Alex Grech's blog

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Man and Boy

This piece was published in M Magazine last Sunday, on 26th June 2005, accompanied by a picture I had taken of me and Jacob (linked to this blog).

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.

From ‘This Be the Verse’ by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

I became a father because of 9/11, and a conviction that a man’s sperm count ebbed after the age of 40.

Until 2001, kids never featured on my life agenda. Most of my friends did not have them. Those who did belonged to a club of red eyes who worried about schooling, discipline, child-friendly restaurants – and always left a party early. And I had read the famous Philip Larkin piece early on in life, ending seminally: “… and don’t have kids yourself.”

When 9/11 happened, something deep inside my belief system changed.

And I kept on thinking…. 'If something like that happened to me…. Who would I call?'

I could count the number of people on one hand.

I was convinced that the world as I knew it was coming to an end.

By the end of September 2001, I was in a rush to leave my biological paw print on the planet. I really wanted to have a child.

With hindsight, in the general Richter scale of emotions, this was a totally illogical, selfish way of dealing with an existential crisis. But I talked my wife into believing that there was no harm in ‘trying’ as the chances of ‘success’ were remote. We were both middle-aged, stressed out and probably past our sell-by date.

In typical fashion, six weeks later, my wife announced she was pregnant and I hit the return key on my keyboard in the middle of a Word document. That moment started the rollercoaster I will ride till I die.

The reality of something ‘big’ about to happen clicked with the second scan, when I was pointed to a cursor on the monitor and told ‘That’s the baby’s heart.’ That is how I fell in love with Jacob, as a cursor on a screen. He got his name from Dylan’s son, his fair hair from his mother, and he arrived on 13th August 2002 in the middle of a sultry night. And for the first time in my life, I cried tears of joy and could not stop.

Fatherhood is the scariest, funniest, most primitive and perhaps the only meaningful experience of my 43 years of life. Someone once told me that when you become a father, it’s as if someone switches the light on, and you go into another room of your life.

I make no claim to being a good father. For the first six months of Jacob’s life, I struggled with the lack of sleep, and sometimes chickened out to crash out in the spare room. It took me ages to find the nerve to give the child a bath on my own. I had never changed a light bulb, let alone a nappy – so, initially, there were mishaps. I could not get the buggy to unfold out of the car boot. I scoured parenting websites and constantly hit low scores for ‘New Dad’ and ‘Emotional Crutch’. The scariest book by far is Gina Ford’s ‘The Contented Little Baby Book’, which drills a merciless regime for both child and parents to follow, 24/7. I tried to adjust to a new vernacular: bottle-sterilising, nappy-changing, teething, burping, colic. Sometimes I found myself peripheral.

But I muddled through it. I realised that the little guy was actually sturdier than I thought. And his desire for independence was clear from day one. I wanted to spend more time with him not because of some macho ‘pride in my next of kin’, but because it was a privilege to be close to a beautiful creature that was totally innocent, in a hurry to learn and see the world with totally new eyes.

Like millions of men before me, I cheered the first word, step and nursery rhyme, sweated my way through the first bout of ‘flu, drove on two wheels so he could have his first butterfly stitches.

Things change

I've lost my living room floor space to a mountain of train sets, play dough, flash cards and colouring books. You sit on a sofa cushion at your own risk. My CD collection sits nervously, waiting for the next crash.

Smudge the cat regularly retreats to the chair in the garden.

I cannot remember the last time I overslept. Nothing beats ‘Daddy, are you awake?’ for a thunderbolt 6.30 am wake up call.

I worry

He shows no interest in AC Milan.

His favourite word is ‘Why?’

He has watched Thomas the Tank Engine 127 times.

He insists on trying to teach English to Pickles, his teddy bear. He has got as far as ‘P’ is for ‘Pickles’.

His love of trucks and diggers is inversely proportional to my dislike for the permanent building site of this island.

He makes me laugh

Potty training took a different turn the morning he confided in me that ‘Mummy's willy had fallen off’.

My first attempt at sex education, during one of our walks, hit a wall.

‘Jacob, you were once in Mummy’s belly,’ I announced, thinking of Jonah and the whale.

‘How did I come out?’ came the quick-fire question

‘With a big push,’ I replied, latching on to a moment of inspiration.

Two days later:

‘Daddy, how did I get into mummy’s belly?’

I thought of telling him ‘with an even bigger push’… but changed the subject.

I wonder if I’ve changed

I am learning how to share. One iPod headphone for each of us. But I still get to choose the music.

His life is more important than mine. He is the only person I love unconditionally.

I refuse to judge those who choose not to have children. I was one of them. Parenthood is a personal choice. I am allergic to the starry-eyed, Mother Earth approach to raising a child.

This much I know

I cannot be his role model. I just hope he will remember me kindly.

And before that happens, I would like us both to walk down to Greenwich in Manhattan and hit the 55 Bar at 10pm, just as the jazz kicks in.

Because part of him belongs there, with me, in the city that never sleeps, in the metropolis of ash, bone and re-birth.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams

From ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Why boys will be boys

Max is off to Gozo, to get away from the Siggiewi Festa and try and find some head space. In the absence of anything worthy of note, here is a piece that Max wrote a couple of months ago for a magazine edited by his brother.

“The gender gap isn't just cultural brainwashing. Men and women have different hardwired psychologies, so it's normal for them to want to do different things and to do the same things in different ways”.

Prof. Nigel Nicholson, London Business School

Last week, I had one of my regular panic attacks about my two and a half year-old son being an only child and destined to a lifetime of boredom with ageing, neurotic adults at home. Lost in conversation as we paid homage to our Saturday croissant, I informed Jacob that his cousin Scarlett, aged six months, would soon be old enough to play with.

Jacob frowned, and then said ‘Will she become a boy?’

My first life memory, aged three, on my sister’s arrival, was one of sheer terror. When my mother introduced me to my ‘new beautiful baby sister’ at the back of our white Fiat 600, I kept on thinking: Why did it have to be a girl?

My friend’s son Oliver, aged 4, once famously pronounced: ‘I don’t like girls. They wear hair-bands.’

This is not a treatise about the gender gap, though there is plenty of available material to keep you happy, from the ghastly ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ to PhD dissertations.

This is simply an observation that, try as we like to bridge the sexual divide, we are still falling short in the 21st Century. Testimony to this is the feverish exchange of Internet jokes on the behavioural and cultural differences between the sexes. This week one email actually encouraged the recipient to be forwarded to ‘a few good men who need a laugh and to the select few women who can handle the truth’.

Here are some truths from this week’s selection:

Scientists have discovered a food that diminishes a woman's sex drive by 90%. It's called a Wedding Cake.

The statistic may be hard to prove but there can be no argument about the Cake.

Women have the ‘Oh dear, the toilet paper is on its last sheet: must replace it immediately’ gene. This is entirely absent in men who have the ‘Oh shit! Can you pass me a toilet roll, love?’ gene.

The toilet is the one place where all men, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds, find peace, repose and occasionally poetry and literature. Toilet-paper is always a coda, and is totally bereft of poetry.

Men drive to a party, women drive back.

On one New Year’s Eve, I was carried over a wobbly bridge by a woman-driver wearing a small black dress and heels. Women generally have a better sense of balance and style and no fear of heights

Women prefer 30 - 45 minutes of foreplay. Men prefer 30 - 45 seconds of foreplay. Men consider driving back to her place as part of the foreplay.

Men have always excelled at time-management.

Women have two weapons: cosmetics and tears.

The most power-crazy person I have ever come across is an overweight ‘professional’ woman who regularly burst into tears, powdered her nose in public and once left a meeting threatening to jump out of a balcony. She spent her spare time weaving an intricate web of plots and back-stabbing that led to further career-development.

Men have no opinions about curtains.

It’s all about priorities. The curtains can wait.

Men appreciate the importance of a 42 inch plasma screen. Women do not.

The plasma screen cannot wait. A plasma screen hides blemishes in Maltese plastering and comes with a large manual.

Women can use sex to get what they want. Men cannot, as sex is what they want.

Men always know what they want, even if they have no control over it.

Single-tasking men do one thing well at a time: e.g. drink a cup of coffee. In the same time a multi-tasking women can make breakfast, make the children's sandwiches, organise the window cleaner, phone the office, dress the children, write a shopping list, iron a shirt and de-flea the cat. Women have not yet realised this is an evolutionary disadvantage.

In the end, it all seems to boil down to evolution and multi-tasking. Scientists decoding the human genome have recently discovered that just 78 genes separate men from women. There is a whole world of mystery nesting in those genes.

Our physical differences extend to our brains. Women have four times as many brain cells (neurons) connecting the right and left side of their brain. Men rely easily and more heavily on their left brain to solve one problem one step at a time. Women have more efficient access to both sides of their brain and therefore greater use of their right brain.

What this translates into is that no amount of logic and social development can quite enable us to get away from the stereotype of our differences. And that when the old stereotypes do rear their head, we go back to our respective caves, sheds, garages, kitchens or wherever it is we go to and live our parallel lives.

Take football. I tried to explain to my wife, who found me lying prostrate on the floor one Sunday afternoon, that Inzaghi had just hit the post on his comeback match and I was not feeling well and that my heart palpitations meant that middle-age had finally crept into my cardio-vascular system and that my child would soon become fatherless. “Why don’t you just stop watching football?” she said. “Or just support another team?”

How do you explain to a woman that the love for your team is an indelible tattoo, that it is the only common bond between male members of a family, that marriages have been wrecked because one partner could not understand the sheer brotherhood of shouting, burping, swearing, head-banging, flinging of objects at inanimate TV’s… that football allows you not to grow up.

We are destined to live a life of contradictions.

We are obsessed with what makes us different, yet we cannot do without each other.

But the world would be infinitely less interesting if we were all the same.

I leave the final word to my 75 year-old father-in-law, a former pilot and keen blogger, on reaching the milestone of his golden wedding anniversary:

“The secret to a successful marriage is that one of the partners should spend considerable periods of time away from home; and the other partner should ideally be slightly deaf”.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Summer is here but Max is elsewhere. It is not a happy place.

For seven weeks, Max worked on a project with a deadline at a client's office, in what was the equivalent of a bunker. By the last two weeks, Max was working an average of 16 hours a day. In the last three days of the project, he slept a total of six hours. The project paid well, but at the end of it, Max went back home, with an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach.

The feeling refused to go away. This afternoon, the doctor humm'd and umm'd and prescribed some expensive medication 'to prevent the situation developing into a stomach ulcer.'

To survive, Max has been using Flickr ( as a therapy vehicle. An outlet for creativity. A means of connecting with likeminded people. And out of it hatched the beginning of a collaboration project, between Max the writer and a photographer.

Over the last week, the project blew up. And Max realised that in the world of the Internet, not everything is what it seems. And in the process, a friendship was burnt and Max dug in and went to wherever men go to, to lick their wounds.

He is still there.