Discipline Demanded and Restraint Required
Something is happening this week which is testing my mettle in possibly the most irksome way. This evening we have been been denied our usual Skyping privilege. The desperate fifteen minutes has been scrapped. The signal will be dead. Nothing.
We will have no communication for over forty-eight hours. I feel abandoned. This is because he is on a school trip, and the trip extends late into the evening.
So what? Deal with it! are your thoughts. But there is a twist ... naturally.
The location of the trip is 2.3 miles from our house - that is about 10 minutes by car, or 15 by bus including walking to and from the bus-stops on either side of the journey.
In fact it is right next door to where I go for my nearly-daily swim. I could be ploughing down the fast lane in my elegant but slightly splashy style, while he is only a few yards away. It's ridiculous.
He is closer to us than he has been all week, and yet there is no way of getting in touch, or talking to him, or having any type of contact. Of course the temptation is great. I could become one of those parents. I could stand on the side of the road and wave as he gets off the bus, loudly singing 'Coo-ee' and perhaps waving an unopened umbrella. Or, I could phone the school and insist they tell me when the breaks are, and insist - even more forcefully - that they allow me to see my child, as a conversation with me is clearly more important than chatting to his friends and behaving like a normal child. Or we could kidnap him. We could wait until he is getting back on the coach, and then grab him to allow him the indulgence of a night in his own bed; in his own home. This is my chance. My transformation is nearly complete. I can finally become the sort of parent who stalks their own child. It could be a new TV reality format - a ballet version of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.
Deboulé, Défilé, and Doting Dads.
Pointe, Pirouettes and Persistent Parenting
Why stop at the school trip? This surveillance could become a way of life. He could be exercising at the barre and my face pops up at a window. I could don a chef's uniform and hat and plate up breakfast in the canteen. And that suspicious looking gardner pruning the rose beds? That's me. Skyping will become redundant. My tools will no longer be wifi and iPads. I have rope, a grappling hook and a full range of disguises. I am Peter Sellers with a full range of flamboyant disguises. He won't have to tell me how it is all going, I'll have seen it all with my own eyes.
I just can't believe that it has taken me this long to have this innovational idea.
Of course I'm going to control myself. As hard as it might be, I have the discipline to stay at home and just watch telly. We will be Skyping again tomorrow. But this flight of fancy into a world of Ealing Comedy has served its purpose. It has kept me distracted while our son has been so near, and yet so far.
Next time is all about Fathers and Sons - just in time for Mothers' Day
High Hopes for Half-term part two
Any plans were quickly dashed. The five-year-old got a stomach bug. It was just like The Exorcist. Every two hours, for two days, her eyes rolled back and she vomited. It was relentless, and very unfair. Following these two days of demonic possession, she was in great pain with stomach ache for another day. It was a relief, on the fourth day, when she asked for something to eat. I have never before made marmite on toast with such joy in my heart. As annoying and awful as this was; it meant that we could not do anything for four days. So, my desire for time to give the hard-drive a chance to 'defragment' was fulfilled. Our son became as house-bound as the rest of us, and this brought some benefits. It was the utter antithesis of his time at ballet school, and he seemed to bask in luxury: solitude, timelessness and autonomous activity. He seemed driven in filling this time with the things that normally have to be rushed. His resolve to keep himself busy was admirable. Time was not squandered. The regime and the routine of Ballet School has turned him into an impressive forger of his own destiny. I admire his will and determination to be constructive and creative with his time. I can happily procrastinate for weeks over the smallest of tasks: accounts; catching up with emails; cleaning the garden of dog poo. It seems that his behaviour is symptomatic of not having enough time; and mine is the result of having too much.
Complicated Lego plans were studied and impressive vehicles constructed; novels were devoured; topics were researched on Wikipedia; television was watched. He approaches card magic in the same way he approaches ballet: technique, technique, technique, and then apply some imagination. He can do stuff with cards which genuinely amazes most adults. No need to compromise your expectation because he is only eleven; he can hustle and dupe like a Las Vegas pro. In Ballet, he aspires to be Steven McRae. In card magic he idolises Ricky Jay. These master practitioners from different environs have more in common than just surnames that rhyme. They both amaze and confound their audience; both understand the importance of great story-telling and the art of showmanship; they are both virtuoso in their craft; and they both offer inspiration to an eleven-year-old boy. And all this bustle and activity - Lego, card shuffling, researching, TV - is happening against the background noise of a five-year-old retching and the sound of sick hitting the bottom of a plastic bucket.
She recovered. Five days of the holidays were spent as I had hoped: friends came over to play; grandparents were visited; we went on day trips in the rain; we slumped behind 3D glasses in the cinema. We all slept in, and had late breakfasts. We chatted and joked. The sound I yearned to hear reached me in the kitchen as I washed salad and trimmed beans - a brother and a sister laughing effortlessly because of their own inventiveness as they play.
By the time this post has received 'authorization' and become public, our Monday morning ritual will have been completed and he will be gone for another week. The normality of our family life will have been stolen from us. It is now for me to feel a sickness; lurking ... somewhere ... deep inside.
Next Time, I embark on a flight of fancy.
I probably wouldn't be writing a blog post as confessional as this if I was not currently wrapped up snugly in the warm duvet that is half-term.
'You're not coping very well at all.' These were the words which resonated as she shut the door to go off to work one morning a couple of months. I think there was an additional statement also: 'Perhaps you might consider seeing someone ... you know ... a councillor or therapist.' And then there was the click of the latch as the door fully closed. These words came from the mother of our children - my fiercest and most supportive critic whose perception and ability to be completely honest is only matched by her glorious and hilarious lack of tact. This is not meant as a criticism. If a shock is going to come, I would rather it were short and sharp rather than hesitant and drawn out. As so often during the course of this eighteen-year-long adventure I immediately dismissed her opinion as utter nonsense, only to return to it a few days later as possibly absolutely correct.
I have not been completely honest with you. There are some additional details to share about how this separation between child and family is handled. You know already about the fifteen minute Skype call every day, and the cards that arrive every week, and the occasional package stuffed with random useless stuff that gets brought back eventually anyway. But there are a few things that I have deliberately forgotten to mention in case it make me appear less like an over-involved parent and more like a sociopath.
First, there is 'picture of the day'. Every day I photograph something, and,using a free app on my iPad, crop it, colour it, and re-focus it. I email it to him with a caption and a few words. There is no expectation for him to return the email nor does he need to send a picture. I take photos of moments, people, events, views, food, and I try to write a couple of witty lines to accompany the image. His sister features sometimes, or other people he knows and would be happy to see. I try not to include the dog very often. It would be too easy. I have also set myself a limit on desserts. So far, I have not missed a single day. I enjoy it most when I set myself a theme for a series; all the pictures in December had something to do with Christmas. He told me once that no other child got sent a 'picture of the day'. I'm not sure if his voice was tinged with pride or sadness.
I've also never told you about the YouTube videos, or the links to newspaper articles that I email him. When I was at university, I had a friend whose mother regularly sent her envelopes of newspaper clippings. I thought this was the most wonderful parental response to their separation. It was a way of saying, 'Look, these are all the things we would be discussing and sharing if you were here.' Emailing someone a link is the modern day equivalent of an envelope stuffed with newspaper articles. The YouTube videos I share with him are things I've seen on FaceBook, and I think would make him laugh. Sometimes they connect to something he is doing in science. He is new to email, and I asked him once if he was enjoying this mode of communication. 'It can be a bit stressful keeping up with it,' he replied. At this point I realised that I might be spamming my own child.
I fooled myself that all this activity was for his benefit. Now, I understand that it is also for mine. These are activities that help to dull the pain and fill the emptiness that potentially could overwhelm me between Monday and Saturday; ways of sustaining an invisible connection, or at least the illusion of it.
Someone I know who walks her dog at the same time as me told me a story this week. Her husband had stopped their sixteen-year-old son joining a football team as a young professional, because it was deemed too far away from home. She only found out about this a couple of years ago. When the offer had been made, no one discussed it with her. The son is now an adult with a child of his own. Both mother and son live with regret. They think the father should have let him go. I find this story comforting and reassuring. I completely understand the father.
High Hopes for Half-term
The last five weeks have been gruelling. They seem to have lasted longer than the whole of the Christmas term. There are several reasons for this: the pupils have not had a weekend off, and have attended Saturday school every week; they have been preparing for the annual assessments; the pressure has built up in school and at home. Time as a family in the last few weeks has seemed rushed; we have all been getting used to a new rhythm; he used to come home on a Friday. Now the weekend begins on a Saturday afternoon. So, we find ourselves tripping joyously into half-term. Is it right to be focusing so intently on the holidays that we are wishing away large chunks of our lives?
I haven't booked any work in for the week - except for one conference call. During the last conference call I did at home, connecting people from UK, US, and Australia, the dog unexpectedly decided to bark. I denied that I could hear anything unusual on the line, and said it was probably an antipodean technical gremlin. This time that gremlin could sound like a dog, or either of the children - probably screeching about killing skellybuts on Minecraft.
I have learned my lesson, and with no work booked in, I have just gloriously lowered my expectations. I am not going to plan much; I'll just let events take their own course. I will not be arranging an itinerary of activities or ensuring that every hour of every day is accounted for. He spends his life packing and unpacking bags, so we will not be repeating this activity and carting him off to an airport. Like the hard-drive on an old computer, we'll all just defragment at home. Let's have the chance to catch up, watch movies, play games, go for walks, eat and chat. We will meander and drift lazily through the week. Perhaps, on one day, we will have lunch out. It will be a chance for him not to be in a dormitory, not to always be surrounded by other children, and not to have every second of his day timetabled. I imagine the siblings getting reacquainted and their banter echoing through the house; peals of laughter cascading down the stairs.
Then, as we hurtle towards this blissful week off, I catch myself. I'm walking the dog and the thought hits me - a sobering wet fish slap in the face. I'm being dishonest. I might not be planning a week of activity, but I am putting just as much pressure on all of us. In my head, I am imagining half-term to exist at the very pinnacle of my blue-sky-thinking. I see us as the Waltons, or the idyllic characters from a pastoral, healing and licking our wounds - caused by the excesses of ballet. We are reunited and have returned home for the simple life. We are the dirndl wearing, doh-a-deer singing Von Trapps fleeing formality, tradition and fascism - climbing every mountain. I have no evidence that this is anyone else's fantasy but my own. There are three others involved in this story, and the dog can also prove quite wilful. I am expecting us to instantly develop skills of communication and collaboration that we have probably never possessed. In my head, no-one is squabbling or arguing or getting cross because they were the one to unload the dishwasher ... again. I have forgotten how much time is taken in preparing three meals a day for a whole family - how much salad will be washed, pasta endlessly drained, and toast buttered. I have also forgotten the frustrations of Minecraft, and how hard it is finding activities to suit children who are six years apart in age. Fatally, I haven't asked anyone else what they want, or given them the chance to contribute to this vision. Perhaps, after five weeks intense classical ballet training, he will just want to spend the whole week sucked into YouTube videos - a headphone-wearing zombie pretending that he is just a normal non-communicative eleven-year-old. It is more than likely that our daughter will reject the back-catalogue of Miyazaki cartoons I have planned, because she just wants to watch Tracey Beaker.
Back to the drawing board, or not - as the case may be. I'll let you know.
To be continued ...
The expensive seats
It seems appropriate that the opportunity is seized in blog thirteen to dwell on misfortune. Here goes:
I have reached an age when it is time to face facts. There are some things that are never going to happen. I'll never win an Olympic medal or even represent my country in a sporting event. I'll never sing backing vocals with Aretha Franklin or play tenor saxophone at Ronnie Scott's. My property empire in Knightsbridge has disappeared in a puff of delusionary smoke. I'll never make any of those 'best of young British whatever under forty' lists. There is another thing I will never achieve on this side of shuffling off the mortal coil - I'll never be able to buy the most expensive seats at the Royal Opera House. Whenever we go there, we are tucked up in the slips; sometimes standing, sometimes sitting on a bench, not always being able to see the whole of the stage. On one occasion, more recently we splashed out on the more extravagant amphitheatre seats - £45 pounds for the privilege of seeing the whole stage but from up in the distant clouds. I'm not complaining. I didn't mind doing this as a treat. I thoroughly enjoyed the ballet. Someone once asked me if I would ever consider buying a couple of top price seats for the enjoyment of our son. Assuming that this wasn't an offer, I snorted with derision and advised them to go online to see how much the most expensive seats really were. The follow up conversation involved a sombre: 'Yes, I see what you mean.'
I used to walk past the Royal Opera House often as the audience were coming out at night. Throngs of people dressed in their finery still buzzing at the experience of live orchestral music, brilliant costumes and virtuoso spins and jumps. These people would almost float out into the evening and into the warmth of the waiting taxis. I sometimes used to do the maths: four tickets, taxis, a meal, some interval drinks, perhaps ice cream - there is not much change from £1500. If I spend £50 on a night out, I feel extravagant; convinced that my moral failing will lead to a shameful demise. I am almost certain that I will never be in a position to spend thirty times that amount. Never say never.
There is something about the Royal Opera House which supports everything I find disgusting about the status quo in this country. If you can afford it, your experience is a completely different one - you don't have to squint and strain, or wish you were sitting somewhere else, or feel inferior, or try and get the binoculars out with a pen-knife. And yet, on the other hand, there is also something gloriously democratic about the ROH; if you book early enough there are seats for £15 and standing places for £9 or £5. In theory, no-one is excluded - you just might not get the best view. This is something that I love about the place. Going to see something - anything - in that building should be on everyone's to-do or bucket list.
Here is another anecdote for the unlucky thirteenth blog:
I bumped into someone recently who said that they thought that we - the parents - were somehow behind our child's interest and involvement in ballet. They had not realised that we were just the reluctant chauffeurs and disinclined chaperones. It had only occurred to them recently that we were the victims of a family ripped apart by the ballet establishment. The assumption had been that we were feverish supporters of high art, and he was fulfilling our dream rather than his own. I was incredulous.
But this perhaps strikes at the root of all my problems in adult life, which are only exacerbated by our son being away at ballet school. I look (and sound) like I belong in the expensive seats, but actually I'm far happier in the cheaper ones ... with a slightly restricted view.
P.S. The thing with the pen-knife and the binoculars is just a joke. I have never ever tried this method of releasing the mechanism, but someone once told me that it could be done. I am certainly not endorsing this activity, and I imagine that, technically, it is theft.
Next time ... High Hopes
You probably get the picture by now. I'm an 'enmeshed' parent who loves too much. Please see blog five and blog eleven. A symptom of this dysfunction is that I often send him stuff. Most often I send a card with a cheerful cartoon of a viking, or an airborne pirate or a cheeky child vampire; something to break the week up. It's better than email. I've chosen it, written on it, licked the envelope, and now it's physically there with him. Perhaps sub-atomic particles are leaving my fingers and travelling to him by Royal Mail. We are touching through the post. Every so often, a card with its micro-particle contact is not enough, and I put something in a box. These are cheap glittery boxes that I buy from the Scandinavian chain, Tiger. They are probably a bit bigger than a shoe box. I fill them with biscuits, sweets, lollies, stickers, popping candy. Once I thought it would be fun to pop in a brain: life-sized, made of foamy rubber.
His response: 'Why did you send me a brain?'
My reply: 'I dunno. It fitted in the box.'
It would appear that there is nothing that eleven and twelve year-old boys like more than a shoe-sized box. When the boxes arrive, there is a clamouring, apparently, not for the contents, but for the box itself. In fact, the demands are so persistent that I might see if Amazon - our ersatz grandparent (please see blog eleven!) - will dispatch enough empty shoeboxes to keep all the boys in his cohort equipped, and happy.
Of course I can't help but speculate why there is a premium attached to such a simple object. This is a surprise to me. I don't think I was ever a child more interested in the packaging than in the content. I am sure that I was never the child in the urban myth who ignored the gift, so that the box could be a boat, or a rocket, or a train. Even now, I enjoy a Toblerone because of the mix of honey, and almonds and chocolate. The prism shaped box bores me. In fact, I am much happier now you can buy Toblerone pieces wrapped separately in a packet - save me the hassle; I can eat them faster and the box just got in the way. And, let's face it, when wielded with enough force, the cardboard edges can be a bit dangerous.
The ballet boys live together. Every waking hour is spent in each other's company and - a bit like livestock- they are herded together during sleeping hours too. So why, in these conditions, might a box become such a desired object?
I imagine that when so many boys are living together, and all their stuff is literally and figuratively spilling out into the room: hair product, toiletries, pens, phone chargers, rivalry, home-sickness and angst; there is a need to have it all contained. What could be more useful or more attractive than a glittery shoe-box? It is portable, practical and adheres to William Morris' principal to never own anything that isn't both useful and aesthetically pleasing. Within a box, any mess can easily be concealed; order can be maintained; items of value can be secured. The boys' lives in the dormitory are always visible - there is no time or space to hide or rest, so a box affords them a place of privacy and a chance of secrecy. When the lights are on and the noise levels are high, they know that there is a place where it is still dark and quiet, and a tiny part of them is nestled safely within. Their innermost psyche is safe. The lid fits.
I fully understand why, with all the pressures of boarding school life and the discipline of ballet, a box has such high valiue.
It's also a really good place to keep your sweets.
Next time I am going to write about the expensive seats.
Loving too much
Daniel Kish is an innovative and maverick teacher. He is the president of World Access for the Blind. Daniel Kish teaches others how to echo-locate. He has been blind since early childhood. You may have seen the video of him riding a bike on YouTube. He maps out the territory in his mind by making a clicking sound. He lives independently: works, hikes and travels. His radical theory is that in our 'civilised' culture, we are encouraging dependence by the way we assist people with disabilities. I listened to an interview with him on the NPR radio show, Invisibilia. He claims that we are to a degree complicit in an act of infantilising, and another model for assisting those with a disability might be more desirable. When he works with very young children, one of the first things he must establish with the parent or carer is that they do not interfere - this is quite a demand when you are watching your visually impaired five-year-old about to step off the pavement on a collision course with oncoming traffic. No-one was going to let the child jump to his death, but Daniel Kish's point is that we intervene too early. In less extreme circumstances - like climbing trees, riding bikes and other outdoor adventures - he maintains that we have become way too precious about a few cuts and bruises. We heal. There is something shocking that Daniel Kish says. It resonates with me. He says that we love too much, and parental love is an obstacle to growth. There can be no growth without burden, and so, the logical conclusion is that too much love prevents growth. I have been obsessively thinking about this idea over the last couple of weeks.
I grew up in a family in which self-sacrifice was an indication of how much we loved. Every occasion was a possible opportunity to selflessly prove the strength of family love. The currency of this transaction was varied: food, money, and time could all be given up. I am now left with the nagging suspicion that I have somehow been damaged by so much parental involvement. The fact that they drove me to Jazz Orchestra, or picked me up from Choir Practice meant that I missed out on a valuable chance to get the bus and grow. Is this the reason that I feel like such an underachiever? Would my pathological sloth have not set in had I climbed on the bus on a cold dark Monday evening? That baritone saxophone was pretty heavy, but I'd own several properties in the South of France by now, if my parents hadn't taken pity on me, and offered me a lift. I would have learned independence and tenacity.
I probably cooked my first family meal when I was fifteen. I remember it clearly. It was chicken pieces which I ingeniously coated using smashed up salt and vinegar flavour crisps. Up until that point I had been blissfully catered for: five star service from parents who sacrificed their time by coming up with an endless array of different meals; always home-made, always fresh produce, and always - before it became trendy - locally sourced, or grown in the garden. Now I understand that my parents were actually neglecting me with indulgence. They are to blame for my daughter's complaints that I always cook the same stuff. She is five. So it is not generosity that makes her refer to what I do in the kitchen as 'cooking'. I don't cook. I 'prepare'. And I only prepare two meals: baked potatoes and salad; pasta and salad. I blame my parents. My father was a DIY genius. I can't even hang a picture, never mind shelves. His fault. Now my addiction to eBay, Amazon and Ocado is clear. They are online replacement for the parental mollycoddling of my childhood; a love that never ends as long as I can afford to keep clicking on 'Confirm Order'.
It's very hard not to indulge our son. We spend the week parenting remotely. When he is distraught, I send an email to the pastoral staff at school. They are caring, conscientious and brilliant. I don't expect him to initiate the resolution himself - he is only eleven. When he has forgotten something or run out of something, I put a replacement in the post, or rather I get someone from an online retailer to put it in the post for me. Does this make Amazon a surrogate grand-parent? I have an overwhelmingly strong need to show him, in the only way I can, I love him. Perhaps I am cultivating dependency, and denying him the chance to grow.
There is so much that children who are at boarding school have to do for themselves. He packs his own bags at weekends, organises his own laundry, gets himself organised for school and makes sure he is in the right place at the right time. He has now started sewing his own ballet shoes. I imagine that if you are a teacher at boarding school, there is one thing you can be certain of - the children do their own homework without any parental involvement. No spellings have been corrected, no grammar amended, no maths double-checked, or essays pre-planned. By virtue of our absence, our son is having to learn for himself, and with regard to his dancing, I am no help whatsoever.
Still, there is something about Daniel Kish's words that sits uneasily. I worry that I love him too much. When our son next comes home from school, he might be in for a shock. Vegetable stir-fry is one of his favourite meals. He is only home for just over twenty-four hours, but on Sunday, he'll be spending several of those hours chopping onions and red-peppers and washing bean-sprouts and broccoli. Changing my behaviour will mean that his development will not be stunted by too much love. He'll also be doing the washing up.
DVD extra - The Making of ...
When I started writing this blog - only a month ago - I had never imagined that it would ever reach the readership that it has; especially astonishing as it has happened in only four weeks. I had imagined the number of hits to be in the tens. If it had been in the hundreds I would have been amazed. The fact that the number of people who find this interesting exceeds even this, leaves me feeling overwhelmed, but very happy. I am in a state of befuddlement.
People have been in touch to say that they understand the dilemmas that we as a family are facing: some are parents themselves; many say that they have absolutely no interest in ballet but enjoy it nonetheless; all have at some stage in their lives been children. Among the emails that I have received, people say that they are enjoying the honesty, the confusion, and the way I am wearing my bleeding heart on an internet-shaped sleeve. In my head I am writing the Tarantino-like story of a family ripped apart by ballet. Those who kindly take the time to read it are welcome to find whatever meaning in it they choose.
I have been contacted from all over the world; I think from every continent. It would appear that a good story travels, and in our complicated modern world, the distances involved are difficult to fathom. It would be easy for me to become overwhelmed, over-enthusiastic, perhaps even manic: to no longer understand the delicate boundary between honest disclosure and exhibitionist indulgence. Also, there is a child involved - the most important consideration by far. In fact, by association, there are many children involved. This is why, I set myself some guidelines before I started writing. I wanted to be clear about what this blog is, and to be able to offer reassurances to others involved in the story. So here it is, a DVD extra: The Making of Ballet Dad Blog.
One day I'll tell you all the things I leave out.
Next time is all about loving too much and making mistakes