Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Lost Hours of Pac-Man

from the Sunday Times of London 30.05.10

"An interactive Pac-Man logo on the Google homepage cost businesses about £80m in lost production, it has been claimed. Tony Wright, a time management expert, estimated that 5m hours were lost as workers played a mini Pac-Man game - based on the Google logo - to celebrate the little yellow character's 30th birthday."

Thirty years already! Are we ancient or what?!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Find me a butler!

That’s it. Surely life is too short for me to spend more than half an hour trying to wrestle open a flippin’ jam jar. So I’m putting this jar down and I’m sitting down to write a vacancy advert saying, ‘Wanted: a Butler’.

I won’t be the first in (err, fictional) history to want one. I mean, take Lara Croft. She had her very own old Winston. And didn’t Mrs Addams have Lurch?

Of course I’ll live if I don’t find such an old school butler like that sweet dearie of Stevens in Remains of the Day. Nor need he be a true and proper Jeeves. I’d be happy if he were a cross between Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s butler, and Geoffrey Butler, the ever-efficient-if-slightly-grumpy butler in Fresh Prince of Bel-air. Yes. Almost like Zazu, the Lion King’s major domo.

And what would his tasks be? Open jars of course. And all the other millions of task in our daily life designed primarily by men for men. Try opening (and closing) a three-wheel stroller for example. Or try changing your flat tyre. I swear I don’t need to work on my biceps thanks to the above couple of chores.

Why isn’t everything lightweight in this day and age? Isn’t that what Michael J. Fox predicted in Back to the Future? I suspect it’s a conspiracy: male designers want to ensure that the stronger sex is always needed around.

Now, I am not whiner. And as much as I am an ardent believer of the women sisterhood, I scowl at girls who won’t as much as go up a stepping stool because they fear they’ll get ladders in their tights.

But I really think it’s time to call it quits. Some things I just can’t do. Case in point: A couple of days ago I was trying to unscrew a light wall, which went something like this: “Grunt, uff, arrgh”, till I hung my head in shame and phoned a cousin. He came over and before I had even explained my tale of woe, the whole thing was done, packed and ready.

Yes I am independent but I still haven’t gotten feminist enough – or perhaps the world not lightweight enough - to claim that women can live without men.

So I want a butler who will carry Pip on his shoulders, when my neck muscles start resembling Hulk’s and also when she’s eating biscuits so the crumbs will fall on his hat (yes he would wear one) and not get enmeshed in my hair turning it into one big dreadlock.

The butler will be there to hand me things in the morning rush before the school run: ‘And here are your sunglasses/shoes/mascara Ma’am’; ‘Here’s some loose change for the parker’; ‘And this is your car key.’ Wait. What am I saying? He could actually drive us around and give me knees a bit of a rest.

Yes and when we’re stuck in traffic he will turn away from the steering wheel and Ambrogio style, will offer me a Ferrero Rocher. Actually, traffic jams will become a thing of the past. The butler will be so mAZe savvy that he’ll zoom home through little side streets and won’t ever end up in dead-end alley.

He’ll lug the gas cylinder. He’ll have a stock of batteries, power leads and all things required to make things function when they suddenly stop. He’ll fix a dvd player when a peanut butter cracker is mysteriously jammed into it.

He’ll do those little things, like booking dentist appointments, and other phone calls where a stern manly voice will get you a better result than an apologetic girly one would. In fact, ideally he’ll have a slight British toff accent - we all know that in Malta it goes a long way in customer service, seeing as we’re still colonialists deep down.

He’ll put up the shelves, fix cupboards that don’t quite close and fill up holes in plasterwork. But he will also be there, discreetly, in the background, when I’m having a heart-to-heart with a girlfriend, so if need be, he can give us a male insight of the situation.

Which brings me to the age factor. Hmm. How old should my butler be? Not to young not to old. I’m thinking, Ewan McGregor would be the perfect candidate. Or maybe that would be a tad too handsome? I wouldn’t want him to run off with any of my girlfriends, because that would mean I have to start recruiting again. You see, no boyfriend/husband/partner would ever do any of the above willingly and ungrudgingly.

There. All that’s needed now is for the application letters to start rolling in.

Published in the Sunday Times of Malta

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thank God

Bath-time observation:

"Mummy? Do you know, God? His name is like Thankgod.
Is that what his mummy called him?
Why did God's mummy call him God?"

Sunday, April 25, 2010

It’s dangerous to leave them crying ... even science finally agrees!

By Rosie Millard
Published in the Sunday Times of London April 25, 2010

Penelope Leach is understandably rather pleased with herself. Not just because her new book has generated a flurry of column inches but because, at last, the babycare expert has science on her side. Meaning that she can, and has, delivered a bloody nose to the likes of Gina Ford, whose Contented Little Baby Book, published in 1999, has encouraged mothers to impose a strict routine on even tiny babies, and advocates “controlled crying” as a way of getting newborns to sleep through the night.

Having always said that the Ford way was a nonsense and that if a baby cried, you should pick it up, Leach now has research from boffins to prove that controlled crying is positively dangerous.

“It is fact,” says Leach crisply, hazel eyes twinkling, auburn bob tossing. If you ignore an infant and leave it to cry itself to sleep night after night, the stress involved affects the development of its immature brain.

Her new book, The Essential First Year: What Babies Need Parents to Know, cites research that shows that when a baby “experiences acute and continuing distress”, its adrenal glands are stimulated into releasing cortisol, the “stress hormone”, which floods its body and brain.

“Brains that are growing and developing are very sensitive to an overload of cortisol,” Leach says. And, apparently, high levels of cortisol that build up over time can be toxic to a young baby’s rapidly developing brain.

“One is not saying every time a baby cries it will produce too much cortisol which will damage its brain,” says Leach. “But if there is a policy which allows babies to cry for quite a long time, and over quite a lot of nights . . .”

What? “The growing brain will stop developing expectations. And you will alter the brain stress thresholds,” she says. “So that a child to whom this happens a lot, may become a child who is liable to depression and anxiety. We can now scan living brains and cortisol lends itself very well to research because you can access it easily via saliva swabs.”

Leach says the research for her book ran to more than 150 scientific sources and quotes study after study, including one in which three sets of parents looked after babies in different ways.

The first group fed their children on demand, carried them around with them, slept with them, and responded instantly to their crying. The second group was attentive but strove for the beginnings of some separation. And the third operated on the Fordesque “controlled crying” basis, only picking children up to be fed when the routine allowed.

“And at three months the distribution of crying was as you would predict,” says Leach. “The babies who were picked up most, cried less.” She smiles warmly, but there is no hiding the steely triumph behind the Jaeger summerwear.

Leach, 72, whose husband Gerald died five years ago, lives in an immaculate house in Sussex that revels in a peerless view over the South Downs. She has a beauty, and an energy, that belies her age, and one suspects that a future based around being a grandmother (she has six grandchildren) is not probably an acceptable one. Rather like Joan Bakewell, you can’t even begin to imagine her being called Granny, let alone a diminutive like Penny, or, heaven forfend, Nan. “Why would I even think about retiring?” she asks. “I mean, who would I announce my retirement to?”

Indeed, she has brought something of a fighting spirit into a publishing zone usually associated with celebrity-oriented waffle. Her book tells it like it is. “Babies ruin sex ... at least for a while. They ruin finances, lifestyles and careers — especially women’s careers,” she writes. “In fact, becoming parents clearly puts people at a disadvantage compared with peers who have taken a no-children route.”

It’s certainly a sea change from all the Me and My Bump stuff currently clogging up the Waterstone’s parenting section. “Well, an awful lot of people don’t stop to think about what having a baby means,” she says. “And that they will have to look after it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the next 10 years.”

Whereas the Ford camp suggests how babies can be moulded into adult life, Leach advocates that adults must invent a new, parent-baby life for themselves. And that, she warns, is tough.

“An awful lot of partnerships break down in the first five years of a first baby. Parents have got to realise that life will change irrevocably. And that, say, going to Paris with their partner and a one-year-old is not going to be like going to Paris was with their partner last year.

“The post-industrial western world is just out of step,” she sighs. “Many parts of the world, including the whole of China, incidentally, consider it cruel to leave a baby on its own. They wouldn’t dream of leaving it crying alone in its cot.”

A doctor of psychology, she gave up her work as an academic when her son Matthew had meningitis, aged two. “I went back to work and it was one of the most misjudged things I have ever done. Of course I’ve done lots of jobs since, but always from home.”

She considers that as a childhood behavioural expert who is also a parent, she has a foot rather usefully in either camp. (Whereas Gina “let ’em cry” Ford is famously childless). “I actually do know what it’s like to be woken up 14 times a night,” says Leach. “And I have a very strong sense that the way to deal with that is not for the parent to impose adult desires on the baby, but to try and integrate baby and adult.”

She is as trenchant about breastfeeding as she is about picking up your baby when it is yelling. “I decided it was time to talk turkey about this. Bottle-feeding is not as good for your baby and it’s not as good for you as breastfeeding is. Fact.

“Everyone says, ‘Breastfeeding is better for your baby but if you can’t, don’t worry, he’ll be fine on a bottle’. Well, he will, but you need to know what you are giving up! The risk of leukaemia is much less. And breastfed children are more intelligent.”

She never bottle-fed her own two children, and when her daughter Melissa had her first of four children, she encouraged her never to have a bottle in the house. Did she? “No.”

Would she ever tap someone bottle-feeding a baby on the shoulder and advise them that in giving their child formula milk, they are ruining their intellectual growth? “No. I wouldn’t tell anyone off in public about anything but smacking. That is the only thing I think is wrong on every possible level.”

Did she ever smack her two? Leach, who has been campaigning for the illegality of smacking since 1988, looks at me with kindly dismay. “No. It never occurred to me. It never occurred to me to smack my husband, either.”

I’ll bet she feels like giving Gina Ford a wallop sometimes, though.

The Essential First Year:What Babies Need Parents To Know by Penelope Leach is published by DK ( at £13.99

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bin the Parenting Manuals

I am a Generation X parent. Which means that I can’t help it – for me for every task in life there is a book which tells you how to go about it.

When pregnant, my brow was knit in a permanent frown of worry, constantly contemplating how to be a good parent. I remember having a coffee with my father asking him what he had read before I was born, to, you know prepare himself for parenthood. He looked at me incredulously with a where-did-I-fail-with-this-one kind of look. What? What’s wrong, I said. He sighed: “Binti. There’s nothing to read. You just get on with it.” He was right of course. What once we did intuitively has become an expert’s arena.

But that still left me clueless. So I turned to my mother, who well aware of my fear, nay, terror of childbirth, pointed me in the direction of a humorous book: ‘Stand and Deliver’. “The trick is to avoid books with the real pictures,” she said. And I cheerfully read my way through a book which declared that ‘at the very least it will provide a useful door wedge to keep unwanted visitors out of the delivery suite”.

That was that. But then, after I actually managed to stand and deliver, in came a flood of parenting manuals, telling me what to expect when the baby is 2 months 3 days 5 seconds old; how wrong it is if baby is not sleeping fourteen hours; how to be strict and regimental about feeding. They all came with pastel covers and a happy cooing toddler on the front. Most implied the hard work that it all entails: a child presents an endless series of problems, which must be corrected or regulated. Each time I opened the books and consulted the oft conflicting advice, the feeling of inadequacy as a mother increased in direct proportion.

Till one day, I came across a little book written a couple of decades ago, entitled simply: ‘How not to be a perfect mother’. Based on Libby Purves' own experience of domestic havoc with two babies, this was witty and wise and oh! so full of down-to-earth tips and hilarious anecdotes. What a refreshing peace of mind, it gave me.

Then came Andrew Clover’s ‘Dad Rules’. Here’s what Clover has to say about parenting books:

“There’s one – two hundred pages long! – called Everything you need to know (in the first months of a child’s life). I’m thinking: Is there that much I should have known? I could boil my experience down to three sentences of advice:
1. Don’t be reading two-hundered-page books. Try to sleep.
2. Don’t let them suck too long or mum’s nips will really hurt
3. Get out of the way when they puke”

Ah. What’s not to love about a book like this? It’s not a manual. It’s for mums. It’s for dads. It’s for parents who ask questions like: “Will I see my friends again? Will I have sex again?” And by the way it’s also for non-parents. I gave it to my sister who said after: “I’m in love. He’s the guy of my dreams.”
And yet brilliant as he is, Clover doesn’t stand an inch next to the author of the best-est parenting manual ever written. ‘The Idle Parent’ by Tom Hodgkinson. I think no new parent should leave Mater Dei without it. Health Secretary Cassar should really make a plea for an extended budget for it. It is helpful, to be sure, but more than that, it’s consoling and encouraging. Hodgkinson argues that kids and adults alike need to play more and work less: “We put far too much effort into parenting. If we leave our kids alone, they will become more self-reliant and we’ll be able to lie in bed for longer.” It is endearing, cheerful, comic but oh-so-sane and liberating.

Here are bits from his manifesto for the Idle Parent:
- We reject the rampant consumerism that invades children from the moment they are born
- We lie in bed for as long as possible
- Time is more important than money
- Happy mess is better than miserable tidiness
- We play in the fields and forests
- More play, less work

These three books actually confirm what I think we all know deep down: Parenting doesn’t require hard work per se. It’s a change in lifestyle, sure, but that doesn’t mean that it still can’t be a laid back one. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you feed kids or how early you start teaching them Mandarin Chinese. What matters is that you, as the parent are actually happy yourself - because kids copy their parents’ outlook on life.

So, go on now: those those parenting manuals!

The only three books parents need to read:

1. The Idle Parent by Tom Hodginkson (ISBN 9780241143735)
The king.

2. Dad Rules by Andrew Clover (ISBN 9781905490301)
It’s all about how kids teach you to be happy

3. How not to be the Perfect Mother by Libby Purves (ISBN 9780007163847)
Hilarious and down-to-earth tips

If you insist on reading more, go for these:

4. Affluenza by Oliver James (ISBN 978-0091900113)
Not really a parenting manual but a good study of today’s consumerist society in which we’re raising kids

5. Summerhill School – A new view of Childhood by A.S. Neill (ISBN 9780312141370)
How free kids perform better at school and in life

6. Impro for Storytellers by Keith Johnstone (ISBN 0571190995)
Handy tips for storytelling

7. The Spoilt Generation by Aric Seigman (ISBN 9870749941482)
How children are not spoilt because parents are failing to offer a supporting structure

8. Under Pressure by Carl Honore (ISBN 9780752879765)
From the guy who founded the ‘Slow food movement’ this is all about ‘slow parenting’

9. What really works for kids by Susan Clark (ISBN 0593049195)
The ultimate alternative health guide

10. Stand and Deliver by Emma Mahony (ISBN 0007153996)
Don’t give birth without this book.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Play Mobil

Here's the last Papal update (promise). I was working from dawn till night yesterday so this morning Pip woke me up early this morning to 'have a chat'. "Mummy!! I saw the Bope! But he didn't look at me! Because he had to choose a side. And he chose the other side. Nanna said it doesn't matter. I waved the flag. And mummy! He didn't have a car! He was sitting in a Play Mobil!"

Oohh... I just want to kiss those chubby cheeks when she comes up with things like these!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hello, my name is Cleavage

What would you do if your child came back from school one day and told you that she had a boy in her class called ‘Cleavage’?

Surely, you would think, there’s a mistake somewhere? But no, there isn’t. Cross my heart: it’s a real name given to a real boy in Malta. His mother, bless her, is delirious with pride that her son has a unique name: “I had to register it, as there’s no one called like that,” she told a friend of mine.

Here’s another real one: a father accompanying his toddler to the clinic told a doctor friend that his daughter’s name was ‘Dyslexia’ but, sorry, he wasn’t sure how to spell it.

Another mother gave her daughter a practically unpronounceable nine-letter name. She explained her word-game strategy: “Every month during my pregnancy I chose a letter and then at the end of the nine months, I jumbled them up and came up with this name.”

Another parent was equally haughty about the ‘avant garde’ names she gave her sons. “This one is Skylander,” she said as she pushed them to the front, “And this one is Cleverson. Eh? What do you think?”

What do you think indeed? We’ve all heard of Jurrasic Pace, of Britney Spears Borg, or Celine Dion Darmanin, or Mysharona Brincat. Why, I had even heard of Jack Daniels Falzon. But Dyslexia? Cleavage?

If I’m honest, this is stuff of severe attack of giggles. I mean, Cleverson? Are we resorting to Red Indian nomenclature now? What ever next, Dances-with-the-wolves Vella?

But then, when I wondered if these were just one-offs and was firmly told that these are, in certain areas, quite the norm, it felt like a slap in the face. You would think you know the society you live in. Here I am, week in week out, writing about society issues, when really, half the population is simply concerned about having babies just so they can give them more original names then their neighbours’.

I wouldn’t like to think that parents inflict such torturous names on their children on purpose. So the problem is, of course, sheer, utter ignorance. And I can say this, safe in the knowledge that no one will be hurt reading this article, because parents of these kids cannot know how to read in English. I hope, against hope that at least they do read in Maltese – but I have my doubts.

Because it’s not just the names. It’s in other things too. Here’s another incident, which I know sounds like a ‘have you heard the one about?’: A lady patient was given suppositories to treat a particular ailment. She went back a couple of days later, complaining that she can’t swallow them. The doctor politely explained that she has to insert them in her patata (bum). She returned some days later baffled because try as she might, she just couldn’t get the suppositories to melt in mashed potatoes. My friend, stumped, had no choice but to resort to the vernacular of ‘arse’ in Maltese. “Oh. Why didn’t you say so, immediately?!” went the woman.

Again I can vouch that this is a real story. And so is the one about the woman who was diagnosed with a cardiac murmur, and told the nurse that they had found a ‘mermaid’ in her heart. Or the fact that hundreds of women - teenagers and twenty-somethings - do not know how to say period. They say ‘imperial’(!).

And this is very worrisome. If you don’t know the proper name of something that you get every month of your life, it means that you just repeat the sounds you hear parrot-like; and you don’t bother to improve when corrected; and you are illiterate.

It is simply unacceptable for the new generations to be unable to read basic English. There is simply no excuse for it. My own grandmother, now in her 80s never learnt English at school. She just painstakingly took up reading and kept at it and least week even won the bookworm of the year at our local library.

I’m not claiming to be a clever clogs but, if people do not read how can they actually think? I suddenly have this nagging fear that our society is made up, mostly, of people who do not think. Yet they have a vote. And they get to decide on very important things such as referenda issues. I shudder to think how they can decide on concepts that can’t even be grasped.

Perhaps it’s time we stopped laughing at ignorance and started taking serious action, by for example, insisting on stricter rules at the Department of Public Registry: ‘Cleavage’ is one name that should have been categorically rejected.

Published in The Sunday Times of Malta, April 11, 2010.