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Archive for August, 2008

In case the title of this week’s column has led you to believe that this is going to be a merry, twee little tale of childhood joys in the local playground, I should warn you right now that it ain’t. About that. At all. No, the ‘swings and roundabouts’ I’m talking about are of the mental variety, specifically MOOD swings and roundabouts, exacerbated by the various developmental stages of toddlers and teenagers. By the way, is a three year old still ‘technically’ a toddler? Especially when she can tell you that Kool And The Gang are ‘getting down and FUNKY Dada, UGH!’**? Isn’t she just a young kid now? A child? A youth? An adult??!!!??!?!?! and whilst here, is the teenager (at 16) actually a teenager or a ‘youth’? A ‘young man’? An adult??!!!??!?!?! What are these creatures? How can I refer to them? What’s the protocol? Can I call them ‘its’?!

Whatever they are, each of their minds has recently been ‘developing’ (this is the phrase I have heard applied to mood swings at their respective ages) and if you can allow yourself to imagine what it’s like to be around two children of such differing ages each going through mental ‘development’, then perhaps you’ll have a small degree of empathy for me. I don’t want much and I don’t expect much to be honest, I just want to be sure you can all comprehend the situation, can visualize it properly and to it’s fullest extent.

“I don’t like him Dada.”

“Who?”

“My brother.”

“What? What are you going on about?”

“I don’t like my brother Dada, he’s not nice.”

“And why, pray tell, is that?”

“Because he hit me three weeks ago.”

(Of course the teenager didn’t hit the toddler, I mean, he can be very annoying but he didn’t do that…)

“Well you’ve just kicked him 2 minutes ago.”

“I know because I DON’T LIKE HIM!”

“This is very very hurtful to your brother, I’d like you to think about that…”

“OK, I will…but I don’t like him anymore Daddy.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s too tall.”

At which point I looked at my wife and were both baffled. Too tall? Like one of the teenager’s friends was? Is this a phrase which means ‘there’s something shifting about this fella, y’know, from boy-to-man and I find it hard to get to grips with?’ Or was this simply some absurd excuse? Was it all a taste of sibling rivalry? And how long would it last? The questions raced around my increasingly tense head. When your kids are fighting that’s one thing. But when one suddenly decides they don’t like the other, and switches from being friendly towards them to being downright rude and aggressive, well, it becomes a tough one to swallow. and so, like any good parent, I found myself descending into lecture-mode.

“Now listen here,” I shouted, “I DON’T CARE WHETHER YOU LIKE HIM OR NOT, BUT YOU WILL BLOODY WELL BE POLITE TO HIM AND YOU WILL NOT KICK OR OUNCH HIM. DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?”

“Yeeeaaaah.”

“DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?”

“Yes Dada, yes.”

“Because if it goes on, there will be no Little Einsteins for a week.”

“But I don’t like him anymore Dada…”

 

And so it continued. This absurd, unfathomable and completely self-manufactured conflict. Christ she’s tenacious and stubborn when she wants to be. I had already quizzed the teenager a short wile before, and was more than satisfied that in this case, he was 100% innocent. Nonetheless, with him needing a ride and her being a passenger too later that day, I knew I would need to give him the whole ‘back-right-off-her’ lecture. Which I did. And which he accepted if he didn’t exactly see why he should have to.

“My own sister is treating me like crap!” he mumble-moaned as we got to the car and I snapped at him to put a wrap on it.

 

As we drove, he tried to say hi to her and she just looked away. 

“Say ‘hi’ to him.”

“But I don’t wanna, I don’t like him anymore.”

(At which point, much like a conventional steam kettle, my whistle parped off).

‘I DO NOT CARE! BE POLITE, BE FRIENDLY AND IF YOU ARE NOT THEN THERE IS NO DESSERT FOR TWO WEEKS?’

“No dessert? Why?”

“BECAUSE YOU’RE BEING RUDE TO YOUR BROTHER!!!!”

“OK…”

“OK WHAT?”

“OK to ‘no dessert’ because I don’t like him…”

 

Like a sackful of falling hammers, it hit me right then. This was the chance to swaddle her brother in redemption, give her a chance to make up with him quickly and give us all a chance to back away from a punishment which (if exercised) could’ve resulted in her hating him even more for costing her dessert.

“Listen,” I whispered to the teenager, “just pretend that you don’t want her to lose dessert. Say to me that you love her very much and you want her to be able to have dessert, so please don’t punish my sister.”

“Uh, aw, hmm, duh hm haw, how do I say that?”

“Using some words you ignoramus!”

“But that’s weird, I mean…I dunno how to…”

“Oh Jesus Christ of COURSE it’s weird, just pretend to bloody whisper to me will you please?!!!!

“Mumble mumble mumble mumble…”

“So hey, you back there…your brother has decided that even if you don’t like him, he loves you very much and does not want me to punish you by taking away your dessert, so ONLY BECAUSE HE ASKED ME TO, I will let you have deserts anyway.”

“Cool…can I do that on a tray sitting on the couch watching Dora The Explorer?”

“(after the teenager and I had stifled giggles at her sheer bloody cheek!) He seys yes. Isn’t that nice of your brother?”

“Heheheh, YEAH! Thank you…” and she proceeded to ask her teenage brother to tickle her feet and give her big hugs when the car stopped. A crisis was avoided due to some unconventional mediation. The waters calmed down and all was right with the world once again…

…but like a pair of pre-planted explosive devices, this is the time of the year when they will both lose their bearings again, in the process finding new and genial ways to wind each other up and up and around the bend, all the while oblivious to the spring mechanism in my head which on such occasions seem to wind tighter and tighter. Because it then becomes like either having a pair of toddlers or a pair of teenagers!  Swings and roundabouts indeed…

 

** – This is as in the James Brown funky stuff ‘UGH!’ and not the poo on the sidewalk and in the crevices of your shoe ‘UGH!’

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Yes folks, that’s right…I’d like to call it a vacation but I’m not entirely sure that’s accurate. Put it this way, I’ve engaged in some UN-type mediation within the household, it’s the last week before double-school hits (High and pre…hahahaha, what a mixture, indeed, I wish I were ‘high’ and ‘pre’ half the bloody time but there ya go!) and as such, I’m going to need a few extra days to wrap my head around life.

 

Come to think of it, can I get a pillow, some margaritas and a beach with that? Please? PLEASE? I’ll accept gift vouchers…

See you next week, oh loyal reader (in the truest singular sense my dear)…

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SIGN LANGUAGE…

The toddler has entered a strange little phase. 

From somewhere (and let’s face it, who can be sure given the amount of potential sources available to her rapid-fire mind) she has suddenly decided to sometimes employ sign language to substitute the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’. ‘Yes’ is gestured as a finger in the air moving up and down like a nodding gesture, ‘no’ is a finger moving from side to side like a negative head-shaking gesture. These ‘signs’ are delivered using the quiet manner of that kid Danny from Kubrick’s classic film ‘The Shining’. And her choice in deciding when to use sign language over words is intriguing.

ME: DO NOT GO NEAR A HOT STOVE, I HAVE TOLD YOU THIS MANY TIMES, YOU WILL END UP HAVING AN ACCIDENT AND IT WILL HURT, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?

TODDLER: (Looks down towards feet, a shallow yet determined grin on her face, and shoots a hand out from which a finger extends to make the ‘yes’ gesture).

ME: WHAT? WHAT IS THAT!!! I NEED TO KNOW YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I’VE SAID. WORDS PLEASE. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? SAY ‘YES DADA’ IF YOU DO!!!!

TODDLER: (Looks down towards feet, a shallow yet determined grin on her face, and shoots a hand out from which a finger extends to make the ‘yes’ gesture).

It is driving me to step-up my already sterling impression of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers, hopping around with a tea-towel clenched between my teeth as I pull against it and yell into the cloth, trying desperately to hold onto my sanity. And it is certainly her way of showing defiance. Brute toddler defiance. A beast like no other. A beast which reduces me to a bewildered sense of ignorance, because when the toddler does this, I am absolutely lost as to what the best reaction and method of dealing with it is. I know deep down that the moment will pass if I let it, but equally, if I let it pass, then it will pass again and again and before I know it, the toddler will be a teenager stomping all over the dying embers of my frail parenting carcass, a parent who failed to put up boundaries, a parent who allowed insubordination through sign language to take place, a parent who now suffers a greater and more direct version of sign language in response to questions such as ‘you won’t be late tonight will you?’ or ‘I wouldn’t go to that club with your friend Jules because it could lead to trouble!’

The teenager is a living example of how we have to stand firm and fight the right battles. I doggedly refused to let similar things go when he was the toddler’s age, and I’d like to think I’m reaping the benefits right now. Although it must be said that Christ almighty, it would’ve been UNBEARABLE had I not because the teenager does still sometimes get lost in ‘attitude alley’ despite himself.

ME: (in the car) I’m surprised that you’re wearing that top for today’s indoor game?

TEENAGER: Well I’m gonna wear it to practice tonight as well because it’s pretty STUPID to have a SHOWER between games because then I’m just showering to get sweaty again. That’s pretty DUMB Dad.

Thank you, I thought to myself, thank you very much indeed. DumbDad DumbDad DumbDad… if you say it enough times close together, it sounds like you’re humming a techno track…

“Jeff MIlls!”

Speaking of techno… 

“Killing Joke please Dada…”

“Can you put ‘Celebration’ on and then I wanna hear ‘Funky Stuff’ because they’re getting FUNKY…”

“The Chicago song please Dada (this is a reference to Ministry and ‘Let’s Go’)…”

” ‘Ba-tter-y’!!!!”

Yes, aside from cabbie I am also the total request DJ who caters to her every whim, often fueled by a napless afternoon which of course should see her passing out once we hit the road but instead sees her lurching about in her car seat like Linda Blair from The Exorcist (funny, that’s the second horror analogy I’ve come up with). 

Naps. You love it when they take them and don’t let anyone tell you any different. Time for a cup of tea, a seat, a peruse of the day’s news, or even just a straight collapse on the bed and a stare into the air as you scratch your balls in relief a getting some ‘alone’ time. That is when they nap. When they don’t, it becomes a cage within a cage, a place you cannot leave for fear of something happening, yet a place that becomes more cacophonous every minute as their tiny little hands clap and their sweet little larynxs sing, scream and yell dozens of different catchphrases such as ‘HELLLOOOOOOOOOOOO DADA!’ and ‘BE QUIET! BE QUIET!’

Funnily enough I found myself seeing two old friends of mine at their friend’s house earlier in the week, and this very topic arose. My friend’s wife is pregnant, and his hosting friend has a 4 month old baby.

“What can we do about the nap situation?” he asked, eyes circled with the sort of fatigue that slaps new parents around the head like a petty thief and leaves a black-eye. “He won’t go to sleep.”

We discussed all the angles, the swaddling (ditch it now), the light in the room (make sure it’s dark and even without infiltration), the potential for white noise and the back-rubbing/lap-jigging techniques. We dug into the ugly truth, which is that the time is fast approaching when so long as the wee thing is fed, watered, clean and warm, you leave them to ‘cry it out’, perhaps going in at the beginning but absolutely not picking them up. And you know what? Damn if I wasn’t offering fine advice, tips based on two children and two different generations of child rearing, tips which had proven mainstays for me and tips which i felt sure would help them in their fight. ‘Ah yes,’ I thought as I drove away, ‘how nice it is to be able to help with these complicated issues and to share some first-hand knowledge no handling kids nap-times…’

Of course, the next day, at around 3.10pm, with the toddler having spent the last goddam HOUR of her nap-time singing ‘BACKYARDIGANS’ and ‘FIFI AND THE FLOWERTOTS’ really, really bloody loudly, I found myself bellowing really REALLY loudly that she needed to ‘GO TO BLOODY SLEEP FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE AND IF YOU CAN’T AT LEAST KEEP THE NOISE DOWN AND READ A BOOK OR SOMETHING BUT YOU NEED TO HAVE A LITTLE MORE QUIIIIIEEEEETTT TIIIIIIIMMMMMEEEEEEE!’ What is it they say about therapists? That they make the best patients? 

Finally, with the noise level now being accompanied by gurgling laughter, I stormed in.

“Jesus, what bit of ‘nap’ don’t you understand?” I said. “Are you even tired at all?”

She looked down towards feet, a shallow yet determined grin on her face, and shot out a hand from which a finger extended to make the ‘no’ gesture.

And it was then that I pondered whether she was too old to be swaddled for nap-time herself!

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As regular readers will know, I just got back from seeing my Mum in Berkshire, England.

She is in the middle of her second dance with cancer (the bastard decided to come back for more despite being booted out of the ballroom first spin around) and thus with my wife and family’s help, I carved out a week to go and be with her. 

Having got over the initial shock of seeing a Mum who now looks like Aleister Crowley, we soon got down to the business of spending time together. Funny how it takes a life-threatening illness to force you to sit down and just talk about things. Anything. Her Irish family history, my love of Giovanni Do Santos, Spurs new Mexican international, her episodes with kinesiology, my changing doctors because the last one had the bedside manner of a cardboard box (complete with similar verbal skills), our love of proper British bumble bees and how my Dad (her ex-husband from 12 years ago) is one strange, strange man.

We sat in a rental car for four days, rolling through villages such as Chipping Sodbury and Marlbrough. Thanks to a benevolent fellow at the Dollar Rent-A-Car in Reading, what should’ve been a Vauxhall Astra ended up being a Peugeot hard-top convertible sports car. A nice extra. We put the watches away and went without a schedule. I refused to look at an atlas, let alone contemplate a GPS, instead deciding we should see where the country roads took us. And so we’d stop in those small towns and villages, park and make our way to a cup of tea or a bench beside the river, my Mum taking slow but determined steps, her mood never dimming, her chatter always flowing, her smile virtually constant.

When she wore her white cotton beenie, or one of her two sun-hats, it was tough realizing that she had just completed her final 4 hour infusion of poisons and paint-stripping, cell-crushing toxic chemical treatment, the very one that had pushed every hair on her body to the floor, the very one that made certain foods repulsive, the very one that required her to take a high course of steroids for a few days afterwards just to help the white blood cell count climb. Oh we had a laugh about that one, what with the olympics coming up and all. She seriously mused on how insane people must be to take high-dose steroids when all is normal, and I think she’s in a position to know. For my part, I chuckled at the word ‘therapy’ on the end of chemo; I believe they call such word combinations an oxymoron. I think only a moron would refer to poison as therapy, but then I was never one for medical terminology anyway.

She talked, as she always does, about the teenager and the toddler, how much she loves them, how proud she is of the way they’re being raised, tipping her large straw hat in my direction and praising my work as a father. The truth is, she’s as much responsible as I am. Because it is her code which is imprinted on my pysche and it is her code which I use as my yardstick. Her code of manners, her code of personal responsibility, her code of selflessness when it comes to your children. 

I learnt early on that if YOU, the parent, yells in an out of line fashion, or behaves poorly in front of your children, that it is YOUR duty to apologize and take responsibility, that is if YOU want THEM to behave accordingly. I learnt that in restaurants or in shops or frankly anywhere, if you want THEM to say their pleases and thank yous, then YOU’D better set the tone. I learnt that more often than not, YOU have to give them the time their growing minds need, even though half of you just wants to go off into a quiet place, listen to music and read a book (if you hit that mark around 70% of the time, you’re ahead of the curve). I learnt that children need schedules and children need consistency, and that if you’re going to SAY you’ll do something, then bloody well DO IT otherwise they’ll quickly lose their trust in you. But perhaps more than anything, I learnt that children need unconditional love. Lots of it. They need to know, and feel, that love often. And love like that, love on that level,  comes from doing ALL of the above.

My Mum certainly gave that to me. She once went up to White Hart Lane (home of the world famous Tottenham Hotspur), went in through the turnstiles and promptly left again just so as I could get an extra voucher which would allow me to buy an important future ticket. She fought to make sure my father carried on bringing me to games for another season when he suddenly decided overnight he’d had enough, telling him that it wasn’t fair on me and that he needed to give me another year until I was old enough to go by myself. She then trusted me as I zipped around the country on British Rail following Spurs home and away from the age of 13! And when I sat on a kitchen chair in May 1981, one week before Spurs played in the 100th Cup Final at Wembley, tears rolling down my cheeks as I didn’t have a ticket, she came in with news that via a work friend and much searching around, a ticket for me had been secured. 

She did many things really, beyond the obvious stuff like decent meals. She offered support when she knew I needed it, she allowed me to have friends over and sip the occasional beer with them in my room. She allowed me to have girlfriends visit without question, and she even allowed them to stay over once in a while. She allowed me to start flying to LA and New York and Seattle and God knows where else with rock bands as rock reporter for SOUNDS newspaper when I was 16 and still doing my ‘A’ levels, and she allowed me to leave the UK and move 6000 miles to California on a one-way ticket in 1986 as a barely-19 year old when I now know her heart must’ve told her to veto the entire idea. She trusted me. And she believed in me. Don’t trivialize those last two things, they might be the most important things of all.

In turn, I find that my teenager, my 16 year old teenage son, still wants to spend time with yours truly. He still wants to ‘hang out’, he still wants to go places and play soccer with me. I find that the toddler loves a giggle and a smirk with her Dada. And despite the fact I can be one grumpy, obstreperous under-caffeinated dick, they BOTH come back for more. 

Now, I’m not going to hand the baldie who I just spent a week with every last shred of credit for whatever positive aspects there are to my character, good God no! I’m my own man, I do my own things, I behave my own way and I make my own decisions for better and obviously sometimes for worse too.

But she was the architect. She shaped this project which is me. And she put in the foundations, checking in regularly to make sure they didn’t need renewing and being available it they occasionally did.

Continue getting better Mum. Because aside from anything, there’s a son out here who still needs you…

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Due to the fact that the actual task of parenting and working and breathing appears to have eaten up the 90-odd minutes on a Monday night/Tuesday morning when I can pen these columns, the latest I AM FATHER…will now be up by the end of the day tomorrow. The truth is that deadline work gets priority, kids demand priority, and free literary missives like this get no priority whatsoever. Sorry. If you’d like to change that scenario, let me know and I’ll add a paypal button to the I AM FATHER site. Either that, or give me some advice on how to help a toddler who’s trying to push out a poo the size of Britain beyond massaging their stomach and telling them to ‘relax’ (I mean, how feeble is THAT? ‘Relax’, it’s only a boulder size turd that threatens bloody pain at the merest push) because that’s what prevented me from finishing the current ‘column-in-progress’. *T.M.I.? Ah well, live with it braveheart…

Thank you for your patience…yes, I am thanking you, the person who came to check for a new column. Thank YOU and see you tomorrow afternoon…

 

*too much information

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