Dear Dave

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Another reason to walk

Dear Dave,

We don't have a car. We live in the middle of a city and don't like driving, so there's no point really. The closest guaranteed parking space to most places we want to go is our own driveway. We might get soaked walking to the sports centre if it's raining but when we get there, we've had enough exercise to allow us to turn around and come straight home - thus saving both time and money. We can also look annoyingly smug on any occasion someone starts talking about carbon footprints.

Not having a car does reduce out shopping options, however. When buying groceries, I like to go in person to squeeze the produce and spot the weekly bargains. Whenever I've tried ordering food online, I've found it time-consuming, frustrating and strangely unsatisfactory. This means that, without a car, I'm limited to a selection of small, local supermarkets. They stock everything we could possibly need but their merchandise isn't hugely varied. Pasta comes in three shapes, two sizes of packet and one colour. The main choice involved with fish is whether it's coated in batter or breadcrumbs. Pears are available in two varieties - 'Take It' or 'Leave It'.

That said, having grown up on a diet of the sort of dubious stew reserved for those families with a cattle herd and a desire to cut down on veterinary bills, I'm not too fussed. Besides, even after fifteen years of living in town, having any shops at all within walking distance is still something of a novelty.

I did have a glimpse of how much more is possible the other day, though. Since the school holidays have been dragging on a while now, I made an effort to get the kids out of the house. I decided we'd go for a long hike and investigate the huge superstore that lies just beyond the normal reaches of our travels.

The children weren't thrilled at the prospect, complaining for most of the way. It was too hot and too far. Why were we going anyway? Where was it? What did we need? Why couldn't I go on my own once Mummy was home? What was...?

All at once the whining stopped. It was a long time since we'd been and, as we entered, we were transfixed. It wasn't merely huge, it was enormous - a veritable cathedral of consumerism. The aisles were so long that the curvature of the Earth meant we couldn't see the far ends. Every inch was crammed with brightly coloured packets of tastiness. There were 503 types of pasta and I couldn't find the pears amongst all the tubs of fruits so exotic that I didn't know their names.

There was choice beyond the bounds of my imagination.

Oh, and as an added bonus, every so often the stacks of delicious treats were interrupted by a shelf of toys or electronics.

We wanted to buy everything. It was like we'd peeked from behind the Iron Curtain and found ourselves staring into the window of McDonald's. Ronald himself was beckoning to us, holding out a heaped tray of Big Macs and the biggest cup of fizzy nectar we'd ever seen...

I couldn't help wishing the store was closer to home or perhaps even that we had a car. Then I could have stocked up any time on any number of delicacies from jellied Bolivian fruit bats to spiced Malaysian crab bites. My eyes glazed over and I stumbled forward like a zombie, mesmerised by the bounty laid before me.

Then I stopped. For some reason, I wasn't going anywhere. I looked down. My basket was already too full to lift. The kids had taken advantage of my distraction to pile the thing high with sweets, chocolate biscuits and small, plastic effigies of Dora the Explorer.

I was suddenly very glad we don't have a car. I've always thought that the maintenance costs and lack of exercise would make me poor and fat. I was wrong. It's the amount of luxury shopping we could fit in the boot that would do it. Witnessing the basket at my feet made me see the truth of that. I didn't dare think what value of fattening foodstuffs we could have packed into a trolley and then stuffed into the back of a people carrier.

I forced the children to return all their finds to the shelves and we settled on a single bag of pear-flavoured spaghetti (in breadcrumbs) as a souvenir of our trip. Then we walked home.

It rained...

...but I didn't get wet. The water merely evaporated the moment it touched my happy, righteous glow...

Yours in a woman's world,


Thursday 23 July 2009

Leaping to conclusions

Dear Dave,

When I'm out and about with the children, I'm used to people assuming that it's my day off from work and I'm giving my wife a break. (Unless it's the weekend, of course, in which case they assume it must be my turn to have custody.) We seem to have moved beyond the stage where a man out on his own with three small children is strange, however. The birthrate is now so low it's apparently peculiar for anyone at all to choose to shepherd more than two kids around without back-up:

Sarah took the children to visit a castle yesterday. Since there was a special offer on, they all signed up for annual memberships. It cost only a little more than the normal entrance charge and they can now all go as many times over the coming year as they wish for free. We're unlikely to visit more than once in the next twelve months, though, so there was no point signing me up too.

The lady at the desk took the forms and for some reason felt it necessary to say, "There are lots of families with only one parent these days."

"Actually," replied Sarah, "my husband's at home getting some peace and quiet."

The woman smiled. "Oh, I thought he might be dead."

"Er... no," said Sarah, then paid the money and backed away slowly...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS You have to wonder what was going through the woman's mind but it maybe wasn't as scary as the thoughts Lewis had when we were explaining the concept of inheritance to him. We told him about how, when one of my elderly relatives died a few years back, we'd been given some money.

His response was, "Why did you get paid for that?"

Monday 20 July 2009

The green-eyed Hula monster

Dear Dave,

How's Daisy doing these days? What's she getting up to? Although at the time it felt like nappies and sleep deprivation were enduring facts of life, my memories of having a nearly-two-year-old around have become somewhat hazy. As unlikely as it must seem to you in your poo-tastic, zombiefied state, it's hard for me to recall exactly what it was like. This is probably some kind of genetic survival trait in the species to introduce the possibility of kids getting siblings but it's a little weird nonetheless. Somehow, a couple of years ago, Marie went from toddler to little girl and I don't remember how.

I suspect it was tiring and messy.

You should be able to see the bed at the end of the tunnel soon, though. With luck, Daisy is approaching that lovely age where children are not too slimy but are still cute and relatively obedient. Hang on in there...

Of course, even the memory of that is beginning to fade for me now. They get older, they stop believing a word you say and then their teeth (the ones that you've only recently lost so much sleep to oversee enter their mouths) start falling out again. With boys, anyway. If Marie is anything to go by, girls develop slightly differently - they stay cute for longer but it's merely a cover for their subversive plans:

While at the kitchen table yesterday, Marie smiled sweetly at Sarah and said, "Mummy! Doesn't my tea look yummy?"

Sarah nodded. "Yes, it looks very yummy."

"You, eat it then," said Marie gleefully. "I don't like it."

Hmmm... I've mentioned before about her obsession with jewellery and the colour pink. She's now developed a fashion sense as well and threw a strop while getting dressed this morning because her pants were 'too boring'. Alongside this passion for appearance, she's gaining some devious social skills at a very young age:

We went to a Hula dance workshop at the library the other day. It was truly awful. There was ten minutes of swaying to some fake Hawaiian music apparently copied from a skipping record onto CD, followed by some random stories, a lot of colouring in and then another few minutes of swaying. Half the children got to wear garlands of flowers and grass skirts, the other half got to glare at them enviously FOR THE ENTIRE HOUR. There was no swapping or sharing, and Marie was not one of the chosen ones. She wasn't happy. She was so annoyed in fact, she made me do the colouring in for her.

In an effort to distract her and escape from my forced crayoning, I pointed to one of the other children. "Look at the beautiful butterfly hair clip that girl is wearing."

The little girl in question immediately went wide-eyed in horror, planted both hands firmly on top of her head and ran away. "You can't see it!" she screeched. After that, she refused to do anything her mum told her. I got to punctuate my colouring with abject apologies.

Later, when the girl had recovered, Marie went over to her, smiling sweetly. "That is a beautiful hair clip," she said with real admiration. Then she grinned evilly. "Ha ha! I saw it!" she cackled and skipped away looking smug.

As the other girl went into meltdown, I was reduced to more apologies, a sheepish expression and a hasty retreat.

Marie was in trouble until we met the girl and her mum in a shop a few minutes later. "That's my friend from Hula club!" shouted Marie excitedly. I expected a catty brawl to ensue but, as it happened, the girls were delighted to see each other. The two of them were all waves and smiles and began admiring each other's bracelets.

I think I'm out of my depth...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 15 July 2009

Game of Life

Dear Dave,

The past is a scarily strange place. When I was Fraser's age, I was told stories of my dad, when he was a boy, stopping in his tracks to watch the airplanes flying overhead. As all nine-year-old boys have come to an abrupt halt at the sight of a flying machine ever since the Montgolfier brothers first put a sheep, a duck and a rooster in a basket and sent it skywards attached it to an absolutely enormous balloon, I could relate to these tales. That the planes were painted with Swastikas and were dropping bombs, however, seemed like something from another age even then. If the punchlines had involved dinosaurs rather than Nazis, the anecdotes wouldn't have felt a whole lot further removed from my way of life. Weirdly, tales of foreigners trying to launch livestock into space would have been almost topical in comparison...

Now I'm a dad and telling my kids stories of when I was nine myself, it doesn't feel like the world of today is so radically different from the world of my youth... OK, I suppose I don't have a stockpile of bin bags and tinned food in anticipation of nuclear Armageddon. And there's peace in Northern Ireland. And apartheid is over. But, you know, Last of the Summer Wine and Songs of Praise are still on telly on a Sunday evening and Fraser recently got pyjamas with Imperial Stormtroopers on them. Life hasn't changed much...

Er... Has it?

I used to think not but a couple of things in the last week have made me think again. May I present Exhibit A:

Game of Life board game.

Ah, yes, The Game of Life, circa 1982. We picked it up while on holiday for a couple of quid in a charity shop (because four games consoles, digital TV, numerous DVDs and a small library of books apparently weren't enough to keep the children quiet). Sarah and I both have fond memories of playing the game as kids and hoped it would lead to many happy hours gathered round the board with our own family.

Well, it was worth a shot. Seen through adult eyes, The Game of Life isn't vastly more involving than Snakes and Ladders - it's just much more complicated. There's plenty of reading and accounting to keep players busy but it mostly comes down to spinning the spinner and moving the indicated number along the path.

Nonetheless, the real shock was how anachronistic it feels. Players have jobs for life, get married young and frequently end up with five or more children. (Spouses and kids are represented by extra pegs in the plastic car playing-pieces. The cars only have space for four children each but the instructions encourage extras to be packed in any old how, 'just like in real life'. Frightening.) Buying stocks is bound to pay off in the long-term, life insurance can't fail, attending university always brings financial advantage, donating to charity is compulsory and a life of endeavour ultimately leads to retirement with a big bundle of cash. Best of all, if you discover uranium, you make pots of money rather than dying mysteriously and painfully.

Life is apparently about achievement and acquisition, with a touch of philanthropy on the side. How very Baby Boomer. Or am I reading too much into it? Maybe humanity always appears the same in every age when looking back with hindsight.

Fortunately, we haven't always had to wear knitted tank tops:

Game of Life board game box.

Gosh. Don't they look ready for a refreshing drink of SodaStream and a Pot Noodle. There's probably a photo of those parents that was taken a decade later yet in which they look ten years younger thanks to a combination of a change of clothes, a make-over and their kids having left home. Of course, the '90s edition of The Game of Life is unlikely to have these rejuvenated individuals on the cover. I imagine that that features impossibly excited kids, little plastic pieces flying everywhere and a small disclaimer about how the pieces don't really fly and that the kids aren't included.

Times have changed...

Also on holiday, we went to see some clowns putting on a show in the local town hall. I wondered why there was a steaming DeLorean parked outside but then I went in to discover that the clowns in question had clearly escaped from a kids' party in 1985. Their backdrop was worn and faded and was hung with a string of triangular Union Jacks that were almost certainly left over from the royal wedding (or, worse, the Silver Jubilee). In the interval they sold crisps and plastic bowler hats while Agadoo played in the background. For added authenticity, the music was on tape - we could tell because it warbled in that way which happens when the cassette needs taken out and banged against a table. The memories... It was like being back in an age when watching someone balance a broom on their chin was the pinnacle of entertainment.

I dozed off and dreamt about vampires and a fridge full of hamsters. Pie-shaped hamsters. It was far more riveting.

Then again, maybe it's not the world that's changed, so much as me. The children loved the clowns (brooms and all) and insisted on playing The Game of Life every night. Bearing this in mind, I'm thinking I might go and top up my supply of bin bags and tinned food in case the whole swine flu thing escalates. There's probably an energy crisis and a Tory government around the corner too.

Not sure I'm quite convinced enough to buy any stocks just yet, though...

Yours in a knitted tank top,


Friday 10 July 2009

Spoilt by choice

Dear Dave,

You'll remember that after an unfortunate incident a couple of years ago, we bought a new toaster. It's a good toaster with many great features:

  • It can take four slices of bread or two larger items.
  • It can defrost stuff.
  • The crumb tray is easy to remove.
  • It doesn't contain any mice.
These are all very handy. The one thing that isn't so useful is the slider near the base which determines the amount of grilling the bread receives. This is marked on a scale from 1 to 6 but there are realistically only two positions which are any use. Setting the slider at just-over-3 toasts the first batch of bread nicely and just-under-3 toasts the second round to perfection.

Of the five centimetres the slider can move, four and a half have little purpose. Level 1 is slightly less effective than leaving the bread in direct sunlight for a few minutes, while Level 6 is reserved for those looking to incinerate documents or commit insurance fraud.

Admittedly, there does need to be some room for adjustment: Do two rounds at just-under-3 and the first lot is still chewy; do two rounds at just-over-3 and the second lot turns black and sets off the smoke detector. The available options seem somewhat excessive, however. Worse, the slider is very easily knocked to one side or the other, resulting in the kids occasionally getting mildly warm bread for breakfast or having to eat charcoal in a kitchen full of acrid fog.

Choice is all very well but sometimes it backfires.

This year on our summer holiday in St Andrews, we made sure to keep the kids entertained. Despite not owning a car and having to carry everything, we packed the Wii, two DSs, a DVD player, art materials, Pokémon cards, a Freeview player, books, Scrabble, a Leapster, a stack of games and a whole bunch of stuff they really wanted to watch.

The children complained they were bored more times on the first day than they did on the entire trip last year.

After that, they were forced to spend much of the next couple of days running around outside in the rain and going for walks in the scorching heat. They only got to choose whether they took a coat. The grumbling didn't diminish much but at least they received plenty of fresh air, sunshine and exercise.

It took most of the rest of the week to find a happy medium between benevolent dictatorship and family democracy - to choose our level of choice, if you like.

We were just in time to go play Frisbee on the beach.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Coincidentally, the toaster in the holiday flat had a dial marked from 1 to 6. Following a visit from the fire brigade and a meal of tepid Hovis, I managed to determine that around 4 was the magic point on that one...

Tuesday 7 July 2009

And then some

Dear Dave,

I can't believe how old I am. I think I need another mid-life crisis to cope.

I must have reached my third or fourth now and they're getting to be an almost annual event. This one was brought on by buying some wine as end-of-term gifts for the kids' teachers. The assistant behind the counter checked that I was over twenty-five and everyone within about ten metres chuckled to themselves. I was initially flattered the guy had asked but then I got to thinking about exactly how much over twenty-five I am.

He wasn't really supposed to be checking if I was over twenty-five anyway - he was supposed to be checking anyone buying booze who looked under twenty-five to make sure they were over eighteen. I realised that it's nearly eighteen years since I turned eighteen. I felt old. Since I was at the checkout in Tesco with a basket containing six bottles of wine and a bunch of bananas, I also felt somewhat eccentric. I had an image of myself coming across as an ageing chimpanzee with bushy eyebrows and an alcohol problem.

I considered rescuing some dignity by pointing out the wine was for my children. Fortunately, I resisted. I joined in the chuckling, typed in my PIN and made a hasty retreat, clinking loudly as I went.

Ho hum. Cue yet another bout of self-analysis as I wonder what I've been doing for the last goodness knows how long and then try to figure out where my life is headed. Going by previous experience, I should now attempt to recapture my lost youth by locking myself in a room with some loud music and a games console for a week, only emerging to play a complicated war simulation involving painted plastic figures.


Actually maybe youth isn't all it's cracked up to be. Thanks to my housedad training, I'm stronger and more co-ordinated than I used to be. I also have increased stamina and I'm a bit more savvy. I'm confident I could take my eighteen-year-old self in almost any physical competition.

(Well, any that didn't involve a quick start or a keen sense of timing anyway, but that's not because my reaction times and rhythm have got worse, they simply haven't got any better. A 100m Guitar Hero Dash between different temporal iterations of myself would have no winners, only a mangled heap of losers, broken controllers and on-lookers clawing at their ears.)

Along with having an athletic advantage over my younger self in the time-travel Olympics, being a parent has taught me how to negotiate a head start and reinvent the rules. Not to mention the fact I'd have three small minions to set on my younger, spottier twin and he wouldn't have a clue how to defeat them.

Victory would be mine.

Besides, life is generally much more pleasant now I'm not eighteen. Maybe my youth should stay down the back of the sofa, or wherever else it is I lost it.

Then again... Even as I was thinking all this to myself, I went to collect Marie from nursery. As I pushed open the heavy, red door to enter the building, I remembered it was her last day. After six years of turning up to collect one child or another, I knew I'd never have to do it again. No more waiting in the lobby staring at collages, no more swing park before lunch and no more grinning sheepishly at Miss Nolan. Next term, I'll be standing around the playground in the rain to collect Marie along with the boys.

I have three school-age kids. I can't believe how old I am. I think I'm going to have to go fire-up the Xbox, play some Del Amitri at full volume and eBay myself a game involving little plastic Space Marines...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I just got back from another trip to Tesco. The pensioner in front of me had nothing in her basket apart from six bottles of wine and ten cans of gin and tonic. She loaded them into her wheeled shopping bag and tottered off down the street.

I'm guessing she's looking after her grandchildren for the holidays.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

From Tweenies to tweenies

Dear Dave,

I've been writing to you for nearly two and a half years now. In some ways it feels like only weeks since I put that first tentative letter in the post. In others, it feels like half a lifetime.

Actually, I suppose it is half a lifetime - Marie is twice the age she was when we started our correspondence. Bottles and babygros were still recent history for me back then and I'd barely got used to having unbroken sleep. I never went anywhere without a buggy, a large packet of wipes and a selection of plastic bags. The house smelled strangely swampy...

Things have changed somewhat since then. I only usually need a small packet of wipes these days, for instance. The buggy has been retired, babygros look laughably small and most of those 15,000 nappies I changed have faded from my mind. (Although one or two will live on in my nightmares forever.) It's a pleasantly long time since I've been vomited on.

Of course, our first contact must seem even longer ago to you. You've gone from having one toddler to possessing a school child and a toddler. Never mind remembering what life was like - you probably struggle to remember you own name most of the time. I'm glad to hear that Daisy's teething is almost over, though. With a proper night's sleep on a regular basis, you'll be better equipped to cope with all the children choose to throw at you (both literally and metaphorically). It's still a while until Daisy is at nursery but, in the meantime, there's a string of milestones to look forward to. Soon you can ditch the high chair and the changing unit. Before long, her speech will become clear, allowing so many misunderstandings to be avoided. She won't learn to say 'thank you' without prompting for another decade, admittedly, but life will only get easier from now on.

Well, up to a point anyway...

There seems to be a sweet spot around age five or six when kids are relatively low maintenance. They're old enough to wipe their own bottoms, get themselves dressed, entertain themselves if they wake up early and to not go into a hissing tantrum for hours if they don't get their own way. They're still young enough, however, to mostly do what they're told and to go to bed early, while still being cute enough to get away with being rude and obnoxious in front of elderly relatives. Sadly, this stage doesn't last.

We stumbled across a recording of one of Fraser's school shows the other day. It was strange looking back on how he and his classmates used to be before the boys got all gangly and the girls swapped girly bunches for sleek ponytails. They're in Primary 4 now and we assumed the footage was taken not long after they started school.

Turns out that it was from barely a year ago. Sometime in the last twelve months, they've all mutated into Tweenies.


Er, no, hang on, that was a typo. I meant tweenies. Still, the accompanying mental image of a class full of brightly-coloured, furry humanoids with googly, animatronic eyes is worth holding on to. I may be lumbered with a stroppy and opinionated pre-teen but an invasion of glorified muppets would be worse...


Hmmm... Anyway, on realising Fraser had moved up a demographic bracket, quite a lot of his recent behaviour started to make 'sense'. He always did argue with everything but now he's lippy with it. He's big enough that being rude and obnoxious no longer comes across as adorable mischief; it's simply insolent and occasionally scary. He would embarrass us all evening in front of visiting elderly relatives but they go to bed before he does.

Basically, he's not a teenager yet but he's working on it. He'll be demanding brand-name trainers before long.

Oddly, despite growing more independent, he's becoming higher maintenance again. He needs help understanding the complexities of the world and human interactions. He questions everything. He takes up a larger space in the lounge for more of the time. The sweet spot is past. It's going to be a long summer.

Remember all those things the crazy old woman down the street told you just after Sam was born? There you were, exhausted and shellshocked, holding your first child, and she kept saying stuff like, 'Enjoy your kids while they're still young. They grow up so quickly. Don't wish they're lives away. They'll have left home before you know it.' Etc, etc.

I've never particularly agreed with her, and experience has only strengthened my case - two and a half years really has felt like half a lifetime...

I'm maybe beginning to see where she was coming from, though.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Fraser went to the park on his own after school for the first time last week. There were plenty of other parents there who knew him and I set a time he had to be back by, but it was a momentous occasion, nonetheless. We got him a mobile phone to celebrate.

The next step is giving him his own key. It will save us money in the long run - he's taken to phoning me to open the front door rather than ringing the bell.

Oh, and I called him down for tea yesterday and he texted me to say he'd be a few minutes...