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Archive for February, 2009

I have, on occasion, found myself so frustrated with the ongoing shennanegins and dynamics between the teenager and the pre-schooler, that I will simply let fly a loud, low and very gutteral growl. ‘WUUUUOOOOAAARRUUUGGGHHHH.’ Yes. Pretty much exactly that.  It is the sort of feral noise I think of as my own personal ‘black metal grunt’…what, some of you will ask, is ‘black metal?’ Black metal is a form of heavy metal that goes beyond the normal parameters of the genre and plunges into the bleakest, darkest areas of life, such as satanism and, er, more satanism. Often this is accompanied  by ludicrously noisey and occasionally fast drums, plus low-frequency vocal rumbling to rival a fleet of mack trucks en route between LA and Alaska. Either that, or bizarre, lute-infested medieval chamber style music. Imagine Old Nick plunging enormous riffage through classical music arrangements which are occasionally broken up by recordings of farm animals being slowly tortured. There you are. Ugly eh? And not the sort of thing you casually throw on after a hard day at work.

I have, for many years, been particularly taken by a Norwegian man called Varg Vikernes. Varg is best known as the singer in a black metal band called Burzum. He is currently in jail on a life-sentence for murder, has been convicted for arson with regards to church-burning and is also a far-right wing political activist. In fact, Varg ticks all the boxes for being one of the most unpleasant chaps I’ve known about in music, yet beside it all sits a strangely comic air, a titter-worthy ‘Black Adder’ sort of presence, a cartoon ‘baddest of the bad’. Which is truely exacerbated when you learn that Varg also goes by another name; Count Grishnackh. I’m sorry, ‘Grishnackh’ is a brilliant word, quite wonderful, a pleasure to say, especially if you roll the ‘r’ like a proper thespian. In fact, it is SUCH a brilliant word, that I started to use it as an verb  for the gutteral sound of frustration I mentioned at the beginning. Let me offer you an example:

“Kids, STOP IT NOW, or I’ll be forced to Grishnackh!”

In fact, I might lobby Webster’s for this definition.

Grishnackh (verb)

(gri-sh-nack)

To make a low, loud,gutteral and feral noise.  

“As he Grishnackhed, the entire dinner party stopped and recoiled in horror.”

 

The word is so perfect as a verb for this particular type of noise that it’s accuracy is not especially important. Sonically, the Varg’s voice is far less boomy, far less gutteral and far more like angry wild weasels screaming and cursing to be released from a burlap sack. But on every other count (pardon the pun) ‘Grishnackh’ works wonderfully. Satanic-sounding, angry, extreme. Perfect. 3 for 3. 

And so it is that we have, as a family, introduced and use a brand new adjective. The pre-schooler and the teenager tend Grishnackh each other  (no preposition necessary) most in the car, the teenager in particular enjoying a good Grishnackh when given the chance. My wife, meanwhile, hates Grishnackhing; I haven’t heard her consciously do it once, though a couple of times she has engaged in sub-conscious Grishnackhing, however  I wisely choose not to point these moments out (women do not like to be told they’re ‘Grishnackhing, trust me). Me? I am largely reserved on the matter, though when I do engage in a bit of the old ‘nackhing, it is loud and sustained, amplified and exaggerated to show the true extent of my disgust and exasperation at the situation in hand. Have there been tears at a spot of Grishnackhing? A couple. Mostly of laughter from the teenager, who finds the switch between my usual dulcet 41 year old tones and a sudden burst of ‘nackhing to be wildly amusing. The pre-schooler? She scowls, tightens her face up into a small, screwy ball and folds her arms very very tight across her chest. 

If it all starts happening too much at the dinner table, I quickly move to regain order and decorum. A bit of verbal hanky-panky is one thing, a dinner’s worth of jousting is intolerable.

“You are in GRAVE DANGER of bringing your situation SOUTH!” I barked the other night.

“What does that mean?” asked the pre-schooler.

“It means to a miserable place where there is no desert! However, IF you can pipe down, eat your dinner and stay on your seat, then you’ll be heading decidedly north.”

“Is that good?”

“Yes. North is where you want to be.”

“OK.”

A few minutes quiet eating and non-mobile sitting ensues.

“Am I north now?”

“Yes you are.”

“Wooooooooouuurrraaaggghhhhhhh!” blurted the teenager, unable to control his Grishnackhing.

“No Grishnackhing at the the dinner table!” I yelled.

“Yeah, don’t go south!” furthered the pre-schooler, “otherwise there’s no desert!”

She’s smart that pre-schooler…

************************************************************

Last Sunday, the teenager had been looking after the pre-schooler whilst my wife and I popped out to look at a suit I had on hold (didn’t purchase due to it being too big – trust me, not words I ever thought I’d say). It was grey, incessantly, rainfully grey, and as we drove back towards the house, we caught sight of a teenager in an olive green parka with a pre-school girl in a bright yellow raincoat and water shoes. It was them. He’d called to say he was taking her to the park for a bit of ‘messy’ fun. The grandfather in me worried about soaking cold clothes next the skin, the father in me rationalized that this is why hot baths were invented, along with central heating. It wasn’t like they were going to be trapped on the north face of the Eiger. I thought about joining them as we drove close by, but they didn’t see us and instead I sought to take advantage of some child-free time. 

They came in gleefully soaked to the bone about an hour later. They were both beaming with delight, the pre-schooler at her adventure (slides into puddles, buried up to her middle in wet sand, jumping into puddles, sitting in puddles) and the teenager at having been the happy facilitator. It was 3.30 pm. The switch was scheduled for 5, but his Mum wondered if we could it a little earlier on account of dinner plans. Of course. These sorts of things are no-brainers. We’ve been sharing the teenager since he was nearly 3, a week on, a week off, and more recently two weeks on, two weeks off. And it had always been very open, cordial, friendly. Life was good at both houses. He was loved wherever he slept.
But I watched him pack his bags for what, the thousandth, two thousandth, how many thousandth time in his life. And it started to creep up on me again that his life was not ideal. It is better than most and much better than many from split family situations. But it was not ideal. He never complained about it because that wasn’t his way. But I could sense a little frustration. And I felt in myself a little darkening of the mood. As the switch time got closer things became more practical. I helped him fold his clothes. That sort of thing. And once he’d left, with me holding his sister waving bye bye at him, her only barely grasping the concept that every other week her brother went to his Mum’s house and didn’t stay with us for that week, it grew rapidly.
I went upstairs and found some peace and quiet. And then I felt tears. Of anger at the fact he wasn’t here. Of anger at the fact that I chose an hour of free time rather than join the kids as they went for their puddles of fun. And of anger at the realization that however great a father I think I am, however good a job I might have done, however much time I have put into our relationship, however smooth, friendly and seemless it is between his mother and I, and however well the teenager and I get on, our life will always sport a gross imperfection;  that he does not sleep under my roof every night. But I still love him every single day…

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I watched in silent joy.

My wife watched too, in silence.

Even the teenager was quiet and sneaking a look or three.

I felt a small tear well up in my right-eye, and at the same time, a short quivver ran down my spine. How, I briefly pondered, had it come to this? Such joy over such things?

The pre-schooler was oblivious to this audience, wrapt as it was in silent gratitude to a power obviously far greater than human, and continued to eat the small, beige-white chunks from her fork. Pieces of parsnip. Steamed, buttered, cubed. She was not given the carrot & parsnip mash at this time, instead we opted for separate pieces, and along with her fresh breaded fish, she was eating the parsnip with something approaching happiness. Could we really be witnessing this? Was it possible? Child in voluntary root vegetable consumption shocker? Yes. Yes it was. And we each felt a little tickle of satisfaction at every bite she consumed. It was hard not to just gawp in awe, welcome hoardes of angels into the dining room on clouds sounding horns of song, accompanied by the Parsnip Symphony and cherubs singing PARSNIP, PARSNIP, GODLY PARSNIP. But we quickly pulled ourselves together and got back to our usual dinnertime of conversation, crap jokes and useless songs, though every joke seemed a little better and every bit of conversation a tad sharper.

There is something significant about the root vegetable in my mind, something more powerful and better in them than any other sort of vegetable. Yes yes, ‘they’ go on about broccoli, but it is the root vegetable which seems closest to the earth in a minerally, vitaminy, fortificationy sort of way. maybe it’s my Irish mother, but the magnitude of a child of mine happily quaffing root vegetables is disturbingly, disproportionately, huge.

Children and food is always a bizarre one. Some of them appear to have ‘Rain Man’ like issues with food in terms of not eating certain shapes or sizes, colors or smells, and the pre-schooler is one of them. I know of others, I hear about them from time to time, but food, like the topic of last week’s column, is one of those odd areas where parents don’t really like to casually converse. Most parental conversations about ‘the kids’ reveal little of the realities of behavior and food.  And no-one wants to admit that they buy their children MC DONALDS. Because if you do, then you are obviously total and utter scum, a planet-wrecker, a child-destroyer. Either that or you live in a project, are destitute or or a prostitute who’s destitute (I only did that to play with words OK). Incidently, WE SOMETIMES BUY THE PRE-SCHOOLER MC DONALDS. So there.

 I’ve often thought that there should be more direct parental empathy on such matters, as the alternative is to trawl the internet for tips from people like ‘Midwest Mommy’  or sneak around the bookstore looking for ‘child/food’ help books like it’s pornography. Because save your small band of best friends, most conversations are polite, warm, friendly but with no detail…no empathy…no shared misery thus by proxy, no shared solutions. I mean, rare is the conversation with another parent like this:

YOU: Hello there.

THEM: Hi.

YOU: (roll eyes)  Crikey, are you having one of those days? Mine’s marched around the house nude and banging pots and pans al morning, sprinkled glitter all over the kitchen, eaten approximately 5 tubes of pasta and two squeezy yoghurt tubes and drank two cartons of chocolate mik. She’s actually driving me fucking nuts! Christ I’m happy to run into you so as the kids can play…do you ever have those sorts of days? Not packing a hip-flask are you?!!!

THEM: Oh yeah…they seem to like playing together.

YOU: What sort of stuff  do yours get up to? I mean, I love their energy but honestly, Jesus Christ, sometimes all I want is to teleport to a Hawaiian beach and be left there for a week next to a swim-up bar. And I don’t know about you, but mealtimes! Jesus Mary and Joseph, if I see another bowl of pasta with butter I might well turn into an axe-murderer!!!

THEM: Oh, hmmm, sounds like about the same as yours…

At which point you realize you are, actually, and as such you quickly fold into small-talk mode. Nothing deep, nothing dangerous. But I ask you, I’m not alone am I? I mean, come on, everyone has their moments, right? I’m not talking about 24-7, I’m talking about the 30 mins here, the 15 mins there where it just seems like boiling point, and a food argument tips it over the edge!

So I suppose the REASON I got so fucking excited about the pre-schooler eating some parsnip, is because somewhere it made me feel a little less worried that she was destined to be a food weirdo for the rest of her life. And to top it off, what an unexpected bonus it was at the end of a day which already felt pretty good. Indeed, I had felt in a pretty damn fine mood since I’d woken up, which is not (as regular readers will know) a typical state of affairs. To find the true root of my positive mood, you’d have had to go back to the start of the weekend, Saturday evening in particular, and pay careful attention to the time I forced myself to bed. 

“Sleep is important when it comes to mood modification,” said my neighbor Rich, and whilst it might appear to be on of those bleedin’ obvious things, sometimes you need someone to remind you of the bleedin’ obvious. “More rest will probably leave you less tired…”

“…and less of a morning asshole perhaps?”

“Uh, yeah, OK, sure!”

And so it was that I started to focus my attentions on getting an extra two-three hours sleep at about 9pm. I gave myself 60 minutes of ‘puttering’ time (that is, wasting your time time, surfing the internet for stupid things, poking about itunes, reading a Spurs message board) and finally I made it in before 10.30. Which meant that when the pre-schooler woke me up at 7.01) I was curiously more cheerful than usual.

And so it is that I see the death of the morning asshole on the horizon. At the same time as the pre-schooler slowly starts what I trust will be a long and fruitful embrace of the root vegetable. Extra sleep equals slightly brighter eyes and bushier tail on waking up…I mean look, in the ideal world, I would still burn the midnight oil and rise closer to noon, but those days have been rendered untenable by my age and sheer inability to have cake and eat it too. And it’s OK so long as I remember to get to sleep earlier. A small thing you’d imagine, but I know it’s going to be a battle forever. Still, I want to see the death of the morning asshole. I don’t really like him and neither do the kids or my wife. And excuses for his being around are getting thinner on the ground. After all, middle-aged as I am, choices have been made and these have involved early mornings and shared-living situations. And seeing as ignorance is not a playable card any more, if I don’t try harder to kill the morning asshole, then folks, I will just be an asshole!

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I WANT A PENIS!

One afternoon, a warm ,sunny San Franciscan Monday afternoon, the pre-schooler suddenly yelled from the back of the car. “I WANT A PENIS, A PE-PE-PE-PEEEEEEENIS!”

“I’m afraid you can’t have one,” I replied calmly, all the while stifling a giggle, because if you don’t think hearing your pre-schooler yell ‘PENIS’ at high volume is funny, then I would suggest that you should get that humor bypass surgery reversed.

“Why?”

“Because you’re a girl and you have a vagina.”

“But I want a penis! PE-PE-PEEEEEEEEEEENISSSSSSSSSS! Can I have both please Dada?”

TEENAGER (from front seat): “Well, you’re in the right town for that!”

ME: (to pre-schooler, ignoring teenager) “Do you like that word?”

“Yeeeesssssssssss. Peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeniiiisssssssssssssssss.”

And then, a little later…

PRE-SCHOOLER (from back of car): “Wouldn’t it be funny if Princesses had beards?”

TEENAGER: “Well you’re in the right town for that too!”

ME: “Would the beardy Princess have a penis?”

PRE-SCHOOLER: “Hmmmmmmm…no, not really, well, I’m not sure Dada.”

ME: “You know what else would be funny? A PRINCE WITH LIPSTICK AND BOOBIES!!!!”

PRE-SCHOOLER (laughing furiously): “YEAH, A PRINCESS WITH BOOBIES!!!!”

TEENAGER: “Did I mention that you’re in the right town for that?”

 

We have, with the pre-schooler, reached that weird and wonderful age where they are freely starting to explore ideas of sexuality and gender for themselves. For the past few months she’s been getting some comedy mileage from dropping her trousers and wiggling her bum at whoever’s in eye-shot (personally I have reprimanded her on doing so in public by telling her it is ‘inappropriate public behavior’ and that if she wants to do that sort of thing, she can do it in her room to her stuffed toys), and I have walked into her room to find her legs behind her ears and her fingers probing her bum as she makes loud monkey-like sounds.* This was a truly alarming sight even for a liberalist like me. 

“You know, that’s something you can do when nobody’s around, in your own time but it isn’t appropriate in front of other people.”

“Oooooooo ooo oooooooo oooooooooooooooooooooo…”

She has pushed the bathroom door open to watch me pee before, and she has found it very funny.

“This is inappropriate really,” I tell her, quietly, “because I am peeing.”

“YOU PEE STANDING UP! YOU PEE STANDING UP! ( this phrase then becomes a ‘song’, with the same lyric repeated over and over again).

And then comes the most awkward of all, the explorations of their own genitalia as you’re perhaps getting them dressed, or popping their jim-jams on. A hand here, a poke about there, I mean, I understand the fascination, it’s just that despite how natural it is, their is no getting away from the fact that as adults this is bloody awkward stuff to witness, given all the different contexts we’ve been exposed to since these wonderfully innocent years.  Of course, all that must be shunted aside, as the worst thing any parent can do is make penises and vaginas forbidden zones, areas to be afraid of, and on a wider scale to leave kids with huge, giant complexes about their bodies like generations gone by. 

Thus begins one of parenthood’s true challenges. To realize that OUR context is not theirs, to realize that this explorative behavior is PERFECTLY NORMAL but also to make sure we teach the importance of discretionary behavior and boundaries. That is to say, it is perfectly fine to poke around your own fundament a little bit within reason SO LONG AS IT’S IN YOUR OWN ROOM AND IN PRIVACY. It would NOT be OK for the kids to poke around their fundaments in, say, the sandbox, or on the climbing frame. Oh no. Certainly not.  So I find myself telling her things like, “You know, you’re welcome to touch your vagina in privacy, but when people are around it’s not appropriate. If you look around you, you’ll notice that people don’t do that in public.”

Of course, let’s not beat around the bush, these are uncomfortable moments. For some obscure reason that has no definitive starting point, the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ are rarely mentioned publicly in modern society, and if they are, each still cause a slight widening of the eye or intake of the breath, near-forbidden words for an increasingly sensitive generation. Euphemisms? No worries, not a problem, bring ’em on! Dick, cock, tool, bush, pussy, these are all heard on numerous occasions during the average day, however those ‘other’ ones? PENIS and VAGINA? Trust me, you neither say those words much or hear them much, because frankly, someone, somewhere has decided they’re not for public consumption. Which is, of course, ridiculous. Unless we genuinely like the ideas of our kids growing up thinking that everyone has ‘dicks or pussies’ which, forgive me my formalities, I don’t. I have a penis thank you. My wife has a vagina. And thats what they’re called.

 Of COURSE it’s awkward, of COURSE it’s a little uncomfortable and of COURSE everyone has their own line as to where the buck stops and as to what’s actually said. For me, with the pre-schooler, I’ll continue to be to play along with it a bit, have a laugh about (whilst still freely using) words like ‘PENIS’, to allow her the odd forage around, but to make sure the concepts of privacy are clearly explained. We’ll deal with the whole ‘until you’re old enough to make choices as to who you want to do that sort of stuff with’ later, when we’ve got the foundations in good structural order.

Speaking of which, fortunately we’re all on the same page at home. No-one has a fear of words like ‘penis’ and everybody is willing to go along with the conversational flow whether the word ‘penis’ is in it or not. Thus when we picked up my wife from her work a couple of days ago, the pre-schooler immediately said, “Mama, I want a penis!”

MY WIFE: “Really? Why do you want  a penis?”

PRE-SCHOOLER: “So as I can pinch it!!!!!”

By the way, when in doubt, just laugh. We did. And it works…

 

 

 

*You know? I’ve just realized that there is a small chance that when she’s older, she might well read this and recoil in horror. So for her, rest assured, it was in the wonderful innocence of youth, the spirit of  exploration and anyway, no-one knows your name!

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I

hate

mornings.

Not the 8 am bit of the morning, no no, that bit’s nice. perhaps a little sunny, always a little brighter and maybe even a little enjoyable.

No, I hate the dark stillness of the 6 am morning, the bit of the morning which quite frankly, I am not genetically designed to like. I should be asleep. I should be deeply asleep. Instead, I am more often than not roused by the clanging of pots and pans, the hammering of a door, the screaming of a shrill voice from distant lands (down the corridor) the badgering of a small person who wants up and out.  If anything, my night-owl sensibilities are such that I could even be reasonably expected to hit the hay at such an hour, perhaps having spent the night hours writing/listening to music, certainly having sipped some good coffee, perhaps having toodled around a bit to see the city at night. Problem is, I used to do that 17-odd years ago, and despite having had 17-odd years to get used to this ‘morning person’ crap, it simply hasn’t happened for me.

Seriously, how can anyone trust someone who claims to enjoy getting up at such a time? It’s nonsense, hairy hippy-dippy oatmeal-stuffed bullshit. If that makes me an asshole, then go ahead and rub toilet paper on my face, because early mornings are NOT NATURAL TO MOST OF US, much like the absurd paradox that sees teenagers required to decide their lives via vital grading periods at a time when most of them couldn’t plan or manage a fart let alone a test or essay. And so it is that when the pre-schooler awakens, I am the proverbial bear with proverbial thorn in his proverbial paw for a good 45 minutes. I have explained this carefully and clearly to both kids over the years (usually like this :’Guys, I am a totally  grumpy  wanker for about an hour in the mornings, so please give me a wide berth and ask for few things’).

I stumble into the kitchen, dispense cereal in a bowl, stagger downstairs into the backyard and sit in a still hot-tub for 10 minutes of trying to get my shit together, walk back upstairs, find that she’s finished her cereal and is doing art/playing with a doll/talking to the cat or fish, help her get dressed, put the TV on and let her watch ‘Little Einsteins’ or something similar. A bit of an anti-TV parent are you? Well save your sanctimony ’cause it’ll be wasted here. That 30 minutes or so rules the fucking universe so far as I’m concerned as I can grump off into the toilet, take care of business, get dressed, catch up on e-mails, whatever. It is the moment I arrive for the first time. And when I emerge, I’m usually a far better and more meaningful person for it (I resemble a human being at least).

Of course such salvation can only last so long, and recently my days/nights/weekends have been wrecked by the teenager’s Blackberry woes. Oh dear you say, how on Earth can the poor poppet survive? A wonky trackball? Lost a ring-piece? I’ll tell you this much, if he goes on about it too much more, he’ll have to get my boot out of his other ring-piece because it’s all getting beyond a joke, beyond tedious. And the cryptic coincidence is that he has started harping on about how ‘cool’ the new Blackberry is.

“I’m sure they sell new trackballs. Yours can’t be the only one ever to have fallen out.”

“Gerruumphagherahumph.”

“What?”

“I don’t think so Dad, it’s not LIKE that.”

I checked online. There they were. Blackberry trackball replacement kits. $12.99 plus shipping and handling.

“There they are. $12.99 plus shipping and handling!” I announced gleefully.

“Oh. Uh, yeah, OK, cool…”

“I’ll order this because the phone you have is less than a year old.”

“I know but am I eligible for an upgrade?”

Eligibile for an upgrade? You what? Jesus christ, carry on like that and I’ll send you out with two cans and a very long piece of string FFS!”

“I was only asking.”

“Yes you were. And the answer is no. Absolutely not.”

“Could you check?”

“No you  cannot check because I know I’m right!”

“Weuuurrrrfff hmmmphhh.”

“Sorry, what was that?”

“I SAID WEUUUUUURRRRFFF HMMMMPHHH DAD! It’s OK anyway, I’m going to get one with money from this job if I get it.

“If your phone right now is broken, you can swap out the SIM card to an old one I have.”

“OK.”

About 7pm on Monday night, as the teenager sits at his friends house a few miles away he calls me via his friend’s cellphone. “Uh, well, my phone just won’t work again, I’m getting all these ERROR messages and, uh, hmmm.”

I nearly told him that growing up, my family actually didn’t have a phone. That I was the first person to bring a landline into our house when my writing took off as an, er, aspiring 16 year old rock journo. But I didn’t because, well, why offer ammunition to a generation that wouldn’t get it anyhow. Instead I dug out a 2 year old Samsung slider I had in reserve for precisely these moments and delivered it to him. The old me would’ve told him to lump it, but these days it’s useful to know where he is. 

“Thanks.” he said, exceedingly underwhelmed as I handed it to him. “It’ll get you through though!” I said cheerfully ads I left.

About 30 minutes later the phone rang.

“Who is it?”

“Dad it’s me.”

“Yes?”

“The Blackberry works again.”

“That was a quick turnaround. I wonder…almost a miracle!!!!!!!”

“Yeah. Lucky huh?!!!!”

I could hear him smiling.

“Yeah you’re right.” 

Phew. I’m safe until next week when this harassment will surely continue…I can only hope for the small mercy that when it does, he at least confines it to the afternoon…

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