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.
Sink or Swim
This summer I realised that I am not as immune as I has previously thought to the effects of ageing; I had not made the link between the greying hair, the permanent frown lines, the need to calorie count and now being in my mid-forties. I have been engaging in self-deception ... again. The summer holidays were so blissful, because we nearly forgot all about ballet - except for one slight nuisance. Our son needed to maintain his cardio-vascular fitness. The normal running around of a twelve year old is not sufficient apparently for someone in full time vocational ballet training. So, we went swimming. Especially towards the end of the holiday, we went nearly every day. We assumed the unnecessary habit of swimming together in the same lane - a watery convoy. He's a strong and elegant swimmer; efficient, sleek and graceful. And, I would swim behind.
Aside from swimming lengths, we would also play racing games and diving games, hiding plastic clam shells for one another under the water and then racing to find them. I'm not ashamed to admit that it gives me a tremendous sense of pride to be able to announce that I am the stronger swimmer. Even at 45, I am faster, more agile and I can hold my breath for far longer which gives me an unfair advantage in the diving competitions. This makes me want to punch the air, clench my back teeth and shout, 'Yessss!'
There is a reason behind this child-like celebration of a Pyrrhic victory. Before the father and son underwater Olympics commence, we would swim lengths in the way described. He would swim first and I would follow. He set the pace and I fell into line. He decided how many lengths we would swim, and I would. This swimming of lengths is what gave rise to the sense of time passing and my own mortality. I may be the faster and more experienced swimmer, but he is the the more resilient. After about twenty minutes or so of ploughing along the lane, I would begin to tire. As the end of each length approached, I would think, 'This is it. This has to be the last one.' And then, with the mechanical precision of a well tempered machine, he would begin the next. Each time, I would react as much as it is possible to breathe a sigh of regret when swimming front crawl. Every time I caught sight of him kicking off to continue our marathon of lengths, I'd silently plead, 'Please let this be the last one.' And so it would continue: the son effortless and steadily gliding along, length after length; the father hoping that each length would be the last.
Eventually he would stop. He'd turn to me with an exhausted expression and say, 'Sorry, Daddy, but I think I've had enough now.'
'That's fine, Son.' I would say. 'You're only young, of course that's enough.' I would be nonchalant, casual, deliberately patronising, and hope that he didn't notice every pore in my body exhaling with relief. We'd have a few minutes' rest, and then I'd beat him in all the games.
I'm impressed by the way he swims; tenacious, systematic and resolute. And once again, our son challenges me as he sets an example. My rhythm of swimming is different. I swim in bursts that are powerful and direct, but hard to sustain for longer than ten or at most fifteen minutes. Perhaps this applies to the way I live my life. I am very efficient at fulfilling the short-term needs of myself and those around me, but I neglect the long-term. My patterns of behaviour involve short sharp bursts of energy that get stuff done but leave me exhausted. Swimming in the pillion position has given me new knowledge of what it feels like to just keep going. This is perhaps the mind-set which makes him want to excel at something so difficult, and why my talent seems to lie in finding immediate solutions, and initiating flurries of activity. The thought of long-term projects make me gasp and splutter - almost as if drowning in panic. I need to learn how to keep going, inexhaustibly. For me, the concern has never been about whether I sink or swim, or about the distance that I can complete, but for how long I can keep afloat while simply treading water.
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 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.
A week ago I woke up - like many others - feeling disillusioned, angry and sick. We enjoy a good election in our house, and this one was no exception. The build-up prompted some healthy discussion, even if we observed that the campaigns might have been driven more by policy rather than personality, and we settled into the twenty-four hour period of voting and counting, analysis and results with hope and anticipation. It seems foolish now to have believed in the Conservative majority decreasing rather than increasing. At best I was expecting a Labour / SNP coalition, at worse I was expecting a hung parliament and another election in eighteen months. I suppose that anyone who has been figuratively or literally hit by a train claims that they didn't see it coming.
Apparently debate was also rife at the ballet school. A speaker had been engaged from the House of Lords - he couldn't remember her name, but it began with 'Baroness'. They had had a mock vote, and despite the hard work of an eleven-year-old fighting for the arts, the Conservative Party had won; an unsurprising result, but apparently, a surprisingly narrow margin. My first thought in the early hours of Friday morning was 'it's a catastrophe beyond imagining'. My second thought was, 'what do I tell our son?'
We've brought our children up free from religion, but with a strong moral belief - be kind, and, be inclusive. We have simplified the right / left divide as 'there are those who believe in making individual wealth a priority, and there are those who believe that supporting communities is a priority.' Perhaps we oversimplify the matter. We have also taught them to make up their own minds. They can vote for whichever party they feel supports the epithet: be kind and be inclusive. We've also made it clear that if they vote Tory, they have to find somewhere else to live. (That last one is a joke!)
I only get to see him for a day and a half, so I didn't want the political state of the country to impact too heavily on family time. He said he was 'disappointed' and a 'bit upset', and then asked how I was coping. I echoed his sentiments rather than explaining that I was trying to deal with uncontainable rage and the paralysis of sadness. I felt like the dad who encourages his son to support a really crap football team; destined to a life of misery until the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates buys the club and invests in better players. The fortunes of Manchester City Football Club, are not going to be repeated for the Labour Party. So, I'm left with the remorse of having brought my children up to support a potentially really crap team.
It is the realisation that hurts the most - thirty-seven percent of this country do not seem to believe in either inclusivity or kindness. They support a party that advocates twelve billion in welfare cuts while raising the 40% tax threshold for the wealthy, and eliminating inheritance tax for estates under a million. Day-centres will close, provision for the vulnerable will become more scarce, families will lose their homes if they dare to have a spare bedroom. People are being made homeless while businesses are being given 'the most competitive taxes of any major economy'. Against this paradoxical and hypocritical backdrop of austerity, we have a son whose dreams are not to be a banker, lawyer or GP. His vocation is to dance in classical ballet, and his training depends on a huge grant from the Department of Education. 'The time is out of joint. O cursed Spite.' What do we tell him?
We explain that nearly thirty-one percent of the electorate believe as we do. (Add an additional five percent of SNP voters, if you wish.) And, next time we will be better organised. Meanwhile, we will fight. We'll fight for the NHS, and the Human Rights Act. We'll give a voice to those who are made to live on society's periphery through no fault of their own. We'll support the arts - theatre, dance, film and music - because we believe it essentially feeds our soul even though it doesn't make money. We won't demonise those whose opinions we disagree with, and even though they are in power, we'll remain respectful and dignified. And as his father, it's my job to reassure him that as he grows up, there are many others who also believe, deep in their hearts, in being inclusive and kind.
Fathers and Sons - part one
'Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.'
Shakespeare's Henry IV (both parts) focuses on a father and son who do not initially share the same values. The vicious circle spirals. The father disapproves while the son looks after his own juvenile needs. Each adopts a temporary surrogate. For Henry, it is the impetuous but decisive Hotspur; for Hal it is the cowardly but doting Falstaff. Hal's rebellion burns itself out eventually, and the surrogate father is spurned. Reconciliation plays out at the very last moment. Meanwhile, Hotspur, the surrogate son, has initiated a more official and perilous rebellion - one that involves overthrowing the king rather than simply hanging out with some drunken buffoons.
And so, this is the archetypal model of the universe. The father sets an example. The son refuses to follow it, but discord eventually leads to mutual appreciation. My father worked hard. These were the days before David Beckham taught men how to parent. My Dad provided for us and his provision justified his lack of involvement. He was a loyal employee and honoured the system in which he served; moderate ambition allowing him to climb a certain way up a very particular ladder. He was sociable, well-liked and believed in doing more than his duty. His life depended on a rock-solid faith in an ideology bigger than him. He served an indelible sense of order and justice - a concrete world view.
In my teens I rejected this way of thinking, and I still do. I believe in hard work, but I am an iconoclast. I like to challenge, and refute. My success and my downfall has been caused by the same quality - an ability to analyse with clarity, and when necessary urge for reclassification, regardless of the sanctity of the status quo. I speak the truth - as far as I see it - and I am contemptuous of anyone who doesn't. For me, servile compliance is worthless and expedient. My father practised temperance. I yield to excess.
This is the natural way. It is as it should be. We never argued, but I think we found each other perplexing. We lived our lives as different species - a differing understanding of what it means to be a man. However, my father and I have been robbed of the story's inevitable conclusion. The universe of justice and order, whose principles he served decided to steal his memory, and also his ability to be fully present. Areas of his brain no longer work as they once did. This gross injustice has denied us the effortless reconciliation and appreciation that a father's old age can bring. There are days, now, when he no longer recognises me. This is not the end we had anticipated. I had hoped for a gentle, mutual, long-lasting acceptance. We only glimpsed from afar what we nearly had.
I watch my son in a ballet class. He has a strength and a determination that I do not recognise. He dances with a love that I appreciate but do not fully understand. Perhaps his joining this hierarchical world of ballet is his form of rebellion - conformity is radical when you are raised by individualists. In the last few months he has been changing. There are clues of the man he will become - strong, tenacious, gentle and full of grace. He is taller, leaner and more sinewy. My own process with my father has been regrettably lost. I will retaliate. I will thwart the natural scheme of a son rejecting a father's values. I will seek to understand ballet and be less of a renegade. And we will treasure our collective memory. I will make it something permanent. I will blog.