some underground extreme Muslim sect infiltrating Dublin? Did their late-night arguments stem from disagreements over who was the leader of the group? Maybe one of the guys was getting too “westernized” and there was dissension among the ranks.

How can a 30-something, well-traveled, educated woman come to such narrow conclusions about people she’s never even spoken to? I’m struggling with an answer to that question. I remember how hurt and angry I felt when a kid at school once called me a “chink” and asked me if I knew how to use a fork and knife, because he knew I was part Japanese. But at least that kid put his racism right in my face – it was out there for all to see. It would seem subtle forms of racism are what pose a real threat to the forward movement and progress of humanity as a whole.

With the Pakistani neighbours I’m basing my views on what I’ve picked up from the media; most of what I see in the news about Pakistan or any Middle Eastern country is negative. If the media reports are to be believed, young Arab males are all busy plotting uprisings of some form or another and are all Islamic extremists who want to take over the world. Even the recent spate of “Arab Spring” related stories and images are tinged with pessimism.

If the point is to breed hysteria, it’s worked. And if racism is based on ignorance and fear, I’ve got both covered. When I see a group of Middle Eastern men on a flight, the first emotion I feel is fear. The second is guilt. I feel both when I think of confronting those guys next door.

I actually had an encounter with one of the guys in the elevator a few of weeks back. He spoke first.

“Hi, I’ve seen you around. I’m Aziz,” he said, warmly. He had a kind and gentle smile. We talked for a few minutes. I mentioned the noise – albeit in a somewhat joking manner so that my true annoyance would not become obvious – and he was very apologetic and said he’d mention it to his mates. He said they all worked odd hours and therefore stayed up very late. He mentioned that sometimes they just get carried away in conversation but that he was very sorry it disturbed us.

I left the discussion feeling relieved and stupid. I felt ashamed for letting myself get carried away with all that nonsense before, and surprised at becoming the kind of person I always stood up to in the past – an ignorant, narrow-minded twit. But that relief and change of heart was short-lived; when I heard them shouting loudly the day after our talk, the fear came back. A couple of weeks and several more sleepless nights later, it’s still here. I so want to go next door and have a neighbourly chat with them, but both my boyfriend and I wonder if it’s such a good idea. He tells me to just leave it as he has to live next door to them and doesn’t want any drama. I still wonder if there’s something sinister going on over there and my imagination is running wild with possibilities.

This is not something I’m proud of. If they were white or Asian, would I hesitate to go speak with them? I guess it would depend on how intimidating they looked or behaved. These neighbour guys are not at all physically intimidating, they are average height and weight and dress in nondescript clothing and they don’t really stand out at all. It’s not unusual for a group of 20-somethings to enjoy their freedom and take advantage of being away from their parents for possibly the first time in their lives – they’re probably just having fun and being lads. Maybe they’re just inconsiderate, noisy neighbours and nothing else. Why is it so hard for me to see past their ethnicity and believe this?

Ironically enough, that question is the other thing keeping me up at night.

Clare Kleinedler is an American freelance journalist living in Ireland. She writes the blogs An American in Ireland and The Hollywood Craic.

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Dragons’ Den, The Apprentice, Take Me Out, Come Dine With Me … we nicked ‘em all, and now we’ve nicked Masterchef too. As of yesterday, RTE/Screentime Shinawil are taking applications for the first Irish series (come on, you Saturday Dishers), in which Nick Munier (Pichet, Hell’s Kitchen) and Dylan McGrath (The Commons, Peacock Alley, Mint) will take the places of John “that’s a beautiful plate of food” Torode, and Greg “give us a cuppa tea and I’d polish off the lot” Wallace.

Antonia Hart enjoying some television

Antonia Hart enjoying some television

Wouldn’t it be a great way to restore national pride, generate income and create jobs if some Irish production company were to come up with a really cracking show that every television station in the world was just tripping over its shoelaces to buy? I’ve been racking my brains but I’m not coming up with anything, and I keep stumbling against cod Irish themes (usually to do with wakes and talking shite – have I been reading too many short stories of the fifties?) but it definitely needs to be culturally neutral if it’s to fulfil its international sales potential. Also, every time I think I have a good idea, it turns out to be a vague but actual memory of a programme I’ve seen before. Surely tv companies never have this problem.

 

Could we train ordinary people to become circus performers and culminate with a national tour?

Bring up three children for ten years, each according to a different parenting manual, and allow a public vote on the most successful child/parent unit?

Encourage ordinary citizens to perform minor surgery, with a cash prize if the patient doesn’t notice?

Or what about over twelve weeks building a mini-dream-state, with a government, legal system, health and education services, and a little cultural context? If it seemed to work well, we could sell citizenship.

I know, they’re all just variations on a theme. Well, if you’ve any ideas pass ‘em on. In the meantime, we all get on with generating and consuming food every day, so in many ways are just rehearsing for Masterchef. The beauty of that idea is that we are all potential contestants. Get your application in by 27th April. Do you love or loathe Masterchef, by the way?

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Rosita Sweetman

Rosita Sweetman is a writer and journalist. She has published three books, On Our Knees, a look at Ireland in the 1970s, Fathers Come First, a novel, and On Our Backs, a look at sexual attitudes in 1980s Ireland.

Chupi Sweetman-Pell

Rosita’s daughter, Chupi Sweetman-Pell, is a food writer and fashion designer, author of What to Eat When You Can’t Eat Anything: The Complete Allergy Cookbook. She sells her main fashion line, Chupi, through Topshop and at the The Loft Market.

What’s the first record you ever bought?
Rosita: The Beatles, ‘Love, Love me Do’
Chupi: The Streets of Philadelphia, the single, on cassette – for my Mum

What’s your favourite smell?
R: Coffee
C: Fresh Basil leaves and tomato plants.

Have you ever had a nickname?
R: My dear bro, Roger, nick-named me Zebo, which turned into Zibb :)
C: No. No need!

What is your favourite room in your house?
R: The kitchen – with family, friends, food.
C: The kitchen! Where else can you eat?

What are your guilty pleasures?
R: Sorry, can’t divulge, too guilty.
C: Cheese, chocolate, all food related things.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
R: That I’m a closet exhibitionist?
C: I’m not actually a nice person :)

Who is your closest female friend?
R: Ooooooo that’s a hard one. If I choose one the others will be horribly hurt. Love all my female friends dearly.
C: Lydia.

Do you have any tattoos or piercings?
R: Ears. Done millennia ago in boarding school, with safety-pin, (the Child of Mary medal pin was too blunt).
C: Got navel pierced at 16 but took it out at 21 (it had reached its sell by date).

Where would you most like to live?
R: In a yellow submarine.
C: Don’t think the where is very important, it’s more the who with.

Who was your first kiss and where did it happen?
R: With MG, in the orchard. Hot and salty – we’d been swimming.
C: A guy called Ciaran. In Dunlavin, Co. Wicklow. (He’s since emigrated :))

What’s the most unusual question you’ve ever been asked?
R: Does that hurt?
C: The last one!

What’s the best present you’ve ever received?
R: My children, Chupi and Luke. Nothing Compares to Them x
C: Yardi, my corgi, when I was ten.

What is your favourite word?
R: It was really Luke Kelly’s favourite word: Un-be-fucking-lievable. Kind of suits the times that are in it…
C: F**k!

Who was your first love?
R: Michael G. We were 10 and knew everything (little horrors that we were).
C: Brian :)

If you weren’t doing what you do, what might you have become?
R: A ballerina. No, that’s a joke. How about a member of the Arts Council so I could torture penniless writers?
C: Someone who does cooking and eating and writing – full time.

Is there a book you’ve bought several times as a gift for someone?
R: Edna O Brien’s barely known but absolutely wonderful biography of James Joyce. Everyone I’ve bought it for, including artist Barrie Cooke, adores it.
C: I’ve mostly given cookbooks; lots of my own, What To Eat When You Can’t Eat Anything, and Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian cookbook, Plenty.

What happens after we die?
R: It’s the Big Secret, isn’t it?
C: The people who love us remember us.

What female historical figure do you admire most?
R: Grainne Uaile was pretty cool. I love the story of her marching, bare breasted, into Queen Elizabeth 1st’s court. Attitude is everything.
C: None that I can think of.

Sum yourself up in three words:
R: Female. Mum. Hungry!
C: Impatient. Demanding. Enthusiastic. (and Hungry!)

And finally…What are you anti? What are you pro?
R: Pro the young, the old and the in-betweeners. Anti bullshite in all its myriad forms; particularly my own.
C: Oh God, how much time have you got? Anti ignorance – where education has been an option, and laziness, and religion. Am pro eating, love and friends :)

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