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Archive for March, 2009

I am sick with that filthy bloody flu that everyone’s been passing like a hot potato, and due to both this and the fact that I cannot CONCENTRATE, this week’s column will be approximately 24-48 hours late. For what it’s worth, it will contain a horrific moment in the car when the word PENIS was blurted out via the radio in front of the teenager, the pre-schooler and myself; it’s the latter’s reaction you should worry about the most!!!

 

Stay tuned…

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The teenager, all sixteen years and ten months of him, knows. Knows what you ask? Knows everything of course! Doh! But stop asking questions because you won’t get it/it’ll take too long to explain/this is a different generation. AND he’s NEVER WRONG (even now I can hear him saying, ‘No, that’s NOT right, I don’t say that, I’m wrong sometimes so you’re wrong when you say that!”).

The pre-schooler, all three years and nine months of her,  can do everything by herself. She doesn’t need your help. She gets angry if you try to help with things like shoelaces, pullovers, multiplication, periodic tables, the power of zen because SHE CAN DO IT OKAAAAY?! 

My wife and I would like a vacation together. Well OK, not even that, just a small break. Alone. The two of us. We’re not greedy, we’ll take a few days. That’s it. Three nights and four days (alright, so that’s a few nights, let us not get hung up on semantics here). We’re not even that fussed where this would be. Sunshine would be nice, but hey, we’d settle for Monterey, Carmel, Santa Cruz, Stinson Beach, it’s all good.

And I’ve been thinking…the way the pre-schooler and the teenager are working right now, with one not needing any help and the other knowing everything, they could actually compensate for each other’s shortfalls. 

The idea germinates. Leave them alone. For three nights. And four days. Hey, why ruin their fun by telling them we’re doing it?!!!! Naaaah, better to just leave a note, some grocery money and instructions on where there’s a spare set of keys. Driving’s out because the teenager’s only now about to take lessons (well you’d have waited this long when the United fucking taxi service was proven to actually exist solely in your house in the shape of ‘Dad’ and the meter was always broken!) but hey! The warm weather’s coming, there’s a swimming pool up the block and two great parks nearby.

In an act of benevolence (because remember, they can do it and know it all) I’ll write down the numbers of a few close friends who have kids of the pre-schooler’s age, and the teenager can call them if/when he would like, and I’ll leave the fridge stocked with their favorite food and beverages. I’ll make sure there’s a clean slate on the library card, and I’ll buy a couple of new DVDs for them.

I’ll obviously leave an emergency contact number, but will tell the teenager that he can call my mobile if anything happens. Meanwhile, my wife and I will pack two medium-sized bags, to hand-bags and head north for a coastal inn. The room will be spacious and overlook the ocean. I will not give a flying fuck if it has internet or not because I will not bring my computer (I will ‘cheat’ with my iphone) and instead I shall have the next two David Peace novels I haven’t read. There will be a large bathtub so as I can wallow like a hippo before flopping into a reading chair and then crawling into bed, where I will sleep uninterrupted for 13, 14 hours.  The ‘w’ word will be banned from our conversations, and further, we will not discuss either of ‘them’…

We’d be happy to check in with the teenager and pre-schooler, but such is the level of supportive vehemence behind their ‘I can do it’s and ‘I knows’ that it’s actually best for us all if we just slowly let them unravel the mysteries of daily life and don’t speak to them unless an emergency occurs (that reminds me, I’ll xerox their health plan information and leave that with the friend’s numbers).

Yes…that’s it…we can read, sip cocktails, listen to the waves, and they can not need hep and know it all together in one glorious burst of youthful (dis)harmony. Arguments? Well come ON! If one of them doesn’t need help and the other knows it all, resolution should be easy enough to reach after a short, explosive argument. Especially with no grumpy parent around to actually school you along the right path, to plant the seeds of appropriate behaviour or teach you the correct way to tackle a situation or deal with a problem.

As I sit writing all this down, it sounds pretty great in a ‘dreamy-stream-of-conscience’ sort of way, indeed, I could go further. So I shall!  The quiet meals on our own schedules, the lie-ins until whenever, the actual placement of our timepieces in a hotel drawer, not to be opened until check-out time…ah yes…and here’s the kicker. The teenager really could deal with it, he’d shrug his shoulders and say ‘yeah, OK, as long as a friend can come over on the second day ‘(approved!). And the pre-schooler would deal with it just fine, she’d be happy enough in her own house with her own big brother no doubt getting the run of things.

But  here’s the dirty truth. For all my bleating and whinging, we wouldn’t be alright with it. No, in theory it sounds tailor-made, a bespoke situation of beauty and convenience for us to avail ourselves of pronto. But the truth is we’d worry. We’d not be an hour away before the guilt would be throbbing like a migraine, before the disastermeter would’ve exploded in our minds, before the doom scenarios would’ve played themselves out and before we’d both be arguing over who’s idea this whole escapade really had been.

We’d rush back to the house, we’d make sure everyone was OK, and we’d then settle back into the daily routine with a sense of relief and eased consciences. I don’t know if we’d  necessarily be delighted to be deal once more with a pre-schooler who can do it all or a teenager who knows it all, but we’d understand more deeply than ever that each needs our love, support and guidance as much as the moment their first breath occurred. Because this is the inevitable geometry of parenting, the indelible fact, the solid truth. And as much as we sometimes wish we could duck and run away from it, we can’t because we won’t allow it. Because we need to do this most important of jobs properly. Even if that means periods of near-intolerable aggravation.

Obviously the teenager is closer than the pre-schooler to flying the nest, but the fact remains that for all his knowledge, he doesn’t know quite enough to make a proper fist of it yet. And the pre-schooler? We chuckle about what it’s going to be like when she’s the teenager…and we only chuckle because we don’t really know; if we did, I suspect laughter might not be the first reaction.

And anyway, the truth is that if we navigate this next passage of time properly, then in a few years this ‘dream vacation’ can take place, no worries. I’d bet on it.

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Exasperating as it can be, you should never lose sight of your parental GPS. And if you do, then it’s very helpful to have someone around who will reel you in. I often seem to misplace mine, which means that various words such as ‘poo, bum, fart, pee-pee, knackers, satan, arse’ and perhaps the worst, ‘mong’, seem to fly tourettes style from my lips. Usually this occurs as I’m driving, thus I can now blame all the other bastards on the road for my transgressions. Further, I sometimes get that wild hair up my ass which says that it would be fine to show the Jeff Daniels diarrohea scene in “Dumb & Dumber” to the pre-schooler, or the beginning of ‘Snot’ in The Young Ones (a British cult TV hit) which sees their bedrooms covered in a sea of pea-green sticky snotty booger stuff. 

Fortunately, my wife is usually on hand to suggest otherwise. Not verbally, no no, it’s usually just a curl of the eyebrow, a narrowing of the eye, a short shake of the head from side-to-side, just enough to force a few ounces of middle-aged common-sense to trickle into my brain. I’ve become pretty good at finding it as I sing though (you know, rhyming class with ‘arse’, bit with ‘tit’, you with ‘poo’…wait a minute, that one sneaks out once in a while!) so I might be maturing? Anyway, my point is I DO have SOME sense of appropriateness, as proven by the fact that the pre-schooler and the teenager remain two of the better-mannered children you’ll meet, and anyway, even when I slip, I guarantee there is CONTEXT to it (i.e. Dad being silly). Indeed, silliness is a VERY IMPORTANT part of life with children, and woe betide those who either don’t know that or haven’t allowed themselves to admit it. Because silliness, in the good old ‘put-your-under-pants-on-your-head-and-run-around-impersonating-the-Roadrunner’ is priceless and memorable for everyone. If this concept escapes you, find a copy of Spike Milligan’s ‘Silly Verses For Kids’ and read it six times before haring it with your offspring on a regular basis. 

Back to the parental GPS, and I do find that it’s also about not laughing at very funny yet inappropriate behavior BY the kids, although this line gets fuzzy. An example for you, involving the family word I wrote about a few weeks ago, ‘grishnackhing.’

PRE-SCHOOLER TO BROTHER: LET’S DO A POO-GRISHNACKH!

TEENAGER TO PRE-SCHOOLER: OK, when we get out of the car.

ME: What the hell is a ‘poo grishnackh’?

TEENAGER AND PRE-SCHOOLER FIGHTING FOR SPACE: (a few sighs and eye-rolls) It’s when you touch bums and grishnackh!!!!

ME: Of course. Silly Dada. How could I be so thick!

And when they got out of the car, they did, indeed, show me a ‘poo-grishnackh’ and I have to tell you, it was absolutely ridiculous (when both touching their toes back-to-back, their bums didn’t even quite match-up) to see them both nearly cheek-to-cheek and grishnackhing with big WOOAARGGGHHHSSSS. Yes, I laughed. I even found myself laughing a couple of hours later as, right before bed, the pre-schooler sat on my lap, faced me, slapped the sides of my face with her hands and loudly shouted.

“I JUST SLAPPED MY DAD IN THE KNACKERS*!!!!”

It’s not disimilar to when my good friend Neil Perry visited with his lovely lady Wenke from Norway at Christmas. Wenke’s name is pronounced ‘wenker’, and for those of you who don’t know your English slang, ‘wenker’ is uncomfortably close to ‘wanker’ which is a term of abuse. Thus when we were all walking in Muir Woods, Neil and co ahead of us by about 15 ft, and the pre-schooler shouted, “OI! NEIL! WENKER!” it was a tall order not to laugh so I didn’t try not to.

In fact, as I write this, I realize that my GPS might not be exactly ‘mis-placed’ much of the time more than it perhaps focusses on different priority routes. Like manners. Like picking things up. Like putting things back. Like being polite to people. Don’t worry on that score, I run a tight ship, as does my wife. We don’t let it go, and neither do we let rude answering back, stropping or inappropriately timed comments pass without teaching the right thing to do. Yet too many people and parents get hung-up on absurdly unimportant things and they let the big ones go, the manners, the behavior and so on. I find this to be the case with many members of the ‘PC flashmob’, an ugly group of self-righteous, cashmere and pashmina-drawled ‘parents’ who seem to loom up from nowhere (flashmob style) and park themselves at your door or in your conscience telling you all the terrible things you’re doing to your children by letting them pretend to be cowboys or princesses or watch a bit of TV whilst the nanny tends to their children.

Because a bit of well-monitored television is not the work of the devil. Indeed, sometimes, it can be a day-saver for all concerned. Yet some of these PCers feel that the moment you flick the tube on you’re committing an egregious crime against children. I’m sorry, that’s the biggest load of codswallop I’ve ever heard. The truth of the matter is that if you DENY them access to the tube once in a while, they will develop such a craving for the forbidden fruit that one day you’ll have a grown-up couch-potato on your hands, unable to tear themselves away from this ‘wonderful new thing in their lives.’   Like most things, moderation is the key, and  well-controlled, well-monitored TV is not going to harm anyone. Indeed, if the kids are ill or it’s chucking it down outside and you’re exasperated, it’s perfectly fine to pop the telly on for a bit. Yes yes, in the ideal world we’d all be doing finger puppets and origami for hours and hours every rainy day, but most of us are actually human, and as such, a couple of hours arting and crafting is usually more than we can take in a 24 hour period (hippies and new-age stay-at-home Mums need not bother correcting me here, I know you’re ‘different’ and ‘better’ than lowly old average me). At which point I’m telling you that a bit of telly will not crush their minds. Indeed, it’ll give you both a bit of breathing space before you plan some other activity, and at the very least it will give you a break! And again, regardless of what people say, we ALL need a break once in a while. Trust me, if ever those bastards flashmob my house in their dozens, trampling my floors and my living room to dispense their PC wisdom, I’ll be ready! By the way, for what it’s worth, I understand that the word ‘mong’ is not nice and wholly inappropriate,  but I confess that it still makes me laugh like I did when I said it as a 10 year old. 

It’s all about common sense and fairness. Another example. You have got the family out to dinner. It’s a lot of family and a big, long dinner. Your kids are maybe 4 or 5. You know, the restless age. So rather than making them sit up straight for the entire meal and bollocking them the moment they look bored (thus making such occasions a gruelling and dirty chore), cut your losses, be fair and make sure you have a book or two they can look at, a distraction or three they can enjoy, quietly and discreetly. And watch as they get older how they end up liking these occasions, enjoying the evening and eventually feel comfortable enough to interact.

The important thing is to keep your parental GPS in sight but equally to not allow the ‘PC’ brigade to crush it under their largely hypocritical and self-loathing feet. And once again, never forget to be silly with your kids…just trust me on that one.

 

*this is a slang term for testicles for us British. Needless to say, I do not have testicles on my cheeks, thus the context was deemed amusing and not worth correcting. If she continues to say it, then words will be had.

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It’s a strange thing when you feel like a father to your father. It’s stranger still when you realize you’ve felt like a father to your father for more years than you’ve been a father to your children.

 

I was in London on a spot or two of business. Time was tight, so I had already made sure to stay with my Mum, but fitting my father in would not be easy. He wouldn’t know if I came and went without seeing him, because we rarely speak on the phone (phones, you see, are not especially trustworthy in his world and anyway, what was there to say?) but to pull a stunt like that would’ve felt dirty. So I took the gamble of asking him if he could come and meet me near my hotel in London, and indeed he said he could. This might not seem like anything to you, but for a man who suffers from acute paranoia spilling over into a semi-schizophrenia (he refuses to take medication), it was a really big deal.

 

We met at my hotel. There he was, looking pretty well but had his favored woolly hat on (I am not sure of it’s ‘function’ but it stays on his head 90% of the time), his yellowing smile broken up by a few missing teeth (testimony to his fear of dentists). We walked to have lunch at Carluccio’s. Fairly quiet and fairly sedate…always the job of creating conversation, always the struggle to keep it going…why? Because my father doesn’t get out much, so he doesn’t see people much, so he doesn’t have friends as such, and he lives in seclusion a little too much. Him, some books by the likes of Dostoyevsky and the telly.

 

At least his living situation is a little brighter. For too many years he lived in a dark, dingy Victorian flat (high ceilings were the only plus), up the hill from where my mother used to live, a half-mile from where I spent my formative years. He’d collected newspapers for some reason, towers of dusty old newspapers, and he was surrounded by brilliant pieces of art; his own. He was a wonderful artist. Was. He stopped one day because, well, I don’t really know, I can’t really explain it…but he stopped. He had received a notice that the building was being sold, but he’d kept it from us. And he’d fallen into a small amount of debt that was going to be hard to get out of. I’d flown over last year to sort it out, a few different times. The local council had said they could re-house him, but he’d have to get rid of most of his stuff. He wouldn’t. He refused. The teenager and I went over there one night (I’d brought everyone on a pre-planned holiday – timing indeed!) and when we tried to help him start packing, he’d covered his ears and started saying ‘NO’ very loudly. The teenager said we should get fish and chips instead, and as we drove back to where my Mum now lives, he gave me such wonderful, empathetic support far beyond his years. Son being a father to a father? Cycle repeating? Only briefly, but how I needed it then…

 

I helped get him re-housed (with the unforgettable help of old family friends who gave everything to rally around and help, including finding a storage space for some of his stuff) and the local council were wonderful, finding benefits he’d been due for a few years and thus getting him back-dated money plus covering his rent. So since then, it’s been quiet. Calm. Just my father and his life. Nothing else.

 

After lunch, which saw us dip into a conversation on the economy and state of the world, as well as discussing my wife, the teenager and the pre-schooler, we walked down Oxford St. I forgot that he can be a bit ‘clingy’ and so as I went into a shoe store and started looking at a pair of shoes, I jumped when he loudly said ‘DO YOU HAVE BIG FEET?’

“I suppose so,” I said quietly.

“OH, AND MAYBE (THE TEENAGER) DOES TOO…”

“Dad, could you please keep your voice down?”

“OH YES, SORRY…” and then I heard him mumble, “that must come from me!” and I saw him smile at the proprietorship of our family feet. Then he lost volume control again –“WHY DO YOU BUY SO MANY SHOES, YOU SEEM TO BUY A LOT OF SHOES…”

(To be fair, this was not an entirely unfair question as I have curtailed what could’ve been an Imelda Marcos-type shoe fetish in recent years – incidentally I didn’t buy anything.)

“Dad, please!” I hissed, “voice down!”

“OK OK sorry sorry, I’m just feeling a bit, hee hee, giddy I think, hee hee!”

 

He was such a funny man in my childhood, such a trailblazer of pop culture and humor. He was ‘eccentric’ back then, and I was young and happy to enjoy a father who played Ian Dury and The Blockheads with it’s ‘Plaistow Patricia’ line ‘arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks’ (which when you’re 11 years old is radical!)…

 

He left my Mum when I was in my early 20s. He’d found a new gust of freedom and suddenly she was an obstacle to his art and exploration. He didn’t run off to forbidden concubines, the polar opposite in fact, he ran off to ice-fields in northern Norway to study the light. He left her bewildered and confused, hurt, questioning everything. And then, years later, when she was over that hill and far away, happy and in love with a really good guy, my father decided he’d made a huge mistake and spent too much time trying to get back into her life. I was furious. I challenged him, told him why his behavior was wrong, explained cause and effect, the results of choice, all of it. I was teaching him. And ill or not, I would not offer him allowances.

 

At Carluccio’s  he’d offered to buy lunch as my birthday was coming up, but I’d politely refused the offer because, well, it didn’t seem right. So he’d offered to buy me a book instead. Thus from the shoe store we walked to the book store. I chose a few books I wanted and went to pay for them. He crept up beside me and asked whether he should buy one of those or choose one. I said to buy one of these (here I was, directing my own birthday gift, an uncomfortable moment) and he started looking around saying that maybe he should choose one. I paid for the books and said no, it was OK, that we should leave. He got upset, and asked me again what he should do because he’d wanted to buy me the book, so I instructed him to give me seven pounds. He asked if ten would be OK and I said yes.

 

When I said goodbye to him I hugged him.

I could feel so many bones, I could virtually wrap my arms around him and touch my opposite wrists.

He looked at me with a melancholic smile, and for a brief moment his eyes flickered with registration of our situation, of his situation; a father and son who loved each other but had little left in common; a father and son who would always be there for each other but who didn’t really know each other that well anymore; a father and son who had swapped societal roles. A son who was almost a father to his father and had been for too many years.

 

I waved a quick goodbye, rushed inside and immediately focused on the Spurs match to come that night. Any other course of action would’ve been melancholic and futile. And then I remembered that it was a good time to call my wife and speak to the pre-schooler.

The sound of her voice was a salve. And when she told me she was excited to see ‘Daddy’ the next afternoon, the natural order of parenting had been restored.

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