Mind over Matters: The Right Mind-Set to Start School


The First Day Of School.

A phrase that must be written like that, because it is such an important milestone for the child -and for the parents too.
School is the place where a child may spend more of his waking time than he does in his home, not counting sleep. It is the place where he will make and break friendships; where he will mould his character further – and decide upon his future.
School is the place where parents have little or no influence over the daily interaction of a child with his peers and superiors. They may try to tell him what to do and what to say – but when push comes to shove, he must face the music alone. Talk about performance anxiety!
Education and learning are stressful enough as it is – and combined with a cocktail of new emotion, rituals and situations, the trauma and strain felt by the child, who may not be prepared for them, increases. All too often, the promised fun and games take second place. What the child sees in Orientation Day is a nice, smiling teacher – not one who is worn to a frazzle by spilled water-colors and miniature wars over toys.
To top it all, the parents’ attitudes, and feelings of anxiety, guilt or fear may be subliminally transferred to the child, who assumes that being uprooted from his home environment into the alien one is somehow “his fault” for not being “good”.
Children must never be compared with others; they absorb skills at their own rate, using their innate learning styles. It is wrong to expect a child to conform to a set of milestones, at such a tender aged. Moreover, different children bring different skills, at different levels, to the same class. Some children barely know how to put their shoes on the right feet – others can tie their laces into a perfect bow. Some may not even know numbers exist, whereas others can count to 100.
Psychotherapist David Grillo explains it in this manner:
One of the best things about staring a child off with playschool or kindergarten or pre-school is that they are not thrown in at the deep end. The fact that they don’t have to take notebooks and stuff eases them gently into the world of learning.
For some kids, especially those who fall under the youngest age bracket, the first few days can be traumatic. It is the first time that they separate for a ‘long’ period from the parents. Separation anxiety is normal, and is also a part of growing up. But supporting them and ensuring that the parents, or someone with whom they identify, are home when they come back will help. It is also a good idea for both parents and not one to accompany the child to the door the first time.
These days, most teachers or kindergarten assistants are very well trained. And that makes a lot of difference.
Preparing a child for school psychologically goes hand-in-glove with the mundane preparations of uniforms (if applicable). Getting this must be a ‘special event’, with an emphasis on ‘school clothes for children who are no longer babies.’
If possible, take him with you too when you purchase his painting tabard, his lunch box, napkins and enough socks to have a clean pair each day. This is not the moment to worry that your child is gifted and will be “kept back” by the hoi polloi. That comes later.
Some children like to be alone with the person who is taking them to school, for the journey there. Others would prefer to be with a peer. See what works best for your child and take it from there. If the child has to take the school van, because of distances or time constraints, make sure to prepare him for this.
Never cajole a child into behaving like a “big boy” (i.e. ‘no tears’) because the “others” will laugh at him. This puts him on the defensive. Say, instead, that you are proud of him for actually being a good boy, even if he is bawling his eyes out.
Gradually change the child’s routine so that a week before school begins, he will be getting up and going to bed at approximately the times he will be doing when school commences. This gets him used to the routine.
Tell the child inasmuch as he is able to comprehend, that it is normal to have butterflies when starting a new school moving to a new house, or starting an new job. The idea is to get he butterflies flying in formation.
Getting to school should not be rush-scuttle-dash-sprint. The child can set his own alarm clock and fold his clothes neatly over the back of the chair, and make sure any stationery needed is in his bag, on the eve of each school day.
If you have to refer to your own childhood experiences, make sure the child cannot read anything negative in your attitude or tone of voice.
If the child’s school requires a packed lunch, allow the child to select what he wants to eat, and perhaps to help prepare it.
Angele Licari, psychologist, has this to say about the above:
Firstly check if you, as a parent, are psychologically prepared for your child to be leaving home to start school. I would sooner begin with preparing the parents, and not the child about the loss and attachment issues affecting both.
If you have any anxieties of your own, these can be non-verbally be transmitted to the child and become his own. If your own move to school as a child was tarnished with any negative connections, then you might assume the child would be passing through the same experiences, thus finding it hard to let go in a healthy way. Come to terms with your own un-finished past.
Every so often, check how your child interacts with other children. Check if he is clingy, jealous, rough, intimidated, insecure, or perhaps too confident, and how s/he behaves towards others in general. Consider whether the source for negative behaviors is sibling rivalry; or having a younger sibling who is allowed to stay home whilst s/he is being sent to school. Address these matters before they escalate and compound the child’s stress.
Go through the daily routine with your child so that he can visualize what school means, while at home. You can help him understand that how he leaves home, (transport etc), what things he might be doing throughout the day at school, (games, reading, playing, etc), that he would be brought back home or picked up. This is especially important. It will help him feel he can cope with new things as a matter of course.
Discuss openly how you feel; ask your child how s/he feels about the whole thing. You can say that you will miss him but that you are happy that he will now be learning new things and enjoying the company of his friends. You can ask whether he has any thoughts about the whole experience.
In a matter-of-fact way, without any drama, remind the child that if there is anything with which he cannot cope, the teacher is replacing the parent or carers during school time, until he come back to ‘home sweet home’.
Some schools allow parents to stay in the building for an hour or two during the first weeks of school, just in case anything untoward happens. Ironically, this sometimes makes the parents feel more bereft than ever; it’s as if they are extraneous – because since the child has not thrown a wobbly, it must mean that he has “forgotten all about them”.



The Maltese Ħobża


Anyone who thinks that nectar, ambrosia, and manna are the foods of the gods is way off the mark.
Nothing beats a ġenba torn off the side of a warm ħobża before one even leaves the bakery premises. This explains the trail of crumbs from the counter (or a plank resting on two soft drinks cases) and the door. In my day, when the bread was too hot to handle, Tal-Ħobża always had a supply of bits of cardboard torn off the mound of collapsed boxes collected expressly for this purpose. And the aroma inside the bakery would cling to the clothes.
It is a Semitic tradition to break bread with someone as a sign of welcome, and friendship. And no wonder. Our bread is nothing like the anaemic, oblong, spongy loaves bought for convenience rather than taste and texture. Indeed, Maltese bread is the best thing since before sliced bread.
How could you honestly hope to mop up the gooey garlicky mess at the bottom of the fenek fry-pan? Could you use anything else but tal-Malti to slather with butter and eat with ġbejniet tal-bżar? Would any other type of bread taste as good, spread with kunserva, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled liberally with freshly-crushed black pepper and Mediterranean sea-salt?
Incidentally, if you can get an unbaked loaf of bread from the baker, you will find that it makes the ideal pizza.
The friable crust and soft crumb (this is the bieba as opposed to crumbs, which are the frak) make for an ideal marriage of textures and tastes… with one proviso: contrary to the sanitised breads that keep relatively fresh for up to three days, Maltese bread is best eaten on the day it is baked. And anyone who has bought sliced Maltese bread, packaged inside a knotted plastic bag, knows that this is not the way to eat it, either.
Most areas are blessed with twice-daily bread deliveries, mostly from the Maltese equivalent of Bethlehem (“the house of bread”) – Qormi, which was also known as Casal Forno. This enables us to purchase ħobż that are never more than half a day old (it takes eight hours in total to produce a loaf of bread). You may, of course, opt for the unleavened ftira – especially if you are off to the beach, as this holds my preferred filling – tomatoes or tomato paste, capers and olives, anchovies and onion rings – so much better.
Unless you intend to make speciality breads, the above means that buying a bread-making machine would probably be a waste of money. Bakers always leave a clump of dough from the day before, in order to start off the fermentation of the next day; machines always stipulate yeast as an ingredient – and the taste is never quite the same.
Bakers will tell you that the end result depends upon many variables – the type of flour, and water used, the proportion of the ingredients, the temperature at which it is cooked, as well as the type of oven. The dictum goes that the bigger the hole, the better the quality.
The dough is always different depending on the quantities of ingredients, the type of water used, the type of flour, the temperature to which it is subjected and so on.
As in the case of puddings and pies, however, each household has its own ‘recipe’ for what goes inside a ħobż biż-żejt… tinned tuna, pickles, garlic, marinated vegetables, leeks, thinly-sliced cucumbers, grated carrots, capsicums…
Maltese bread, soaked in a mixture of milk and water, and squeezed out, forms the basis for pudina. To this, you add whatever you have in your larder in the way of vine fruit, dried and candied fruits, cocoa, and rum (or anisette or brandy or vermouth). Some people add sugar, desiccated coconut, butter, and an egg or two.
The mixture is placed in a buttered, floured dish and cooked at a low heat until it forms a crust, and a knife stuck into it comes out clean.
Whichever way you decide to use it, small wonder that the smell, texture and sheer debauchery of the Maltese hobza, over any other local food offering, is what breaks the heart of all émigrés every time.

Growing Up… and Father’s Day

[parts of this have already appeared in print].

…What could have been one of my most painful memories is being made to draw a Father’s Day card every year in Junior School… except once, when a teacher called my mother and asked her not to send me to school on the day following, and she swore my classmates to secrecy.

I only found out about this years later… Miss Mariucca Farrugia-Frendo, I salute you.

One particular year I happened to be in the class of a particularly insensitive teacher (I will save her the embarrassment of mentioning her by name… although there are a few of my classmates who might remember that she always had the acrid smell of stale alcohol about her), who – let’s face it – didn’t know how to handle a situation with either empathy or tact.

She said I ought to be ashamed of myself for dawdling about the task, because she was sure that my mother would take my sister and me to the cemetery, and I would take it with me… She said this as if she were doing me a favour by allowing to join in a class activity, rather than sending me to the library. Imagine telling that to a child in single digits…

Another bad memory might have been created when I was not given the prize I’d won in a lottery – a baby’s layette – because “there was no chance my mother would provide me with another sibling”. As if women of childbearing age only have babies when they are married… but perhaps it was a compliment to my mama, so… let’s give the nun who told me this, the benefit of the doubt.

By then I was a year older, and I insisted the prize was mine, to give away to anyone I wanted… I was told I was cheeky, but they gave it to me anyway – well, they took my money for the ticket, didn’t they?

As it is, my cousin Bella had just had a child, and I gave it to her…

Reminiscing, I find that the good and bad things that happen to us combine to make us what we are today.

We can choose to remain bitter because we have been treated in a shameful manner by those who ought to have known better… Not only are we not given our dues… but even that which ought to be rightfully ours is snatched from us and given to others who do not need it (or even want it). It is not nice to have to wear hand-me-downs… and it is even worse to be made fun of, because of that.

We can realise that the action done by someone, reflects on the person who does it, and not on our character or personality. We must not give people the permission to mould our thoughts, behaviours, or feelings.

We can choose to become conceited because we are lionised by those who think we are the bee’s knees, or because we have money, or power, or the kind of beauty that opens the doors of opportunity that are slammed in the faces of more talented, but homely, faces.

Life is a series of choices, and the consequences of those choices, whether they are made by us for others, by others for us, or by each of us, for ourselves.

We cannot always blame others for our decisions. We can become resilient, or we can become fatalistic. We can let life pass us by, because we are “tired of fighting”… or we can become pro-active and help those who are in need…  We can mourn our losses and wallow in pity-parties… or we can help others gain something.

You can never gauge what is behind a smile, albeit it appears happy and sincere.  You can never tell why a child acts up in class, or why an adult seems distracted during his own birthday party.

Never offer a penny for someone’s thoughts… you might cause them to have to lie.

Do not judge. Not so that you will not be judged, yourself…but because you are not entitled to do so.


Not-So Secret Service

Saturday, 18th December 2010

If you want a secret, keep it to yourself. That, to me, is what the Wikileaks hullaballoo is all about. Because when you let the cat out of the bag, it might jump over the garden wall and into the Great Outside.
Julian Assange has only rushed in where Maltese personalities who set precedents for him to follow did not fear to tread.
Most of us remember the tumult that obtained when certain people clicked “send” on their contacts list without culling the contents first. Wikileaks was the new, improved version of this.
Sooner or later, this will be the stuff of a Hollywood film-script. Till then, each new counter-leak is met with incredulity, an attitude of “you could not make it up if you tried”.
Ever since this tale broke, the people’s courts have been asking whether Assange is guilty or not. However, not all of them are asking what of he ought to be judged, not least because to some people the final verdict depends upon whether or not he has raped two women.
Winona Ryder has recently been reminiscing about a young and unruly Mel Gibson. In a similar attention-grabbing manner, an as yet unnamed young lady has dug up a number of fishy-looking e-mails exchanged between her and Assange.
This motley collection of sarcasm and flirting is supposed to show that Assange has quite a few skeletons in his own cupboard, the inference being that it’s now payback time, and the implication being that since he is a Queenslander, he has quite a few kangaroos in his top paddock.
The story about the two women who are now crying rape does not sit too well with me, either. If I had mentioned a man by name on any social site, and said that he wanted to go to a seafood party, and asked for suggestions, would it not mean that I was fairly friendly with him?
If I wanted to play chess with a man, I would have stayed in the hotel foyer, where the guests could stand in awe of my prowess. But if I put myself in a compromising position, I cannot really complain that I have been compromised, have I? It does nto make sense to ask a lover to take STD tests ‘after’; not unless I have dirty laundry for which I want him to pay the dry-cleaning bill.
If I somehow found myself in a hotel room with this man, would it necessarily mean that he had forced me to be there? If I had gone this far, would I not have the courage to leave the room when the sex stopped being consensual? And – if I decide to remove all social sites posts that would seem to indicate how chummy I was with this man, the whole set-up begins to stink.
After having branded the leaking of the documents illegal, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, wiping egg off her face, has now formally announced that a Federal Police investigation into Wiki Leaks and Julian Assange indicates that no Australian Laws were broken by either Wikileaks Assange.
Panic does strange things to people, and we all know how many times the line between the politics of sex and the sexualisation of politics has disappeared. Three have been many cases when accusations of rape were all but laughed out of court because of so-called lack of evidence.
Human nature being what it is, most people are partial to a bit of gossip. When the boot is on the other foot, however, we do not want people to know what we’ve been up to, and when, where, and with whom.
Governments, elected by the aforementioned people, are pretty much the same. Sending honey traps to lure ministers into revealing secrets is all very well. But spies who infiltrate one’s country, in the style of the Charles Bronson film Telefon are unacceptable.
This is the double standard that has caused so much trouble for Assange. I would say that hew never imagined how his ego trip as a Knight in Shining Armour for all mankind would backfire, because he might not have gone ahead with his Mission.
Many of us have had an e-mail or a social site address hacked at one time or another; Wikileaks is this, on a massive scale. As individuals, we post notices of this on all our other sites, and send e-mails to all our friends, telling them our account has been compromised.
And yet we worry about whether the hacker is someone about whom we have spoken pejoratively to others, if we are wont to do that sort of thing. Our forbears tell us that if we shrug, the smell of sweat is bound to escape from our armpits or words to that effect.
A Government with a private foreign policy that differs a little – or a lot – from its public one has much to fear. So do diplomats who mock their superiors in private while toadying up to them in public. So do their minions who break the law under cover of their bosses’ diplomatic immunity. And so do those who play fast and loose with foreign men or women, thinking their partner at home will never find out, but boast about their liaisons with friends.
Anyone who has nothing to fear will definitely resent the invasion of privacy that comes when one’s account is hacked – but there is no fear of animosity or wishes for revenge from anyone, if all we do is lobby jokes and swap recipes and wholesome thoughts and quotations, back and forth with our friends.
But if we spend computer time tittle-tattling about which couples have broken up, which daughter of whose parents is pregnant and yet single, who has almost certainly had cosmetic surgery and which two people are probably having an affair, then we are on the defensive.
Invasion of privacy – whether this is done by intercepting mail, bugging telephones, or hacking into personal electronic mail, is always wrong. But nobody is more righteous than someone who has something to hide; and this is true collectively as well as individually.
Can a nation sue for invasion of privacy? Can an individual sue a nation for mental distress? Can an organisation call a class act against a single person?
We shall probably have to wait for the film version of this mix-up to find out the real answers.


Friday, 24th December 2010

Most people would be familiar with at least one of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, exhibited in London and Paris.
In the paintings, the eponymous rocks are different – but there are other, more subtle differences that one may see when pictures of the two paintings are depicted side-by-side. The Louvre version, the Baptism is prophesied through the pool in the foreground.
On April 25, 1483, da Vinci had been contracted to deliver an altarpiece to decorate the chapel of the Immacolata at the church of San Francesco Grande, in Milan. Simultaneously, Evangelista De Predis, who died before the opus was finished, was to carry out the gilding, colouring and retouching with his brother Ambrogio doing the side panels. Giacomo del Maino’s commission was to carve the framework. The assembled, finished pieces would resemble a miniature temple.
The contract was explicitly worded.
Item, Our Lady is the centre: her mantle shall be of gold brocade and ultramarine blue. Item, her skirt shall be of gold brocade over crimson, in oil, varnished with a fine lacquer…Item, God the Father: his gown shall be of gold brocade and ultramarine blue. Item, the angels shall be gilded and their pleated skirts outlined in oil, in the Greek manner. Item, the mountains and rocks shall be worked in oil, in a colourful manner… [etc]
The deadline was short; on or before December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. He didn’t kill it, and this work became the source of two interminable lawsuits. Experts hold that the Louvre version to be entirely by Leonardo; the National Gallery version one could have been a collaborative work with the De Predis. The Louvre painting was probably gifted to King Louis XII of France by da Vinci, in gratitude for settling the law suit, and it was this that would have created the need for a second artwork. In both, da Vinci made changes to the brief. He had been ordered to put across the immaculate flawlessness of Mary; in his own way, he decided that this was to be done by painting her as a flat-chested young lady, surrounded by phallic rocks and womb images. Her skirt is reminiscent of a cornucopia.
These pictures depict the legend of how, when King Herod committed the Massacre of the Innocents, John the Baptist, who was still a baby, and his mother, Elizabeth, were saved by the Archangel Uriel, who flew them with him to the house of the Virgin Mary, after their flight to Egypt. The toddlers Jesus and his cousin John are depicted playing together under the loving, watchful eyes of the Madonna.
The Louvre version of the painting is set in autumn, and Uriel is androgynous. The work was first mentioned as being in the royal collection at Fontainebleau in 1625. The painting in London’s National Gallery brings the figures closer; it has a bluer tone, and Saint John has a cross of reeds. The hand of Uriel no longer points at; there are halos, which, together with the cross, were added later by an unknown artist.
In iconography, Uriel is usually portrayed carrying a papyrus scroll (or a book), which signifies wisdom. His symbol is an open hand holding a flame, the great gift to humanity.
Uriel has many titles in non-canonical and apocryphal lore. Some sources say he is a Seraph, but others say he is a Cherub. Some of his tittles are Angel of the Presence, Flame of God, Regent of the Sun, and Archangel of Salvation. Milton calls him the “sharpest sighted spirit of all in Heaven”. Occult, apocryphal, and cabbalistic writings have often failed to differentiate between Uriel and Nuriel, Uryan, Jeremiel, Vretil, Sariel, Suriel, Puruel, Phanuel, Jehoel, Jacob, Ezrail, Azrael and Israfil/Raphael.
Uriel is the dark angel who wrestled with Jacob at Peniel, and the Messenger who warned Noah of the imminent deluge. Further back in time, he was the one who stood at the gate of Eden with a fiery sword when Adam and Eve were booted out after sinning.
Uriel is multi-talented. He disclosed the mysteries of the esoteric secrets of heaven to Ezra; the prophet asks a series of questions, and Uriel answers them. He interpreted prophecies, and led Abraham out of Ur. He is the angel of music and poetry.
Gabriel, Raphael and Michael are still today celebrated on September 29. There was a time when Uriel was considered equal to them; however, in 745AD Pope Zachary decided to remove him from the list.
In the older books of the Hebrew Bible, angels have no names. RabbiSimeon Ben Lakish of Tiberias said that all the specific names for the angels were brought back by the Jews from Babylon.
Christians, albeit not Catholics often recite an age-old prayer to Uriel the Archangel when in need of special graces:
Oh holy St. Uriel, intercede for us that our hearts may burn with the fire of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Assist us in co-operating with the graces of our confirmation that the gifts of the Holy Spirit may bear much fruit in our souls. Obtain for us the grace to use the sword of truth to pare away all that is not in conformity to the most adorable Will of God in our lives, that we may fully participate in the army of the Church Militant. Amen.
Uriel is important in the Jewish religion, Anglican, and Protestant religions.

Hitting the Wrong Notes

Friday, 31st December 2010

A friend of mine who teaches voice technique abroad sent me a link of the first of a series of videos produced by the Musicians’ Union and the NSPCC, in collaboration with Music Leader, ABRSWM, and Educare.
The script does not mince words. It tells teachers to avoid, at all costs, touching their pupils, lest they be accused to inappropriate behaviour (including paedophilia). These instructions apply whether one teaches a class or a single pupil, in a school, in the pupil’s home or in the teacher’s own.
I was stunned. Why would the (British) Musicians’ Union think it ought to set itself apart from other bodies, the operations of which require adults to be in close contact with children? The Church, catechism groups, scouts and guides, and sundry other entities have all been splattered with accusations of abuse, sometimes deservedly.
In this series, it seems that accusations are inevitable. Anyone would think it was a pre-emptive measure. Although, to be fair, one of the clips does show a teacher who accidentally comes across signs of abuse upon a pupil, and intimates that she will have to “tell someone”. Teachers are given common-sense advice. In my opinion, however, this sometimes fails to protect the child enough, because it is intended to protect the teacher.
The clips are presented as “an online resource allowing anyone teaching music to children to gain a better understanding of their child protection responsibilities and avoid situations that could lead to accusations of misconduct”. I would say they are meant of foster an atmosphere of distrust where none existed before.
Whatever happened to the “private body” instruction we gave our young children? Most of us knew well enough to tell children that nobody could touch them in the areas covered by (full) underwear. Failure of any adult – even a relative or family friend – to observe this cardinal rule meant the children came to tell us exactly what happened, when, and why, and the rest was up to us.
These days, everything has gone over the top, on the premise that it is better to be safe than sorry – and the result is that everyone gets tarred with the same brush. Just because one postman didn’t check his work, and delivered a packet of five letters with different addresses, held together with a rubber band, to the address of the one on top, it does not mean that all postmen are careless. Just because one teacher gave students two projects to do over the Christmas holidays, it does not mean that all teachers are “cruel”.
There are children who learn music online. Here, the danger of abuse does not come up, especially if the lessons are pre-recorded and the teacher is not even online during the lesson.
My friend calls this campaign “outrageous”. Sometimes, it is imperative that the teacher touches the pupil to indicate certain areas that need to be used when singing; “I sometimes have to ‘push’ someone’s diaphragm to make students understand how it really feels when breathing and using support properly. Do the people who have come up with this campaign actually teach music?” she asks.
Enzo Gusman, never one to pull his punches, asks whether doctors, dentists and other professionals are going to face the same ordeal. He also asks whether a Mohel (the professionally-trained man who performs circumcision on boys in Judaism) would be similarly liable – but since this is a religious issue, I should think not. Many other people involved in the music scene in Malta said more or less the same thing.
One piano teacher said that nothing like an unexpected poke in the small of the back reminded a student to sit up straight. Another suggested that all doors and windows doors be kept open during music lessons – and never mind what the neighbours say about caterwauling violins. One mother told me that she is ashamed to say that, on n the way home from the music lesson, she keeps glancing at her daughter’s face, trying to catch micro-expressions, although the teacher is a childhood friend.
Having worked in a school with tiny children as well as others who have learning difficulties, I cannot but say that there are times a teacher must hold a child’s hand to indicate the correct way to do things –including how to hold a pencil to form letters. And what if a child falls and comes to you for a hug? What do you do when two children are fighting in the schoolyard? Do you turn the water-hose on them so as to avoid touching them, and risk being arrested for child abuse anyway?
The world is indeed a sad place when each action, even the most innocent, could be deliberately misinterpreted by someone. There are cases when teachers and other people in authority have been maliciously accused of inappropriate behaviour. Even when they are proven innocent, they usually find that their reputation has been tarnished forever.
However, a person who is going to lie about you will lie anyway, if he thinks he can get away with it, simply because he has been alone in a room with you… whether you have touched him or not.
Why are we making children – and ourselves – paranoid?

Animal Rights and Wrongs

Friday, 26th February 2010

Matilda is the hen who laid an egg four times the size of a normal one. Together with the weird case of chickens running loose in Regional Road, Marsa, as well as that of Lima, the runaway circus zebra chased by a posse of police cars for forty minutes in Atlanta, these are stories that raise a smile.
Not so the “cat”alogue of other animal stories that have hit the headlines during he past couple of weeks.
First we had Beppe Bigazzi suggesting that, as he had done in his youth, we sample cat stew, since the meat is succulent, white and tender. Then we had the disturbing e-mail that did the rounds, showing two Milanese, stiletto-heeled women torture a dig (I could only watch 5 seconds into it, until I realised what was happening). Later came the news that Dawn Brancheau had been dragged into the Shamu Stadium exhibition pool by Tilikum, the killer whale. He had already been noted as acting out of character, and was apparently perturbed when her long ponytail swished against his face.
This morning, Lilian Maistre had a veritable deluge of calls when one of her guests spoke about “garden pests” and how to be rid of them “correctly and sensitively”, whatever that implies.
In each case, and not only in the latter one, there were people who think that their point of view is the only correct one. And interestingly enough, it is not only the “tree hugger” brigade that put in its two cents’ worth.
It is a well-known fact that some people will eat anything. Calling frogs and snails grenouilles et escargots does not make them any more attractive to me. Horsemeat is considered a delicacy in some eateries – and given the national predilection for rabbits, we may as well call ourselves bunny boilers, albeit not because of the usual reasons.
Limpets, sea urchins, snakes, crabs, termites, lobsters, wild boars, kangaroos, ants, emus, crocodiles, dogs, cavies, pigeons, oysters, and octopuses, although considered “unclean” in Judaism, are considered finger-licking good by some.
However, what irritates me is that some people who do eat other living creatures think they can – because of their own moral (not religious), nutritional, ethical, or “cuteness” standards, dictate what others may eat, or not.
Take the furore that obtained over the Bigazzi incident, for instance. It so happens that a law passed in Italy in 1991 made eating cat-meat a crime punishable by up to 18 months in prison. Francesca Martini, the Italian Under-Secretary for Health Affairs, happens to be an animal rights activist. So she came out, guns blazing, saying that Bigazzi’s comments were “…offensive to the growing number of people who care about the way we treat animals.
Moreover,” she added, “it was ‘shameful’ for an employee of the state broadcaster to recommend such a ‘despicable’ notion”.
However, Ms Martini did not think to mention that it is not that something is illegal which makes it “not nice”, just as it is not because something is legal which makes it acceptable. Are not sheep and rabbits as cute as cats, if not more so? In countries where venison is “just another item” on the bill of fare, no one thinks of mentioning Bambi and Rudolph. Duck à l’orange is not usually called Jemima on the restaurant menu, is it?
So what is it, exactly, that makes eating milk-fed veal and live sea-urchins just fine, but the mere mention of cat-stew intolerable?
After Ms Brancheau was killed, some hacks did their best to dig up news items where people had been killed in similar incidents by elephants, bears, tigers, and other animals, supposedly trained to be docile. What they failed to realise, again, was that the animals they mentioned had one thing in common. They were captive wild animals who ought never to have been captured and used as amusing playthings for the paying public.
The least said about the sadistic women whose empty lives led them to such depraved depths of unspeakable cruelty, the better. What they did is far, far worse that slaughtering an animal for food – although this, as we know, is not always done humanely.
A number of the barrage of calls to Radju Malta this morning came from people who say they have the dignity of animals at heart. That is why they complained about slugs and snails being trapped by saucers of stout beer and then “disposed of”. That is why some of them said they do not eat meat yet, interestingly, not one of them cited wastage of resources for this.
Their arguments, as vegetarians, also slalomed around an important issue.
People who have pocket-handkerchief gardens know that there are biological ways to control slugs, aphids and whitefly. But how many farmers would be ready to breed ladybirds or boil elder leaves on a commercial scale? So the probability is that on the way to “saving animals” and “being green”, the lettuce and tomatoes and potatoes and carrots eaten today have cost the lives of thousands of vermin.
Are the lives of these worth any less than those of Tom and Tabby, Skippy and Kermit?

Too Much Information?

Dated 2013

TV 40 news personality Christine Chubbuck shot herself in a live broadcast this morning on a Channel 40 talk program. She was rushed to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where she remains in critical condition.
The most surreal thing about this July 15, 1974 newscast clip was that it had been written by Chubbuck herself.
The warning signs had all been there; three weeks prior to her demise, she had begun work on a feature programme about suicide. In the course of her research she had discovered the ideal type of bullet, and where to shoot it, courtesy of an officer in the sheriff’s department, which goes contrary to how things are portrayed in CSI-type series.
A definite red flag was flown when she told the night news editor that she had bought the weapon and joshed about using it live. He chided her, but that’s as far as it went. And we all know that when people joke about committing suicide, the chances are that they have been thinking about it.
Meanwhile, the station owner had ostensibly ordained that ‘blood and guts’ were to be the deigning factors of newsworthiness; and one of Chubbuck’s stories was indeed cut to be replaced by coverage of a shoot-out.
On the fateful morning, a videoclip of a shooting at the Beef and Bottle Restaurant at the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport on U.S. 41 jammed, and Chubbuck attempted to be ad-libbing, as newscasters are wont to do when this sort of incident happens,
In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living colour, you are going to see another first; attempted suicide. The technical director faded to black; the camera operator Jean Reed assumed it was an elaborate wind-up.
On the morning of January 22, 1987, Robert Budd Dwyer, a politician from Pennsylvania who insisted until the end that he had been framed on charges of corruption and bribery, also committed suicide on air. It happened during a televised press conference at his office in Harrisburg, the state capital.
On that day, many schools had been closed because of a heavy snowfall; had this not been so, students who had regular access to news broadcasts during school hours would have seen it happen, just as they saw the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy and the Branch Davidian Siege in Waco, Texas.
All these incidents, and more, have been used as “teaching materials” in media ethics classes. Indeed, Dwyer’s suicide is cited in a paper about the “ethno-methodological approach to the study of suicide”. In such instances, apparently, not even the most diligent of fingers on the Delay Button would have been able to abort the transmission.
“Severe human error”, however, was cited as the reason why yet another suicide was aired live on Fox News on Friday, September 28.
This happened during coverage of one of those popular (think O. J. Simpson) car chases that are aired live in an effort to skew viewership statistics, and not because they provide useful information.
At one point the suspect opened his vehicle door and leapt out of it, running down a dirt track, and seconds later pulled out a gun. The camera continued rolling, the death was caught live, and Smith, the Fox News Channel anchor, Shepherd Smith admitted they had “messed up”.
We all remember the atrocious hounding of Madeline McCann’s parents; how the press couldn’t get enough of “sexy-foxy-Knoxy”; how the press covered Joanna Yeates’ murder; and how some film directors sought to make a quick buck from elements from each story, or portraying separate ones in their celluloid entirety.
And let us not forget that the film Network ends with the narrator stating “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”
The local media, which sometimes seems oblivious to events being played out on the world stage – at least, unless they can be perverted to serve ulterior motives – are also sometimes all too ready to ride roughshod over good taste and people’s sensibilities. This tends to happen because they want to scoop other media… and they do not realise that the person involved in the incident there are covering could have been themselves, or someone they love.
Live television shows us how some card-carrying journalists are at their best when it comes to scooping their peers. They forget the rules about vulnerable persons; invasions of privacy; and no close-ups. They diligently research the person’s sexual orientation (Pan-sexual Company Director Guilty of Tax Evasion); his political affiliations (Conservative MP arrested for sexual cimes); and his family tree (singer Trisha Dawne’s son commits suicide), in no particular order.
They ask awkward questions, not in the hope of winkling out information hitherto undiscovered by those whose job it is to do so, but to entrench themselves as the oriflammes of incisive, investigative reporting. Some even create re-enactments of crime scenes that are pathetic excuses for spoon-feeding the viewing public what they want us to assume is the truth.
Sometimes, not even a five-minute delay would be sufficient to remove footage I find objectionable… we have seen clips that would be more suited to the crime being committed at the start of almost each Columbo episode, or Cold Case flashbacks.
The latest example of this pathetic ‘live coverage’ we have seen is the hunt for April Jones, who went missing after having been seen getting into the van of a man who has since been named.
Would the cameras have stopped rolling had April been found where the searchers were looking for her? I doubt it.
Meanwhile, journalist Kay Burley, fresh from the “cadaver search dog” gaffe, actually transmitted bad news about April to two of the searchers on rolling live news reportage.
Whether this was her usual ham-fisted coverage, or a calculated stratagem for viewers to catch the reaction of the volunteers, is anybody’s guess.
Is this what makes television “good” and “actual”? Most of the people responsible for giving us this tripe would reply… Whatever! But it’s what the people want.

Wine, Woman, Song…


“Do let’s!” he said. “It will be fun!” he further encouraged me. I nodded and smiled, as he knew I would.
He lobbed a heavy tome, a printout of a wine tourism brochure, at me. “Wine? What’s wine?” I asked, intrigued by the sight of so many trees (“vines” he said) all planted neatly in one place, rather than growing haphazardly, as they do here on Melita.
“You’ll find out soon enough…” he said. Oh, yes. We were, after all, the Ambassadors for our planet, and we were due to leave in… ten planet-turns and counting. As for myself, though, I could never see the point in not eating fruits and vegetables fresh raw. I never ate pickles or dried fruit – so how could I be expected to like preserved (“fermented” he said) grapes that, moreover, would have been squeezed and squashed into gloop (“pulp” he said)?
Time warps make travel easier and faster – but they wreak havoc with my digestive system… and with my hair. To make a long story short, after six months’ earth-time travel, we landed at the Aeropuerto de Málaga-Costa del Sol.
The formalities over, we were finally able to take a shower in water that was weirdly transparent, and not the delicate pastel pink of Melita. We had time to kill, because the first Conference was on the morning of the morrow. So obviously we expressed the wish to go on the tour that had mentioned Verdejo white, rosé, oak-aged young wine, “and many others”.
A proverb oft quoted on Melita says “Some drink deeply from the well of knowledge – others just gargle and spit.” I had never seen it happen literally, but here I saw it happen with the wines… and I did it myself. It was patiently explained to me that if we downed all the wine samples presented to us, we would end up sozzled. We don’t have alcohol on Melita, so I had to take their word for it.
So I learned a whole new lexicon; words like almacenista, blanco, bodega, crianza, granvas, mistela, reserva and many more now roll mellifluously off the forks of my tongue…
I discovered that I liked best the sparkling wines with high acidity, but I could not decide which I preferred – Champagne, Prosecco, Cava or Lambrusco. Unbeknownst to us, our hosts had arranged a treat – fish & chips (my first time ever eating a cooked vegetable) and bubbly on tap, on a visit to La Mancha and the windmills of Don Quixote.
I bought a couple of books on oenology to take back with me to Melita – whatever happens with the mining treaties and space exploration enterprises, I am going to make sure that the wine industry will flourish in Melita.

If we talk chalk, our soil is similar to that of Pouilly and Sancerre in the Loire Valley, Chablis in Burgundy and Aube in Champagne.
Humans are human, after all. The flavour of our fizz will be out of this world.


New Leaves

I was one of the few Maltese babies born in what was at the time a hospital mostly used by the British Forces in Malta – hence named after King George V – in 1959.
By the time 1978 had rolled around, much water had flowed under the bridge, and the hospital had had a name change; it was now named after Sir Paul Boffa, a Maltese politician.
It had also undergone a change of purpose; it was now a hospital for people who had cancer. And it was where my sister died.
Recently, I had occasion to visit it again, because one of my children needed to have a wart seen to.
Of course, I don’t remember what the place looked like, more than half a century ago, but I remember clearly how the oncology wards felt, looked, and smelled. They were sombre, bleak, gloomy rooms that smelt of creosote, then used as a disinfectant, and death.
The atmosphere at the Outpatient Department was totally different. The patients there knew that they were being treated for a minor glitch in their routine; a blip in their medical files that cryotherapy with liquid nitrogen would put right, perhaps gradually, but definitely and completely.
The place is bright and airy, with glass partitions, walls painted in bright colours, with original paintings of local scenes by Maltese artists hanging on them. A coffee machine in the corridor perfumes the air and does brisk business. No more yesterday’s tacky plywood sheets, with paint peeling off, and pebbled glass.
This was a Saturday, so most of the patients were school-age children with their parents. Little did it occur to them that that the place could ever have been any different. But you could tell the adults knew from the occasional snippets of conversations caught here and there. Years later, some are still bitter; others appear to have come to terms with their loss.
By a similar quirk, the post-secondary institute my daughter attends is the same one her father attended, years ago, when it was a secondary technical school. The place has been spruced up and undergone a change of purpose; hundreds of students read different courses there now.
Shifts, moves, displacements and changes are inevitable. People, times, and circumstances change, and we must learn to adapt ourselves without losing our goals and our individuality.
We cannot, must not, allow setbacks to thwart us.