Dear Dave

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Olympic cheerleading

Dear Dave,

The US Ski Team appear to have taken a guy with them to the Olympics whose sole purpose is to stand behind athletes at the start, encouraging them in the seconds before they launch themselves down a stupidly steep, icy slope. He's a big bloke called Huey with dubious facial hair but, boy, can he sound enthusiastic while freezing his extremities off at the top of a snowy mountain. He whoops, he hollers, he claps, he tells the skiers that they 'can do this' and that they 'own' things. He's still shouting as they tear off into the distance.

Sometimes he gets to watch them hurtle to glory. As often as not, he gets to see them clip a flag and careen down the slope on their face. It doesn't matter. Next time, he's whooping and hollering just as hard.

This may, of course, be because it's as good a way as any to keep warm (not to mention it's his job) but it's impressive, all the same. I could do with my own Huey following me around the whole time - giving me a little boost when I'm flagging, egging me on to one last push, making me feel good about myself.

It's a shame that half the athletes probably learnt to phase him out years ago. The other half almost certainly wish he'd shut up and let them concentrate. Nonetheless, he keeps doggedly on. He must have had plenty of training.

Do you think he used to be a housedad?

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 22 February 2010

Slippery slope

Dear Dave,

So much for a life of freedom and leisure now the kids are all at school. They're taking it in turns to have a mysterious illness which involves a day of dizziness, three days of feeling not too bad and then another week of stinking cold, sore throat and coughing. The result is that as soon as one feels better, the next is lying on the sofa, huddled under a blanket and coughing over the remote controls. Combined with the February holiday, this means I've barely been able to leave the house for over a fortnight.

It's not even over yet. Fraser stumbled out of bed this morning, ate half his breakfast and then stumbled back again, croaking mournfully about a headache. If the other two are anything to go by, he won't get much further than the lounge until Thursday. Then his right ear will start to hurt and he'll whine incessantly.


Ho well. The scary thing is that this spate of sickness has lasted so long, it feels like they've all got older in the meantime. Marie has discovered Nintendo, Lewis has lost his ability to stay out of arguments which don't concern him and Fraser has taken to sitting around in a hoodie while exuding an unpleasant odour. Two weeks with the heating on and the windows shut has turned the house into an incubation chamber. All my little Pokémon have evolved to the next stage.

Is it just me or is the fact that they've gone from calling farts 'bottom burps' to calling burps 'mouth farts' the beginning of the end?

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 17 February 2010

Crime and punishment

Dear Dave,

I miss owning a cage.

I suppose that technically it was a play-pen but that's just marketing spin. It was a cage. When the kids were small, I could simply banish them to the cage whenever they were acting up. A few minutes of sulking or yelling in there and they soon calmed down. As a bonus, while incarcerated, they were much less of a danger to themselves, me or each other.

If they attempted escape, I could lift them back in. If things got really bad, I could leave the kids loose and climb in myself, curling up for a quick doze, safe from the screaming horde. (Ours had a nice padded base - soft, warm and machine-washable. Bliss.)

Merely the threat of a quick stint behind bars was often enough to cool any situation. As they got bigger, though, toddler prison became less convincing (and, besides, we needed more floor space to cope with the piles of LEGO and Pokémon). The play-pen went the way of the crib, cot, and high-chair.

Now the kids get sent to their rooms when they've been misbehaving. This is OK but not the same. Their rooms are too full of fun stuff to act as successful penitentiaries. It's like open prison compared with the high-security lockdown of the play-pen. There's no saying they'll actually want to leave when the five minutes is up.

Also, Marie and Lewis share a room so if they get both get banished at the same, the resulting pandemonium can be worse than whatever went before.

I'm actually finding it quite hard to think of ways to encourage Marie to behave. My boys aren't too fussed about being sent to their rooms but it's usually enough for them to get the message. Marie, however, can be completely unfazed by the experience. Even when her bed is emptied of its normal 507 toys and she's told to sit on it until she's willing to comply with household regulations, there's no guessing how long she'll stubbornly hold out. Sometimes she'd rather whine for two hours than say sorry.

Another example of her resistance involves breakfast. On school days, the kids have to be done with their toast by 8:30 or we're struggling to get to school on time. When Fraser was in Primary 1, he struggled with this concept, no matter how many times I told him to hurry up. He overran almost every day. Then I told him he wouldn't get to take a snack with him if he wasn't finished on time... I still had to goad him on but I only had to follow through with the threat a couple of times. The possibility of missing out on his Coco-Pop bar was sufficient incentive to eat quickly.

Marie doesn't care. She happily goes without her tub of raisins every other day. If some different misdemeanour means she doesn't get her tea-time dessert, she just shrugs. If her behaviour costs her a treat or some stickers or a trip, she knows there'll be another day. In the meantime, she's deriving too much satisfaction from digging in her heels and shrieking.

She can be hard work.

Of course, the way to virtually guarantee cooperation from the boys is to suggest they're jeopardising their computer game privileges. The prospect of a day or two devoid of Mario can bring them into line almost instantly. I don't invoke the possibility frequently, though - things have to be pretty desperate before I'm willing to risk a couple of days of having to entertain them without the aid of an implausibly acrobatic Italian plumber and his pals. Like the nuclear deterrent, it's only going to lead to mutually assured destruction.

I did decide to try the tactic on Marie at the weekend, however. She's been showing some interest in the Wii and DS since Christmas - nowhere near as much as the boys but enough to make the threat of their withdrawal worth a shot. She'd gone into meltdown at the mention of putting on her shoes and wasn't responding to any other bribes or cajoling, so I thought I might as well give it a go.

No dice. The tantrum didn't abate and she brought down 36 Nintendo-free hours upon herself. She didn't care... first.

By the following afternoon, barely ten minutes went by without her saying, "Can I play computer games yet? I've been really good." I stuck to my guns. She didn't get to play until the next morning. She wasn't sweating and shaking by then but it may have been close.

That evening, she started a strop when told to get ready for bed. I casually mentioned another computer game embargo. To my astonishment, she instantly leapt up and scurried off to locate her pyjamas.

It's still not as good as a cage but it's getting there...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS A couple of discipline points that have come to my attention recently:
  • After my kids have served their time, I always ask them, "Do you know why you were sent to your room?"

    They always reply, "Yes."

    On cross-examination, however, they never do.
  • When I want the children to do something, they hardly ever do it immediately. I find giving them a count of five in which to obey works well. It allows them time to argue and whinge but sets a definite deadline. I can also speed up and slow down the count to chivvy them along or give them some leeway.

    Unfortunately, they do have a tendency to leave compliance to the very last moment. I end up counting, "One... Two... ... Three... ... ... Four... ... ... ... F... F... Fi-nally." They come within micro-seconds of punishment. To my mind, this is leaving things a touch too late.

    It turns out this may be down to miscommunication rather than brinkmanship, though. I discovered yesterday that when Sarah's in charge, she counts to six.

    This explains a lot.

Monday 15 February 2010

Creeping middle-age

Dear Dave,

You know you're getting old when you look through your notebook of things to write about and see something interesting but can't remember if you've written about it already...

...and then you think that that, in itself, is worth writing about.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Looking at our wedding photos the other day, Sarah pointed out that her mum was only eight years older than I am now. This was disturbing.

Friday 12 February 2010

Family planning

Dear Dave,

Here's one to ponder: When's a good age to have children and what's the best gap to have between them?

I've never really understood parents who wait until one child starts school before having the next one. It all sounds too long and drawn out. That said, I do recall getting rather a lot of horrified looks back in the day when I told people I had three kids under the age of five. They kind off assumed that either this was down to misfortune or insanity.

I like the way my kids are close together, though. The four years between Fraser and Marie might be enough for them to annoy each other most of the time but they can still play games together without Fraser feeling as if he's looking after her. Being in the middle, Lewis gets on with both of them.

Although, now I think about it, the two year gap between Lewis and Marie could provide some problems for me when they're teenagers. What with girls maturing faster than boys, they'll be ideally placed to provide each other with a constant stream of dating opportunities from amongst their classmates.


The truth is, there may not be an ideal time and spacing. There are always going to be bonuses and consequences. It's simply a case of getting on with it and seeing what happens.

Recently, a friend muttered that he'd maybe planned things poorly, in that he's going to have the fun of dealing with a teenage daughter when he's in his mid-fifties. I did some quick calculations and was delighted to realise that all mine should be out of the house by the time I turn fifty. It could be a close run thing - depending on the university, Marie might not have got through Freshers' Week before I'm blowing out a stupidly large number of candles - but, nevertheless, once the kids have grown up and moved away, I'll still be almost young... if only for a day or two. I'll wander around the house in my underpants to celebrate and then turn the TV to whatever channel I feel like without anyone complaining.

(Of course, I'm assuming here that my children will go on to higher education, which could be seen as somewhat presumptuous. However, much as I'd love to have produced a plumber, an electrician and a joiner, all my kids seem to be wilfully academic and only Lewis looks liable to have enough coordination to be trusted with power tools. Rather than getting my house fixed up for free when they're older, I'm going to be lumbered with their student debt. Ho hum.)

The happy dream of offspring-free habitation lasted for several seconds. Then a different train of thought dropped, unbidden, into my brain:

Fraser is four years older than Marie and a Scottish degree lasts four years, therefore... the time she moves out, he could have already moved back in!

Gah. Unless I change the locks, I could be in my eighties before I'm left in peace to wander around the house in my underpants. What's the good of that? When I'm eighty, I'm planning to wander round in my underpants whenever I feel like it anyway.

That'll give my kids something really fun to deal with when they're in their mid-fifties.

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 8 February 2010

Old gadgets never die...

Dear Dave,

We achieved a new record in my household yesterday. Fraser was playing Peggle on the Xbox, Sarah was playing on my iPod, Marie was using the old laptop to buy furniture for a virtual bear, Lewis was tending to the needs of his pet monster on the desktop machine and I was in the kitchen hiding from all the bleepy noises while surfing the web on the 'new' laptop. All five of us were online at once.

This was a freaky realisation. We may well have reached a turning point in the history of human society. From here on in, cyberspace is going to take over. Another six months and we'll all be brains in jars, happily interacting via our avatars as they fly around electronic worlds in their personal hover cars while wearing tinfoil jumpsuits...

Or maybe not. The freakiest thing was actually discovering we had enough internet-enabled gadgets to make this possible. Not only that but we could have had several friends round and got them logged on in some fashion as well (provided our flaky wireless router didn't melt). That's quite a lot of gizmos, many of which will probably be out of date by a week on Thursday, if they're not already.

This got me to thinking. We already have a pile of ageing technology that we don't use very much anymore - Leapsters, an N64, three varieties of Game Boy, a tangled nest of headphones, an entire box of various cables that will probably come in useful one day, another box of cables that probably won't, two printers, a tub of floppy disks, speakers, keyboards, controllers, goodness knows what. Most of it still sort of works. Some of it is very handy on occasion. A lot of it is irreplaceable and yet much of it no one would take if we were giving it away. None of it can be legally binned.

It sits in cupboards and on shelves. At some point, it will end up in the loft. Once the loft is full, I'll have to start making furniture out of it.

You know how old people have random ornaments and photos everywhere? Things that are not worth selling but are too good to hand in at the charity shop? Stuff they inherited, stuff with sentimental value, stuff that their friends have secretly been hiding amongst all the clutter since 1987 in order to clear some space in their own homes?

Our generation will be different. We're not going to have display cabinets full of crystal and porcelain, we're going to have plastic crates full of power adapters and chargers. My kids will dread the thought of anything happening to me simply because it will mean they'll have to deal with my sofa made of inkjet printers and then poke around under the stairs where old Xboxes run wild and have strung up a web of USB wires to snare the unwary.

I don't think your lot will be fooled by your senile ramblings about how collectible your 1st generation iPad is either. We should maybe look into our recycling options.

Then again, if Great Aunt Edith spots a space in my house, she might try and palm off her wedding china on me. Perhaps it would be best just to arrange the technology in a tasteful display. I'll go do that now...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 3 February 2010

Neither here nor there

Dear Dave,

I was away at the weekend.

This isn't that unusual. The odd part was that Sarah and the kids stayed home. I had two whole days where all the children I saw belonged to someone else.

My own children were somewhat bemused by the experience. Normally when I'm absent, such as when they're staying with their grandparents or taking a trip with Sarah, they know I'm not likely to get into trouble. They can picture me safely at home in the armchair, remote in one hand and beer in the other. They can phone and check up on me. No one's going to steal me and I'll be there to feed them when they get back. Everything is still somehow right with world.

They found the thought of me off unsupervised while they remained in the house more troubling. They'd forgotten the last time it happened.

That said, it took a little while to hit home:

I went into the lounge to tell them I was heading off and didn't get much response. Fraser grunted without looking up from his DS. Marie didn't respond, her eyes fixed on the TV. Lewis just looked puzzled and said, "Uh? Where are you going?"

He remembered eventually... then wrapped himself round my leg and made little whimpering noises. He didn't want me to go. He clung to me, preventing me from moving. This was flattering and touching until I recalled that it was probably as much to do with his aversion to change as to any direct fondness towards me. Heck, when we had the windows replaced recently, he wanted to keep the old ones and build a little shrine out of them in the back garden. I'm equally old and familiar and he wanted to keep me around. I suspected the back garden would have done for me too, if he'd been able to look out and wave at me on occasion.

I managed to prise Lewis off but then Marie decided to get in on the act. She gave me a quick cuddle and then went back to the TV. Fraser waited until I was out the door before running after me in a panic, looking for his hug. He hadn't realised I was going that moment and had just been finishing his level...

I imagined they'd hardly notice I was gone. Fraser certainly put a brave face on it if he did but apparently Lewis missed me quite a bit. I was also rather surprised to learn that Marie missed me a lot. Usually I feel like I'm constantly arguing with her.

It's not the same as when I argue with Fraser. He's a good kid but he doesn't take orders well. Tell him to do his homework in his room and he'll grumble. Then he'll say he'll do it later. Then he'll start doing it in the kitchen. The he'll explain at great length how, by doing something else, he is in fact doing exactly what he was told... and that it doesn't matter because the homework isn't due till the end of the week... and besides, it's all Lewis' fault anyway...

Fraser simply won't do what he's told without extended discussion. He can be reasoned with, though, and will give in eventually. Marie is more prone to taking exception to something simply because she feels like it. Persuading her is a battle of wills. She makes an unreasonable demand, I refuse to do what I'm told and she attempts to send me straight to bed. We're perpetually at war for control. I stick to my guns because I know that I'm the one in charge. She does exactly the same.

I thought she'd be glad to have a break. As it turned out, she was rather concerned by the whole business. I'd barely been gone a few hours before she was asking how come it was suddenly Daddy always going out to work? I think she was worried her world had changed and she was going to have to train a new slave. I got home and she sat on my lap and refused to let me move. A taste of something different had been all very well but she was relieved to have life back to normal.

My trip was a church training weekend. (Mike's idea.) We talked about a lot of things but one of the topics covered was liminal moments. Times that are neither one thing nor another - times of change or transition or overlap. These can be great spiritual moments like the one Jesus' disciples had when they saw him filled with the glory of God on the mountain or they can be more mundane, spent sitting on a bus or twiddling thumbs while wondering if a tradesman is going to turn up as promised.

One of the points made was that it's easy to let these moments slip past, waiting for what comes next or dwelling on what went before (or pining for a domesticated parent who's managed to escape for a couple of days). It's better to accept them and make the most of them.

To be honest, my life feels like one big liminal moment right now, filled with a whole load of little ones. I still haven't worked out what I'm going to do now the kids are at school and even when they're home, things are different. They don't need me every minute. In fact, they can entertain themselves for whole hours at a time. They come home from school, I help them with their homework, they run off to play and then I find myself standing around wondering what to do. They might not need me until tea-time. Then again, if I sit down to work on something it's almost guaranteed that they'll come running back wanting attention as soon as I'm settled. It's frustrating. I'm not spending time with the kids but I'm not free to accomplish much either. The result is that I end up feeling like neither a particularly great dad nor a particularly great anything else.

I've finally figured out why this happens. It used to be that I had to grab time for myself wherever I could. Those minutes when they were all entertaining themselves were my chance to relax or get stuff done. I guarded them jealously. Now the kids are at school, I need to get over it. I've got other time. I shouldn't be trying to turn these moments into something they're not. Although the kids might leave me alone, I'm really on call. I should accept it, not expect anything other than a game of Mouse Trap!, and take any peace I do happen to get as a bonus.

More than that, I should probably actively suggest fun activities for us to do together. My children may well argue and demand to be left alone but at least I'll have tried...

Yours in a woman's world,