Family Matters

The thoughts of a husband, father, brother and son

Archive for the tag “Parenting”

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.”

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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

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.

Our First Visit to Accident and Emergency

As I’ve started to learn about the world of blogging, I’ve spent a lot of time surfing blogs with a parenting theme.  There’s a lot of material about our first step, our first wee in the toilet, our first day at big school.  I haven’t found anything about our first recovery from an alcoholic stupor in hospital.  So here goes.

This happened a few years ago, and began when one of the Very Precious Daughter’s friends had the presence of mind to call us.  I think that was quite a big thing for him, because he probably had some part in things getting out of hand.  But he called us, and told us that the VPD was in a bit of a state and that we should probably come and collect her.

The first of many issues that night was the fact that it was 10.30 p.m. on Friday, our daughter was at a house party 15 miles away and I’d had too many glasses of wine to be able to jump in the car.  There are no taxi firms near where we live so we had to call one from about 10 miles away.  When it arrived, I took great care to explain that the whole purpose of the trip was to fetch back an inebriated 16 year old.  I took some plastic bags with me, because at that point I thought that the worst that could happen was that she might vomit on the way home.

When we found the house, her friends were waiting for us.  They wouldn’t let me go in to the party, but said they would bring her out.  A couple of minutes later two of them appeared, supporting the VPD between them.  At first she didn’t seem to be in too bad a state, but when her friends passed her over to me to get her into the taxi, she was a dead weight.  We finally got into the back of the car, the VPD slumped against me, unable to communicate in any way.  I was still some considerable way from realising just how serious things were.  The taxi driver, however, was going through a rapid loss of enthusiasm.  I have to be honest here, and acknowledge that (not for the last time that night) I was feeling more concerned for how I looked as a rubbish parent, responsible for the ills of a generation, than I was for the crisis.  Not because of a lack of concern.  Because of sheer, bloody ignorance.

We set off, but hadn’t got very far before she started to be sick.  No great volume of vomit, but (quite understandably) the taxi driver was starting to get a bit jumpy about another half an hour of this.  We stopped, I managed to haul the VPD out of the car and sat her on a kerb on a side street.  She still hadn’t managed to communicate.  I think the taxi driver might have suggested that perhaps hospital would be a good idea, but I then realised (accepting that we weren’t going to get home in any great hurry) that we were only a mile or so from an old friend’s house.  I was loath to disturb him (it was getting on for midnight by now and he has more than enough on his plate without this kind of rubbish) but it appeared to be my only option.

So that’s where we went.  I was already getting quite tired with all the lifting, but we managed to get my daughter out of the taxi and into the house.  I negotiated with the cab driver about the cost of everything, paid him and tried to regroup.

My friend was great – really supportive and helpful.  I then set about spending the next hour making a serious situation much worse.

Mistake one: assume that if we just wait a while she’ll come round.  She didn’t.

Mistake two: take at face value the statement of a drunk friend of the VPD that she hadn’t had anything other than vodka.  As it happens, this was true.  But I should have questioned it much more strongly.  If it hadn’t been true, heaven only knows what would have happened.

Mistake three: deploy blind optimism as your main strategy and conclude that your very sensible wife is over-reacting when she repeatedly expresses the view from the other end of a phone line that medical help is required.

Mistake four: imagine that a bit of black coffee might help.  Although the VPD was in no fit state to cooperate with anything we were trying to do, what we should have done was to get as much water down her as possible.

Mistake five: the really big one.  When the other mistaken strategies are having little effect, try giving her a little bit of fresh air.  Disaster.  With the help of my friend’s wife, I removed the VPD’s trousers as they were vomit-stained and then sat her out in the garden for a while in the middle of a fresh autumn night.  By doing this, I nearly bloody killed her.  What I should have done was to make her as warm as possible – because of the state she was in she was losing body heat all the time.

Mistake six:  allow your shame at having a child in this state, and your belief that the emergency services have got far better things to do with their time late at night on a Friday than to look after privileged kids who have over-indulged, to delay further calling for medical help.

I don’t remember exactly how it all happened but when we did finally call an ambulance we had my daughter in the house lying (still almost completely unconscious) on a mattress in the back room.  They were very concerned when I spoke to them and described the state she was in.  And they came very quickly.   Once they had started to put right some of my mistakes, mainly by trying to make her warm, they put most of their effort into trying to find out whether her state was due only to alcohol or whether there had been drugs as well.  There were two paramedics – the male one was quite surly and aggressive (knock some sense into them type approach).  The girl was lovely.  They did some medical stuff (I really have no capacity for remembering such things).  And after about twenty minutes I was thanking my friend and climbing into the back of the ambulance.  The paramedics were not giving any indication that they regarded this as purely routine.

And so to hospital.  Having done my best to persuade tragedy to pay us a visit when clearly she’d been thinking of giving us a second chance, I now became fleetingly distracted by falling hopelessly in love with the female paramedic.  It may only have been a casual encounter.  But believe me it was packed with meaning.   She really was a total sweetheart.  Blonde, local, and truly wonderful.  I get like this with young women occasionally.   OK, I get like this with young women frequently. It’s nothing to do with anything dodgy.  It’s to do with admiration, optimism and sheer unadulterated soppiness.  I imagined that if I were the dad of this young girl, I would be so very, very proud, and hoped that her dad was.

There must be limits to my optimism about medical matters, but they’ve not yet been discovered.  The paramedics were clearly still concerned, but I don’t think I ever thought it was going to end really badly.  I still had it in my head that at some point we were going to be made to wait a very long time, just to emphasise to us how there were many far more deserving people waiting for help that night.  But it didn’t happen.  The VPD was taken straight through the reception of Accident and Emergency into a bay on her own.   Again the same questions – “You’re sure it’s only been alcohol?”  She was still unconscious, and they quickly put her on a drip – just saline I believe to rehydrate her.

I truly hope that no-one reading this ever has to watch their child come round from an alcoholic stupor in hospital.  If you can avoid it, you should.  But having said that, it’s quite something.  And it’s also quite funny.  When the drip starts to work, it’s very dramatic, like fast-forwarding a DVD of somebody moving through several stages of sobering up.  The VPD went from being dangerously comatose, to nothing more than ridiculously drunk, in what seemed like a few minutes.  As she came round she started to get very concerned about the blood she could see in the tube leading into her arm, and began pulling at it.  A nurse appeared, and stopped her.  Like the little sweetheart earlier, this matronly rough diamond was exactly the kind of person I would have wished for at this point.  She was very, very firm with the VPD.  And with a fairly comic and pouting resentment, the VPD listened.

We were left alone again.  Despite the dramatic transformation, the VPD was still very drunk, drifting in and out of coherence.  There was a tannoy of some sorts in her bay, and at one stage an Asian-sounding voice said something over it.  She sat up, and looked at me as if to suggest that I must be thinking exactly the same as her.  Then she eyed the tannoy suspiciously and shouted: “Fucking Poles!”

To this day she has no idea at all where that came from.  I think she’s always found it far more embarrassing than anything else that happened that night.

When at her best, my daughter is one of the most engaging people you could ever meet.  And happily this is what came through as she began to sober up properly.  After a couple more minor spats with the nurse, they soon established an equilibrium, and used that to move rapidly towards becoming best-friends-for-ever over the next half hour.  The VPD told her how much she loved her, what a disgrace she was, and how she would be coming back to make her rich when she made her fortune.  The nurse tried to give the appearance of being unmoved by this, but failed.

Following a brief moment of panic when the VPD insisted on locking herself in a toilet and then falling asleep, it was becoming apparent that the crisis stage was over, and although the medical staff remained thoroughly professional and helpful, it did now become clear that they needed to move on to more pressing issues.

We went through to the public reception and I sat the VPD down whilst I sorted out another taxi.  I only had to leave her on her own for about 30 seconds.  Despite being wrapped in a vomit-stained hospital blanket, she managed to use that time to approach two of the meanest, roughest looking boys I’ve ever seen with a view to becoming friends on Facebook or something similar.  I intervened, guided her to the taxi and off we went.  After about 5 minutes of random rambling, she fell fast asleep.  She stayed that way for the next 10 hours.

Evil VODKA - every little counts

The next day, the VPD was sheepish and embarrassed. But not as completely riven by shame as I might have expected or wanted. This concerns me, and we’ve since found out that going through this hospital experience is something of a badge of honour amongst some teenagers. We established that the root causes of what happened were a failure to eat properly, and VODKA. Apparently she and two friends had got hold of a bottle, and she had become concerned that she wasn’t getting her fair share. She decided to remedy this by pouring as much down her neck as she could as quickly as she could.

The Beautiful Armenian and I fully acknowledge our responsibility as parents, and that our daughter’s behaviour is in part, in substantial part, a reflection on us. We make no attempt to hide from this. But the way we organise our society doesn’t make it easy for parents. I’ve posted before about the price and availability of strong alcohol, and I note the story this week about an alarming rise in alcoholic liver disease amongst relatively young people in the north-east of England.  The Royal College of Physicians have identified the price of alcohol and its promotion to young people as the cause.  The drinks industry, of course, takes a different view.  I know that it’s not straightforward – nothing ever is – but my experience as a parent tells me that on this one the doctors have got a very good point.

Angela Merkel’s Not Going To Be Happy, But There’s Another Bail Out Needed

Whilst all eyes were on Italy and Spain, developments in north London will have taken all but the most astute of commentators by surprise.  Yes, the next international bail-out will be of my student daughter.

Big sigh.

Following the Big Incident in Sainsbury’s we all made up and went home.  We left the Very Precious Daughter in the middle of a massive work crisis, and from later reports it seemed that she didn’t sleep for the best part of 3 days as she raced to get her project finished and handed in.  With that behind her, she (unsurprisingly) fell ill.  A few days later I got the phone call.

“Hi Dad.  How are you?  What have you been up to?  How’s work going?”

Immediately I was suspicious.  It didn’t take long to get beyond such pleasantries to the real point of the call.  She’d run out of money.

Again.

I have to say, I’m quite pleased with the way I handled the call and everything else that followed.  I didn’t get angry or emotional, and I stayed reasonable throughout.  I am in fact probably one of the most reasonable people you will ever come across.  I’m almost unreasonably reasonable.  But you wouldn’t think so if you saw many of my interactions with my beloved daughter.

I’m pleased with my restraint because for her to have run out of money at this stage of the term is completely and totally unacceptable.  I’m almost embarrassed to reveal just how much financial support we give her.  We pay her rent, her bills, and for her phone.  We give her a very reasonable (see, there I go again) weekly amount to live on, 52 weeks of the year. We gave her extra over the summer so that she could do an extended internship in a fashion house.  Whenever we see her she goes away with enough food to keep her going for weeks. She doesn’t know it but we’ve got money put aside to help clear her student loans when she finishes (which will be in about 20 years time from what I can work out).  We are comfortably off , but we are by no means loaded, and this isn’t money we just happen to have lying around.

All she has to do is to make her student loan last over the course of a term.  We barely got past half way.

Now I know that being a student in London isn’t cheap.  And I also know that she has to buy all kinds of materials (sometimes expensive materials) for her course.  But the amount she gets from us, plus her loan, makes her far more Germany than Greece amongst students.  For those with no significant parental help, the maintenance loan barely covers their rent.

The VPD has always been terrible with money. Absolutely terrible, and it’s been the cause of far too much tension. We have tried everything we can think of to help her, but she just cannot cope with the idea of making money last over any period of time. She doesn’t have the first notion about how to keep track of where she is. But of course we get tossed heads and a dangerously high OMG-per-minute rate if we try to intervene too much (like suggesting she pays her loan to us and we drip feed it back). This combination of supreme confidence and utter financial incompetence is fatal (although from what I’ve seen in the business world, it could mean she will go far). These car crashes are all too familiar.

I establish that what she’s asking for is two or three hundred pounds for more project expenses, a slush fund of about the same for emergencies, and an increase in the weekly allowance until she can regroup in January. I don’t think she’s really thought this through. It’s just a negotiation. This is perhaps my problem. Why would anyone ever consider for one micro-second that on this subject my daughter would have thought anything through?

So what do you do? I find it so bloody difficult. I want to be fair, but I want her to learn, and there is no doubt that she is going to struggle to do her next piece of work if we don’t help her out. The Beautiful Armenian and I have a summit meeting, and agree the terms of a bail-out. As it happens I had already arranged to meet up with the VPD at the end of the next day in London. We end up having a really lovely evening. She is at her best, and when she is she is irresistible. And unless I am even more naive than I give myself credit for, this isn’t put on. It really is just how she is. When I explain that we are prepared to give her some – but by no means all – of what she’s asking for, but never again, she is very sweet and grateful. I’m not looking for gratitude, but I’ll take it if it’s on offer.

I also get an insight into the world of Frau Merkel and her problems with Greece, because we talk about austerity measures. We agree that no matter how stressful her deadlines are (bless) she can’t afford to spend twice as much on her lunch every day as I do. We get a very imaginative proposal to consider rolling her own cigarettes (yep, a significant proportion of the money we give her is being spent on laying down some solid foundations for future health problems, because she’s really going to need those). And we even go as far as accepting the possibility that time may have to be found in her crucifying social and artistic schedule to get one of those things that boring people have. A job.

Now I’m being a bit unfair on her here. She’s worked plenty in the past – she’s been a waitress, she’s washed up and she held down a Saturday job in a shop for a year. When she moved to London, she decided that if at all possible she didn’t want to have to earn money. Although there is no doubt that this is partly because it bores her rigid, it is also because this course means so very, very much to her and she wants to eradicate anything which may be a barrier to success.

So it’s all been agreed, and we feel that not giving in completely is part of the tougher love policy that we now seem to be following. Now call me insightful, put it down to all the wisdom I’ve acquired in being a parent for the best part of quarter of a century, but I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this yet. I’ve got a very strong feeling that a life already in chaos may be heading for complete melt down, but I think it needs to if she is ever going to rebuild things with any semblance of structure. As a father, it’s very difficult to resist the temptation just to make it all OK for her. The ability sometimes to make it all OK is one of the really good things about being a dad. But not this time. We can’t go on as we have.

I relayed a lot of this to my mother this afternoon, and as she so helpfully pointed out, it all gets a lot easier after the first twenty-one years.

Half Term Fun (2) – Good Family Rows Cost Less at Sainsbury’s

The view as we crossed the Thames

After Day 1 of the trip, we were under strict instructions not to ring the doorbell of the student house when we left the car outside.  We didn’t, and we got a text from the Small Boy Wonder soon afterwards saying all was well (although the Very Precious Daughter had taken him to a student party).

The Beautiful Armenian and I then spent a lovely day in London.  We went to the Courtauld Gallery (see this post for more detail), wandered across the Thames to the South Bank and then made leisurely progress to where we were to meet our treasured offspring for a quick cup of tea prior to a whiz round Sainsbury’s – one of the various stealth taxes that goes with being the parents of a student.

The VPD ceased being a teenager a little while ago.  But so stunning was her performance in that role – with such utter conviction did she make it her own – that she has been invited by the NCATB (National Council for Appalling Teenage Behaviour) to stay on in an honorary capacity.  And this afternoon she confirmed what an outstanding decision that was.

After talking about holidays for next year (including something potentially very special) and what we might do on her birthday, we had a conversation that went something like this:

PARENTS: You asked us yesterday if you and your four housemates could all come and stay with us for a night a few days before Xmas.

DAUGHTER:  I did.  We’ll be on a tour of the country visiting all 5 home towns, and having a night out on the lash in each one.

PARENTS: We’ve talked about it overnight and although we love seeing your friends we just don’t think it’s reasonable to ask for this in the week before Xmas.

DAUGHTER (tossing head): I knew you’d be like this.  I almost didn’t bother asking.

PARENTS:  We’re normally very happy for your friends to stay whenever you like, and to come on holiday with us as well. But you know how much we’ve got on at that time of year.  Any other time would be fine, but on this occasion we’re saying no.

DAUGHTER:  I just hate it when we have these conversations.  All the other parents have said yes, by the way

PARENTS:  Sorry. We’re not.

DAUGHTER: Well you do realise this means I won’t be able to spend as much time with you guys at Xmas, don’t you?

PARENTS:  Really?  How does that work?

DAUGHTER: Because we’ll now have to do the trip after Xmas and so it will eat into the time I would have spent with you.  But if that’s how you want it, it’s your choice.

My Total Bollocks Detector was beginning to flash red at this point.  The Beautiful Armenian doesn’t have quite such a high spec model, and I could see she was beginning to wobble.  The VPD hadn’t gone into a full eruption, but experienced observers were looking with concern at the gathering clouds. The government was on the brink of cancelling all flights over the south of England.  The VPD then unleashed her “You really are the world’s worst parents” look and announced that she needed to get on so could we go to Sainsbury’s now please.

She stormed off.  As we followed in her wake, I said that I had very serious doubts that the trip would ever have got off the ground, but that we shouldn’t give in to this sort of pressure.  The Beautiful A saw it in an even dimmer light.  She felt she was being bullied.  Right conclusion.  Worrying implications for the rest of the afternoon.

If I said that the first 5 minutes in Sainsbury’s were chilled and relaxed, I would be misleading you ever so slightly.  But at least things were finding their way into the trolley.  We then all got separated and at this point TBA decided that of the bullying she was having none.  Telling the VPD that she had spent too much of her life pretending that everything was OK when it wasn’t, she explained (quietly but unambiguously) that she found it unacceptable for the VPD to try to force us to agree to her request under threat of a disrupted Xmas.

The VPD said that she could see this, and that she was very sorry for the upset she had caused.

That last sentence is my little joke.  The little darling in fact completely went off on one.  She denied that this is what she had said, and turned the volume of her indignation up to 11.  She stormed off again – even by her standards twice in less than 10 minutes is quite something.  She also demonstrated admirable female multi-tasking skills by simultaneously displaying complete moral outrage and continuing her progress round fruit juices, bread and cereals at our expense.

The four of us did convene briefly in frozen foods for an exchange of further denials and accusations, whilst pensioners with sticks and young mothers with double buggies tried to navigate their way round us.

What was most disappointing about all this was that it looked as though this would be how we would part company.

But long story short, we did in fact make our peace on the tube train back to where the Very Precious Daughter lives.  She didn’t climb down as such, but she did say that she had misunderstood what we were saying.  We let her have this way out.  And we all parted on good terms.

I’m writing this a couple of weeks after it happened.  A lot more has happened since (more on that another time).  But I feel that we have slightly redefined the nature of our relationship with the VPD, and that things are better for it.  I think she was genuinely caught out by her mother’s unexpected resolve.  And if you want to know the origins of that, look no further than the course and the therapy.

My daughter is beautiful.  She is talented.   She has wonderful friends, and is a wonderful friend to them.  She can be warm, funny, engaging, and she is always sincere.  She is deeply, deeply loved by us.

We’ve probably let her get away with too much at times in the past.  This probably won’t be the last time we have hours like this, nor the last time it will all seem so petty and inexplicable in retrospect.  Somehow  – and sometimes it takes a lot of hard work – we always seem to be able to get past these moments and move on.

Nobody ever said that being a parent would be easy.

Half Term Fun (1)

I managed to get a few days off over half term.  The Beautiful Armenian and I went out to the countryside and enjoyed the wonderful weather.  We shifted a load of stuff round the house in my continuing efforts to tackle the European clutter mountain.  And we drove up to London for a couple of days to see the Very Precious Daughter and specifically (just so that we didn’t let our anxiety levels drop) to let the Small Boy Wonder stay the night with her at the new student house.

Whenever we go to London, I get all responsible and suggest that we should make the effort to experience something new and vaguely cultural in one of the world’s great cities.  Earlier in the week I mentioned to the SBW that we could go to Camden Lock while we waited for the Very Precious one to finish her lectures on Friday afternoon. “It’s sh*t,” he said.  Remarkable insight, I thought, seeing as he’s never been anywhere near it.  But apparently he had this on good authority from a friend who had BBM’d him live from the place when dragged there by similarly hopeless parents earlier in the year.

Undeterred, and not being in receipt of any better suggestions, I announced when we were getting near the hotel that it looked like the Cabinet War Rooms had got the vote.  At least, that’s what I thought I said.   But judging from the strength of the reaction that emanated from the back seat, the noise of the road must have distorted it so that it came across as something like: “We’re going to spend the whole weekend looking at porcelain in the Victoria and Albert, you’re not going to stay with your sister and her very cool friends, we’ve cancelled Christmas and your birthday, we’ve arranged for all your GCSE’s to be brought forward to next week, and we’re taking your Blackberry away just because we feel like it.”

Camden Lock turned out to be much better than its “sh*t” classification in the Provincial Teenagers Guide to London.  And we had a lovely walk to it across Regents Park and along the canal.

 

We then met the VPD, her boyfriend and another of her friends (who is very dear to us) for an enjoyable meal, before leaving the Small Boy Wonder, and a much repeated list of what was and (longer section of the list) wasn’t acceptable, in their care.  We were fairly sure that their parting words were that he was going to be taken to his first house party.

Meanwhile we were to enjoy our first experience of a Premier Inn.  It turned out to be perfectly acceptable, although I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t see Lenny Henry.  They offer a good night’s sleep guarantee – your money back if this isn’t what they deliver.   I slept very well; the Beautiful Armenian less so.  However, we decided that it would be stretching the terms of the offer if we had to explain when asking for our refund that this was because she was lying awake wondering just how much damage a group of lovable but fun-and (more specifically) alcohol- worshiping students could do to a fourteen year old boy.

The Teenager Vodka Supply Chain

According to my sources, the chain of events that may lead to the young person in your life, who not so very long ago had no greater ambition on a Friday evening than fish and chips for tea and a Star Wars DVD, getting his or her hands on the evil that is VODKA may go something like this:

  • The relevant crowd will compare diaries and identify the evening on which they are to get wasted.

    Evil VODKA - every little counts

  • Arrangements may be made for a camp-out, or sleep-over.  I suspect that the kid with the parents least likely to intervene, or most likely to be absent, may volunteer or be volunteered to be the host, just in case their oh-so-impressive and oh-so-funny efforts to disguise their inebriation should happen to let them down (although I can’t imagine how this could possibly happen).
  • They will find a supplier.  This will usually be an older brother or sister who is either of sufficiently advanced years to buy the stuff themselves, or who looks the part and can get hold of somebody else’s ID, or who knows/is going out with/has enthralled, in a way you wouldn’t want to know, somebody who is themselves old enough.
  • The little darlings at the bottom of the chain will club together (perhaps 3 or 4 of them) and each will need to get hold of a relatively small amount of money (say £5).  This is quite cunning.
  • The combined fund will find its way to the supplier.  It may pass through several pairs of hands, as may the VODKA itself on the way back down.  Every person in the chain will cream off a small commission.
  • Kids may get roped in simply because they travel on the same bus as, or live near, another player.  There appears to be a significant degree of trust involved, and an unwritten code of honour (as indeed there is in the trafficking of IDs amongst the older ones when they want to move up to pubs and clubs).  If you’re called on, you’re expected to play your part, because, who knows, you may be the one in dire or urgent need of cheap, potentially lethal neat spirits at some point in the future.  It’s strictly cash-based – handlers taking a couple of swigs as payment is regarded as completely out-of-order.  Inevitably social media networks play a big part in the organisation.
  • VODKA is highly favoured as a commodity, because it is (a) cheap (in units per pound terms), and (b) relatively easy to transport and disguise (it’s certainly going to be easier to bring into school and distribute in “tutor” than, say, 24 cans of Stella or a mixed case of Australian reds).
  • The booze in question will eventually find itself in the hands of the original consortium.  It’s quite possible that new shares in the consortium may have been issued in the interim, or that there may have been a buy-out or two, or some off-balance sheet trading in VODKA futures.
  • If you’re looking for clues, a tell-tale sign of involvement may be an unexpected and urgent, but surprisingly short-lived, need for your little angel to hook up with somebody who generally isn’t part of their immediate circle.   There may be a mumbled explanation about borrowing something or (if they’re really devious) homework may be mentioned.  This won’t be true.  The reason will be so that money or VODKA can change hands.
  • The whole thing is so organised and complex that you wouldn’t be entirely surprised if McNulty from The Wire turned up and started tapping phones.
  • When exchange and completion have taken place, the swag will be stored until the evening in question.  This will be a convivial and sophisticated affair, with the more worldy-wise choosing from a menu of casual, public and probably unprotected sex, squabbling, minor vandalism, and fighting.   Vomit will definitely play a part.  And there will be weeping.  Most of it (the evening and the vomit and the weeping) will likely be recorded for posterity on countless mobile devices.

I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but round our way this is called chilling, or having a laugh.

But on the bright side, I don’t imagine our future generations are going to want for entrepreneurs.

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