Dear Dave

Tuesday 31 July 2007

Herding housedads

Dear Dave,

I've obviously been thinking too hard about inventing new collective nouns - the boys started doing it the other day without any prompting.

They were having an argument about exactly how many cows were necessary to constitute a herd. Lewis thought any number greater than one would do. Fraser was pretty sure that more than that was required. He settled on five. They got into the kind of legalistic argument that only small children, EU regulators and medieval theologians can really get worked up over. It went on for some time. I mean, how many cows do you need for a herd? Is it the same as the number of sheep required for a flock? Maybe, but almost certainly fewer than the number of fish you need for a school. Probably more than the number of lawyers you need for an excess, though...

Eventually Fraser got distracted by a tangential thought that glittered brightly in his brain. He followed it. "Can you have a herd of anything else?" he asked. "How about chickens?"

"Er, I think that might be a flock," I said but I wasn't entirely sure. In fact, I was pretty sure that was wrong. Was it a brood? A gaggle? A peck? A Kentucky fry?

I decided to answer his first question. "You can have a herd of elephants."

"What about monkeys?" said Lewis. "Can you have a herd of monkeys?"

"Er..." I said, images becoming crossed in my head, and a herd of giant, hairy gorilla things (with trunks) stampeding across my mental savanna.

Fraser answered before I had a chance. "A banana! It should be a banana of monkeys!"

Both boys found this highly amusing. There is something about monkeys that children (and many adults) find instantly funny. The combination of monkeys and bananas somehow just adds to the hilarity. Fraser and Lewis fell about laughing. (Luckily, they didn't think of an even more hilarious pairing. If anyone had mentioned a 'fart' of monkeys, for instance, the boys would probably have wet themselves).

I started to say that a banana of monkeys sounded a bit odd but I couldn't remember what the right word was and I stopped. Why not a banana of monkeys? It's as good as anything, and they might as well give it a go - language is the ultimate democracy, after all. Get enough people to use a word and it becomes part of the language overnight; leave a word alone for fifty years and it dies.

If the kids want to try making 'banana' a collective noun, that's up to them. Doubtless some teacher will persuade them otherwise at some point, but you never know. Personally, I have at least two attempts at dictionary change on the go at the moment. The first is to make the singular of dice to be 'dice' rather than 'die'. Why? I don't know. I'd just prefer it that way. The campaign seems to be going quite well, anyway.

The other small change to the English language I'm working on is the popularisation of the word 'housedad'. (You may want to join in this one). Since this is the fiftieth letter I've sent you, it seems somehow appropriate that I should explain why I call myself a housedad rather than any of the other options.

I've always thought 'househusband' is long winded and doesn't really describe what I do. I was a househusband back in those distant days before children. I studied, I wrote, I did the hoovering and, on occasion, I sat around playing computer games and ate biscuits.

That is another life. How could I ever have been so idle, working only eight hours a day?

Nope, househusband doesn't cut it. Nor does 'stay at home parent'. My kids don't yell, 'Parent!' at three in the morning when they want some attention. (Not yet, anyway). They yell, 'Daddy!' because they know that's what's most likely to get results. Of course, they could yell, 'Mummy!' but they'd still get Daddy. In fact, they could yell anything from, 'I want my cucumber!' to 'Cheese weasel!' to 'I've eaten my pillow!' and they'd still get Daddy (as they know from experience). Actually yelling, 'Daddy!' gives them a sense of victory as soon as I enter the room - their first demand has been met, surely it's only a matter of time before they manage to pester their way to the vegetable/cheddar rodent/emergency medical procedure of their choice.

Stay at home parent is no good - I have earned the title of 'dad'.

'Stay at home dad' doesn't really work either, however. I know what it's like to stay at home - before children, I was not just a househusband, I was a 'stay at home husband'. It could be several days until I was forced to leave the front door in search of bread or milk. At that time, my study (translation: cupboard with a computer) didn't even have a window. I would emerge blinking onto the street and wonder at the contrast levels and high definition visuals. If I'd been playing much Resident Evil, I would scan the pavement for zombies before proceeding. I really didn't get out much.

These days, with one child at parent and toddler, one at nursery and one at school, I barely see my home. I'm forever trotting up and down the road with some subset of children in tow. And that's before taking into account clubs and classes, shopping trips and visits to the swing park. Stay at home? You've got to be joking.

Of the few remaining options, I quite like 'homedad' - it's more general than 'housedad' and suggests a happy family sitting round the kitchen table. It's cosy and it makes good sense.

Still, I don't call myself a homedad.

The thing is, English isn't about making sense. Try reading through, though, cough and bough quickly and you'll know what I'm talking about. English is crazy. Most native speakers are used to the craziness, however, and don't notice. New words need to blend. For some reason, 'homedad' just doesn't (in my part of the UK, at least). It makes people do a double-take. 'You're a what?' I find 'housedad' simply works better. It sounds close enough to 'housewife' to slip past people's internal made-up-word-detector and it's two or three sentences down the line before the alarm bells start to ring inside their heads. It's too late by then, of course - I might be a nutter but they're already having a conversation with me. All they can do is open their eyes wide and back away slowly. (Top tip: Getting a small child to hug their leg makes it much harder for them to escape).

So 'housedad' it is. It's a word that describes what I do but doesn't sound too odd. It might just catch on...

That only leaves one further decision. What should be the collective noun for us? I suppose, if it really takes five of us together to justify the use of such a word, then we probably don't need one. Or maybe an 'unlikelihood' of housedads is the way to go? Some old-fashioned individuals might suggest an 'aberration'. Maybe it would even depend what kind of day we'd all had. Perhaps a 'fulfilment'? Or, if we've been tearing out our hair, a 'baldness'?

Let's face it, though, if someone discovered five of us together in a room one day, I know exactly what we'd be. We'd be a 'surprise'. The only possible way of avoiding that would be if we had our children with us. Then...

Then we'd be a 'pride'.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 27 July 2007

Useless Dad's friends

Dear Dave,

It could have gone worse.

It could have gone a whole lot better but it could have gone worse...

I should have known something was up when they all arrived wearing raincoats. The way this summer has been going, that wouldn't normally be odd but the sun was shining and the four of them were wrapped up like a quartet of Inspector Gadget clones. I was distracted by the chaos of all our children colliding in a maelstrom of tantrums, greetings and wittering, however. I didn't take much notice.

As I said in my last letter, I was meeting Steve (Useless Dad) and his friends at the soft-play. They pretty much all turned up at the same time. Todd was an earnest American about my age with scarily perfect teeth and hair. Darren was bright-eyed, fresh-faced and said, 'Yes!' a lot. Scott was a burly man in his mid-forties who gave the impression of being a rugby player. I quickly twigged that Scott was Steve's manager. This, of course, made him the boss of my wife's boss. Never good. I felt butterflies in my stomach - the kind of evil, misshapen butterflies that three-year-olds draw.

I picked Marie up and carried her around as a human shield.

We had about ten children between us, ranging in age from Scott's eldest daughter, who was around nine, down to Steve's youngest, Josquin, who's under a year. All the kids that could walk kicked off their shoes and charged into the enormous, multi-coloured hamster run. Steve handed me Josquin for a moment, as if to take off his coat, and then charged in after them. The other dads followed. I was left, quite literally, holding the baby.

I stared after them, not quite believing how easily I'd been duped. I hefted Josquin over my shoulder and set off to give Steve a piece of my mind. At that point, however, he and his friends actually took off their coats. I stopped. I blinked. I turned around and took Josquin back to the area for very small children. I walked slowly, whistling nonchalantly to myself. Facility attendants dressed in red t-shirts ran past me in the other direction. Behind me there were thuds and screams, interspersed with tinny, futuristic sound-effects. It was as if a couple of Space Invaders cabinets had turned up and started a fight.

Steve and friends were playing Laser Tag.

I knew they couldn't get away with it for long - lights flashed all over their plastic guns and body-armour, and the air was thick with trash-talk and zapping. I didn't want any council employees shouting at me, however, so I sat down and wished the ground would open up and swallow me. I promptly toppled over backwards into a ball swamp and disappeared from view.

I think if I hadn't had my arms sticking out holding a rather surprised-looking baby, I might have gone unnoticed. To be honest, I was as surprised as him. I lay there and held Josquin clear of the balls, his face an arm's length from my own, and we stared at each other. Somewhere above us and to one side, out of the corner of my eye, I could see four men being led away by guards in red t-shirts. One of the men was letting out long, low bloops and bleeps like you imagine Frogger would make as he limped forlornly into the path of a truck after you stood on him.

One of the guards stopped by the edge of the ball swamp and looked around while mumbling into a walkie-talkie. I made quiet shushing noises to Josquin. He grinned at me and giggled. I made the shushing noises more urgently. He grinned some more. I grinned back. We grinned at each other. He was quiet and I dared to breathe.

Then a glistening bead of dribble appeared on his lower lip.

My eyes widened. Josquin's mouth was directly above mine but the soft-play guard was still there and I didn't dare move. There was nothing I could do. The bead turned into a drop. It grew bigger. It began to bulge. The guard continued to loiter. The huge, quivering globule of saliva hung downwards, glistening in the light. Still the man would not go away. I tried to hold on for another few seconds. I tried not to think of the warm, sticky ooze that was precariously balanced only inches away from me. I tried to ignore the urge to leap up and run. I tried to think of a happy place. I tried... I...


The guy just about swallowed his walkie-talkie as I erupted, shrieking, in a shower of plastic balls right beside him.

Ho, well. At least I didn't get banned from the soft-play altogether like the others. I just got a verbal warning and three points on my leisure card. It did mean, however, that I was left to look after an entire riot of small children while Steve and friends sat in the cafe and drank coffees.

I'm not sure a 'riot' is entirely the correct term but I've decided this whole collective noun thing is merely a way for retired colonels and English teachers to feel superior. I've started inventing my own. Forget a murder of crows or a pod of whales, how about a slapstick of toddlers or a brood of teenagers? Or maybe an irritation of Tweenies or a prospective-freezerful of Teletubbies? I await your own suggestions... Thinking of such things kept me sane as the rest of the hour passed.

When time was up, I took the sweaty horde for chocolaty snacks and sat down for my own coffee.

"So what do you do?" asked Darren before I'd even caught my breath.

"Steve said you're one of Deborah's colleagues," said Todd.

"Like she does any work these days, sitting at home watching Neighbours," said Scott.

I didn't know where to start. Should I point out how much work being a stay at home parent entails? Should I mention Deborah's ambitions to return to her career? Would talking up both sound contradictory? Should I just tell them my own situation and brazen it out?

I wasn't sure and Steve was desperately trying to signal at me without the others noticing. He looked like the cool kid caught in close proximity to a geek, a thick rulebook, some character sheets and a large pile of twenty-sided dice.

Using my normal line of defense, I decided to make a joke of it. "I'm Executive Vice President of a domestic services partnership," I said and fished out of my pocket some of the business cards I keep for these occasions. "My portfolio includes surveillance, sanitation, education and catering."

"That sounds interesting," said Darren.

Todd nodded. "Do you have share options?"

"He means he's a househusband," said Scott, somewhat contemptuously of both me and them.

"Housedad," I corrected.

Todd looked puzzled. Darren let out a long, "Ohhhh!" and then continued with, "Does your wife earn a lot then?"

"No, not really," said Steve. "She's on..."

I coughed loudly. He looked guilty and shut up but I suspected he would tell them all later anyway.

"Still," said Darren, "must be cushy staying home while she goes out to work."

"What do you do all day?" said Todd.

"Wipe bottoms I expect," said Scott. "We can't sit around here finding out. We need to drop the little terrors home and continue the meeting back at the office."

I choked on my coffee. "You're counting this as work?"

Scott looked down at me. "Aren't you?" he said.

"I, well, erm..." I'd walked into a trap.

Steve didn't exactly back me up. "We got plenty of planning done while you were in there having fun," he said.


Are you sure you don't want to come up and give him a good talking to?

Actually... I know exactly who to get to do it. It'll take a week or three to organise but it might work.

Hmmm... )

Anyway, the four of them collected up their offspring and headed off to their impressive cars before I could think of anything much coherent to say. I was livid.

They did, however, invite me to go paintballing with them soon. I couldn't really say no. I did ask if I could bring some friends of my own, though. They weren't fussed. 'The more, the merrier,' apparently.

Of course, they may not be so sure about that once they've been hunted down and decorated by Scary Karen and her mates...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 25 July 2007

Maternity madness

Dear Dave,

How's Liz getting on at work now her maternity leave is fast approaching? Sarah had some pretty strange treatment at LBO as her own waist-line expanded. By the time there was three months to go, she wasn't being given any work to do on the basis of her 'imminent' departure. All the good stuff went to one of her male colleagues. He spent about six months doing two-thirds of the analysis badly and then got another job and handed in his notice. He had so much holiday and flexi-time accumulated, he was gone two days later. Sarah ended up redoing the entire project from scratch in three weeks when she got back. It was insane.

Her manager, Steve, really didn't appreciate how much the enhanced maternity benefits and their tie-in clauses enforced her loyalty to LBO. From the moment she was pregnant until the day she had been back at work for a year after maternity leave, it was financial foolishness for her to change job. Of course, by the time she had been back a year, Marie's teething ensured we were all too tired for Sarah to go looking for anything else then either. Her incompetent male colleague, however, had meanwhile changed jobs twice more, doubled his salary and come back to LBO in order to oversee a monumental disaster in another department. (Remember that weekend last year when half the ATMs died, a few started spitting out cash and one in Stoke kept challenging passersby to a game of tic-tac-toe while threatening intercontinental thermonuclear war? His references didn't look so good after that. He's now head of business development in Ulan Bator).

Anyway, it was really Steve I was meaning to write about. The conspiracy centering around him is not entirely progressing according to plan. His wife, Deborah, isn't really succeeding in making him a better manager; I'm not really succeeding in making him a better dad. We're both just trying to hold up our end of the bargain in whatever way we can.

I keep inviting him and his kids to the park and such-like so Deborah has some space to work on her interior design business but somehow I always end up doing nearly all the child-care while he has a conference call on his mobile or re-organises his schedule on his PDA in order to fit in an extra round of golf.

Deborah keeps trying to persuade him to run his department better but her suggestions aren't sinking in. He arranged a discussion on transparent decision-making but then changed the time and location and wouldn't say why. He sent out a memo encouraging openness in communication but only to half the department. He was sympathetic to the concept of treating those who worked for him as human beings but just couldn't create a suitable spreadsheet in order to facilitate the process.


The upshot is that, most of the time, Deborah simply tells Sarah when that extra round of golf is going to be. Sarah then knows when she can organise her team without interference. Anything which needs clearance is passed back to Deborah, who slips it to Steve and convinces him it's his own idea. Thus, when he suggests it to Sarah and it's already done, she looks scarily efficient rather than like a treacherous usurper.

Obviously, this isn't ideal. Basically, everyone is taking up the slack for him. In the short-term this is making all our lives easier but it's going to be hard to maintain. We really need him to get a clue and I've no idea how that's going to happen. I'm kind of hoping he'll suddenly have some revelation of his own uselessness and come begging to us all for forgiveness. Like St Paul on the road to Damascus, he will be blinded by the light and his foolishness will be swept away. In a single moment of realisation, all our problems will be gone.

More likely, one of us just needs to sit him down and tell him straight that he's an idiot. It should probably be Deborah but that's not really in her nature. He has too much power over Sarah for her to do it and I'm not good with conflict...

Any chance you could make it up here for the day? I'm sure we could arrange for the two of you to get trapped in a lift together or something...

Hmmm... Thought not.

You wouldn't get here in time to save me from Thursday anyway. That's when I'm going with him and his friends to the soft-play. I haven't dreaded anything so much since Scary Karen persuaded me to invigilate the sponsored breastfeed she and her mates held to raise money for Children in Need. (With hindsight, I guess I was naive to think she'd mentioned what we were up to when applying for tickets to the public gallery at the Scottish Parliament. It was almost worth it, though, just to see the astonished looks on the faces of the armed response team... Also, thanks to a bus load of tourists with cameras I'm apparently now a cult hero in Japan).

I'll let you know how it goes in my next letter.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Due to some technical difficulties, I'm going to be using pay-as-you-go dial-up for the next couple of weeks. This is somewhat akin to writing using an old-fashioned typewriter immersed in treacle, the keyboard of which is illuminated solely by the flames from a stack of burning money. Bear with me.

Friday 20 July 2007

Letting them win

Dear Dave,

So Sam went in a huff when he lost three times in a row at Snakes and Ladders? Then, when you fudged the result of the next game so he won, he pulled his t-shirt over his face and ran round the house waving his arms in the air and screaming about how wonderful he was?

Yep, that sounds familiar.

Teaching kids to be good winners and losers is a nightmare. You want them to be at least a little bit competitive so they've some chance of earning some money one day and moving out. But you don't want to overdo it, however, and have them to be too arrogant to live with while you're waiting. You want them to be successful and nice. This is the combination that leads to the best nursing home for you, after all.

How to achieve it, though?

I was faced with the problem most recently while having a kick-about in the park with the boys:

Everything started out fine. We found a thirty foot stretch of grass between two benches which we used as goals - a pitch big enough to get them running around but small enough to make sure I didn't have to. I stood in my goal and kept kicking it towards theirs. They kept running after it and bringing it back. It was all good fun, even if they didn't entirely have the idea.

Playing football with them reminds me of being an exchange student in the States when I was a teenager. I have a memory of playing 'soccer' in PE class one day and watching almost everyone else on the pitch (including at least one goal-keeper) form a mob around the ball. Every so often someone in the middle of the scrum would actually manage to find the ball and kick it a few feet. The writhing mass of flailing limbs would then duly shuffle in the same direction. Eventually the ball emerged and one of my team-mates had the sense to boot it up the field to me. I strolled over to the goal and scored. The whistle blew. The mob stopped flailing and looked around in a bewildered fashion. Then we started over from the beginning.

This happened surprisingly often. There were three Europeans in that class and I'm not saying we could have taken on the rest single-handed but whichever team had two of us in was almost certain to win. One of us would go after the ball and pass it to the other one who was standing somewhere else. For some reason, this glaringly obvious passing tactic seemed to be beyond our American friends. Trying to be more than a few feet from the ball felt unnatural to them. (Every other sport we did that year, we played every day for a fortnight. After three days of soccer, however, our teacher gave up in despair. We went bowling after that. I wonder if the same thing will happen to David Beckham...)

Anyway, the boys run after the ball wherever it goes and so it's easy for me to both (a) get it off them in order to score and (b) tire them out by booting it into the distance and watching them scamper after it. At the point they listen to me and take in that they can run in different directions and pass to each other, then I'm stuffed. In the meantime, I have almost total control over the outcome of a match. I can always organise a competitive draw. Everyone has fun, no one gets big-headed because they won and no one gets annoyed because they lost. Of course, this is a cop-out because life seldom really ends in a competitive draw but, if I've got the kids out playing football, my main aim is exercise rather than life-lessons in winning and losing.

This time, however, Fraser scuppered me. "First one to three, wins!" he shouted.

There wasn't an option for a draw and the number of goals required was too low to drag the match out until it was time to go inside without a winner. Either the boys had to win, or I did. Realistically, the result was up to me.

What do you do in these situations? How often is it reasonable to let children win? How much is it possible to beat them by without totally discouraging them and making them give up?

We almost certainly got it wrong when Fraser was young. He got praise for everything. When he was learning to walk, it even got to the stage that if he managed to stand up by himself he'd look around and wait for somebody to clap. If no one did, he'd clap himself. Then he'd clap himself for clapping. These days, his friends at school can be doing cart-wheels but he wants attention if he manages to stand on one foot for five seconds without falling over. He's also reluctant to try things he thinks might be difficult because he's worried he might fail and thus not get his fix of adulation. He hates to lose.

Sarah found this article about the problem a while back: How not to talk to your kids.

It's quite long but makes a strong case for praising effort over achievement. Basically, if you praise a kid for doing well then they'll cope badly with failure. Praise a kid for trying hard and they'll continue to try hard and are more likely to try things that they know they might fail.

So it's OK to reward just turning up and trying, as long as you make it clear that's what you're doing. The thing to avoid is praising mediocre achievement in order to 'encourage self-worth'. Self-worth doesn't come from knowing we can always win - it's what keeps us going when we lose. It's what allows us to persevere and take risks. Trying something, failing and trying again is actually more valuable than succeeding spectacularly at something which comes naturally.

We've started praising the kids for trying things rather than succeeding at them. It doesn't always work - often we end up praising them for trying and succeeding. We are, however, trying to persuade them that practice is important and that being good at things takes effort. We're trying to make sure they know that we love them whatever happens and that failing doesn't make them 'failures'.

So how did the football match end? Well, old habits die hard - I praised their effort but I let them win three goals to two. If I hadn't, they'd have just insisted on making it the first to four or five or twenty-seven, anyway. I was hot and tired by then, and I just wanted to go lie down.

It's hard work being a housedad.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 18 July 2007

The bread bin strikes back!

Dear Dave,

Happy PlayStation 3 price cut in the UK day!

Well, sort of...

You were thinking about whether to buy a next-generation console and I'm not sure the choice has got any easier. What are Sony doing? That exec has been at it again. I can only imagine the meeting went like this:

(Two men sit in a large, spacious office. The Sony Exec sits at his desk, frowning at some papers. A member of the marketing team sits opposite, squirming).

Sony Europe Exec: I don't like the look of these sales figures. We need to stir things up a bit. How about we knock the price down to £350.

Sony Marketing Bod: We can't knock seventy-five quid off the price just three months after launch. That sends all the wrong kinds of signals - like we have enormous warehouses full of stock that no one wants to buy.

Exec (looking shifty): Yes... I mean, no... I mean... Er, no we couldn't possibly have them thinking that... But we do need to sell a few more units.

Bod: True, but the videogame industry is driven by confidence. No one wants to buy a console that's failing. They want to back the winner to ensure a continuing supply of good games and thus protect their investment. They buy the console they think everyone else is buying. A price cut boosts sales in the short-term but may only bring in customers who were going to buy one anyway and were waiting for the cut. Others may just be made more nervous. They may wait longer to see who's going to win the console war.

Exec: We are going to win it, obviously.

Bod: Yes, I know - it's my job to say that.

Exec: Then why aren't you saying it?

Bod: Because this is a strategy meeting and we need to separate fact from propaganda. (Sighs). Besides, you're never going to buy one anyway, are you?

Exec: Of course not. I haven't tried one yet where the thing actually makes toast properly. (He motions over to a corner of the room where a number of dead PS3s are heaped. Some of them have slices of bread poking out of the disc-drive. One appears to be leaking the remains of a Pop-Tart). Let's keep that secret, though. Don't want to put off any consumers, do we?

Bod: Not a problem, I for one certainly haven't been talking-up the PS3's ability to warm bread products. (Notices two PS3s being used as bookends on a shelf). We do, however, need to figure out a way to sell more of them. Some way that doesn't involve an early, desperate price cut.

Sony Exec: Well we won't actually cut the price - we'll bundle lots of extra stuff with it. How about another controller and a couple of games?

Bod: So people think they're getting better value for money.

Exec: Exactly. We can claim it's a large price saving while keeping the price the same.

Bod: That might work. People like to think they're getting a bargain. It'll still cost £425 but with £115 off extra content. I can sell that.

Exec: And when we sell the console on its own in November for £350 we can claim we're so confident of success that we're actually putting the price up.

Bod (holding head against the pain): Because... the box will be £75 cheaper but contain £115 less stuff?

Exec: People will buy it because it's cheaper but be confident that demand is high because it's become more expensive. They'll rush into the shops just to make sure they get there before we slash prices even more.

Bod (Shifts himself uncomfortably in his seat. Realises it is made of PS3s): Maybe a simple price cut is the way forward after all. It's what Sony America have done.

Exec (going over to a drinks cabinet): They've reduced the model with the 60Gb hard-drive by a hundred dollars and introduced the 80Gb model at the old price. I've had a word with them, though, and they're going to discontinue the old model as soon as they've sold all the ones they already have.

Bod: That may take a while.

Exec: It's possible. (He opens the cabinet. There is a bottle of whisky inside, a handful of glasses and a rip in the fabric of space and time. Through the tear can be seen a mountainside on which stands a monumental stack of PS3s. At the base of the monolith two apes are fighting. They are whacking each other over the head with consoles). Drink?

Bod (in shock): No thanks.

Exec (closing the cabinet and returning to his seat): Technically, it's not a price cut, it's a specification upgrade coupled to a stock clearance.

Bod: I... I... I'll go see about bundling those games and that extra controller. (He hurries away).

Exec (calling after him): Good lad. Let me know how it goes. (He opens a drawer of his desk. Inside is a PS3. Molten cheese is oozing out of it from every port and socket). Damn, there goes another one.

I'm still not buying one and you might be worth holding onto your old PS2 for a while yet - things aren't going much better for the competition, either:

Bill Gates contemplated buying Norway to hide all the faulty Xbox 360s that have been returned displaying the three red lights of death. It turned out in the end to be (fractionally) cheaper to admit the problem and extend the manufacturer's warranty in those cases to three years.

Nintendo have sold so many Wiis that their president, Satoru Iwata, is now too busy counting cash to actually authorise the production of any new games worth playing. They're drafting him some help but it's going to take them a while to clear the backlog. (And that's before Pokemon Diamond and Pearl go on sale in Europe).

This console war is still wide open. The PS3 is good value if you have an HDTV and want an HD movie player. The Xbox 360 is cheaper to start with but you have to pay extra for HD movie playback, wi-fi and online gaming (a lot extra). The 360 has a much wider choice of games at the moment, though. The Wii has a handful of fun games but nothing to really keep you playing for long. The graphics aren't much better than a GameCube either.

My advice - buy a second-hand Xbox or GameCube and hoover up some dirt cheap pre-owned bargains from your local GAME or Gamestation. That should keep you busy long enough for the future to become a bit clearer (and less expensive).

Happy gaming!

Yours in a woman's world,


Saturday 14 July 2007

Ninja biohazard in St Andrews

Dear Dave,

You're right - you should go on holiday now. You've got one child who is almost three and another due in a couple of months. IT WILL BE YEARS before you have this much freedom to travel again. Sam can eat normal food, doesn't need nappies and can be reasonably expected to sit still and quiet for a couple of hours. In eight weeks time you'll need to take twice as much stuff with you on a trip to the zoo than you would traveling to Italy tomorrow. It will also be four times as much stress.


Right now.

What are you still doing here?

Well, seeing as you've continued reading, I'll tell you a little more about our trip to St Andrews. (Thanks for asking by the way).

St Andrews is a strange place really (even now that Prince William fever is past). It's a small seaside town of around 18,000 but, unlike most small seaside towns, a third of the population is students. Unexpectedly, however, the town actually gets busier over the summer when most of the students have gone away. Tourists and golfers take over. When the Open is on, hundreds of thousands turn up. It's crazy. It does mean, though, that the place is geared up for visitors.

St Andrews even has plenty of activities for children. Compared with Tobermory it's Disneyland. There's an aquarium, the castle, the cathedral, a small cinema, a theatre, tennis, putting, a couple of decent beaches, a swimming pool and at least a dozen charity shops in which to hunt down bargains. Craigtoun Country Park is on the outskirts of town. It's run by the council and so is cheap and cheerful but in nice weather it's a great day out. For a £12 family ticket we all got unlimited access to a boating lake, miniature railway, adventure playground, trampolines, bouncy castle, crazy golf and a swanky new swing-park. There's also bowls, gardens to explore and plenty of room to run around.

As with everywhere else this summer, it rained a fair amount while we were in St Andrews but in some ways that just gave us a good excuse to lie around in our self-catering accommodation and not do very much. We still managed to get to all the places we wanted to but Fraser and Lewis also had ample opportunity to collect dozens of shines in Super Mario Sunshine. (Yes, we took a console with us. I even had to buy an extra wire to hook the thing up to the hand-me-down-from-the-Flintstones telly but it was soooo worth it - the boys were able to entertain themselves first thing in the morning).

That reminds me of something which happened not long after we arrived. I was getting some food in Tesco and was slightly freaked by the odd look the checkout assistant was giving me. It was only after I left, however, that I realised that when my mobile had rung as I was unloading my shopping, my side of the resulting dialogue had been somewhat unfortunate:

"Hello?... Who's going to get it?... Well, we only brought one nunchuck with us... I'm at the checkout just now. I'll call you back when I'm done."

I was probably lucky SWAT didn't turn up. Not that St Andrews has a SWAT team but there must be something in the back of that police van that drives round town on a Saturday night (besides drunk teenagers, obviously). I certainly don't want to find out. It could be anything. Maybe the A-Team have found a quiet place to hide-out in their twilight years. They could be drinking cocoa in the back of that van, ready to leap out at the first sign of trouble and construct weapons from whatever comes to hand. This being St Andrews, the things which most easily come to hand are golf clubs, pensioners and upper-class arts students. The consequences don't bear thinking about.

Of course, I wasn't actually planning a ninja-style contract killing at the supermarket. Sarah was just phoning to see whether she should follow the kids' suggestion and purchase Mario Party 8. But I can see now where some confusion might have arisen. Mentioning the Wii in the conversation might have made things clearer but, you know, maybe not. There's always the possibility of an unfortunate misunderstanding involving bodily fluids ("Yeah, we've got the wee but we've only brought one nunchuck.") or a bizarre one suggestive of martial arts gnomes ("We've only got one wee nunchuck with us.") Just wait until next year when the gun peripheral will have come out.

The rest of the holiday went more smoothly. We went swimming, we pottered on the beach and we even managed a dry day at Craigtoun. It was just pleasant to get away from the stress at home.

Marie had a little embarrassment one evening, however.

Sarah took the boys out to see an excellent production of George's Marvellous Medicine at the Byre Theatre. I was left with the girl. She wandered off into the bedroom while I was working on my nunchuck skills. She chattered away to herself and seemed happy. Then, suddenly, she sounded distressed, as if she'd wrestled a duvet and lost or a pillowcase had eaten one of her cuddly toys. A few seconds later, she emerged from the bedroom with her trousers round her knees. Her pants were flying slightly low and she was trying desperately to yank them up.

This got my attention.

She didn't appear to be leaving a slimy trail behind her but I was instantly prepared for at least a Level 7 biohazard and I feared a Level 9 or 10. In case you didn't get the memo, here's the current international scale for biohazard alert levels:
  1. Underpants wet but not wet enough to bother changing them.

  2. Underpants wet enough to consider changing them if parent responsible is feeling charitable.

  3. Underpants undeniably wet. Trousers may also require changing.

  4. Trousers sodden. Moisture check required in all recent locations of offspring.

  5. Shoes need drained. Some fumigation required.

  6. Underpants contaminated with poo. Clothes may need soaked.

  7. Underpants filled with poo. Clothes may need flushed in toilet.

  8. Underpants filled with vast amounts of evil poo. Offspring may need flushed in toilet.

  9. Containment breach from underpants. Hope you bought more carpet shampoo.

  10. Underpants missing. (In some ways you'll want to find them; in other ways you won't).
I got Marie to stop where she was and went over to investigate, my eyes scanning the floor, walls and ceiling for any signs of noxious fluids. Then I noticed she was clinking. Not only that, but the sound was coming from her underpants. This is not normal. She looked at me mournfully. I said some soothing words and advanced cautiously. Kneeling down to cuddle her, I gingerly pulled back the elastic and peered down the back of her trousers with trepidation, unsure for once of what I might find. I wasn't really expecting seventeen pence in small change.

No wonder she was upset. I'd be upset if someone put coppers in my underwear. And, yes, I'd probably be even more upset if I'd somehow managed to do it myself and I had to get my dad to help me retrieve them while he stifled laughter... (One to tell her first boyfriend).

Hope you manage to get away and find a chance to relax. Not long to go now...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS That Guardian article is now in what appears to be Polish!

Wednesday 11 July 2007

And they crawled upon the earth...

Dear Dave,

OK, now it's getting Biblical...

The flood from next door has been followed by a plague of insects. What's next? Hail? No, hang on, we had hail in June. Must be frogs. Any moment now a colony of frogs is going to leap out of a toilet and croak at me. If I'm really unlucky, Paul McCartney will be with them. Actually, forget the frogs, a plague of ageing popstars would be worse - they'd land their private jets in the garden and then moan constantly about climate change. I can't be bothered with that. Bring on the locusts!

Let me explain:

The holiday didn't go entirely as planned. The grandparents had a last-minute realisation of what looking after three grandchildren might entail, so things have been postponed until they've made a few more preparations, such as hiding valuables, nailing down furniture and covering their entire house with plastic sheeting. They're even trying to get in shape with a little aerobics. The mother-in-law has threatened to send me photos if I pass any comment whatsoever.

I'm saying nothing.

Anyway, Sarah and I decided to take the kids to St Andrews for a week instead. This, of course, wasn't as restful as having the house to ourselves but it did get us away from the giant airblowers drying out our walls. If you want to appreciate how pleasant this was, switch your TV to a station which is only showing static, turn the volume up and then go about your daily life. For the full effect, mix a bowl of Pollyfilla and go and sniff it occasionally. A few hours later, turn off the TV and marvel at the silence - that's what the holiday was like.

Unfortunately, upon returning, we discovered that the damp had bred some ants. When we've had ants in before it's been at the level of a score of them making a nuisance of themselves near the back door. This was hundreds. They were coming up through the floor underneath the kitchen cupboards and under the stairs. The neighbours had looked in and gone postal with some insect spray which had contained the problem but the floor was crunchy with the victims. I set to work hoovering up but then discovered a stretch of wet wall in the coat cupboard where a two inch high strip just above the skirting board was black and wriggling. The neighbours kindly gave me their spare bottle of chemical death. I went into battle.

Some of the ants got squished, most got sprayed, one or two got hoovered alive. I wiped out all I could and then squirted a poisonous barrier around the source of the infestation. I was tempted to pour boiling water under the floorboards because, hey, what the heck! But I resisted. In the morning there were no ants to be seen. I felt safe behind my toxic Maginot Line.

As the day drew on, there continued to be no more ants. It was peace in our time. I picked up the phone to let Sarah know. There was an ant on the phone.

This was not good.

I peered around nervously. There was always a chance that it was a lone soldier lost on the battlefield and that... The time was 13:32 precisely. The ants swarmed.

Dozens of ants suddenly charged out from under the cupboards, throwing themselves at the line, searching out a gap. Most died convulsing but a few broke through. Marie pointed to every single one and squealed delightedly, "It's an ant!" This kept her busy. The boys remembered an important computer game they had to play and sprinted for the door. I moved to start squishing.

Then the defenses fell apart. More ants appeared. These ones had wings. They flew over the line as unimpeded as tanks driving through Belgium.

It was war.

I removed Marie from the room and closed the door. I calmly pulled on my bright yellow rubber gloves, pushed my glasses firmly into place and carefully surveyed the swarm before me. Then I turned a giant airblower on the little blighters and cackled like a madman. They tumbled from the sky. My victory was only a matter of time.

Still, it was an impressive attack. I don't know if they were lurking under the floorboards planning their assault all morning or whether they'd merely slept in but I was thankful once again for my bottle of insect doom. After twenty minutes all the invaders were dead and no children had been carried off. This time, anyway... Who knows what they're planning for tomorrow? If I was Marie, I'd be trying to look big about now.

Then again, it might be some entirely different threat tomorrow. Just to be on the safe side, I think I'd better go check the toilets for frogs and Beatles...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS While I was looking up the proper collective noun for frogs (How sad am I?), I discovered an entertaining website to scroll through while ignoring the children. It's called Fun with Words. (Again, how sad am I?) Try this for a palindrome: 'No sir -- away! A papaya war is on.'

Monday 2 July 2007

Normal service will be resumed shortly...

Dear Dave,

Good news! Sarah's back, I've fixed the bath, the stomach bug has helped me lose 3kg and the in-laws have volunteered to look after their grandchildren for a few days! (Fools).

Yes, I have almost a week without children. Time to get all those jobs done around the house I've been meaning to do for five years or so. You know, like cleaning the fridge. Think of all I could achieve - landscape the garden, finish writing that novel, get my PC to work properly, redecorate the bedrooms, create my own range of housedad-themed toys (Stay-at-Home Steve, anyone?), dig my own cellar, invent bouncy cheese, do my tax return early - the possibilities are endless.

Ach, who am I kidding? I've already moved the armchair into the centre of the lounge, fired-up the gadgets and shoved all the toys out of sight.

Well, almost all the toys:

A toy cooker laden with remotes, beer, crisps, controllers and DVDs.

I'm going to lie around in my pyjamas, watching DVDs, playing games and growing a beard. Don't expect to hear from me until the middle of next week.

Hope you're doing OK and you get a chance for a break over the summer as well. Regards to Liz, Sam and bump.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Exactly how waterproof is duct tape, anyway?