Monday, November 28, 2005

Lessons in life...

I’ve just been playing cards with my 10-year-old son, Rogan. We ended up playing pontoon and I had in my hand a king and an ace – pretty much an unbeatable hand.

So I said to my son, “Tell you what, would you like a bit of a gamble? – If you win, you get to stay up half an hour later, but if you lose, you go to bed in 10 minutes.”

Now Rogan is a smart lad, and he knew, or really should have known, that I wouldn’t say something like that unless I had a damn good hand. To be honest I just expected him to roll his eyes and ignore me, but stupidly he said, “Ok then!”

Of course, he lost, but then got really upset about it. I’m now feeling like a bit of a bastard, but I can’t back down now. This is nothing to do with testosterone driven posturing, but everything to do with the fact that he has to learn that you never enter a bet unless you’re prepared to lose.

“But you knew I’d lose!” he wailed, “It’s not fair!”

“But you knew I wouldn’t have done this unless I was pretty sure I’d win. You should never have agreed to it,” I tell him, but it doesn’t help matters.

I make a mental decision that if he accepts his lot, and gets his pyjamas on, then I’ll say that because he’s clearly learned his lesson then he can stay up until his usual bedtime after all. Unfortunately he gets even more upset and I end up having to threaten him with an earlier bedtime tomorrow night unless he gets ready for bed right now, as he agreed to when he entered the terms of the gamble.

I begin to worry that the emotional arms race is accelerating towards Mutually Assured Destruction, but he backs down at this point and stomps up the stairs.

I hope he’s learned that gambling is for fools, unless you’re prepared to accept the consequences. However, I fear the lesson he’s learned this evening is that Dad is a bastard who’ll con his own son and is not to be trusted.


Friday, November 25, 2005

Grandad’s Muesli

“No Poppy! Leave Grandad’s muesli alone!”

When my stepdaughter, Layla, and her wee ones came to visit us back in the summer, this statement almost had me spraying my breakfast over the table as though I’d been whacked across the back of the skull with the blunt end of Death's scythe.

I picked a few loose oat flakes out of my beard and cardigan, wriggled my toes inside my slippers and reflected on how old I suddenly felt.

While most of the time it’s taken in my stride, occasionally it strikes me as all a bit odd. Maggie is 9 years older than me and had three children already with her when we first met. They are now aged 19, 22 and 24, and my 22-year-old stepdaughter has 2 children of her own. I clearly remember the day, nearly two years ago, when Layla asked me if I wanted to be called “Grandad or Grandpa” and all I could think was that both sounded too bloody old to me.

Added to that, Maggie was the baby of her family, with her brothers being a decade or so older than her. This meant that back in the summer, at my in-law’s Diamond Wedding Anniversary, one of the prime topics of conversation was about early retirement.

So despite the fact that I am in fact only 39, it’s not uncommon to feel like I’m at least a generation older.

And there are days, usually when I’m feeling a bit low and flat, and wondering if I’m ever actually going to do anything decent with my life, that I hear the phrase “No Poppy! Leave Grandad’s muesli alone!” echoing around my skull, and I feel terribly old indeed.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Theory of Life

A sense of mortality, divided by unfulfilled ambition, equals a midlife crisis
When you really should be doing a bit more with your life, but are looking for a bit of distraction instead, this is the kind of thing that will waste the best part of half an hour.

You can create your own text to put on Einstein's chalkboard, and this is what I came up with.

If you click on the image it will take you to a site where you can create your own.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Fog at Carlingwark Loch

For the past few days it has been cold and foggy, so I went out with the camera to Carlingwark Loch* at the bottom of Castle Douglas to see what I could find.

Click on the images for larger versions:

*For those who don't know, a loch is the Scottish word for a lake

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Death to Barbie

We have never bought in to the whole Barbie thing. In fact, our house has been something of an anti-Barbie zone for so many years, that it just doesn’t enter my head any more.

Until this week.

Meg has a friend, K, who she went to for tea last week. This was quite a big thing in some ways, because this was the first time that Meg had been invited round to one of her classmate’s houses for the afternoon. There’s always a slight concern for us – we know that Meg’s perfectly capable of behaving well, but we’re never entirely sure how the parents will react to her Down’s Syndrome. However, it all seemed to go fine, and Maggie and I breathed a sigh of relief when Meg was brought home with tales of having made their own pizza for dinner, along with lots of playing and dancing.

When I was walking with Meg out of the school gates earlier this week, K’s mum was there, in her car with her daughters, apparently waiting for us to appear. She leapt out of the car when she saw us, and with a beaming smile produced a Barbie doll. “Hi Meg,” she said, “you were having such a great time the other day, and we have a lot of Barbie’s, so I thought you might like this one!” K’s mum was holding out the doll, resplendent in a glittery dress, to Meg.

Well at this point you don’t really like to say “and what kind of role model do you think I’m going to let my daughter have? Don’t you understand that we are trying to create a society in which people of all shapes, sizes, ages and colours should be allowed to be seen as normal? Don’t you realise that society created all sorts of problems when it decided that the only acceptable form of beauty was that of a tall blonde with disproportionately large breasts and a waist the size of a skinny 9-year-old? Well do you? Do you?” Not if you ever want your daughter to go to a friend’s house for tea again you don’t.

The easy option at that point would have been to take the doll with thanks and tried to lose the thing later, but I also realised that if we accepted it then it would be almost impossible to explain to Meg later on why we didn’t think that having a Barbie was a good idea.

K’s mum turned to me and said, “I hope you don’t mind. Meg was telling us how much she loved Barbie and was going to get lots of Barbie stuff for Xmas.” Utterly untrue of course, but sometimes Meg will just come out with these things.

“I’m sorry”, I said, desperately wishing that Maggie had picked up Meg today and been the one to deal with this, “but I’d rather not take it.”

At this point K’s mum hadn’t a clue what was going on in my head and said, “Oh, she’s already got hundreds has she?” Her smile was still very warm and friendly.

“No,” I replied, trying to keep my smile as relaxed and friendly as possible, “we just don’t do Barbie.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. Her smile was still there, but I was aware that none of her facial muscles had moved .

She was back in the car so fast, that I barely had time to say “I appreciate the thought…” before the tyres were screeching and the car was disappearing into the distance.

Sometimes it isn't easy being a Dad.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Losing My Religion

When I was younger, I was what my wife refers to as “a searcher” - one who is looking for a spiritual meaning of life. I was looking for answers to how I fitted into the universe and in what shape or form a god, if s/he existed, might take. This largely grew out of an inability to grasp the idea that I could actually cease to exist.

I could imagine my body changing, I could even imagine my body not existing, but I could not imagine that core bit that I call “me” as not existing. The knock on effect of this was that I became intensely interested in what happened after death: if my body could cease to exist, but not my self or soul, for want of a better word, then it must go somewhere. Did it linger indefinitely with the body? Was it freed to roam as a ghost? Did it go on to another realm like heaven (or hell)? Was it reincarnated into another body? Was I God, limited by human existence until I died and returned to my true state? How could I possibly know?

There were plenty of religions out there, most telling me that theirs was the one true path. And when I asked how I was to know that theirs was right and the others were wrong, it usually ended in either “because our holy book/ prophet says so” or “you must have faith”. Never one for trusting authority, neither of these answers appealed.

So I read widely, questioned frequently and debated incessantly with anyone willing to engage. I returned to education and spent 4 years gaining a philosophy degree, at the end of which I wouldn’t necessarily say I was closer to any conclusions, but I did have a far better idea of how to argue for or against absolutely anything.

When my daughter, Meg, was born with Downs Syndrome nearly 8 years ago, I would bite my tongue when people would say things like “God gives special children to special parents”. I’d know that they were trying to put a positive spin on things, and so would just nod and smile. These days I’m a lot less tolerant and would be far more tempted to say “well if that’s so, then why does He give them to so many people who abort them before they have a chance to live?” (It’s estimated that somewhere between 80% and 90% of pregnancies of children with DS are terminated in our so-called “civilised” Western world).

Now Meg was born with a hole in her heart. The first few months of her life were a struggle as we fought hard to feed her (she would frequently take over one and a half hours to feed, and would need to be fed every three hours, and would throw up about every third bottle) and give her the strength to live. At 5 months old she had to have open-heart surgery and we had to face the very real possibility that our little girl could die.

At this point, more than any other in my life, I called out for some kind of meaning, some kind of support, some kind of sign or feeling that we were not on our own with this. But what I got back was nothing, nothing at all. There was no sense that there was a larger plan, that there was someone, or something looking out for us, that the universe cared in any way shape or form. All I felt was an overpowering sense of empty randomness. Meg might live; she might not. If she did then we’d be lucky, and if she didn’t then we’d be unlucky. It was as simple and straightforward as that. There was no God; there was no Universal Force at work. This was the point that I stopped searching; this was the point I lost all interest in religion.

Now as it turned out, Meg survived and thrived, and she fills our lives with joy. But we were lucky, that’s all. I cannot find it in my heart to believe anyone who would tell me otherwise. Maybe your god speaks to you, and I’m truly pleased for you if that is so, but there is nothing out there speaking to me.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

No More Heroes

Who are your heroes? Who are your role models? If you could be anybody else, who would you want to be?

A couple of weeks ago, it dawned on me that I have no heroes. Oh there are plenty of people who I like, I respect, or who have talents or skills that I’d like to possess myself, but there is no one who I would say is my hero; no one I wish I could be instead of me. This struck me as odd, because I thought everyone had heroes.

Certainly when I was a lad, I loved reading books about the lone hero, specifically Conan the Barbarian and Batman, and I loved the James Bond movies too. It was something about having the ability to be completely self-reliant: drop any of these guys into any situation and they would cope. But these were all fictional characters. Where were the real life heroes?

When I started to reflect on this, I realised that my first real hero was my brother, who is 4 years and 2 days older than me (I was a late birthday present for him, apparently) - he was the one who I would become. To the mind of a 3-year-old, it seemed perfectly obvious that when I turned 7 I would be doing exactly the same as my older brother had done before me. I also knew, at that age, that when I grew up I would be my Dad. But Dad was an adult and occupied a different place in my head; my older brother, however, was closer, more tangible. I wanted his affection, I wanted to follow him: I wanted to be him.

When I was 7, however, my brother, now aged 11, disappeared off to boarding school, and for the next 5 years we saw him only every 3rd weekend during term time, and at the holidays. My parents believed that by sending him away to a private school they were doing the best for his education. Whether they were right or not has been a matter of family debate since, but it had a profound impact on my life at the time.

We’d moved to South Wales when I was five years old, and being English I was an ideal target for bullies. However, having an older brother in the same primary school meant I was afforded a certain level of protection that I might otherwise not have had. But when my brother not only changed school, but moved out of the area, that protection was gone. The bullies turned their attention to me and the next few years were pretty miserable.

Eventually I found strategies to deal with them, and by the time my brother had left school and returned to live with us I no longer needed his protection. I would still have followed him anywhere, but what 17-year-old wants a 13-year-old hanging about, cramping his style? As testosterone levels rose I began to see my brother in terms of competition, and when we moved away from Wales to South West England a couple of years later, he was no longer someone I looked up to.

So what has this to do with my lack of heroes today? Well, the fact is that I never had another hero after my brother; it’s like the disillusionment I experienced meant that I could never really believe in anyone else again. At the point where I needed my hero to come and protect me, and he wasn’t there, the mind and emotions of the child weren’t able to separate out the distinction between “couldn’t” and “wouldn’t” protect me.

In one of those rare moments of self discovery, this idea about my lack of heroes made me realise that I have spent almost my entire life expecting someone to be looking out for me; and have been in a state of almost constant disappointment that no one has been. For years I have wondered why the world isn’t a fairer place, why people don’t help each other more, why those in power are so happy to abuse those who are not. Despite the fact that intellectually I have known that the world is not a fair place, emotionally it has felt so wrong. I have continually expected someone to come along and sort it out, and then been crushingly disappointed that no one has.

Those in positions of power and authority who could make a real difference, but don’t (and that is just about all of them), have nothing but my contempt and disdain. And as for the long line of hideously overpaid pop stars, supermodels, film stars and sports stars that are paraded before us as heroes and role models, well don’t make me laugh. I guess what I would call heroic are the people who, against adversity, retake control of their lives.

The conclusion I had to come to was that I couldn’t rely on anyone else to sort out my life; I would have to do it myself. But whereas I have resented this up until now, this flash of insight means that I can now accept it. I am not 7-years-old any more, and I don’t have an older brother or anyone else who is going to bail me out of trouble.

And finally, I’m ok with that.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Mandolin Heaven

Those who read my post Blistering Fingertips will know that I’m rather excited about the fact that I’ve started playing the mandolin again, and that one of the things I discovered at the Folk Night was that my old mandolin was rather quiet, and not particularly up to the job. So I decided to buy myself a new one.

The following day we went into Dumfries to see the selections of mandolins the music shop had in stock. Fylde MandolinThey ranged from around £80 to £140, but sounded a bit tinny for my liking. The shop did, however, have one for £300 (approx $550), which was certainly a cut above the rest. As it was the only one, I was reluctant to buy it: it was more expensive than the others and I wondered what other £300 mandolins might sound like. So we headed out to a large music shop I know about 10 miles from Carlisle.

This music shop had more mandolins, but they were all priced between £50 and £150, and none of them took my fancy. I asked if they had any out the back and was told that they had a Fylde Touchstone Mandolin in their Newcastle branch, which they could get sent over. Fylde are hand made instruments and are considerably more expensive (about £600). The thought of trying one out, to see whether the extra price really could be justified, appealed so I said bring it over. However, they couldn’t get it across for a few days, they would let me know when it was in.

Having run my own business, I’m always amazed when salesmen don’t seem to recogniseFylde Logo that I’m giving all the buying signs and ought to be able to close the deal with me on the spot. Worse than that, the guy I spoke to then went on holiday and nobody bothered asking for the mandolin to be shipped across. By the end of last week, when I phoned up, no one knew anything about it. I was to be called back again, but wasn’t, and so it went on.

So I took things into my own hands and tracked down Fylde Guitars, discovering that they were based in Penrith, only about 20 miles down the road from Carlisle.

Anyway, to cut to the point, I was out there yesterday and have bought myself a Fylde Single Fylde Mandolin Close-upMalt Touchstone Mandolin. The Single Malt version is actually made:

“…from timbers reclaimed from the Scotch Whisky trade. The top is built up from sections of Oregon pine from a washback vessel from the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye. This vessel held hot spirit continually for around forty years before the timber came to Fylde. The back and sides are quartered oak from salvaged single malt Whisky casks, which have been soaked in maturing alcohol first in America or Spain, then in Scotland, for perhaps ten years before reaching our workshop. The neck and fingerboard are made from sections of both timbers. These timbers seem to suit mandolins remarkably well, adding a deep and mature nature to the sound.”

It is the most beautiful mandolin I have ever seen and it sounds divine. It is another couple of hundred pounds more than the normal Touchstone mandolin, but it is worth it. I know I’ve spent far more money than I intended, but it feels like I went out to buy a Ford Escort and have ended up with an Aston Martin DB9.

My fingertips are getting sore again as I can’t put the thing down. In fact, I think I'll just have another wee go...

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Life's a beach

The other day Maggie and I went down to the beach for lunch. There was a brief respite in the rain, so we wrapped up warm, put some soup in a flask and drove about 10 miles down to Rascarrel Bay. With all the vile weather we’ve been having of late, it was good to be out of the house for a while.

There was still enough wind to create a few waves and I was reminded of being a child when to go to the beach was to go for a swim. Although I was in no way tempted to go leaping in there and then, it was easy to recall the sensation of diving into the waves, just as they were about to break, or wading out until I was neck-deep and when the waves came along they would lift me up, so that for a moment or two my feet weren’t touching the sand underneath.

When I mentioned to Maggie that whenever I was by the sea part of me just wanted to strip off and leap in, the look she gave me was one of disbelief tinged with horror. It was another of those moments of cultural difference.

You would think with us both speaking the same language, using the same currency and living with the same fallout of the inept decisions of successive UK governments, that the Scots and the Southern English would be more or less the same people, but you would be mistaken. It is not just a difference between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon bloodlines, the sense of whether you are the oppressor or the oppressed, nor whether you have a fondness for tartan; the geography plays a huge part too.

Not only does it tend to be wetter and colder, for a longer proportion of the year in Scotland, but the sea is considerably cooler too. Inhabitants of this half of the British Isles just do not have swimming in the sea as a part of their collective childhood experience. Paddling, maybe, in the height of a heat wave, but no self respecting Scot would dream of going any further than knee deep.

I may have lived in Scotland for over 17 years, but there are times when it’s not just my accent that gives me away as a foreigner.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Less Weight, Harsher Judgements

I have just staggered about 250 yards up the road from the hardware shop with a 20kg (about 44lbs) bag of coal and only just made it. The bit that I find really hard to fully get my head around, is not that I’m so unfit that carrying 20kg causes me problems, but that 9 months ago I was 30kg (about 66lbs) heavier than I am now.

I have serious doubts that I would have made it up the road, without having to stop several times on the way, if I’d tried carrying 30kg of coal, yet I used to carry that amount extra with me every where I went. And, if I am ever to approach that mystical realm of the ‘ideal weight’, I still need to shed another 20kg.

So why then, when I am 30kg lighter than I used to be, do I sometimes feel like I’ve never been so fat?

For a while I thought it was just because I’m so much more focused on my weight these days: being more careful about my eating habits and weighing myself once a week. But I’m beginning to suspect there might be another factor in this equation, which is I’ve shifted into a different category of person.

These days I can look in the mirror, or catch sight of myself in a shop window and I look like an overweight, middle-aged guy who’s let himself go and could seriously do with losing some weight. But when I was 30kg heavier, I was so outside the realms of “normality” that the idea that I could actually do something didn’t really come into it.

When you look at someone like Johnny Vegas (British comedian – star of “Sex Lives of the Potato Men” and Channel 4’s “18 stone of Idiot”), part of his act, and who he is, is defined in the sheer size of him. It does not occur to you that he could ever be slim, or have a well-sculpted body.

The fat man and the bearded lady of the circus freak show were firmly in the realm of “other”. They were curiosities to be stared at, ridiculed, or even pitied, but they were not anything we might become. As such, we could dismiss them and move on to the next novelty item.

But when someone is like us, but a bit fatter, or a woman’s moustache starts to get slightly darker and she finds a hair or two growing on her chin, then we freak out about it a great deal more. Suddenly we will be full of well-meaning, and probably very patronising, advice. We will whisper to our friends about how they are not making an effort. We will bitch and snipe out of fear, because that person could be us, if we aren’t vigilant enough. This attitude that, if you could be normal but don’t try to be, then you deserve every bit of harsh criticism you get, is extremely common.

So it seems I have now moved into these realms of judgement. When I was buying clothes with a number of ‘X’s on the label, then I was in ‘outsize’ clothing, i.e., outside the sizes of normality. As such, I was more easily dismissed. Now that my clothing sizes are ‘Large’, I’m into that range that says I could be normal if I just tried a bit harder.

Clearly I am not fatter than I have ever been, but the irony of it is that by losing enough weight to move out of the realm of “other”, I am now in a position where I can be judged more harshly by a greater number of people.

Bizarre really.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A goodnight kiss gone forever

There comes a point in most boys’ lives when they no longer feel comfortable giving their father a kiss goodnight before heading for bed.

I have vivid snapshot in my head of the moment I decided I was too old to kiss my dad. I guess I must have been around 10 years old - the surrounding details are hazy - but I can remember quite clearly standing in the doorway about to leave the room when my mum said “are you not going to kiss your father goodnight?” and I said no.

I cannot tell you why, other than I was aware that it had been feeling less and less comfortable to do so each night. My heart was beating fast as on some semi-subconscious level I realised that this was some kind of turning point, and I had no idea how my parents were going to react.

In the end they didn’t do much. My mother said “ok then” and I have the impression that my father rolled his eyes, but I didn’t hang around in case it got even more embarrassing. As a child, you never really think of your parents as vulnerable people with feelings and it certainly never occurred to me that my father might be hurt or upset by my actions.

Well the other night came full circle as my own son refused to give me a goodnight kiss before heading for bed. He’s clearly become more uncomfortable displaying affection over the past several months and there was a sense of inevitability that this moment would come. I can still force a hug out of him, but it is stilted. The testosterone is starting to increase with the onset of early puberty and my little boy is on his path to manhood. From this point on, for the next few years, other males will be seen in terms of rivalry, rather than warm affection.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid twenties, and I was heading off to Dundee to study philosophy at university that I started giving my father a hug again. Initially he was awkward and stilted about it, but now it’s natural enough when we meet up.

My only hope is that it doesn’t take as long as another 15 years before my son is prepared to display a relaxed affection for his father again.