Half the man I used to be

WeightChange
On the left, me in a group photo in July 2014 and on the right, me again, in July 2016… minus sixteen kilos. Marie Louise (gorgeously) remains the same in both cases.

Of late, I’ve got used to people who have not met me for a while looking me up and down, with the more daring saying “Gosh you’ve lost an enormous amount of weight!” with the implied hope that I’m ok.

I am very much ok, in spite of my usual chronic conditions! The weight loss was intentional, took a bit of time and a lot of will power, and it worked. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, since the logical next question by those daring ones is, “how did you do it?”

OK, first off… I did not lose an enormous amount of weight. I lost 16 kg, which, given my height is, I suppose, quite substantial. I got rid of about 18% of my body weight.

I had got to 91 kg, and my health was suffering. I’m severely asthmatic and have been suffering from hypertension most of my life. Apart from that, walking long distances (which I love) was becoming a series of aches and pains in ankles and knees. So something obviously needed doing. My weight has been inconstant all my life. I balloon at times and manage to slim down at others, but since I turned forty (eighteen years ago) losing the extra kilos became damned difficult.

I do work out whenever my health allows it, but am not a great believer in diets. They are daunting and once you’re psychologically damaged by them, there’s no way they’re going to help you lose weight. Transgression becomes a form of protest, and that’s that.

So I knew I had to go the personalised way. I had to suss out what I was doing wrong and cut down on that. And I knew straight off that my worst sin was chocolate. I don’t eat mounds of it, and only as dessert, but one square is never enough, nor, once I get started, are four or five. I don’t particularly like cakes, but on frequent birthday bashes at the office, I’ve been known to wolf down large chunks of the stuff, and often go for more. So sugar had to go. I bring 70% cocoa slims with me down to Malta from Sweden (the Marabou ones are to die for) and started having half of one (c. 5 gm) at the end of every meal. And that was the only added sugar I had all day. Well… except for my habitual, relaxing whiskey in the evenings, which I decided to keep.

Breakfast has always been a mix of sugar-free cereals and milk, with one day a week allocated for toast with pålægschokolade (very thin Danish breakfast chocolate… a total yum!), and I retained that. The latter being a reward for the former.

Bread is also something I love. I eat it with everything, and I decided not to cut out bread entirely, but to cut down drastically, so that lunches often became four or five Finn Crisp slims with cheese. I only ever drink water with meals, so there was nothing to cut down there.

I still wanted to have my habitual, cooked evening meal… but here, volume was the main kilogram culprit. So I started getting volume down to about 70% of what I used to have before. Sometimes more. Sometimes a bit less. And also broke the habit of a lifetime of always finishing what was on my plate, regardless of how full I felt.

And then there was the secret ingredient. A hyperactive conscience that screamed at me at  every transgression. It still does, though I reached my target (and slightly beyond … 74.5 kg) a few weeks ago. It took me a year and a half to get there. I lost between .3 and .5 of a kilogram a week, with the occasional increase of roughly the same, which then had to be made up for. I now hover around the 75 kg mark, give or take a kilo here and there (more often give than take, alas!)

My conscience will make sure I stick with this weight, though my frequent travels do mean I and/or my partner Marie Louise are not always in complete control of the calories. But I’m very very careful. It was hard work, in spite of the simplicity of the lifestyle change, and it still is, and will be forever. The worst enemy is complacency, or the giving up when a plateau hits – was damnably stuck at 78 kg for weeks! I’ve seen too many people go that route. I’ll also work out whenever I get the chance… hopefully c. three times a week to try and tone the remaining flab.

So, there you go. Not quite a formal diet. More of a permanent lifestyle tweak, and a massive stoking of a nasty conscience that’s really quite a monster. Oh, and having someone (in my case ML) to keep track of gains and losses is also very useful. I knew my weight loss was pleasing her. She was worried about my health. So that too is excellent motivation. She kept a graph of my weekly weighings, and when I thought things were moving too slowly, she could encouragingly point out a clear – even if not fast – downward trend.

Admittedly, writing this is part of the process. If I ever balloon again, I’m hoping many of you who have read this will point at it and shake your heads with disappointment.

I intend to make sure you don’t have the opportunity to do it.

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Tortured by the noise

What do Aztec warfare, South and North Korean clashes, the conflict in Northern Ireland, Guantanamo Bay and living in a Maltese town have in common?

In all cases there are instances of intense sound torture, a persistent, damaging loud noise that dominates the lives of individuals, overpowering their senses and damaging them to the point where the lifestyle of each goes to the dogs.

As I write this on a Saturday morning, our small flat is being assaulted on two sides by horrendous noise. Immediately behind us there’s a jackhammer, very slowly and agonisingly demolishing a gorgeous old townhouse to turn it into a tower of flats, the earsplitting metallic stuttering making us shout to be heard. In the meantime the flat shudders and vibrates every other second as in front of us, a metal monstrosity toc-toc-tocs incessantly from seven in the morning till seven at night, digging into the rock of a huge plot that used to be a factory, aided by a large electric shovel that reverberatingly piles the dug-up rocks into the back of a truck. Every day. Six (sometimes seven) days a week. Assaulting every sense, flooding my head with so much noise there is a persistent headache and a feeling of hopelessness that makes me want to run away. Except that, in Malta, there is nowhere to run away to from the persistent, loud noise.

Writing in Torture and Democracy about a 1971 instance of sound torture during the conflict in Northern Ireland, Darius Rejali has this to say about the effect of persistent noise on the prisoners. “Most men reported auditory hallucinations including church hymns, Sousa marches, an Italian tenor, protest poems, and a death service. […] Less attention has been paid [by the guards] to the not so dramatic effects of the tortures, including blurred vision, intense loss of sensation, and intense swelling of the ankles to almost twice normal size.” (p. 364)

There is rampant over-construction going on in Malta, uncontrolled for a very long time, but even worse now that MEPA has lost all sense of anything short of the politically instigated and is allowing everything everywhere. Because of this, normal Maltese people, living their daily lives in homes that should be their castles of relaxation, are exposed to continuous noise pollution This has seriously interfered with our well-being, causing us an irretrievable loss of rest and the undermining of a lifestyle we worked very hard to achieve.

But that’s not the only thing we’ve lost in the process. Peace of mind is absolutely necessary to the functioning of people who need to work for a living and who then need to recharge, otherwise they don’t function. The effect of the constant noise around us is also ruining our health.

According to S. K. Agarwal, in his 2009 book Noise Pollution, persistent noise can have an enormously negative effect on people. Selecting just a few effects from a never-ending list, I can mention: ill-temper, mental disorientation, loss of working efficiency, violent behaviour, and a lot of psychological and physiological disorders – neurosis, anxiety, insomnia, hypertension and even severe effects on foetuses in the case of pregnant women. All of this results in severe health consequences, which include: hearing damage, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, ear pain, burning of the skin, significant change in pulse rate, and prolonged exposure can cause insanity, ear drum ruptures and lung damage.

A 2011 Danish study by the University of Copenhagen’s Mette Sørensen and her colleagues terrifyingly showed that there is a direct relationship between the increase of noise and stroke.

I can continue quoting the literature ad nauseam. Everything says that noise is bad for you. Everything!

So why are the Maltese so apathetic to all of this? When I posted on a social network a sound recording of the horrendous noise that forms the backdrop to my daily life in my apartment (in spite of its double glazing), I got a lot of sympathetic noises, with some people actually telling me they’ve had to buy noise-filtering headphones, and others having to sleep with ear-plugs in, but nobody could suggest anything practical to stop this infernal intrusion into our daily lives. We accept it as if it’s a normal part of who we are. ‘The Maltese are a noisy race, what can we do?’ ‘There is nothing wrong with manically pealing bells being played through loudspeakers in the local belfry at 6.30 in the morning… it’s all part of our traditions!’ ‘The economy depends on the construction industry. They need to work, after all!’

But what about our own civil liberties? What about our own slice of happiness and the right to living a healthy life that is not corroded by someone else’s egotistic activity that ignores entirely the fact that there are those who will not benefit from any of the construction, but who are being severely hurt by the effects of it?

The EU demands that local authorities make action plans to reduce ambient noise, which categorically includes construction noises. In a number of directives, I have found reference to the fact that these authorities have the power to provide that conditions in relation to noise prevention or reduction be included in the planning permission at granting stage, and these are conditions that can apply to either the construction stage or the subsequent use of the building. Or both.

So why do the local authorities (read MEPA and local councils) ignore this? Yes, there might be lip service paid to noise abatement, but it is little more than that given the proof. What can a normal citizen, needing to rest in a home that should be a protector of health and sanity do to ascertain that there is no infringement to the right of the enjoyment of a lifestyle that is not deteriorated abysmally by others?

Our very existence is being threatened by the noise that seems to be increasing every day. Our authorities do not seem to care one whit about this. Maybe it is time for a citizen’s movement to rise and demand a right to sanity!

(Published in THE TIMES of MALTA on March 9, 2016)

JackHammerCartoon

When GO did not come!

go-guy

“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; . . . through pity [eleos] and fear [phobos] effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions” (Aristotle, Poetics, c. 350 BCE, Book 6.2).

Think of this, then, as catharsis. Not sure there was ever fear, but please pity me my personal, 21st century induced tragedy. Think of this as the purgation of one frustrated client, letting off steam that has boiled and fumed so much, it might easily explode something, most likely my head.

This is a story of inexcusable inefficiency, underscored by incompetence and a lack of even the basic understanding of what makes professionalism. True, they compensated (a little) in the end, but the story remains one of avoidable mishaps.

A few facts first. I have a very poor internet connection. GO says it does not have the infrastructure to give me anything better than 4 gigabits, though I paid for a few years for a lot more without being informed of the fact. Even that ceiling is quite stretched and hardly ever reached, but I make do and live with the hope that the promise of a fiberoptic connection by the end of the year, made on the phone (not in writing) by a customer-care official, will actually materialise.

I am always online. Think of me as part of the wired (or is it wireless now?) generation that needs to be plugged into the universe to exist. I do a lot of work online, I have persistent correspondence (with my students, my colleagues abroad, with co-workers and others with whom I interact professionally, among others), I use the internet extensively for study, for awareness, and for research – both directly and indirectly. It also keeps me in touch with my much-missed partner, who right now happens to be abroad.

Please don’t think I’m exaggerating if I compare what the internet means to me, to the drip needed for life support of a hospital patient. Remove the drip and he might not die, but will be severely debilitated and terribly harmed.

So when I came back from a long stint abroad on Wednesday 16th September, very late at night, and found that what little internet I usually had was now intermittently switching itself off, my heart sank and I phoned GO customer care. I think it must have been one o’clock in the morning. Their 24 hour support service is to be commended. And I commend it. Which is one of the few good things I have to say about the company and its workers in this blog. It’s also manned (and womanned) by quite courteous people who really make an effort to help. There, I think I’ve exhausted any warmth I might have had left in their regard.

They said that my phone line, much maligned and very accident prone throughout its short life, was probably faulty. I phoned again the following day, when the intermittent interruptions continued, and it was confirmed that the line had pretty much had it, and a report lodged with technicians to work their magic and fix it. GO called me back a few days later to tell me that the magic would be worked on Tuesday early afternoon, when I was given an appointment with one of their technicians. My internet had come and gone a zillion times in the meantime, and though I was managing to work, it was in fits and starts, and the customer-care gentleman was really gentlemanly and offered me extra gigabytes of mobile internet that I could use to bolster my failing connection. I thanked him profusely and used his gift with relief.

But at one point, something happened and the hotspot I was using to link my computer to the phone suddenly stopped working. In any case, I still had internet about sixty percent of the time, though the phone line was now fizzing like an over-carbonated soft drink, so I made do.

The technician came a few hours early. He went up a long ladder to check the box on the façade from which my line emanated. He came into my study and dismantled the connection box here. He went up the ladder again. Then he went off in his van to check something while I took care of the ladder. He came back half an hour later and told me not to worry. He said it was a cable fault and said cheerfully it would be fixed by that afternoon. He came up to my study again, fitted the connection box back together and left.

I checked the line. It was totally silent. What had fizzed and crackled before was now as dead as a doornail, and with it, just as completely dead, was my intermittent internet.

I had an errand and actually ran into the technician, still sitting in his van, planning his next visit, and I reiterated with some vehemence my dependence on the internet and that he was absolutely (ABSOLUTELY) certain that the fault would be fixed by that afternoon. He said absolutely.

It’s amazing how some people can lie with so straight a face you don’t even begin to doubt the veracity of their words. We’re used to accepting the authority of those “who know what to do” when it comes to technical matters. And that’s what I did.

He was lying of course. Through his teeth. With a smile that obviously indicated he thought I was a gullible idiot. Which is entirely what I was at that point. I will be kind and think he believed it. But it’s more likely that I wanted to believe that I’d be connected to the world again soon, so, yes, I was a gullible idiot.

Not forever, though. The mistrust of the system nagged at me, and told me to phone customer care again at around half past three. And the gentlemen at the end of the line was flabbergasted when I told him that what my poor line had was a cable fault and that I had been (categorically) told that it would be fixed that afternoon.

“Let me check, sir,” he said, and something tremulous in his voice told me I’d been had. That’s when the first gushes of red flashed before my eyes. They were to continue doing so in greater volumes over the next hours and days.

He hemmed and he hawed and he told me that a cable fault takes … erm… days to fix, possibly… erm… many days. He became more flustered as I became more distressed. And I did something I never do. I raised my voice. Shouted at the messenger because I could not throttle the person who had lied to me so blatantly. It wasn’t fair on him, but at that point GO (and he represented GO) was not being fair on me.

He offered me more mobile gigs, but I said I had a hotspot problem, so he offered me an internet key, and I said yes, but how? And he phoned their Birkirkara outlet, and their Bay Street outlet (since they were closest to Msida, where I live), but no joy. Only the Naxxar outlet had one, but I had to collect it. And it was a quarter to four and I had a meeting at University at five. And I told him so. And I said I would go there and then and would he tell them to have it ready so I could take it and run, please? And he said “certainly, sir”.

And he was lying too!

I lived through the drive to Naxxar in rush hour (in MALTA) by the skin of my teeth (and tires), parked in front of a garage, and dashed into the outlet at a quarter past four, and I told my story to the security guard, and she went to talk to the supervisor and came back and told me I had to wait in line! There were six people in the line, and three attendants, and they were drawing up mobile contracts and selling phones!

I told her I’d been told I wouldn’t have to wait and beseeched her to let them let me have the key. She was a very nice woman and knocked on the manager’s door and came out sadly shaking her head and telling me I had to wait in line.

I did (ungraciously, after moving the car to a more legal spot, with the security guard nicely keeping my place in the line) and waited for forty minutes till it was my turn and the lady there fiddled with a sim card and filled it with gigs for me and I paid 50 Euros deposit and told her that I had a Macintosh and she said “no problem, sir, it works on all computers” and I grabbed my USB internet key, and my contract and dashed out of the outlet at five to five and made it to University by ten past five (and found the meeting had been cancelled unbeknownst to me, but that’s another story altogether!)

Went home a bit later, and tried to set up the key. And all it did was yield a pdf with instructions that could not be followed. I have a vague knowledge of networking on a Mac, so I followed my own whims and nearly got there, except for the simple, nagging point that the computer was not seeing the key. At all.

So I phoned customer care (humming impatiently through gritted teeth to the ear-worm music they play as you wait with boiling blood to be talked to by a human), and the human finally came on and he tried to walk me through the process.

Only what he was talking about was a PC, not a Mac. I said I had a Mac. He asked if I’d told them at the outlet that I had a Mac. I said I had. And he said … erm… that key only worked… erm… on a PC.

So the woman at the outlet was also lying. Either that or she was so totally incompetent that she actually thought the useless thing I’d nearly died half a dozen times to get really worked on a Mac.

The poor customer care guy who was getting a large bit of my (rather sore by this time) tongue and being screamed at in abject frustration, offered me yet more gigs on my mobile, but found I had been given enough, so I rang off and scrambled to get the hotspot to work again. A struggle later, I did, after fighting a bit more with the key, finding it incredibly difficult to believe that I had been led wrong yet again!

But I had been!

And that was that. My line remained silent, like a grave that’s been buried in marble for centuries. It was silent all of Thursday. It was silent on Friday before I went to work.

And at two o’clock GO customer care called.

“You have reported a fault on your phone line, sir.”

“Yes!” and gave a digest version of the story.

“Well, sir, the technicians called at your house, but you were not there.”

“What? Today?”

“Yes, sir, earlier today, and you weren’t there.”

“People WORK, you know? They don’t stay at home! Did they call me before they rang my doorbell?”

“No sir. You weren’t there!”

“I know I wasn’t there! I’m at work! Did they fix the cable fault?”

“Yes, the underground fault has been fixed, but…”

“I still don’t have a line!”

“No, sir, you don’t. I’ll have to give you an appointment for the technician to come fix your line there.”

“When?”

“The earliest I have is Tuesday afternoon…”

“But I’m working Tuesday… never mind, I’ll manage.” And gave him a time and he repeated it and said he’d note it for the technician. And I vented my frustration and anger a bit more, and was offered more mobile gigs, and rung off!

This might not have been word for word (I did not repeat above that he started by saying that he would be recording the phone call) … so the transcript might be slightly off. But not by much!

Honestly, I’m quite soft spoken normally. I do not, almost ever, raise my voice on the phone at anybody who’s doing his or her job to the best of his or her ability. But my nerves were now fraught to the point of fraying and I’d had enough! It was one ridiculous, idiotic thing after another.

GO did realize they’d messed up pretty badly, and, again when I was at work, I found I had a missed call. I returned it and found that a technician had actually gone to check the work, but, of course being unable to go into my home, he could not fix it. Again.

All a bit ridiculous. So much time and effort wasted on the off chance that the disgruntled client is home, when it’s clear that nine cases out of ten, the client works for a living and therefore isn’t.

And I’m not convinced they will come on Tuesday when I’m home waiting for them, or if they do, I’m not convinced they’ll fix my line.

***

All the above was written on Friday in a dire mood. Since then I’ve worked in very limited fashion using my mobile hotspot, but my beloved landline remained dead to the world. The way the story ended has mellowed me a little. Not a lot, because I still had to go through hell, but at least, at the very end (much too late, if you ask me) there was a major effort by the contracted technician to finalise the story. And one more happening made me think a little better of GO personnel.

He came on Tuesday at the appointed time and had to use two very long ladders (two storeys, at least … one of the two boxes set on the walls of the blocks were I live was meant for a time of giants…) just to find out that the cable link to my line had been sent up to a box from which I could not get a connection, because it would need to cross roofs of unfriendly (let me not use the correct adjective) neighbours who had already cut and dumped my phone line off their properties twice. Trying to find a way of patching the line to the correct box proved dodgy. Two hours worth of dodgy. Two hours worth of going up and down very long ladders (at his own expense, since he did contractual work) giving me ample reason to forgive him his trespasses of the past. He really (really) tried hard to give me my lifeline back!

But at the end of those two hours, my line (and my life) remained as silent as Marcel Marceau in his heyday. At least I had the promise of a return the following morning, Wednesday (today, 30th September), two weeks after my first report, with a colleague to help coordinate the effort, since there were two boxes that needed synchronising. I was late for work (had popped home for a few hours while he worked) and did not argue.

True to his word, he and friend came first thing this morning and fixed the fault in half an hour (after much clambering on ladders again). The dulcet sounds of a ringtone never sounded so melodic and I felt like popping a champagne cork in jubilation.

The colleague (upstairs to check it all worked) noted that I had a very old modem and that it took ages to come on. He suggested I exchange it. And since I had to go to a GO outlet to return the useless internet key and get my deposit back, I decided to do what he recommended.

Went, key was handed in, modem was exchanged for a modern one, technicians there set it up, and I was told it was plug-and-play and I came back home to plug and (not play, but) work.

And all hell broke lose again. When I plugged, the phone line went. When I unplugged, the line came back again.

So I called GO customer care again (go on, count the number of times I’ve said I did that in this blog! I dare you!) and on explaining about what had happened, I was asked to wait and told (I couldn’t believe my ears) that a technician would be with me in my home very soon.

And he was. An affable chap who checked the cabinet of wires (Dr Caligari take note) and fixed something before turning up. And in his capable hands both my internet and my phone worked. Simultaneously, too! And he didn’t stop there. He stayed and waited till I tried all the tricks, the cable in the back of the Mac, the router… one by one, and they all (HALLELULJAH!) WORKED. He went the extra mile and checked the port to which my internet was connected, and found a glitch there. He contacted the engineer and had it rectified. He really deserved the mug of tea I prepared for him as he worked. Yes, I was, at that point, magnanimous enough to offer refreshments to representatives of a company I felt like dumping unceremoniously not many hours before and for two weeks before that.

A happy ending? Doubt it’s a lived happily ever after situation. Not for as long as the infrastructure remains antediluvian. Not till fiberoptic solves my speed problem, and probably creates tragedies and the need for catharsis all its own.

But GO needs to take a good long look at itself. Some of its areas (not least its customer care) work well, but those bits of it that are old and tired define it, and mine is not the only story of gnashed teeth and abject frustration that I’ve heard.

Let me enjoy my internet in peace for as long as it’s there, and sing an occasional chorus from Handel’s magnum opus to ease the clenched, nervous stomach brought about by my trials and tribulations. It keeps on telling me something else will soon go wrong and I’ll be in a vacuum again, whirling in the dark nothingness of the unconnected.

Dirty!

Oink

The Maltese (we) are a dirty race.

Here I’m using that word in its most basic lexical meaning. I’m talking about dirt, rubbish, trash… all that the Maltese leave behind them anywhere and everywhere they go. Untidiness is ingrained in our nature and, it seems, no amount of education can wean us of the urge to dump things wherever and whenever we please.

When a cigarette packet is empty, it is thrown out of an open car window onto the road. When a packet of crisps is eaten, it’s crumpled and dropped. Right there and then. As are cigarette stubs. Wrappers. Sticky, disgusting chewing gum.

Our streets are pig styes. And, yes, the local councils can do more by engaging sweepers to clean up the mess once in a while, but it really is not the Councils that are making the streets dirty, and giving our island the veneer of a third world country in the eyes of its residents and visitors.

No, it’s us. We are the culprits. The son who dropped that crisp bag probably saw his dad throw out that cigarette packet. The level of negative modelling in this is horrendous.

And those who throw out a cigarette pack are probably also to blame for the mattress dumped in a field, just beyond a scenic rubble wall. For the large, broken shelf resting against the facade of a house. Not the house of the one who threw out the shelf of course. No, logically not. NIMBY lives and is well, but anywhere outside the back yard is fair game.

And there really is no reason for this. There are few countries in which trash collection is as frequent as in ours. In which bulky items are collected by appointment by councils. And for free. We have no reason to litter. No reason to dump things where they shouldn’t be dumped. It’s actually more of a chore to do so than to abide by the laws of the land and use dustbins and the services provided for us.

Not that there are enough public dustbins, nor are they emptied and cleaned regularly and efficiently where they do exist, resulting in much more of a mess than if they hadn’t been used at all. But even where dustbins exist, they’re not used.

Why? Because that’s what we’ve always done. That’s what we’ve always been like. Because, in public, we are dirty by nature. Privately, however, we’re not dirty by any stretch of the imagination. Just check out our own homes (in the main). But when it comes to public spaces, we just don’t care enough to learn to hold onto what needs dumping till we find the right place to do so.

I also have the most intense, vehement hatred for those dog walkers who do not clean up after their pets poop. The street where I live in Msida and those surrounding it have become an obstacle course for residents. Circumnavigating turds has become an acquired skill, even while holding one’s breath as the stench of excrement radiates in the extensive summer heat.

And, to pre-empt the obvious comment, no, we’re not the only race that’s this dirty! There are others, sure, but are they the ones we want to emulate in this? Or those countries where even little side-roads are pristine in cleanliness? Or those in whose streets walking is a pleasure and not a chore?

I get very jealous when I’m in those countries whose citizens love their land enough to want it to be as clean as their own houses are. Because I know that even if local councils were to make much (MUCH) more of an effort than they are making at the moment, the streets in which we live will remain overwhelmed by trash thrown out by those who do not care.

I find it hard to believe that all the Maltese don’t care, but given the amount of rubbish that surrounds us, suffocating any pleasure there might be at who we are, I tend to believe that that is indeed the case.

The reading on the wall

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A lot is being written about the dearth of reading in Malta and, separately but associated with this, about the state of our libraries. The facts are very hard to deny. The Maltese as a people are not the most avid readers in the world; quite the opposite. A Misco study a few years back showed that they do read but very few do so regularly and even fewer prefer to read books.

Another fact is that the state of our lending library, in spite of all the work being poured into it by a dedicated group of minders, is poor, in every aspect. The volume of borrowing pretty much reflects this and the lack of reading, which all research indicates to be a fact.

I will try not to belabour the point here and look forward rather than backwards. Enough research has been carried out for us to have, at least, an inkling as to what the causes are for this but perhaps a few ideas need to be put in place, rather than in perennial discussion, as to how this national malaise can be handled with long-term solutions in mind.

Let’s start with the libraries.

There are a number of positive elements already in place. There is a visionary team made up of a CEO and two librarians working hard to implement change against all odds.

There is a University department and a library council led by a person who knows her stuff and an association that is constantly proffering positive suggestions.

But they do not have the money, nor do they have the political clout to make the changes that need to be made to turn our libraries into points of socialisation, built around information and entertainment with books of the print and ‘e’ categories at the centre of the operations.

Nor do we have an attractive, cosy venue for our central lending library. We have perpetually endorsed Dom Mintoff’s mistake in placing the library in an inaccessible, quite horrible building, with gorgeous views but little else. Complete with metal, warehouse-style bookcases and no comfort in the reading rooms. This is a mistake that needs to be rectified.

A central, appealing location has to be identified and given over to the people who know what to do, so they can turn it into what needs doing.

Then, of course, there is the persistent problem of reading, or the lack of it. There is no panacea here. Do not believe anyone who tells you that a mentality stuck in concrete can be turned round in a few years. The thinking needs to be long term. And it needs to be far-reaching and consistent.

Piecemeal solutions that appeal to the camera are risible political ploys that leave no lasting effect. Planning and a vision are needed here. One hopes that there are people in power who can do both. But, in any case, here are a few suggestions.

Catch them when they are young or even before they are born. Work with midwives in antenatal classes to infuse the concept of bedtime reading in the minds of parents-to-be.

Make sure they understand that having enough books around the house will surely leave some sort of effect on the offspring. There is enough research to support this. This might also, eventually, eat away at the ignorant mentality that some parents have of tyrannically imposing books on their children, counter productively making them hate books.

If the next generation, not born yet, reads, then we are on the way.

But children actually do read, in spite of the tantalising allure of so many electronic distractions. Studies in Sweden are even showing that the new generations are being re-awed by printed books, having gone full circle from the fascination with the alternative.

We lose them in teenage. If there are enough good books for teenagers out there and if there are programmes in schools that foster reading in ways that promote it as fun rather than letting the ‘learn-by-heart’ brigade ruin their perceptions, then there is hope.

Let local councils come on board too. Have this corroborated by visionary local council culture plans, including reading clubs, discussions, multimedia spanning of what stems from reading. Get youth clubs on board. Work on a national strategy that includes goodwill and people with a mission rather than political imposition, and we might get there.

Help the publishers. We have precious few of them as it is. They work hard and against the odds. They have done miracles and it has all been on their own. They have little to no help from the authorities and European programmes that are supposed to help culture more often than not do not fit the demands of our tiny market and are therefore not viable options.

Create a needs analysis to see what is missing and help them diversify, promote and be a force to be reckoned with rather than let them struggle to keep their noses above water. They are commercial entities that are keeping a market alive that contributes massively to our national culture. Find out what they need and help them get it, for our sakes as well as theirs.

Help the booksellers too, if you can. Give them back their book fair and then create a festival another time and another place. They need their once-a-year outlet to see some returns on their outlays.

Put books within the reach of those who have no books at all. Work with social workers, parish priests, local councils. Find the depressed areas and slowly introduce the concept of reading to the people there. They might laugh you out of the house to begin with but leaving a book behind will eventually lead to a trickle of interest that might, with time, turn into a torrent.

Flood the media with talk about books. Do not hide culture on television in the slots nobody watches because they are asleep. Make the programmes interesting and watchable. Put drama in there and documentaries that do not involve just one talking head. Pump the social media for all it is worth.

Put very short story collections in waiting rooms. Subsidise these if need be. Make sure there is something that can be read in 15 minutes. Nobody will pick up a book in the doctor’s waiting room if all that can be read is a chapter.

And also fill our beaches with libraries. Make deals with hotels to have book exchange programmes. Give them the bookcases and a crate of books to begin with, help them with expertise, then let them take it from there.

And so on.

I am just an individual and these are only some of the ideas that I have. There is no place here to list all of them. Imagine what a think-tank of like-minded individuals can come up with, just how many other practical visions can fuel the list.

This list is just the tip of what can be done. All ideas here are practical, though they need finances and goodwill to be implemented.

We cannot go on just talking and doomsaying. We cannot keep on dreaming of bringing back what has been lost, thinking that the whole situation can be solved if only we can go back to a different time. The friendly bookseller seer has gone the way of the manifk and Wenzu tat-Titotla.

We need to be proactive and get on with the job at hand. The minds of our people deserve no less.

(From THE TIMES, March 28, 2014)

 

Relaxation

There are crickets in a massively loud symphony of ear-piercing buzz-sawing outside as I write this, and there’s glaring sun over palm trees and slowly undulating red flowers in the garden in front of the glass-framed door of the flat where the AC fights a losing battle against the heat.

Across the way there is a dreamscape of rolling mountains, framing an incredibly blue sea, dotted with sculpted rocks of different sizes, as if some ancient giant artist felt like creating a whimsical installation with nature’s own building blocks. And whitewashed houses with red, slanted roofs, like little, gorgeous dollhouses, dot the lower landscape, leading to a beach on which people lie toasting and frying, ignoring advice and going for the general consensus instead, that tanning is beauty.

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And I’m relaxed, for the first time in months. An incredible feeling of ebbed energy, almost debilitating and draining thoughts like a siphoning of infected fluid, leaving a healthy emptiness that struggles to remain infection free. A struggle, as strong, and eventually as ineffectual as that of the AC against the heat, to keep work away from mind. A fight for renewed sanity and the pushing-back of a breakdown that seemed imminent, sensed as unavoidable to the staunch workaholic brain that knows it is sick but resists the medicine that is suggested at every turn by well-wishers.

The unease that creeps under the skin at work not done cannot be entirely eliminated, so I am making do with not working, and with the difficulty to think forced onto me by actually relaxing … a word I know only semantically and lexically.

And the crickets raise their voices once more, underscoring the exotic sounds of a land and soundscape that is quite similar to ours (the Maltese), but yet so incredibly different as to make it almost alien.

As is my head right now. Identity-less and quiet, seeking words that sound of silence and the barrenness of thought, even as my hands voraciously seek the online newspapers, Facebook and my e-mail client, as if the relaxation has not yet travelled that far.

But it must, for work, another of the loves of my life, kills, and a person who has a type one psychological profile, and who works the way I do, is headed for an early grave.

So maybe this is practice – the dearth of thoughts and draining of energy, the lethargic existence as in a slow-motion movie, the skies pristine and so blue the sun fights the hue with haziness – practice for when the time comes.

But also a postponement, a refuelling, a much needed engine service as the world hums around me and wonderfully forgets I am in it.

I hate the sound of jackhammers!

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I hate the sound of jackhammers. I cannot stand it. It is as obnoxious as it is loud, and it hits my brain in waves of disruption. It confuses my ideas and stops me thinking, making me want to scream so loud that I drown it out, even if just for a few seconds.

I live in an area that is being built up. That is to say, I live in Malta!

As I write this, a huge tower crane drowns out the landscape to the left of my flat, as a massive apartment block has, since last summer, been pandemoniously on its way up to kill yet another bit of the very limited view we have left. And since yesterday, to my right, workers with a jackhammer are tearing up the roof of another old house, possibly to replace it with yet another hulking block, which will remain empty for many years, in much the same way that so many other flats brought into existence by the artificial building boom that has ruined the lives of so many quite streets, have remained empty and will continue to do so.

The sound of the jackhammer is not just horrendous per se, it is also symbolic of the doom of yet another slice of what we were, all to be replaced by what we have recklessly striven to be for years now. I am not massively nostalgic, and do believe that some of the old houses are better off leveled to the ground. But it’s what we do with the space that’s left that really kills me.

We are pretty much going down an incredibly steep hill very fast and the brakes shattered quite a bit back. Few realise that there always seems to be the word “bust” after the word “boom”, and when “building” precedes that word, then we really are in deep trouble. Just ask the Irish.

Selfishly, I just hate the noise. I cannot work in it, and I just cannot conceptualise that it will go on for months and years, and that the moment it eases (for it never ceases), another one, possibly right next door, will start.

We live in dust and grit and we do it because we know no better. And there is so much infernal noise we should all be deaf.

And right this minute, I wish I was.