Fathers and Sons Part 2
I feel a bit 'Bah Humbug' about Fathers' Day, to be honest. I don't ever recall it happening when I was a child. I don't remember writing my father a card or ever giving him a present. This would imply that it is a more recent invention - a conspiracy of commercialism. Something to get cards and gifts sold, and restaurant tables booked. If the money is staying in the local economy, this is no bad thing, especially in these times of austerity.
One of the reasons that I don't remember giving my dad treats on Fathers' Day is perhaps because the man rarely sat still. When I was a child, I never saw him with his feet up reading the paper, or asking to be left alone while he sat around doing nothing. He was restlessly productive from morning until night. I have no memory of him watching television. It has been claimed that we watched Doctor Who together - in the days when you could still follow the plots, and the set wobbled - but I don't actually remember this happening. My memory is of him making wooden toys, or go-karts, or getting his car ready for its MOT with the help of a Haynes Manual. Or, he used to inflict endless DIY and decorating on our desire for a well-ordered environment. It always looked brilliant when he had finished; until the next project commenced. Constructing a few cold frames in the garden was nothing. On one house he built the extension himself. I only know of him going to the cinema twice, and one of those was Star Wars. That doesn't really count. Everyone in 1977 went to see Star Wars. The last thing in the world that he would have wanted on Fathers' Day was insistence that he stop for a few hours while we all gather around him with treats. He'd have just found us irritating. It now seems tragic, rather than ironic that he is no longer able to do any of these things, and, I fear, he may have little recollection of ever having done them.
I wonder what memories my own children will have of Fathers' Day. The downside of being so relentlessly dissident and anti-capitalist is that people take you seriously. So, when I said that I didn't want any cards or any of the other trappings of a made-up crappy excuse to get people to part with their cash, I meant it. But, I still got a bit grumpy as I was making lunch. What did I expect? When could the eleven year old have done something? He is incarcerated in Ballet School six days a week and needs his only free 45 minutes a day to keep his head together. Did I really imagine him to be colouring in a picture of a racing car, or a tractor, or a golfer during this precious three-quarters of an hour? And the six year old? She had been advised by her (adult) cousin on the phone the night before to just give me a hug; which she did. That'll do. Any evidence that she isn't a sociopath - our greatest fear in life - is gratefully acknowledged.
So, how will they reflect on their dad when they are older? I expect they will say that he watched a lot of TV, and did some writing; that he had a pathological fear of anything practical like gardening or DIY, and they will probably say that the greatest love in his life was ice cream and sweets. They will also probably mention that he was an iconoclast who hated the Tories, and that he only had two modes of operating: merriment - when everything is silly and fun; and martyr - when he lets everyone know how much he suffers ... like on Fathers' Day.
I hope your Fathers' Day was okay.
The Futility of an Education
I have spent some of the weekend helping our daughter to read made-up words. This is because of a phonics test which all children of her age are required to take. Someone in the government - probably Michael Gove at the time - thought it would be a good idea to ask children to read fictional words rather than real ones. English spelling is difficult enough. These fictional words are referred to as pseudo-words. Here are some examples from last year's test: 'flam', 'voisk', 'quigh' 'jorb', 'herks'. These have been quite difficult to type, as my autocorrect insists that they are other words - real ones. There are about twenty-five of these pseudo-words on the test. Our daughter's teacher has explained to me that many children have an inbuilt autocorrect of their own, and so will read a word incorrectly, saying a real word, rather than the pseudo-word. They will read 'job', for example, rather than 'jorb'. I think these children should receive extra marks rather than be penalised.
About a year ago, an exercise circulated around Facebook that proved we read the words we expect to read rather than the ones on the page. The document replaced some letters with numbers, and it was still possible to make perfect sense from the writing, and read it at a usual speed. For adults this is an entertaining digression which proves how we rarely read what is actually on the page; for children, trying to make sense of made-up words is infuriating. Understandably, our daughter does not enjoy being tested in this way. We've had a couple of tantrums about going to school. I've been sympathetic.
Occasionally, our son expresses his disappointment that the range of subjects he studies at school is not broader. With all the ballet and dance, there is little time for anything other than core subjects. There is no IT, media, or design, The only foreign language he studies is French. I know that he would like to learn Spanish, or German or Latin. However, he has a sound knowledge of Ballet History, and a practical understanding of several European folk dances, including Morris dance, and Hungarian Folk dance. This is how he spends his time when he is not in the Ballet studio or studying the core academic subjects.
I went to an academic school. Not only did we learn Latin, but we spent some time looking at The Odyssey - in English translation, it was a state school, after all. Culturally, we seem to view some subjects as having more value than others. In my adult life, I have used very little of the Latin that I learned at school, and even less of the Physics or Chemistry. Yet, these are perceived as worthy subjects - suggesting that my achievement is the result of valuable intellectual rigour. For our son, I imagine that Folk Dance is a useful subject, and History of Ballet certainly implies an intellectual rigour - depending on how it is taught. To suggest that one subject is more important or useful than another is purely subjective - a view founded in intellectual snobbery and cultural habit.
My daughter, on the other hand, will never have to read made-up words again, and I hope that I never have to type the vile phrase 'pseudo-words' ever again. The sounding out of random made-up words without context is a complete waste of everyone's time.
Another Loss - This Time Weight
This blog carries a parental advisory label. If you are squeamish, sensitive or are in any way repulsed by the exhibitionist tendencies displayed in the last blog, you would be advised to look away, or stop reading now. There is also some very mild swearing. You've been warned ... Mum.
I am less of a man than I used to be. This is a literally true. Indirectly, this is a result of our son's involvement in Ballet. Long before he started at the Ballet School, I would often stand and wait for him to come out of class. The teachers would often be out waiting while the children were still in the changing room, and we would stand and chat. Ballet teachers are often young, attractive and thin - this is Fact One. I'm just putting it out there. The parents would also wait. The parents of Ballet Children are often middle age, prosperous and sit at desks all day. This is Fact Two. Between Fact One and Fact Two rests an awkward gap. Delusional as I may be, I considered myself stuck somewhere in this gap. I clearly didn't belong to the Ballet Teachers of Fact One. But, I surely wasn't a member of the parent group of Fact Two. I didn't look like them either ... Or so I thought.
Here is Fact Three: The mother of our children describes one of my most endearing qualities as having the sensibilities and preferences of a teenage American girl. Dawson's Creek, My So-Called Life and Hart of Dixie have the same value to me as Hamlet or Othello. Well perhaps this is not quite the case for Hart of Dixie - but I still really enjoy it. Please bear this fact in mind if you continue reading to the point where all three facts converge. This is going to be a long story.
It was November 2013 - I remember the event clearly. I was working away and staying in an luxurious hotel. There was a set of scales in the bathroom, and one evening I thought I'd have a little experiment - just for a laugh - and see how much I weigh. The digital number reached 90 Kilos (for stone, just divide by 6). This could not be right. The last time I weighed myself, I had been 75 Kilos. That had been sixteen years ago, when I was twenty-seven. I stood off the scales, and stood back on again. The figure remained the same. I breathed in. I made myself taller. No change. I went to my iPad and looked up the healthy weight for my height. I was firmly into the overweight section and beginning to convincingly approach the fiery red part of the graph - according to the NHS, I was nearly obese. I had never really thought about why I always needed to wear baggy clothes, and my reluctance to wear just a t-shirt in summer. It also explains that whenever I got measured for a suit, or bought a new pair of trousers, I assumed that I had some temporary bloating owing to something I'd eaten, probably oats.
I was clearly experiencing severe denial, and this is the point where the three facts converge. I looked nothing like those young healthy ballet teachers; I was definitely one of the parents. I looked at our ballet dancing son, and realised that he is going to grow taller, leaner and stronger, and I was going to become heavier, less active and even more middle aged. Thankfully, there is a Teenage American girl locked away in my heart, so I knew what I had to do. I had to start preserving my youth. It took a year. I made sure that on no day did I exceed two thousand calories, and on some days I carefully only consumed six hundred. I weighed myself every three weeks, and hoped to see a 3 kilo loss each time. I became an expert in nutrition. I know how many calories are in a piece of toast and marmite, and how many are in a baked potato and cottage cheese. I didn't deny myself sweets, but ate fewer and realised that they counted to that day's calorie allowance. On our last family holiday, I ate ice-cream only once. I still avoid pastry, white bread, anything with cream in it, and surprisingly, hummus. I eat salad every day, and make it more exciting by adding jalapeños and hemp seeds. I am wary of sun-dried tomatoes. I researched all I could about fasting and a calorie restricted life-style; and found some reasonably convincing links to Alzheimer's prevention (please see my last blog). I started to swim daily - sometimes twice a day, and now I have again began to run regularly. I'm over twenty kilos lighter than on that day in November 1993. When I look in the mirror, I am surprised by the person looking back. I appear older and more care worn. I don't notice the loss of weight.
Oprah once declared her weight loss to be the biggest achievement of her life. With all her wealth and influence, I cannot understand how this is true. I do not consider it an achievement. I find sustaining this healthy life-style irritating. The attention to detail is exhausting. I miss most the permission I used to give myself to be passionate about sweets and ice-cream. Give me a bag of gelatine-free 'Percy Pigs', and I am as happy as a different kind of pig in the proverbial sh*t. I still wouldn't dream of getting on a train without them, or the sour jelly caterpillars that they also sell at M & S. There's an ice-cream place not far from where I live where they know me by name, and I have their number so I can call and pre-order cinnamon flavour if I am going in that day. This is absolutely true, they used to make a batch just for me. I haven't phoned for a while. It feels like we've split up. We just grew apart. I still go in now and again, and I perceive a sadness in their eyes. They miss me.
When my belt begins to feel tight, I panic. This never used to be the case. I never noticed - it was always tight, especially after lunch. I'm concerned where this transformation will lead next. Will I be dying my hair to hide the grey? Simon Cowell white teeth? Spray tan? When the metamorphosis is complete will I resemble someone from TOWIE?
A couple of months ago, we were getting on the bus. Our son turned to me and said, "Dad, for a man your age, you have the most amazing posture." He's a ballet dancer in training. He knows all there is to know about posture. I ignore the bit about my age, and think about this comment. I imagine I am wearing it like a badge of pride. I'll have a t-shirt made. I'm nearly forty-five. I have "great posture". I'm so happy.
"Who wants to live forever? I get untold satisfaction from the pleasures of the feast." - Templeton the Rat in Charlotte's Web.
The Imaginary Machete
There will be two blogs this week ... probably. Both will tell a personal story. If this is not your thing, just fast forward to next week, when it will again be about boarding-schools and ballet, and the family left behind.
I had a strange realisation this morning as I was doing my usual Monday flirtation with urban rush-hour traffic. He had been dropped off at school, ten minutes later than normal, but still in time for registration. The delay had been caused by a rant. I had been having an enjoyable rant and lost track of time. Then, on the way home I realised something about how I've been behaving over the last few months. I think that I've been acting as if stuck in a strange sort of Limbo - that place where unbaptised souls are sent, as they qualify neither for heaven nor hell. My own personal Limbo is suddenly finding myself to have both a missing father and an absent son; one lost to Alzheimer's and the other astray owing to his service to Classical Ballet (admittedly, he comes home at weekends). To be honest, I would not have chosen this for either of them. It just happened.
This synchronicity would only happen in well plotted novels.
I realised while driving home that I was presenting a version of myself to the world which fluctuated between joylessness - at its worse - and - at its best - a state of being broken-hearted. Not a great deal of fun for those around me, I imagine. I definitely have a feeling that even if something is not exactly broken, then something is certainly in need of repair. I'm not exhausted; but I am nearly always tired; I'm not depressed, but I am certainly teetering on the abyss of hopelessness. I'm still productive and I am writing a lot; but this is not my usual level of functioning. Although, some of what I'm writing is actually quite good.
In my view, there is no happy face to Alzheimer's. Any suggestion to the contrary is deceitful sentimentality. Still Alice gets it about right. We know how the story ends, and our anticipation of this ending overwhelms any present moments of joy. There is little comic potential in someone getting lost, or putting the remote control in the freezer, or forgetting their grandchild's name, or no longer being able to ask when they need to use the bathroom. All I see is fear. All I smell is a lingering loss of dignity. Eventual failure is inevitable. I haven't lived in the same house as my dad for over twenty years, but I am now trying to reconcile the cruelty of his condition every day. Both my father and my son are on my mind all the time. For very different reasons, contacting both of them is difficult.
It would perhaps be overdramatic to describe this process as a 'grieving'. Freud suggests that detaching is the primary step in the grieving process. The aim of this process is to return to 'normal functioning'. Detachment is just not an option when you are still required to be someone's dad - even when they do not live with you during the week; and it is certainly not possible when you are someone's son, but you are struggling to remember what he was once like as a father. All my efforts are spent trying to engage with how my dad is now, and I feel a failure.
Unlike Heaven, Hell (and Purgatory, if you wish), those who find themselves in Limbo do not deserve to be there. It just happens. They have become cosmically stuck. But, Limbo is a jungle, not a desert. In a desert, effort is futile. Your feet sink in the baking sand - until the energy gradually drains from you, and you are either rescued, which is unlikely, or you die. Jungles require activity. I will thrash and splice with an imaginary machete - relentless and violent. The pathway I clear must be easy to find. I may be treading it again and again. Perhaps others will need to find the pathway also. I will try to move forward in a straight line. An earthly Limbo can't go on forever.
Next time ... an unexpected transformation which happens to the Dad when the Son starts doing ballet.