The Real Cost of Ballet
You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying...
Lydia Grant in Fame
I wrote about taboos in my last blog, so I thought that I would just keep going with this one too ...
The car just had to be fixed, again. It was starting reliably from cold, but then failing to restart an hour or so later. Just before Christmas I spent about two hundred quid on it because the hot air blower had broken - there was no way to defrost the windscreen. This time it was the temperature gauge - which, I am told, controls the choke. The symbolic implication is not lost on me: inefficient hot air and an inability to gauge the temperature. Perhaps, it is time I face up to things.
There has been an elephant in the room for a long while. You may have noticed an issue that I very occasionally skirt around, but am too scared to mention outright: the real cost of ballet. Eighteen months ago I left a prestigious but relatively badly paid job to become self-employed and hawk myself out as a consultant. Ironically, while I have sacrificed a sense of financial security, and a degree of self esteem, I make the same amount of money as before but with considerably less effort. Now I just go into a place, do my job and leave; before I was dealing with political issues, staff issues, and matters of personality. I have been set free. My days are spent fulfilling a new intrinsic sense of purpose: I write, I swim, I walk the dog, I work, I procrastinate, I notice the life that is going on around me. There are also days in which I work; I 'consult'. I am simultaneously more at ease and more on edge. I know what I am doing there is a risky plan. My main source of anxiety is whether I will have the courage to see it through. Doing all this at this time of my life was foolish. Giving up the security of my poorly paid job was stupid, because the huge nagging fear at the back of my mind all the time is the literal cost of ballet. The sword of Damocles will eventually descend and crush my skull, and it will be in the form of a ballet-school invoice.
Our son and I am involved in a sort of financial trade-off. I have decided to take some time to invest in my own quite risky venture at the same time as we are investing in another risky venture - the professional ballet career of a twelve year old. I am now nearly at the end of my second year of paying for his tuition, so it is only now that I really understand the financial implications. By now, I could have bought two new small cars. I wouldn't be involved in the false and futile economy of patching up my twenty-year-old pile of rust; we'd be driving around in something that still purrs when it drives and still smells of the factory polish. Once a year, I take my car to the Albanians down the road, it comes back smelling of cleaning product, but let's face it, even with their 'gold' service, it still looks crap. Every night I go to bed dreaming of the car I would drive - how as a family we are sailing through the British country-side in something sleek, smooth and silent. And every morning I wake up to the harsh reality of a stumpy clunky hatchback which is slowly being replaced entirely, part by part.
But, it is not all about the money. We are involved in another trade off. We are reaping value from the investment in the moment. We have a son who is fulfilled and positive - he has a belief in something greater than himself, and understands the importance of keeping his dream alive. He is playful, curious and focused. He is learning that effort brings its own reward. He climbed into an institution as I climbed out of one; he, too, is learning to deal with some quite complex situations and surprising personalities. He is growing in strength and independence, and learning the value of being resolute and single minded. If, for whatever reason, it all ends tomorrow, it will not have been a waste of time, effort or money. He is carving out an experience for himself that is unique.
My real concern is for my daughter. I dread the day that she says to me:
It's okay, dad. You can pay me my money in two instalments - the first when I turn eighteen, and the second when I graduate.
This conversation occurs every night in my nightmares ... just at the point when I see my brand new car disappear into the sunset.
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.
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.