Dear Dave

Friday 31 August 2007

Blunt, farce and trauma

Dear Dave,

My timing is as impeccable as ever.

As you'll recall, I am under obligation to encourage Sarah's manager, Steve, to be a more involved dad and it hasn't been going that well. He's too caught up in work and impressing his manager to really get the message. I think it's got to the point where I'm just not blunt enough for the task. Sure, I can nurture his parenting skills and bring him closer to his inner housedad, but he's going to have to want these things first. He needs to stop seeing his kids as an infestation of little people that his wife is dealing with. He needs a revelation.

Engineering those is notoriously difficult.

I considered various options from subliminal messaging on his iPod to fake memos from senior management. I even devised an overly-complicated plan involving a papier-mache angel, a searchlight and a burning PDA. These all seemed underhand, however (and too much like effort, to be honest). That said, I was tempted by the idea of giving him a near-death experience. Very tempted.

In the end, I decided my best bet was inviting Steve to one of the games nights at my house so he could meet my friend Mike. Mike is good at being blunt.

Unfortunately, I organised the get-together for last night. The big meeting at LBO where they're going to announce the redundancies is today. Obviously, I was somewhat tense about Sarah's job situation and when Rob turned up he was in a similar state over his own.

"You OK?" I said, showing him in and leading him up to the lounge.

"Nervous about tomorrow."

"What's the worst that can happen?"

"They fire me, I never work again, Kate dumps me, I have to live in a wheelie-bin and the Child Support Agency hunts me down with a pack of rabid dogs."

"You've been sitting in your cubicle thinking about that all week, haven't you?"

"Yep, it's not like they've given me any work to do. I've be... Aghh!" We were going upstairs and he gave a little shriek as a mouse nearly landed on his head, did a triple backflip with reverse twist and landed running in the hall. I pulled out some numerical fridge magnets from my back pocket and held up a 9.6. "What the...?"

I shrugged. "We have mice. I think they're practising for some kind of Festival performance. Just keep your shoes on and don't accept if anyone offers you any toast."

He nodded but looked even more nervous than he had before.

"Anyway," I said. "I thought you were trying to look busy completing a project that's already been cancelled."

"They out-sourced it to India."


"It's kind of like a trial run. They're testing communications and structures while making sure these guys can actually code. Time's cheaper over there, so LBO can waste more of it for less money."

"Yep, you're screwed," I said as we entered the lounge and I handed him a beer. "If it's any consolation, I'll look after your HD telly and PS3 to free up some space in that wheelie-bin."

"Not funny. How are Sarah's prospects?"

"The last time I saw her Head of Division, he was bright orange and swearing revenge."

"He can't hold losing at paintball against Sarah. She wasn't even playing."

"Scary Karen tied him to a tree and used a roller. He may not be entirely reasonable about things."

Rob grinned. "I'll find a really big wheelie-bin and you can share it with me."


The doorbell rang. I left Rob setting up the Wii and hurried back downstairs. It was Steve.

The situation was somewhat awkward. Being head of Sarah's department, he knew whether she was going to be made redundant. Sarah had gone to her sister's for the evening to avoid him. I wittered as I took his coat and ushered him up to the lounge. I knew that he knew. He wasn't as abrupt as he usually is, which meant that he knew that I knew that he knew. Then he saw my quizzical expression, his face twitched and I knew that he knew that I knew that he knew that I knew that he knew. And my eyebrows must have raised because it looked like he knew that I...

"So is Sarah getting the sack, then?" asked Rob, as soon as we entered the room.

This refreshingly direct approach almost worked. "Ah, well, all the details are going to be announced tomorrow but I..." Then he recognised Rob. "You work in IT, don't you? You were one of the people that re-did the data analysis thingies last year. Bob, isn't it?"

"That's me," said Rob. "Are all the, er, thingies going OK?"

"Oh, yes. There are a couple of guys I know at a major insurance firm who are very jealous of the inverse customer retainment index calculator. The analysts still seem very pleased as well. It took them no time at all to get to grips with all the new bits and pieces. They just got on with the job as normal."

"Oh," I said, knowingly. "I'd forgotten you did that project for Steve."

Rob looked shifty. "Yeah. I had no end of problems, remember? I don't want to talk about it."

I nodded. Steve had read in a magazine about some 'amazing' software that had all kinds of functionality that sounded useful and had put in a request for extra options to be coded into the LBO marketing analysis tools. There were plenty of meetings but none of the people who actually used the tools wanted the new stuff. Sarah told Rob on the sly to just change the colour scheme and move some of the menus around. It was enough to convince Steve that Rob had done a years work in an afternoon and had the added bonus of not breaking any of the code in the process.

The doorbell rang again and I hurried to answer it. Steve was busy asking Rob if he still mentioned Star Wars at inappropriate times as I left the room.

"Steve here?" said Mike as I let him in. I'd already primed him with most of the details of my situation.


"Good." He headed up the stairs. A mouse flew past his ear and he blatted it out of the air with the back of his hand as it was performing a complicated figure-of-eight spin. It careened off the wall, hit the coat hooks and slid down into Rob's jacket pocket.

"You killed Boris!" I said in the middle of pulling out some numbers.

"He might just be stunned," said Mike. "If you want to take a look."

I thought about it. "Nah..." I said, shaking my head, and we continued to the lounge.

I did the introductions. "What do you do?" Steve asked Mike, clearly excited by the chance to network.

"You'd be surprised," said Mike. "It's usually a mixture of public speaking, management, social work, counselling and teaching."

"Really? Who do you work for?"

"Jesus," said Mike, offering Steve a beer.

"Oh." Steve looked at me and Rob to confirm that Mike wasn't having him on. Then he realised that he was trapped in a room with a computer geek, a housedad and a minister of religion. He took a couple of involuntary steps backwards.

I decided to make him feel at home. "Golf?" I said and handed him a wiimote. He looked at me like I was on drugs.

"I'll show him how to do it," said Mike, grabbing the controller.

"Make sure you've got the strap on tight," I said anxiously. "I've rearranged the room so you shouldn't be able to hit anything, but short, sharp movements are just as good as..." I was forced to duck as he took an enormous back swing and then dive out the way as he clubbed his virtual ball halfway to Mars. "...lethal arm-waving..." I muttered.

Steve was entranced, however. The prospect of being able to play golf without leaving the house had him hooked. He wanted to know all about the Wii and couldn't wait for a shot. I had visions of him running out first thing in the morning and buying one with a copy of Tiger Woods and then him never interacting with his family ever again. I'd made yet another error. My only hope was that he wouldn't be able to find the SCART socket on his telly.

As we played, we filled Mike in on the turmoil at LBO. At least, Rob and I did. Steve kept fairly quiet, interjecting only to occasionally defend senior management and their bold plan for the future. Even he didn't seem entirely clear what the plan was, though. Rob had a couple of beers and seemed to relax. He finally began to see the bright side...

"It's not as if I actually like the job, is it? I mean, it's OK, and everything. I get left alone to get on with stuff and the benefits are great but... What if there's something better? I haven't looked. There might be something I could really enjoy."

I nodded. "I hear Britney Spears is looking for a pet."

He appeared momentarily interested and then realised I was joking. "Seriously," he said. "I need to think about it now before... before..."

Mike sank a lengthy putt. "Before you become a dad, you forget what sleep is, you have no energy for change, risk begins to seem more risky and you start to smell slightly of used nappies?"

"Something like that," said Rob.

"Ach, get over it," said Mike. "There's always the possibility for change."

"It would be easier now, though," I added.

"I'm not denying that," said Mike, "but it's always worth working out what you'd do if you lost your job tomorrow - you never know when you might come up with a plan which is worth doing anyway. What are you going to do if they make you redundant, Steve?"

Steve gave a condescending smile as he tapped one in. "I've been assured that my position is safe."

"By your boss?" asked Mike.

"Yes. Scott and I have worked closely together on a number of projects," began Steve. "I feel that he values my contribution to..."

Mike cut him off. "Have you been completely straight with anyone who works for you?"

Steve grunted, shrugged, twitched and looked at me, all at the same time.

"Thought not," said Mike. "Best to at least consider the possibility, if I were you. Would getting fired make you happy or sad? Turn you numb or present you with an opportunity? What do you have outside work to hold onto. Where are you headed? Why are you going there in the first place? What's important? What's your purpose? Who are you and what do you want?"

Steve opened his mouth to answer.

"Heck," said Mike, "don't tell me. Do I look like I care?" He squared up for another big swing. "Tell your wife when you get home." He walloped the ball to within six inches of the hole. "And a fiver says I can beat you over the back nine."

Steve blinked and gaped and then remembered to breathe. Wisely, he declined the bet but he was somewhat shell-shocked for the rest of the evening. The conversation turned to lighter things - children, mice, incompetent plumbers and suitable pets for Britney Spears. We played golf a little longer, then moved on to some bowling. I made Rob and Mike toasties. Steve just had some toast. We finished off with a quick go at Mario Kart. I won (thanks to my many hours of being forced to play by Fraser) but Steve was surprisingly good despite his lack of gaming experience. Rob just kept complaining about the blue shells, as ever.

After that, people started to drift off, agreeing to meet up again soon. Steve went home looking pensive which, I guess, is about the best I could have hoped for. Rob left shortly after. I closed the door behind him and there was a muffled scream as he reached the end of the drive - doubtless at the moment he put his hands in his pockets.

Only Mike was left, seeming to take a while to put his coat on.

"Thanks," I said. "You gave Steve something to think about. I don't know if he will think about it, but it's better than I've done in several weeks."

Mike rubbed his chin and looked at me appraisingly. "What about you? I know your situation is different but what are you outside your job, Ed? You spend your whole time running around after small children. There's nothing more absorbing than that. What's going to happen when Marie starts nursery and you get some time to yourself?"

I started the mantra. "Not much - not in two hours a day, on weekdays, during term-time when all the kids are we..."

"You've told me that before," he said, frowning. "I'm not asking what you're going to do. I'm asking who you're going to be."

"I, er..."

"Yes, Steve is a pompous jerk but stick with him. He's going to be no more lost if he loses his job than you will be when all your kids are at school."

And with that, he was out the door. "See you on Sunday," he said and was gone.

It was my turn to be shell-shocked.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 29 August 2007

A rough week

Dear Dave,

There is a scene in the first episode of Desperate Housewives where the one with the riot of small children (Lynette) runs into a former colleague while attempting to buy groceries. This other woman asks Lynette how things are going and how she's finding being a housemom. Lynette has spent the last few minutes shouting at her children and behind her they are demolishing what little remains of the store. She obviously wants to reach over, grab the woman by the shoulders and shake her, screaming, "I can't take it any more. They're driving me insane! Please, help me! Please..." Instead, she forces a smile, says, "Best job I've ever had," and beats a hasty retreat.

There's a lot of truth there. It can be hard for parents to admit that they're not enjoying themselves. I know I have all kinds of fears - fear of being judged, of seeming ungrateful, of betraying my family or of being reported to social services (or, worse, to the wife). Maybe in my case there's even the fear of being pitied for being a man in a 'woman's job'. ("Well, what did you expect...")

This is, of course, nonsense. Whatever the job, we all have days, weeks and even years where the going is tough. It's perfectly fine to get some sympathy and support.

I am lucky enough to be able to honestly say that being a housedad is the best job I've ever had. Having said it, however, I have to admit that it's been a rough week.

We're back in our house but nothing much has been fixed. Despite moving us out for a week to a fancy apartment, the insurance company failed to authorise the contractors to actually do the work. The contractors agreed to get started as best they could anyway but weren't entirely sure what they were supposed to be doing. They decided the best thing to do was remove all the plumbing under the stairs. This allowed them to check more thoroughly for damp patches from the flood and to replace six floorboards which got destroyed during the many fruitless attempts to find the leak. Then they put the plumbing back.

Well, half of it.

The plumber broke something in the heating system and reckoned he needed to take it to a blacksmith for repairs. We got moved back because at least the cold water was on again and there was hot water from a ancient and very dubious immersion heater. Several days passed, however, and the plumber did not return. Then I noticed a bad smell from under the stairs.

Waste water was leaking liberally every time we flushed a toilet or emptied a sink. Gah!

I phoned the contractors and they sent round a different plumber. He fixed the leak but I've had to bail out my house again. As it happens, the first plumber had already been 'let go' before I phoned. The company had no idea our heating wasn't working. They should have a part by next week but, for crying out loud... And all for six floorboards. None of the plastering or redecorating's been done. We've missed our slot for the tradesmen now, so it will be a month before they can start but we've already cleared out the rooms involved.

Besides half the house falling apart and the other half being crammed full of stuff, the mice are taking up tap dancing behind the cooker. One did a double flip with twist past me down the stairs. I gave it an 8.5. I would have given it more but its landing was terrible. I just found another in the toaster. We've taken to shaking out our shoes before putting them on.

With all the disruption, Marie has gone from barely having a toilet accident to needing five pairs of pants a day. She also constantly refuses to do anything she's told.

All this, and Sarah's job uncertainty is getting to me too.

It's a little much.

I've had depression before. I know some of the warning signs. I haven't been sleeping well and I've been abnormally crotchety and lacking in energy. I started feeling drawn and just plain debilitated the other day. If you want to know what I mean, stand up, hold one arm straight out to the side and think happy thoughts for thirty seconds. Get someone to try and pull down your arm. Then do it again with the other arm but think about something which stresses you and gets you upset instead. You'll notice a difference. That's how I've been feeling for a couple of days.

Unexpectedly, the thing which really got to me was my dead Xbox 360. It was annoying it broke but Microsoft agreed to fix it for free and it should be back in a month or so. It shouldn't be a big deal. After all, I have other games machines to play and more games to play than I have time. It's an inconvenience, not a disaster.

But I found myself obsessing over it and ways to replace it. Could I borrow one? Hire one? Buy another one and trade it in later? Could I upgrade to an Elite version or find a really good deal on a Core? It was crazy. It wasn't even that I felt the need to play it. I just needed it to be in its normal place, ready to be played.

It was like I was going insane. I knew whatever plan I came up with was going to be a waste of money but I couldn't put the idea out of my head. According to any logical reasoning, buying another 360 was crazy. Somehow, though, I knew it would make me feel better in a way which went beyond fleeting retail therapy. Sarah saw a bargain in the window of a second-hand shop and I went and had a look, knowing full well I'd be unable to resist. My head swimming, I handed over my credit card, and then hurried home with my prize.

I've had the old one set up in a boxroom for over a year. I used to have a small table wedged in the corner next to the end of the changing unit (the head end, naturally) with a monitor on top and the Xbox underneath. The room has become the office more recently with a bit more space but everything's been cleared out of there for a couple of weeks to allow the repairs to be made.

As I moved the table back into place and started to set up the 'new' Xbox I began to feel happier and I realised what the problem had really been. I was missing my safe place. That little corner of the house is as far from everyone else as I can possibly get. It's cosy. It's always been free of mice. I've often gone there to play games and wind down late at night. It's my place to not worry. My place to hide. Putting it back together made me smile.

The weird thing is, I don't actually have to be in the safe place to feel better. I just need to know it's there. I got everything working, played a three minute game of Geometry Wars and then set about tidying the house. Everywhere is still in a state because of the water damage but it's tidier than it was. I can live with it and that's helped me feel better too.

Yep, it's been a rough week but I feel like I'm coping again. Sometimes the only way to stay sane is to admit you're a little crazy (whatever anyone else might think).

Yours in a woman's world,


PS One of the great things about this job is that, even in the worst weeks, there's bound to be something to make you smile:

As we went down the vegetable aisle in the supermarket, Marie suddenly screamed, "I want broccoli!"

"We have broccoli at home," I replied.

"I want MORE broccoli!" she yelled.

"Er, OK," I said, hastily grabbing some and giving it to her.

She hugged the bag to her chest like a favourite teddy, rocking it. Then she sank back in the buggy and relaxed. "That's better," she sighed in relief.

Other parents looked on in awe as their children clutched packets of sweets. How on earth, they wondered, had I managed to raise a two-year-old who had a tantrum when not given green vegetables? For a brief moment, I was Super Dad.

I didn't make such a good impression, however, when the Primary 1 class emerged from school the other day, proudly carrying their first pieces of artwork. Lewis had produced this nice elephant:

A nice green elephant.

Except, as he marched out, holding it high above his head and waving it, he had it the other way up:

A big, green... thing.

"Which one's yours?" asked another parent whom I'd only just met. The answer was most of the way out of my mouth before I could stop myself.

"The one with the enormous green... erm... thing."

It was all just a little unfortunate...

Friday 24 August 2007

Of mice and Mario

Dear Dave,

Most places it rains water. A few places it rains frogs. Very occasionally, in the American Midwest, it rains cows. We should be so lucky. There's a short season in Edinburgh - it only lasts from late July to the end of August - where local conditions combine with a light headwind to produce a most disconcerting meteorological phenomenon. It rains acrobats. It wouldn't be so bad but they're usually carrying sharp knives, flaming sticks or each other. Somebody's going to get hurt one of these days and, let's face it, it's probably going to be me. I'm usually so busy picking my way through the traders and tourists that I don't see the Super Mario Brothers tumbling towards me, and I can't hear them cursing each other in Italian because of yet another bagpipe rendition of Flower of Scotland blaring away right next to me. So I always end up getting a slice of experimental street-theatre in the face.

The Festival, don't you just love it?

Normally we're far enough from the centre of town for me to be able to avoid the worst of things but we've been moved out of the house while the flood damage is repaired. The insurance have put us in an apartment right next to the Parliament, close to the epicentre of the mayhem. We have to wade through a sea of foreign teenagers and people handing out flyers to get anywhere. It's madness.

(Other locals seem quite adept at phasing it out, however. You know it's the Festival when someone gets mugged despite carrying a broadsword).

The apartment that the insurance company have laid on for us is very swish but not enormously child-friendly. Everything is made of glass. Glass-topped dining tables are not much fun with children. The one here has sharp corners, clatters every time a piece of cutlery is moved and gets mucky the moment a child even looks at it. The only advantage is that when a kid drops some food, you can see exactly where it's gone. At least, you can until the view is obscured by all the fingerprints (and, as it turns out, footprints) on the under side of the table.

On the plus side, cleaners come in every day. This means the table doesn't get too grotty but having the toilet cleaned five times a week can't be good for our immune systems.

It is actually quite nice being away from home. Someone came round to our house and sprayed Something Really Nasty to get rid of the insects but, after the flood and the swarm of ants, our current plague is an infestation of mice. There was a small amount of evidence we had a problem when we came home from my parents, so I put out a couple of traps. Nothing happened for a few days. Then I caught the scrawniest mouse you have ever seen. There was much jubilation. I've never caught a mouse before - they usually just nick the cheese and do a runner. Using a bit of Mars bar as bait seemed to have done the trick. I was delighted.

I was less delighted when I caught another. Catching one mouse gives hope that the problem is solved. Catching two within an hour suggests that the problem is much bigger than first imagined. I've since caught another two. There's still skittering. All the food is in high cupboards or in tins so I'm not too worried but it's disconcerting sitting in the kitchen waiting for the little critters to sniff out one of my deadly surprises. Unfortunately, I can't use our office because all the furniture has been moved out to allow the walls to be repaired and decorated. So I sit typing at the table, surrounded by teetering piles of junk that have nowhere else to go, and wait for the SNAP! of a rodent needing burial.

I'm not desperate to get back.

On top of everything else, my Xbox 360 has been smited with the three red lights of death. I tried dusting it and letting it cool down and things like that but it's not just resting - it is an ex-console. Microsoft have agreed to fix it for free and emailed me a shipping slip but I have no idea when I'll get it back. Sarah has been reassuring me that she's certain Bill Gates is personally waiting with a soldering iron to receive my parcel from UPS and that I'll have my baby back soon. I, however, am aware of how many 360s have been going wrong. You know that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark where the crate is wheeled into an endless warehouse filled with about a million very similar crates? That's more along the lines of what I'm thinking...

Ho, well, maybe things will be looking up next week - the kids are back at school and we should all have returned to our normal routines. There's going to be a big meeting at LBO, though, and there are mutterings of redundancies. Not good.

Right, the P1 class is only in until lunchtimes for the first few weeks, so I should wade off through the street performers to collect Lewis. I was late yesterday because Marie and I got ambushed by some very persistent mimes. Today, however, we should make better time.

I've fitted scythes to the buggy.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 22 August 2007

Things you've forgotten about babies

Dear Dave,

You're probably thinking you've got a month to go. You're probably thinking you've got plenty of time to do all those little jobs like get the crib back out the loft. You're probably even thinking you'll have a chance to pack Sam off to the grandparents for the weekend soon and you'll get to spend some quality time with Liz before all Hell breaks loose.

Look at it this way, though: By my calculations, you passed thirty-six weeks yesterday. If Squiggly turns up now, the hospital won't even count him/her/it as premature.

Hope you've got that bag packed.

Just to get you in the right frame of mind, here a few things you might have forgotten about babies in the last three years:

  • They're small

    Look at Sam. You know he's three but deep down you still think of him as your little baby. The actual baby will make him look like a pre-school Godzilla stomping through the lounge, over-turning activity gyms, crushing Fisher-Price playsets and endangering any tiny siblings left in his path.

    Dealing with this will require some mental readjustment (and possibly a cage).
  • They arrive pre-filled with tar

    Yep, nothing says, 'Congratulations! You're a dad again!' more clearly than a nappy full of foul, sticky, black slime.

    I'm not sure what the biological reasons are for this stuff but I suspect it's some kind of survival mechanism. It means that no matter what noxious mess a parent ends up in over the following months and years, they will find solace in the fact that at least they're not trying to scrape distilled evil off a baby's bottom with soggy cottonwool. It makes everything else so much easier to forgive.

  • They only sleep when you have to be awake

    Like when they're being fed or pushed round in a buggy or being driven somewhere in the car or having their nappy changed. Squiggly will wake up at three in the morning wanting fed and changed. She will sleep through most of this but then wake up crying when placed in the crib as if the mattress is made of spiky ice. You will then push her round the kitchen table in the buggy trying to get her to sleep before strapping her into the car and taking her for a ride. Upon returning, she will sleep in the crib just long enough for you to doze off. Then she will wake up needing fed and changed.

    You probably don't remember it being this bad with Sam but that doesn't mean it wasn't. It just means that sleep deprivation Swiss-cheesed your brain. Be afraid of what else you might have forgotten...

  • They eat constantly

    I've been told this is because their stomach is only the size of a walnut and so they need constant refills but really it's because:

  • They vomit constantly

    Sometimes it's just a little dribble on your shoulder. Other times it's a burp down your back. Often it's belch over both of you. Occasionally it's a high-pressure fountain of curdled milkiness which erupts over the entire room for several minutes. (It's truly amazing how much liquid a walnut can hold).

  • They go through more changes of clothes in a day than you own for yourself

    Between leaky nappies, dribbling and the vomit, there's always plenty of laundry to be done. The classic scenario is gingerly removing a kid's clothes and nappy because of an escape of toxic chicken tikka and then having them pee on the clean clothes laid out next to them. It's difficult to know what to clean first but the one certainty is that, when you are all cleaned up, the nightmare is over and you're fastening the last popper of the babygro as they lie on the changing mat, that's when they'll vomit down their neck, rub their hair in the resulting puddle and then fill their nappy explosively in surprise.

  • They smell

    This isn't all that surprising, given most of the above, but I just thought I'd mention it...

  • They don't smile

    This is actually the most difficult thing to cope with. It's usually six weeks before babies learn to smile. Up until then, the best feedback you can hope for is no crying. No crying means they're happy. No crying means you're doing your job right.

    It's not very encouraging, though.

    Just keep slaving on and hold out for that first smile. It makes all the rest of it worth it.
Now go and pack that bag.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 17 August 2007

Pester power

Dear Dave,

Sorry to hear that Sam's constant demands for attention and material gratification are driving you crazy. Let's face it, he probably knows that his entire life is about to go down the pan with the arrival of a sibling, and so he's just trying to get what he can while the going's still good. Stay strong and don't let him pester you into buying anything other than consumer electronics.

I'm fairly immune to pestering, myself. Well, actually, that's a lie - it makes me irritable, crotchety and prone to shouting. Pestering annoys me as much as the next dad. What I mean to say is that it doesn't get the kids what they want.

Much of this is down to Fraser. He has a bad case of Alpha Male Syndrome and desperately thinks he should be in charge. When confronted with two chairs and the command to sit down, he will begin by ignoring the command. On the second repetition of the command, he will argue. Why does he have to sit down? Wouldn't it be better if he sat on the floor? Why can't he witter about pokemon first? Why isn't Lewis sitting down? On being shouted at and pointed to the left seat, he will perch on the edge of the one on the right. It's a near certainty he will fall off and injure himself within a couple of minutes and then complain about how he didn't want to sit down in the first place.

He's been like this for a long time. When he was still two, I had a big fight with him over a beaker of milk. We both wanted it transferred from his hand to the table beside him; we disagreed on the method in which this goal could be achieved. I wanted him to reach over a few inches and put the beaker down. He wanted me to cross the room, take the beaker from his hand and put it down for him. We were there for fifteen minutes before his arm got tired and he put the flipping thing down. It was all about dominance and control.

The thing is, all that petty, pointless pestering has built up my resistance. If I feel I'm being pestered then I'll even actively delay doing something I was about to do anyway. I hope that, one day, the kids will learn from this to be polite and patient. It's not working so far but, in the meantime, at least I get to sit around for a few minutes and claim it's all in the name of teaching them manners.

Of course, it's best to try and nip the pestering in the bud whenever possible. When we go to the supermarket, for instance, the kids are each allowed to choose one special treat. If they've already got something in the trolley but see something else they want, then simply being reminded 'they already have their special thing' is enough to stop them asking any more. If they really want to swap, they can, but usually they're just too lazy to bother. In essence, they get to automatically win a small battle in exchange for not starting a war. I like to think this set up teaches them decision making as well but, deep down, I know that's just the deluded longings of a middle-class stay-at-home-parent. They usually just go for the shiniest thing they see first. (If I'm fortunate, they'll choose an item I was going to buy anyway, such as crisps. Normally it's probiotic yogurt drinks(!) or cheestrings. One time Fraser pushed his luck with an enormous bowl of trifle - we all ate well that week).

Lewis has a different pestering technique from Fraser. He tries to grind me down with questions:

Lewis: Can I have a chocolate biscuit?
Me: No.
Lewis: Why not?
Me: Because it's almost teatime.
Lewis: Why's it almost teatime?
Me: Because it's five o'clock.
Lewis: Why does that make it almost teatime?
Me: Because you normally have tea at five thirty.
Lewis: Why?
Me: Because, if I left tea until later, you'd get hungry.
Lewis: Why would I get hungry?
Me: Because you wouldn't have had anything to eat.
Lewis: Why not?
Me: Because it wouldn't be teatime until later.
Lewis: Why wouldn't it be teatime?
Me: Because... No, hang on, it is going to be teatime at five thirty.
Lewis: Why?
Me: Because that's when you normally have tea.
Lewis: Why do we normally have tea at five thirty?
Me: So you don't get hungry.
Lewis: Why would I get hungry if I'd had a chocolate biscuit?
Me: You wouldn't get hungry if you'd had a chocolate biscuit.
Lewis: Why not?
Me: Because you'd have had a chocolate biscuit.
Lewis: Why can't I have one then?
Me: Because it's almost teatime.
Lewis: Why's it almost teatime?
Me: Because it's... Look over there! Something shiny!

All I can do is run away - it feels wrong to tell a child to stop asking questions. He still doesn't get what he wants, though. Marie has found a much better way to get round me - if she wants something, she acts as if she has it already.

Marie: I want ride my pink scooter to shops.
Me: You don't have a scooter.
Marie: Yes, I do.
Me: No, you don't.
Marie: Yes, I do. It pink.
Me: Where is it then?
Marie: It in kitchen.
Me: No, it's not.
Marie: Yes, it is.
Me: Show me.
Marie (going through to kitchen): It not here! It not here! We go look for it.
Me: But you don't have a scooter.
Marie: Yes, I do. It pink!
Me: Er... How about we go to the swing park?
Marie: Hooray! I scoot there.
Marie: I do... (Bites lip and looks sad). You help me find it?
Me: I, er...
Marie: Please...
Me: Er, I think you might have left it in the toy department at John Lewis.
Marie (brightening): We go get it! It pink!

She's trouble, that one. It got to the stage that she coveted pink Crocs so much that, whenever she saw another child wearing them, she'd run over and accuse them of stealing shoes she didn't have. Credit to her, though, while Fraser unwillingly sits on a chair listening to Lewis ask questions about the relationship between teatime and chocolate biscuits, she scoots round them, happily wearing fuchsia footwear.

I was unwrapping a Mars bar for myself today and she walked over and said, "That's mine." AND I JUST GAVE IT TO HER. It's like some strange form of Jedi mind control.

I think she may have bitten off more than she can chew for her next project, however. Apparently we're all going to Euro Disney. At Easter. In a plane. She's totally convinced this is happening but I'm wise to her schemes now. I will resist.

Good luck with Sam.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 15 August 2007

Paintball Apocalypse

Dear Dave,

There are three kinds of paintball experience that I'm aware of:

  • The first I've only seen on TV and involves lots of Americans running around multi-coloured inflatable obstacles, shouting and taking it all very seriously.
  • The second is more the kind of thing you get at an activity centre - people are assigned to a couple of teams, they're led into a relatively small arena filled with makeshift barricades and fortifications, and then they get to shoot each other for a bit. Half a dozen games, each lasting five minutes or so, and you're done. It's a bit muddy but fun and only mildly like exercise. This is the one to go for.
  • The third involves driving to the middle of nowhere and then skulking round a forest for half an hour at a time before being shot in the back by someone you didn't even see.

The last of these was, of course, what Steve, my favourite useless dad, had organised.

At least Steve gave me a lift. We spent most of the journey discussing rugby. I don't know anything about rugby but, then again, Steve didn't really seem to know much either. I think he was trying to pick my brains in order to gain information with which to impress his boss, Scott, who was also coming along. Bearing this in mind, I talked up Japan's chances in the approaching World Cup and mentioned how Simon Cowell had once been fly-half for St Helens. I should probably feel guilty but Steve's had Sarah working all hours on yet another daft marketing project that will probably never see the light of day anyway. Even if it does eventually crawl out into the harsh sunshine, he'll almost certainly take the credit for any good which comes of it. Quite honestly, I'd just like my wife home at a reasonable hour and I'd prefer it if she'd didn't mutter in her sleep about how many free tickets to LegoLand a pair of Crocs is worth. (Don't ask).

Eventually we arrived at a muddy expanse of woodland far from civilisation and squelched the short distance from the carpark (a field) to the reception centre (a dilapidated caravan). We paid and were issued with face masks, camouflage overalls, guns and about enough paintballs to last us three and a half minutes. We were given the 'option' of buying more paintballs. Steve handed over a banknote without particularly looking at it. I don't know if he was expecting change, but he ended up with so many little tubs of ammunition he rattled as he walked. Unfortunately, I had to buy almost as many - Scary Karen and her friends were very keen to wreak some havoc after hearing about the way Steve's friends had treated me at the softplay but some of them were on a budget and I'd agreed to subsidise them. I guess, if I hadn't spent the money, Sarah would have only put it in a pension or something, so I won't really notice the loss for a while, but I still gulped slightly as I gave the guy the cash. (Ach, well, who needs things like shoes or heating when they're old, anyway?)

A long, high wall of netting separated where we were from the game area. We went over to a small cluster of huts, benches and portaloos next to the gateway. Scott was already there. He appeared to have brought most of his rugby club with him, judging by the number of large blokes who were gathered round him laughing. None of them was that young and some of their muscle was turning to belly but they looked like the kind of people you want to make sure are on your side in a paintball match. They looked like the kind of people who would take it seriously and get the job done.

Steve hurried over to join them.

My eye began to twitch. I'd been looking forward to filling Scott full of paint and I'd been hoping he would be surrounded by Steve, a couple of other sycophantic cronies and a horde of scrawny teenagers wearing bandanas and reliving Apocalypse Now.

You never want anyone wearing a bandana on your team. They will run around screaming, fire indiscriminately at anything which moves and then get disqualified for being insane (but not before they've shot you). Having a few bandana-wearing maniacs on Scott's team would have made it much easier to get to him. I didn't fancy my chances against an entire scrum of his burly mates.

Scott came over just as I was slapping myself in the face in an effort to stop the twitching. He gave me a condescending sneer. "Are your friends showing up? How many of them are there going to be? We need to sort out teams."

"Rob can't make it so there should be seven provided the others all managed to find babysitters. That's probably them now."

A black van bounced over the rutted grass and pulled up beside us. The tinted windows gave it an ominous appearance, spoiled somewhat by the enormous dents and heavy rust. For a few moments, nothing happened. Then the side door slid open and Scary Karen got out.

She was wearing a bandana.

Bess, Jess, Tess and Cress got out. They were wearing bandanas too.

"Actually, now I think about it," said Scott, "our team's full. You and your friends will all have to be on the blue team." He pointed over to where a group of scrawny looking sixteen-year-olds were loitering nervously around a picnic table. As I watched, one of them hastily hid a character sheet and some dice. Another tripped over his own feet. All the others were unable to move, transfixed by the very sight of women.

I sighed. At least none of them were wearing bandanas.

We also had Trevor and Stefania on our team once they'd taken the van to the carpark and come back. Trevor, if you remember, is keen on Karen but hasn't quite plucked up the nerve to tell her yet. More importantly, he's built like a truck, has served in the armed forces and can spit a paintball with enough force to stun a rottweiler at twenty paces. Stefania, Karen's Polish friend, on the other hand, barely speaks a word of English and looks like she might blow away in a stiff breeze. When handed her gun, however, she pressed it to her shoulder, sighted a number of targets using swift precise movements and then examined every part of the gun closely. She had it stripped down, cleaned and reassembled with a satisfying clunk before I'd even got the lid off my paintballs. Then she marched away determinedly, as if off to find some Russians.

Trevor and I exchanged glances. "You two stick together," I said.

He nodded and hurried after her.

We were nearly set. A marshal gave us the safety drill, handed out coloured armbands to identify which of the two teams we were in, told us the rules and then lined us up ready to take us to our bases.

I happened to end up standing next to Steve. "We'll try and go easy on you," he said. Then he pointed his gun at my groin and pretended to pull the trigger.

"Don't do that," I said.

"Don't worry," he replied. "It's not loaded."

Then he shot me in the inner thigh.

From three feet away.

It was a little sore.

He apologised profusely as I crumpled to the ground in agony but then his team got led away and I was left to be given first aid by Scary Karen in a location I really did not want her investigating. It's all very well being treated as one of the mums but I draw the line at massage and healing balm. Particularly there. I had to make a limp for it, just to keep my trousers on.

The incident did provide an incentive to our team, however. We headed out to get some payback.

We failed miserably, though. We got gubbed. Half the team ran around screaming, shot anything which moved and then got disqualified for everything from hand-to-hand combat to frightening squirrels. I was shot by one of my own team at least five times. The teenagers didn't know whether they were coming or going. I never saw Trevor and Stefania. I was forever trudging back to the area by the gate to clean myself off and wait for the next game. Somehow there always seemed to be plenty of casualties on the red team too but never enough for us to actually win. It was hopeless.

The day wore on and we got wet and muddy and fed up. We reached the final game and we were becoming desperate. It was capture the flag. We had to get from our base to theirs, grab their flag and get it back to our base without them getting our flag back to their base. We trudged to the clearing which contained our ramshackle, wooden fort and tried to compose ourselves before the klaxon sounded and the game began.

Karen was fuming. She'd thought the squirrel grenade had been a good idea but I'd been standing underneath as the little, paint-soaked critter had sailed overhead. Sure enough, it had looked terrified. She decided to take her frustration out on the teenagers, yelling at them for not working together, her enormous bosoms heaving up and down with fury. The teenagers were frozen to the spot, only their eyes bobbing, as if they were watching vertical tennis.

Trevor and Stefania were still missing. Everyone else sat around looking dejected. I decided that there was only one option left.

"Can anyone lend me a bandana?" I said.

A minute later, the klaxon sounded and I sprinted through the foliage, a borrowed strip of cloth tied round my head. I raced between the trees, not stopping to think, shooting anything that moved. I may have screamed.

Paintballs whizzed past my head. One even bounced off my arm.

But nothing splatted.

I kept going. I kept firing until I had no paintballs left. My lungs burned, stars flashed in front of my eyes. Then I seemed to be through. There were no more enemies about and I kept going. My running had slowed to a wheezing kind of stagger but, with some elation, I stumbled into the red fort and up the ramp to a little room that I knew would contain the flag.

I almost took Steve by surprise. He hadn't expected anyone to make it that far and was busy sending a crafty text on his phone. I'd been too high on adrenaline to expect a guard, however. We both raised our guns. We were only feet from each other in a confined space. Seconds ticked away. It was a stand-off.

"You might as well surrender," he said. "Even if you shoot me, I'll shoot you. You're not getting out of here with the flag."

I lowered my gun slightly, pointing it at his crotch. His eyes widened. "Don't worry," I said, grinning evilly. "It's not loaded."

"OK, OK," he said, putting his gun down.

"Glad you saw reason," I said, grabbing the flag. "Now give me your sock."


"Give it to me!"

"OK, OK," he squeaked, hurrying to pull off his boot and one of his long, woollen rugby socks. I stuffed it in my pocket and ran.

The journey back took longer. I was tired and, since I'd actually managed to claim the flag, I felt I had something to lose. I was more cautious on my return. Still, I didn't encounter any resistance and, as I ducked out from behind the last tree, I wondered whether I was the only one left playing.

An entire rugby team was waiting for me.

"It's all over," said Scott, stepping forward from the middle of the pack. "Give me the flag."

I froze. I didn't know what to do.

Luckily, I was part of a team.

"Now!" screamed Karen and the air was suddenly alive with paintballs. I dived out of the way. Somehow she'd managed to get the teenagers organised. They emerged from the trees and surged forward like an avenging tide of Ewoks. Rugby players scattered. Mums sniped from the woods.

"Now get the flag home," Karen yelled at me from the maelstrom.

I nodded and threw her back her bandana. "Here!"

"Don't you want it any more?"

"I've got one of my own," I shouted, grinning, and tied Steve's sock round my head. Then I escaped under cover of mayhem, ran into the trees and tried to find a route round to our base from a different angle.

I forced my way through some bushes and I was almost there when Scott stepped out in front of me. I stopped dead. He could have shot me but he seemed to want to enjoy his victory.

"Now be a good househusband and give me the flag. This doesn't have to get nasty," he said, gloating.

My mouth was dry. What could I do? Then I noticed that on either side of him the bushes were edging closer. I tried to hide a smile. "Housedad," I said.


"I call myself a housedad."

"Whatever. Just give me the flag." The bushes were right beside him now.


"Well, you had your chance..."

"Drop it!" said one bush gruffly. The other bush hurled abuse in Polish.

Scott's eyes tried to look both ways at once. Then, foolishly, he went for the trigger. I dived out the way again and ran for our base. Behind me there was the unmistakable sound of senior management being painted with extreme prejudice by some shrubbery. I didn't look back.

I stormed up the ramp to our base and waved the flag aloft as my team used up the last of their ammunition chasing the enemy into the hills. I was glad I'd bought so much. It was all very satisfying and money well spent. Of course, I'll probably regret it in forty years time when I have to hobble down to the bowls club in carpet slippers but at least I'll have the memories to keep me warm.

I gave Steve back his sock in the car on the way home. For some reason, he wasn't that appreciative.

Let's just hope there aren't any repercussions for Sarah...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 10 August 2007


Dear Dave,

Ninety-three percent of statistics are mis-reported.

Think about it. Your average journalist is an arts graduate who hasn't studied any maths whatsoever in twenty-three and a half years. Even the four-fifths-forgotten statistics lessons they have had will have been to a very low level. The typical journalist, for instance, will only know two and a third types of average and will use the mean in eighty-nine percent of cases. Ask them to calculate the probability of three cases of a ten-thousand-to-one non-contagious illness in a village of a hundred people and they will either answer, 'Small enough to make a big headline,' or run away screaming. Neither of these is the correct answer.

The correct answer runs closer to, 'Is this the chance it will occur in a particular village chosen at random or that it will occur in some village somewhere in the United Kingdom? And besides, surely it should be the probability of three or more cases? And what are the assumptions, again? You haven't even mentioned timescales, for crying out loud!'

An article I read the other week kept going on about the effects of interest rate rises on a typical mortgage. What on earth is a 'typical' mortgage?! Was it the mean value of all mortgages they were talking about or of new mortgages? Something else reckoned that a 'typical' baby sleeps sixteen hours a day. Since I felt lucky if any of mine slept twelve hours out of twenty-four when they were small, I can only assume that some children barely open their eyes before the age of two. What?

Then there are phone-in polls. Don't get me started on those. (No, really - it won't be pretty...)

To be fair, I don't think getting mathematicians to write the newspapers would, in general, be a good idea. (Can you imagine?) But it was with some scepticism I viewed reports of recent surveys of dads. One, for instance, claimed 43% of dads surveyed had 'put their careers on hold' to spend more time with their families, passing up work worth an average of £2,800 a year. What does that really mean, though? 10% of all the dads claimed to have gone to working part-time. Surely this must account for the vast majority of the wage reduction? It's possible to conclude that over half of the dads had made no changes to their work patterns (maybe they were laid-back to start with!), one third had cut back on overtime a bit and one tenth had gone part-time (but who knows what their partners are up to?).

Does this actually tell us much?

Not really. I probably achieve equally scientific surveys by hanging around outside school at collecting time. On this basis, I'd say there are plenty of couples where both partners are heavily involved in childcare. One or both of them may be working part-time but it's just as likely they're both working strange shifts and granny is filling in the gaps in the schedule. There are housedads about but you could probably cram us all into a phone box.

Looking at parent and toddler attendance gives a different picture. Dads are rare. I am 'the man', quite often. Either the percentage of dads staying home and looking after very small children is extremely low or they're all scared. Maybe we're as endangered as pandas or female executives or crumple-horned snorkacks. Who knows? Not me.

I think all the various surveys show is that the number of housedads is on the rise but, you know, that wouldn't be hard. I don't think there will be vast numbers of us any time soon. Probably more important is that, 'on average', dads are far more involved with their kids than they were a generation ago. Scarily, this makes you and me role models for a revolution where men engage more fully with their offspring. We demonstrate that it's perfectly possible for men to look after children whatever the occasion, not just on Saturday afternoons. We can educate and encourage. We can teach other men that, 'Kids are fun once you know which way up to hold them!' (We might want to think of a better slogan that that, though...)

That may sound like a tall order but the simplest way to start is to walk along the road smiling with a stack of children in tow. If we can do it without everyone treating us like pandas, so much the better. ('Look! Look! There's one. It's a housedad! Aw, isn't he cute with all the little ones. Do you think if I poke this stick at him, he'll eat the leaves off the end?')

Probably best to the ignore the statistics and get on with it. Of course, you may be thinking that if ninety-three percent of statistics are mis-reported, what about the rest? Should we pay attention in order to learn from the other seven percent of stats we hear and read about?

I wouldn't bother, to be honest - those ones are entirely made up.

I'm off to prepare for the paintballing tomorrow. Apparently, Scary Karen has been watching Rambo III all week as training. This could get brutal...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I read a great book about statistics last year. It's called Freakonomics and it's by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner. Did you know that there's a correlation between having a house full of books and having children who do well at school but that there isn't a correlation between reading to children every day and them doing well?

Conclusion: Books are magic! Buy books!

Kidding. It's not what you do that makes you a good parent, it's who you are. Isn't that both reassuring and frightening...

Wednesday 8 August 2007

One beer too many...

Dear Dave,

I had a drink during the day last week.

I don't normally do that unless it's some kind of special occasion or a family get-together. Still, there were exceptional circumstances:

For starters, we were all staying at my parents, so there were three other adults around to help look after the children. Granted, one of those adults was napping, one was reading Harry Potter and the other was napping while reading Harry Potter and somewhat deaf, but there was unlikely to be any emergency we couldn't deal with between us.

The reason I felt the need for a beer, however, was a very taxing phone call I'd just had. I was returning a call from the contractors the insurance people hired to fix the damage caused to our house by the leak from next door's central heating. Everything is now dry at last, the air blowers are gone and we're being moved out soon so all the plumbing under our stairs can be ripped out and the walls around it re-plastered.

I arranged the dates with the insurers while we were still on holiday and the contractors were simply supposed to call me back on my mobile to confirm it all. Except they phoned my home number, of course. Luckily, I picked the message up remotely from the answering machine and phoned them back. They denied all knowledge. Then they remembered who I was... but couldn't find my file. They also thought they were removing the boiler rather than the hot water tank.

None of this was very reassuring.

They did, however, agree they were coming on the day the insurers had said and they took down my mobile number. Since they had already lost my file, I can only imagine what they then did with this information. I suspect they scribbled it on the back of an envelope and then posted it.

Somewhat stressed after that conversation, I decided to sit down with a beer and relax for a few minutes. It was nearly teatime anyway. The grandparents were dozing, Sarah was reading and the kids were amusing themselves. It was the perfect opportunity to flop in an armchair and catch up on the news. I took a swig of my beer, opened the paper and was confronted by the headline story that the summer holidays are driving mums to drink.

I nearly spilled my beer.

Apparently, the stress of having to entertain children for weeks on end causes a spike in the number of mums being admitted for alcoholism treatment.

(At least, that's what some private chain of rehab clinics was saying. Since the story gave them front page publicity and the chance to hand out a list of the tell-tale signs of an alcoholic primary carer, it could be argued that there was a certain amount of touting for business going on. I'd lay off the cooking sherry for a couple of weeks, in case anyone tries to shop you...)

One of the common signs of a problem is the evening glass of wine turning into a bottle. Certainly, I can see the temptation of that slippery slope - it's much easier resisting a second can of beer after a difficult day than holding back on another helping from a bottle that's already uncorked.

Still, there's no harm in looking forward to a little drink at the end of a day spent chasing children. I can see, however, how the holidays might cause problems and lead to a not-so-little drink at lunchtime. Obviously, if parents are struggling to maintain a balance between family life and their careers, then suddenly having the little blighters out of educational daycare for several weeks is bound to add extra pressure.

Am I the only parent, however, who actually looks forward to the holidays? I'm already in charge of Marie all the time as it is. Lewis only spends two and a half hours a day at nursery. Fraser is old enough to entertain himself and he's relatively low maintenance even when he's not at school. The holidays mean I have more children around more of the day but they also mean that I don't have all the hassle of getting those children out the door in time for school or of needing to be back in time to collect them. There's no racing to swimming lessons or hanging about in the rain waiting for drama class to end. More than that, the summer holidays mean lazing about and then heading to the swing-park. They're an opportunity for Sarah to take some vacation and for us all to visit the grandparents.

When else do I get the chance to sit down with a beer and look at the paper?

I sipped guiltily on my beer and continued to read. Inside was an opinion piece written by a mum who did, indeed, find the summer holidays quite hard work. Her three children were being very demanding. They were needing lots of attention. Entertaining them was very expensive. They hadn't really enjoyed their basket-weaving class. They were complaining because she'd hidden their PlayStation. Being teenagers, they were...

Eh? What?

I checked more closely. Yep, her kids were all teenagers and she'd hidden their PlayStation. My sympathy waned somewhat. Last summer, Marie was going to bed at eleven o'clock at night, she was waking to cry for two hours at about three in the morning and then the boys were getting up at seven thirty. That was three children being demanding. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure having teenagers will be difficult in its own way but, honestly...

Once Fraser reaches adolescence I'm expecting him to lose the power of speech and spend all his time in his room. Our conversations will be conducted through the closed door and I imagine the scene will run something like this:

Me (hammering on the door): Are you up?
Fraser: Ungh.
Me: Was that a 'yes'?
Fraser: Uuungh.
Me: Have you cleaned your room?
Fraser: Ungh-ungh.
Me: Well, have you got any laundry to be done? You haven't put any in the tub for a week.
Fraser: Ungh. (The door opens slightly and a single pair of underpants are dropped on my feet. The door is quickly closed again).
Me: Thanks. Want to go on an exciting trip to see an historic collection of belt buckles?
Fraser: Nurghhh!
Me: Well, just remember if you can't think of anything to do then...
Fraser: Ugh wah!
Me: OK, see you at feeding time. (I kick the underpants out an open window into the waiting wheelie-bin below and then walk away, whistling to myself).

Certainly, if any of my kids claim to be bored as teenagers I will send them to live with my parents in rural Norfolk and let them watch corn grow for a fortnight. That'll teach them. If all else fails, and they still complain there's nothing to do, they can learn to clean the bathroom. That way, at least, they will really have something to moan about and I'll have more time to sit around drinking beer.

Oh no, hang on...

Well, one beer the other day didn't hurt.

Not much, anyway:

I ended up playing a game with Marie soon afterwards which mostly consisted of us wandering around the house jumping off steps in interesting and varied ways. After a few jumps, however, she started holding her bottom with both hands. I asked why she was doing it. She told me and insisted I do the same.

We continued the game, waddling through the kitchen and into the dining room. I felt a small hand on my buttock. "Are you holding my bottom now?" I said loudly. "In case it falls off?"

Marie nodded happily.

We were passing granny at this point. She was on the phone to the minister. She suddenly looked a mixture of embarrassed and cross.

"Waddle for your life!" I whispered to Marie. We made a break for it, leaving a trail of giggling behind us but, fortunately, not our bottoms.

With hindsight, I think I'll hold off on the beer till the evening in future...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS The contractors phoned my home number again a couple of days later, still wanting to confirm the date to come and remove the plumbing.

I wasn't entirely surprised.

Friday 3 August 2007

Harry Potter and the light switch of chaos

Dear Dave,

Hurrah! I'm back to being only two Harry Potter books behind again.

Sarah and I managed to see Order of the Phoenix at the cinema and it inspired me to finally get round to reading the book. I think after all that, though, I actually preferred the film. Admittedly, this was probably partly because I saw the film first but I also found the book had rather too much padding. It could do with being a couple of hundred pages shorter. There's a lot of backwards referencing, plenty of forwards referencing and a great deal of scene-setting but not much happens until close to the end. On top of that, all the reminders of exams, tentative first attempts at dating and being fifteen in general weren't that pleasant. The film, meanwhile, managed to cover everything of importance in a visually arresting style. The scriptwriters even had the courage to change some of the details of the plot in order to make a better film.

Of course, I still have quite an urge to read book six now. I'm not sure I dare start just yet, though. Sarah has already re-read it since reading Deathly Hallows and the kids are becoming restless with all the time we're spending at Hogwarts. Marie in particular is getting fed up. "You reading Harry Potter!" she says excitedly as she skips over to the armchair. Then she jumps up and down and says, "You stop now," and closes the book on my thumb. I open the book again. She puts her head to one side, pouts and say, "Awwwww!" I throw her a ball or something then go back to the book but it's all quite off-putting.

I'm also wondering what she'll try next when she realises this ploy isn't working. For instance, she's taken to claiming that her food goes from her plate to her mouth, down to her tummy, into her legs and then into her socks. I'm slightly worried that soon she's going to cut out the intermediate stages and put the food straight from plate to socks just to grab my attention.

Let's face it, that will probably work.

I should stop while I still can. Things are already out of hand:

We were staying at my parents' house the weekend that the new book came out. While we were there, I fitted a smoke detector in their landing light. It recharges whenever the light is on and thus, so long as the light is used regularly, the battery should never go flat. The alarm does have one minor flaw, however - testing it involves switching the light off and on again in quick succession. This make accidental testing rather easy.

The night I installed it, Sarah and I were sitting downstairs in the lounge reading Harry Potter books. My dad went up to bed and switched the landing light out. From upstairs, there was a muffled sound of my mum telling him off - the children might fall down the stairs if they got up and went wandering around in the dark. Dad switched the light back on.

The alarm started going.

There was frantic shouting from my mum about not waking the kids, mixed with muttering from my dad and the sound of the light being switched off and on rapidly. The alarm continued to wail.

Sarah and I both looked up from our books. The light seeping under the door from the stairwell was strobing erratically. We glanced at each other and I shrugged. We returned to our books. My parents continued their private rave on the stairs. The kids did not stir. We went back to reading.

Several hours later, we were still there. My dad went to the toilet. He switched off the landing light. He instantly remembered and switched it back on again. The alarm went off. My mum shouted. My dad muttered.

Sarah and I both looked up from our books again. The light flickered under the door once more. We both stared at the ceiling for some time and waited patiently for the chaos to pass.

When it eventually did, we paused for a few more moments, listening out for the children. Luckily, however, there was only a dark remnant of muttering from my parents' room. It had been a close call. Sarah shook her head, sighed and looked at me. "Muggles!" she said despairingly.

I nodded. We both went back to our books.

I think I must have been quite drowsy by then. Everything went a little strange.

As time passed and the fire burned low in the Gryffindor common room, we continued to read. After all, we had OWLs in the morning and plenty of revision still to get through. 'Accio beer!' I called and it flew into my hand (although it did seem to say, 'There you go, dear,' in Sarah's voice). Minutes turned into hours and the night drifted away...

I was woken in the morning by a trio of boggarts jumping on my head. I was unable to make them vanish. The day slipped by in a tired blur punctuated with squabbling.

Didn't stop me staying up late again to read some more, though. Which reminds me, I should get to bed early tonight.

Maybe just one chapter first...

Yours in another world,