Monday, December 15, 2014

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Book Notes: Where Memories Go by Sally Magnusson

I first came across this book when I heard the author reading an edited version of it on Radio4.. I was doing something as mundane as driving home with the weekly shopping, but couldn't leave the car until the end of the episode. It is not just that I recognised her voice (she is after all on 'Reporting Scotland' every week), or that one of the first 'proper books' I ever read was her biography of Eric Liddel; my attention was so arrested because this book used the most beautifully moving prose to open up a dark and painful world about which I knew almost nothing.

Magnusson writes as if directly to her mother, the celebrated Scottish journalist Mamie Baird, observing her, as dementia steadily weakens, confuses, frightens, bewilders and detaches her; and finally takes her life. Magnusson writes so well and loads her narrative with such telling recollections and observations that the reader is drawn right into what would otherwise be a very private tragedy. As such it is no easy reading, not because it is academically or intellectually demanding, but because it is so very real. It is always the case that love has the power to amplify loss and this is a book written out of a deep and affecting love. Who cannot help but be profoundly affected when they read that in a rare moment of lucidity her mother says, "I am travelling down a long road away from myself"? Who, but the utterly stone-hearted could fail to ache with empathy when they read of this family saying to their confused and angry Mother, "Why do you have to fight?" to be told "Because that's all I can do now."?

The book skilfully weaves together memories of Mamie Baird in all her vivacious, and eccentric vigour before dementia took her prisoner, with the story of her decline. Alongside this are recorded the reactions and coping strategies of family, friends and carers who struggled to come to terms with the disturbing effects of this ghastly brain disease. What adds an extra dimension to the book though is that Magnusson takes well-informed and highly informative excursions into understanding the physical processes of dementia; savagely critiques much of the care offered to sufferers today, and gropes towards an understanding of the disease which allows her to honour the remaining intact parts of her beloved mother. 

And 'honour' is an important concept here for me. While reading this book, I happened to be helping a local church with some of their Sunday services and we were working through The Ten Commandments. When we reached "Honour your Father and Your Mother" I had always placed an emphasis on the difficulty which following this principle had posed to people who's parents were profoundly dishonourable: the woeful, the negligent and the abusive. I had never really considered what it would mean to act honourably towards parents who are declining, who are on that 'long road away from themselves'.. This book is not just very loving, but also deeply honouring to Magnusson's Mother. What I found most satisfying in that regard was the way in which Sally and her family honoured their Mum, throughout the long ordeal of her illness. They honoured who she now "was", as the same person as who she "used to be". This makes "Where Memories Go" a very sad book indeed; but yet a rather noble one.

Equally fascinating was Magusson's account of the way in which music played a profound role in helping to connect with her Mother deep into the progression of the illness. Mamie Baird had, we read, always loved music and was a singer and mouth-organ player with a large repertoire of songs. These songs played a critical role in connecting, calming and reaching her - sometimes during very dark days indeed. Magnusson's interview with a brain specialist about this power of music is especially insightful. She learns that music contains multiple simultaneous stimuli, (music, lyrics, arrangement, accents) which have been re-enforced by repetition over many years, and that these are powerfully connected to memories. That simultaneous multiple stimuli increases the chances of connectivity through a diseased brain in which so many of the pathways are not functioning. There were times when Sally Magnusson's mother was unable to speak coherently, but could sing old songs. Following this she has set up a charity, "Playlist for Life" facilitating the provision of personally significant music for dementia sufferers - which can be so significant for sufferers and carers alike. Their video follows:

I have not personally encountered dementia of the kind that so damaged Sally Magnusson's mother, and caused so much pain to her and her family. I do have friends who are experiencing this in their parents, and Sally Magnusson's important book has given me far greater insight into the kinds of difficulties, pains, joys and sorrows through which they are now travelling. "Where memories go" is intensely moving, and utterly compelling, quite heartbreaking in the loss it details, yet quite beautifully constructed.

There is a facebook group dedicated to the book available here.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Joys and Dilemmas of An At-Home Dad

There is a question I have come to dread, at parties, social-events or whenever we meet new people. The question is simply the innocent-enough ice-breaker, “So, what do you do?” Truth be told, I don’t actually dread the question, but I have come to anticipate people’s reactions with a large dose of nervousness. The problem is, most people simply do not know how to respond to the revelation that I am an At-home Dad. 

The worst responses have come from people who have coupled together very strong assumptions about gender roles, with a view that child-rearing is a lower or lesser activity than say dentistry, or banking. The ruder of these types assert their sense of superiority abruptly, while the more socially literate check themselves and manage to say something like, “Well how lovely for you” – with such a strong emphasis on those last two words that any hint of interest is immediately dissolved into patronisation. 

More nuanced responses have come from other people who have done this job. Women’s reactions have been fascinating. Some of them, who feel trapped in a domestic role and share a low-view of the value of child-care, express genuine sympathy and enquire as to my escape-route. This I suppose I expected. What caught me by surprise though, was the hostility of one or two women. Their initial withering comments about the inability of a man to run a house properly (let alone clean it!) have been thinly veiled masks covering the fact that my presence in their world threatens their claim to owning unique, irreplaceable skills, which no man could possibly possess. In such places I am regarded as a ‘scab’, as non-Union labour, undercutting their bargaining power. 

Then there have been those in high-pressure jobs (often men), who have reacted with an entirely unjustified
degree of envy. For these characters, the dream of dropping out from the rat-race and living simply in the countryside, is replaced with an idealistic view of life at home with the kids - that owes more to sunshine-bathed washing-powder adverts than it does to the realities of broken-nights, doing the laundry, changing nappies and peeling potatoes.

Most people react by simply asking me to justify the arrangement. I used to indulge them too, telling the story of the company I worked for going out of business, of the unaffordability of child-care for three kids, of my wife’s successful career and so forth. I no longer bother – I have long since learned that anyone who sees running a home and caring for children as being “beneath a man”, is not the owner of opinions which I respect sufficiently to care much about.

That awkward moment when… the house insurance salesperson says “Can I put you down as housewife?” thankfully doesn’t occur much anymore. The one piece of offensive terminology that has tried to make a comeback has been the ghastly American-ism, “The Dad-mom”. The offence of this phrase isn’t that our transatlantic cousins can’t spell “Mum”; but that it describes my role as pretending to be a Mum; and that in taking responsibility for feeding, cleaning, clothing, nurturing, educating and protecting my children (and I should add, looking after my wife!) that I have become in someway feminised. I am not a Dad-Mum, I am just a Dad. The implication in that nasty phrase, is that there is something inauthentic about what I achieve for my family. However such a view is based on the flawed assumption that parenting is a predominantly female skill. Historically these assumptions do not apply where there is no workplace-home divide or where parenting is more of a
community responsibility. Or go back as far as the Bible – a book which surprisingly contains as many directives about parenting aimed at Dads as Mums and does not endorse parenting as a non-masculine function. So call me a ‘home-maker’ if you must; but don’t universalise your tired 20thCentury expectations, by calling me a Dad-Mum!

Parenting is an unpaid job, not because it is of no value, but because it is so fundamentally important that we humans will do it anyway – whether we are paid for it or not. That, and the fact that being able to take care of children is an enormous privilege. I am thankful for every stone that I have skimmed with my boys, (thousands), for every time I have read The Gruffalo to my daughter (hundreds); for every castle we have explored, every river we have dammed, every waterfall we have seen, every train we have waved at, every game of cricket we have played, every song we have sung and every DVD we have watched (actually that last statement is a barefaced lie, my daughter went through a High School Musical phase). I am both honoured to have been present when goals were scored and solos sung; as I am to have been on hand to clean up cuts and grazes, or offer a hug when games were lost, or friends were mean.

Being an at-home Dad has not been without its challenges though. Before my own children were born I had never handled a baby, made baby-food or changed a nappy. Adapting to life at home with the ceaseless demands of children wasn’t straightforward, it was, as they say, a steep-learning-curve. At times when the babies were small, our house resembled the scene of a robbery, and our aspirations to provide home-cooked healthy meals were sometimes jettisoned in favour of the supermarket freezer section. Yet – getting on top of all these challenges is possible “even for a man” (cue the usual jokes about men and multi-tasking).

For the vast majority of the time, being the Dad at Home has meant simply relentless hard work. There is a standard sit-com gag, in which a husband returns from work to find a less-than-perfect house, and exasperatedly exclaims, “Well what have you been doing all day!?” At such times, my sympathies are very much with the on-screen wife. 

The physical effort of parenting and house-management is punctuated by some peculiar problems if the parent happens to be a Dad, though. The first is the relative isolation that Dads-at-home can experience. While I am content to be fairly anti-social most of the time, I was aware that my children needed to be socialised and interact with their peers. There are a few hurdles to overcome here for the committed Dad. The playpark for instance, contains some particular social mazes to navigate. The key for a Dad, I have discovered, is not to let the children run ahead of you and start playing on the swings and climbing-frames without you. This is because that would leave you as a lone male, walking into a children’s play area; an action almost designed to make other parents nervous, twitchy, worried, or even to start rounding up their children. I have sometimes thought I needed a badge which, if it didn’t say, “I have never worked at the BBC”, would at least have said, “Don’t Panic – I’m here with my kids”. But what I really want to tell them is that Fred West and Ian Brady used female accomplices to exploit exactly this kind stereotyping, and that just as Mrs West and Ms Hindley were not safe by virtue of their femininity; so I am no threat to their kids just because I am a man.

The playground is only the start of it though. You would think that the delicate matter of the disposal of human waste would be something that we would have mastered by now.  In practice it seems that this fairly straightforward process becomes complicated for the Dad-with-kids. An alarming number of architects seem
to think that the only appropriate place to situate baby-changing facilities is within the confines of the ladies loos; somewhere I would presumably be arrested for attempting to enter. Our local leisure centre is an example of this, and I still remember disapproving looks bearing down on me amid the sound of tutting when I was forced to change one of my babies on the stairs. To be fair the nappy in question was more of a weapon of mass destruction than anything Hans Blix was every likely to have found in Iraq, so the public disgust wasn’t entirely misplaced. Perhaps the ‘tut-tutters’ were questioning my parenting skills, or suggesting that a competent mother would have used the baby-change facilities! The prize for the worst baby-changing experience I ever had though belongs to St Peter’s in Rome. When I asked an official where I could change the child he curtly snapped, “You don’t – you will get your wife!” Apparently the Pope is very keen on people not using contraception, but less keen on helping us deal with the inevitable consequences which flow (some times quite profusely) from following this advice.

Thankfully the days of nappies are now past and my three are now fully housetrained; but public toilets provided an unforeseen obstacle too. My first two children were boys, so taking them into the gents was no issue. When we procreated for a third time we produced a girl – which didn’t cause any further difficulties until she was old enough to realise that she shouldn’t be going into the gents, and demanding that I take her into the ladies! Persuading some shops to let us use the disabled loos as a sensible alternative wasn’t always easy either. M&S did well here, allowing us to use their disabled facilities so regularly that in the end my
daughter developed a Pavlov’s-dog style reaction to the place, and couldn’t go past its’ doors without immediately experiencing an uncontrollable urge to wee!

Poo and puke are quickly dealt with, but isolation persists as probably the hardest element of Dad-parenting. There are a few Dads who brave parent and toddler groups, but these can be quite intimidating for a lone-male. If you frequent such places, you may have seen one of us edging nervously into an oestrogen saturated room, holding tightly onto a two-year olds hand for security. When you sit down with a cup of tea and realise that the conversation you are about to become ingratiated in, is about the pain of cracked nipples, it is never going to be anything but slightly awkward. Should the girls accept me as a fellow-parent, and just keep going, with verbal descriptions of their nipples which at the very least seriously distract me from my cup of tea? Or do they stop in mid-conversation, making it very obvious that I am interrupting their group bonding?  

The other odd thing about female-dominated groups is a verbal game I have witnessed which I call, “My husband is worse than yours”. The rules are that one Mum complains about something her husband/partner doesn’t do in the home. The participants then take turns outdoing each other with tales of woe and inconsideration on the part of absent men who have (apparently) gone to work to rest, and have no idea of how hard it is to raise children. As a hands-on Dad-at-home, I can’t join in this game. Having so deliberately bucked the traditionally assigned gender-roles, I am nothing but grateful to the wife who has worked to allow me to be here with my kids. To re-cast this privilege as an ordeal, or to scorn the person who pays to make it possible seems absurd. Perhaps an advantage of not merely following pre-conceived assumptions about the division of labour means also not swallowing pre-conceived criticisms of the other gender. The bread-winner in our house is not lazy, she is exhausted. If she drops her stuff in a room I have just tidied, this suggests to me that she is stressed more than ungrateful. It certainly doesn’t make me want to head to the parent and toddler group to initiate another round of ‘my-spouse-is-worse-than-yours’. 

For all these reasons, many times, I have simply hoisted the little ones into baby carriers, put them on my back and gone hillwalking instead. It has been exhilarating, and beautiful – but I have sometimes questioned whether such solitary pursuits have been the best thing for my children’s social development.

It has been interesting to observe the pressures which earning and parenting this way have placed upon our marriage. In most cases these have been nothing more than role-reversed reflections of the traditional dilemmas in which the at-home parent doesn’t fully understand the pressures and frustrations of the office day; while the at-work parent cannot grasp the extent to which housework can be a demoralising treadmill and children can be physically and emotionally wearing. Such pressures usually surface at the dinner-table, where both assert that they have more than earned an evening off from further effort, and express frustration at the other’s inability to see that.

At its worst I have felt that I have robbed my wife of being involved in precious moments of our kids development; school concerts, sports-days and the like. There is no way to pretend otherwise, especially when my wife is out with her girl-friends who have been able to attend these events. At such times I have had to choose not to beat-myself up about this – but to realise that our children are fortunate to be able to have had one parent at all their milestone events, when the financial reality is that if I was working there would have been none. At its best, I am aware that I have saved my wife from a lot of frustrating and mundane work, which is well-below her potential and capacity. She is talented and highly skilled, and I am sure would have become depressed if limited to the endless cycles of washing, tidying and cleaning that have been my routine for the last few years. During times when her work has been enjoyable, and the children particularly difficult, I have felt as if I have given up a lot to pursue this role. However, when her work has been stressful and arduous, but I have had fun with the children, making new discoveries, or going on outings during the school holidays – it does seem as if she has had a rough deal and that a more traditional arrangement would have been better. Strangely at times like this, I feel compelled to do a huge amount more in the house than my female friends who are housewives. While many of them relax at coffee mornings, I find myself assaulting the housework with military strategy, because however much I might wish to pretend otherwise, even in the 21stCentury, I still feel the need to justify my position here.

The Dad-at-home does bring one great advantage to the family though. I worked outside the home full-time when our first was born, part-time when our second appeared, and was full-time at home with the children by the time we had three. This meant that for the whole of my wife’s long 3rd maternity-leave, we were all together as a family. When we look back, those months of managing the children and running the home, familiarising ourselves with a new baby and handling the changing dynamics of an expanding family together turned out to be a wonderful time, a really significant period of consolidating our marriage and binding us together as a unit. 

Most people who look after small children full-time, intend to do so for a limited period, perhaps intending to become “economically active” again once the children have started school. I have discovered recently that Dads face some specific challenges in re-joining the labour-force, which their female counterparts do not. The embarrassing silence which follows the “So, what do you do?” at a party can be relatively easily
resolved by finding someone more amenable to talk to. However when the questioner is your prospective employer, that escape route is hardly an option, and the ensuing stall in the conversation potentially disastrous in the interview room. The fact is that a gap in a woman’s CV for child-rearing is seen as acceptable in a way that it still is not for a man.

I wouldn’t want to admit this publicly, but just sometimes Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is actually quite good. At its best it is really a wrongly labelled Person’s Hour; lively, informative and stimulating; but at its worst it consistently confuses role and gender. The very real difficulties of returning to work after child-rearing, are indeed compounded by the phenomenon of the double-shift, in which the lesser wage-earner is expected to continue to manage the home plus earn. These things obviously affect more women than men – but are not in themselves gender issues, but are tied most fundamentally to the role of home-maker. I cannot count the number of times speakers on that programme have made sweeping statements about the cost of childcare and the difficulties of re-entering employment as being exclusively “women’s issues”, when they apply – perhaps even more strongly, to a Dad-at-home, than to his female equivalent.

The many challenges of being an at-home-Dad have been in turns, fun, infuriating, stressful, tedious, exhilarating, joyful, perplexing and very, very tiring. Parenting is a high-stakes game in which the outcome
simply could not matter more. Sending reasonably confident, competent, happy and well-adjusted people into the world is no small aim. Sometimes our efforts are as successful as we dared hope in our most doe-eye, eros-frenzied “let’s make a baby” moments of optimism. At other times our failures seem to loom as large as Philip Larkin’s oft quoted fatalistic pessimism about the dreadful consequences of parenting in “This be the verse”. (Oh we do not mean to – but we do!). Strangely while many people have echoed Larkin’s sentiments about parental faults being irrevocably distilled into their children, very few have followed his concluding advice: “and don’t have any kids yourself”. We do; and when we do we are hard-wired to give them everything we possibly can to make them into decent, honest, useful citizens, able to forge a useful path for themselves in the world. For many Dads the very best choice for their kids will be for them to take a career-break, role up their sleeves and start looking after the home and the children. It’s no easy road – but it’s hard to imagine anything of more importance or significance.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Le Cirque du Fer-à-Cheval 8

Le cirque du Fer-à-Cheval 7

Balding with Stan - Sponsored Head Shave for Cancer Research

I still can't quite believe I've agree to join in with this. If you would like to sponsor us to go bald alongside our mate Stan - who is having chemotherapy, click here.

Philip Noble's Bubble Magic

Abernethy Centre, caught in bubbles, above and below

Kids love chasing them - and bursting them

 Below - two more views of The Abernethy Centre, in the bubble.

20-30-40ft... Now, THAT'S a Bubble!

By blowing into them, Philip creates bubbles within bubbles.

When the sun catches the bubbles, the colours burst all over the place. Very cosmic!

Photo down inside a long 'tube' bubble

More of Philip's projects are online at