Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A common reader

One bright spot in being at home has been that I have read more.  Previously if I were lucky, I might get through one book a half-term.  If I began a book during term time, it would very likely lay abandoned on my night table and if I did have the time or energy to pick it up I would have to re-read parts of it because I had left it too long.  Now that I no longer have essays to read and lessons to plan I have managed to get through quite a few books. 

I see such progress as an achievement but not everyone would agree.  Some might argue that there are more productive uses for my time.

In the ipad and cable-free days of the 1970s and early 80s, reading for pleasure was seen as a normal pastime.  I would go to the Epiphany Library and devour all the Nancy Drew and Little House books (Oh, come on, I was young and James and Lily Potter had not yet conceived Harry).  Most of my classmates did the same, some might choose the Hardy Boys or Sweet Valley High, but most of us had a book ready for the moments when we had sit-at-your-desks-and-don't-talk-free time at school.

My parents are big readers as well and a common problem among members of my immediate family is how and where to store books.  As a child you accept what you are presented with as normal so I always assumed that other families were similar. 

Until high school, when I discovered that some people did not bother with the assigned summer reading nor did they read the books required for lessons.  Small pamphlets resembling bumblebees appeared in the student commons.  'Cliff Notes, much easier than reading the book.'  I went to friend's houses where there was only one bookcase.  And some shelves were empty or had VHS cassettes on them. 

Before my final year of university I went to the beach one morning with a friend of mine.  We picked a spot near the water and set up camp under an umbrella.  When I took my book out of my beach bag, he looked at it as if I had just extracted a candelabra or a lemur.  'What's that?'

'It's a book.'

'Who brings a book to the beach?'

I looked around.  People had indeed brought books, magazines and newspapers and some were actually reading them.  'Lots of people.'

It seemed odd to him because he wasn't someone who read for fun.  Teachers and professors made you read books but now that they weren't dangling the reward of good grades in front of you, what was the point? 

Another friend who wasn't a big reader did acknowledge that there were books that were worthy of being read.  He thought himself well-educated and felt left out of conversations with literary references that he couldn't pick up on and would loudly ask questions like 'Who's Holden Caulfield?  Did he go to Loyola?'  We would go to Barnes and Noble and he would purchase 'classics' that everyone should have read.  But then he decided that 'If the book is any good they make it into a movie and that only takes two hours to watch.'  Never mind that the book is almost always better than the film and that brilliant tomes like The Catcher in the Rye, Gravity's Rainbow, Cat's Cradle and The Secret History have never reached the big screen.  If they do, all will probably feature Leonardo Di Caprio.  Chilling.

A year ago, a national newspaper ran an article about the school where I taught.  The article was accompanied by a photo of bluecoated children sitting in the school library reading books.  One of the comments on the newspaper's website remarked that the photo was surely staged - who sits around reading books?!  A former pupil replied to the post explaining that for one English lesson a week, pupils went to the school library and could read a book of their own choosing for that period.

I can see why reading has fallen out of favour.  Films, television and the internet have become so much more varied and, like the Dark Side, easier, more seductive. It is tempting to embrace passive entertainment at the end of a tiring day.  I have succumbed to Simpsons and Modern Family marathons on Sky1 while my book sits patiently on my night table. 

But I always pick it up again (unless it's Kingsley Amis - I just can't get into him...).  Why bother reading books if there is no tangible reward for doing so? 

Because books, fiction and non, provide knowledge.  It is incredibly unlikely that I will ever search Taliban-infested Afghanistan looking for my orphaned nephew, lose a girlfriend and find God in post-war London or struggle with the repressive social and religious structures of Joyce's Ireland.  But such stories have an irresistible pull and I have gained some insight into what it might be like to live in a world that is not my own.

A. C. Grayling wrote,  'To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.'  The fictional elements of novels, plays and poems offer a glimpse into a reality that is not our own. Reading can provide the realisation that what is does not necessarily need to be, that another world is possible.  Think about why repressive religions and governments burn books - because knowledge is enlightening and sometimes threatening. 

The struggle with or the embrace of a work of literature shapes our hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions.  Any activity that provides me with such an experience cannot be a waste of time.

Ah, but if Liam Neeson played Leopold Bloom in the film version...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The things they never tell you

One afternoon, when Big One was still Only One, my husband and I were walking through the Sainsbury's car park, amazed that Only One had managed to chew off her shoes and socks three times while in the supermarket.  'The things they never tell you,' he laughed.

I had a flash of genuine insight.  They don't happen often, but oh, when they do... 'They do tell us,' I replied.  'We just ignore it because never think it will happen to us.'  Our little angels won't throw temper tantrums.  We would never bribe our children with sweets.  I would never leave the house without extra nappies or with a spit-up stain on my shoulder.  We are logical, reasonable and organized people – beyond such travails.   


I will now reveal my top six truths about life with kids that, if you have children, you will recognize.  If you have yet to take the plunge, you will (as I did) assert that these things will never, ever happen to you.  And I will laugh like Dr. Evil when they do.  Because they will. 

If you are expecting, or hoping to be expecting, buy a washer, dryer and stock in Procter & Gamble (Ariel and Fairy), Unilever (Persil) or whichever company markets your favourite detergent.  And whichever companies provide your water and electricity.  When I was single, I did laundry once a week.  Or so.  Now it’s once day.  At least.  It is amazing how much washing such little people can create.

It will take you, on average, a half-hour to leave the house.  And that’s on a super-efficient day.  The nappy bag must be packed, the baby fed, burped, changed and clothed.  The day that you are in a hurry and decide to risk it by only taking one change of clothes will be the day that your baby spits up three times.  You will then have to either buy something new if you are near a shop that sells baby clothes; if not you must decide which outfit is the least vile and smelly or let them hang out in just their nappy.

BC (before children) I would see parents out with their offspring at restaurants, in supermarkets, on airplanes.  If the children went into tantrum mode, I would get annoyed, shake my head and wonder why these parents couldn't make their children behave.  Now when my children act up, I get annoyed at the people who shake their heads and wonder why I can’t make my children behave.

There will be at least one woman in your circle of friends, perhaps one who had their baby at the same time as you did, with a flat stomach.  They will swear it’s breastfeeding and nothing else.  You will look down at your own belly pudge and decide that the stomach in question is flat due to a combination of 1. Never eating, 2. Impossible amounts of exercise, 3. Santeria voodoo and offerings to Oblia the goddess of tight abdomens, 4. Surrogacy.

From the time your first little miracle comes home from the hospital until your last little one becomes a teenager (I hope), you will have a maximum of 88 seconds alone in the toilet.  They will pounce like pygmy owls around a helpless mouse if they sense that you want, or need, to be alone.

You will rarely raise your voice to your children.  On one of the very few occasions that you express frustration you will turn around to see your boss standing right behind you.  And his wife.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Sisyphus cleans the house

When Big One was first born, we were invited to a barbecue at the home of one of the mums in my antenatal class. She and her husband were lovely people and we looked forward to attending. It was a gorgeous sunny day in June and all sorts of lovely meats and snacks were on offer as well as booze for the dads and juice for the breast-feeding mums.

Amazing as the spread was, what struck me was the house. It was spotless. I went into the kitchen to get a paper towel and gazed in awe. Surfaces gleamed. Hobs shone. There was not one extraneous item on the countertops. I thought about what awaited me at home. Milky bottles dripping in the sink. Dust and cobwebs in the corners. A dining table covered in old magazines, greeting cards and stuffed toys. Pawprints on the lino. Unidentifiable and tenacious stains on the sofa. Once I got over my amazement and nearly-crippling jealousy, I arrived at a few possibilities:

1. This was not actually their real house. This was a show home rented for the day – not to make us feel inadequate, rather so they could enjoy the barbecue without worrying about the leaky espresso machine or the weird stain on the carpet.

2. The family employed a cleaner, hidden in the basement when guests arrived, and whenever a spill or mishap of any kind occurred she would clean it up instantly, like a ballboy at Centre Court.

3. The couple were very neat and tidy and it was a real priority to keep the house looking good. So much so that they were willing to give up other time-consuming activities like reading, watching films, sleeping, using the toilet.

I am not particularly houseproud but I do get riled when people see the house on one of its bad days. Or worse, when you have cleaned up only for a visitor to run a finger up the stair banister and remark, ‘I guess you don’t really have time to clean.’

Housecleaning is one of those frustrating tasks where the moment you have finished, everything starts to get messy again. There is a brilliant episode of The Simpsons (one of many) where Marge demands that the family skip their Saturday morning fun and tidy up the house. They grudgingly go about doing it and the house is finally clean. Marge then tells the family that they can do whatever you want as long as they don't mess up the house. As the kitchen door swings closed and then open, the room goes from spotless to a total mess yet again.

The whole process reminds me of Sisyphus. He had angered the gods somehow and was condemned to repeatedly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. The punishment, then, was futile and hopeless labour because no matter how many times he rolled the rock up, it would always roll right back down again. But Albert Camus pointed out that all is well with this situation, ‘One always finds one's burden again,’ and the task itself is enough to provide Sisyphus with a purpose. There is, I suppose, that brief moment when the surfaces gleam, the hobs shine, the dog hair is nestled inside the hoover, the rock rests on top of the mountain. One must imagine the Housewife is happy.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Tabula rasa

‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.’ – Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
Our bank account has two settings; slow drip of money out and huge haemorrhage of money out.  When reviewing how we could save more and spend less, the Husband remarks, ‘The kids do a lot of extra activities, what about those?’
Big One does ballet and tennis, Little One does gymnastics and a music playgroup and both have swimming lessons.  They enjoy these activities and it would be tough to tell them that they could no longer participate.  I am lucky that they have fun, that they don’t feel forced to do them and I can have a few hours in the week where I am not refereeing arguments or pretending to be a mummy elephant.
When Big One was first born and we had hours of time alone, I tried to plan activities for us to do to get me out of the house and keep her occupied.  You can only walk on the Downs Link so often and, as is sometimes the way with new parents, I was frightened.  You see, I had the example of other mums and their offspring.
Here were babies barely able to walk involved in signing lessons, intensive swimming, baby gymnastics, baby yoga and grim marches around the boarding school site on something called a ‘balance bike’ – far superior for children’s physical development than the traditional bicycle I had recently purchased.  I told myself that such programming would result in a race of buff ├╝ber-babies able to communicate telepathically.  They would soon be able to overthrow us, Children of the Corn-style and establish their own dystopian universe where we are powerless and they spend all our money.  Since this situation has pretty much happened already, I signed my children up for baby fun.
Consult any ABC or Grapevine magazine to see an enormous range of baby and toddler activities.  These activities have obvious benefits - guaranteed sleep, an advantage over other Roedean or Eton applicants (‘Ruby is a violin virtuoso with a black belt in tae kwon do’) and valuable bragging rights.  Far worse for me was the fear that my child would not Develop Her Talents because I was an indolent parent and left her to merely ‘play’ while other children were learning chess from Russian grand masters and attending writing workshops with Julian Barnes, their potential frittered away amongst lego pieces and Disney Princess dolls, doomed to second-rate universities and jobs that required the making or serving of chips.
So with such an enormous range on offer, how do you choose what they do?  When they’re older, you can look at what they are good at or what they enjoy doing but when they’re little you can’t always take the lead from them.  Asking them for their opinion goes something like this:
‘Would you rather go to storytime or gymnastics tomorrow?’ 
‘Be an astronaut!’
‘But you’re only two.  We could try the planetarium in a few years…’
‘Space rocket!’  
Okay then, storytime it is.  I chose activities either because other mums saw value in them or because it was what I did when I was little, figuring that genetics might help me, that they might like what I liked. 
At first, you do these activities to occupy their time, to show them what is out there.  Later you will vaguely remember some athlete or actress on Desert Island Discs reminiscing that they first became interested in whatever is they do because mum or dad took them to Stratford-on-Avon or a sailing regatta.  I don’t want them to miss their moment because I wasn’t proactive enough.  But when your kid doesn’t win the swimming race or can’t pirouette perfectly, what is the next move?  Do you pay for lessons, knowing that the talent is unlikely to develop?  Is it enough that she enjoys tennis or should you steer her toward something else that may someday land her in the booth with Kirsty Young happily chatting about songs you played when she was little?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that children are born innocent and if they become corrupt it is because of what they are taught - or not taught - as a result of parenting and social impact. He thought that children should be allowed a free development, at their own pace. For example, they should only be taught to write and read when they want to do so.  This appeals in theory because it is easier to respond to an interest than to attempt to create one and it is always easier to get a child to go somewhere that they want to go.  But this attitude does not seem to be the norm among today’s parents and the fear that a laissez-faire attitude might diminish their opportunities wins out against Rousseau’s ideal.  We open that door and sometimes force them through it.
I could bend a little and let them feel their bliss regardless of what they choose and see where it goes.  Please excuse me while I go phone NASA…

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

And the wind cries amber

It's not you.  It's me.

Or rather my internet connection.  You see, our new house has an interesting little quirk.  Every time the rain falls for more than two minutes or the wind blows at .001 miles per hour, our internet stops.  This is a problem, living on the south coast and all.

When the internet dies, the light on our router will blink amber, like a coquettish traffic light that never turns green and stops you from speeding off towards Words With Friends.  Every so often, the light will turn green, but only for a moment.  Check bank balance, order Percy's Penguin Playset for Little One's birthday, look in vain for jobs in the TES online, then... This page cannot be displayed.  Amber again. 

It's what I imagine the Soviet Union was like when hot water or electricity was only on for an hour a day.  No, I don't have it as bad as those who suffered under a totalitarian Communist regime, but that feeling of having something in abundance only to have it cruelly snatched from you is a bitter one.  And, of course, this is the week that I promised myself that I would get to work, to be organised and sit down and write.  The road to hell is not actually paved with good intentions.  It's paved with failed New Year's resolutions.  So at least it is a very long road.

In accordance with my oft-preached yet rarely utilized 'stop whinging and do something about it,' we have called BT (our landline doesn't work either).  They have assured us, via Mumbai, that it is very likely our fault and if it is our fault we will be charged for the visit.  And if we want compensation for the days where we had no service, we will first have to slay the Nemean lion, clean the Augean stables, capture Cerberus and some other related tasks.

The sole benefit of my undependable internet connection has been that when the green light is on, I am all business.  No more wasted minutes looking at my Lovefilm list wondering what I should be watching.  No more looking at miniBoden for cute dresses for Big One.  I have actually read some books.  I highly recommend The Goldfinch

I have now explained why the posts have been so few.  I will try to be a better correspondent in future.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Crackberries and Dumb phones

Day 1: Sunday, 12:00 pm  I can do this. It's no problem at all.  Here I am taking a walk down the High Street armed only with a basic Nokia mobile.  No touchscreen, no apps.  I have made a wager that I can go twenty four hours without my iphone.  Certain people seem to think that I can't survive without it.  Of course I can.  I am the master of my iphone, not the other way around.

12:15   What if someone needs to email me?  What if it's urgent?  I have to admit I keep checking the Nokia, like I reflexively look at my wrist when I've forgotten to wear my watch.  I've written an 'out of office' reply with this number in case anyone needs to reach me so if it really is dire... But in a work situation people expect quick replies.  I bet I have tons in my inbox when I get home. 

12:20 What has happened to all the internet cafes?  They used to be everywhere.

12:25  That Starbucks down the road has free wifi.  I wonder if someone would let me check my email on their laptop?  Probably not a good idea.

12:30 How does the Bluetooth on the Nokia work?  Can't I get internet access that way?

12:35 Better head home.  Nice to be outdoors for a change though.

2:00  No problems at all during lunch.  Laptop, television, kindle provide enough entertainment.  I've promised to take the kids to the playground - this will give me a great opportunity to interact with them. 

2:15 Lots of parents in the playground checking their phones.  Man, I'm glad I'm not that bad!

2:17 Check the Nokia.  No texts.

2:20 Check the Nokia again.  Absentmindedly touch screen.  Nothing happens. 

2:31 When did Rocky come out?  1977 or maybe 1976?  I guess I can check on the laptop when I get home... 

6:00  Bathtime, stories, then bedtime for the kids.  No problem at all giving up the smartphone for a day.  The wife has hidden it somewhere and has promised to return it to me tomorrow at lunchtime.  Usually while the bath is running I check the rugby results, send some emails (the wife does not allow it at the table and the last time I checked it during dinner she gave me a look that would strip paint of the wall).  But I'm fine just getting the bedtime stuff ready and listening to Radio 4.  Programme on cheese preservation.  Cool.

6:07 C'mon water.  Flow.

6:11 It just has to be accepted that multitasking is the way in today's world.  Quick information is a necessary developmental milestone.  Smartphones are helpful and beneficial.

6:12  I wonder where she put it.  Not under the bed, not on her chest of drawers, not under the rug.  I don't want it, I'm just curious.

6:13 If I phone it, I can figure out where it is!  She might not hear the ring over the bath running.

6:14  It's not upstairs.

6:30 Bedtime stories with no smartphone.  I have to listen when it's the wife's turn to read.  I hate how Dr Seuss can't scan the rhyme properly.

6:35 How long is this story?  EAT THE EGGS AND HAM ALREADY!!!

Monday 6:00 am  I drowsily reach for the bedside table to find... nothing.  Then I remember.  The sounds coming from downstairs indicate that the wife is getting breakfast ready. 

6:02  where is it where is it where is it!  All work and no play makes jack a dull boy.

6:10  Aha!  That minx buried it under my socks.  I turn it on.  Nothing happens.  What the hell!  Did she disable it somehow?  Damn it, I can't ask her because she will know I went looking for it.  Fiend.

8:00 On the way to my office I run into a colleague carrying her morning coffee.  She stops me.  'Did you get my email?'
'No, when did you send it?'
'About five minutes ago.' 
I tell her about the wager.  She laughs and says, 'I thought you looked different.'
'What do you mean?  How?'
'Well, you're making eye contact and your arms are at your sides.'
I am never sure when she is joking.  If she is, not very funny. 

10:30  Morning management team meeting.  I look across the oval table hoping it's a quick one.  While pretty much everyone is checking their phones, I stare at the meeting agenda. The letters seep together and no longer make sense as words.  I have no choice but to pay attention.  The Head is talking about deadlines for budget submissions.  Why does he look so annoyed?  And why is he repeating everything three times?  God, this is taking ages.  Is it 12 o'clock yet? 

I discreetly check my wrist.  There is nothing there.  I check again five minutes later.

12:00  She's late.  She's never late.  She's doing this on purpose to torture me.  Well, it won't work.  I was absolutely fine without it. 

12:02  She knocks on the office door.  She hands me the phone.  'Here it is.  Was it...' 
I slam the door and caress the phone.  It's on.  My apps shine like beacons on an airfield guiding me home.

'Let's never be apart again.'

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sleep debt

The sweet embrace of sleep could not hold him...

I read the Iliad in college and what I remember most about one of the world's truly great epics is sleep.  Throughout the poem the characters seem to have sleep thrust upon them (or are tricked into it) rather than choosing to go to sleep.  Sleep is a god, a brother of Death, who can use his power at will, 'Sweet Sleep rushed to the Achaean ships, to inform Poseidon, the Encircler and Shaker of the Earth.  Coming up to him, Sleep spoke—his words had wings...' Perhaps sleep is portrayed this way because the Iliad describes a warrior culture where needing to sleep is considered weak.

Sleep is in very short supply when you have young children.  When they are babies they sleep in short stretches that eventually lengthen.  The midwives always tell new mums to get your rest and sleep when the baby sleeps.  That never worked for me because I could never predict how long Big One would sleep and just before she slumbered I would have consumed three cups of coffee to stop the near constant grogginess.  Luckily both Big One and Little One slept through the night right away so the stage of late night/early morning feedings and snatched naps was short. 

Now they go to bed willingly enough around 7 pm.  However, they have taken to waking up around 6 am - even on weekends.  Highly uncivilized.  My attempts to convince them that it is still night-time have not worked.

What I miss most about the pre-children era is the Sunday lie-in. I can no longer spend Sunday morning reading the Times (Yes, I know it's part of the diabolical Murdoch empire but I like their Culture section) in my pyjamas.  Once when my husband asked what I wanted for Christmas, I described such a morning to him.  It was a great gift, as it wouldn't cost him anything and it was what I really wanted.  A look of pure terror crossed his face.  'Why don't I get you some jewellery instead?'  Hmmmm Koh-i-Noor diamond or a Sunday lie-in complete with fry-up?  The choice is obvious.  I’d like my eggs scrambled, please.

Lots of people think sleep is overrated.  Margaret Thatcher bragged that she only needed 4 hours of sleep a night and such brilliant thinkers as varied as Thomas Edison and Bon Jovi have pointed out that you can sleep when you're dead.  I can understand the idea of life being too short to waste but I don’t want to spend those waking hours feeling like I’m covered in molasses.

Parents with older children assure me that when Little One and Big One become teenagers that it will be impossible to wake them up in the morning.  So at least one aspect of the stroppy teenage years to look forward to...