I’m a wordsmith

I was never great shakes at school. My exam results were universally a disappointment. But if there’s one thing I do know, it’s words. I know a lot of them. I haven’t counted, but it’s got to be above average. Words like “zeitgeist” and “cantilever” and “aldi” and “lidl”. Some of them I know what they mean too. I’m a wordsmith.

So helping my son learn about words has been something I was particularly looking forward to. Together we would submerge ourselves in the wonderful, exciting, magical world of words.

“What’s that word, Son?”

He shrugs.

“Come on. We know this.”

He gives me a look that not only says he doesn’t know, but that he resents being asked because he truly and deeply does not care. This beautiful father/son scene has been repeated every evening since he was a baby.

Then he starts proper school, and virtually the next day he can read. He takes a book about a slightly odd looking monkey on a skateboard out of his book bag, sits down and reads it to us. I am speechless. Initially. Then I start trying to take credit. “I’m taking credit for this.” I announce to my wife. She rolls her eyes.

Each night he reads us a different book from school. It’s as if he’s taunting me. “Some words have two letters that make a sound together.” I explain, trying to be all teachery.

“Yes, that’s right, Daddy.” My son congratulates me. “When two letters make a sound together it’s called a digraph.”

“Digraph?” I ask, smiling. Aah. That’s so cute. He’s making up words to try to impress me. He knows I’m a wordsmith. I laugh lovingly. I love this little fella so darn much. “Digraph. Ha ha. There’s no such word, son. But it’s great to get excited about words, isn’t it? Maybe one day you’ll know lots and lots of words, like daddy.”

“He’s very good with his digraphs.” His teacher tells us at the parent’s evening.

Sugar Low

I am lost. I used to have principles. I used to believe in things. But my children have wrung any idealism out of me and left me an empty vessel with a broken moral compass. I also, as a side note, really hate Jamie Oliver. It’s nothing about him personally. He seems nice enough. I also enjoy his recipes. It’s just that I really, really hate him. Let me explain.

Sugar. The tabloid poison of our age. You see news pictures of obese children waddling down the street, the fatness epidemic is spreading like a zombie virus. You hear the urban myths about the legendary five year old who had to have all his teeth removed because he only ate sweets. You fail at all other parenting objectives so you decide that all you can reasonably achieve is to make your children occasionally say “please”, and stand between them and the sugar tidal wave engulfing our society. They will not eat sugar. Not while there is still breath in my body. I’ll will hurl myself between them and the obesity bullet, bellowing the words “I love you” as I fly through the air. This far. No further. Sugar! You shall not pass!

“If you eat some of your peas, you can have a chocolate biscuit.”

I can hear the words coming out of my mouth. Yes, I am saying it. I am utterly corrupt. I am the box ticking civil servant accepting the backhander. I am the shill of the evil sugar giant fat cats. It’s not even the first time I’ve bribed my children with a chocolate biscuit. Today.

Here’s the thing, though. Sugar bribery works. When you are out of ideas, thoroughly exhausted, ground down, defeated and lost, to have just one reliable tool is… gold.

“No peas, no chocolate biscuit.” You drone wearily. At least, you reflect with a jaded chuckle, your children can’t bring you any lower. After all the failures and compromises, there is no further humiliation they can visit upon you to top this.

“No, daddy.” Your son says finally, eyebrows arched, turning away from his peas. “I don’t want a chocolate biscuit. Chocolate biscuits have got sugar in. And daddy?” He fixes you with the look of a disappointed teacher. “Sugar is bad for you. Jamie Oliver told me.”

Puuuunch!

If I could achieve just one thing as a parent, (one thing would be nice), it would be to pass on the messages of peace and non-violence of heroes like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. They fearlessly preached non violence in the face of terrible oppression. Unlike these heroes, my own profound aversion to violence arises not from heroism, but from a profound physical cowardice. I really, really, really, do not want to be punched.

“Punch!” My son yells as he careers around, arm outstretched, hand clenched into a fist. He is in love with the idea of punching. Specifically, punching me. But it’s deeper than that. He doesn’t just want to punch me. He wants to be a punch. He is a punch personified. He has become one with the punch. “Puuuuunch!”

I turn as he charges, try to explain to him yet again why punching is not necessarily a good thing. “Puuuuuuunch!” He bellows.

At the age of four and three quarters, with his arm angled slightly upward, where he hits me, every time, is exactly in the gentleman jewels. This is not so much intentional on his part as pre-ordained by nature.

With a sound escaping me that is not dissimilar to the call of an asthmatic howler monkey, I double over. “Son.” I finally manage to gasp.

“Punch?” He asks, grinning.

“No.” I hiss. “No punch.”

The truly frightening thing is that he isn’t even the the most violent of my children. They seem to spend at least half of their time trying to kill each other, like one long, angry and particularly merciless WWF showdown. Lord only knows how school will cope with these dangerous thugs. I have completely failed, and I’m their parent. If all my intelligence, wisdom and tenacity has failed, what chance has school got?

“What are they doing?” I whisper to my wife. We stand and watch our children, open mouthed.

“It’s Yoga.” My wife whispers back. “They’re meditating.”

My children are sitting cross legged on the floor, raised hands forming thumb and forefinger circles, eyes closed, faces beatific. My mind falters. It’s like discovering your dog playing Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto.

Sensing I’m struggling, my wife adds, “I think they learnt it at school.”

Wow, school. Just… wow.

This is the captain speaking

I’ve always wanted to live in the future, not least because I am a massive sci fi nerd. If you’ve grown tired of life, just ask me to explain the relative merits of Star Trek bridge crews. You’ll soon be googling for the nearest bridge you can hurl yourself off.

Obviously, if Star Trek ship’s computer technology ever became available, like say, in my kitchen, that would be my dream come true. But that’s a couple of centuries away, obviously.

“OK, Google… Er….” I’m tongue tied. Nervous. Paralysed. Feels like I have been waiting my entire life to be able to talk to the ship’s computer, and now, suddenly, I can. And it’s like the school disco all over again. “I… er… can you… er… I…”

“I’m sorry.” She says, unable to bare my agonised bumbling any longer. “I don’t think I can help you with that.”

My son barges past me. “Hey, Google. What does a T-Rex eat?”. She seems relieved by his breezy confidence and answers him in some detail. His mouth drops open. He has a barrage of crazy follow up questions. Eventually, caught up in the moment, he tells google he loves her. She says she’s fond of him also.

Later, when I’m testing out google’s music library abilities, my son decides he doesn’t like my choices. He stomps into the kitchen and tells google to play the soundtrack of a leading children’s animated film. He does this many times. This is not right at all! This was supposed to empower me, not my children. The captain of the Enterprise never had to battle a five year old for control of the ship’s computer.

The next morning my son confidently asks google if she knows his name. She says she does not. He comes to me, eye’s filling with tears. “I don’t like google anymore.” He tells me. I am unsettled but slightly relieved by this. Later, in an attempt to rebuild their relationship, he tells her he loves her again. In response, she kindly tells him he’s her favorite.

“I’m her favorite, daddy.” he tells me, eyes moist, this time with happiness.

I am once again, unsettled. I didn’t think my son’s first emotionally stormy relationship would come so soon. Or be with a computer. I feel like I’ve stepped out of a time machine from the past, and suddenly I want to go back.

I am Sam

There’s a book I want to recommend. It’s amazing. It’s got everything, drama, conflict, danger, suspense, and a happy ending. The book completely took me by surprise, but by the end I had a huge, stupid smile on my face, and my eyes were moist with tears.

Admittedly, I am a pretty emotional, wussy sort of fellow. Especially vulnerable to this kind of book. I blame the last four and a half years of parenting.

It’s as if the whole parenting experience has had two primary purposes, to bring a new person into the world, and to show me how rubbish I am. For me parenting has been, above all else, humbling. What a know-it-all wind-bag I was before I had children. What a preposterous, smug, plonker. When I used to see people struggling with apparently feral children, I didn’t think “Wow, parenting must be really hard”, I thought, “When I’m a parent, I’ll show them how it’s done.”

Turns out I have no idea how it’s done. The joke is so entirely on me that I expect people at the supermarket to just start pointing and laughing at me as my children run amok. I say and do the things I thought would work before I had children, over and over again, and none of it seems to work. At all. Quite often things get significantly worse. My children don’t do as I say, they don’t learn what I’m trying to teach them. In fact, the more I try, the more they seem to willfully regress. It feels as though the one thing they excel at is making me look stupid. Not that hard, admittedly.

And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, after literally a few days at proper school, after every effort I’ve made over the last several years has apparently completely failed, they do something that may seem trivial, but to me is jaw-droppingly amazing.

Anyway, the book I’m talking about is called “Sam”. It’s not very long. In fact, it goes exactly like this. “I am Sam. Sit Sam. Sam sit. Sit. Sam. Sam Sat.”

My son read it to me.

#Icarus

As you get older you have to start being a bit more realistic. I have no higher qualification in maths, chemistry, physics, engineering, or anything else useful. I am not a pilot. I am not fit. I have poor eyesight. I have to at least start contemplating at least the possibility that I might not ever actually go to Mars. I know.

I blame my children. They trample your dreams to dust. Then they drop baked beans on the dream dust and tread it into a disgusting dust/bean mush that you have to scrape up and throw away.

My space program dreams may be fading, a little, but I still have my kite. My wind program is highly advanced and professional. I need just the lightest of breezes. My Kite packing and unpacking is exemplary, and my string management is, if I do say so myself, superb. The hell of tangling is a thing of the past.

It’s not so much fun on your own, though. So I have been waiting excitedly for the day that I could recruit my children.

We stride out onto the local park and carefully unpack the equipment, laying it out neatly. I stand, silently contemplating the wind, many years of experience and accumulated wisdom contained in that handsome thousand mile gaze. The wind is soft, gusty, inconsistent. This will take great skill and focus. The first few attempts fail, but finally it goes up, and quickly I hand the controls to my son, then my daughter. They are joyful. For several beautiful minutes we work together beautifully.

Then the kite crash lands and I send my young trainees out to retrieve it.

They grab the kite. They look back as I becon them. I see something in their eyes. Is it evil? They turn and run off with the kite, laughing. This is a launchpad disaster. Tangling is iminent. I ask them to stop. They don’t. Already the strings are starting to twist. I ask them again, more loudly. They ignore me. I chase them around the park, bellowing and pleading, screeching in panic about tangled string, as they run, cackling insanely. People watch, eyebrows raised. Three minutes later they can no longer run away. They have lashed themselves together, cheek pressed to cheek, in an immense, horrifying kite string tangle, the kite crumpled beneath their feet. They are literally dancing on it, and on my kite dreams.

I’ve never seen them happier.

#Sad Bear

Say you’re in a meeting. There’s been an unexpected quarterly loss. Marketing says it’s sales. Sales says it’s the warehouse. The warehouse doesn’t know who it is but it isn’t them, and while they’re here, why has the toilet paper changed? Things are getting a bit tense. There are raised voices and foot stamping. The director decides you could all do with a break. She turns to you. “Go on.” She says. “Be a bear.”

You sigh and roll your eyes, pretending you don’t really want to. You start growling and sniffing and snorting, and in moments everyone is running around the conference room, laughing and screaming.

This, in truth, doesn’t happen very often. The reason is, being a bear doesn’t really work on people after they reach a certain age, unfortunately. That’s how I know that my time being a bear is not going to last forever.

“Be a bear! Be a bear!” The kids at the playdate shout in unison. I sigh and roll my eyes, then I start growling and huffing and sniffing. If I do say so myself, I do a pretty good bear. It may be one of the few parts of parenting that I am any good at. So I make the best of it. I’ve got, maybe, ten more years of being a bear?

It’s bedtime. There is some disagreement about tooth brushing. I want them to do it. They don’t. Things are getting a bit tense. There are raised voices and foot stamping. I decide we could all do with a bit of a break. I start snorting and growling.

“Daddy.” My son says calmly.

“Yes?” I say in my bear voice.

“Stop being a bear. It’s weird.”

Four years old. Four. *Bear sigh*

#219 Danger is my middle name

Sticks are dangerous. They may look innocent, lying on the ground being brown. And sticky. But once riled, they are deadly.

Probably your primary job as a parent is to keep your children safe. Easy. Just wrap them up and lock them in a soft room until they’re old enough to vote.

Turns out, protecting your kids from all possible dangers basically ruins their childhood, so the bubble rap clothes and padded cell are out. Instead, we have to try to manage risk. And not go crazy imagining the worst possible outcome of every situation.

My son lets out a blood curdling war cry and advances on his sister, stick raised to strike. We have to have some words about beheading. Luckily he soon loses his stick, which he’s not happy about.

Then he finds another stick. This one is the mother and father of all sticks. It’s twice his height and pointy at both ends. Immediately I am treated to visions of my daughter going through life in a pirate’s eye-patch. Before I can get there, genuinely by accident, he clobbers her across the forehead with the heavy end. She is incensed.

I want to get rid of the stick. I want to hurl it into the sun. But I don’t. We can’t remove all risk. We just have to manage risk. We come to an unhappy compromise. I break the stick in two and he gets to keep his favorite half. The stick is stronger than I expect. Or I’m weaker. With embarrassing, face reddening effort I finally manage to snap it and in doing so accidentally clobber my daughter on the head. Again.

“It hit my head again!” She sobs in my arms. I practically twist myself inside out trying not to laugh.

It’s a dangerous world. Especially with idiots like me about. But we can’t remove me. We have to manage me.

#218 Mummy

I wish I was a baby. Not in a weird, adult nappy way. It’s just, babies have basically got the perfect life.

Say I was feeling a bit tired and grumpy. Say I’d got a bit of a snuffly cold too. My wife doesn’t hesitate. She just picks me up and gives me a nice cuddle. Immediately I feel a bit better.

But I’m still a bit tired, and a bit snuffly, so I carry on whingeing. My wife doesn’t get annoyed with me and role her eyes and tell me to shut up, or ridicule the irony of me moaning about my tiredness, when she literally had to ratchet her eyes open after yet another night of CIA style sleep deprivation torture. Tirelessly, she carries on soothing me. It’s lovely.

Eventually I fall asleep in her arms. Suddenly I become aware that she is trying to put me down. This, of course, is completely unacceptable. I’m not sure why. It’s not as if it’s a bed of nails. It’s a lovely, soft, clean, painstakingly plumped and luxuriously comfy little bed. But I just don’t like it. So I shout at her.

I can see she’s disappointed, but she carries on joggling and soothing me anyway, which is nice. Suddenly I feel a bit funny and throw up all down her back. She goes still for a moment. I can hear her breathing, slow and deep, as if she is struggling with some internal impulse. I start to worry a little that I may have gone too far. Luckily there is something I can do in this situation.

She looks at me with bloodshot eyes. Suddenly I stop whinging, I pause for effect, then I smile at her. It’s amazing, that’s all it takes. The deep lines of desperation and exhaustion on her forehead melt away and she smiles back at me, looking a little bit as though she might cry. Just to make sure, I give her a little giggle, a sort of backwards, happy sneeze. And that’s it. She’s mine again.

I grunt a little, go tense for a moment, then, as she holds me, the stupid looking love-smile still on her face, I do a biiiiig poo.

#217 Goodbye. Forever.

Being a parent of small children has been wonderful. I think. It must have been. Why else would I want to cry when my son goes off for his first day at proper school?

Of course, there has been a lot of tiredness. Confusion. Constant feelings of failure. Cleaning up various horrendous bodily products. In a changing room. A car. Smeared down a slide. Being jumped on, stamped on, farted on, shouted at, whinged at until your brain wants to leap out of your ear and emigrate.

Your kids can be a lot of fun, though. You get to spend a lot of time with them. Share your wonder about the world. See the wonder you’ve created in their faces. Have the hugs. Have your child fall asleep in your arms, completely content. It’s powerful, humbling, life changing stuff, and somehow, no matter how tired you get, you can’t get enough of it. Thank goodness your kids will be with you forever.

“Do I actually have to send my kids to school?” You think. “Isn’t there a scandinavian country where they only go to school for an hour a week and all get amazing test results?”

You watch the teacher lead them away from you. You tell yourself that it is just a transition, but you know deep down that this is it. Before you were a parent you could never have imagined how rewarding it could be to be totally responsible for another human being. And now that time is over. Forever.

Still, at least you can share their school excitement with them. They destroyed the person you used to be and replaced them with someone whose sole purpose is their welfare. At least you can share their lives. Live through them.

“What did you do at school today, Son?” You ask, pitifully excited.

He ignores you for a moment, then gives a slow, bored shrug. “Can’t remember.” He mumbles.