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.