Dear Dave

Thursday 27 March 2008

Hedgehog overdose

Dear Dave,

I've got a sore head. I think it's partly due to the cold I've had for the last few days but it's mostly down to the cable channel we discovered recently which is filled almost entirely with ancient Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers cartoons. The boys have gone crazy over it. They demand to watch it every time it's their turn to choose. Coupled with the fact that Lewis got various Sonic games for his birthday, I think it's fair to say that I'm suffering from an overdose of The Blue Spiky One and his associates. I close my eyes and I see Dr Robotnik. It's not pleasant.

In an effort to recover, I'm going to take it easy next week, so don't expect any letters until the week after that. Hopefully I'll have shaken the disturbing image of Princess Toadstool at a Milli Vanilli concert by then. (Presumably because of licensing issues, no actual Milli Vanilli music features in the episode. Cartoon facsimiles of the duo dance around on stage to a generic melody. They move their lips but, spookily, no words come out... Then they get kidnapped by Bowser and have to be rescued by plumbers.) No wonder my head hurts.

Before I go and curl up under a blanket, I thought you might want to hear about the latest strange behaviour from my nephew Ned. I think I might just be able to jot it down before my brain explodes.

He turned up here after school last Wednesday. When I answered the door, I found him lurking on the front step. Even wearing his uniform, he looked dishevelled in that gangly way peculiar to fourteen-year-old boys. He grunted at me, walked in, dumped his bag and then slouched off to the study to play on my Xbox.

"Er, hi," I said.

I followed him and watched him rifle through my games collection. He quickly selected Tomb Raider: Anniversary, switched everything on without incident and then spent several minutes adjusting my office chair to his satisfaction.

I left him to it while I checked on the boys, started Marie on some painting and looked out stuff for tea. When I returned a quarter of an hour later, he hadn't got past the START screen. It features Lara standing in a ruin. If you don't press anything for a few seconds, she looks bored, yawns and then does some stretching.

Lara Croft doing some stretching is pretty hypnotic.

"Do your parents know you're here?" I asked

"Nope," he replied, his eyes fixed on the monitor.

"Is that a problem?"


I had no reason to believe he was lying. Chris and Catriona are normally at work when Ned comes out of school so who knows what he usually gets up to? Compared with many of the alternatives, my study wasn't such a bad place for him to be loitering. I tried to make him feel at home. "Do you want anything to drink?"


"How about to eat?"


"Can you say anything other than 'Nope'?"


"OK," I said. He was certainly acting like he felt at home. I decided not to push things. "Well, let me know if you need anything..." My voice trailed off.


Time slipped away.



"There's purple on my nose!"


I was broken from a dream by Marie's cry from the kitchen. I'd forgotten she was still painting. I realised that I'd been staring at Lara myself for a good couple of minutes.

"It's a great game. You should start playing," I called over my shoulder as I hurried through to clean up.

"Uh-huh," said Ned and finally got going.

He stayed for another hour or so and then emerged from the study to collect his bag. "Bye," he said as I poked my head into the hall to see what he was doing.

"Good to see you," I said. "Come again."

He grunted and let himself out.

I wonder what that was all about?

Anyway, I'm going to go lie down. Hope you're all well.

Take care.

Yours in a woman's world,


Tuesday 25 March 2008

Oh boy, that's a lot of candles

Dear Dave,

I'm getting old. I have to sit down to put on my socks, my eyebrows are becoming alarmingly bushy and I've started finding phones complicated. I'll be bald and have no teeth any day now. I'm forgetful and slightly mad already. It won't be long until the kids are the ones wheeling me around, rather than the other way about.

I don't fancy that. Knowing them, they'll leave me on a bus or something.

Marie: Where's Dad?
Fraser: Who?
Lewis: I thought you had him.
Marie: I wasn't pushing him.
Fraser: Neither was I.
Marie: It must have been you.
Fraser: It was Lewis.
Lewis: What was?
Fraser: It.
Lewis: No, it wasn't.
Fraser: Yes, it was.
Lewis: No, it wasn't.
Fraser: Yes, it...
Marie: Oh, never mind. He'll turn up. Let's go shopping...

I'll be stranded out at the airport without any cash, and phones will have evolved to a stage where I won't even be able to recognise them. I'll by forced to barter my dentures for a lift home.

No aspect of this scenario is pretty.

I found myself contemplating these things, however, thanks to the arrival of yet another birthday. I keep imagining that the next birthday will pass me by - that I won't be astonished at the way time has rattled along or be scared by another candle on the cake. I should be used to it by now. I ought to be, anyway, what with three birthdays a year and all.

Oh, yeah, sorry if that wasn't clear... I'm not talking about my own birthdays here. I can ignore them fairly easily and I lost track of my age in about 1998. If anyone asks, I'm twenty-five, OK? It's the kids' birthdays I mean. They're much harder to ignore. In fact, attempting to ignore them has a tendency to incite revolt within the household so I've given up. We have the full extravaganza, complete with cake and presents, parties and in-law visitations. Every time one of the children reaches another annual milestone, several days of excitement, disruption and sugar-fuelled mayhem ensue, making denial impossible. I simply can't avoid acknowledging that they've got another year older.

As I said, I should be used it. So why are they always such a shock? Surely, after so many, some of these birthdays should seem unremarkable?

I'd hoped that, last week, when Lewis' sixth birthday rolled round, the only trauma of any size would be organising the party. Why should knowing that he was older than five have been an issue? Six isn't a very significant age and, after all, he's the middle child. It's the ages of the eldest and youngest that really define life. Those ages determine where you can go, what you can do and how much it's likely to cost. Those are the scary ages.

Yeah, right.

Lewis was the youngest for a long time. Due to sleep deprivation from Fraser teething, I kind of blanked the pregnancy and Lewis' arrival felt almost unexpected. His existence was a constant surprise for months. He was a delightful baby and a happy little bundle in a difficult period of our lives. It seems like only yesterday that...

What am I saying? My little boy is six! Where has the time gone?

Argh! Note to self: Run around in a mad panic and then go and buy a motorbike!

I suspect this state of affairs will never change. As my own birthdays blend further into one, the kids' birthdays will continue to resolutely mark the passage of the years. Turning thirty-four myself was quickly forgotten. What's it going to be like, though, when Fraser turns thirty-four? Or Marie?

My little girl is thirty-four! Where has the time gone?

Argh! Hobble around in a confused daze and then go buy a motorised scooter with a shopping basket on the front!

Doesn't really bear thinking about. Ho well. I suppose that at least they won't be expecting me to lay on soft-play and sandwiches...

We're actually trying to encourage a move away from big parties for the boys already. It turns out that a soft-play full of a dozen almost-six-year-olds is an appreciably different experience from a soft-play full of ten almost-five-year-olds. It's noisier, rowdier and much more pointy. Trying something similar with even older children seems liable to create a Lord of the Flies incident. If I dare venture in to invigilate, they'll tie me to a scramble net and then bury me in squishy shapes. I will be forced to barter my hair for freedom. (And you thought baldness just happened...)

To avoid such a disaster, this year Fraser is going bowling with a smaller group. This will have its own challenges but I shouldn't come out of it needing to comb back my eyebrows in order to keep the top of my head warm.

Still, I wouldn't be too concerned if you're thinking of a big gathering for Sam when he turns four. Parties for children aren't the huge stress you might assume, as long as you don't hold them in your house. Your house is full of breakable things and will take hours to clear up; a party room at the soft-play (or a church hall if you're on a budget) can be blitzed clean in minutes.

Get them running about for a bit, throw in a game or two with prizes (Pass the Parcel and Musical Statues), feed them, do the cake and candles, play another game, send them home and then go and lie down in a darkened room for an hour or two. Easy.

They won't actually eat much food. Crisps, grapes, cocktail sausages and Chocolate Animals will mostly cover it. Add a few sandwiches and carrot sticks and you'll be sorted. (Don't forget to check for kids with special dietary requirements.) If you want to avoid major spills, hand out drinks in plastic bottles with sports-style caps (e.g. Fruit Shoots).

Do not let Sam open presents at the party. It will take ages and be dull. If he's anything like Fraser, the whole thing will also be accompanied by comments of, 'I've already got one of these', 'But I hate Power Rangers' and 'This is rubbish'. Best to make him wait until he gets home.

Keep party bags simple: a balloon, a snack-size chocolate bar, a small packet of sweets and a couple of little toys. Any child who isn't satisfied with that probably won't be satisfied whatever you put in, so don't worry about it. After an hour of soft-play, one of the kids at Lewis' party demanded to know where the bouncy castle was. Later, when his parents arrived, he threw a wobbly because there wasn't any swimming. There's not much to do in these situations except grin broadly and turn the music up louder to drown out the screaming.

Oh, that's right. Remember to take music. Pass the Parcel will be tricky without it... or a parcel.

OK, OK, you're not an idiot - you knew you'd need a parcel. Sorry. I'm old. Cut me some slack.

Now... Where did I leave those children?

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 21 March 2008

It's the holidays? Already?

Dear Dave,

It's the school holidays. No more having to get up early to make packed lunches and to harangue children into eating their breakfasts quickly. No more clubs and classes. No more having to hang around the playground every afternoon for half an hour because the boys come out twenty minutes apart. Just a sweeping expanse of time to fill with day-trips, leisurely activities and grocery shopping. Ah, bliss...

Well, that's been the case for previous school holidays, anyway. This time round is a little different. This is the first major holiday since Marie started at nursery and so the joy of not being constrained by an external schedule is tempered by the loss of the 'free-time' I normally have each morning when all the kids are out of the house. Next week may come as something of a shock to the system.

It's probably a good opportunity to assess how I've been getting along with my list of things I wanted to achieve while home alone. Let's see...




It's not gone so well, has it? I haven't cleaned, fixed or played anything. I've still only gone for coffee once. I went shopping for clothes but only bought a hat. I haven't made it to a Polish deli. I suppose I did find a Polish section in Tesco but that's not really the same. May I recommend Paluszki, though. They're like long, thin pretzel things. (I'd send you a photo but, now I've got them out of the cupboard to check what they're called, I'm too busy eating them...)

I haven't even managed much progress on zombie-proofing the house. I meant to go to B&Q for raw materials but, with one thing and another, it never happened. I've just settled for altering the sign in the front window so it reads, 'No hawkers, circulars, canvassers, snakes, spiders, cats, evil dwarves, brain-sucking alien invaders or living dead.' I feel this not only deals with the zombie issue but gives some added protection in case I inadvertently invite in a vampire or another ghoul turns up trying to hassle me into changing energy supplier.

Me: I'm really not interested in switching right now.
Ghoul: So you don't want to save money?
Me: Can't you read? Back to the Pit, foul fiend!

I find this usually gets them to leave...

So what have I been doing? Writing to you mainly, along with eating breakfast, catching up on the internet (it's grown a bit since I last looked), doing some chores and dusting off a couple of creative projects that have been moth-balled since 2002. I'm not achieving much more than I did before Marie started nursery but I'm freeing up time in the evening to lie around watching films with explosions while groaning slightly and eating Polish pretzels.

Never mind, maybe next term...

Now, excuse me a minute while I move these Paluszki out of reach...

That's better, they're gone now. (Munch... Munch...) Honestly. (Munch...)

Yours in a woman's world,


PS If you're wondering about the 'creative projects', here's a little something for Easter that I've been working on.

Thoughts for Good Friday

I saw the universe in a cup of coffee, reflected light twinkling in the swirling black. I wondered at the vastness of creation and the care with which it was made.

I felt warm and comforted.

I saw beauty in a cherry tree, a canopy of blossom rippling in the breeze. I marvelled at the complexity of life and smiled at the sunshine on my face.

I felt warm and comforted.

I saw your glory in a stormy sky, power and provision swirling together in the wind and rain. I looked out my window and knew the safety of your protection.

I felt warm and comforted.

But it could not last...

I was in a forest, rough bark scraping at my fingers as I fought my way through the clinging darkness. I stumbled into a clearing and peered up to find the heavens wide and still, a thousand stars staring down at me from a void which went on forever.

And I was cold and terrified.

Then I remembered the tears you shed at the death of a friend.
I remembered the uncertainty which gripped you as you waited to be betrayed.
And I remembered the hard wood onto which you were nailed.

I remembered the coffee and the cherry tree and the rain against my window.
I remembered all that I am and all that I have been.

And I was still cold and frightened...
But I knew that I was not alone.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

The mind control is failing

Dear Dave,

How's Sam getting on at nursery these days? Marie really enjoyed it at first. Then, after a couple of weeks, she comprehended it was every day and started complaining that she didn't want to go any more. She shuffled towards the nursery door each morning, shoulders slumped, head hung low, and complained she was tired. I showed very little sympathy. I told her to get used to it 'cos she had another fourteen and a half years of education left to go, and then I gave her a little shove to make sure she made it across the threshold.

This approach seems to have paid off, since she's now much more used to the idea. She comes out a lot less grumpy at the end of the morning. I get to hear about the snack she had and the story and sometimes a few of the things she's learned. They've been talking about health and food recently.

It's nice to listen to what she's been up to but it's a bit scary to realise that even my little girl is no longer entirely under my control. The kids are getting older. Other people teach them things without me being present. I don't get to police the flow of information to their brains and I'm constantly surprised when they tell me things which I didn't know they knew. The other day, Fraser was aware that the Himalayas are the highest mountain range in the world. I didn't tell him that. They must actually teach him stuff at school. What with all you hear about the state education system, this was more than I'd really bargained on. I was thinking of it as free childcare with some added social integration but there's definitely more to it than that. He's not yet eight but he can do simple division, recite information about Vikings and read Harry Potter books without moving his lips. I wonder what else they're teaching him? Actually, hang on a minute, he can read. He could be teaching stuff to himself!

This isn't good. He has enough opinions already. Imagine what it will be like if he has facts to back them up... I'm doomed.

Ho well. Then again, sometimes I'm surprised by what the kids don't know. Usually it's just a simple misunderstanding, like the time Marie asked, "Can I have some more juice please, Daddy?" (At least that's what I think she asked. It's possible she might have said, "I want more juice, slave!" but that's not important.)

"Sorry, Marie," I replied. "The juice has all gone, I'm afraid."

"Oh," she said. "Are you scared of the juice, Daddy?"

Other times, the misunderstanding can be much less simple:

Fraser had to read to me from a book about India for his homework. One passage was to do with fishermen who work at the shore in tiger reserves. The book said that they wear masks on the backs of their heads to scare off the tigers. Fraser read the words fluently but I was suspicious that he hadn't understood their sense when he looked at the picture of the fishermen and said, "What have they got on their heads?"

"Those are masks," I explained. "It means they can keep working without having to look over their shoulders all the time to make sure a tiger isn't creeping up on them. If a tiger sees their masks, it will think they're looking at it. That means it won't attack because it will think they'll see it coming and fight back."

Fraser was puzzled. "What if there's another tiger in front of them?"

"They really will be looking at that one," I said patiently, "so it won't attack them either."

"But what if the two tigers talk to each other?" he said, his face screwed up in confusion. "If they both say they see faces, then they'll know it's a trick."

I suddenly understood the scale of the issue I was dealing with. "Er... Tigers can't talk."

"I know," he said, to my relief. Unfortunately, he then followed that up with, "I mean in their own language."

"No - tigers can't speak at all," I said, regretting having ever let him watch The Jungle Book. "They can only growl. They can maybe tell each other to look out, or that there's food or something, by growling a bit differently, but they can't say anything more than that."

He didn't get it. "Yeah, but I mean in their own language..."

"Tigers don't have a language. Only people have languages." I was tempted to add a caveat about dolphins but decided not to confuse things further. "Animals can't have conversations."

"OK," said Fraser, although he still didn't look convinced, and we pressed on with the book.

There's so much that he knows now, I was astonished by this gaping hole in his understanding of the world. Did he find Ratatouille believable? What else has he not taken in? Are there basic safety issues that he's blissfully unaware of? Does he think the moon is made of cheese?

I'm nervous. I can't possibly 'remind' him of everything I think he should know, though. It would take too long and wouldn't help anyway. I'd be bound to assume too much. It wouldn't have crossed my mind that he thought animals could talk to each other. Who knows what else he's missed?

Then there are concepts he may never pick up. A few years back, we tried out a different translation of the Lord's Prayer at church. It didn't go down hugely well for various reasons, most notably that the new version was neither poetic nor particularly more understandable than the old version. There were those, however, who were angry that the minister was trying to 'change the words that Jesus taught us'. They just didn't seem to get that there can be more than one way to translate things and that all the ways can be equally valid. These weren't stupid people - it was just a subject of which they had little knowledge or experience.

On another occasion, Fraser came home from school having been given the task of finding out what molecules are made of. I sent him back with the answer, 'It depends how close you look,' and a basic grasp of sub-atomic physics. I got called in by the teacher to explain myself. I really thought she'd at least have heard of quarks...

I was in my teens before I worked out that those pictures of our galaxy we're so used to seeing aren't photos. I was thirty before I realised that just because psychologists have given a name to an illness doesn't mean they know how to positively identify it, what causes it or how to treat it. I still think that I graduated recently.

I guess that last one is a concept I simply don't want to learn the truth about. Marie had a similar feeling yesterday. After nursery, she saw one of her friends eating a Curly Wurly. "Anna's having a snack," she said. "It's not healthy."

I nodded. "Yep, you're right, that's not a very healthy snack."

"I'm going to have a snack after soft-play," Marie said. "It will be a healthy snack."

On past experience, this didn't seem very likely. "Really?" I said.


"What's your snack going to be?" I asked.

"A Milky Way!" Marie said, jumping up and down.

"That's not healthy."

She looked at me like I was on drugs. "Yes, it is."

"No," I said, "it's a chocolate bar. It's made of sugar and chocolate, just like the chocolate bar that Anna's eating."

"Oh," said Marie, deeply troubled by this revelation. It stuck in her head, though, because when soft-play was over, she perused the contents of the vending machine carefully. She spotted a Blueberry Slice in the bottom corner. "I want that. It's healthy."

"Maybe," I muttered, trying to work out what is was. It appeared to be a type of cake but it didn't have chocolate and the name implied some level of fruit content. It was almost certainly entirely made of lard and sugar apart from a small smattering of blueberry scrapings. Still, a hint of vitamins is sometimes all it takes to persuade a parent to cough up twice as much money as normal for a snack that explodes into sticky crumbs as soon as it's unwrapped.

More than that, I didn't have the heart to inform her that anything which comes from a vending machine is very unlikely to be nutritious. She wouldn't have been able to cope. She wanted to be healthy but she was tired and needed a snack. Compromise was the only way forward.

While I was busy hoovering us both down after we got home, I got to thinking about Fraser again. I can't possibly teach him everything. I don't know everything myself. There are things he's not ready for yet. There are things he won't want to hear. I may even struggle to convince him that he doesn't know everything already.

All I can do is continue to help him understand the world and try to answer his questions as they arise. The next time I get into an argument with him (or anyone else for that matter), I should take a step back, however. What's the argument really about? What assumptions are we both making? Does one of us think tigers can talk to each other?

It might help life run more smoothly.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 14 March 2008

Getting that fimbling feeling

Dear Dave,

Remember back when the Teletubbies were going to make the nation's children stupid, unable to speak properly and sexually confused? What with all the furore over the negative influences of computer games, no one's really grumbled about the educational content of TV programmes for pre-school children for a while. Is this really justified? Should we be more concerned? Is it time to write horrified letters to the tabloids?

In order to answer these questions, I decided to conduct a little experiment. I lived a day according to children's TV. What follows is an account of my findings. Be afraid...

The day started out as usual with the mad rush to get the kids ready for school and nursery. On this occasion, however, I insisted they were enthusiastic, courteous and smiling at all times. This seemed to involve me shouting a great deal more than TV had led me to believe. When they were gone, I tried singing to get some woodland creatures to do the washing up. This didn't work very well either.

Undeterred, I moved onto the other chores. First up was dealing with the nest of Flowerpot Men in the garden. (The little blighters have been stealing garden implements to play pranks on each other.) I'd constructed a cunning trap in preparation the night before. An invisible thread led from a seemingly abandoned trowel to a twig wedged into the mechanism of some scales. Pulling the thread yanked the twig out of position, tipping the scales and releasing a ball bearing into a marble run. After circling round and dropping through the maze, the bearing landed on the switch for a fan which blew a paper aeroplane into the first of five hundred and twelve neatly lined dominoes. The final domino pressed a button on a remote control.

This then napalmed the entire patio.

The soot covering the back door made me hopeful of success and I went outside to investigate. Unfortunately, although the trap had operated perfectly, it had failed to deal with Bill and Ben. There were just a couple of barbecued pigeons. The neighbour's black and white cat was giving me the evil eye from behind the shed. (It's normally orange.) The trowel was also somewhat the worse for wear.

I reset the trap and went round pulling up any little weeds I could find, just to make sure the miscreants got the message that I meant business.

The garden was looking a bit charred, so I called a builder and asked if he could fix it. He said he could. I tidied up, ready for his arrival, by putting some of the debris in the wheelie bin. A shaggy green monster with big eyebrows tried to come out and teach me about the letter 'R'. I battered it back with a stick.

Feeling that things weren't going that well, I decided to cook myself a hearty breakfast to cheer myself up. (Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, after all.) Sausages sounded good. I even knew a song about sausages. I imagined myself surrounded by beaming children, all of us eating and singing about sausages. Then I remembered the kids were at school but, you know, the sausage craving had already taken hold. I found a frying pan, performed a short slapstick routine and opened the fridge.

The sausages were gone.

I started hunting around for them but then I stopped. I contemplated how a typical children's TV character would react in this type of situation. I realised I was getting it all wrong. I stopped searching and immediately went round to all my friends and neighbours and accused them each in turn of stealing my sausages. They denied all knowledge. I didn't believe them. They refused to play with me any more. I made a toy car out of yogurt pots.

It was time to collect Marie from nursery. I headed along to the school and, as we were getting her coat on, I explained that we were going to pretend to be Fimbles for the rest of the day. She wasn't having any of it. She wanted to wear a pink wig and do a song and dance routine about the tastiness of vegetables. I shrugged and joined in, leaping about to the jaunty melody while the other nursery kids formed a chorus line. It was fantastic. Everyone gave each other high-fives and I finished things off by running up the wall and doing a double back flip.

After a quick trip to Accident & Emergency, we went to a cafe for lunch. When the waitress came to take my order, I insisted she choose something for me, preferably something related to my job. I did stipulate, however, that she ensure it was a recipe for which they did not have all the ingredients, thus forcing one of the kitchen staff to fly off on a spoon to procure the necessary resources. I told her this would make their cafe the best in the world, as long as they all jumped around while doing the washing up.

The waitress looked sceptical. She played along, though. At least until I tried to pay for my Used Nappy Curry with a cheerful note and an IOU for some babysitting. She made me do the washing up without the aid of woodland creatures or jumping. I accused her of stealing my sausages. It didn't go well...

I hobbled home with Marie in tow to discover that the builder hadn't finished. More to the point, he hadn't even arrived. I phoned him up and asked if he'd been delayed by any mischievous scarecrows. He said he'd come and take a look next week. I told him that right away would be better but I'd settle for a visit from a couple of his talking vehicles. He hung up. (I assumed it was in his haste to get to work.)

It got a bit windy, so I strapped a flatscreen TV to my tummy and headed outside. We watched England lose at cricket.

"Again! Again!" giggled my Scottish daughter.

And it was so.

After that, we had a while before the boys came out of school, so I took the girl for a trip on a bus. I gave the driver some money and then asked him to take us to a place where they made cheese.

He said he was only going as far as the castle.

He looked a little plump. On the basis of this, I accused him of stealing my sausages.

We ended up walking and settled for buying some cheese in Tesco. I did sing a song about it, though, so the trip wasn't an entire waste. We collected the boys on the way home. Disappointingly, they didn't want to be Fimbles either. We had to do another dance routine about vegetables. Some of my stitches burst and I barely made it back to our house.

After a short rest, I went out into the garden to check how the builder was getting on. He still wasn't there. A couple of Flowerpot Men and a squirrel were lying in wait for me, however. They pressed the button on the remote as I stepped outside and I was forced to dive backwards into the house, closely followed by tongues of flame which set the kitchen on fire. I dialled 999, detailed our predicament and then made myself a coffee, safe in the knowledge that Fireman Sam (or possibly the Mario Brothers) would come and rescue us promptly.

Sure enough, some of Sam's colleagues arrived and put out the blaze. They brought PC Plum with them. I got him to take a look at the pigeons and tell me about them. Then I accused him of stealing my sausages. He arrested me for arson.

As he was cuffing me, he discovered the missing sausages in my back pocket. They'd been there all along!

I gave everyone a heart-felt apology and PC Plum decided to let me off with a stern warning about not playing with highly flammable chemicals. He also told me to take some cookies to all my friends as a way of making up to them too.

How we laughed.

Then I woke up to discover it had all been a dream...

It was an eye-opening experience, nonetheless. Computer games are nothing compared with some of the nonsense out there. It's persuaded me that I should spend more time talking to the kids about what they watch. Then again, it's going to take a few weeks until I'm fully recovered from the trauma, so I might just take it easy for a while.

I wonder what's on TV...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Coming soon: I move up an age bracket with my investigation. I turn my scientific analysis to the worrying influence of Harry Potter and spend a week approaching every situation with one simple question: 'What would Dumbledore do?'

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Virtual wedgies

Dear Dave,

Congratulations on managing to locate and purchase a Wii. I'm sure Sam will thank you in a year or two when he finally gets to grips with the controller and stops battering the cat with it. In the meantime, you can break the console in with a bit of Zelda and some Mario Galaxy. It will also be invaluable for keeping yourself entertained on long nights sitting up with a grumpy baby - being able to surf the internet effectively from the comfort of the sofa using only small movements of one hand is genius. You no longer need to suffer hours of phone-in quizzes presented by people who smile too much. Hurrah! (Remember to keep a spare wiimote with fresh batteries handy, though, just in case.)

Sorry to hear, however, that Liz's parents are worried it's going to corrupt the children and turn them into over-weight, psychopathic, criminal, illiterate loners. Good luck convincing them otherwise.

I can kind of see where they're coming from. If they think computer games are for kids but all they know about them is what the newspapers and TV tell them, then it's not surprising that they're nervous. The press for computer games hasn't improved much since the last time I wrote about it. If anything, it's got more hysterical. The science fiction role-playing game Mass Effect was recently described on prime time American TV as Luke Skywalker meets Debbie does Dallas. After extensive playing of Mass Effect, however, I can report that there's a single, non-interactive sex scene. It's half a minute long and the only nudity is a split second of out-of-focus alien butt. I can't really see this warping the mind of the average thirteen-year-old, to be honest.

Admittedly, the claim was retracted a couple of days later, when it was pointed out as abject nonsense, but it was a bit late by then. An 'expert' had already slated the game. The scary thing is that she'd done so on the basis of a single comment made to her before the show. She'd asked what it was like and been told it was pornography and gone from there. That she believed this statement, shows the level of misunderstanding that videogames are facing.

There are hardly any games released in the western world that feature sex, let alone anything explicit. Maybe one or two a year surface that deserve an 18 rating in the UK due to sexual content.

If I were told that a major release featured actual pornography I'd be sceptical. It would be a bit like being told Gordon Brown wears ladies' underwear - not entirely impossible but I'd want some evidence before repeating it. I certainly wouldn't go blabbing about it on TV.

Still, computer games are an easy target and getting rid of them seems like a quick fix for everything. I mean, wouldn't it be nice if all society's woes were down to those Nintendo PlayStation Box thingies? We could just dump the whole lot in the sea, safe in the knowledge we were releasing the nation's youth to return to the good old days of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll...

Unfortunately, the madness isn't limited to America. Over here, Bully's in the news again. It's been re-released on the 360 and Wii and teachers' unions are calling for shops to stop selling it because it 'rewards bullies and those who engage in brutal and savage attacks'.

Who told them this? Was it newspaper reporters looking for a quote? Bully is, in an odd way, one of the most charming games I've played in the last couple of years. (Bear in mind here that I haven't just been playing lots of games involving bald space marines shooting things - the kids have ensured a steady supply to our house of games involving plumbers, princesses and super-fast hedgehogs.)

In Bully, you're a new pupil dumped at a rough American boarding school and it's up to you to make the most of it. Yep, you get into fights but these are the kind of fights that involve catapults and stink bombs. You seldom have any reason to start them. Anyone the game sends you after usually has it coming to them for picking on other people and, after some fisticuffs, you get to embarrass them in front of their friends by giving them a wedgie. You're just trying to bring some order to a school that's gone off the rails and where the teachers are patently useless. You tend to do this by helping people out and making allies.

You can attack other pupils, teachers and police officers indiscriminately but there's no advantage to this. In fact, the normal outcomes in these situations are getting beaten to a pulp, put in detention or arrested. Most of the time, backing off or running away are far better options than violence. Avoiding having to outrun a squad car while on a BMX is always advisable.

The whole thing actually feels like a gritty Harry Potter or a contemporary, American version of Jennings. It's a dog-eat-dog setting but school can be like that. The bullies are portrayed as idiots, however, and there's no reason to play in a malicious way.

The game is also rated 15, so most school children shouldn't even be playing it. (Which is a bit harsh, honestly. This puts Bully in the same category as the film Brick which has a similar setting but the added bonus of murder, guns, knives and drug dealing.)

There are only two primary reasons the game is getting this kind of press:
  • The title.
  • It's by Rockstar, the company behind Grand Theft Auto.
That it's set in a school doesn't help but it's a school so divorced from real life that that wouldn't be an issue if the game was called something else. Compared to the 'trash' I was forced to read in English Literature class when I was fourteen, it's pretty innocuous. Let's take a look at that reading list, shall we:

Macbeth - witchcraft, murder, treason, suicide and crude sexual jokes.
Brighton Rock - murder, spite, a gang of criminal youths and a couple of hundred pages of psychosis inducing tedium followed by some face-melting acid.
Up the Line to Death - World War I, death, rats, death, despair, more death, violence, death, more despair and, let me think... ah, yes, some death.
Modern short stories in English - under-age sex and doughnuts.
I might well have learnt more from Bully. It's one of the few games around that would stand up to serious literary analysis. It would actually make a great game for Standard Grade students to write essays about. 'To what extent is violence acceptable when it involves sticking up for others and yourself?' might be a good place to start.

It would be nice to answer that there are always non-violent ways out. It may even be true... but I doubt it's necessarily the commonly held view even among teachers. I was bullied at school. The only adult I can remember telling, told me to fight back. She was the school nurse. In fact, I got the impression that adults in general reckoned that a swift kick to the privates was by far the simplest way to get bullies to leave me alone. (As long as no one saw me, of course. That would have involved paperwork.) It never really worked but I certainly never felt that reporting things would help either.

Maybe attitudes have changed. Schools take bullying more seriously these days and I'm encouraging my kids to talk about any problems they have. Ultimately, though, it can still be dog-eat-dog in the playground (or anywhere else) and much of how they get on will be up to them. Look past the catapults and egg-related petty vandalism, and Bully actually has some useful lessons. Fighting back is all very well but the best thing to do is make friends with everyone else by helping them out. More than that, the main character's greatest strength is that he simply doesn't care what everyone thinks of him:

Bullies are idiots. There was one guy at school who made me miserable when I was thirteen. He called me names, said nasty stuff and occasionally kicked and punched me. It was horrible. When I was seventeen, though, the same behaviour just seemed laughably pathetic.

I wish I'd been able to see things that way sooner. A game like Bully might have helped.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS One thing to come out of all this, is just how well Nintendo's advertising is working. Another spokesperson was quoted as saying that, 'young people will physically act out the violence they want to inflict on a classmate and that is frightening'. That's right: Nintendo Wii - makes videogames just like real life! If only. Unless they've brought in a new mini-game where you batter someone about by frantically waggling a couple of remote controls at them, I don't think there's much to be frightened about. (And even then...) If anyone wants evidence of the flimsy connection between wiimote mastery and actual proficiency in reality, they should come watch my boys bowl. Typical Wii score - 191. Typical real life score (on a good day and with the bumpers up) - 53.

The defence rests.

Friday 7 March 2008

So near

Dear Dave,

Although Father's Day was a long time ago, the saga of the flood had already begun. I was really hoping it would have ended last week. A plumber and a joiner were supposed to come out and stop a pipe from rattling every time anyone went past. It never rattled before we had all the work done, so the insurers agreed to get it sorted ages ago. It's the equivalent pipe of the one next door which fractured and caused all the problems in the first place, so I'd really like it sorted and, after a couple of months of dragging their heels, the workmen were supposed to be here on Thursday.

Their firm went bust the previous Monday.

We're back to square one. It will probably be weeks now before the insurers find someone else to do it. In the meantime, whenever a child bounces along the hall and the nearest radiator makes a noise like it's been struck by a hammer (Gu-DONK!), I have visions of some poorly-welded joint under the floorboards finally giving up the ghost and the beginnings of another nine months of tradesmen and loss adjusters.

It's not good for my health.

I've tried to convince the children to tread lightly in the area. Unfortunately, Lewis has the stealth capabilities of a small elephant. He thunders down the stairs and thuds along towards the front door like Dumbo after a peanut. Gu-DONK!

Frequently, Fraser tells him off. "Don't jump on this bit of floor." He indicates the exact location by standing on it. Gu-DONK!

"I heard the pipe go Gu-DONK!" says Marie, running out of the kitchen and along the hall. Gu-DONK! "See!"

"I wasn't jumping," says Lewis. "I was running like this." Gu-DONK! Of course, then he has to go back along the hall to get to where he really wanted to be. Gu-DONK! And Marie has to return to the kitchen. Gu-DONK! They sprint into each other and fall over.

Thud. Gu-DONK! Gu-DONK!

Fraser runs for help... Gu-DONK! ...but trips over the other two. Gu-DONK! They all jump up. Gu-DONK! Gu-DONK! Gu-DONK!

Then they decide to dance.

I thunder down the stairs to shout at them and arrive on the scene with a thud. GU-DONNNNNK!

Before I can say anything, they all tell me off for not being careful and then make a big show of tip-toeing away from the scene.

That distant thudding sound you can hear - it's me banging my head off a wall...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 5 March 2008

But he always does the cooking

Dear Dave,

Glad to hear you all survived Mother's Day for another year. Taking your mum out to a restaurant was a smart move - it will have thrown the attention off Liz. Just as Valentine's Day can be awkward for single people, Mother's Day is a bizarre emotional minefield for role-reversed parents. I remember, way back on Father's Day, I mentioned how the advertising and social expectation were geared up all wrong for housedads. Well, Mother's Day is worse for our partners.

On Mother's Day, traditional mums get thanked for all the unsung work they put into doing chores and keeping the household running. It's an opportunity for them to have a break while the rest of the family takes over for the day. Those mums with a househusband, however, get to feel guilty for not doing all the things that traditional mums are being praised for. Even the simple question, 'Is he taking a turn and making lunch for you today, then?' can seem threatening. Answering, 'Yes,' implies the mum does the cooking normally. Any other response is going to lead to confusion and an eventual admission that it's really the dad who does all the housework. Before you know it, the mum feels like it should be her that's gratefully making the lunch for a change, even though that's what Father's Day is for.

It is in our house, anyway. Most places, I'm guessing Father's Day isn't quite the same. You see, there's a marked difference between the sentiments surrounding Mother's Day and Father's Day. Mums get a hard-earned rest; dads get a less-than-complimentary card and some encouragement to spend the day interacting with their family. Mother's Day is to say thank you for all the work, while Father's Day is to go play football in the park. Mums are appreciated for what they do; dads are appreciated for existing.

Hardly seems fair, does it?

Mother's Day does come with more handmade gifts, though. Marie made a card at nursery, Sunday School delivered decorated crockery and Anchor Boys turned up some... well, the only way to describe them is model houses constructed out of cleaning equipment and sharp pins.

Sarah was thrilled.

Even if we had a 'normal' lifestyle it would be hard for her to know how to take being given a couple of pot scourers and a duster for Mother's Day. Since she doesn't actually do any washing up or dusting, it's particularly difficult.

While making these gifts, the Anchor Boys were asked, "What are some of the things that your mum does that you need to thank her for?"

The other children piped up with suggestions like cooking and hoovering and cleaning.

Our boys just looked confused. "Mummy never does those things. Daddy does them."

No one really paid any attention to them, however. Adults tend to suspect that my kids are mistaken when they say stuff like that. Sometimes they chuckle at the very idea, even if they know I'm a housedad. It makes me wonder how they imagine our lives operate. Do they think I expect Sarah to come home from work, make us all tea, get the children ready for bed and then scrub the toilets?

I guess so. I suppose there are plenty of families where both parents are working and the mum does come home and do those things. The hype surrounding Mother's Day actually seems to suggest that that set-up is only right and proper. Mums are heroes and saints who get us all where we need to go, on time, in clean clothes and with a healthy packed lunch. They do it out of love and duty and with only the annual promise of breakfast in bed, a handmade card and a small box of Cadbury's Milk Tray to look forward to. (Actually, there's been some inflation since our day and the handmade card and chocolates have been replaced by a massage voucher and a Nintendo DS but it's still small reward for being a supermum.)

This is all very well, but building up being taken for granted as somehow virtuous, isn't very helpful to anyone except the dads who aren't pulling their weight. It even makes life more difficult for mums who don't have a traditional role - it can make them feel inadequate for not being a domestic goddess. It certainly gets to Sarah sometimes and that's despite the fact she does the laundry and helps out a great deal with looking after the children.

I have pointed out that going to work each day and earning the money to feed, clothe and house us all is quite a big deal really but, apparently, that doesn't count. She's supposed to be taking the kids on nature walks, preparing gourmet meals, organising art projects, redecorating the lounge and removing the stain round the bath, all with a twitch of her nose.

Yep, it's not easy being a breadwinning mum. As well as having to work in a man's world, there are all kinds of societal expectations of motherhood to overcome. Sometimes it's hard to see past them:

She may not hoover, but the kids do have a lot to appreciate Sarah for (and so do I!). The truth is, though, it doesn't matter what she's contributing. She's their mum and they appreciate her anyway. Hopefully, they won't be persuaded out of that by adverts and misinformation as the years go by.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Admittedly, the kids aren't always great at expressing their appreciation. I had to remind them all to wish Sarah a happy Mother's Day this year, for instance, so I should probably put them into training for next year. That way they'll come up with suitable gifts and be more prepared for daft questions.

Never mind, at least they had the sense to give the pan scourers to me...