Dear Dave

Friday, 30 May 2008


Dear Dave,

It's official - the kids' schedules are fuller than mine. Their combined list of activities has been impressive for a long time but now their social commitments outweigh mine on an individual basis. They visit friends, friends come here, they arrange gatherings at the swing park and they go to swimming lessons, drama class and goodness knows what else. Amidst this whirlwind, meals and homework, baths and toilet breaks all have to be slotted in.

Of course, their friends have busy lives also, and organising a play session can turn into a lengthy negotiation to find over-lapping windows of opportunity. I start off by suggesting Thursday lunch-time to a child's mum and end up with Tuesday afternoon, by way of Saturday tea-time and Sunday morning. Occasionally, I lose track of the details. Three days later, I struggle to remember who I invited and when and if they're coming.

The other week, I forgot about a lunch engagement entirely. A friend rang up in the morning to check it was still OK to bring his little boy round to play with Marie and it took me a minute to even recollect making the arrangement. Then I had to apologise profusely and admit that I'd double-booked us. It was embarrassing and scary. I'd only spoken to him a few days previously. It felt like I was losing the plot.

This was on top of a string of other minor mental oversights I'd had. I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me.

Not long afterwards, I tried to sort out an issue by email and the woman I was dealing with blamed a lapse of short-term memory on 'preg-head'. I'd never heard of it and looked it up. Apparently, it's a condition in pregnant women and the symptoms are general abstraction and emotional instability. The article reckoned that the cause is distraction due to worry, planning, preparation and organisation.

I was sceptical. Surely that's just being a parent.

I've heard a couple of other explanations for ditziness during pregnancy. One is surging hormones inducing mild craziness. This can't be fixed but at least it implies the problem will go away once the pregnancy is over. The other explanation is that a gestating baby essentially plunders the mum's brain to make its own. This can be alleviated somewhat by eating oily fish.

Distraction, though? I'm sure being huge, constantly needing the toilet, not being able to sleep and all the other fun side-effects of pregnancy are pretty distracting in themselves but the distraction from the child only gets worse once they've popped out. I frequently have to hold three conversations at the same time while checking my email, eating a meal and doing the washing-up. This takes a certain level of concentration to avoid misunderstanding, indigestion and electrocution.

As I considered my research, I couldn't help thinking that if preg-head is all down to distraction, it would continue unabated until the kid left home. Then I suddenly realised I was standing in the middle of the kitchen holding three pairs of swimming goggles and I couldn't remember where I was going.

Merely contemplating distraction had been enough distraction to push me over the edge into total confusion. It continued for half an hour. With respect to the questions of what I was doing, why I was doing it and where I was supposed to be, I was unable to recall more than two answers at any given moment. I wandered the house, packing sandwiches into a bag of towels and feeding the children their swimming trunks. It was frightening.

I'm convinced that there's more to preg-head than distraction but maybe distraction is an issue. If so, then the problem doesn't end at birth - those who look after children constantly are liable to suffer bouts of disorientation from time to time. It certainly explains my own forgetfulness. In fact, it's that or I'm pregnant. (Let's see: fatigue, mood swings, food cravings, irritability, weight gain, no period... Argh! The symptoms fit!)

I already pass off moments of incompetence as offspring inspired lunacy. When the kids are around, I can point to them in explanation. When they're not, it would be good to have a proper name for my ailment. Distraction doesn't get much sympathy. If I could claim a medical condition, that would be far better. How about parental block? Or offspring overload? Mention of kid confusion, kinsanity or the onset of a primary carer moment might be good as well. It would also be reassuring to everyone involved, myself included. Take my current issue with green beans as an example:
I've discovered that all three of my children will eat lightly cooked green beans. The kind they like, I have to buy fresh, trim and then bung in the microwave for two minutes. The trimming is a bit of a faff so the beans are usually one of the last things I prepare. I slice off the ends, put the beans in a bowl and nuke them. Then, three hours later, when Sarah gets home and I go to heat some vegetables for our tea, I find the beans still in the microwave, looking decidedly shrivelled. If I did this occasionally, I wouldn't be worried. Unfortunately, I've done it at least twice a week for a month.
Thankfully, I've now realised that I'm not losing my marbles. I think it's safe to say that I'm simply coming down with a bad case of parent-head.

As I see it, there are three ways to minimise the effects:
  • More sleep. (Drat.)
  • Less distraction. (Double drat.)
  • Writing things down. (Yawn.)
I suppose that at least the last one is do-able, even if it does sound dull. Recently, I visited someone else who has three young children. She had drawn a timetable out for the week and stuck it to the wall. Scarily, it listed stuff such as having lunch. I don't believe I'm that far gone yet. Although, now that I think about it, did I have breakfast today? Darn. No wonder I'm feeling hungry. OK, maybe I should go and... erm...

What was I going to do again?

Nope. Can't remember... Maybe I should have written it down...

Ho well, just in case I am pregnant and this is all down to hormones and brain shrinkage, I'm off to eat sardines in a cold shower.

Wish me luck.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Babies or Bahamas?

Dear Dave,

Personally, I don't really fancy going to a school reunion - well done for surviving yours. It's bad enough having to deal with odd reactions about being a housedad from strangers. Coping with them from a string of old enemies and acquaintances would be tiresome. Then again, I went to a school that was only for boys - unlike you, I wouldn't get to meet up with a load of women who found me hugely more attractive than they did when I was seventeen. It would all be blokes going, 'You do what?', 'Rather you than me', 'You enjoy that then?', 'What else do you do?', 'I wouldn't mind staying home all day and sending the wife out to work', 'Did you lose your job?', 'Does your wife earn lots?', 'I couldn't stick it myself' and 'What are you going to do once the kids are at school?'.

It would be worth pretending to be an accountant just for a little peace and quiet.

As you mention, though, it's the people who are envious that are hardest to talk to. The people who say, 'I wish I could spend more time with my children but I can't afford it.'

I'm never sure how to answer. I know people who are desperate to spend more time with their kids but simply can't for all kinds of reasons, some of them financial, such as a large mortgage or child support payments, others practical, such as a career which involves lots of travel or a partner who isn't well. Changing their lives would be serious upheaval; it would involve risk and real sacrifice. These people deserve sympathy. Conversely, there are people I talk to who claim to want to spend more time with their kids but, in reality, don't want to give up their fortnight in the Bahamas every year. A few basic sums and they'd see that with a little belt-tightening (combined with diminished childcare costs, reduced commuting and increased tax credits), more time with their kids would be perfectly possible. Nevertheless, both partners continue to work full-time and complain about how stressful it all is. These people deserve less sympathy.

I had one of those conversations the other day:

"I wouldn't mind being a housedad myself," said Derek.

"Uh-huh," I grunted.

"Yeah," he continued. "My daughter's eighteen months and I barely see her during the week."

I was distracted. "Mmmm?"

"It was so great getting to spend some quality time with her when we went to the Bahamas this year but it's not the same as being around her all day. I'm missing out on watching her grow up."

I was becoming very distracted. "Ungh!?"

"The childminder got to see her first steps and hear her first words. If we could afford to... Are you all right?"

"Not... so... good... I think I'm going to fa - Arghhh!"

I finally lost my grip on the rock-face and fell straight down, plummeting feet-first into the raging torrent below.

Everything went grey and wet and cold. I flailed about. The direction of up became debatable and finding something other than water to breathe suddenly became a consuming issue. There was shouting, muffled but frantic. My life flashed before my eyes.

It was a very short experience. This was initially quite gratifying, since it seemed to suggest that I'm not as old as I often feel. Then I remembered that having children has addled my brain so completely that I can never recall anything much from before a week past Thursday. I got thirty-four years edited into an instant of highlights and then a several second montage of school-runs and CSI from the last ten days. It was followed by a brief recap of a long journey in a minibus full of blokes called Rick, getting mildly drunk in a chalet with (possibly) twice as many blokes called Rick and then losing badly at go-karting to Rob, Derek and some blokes in helmets. Even in my befuddled state, I hazarded a guess that these blokes were called Rick.

"Are you OK?" said Rick, fishing me out by my wetsuit.

"Uh?" I said but then put my feet down and discovered the water was actually only about waist-deep. "Oh... Yeah. I'm fine." My glasses were strapped on with elastic. I did my best to wipe them dry with wet fingers but I wasn't very successful. Squinting, I pulled myself back onto the rock and began inching my way along the side of the narrow ravine with the others.

"It was your idea to go gorge walking in Wales," Rob shouted from further behind, my muttered cursing obviously audible above the rushing of the river.

"No, it wasn't," I snapped. "I wanted to go for a drink and then eat some chips. You were the one who insisted on making a weekend of it."

"Got to make the most of it," he said. "It's not like I'll ever get another stag do."

"You'd better believe it," I said, my voice straining. "I'm not doing this again. More than that, if you walk out on Kate, then you won't get a second chance. Her mum will track you down and flower-arrange you to death and then come after me for encouraging the pair of you to get together in the first place."

"Don't worry," he said, "I'll stick with her for your sake. Now, will you get a move on? I've had about enough of this. We're all freezing back here." A couple of Ricks echoed agreement. "Can't wait to get to the chalet."

"OK. OK," I said, picking up my pace as we scrambled along the bank, sometimes climbing, sometimes walking. I was tired and cold and keen to get back too, even if I would have to share the shower with a whole load of blokes called Rick.

It was Saturday afternoon and Rob's stag weekend had started the day before. Sarah had taken some holiday to look after the children and they waved me off with plenty of instructions to be careful. Marie gave me a cuddly rabbit to keep me company on the adventure.

I met the others at the minibus hire place. It was me, Rob and his friends from work, whom I didn't know very well. Most of them had had a drink already and I was the only one with experience of driving a minibus. I reluctantly took the wheel. I haven't driven much of anything in ten years. Launching into central Edinburgh was 'entertaining'. There were some screams, both from inside and outside the vehicle, but it mostly came back to me in between my passengers asking me what I do and whether I enjoy it. In turn, I asked them what the road signs meant and which way to go round roundabouts. They thought I was joking until we reached a double roundabout at the bypass and even they weren't certain. Fortunately, the minibus was built like a tank and other traffic got out of our way on the occasions when I had to change lane in a hurry.

We headed off down the motorway to a secluded corner of Wales, making only a minor detour to stock up on beer, crisps and Cornflakes. We arrived at the chalet and the others set to work on the beer. I had a couple of cans and then went to bed, the road stretching out ahead of me whenever I closed my eyes.

I woke in the morning to find a Rick passed out in the bed next to me and a sheep in the kitchen, munching on a washing-up bowl full of Cornflakes. I let it out, cleaned up and served everyone crisps for breakfast. They moaned and groaned. I chivvied them along and out the door. It was scarily reminiscent of my normal mornings but we had go-karting to get to rather than school.

Not that I was that keen myself, you understand, but as Rob's best man, I'd had to put a fair amount of effort into organising it and it was all paid for, so we were flipping well going to go. (Which reminds me, one of the Ricks still owes me money. If only I'd learnt to tell them apart...)

I'm not a speed freak. I have no grasp of racing lines or braking zones or even when the best time is to put my foot down coming out of a curve. My main aim at the go-karting was to try not to get lapped by absolutely everyone else... well, not twice, anyway.

You'd think I'd have picked something up from playing computer games but my usual technique in them is to accelerate insanely towards the first curve, skid into it sideways, take out half the competition in one fell swoop and bounce off them round the corner. I then zig-zag along the course at supersonic speeds, ricocheting off the advertising hoardings on either side of the track for most of the rest of the race.

This doesn't work so great in real life.

Dropping banana skins behind me on the apex of the bends isn't very effective either.

I pottered round the track and tried to stay out of the way as everyone else yelled abuse at each other and took it all very seriously. Then we had chips and went on our gorge walking expedition. I was extremely tired by the time we were finished but I insisted we stop at a supermarket and buy some proper food. I counted out five portions of fruit and vegetables for each of us.

Somehow I ended up cooking it all with help from Rob and Derek. We were the only ones with children and we were beginning to wilt. We were glad of some peace in the kitchen before joining the Ricks for beer and curry in front of The Eurovision Song Contest.

My alcohol consumption pattern has changed considerably since I became a housedad. I used to have two or three pints on a Friday night and a glass of wine now and then. Now I have a small can of beer almost every evening but I can't cope with much more in one go. A little reward at the end of the day is what I'm looking for. Binging just makes me feel unwell.

I wasn't that much older than the others but I felt like a dad surrounded by teenagers. It turned out I had twice as many years of marriage behind me as all of them put together. I had a couple of beers and went to bed.

I was woken in the morning by a sheep licking my face, demanding its bowl of Cornflakes.

I needed three mugs of coffee before I was prepared for paintballing. I dragged the others into the minibus, gave them a slice of toast each and headed off. Most of them fell asleep again, their breakfast still clutched in their hand or clamped in their teeth. One Rick slumped sideways against the window, his toast acting as a pillow.

We reached the field of battle and staggered into the sunlight. We were not an imposing sight. We were bedraggled, barely able to walk and one of us had a slice of toast stuck to his ear. Fortunately, our opposition consisted of a motley band of teenagers and a group similar to our own. In fact, the other stag party looked in a worse state than us - they possibly hadn't slept at all, two of them were handcuffed together and one of them had trouser pockets full of baked beans.

We got our guns and equipment and hoped for the best. I still had a ring-shaped bruise in a sensitive location from my previous paintballing trip, so I was particularly nervous. It went fine, though. The play area was only a hundred metres across, so each game was very short and we didn't spend hours skulking through undergrowth or running through woods. There were fences, sheds, walkways and barrels littered about to hide behind in order to stop the whole thing turning into an instant paintbath but each match seldom lasted more than five minutes. Even so, my legs began to complain from the strain of having to crouch behind low cover. I opted for sprinting suicidally at the opposition, shooting anyone that got in my path, getting shot myself and then going for a sit down before the next game.

I was one of our more effective team members. The Ricks' reactions were not at peak performance. They mostly shot each other.

Afterwards, we wiped ourselves down and went and bought some sandwiches and a couple of crates of bottled water. I wasn't feeling too bad and the others started coming round. We drove to our final activity - whitewater rafting...

"The boat only takes six people," said Rob, peering anxiously at the small dinghy that was pulled up next to a shed by the side of a surprisingly fast flowing and angry looking river.

"Your point?" I said. The Ricks and Derek were already eagerly pulling wetsuits on again.

"There are eight of us."

"You think I'm going in there?" I said. "I'm tired, I'm aching and I've got to drive us all home in a couple of hours. Besides, I have a young family - I don't think they'd appreciate me risking my life in a dubious dinghy crewed by your hapless, hung over mates. There's no way that thing isn't going to capsize. Can you be bothered bobbing along for a couple of miles, trying to get the thing the right way up again while they all blame each other for tipping it upside down?"

"See what you mean..." said Rob, sagging. "I haven't had a decent night's kip since Luke was born. I'm knackered. Shall we wave them off and go sit in the minibus?"

"Yep. Then we can drive down to the finish and take bets on which one of them washes up first. It'll be like Pooh Sticks but with IT contractors rather than twigs. My money's on Rick."

"Which one?"

"The loud, annoying one who thinks he's funny and keeps referring to me facetiously as 'mum'."

"That doesn't narrow it down," said Rob.

"Once again: your point?" I said, rather more forcibly than I'd intended.

"Fair enough. You are tired, aren't you? Thanks for organising this, though. It's been fun."

"Yeah, that's OK. Glad you enjoyed it and I hope you and Kate have many happy years together."

There was a pause. "That's just 'cos you really don't want to have to do this again, isn't it?"

"Not entirely but... yeah. Come on. Let's go."

We got to doze in the minibus for half an hour before the first Rick floated into sight, closely followed by the rest of the group and the upturned dinghy. The cold and wet had revitalised them. There was plenty of jocular recrimination. After they'd dried themselves off, we began the journey home with singing and laughter.

The weather was turning horrible and I had to drive some of the way along a twisting mountain road in the fog. At least, we were fairly sure it was mountain road - there was a wall of rock to one side of us and a low barrier and a drop to the other. The mist made it impossible to tell how high or low the hillside reached. None of us could remember the stretch of road from the outward journey and Rob had lost the map.

We were discussing whether we were lost, when a cow fell on us.

It came from nowhere, bounced off the bonnet of the minibus with a plaintive moo and then hurtled over the barrier and out of sight. It looked quite startled. I probably looked quite startled as well. I slammed on the brakes and we came to a halt. Rob and I looked at each other, each checking the other had seen the flying bovine too.

"Should we go back?" he said.

"And do what?" I replied. "Stop on a narrow road in the fog and lean over a precipice to see if we can see beefburger?"

"You think we should phone someone?"

I shrugged, put the minibus back into first and gingerly moved off. "We don't know where we are, we're on a stag weekend and we'd be reporting a sky-diving heifer. You can give it a go if you like but I don't think they're going to believe you." Nothing juddered or thunked. The steering seemed to be fine. We'd got off remarkably lightly.

"There's a cow-shaped dent on the bonnet," said Rob. "The rental people aren't going to be happy."

I nodded. "We should report the accident at the next town we come to, to cover ourselves. Not much we can do just now."

The singing in the back of the minibus had stopped and it was deathly quiet apart from the noise of the engine. Everyone was shocked by how close we'd come to unforeseen total disaster. My life had flashed before my eyes again but I'd been concentrating too hard on the road to notice. Besides, I'd only added a paintballing trip and Eurovision since the last time I'd watched it - I had the basic gist. The experience did remind me of a conversation I hadn't finished, however.

"Derek!" I yelled over my shoulder.

"Yeah?" he said from a couple of rows back.

"If you really want to look after your kid more," I said, "you should do something about it."

He mumbled a reply but I didn't catch it and I left it at that. Sometimes people simply need to be reminded that they're able to make choices...

The singing started back up eventually and the rest of the journey went smoothly.

The children were in bed by the time I stumbled in the front door. I kissed Lewis and Marie in their sleep and snuggled Marie's rabbit into the bed beside her. Fraser was still awake reading. I gave him a hug. "You smell horrible, Daddy," he said, pulling a face.

It was good to be home.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday, 23 May 2008

Housedads are from Mars, children are from...

Dear Dave,

It's true. Spend enough time looking after children and you start to anticipate their every move. You just know when they're going to run off or throw a tantrum or inconveniently demand the toilet. Pre-empting disaster becomes second nature.

You begin to think like them.

The other week, while we were waiting outside the swimming pool for it to open, I caught Fraser scratching his name on the red stone of the wall with his fingernail. I ignored him for a few moments but then I decided that, even if it was only his fingernail he was using, it was probably best to discourage graffiti - particularly as I couldn't be certain he wouldn't add our address and telephone number once he was done with his name. I told him to stop and, after some whining dissension, he did so.

This week, I caught him close to the wall, staring at it... very, very hard.

"Fraser!" I said, warning him.

"I didn't do anything!" he protested.

"I know," I said. "You were thinking about it, though, weren't you?" He looked sheepish. "I can read your mind, Fraser."

I was pretty smug. Even as I said the words, though, I knew I'd regret them before long. Children are easy to predict but, equally, they can unexpectedly learn and change. They're also unbound by the laws of reason and common sense. Each of mine has done something since then to challenge my assumptions.

Like when I asked Fraser if he's getting enough to eat in his packed lunch. He reckoned he was but then Lewis said, "I'm not."

I snorted. "What do you mean? You keep leaving half your lunch and eating it in the playground when you come out of school."

"Yeah," he said. "I leave it until I come out of school because I don't have enough to eat and I know I'm going to be hungry when I come out of school. If I ate all the food at lunch-time, I'd still be hungry when I came out of school and I wouldn't have anything left to eat then to stop me being hungry."

"Right..." I said, playing that over in my head a couple more times. "Would you like twice as many sandwiches?"

"Twice as much of everything!"

So that's what I gave him and he ate it all at lunch-time. Weird.

On another occasion, we were standing around after a funeral service and Fraser asked, "What's green and green and red and green and red and green and red and red and red?"

Before he could be stopped, he answered the question himself. "An alien in a blender." (He's been reading a book of astronaut jokes.)

No one knew quite what to say.

Then he added, "What's a blender?"

It has to be said that I wasn't surprised that he told a joke. I was even less surprised that he didn't understand it. What surprised me was, that when I told him the purpose of a blender, he muttered quietly, "If I'd known that, I wouldn't have said it." There was both a hint of remorse and a glimmering of tact. He's picking up some social skills! I was astonished.

My most immediate confrontation with unexpected child behaviour, however, was when we got into the swimming pool. The boys can get themselves ready, so I left them to it and went into a cubicle with Marie. We were in a big hurry because they all have swimming lessons which start only five minutes after the doors open. (Yeah, I know, but it was that or lessons at separate times, which would have been worse.)

"Lift your foot," I said, trying to get her changed as quickly as possible. Since I was attempting to yank off her right trouser leg, I was hoping she'd lift her right foot. Obviously, I was expecting her to raise her left foot.

I wasn't disappointed.

"No, lift your other foot!" I said in exasperation.

So she did. She raised her right leg.

What I hadn't counted on, was that she didn't put her left leg down first. She fell over sideways and I was left clutching her socks.

"Er, I didn't mean both feet at once," I said.

"But I was holding onto your trousers..." she whimpered.

Quite how she imagined a light grasp on my knee-coverings would imbue her with the power of levitation, I'll never know. Fortunately, a brief cuddle and we were able to get back to the task in hand. My smugness, nonetheless, was already gone.

Children are a different species - full of surprises, peculiar understandings, interesting ideas, cultural differences and strangely coloured goo. Yeah, you know what they're thinking, but sometimes it's revealing to ask if that's all they're thinking. Who knows what else is going on in there? There might be any manner of things to discover, from a theory on the nature of the universe to a diabolical plan involving cheese.

It's probably worth checking.

(Now I think of it, this may well be true of adults too. Kids are just more likely to give a straight answer.)

Yours in a woman's world,


PS If you're unlucky, and get carried away, you can start to not only think like them but act like them as well. You know it's happened when you yell, "But what about what I want!" and throw yourself to the ground, flailing limbs about and screaming.

Actually, no, that's a symptom of sleep deprivation and over-exposure to Teletubbies. It's when you do it in the middle of the aisle at Tesco, that's when you know you've gone native.

This is to be avoided.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The blame game

Dear Dave,

Hurrah! Almost a year to the day after we first noticed damp rising up the walls, the damage from next door's burst pipe has been satisfactorily repaired. The tradesmen involved even turned up when they said they would. Admittedly, these were the kind of guys who saw through floorboards rather than lift them but, hey, there's no Gu-DONK noise whenever anyone walks along the hall any more. I'm no longer reminded of the whole flood/ant/mouse/broken heating/insurance/bankrupt contractor/redecorating disaster every time someone visits the downstairs toilet. This has to be a good news.

What a palaver it's been, though. Barely anything has gone right without three false starts, fifteen phone calls and me tearing out my hair.

It's been immensely frustrating. (The top of my head is also very chilly.)

The mistakes I could have handled. I don't mind people getting stuff wrong - I frequently make mistakes myself, after all. It's the way those mistakes were dealt with that was the real cause of my stress.

It's not like I ask for much when everything goes pear-shaped. I don't require a heartfelt apology, for instance. All I want is an acknowledgement that things are not as they should be and then I want the problem fixed swiftly and without me having to phone back every couple of days to find out why nothing has happened yet. I don't want detailed explanations and excuses of how it wasn't the fault of the person I happen to be speaking to at the time. ('A supervisor needs to sign off on this but we haven't had an assessment from the contractors yet in order to move the claim forward. My colleague emailed the plumbers last week but there's been a giant space wasp attack on the local BT exchange and so someone will phone you back in a few days.') I certainly don't want to be blamed myself. ('It's not our fault that your towel rail isn't heating up. We only ripped out the heart of your heating system and put it back in a different order. We never touched the towel rail. Are you sure it was working before?')

Nope, I want a quick 'sorry' and the issue sorted. If I wanted explanations, denial and blame, I'd have children...

Oh, hang on...

As I walked into the lounge the other day, Lewis shrieked, "Fraser stood on the box for Sonic and the Secret Rings!"

"Was the game disc in the box?" I asked calmly.

"No." said Lewis. "Marie was playing with it."

"What!?" I said, much less calmly. "How did Marie...?" I entered room further, narrowly avoiding standing on the box which was still lying in the middle of the carpet, but tripping over an enormous pile of sofa cushions.

"Lewis put those there," said Fraser as I picked myself up off the floor.

Marie was scowling in annoyance, her head hung and her fists clenched by her side. "You made me grumpy, Daddy," she said, somehow believing I was angry with her. "I'm good. Boys are being bad!"

It was clearly time for some detailed questioning. Cue dramatic music, spotlights on each of us and audience applause:
Me: Good evening and welcome to Who Did What? the quiz show where ordinary families get to squabble and bicker over the blame for minor mishaps. First up is Fraser. Fraser is seven, he likes Nintendo and Harry Potter, and if he could have anything he wanted, it would be a real, live Pikachu. Say, 'Hello,' Fraser!

Fraser: It wasn't my fault. Lewis left...

Me: Hold on, I haven't introduced the other contestants yet. Next is Lewis. He's six. He likes Sonic the Hedgehog, hoarding soft toys and saying random, often made up words, very loudly at inappropriate times. Say, 'Hello,' Lewis!

Lewis: Flubberwuck!

Me: Precisely and, moving swiftly on before he starts trying to rhyme that, we have the lovely Marie. She's three. She likes pink.

Marie (dressed entirely in pink with pink nail varnish, pink hair clips and sparkly, pink jewellery): No, I don't. I like yellow.

Me: She also likes being awkward.

Marie: You made me grumpy again, Daddy!

Me: Uh-huh, live with it. Now it's time to play Who Did What? (Cue more music and a close up on Fraser.) OK, Fraser, we'll start with an easy one. Did you step on the box?

Fraser: Lewis left it lying around. (There is a very loud Bee-BAH noise.)

Me: I'm sorry. That's not one of the two possible answers we were looking for to that yes-or-no question. Would you like to try again? Did you step on the box?

Fraser: Maybe. (Bee-BAH!) Er... I don't remember. (Bee-BAH!) Twenty-seven? (BEE-BAAAH!)

Me : I'm afraid none of those answers is correct. I'm going to have to throw the question open. First one to buzz... (There is a tense pause and then a deafening farting noise.) Lewis! Did Fraser step on the box?

Lewis: Yes, he did. (There is a DING!)

Me: Ten points to Lewis. Fraser, I'm afraid Lewis has incriminated you. Would you like to fight back by answering a harder question or would you prefer to use one of your three lifelines and Shop-a-Sibling?

Fraser: Lewis changed the games in the Wii. He shouldn't have left the box on the floor. (DING!)

Me: You've chosen to use one of your lifelines. You receive ten points and Lewis gets the question. Lewis, why did you leave the box on the floor?

Lewis: Marie distracted me. She took one of the cushions that I'd piled up to make my comfy seat. (Bee-BAH!)

Fraser: He had all of them. He wasn't letting her have any. (Bee-BAH!)

Me: I'm afraid you should still have finished putting the game away, Lewis. You lose ten points. Fraser, you lose five for interruption.

Fraser: Awwwwww! That's not f... (Bee-BAH!)

Me: And another five for arguing.

Fraser: But I was only... (BEE-BAH!)

Me: And five more.

Fraser (clamping his mouth shut): ...

Me: OK, now, moving on to Round 2. (More music and close up on Marie. The spotlight glints off the DVD she is trying to balance on her head.) I'll have that, young lady. Where did you get it from?

Marie (covering her eyes with her hands and throwing herself down on the sofa but whacking her arm on the frame because all the cushions are on the floor): I hurt my elbow. (There are tears and a Bee-BAH!)

Me (showing the disc to her): These aren't for playing with.

Marie: I'm really sorry, Daddy. (More tears.)

Me: That's OK. It shouldn't have been left out anyway. Would you like to split the blame 50/50?

Marie: I need the toilet! (Bee-BAH!)

Fraser (going red): ...

Me: You can hold it in another few minutes. That goes for you, too, Fraser.

Fraser (looking like he's about to explode): !!!

Me: It appears this was mostly your fault, Lewis.

Lewis: Sorry. (DING!)

Me: Good. Now, for bonus points, put the disc away properly and the cushions back where they normally go.

Lewis (getting on with it): OK. (DING!)

Marie: I'm really, really, really sorry, Daddy.

Me: What for?

Marie: For spilling my milk last night. (Bee-BAH!)

Me: I'm afraid being sorry for something entirely unrelated doesn't...

Fraser (exploding): I didn't stand on the box! I was dancing around the cushions, waving a pointed stick, and one of my feet went on a corner of the box. I didn't stand on it. I hopped on it! (BEE-BAH!)

Me: And on that note, it's time for us to take a break... Stay tuned for Fraser being sent to his room, Marie apologising for apologising too much and Lewis getting away with everything.

Lewis: Clobberdock!

Me: Apart from that.

Marie: I go to toilet now?

Me: Yep. And then we'll return for another exciting round of... Who... Did... What?! (Cue music, applause and a swift exit to the bathroom.)
It nearly always plays out the same. I don't really care who did what or who's to blame, as long as the mess gets cleared up and there's some chance it won't happen again. Fraser, however, passes the buck and Marie has a worrying tendency to keep saying sorry for days, long after the matter has been closed. Neither of them has a great desire to actually put things right or learn from their mistakes. Lewis, meanwhile, says sorry, does whatever I tell him to in order to put things right and then gets on with his life. He accepts responsibility but doesn't become weighed down by guilt.

This usually goes well for him.

I could learn a few things from him myself. Better yet, I could hire him out as a business consultant. I know some insurers who could really do with his help...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday, 16 May 2008

Cut-price time travelling

Dear Dave,

One of the arguments presented against the possibility of time travel is that, if it worked, we'd know about it - we'd have been visited by bus-loads of very smug people from the future by now.

Personally, I think there are a number of reasons why any successful time traveller would try to remain inconspicuous. More than that, they're bound to be very rare, since there's every chance they'd fail to pass on technical details of their discovery. For a start, travelling in time is extremely dangerous. It's well known that time travel almost always ends in being eaten by a dinosaur, enslaved by intelligent chimpanzees or exterminated by a Dalek. None of these outcomes is really conducive to getting scientific papers widely published.

Then there's the issue of paradoxes:

Thanks to Back to the Future, everyone is aware of the unfortunate consequences of chatting up their own mum. These simply aren't worth the happy side-effect of creating rock'n'roll. While this particular situation is easy to anticipate, other kinks in the chain of cause and effect are harder to avoid. For example, anyone who devotes their life to saving a loved one killed in a tragic pogo stick accident is asking for trouble.

What if, after years of expensive and exhausting work, they manage to make that leap back in time and warn their childhood sweetheart not crank up the spring and go for a bounce through the firing range next to the old, abandoned mine by the cliffs? If they avert the disaster, their past self has no reason to toil away inventing a time machine in order to travel back and avert the disaster. Worst case scenario, the entire fabric of the universe unravels like a toddler's knitted sweater snagged at the top of a helter-skelter. At the very least, someone's going to disappear up their own worm-hole.

Again, publications will to be few and far between.

Even if a time traveller were to avoid immediate mishap, there are only two likely uses for a time machine:
  1. Travelling back in time and betting on the horses.
  2. Travelling forwards in time and stealing some cool technology.
Both of these activities require secrecy. Too many people muscle in on the gambling scam and odds and outcomes change, inflation rockets and shadowy Italian crimelords begin to get upset. Too many people start leaping about stealing technology and someone's going to get the smart idea to cut down on the competition by travelling backwards, nicking the time machine plans and giving them to their earlier selves. In both cases, the risk of a paradox or a beating rises sharply with the number of travellers.

Yep, anyone who invents a time machine is going to keep it to themselves.

This is annoying because there are all sorts of advantages to living in the past. You don't have to go back that far at all before the music's better, for instance. Go back a little further and you won't have to worry about the environment because you'll be too busy worrying about nuclear Armageddon. Go back far enough and you can impress people with nothing more than a box of matches.

No matter how far you go, however, it's just plain cheaper:

A month after its release, I saw a computer game second-hand for half the original price. I resisted the urge to buy it and waited another couple of months. By then it was that price new and the second-hand price had halved again. Sure, when I took it home, I was playing a game that had been out for three months, but by living only a quarter of a year in the past, I'd made a saving of seventy-five percent.

It's the same with DVDs. One month a film is fifteen quid, the next it's in a 5 for 30 offer. By linking my home cinema via a time-warp directly to 1996, I save a fortune.

Interestingly, though, it's not the case that the further back in time one lives, the greater the saving made. With computer games, there's a point when older games start being harder to find. Really old games can become more expensive again as supply diminishes. With DVDs, the cheap version may be withdrawn in favour of the premium priced Special Edition.

What's the sweet spot? How far in the past is it necessary to live in order to enjoy the best deals?

For computer games, I'd say it's about three years. For DVDs, it's maybe only two. For music, perhaps it's five years but this is going to increase as digital downloads take over. There aren't going to be many CDs of recent music available to buy in the carboot sales of the future. Choice will be limited to the old, decent stuff bought by people like us. (Shame.)

Clothes require a little foresight. It's more complicated than simply popping down to the charity shop and seeing what fits. Very old clothes are cheap but they're likely to be falling apart and have a totally unshiftable smell of grannies about them. Relatively new clothes will be expensive and look remarkably dated. The trick is to buy clothes from ten years ago but then stick them out of harm's way in a cupboard for another five until they come back into fashion again. It's maybe time to pick up some outfits in lime green and bright orange that are going for a song...

As for fresh food, it's a case of living in last week and buying all the items that are marked down because they're rapidly approaching their use-by dates. Of course, the crunchy food will be soft and the soft food will be crunchy, so make sure to purchase a selection and choose recipes which require a variety of ingredients. It will all even out in the end.

Bear these tips in mind and your ears, eyes, mouth and wardrobe will be living in different temporal eras, but you'll save a pile of cash.

Don't tell anyone, though. We can't all do it. Someone's got to be seduced by the hype and pay over the odds for stuff on day of release in order for us to buy it second-hand later. And think of our pensions - if no one feeds the corporate machine, the stock markets will collapse and we're all doomed.

Remember: Time travel - keep it secret.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS We'd all have a Star Trek style holo-deck in our living-rooms if they weren't just as beguiling as time machines. A guy in Pasadena invented the technology years ago. He was going to go next door and tell his neighbour but then he popped into the thing to give it a quick test-drive. That was 1993. It was simply too much fun to come out again. (Of course, he thinks he came out in 2001...)

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Laying down the law

Dear Dave,

Sometimes it feels like I'm drowning in rules - rules of my own creation, put there to save my sanity but then warped and twisted by my children in an effort to drive me mad. I'm forever having to create new ones as well. Only this week, I said to Fraser, "If I have to wait for you to catch up before crossing a road one more time, there'll be no dessert for a day. Don't dawdle along twenty feet behind, leave it until the rest of us are standing at the kerb and then sprint towards traffic."

On another occasion, I had to say to Lewis, "If you're going to carry a stick around with you, don't make it such a large one. You keep poking people in the face by accident."

"No, I don't," said Lewis, turning round to look at me and accidentally poking his sister in the face with three-and-a-half feet of shrubbery.

"There! See!"

"What?" said Lewis, turning to look the other way in an effort to find out what I was talking about and accidentally forcing his brother to eat twigs. Then he turned back to look at me again and shoved leaves up my nose. "What?" he repeated as I mumbled retribution at him nasally. "I didn't do anything."

A rule or two every now and then wouldn't be so bad but each rule quickly develops its own legal small print. How short does a stick have to be before it's an acceptable length to carry around, for instance? Does proximity to other people make a difference? Does it matter whether those people are friends, relatives or strangers? What if it's Grandad's walking stick and he's asked for it? What if it's a yellow stick? What if it's pointy? What if it's pretend?

I have to have answers for all these questions. That isn't so hard - the hard part is remembering my often arbitrary responses for next time so I can remain consistent.

Then, of course, there's the issue of rule interaction. What if it's bedtime but there hasn't been a chance for homework? What if getting shoes on quickly involves shoving a brother out the way? What if two separate misdemeanours both result in no dessert for a day?

In the last case, adding the days together drags the punishment out too long. Allowing the sentences to be served concurrently, however, introduces too many opportunities for abuse of the system. ('Right. Since I'm not getting dessert already, I'm going to dawdle as much as I like... then I'm going to take my shoes off and use them to shove my brother out of the way...')

I had to introduce Fraser to the concept of probation last week. This is all getting too complicated.

The problem is made more obvious when visitors come round.

My nephew Ned has started turning up after school on a fairly regular basis. He lurks about playing computer games, doesn't say much and then slopes off home. Since he could go home straight off and lurk about there playing computer games while not saying much, I'm not sure what's going on, but he doesn't get in the way, so I don't mind.

Yesterday, I caught him loading up The Darkness on my Xbox, though.

"That's 18-rated - you can't play that," I said as I stuck my head in the study.

"Why not?" he grunted.

"You're not eighteen. You're fourteen."

"I'm nearly fifteen. My parents don't mind," he said, genuinely confused what I was talking about.

"They probably should," I replied. The Darkness is not a game about a glam rock band from Lowestoft - you play a mafia hitman possessed by an ancient evil. Even as you attempt to resist its influence, you must use its abilities to complete a bloody quest for vengeance through the grotty underbelly of New York. This involves a good deal of shooting, swearing and ripping out opponents' hearts and eating them. Not much worse than a Saturday night in Lowestoft, admittedly, but it's clearly not suitable for a fourteen-year-old. "This isn't your parents' house, Xbox, rules or electricity. You can't play it here."

"Can I borrow it then?"


"Oh," he put the game back in its case and rifled through my collection. "Can I play this?" He held up BioShock.

Whereas The Darkness lacks restraint, subtlety or beauty, Bioshock is a mature adventure set in a magnificent but crumbling underwater city. There's an examination of the corrupting nature of power and a struggle for self-knowledge and redemption. There's exploration, philosophy and difficult moral choices. Truth to be told, though, there's also a great deal of whacking psycho junkies in the face with a wrench.

"Sorry," I said. "That's an 18 as well."

"All these other games are boring," he said sulkily.

"Well, come upstairs and talk to your cousins for a while then. Once they've told you in endless detail how to complete the first fifteen levels of Super Mario Galaxy, I'm sure everything else will seem far more exciting."

Ned shrugged and followed me to the lounge.

"Take your shoes off," I said as we reached the stairs.

"Do I have to?"

Technically, he didn't. The rule about taking shoes off was originally aimed at my children. I know where they've been - I don't want them traipsing remnants of those locations round the house. Nonetheless, they've long since taken to applying the rule to everyone else and then policing it vociferously.

"No, but the kids will have a go at you until you do. You'd be better off doing it now. Just be pleased you don't have a time limit."

As always seems to happen, the rule has become more complicated through use. The boys kept entering the building and then sitting in the hall on the bottom step for ten minutes while squabbling and wiping their dirty shoes on every surface and object within reach. 'Take your shoes off when you come in' became 'Take your shoes off quickly when you come in'. Before long, 'quickly' needed defined. It was 'the time taken for Daddy to take his shoes and coat off, take Marie's shoes and coat off, check the answering machine and make a cup of coffee'. Unfortunately, this time-frame varied too much depending on when in the sequence I switched on the kettle. Worse, Marie learnt to take her own shoes and coat off. She joined in with the squabbling and the definition became circular - she had until she'd taken her shoes off to take her shoes off. I had to decide on an actual time limit. After some negotiation and plenty of trial-and-error, we've settled on forty-seven and a half seconds. Failure to have shoes off and put away in this amount of time results in loss of dessert... unless they've already lost dessert, in which case a number of factors have to be taken into consideration, oracles consulted and - oh, never mind, you get the idea...

Ned pulled off his shoes without unlacing them. I resisted the urge to criticise this and we went upstairs.

In the lounge, Lewis was playing a Sonic the Hedgehog game on the Wii, Fraser was reading the final Harry Potter book and Marie was kicking a ball round the room. They all ignored us.

"How come he gets to play that?" said Ned. He picked up the box of the Sonic game and pointed to the 7+ age-rating on the cover. Lewis is six.

I took a closer look. The reason given for the rating was the element of violence in the game. I was bemused. True, there is plenty of fighting in the game but it's the kind of fighting that involves a blue hedgehog breaking a robot by jumping on its head. It's nothing compared to an episode of Tom & Jerry. Heck, The Little Mermaid contains more anger and aggression. Both of these are rated as suitable for all.

Aware of all this, I was happy to let Lewis continue playing but I didn't fancy my chances of explaining the nuances of the argument to Ned. "He's nearly seven," I said. This was something of a stretch - he's only recently turned six. Besides, Marie was in the room and occasionally watching the action. She's only three.

"Can I play a 15 on the Xbox then?" said Ned, detecting a loop-hole in the local by-laws and exploiting it.

"I suppose," I said reluctantly.

"Can I watch him?" asked Fraser, looking up from the book he probably shouldn't have been reading for another two or three years. (When we gave him the first in the series we really didn't count on him obsessively working his way through the lot without reading anything else in between.)

"No. You're not old enough," I said, somewhat disturbed that neither of them was overly concerned what the game was, as long as it was inappropriate.

"But Marie's watching Lewis," whined Fraser.

"You still can't watch Ned," I said firmly.

"Why not?"

The whole legal framework of my parental control was crashing down around me. Reasoned argument was failing and logic was being used against me. I was back to the bottom line. "Because I said so," I sighed.


I needed to take control of events and move away from controversy before I spent the rest of the afternoon in wrangling. "Ned, any chance you could play Risk with Fraser just now?"

"What?" he said. "That's like, I dunno, the board game of world domination and dictatorship and, erm, you know, ruthlessness conquest and stuff. How's he allowed to play that?"

I glared at him. He'd picked a particularly annoying moment to discover multi-syllable words. I was about to lose it with him when I detected the faintest glimmer of a grin underneath his teenage scowl. He was having me on. That boy is definitely smarter than he smells.

I cut off Fraser's shrill protestations that he was allowed to play Risk and he really liked it and he was old enough and that Marie played it sometimes. "It's OK, Fraser," I said. "You're allowed to play. I'll play too. Go through to your room and set the game up."

Fraser complied and Ned went with him. Lewis, meanwhile, put his controller down and started kicking Marie's ball around.

"You're too big to kick a ball around inside," I said.

"Can I bounce it then?"

I pointed to a smaller ball in amongst a pile of toys. "You can roll that other one."

"Can I throw that one?" Lewis asked.

"You can't throw either of them," I said, unearthing a foam ball from behind the sofa. "You can throw this soft one if you do it carefully, under-arm, and you don't throw it in the direction of the telly. Break anything and you won't get dessert."

"For how many days?" he said, not taking the ball.

"That depends..."

"On what?"

There were any number of variables to be analysed. These included the value of the destroyed object, degree of culpability, previous convictions, extenuating circumstances, involvement of siblings and my own state of mind. I decided not to get bogged down in a definitive list of punitive tariffs. Life is too short and it would have involved a spreadsheet. "Just be careful, OK?" I said. "You could always go outside."

"Nah," he said. Then, without touching any of the balls, he returned to Sonic.

I went through to Fraser's room. He was busy explaining the rules of Risk to Ned. They seemed refreshingly simple. We played the game and I made the mistake of starting a land war in Asia. Ned won. Fraser asked him what a dictatorship is.

"It's bad," said Ned. "It's kinda like when Bowser takes over the Mushroom Kingdom and he, erm, you know, puts Mario in prison and makes Princess Peach clean the floors or something."

My respect for him grew. Fraser seemed to get the idea.

It was time for Ned to go. "Thanks for that," I said when we were downstairs again and he was putting his shoes on. (He still didn't unlace them - I had to bite my tongue.)

"S'OK," he muttered. "Can I come back tomorrow?"

"Yeah. If you like."

"Uh-huh," he said and headed out the door. Then, over his shoulder, he added "You're not as crazy as Mum and Dad."

This was sort of reassuring but difficult to reply to. "OK," I said.

He was gone and I was left to consider improvements to my current censorship system. In the end, I gave up and decided to fill out my tax return. It was simpler.

I suppose I'm hoping that through making the household rules clear and well-defined, the children will come to understand the reasoning behind them. I'm hoping that one day they'll develop some sense and I won't need the rules. I'm hoping that they'll be able to work it out for themselves and it won't always come down to, 'Because I say so.' It will be like a glorious move from the Old Testament into the New.

On the other hand, there's a possibility I'm just raising my own pack of lawyers and I've got decades of legalistic nit-picking to go.

Ho hum. They'd better put me in a good nursing home when the time comes, that's all I can say. In fact, I may even make that a rule...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday, 9 May 2008

Judging a book by its shopping

Dear Dave,

Yep, you're right, that's outrageous. When you take a small child in to see the doctor, you need to be put at ease. You don't need the doctor sticking her head out the door for a double-check and then turning to the child and saying, "Is mummy not here?" as if you're invisible. Being treated like a second-class parent isn't helpful.

It's fairly typical, though. I discovered this only a few days after Fraser was born:

During the pregnancy, one of Sarah's blood samples showed abnormalities and so they gave her an extra scan. The suspected problem wasn't there but they did notice a possible issue with one of Fraser's kidneys. We had to go back for another test once he'd popped out. (Translation: Once he'd been yanked forcibly into the world by his head.) As tests go, this one was about as much fun as an oral algebra exam conducted in German. It involved getting him to pee liquid containing a metallic solution and X-raying him to see everything functioned correctly. The really good bit was that they put the liquid into him through the same apparatus they were expecting him to use to get it out again. (Boy, did he look surprised and betrayed.) Everything was being set up and I was told to put on a lead apron. I went to get one and turned back to find the technician was halfway through telling Sarah about the procedure without me. Since Fraser's day-to-day health is my responsibility, this would have been annoying at the best of times but it was particularly unfortunate because Sarah was still sore and drugged up on pain-killers. She was not in a fit state to take in and remember all the information. I wasn't too impressed.

I hate to think what it's like for divorced or unmarried dads. They probably get not only ignored but asked for paperwork in triplicate before being allowed to give medical consent. Gah!

Thankfully, Fraser was fine. These days, on the rare occasions when Sarah and I find ourselves talking together to healthcare professionals about the kids, a weird form of simultaneous translation can end up taking place:

Doctor (to Sarah): Has Marie had all her vaccinations?
Sarah (looking at me): She has, hasn't she?
Me (to doctor): Yep, she's up to date with all her jabs.
Doctor (to Sarah): So she's up to date with all her vaccinations?
Sarah: Yes.
Me (to doctor): When should she take these pills?
Doctor (to Sarah): Three times a day, preferably with food.
Sarah (looking at me again): Er...
Me (checking my hands to make sure I haven't inadvertently turned invisible): That will be fine...

To be honest, it's unfair to pick on the medical profession. Whenever I go to the barber, I'm always asked if it's my day off, despite usually having a gaggle of children with me. There are simply not of us housedads around to make an impact on people's assumptions. I even met a mother of small children recently who was totally unaware of the existence of housedads. That's right - she'd never heard of either of us. (Peculiarly, and to her great credit, she was also the first person in years to work out I'm a housedad without being told. Go figure.)

Sadly, living with bizarre attitudes and false suppositions is going to be part of a housedad's lot for many years to come. Maybe the next generation will fair better. I doubt it, however. My own household isn't that enlightened. The boys are already looking for rich women to marry so they can stay home and play computer games. If they can't find any, they're going to send their sister out to work instead...

As for me, I caught myself making snap judgements of people in the supermarket checkout line the other Saturday, simply on the basis of their shopping. I've been trying to stop doing this sort of thing but if the thirty-something woman in front of me is buying a packet of salad, a bottle of red wine, some chocolate and a sachet of cat food, I can't stop the Bridget Jones alarms from ringing. You know how it is...

On this occasion, I was put in a nosy mood by the middle-aged woman at the front of the line. She was buying six bottles of water and six bars of soap and nothing else. I couldn't help wondering what she was off to do. I couldn't figure it out. The very fact I wasn't able to pigeon-hole her straight off made me set to work on the other people ahead of me.

The man behind her was purchasing two bottles of washing-up liquid. I can't imagine just buying washing-up liquid. If I were nipping into the supermarket to buy washing-up liquid, I'd also buy six pints of milk, a dozen apples, two loaves of bread, a packet of biscuits and some cheese. It wouldn't matter if I'd already bought all these things on a trip to the shops in the morning and I was merely popping back because I'd forgotten to get washing-up liquid - I would buy them a second time since, like as not, we'd be running low once more. There's even a chance I would be so intent on buying milk, I might forget the washing-up liquid again.

I had to suspect the guy wasn't a housedad.

Next in line was a younger man buying sixteen cans of lager. You can't really argue with that kind of focused purchasing. It was doubly impressive, as his mate was in the other queue, also buying sixteen cans of lager. I could only assume there was football on.

Directly in front of me, a thirty-something woman was buying two selection packs of Cornetto cones and eight rolls of toilet paper. I pictured a Bridget Jones convention with much ice-cream and crying.

Then I glanced at my own basket. I had fifty portions of fruit and vegetables, two loaves of wholemeal bread and a large tub of natural yogurt. I was too overloaded to carry milk or cheese and I didn't have any children with me to explain the unnatural amount of veg I was holding. I must have looked like some kind of health food junkie on my way to eat carrot sandwiches and then wash them down with pro-biotic digestive goodness.

I hastily grabbed a packet of biscuits from a display and added it to my supplies. This merely made me look like I had a health food junkie for a wife and I was hoping to smuggle some sugar into the house.

Who knows what the people behind me were imagining? I didn't look much like a housedad.

Then again, maybe I never do.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at the reactions we normally get. Yeah, it's annoying when we take the kids to the doctor but maybe there's some way we can spin it to our advantage. Obviously, there's a lesson to be learned in not leaping to conclusions about other people but there's also an opportunity to totally mess with their heads at the same time. If no one can guess or take in our actual jobs, we have the freedom to masquerade as International Men of Mystery. We can pull crazy stunts and dress like Austen Powers and no one will look at us any more strangely than they do already.

I went home and pondered this while eating the biscuits. Then I discovered we were out of milk and I had to go back to the shop for some more. When I was there, I bought two bottles of washing-up liquid, eight rolls of toilet paper, sixteen cans of lager, a couple of packs of Cornettos, six bottles of water and half a dozen bars of soap.

True, this probably only ranks me as a Decidedly-Local Man of Puzzlement but it should have kept everyone in the queue behind me guessing. It's a start.

Groovy, baby!

All the best and I hope Sam recovers from his cough soon.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Trying not to freak

Dear Dave,

A couple of weeks back, you asked about any differences I'd noticed between the way housedads and housemums bring up children. I told you how my priorities sometimes seem to vary from the mums I meet. I'll often hold off in teaching the kids new skills, such as using cutlery, until a time when I think they'll learn quickly rather than pushing them to develop sooner simply because 'they're the right age'. I pass this off as being laid back but it's really just an attempt to keep my socks clean.

Having thought about it further, I've realised that there is another category of activities to be considered. These are the things which they can do fine but I won't let them do because I don't trust them to pay full attention to the task.

To be fair, I usually have good reason for this lack of faith. Take our recent visit to the dentist as an example. Fraser has been brushing his own teeth since he turned seven, nearly a year ago. I supervised to begin with but he got on OK and I left him to it. By last week, when we went for our check up, I hadn't watched him do it for months and I assumed he was still being careful.

Big mistake.

The dentist scraped around inside his mouth for mere moments before pulling out a partly-chewed chocolate raisin, three Rice Crispies, a car number plate and the lost Ark of the Covenant. I'm back to brushing his teeth half the time again just to make certain.

I don't even trust the children to walk along the street without micro-management. Coming back home with all three of them yesterday, I said, "There's some dog poo in the middle of the pavement up ahead."

"I remember," said Lewis. "We saw it on the way to school. It's really squidgy."

"Yep, that's the one," I replied and that should have been enough warning. Still, when we got closer, I couldn't resist saying, "The dog poo's here. Watch out."

Marie appeared oblivious to my words, so I grabbed her hand to guide her past. She immediately stopped right next to it and started screaming that she didn't want her hand held. I had to concentrate on preventing her from throwing herself to the ground in a tantrum and rolling in the poo. Fraser walked right into us. Then he made as if to step sideways to go round us. "Watch out for the dog poo!" I shouted. I grabbed Fraser but then ran out of hands. Lewis ignored what was happening entirely and ploughed straight through the middle of the swampy puddle.

Honestly, I might as well not have spoken. In fact, things might have gone better if I hadn't.

This constant intervention on my part is much more of a problem than letting them develop at their own pace. It doesn't matter to me what method the kids use to eat their food as long as, when they head off to play, they have clean hands and I have clean socks. I'm sure that some day they'll decide forks are a good idea and take to using them on a regular basis. I could be yelling at them to avoid the dog poo forever, though. I can't be doing with that and I don't want to be brushing Fraser's teeth on the night before his wedding. At some point I have to let them work it out themselves.

This is difficult. Say I were to let the boys navigate their own way along the pavement, would I trust them to clean their own shoes if they got it wrong? Probably not, which leaves some very unpleasant work for me. I'm likely to be pointing out potential squidgy disaster for a while yet. The kids shouldn't always expect me to predict and preempt catastrophe for them, however. I can't be ready for everything. On a trip at the weekend, Lewis spilt a sticky drink made from slush and concentrated evil over himself. I wished I had a change of clothes for him with me but I didn't because he's six. If I carry around spare clothes for a six-year-old, when am I going to stop? He needs to learn to hold the cup when he uses a straw. Hopefully, having had to wear ice-cold trousers for a bit and then sit on the toilet for five minutes while I toasted them under a hand-dryer will have taught him that lesson.

Fat chance, I know, but maybe one day...

I'm working on it - I'm trying to let the kids act for themselves. If the boys aren't prepared to take their gloves with them, then they have to live with that decision. I'm not going to spend time persuading them to look out of the window before making those kinds of choices any more. It's up to them. I've also started Fraser on applying his own eczema cream. I suspect sometimes as much goes on the carpet as on him but he's getting there. I try not to watch and I keep clean socks handy.

My natural tendency if the kids are struggling or making poor choices, is to step in and do the job for them. They'll get on better in the long run if I'm clear about what needs to be done and the consequences of failure and then trust them to get on with it. At some point a line has to be drawn. It becomes time to say, 'You're another human being, you know what you have to do and it's your responsibility to do it.'

Wish me luck. This is hard enough to do with adults... and they get to clean their own shoes.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday, 2 May 2008

Trousers are more important than Grand Theft Auto

Dear Dave,

Famously, the last time I went into the city to buy trousers, I came back with an Xbox 360 instead. It was a couple of years ago and I made the mistake of going into GAME at the start of my trip. I was so surprised to find the consoles in stock, I bought one immediately. I hadn't counted on how much they weigh. I was an aching, sweaty mess within minutes. I half-heartedly glanced round the menswear department of John Lewis and headed home.

Bearing in mind that my second-best pair of trousers had a hole in the knee so large that it kept catching on furniture as I walked by, I should have dumped the Xbox in our hall and headed straight back to the shops. I hate clothes shopping, though. Psyching myself up to go twice in one day was beyond me. (Not to mention that I had a new games console to play with.) The following Saturday seemed soon enough to buy trousers.

Unfortunately, it was another three months before I bought any. We were staying with my parents in rural Norfolk and I ended up going to the nearest small town to buy some. The situation was desperate by that stage. Even my best pair of trousers had developed excess ventilation. There was only one shop in the town that sold clothes that I might wear and that were in my price range. It was a case of buying anything which fitted. I did that.

The results looked fine and I had no more clothing worries until a six weeks ago, when I discovered my current second-best pair of trousers had a gaping hole. It wasn't in the knee this time. I got by for a while by coordinating my underwear with the trousers but it wasn't really a long-term solution. I had to return to central Edinburgh and brave the horrors of Princes Street in search of something to keep me decent.

A few years back, a couple of menswear retailers weren't doing so well and I saw an interview with a director of one of the companies on Working Lunch. He basically blamed us for his woes. With a touch of irritation, he noted that men in an age range between twenty-five and forty-five don't buy clothes.

This isn't entirely true. We do buy socks and underpants when our partners insist. We also need two sets of work clothes (one to wear, one to wash). Housedads even need five sets of work clothes (one to wear, three to wash, one to beat with a stick until it stays still long enough to be incinerated). Then there's a few t-shirts for sunny weekends, a new pair of pyjamas every decade or so and, erm... er... ...

Yeah, anyway, we do buy clothes. What the guy was really saying was that we only buy what we need to keep us warm and to prevent us getting arrested. This is true. My mission objective as I boarded the bus was purely to find sufficient apparel to stave off hypothermia and custody. Avoiding looking ridiculous was desirable but not essential.

Since it was last Tuesday, everywhere was plastered with adverts for Grand Theft Auto IV. I ignored them. I had to concentrate on buying trousers. I had to not think about it being release day for one of the greatest computer games ever made.


Must buy trousers...

It was harder than I expected. I don't mean steering clear of GTA. That was easy - every shop selling it was too full of people wanting their copy for me to be able to get inside. I'm talking about finding trousers I liked enough to cough up the asking price. As it's a while since I regularly went clothes shopping, my expectations were out of kilter with reality. I was looking for trousers that had fallen through a worm-hole from 1995, complete with a 1995 price. Worse yet, there were shops I used to patronise that I walked into and felt almost too old for. I can probably carry off wearing faded jeans at the moment but in a year or three? I doubt it. Considering how infrequently I buy clothes, this was an issue. I didn't know what to do.

My feet took charge and carried me into Gamestation on autopilot. After fighting my way past all the people buying Grand Theft Auto IV, I discovered that Wii Fit was in stock. (The emergency team digging Nintendo's minions out of a mountain of cash must have hurried the job along so they were ready for a call-out from Rockstar.) I had games to trade and some vouchers to spend and, well, one thing led to another and I found myself without new trousers but carrying a heavy piece of interactive hardware. This felt spookily familiar.

I considered going home with my prize but I knew I'd never live it down. Perspiring slightly, I continued my quest.

Luckily, the Wii Fit balance board isn't quite as cumbersome as a 360. It is close, though. I resolved to find some suitable clothing as quickly as I could, before my arm fell off.

Things didn't improve. Everywhere I went, there were more bizarre clothes that would have needed to be half the price for me to take a chance on them. I thought one pair of trousers was OK until I realised the legs zipped off to turn them into shorts. I'm sure that's a feature my kids would love to experiment with endlessly but I wasn't so keen.

It was all a succession of baggy sacks with too many pockets, odd jackets and pink shirts with blue stripes and matching purple ties. I was tempted to flaunt some of my rips and get arrested, just so I'd be able to wear some decent coveralls.

Then I walked past British Home Stores. I stopped and walked back. I didn't feel quite old enough to shop there but I decided I'd better have a look, for the sake of completeness. Sagging from despair, weariness and the knowledge I'd turned into my dad, I went inside and took the escalator up to the first floor.

I was greeted by row upon row of chinos in unremarkable colours. They were even in the sale.

I had come home.

Despite it being lunchtime, there weren't many other shoppers around. I can only assume they were off buying Grand Theft Auto IV somewhere. The couple of blokes I did see hunting through the racks were fifteen to twenty years older than me. This was disturbing. I'd apparently moved up an age bracket in my consumer preferences. Who knew what I was going to start feeling the urge to purchase? Slip-on shoes? A cloth cap? A newspaper that didn't come free on the bus?

I found myself called towards the tartan slippers.


Must buy trousers...

I concentrated on the task in hand. I was surrounded by suitable trousers and I needed four pairs. Which ones to buy? First choice was black. I'm not keen on brown. It lacks the style of black. White was out of the question. It needs washed more often than other colours (like black, for instance). Beige (or biscuit or light brown or whatever it is) was nice but almost as impractical as white - I need something which doesn't show grass-stains and dirt. You know, like black. I considered getting a grey pair but, although I'd wear them, I'd be wishing they were... well... black.

Basically, I was thinking black.

I couldn't quite bring myself to buy four pairs of identical black trousers, however. I opted for two black pairs and two dark blue pairs. I'll probably only wear the blue ones in emergencies but, hey, I tried...

I bought some plain, white t-shirts as well and checked to see if they had any shirts in my colour (light burgundy). They didn't but the three I have already will last a while yet - they're only threadbare, not full of holes. Who cares that one has paint on and the cuffs are frayed on another? At least they still have most of their buttons.

I cut my losses, went home and collapsed. Mission accomplished. More than that, Wii Fit had given me its first work-out and I hadn't taken it out of the box.

Why is it so hard to buy clothes? I like to think it's because I don't care what I wear and so it takes me ages to get round to it. The truth is more that I'm incredibly fussy about what I wear and I know that it's going to be a real effort finding the things I want. These things are smart-casual, trousers (preferably black), plain t-shirts (white or black) and collared shirts doomed to a life of unbuttoned crumpledness (burgundy) i.e. what I always get. I should simply walk into shops, point to myself and go, 'Do you have this, except without the holes and stains?'

I could change my look but it's not worth it. When I got contact lenses as a teenager, one of my friends said, 'Why do you have those? You looked better with glasses.' Six months later, when I couldn't wear the lenses for a few days, the same guy said, 'Why have you gone back to glasses? You looked better without them.' Since then, I've never been much bothered by fashion.

I like the way I look and other people have either got used to it or just don't care. Why mess with that?

I'm going to regret not buying more of those black chinos...

Yours in a woman's world,