Family Matters

The thoughts of a husband, father, brother and son

Archive for the category “Family”

I Know I’ll Often Stop And Think About Them…

This is no ordinary garage.

Oh no.  If this garage had been in garage therapy with the world’s most celebrated garage therapist, it would be her most celebrated case. Because this is a garage transformed. A garage that has left its troubled past behind.

I would like to show you a picture of what this garage looked like before its transformation. However, the world is still waiting for photographic technology sufficiently advanced to be able to depict the full extent of the chaos, the carnage, that existed before.

And I forgot to take a photograph.

But now, after hours of effort by yours truly over many weekends, it is restored to this unbelievable state of order.

Although the chain of events that led to this revolution in outbuilding storage began with the Very Precious Daughter leaving home, it was memories of the Big Boy Wonder’s formative years that came back time and again as I toiled away.

First of all there was this collection of spades.

Have you ever noticed that you never need to teach a child what to do on a beach? No child was ever rubbish at it. Children just know instinctively that they are supposed to dig holes and run down to the sea. We have had some wonderful seaside holidays as a family over the years, in Cornwall, the North-East of England, Pembrokeshire and Western France. And just as kids don’t need lessons in beach-craft, neither do they ever really grow out of it – last year all of ours were still happily burying each other in sand at our favourite spot in the world – Carbis Bay near St Ives.

And it was a memory of Carbis Bay from nearly a quarter of a century ago that these spades brought back. A memory of one of those simple, simple things that brings enormous pleasure to parent and child. One afternoon, I dug a hole in the wet sand near the water’s edge, set the spade up as a very low hurdle in front if it, and then marked out a runway. The Big Boy Wonder thought it was nothing short of amazing to charge down the runway and leap over the hurdle into the pool of water, over and over and over again.

The BBW with his assault on the world low-jump record

We still recreate the game in memory of that golden afternoon.

Then there was this electric heater.

We still keep it in the garage (did I tell you how tidy it now is?) as a precaution against boiler-failure. When we acquired it, it was far more than back up. We’re still not quite sure how we managed it, but the first house that the BA and I bought didn’t have proper central heating. It had some ridiculous warm air system that only really worked in one room. And into this house we brought our first child. And then, inevitably, the English weather rewarded our decision-making with two harsh winters.

In those days, we had no money. I was studying – going through a career change that left me with no income for two years. The BA was working part-time in a public sector job. This heater was a major investment for us, but sorely needed to bring some degree of comfort to the BBW’s otherwise unheated room. We’ve got so may photos of the poor mite wrapped up in enough clothes to keep a set of triplets warm in any normal house.

Incidentally, the heating problem was solved by a friend of ours – an older lady with very little to her name – lending us a significant part of her life savings, interest free, so that we could have central-heating installed.

Next, there was this bike.

Now I’m cheating here a bit. This is actually the Small Boy Wonder’s current bike. The BBW memory it brings back is of the time I was very nearly responsible for his death.

As he grew up, I had to work quite hard sometimes to find things for he and I to do together. On a Saturday morning, he had a piano lesson, and before that (he was always up at the crack of dawn) we used to for a bike ride together. Despite being artistic and sensitive, he was also completely fearless when it came to things like that. He’s also very strong-willed (which is indulgent Dad-speak for “he never listens to a bloody word I say”).

Our Saturday morning route took us along some very quiet country lanes. Towards the end was a long, steep, downhill bit. The BBW loved going down this as fast as he could, but I usually managed to keep things under control, shepherding him carefully so that I was just ahead of him, keeping him well in to the edge of the lane, on the opposite side from any possible on-coming traffic (although I think you probably only get two or three cars a day going up that hill).

But of course, one day I lost concentration at the vital moment, and he got ahead of me. Going far too fast. On the wrong side of the road. Heading towards a bend in the road, ignoring my frantic shouts for him to get over to the other side.

And of course, this was the one Saturday morning out of all of them when a car did actually come round the bend.

I still don’t know how he missed it. And it still makes my blood go cold to think about how I could possibly have explained to the Beautiful Armenian, and to everyone else, what had happened if it had gone wrong.

This is the hill in last month's snow

But the main memory is of the act of clearing out the garage itself. If you’re anything like we are, it won’t surprise you to know that this garage-clearing happens once every few years. It’s been tidied up to house guinea-pigs, electric train sets, weight-lifting equipment and temporary art studios. Once we even managed to get a car in there, for goodness sake. Every time I vow that it won’t be allowed to get back to its previous abysmal state.

But every time it does.

I don’t know how I remember, but I know that I was in the middle of one these periodic garage clear-outs the day after the BBW, aged 13, first told us that he was gay. I was clearing out the garage as I went through what I’ve subsequently read is a very common experience for a parent in that situation – a feeling akin to bereavement.

I don’t know why this should be the case. I’ve read some complete rubbish about it – by people who claim that it’s part of something a parent does to absolve themselves of “blame” for the fact that they have a gay child. It’s not this at all, but the feeling does happen. It certainly happened to me.

But it didn’t last long, and it now seems strange that it should have happened at all. Because the BBW being gay is just as much a part of him as his fearlessness on a bike when he was ten, his unquestioning acceptance that the world was a wondrous, if sometimes rather cold, place when he was a baby, and his love of hurtling down a beach and leaping into a pool of sea water when he was four.

In the words of the John Lennon song from which the title of this post is taken: “In my life, I love you more.”

Being Mugged by the World’s Worst Mugger?

Things have been very quiet as far as the Very Precious Daughter (VPD) is concerned for the last couple of months.

As a parent, this is a Good Thing.  As a blogger, this is a Bad Thing.  I’ve written before about how I thought the VPD could be relied on supply me with endless potential material, but how she is letting me down.

This week, she has been like a complacent super-group coming out of semi-retirement to make an unexpectedly pleasing album.  There has been a return to form.

Last Saturday she “basically” got mugged.  “Basically” what happened was as follows:

  • she went on a big night out, and stayed over at an old school friend’s house;
  • the next morning, she got on the tube to go home;
  • this apparently sophisticated inhabitant of one of the world’s great cities managed (a) to get on the train going in the wrong direction, and (b) to fall fast asleep;
  • she woke at the end of the line to find that she had been relieved of her passport, bank cards, Oyster card, money and other things.

Now it may be my highly-refined sixth sense, but I suspect that the big night out did involve the dreaded Vodka, but didn’t involve much sleep.

The VPD is very lucky in that when things like this happen, she has access to a service called VOAM – Victims of Avoidable Misfortune.  This provides the following:

  • a 24 hour helpline;
  • her own dedicated case worker;
  • emergency funds;
  • consolation and advice.

The VOAM service was able to identify very helpfully that the most urgent thing on this occasion was not, as the VPD thought, to find something to replace her passport as a means of proving her age when trying to access London’s vast array of pubs, clubs and bars, but to make sure that her identity wasn’t stolen.  It also supplied some cash and some useful information.

The VOAM service also trades under the name of her dad.

Taking some consolation from the fact that for a couple of weeks at least, she would no longer have access to London’s vast array of pubs, clubs and bars, and wondering also why her phone hadn’t been stolen, I left her to it.

Then yesterday a miracle happened.  Everything turned up.

There are three possible explanations.

THEORY A

Like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the thief became consumed by guilt.  His conscience – that thing which separates us from the animals and provides one of the strongest arguments for the existence of a god – gnawed away at him, causing sleeplessness, delusions and endless torment.  Eventually, after six days of living hell, he could take no more.  He presented himself to the authorities.  He not only asked for many other offences to be taken into consideration, but also promised that once he had served whatever punishment society thought fit, he would devote his life to visiting schools and dissuading errant youngsters from a life of crime.

THEORY B

Immediately on the crime being reported, a sophisticated police operation snapped into action.  Using psychological profiling, advanced data mining techniques and good old-fashioned instinct, the law enforcement agencies gradually closed in on the thief.  Following a dramatic boat-chase down the River Thames, the perpetrator was surrounded and arrested in front of the Houses of Parliament, that enduring symbol of an ordered and democratic society.

THEORY C

The VPD wasn’t mugged, either “basically” or at all. In her state of disarray she dropped all her stuff as she was getting on the train.  Some kindly stranger picked it up and handed it in.

I’ll leave you to work out the most likely explanation (but I wouldn’t spend too much of your weekend on Theory A or Theory B).

I, meanwhile, will be spending my weekend trying to get the emergency loan back from the VPD (to be fair to her, she has already offered repayment).

If you’ve not read Crime and Punishment, it does reward the effort.  I think it’s one of the very few books I’ve read twice.  I also think Raskolnikov is such a great name for a character.

24 Hours in Cambridge

King's College from the river

One of the many things my wife’s new career has done has been to throw me and my youngest son (the Small Boy Wonder) closer together. I’m close to his elder siblings as well, but in different ways – in their cases adversity has often been the mother of connection. The SBW and I are much more like each other in terms of personality than any other two members of our family.  And as a result of the sometimes intense distraction of the Beautiful Armenian’s course, we’ve spent a lot of time together over the last few years.

This week he and I have been in Cambridge. His mother is writing an essay, I had a few days’ leave to use up, he has half-term, and I said we were going to do something vaguely improving.  He turned down walking in the Yorkshire Dales, on the basis of it involving both walking and the Yorkshire Dales.  He also declined a trip to Chester, having apparently developed an inexplicable aversion for anything too far north.  So, having informed the BA that in a man’s world “what goes on on tour, stays on tour,” we set course for the city of my student days.

Trinity College

St John's College from the river

A week ago, if you had believed the weather forecasts, you might have been a little nervous about the possible incursion of polar bears into these normally tranquil parts.  Yesterday morning we were punting along the River Cam in almost spring like conditions. And we managed to avoid falling in. In between times we got upgraded at the hotel, had a walk round some of the Colleges, rejected the ubiquitous chain restaurants for a great little cafe/bistro (with the added attraction of a waitress who the SBW said was at least an eight out of ten – bless him, he had about as much chance with her as I did), went to the cinema to see Chronicle (bad news for the waitress, this got a straight ten out of ten) and looked at paintings and porcelain in the Fitzwilliam Museum. I also pretended that the whole trip was calorie-neutral by spending an hour in the fitness centre (can you lose weight in the sauna?).

I would be misleading you if I said that my student days at Cambridge were uniformly happy. The Beautiful Armenian and I had decided even at that young age that we intended to spend the rest of our lives together, although we might not have been quite bold enough to say it to each other, and being apart wasn’t always easy. I also found the place so very, very different from the small-town grammar school from which I had emerged – there were a lot of unbelievably pretentious and capricious people there (and still are from what I could see this week).

Courtyard at Pembroke College

But in time I found my feet and made good friends, and overall the experience was very positive. Not least because I had an understanding of how lucky I was. I had access to fabulous facilities, I had many of the normal hassles of student life looked after for me, and I lived for three years in one of the most beautiful of places. And as far as I can work out, I ended up there for no other reason than that I had a knack for doing well in exams. Believe me, I am no great intellect.

Each time I go back, that sense of good fortune strengthens. I wasn’t lucky to have gone there. It was an incredible privilege.  And I think I’ve taken away from it a confidence in my own abilities, which counters my natural shyness, and has served me well.

I think any of my children could have followed me to Cambridge, but nobody has to date and I think it unlikely that the SBW will.  It hasn’t seemed the right place for them.  Their talents all lie in areas which Cambridge doesn’t serve.  But it’s still a wonderful place in which to spend a couple of days.

Another view of St John's

 

Queen's College from the river

Do Our Children Need to Watch More Sex and Violence on TV?

We had a letter home from school this week about the Small Boy Wonder’s (SBW) behaviour.  It’s always with some trepidation that I open an envelope with the school’s postmark on it.

It’s probably been a tough week for teachers.  The last week before the half-term break, and the weather doesn’t help – we’re still in the grips of a prolonged bout of harsh winter weather (even if the Arctic Armageddon and related breakdown of society forecast for Thursday night actually manifested itself as a light dusting of snow and a moderately hard frost – we do like our over-reactions to these things).  This may allow the lovely area where we live to shimmy up the cat-walk in a rarely-seen white gown of beauty (done no real justice by my third-rate photography).  But it doesn’t make things easy in school.

However, I’m not sure the teachers make life easy for themselves.  We’ve now had serious winter conditions three years in a row, but this time we seem to have avoided extensive school closures, airports shutting down, the imposition of martial law etc.  Even the head of the SBW’s school – who in previous years has shown a hair-trigger tendency to close the place completely and put his feet up in front of a roaring log fire at the merest suggestion from that lovely Carol Kirkwood on breakfast TV that it might be getting a bit nippy – has managed to keep the show on the road.  But this created the situation last week in which hundreds of boisterous teenagers were itching to get out and mess around in the snow, but a staff of teachers fully inducted into the zealous cult of health and safety were trying to stop them.  Apparently it culminated in a full-blown, but generally good-natured, rebellion as students and teachers clashed head-on in a struggle for control of the means of production of snowballs.

If I were in charge I would simply say, yes, you can play in the snow, but if anyone does anything stupid, expect big trouble.  Maybe that’s just too sensible?

More about the SBW and his behaviour letter shortly.  What about the sex and violence promised in the title?

That lovely Carol Kirkwood

It’s got nothing to do with Carol.  I just thought that seeing as we’ve mentioned her, we should have a picture of her as well. (Welcome at this stage to anyone who’s arrived here by searching for Carol Kirkwood and sex on Google – sorry if this isn’t quite what you were hoping for, but why not read on anyway).

One of the things we’ve noticed as parents is that since the Very Precious Daughter left home a couple of years ago, the Small Boy Wonder has in effect become an only child.  This has required quite an adjustment by myself and the Beautiful Armenian.  I’m very conscious that we have to be careful that we don’t subject him to too much scrutiny and over-bearing attention, but it also leaves him with a lot of time by himself, with no siblings around to provide any form of distraction.  He’s got lots of interests and lots of friends, but there are still many hours to fill.

The SBW is a teenager living in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century and so his first inclination is to spend that time interacting with a screen.  So is his second inclination, his third inclination and many subsequent inclinations as well.  We also have to contend with the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out) which afflicts most teens today.  All this means that given time to himself the SBW will in all likelihood spend it on a computer, a games console, an iPOD or glued to his Blackberry.

As I’ve said before, I worry about this sometimes, but I’m not entirely sure what to do.  But I do think that trying to offer him something more interesting to do is a better tactic than instigating bans or harsh time restrictions.  And something that has proved fairly successful in our house in this regard is watching DVDs together.

We’re quite big on gangsters (the Mob variety rather than urban rappers).  Last week we watched Carlito’s Way  in 30 minute instalments.  The SBW particularly liked this, identifying with the small-time criminal trying to go straight.  We’ve also watched all the Godfather films, Scarface and The Untouchables.  And last year we worked our way through every single episode of The Sopranos. That’s something like 75 hours of television. If you had told me before I came across The Sopranos that not only was it one of the best shows ever made, it was also a mixture of gangland action, family inter-play and psychotherapy, I would have thought that you were just trying to be nice to me.  As far as this family is concerned, there could be no better combination.

We do other things as well: the Rocky films, some spaghetti westerns, the occasional Dickens adaptation or low-budget movie.

But the content isn’t really that important. What matters is that we watch these things together. And that means that we talk about what we’ve watched. And it also means that the SBW is with us and not engaged in solitary screen activity, although he does have a remarkable capacity to keep up with whatever’s  new and interesting in the local teenage world via his Blackberry (although I can’t for the life of me imagine what that might be) and to watch with us at the same time and take in more detail than I do.

Now my worry is that sometimes I’ve let the SBW watch more sex, violence and swearing than I should. We’ve got friends who wouldn’t dream of watching some of these things with their kids.

But then I tell myself that I shouldn’t worry. Most of these things are high quality productions that deal with real life issues. And in this day and age, you simply can’t shield your children from X-rated content. Even if you do manage to control what they see in your own house, you never know what they’re doing when they’re round at their friends. The one thing which the SBW found distressing about the Godfather films was when old man Corleone keeled over and died of a heart attack amongst the tomatoes. Because it happened in front of the little kid. The SBW actually told me I was a bad parent for letting him see that bit!  Silly me.  There I was worrying about harmless things like a severed horse’s head, Michael’s wife getting blown up, and somebody getting shot through the eye.

It’s ironic – but a sign of the times – that I should regard the television, which everyone feared was going to ruin my generation when I was growing up, as something which can help hold a family together.

OK then, Superdad, you may be thinking. You’re trying to suggest that all this adult content is actually good for young people, but aren’t you the one with the letter home from school about your son’s behavior?

Indeed I am. It arrived on Saturday morning. Once I’d read it, I called the SBW away from his computer (fittingly enough), asked his mother to join us and and told them what had happened. The SBW looked dreadful – he was clearly very worried. I then handed him the letter and asked him to read it.

Dear Mr and Mrs Toby,

We are writing to thank the Small Boy Wonder for his cooperation and good behavior on our recent trip to Belgium and France. His mature attitude and sensitivity during the visit was intrinsic to its success.

It went on in a similar vein for several more paragraphs.

So maybe all that exposure to Tony Soprano isn’t such a bad thing. Who know?

But I can’t help wondering what it was that made the young lad look so worried when he thought the letter was bad. What have I missed?  Any ideas, Tony?

Tony Soprano

Good Times For A Change…

Some bits of really good news this week.

First, my nephew, H. This is a young man with a very tough home life. His mum has advanced MS. His little brother has quite pronounced physical challenges, and although he’s an exceptionally cute little lad, is very demanding of his parents’ time. H gets lots and lots of love from his family, but they don’t have much money and live in a council house in an inner city.

H is just coming up to the end of primary school, and the thought of him trying to survive in one of the inner city comprehensive schools for which he was bound was not a happy one. But this week we heard that he has won a full, seven year scholarship to the very prestigious private school which was the port in a storm for my eldest son when he was driven out of our local school by homophobic bullying. H did this all by himself – no coaching, no tutoring – and if there is a prouder, happier uncle anywhere in the world right now, I would very much like to meet him. If ever a family deserved a bit of good fortune, H’s family is that family.

It’s disappointing that the state system couldn’t offer H or my son any more support, but that seems to be the way of the world.

Next, my dad. He’s been discharged from the care of his psychiatrist. Whilst he’s still something of a shadow of the man he was before depression put him in hospital two years ago, he’s much recovered, and we do seem to have avoided a double-dip depression (I wish I could claim credit for that phrase but have to tip my hat to my mum).

Finally, my wife, the Beautiful Armenian. After weeks and weeks of frustration and set-back she has finally been given the go-ahead to start writing up the transcript of a counselling session that is one of the requirements of the final year of her course. That’s a bit of a two-sided coin. The frustration of waiting is over. Now comes the joy of living with her in writing mode.

Back on the subject of depression, but to end on a lighter note, I was watching England play rugby on Saturday and moaning mildly about the dark nature of Brian Moore’s (ex-England player) TV commentary. But, I explained to the Beautiful A as she passed through the room, he was abused in childhood, has suffered from depression and has had the courage to write a book about it all.

Her response was priceless. She did check herself towards the end of her question, but she definitely said it and I definitely heard it:

“Oh,” she said, looking at the television. “Is he the one who committed suicide?”

She isn’t blonde, but I do wonder occasionally if I ought to get her a wig.

School Trip

The Small Boy Wonder (SBW) went on a school trip this week.  A rapid visit to the First World War battlefields in Belgium.  He’d been looking forward to it, and it was clear just what effect studying the horrors and tragedy of that most awful and misguided of conflicts has had on him.  Because for him it all boiled down to one simple question.  Just one thing he needed to know before he left on this potentially very moving journey.

Do they have nightclubs in Ypres?

Good luck with this lot, we thought as we handed him over to his teachers, along with two coach loads of his peers at half past four on a bitterly cold morning.  Yes, you did read that right: half past four in the freakin’  morning!  We were at least pleased to see that it wasn’t just our darling heading off to the big freeze of continental Europe with feet protected by nothing more than a pair of light, canvas shoes and an aversion to wearing anything remotely uncool (like a couple of extra layers).

More on this later.  In the meantime, the Beautiful Armenian and I headed off to Norfolk for a couple of days of rest and relaxation.

Now I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that we live on what has been described as the most beautiful island in the world.  The kids always look at me as if this is final proof, if any such proof were needed, that I am completely demented when I say this.  I suppose most people hear the phrase “beautiful island” and imagine some tropical paradise with coral beaches and clear blue sea.  But what makes the British Isles stand out so much is its sheer variety.  Yes, the weather may be lousy at times, the infrastructure creaking, and many urban areas drab and over-crowded.  But the countryside is diverse and often spectacular. Particularly if you know where to go.

North Norfolk is one of those places.  It’s an area of very typical English villages, where rolling countryside meets a coastline of vast marshlands, sandy beaches and big, big skies.  It’s become very fashionable in the last 20 years, a little too dominated perhaps by banker bonus money.  But you soon leave the bankers behind if you head for the wilder beaches and the more remote countryside.

“Why do you two always go away when I do?”  the SBW asked the day before we all left.  “Oh I know why.”

I pointed out that with the house to ourselves we didn’t need to go away for “sexy time” (his words).  He didn’t look convinced.

Maybe he’s got a point.  But something else we like to do in Norfolk is to catch the little coast bus a few miles east or west and then walk back.  A couple of years ago we walked from Wells-next-the-Sea to Brancaster Staithe – this has got to be one of the best walks anywhere in the world.  Amongst many other things, you cross this ridiculously over-crowded beach.

Banker-free beach

This time we went the other way, catching the bus to Stiffkey and walking back to Wells.

The village of Stiffkey

Looking towards Blakeney

Norfolk marshes

Back at Wells, I was able to indulge in the supreme afternoon luxury of sitting in a bar, drinking a couple of pints of local beer, and reading some blogs.  In a busy life, a little moment to be treasured.

Later that evening I had one of those “how am I ever supposed to get things right” incidents which I assume afflict all married men from time to time.  The BA would not deny that the intensity and pressures of her course has pushed her weight upwards a little over the last three years.  But more recently, she’s lost a few pounds.  That evening she put on a dress which made her look as good as she has done in a while.  She looked fabulous and I told her.

“So you’re saying I’ve been looking rubbish up to now?”

No, that’s not what I meant.

“Are you just trying to get inside my knickers then?”

Obviously, but only because I always am.  Again, you’ve misunderstood.

What’s a man supposed to say?

Norfolk is also one of the best places in Europe to watch birds and we came home via the reserve at Titchwell.  Boy, there are some serious bird-watchers around.  We felt quite out-of-place without 3 telescopes each, camouflage clothing and an obsession with the length of our bird list.  But we did get a good long look at a marsh harrier quartering the reed-beds – they’re fairly common in those parts, but we thought it was exciting.

Frozen Titchwell

Snow on the beach

So back to the Small Boy Wonder and his foreign excursion.  When we picked him up (different time of day, same freezing weather) he seemed in good spirits.  Most of his chatter was about mucking about and banter with “the lads.”  But I think the battlefield experience had had some impact.  He thought the reconstructed trenches were cool (high praise indeed) and the fact that they still stop the traffic and sound the last post every day in one of the cemeteries quite impressive.

They’d also each been given a cross to place on a grave, and he had found around 30 graves with the same initial and surname as his.  I don’t know exactly what he thought of that, but it made me well up when he told me.

I do find things related to the world wars very moving.  I cry at Remembrance Day parades, and also at the lyrics of this song.  There are many different versions, and this is just one.  The leaders of Israel and Iran, or (sadly) even the UK and Argentina, could do worse than listen to it and reflect as they consider what they do next over the coming weeks.

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.

Hedge-laying

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.

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