Dear Dave

Friday 30 November 2007


Dear Dave,

We're all suffering from one illness or another, the mice are back and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 was unexpectedly rubbish. I'm pretty fed up.

I've been coughing for three weeks and I'd just like to feel better, thank you very much. Fraser has some kind of virus that's making him tired, achy and argumentative. (Well, more argumentative than usual). I don't think he'll be at school tomorrow. As I write this, it's late at night and, over the baby listener, I can hear Marie sounding pretty choked up. This could be a long one...

Still, on a positive note, Marie has a place at nursery after Christmas. I can hardly believe it - it's even a morning one. I'll have two and a half hours each weekday where I won't have any children to look after (during term-time, at least). The possibilities seem endless. It's not a case of not knowing what to do with myself. It's a case of not knowing what to do first. I hardly dare imagine it.

Interestingly, Marie can't imagine it.

"What should I do once you're at nursery?" I asked her.

"Come and collect me," she said.

"Yes, I'll collect you from nursery but what should I do all the time you're there?"

She looked blank. "Play with me?" she ventured.

"No, I'll be somewhere else."

She considered the thought that I exist when she isn't there and seemed to reluctantly accept it.

I asked her again. "So what should I do?"

She laughed. "Go to work!"

I wasn't impressed.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 28 November 2007

All I can remember is Jeremy Clarkson

Dear Dave,

Sorry to hear the sleeping has gone out of the window again. I've rarely had to deal with children playing tag-team parent waking so I don't entirely know what to suggest. Daisy's so young that there probably isn't much you can do - if she wants to wake up in the middle of the night, she will. (Controlled crying is always worth a try, though). At least Sam's at an age where you can threaten him with reprisals if he doesn't ignore her and go back to sleep - I find that turning off Marie's night-light for a few minutes is usually enough to get her to settle down.

You've got my sympathy. I've had plenty of experience of sleepless children. I refer you back to the tricks I've learnt. Probably the most important is to have a DVD you want to watch in the player ready to go. That way, if worst comes to worst, you won't be stuck watching phone-in quizzes as you while away the small hours of the morning with a grumbly baby. It's worth making sure the DVD has subtitles so you can still follow what's going on above the whining and crying. Other options include web-surfing using a Wii, Teletext and MTV. Personally, I have many memories of semi-consciously watching repeats of Top Gear I'd recorded on TiVo. It was amusing and it didn't matter if I missed dialogue here and there thanks to a screaming baby or if I 'rested my eyes' for entire sections.

Actually, there are parts of Marie's early life where I remember more about three nutters destroying caravans in entertaining ways than I do about much else. Sleep deprivation addles your brain. I got to a point where I was functioning on autopilot most of the time. The boys were up from half seven in the morning until eight at night. Marie woke at eight in the morning and was up until eleven at night with only an hours nap in the middle. I stayed up until half past midnight to get some time to myself to help stave off insanity. Frequently, Marie then woke up at three for an hour or two of crying.

In retrospect, this was pretty horrendous but, at the time, I was cocooned in a hazy mist of zombie-dom. With one child at school, one at morning nursery and another needing regular feeds, bottles and nappies, my timetable was always laid out before me. It wasn't so much that we had a routine, it was more that there was only one way to fit everything that needed to be done around everything which had to be done. I could muddle though the day without much thought. I don't actually recall wandering around with my arms stretched out, muttering 'Brains... Brains....' but, then again, I don't actually recall very much at all.

I do have a very strong recollection of Richard Hammond trying to make an amphibious vehicle out of a camper van, however.

Strangely, that's more useful than you might imagine. By concentrating on that memory, I can make other recollections surface. I can bring back thoughts, feelings and experiences that would otherwise be forgotten. It doesn't just work for Top Gear, either - by thinking about a book I've read, a film I've watched or a computer game I've played, I can remember something of what life was like at the time and possibly even specific events from that period. Little else jogs my memory so well, apart from thinking back over times when I've been ill or exhausted. I can remember those occasions very clearly too.

This means that many of my most vivid memories are of multimedia delirium, where illness and entertainment have coincided.

For instance, I know I had gastric flu a couple of weeks after Final Fantasy VII came out. I clearly remember where I'd got to, how I felt and what our old lounge looked like from that combination of gaming and vomit. Going from that, I can also work out the time of year, how my job was going and any number of other little details. When I felt too ill to even play a game (which is very ill, by the way), I sent Sarah to the video store to find a film with explosions. She came back with Die Hard with a Vengeance - proof, if ever I needed it, that I married the right woman.

Similarly, the fifties version of Day of the Triffids is linked inescapably in my mind with the first week of my chickenpox eruption, the second week is brought back by thoughts of playing Fable on Xbox. Mention of the forthcoming Fable 2 just makes me feel queasy.

The Hellboy movie recalls a cough so bad that I had to chain-suck Lockets and sleep sitting upright in an armchair.

My one experience of sleeping rough is all the clearer in my mind because I bought West of Eden by Harry Harrison the next day. The memory of trying to keep warm while lying in a binbag on a hillside in Derbyshire is made sharper by the memory of reading about horny, humanoid dinosaurs while very, very tired.

Other people's recollections seem to be triggered by different things. Sarah's memory is jogged by smells. My mum's is organised around food. It's like she uses what people ate as some kind of mental hook. She'll tell me news she's read in the paper about an old school friend of mine that I don't even remember and, when I look blank, she'll say something along the lines of, 'You went round to his house once. You had chicken.' I'm not sure whether I find it more weird that she remembers what I had to eat or that she thinks I'll remember it too.

Quite what this tells us about any of the people involved, I've no idea, but I've been trying to work out how my kids best remember things.

Thinking about it, the descriptions they came up with to differentiate between the parent and toddler groups they went to when they were small are telling. Fraser referred to his as, "The pink one, the one downstairs and the one near John Lewis." It was an aspect of the location which stuck in his head. Marie talks about, "The one with Craig, the leaving one and the snack one." It's the most significant event of each one that makes hers memorable, whether it's the attention of a particular helper, the quality of the snack or me slinking off for three-quarters of an hour while someone else takes over.

Lewis' preferences are harder to remember (the irony!) because most of the time he just copied Fraser. Probably, given free rein, he described them with phrases like, "The one with jigsaws." He differentiates places by what's there because he has a good memory for what things contain. We keep trying to make a little more space for him in his bed but he always knows when something has been removed.

Lewis' bed covered in cuddly toys... as usual.
There's a bed under there somewhere...

Maybe there's some way I can use this knowledge to get them all to remember to wipe their feet when entering the house. If only I could work it out...

Ach, the scary thing is, even if I did work out a theory, I'd probably forget it unless I caught a cold and then watched a movie.

Ho well, maybe you can mull it over while you're watching Pirates of the Caribbean at three in the morning. Let me know if you come up with anything.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Marie has a frighteningly good memory, actually. She was watching Laura's Star on DVD the other day. She hadn't seen it for a while but she was quoting the script with ease. The film got to one bit and Marie described what was happening and followed it up by saying what was going to happen next. "And then Laura goes up to the roof and she meets a robot cat and she says, 'Hello, little cat, how are you?'"

Sarah was freaked. "How do you remember that?"

Marie just smiled. "It's a good thing to say to a robot cat if you find one on the roof."

Sarah found that kind of hard to argue with. They went back to watching the film.

Friday 23 November 2007

Triumph from disaster

Dear Dave,

I can't ice cakes.

On the one hand, I'm not very good at it. On the other, I just don't care. The combination of these two factors nearly always leads to sugary catastrophe.

This doesn't matter when the cake making is merely an activity to entertain children (with the the added by-product of cake!) but, when I'm baking for a birthday party and other parents are going to see the results, it's more of an issue. The solution I use is to get my offspring to do some of the decorating, even if it's only to add a single chocolate button. That way, I can always claim loudly to have had 'help' from the kids. I go straight from hapless cake defacer to long-suffering, indulgent parent.

Some very poorly decorated biscuits.
I had somewhat less help with these than you might imagine...

It's a step up from the usual routine of using the children as an excuse for everything from being late to the state of the house. In these cases, it could always be suggested that I just need to be a little more organised or a little less lazy. No, this is turning the situation on its head and making the disaster into a parenting badge of honour. 'Sorry we didn't get here on time. I had the kids help with the navigation and, well, would you believe it, we ended up in Peebles. They were getting quite good with their map-reading skills by the end, though. I'm thinking of starting them on their Duke of Edinburgh award...' or 'Mind where you step. Fraser's supposed to be helping me mop but he's just too tired today, the poor lamb. I thought we'd leave it till tomorrow. I would do it myself but I wouldn't want to deprive him of the sense of accomplishment and contribution...'

I wonder what other things I could claim to have got the kids to aid me with? Normally I shy away from getting them to help because it means that whatever I'm doing will take twice as long and only turn out half as good. It probably doesn't help that I'm a control freak. I like things done my way.

This is an issue, however. I need to train them. Otherwise they'll never learn how to do anything and I'll be running around after them until they're fifty and then have to watch helplessly as they attempt to look after me and get it all wrong. They'll clean the toilet with a facecloth and then iron the carpet.

I need to avoid that future but, let's face it, some help here and now wouldn't go amiss, either. Maybe the way forward is to start by getting them to help with things that are bound to end in disaster anyway. No harm done then. Once we're all used to long-winded calamities we can move on to things which I'd normally expect to pass without incident, like the washing up, a little light dusting and cleaning the fridge. By then, anything which doesn't involve us all needing a complete change of clothes will feel like success. I'll be more laid-back and they'll just be glad I'm not getting them to do my tax return or clean the wheelie-bin.

I've begun by getting some help with this letter. I asked Marie what I should write about. She said, "The boys." Smart answer - incriminating one's siblings is an important skill when you're three. This wasn't really enough to go on, though. I pressed her further. "The boys dancing," she said.

I've no idea what she was talking about. The boys haven't done any dancing recently. They do like a good ceilidh, though. It's an excuse to wear a kilt and twirl round at high speed until they feel ill. Unfortunately, someone taught them that the purpose of sporrans is to collect other people's loose change and so they have a tendency to walk up to other dancers, point at the region of their groin and demand cash. This is kind of embarrassing.

Maybe next time I should claim they're helping me with something.

Or maybe not...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS The pronunciation war continues. I overheard Marie taking my side with one of the (Scottish) helpers at parent and toddler the other day.

"I made biscuits with daddy last week," she said excitedly.

The helper duly made a show of being interested. "You made biscuits last week? That's nice."

Marie shook her head. "No, we made biscuits laa-st week."

The helper didn't get the problem and just tried to sound even more interested. "You made biscuits la-st week. What kind of -"

"No!" said Marie, jumping up and down in frustration. "We made biscuits LAA-ST week."

"Yes, I know. You made biscuits la-st week. I wanted to know what kind of -"

"No," said Marie, starting to speak loudly and slowly, clearly believing she was dealing with a particularly stupid adult. "WE MADE BISCUITS LAAAA-ST WEEK!"

The helper was aware by this point that something was slightly amiss but couldn't quite put her finger on it. A small child was saying something, she was repeating it back verbatim and somehow the small child was getting upset. It was a mystery and she couldn't seem to think of a way out. "You made biscuits la-st week?" she said.

Marie prepared to explode.

Luckily, it was time to go. I grabbed my daughter and ran, leaving a trail of exasperated long vowel sounds behind us. The two of them might have gone on for hours otherwise.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

My pet consumer

Dear Dave,

Our efforts to teach Fraser the value of money are failing miserably.

He was always pestering us for stuff, so we started giving him a pound a week pocket money. Now, if he wants something, he has to buy it himself. We thought giving him money of his own would dissuade him from demanding the first shiny thing which came to hand whenever he walked into a shop. The hope was that he would be more discerning.

The reality was that we lost a certain level of control on his purchases.

How much tack can he fill the house with before he gets the idea? We've got the dreaded Golden Coin Maker and Scooby-Doo! Cyber Chase, more pokemon cards than is sensible, various oddly shaped plastic doodads, a santa with flashing LEDs, some fluffy pencil toppers, a compass and three packets of gingernut biscuits. He won the biscuits in a tombola that he insisted on entering despite the fact there was nothing he wanted to win.

He blew four pounds on a Lazy Town sticker book at the school book fair the other day. I took exception to this for a number of reasons:
  • He blew three pounds he didn't have on stickers, this time last year. He was broke but he was so desperate for this box of random stickers, he took out a loan against his future income. Then he didn't use them. They've been sitting on his bedroom table gathering dust for months... next to several hundred stickers left over from some birthday or other... only a few feet from the half-full tub of 2000 stickers Lewis got for Christmas... and under a shelf upon which rests a still sealed box of Scooby-Doo! stickers the grandparents turned up with one day.

    There's probably more stickers in the the kids' arts-and-crafts drawer...

    He doesn't need more stickers.
  • The school book fair is a bit of a money-making scam. In essence, it's a bookstall that's set up at parent-teacher evenings for parents to buy their kids vaguely educational books. An outside company supplies the books but the school gets a cut of the sales or free books or something.

    The catch is that the teachers take the kids to look at and fondle the books during class time. Their desire for ownership is conceived without parental caveat and then fuelled by discussing with friends what they're all going to get. It's further reinforced as they spend the rest of the day trying to remember what 'their' book is called so they can place an order when they get home. It's pretty hard to exert any influence by then.

    I'd rather the school just asked for donations. We'd pay less, they'd get more and I'd still have shelf-space.

    What's next? Is the school going to sign up with Amway?
  • Fraser's not actually a great fan of Lazy Town. Sure, he'll watch it and enjoy it but he'd rather watch a dozen other things. If I'd offered to buy him a book and taken him to a proper bookshop, he'd have come home with something pokemon related.
  • He's supposed to be saving up for Super Paper Mario on the Wii. He'd have enough money by now if it weren't for yet more pokemon cards and for the sticker book. This is particularly galling because I want to play it.

    Barring the tooth fairy taking matters into her own hands and turning up with pliers, however, he's not going to be able to afford the game until Christmas i.e. the point when the boys (and myself) will be getting various other games anyway and won't have time for them all. In the meantime, Fraser gets to sit around not twiddling his thumbs because he's finished everything he can be bothered to play and spent his cash on stickers he didn't need.
  • He hasn't read the books he got from the last book fair.
Maybe some of that's a little uncharitable. I chose the books last time and I did so on the basis that they looked both entertaining and educational. He really wanted the Lazy Town sticker book even then but they were out of stock when I got there. He's been wanting the book for six months - that's not just the passing whim of a magpie who's seen something shiny and suddenly must have it. It's the tenacious whim of a magpie who's seen something shiny and just will not let it go. Ever.

Still, you've got to admire his stubbornness.

I asked him twice if he really wanted it. I suggested other things he might want instead. He was adamant he wanted the sticker book. I couldn't see the point, I didn't think it was a good idea but... I let him buy it anyway.

You see, I have issues:

When I wasn't much older than him, I really wanted to get a handheld Pac-Man game. I even went to Jarrold's in Norwich with my mum to buy it. I had my birthday money ready. I'd been saving up. I was going to get it.

Except my mum asked me if I was sure so many times that she made me unsure.

I didn't get the game. Admittedly, it cost £18 twenty-five years ago, so it was pretty expensive, but I had the cash and I really wanted it. I would have played it until my thumb fell off. Then I would have turned it upside down and played it until my other thumb fell off. I would have loved and cherished that little Pac-Man machine. Instead, I got left with the lasting impression that spending money on something I wanted was somehow wrong unless (a) it was cheap or (b) my mother could see the point of it.

The upshot is that I can spend several hundred pounds on a discounted washing machine without batting an eye but I go through a lengthy internal dialogue whenever I get the urge to spend a fiver on a computer game magazine. A dialogue that my mum usually wins. I reluctantly put the magazine back on the shelf and then walk a couple of miles home in the rain.

When I arrive back at the house, dripping the contents of a small cloud onto the carpet, I justify the decision to walk by claiming that it's good exercise. If pressed, I might add that it's stressful fighting my way onto the bus with the buggy. The real reason, however, is that walking saves me the pound for the fare. If I've got the boys with me, it saves me two pounds twenty. Each way. That's worth getting a little wet for. (Although the boys may not entirely agree). Besides, my mum never catches the bus, so it must be a waste of money.

I wish I'd stuck to my guns over Pac-Man. I might have a little more perspective and a better idea of the value of money myself.

I want Fraser to be sensible with money. I want him to learn to live within his means. I want him to be able to plan prudently for the future. I want him to consider the effects his purchases have on the exploitation of the planet and of other people. I want him to understand the importance of money but not base his life upon it. I want him to be able to give money to those who need it. In short, I want him to be wise but generous. It would be nice, however, if he was also able to spend money on himself without feeling bad about it.

Most of those things I need to teach him. At least, I'll attempt to teach them to him - he won't listen but I'll have tried. The last one I need to remember not to knock out of him.

Wish me luck.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS My mum never catches the bus because she has a car and drives everywhere. I really need to get a grip.

Friday 16 November 2007

Protective perspective

Dear Dave,

You're right. Kids make you worry. Two kids is twice the worry and you only have half as much available time to fit all the worrying in. You need to concentrate your worry on major risks.

If only I knew what those were...

I seem to spend a great deal of my time shouting warnings about imminent catastrophe:

"Don't do that!"

"Look where you're going!"

"Watch what you're doing!"

"Don't stand there!"

"Don't touch that!"

Unfortunately, my voice usually carries the same sense of urgency whether 'that' is a sweet on the ground, my PSP, a python or an electrical substation. If the kids are doing something liable to cause injury, I will often throw in "It's dangerous!" If they're doing something hugely stupid, I might even go so far as to say "It's very dangerous!"

Still doesn't really give them a particularly clear picture of risk, though.

"Stop waving your fork around. It's dangerous!" isn't much of a step up from, "Watch out! Careful with your milk!" In fact, the latter is actually likely to create more of an impression thanks to the words escaping my throat in a frantic scream as I lunge across the table to catch a teetering cup. My kids probably live more in fear of giving me extra cleaning than they do of impaling their siblings with kitchen utensils.

I guess this will make them normal, though. It's hard to realistically determine probabilities and weigh likely rewards against possible disasters. It's not really surprising the kids don't have a clue. I don't even know what the most likely calamities might be and how badly they could go. Running with scissors probably is pretty dangerous (if they have a pointed end) and so is hopping with knives but how dangerous is dancing with a spoon? What level of warning should I use? Does it depend on the size of the spoon? The style of dance? The proximity of crockery?

Or should I just let the poor kid enjoy herself for a change without me prophesying doom?

The media doesn't help. I saw an item on the main ITV evening news the other week that was all shock and horror about the dangers of hazardous drinking. A large glass of wine every night is a hazardous level of consumption! Well-to-do rich people are drinking too much! Shock! Horror! Not once was it mentioned in what way this level of drinking was hazardous, nor to how great an extent. They did, however, imply a causal relationship between having an expensive house and drinking too much. This means that it's not really the drinking that's the root cause of danger - it's buying a mansion.

As I said, the media isn't much help.

Then again, neither is personal experience much good at assessing most risks. I know from experience that if we go to the swing park there's a good chance that someone will scrape a knee but what's the chance of one of the kids getting snatched? Considering I'm not in the middle of a custody battle, vanishingly small, probably, but all I've got to go on is hearsay and media reports. And I've already established that the media isn't much help.

Nope, it's very hard to tell what's really worth worrying about. Still, in terms of the amount of thought and effort I put into preventing disaster, these are the dangers I feel most threaten my children:

10. Food. Between obesity and food poisoning, additives and E numbers, E. Coli and bird flu, there are any number of food related scares around. I'm considering moving the kids over to a diet of lime juice and crackers, just to be on the safe side.

9. Going to hospital. Hospitals are full of germs and sick people. Must avoid.

8. Dirty hands. Dirty hands are covered in germs and cause sick people. Must wash.

7. My old Xbox. The instruction manual contains only one warning about photosensitive seizures but FOUR about not dropping the thing on a small child. Do the maths.

6. Dog poo. We have some inconsiderate dog owners round our way. I spend a great deal of time telling the kids to look where they're about to put their feet. Strangely, this usually makes them look behind them. They've got used to wandering around peering over their shoulder to see if they've just stepped in doo-doo. This is not hugely safe or convenient. I see dog poo on the pavement and shout at the kids, they look behind them, step in it and then walk into a lamppost.

5. Coffee. It's hot and spillable which is a dangerous combination. Luckily, it's usually gone cold by the time I get a chance to drink it.

4. Traffic. The boys have got the hang of the 'Stop' part of 'Stop, Look & Listen' but haven't yet realised that the other two are quite tricky if they're talking at me. A couple of days ago, while we were already halfway across a road, I told them to stop wittering about Mario and look for cars. Unfortunately, this just led to even worse distraction. Fraser promptly shouted, "Look! There's a car," and pointed at a car that was not only in the wrong direction but also on a different road. Handy.

3. Each other. When the boys were younger, I turned round from the washing up to find Fraser stabbing Lewis in the head with a fork as they sat quietly eating their tea.

2. Themselves. On closer examination, the number of triple puncture wounds suggested that Lewis had been letting him do this for a while.

1. Zombies. I watched 28 Weeks Later recently. Since then, most of my spare brainpower at any given moment has been devoted to locating emergency exits and suitable materials for barricades in case of the unexpected arrival of a horde of the living dead. It may not be a very likely threat but its consequences would be catastrophic. Best to be prepared.
That's the list. Essentially, if I gave each of the kids an eating utensil and a turkey sandwich while I was drinking coffee and we all followed a dog along beside a busy road on the way to the hospital, that's the most dangerous situation imaginable. Unless it started raining Xboxes... or zombies.

I suppose I could always take comfort in the fact that we all had clean hands.

Right, I'm off to purchase emergency plastic bags, a chainsaw, some bear-traps and a shotgun in preparation for the inevitable undead apocalypse. Got to keep the kids safe, after all. And it beats worrying about which secondary school would be best...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 14 November 2007

The smell of things to come

Dear Dave,

For a language that has so many redundant words, English has a few peculiar omissions.

I mean, why isn't there a simple, polite word for having sex? Consider how many words there are for something like, say, 'walk'. There's amble, stroll, saunter, plod, stride, tramp, trudge and traipse just for starters and that's for something that no one spends any time consciously thinking about after the age of three. Sure, you could argue that each of those words has slightly different connotations and that they're all useful but then, why isn't there a similar set, based on pace and enthusiasm, for having sex? It's a bit weird.

Another omission is the word I constantly find myself searching for in order to refer to Sarah's brother-in-law. By which, I hasten to add, I don't mean anything derogatory, I just mean it's quite difficult talking about someone I have to constantly describe as my wife's brother-in-law. This is not a handy phrase. It's even ambiguous. Listeners who aren't entirely awake sometimes wonder why I'm going on about my own brother in such a round-about way.

Of course, I'm really talking about Chris, the guy married to Sarah's sister, Catriona, and the reality is that he's not a very close relation to me. Our respective parents have never met, for instance - that's pretty distant. On the other hand, however, I regularly end up spending Christmas day with him and he's the uncle of my children. You'd think I'd have a simple, polite word for him, wouldn't you?

But, no. As far as the language is concerned, he's not really a relative, and to describe him as a friend seems odd and, let's face it, something of a lie. Somehow, though, I spent quite a large part of Saturday round his house as one of a select group of guests at his birthday party. I got to drink his beer, eat his vol-au-vents, help with the washing up and be 'hilariously' asked if I'd brought my own pinny. (Grrr).

'The 2 Cs' have a lot of money, a big house and three cars. Most of their furniture and ornaments seem to be made of fragile, yet expensive, materials. Chris works long hours doing something impressive in the financial sector and Catriona is head of fund-raising for a major charity. They're nice enough (especially Catriona) but visiting them always feels like entering another world. It's partly because they're older and partly because their kids (Lisa and Ned) are teenagers but mainly because we just don't see entirely eye-to-eye.

Chris is the person in the family most likely to say to me things along the lines of:
'When are you going back to work?'
'Whatever are you going to do with yourself once Marie's at nursery?'
'I don't know how you do it. I'd go mad sitting around the house all day.'
'Have you learnt to knit yet?'
'It must be nice having such a short commute.'
'We all know who wears the trousers in your house.'

You know the type.

It wouldn't be so bad but he has a tendency to say at least three of these things every time I see him and then laugh in a fashion that suggests he thinks he's been particularly witty. I've given up arguing with him. I just shake my head and turn a blind-eye to Marie hiding strawberries in his shoes.

I won't go into the details of the day. I've had a cold since the end of last week and most of the weekend is actually a hazy blur. I had my work cut out just keeping it together enough to make sure the kids didn't start playing Frisbee with Catriona's glass coasters. I do recall, though, that we weren't allowed to just sit around chatting - we had to listen to Lisa play the violin, there was a nasty spate of Charades and then... Oh goodness, it's all coming back... there was a karaoke machine present and Chris' Great Aunt Edith has a fondness for The Locomotion...

I escaped upstairs to visit the bathroom. I stayed there as long as I thought I could get away with. Then, as I was heading back across the landing, I heard familiar sound effects from one of the bedrooms. The door was ajar and I poked my head round to look.

It took me a moment to adjust to the darkness.

And the smell.

I was aware that I had entered Ned's room. He's fourteen. There was a pungent mix of BO, cigarettes and dead gerbil in the air. There were hints of other things, too, but I really didn't want to think about those.

Ned was hunched over his mouse and keyboard, his white face palely illuminated beneath his hoodie by the light from his computer monitor. He was swearing profusely as he shot things.

Ned goes to a private school but you wouldn't know it. He looks like he's fallen off the back of a Eminem album.

I hesitated, unsure what to do. I'm not good at handling teenagers. Five-year-olds I can deal with but I struggled to interact with adolescents even when I was one. Still, I thought I'd better make my presence known. I tapped on the doorframe.

Ned glanced in my direction. "Hiding from dad," he grunted. I wasn't sure whether he meant it as a question for me or as a statement about himself.

"Yeah," I replied, non-committally. At least he hadn't sounded particularly grouchy. I risked entering the room further. The floor was uneven and squishy beneath my feet. "Is that Portal?" I asked.


"Mind if I watch for a bit?"

He shrugged. "If you want."

I shuffled through the darkness and gingerly sat down on the edge of his bed. The blackout curtains made it difficult to see anything but the screen. Somewhere, the squeak of a rusty wheel suggested that the gerbil was not entirely dead.

I watched the game in silence for a while. It looked good but then Ned became stuck with a puzzle. He started swearing some more.

"Would you like help?" I asked, spotting the solution.



There was silence again. After a couple of minutes of trial-and-error, he worked out what to do. "You played it?" he said.

"Not yet," I replied, surprised he'd made an attempt at conversation. "I'll rent it sometime. I played Half-Life 2 on the original Xbox. That was pretty good."


His concentration returned to the game. I watched a little longer but I had the distinct impression we were done. "I'll leave you to it. I need to go check on the kids."

"Bye," he muttered.

"Yeah, bye," I said and went back down, just in time to be roped into a rendition of YMCA.

It was the longest chat we'd had in several years, which is a bit pathetic, now I think about it. Chris may be such a distant relative that there's no word for it, but Ned is my nephew. Time was, he used to spend Christmas afternoon getting me to guess the names of all the pokemon on his new cards. After several years of spending Christmas afternoon running round feeding, changing and entertaining my own offspring, I'd emerged from my preoccupation to find he'd changed from a know-it-all seven-year-old into a shambling mound of matted hair and hormones. Now I actually knew the names of the pokemon, he'd moved on to shooting games, explicit music and horror films.

He'll probably come out the other side of that in a few years as a balanced, well-rounded individual (just like I did) but I was troubled by the whole encounter. My boys are five and seven now. I don't fancy the thought that, in not so very long, I'll need to pack a flashlight, a shovel and a bottle of Febreze in order to enter their rooms.

On Saturday, as I flailed my arms about above my cowboy hat, I wondered what could be done to avoid such a future. Maybe nothing. Nonetheless, I resolved to continue spending time with Fraser and Lewis, even though they've grown good at entertaining themselves now. My mind was befuddled by cold symptoms and disco, however - I also resolved to grow a bushier moustache than Edith's so that I get to be the one in the leathers next year.

Luckily, I stopped short of telling her that.

I just wasn't entirely in a fit state. We left soon afterwards, before Chris found a reason to put his shoes on.

Now I'm a bit better but I'm still troubled. I'm hoping Ned's OK and just suffering from age-related sullenness but the prospect of adolescents living in my own house seems closer than it has ever done before. It's a few years away yet but maybe that's just lazy thinking. I need to start planning now. I need to make sure to talk to the kids regularly and occasionally make sure they talk to me. I need to teach them about life, educate them and warn them. I need to hide the beer and my wallet. I need to...

I need to calm down.


That's better.

Maybe I just need to keep on doing my best to pay attention to them. That's good for a start. Beyond that, I don't know, although I should probably never leave them in sole charge of any small creatures, including gerbils, goldfish and their sister - I suspect it wouldn't go well.

Yours in a woman's world,


* * *

Dear other Daves and non-Daves,

If you haven't already, go leave some feedback at the DadsDinner review!

Friday 9 November 2007

Special talents

Dear Dave,

There's some really scary stuff on TV these days. The news presents us with a hundred disasters from around the world which we can't fix, and blinds us to the difference we can make in our families and communities. Soap operas blur the boundary of fiction and reality by telling the stories of 'normal' people whose 'normal' lives involve rather a lot of lying, cheating and murder. And then there's the episode of Bob the Builder where Dizzy gets carried away and they all drown slowly in a vast pit of wet cement.

Actually, no, I just imagined that last one. ('Can we fix it? Yes we... glurk...')

I didn't imagine an episode of Clifford's Puppy Days I saw recently, though. The little red dog and his animal friends were organising some kind of party. (You can probably tell I was watching every detail intently). Each of them found a job to do that suited their special talent. For instance, the bird could fly up and hang the ceiling decorations. Clifford went around giving assistance but got a bit upset because he couldn't work out what his special talent was. He kept being reassured that he had one - he just had to discover it. In the end, everyone agreed that Clifford's talent was helping people. After all, everyone has something special they're good at.


Maybe all that was meant was that no one's rubbish at everything. It didn't come across that way, however. The implication was that everyone has a unique gift that marks them out. There's an episode of Tweenies that has an identical plot and message. (Jake's special talent turns out to be that he's the best at being an audience!)

As I see it, though, special talents aren't usually things that can just be discovered. Sure, everyone is better at some things than others, but to turn something that we're good at into something we have a real talent for takes work and dedication. I know a kid who wants to be a professional footballer. He's always been good at football but honing his talent involves training four days a week plus regular matches and he's been doing this for years.

He's ten.

That's a lot of commitment with no guarantees at the end.

Suggesting that we all, by rights, have something we're great at undervalues effort and is bound to lead to disappointment. We are not all born equal - unique and equally deserving of love, but not equal. We have different natural abilities and different opportunities. If we teach our children to derive their self-worth from what they are capable of doing compared to others, it's unlikely they will have a clear picture of themselves. It is up to them, with our help and encouragement, to make the most of their own circumstances but, even then, putting in effort doesn't necessarily lead to success.

Failure happens. I know I don't have to look far to see that. As a housedad, the day can bring all kinds of possibilities:
  • A glorious visit to the swing park packed with fun and giggles.
  • A roundabout disaster resulting in vomit and tears, followed by a walk home in the rain without waterproofs.
  • Shouting and frustration.
  • Cuddles and stories.
  • Neverending Teletubbies and Play-Doh soiled socks.
  • Homemade biscuits and sandcastles.
  • Dozing beneath a blanket on the sofa with a sick child under my arm.
Some days go better than others for us all but our children are no less special on the difficult days and neither are we. Love them, cherish them and look after them. Their special talent is being them. Help them to make the most of it.

Oh, and tell them not to listen to Clifford. He and his friends have a special talent for talking nonsense. They've been practicing for years.

* * *

Moments from the last week when each of my children were themselves and made me smile:
  • At school, Fraser had to pretend to be a Viking setting off to settle in a distant land and write about his experiences. As far as provisions were concerned he wrote the following:

    'I packed plenty of vegetables like sweetcorn and carrots but not potatoes because they're undiscovered yet.'

  • Lewis appeared to be having a disagreement with his swimming instructor and I went over to intervene. He was wearing armbands made of green foam and she wanted him to put on orange ones. She explained to me that the orange ones were much less bouyant and he didn't need the green ones anymore. I explained that Lewis really, really likes green.

    Somehow I had to persuade him to swap. "Put the orange ones on instead, Lewis."

    He wasn't having any of it. "I want to wear the green ones."

    "The orange ones will help you learn to swim better," I coaxed.


    The obvious answer was 'because they'll make you sink'. Luckily, I have a fair amount of experience with this whole dad thing now and I chose my words carefully. "Because they're made of different stuff."

    "Oh, OK," he said and swapped them over excitedly.

    The mind of a five-year-old is a truly peculiar place.

  • I was hurrying Marie up to her bath and she screamed and shouted, "You don't chase me! You don't chase me!"

    "OK," I said, trying to quell her panic. "I won't chase you."

    "Good," she said. "We just be friends, OK?"

    "All right," I said, nodding.

    Then, suddenly all smiles, she reached out and led me hand-in-hand up the stairs, laughing to herself. It was unexpected and lovely.
Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 7 November 2007

eBay comes to us all

Dear Dave,

"They want fireworks?"

"Yep," said Rob, sitting across the table from me. "And not just a couple of rockets and a sparkler. They want our names written in flame."

"Oh, goodness." As his best man, I'd gone round to his flat for the evening to chat about the impending celebrations while his fiancee, Kate, was at my house, receiving wedding wisdom from Sarah. "Are you going to arrive in a vintage car to the sound of bagpipes and then be ushered in for caviar nibbles and the gentle melody of a string quartet?"

"Something like that. Kate's parents have pretty much given up on her brother ever settling down, so this is their one chance at wedding glory. Money's no object and it's all going crazy. Have a look at this catalogue."

He handed me a glossy brochure which was at least half an inch thick and I began to flick through it.

I glanced at my stopwatch. "You've only got a minute left, by the way."

"I'm thinking."

"Don't think too long," I said, "or I'll rip your arms off and feed them to you."

"OK, OK, I'm a little out-numbered here. You won't be laughing so hard when it's my turn to play the Genestealers."

"We'll see. Forty-five seconds."

Well, we told the women-folk we were going to chat about the wedding but the table wasn't exactly spread with seating planners. It was covered with squared, cardboard tiles representing the interior layout of a derelict spaceship. Up one corner, a handful of little plastic figures marked where Rob's space marines were cowering in fear from an imminent assault by my encroaching horde of four-armed, slobbering aliens. We were playing Space Hulk. Littered amongst the bits of board were counters, dice, snacks and beer.

I didn't feel too bad, though. We'd mentioned the wedding on occasion and at least I was looking at a catalogue. It appeared to be entirely full of outlandish cakes, however. Each was oddly evocative of a three-way collision between a fairground ride, a flower arrangement and a confectionery shop.

"Gah," said Rob in frustration. "I'll move this guy here and put him on overwatch. And move flamer guy along..."

"Thirty seconds."

"And then my last guy will panic and shoot blindly down this corridor while swearing loudly."

"Fine," I said, handing him some dice. "You need a six."

He rolled a five. "Do I get any bonuses for the swearing?"

"No, but you've got two more shots and fifteen seconds to take them."

"OK," he said. "Give me the dice."

"I just gave you the dice."

"No, you didn't. Give me the dice."

"You just rolled one of them. Look. Here." I picked two dice off the table where he'd put them and handed them to him again. "Three seconds." He flung them down and they ricocheted off a tub of Pringles, bounced and flew up in the air. One landed in a jar of salsa dip and the other danced off the table and disappeared under the sofa.

The stopwatch beeped.

We looked at each other and then both leaned forward and peered into the jar. "Chunky," I said. The dice was beginning to sink but it clearly showed a two. "Better go find the other one. You need a four."

"You were rushing me," he muttered as he got down on his hands and knees and started poking around under the furniture. "Did you see where it went?"

"The dice are your responsibility during your go." I turned my attention back to the catalogue. "There really isn't anything in here but cakes... Oh, my mistake, here are some swans."

"Technically, it's now your go," he said, his voice somewhat muffled from beneath the table. "Want to come help me look under here?"

I munched on some Pringles and sucked spicy tomato from a numbered cube. "It's not my go until that shot is resolved. Is there anything in this catalogue other than cakes and swans?"

"The swans are cakes, too," Rob said, emerging somewhat dustily from his search and handing me another, even glossier, brochure. "THIS catalogue is for the nuptial livestock."

"You're kidding..." I took the book from him. "You're not kidding. Tell me you're not planning a release of live butterflies."

"Nah. I was thinking more along the lines of some white doves. Someone lets a couple go every so often and that's our cue to pull out a pair of Uzis and shoot at each other in slow motion while various bits of scenery explode."

"A John Woo theme," I said, rubbing my chin. "Interesting. How's that sitting with Kate's parents?"

"They're not so keen. Mike's up for it, though."

"He's just humouring you. When it comes to the actual day, you'd better be taking things seriously. You've picked the wrong minister to mess with. Any sign of doves and he'd whip a shotgun out of his robes and fill them with buckshot before we got a chance to move. Then he'd get on with the service as if nothing had happened. You know it's true."

Rob considered this for a moment. "It is, isn't it?" he said, slightly nervously.

"Uh-huh," I nodded. "And don't think you're done when the wedding's over. He'll grab you by the shoulder every few months, look you in the eye and ask you if you're keeping your vows. It's part of the on-going customer service."

"He'll get on well with my future mother-in-law... Are you going to have your turn?"

"Oh, yeah." I'd forgotten about the game. Rob's under-the-sofa shot had hit (allegedly) but I was still in a strong position. As the alien player, I also didn't have to race against the clock. I took my time. "I'm going to move this slavering monster with big teeth up the corridor while your guy shoots at it..." Rob rolled some dice and then swore. "...until his gun jams. Then these other slavering monsters with big teeth..." I moved a counter into his marine's line of sight, flipped it over and replaced it with three plastic figures. "...are going to use their enormous claws to turn him into mince." I rolled some dice. Rob rolled some dice. I banged my head on the table.

Rob smirked as he removed my three Genestealers from the board. "What are the chances of you rolling a total of eleven on nine six-sided dice?"

"I don't want to think about it," I said, in between bangs. "Tell me what you're expecting me to do for the wedding."

"You're best man. You've got to organise the stag night for starters."

I moved some more little plastic aliens. They all got shot or flambeed. "Are you sure that's wise?" I replied. "My idea of a good evening is going to the cinema, having a couple of drinks and then grabbing a bag of chips on the way home."

"I was thinking more of a weekend than an evening," said Rob, starting his go. I reset the stopwatch.

"See. I'm just bound to get it wrong. If I'm in charge of a weekend, we'll end up knitting."

Rob wasn't having any of it. "Take us go-karting, or something. Come on. A weekend away from the kids! Must be tempting."

I contemplated a couple of days with a group of younger, salaried blokes whom I didn't know very well. It's the kind of situation I cope with much better if I have my three small human shields running round me. I couldn't really say no, though. "OK, I'll look into it," I sighed. "When's the wedding going to be, anyway?"

Rob shrugged. "Not sure. After the baby's born, definitely. Kate's getting big already and she doesn't want to look like a fairy that's swallowed a blimp in the photos." He paused in the middle of moving one of his pieces and looked worried. "Just don't tell her I put it like that, all right?"

"Wouldn't dream of it..."

My mobile rang and I answered it. "No, this isn't Kevin... Nope, I don't know anyone called Kevin. You've got the wrong number." I hung up. "That's the third time today. It's different people phoning up to offer this guy job interviews. I've had a couple of texts as well."

"Don't think I'd hire someone who got his phone number wrong on his CV," said Rob without glancing up from the board.

"Tell me about it. Two minutes left." He continued dithering over his marines. My eyes wandered around the room. The walls were stacked floor to ceiling with books, games and objects of geeky desire. It was like a rift in space and time had opened and half the stock of the local Forbidden Planet had fallen through. "It's a shame your study's going to have to go," I said. "What are you going to do with all this stuff?"

Rob looked at me blankly.

"Er..." I said. "This flat currently only has one bedroom. You're going to need two bedrooms. You have four available options: the kitchen, the bathroom, the lounge and this room. I would advise against the kitchen or the bathroom and your big telly is in the lounge. If, however, you were to replace the desk over there that's covered in computer equipment with a bed, this room would make quite a nice bedroom."

"Don't be daft," he said, concentrating once more on his marines. "A bed wouldn't fit in that space."

"True. You'd need to move the bookcase full of Deep Space Nine videos, the Lego Star Destroyer and the life-size cut-out of Lara Croft to fit a bed in, but you wouldn't need quite so much space for a cot. You might want to leave a decent splatter radius, though. Cleaning vomit out of Lego is a real pain - you have to use a toothbrush. One minute."

I was hoping I'd distracted him enough but he made sure to finish moving before he replied. His surviving marines had almost escaped and had thrown up a wall of flame behind them. My remaining Genestealer turned into a pile of ash and teeth.

"Hadn't really thought about it," he said. "Won't the cot be in our room?"

"For six months or so. Maybe longer. Depends whether you ever want a sound night's sleep again... or if you're planning any more."

Rob choked on his beer. "Give us a chance. It's months before the first one arrives."

"Three months. Might be less. It'll take you that long to off-load all this stuff on eBay." He looked horrified but I pressed on. "You could always move house instead but that's going to take time as well and, if you're faffing with mortgages, you're going to need to consider how much of the next few years Kate is going to be on limited pay. Or if she's going to be off for as little time as possible and you're going to be home. Or if you're both going to work and you have a wadge of nursery fees to find. How many children you're intending to have will affect all the calculations. Better start thinking."

The shutters of denial went down behind Rob's eyes. "I thought we were supposed to be discussing the wedding. Your go."

I shook my head for any number of reasons. "You've as good as won," I said. "Set things up for a re-match while I go to the toilet. We can talk kilts when I get back. But just because you can fob me off, don't think you can do the same with Squirtle. He, she or it isn't going to go back in for a few days while you get round to auctioning off your Magic: The Gathering cards and Bobba Fett lunchbox."

Rob grinned. "You're just jealous I have them."

"Well, yeah," I said, heading out the door, "but that's not the point."

I left him to it. As I was washing my hands, I caught the distant but unmistakeable sound of an electronic rendition of The Ride of the Valkyries turned up loud enough to hear above traffic and three wittering children.

"Did my phone go?" I asked when I returned to the room.

"Yeah," said Rob, putting the last of the plastic figures into place. "It was for Kevin. I told the woman I was his parole officer and that I was wondering where he'd got to, too. I don't think she'll be bothering you again."

"Cheers." I sat down and reached for my beer and a pile of dice. "Now it's time to snack on fiery death, big-teethed alien scum." I went for a warm-up roll. I got five ones and a splattering of salsa.

"Or maybe not..." I added.

* * *

Hope you're keeping well, Dave. Everyone I meet at the moment seems to be suffering from something. Lewis is croaky from a sore throat, Fraser has an infection (don't ask where), Marie's been exposed to chickenpox and Sarah has come into contact with scarlet fever.

I'm just feeling nervous.

If we all get through this week without seeing a doctor, I'll be amazed...

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 5 November 2007

Greatest Hits

Dear Dave,

I was looking through some of our old correspondence and realised that there's now rather a lot of it. Here's a handful of my favourites.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Let me know if there are any others that you're particularly fond of.

Friday 2 November 2007

They really are silent

Dear Dave,

How are you holding up? Sure, it's tough having a new baby around but Daisy is five weeks old and she should be settling in by now. You ought to be acclimatised to tiredness, lack of sleep and limited free-time. What's maybe more of an issue just at the moment, is that Liz has been on maternity leave for a couple of months.

Have you driven each other mad yet?

The first weeks after Fraser was born were quite idyllic. I was about, Sarah was about, we learnt together how to be parents. It was a bit different second time round. There was more work to be done, for a start. We were both pretty busy. Beyond that, we both felt the effects of Sarah 'invading my work space'. I had my routines and rules and schedules in place and suddenly the boss was around all the time. I had to consult on decisions and give regular progress updates. Meanwhile, Sarah wasn't sure where she fitted in and often felt a bit pointless as I rushed around getting stuff done and failed to include her in case it slowed me down.

Of course, the tiredness, lack of sleep and limited free-time didn't really help matters.

Remember to work together and discuss your needs over the next few months. If you can talk when you're both relatively awake but the children are both asleep, so much the better. (Good luck with that...)

Thankfully, Sarah and I got by without too many arguments because we're fairly agreed on the general principles of parenting. We're both trying to achieve the same goals (i.e. happy, polite children who love Jesus and physics), even if the practical methods sometimes vary wildly. Sarah likes to get the kids out and about; I'm keen to make sure they get a chance to relax at home. She maintains discipline using a points system; I tend to employ shouting and banishment. As long as we know who's in charge of the kids at any given time, however, this isn't a problem. We just have to use the methods that work for us.

There can still be issues, though. These days, our main bone of contention is usually the pronunciation of certain words. It's one of the difficulties of a mixed marriage. The kids' accents still haven't become firmly established. Will they sound Scottish or English or just confused?

Fraser brought a book home from school last week to read for homework. I think the idea is that we're meant to find a quiet spot without distraction and he's supposed to read out loud while I correct and encourage. What normally happens is that, wherever we go, the moment we get comfortable, Lewis comes in wanting to play and Marie needs the toilet. This has a tendency to divide my attention. Fraser steams on, though, whether I'm listening or not. The book was about a naughty boy whose teacher stops him misbehaving by making him responsible for policing the other pupils. Fraser was a couple of paragraphs into the book before I became aware that something was awry.

"What's the boy called again?"

He paused and squinted at the name on the page. "Rage," he said uncertainly.

"Are you sure?"

"Not really. It keeps confusing me."

I took a closer look. "His name's Raj. The book's called Raj in Charge. It rhymes."

"Oh, OK." He started reading again. He's pretty good at it and continued clearly and without hesitation until the next time he got to the name. He paused. He squinted. He made a noise like a revving motor. "Rage?" he said.

"No, Raj. To rhyme with charge."

"Raj, OK." He kept reading. Everything was fine. Then he got to the name again. Pause. Squint. Rev. "Ray... Ra... Radge?"

"Nope. Rhymes with charge."

"Raj, OK." He managed about another half a sentence before he paused for another revving squint. "Ray-a-arge?"

"Close enough."

He just about had the hang of it by the time the book was finished. It reminded me of when he was at nursery and had a friend called Conor. Fraser had never heard the name 'Conor' before and couldn't cope. He called the poor kid 'Corner' for months.

The next day at breakfast, Fraser told Sarah about the book he'd read. He waved it at her and was a little way into his account before Sarah stopped him.

"What's the boy called again?"

He paused and squinted at the front cover. "Raj," he said uncertainly.

"Are you sure?"

"Not really. It keeps confusing me."

Sarah took a closer look. "His name's Raj. It rhymes with badge."

"That's not what Daddy said."

"Daddy's from another country. He speaks funny."

"You can talk," I piped up. "You pronounce the silent 'h's in words like whistle and where."

"For the last time, they ARE NOT silent."

"They are. The old joke proves it. How do you get two whales in a car? Along the M4 and across the Severn Bridge. Doesn't work unless the 'h' is silent."

"At least when I'm talking, everyone knows which witch is which. And you can't say bath."

"I can."

"No, you can't. You say baa-th."

"That's how it's supposed to be said."

"I don't think so."

We did a quick poll of the kids - we got two ba-ths and a baa-th. Then we did the poll again and got two baa-ths and a ba-th. They're obviously pretty confused. It could have been worse, though. At least we didn't call either of the boys Luke. I pronounce the name Loo-k. Sarah pronounces it Look. Having parents who argued over how to pronounce your name, probably wouldn't be that much fun.

As Sarah says it, 'Look at Luke' sounds the same as 'Luke at look.'

That just does my head in. Then again, she can't cope with the way I say 'aunt' and 'aren't' alike. She says 'aunt' and 'ant' alike. We can debate how the children should speak for hours.

Fraser returned us to the matter in hand.

"Daddy said it's Rarge."

"Maybe that's how they say it where Daddy comes from but, round here, everyone says Radge like me. Which do you think would be better for you to use?"

I had to concede that she had a point.

"Oh, OK," said Fraser. "Raj." It was somewhere in the middle. Compromise was reached.

I don't really know why we bother, though. He was probably calling the boy Rage again by lunchtime.

We'll have to wait and see what kind of hybrid accent the kids eventually settle on. They've all picked up different bits and pieces. Maybe I should do some more experiments. I think I'll start by getting Fraser to read out, 'Look, Luke, wear ants where aunts aren't," very fast a few times. That should be good for a laugh... (Or is that laff?)

All the best with finding your own compromises and staying sane.

Yours in a woman's world,