I adore our daughter. She is feisty, perceptive and challenging. Time spent with her can be exhausting and frustrating; but it can also be entertaining and rewarding. Her powers of perception astonish - surprising me again and again with her ability to assess pragmatically and clearly. I also adore our son. He exhibits a temperance that I find admirable. He can stop one of my rants with the bare suggestion of a sigh. He has the driest of sense of humour; the speed of one his repostes can be unsettling. His mind is as nimble as his body, and he always appears so sensible. Both of them inspire, amaze and entertain. Before I knew them, 'unconditional love' was just an abstract concept; now it is something tangible. I feel it endlessly.
It is a joy and privilege to be parenting our daughter, but I experience pain and frustration that our son is being brought up by people who are essentially strangers. I've said this before: this is not an ideal situation for me. It is not what I had imagined being a parent would involve; and there isn't a day of my life that it doesn't strike me as absurd.
The staff of the school are given to us. We do not choose these surrogates for our children. We have to take it on trust that they are the best for the job. Mostly, I approve. These people are passionate, focused and caring. However, they are also human, and we all have our flaws. I have unsubstantiated anecdotes which suggest there might also occasionally be behaviour towards our children that is capricious, neglectful, and even, very infrequently, cruel - we can't all be perfect all of the time.
If our son lived at home, we might stand more of a chance. When needed, we could dismantle or deconstruct what is happening to him in the evenings. Like most families, we would be able to offer support - or mockery - of each other's neuroses over dinner. His anxieties would have a voice and he'd have an immediate response to this sometime teaching methodology, which - reaffirming ballet stereotypes - might be considered a little brutal. It makes me question who is fulfilling this role of parent-adviser-negotiator during the week while he is away: a sympathetic teacher, or a 'house-parent'? I suspect that each group of children - with its naturally divided subsets - is, in a way, bringing themselves up. They are plunged deep into a Freudian nightmare: in the absence of the bolster of their families, they are having to parent each other - the adults are either absent, or even worse; they cannot always be relied upon.
At the weekend we help him when it's needed. Now and again we spend so long unpacking the baggage that I wonder what signal we are sending out to our equally precious daughter, or if she notices how much time it is taking. I wouldn't feel resentment if it were our son's baggage, or even our own; but often we are dealing with an issue that belongs solely to an adult we've hardly met, and I get irritated that these adults do not know any better than to keep some of this stuff away from our children. The information that he needs to hear over and over again is that it is not his fault. He's twelve and he is in an environment where we would expect the psychological contract to be such that the teacher teaches and the pupils explore and learn. This clear line of communication seems to become muddled sometimes. It possibly becomes something we might otherwise assess as hectoring: the children attempt to perform a task at hand and are chastised or shamed. Their expectations become warped with uncertainty, as an adult 'having a bad day' reinforces a culture of fear. On those weekends in which some unpacking is needed, we remind him - the teacher is a grown-up and you are a group of children. There are ways we expect adults to behave, and when they don't, it emphasises a deficiency in the adult not in the child, because at the end of the day, we would like all our teachers to behave with kindness. We also try to be compassionate and see it from the other perspective: They have a demanding job; This is a stressful time of year; It must be hard teaching children; Perhaps you've misunderstood the situation. For his sake, I'm slow to criticise and efficient at concealing my biased sense of injustice.
I've worked tirelessly to become one of those types of liberal middle class that many are understandably scornful of. My education came at a cost, and my ongoing years of searching and self-development come with an even greater price tag. I pay this price willingly because I was under the illusion that it would equip me to become the best parent I am able to become. It's a tough job and now it would appear that someone else is doing it - people who, to me, are essentially strangers.
Catching up #3
Another blog that would have been posted last year, before our internet provider decided temporarily to put a stop to it all.
Out of My Depth: Learning how to Tumble Turn.
I wondered what it must be like to learn something new. By this I mean something physical, rather than cerebral - I have a 'Learn Spanish' app on my iPad which I've used twice. Kinaesthetic learning is what our son does every day. As his ballet training progresses, he has to learn increasingly complicated techniques and sequences. It becomes more demanding at every(literal) turn. I cannot imagine what this must be like; I've not really succeeded in learning anything physical since learning to ride a bike as a child.
Ballroom dancing was out of the question - I'd only worry about the tightly fitting sparkly shirts - so I decided instead to learn how to tumble turn. This is what some swimmers do when they reach the end of the lane. Instead of huffing and puffing and doing an awkward restart, they gracefully turn in the water and push off again in one fluid movement. It's a much more elegant way to continue swimming, and it looks a bit like a dolphin. I've seen a couple of people do it in the pool. They are dynamic, accomplished and efficient - a higher type of being. I want to be one of them.
I had no idea of the mechanics of how to do this - but that is the point. I wanted to engage with a physical skill which presented itself as initially impossible so that I could experience the stages of incompetence, competence and then hopefully mastery. The journey of the unknown unknown passing through the known unknown and becoming the known known - as Donald Rumsfeld or the managements experts refer to it.
It might have been a good idea to pick a incompetency which didn't involve the sensation of drowning in the early stages of development. The YouTube video that I watched made it look like a simple and natural movement - like skipping or jumping. This is not the case. I learned two things immediately. The first was that when you actually do the turn, you lose all sense of where you are, and which way is up. The second is that water goes up your nose and painfully hits the back of your throat. Counteracting the first of these difficulties involved preparing for the turn by visualising the position I would be in, and then initially doing it with my eyes closed. Combatting the second was easier - I just had to remember to breathe out through my nose as the turn was taking place.
I began to dread getting to the end of the lane. I would challenge myself to do it this time, and if I attempted it just twice on any day, I would feel a sense of exhaustion mixed with fulfilment. It took a week before I could execute the move without coughing and spluttering and feeling a burning sensation somewhere in my pharynx. I was always hesitant and many times I terminated performing the turn seconds before it was due to occur through no other reason than fear.
Over a period of about a month this is what I learned:
- You have to be mid-breath or at the top of the breath in order to turn. The feeling of running out of air in the middle of a turn induces a primal sense of panic.
- If you start the turn too far away from the wall, you have nothing to kick of against, so you just lie there under the water - excuse the pun - floundering
- Only push off from the wall when you are certain that you are aiming your body in the right direction. Launching yourself across someone else's lane, or towards the bottom of the pool results in embarrassment
- Flip back over onto your front as soon as possible after the turn. The videos that show people gliding effortlessly on their backs are all clearly CGI. My own long glides have always ended in a spluttery and ungainly gasping for air.
The most interesting element about this adventure involved a point in time about three weeks in. As I was becoming more familiar, and my confidence was burgeoning, I began to start making mistakes and having to stop mid turn. In fact at some points I had to re-remember the technique that I had learned initially. Habits were creeping in or I was forgetting the strict order of the sequence of moves which meant it felt like I was back at the beginning all over again. This was the most frustrating stage, and the one that made me most angry with myself. However, after a month of work, my tumble turns are now graceful and precise. It is my preferred method for turning around at the end of the pool. I do it almost automatically. It is the nearest I am ever going to get to feeling like a fish, or an astronaut ... or a ballet dancer.
I have two final thoughts:
- If our son has such a rich inner dialogue for every new technique he is mastering, his life must be exhausting.
- I bought some cheap mask-style goggles a while ago. They are fluorescent yellow. They were reduced. No one else wanted them in that colour, I presume. I also always wear a swimming hat. It occurred to me a couple of days ago that, even though my tumble turns are magic, I must look like a minion splashing around in the water.
It's not over until the Sugar Plum Fairy stops spinning ...
It finally finished last week. I imagine that thousands of parents around the world breathed collective a sigh of relief. It is now no longer possible to see a production of The Nutcracker until it all begins again next December. So, if you've missed it ... Bad Luck!
It strikes me as a strange tradition; The Nutcracker is such an enduringly popular ballet that it guarantees any company a full house at Christmas. It is a risk free money-spinner which stops up the gaps caused by riskier expenses at other times of the year. Apparently, forty percent of all annual ticket sales for US ballet companies comes from productions of The Nutcracker. That is not to say that it is a cheap production to stage. Numerous sets are required to illustrate Clara's descent and journey from the court-like world of middle class Prussia into something more anarchic and reckless in the pine forest and Land of Sweets. This is a miniature world packed with the dangers of warring mice, war-crazed gingerbread and spiteful black magic. Maintaining the costumes - never mind making them - must require the sort of budget which could keep a large family fed and clothed for several years. Not only does the production require a full company of dancers, it also demands a small army of supernumeraries, and - this is where we are involved - about 40 children for each performance. The cast is vast.
If ballet is an industry, then, during the Nutcracker, our children are workers on a production line: it's tirelessly repetitive, the hours are long and anti-social, and in terms of hierarchy, they are a strange underclass treated mainly with suspicion. Our son did nearly as many performances as there are days in the month, and all this was happening around normal family life at a time when we are completely stressing out about Christmas. We watched his mood change and his physical state deteriorate. He was jubilant, initially, with the applause of the audience ringing fresh in his ears. He enjoyed being part of a company - watching the dancers interact off-stage and listening to the make-up artists gossip. Despite the amount of sleep we were encouraging him to get and the vitamin supplements we were insisting on, he became paler and paler as time went on, and the rings around his eyes darker and darker. On one day he got up and suggested that he was unable to dance that day. It was a two-show-day just after Christmas. He was dancing a matinee and an evening, and he looked terrible. I took him to the stage door. It may seem cruel, but this is the life he has chosen. I want him to understand the reality of it as soon as possible. To be fair, he wasn't complaining and throughout this arduous period, he never expressed reluctance or regret. I explained to one of the chaperones that he was looking unwell and that she could call me if he was too unwell to perform. I fully expected a call between matinee and evening performance, but none came. He danced in both. I stood with the other parents that evening - shivering at the stage door and huddled for warmth like Dickensian characters outside a work house - and he appeared smiling and relieved. He was still jubilant, but this jubilation was muted.
For the performances, our children are drilled over and over again. Every day off requires a rehearsal before the next performance, even though the children have danced it numerous times before. There are people who are paying hundreds of pounds for their tickets, and they are not paying all this money to see a load of kids mucking around, and missing their cues. For their hundreds of pounds, they expect precision and a flawless perfection that is beyond most youngsters; and for performance after performance, our children deliver.
People often express horror when they learn that our children do not get paid to dance. I understand this reaction, but this treatment of our children does not surprise me. I may have learned to appreciate ballet, but I am under no illusion about how this particular world works. Beneath the beauty lies excruciating pain. And I do not think our children are really being exploited. It might have been relentless, but the rewards were immense. He has gained understanding and insights that otherwise would have been unlikely - he has witnessed the adult world of work, and experienced ballet company life at its most busy and involved. There's no comparison with the children in Indonesia mining metal for our smart phones.I hope that all the other children in other Nutcracker companies all over the world have had such a positive experience.
Also, I find it curious. The Nutcracker is a story full of darkness. It is full of cruelty - a father and son separated, punishment for the oppressed middle classes, tyrannous mice, and a child lost in an anarchic and confusing world. It concludes with a clear moment of sexual awakening. If the story hadn't been oddly appropriated by the cultivated ballet world as their Christmas money maker, it would probably lurk in the shadows of story-telling like the fairy-tales of the brothers Grimm, or Alice in Wonderland, or the stories of Saki. I'll go and see it again next year, and think about it. But for now the Sugar Plum Fairy has stopped spinning.
Catching up #2
Here's another blog I would have posted last year, if our internet service provider hadn't thought it a good idea to stop providing us with broadband ...
The Camaraderie of Ballet
This blog is based entirely on observation and speculation ...
There are just a few elements of our son's life that inspire envy in me. The main one is that he seems to have found his vocation so young and is showing such tenacity and strength as he continues to focus on his goal. I don't think I have ever shown such determination and discipline. Recently, I became aware of something else of which I am a little envious. Like the proverbial thieves, there is an code of honour among dancers. It would appear that despite the rivalries and competitiveness, they do all they can to help each other get through a day full of the expected hardship and trials. It seems that even though they can do nothing about each other's physical pain, they can help to alleviate each other's emotional trauma. The long term is at odds with the short term. Ballet is a competitive world, and as the future unfolds they become rivals for the same positions, but from day to day, it would appear that they do all they can to stand united.
One Monday morning, he forgot his ballet shoes. He had spent Sunday at school, and we picked him up just so he could have a bit of the weekend at home - a few hours on Sunday evening are better than nothing. Whereas a year ago, this slip in memory would have caused an emotional meltdown of a size which might predict the end of the world; now he just shrugged and announced that one of his classmates has the same foot size, he'll see if he can borrow a spare pair from him. More recently he left his track suit at home for the entire week. This is an essential part of his school uniform. It is what they are expected to wear when arriving and leaving ballet class every day. A year ago we would have got a phone call and felt duty bound to somehow get the track suit to school by any means possible. Now, we don't even know about the missing item until he returns at the weekend. He borrowed someone's spare top, and improvised by using a pair of his own non-regimental tracksuit trousers which were a similar colour. He sounded almost boastful as he announced that he has been doing this for a week and 'no one had even noticed'. I suspect that when it is his turn to share and support that he willingly steps up to the mark. I know this because the shorts are still missing.
I imagine that he has learned something that some people never really learn: genuine camaraderie can eclipse many of life's worries. Even the punishing austerity of classical ballet crumbles when faced with tacit friendship. Their bond affords resistance and, when needed, subversion; it helps each of them to survive in an environment which to twelve-year-old boys must sometimes seem as hostile sometimes as a battle-field. Instinctively they know that the key to survival is offering help and standing united when the collision occurs between human error and a grumpy dissatisfied ballet teacher. Tribal allegiance, kinship and historical arguments become insignificant. The instinct for collective survival dominates in the moment, and this instinct has altruism at its heart.
Apparently vampire bats function in a similar way. They are hard-wired to share when they perceive a fellow bat in need. It has been observed that they are willing to regurgitate food for a needy bat more often than they are willing to receive help. Assistance is offered regardless of family group and independent of any harassment. It amuses me that somewhere in their DNA, young dancers share a tiny strand of it with vampire bats.
This response to their environment is instinctive. They are unaware of the 'leave no man behind' credo of the American military, or the 'bind and drive' mantra of the rugby player. They have probably not read or heard Henry V's 'for he that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother'. Their bond is intuitive not intellectual; and I find it even more inspiring and enviable because of this. It is our son's confidence that the bond will support him that I find so moving.
There is a chance, however, that it is not instinctive, but a well-known moment from film that has taught them these deep rooted ethics:
If you've got troubles, I've got 'em too
There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you
We stick together and can see it through
Cause you've got a friend in me
You've got a friend in me
Catching up #1
Our wifi broke before Christmas. I continued writing but stopped posting. I have some catching up to do. Here goes:
I suggested in a recent blog that I often dilute the information that our son is at a ballet school with the excuse, "But I didn't have a choice." This needs some thinking about. I wonder if it is really true. I have a mild suspicion that I might no be taking full responsibility for the situation in which I find myself.
If those 'scouts' had not come to his primary school all those years ago and offered him four years' worth of free classes, life would now be different. There is every chance that he would not have found ballet had ballet not come and found him - something that I sometimes half-jokingly refer to as his initial 'abduction into the cult of ballet'. It would have felt wrong if back then, if I had said no to the free classes. He needed a chauffeur or a chaperone, and I thought nothing of fulfilling this parental role. The reward for taking him to class twice a week was that our child gained an insight into a completely different world - a world that his mother and I would have been unable to give him access. We didn't know at the time just how embedded ballet would become in our lives, and had we known, it wouldn't have changed a thing. We just wanted our child to have a broad range of experience and explore something outside the normal parameters of family life. I would have had the same attitude to something musical, or something to do with acting and drama. Chess, collecting creepy-crawlies, baking, football, swimming or athletics would all have precipitated the same reaction from me - I would have been encouraged him. I probably would not have been so encouraging if he had fallen into rugby or some activity with military cadets; I would not have bought him his first pair of rugby boots or allowed him to put on a military uniform. When he started ballet, we were all oblivious to the impact it would have on him and where it was all leading.
I also drove him to all his auditions. This was the point where I could have put my foot down and pointed out the impracticalities of becoming a dancer. However, I played with fire - thinking that we would wait and see if he got in, and then make up our minds. And, as parents have told their children since the beginning of time, if you play with fire, you get burned.
Once he'd got into a ballet school, it was too late. The joy surrounding us was overwhelming - he cried, his mum cried, even one of the receptionists at his primary school cried. I didn't cry. I can remember the day clearly. It marked the beginning of a completely new set of worries.
I could have been the father who said no - the archetypal father resistant to ballet. But my reasons are perhaps different from the stereotype. I worry about the heartbreak, should the dream end; and I am aware of how few who begin a vocational training at such a young age actually end up dancing as a career. It would have been simpler to end it before it had began - extinguish the dream before it had really caught alight. But then, I would have had to suffer a completely different set of consequences. I would have been known as the person who stopped him from fulfilling his potential. The story would be indelibly written in our family history, and long after my death it would still be spoken about in hushed tones - 'we nearly had a famous dancer in our family, but he was stopped from attending ballet school by his over-protective dad.' Like a cake that was never baked, like flowers that were never sent, or that novel that was never written; the void keeps the fantasy alive. It's just like my career in music: I'd be a rock star now, but I never actually formed a band ... or learned to play the guitar.
So, with all things considered, my opinion remains the same: the decision was out of my hands; I genuinely don't believe that I had a choice.
I sent my sister a text before the holiday started. 'Let's just aim for an above average Christmas.'
The world of ballet revolves around precision and perfection: the line of the foot, the quality of the turn out, the position of the arms. I've been experiencing fatigue of perfection. Witnessing a world in which everyone - regardless of age or gender - is so immaculate and well turned out has been taking its toll. I know that I'm not alone. I often bump into quite a famous dancer - we are regulars in the same café. I recognise her; she doesn't recognise me ... obviously, and I only know who she is because our son whispers at me whenever she passes. Off stage she looks tired. She might be mistaken for an angst-ridden teen in a black beanie on her way to meet her goth friends. There is nothing about her appearance to suggest that she transforms into one of the most accomplished and celebrated dancers of her generation. I imagine that she's a bit like me ... tired of all the perfection.
While I am slowly warming to ballet as an art form, I am generally not interested in anything that is perfect. I don't really believe in perfection as a concept, and as an illusion I find it tedious. I enjoy things that are flawed. I like to be disappointed by the reveal at the end of a thriller. I enjoy inadequate acting in films. I like it when singers pitch slightly under the note, or are slightly behind the beat. In turn, I accept my own flaws - they are my only chance at being at least a bit interesting. I am messy. I hoard junk. I can be surprisingly abrasive. As much as I want to become a better person, these are things I will keep until I can unearth deeper and darker flaws which will upgrade me from interesting to fascinating.
The pressure to produce a perfect Christmas annoys me. When Christmas is imperfect it becomes more memorable: the fights; the guests that show up late; the disappointment at the present that didn't fulfil expectation; the batteries that run out too quickly. These are the flavours of Christmas as much as cinnamon, chocolate orange, Meltis Newberry Fruits, or mince pies. These tastes linger long after the most expensive gift has exceeded its usefulness. This is what makes Christmas special. Long before we had children - when we were still more carefree than we realised - we once got so fed up with Christmas that we had Covent Garden Soup and champagne for Christmas lunch. It was brilliant. When the relatives finally arrived I was in such a state of bliss that arguments were an impossibility. I'd stopped caring about the food or the company; I was just happy. This is how Christmas should be - but arguably without the alcohol.
I will never forget the Christmas of 2015 - the one we have just celebrated:
- two family members unexpectedly in hospital
- one exhausted child for reasons I'll explain soon in my 'Nutcracker Blog'
- hours of driving across the Cotswolds in the dark
- the most hilarious Panto I have ever seen.
By my own standards, it was unforgettable.
Now that it is all over, and 2016 had got its foot firmly in the door, I can resume watching our son struggle with the demands of perfection. His body will grow and his mind will develop despite the centuries old tradition that is trying to exert its full control.
So, I hope you had an above average Christmas, and as we all return to work - or life - I wish you a blissfully mediocre 2016.