Family Matters

The thoughts of a husband, father, brother and son

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

RSPB Bird Watch

This may be one the (many) things about us Brits which bemuses our friends from overseas.  This weekend, more than 600,00 of us will spend an hour watching the birds in our garden and logging the details to a website.   Our European neighbours like to catch and eat small birds.  We like to feed and watch them (the birds, obviously, not the European neighbours).

In the town where I live there is a market on a Saturday.  There is a stall which sells all manner of seed and feed for wild birds.  There’s always a queue, and on cold days they sell out (i.e. they sell everything they’ve got, not they start to make bland, commercial albums, betraying their original fan base).

I make no apology about it.  I am seriously into this peculiar British obsession.  This was my Christmas present from my parents.

We do occasionally visit nature reserves to do some more serious bird watching, but it’s the garden birds I really love. Also, the Beautiful Armenian seems to have a fantasy about having sex in a bird hide and can get a bit giggly and skittish when we’re out.

Anyway, we seem to do very well for garden birds. Our garden only just scrapes into the RSPB large category (size of one tennis court), but we are very near lots of countryside and we have an old field hedge as one of our boundaries which birds love.

These are some of my favourite visitors to our garden.


Bullfinch (photo courtesy of Hilary Chambers from Flickr - Hilary has no link with this blog).

The Small Boy Wonder has about as much interest in birds as I do in Blackberry Messenger, but even he said that this was a “pretty cool bird” when I pointed one out to him. I think they are beautiful – that combination of slate grey back and rich pink breast.

They have a special place in my heart, because when I was a child our next door neighbour used to shoot them in large numbers, I think to protect his fruit trees. He was an odious man, and it makes me very happy to see them apparently making something of a comeback, at least round here.


Starling (photo courtesy of John Glass (madmcmojo on Flickr) - John has no link with this blog).

You’ve got to be joking, I hear fellow bird-lovers say. Those hooligans of the bird table, who descend in an unruly gang and go through the food like a swarm of hungry teenagers?

I love them. Yes, they do make a big mess, but that brings other birds to the garden who clear up after them. Again, there’s a childhood connection. There was a wood near where I grew up where starlings used to congregate in their thousands and thousands to roost. All through the late afternoon you could watch flock upon flock heading for the woods.

Starlings have declined by about 70% in the last thirty years or so, and so they are welcome in my back yard any time they like. Also, Chris Packham says they are very cool, and I wouldn’t argue with a word he says about wildlife.  I’ve never seen the spectacular flying displays of the vast flocks, but it’s one thing I would love to see before I die.


Blackcap (photo courtesy of Hilary Chambers from Flickr - Hilary has no link with this blog).

I was so excited a couple of years ago when I realised we had these in the garden. However, it’s probably a sign of global warming, and ours seem not to have read the Handbook of British Birds, which clearly says that they feed from bird tables. Come on chaps, stop skulking around in the hedge.


Goldfinch (photo courtesy of cazstar from Flickr - cazstar has no link with this blog).

Another bird on the up. These are the bling-merchants of the bird world. Gaudy and over dressed, but with a beautiful song.

House Sparrow

House sparrow (photo courtesy of HermiG from Flickr - HermiG has no link with this blog).

Like the starling, this may raise some eyebrows. But like the starling this once very common bird is in decline. If starlings are teenagers, these guys are toddlers – noisy, lively and in to everything.


Redwing (photo courtesy of Richard Toller from Flickr - Richard has no link with this blog).

Again, having these around makes me very happy. We don’t see them often, but they love the berries in our hedge and seem to be able to eat their body weight several times over.

Long-tailed Tit

Long Tailed Tit (photo courtesy of snapp3r from Flickr - snapp3r has no link with this blog).

Another bird that visits us in little gangs.  They’re like little mice with wings, scurrying up and down the nut feeder, but never staying very long

Now, look away if you are a small bird reading this blog. Because my last favourite, you won’t like.


Sparrowhawk (photo courtesy of Keith Laverack from Flickr - Keith has no link with this blog).

This guy is smart. We feed the little birds, making them plump and complacent. The sparrowhawk eats the little birds.

But how lonely must it be to be a sparrowhawk? Every other bird in your world detests you. Everywhere you go, you make others flee.

I also think it’s one of those profoundly wonderful things about nature that small birds are hard-coded to recognise the shape of a sparrowhawk.

As I say, I think we do very well. On a really cold day, it’s like freakin’ Springwatch out there.  You half expect Packham to turn up with Kate Humble (about whom the Beautiful Armenian has something of a girl crush who my wife says is the sort of girl she would find attractive if she were a man).

Packham and Humble

There’s a Narcissist Round Every Corner

Narcissus as depicted in the mosaics at Paphos

One thing I’ve learned a lot about as the junior partner in my wife’s studies is narcissism.  It’s not a nice thing, but it’s good to understand it.  If you ever come across a narcissist (and it’s likely you will), you’re going to need all the help you can get.

How do you know if you’re dealing with a narcissist?  Here are some of the signs:

  • He or she will have a strong sense of entitlement – a feeling that the world owes them.   They will expect special treatment.  And, boy, will they know their rights.
  • They will exaggerate their own achievements, and take the credit for everything they can.
  • They will have at least one, and probably a little crowd of followers.
  • There will be no conversation or topic that they can’t rapidly bring back to themselves.
  • They will say I more than you (think about it)
  • At first they may be charming and compelling, cosying up to you and inviting you to be part of their world.
  • But if ever they are criticised, their reaction may be out of all proportion to the situation.
  • They will go to great lengths to deflect responsibility if they do anything wrong – it will be somebody else’s fault, or something outside their control.
  • They’ll tell you lies, tell you sweet little lies – if you listen closely, the stories of their accomplishments will have holes and inconsistencies (although they will deny this).
  • They may have a long green body and a bobbing yellow head.

That last one’s not true.  That’s a narcissus flower (or daffodil).  Not the same as a narcissist.

But the term narcissist does come from the story of Narcissus in Greek mythology.  The beautiful youth who became so obsessed with gazing upon his own reflection in a pool that he died of starvation.

Now don’t worry if you’ve read the list above and thought, hang on, I do that. And maybe that sometimes as well.  We all have a little of the narcissist within us – who doesn’t like to be adored occasionally?  You need to tick most of the things on the list, and a few more besides, to be a card-carrying member of the narcissist party.  And if you’ve recognised that you may have faults, you’re probably not a narcissist.  Narcissists aren’t good at acknowledging their faults.

Narcissists do need followers, like those little fish that swim after sharks.  And they need followers because they need approval, admiration, adoration.  Adoration is like a drug to them, a fiercely addictive drug which turns them into monsters if ever you stop being their dealer.  If you criticise them, expect trouble.  Expect narcissistic rage.

My encounters with narcissists have largely been at work.  I’m pretty sure I’ve worked for a narcissist.  I suspect I’m working with one now.  And I’ve definitely had a narcissist working for me.  Am I some kind of narcissist magnet?

The one who caused me the most trouble by far was the narcissist who worked for me.  She caused me trouble out of all proportion to her value to the team.  It turns out that I fell into many of the classic traps:

  • Initially I was charmed by her.  I assumed she would be like most of the other people who have worked for me – dedicated, uncomplaining, driven – and so allowed her special treatment early on.
  • When I realised my mistakes and started drawing boundaries, this caused the horrible situation in which I became afraid of allowing all the other wonderful members of my team to do things (carry some holiday forward outside policy, go home early when they’ve worked endless late nights and weekends, work from home when their children are ill) because I just knew the narcissist would be watching, and storing it up, and waiting for her “me too – I’m ENTITLED!” moment.
  • I think I came close to losing one of my really valued team members when she had to get involved in managing the narcissist.  This seems to be a well-known occurrence – like a cuckoo, the narcissist drives out others with their manipulative and destructive behaviour.
  • I began questioning my own judgment, thinking that the problem maybe lay with me.

In the end, we all struck lucky and she left of her own accord, apparently to fulfill some lifetime ambition (another trait of the narcissist – living in a fantasy world).

Encountering a narcissist at work can be bad enough – awful if they are in a position to bully you.  But encountering one in a family or romantic relationship is another thing entirely.

Because one of the things which really defines a narcissist is an inability to show empathy.  They see the world through their own eyes only, cannot conceive that someone else may have different views or feelings.  Sadly for them, this means that they may find it difficult to love.  Part of love is wanting to possess, but much of it is wanting to give.  Can you truly love someone if you can’t understand that they may have feelings?

As I said earlier, I am pretty sure that I am working with a narcissist now, and he is certainly someone who would love to see me fail. I know that it will be difficult and frustrating to work with him, but this time I don’t feel too worried, because this time I think I know what I’m dealing with. This understanding feels like a shield, and it’s also helped me make sense of some experiences from the past.

Much of the understanding has come from my wife, who has had narcissism loom large in her life at times, and who has had to learn a lot about it on her course.  It is a recognized personality disorder, but there does seem to be quite a spectrum of sufferers – it’s more pronounced in some than in others. If you want to know more about it, just Google “narcissism” or “narcissism in the workplace.”

But with this increased awareness does come one slight problem: we do sometimes start thinking we see a narcissist round every corner. Thankfully that isn’t actually the case, and we do both believe that most people in the world are good people.

Even if the narcissists would sometimes make us believe otherwise.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Should We Worry For Our Children’s Futures?

The Small Boy Wonder (SBW) and I spent Saturday hedge-laying.  In November and December we were pollarding willows, so get us and our green craft ways.  Anyone with any measure of concern for the natural environment will be relieved to know that this has all been under the supervision of the local Wildlife Trust.  We’ve not been let loose with bill-hooks and pole-saws on our own.  The SBW needed to do some voluntary work to complete his Duke of Edinburgh bronze award.

Here is some of our handiwork.


Pollarding willows

As we made our way across the frozen nature reserve on Saturday, the SBW asked me (referring to a conversation from earlier in the week) why we don’t like it when he spends too long on the X-box.  He didn’t think that adults really understood these things.  I said I feared that too many hours on the console could addle the brain.  We then had a quick chat about the meaning of the word addle.  I also said that he certainly becomes more irritable when the game-time rises.

He said this was nothing to do with X-box playing.  It would happen if you spent too long doing any one thing.

We left it at that.

Now I would be misleading you if I said that the SBW is a keen nature-lover who has enjoyed every minute of his days with the Wildlife Trust. One of the reasons for the hedge-laying was to block off gaps used by youths on trail bikes.  The SBW expressed the view that the bike runs looked pretty cool, and that our environmental efforts would leave the local youth feeling “well vexed.”

But to his credit, he worked hard and didn’t make a fuss, and it’s given us some good father-and-son time together (even if a day’s physical work leaves me a complete wreck).  His good attitude is in part because he recognises that getting the D of E awards may help him in the future.

The future.  How scary must it be to be 15 these days and to wonder what the future will bring?  And, even harder, what you need to do to equip yourself best to face it?

It used to be relatively easy.  Today it’s likely that a lot of the jobs our 15 year olds will do haven’t yet been invented.  If they go to university to study something related to technology, then a lot of what they learn in the first year will be out-of-date by the time they graduate.

Last week also saw the SBW getting the results from his first GCSE modules (can you believe it, he had an exam worth 25% of his maths grade about 10 weeks into the course!).  They weren’t quite as good as we had hoped.  But he wouldn’t be a Boy Wonder if he didn’t have an angle, and he was very quick to explain that Cs and Bs are the new A stars:

  • The human mind can, apparently, only just comprehend the size of the number of people in his year who did worse than he did.
  • It would have been a whole lot different if he hadn’t got into trouble with his maths teacher the week before the exam for repeatedly forgetting to bring his homework in, and been punished by having to do loads more revision questions than anyone else.  So well done him for his sloppiness.
  • The exam boards have finally bowed to the pressure of Daily Mail England and started to make the papers proper hard.  What awful luck for him that they’ve caved in this year.  It seems that Stephen Hawking would struggle to get anything more than a low B in GCSE Physics at the moment.

And so his apparently mediocre efforts represent a veritable academic triumph, when viewed in the right way.

To be fair to him, this isn’t all spin.  We’ve had an e-mail from school, and the teachers are well vexed about the difficulty of the science paper.

But he could have done better with a bit more effort, and he will now have to do re-sits.  His problem.

I feel that I should get more worked up about the SBW’s tendency towards slight academic under-achievement.  I was a real swot at school (they would call me a nerd these days).  But I can’t get very cross with my son.  I think the rules have changed so much.  I’ve seen lots of successful people in business with no great academic background.  Skills and personal qualities seem to count for at least as much as formal qualifications and there are many admirable things about the SBW – he’s engaging, determined, has a fantastic memory, wisdom beyond his years, excellent analytical skills and has already shown a distinct entrepreneurial flair.  His sister is also excelling in a field for which school was virtually no preparation (although, despite her various personal meltdowns, she did come out with a good set of results).

So I think the SBW will be alright.

Although I won’t be sharing these views with him until after he’s done all his exams.

He’s also got a lovely sense of humour.  Hedge-laying turned out to be a lot more dull for him than lopping branches off willows and burning them.  The SBW also worked out that he’d done his required D of E hours by about lunchtime on Saturday.  Early in the afternoon, after he’d been sharpening poles for a while (see below), he came up to me and said:

“We need to go home.  I’ve been doing this so long my brain’s getting addled and I’m definitely getting irritable.”

Top Tips For Dealing With Marital Tension

Dear Dr Toby,

You seem to have a few things to say for yourself about family matters.  Do you have any tips for a completely (ahem) imaginary situation in which you find a little bit of tension appearing in your relationship with your wife?  Perhaps you’ve felt over a recent holiday season that she’s been a little bit shorter with you than normal, a little less patient.  Any advice very welcome.

Yours etc

You have so come to the right place.  Some words to the wise…

One:  Be Open About Your Feelings. 

Let’s deal with this one straight away.  You’d probably expect me to say this.  But no.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s much better to skulk round the subject for a few days.  In this way, your good lady can pick up on the fact that something’s not quite right, misinterpret it, and then become more negative in her own behaviour.  Happy days.

Two:  Keep Yourselves Busy. 

You really don’t want to be spending time together on your own when there’s any tension between you.  You’re far better off putting all your efforts into keeping other people happy – your parents, your children, your whole wider family in fact.  You’ll find this helps a lot, particularly if your minor marital misunderstandings coincide with a nice relaxing time of the year like Christmas.

Three: Make Some Me Time.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of spending all your time thinking about others.  Don’t.  You need space.  Space to connect with your inner child.  Space to indulge in a little honest-to-god, cathartic self-pity.  Because you’re worth it.

Four:  Pick Your Moment.

Timing is everything.  You may need to be patient.  Wait for that special moment to bring things to a head.  2.00 a.m on New Years Day when you’ve spent the last seven hours feeding, watering and entertaining six other families, for instance.  Even better if you add that little dash of something else – several glasses of red wine too many, perhaps.

Five:  Get Her In The Right Mood By Being Nice About Her Friends.

A woman always appreciates it when you reaffirm her friendship choices.  Be as positive as you can.  Something like, “I thought Julia looked really good tonight.  Don’t think I’ve ever seen her looking hotter, to be honest.  And Emma – wow!”  A tip for the advanced student here – it’s even better if she doesn’t really like Emma.  It takes a special kind of husband to show that kind of consideration.

Six:  Choose Your Words With Care.

When the time comes, don’t open up with something pathetic like: “I’ve been a bit worried that you may be finding me boring or irritating, and I think we should talk about it.”  Take a bolder line.  Suggest that she’s not been paying you enough attention.  It’s bound to get things off to a good start.

Our fears are never very far away.

And my biggest fear with being alongside my wife as she goes through the profound experience of becoming a psychotherapist is that she may one day outgrow me, outgrow us.  Over Christmas this bubbled to the surface.

Nothing major.  Just a nagging feeling that she was finding me tiresome.  And that this was a cause for concern.

It’s quite a demanding time of year for us – lots of other people to keep happy – and not one she particularly enjoys.  And maybe she does move a little too quickly to putting on an air of martyrdom.

But she is a wonderful, wonderful wife.  And we have a wonderful, wonderful marriage.  And although I made every one of the mistakes described above, it wasn’t a big deal.  We talked.  And when I finally said what I felt, she said:  “Oh, so that’s it.  Your behaving like that made me feel exactly the same.”

Stella Could Be As Good As Gavin And Stacey

Ruth Jones as Stella

I’m not usually an early adopter of anything, but I am quietly proud of the fact that I discovered Gavin and Stacey before it became widely known.  I don’t really know why that should be a source of pride, but it is.

On Friday we watched the first episode of Stella, Ruth Jones’ new series on Sky 1.  We loved it.  The Beautiful Armenian and I have quite different tastes in comedy, but there were laugh-out-loud moments for both of us.

There were some good teenager and family moments, so enough of a tenuous link to the subject matter of this blog (as far as I’m concerned).  For me the quality of the writing really stood out. The way that the true (and complex) character of Stella’s sister-in-law was gradually revealed.  The way that Stella was immediately established as a character deserving of our sympathy, even though she didn’t handle her daughter’s issues very well.

Ruth Jones as Nessa

All in all a very promising start.  No, more than that.  I get quite emotional about things I really like, and I can feel myself becoming a big fan of Stella already.  Isn’t it interesting how you can often feel the quality of a film or a TV series or a book very early on (although I suppose sometimes the biggest disappointments come from things which appear to be brilliant, but then don’t deliver).

Let’s hope Stella doesn’t go that way.  I’m quietly confident it won’t.  The Independent has been less than completely enthusiastic, so I thought I’d see if I could find out what they thought about Gavin and Stacey in its early days.  It seems they thought it was “respectable.”  So there.

Anyway, there are nine one-hour episodes to go, and plenty of repeats of the first one this week.  I’m going to be looking forward to Friday nights even more than normal over the next couple of months!

I Won’t Be A Parent Of Children Much Longer

Don’t worry.  I’ve not decided to murder them all, tempting though it occasionally  can be.  No, it’s just that I’ve realised that I am now in the autumn years of my life as a parent of children, rather than as a parent of teenagers or young adults.  Hence the picture of some yellowing leaves to underline my weak metaphor.

The Small Boy Wonder is growing up fast.  Our youngest child has turned fifteen.   The freshwater streams of his childhood are dissolving into the salty waters of adult life.

He’s already loved and lost (although, to be fair, I think he loved and lost interest).  Encounters with the dreaded alcohol are becoming more frequent.  Drugs are freely available, but thankfully he has a strong antipathy towards them.  He’s nearly as tall as me, and certainly fitter and stronger.

And of course, because he’s a teenager, he bubbles away in a toxic soup of hormones and emotions.  Persuading him to do something completely unreasonable, like take to his bed before eleven o’ clock on a school night or apply himself to his Maths GCSE even if the teacher is indeed “a knob”, can be very much like trying to handle a wounded wasp – it doesn’t matter how careful you are you know you’re going to get stung.

But it’s by no means all bad news.  We went to watch rugby together recently – a pulsating Heineken Cup match – and it was wonderful.  It really struck me that for the first time it was much more like doing something with a friend than doing something with a child.  The Small Boy Wonder has articulate views on adult subjects, and an increasingly grown-up sense of humour.  I think that being a teenager today is generally rubbish, but there will still always be that great excitement that derives from there being so much more to come than has gone.

And yet we’ve not completely lost the innocent of the pre-teen years.  Recently there have been two reminders of this:

  • Excitement at the park: our local park is where it all happens for teenagers.  Where they learn about drinking and smoking and sex.  From what I’ve heard, Friday night on a  summer evening is very far from pretty down there. The SBW has made a few forays into this world, and although it’s a rite of passage, I’m not sure he really enjoys it. But there is something about the park that has really made him happy.  Not the availability of vodka or cannabis or young girls eager to shed the skin of sexual inexperience.  No, none of these.  What has really pushed his buttons has been the new play equipment that’s been installed.  And above all else, the new zipwire, a trip down which is now apparently an integral part of his journey home each day!
  • Legitimate cock jokes: he’s been doing badminton in PE.  They shorten “shuttlecock” to “cock” and this creates almost limitless possibilities.  “Can we get our cocks out, sir?”  “Look at my cock, Emma.”  “I think my cock’s broken, sir.”  Etc, etc, etc, etc.

Now, I know he’s male, and therefore that any female readers will be putting on their weary, knowing heads, rolling their pretty eyes, and saying that he’ll never grow out of this sort of thing actually.  But it’s not quite that.  There is something in the breadth of his grin when he recounts these stories that tells me that the child is not yet fully grown.

And that is something worth clinging on to.  The Beautiful Armenian and I will accept the passing of this phase of our lives – there’s lots of good stuff that comes with it.  But for me there will still be a measure of regret.  There are lots of things that I’ll probably never do again.  Build a lego castle.  Be better at a video game.  Go running and be able to keep up.

Time for some more leaf-based melancholy.

Some Things To Make Us All Feel Hopeful

One thing I did over Christmas was finish reading this very uplifting book.

It deliberately looks at what good news there may be for us all in some very rapid changes in technology going on at the moment.  And, if it’s all to be believed, there is potentially a lot of good news.

Stevenson talks about things that most of us probably don’t know or hear much about – micro-technology, genetics, robotics etc.  There’s understandably a lot about climate change and energy policy, and suggestions that there may be answers to both well within our grasp.  He also argues that we could in our lifetimes see the western capitalist model replaced with something new.

It all sounds a bit heavy, but it’s not.  This is one of those books about science that non-scientists can easily follow.  And quite funny in places as well.

For all the discussion of science and technology, one of the most interesting sections is where he describes how something as simple as putting fences in different places can completely transform the drought-scarred Australian outback.  Although equally interesting is the fact that many Australian farmers are resisting the new ideas because it’s not how their fathers farmed.

A little easier on the intellect, but equally uplifting, was the family trip to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.  Not one for the homophobe or anyone with a Victorian attitude to all things naughty, but in our collective opinion, utterly, utterly brilliant.  In the best traditions of theatre, it will make most people laugh and cry.  On top of everything else, I get a real buzz out of seeing almost anything done to a very, very high standard, and this was world class.

Not everything about Christmas was this good, but these things, and the extraordinary behaviour of the Very Precious Daughter, have left my pointlessly optimistic nature in good shape.

And we’re going to the panto this afternoon – for me always one of the holiday highlights.

I need to cling onto this warm, fuzzy feeling.

Happy New Year!

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