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The one which tells how it all began

imageEr, is this thing on? Ok here goes…..It all started on a grey weekday afternoon. Mummy was at work. I was cuddled up on the sofa with my young son watching He-Man on Netflix.

I could tell his attention was starting to waver as he began to ask me deep questions, which was unfortunate because it was getting to the good bit when Skeletor attacked Castle Greyskull.

He looked at me (my son, not Skeletor), golden curls framing his little face, eyes filled with an insatiable appetite for knowledge and asked: ‘Daddy, what’s a daddy for?’ I gave a throaty laugh, the sort which is supposed to mean ‘It’s truly adorable that you are so precocious but could you please shut up now.’ Jocular and proud, but with just a tiny hint of threat. But he kept at it, asking again, ‘But Daddy, what is a daddy for?’ the inflection in his voice rising at the end of the question as if he was pondering the utter pointlessness of the whole concept of daddies.

Worryingly I couldn’t think of an answer immediately. My usual tactic when faced with a tricky question (‘Ask mummy’) seemed not to be appropriate at this moment. Instead I settled for diversion tactics, bashing him repeatedly over the head with a cushion while doing my best evil giant voice and telling him I was going to use his bones as toothpicks.

However, the whole episode did start me thinking in a new way about the absolutely terrifying beautiful maddening wonder of being a parent and how it changes everything about your life. Usually when I start thinking I start writing. This blog is the result. I hope you enjoy it.

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Just Incredible

The perceived parental wisdom about kids’ cinema is that we hope the movie we’re going to see has something for the grown-ups too.

While it’s assumed that the young will have a good time regardless, we’re left praying for little titbits of witty wisdom which go over the children’s heads but which acknowledge our world-weary state.

It almost seems to accept that adults and children are different species with entirely different requirements. As if we can’t both enjoy popcorn.

I suppose there’s some truth in this.

But there’s a bigger truth. A bad film is a bad film. A good film is a good film. And just occasionally you get the chance to see something which is really incredible.

Granted, I don’t get to go the movies anywhere near as often as I once did. And, as a parent, the range of pictures viewed is not what I would prefer.

And the recent narrative seems to have been that Hollywood has pretty much hoisted the white flag. Producing countless, drab and mindless special-effects laden superhero ‘epics’ while leaving it to companies such as Netflix to produce proper drama which makes you ponder the very nature and condition of the human soul.

But then Pixar produces The Incredibles II.

It’s a family film in every sense. Parents and children can enjoy it together. But more than that its whole ethos is concerned with the nature of family. What does it mean to each of us?

No single entertainment experience has made me laugh or brought me to the edge of tears so often in several years.

And, as a father who constantly is finding new ways to juggle parental and employment responsibilities, the sight of lantern-jawed Mr Incredible looking after the kids while yearning for the glory days of heroism was stirring.

This is not a movie review (I’ll leave that to those who genuinely know what they’re talking about), but the scene where the faded hero is desperately trying to feign excitement while his delighted wife Elastigirl recites her latest adventure on the other end of the phone is close to heartbreaking.

There are two stars in this film. The baby Jack-Jack, who is beginning to develop multiple super powers, delivers a series of visual gags which maintains the pace throughout.

But even Jack-Jack is overshadowed by the brilliance of Holly Hunter as the shape-shifting Elastigirl. While last year’s Wonder Woman movie aimed high, it is Elastigirl who truly manages to redefine the superhero genre with a feminine touch.

A true superheroine manages to avert disaster and save innocent victims without destroying everything in her path.

Hunter pulls this off while simultaneously seducing every father in the cinema by drowning us in her creamy southern drawl while her character straddles a motorcycle in thigh-high boots.

And there’s another, even more personal reason why I love The Incredibles II.

Until this weekend my little boy had not been to the cinema in more than a year. He had developed a terror of the noise and darkness which, his mother and I feared, was turning into a phobia which could plague him throughout his childhood.

We had aborted several attempts to get him inside a cinema with my son reduced to tears and distress and mummy and I not far behind.

Then The Incredibles happened.

My boy has watched the first movie several times on my iPad. He was desperate to see the sequel but hampered by his fear of the picture house.

But the draw was just too strong and, brilliantly managed by his grandmother and aunt, he went to see the movie on its first day of release.

Then, flushed with triumph and excitement, he insisted on taking mummy and me to see it on its second day of release.

I suspect we’ll end up going to see it again. That’s just fine with me.

He’s had a breakthrough and a whole new world of adventure and magic has been opened up to him.

And it’s all down to The Incredibles. They truly are superheroes.

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Supporting/hating England at the World Cup

I was at the play-park with my son this morning. Soon I found myself in the middle of a small group of parents, awkwardly trying to make conversation.

Two subjects were up for discussion. First was the untypical weather (A powerful spell of heat. We’re not built for this. Have you ever seen the lawns so yellow?).

The second topic was the World Cup. Or to be more specific, England at the World Cup. And just like the weather, everyone had an opinion. The theme was consistent. They’d better not win the bleeding thing. It’s not the players, it’s the media I don’t like. We’ll never hear the last of it if they win.

To be clear, it was me automatically mouthing some of these remarks without thinking, just to fill the uncomfortable silences when other people expected me to say something.

But there were a couple of things I took away from the chat with a group of middle-aged women. First how inescapable the World Cup and England’s success has become, as ubiquitous as the summer sun. Second the almost universal desire for one of our closest neighbours to fail in the global sporting contest. Perfectly moderate and reasonable people were telling me that they are now fans of Croatia.

And it’s been far from a unique experience. I’ve found myself having this conversation over and over again in the past month. Last week I was in a bar in Italy watching a large, red-faced Irishman yell at the top of his voice over and over ‘Come on Colombia! Fucking come on!’ When Colombia scored a last minute equaliser against England I found myself leaping out of my seat in excitement.

When passions cooled and we tried to reason our behaviour through, the explanations were always the same. It’s not the players – it’s the way the fans and media react. The fact that they insist on shoving it down our throat.

It works as an explanation in the pub (or even the play-park), but does it retain any credibility when subjected to proper thought? I found myself, as an exercise in self-analysis, trying to examine my attitude to the English football team and my explanation for it.

I should start by pointing out straightaway that there will be a fair proportion of people on this island who will always side against the English on political grounds. That’s their right. But in my experience the antipathy I’ve described towards English sporting success goes deeper than this and spreads to those of all political persuasions and none.

Looking at what has happened in Russia, the team itself seems to be intrinsically likeable. The manager comes across as thoughtful and modest, the players work as a unit without any stand-out stars and they have been among the least guilty of the horrible play-acting and simulation which has blighted many games. In this tournament the antics of Neymar turned me off Brazilian football for the first time. There’s also a pleasing anonymity to the squad. I’m a casual football fan but there were three members of England’s starting XI who I’d never even heard of before the tournament started (Maguire, Trippier, Pickford). The fans have been well behaved in Russia, with none of the ugly scenes of alcohol fuelled violence that many had feared.

Which brings me to the most often repeated accusation, it’s not the players, it’s the media. The smothering blanket of uncritical adoration which turns the rest of us off.

Well, yes. The English are guilty of it, just like the media in every other country which competes in major sports. RTE are just the same with their coverage of the Republic of Ireland when they have competed at major tournaments. I’ve seen similar treatment in the Italian, French and Spanish media.

Yes, there have been parts of the English adventure which have been annoying (the dreary banality of hearing It’s Coming Home chanted again and again, Piers Morgan), but these are surely sins of humanity rather than of Englishness.

I remember two summers back listening to a couple of Northern Ireland’s matches at Euro 2016 on BBC Radio Ulster and it was clear that any attempt at impartial analysis had been completely abandoned in favour of jingoistic cheerleading. It didn’t bother me at the time and I don’t remember anyone else complaining.

I worked in the print media here when Northern Ireland were on their wonderful Euro adventure. In the paper where I was then employed we wanted to own it, to celebrate every little part of it, to indulge that indescribable magic which had been created in the hearts of so many people.

It’s rare for the media to be able to be part of an event which makes so many people feel good, to be associated with the hypnotic escapism. We had a little bit of it at the Euros. Twenty million people watched England play Sweden at the weekend. Any media organisation which didn’t want to wrap that particular flag around their pages or broadcasts would, honestly speaking, be bonkers.

As I probed deeper into my own psyche it occurred to me that the ‘it’s just the media’ argument sounds like a feeble excuse. An explanation which can be mechanically parroted because it sounds reasonable, but which truly conceals something a little bit more unpleasant.

I think that following sports is defined by emotional reactions rather than logical thought. An Irish Tottenham supporter could idolise Harry Kane and Deli Alli when Spurs play at Wembley but boo them when they play for England at the same ground just days later.

In a similar illogical vein I’ve always been conflicted about the English football team. Part of me recognises that the World Cup is more fun when they’re in it, wanting them to maintain that interest for just a little longer. But then there’s a bigger part of me which doesn’t want them to do too well, God forbid certainly not to win it. I know I have no political antipathy against the English so I find this hard to understand or to justify.

Perhaps the best explanation is simple jealously. They are just too close and familiar and I don’t want them to do too well because it’s a reflection of what I know I’ll never have. Better to have some far off exotic country winning the thing, rather than a neighbour who will flaunt it in our faces.

I was in San Marino last week. It’s a stunningly beautiful country, which makes a virtue out of its tiny size. There’s virtually no crime, the standard of living is high and there’s no national debt. In every logical sense it’s an enviable place to call home.

But, perhaps because I was influenced by the World Cup, I found myself thinking what it would be like to be sports mad growing up in the tiny country. Knowing that you’ll never qualify for a World Cup or any major tournament. Knowing that the sheer logic of numbers means that successful home-bred sports stars will always be a rarity. It made me a little sad.

Coming from Northern Ireland we are lucky that our sports stars have massively over-performed on the international stage. In footballing terms, whether you support north or south, there is even the odd major tournament adventure to excite the senses.

The World Cup is the biggest show on earth and winning it is surely the ultimate achievement in sport. There’s nothing else (with the possible exception of The Olympics) which makes the mummies in my wee village stop to chat about sports as if it was the weather.

But Ireland, north or south, will never win it. That’s the Everest we can never experience. We will never have a 1966 to talk about.

But there’s always a slim chance England will. They might even do it this week. Through gritted teeth I’ll even wish them good luck.

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The snapper returns

After winning rave reviews for his first experimental foray into the world of somnolent photography (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2018/06/30/holiday-snaps/), our young hero returns to his theme today.

While daddy is enjoying a well-earned siesta the wee man flexes his artistic muscles, expanding his range to include self-portrait, post-modernism and gritty realism.

But while his confidence in the medium continues to grow, he never forgets his roots, making daddy look plain daft while trying to nap.

I might never sleep again….

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Holiday snaps

The story so far…..

Two exhausting days in a hospital ward watching our wee man brilliantly fighting back against respiratory problems.

Two magazines hurriedly edited in the time in the small hours while he slept.

A panicked hour of packing followed by a gruelling day of travelling by plane and bus.

Which brought us to Italy where we made it through till early afternoon when we all decided we needed a nap.

All except my wee man.

So while mummy and I slept I gave him my phone to play with.

What could possibly go wrong?

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The Omen

I let the wee man loose on my work computer this morning.

My thinking is that it will keep him occupied with an educational hint while I run around getting ready, trying to calm the early storm.

I’m brushing my teeth when I hear him.

‘Daddy, come and see what I’ve made on the computer’.

I walk in. There it is on the white screen, the three numbers flickering at me.

My son is staring, his innocent, angelic face waiting for my approval.

Eek….

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The diamond ring leaflet

It’s been a while since I’ve had cause to comment on any of the blatantly commercial leaflets sent home in my son’s schoolbag.

After Slimming World, the private cosmetic dentist and the two-for-one alcoholic drinks offer, it’s been quiet.

Perhaps, I even thought, someone has had second thoughts on the suitability of schoolbags being exploited by private revenue.

Then today, at the school gates, my son meets me with ‘There’s something in my schoolbag to show you daddy’.

It turns out to be a leaflet for a jeweller offering a sale on diamond rings.

My son asks me ‘Is it homework daddy?’

Just in case there are any concerns that diamond rings may be beyond the pocket money range of a P1 pupil, the leaflet helpfully informs that interest free finance options are available.

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Walking with dinosaurs

It’s the weekend and mummy is working. The rain falls steadily in the morning and the empty hours stretch long in front of me. I’m going to need a diversion.

A friend suggested the new dinosaur exhibition at W5 and I’ve got no better ideas. My son is fascinated by anything prehistoric, and it seems like a good fit.

But when I introduce the plan he’s surprisingly hesitant. His enthusiasm for a visit to W5 is tempered slightly by a fleck of fear about coming face to face with giant monsters. I assume he’ll come round and we set off.

But we’re barely through the doors when I’m forced to realise we might have a problem. The woman at reception talked a lot about the dinosaurs on floor four and he’s spooked. He wants assurance that he won’t have to go near them.

I know something about living with fear so I give this the attention it deserves. I make him look into my eyes and promise him that he won’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to. I tell him we’ll take a look at the dinosaurs later but to forget about them for now. We’ll go to the play areas first. Some things are best approached from the shallow end.

We play for a long time. We’re rock stars, cafe workers, shopkeepers, builders, doctors, train drivers, sailors, racing drivers, mechanics, doctors, crane drivers and scientists. I try to maintain the educational theme but my attempts to explain the levitation experiment are rather undermined when the inflatable fish drops onto on my head.

The sun has broken through as we have lunch in a beautiful spot overlooking the Lagan, but it’s not long before the dinosaurs cast their shadow once more. My son keeps asking about them, but then reiterating that he doesn’t want to go. I can tell he’s both fascinated and terrified, torn by the different emotions which he cannot control.

His little body stiffens and his pace slows as we head towards the exhibition room on the fourth floor. From the corridor outside we can hear mechanical roars and my son becomes upset so I have to lift him into my arms. One short glance into the dark room is enough to push him closer to terror and tears.

‘No daddy, please no! I don’t want to! I don’t like it!’

I have to retreat to a quieter, brighter spot where I talk gently, taking my time and telling him he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to. I can tell he’s on the verge of a tantrum but he can’t take his eyes off the door, a desperate fascination to know what’s in there.

The easy thing now is to back away, to leave it well alone. Maybe that’s the right thing, I don’t want to do anything which adds to his distress. But I know my son, and I know that the bigger part of him wants to do this. I have to balance his raw fear against the regret he’ll feel if he misses out. It’s the conundrum of dealing with a sensitive child.

I tell him I’ll carry him and we’ll just stand at the door. The large room is dimly lit, dominated by huge, moving T-Rex and triceratops models, bright digital screens and echoing with dull, throaty roars.

We stand in the doorway for several more minutes. Eventually he peels his face off my neck and starts to ask questions. I take a few steps forward but quickly retreat as a roaring yellow-eyed T-Rex sends us back to square one. I keep reassuring him, we’ve come this far.

‘It’s ok buddy. It’s just like Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures.’

Soon I’m able to walk slowly through the exhibition as my son whispers the names of the various dinosaurs into my ear. The room doesn’t seem so dark now and the roars not so loud and aggressive, and he slips out of my arms, onto his feet. Now he’s leading me by the hand, standing closer to the models and studying their fierce expressions. Eventually he takes off, leaving me behind as he begins to race around the room.

Then he’s lost in a game of his own imagination, starring himself, Andy, a time-travelling clock and the dinosaurs. If I have a part in this performance, then it’s small and insignificant. An extra who stands at the back and doesn’t get involved.

He keeps running off, lost in his own sense of deepening joy, and making it increasingly difficult for me to watch him. As I search the dark corners I’m half expecting to see him on top of the T-Rex, astride it triumphantly like a modern-day Hannibal.

A few times I try to persuade him from the room but he won’t leave, he’s having too much fun. I tell him there are other things to play with but the Jurassic period is the only one which interests him now. Soon I’m yearning for an meteorite.

Eventually I drag him out and we play in the science room, but it’s merely filling time until he can go back to the dinosaurs. I tell him he can have one last play. As we get close to the door he takes off at speed, yelling ‘Dinosaurs, here I come!’

To bribe him into leaving quietly I offer to buy him a toy from the gift shop. He chooses the most fierce toy dinosaur in stock and emulates the roars and the savage expressions as we head back to the car.

He’s calm as we drive home, a little tired perhaps. At one point he reaches across and places his hand on my arm. We chat like grown-ups.

‘I had great fun today buddy.’

‘So did I daddy, it was brilliant.’

‘What was the best bit son?’

‘The dinosaurs were the best.’

‘The dinosaurs? Were they not a bit scary?’

‘No daddy, they’re not scary at all.’