The Soul-Devouring Darkness

Robin Williams

The last couple of days I have thought a lot about Robin Williams, who died by his own hand five years ago. As is my wont these days, whenever I feel really close to someone who has died… or that person has in any way affected me and my life… I draw him. My drawings are usually just pen portraits, based on someone else’s photo (and I’m sorry I don’t always know the source, so can’t acknowledge it), but I always add my own little touch, trying to pull out of the likeness that predominant element that I see thrusting itself into my soul.

In Robin William’s case it had to be the eyes and the mouth. I increased the girth of the lips to the right to turn the smile into a sardonic one, and I put “water” in the eyes, making them liquid, inward looking, giving the lie to the character he played in public. The jovial clown there to raise a laugh, while fighting with demons inside.

And I empathise. Can’t not. I often fight with demons. I might not be a certified clinical depressive, but there are many of the symptoms that dog me… that run through my very being like soiled water, fouling my life and often ruining it.

I am known as the guy with the smile. A recent, soul-destroying, devastating breakup led me to draw myself without the smile (couldn’t put it on any more) and the reaction was massive. “This is not the Ġorġ we know”, “Go put the smile back on”, and the usual platitudes one tells someone going through a bad patch that often do more harm than good. But the smile couldn’t be there that time, because the demons had eaten it.

I’m a very moody person. I come across as an extrovert… a good communicator, a man of words. Which I suppose I also am. But I am also an artist. A poet. A writer. And those creative traits do really demand an introverted conceptualisation of life. In fact, when the inward eye darkens, when something triggers thoughts that become darker and darker and procreate like lice in a schoolgirl’s hair, I fold into myself, struggling with the inner me, letting no-one in till I push away the darkness, forcing it into as narrow a space in my psyche as possible, in order for lightness to once again allow itself into my being. But when I’m in my dark place, the darkness devours my soul, and throttles my stomach, tramples on it like a herd of demented buffaloes and kills all dreams, all hopes… all happiness.

Even those really close to me have found this difficult to take. And if there are enough of these incidences (and god knows I’ve had enough for a hundred lifetimes), then the effect on some people (even those who really should know better) is that they see the silence and the wall built around me at that moment, and take the rebuff as a rebuke… and stop trying to understand the cause and just take the (horrid) result as the outcome. This can be disruptive of even the most intimate relationships (as I have found out to my great devastation… but that’s a story for another day), with the accumulative effect of too many soul-devouring moments making people give up on me. And the irony is that, in so doing, they confirm that the darkness was right after all, and that it is the natural way of being, rather than the occasional blip in happiness.

So I empathise with the Robin Williamses of the world. I don’t think his final solution was the right one, but living with darkness as a delightful smile entertains the masses is a hell in all but flames and devils. Though, in actual fact, the flames are there too… flames of angst and hopelessness, of helpless turmoil and a shroud of gloom, demolishing dreams and killing futures… as the laughter in the street joins the feast band, and lights blaze.

Everywhere but inside me.

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Next time I’ll know better! – On why I will no longer report illegalities to the Occupational Health and Safety Authority

If you’d come across Malta for the first time, you would not be blamed thinking that the much prophesied apocalypse had come to roost here. From the snaking monster of cars that clogs the arteries of our roads, to towering cranes and the ‘development’ that invariably accompanies it… dangerous dragons all, belching fumes of dust that maim the lungs and kill the will to live.

Of late, of course, that thing that goes around came around and suddenly, we’re all talking about the massive danger to civilian life that unbridled construction has become. A few homes neighbouring building sites fell down. The amazing thing is that more haven’t fallen down, and one wonders how many will fall down of their own free will over the years, their foundations undermined in such a way that the danger is latent rater than immediate.

I have lived through three major building sites around my flat. I am asthmatic and suffer massively from headaches. The incredible noise, the dust, the shaking foundations, the persistent dirt that washes over a neighbourhood were building is going on, the street blockage, the inconvenience. All of that and more. But what actually affected me much more than anything else (well, maybe except for the noise of the digger!) was the total disrespect for health and safety that the workers at the building site across the way from me had. They straddled planks balancing precariously on sacks of cement, four or five floors up. They inhaled dust from the stone cutting and planing machines that surely must have lead to permanent calcification of their lungs. They wore no helmets, no harnesses, no protective shoes. They often wore no clothes at all, except for skimpy shorts that covered modesty but did little else.

I was expecting a fatal accident to happen at any moment, and a couple of times I just couldn’t take it! Took photos and sent them off to the Occupational Health and Safety Authority, who would duly acknowledge receipt of my mail and actually send inspectors. And work would stop for a day, and the following day the workers had helmets and harnesses. And the day following that, the harnesses would still be on, but they’d have dangling ropes, unconnected and as useless as a damp squib! And then the helmets would disappear as well. So on and so forth. Until my hackles went up so high I had to contact the OHSA again.

This happened a few times while the huge block was being erected. And people moved in and the workers disappeared. None died, as far as I know, but it wasn’t from lack of their trying.

And then, a few months ago, I got a police summons that I was called as witness against the contractors. Three separate summons, but all for the same morning. It was a bad time… exam time at University. I had to cancel meetings that had been planned for weeks, but grumblingly thought it was my duty to see this through. A citizen should stand up in the face of the rampant illegalities that are around us. Even more if those illegalities can cost lives through the neglect, or just plain stinginess, of contractors.

So I was in court at the appointed time of 9.00 am. It was difficult for someone who had never been to court to find the actual hall… there were none listed on the summons, and the notice boards were only populated about half an hour after the appointed time. And there is no-one official around to ask. It looked like a non-violent melee, a free for all, with people obviously knowing each other chatting away, and the newbie trying to find his way.

Someone knew, and I was pointed to a closed door around which milled a lot of people. When the notice was eventually put up, I saw that there were dozens of cases for that same hall and same magistrate, all for that morning. So I waited to be called.

Nothing happened. At one point I thought I heard one of the contractors against whom I was a witness being called in, but not the two others, and no-one called me in the meantime, so I thought I’d imagined it.

At just after 11.00 am, a police sergeant stuck his head out of the hall door and asked for those whose case had not yet been called. I tentatively told him what I was there for. He looked through his list. “Ah,” said. “That case was adjourned!” And the other two, I asked? “Oh, they could not serve the summons to those two!” he calmly said. So what do I do, I asked, trying to hold back the anger that nearly choked me at that point. “Oh, you’ll have to come back,” he said with a smile, and gave me a date… this time slam bang in the last week of semester, when it’s impossible to postpone classes.

I fumed out. Wrote to the OHSA and told them off! Not their fault. It’s the court system being what it is. But I still had to go when called, or else I’d be fined for contempt!

And I was summoned. Only just, as I’d just got home from abroad. It seems people do not travel. They just wait in their homes waiting for policemen to deliver summons.

Again, I was there at 9.00. Again I waited. Again I wasn’t called. But the two cases I had been summoned for were. An hour or so later. And they must have left through the back door, because another case was called. I tried to talk to the policeman who was calling cases, but he indicated he was busy. I waited another half an hour then collared him the moment his head came out for the next call. Oh, he said. Both cases were adjourned. For a time when I’ll definitely be abroad.

And I fumed out again. And decided that being a good citizen is not worth it after all. And that the next time I see someone about to die as they  do a sprightly dance in mid-air on planks hanging from threads, I’ll turn my head away and not let the overwhelming need to save them make me have to contend with a court system that has no respect for citizens doing their duty.

Most definitely. Next time I’ll know better!

A silent silence

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The silence runs deeper than the silence itself. Because there is no actual silence. There’s a gentle rustle as trees, as old as god knows what, are gently brushed by a very light wind. There is the lapping of waves… like lovers, waters kissing rocks, gently rocking over them, making love in ways that are only known to nature that has been untouched by the artifical hand of what we laughingly refer to as civilisation.

No, there is no actual silence, but yet, it is a silence deeper than any I’ve felt in vacuum, because silence is not the absence of noise, it is the intense pleasure of the lack of the humdrum familiar… the abject hum of everyday outside the window… the massive, overwhelming roar of life as it happens anywhere on my island home.

This too is an island, but so far removed from the familiar world of home as to be virtually another world. A world of green, and blue, and quiet red rooftops that feel like they’ve been lifted out of a northern crib. A world of rocks that love the waters that surround them, and in which even old boathouses enrich, rather than blemish the landscape.

Yes, it’s lifted out of a postcard, but there’s no printing, no paper… just the reality of the deep silence of the soul, an eternity of gentle sussuration as thoughts slowly drift out into puffs of non-existence. A disarming debilitating of the need to work… an antidote to tension and stress.

And it’s a permeating silence that creates a lethargic energy that dissipates softly into thoughtlessness, as the spirit hums gently to itself and eases the burden of life.

Queue

Noun: A line or sequence of people or vehicles awaiting their turn to be attended to or to proceed.

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Large crowds irritate me, so I didn’t go to see the Valletta 2018 European City of Culture launch on Saturday. Because I stayed home, I did not have first hand experience of the crowds climbing over each other to get the first available bus back home. I just heard about it. Many pointed an accusing finger at the bus service (they’re not exactly virginal when it comes to organisation), but many talked of unruly crowds who were totally incapable of keeping a line. And I believe the latter.

Once a week I go to my favourite Qormi bakery to buy bread. It’s a popular bakery and there’s usually a crowd there waiting to be served. That’s right. A crowd. Not a queue. Definitely not, as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it, “a line or sequence of people… awaiting their turn to be attended…”.

I, stupidly, stay in my place behind the person who came in ahead of me. But the people who come in after me spread out, and when the shop assistants say the magic word “next”, three or four voices pipe up. From directly behind me, behind me to my left, behind me to my right, even two or three thick behind me, not to mention the little voice from below me (we teach them when they’re young).

And the shop attendants do not really care, or have not been told or instructed to care, and they serve the one with the loudest voice, the owner of which then pushes through to the front of the line.

Idiotically I stay in place. I look angry and irritated, yes, and often try to figure out how to (literally) put the offenders in their place as I (ineffectually) scowl at them, but they’re usually served and gone before I can put my anger and irritation into words. And if I wait a split second too long, the next one behind me will be served before I can elbow my way into the scrum.

Why are we like this? No, it’s not just us Maltese, I know. I’ve suffered the same indemnities in Greece and southern Italy (to name just a couple of many). But that does not make it any better.

It’s rudeness, selfishness and that horrendous sense of entitlement that is so ruinous of who we are as a people of a tiny, overcrowded country who should know better than to trample all over each other. Because we’re so overcrowded, we should value organisation before all else, so things fall into place and each person’s small space is not encroached upon. But we go for the opposite. Me first, me second, me third, and so on.

I often mention Scandinavia in these blogs, because it’s my other home. And they’re far from perfect, but they have structures in place that actually work. They have a number system there that (at times, to the Mediterranean mind) almost turns them into automatons. Any shop you enter, if you require the attention of an attendant, will have a number machine at the door. You take a ticket with a number. You wait for the number to come up on screen. You get served. No pushing. No shoving. No shouting over the heads of others. No swearing and (at times) actual fighting. No jostling. No elbowing. No scrum. Just calm, civilised, effective. Impersonal, yes… but I’ll take impersonal over savage egoism any day.

We’re from the south. We’re Mediterranean. We do everything with passion. That’s what I’m told when I comment in this way. And in many of the things we do, those are traits that serve us in good stead. They enhance our product. They put life and verve in what we create. But not in this and in so many other things in which what comes out instead is how rude we are to each other. How self-serving and indifferent to the feelings of those with whom we share an extremely tiny patch of land.

This is symptomatic of a deeper trait that scares me.

But I’ll go into that in a future blog, because it’s my turn in the queue to be served.

Oh, wait a minute. No, it’s not… it’s the guy behind me whose turn it, apparently, is…!

 

The Soundtrack to my Life

GorgOVERears

The massive tower crane across the street hums incessantly. Rising and falling like a siren that whistles and screams, as the metal at the end of its cables clatters and scrapes along the roof of the monster block being built right in front of my windows.

They’ve already started tiling the lower floors. There’s the whine of the chaser they cut the tiles with, screaming like a demented banshee. Stopping and starting. Incessantly.

The workers shout at each other across the block. They’re directing the guy who has just brought a truck full of sand, and the high-up arm on the truck clatters and grinds its way up to one of the storeys, while workers shovel sand noisily into the bucket, the crunch of the shovel not lost, but providing a backdrop to the shouted instructions that seem never-ending.

There’s the persistent loud clippity-clopp of the machine that smooths the stone blocks before they’re laid. It’s left on all the time, in between the sharp wail and screech it makes when each block of stone is passed through it. Then the clippity-clopp returns, accompanied by the clanking of the large chisel used to pat the blocks in place on the cement.

Ah, the jackhammer down the street is at it again. The workers must have broken for lunch. It’s back now, full tilt. Easily the most horrendous noise in existence, vibrating my mind and thoughts with its jiggedy-jig, loud and head-shattering. They must have found some other two-storey house to knock down and transform into a charmless monolith of concrete. It will soon be followed by the horrendous clackity-clack of the earth digger. Those were horrible months, those were, just before the building started on the monstrosity across the way. What fun to look forward to.

One of the neighbours’ daughter’s boyfriend, in his souped up Escort Mark 2 has come to collect her again. The growl of the engine gives him away. It’s left on, of course, as he sits on the horn to call her out. The horn is a loud parp. Pressed twenty times (I counted) before her shrill voice, presumably from a window, tells him she’s coming.

They’re playing the radio full on in the block being built behind us. I know when the workers turn up at half past six in the morning. That’s when the radio is switched on. And it stays on till they leave around five in the afternoon. They must be ready to roof one of the floors. There’s an awful crashing of metal on stone. The net to be used? Possibly. They’re using an angle grinder, that drones, then screeches loudly as it cuts through the steel. Feels like a stiletto of sound, sharp and pointed, piercing my ear drums.

Ah, the neighbour’s daughter did not stay true to her promise to come down. It’s the parp-parp-parp of the Escort’s (undoubtedly customized) horn again. OK. Only fifteen times this time. Her shrill voice silences it. She screams at him. He shouts back, and swears to high heaven, and slams the door of the car. No, the doors. OK, he seems to be slamming doors instead of sitting on the horn, venting his frustration at her tardiness.

A rather large woman who drives a tiny Subaru and has five young kids (all packed into it whenever I see them) has just arrived. She has a voice that would shame the roar of a bull being taunted in Pampalona. And the kids, it seems, who whine and cry and scream and shout and argue loudly, can do no right. She bawls at them, and slams the doors of her Subaru (what is it with slamming doors in frustration in my street?). Good, they’re moving away, the roar of their interaction slowly fading and being drowned out now by the hum of the high-up arm, lifting up the bucket of sand as the scraping shovel perpares more for when it lands.

The sudden elevated growl of the Escort signals the arrival of the prodigal girlfriend, and for nearly a minute it masks the sound of the tower crane and the stone machine, though not the chaser and the angle grinder. Nor the jackhammer. Nothing masks the jackhammer.

They’re hammering next door, and drilling. Both sounds compete with each other, but the drilling actually wins. I get the impression of a meters high drill, twisting holes out of tiny walls. The whir is massive and drones for long minutes. It stops for seconds at a time, but then the hammering (must be more than one hammer… has to be…) takes over with gusto. Occassionaly there’s a symphony, the drill providing the wind and string instruments, and the hammer the percussion. The composer, though, must have been insane and produced a discordant overture to madness.

Oh, it’s the front door neighbour’s son. I had not seen him for the first few years I lived here. But I recognised him from his voice. A fog-horn of a voice, but with the edge of nails scraping on a blackboard. I have only ever heard him shouting and swearing at the top of his lungs. I’ve never heard him laugh, nor have I heard him speak softly (I very much doubt he can). He is shouting at his mother to open the door. He has rung the doorbell twice, and is now impatient to go in. Ah, he’s kicking the door now. And the voice again. Rasping like a bad actor’s in a horror movie. When once I caught a glimpse of him, his bulk fit right in with his voice. Most of it was round the tummy, true, but the chest from where the fog-horn emanated was wide and barrel-like, and might even, with training, turn up the decibels one day. I worry about earthquakes if that were to be the case. Good. She’s let him in. And he’s giving her a lashing of his tongue (it’s a rasping roar that reverberates and echoes till it fades in the innards of the house).

Good lord, it’s Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up” blaring from the street. High. Incredibly high. Let’s see what my phone app says. Hmm… it’s fluctuating between 102 and 107 decibels. And I’m five floors up. Must be as high as a jet-engine where it’s coming from. But who…? A quick look out the window. A 1990’s BMW across the way with its front doors open. Its owner has a blue bucket and a chamois and sponge. He must have decided he wanted entertainment as he washed his car. Oh, he’s opened the back doors. Rick Astley’s heavenly voice gives me hell. I close all windows, my double glazing knocking ten or so decibels off the din.

But the jackhammer is magic. It’s jiggedy-jig seems to cut right through double glazing and creates a soundtrack to life.

My life…

Wherefore distance education in the digital age?

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Right now I’m happy to be part of a very well attended conference on digital literacies, organised by the indefatigable Alex Grech. There are a lot of high-flying educators and instructional technologists telling us about the future. Well, the present, which sounds a lot like the future defined by science fiction writers. We live in a time when there is no definition of the future that can amaze us. We are already there.

It is taken for granted, this late in the day, many years after Michael Moore and the rest of the pioneers dared to go distant with their courses, eventually moving online as the natural progression of all things digital, that this is the way to go. Speakers are talking about digital strategies, MOOCS, online course development, VLEs and all those other buzz words so staple to the world of technologically aided education. All massively interesting. All reiterating the fact that the classroom is potentially over-rated as the arena in which teaching and learning happen. Many years ago I had been hotly contended by educators when I presented my paper called “Tolling Bell for Institutions” at a conference (expanded and published later as “Hypertextual Processing and Institutional Change”) in which I discussed the change happening to students because of immersion in technologies that are growing much faster than we can map them. And definitely much faster than the traditionally slow moving education sector can keep up with and counter… or at least work with, understanding, adopting, adapting and moving in directions that are more in tune with the spiral of incidental acquisition that omnipresent, and particularly mobile, technologies offer.

I don’t think it’s even a question whether we should use online channels to teach our courses. Of course we should. There are tricks to e-learning, of course, and anybody who tries to teach online in the same way that he or she teaches in class will come a cropper. It’s a different methodology altogether, specialist and needing the understanding of all the tools available in virtual learning environments. The method allows students geographical and time flexibility. It permits them access to minds that would otherwise have been denied them. It gives the possibility of synchronous and asynchronous resources that permit interaction… often more liberated in context than the daunting one permitted by actual presence… and that can be accessed at all times.

I did rock the boat a little during the first session of the conference yesterday, and was probably considered a retrograde by many in the hall when I suggested we can’t abandon the face-to-face approach in a country that is a sea-locked minuscule enclave in which people bump into each other whether they want to or not. That research needs to be done within this unique context to understand which is the better way to actually teach our students. Or at least to understand to what degree each is effective with regards to teaching outcome results. I was not being UNtechnological when I said that. Anybody who knows me knows where my mind lies in this domain (firmly IN the technological… for those who don’t know me). I was actually reacting to the fact that it seems to be the fashion to go the digital technological way, ignoring the fact that a more rudimentary approach to education might actually be a useful alternative within the special context of students able to congregate in person after a short bus ride.

Yes, face-to-face does not take into consideration all the ramifications of the international context. Yes, that eliminates their exposure to different takes instigated by cultures present through online facilitation. Yes, that restricts the input to what is available locally. So if that were to be what is to be considered, then there is nothing that beats online courses. But I do sometimes think back to the time an uncle of mine… a bit of a self-professed handyman… who had bought an extremely elaborate tool onlne and because he had it he wanted to use it all the time. It took him ages to hammer in a nail with that tool, but he had it and of course that was what was best for this, forgetting that a simple, traditional hammer could have done the job better and in half the time.

No, not decrying in any way digital literacies infusing online education. That’s a revolution that has left enormous effect world wide. An enormous movement that has been studied and mapped, evaluated, modified and honed to almost perfection. I just refute that they are the only future.

For one, I often think in terms of motivation. That is at the core of success in anything, really, but definitely in education. Unmotivated students are sluggish and only get to the finishing line limping and crawling. This is very true in traditional, face-to-face teaching and learning. We were told, way back at the beginning, that interacting online would change all that. It would generate the motivation that might have been lacking in the lethargic student. Because young people, particularly, like computers and will, of course, like learning using computers.

Only that didn’t happen. The allure of the technology sort of falls by the wayside when courses are formalised and, at least in spirit if not in form, simulate those same courses given in the classroom. When there is a rigid, summative accreditation imposed (because that seems to be the only way universities can give grades) and a time frame within which a course needs to be followed.

This is were (the so-called disruptive) MOOCS excel. They can be followed informally. They can move to the rhythm of the student’s own life. There is little to no accreditation on offer (just enough to motivate the lazier), and the incredible number of takers gives ample possibility for peer interaction across the board. Wonderful that they were taken on board by so many institutions.

But courses duly delivered on the institutionally adopted VLE leave me quite cold. Yes, the blended sort create an element of excitement because of diversity, though the concept also limits participation. I’m referring to straight, online delivery. Formalised modules. Using the tools available because they’re there. In many cases unimaginatively created by instructional technologists whose onus is technical, not creative. Of course there are exceptions. Of course there are brilliant units that are cutting edge in creativity, that go the extra mile and really engage. But, I might be going on a limb when I say that I believe  that this is not the norm. The norm is often unmotivated, done because it’s expected. Because it’s “the way forward”.

Cynical? Maybe. But if you’re making do without the style that good lecturers bring to face-to-face, then creativity in the style adopted online is indispensable. And, no… I’m not ignoring that there are also dud face-to-face lecturers. They exist in abundance. I’m not going tit-for-tat, here. I’m talking about the reality that in both modes of delivery there are the flops, and the fact that one of those is delivered through digital technology does not save it. I know I’m squeezing the massive reach of digital technologies online to simple form, but for me that is indispensable and can easily be damning! I find clunkiness in navigation daunting. I get quickly impatient with long paths created by rote till the crunch of the pedagogy is reached.

And I’m not the only one going that route. There can be no doubt that immersed users of the internet have become progressively more economical in their attention span. Only bytes do. A news item needs to be two hundred words or less, preferably constricting the inverted pyramid to the gist into the title, not even in the intro paragraph. Hypertextual surfing has become manic. Linearity has, of course, long gone out the window, even in linear hypertext clicking. With surfing often happening on the small screen of a mobile, with websites becoming responsive (or dying) and content losing ground to monitor space, wherefore the VLE interfaces used extensively by so many institutions?

I have always been fascinated by the way the information generation absorbs random snippets of information, often latticed into a web of seemingly unconnected, difficult to retrieve mass of “knowledge” that is quite useless in application. It’s incidental acquisition facilitated by the ease with which information can be accessed and fueled by the natural curiosity of the young. It is predominantly useless because the skills for synthesis are missing, and education tends to ignore the need for such skill giving… the finding of ways to get to the nodes of knowledge and to create a kernel of synopsis.

This ever-growing core of young people is often disenchanted with all forms of formal education, online and off. They thrive on social media. They chat in abbreviative language and live in the internet fast lane. I have missed this really interesting, massively well informed conference touching on the role social media can play in educational practice (for example) – on how what has essentially been social can be rerouted to delivery of informal educational processes (both procedural and declarative). Embracing a form that is motivational per se, retaining the social underpinning and voluntary uptake that makes for that motivation, and take it from there.

Along with, I have no doubt, many others, I see incidental, informal acquisition as one of the ways forward. Educators need to understand the tools available to them (even if they are not essentially made for that) to access this massive group that could easily become part of a lost generation.

I think it’s time for another book.