Dear Dave

Monday 28 September 2009

Haven't they grown

Dear Dave,

Thank you for your congratulations on my survival. It does feel fantastic to have experienced my kids' pre-school lives at close quarters and yet to have come out the other side still sane enough to tell the tale in an almost coherent manner. Best wishes with the three more years of tribulation you have left yourself. Not long now and it should all start getting much easier. I know that's small consolation at the moment, what with Daisy's poor sleeping and Sam's stroppiness, but there's a great chance that the hardest physical trials are already behind you. The kids' demands on your time and energy should soon begin to decrease. Believe me, the light at the end of the tunnel is approaching and it's NOT an oncoming toddler intent on whacking you over the head with a illuminated fairy wand that makes a Diddly-ding! noise. (Although there could be the odd false alarm. If the light flashes and looks kind of pink, you might want to don protective headgear and prepare to dodge.)

Yep, just keep on plugging away. Sure, there'll still be plenty of difficult situations before your children finally leave the nest but, whatever ways they find to test your patience as teenagers, at least you won't be crazy from sleep deprivation nor exhausted from carrying them around on your shoulders for hours. That's got to be an improvement...

Having all three of my kids at school full-time hasn't really sunk in yet. I had a couple of restful days and then I cleaned the house. It was refreshing not having to do the housework late at night or at the weekend but I spent most of the time spotting all the crannies and high shelves that I haven't investigated in years. After much practice, I can get the whole house looking clean and tidy in four hours; to get the place actually clean and tidy, I'm going to need to put in a day or two per room.

I'm also going to have to hire a skip.

Strangely, this realisation was both demoralising and reassuring. Each potential chore I discovered booked up more of my new-found 'free' time over the coming months but also added a little extra justification for my continued housedad status. It's good to know there's plenty to keep me usefully occupied while the kids aren't sick, on holiday or out of school.

Of course, I've always known this. In any rational analysis, I've clearly got more than enough to be getting on with. That's not always sufficient, though - I've met too many people in my time who've wondered what I do all day apart from eat biscuits and sit around watching Tweenies. I'm used to explaining myself.

The problem is, the explanation I've been using for years is no longer true.

I still tend to describe myself as a housedad with three small children. This works a treat. It's short and simple and contains all the information anyone needs to know - if they don't immediately appreciate how busy I am, no amount of extra explaining would make them understand anyway. As a bonus, it's a particularly useful description when dealing with large companies that are messing me about. If I drop it into the conversation when reporting a heating fault, for instance, the person on the other end of the phone suddenly gets a mental image of a newspaper article headed with a photo of a bloke sitting on a sofa surrounded by adorable toddlers looking glum and covered in icicles. The only way the potential negative publicity could be worse is if we had a pet panda with us, huddled under a blanket and staring mournfully at the camera with its big round eyes. They usually dispatch a service engineer pretty sharpish. (If they don't, I shout to the kids to make sure Ling-Ling's woolly hat is on properly and then I chew loudly on some bamboo. That always does the trick.)

Unfortunately, the last repair bloke turned up to discover not only a lack of photogenic livestock but that Fraser was taller than he was. The other two children played so quietly upstairs, the guy didn't know they were there. When he learnt I'm a housedad, he smirked and commented on how he wouldn't mind doing that himself. I had to give the kids a sugary chocolate bar each, wait five minutes and then encourage them to all go say 'hello' at once, just to teach the guy a lesson...

Nonetheless, the incident brought home to me that although I'm a housedad, I don't have three small children. Let's face it, I don't even have one small child anymore. In a double-whammy for my status as a full-time carer, not only is Marie in school but she had her fifth birthday yesterday. She's learning to write, she can coordinate her fashion accessories and I now have to pay for her on the bus. She's no longer small.

Three years ago, when my kids chased each other round the aisles of Tesco, they were cute. When they did it three days ago, they were a danger to old ladies and displays of soft fruit. If they try it again in another few months, I'm liable to get a caution from the police.

They've long since moved on from being toddling bundles of need. As such, my role involves far less hands-on maintenance than it used to. Instead, there's plenty of supervision - during the holidays, the boys are up at 7:30 and don't go to bed until 9:30. That's little enough peace already and, before too long, a point will come when Fraser is always about while I'm awake. I'll need to have adjusted from commanding a gaggle of infants, to sharing the house with three adolescent people.

By then, it might be worth changing career merely to escape... For now, I'm going to have to come up with a new job description. I'm a little sad to let go of the old one but I think it's time.

I was asked recently which of Marie's toys is her favourite. "Whichever one she's just lost," I replied. There's a lesson there in appreciating what we have. Despite many happy memories of looking after small children, new challenges await.

I'm looking forward to them.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS First up is investigating the decade of accumulated junk beneath Fraser's bed. Goodness knows what's been shoved out of sight over the years - broken toys, odd socks, small aliens, chewed raisins, hankies. There could be anything lurking under there by now. I can barely imagine...



On second thoughts, maybe I'll leave that till next week...

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Dipping a toe in the temporal sea

Dear Dave,

I'm still feeling peculiar.

Yesterday was just strange.

I mean, totally odd...

Marie finally had her first full day of education. I gave her a hug, shoved her towards the school door and then waved at her fruitlessly as she ran off to join her friends without a backward glance. Once she was inside I didn't know whether to shed a tear or let off a couple of party poppers. There was a temptation to simply lie down on a bench and groan quietly to myself.

I've been working towards having all three children at school for so long, I found myself at something of a loss once they were actually there. Six child-free hours stretched before me like a vast ocean of possibility and yet every drop of time felt precious and not to be wasted. As ever when faced with such opportunity, I was paralysed by indecision.

It wasn't that I couldn't think of things to do. Far from it. I just didn't know where to start. So much has been put on hold for the nine years since Fraser was born, six hours didn't feel like very long to catch up on lost time.

On the other hand, it was far longer than I felt capable of dealing with effectively. Nine years of small children has accustomed me to sprinting through everything. It started when Fraser was a baby - he'd often nap for three hours during the day but I never knew when those three hours would be or whether they'd come all at once. Sometimes I'd get an entire afternoon to myself; sometimes I'd get half an hour here and there. On occasion, I'd get nothing. I became expert at grabbing opportunities. I'd leave tasks set out, ready to go, and launch myself into them the second Fraser's eyes closed. I didn't faff around checking my email or drinking a coffee first. There wasn't time. I dashed through chores, hoping to get them finished before I was onto the next round of milk and nappies.

As the number of children in the house increased, the windows of opportunity shortened to the point where they disappeared and I seemed to be running through the day merely to stand still. This situation has obviously eased greatly as the kids have got older but, nonetheless, I've rarely had large chunks of time to fill. When the kids are all home, they can entertain themselves for hours... but they seldom do. I'm left to scavenge the time scattered between family activities and requests for help and attention. Meanwhile, the two hours or so I got each morning while Marie was at nursery were wonderful but they were also frustrating. I only had long enough to do one significant task in a hurry. Then it was a case of gulping down a coffee while skimming my email and putting on my shoes, before having to jog along the road to arrive promptly to collect her. I had a short stretch of time and I always raced along it...

Then suddenly, yesterday, I had six hours all at once.

I was a 400m runner presented with an open road. I was mesmerised.

Unable to decide between all the glimmering alternatives for relaxation and productivity, I went home and had a nap. Then I pottered about the house and ate some crisps. I didn't achieve anything. It was great.

I did feel a bit guilty, though. I'd give you a list of all the stuff I'd planned to do with the time but it would be the same list as when when Marie started nursery. Thanks to one thing after another, I'm not sure I've done a single activity I mentioned then, apart from go for coffee a couple of times and buy some clothes. Those clothes are now starting to look a little shabby. I could really do with buying some more... Drat.

I have a huge backlog of chores and tasks. When it came time to collect the children, I'd enjoyed myself but it was as if so much potential accomplishment had slipped from my fingers. What with Sarah at work slaving over a hot keyboard, and plenty to catch up on round the house, I felt that I should have had more to show for my day than an empty packet of salty snacks...

Today is different, though.

The thing is, I woke up this morning to realise I had another six hours. Tomorrow there'll be yet another. Next week there'll be six hours for four days running. I can weep, shower myself with streamers, groan quietly on a bench and still have time to go for coffee and then buy clothes.

It'll take some getting used to, but the road just keeps on going...

Right. I'm off to buy a huge telly to celebrate.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 18 September 2009

Lowering the point of view

Dear Dave,

Sorry to hear Sam's acting up. I imagine you thought he'd reached an age where he was past having tantrums and acting irrationally in a fit of pique. Sadly, I should point out that most people never reach this age, they merely learn to disguise things better...

As it happens, Marie's being more awkward than usual as well. (And that's saying something.) She's taken to stamping in frustration when she doesn't get her own way and she keeps shrieking statements like, "But I don't want to go to bed now!!!!" It's exhausting for everyone. Too much of it and I have to put my foot down and tell her in no uncertain terms to go to her room. Then she demands to know how come I'm allowed to stamp and shriek, when she isn't. For some reason, this makes me strangely prone to tantrums and irrational acts.

As the adult in these situations, it's annoyingly up to me to calm down and take a step back. I think the problem is that there's only so much being polite and doing what she's told that she can manage in one day. Now she's at school, her teacher is getting most of the good behaviour quota. After all, teachers have that scary voice to put miscreants in their place, the option to send offenders to the headmaster and, if all else fails, the ability to revoke play-time. I can't possibly compete with such a harsh enforcement regime and I probably shouldn't try. Realistically, it's small wonder Marie wants to run wild the moment she gets out of the school gate, and if it comes down to a choice, I'd rather she was behaving in lessons than at home. I need to give her a little space for a while.

I'm not certain I'll manage it but it's worth a try...

Seeing things from a child's point of view doesn't necessarily make life run more smoothly but at least there's a better chance of spotting the bumps coming and being able to brace for impact. As an example, it finally occurred to me the other day why I spend half my life telling the kids to get a move on:

Each morning, the last half an hour before leaving for school takes place to a soundtrack of me telling three children in turn to eat up, get dressed, brush their teeth, put their shoes on, find their bag and remember their lunch. More than that, Marie requires encouragement to pull on every individual item of clothing, since she has a tendency to lose focus between one sock and the next. All the children know what to do and they can all do it within the allotted time but somehow, if I don't stand around nagging, we end up being late. As a result, distractions and tangents have to be slapped down rapidly.

Today I was busy making the packed lunches when Fraser said, "Daddy, you know the three legendary bird Pokémon, Moltres, Zapdos and Articuno?"

"Not really," I replied, fighting with cling film and cheese sandwiches. I was aware of the creatures' virtual existence but I knew this wasn't going to be anywhere near enough knowledge to cope with the technical discussion of special attacks and elemental type which was liable to come next.

"Well," began Fraser, undeterred, "in the game I was playing this morning..."

I cut him short. "Finish your breakfast."

Moments later, Lewis wandered past. "Daddy! Why are carrots orange?"

I almost launched into an explanation of beta-carotene, vitamin A, World War II pilots and the peculiar tanning properties of excessive carrot consumption. Then I looked at the clock. "Have you brushed your hair yet?" I replied.

"Oh, I forgot," he said. "And now I really need to go to the toilet!" He disappeared again in a hurry.

There was the sound of a collision in the hallway, a scream and some arguing. "Get on with it!" I yelled as I filled the lunch boxes with drinks and fruit.

The arguing stopped and Marie burst into the kitchen, singing to herself and leaping from foot to foot. "La, la, laaaa. La, la, laaaa. La, la. LAAAAAAAAA!"

She finished with a pirouette and a flourish and then looked at me expectantly, waiting for applause.

"Clothes, Marie. Put on some clothes," I sobbed.

This sort of interaction continued for another twenty minutes, my voice rising in pitch at regular intervals. Then we jogged along the road and made it into the playground just as the bell rang. The kids skipped off happily to join their friends and I took a few deep breaths. Lewis still hadn't brushed his hair.

Every morning is like this, no matter when I get up and irrespective of when I call the children for breakfast. As I said, though, now I know why. It's a question of perspective. From their point of view, the kids are all doing what they're supposed to be doing, which is getting ready for school. When I tell them to hurry up, they can't see what the fuss is about. They know there's more than enough time to stop for a moment and fill me in on a couple of Poké-facts or to show off their latest naked dance routine or to ask me a science question. After all, it doesn't take long to throw on some clothes and then brush teeth. What they don't seem to see is the bigger picture. They're aiming to get themselves ready for school on time but I'm aiming to get them each ready for school in such a way that everyone is on time. This is a remarkably different goal. Brushing teeth takes much longer if there's five minutes of queueing outside the bathroom involved. Throwing clothes only leads to getting dressed quickly when the kids are flinging them on themselves, rather than at a sibling who's distracting them with a burlesque musical number about Pikachu and vegetables. Without me coordinating and haranguing, the operation descends into chaos.

The constant goading is enough to drive even me slightly crazy, however, so goodness knows how they feel about it.

Unfortunately, cutting down on nagging is easier said than done. My children still need to get to school punctually and I suspect talking the issues through with them would have no practical effect whatsoever. It's a case of examining and altering the morning schedule to reduce the occasions they can get in each other's way. This will release extra time for conversation and variety performance, thus adding some freedom to proceedings. It might help us all relax and that would be more pleasant from every point of view.

I doubt I can rearrange the daily routine sufficiently to remove the nagging altogether, though. There will always be five minutes worth of distractions more than there's time available to accommodate.

Then again, maybe if I shaved off Lewis' hair and simply sewed a school badge onto Marie's pyjamas...

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 14 September 2009

The land before children

Dear Dave,

"So how are you finding it having all three children at school?"

It was about the three millionth time I'd been asked this question in a fortnight and I had to take a deep breath in order to summon up the energy to answer. Rob didn't wait for me to reply, however. "Must be nice sitting around in your pyjamas playing computer games all day," he said, ushering me into the lift.

I gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he was joking. "That's next week," I said. "Marie's only in until lunch-time at the moment, so it's not much different from when she was at nursery. She goes full-time next Tuesday."

"You won't know what to do with yourself."

"As you're fully aware, I'm going to have a little lie down and then I've got nine years worth of chores to catch up on. Marie will have gone from learning her letters to beating me at Scrabble before I've run out of things to do. Now, seriously, are you going to show me your new office or am I going to have to beat you to death with your own grin?"

Rob swiped his LBO staff card, entered a passcode and pressed the button for floor five. "I'd like to see you try. I've been taking fencing lessons."

"That's not going to help much unless you've brought your rapier to work," I replied and then registered the improbability of Rob choosing to do exercise without good reason. "Besides, it's the kind of 'special' fencing where the swords glow and you and your opponent make 'shwuuuuuummm' noises, isn't it?"

He looked shifty. "Well, erm..."

"Hang on. Didn't you say you were on the third floor?"


"Then why...?"

"The building's new - there are still some issues."

"But..." The lift stopped at floor two and the doors opened to give us a brief glimpse into the accounts department. Amidst the cubicles and fax machines, the sight involved far more middle-aged men wearing swimwear than I was expecting.

I bit my lip and tried to look nonchalant as a blast of roasting air entered the lift, closely followed by a plump, perspiring individual attired in trunks and a tie.

"Hi, Geoff," said Rob. "Heating vents still on the blink?"

Geoff mopped his brow with his tie. "Should be fixed by Wednesday."

"Great. Oh, this Ed. Ed this is Geoff."

We shook hands stickily, a look of confused recognition on Geoff's face.

"I used to work in IT," I explained. "You had to sign-off when I put in a budget request for a new vending machine and some shrubbery."

Geoff's eyes narrowed. "Was it you who requisitioned a van to retrieve office chairs from roadworks they'd fallen into at the foot of the Royal Mile?"

"In fairness, that was the result of a separate incident that had nothing to do with me. It was my first day and I needed something to sit on. I was acting on a tip off."

"You what?" said Rob, losing something of his air of professional politeness.

I sighed. "It was before your time, obviously. I could never prove anything but I think the nightshift mainframe operators had a low-budget street racing syndicate going. A couple of the chairs still had huge stereos strapped to them. The one I got landed with for the next six months had rear spoilers and lit up underneath with an eerie green glow whenever it spun round."

Rob blinked a few times. "Now I'm kind of glad those guys got out-sourced."

"Tell me about it," I said, nodding.

There was a short, awkward pause as the conversation died and everyone examined their fingernails. Rob whistled to himself quietly. Then the lift doors slid open with a ding and he shoved me out. "This is us. See you, Geoff." The lift seemed to think we were on fifth floor but we were actually on level four. "We can take the stairs down from here."

"That sort of thing is why I don't like visiting you at work," I said once the lift was safely on its way again. "Even after a decade, I'm nervous who I'm going to run into. The nice ones are liable to look on me with pity for having nothing to show for the last ten years but children, and the not-so-nice ones are probably still holding a grudge."

"Geoff's pretty harmless."

"Yeah, I know. It was rather hard to take him seriously in those clothes anyway."

"You should have seen dress-down Friday..."

Rob led me through the actuarial department towards the central atrium of LBO's new headquarters. The quality of the fittings was a marked improvement over what was visible in the troubling snapshot of the accounts department which was indelibly seared into my mind. The whole floor seemed more airy and spacious. There were also far more potted plants than semi-naked accountants, which I couldn't help feel added to the general ambiance.

"What's floor six like?" I asked.

"Is that where Sarah's going?"

"Yeah. It's another couple of months until her PR department moves in, though, so I said I'd get the low down on how the place is shaping up. She's slightly wary of the architect's glossy leaflets."

"Funny that."

"Not really," I said, unwilling to discuss the irony in case it got me into trouble later.

Rob shrugged. "Floor six isn't bad. That's where the gym is, and some of the meeting rooms and the AV auditorium. Should be quiet and relaxing. Even has all the walls it should have."

"She'll be glad to hear that," I said, nodding. "I... Oh, that's not... Ugh."

We'd reached the atrium, the building's central open area, which stretched all the way from the ground floor to the glass roof. The marbled-coated reception area was visible below, despite the wall above the main entrance being composed entirely of windows and half-blinding us with light. We stood on a balcony which ran all the way round the edge of the shaft.

"She and the kids OK?" asked Rob, oblivious to my discomfort.

"Vertigo," I muttered, grabbing the rail of the parapet for support.

"It's worse over there." Grinning, Rob pointed at the tier of balconies above the entrance. "Big drop one side; nothing but window on the other. Getting from the printer room to Desktop Services is like crossing that rope bridge in Temple of Doom." He slapped me on the back. "Come on. I wouldn't lean on that anyway. They probably checked it's screwed in but..."

I let go of the railing in an unseemly hurry and shuffled after him. The stairs jutted out from the balcony, suspended over the drop, and appeared to me made more of air than of metal. I began to find breathing difficult and my ankles started to feel strangely queasy. "This is mental," I said, backing up against the wall. "Why haven't they fixed the lift?"

"Other priorities. They've got to shoot some pigeons first and then make the toilets flush on sunny days."


"Really. The birds keep messing on the solar panels and someone needs to connect a mains back-up for the rainwater tank which fills the cisterns... Although there might be some delay on that..." He motioned across the atrium to another set of lifts, much posher than the one we'd used and made of glass. This was slightly worrying in itself but I was reassured the glass was fairly thick because the banging and shouting of the three plumbers trapped inside wasn't audible from where we were standing.

Rob rolled his eyes. "Security measure. If you don't swipe your card and enter your passcode within five seconds of the door closing, the control panel locks. The door won't even open again."

"Shouldn't you get them rescued?"

"They'll be fine," said Rob, dragging me towards the first step. "Someone will call the lift to another floor any minute and they can get out of it there."

"Good job they're not terrorist plumbers. I think there might be something of a loophole in the system."

"Try telling that to senior management." He shook his head. "The whole thing's a pain. Five seconds isn't long. A guard put his card in upside down the other night and he was out of time before he noticed. It was five hours until the cleaners found him."

"Urgh," I mumbled and edged my way down, wishing unpleasantness on whoever first imagined that risers aren't an essential part of stairs.

* * *

The next few minutes were a blur and we were in Rob's office before my legs entirely stopped quivering and my vision cleared. I had a vague recollection of corridors and an anecdote about losing a trainee. Somehow, a cup of coffee was in my hand.

No one else was around but the room fitted three desks, assorted filing cabinets and a whiteboard comfortably and seemed quite pleasant. It was a bit dark, though.

"Shouldn't you turn on the lights?" I asked.

"Yeah, just a minute." Rob promptly went out the door, entered the room across the hall and did a star jump.

A fluorescent tube flickered into life above my head.

I didn't even have to ask the question this time - Rob was explaining before he was back through the door. "It's to save energy when the room's empty. The lights have a motion-detector so they go off if nothing moves for a while."

"Like if everyone's getting on with work, staring intently at computer screens?"

"That's right."

"But then why...?"

"Some of the wires are crossed and not all the bulbs and detectors are paired properly. It's up to Roger across the corridor to keep the lights on in here but it looks like he dozed off in the middle of a code review a while ago. Tell me if you see anyone head along to the photocopier suite 'cos we'll have to do some stretches or they'll need torches."

Rob sat down at his L-shaped desk which nestled in one corner of the room and I pulled up a chair to sit beside it. He fished a packet of chocolate digestives out of a drawer and offered them to me.

"Should anyone actually be working in this building?" I said through a mouthful of biscuit.

"No one's had an accident yet. Least, not one that hasn't involved a stapler or lifting shipping crates. It's here or the street anyway. The old IT building's already been let out as a Laser Quest venue till they find someone to convert it into luxury flats."

"What happened to the support guys in the basement? You know, the hairy ones who grunted in UNIX?"

"They're..." A brief expression of concern crossed Rob's face. "Er... I should check someone told them we were moving. Could go badly for those Laser Questers if not." He scribbled on a Post-it and stuck it beside the screen of his monitor. Sadly, thanks to improvements in technology, this technique doesn't work as well as it did back in the day, when monitors were the size of fridges. The millimetres of casing surrounding the TFT display were already over-crowded with dozens of other barely-adhered reminders. As I watched, a couple gave up the struggle and slipped off, drifting down like autumn leaves to mulch in the tangle of cables and fluff between his desk and the wall. I idly wondered what effects this loss might have on the stability of the computer systems maintaining my pension...

Rob interrupted my thoughts. "So, as I said, how are Sarah and the kids?"

"Fine." I hadn't seen Rob for months. What with him becoming a dad and then moving out of town, it's been hard finding opportunities to meet. Recently, our conversation has been restricted to name-calling while shooting at each other online. Dropping by to check out the new building was really an excuse to catch up. "Sarah's got a lot on her plate but the kids are back into the swing of the new term. Marie's learnt about dinosaurs and pirates in her first fortnight. If she does Vikings and Romans next week, there'll be nothing left for her to cover before Primary 5."

"What about the usual suspects? How's Steve these days?"

"Between the consultancy business and the golf course, he's beginning to forget what his children look like again. Deborah's interior design work has dried up, so she's doing all the childcare while they search for yet another nanny, but Steve's dragging his feet over the expense this time because, as he puts it, they're 'coping fine without' at the moment."

"Same old Useless Dad then."

"Same old Useless Dad. Scary Karen's organising a Fun Day to raise funds for the Millennium Centre. She's wanting me to help out but she's hired a fire-eater and a taxidermist as the entertainment, so I'm not so sure. I may not be able to avoid it, though - her son's in class with Marie and I see her every day... Erm... My nephew Ned has just started at art college and is really enjoying it. My niece Lisa got into Cambridge, much to her parents' delight. I'm not so convinced it's the best place for her but there's not much to be done about it now. Who else? Oh, Mike was asking after you the other day. You and Liz are overdue for your one-year marriage MOT. If you don't arrange a date for him to come round soon, he's threatened to phone your mum and raise his concerns."

Rob went pale. "Can he do that? Don't ministers take some kind of oath of confidentiality?"

"I don't think this counts. I'd just invite him over before it gets to that stage or you'll never hear the end of it."

"You're telling me." He hastily scribbled another Post-it and went to put it on the monitor but then hesitated. After a moment's thought, he stuck it to the packet of biscuits instead.

"How are you and Kate and Luke doing?" I asked.

"Luke's toddling around all over. Wish he wouldn't do it at three in the morning, mind you. Thomas the Tank Engine's really surreal when I'm only half awake but it's the only way to make him nod off again. Why didn't you warn me about the whole sleep thing?"

"I did. You laughed and told me it was my own fault for having kids."

He pulled a face. "Did I?"

"You know fine well you did."

"I'll take your word. I'm losing it. I was at work for ten minutes this morning before I'd been shot by enough teenagers with laser rifles to figure out I'd gone to the wrong place. I've forgotten everything that happened longer ago than last Tuesday. Sorry for any lack of sympathy I may or may not have given you in the past." All at once, he appeared very tired.

"You OK?" I said, becoming worried.

He sighed, rubbed his eyes and leant back in his chair. Then, after a pause, his grin returned. "Yeah, actually. Pretty happy. Luke's full of beans and laughs. Kate's work's been very understanding about her going part-time. The house is coming along nicely. It's all going not bad. I might just join Roger with his reviewing in a few minutes, though."

"Give it another six months and your sleep should be back to normal," I reassured him, relieved there was nothing wrong that a few nights of unbroken rest couldn't fix. Something about the look he gave me made me do a double-take, however. "Unless..."

He reached into a drawer and pulled out a black-and-white satellite photo of a hurricane over Cuba.

"Oh," I said, "you're screwed for another two and a half years."

"Thanks a bunch. Most people we've told so far have thought that, but they've at least managed to say, 'Congratulations'."

"I meant to say that. Are you sure I didn't say that?"

"OK," he said, his face creasing in pain, "now you're messing with my head."

"Totally. Congratulations - that's fantastic. I take it you put some planning into this one?"

"Yep. Not as much practice as I was hoping, though. I thought..."

My eyes went wide as I realised that in his sleep-deprived state, he was about to give me far more information than I wanted to hear. Thankfully, at that point the fire alarm went. The lights burned suddenly bright as, across the corridor, Roger woke with a start and did a couple of star jumps in panic.

"Not again," groaned Rob. "That's the third time in a week."

"Personally," I yelled above the din, "I'd be suspicious of the finance department setting it off as an excuse for some fresh air." We grabbed our coats and headed for the exit.

"Doubt it. Last time, we had to wait three-quarters of an hour for the emergency services to give the all clear. It's September in Scotland. Some of them got so much fresh air, they turned blue."

"Fair enough," I said. "Mind if we take the secondary escape route and use the back stairs?"

"Fine by me. That's the quickest way to the pub."

I checked my watch. "Sounds good but I don't have time. I need to head off to collect Marie."

"Shame. Still up for a shot of Killzone on Wednesday?"

"Sure. Talk to you then."

And with that, we stepped into the corridor and were separated by a raging throng of techies sensing an excuse for an early lunch.

I can only assume he made it out alive...

(Although the text message he sent me twenty minutes later commenting on the coldness of his beer is something of a hint. Grr.)

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 9 September 2009

The housedad knowledge

Dear Dave,

Looking after children takes more thought than you might imagine.

Well, I guess you don't have to imagine - as you read this, you're probably going over a mental list of household tasks you have to perform in a minute. There's a good chance you're also wondering how to entertain Daisy for the rest of the day. Perhaps you're even deciding whether to take a few moments and finish your coffee in peace or to give in and immediately investigate the strange smell and mysterious giggling coming from upstairs.

Speaking of which, if you feel a need to put me on hold for a bit and just go check, I'll understand...



Sorted? Child, furniture and pets back to their normal colour and fragrance? Great.

Shame your coffee's gone cold. Never mind - that's what microwaves are for. Want another forty-five seconds?


OK, right. As I was saying, looking after children takes a surprising amount of brainwork. Obviously I'm not talking about raw computing power here. Making their tea isn't rocket science. It does present a constant barrage of decisions, however. How many grapes constitute a portion for a particular size of child? What are the odds of them all liking ham today? Is the bread brown enough to placate the child who likes brown bread but not too brown to put off the child who's less of a fan? Is potato a vegetable? Does pizza three days running count as a balanced diet if the toppings are different? Is jam healthier than honey? Where's all the cutlery gone? How mouldy is too mouldy? What is that smell from upstairs?

The list goes on. When they ask me how many sweets they're each allowed for dessert, saying 'a few' is never adequate. They want an exact count. Stating an actual number sets a precedent for next time, though, and is liable to cause arguments when they realise they're not getting the same. (I make every effort to treat my children equally but, the fact is, Fraser is twice Marie's size and so has a higher tolerance for sugar. Honestly, she's bouncy enough as she is.) Thinking up arbitrary, and yet consistent, answers to this type of question can be a struggle.

And then there's the cups.

We have a stack of plastic cups in a variety of colours. They're not piled in any particular order - when they're clean and dry, I just plonk them on the stack at random. When the kids want a drink, I pull the first three off the top and fill them up. It's not hard. The problem is, who gets which cup?

It used to be easy. Pink for Marie, green for Lewis and whatever was left for Fraser. If there wasn't a green one, Lewis could probably cope with something different. If there wasn't a pink cup... well, I'd usually hunt through the stack to find one and avoid an argument. Gradually, all the pink cups found their way to the top. This made life simple.

Marie has laid claim to everything pink in the house. Fuchsia is apparently her divine right. Unfortunately, she's begun to realise that if pink stuff is clearly hers, then people may take it into their heads that other stuff is theirs. She's not so keen on this idea. She's begun demanding different colours of cup on rotation in an attempt to establish ownership of all of them. Fraser is also at an age where he believes himself allergic to pink. Lewis just prefers to have whatever he had last time.

Life has become more complicated. Every time I fix them a drink I have to have an internal debate over which cups I can get away with. Sometimes it seems obvious; other times I get dealt two light blues and a yellow. What am I supposed to do with that? The kids eventually get hungry and come looking for food, only to find smoke rising from the oven and me staring blankly at a stack of plastic cups. Then they're confused when I tell them it's all their fault...

My nemesis - a big stack of differently coloured cups.
Orange is out of favour at the moment.

I suspect it's not just me. Children simply have a knack for ensuring there's an awful lot to think about in any task, however mundane. Even the cutest kids can hide an awkward streak. In fact, I always make sure to give extra sympathy to parents with happy smiley babies. Mine were like that for strangers, too. It was usually because they were feeling satisfied with a long night of quality screaming and arguing. They were delighted to be out of the house and able to smugly show off an exhausted parent to anyone who was prepared to take an interest.

You've been doing this housedad thing long enough now that you may not notice all the minor decisions anymore. Nonetheless, someone else stepping into your shoes would quickly be swamped in a thousand minor technicalities, from where to store the jumbo crate of bargain loo roll, to who gets which spoon at breakfast. Taking care of kids isn't tricky but there's plenty to keep on top of. That's why your children frequently return from their grandparents with socks full of cheese and why Liz always looks a bit stressed when you ask her to help out and fix the little darlings' lunch. The choices involved in childcare can be overwhelming for those who aren't used to them. Try to be understanding.

Now, hang on, didn't you finish that coffee a couple of paragraphs ago. Haven't you got work to do? Better get to it. (That way, you'll have time to sneak off for a chocolate biscuit and a lie down later.)

Good luck with the rest of the day. And remember, look after yourself... or leave really detailed instructions.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 4 September 2009

The toddler of Babel

Dear Dave,

Computerised translation is getting better than it used to be. Not much better, admittedly, but it's certainly more convenient. It's now possible to call up a foreign web page, click a menu option and find out exactly what German reviewers think of the latest World War II video game, for example. Well, that's to say, you can get the general gist. Sort of. If you don't mind putting up with the odd sentence like, 'Such omissions chalk, but is already extremely high-level whine.'

OK, automatic translation is still a bit rubbish.

It really does seem to have improved, though. I've been experimenting by translating English into Hindi, copying the result and shoving it back into the same programme for a Hindi to English translation. This gives an indication of how well the programme has deciphered the initial wording. Not that long ago, it was a sure-fire way to turn almost any prose into gobbledygook, so I was pleasantly surprised when the sentence, 'He was looking sharp and was ready to go', came back after its brief excursion into unfamiliar squiggles as, 'He was looking sharp and ready to go'. I was expecting something more along the lines of, 'He seemed to be acutely departing'.

Unfortunately, it didn't take much to confuse matters - 'He was looking sharp and was eager to go', was transformed by the double translation into, 'He was looking fast and was eager to go'. This, let's face it, isn't quite the same thing.

I decided to ramp up the challenge. My hopes for, 'The logistical ramifications of an extra child are quite hair-raising', were not high. Sure enough, the result came back as, 'One additional child's military influence is very scary'. Somewhat inevitably, the tooth-identification lesson, 'Canines are the pointy ones', was returned as, 'Dogs are pointy'.

Still, that was me working hard to catch the machine out. With common words and simple phrasing, the translation worked reasonably well. Most of the time, anyway. Worryingly, 'It was his fault we weren't on time', ended up as, 'This time we were not at fault'. Based on this, I wouldn't be in favour of using the technology on any mission critical applications just yet. For instance, automatic translation of instruction manuals for heavy machinery probably isn't a good idea. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't and it can be very unpredictable. I mean if, 'Gender stereotypes are clearly insidious', comes out as, 'Gender image is clearly dangerous', who'd guess that, 'Insidious gender stereotypes', would turn into, 'Treacherous streak of sex master'?

Not me, that's for sure...

Around about now, you're maybe thinking to yourself, "This is all very interesting but, knowing Ed, I suspect there may be a point about childcare in here somewhere. He should really get to it soon."

I suppose you're right. I guess where I'm going with this is that the nonsensical outpourings of automatic translation programmes can shed some light onto the behaviour of children. You say one thing, the kids do another and you imagine there's a problem with their concentration or their attitude or their hearing. In reality, the problem is that they still have to do a great deal of interpreting in order to understand everything they're told. Like freshly-arrived foreigners, they're still getting to know the language and the culture. This (combined with their wilful natures, short attention spans and tendency to run around with their hands over their ears) means it's small wonder they act as if they've just signed on at Starfleet Academy.

As an example, let's consider the following conversation I regularly seem to have in various forms with one or other of my own space cadets. I think it occurred with Marie most recently.

"Look at the bird," I said, pointing out of our lounge window.

"What bird?" she asked without looking up from putting sparkly, plastic tiaras on all her cuddly toys.

"The bird out the window."

She gazed vacantly at the sofa. "Where?"

"Over there." I jabbed my finger in the right direction a couple of times for emphasis and she wandered over to the window.

"I can't see it."

"It's big and black and I'm pointing at it."

She looked in the other direction. "Where?"

"Sitting on top of the fence beside the shed," I said through gritted teeth as rising blood pressure made my vision swim. I realised she was staring with great interest at the end of my finger.


I sobbed. "Next to the neighbours' Swingball game you wish was yours."

"Oh," said Marie, returning to her teddy bear make-over session, "that bird. Why didn't you say...?"

For most of this dialogue, there was clearly very little actual communication at all. It was only when I started speaking Marie's language that she got what I was talking about.

In most situations, adult-child translation doesn't go this badly but there's often no avoiding lots of redundant exchanges aimed at ensuring everyone understands each other. For instance, many parents get into the habit of repeating everything their child says back to them from an early age, just to be on the safe side:

Toddler: Want drink.
Parent: You want a drink?
Toddler: Yes, want drink.
Parent: What do you want to drink?
Toddler: Milk.
Parent: You want milk?
Toddler: Yes, milk.
Parent: Are you sure you want milk?
Toddler: Milk!
Parent: OK, I'll get you some milk.

Of course, by this time, the parent in question is lucky the kid is firmly strapped into a high chair or buggy and unable to throttle the living daylights out of them. If you have this habit, it's almost certainly worth getting out of it before your children start Judo classes.

In defense of parents, we're not the only ones to go overboard with verification. Children don't trust our communication abilities either. They think we're the ones just off the boat. They feel the need to double-check the details, whatever we say:

Scenario 1

Me (getting help tidying away the shopping): Put the cucumbers into the drawer in the fridge.
Marie: The fridge has a drawer?
Me: Yes. At the bottom.
Marie (opening the fridge): This one.
Me: There is only one drawer.
Marie: You want me to put the cucumbers in here?
Me (sighing): Yes. That's the drawer.

Scenario 2

Me: Put the cucumbers in the bottom drawer of the fridge.
Marie (opening the fridge): There is only one drawer.
Me (sighing): Yes. That's the drawer.

Scenario 3

Me: Put the cucumbers in the drawer at the bottom of the fridge.
Marie (opening the fridge): Which drawer?
Me: There is only one drawer.
Marie: This one? At the bottom?
Me (sighing): Yes. That's the drawer.
Every scenario leads to a long argument about what I should have said to make myself clear in the first place and then a discussion about the pros and cons of leaving a fridge open while having an argument.

Given that such simple commands can require such high levels of elaboration, it's not a great shock that things get even worse when kids are entrusted with instructions to pass on to each other. That's like translating through a succession of different languages with the errors compounding at every stage. Managing to give a child directions they can understand is quite an achievement. Giving them directions they can understand well enough to pass on to another child in a form the second child can also understand is highly improbable. Even the most basic requests can get garbled.

The other day, I was in the kitchen and told Lewis to go and get Fraser from his room. Lewis grumpily acknowledged the request and then disappeared off. A couple of minutes later, he returned on his own and said, "I told him to come down."

"Then where is he?" I asked.

Lewis looked confused. "Oh, I didn't realise you meant now."

I sighed but I suppose Fraser did appear eventually. When I sent Marie off to go get him from his room on a different day, she returned on her own and said, "Let's do some painting."

"Where's your brother?" I asked.

"Which brother?"

"Er... Fraser. You were supposed to tell him to come here."

She looked confused. "Oh, I forgot..."

The difference between what you say and what children hear (and take in) can be astonishing. It's enough to drive any parent to distraction. It's important to remember that they're not doing it on purpose, though; it's a translation issue. Maybe in a few years someone will come up with an automatic gizmo to overcome the problem. In the meantime, when communicating with your kids and their friends, just imagine you're dealing with a load of assorted tourists who are somewhat on the short side. Stay calm, speak clearly and be prepared to rephrase stuff a lot.

You still may not be able to get them to do what you want but at least you won't be so surprised about it.

Yours in a woman's world,