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Black holes, and paying the credit card

Last week, along with many others, I watched in amazement as the first ever image of a black hole was unveiled to the public.

As I saw excited scientists explain how a network of eight ground-based telescopes around the world had collected data to produce the image of the circle of energy I found my mind becoming a bit dazed by the sheer, unfathomable scope of what had been achieved.

But that was the problem. I don’t have even a basic grasp of science. I want to understand, but no matter how much I read or watched I found that I couldn’t wrap any tentacles of comprehension around the central concept of what I was looking at. It was too big for my brain to process and I was troubled by my ignorance.

As a writer I knew that I needed a reference point. Something which could make the scale of the idea relevant for my brain. I considered what I had read. A black hole is unseeable. It is impossible for anything to escape from. Its gravitational pull sucks in everything in its path. All matter is sucked into the depth of the hole. It grows incessantly by absorbing mass. Conceptually we know it exists even if we can never properly witness it.

I pondered all of that. Then a notion popped into my head – my credit card debt. I let the comparison settle, it seemed to fit, both theoretically and in terms of sheer dimension. Hardly scientific but it certainly allowed me to make the hypothetical idea of a black hole more real.

Of course there may be another reason why the credit card debt slipped into my consciousness at that exact moment. It may have been due to the fact that while I was watching the black hole press conference I also received an email from my credit card company telling me that it would really be in my best interests to make a payment sometime soon. 

It was clear that the black hole algorithm was a dazzling technical achievement, a team of great minds overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to produce the image and further out understanding of science. I knew that similar ingenuity, persistence and raw luck would be needed for me to make the payment.

 

After several days of stalling I sat down with my phone today and opened the link sent by my credit card company. The first thing presented was a message.

‘Good news! We’ve made some changes to our website to improve your experience!’

I stared hard at the message. I feared that the finance company’s definition of good news was very far from my own. Undeterred, I ploughed on. After several minutes trying to navigate the unfamiliar site I found the ‘Log in’ link and clicked it. I was immediately asked for my Username and Password. I scratched my chin. Modern life is full of passwords, PIN numbers and codes. Which one was this? Was it numbers or letters?

I noticed that at the bottom of the screen my phone was making helpful suggestions about what my password might be. Perhaps it knew something I didn’t. I typed in the suggested password and a message flashed up. ‘Password not recognised’. I cast a reproachful glance at the bottom of my phone screen. Nothing, not even a sorry.

After some minutes of deduction and blind guessing I worked out my username and password and, like a contestant on The Crystal Maze, moved on to the next challenge.

Now the screen was asking me to insert the second fourth and seventh characters from my ‘memorable phrase’.

I stared.

Now I consider that I have a reasonable memory. I can even recollect some vague fragments from being in the cot as a baby. When I was 12 I had to learn by heart ‘Jacque’s Seven Ages of Man’ from As You Like It and then recite the soliloquy in front of my bored classmates. I reckon with a few drinks in me I could still do it.

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women…’ (Dramatic pause for effect. Pulls a face of grave authority)….’merely players.’

But despite it all nowhere in the dark or dusty corners of my brain can I ever remember entering a ‘memorable phrase’ into this account. Indeed I’m forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that my selection of a memorable phrase must have been the least memorable thing I’ve ever done in my life. Because I can’t bloody remember it.

I scratch my chin again. I’ve got that familiar feeling that the world is leaving me behind. I wonder if the black hole team of scientists had to overcome this sort of difficulty. Of course they did. I try to think what I’d likely select as a memorable phrase. Nothing comes to mind.

Finally I type in ‘Stick your memorable phrase up your…’ before I run out of character spaces.

Then I have to click on the button which admits I’ve forgotten my own details. The modern day equivalent of the practice of lepers having to carry bells.

The phone segues onto another screen, with larger lettering. First it asks me to enter my username and password. But, despite my breakthrough in entering them just five minutes ago, I’ve forgotten them again. I have three goes before I enter the right choices. Then I have to give my name and some other personal details before I’m asked to come up with a new memorable phrase. I do my best.

Then a new screen tells me that the company will now have to phone me to confirm it is me accessing my account. When they do I will have to repeat a four digit code which they are about to send. I click OK.

Within seconds my mobile begins to ring. I’ve just answered it when I hear the beeping sound that informs that a text has arrived. A recorded, mellifluous voice tells me to to say the code out loud when she stops talking.

But I can’t retrieve the code because it’s in the mobile. The same mobile on which I’m currently having a conversation with an automated voice. I try to hold the call while I go in search of the text. As I fumble with buttons I hear the lovely voice repeating.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that…..I’m sorry I didn’t catch that.’

I crack on the fourth or fifth occasion she says it, using the angry tone I usually reserve for my sat nav.

‘You didn’t fecking catch it because I didn’t fecking say anything because I’m still trying to get the fecking code that you sent to the same fecking phone that you’re talking to me on!’

There’s a moment of silence, then….

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.’

Then, in growing anger, I hit a button which inadvertently cuts the call. Now I have to start the whole process again from the beginning. Website, user name, password, come up with a memorable phrase (I pick another new phrase because I’ve forgotten the last one), the phone call, the text, the voice.

Of course it’s not straightforward. Technological innovation isn’t supposed to be. We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

I manage it this time. I’m sweating and angry but I’ve finally accessed my account.

Then I see my balance. I revise my earlier opinion. The black hole makes a lot more sense than this.

I spend another ten minutes working out how to make a payment on the new, user-friendly site. I select the options and I’m asked to insert the details of the card I’m using to make the payment.

My phone, perhaps keen to atone for its earlier incompetence, automatically suggests the digits I should put in the box. I go along with this.

But it turns out that the card my phone is trying to use to make the payment is the same card that I’m currently trying to pay off and the credit card company isn’t having it. I take over and do it manually, using my debit card.

Eventually the payment is accepted and I’m able to log out.

I’m a little disturbed by the trauma of the whole process so I decide I need a distraction. I read a little more about black holes and come across a discussion online about what would happen if a human fell into a black hole.

One scientist suggests your body would move into a state in which it resembles ‘toothpaste being extruded out of the tube’. Another says your head would feel massively more gravitational pull than your feet so you would be stretched horrifically (‘spaghettification’ this is called). It ends with you being squashed into an single point of infinite density.

Or, to put it more simply, how I feel after paying my credit card.

1

Why are you so mean to me?

It’s Saturday afternoon in the toy shop and the air is pregnant with tension. Harassed parents keep glancing at watches and children are trampling all over boundaries. My son looks directly at me and speaks with a clarity which seems to carry his words into the furthest corners.

‘Daddy, why are you always so nice to other people and so mean to me?’

There’s a young mother walking past and she laughs involuntarily. Then she gives me a sympathetic smile and a glance which seems to say ‘I’ve been there, you’ll get through it.’

Why are you always so nice to other people and so mean to me? I have to admit as an insult it’s better than average for a five-year-old, certainly a level above the usual ‘I hate you!’ I can’t deny that some thought has gone into this, some consideration of how best to wound.

The context is this. My son is carrying two toys. In his right hand is a small blue robot which I bought for him less than five minutes before. In his left hand is a small red robot which he has now decided he wants as well. I’m holding the line, refusing to give in this time. We’re only in the flipping toy shop because he threw a tantrum when we told him we had grown-up shopping to do. So while mummy is off getting supplies I’m involved in a Mexican stand-off with my five-year-old son and two toy robots.

I told him he could have one small toy, but he’s decided that’s not enough. I’ve even offered to exchange one robot for the other but that has also been rebuffed. He gazes at the small wooden objects in either hands and then at me, his eyes heavy with tears. Mechanically I repeat the same line every time he looks at me.

‘We agreed you could have one toy buddy. You’re not getting two.’

I know we’re on the verge of a major incident in the most public of places. He is seething as he spits bitter words towards me.

‘You’re the worst daddy in the world!’

 

Usually on this blog I write about the joy of parenting. The fun and laughter, the little triumphs, the building of a precious bond, the shared understanding. How it is the greatest privilege of my life.

And that remains now and forever true.

But the truth is that sometimes it can be completely awful. And it seems pointless not to tell these stories as well. How some days I am left on the edge of tears and mentally pulled to pieces by the complexities of the challenge. How on others I have to bite my hand to stop myself from roaring in frustration. Or how I’m often left lying on the bed, an emotional husk while the pile of demands from my son grows steeper and steeper.

Because even when I’m enjoying the shared intimacy of his warm little hand holding mine I’m aware that the avalanche of shouted insults, bitter arguments and slammed doors creeps constantly at the edges of all our time together.

Some days I think parenting can be defined as the struggle to find reason in a mind where the concept has not yet fully taken hold. A mind where thoughts and experience are occurring faster than he has the ability to process or understand. I can’t make sense of it all most days, so how can he be expected to?

So we have situations like the time at the school gates last week when he screamed at me because we couldn’t go to the park that day, while I vainly tried to point out that we had gone there on the three previous days.

Or the time when he roared when I gave him Rice Krispies because we’d run out of Coco Pops. Or the day he yelled when I asked him if he needed the toilet. Or any number of tantrums when I tell him it’s time for bed, bath or school or to finish his game.

Or even the row last night. Mummy was meeting friends for dinner and I told my son that we could drive her to the restaurant. He bawled in protest. Immediately I flipped and told him we could instead stay home and get a taxi for mummy. His outburst was just as vituperative. Some battles I’m just not meant to win.

In darker times parents used cruder methods to control children who defied their wishes. Little boys and girls could be battered or yelled into submission. An immediate problem was navigated, only to store up much worse problems for later in life.

We’re in a better place now but that doesn’t mean it’s easier.

I’ve used incentive to try and control the worst excesses of my boy’s temper, threatening to take away toys or treats in return for good behaviour. It works to a certain level but I’ve often had to consider, in these situations, that my son is too upset to be bargained with. And I’m often troubled by the concept of alleviating his unhappiness by heaping further misery on top.

Which leaves nothing other than trying to appeal to reason when he doesn’t yet understand the concept. Hoping that he will take the higher ground when he is not yet tall enough to reach the verge. Keep teaching him the right things, repeat the messages again and again and then leave it to him to process them and find the answers in his own time. Keep being patient and supportive and suck up the blows when they come.

Of course, I’m repeatedly told to ignore the insults, that’s he’s just a kid and doesn’t really know what he’s saying. But that can’t work. When my child hugs me and tells me that he loves me I don’t just shrug my shoulders and write off the words as infantile and meaningless. It works both ways. Parenting is a challenge you enter with your heart open and your defences down. When the person I love, alongside my wife, more than anyone else tells me he hates me it definitely hurts. I understand it and accept it as part of the growing process. But it still hurts.

Imagine a boxer who meets his adversary in the ring with his hands by his sides. He gets battered to the canvas only to rise, smile, tells his opponent he loves him and understands what he is doing. Then he invites him to punch him on the nose again. No matter how many times he is knocked down, the pugilist keeps getting up and smiling.

 

The situation is veering towards dangerous. My son is holding the two robots with fierce determination, his face is flushed and his little body is trembling with emotion. I fear a major confrontation is coming and I’m not sure how to meet it.

There are many things I could say. I could try appealing to some sense of perspective, telling him he already has more toys than he’ll ever need, how these robots will quickly be forgotten and added to the pile of plastic junk currently cluttering up our house. I could explain to him how lucky he is, how he has no real concept of hardship, poverty or want. How he doesn’t understand value or worth. I could tell him he is acting like a spoilt little boy.

But I inherently sense that it’s not the time. My job is to make him feel better, not worse. Keep it at a level he can relate to.

I smile while remaining firm. I tell him again that we had agreed one toy. When he shows aggression I meet it by telling him that I love him and that I understand that he is angry.

Then he goes quiet. He stares at the toy robots in his hands for some time and I’m not sure what’s happening. I have a moment of weakness where I think ‘Just buy him the fecking robot, a couple of quid for a quiet life’, but something stops me. A sense that the situation is becoming bigger than the sum of its own parts.

Finally he turns towards a shelf full of toys. He puts the red robot on the shelf. Then he picks it up again and puts the blue robot on the shelf. Then he picks it up, hesitates, looks hard and puts the red robot back on the shelf.

He turns towards me, no words or gestures are exchanged but I know it’s over and we begin to walk away. I put an arm around his shoulder and tell him a couple of times how proud I am of him. But he’s still a bit scuffed from the encounter and remains distant and uncommunicative. I give him some room.

It’s several minutes later when we’re outside the shop and searching for mummy before he moves beside me, slipping a small warm hand inside mine. It’s a perfect fit, as always. Soon we’re playing games and jokes, as usual. After a while he asks me to hold the blue robot. His interest has transferred elsewhere.

Maybe what happened in the toy shop is progress or a connection. Maybe it’s nothing. We walk on, holding hands.

1

The little ninja

Some of my most uncomfortable and upsetting times as a parent have come in the area of extracurricular activities.

Like other parents we want to give our wee boy the chance to experience as many opportunities as possible. The range of classes available to children these days is quite dizzying in its scope – yoga, ballet, football, piano lessons, advanced welding.

We’ve tried quite a few of them and suffered the misery of watching our shy and sensitive boy fail at the social challenges. At junior rugby he insisted on holding my hand through the class, at tennis he refused to leave mummy’s side. I’ve written here before about the pain of our drama class experience (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/09/20/getting-into-character/https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/09/26/from-the-mouths-of-babes/).

To be clear I have absolutely no difficulty in taking part in the activities myself if I believe that that will help my son to enjoy them. But when it becomes clear that he is not having fun, that the structure of the activity seems to be causing him distress, then it is time to withdraw.

Both mummy and myself have been scarred by the process and occasionally reduced to tears. Guiltily I’ve found myself wondering ‘Why can’t he be like the other boys and girls? Why is he different?’

And so, about a year ago, we stopped trying to send our son to classes outside of school. We had to admit that he just wasn’t ready.

And that could have been the end of it. Except my wife refused to abandon the idea completely. My son was going through a ninja phase recently and mummy started to look around for a martial arts class that he could join.

When she told me in January that she had found an Aikido studio in Dromore my stomach filled with dread. While I was quite certain of the potential benefit of the class, I simply could not envisage any way that my son would be disciplined or focused enough to study a martial art. I feared the worst.

Undeterred my wife took him to his first class at Martin Acton’s Aikido Institute two months ago. I was out of the country at the time but when my wife phoned me late in the afternoon to say that he had loved the class I was surprised. Delighted, but surprised.

Soon I began to accompany my son to the classes and learnt a little about it. Aikido is a Japanese martial art that practitioners can use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.

I quite liked what I saw. As well as the self-defence techniques Sensei Martin Acton schooled the children in Japanese vocabulary and spent time talking to them about what to do if they found themselves being bullied. The exercises seem designed to help increase confidence.

Naturally, my son was shy at first, often silent and unable to make eye contact when directly addressed. But he seemed not to be intimidated by the structure and ethos of the activities. Indeed it was immediately clear to me that he was enjoying it.

While the classes demanded focus and discipline, it was never forgotten that the participants were young children and that they should be having fun.

As the weeks passed mummy and I kept taking him to the classes. Soon, I had to acknowledge, the most unlikely metamorphosis was taking place. From being silent, he found his voice and began to speak out. He laughed freely and without any sense of self-consciousness. He began to play jokes.

Sometimes I cringed at the back of the class when he encountered a new technique which he couldn’t immediately master. I had to fight the urge to jump off my seat and throw arms of comfort around him. Instead he merely tried it again and again, shaking off the mistakes until he got the move right.

But the most startling change was outside of the class. Our boy, who previously hid behind his mummy’s leg in every social situation, emerged from the shadows. I watched, stunned, as he began to speak out without apparent fear to adults he had never met before. I had got used to always answering on his behalf. Now I had to teach myself to shut up and let him speak for himself.

He became much braver in his play, losing much of his fear of climbing and jumping and began to mix with children who previously had intimidated him. We took him to a school disco, often a tricky encounter on previous occasions, and watched with admiration as he spent two hours dancing happily on the other side of the room. Other parents, who have known him since nursery, came to us and spoke about him being ‘a different child’.

Which brings me to the obvious question, is Aikido responsible for this seemingly miraculous transformation in the character and confidence of my child?

Probably the truth is a little more complicated. To use the cliché, it was in the right place at the right time. A year ago, I don’t think he would have been ready for it. In January he was ready and the aikido has helped to unlock the personality inside my little boy that was bursting to get out. Mummy and I witness it every day, but now he is showing it to the rest of the world.

But he is still our little boy. His teacher reports that he is still quiet and shy in the classroom and he still never travels too far without a nervous glance over his shoulder to see where we are. He still gets afraid when he sees geese.

But now the direction of travel has been set and there is an undeniable momentum to his development. I believe this is to a significant extent because of Aikido and because his mummy insisted on giving him the chance when I was too scared to do it.

 

It is Saturday morning and mummy and I are sitting among other parents at the back of the Aikido studio. I’m ridiculously nervous and keep taking my anorak off and then putting it on again.

After eight weeks of class my son is about to undergo his first test which will determine whether he obtains the green and white belt.

The green and white belt has been the main source of conversation in our house for several weeks as my son has practised the techniques over and over, showing previously undiscovered levels of persistence and determination.

But now that it’s here I feel a little sick. He’s too young, I find myself thinking over and over. What happens if he freezes? If it’s all too much for him? I have to fight off the urge to run and grab him up and flee the building.

The first test is to remember and recite eighteen words of Japanese vocabulary. But it is not the fact that he gets them all right which makes me almost choke with tears, it is the clarity and confidence in his expression. The absence of any fear or doubt in his voice.

He is similarly confident when discussing strategies for dealing with bullies, the second part of the test. Sensei is with him at all times, giving him words of encouragement and congratulation.

Which brings us to the three techniques he must perfect to obtain the belt. The first is known as 1,2,3,4,5,6 – a series of punches and raised knees. Each part of the move has to be delivered with the correct hand and with the feet in the right position. He does it without difficulty, both when delivering the blows and blocking them.

Then it is stopping a slap, a move which culminates with the student forcing the attacker to the floor. This has been the most difficult technique for my son. He struggled for several weeks to get the intricate hand and feet positioning correct. Several times, as we practised at home we thought we had mastered it, only for deficiencies in his technique to be exposed when he got back onto the Aikido mat. Sensei kept encouraging him to do better.

So my son kept going. Doing it again and again until the move became like a part of his consciousness, as natural as breathing. Sensei attacks him with slaps from both sides but my son holds the form that he has been taught to force his teacher onto his back.

The final part of the test is to stop a strangling attack. Again he executes the move with confidence, his face showing fierce concentration.

And then it is over. The Sensei announces that my son has passed the test and he is given a round of applause by everyone in the room. I can’t see his face at this moment, but I know from his posture and his dancing feet that he is glowing inside.

I’m not aware of it but, at the moment it is announced he passed the test, my wife later tells me, I emit a sound. Part gasp, part squeal, part cheer. It comes from somewhere deep inside.

We take our wee man for a celebratory lunch and ice cream. He’s clearly exhausted now, although he won’t admit it. He keeps saying ‘I’m a real ninja now, aren’t I mummy?’ We can’t give him enough cuddles today.

He did the work, passed the test and deserves his reward. The parenting test goes on every day for me. I hope I can meet it with the same composure, the same confidence and the same desire to learn and do better as my son.

2

The thin of it (politics)

It’s early evening. Mummy is upstairs putting our son to bed and I’m having some precious relaxation time. I’m sprawled on the sofa, balancing an extra large bag of chocolate raisins on my stomach while watching re-runs of the masterful political satire The Thick Of It.

Then I hear the crunch of footsteps on the ground outside our front window, just behind where I’m lying. I freeze, a chocolate raisin pinched between two fingers just an inch from my open mouth. I live in a semi-detached home with a little front garden. The only people who walk directly past my front window are postmen or people delivering unwanted junk leaflets; in other words those taking a short cut between my next door neighbour’s front door and mine.

I hear the sound of an object being roughly shoved through my letterbox and then footsteps walking away. I relax.

Later I’m roused from my stupor by the need to carry out a task (fetching another bag of chocolate raisins) and decide to check what junk literature has penetrated my front door. It’s a political leaflet, introducing me to my local DUP candidate for the forthcoming local government elections. There are photos of a young man on both sides of the leaflet. In one he is sitting beside MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. The young candidate is wearing a tortured, forced smile. The sort of smile that is familiar to me every time I pose for a photo.

(‘Just smile Jonny.’

‘I am smiling.

‘No, I mean a natural smile, like you’d do in real life.’

‘This is natural, this is how I smile.’

‘Really?….Jesus.’)

I read the leaflet. It is light on relevant detail, containing not a single word on policy or proposal. In fact, reading over the text the only thing I can ascertain that the DUP seems to be in favour of is the incorrect use of punctuation.

The following day another leaflet arrives, garish yellow, the colour of The Alliance Party. This one is presented as ‘Your local council update’ from a sitting Alliance councillor, although I’ve no recollection of receiving any previous such updates from him.

This leaflet is heavier on detail. There’s a photo of the councillor picking up litter, and another of him putting bottles into a recycling bank. All very worthy. Disturbingly there’s also a photo of a mucky red bin with a sign which reads ‘Clean it up! No litter please’ next to the image of a headless dog. I’m often annoyed by dog fouling but cannot support the decapitation of innocent animals as a deterrent.

I put the Alliance leaflet on the windowsill in the kitchen next to the DUP one. I’ll keep all the leaflets I receive together and take them out nearer to election day to have a proper read.

I expect to get lots of leaflets. But I’m less confident that I’ll get many, few or any knocks on my door.

I make this point because I’ve long noticed an inconsistency in local politics. In many years of covering elections as a journalist I’ve never yet met a candidate who didn’t tell me that they have ‘knocked on thousands of doors’. Indeed most answers to media questions at election time are prefaced by ‘Well, what we’re hearing on the doorsteps is….’

But despite this nobody knocks on my door. Indeed in more than a quarter of a century of being eligible to vote, and having lived at a variety of addresses, I’ve only ever had my door knocked by a political canvasser once.

This was a young woman who told me she was canvassing on behalf of then Ulster Unionist MLA Basil McCrea. I asked her a question which she met with a frown and a puzzled expression. She then told me she would have to find Basil, who was in another street, ask him and then come back to my door with the answer. She never returned. I desperately hope she is still not wandering the streets looking for Basil in the mistaken belief that he’s still an MLA.

Some of my friends have told me that their door has never been knocked while for others it is a rarity. But it does happen. One former colleague informed me that he opened his door on one occasion to find a well known Sinn Fein MLA on his step.

‘Are there any Sinn Fein voters in the house?’ the politician asked.

On being told that there were none, the politician thanked him politely and left.

Which started me thinking on the pointlessness of the encounter. Presumably the value of a political doorstep, if there is any, is to attempt to persuade or change minds, not to reassure yourself with those who are already converted to the argument? Are there any Sinn Fein voters in the house should really be the closing gambit, rather than the opening. And what did he intend to do if he found Sinn Fein voters there? Engage in a communal, self-congratulatory hug?

I know another family who invited a UKIP candidate into their home for a cup of tea and some Rich Tea biscuits. They are strongly pro-European but felt desperately sorry for the unfortunate candidate who told them he had spent the day being verbally abused and chased from front doors.

Which hints at how traumatic the experience can be for those carrying out the knocking. I was acquainted with one political candidate who told me he lived in fear of rapping doors at a previous election lest he got asked a question he didn’t know the answer to.

On one such occasion he was quizzed by a grumpy householder ‘What’s your policy on people breaking into homes?’

After some moments of flustered incoherent mumbling he finally responded ‘Uh, well, we’re against that.’

I suspect (completely without proof) that most politicians, like people in general, take the easier route more often than not. Stick the leaflet through the door and move on to the next house. It’s just less painful for all. Perhaps just knock on the doors where you know you’re going to get a good reception.

After all I really believe that caught off guard at my front door, wearing my Superman pyjamas, is not when I’m likely to engage in my best political discourse. Rather, I’m so socially awkward and eager to avoid confrontation that I’m likely to agree to any old nonsense just to get them to go away.

‘We’re strongly in favour of the compulsory force-feeding of Ready Brek to fishermen and the nationalisation of geese.’

‘You’ve certainly got my vote. Bye now.’

Probably the very act of writing this blog ensures that my door will be knocked repeatedly by politicians between now and election day. Perhaps I should desist.

 

0

The letter

I was moving through my house today when I noticed the outline of a small figure outside my front door.

I saw what looked like a card being shoved through the letterbox. As it was Sunday I knew it couldn’t be the postman and assumed that it must be a private circular or flier being delivered offering gutter cleaning or dog walking services.

But when I lifted the small brown object I quickly noticed this was something different. It was a proper, old fashioned envelope, the sort you might imagine your grandparents once used.

There was an intricate gold design on the interior of the envelope and what seemed to be a grand coat of arms or crest bearing Latin words on the rear.

Inside was a stiff sheet of high quality writing paper bearing the same symbol with the Latin writing (I was later informed that it is actually the crest for Hogwarts out of the Harry Potter stories).

The formality and majesty of the stationary was belied by the writing on the front and inside. It was obviously a young child’s hand. A missive had been tentatively started on one side only to be abandoned for a new effort overleaf.

The letter was addressed on the envelope to three names – my wife, my son and myself.

I began to read. This is what the letter said….

‘Dear Jonny

Can you please kick back my purple smiley face ball. I accidently kicked it into your back gargen.’

The letter was signed ‘Yours sincerly’ and named.

Next door to me lives a happy frizzy-haired girl, just a year or two older than my son. She had delivered the letter.

Promptly the ball was retrieved and I hand-delivered it to the beaming child. Her mother told me that she had volunteered to knock on our door to get the ball back but the little girl insisted on writing a letter.

‘I didn’t want to discourage her,’ she told me.

I nodded along. More than that, the letter made my day.

Later I tried to think when was the last time I received a letter. I get mail every day – an incessant series of impersonal statements, bills, appointments and unwanted offers for credit cards.

But an actual letter? Something that someone has taken the time to sit down and write by hand? I honestly can’t remember. Probably several years ago.

My whole life is dominated by communication – texts, emails, articles, social media and (God forbid) blogs. But the method of communication which requires extra effort and which can reveal most about the identity and personality of the author is virtually extinct from my life.

And as I sat and re-read over the letter the little girl had taken the time to write and deliver through my front door, I couldn’t help but think that I’m a wee bit poorer because of that.

Life is engineered to be full of short-cuts. But there’s still much appreciation to be found in sometimes taking the long way round.

0

The suicide cartoon

After a prolonged period of breathless play my son and I settled down on the sofa to watch some TV this morning.

I was in a nostalgic mood and decided to search for The Flintstones on Netflix and Amazon Prime. It wasn’t available but instead Amazon suggested we try Scooby Doo. After a couple of episodes of watching those pesky kids foiling diabolical plots the streaming service recommended we try Tom and Jerry. So we did.

It’s been decades since I watched this animation but the basic premise is understood; a cartoon mouse and cat will attempt to unleash all manner of violence onto one another. Its gory slapstick is brilliantly satirised in the Itchy and Scratchy characters in The Simpsons.

I try to be careful about the mass media my son consumes but, I suppose, this sort of violence is accepted because it is so obviously cartoonish and over the top. At the very least I can present it as the sort of TV I used to watch when I was a kid.

Then the episode began. And this is what happened.

It started with a deflated and weeping Tom sitting on railway tracks while Jerry watches him from a bridge high above. Jerry then becomes the narrator and relates a sad story. Tom’s descent began after a female cat moved in next door. All his attempts to woo this obviously foxy feline are unsuccessful. He spends all his money on her but she rejects his advances in favour of another, more wealthy rival cat. Tom hits the bottle (milk) until we see him broken in the desperate state on the railway track.

All Jerry’s attempts to rouse Tom from his stupor are unsuccessful. Then, in a final twist, Jerry produces a photo of the female object of his own affections. But when he looks sideways he sees his sweetheart in a marriage car with another mouse.

Now Jerry is also crushed. He descends onto the railway track where Tom moves aside to make room for him and the two main characters sit there weeping on the rafters while sound of a train can be heard coming closer behind them.

And then the credits run. That’s it.

I was now in a slight daze. My son had not quite followed all the intricacies of the plot and was asking ‘Why are they sitting on the track daddy?’ I mumbled some sort of diversionary response and began to fumble with the remote control.

But another episode had already started and Tom and Jerry were alive and well. Suicide could not cause them to perish any more than being electrocuted, shot or chopped into small bits.

Which started me thinking, had I any right to be surprised by the suicide cartoon storyline? I’d already accepted that attempted murder, mutilation and torture were semi-acceptable subject matter for a children’s cartoon. And was it really such a leap from that to suicide being treated in such a glib way for juvenile entertainment? And did I really want to be that preachy parent complaining about content when I’ve spent so much of my life refusing to believe in censorship?

But the truth is that I was deeply troubled by what I had watched and by the potential message it sends to an impressionable young mind. This was clearly dealing with dark issues, albeit in a comic way. Dark issues that I’d prefer my son not be introduced to until he is able to understand their complexity and to be sure that what he is watching is being handled responsibly. After all you can’t really put a message at the end of an episode of Tom and Jerry stating ‘If you have been affected by any of the issues in this programme….’

I fumbled some more with the buttons on the remote control, trying to find an alternative programme to watch. Eventually my son looked at me and said: ‘Daddy, can we just put YouTube on instead?’

That’s Youtube where parents are being constantly urged to monitor the suitability of content that their children are watching. Where concerns over the availability of material which encourages self-harming are whipped up into hysterical media scare stories. I read this week about a parent who has two children who have been left unable to sleep at night after being terrified by stories of the Momo challenge. The following day the BBC reported that fact-checkers claimed that Momo is a hoax.

As a parent it’s really easy to be confused.

And though I’m often queasy about YouTube my child has yet to be exposed to anything there which disturbed me quite so much as the Tom and Jerry episode we watched today.

As ever I suppose the best you can do is to be vigilant in all directions and to use your common-sense to deal with situations as they arise. And once you have gone through this filter, trust your child’s ability to process and rationalise the information they view.

I don’t believe that my wee man has been adversely affected by watching that one episode of Tom and Jerry. But I still don’t think we’ll be watching it again. And I wouldn’t recommend it for any other child. In fairness, this cartoon was made a long time ago, but it’s still available at the click of a button.

Tom and Jerry – they don’t make them like that any more.

Thank Christ.

0

Mummy, daddy and James day

It’s closer to yesterday than today. But he’s already awake, already operating at full capacity, bouncing up and down on the bed.

‘Come on mummy and daddy, wake up! Let’s go downstairs! I’m untired! I’m untired!’

Debs and I engage in a very short war of wills. Who will react first? Of course it’s me. It’s the tiniest of movements. Perhaps only a twitch of my little toe. But it’s enough. My son leaps on top of me, writhing like an eel.

‘Daddy’s awake! Daddy’s awake!’

‘Urghhhh,’ I respond.

Now he’s sitting on my head. His little backside bouncing up and down on my skull.

‘Bounce on daddy’s head! Bounce on daddy’s head!’

‘Uh….go easy….uh…..gentle….uh,’ I try to protest but my words are muffled.

He leaps onto my chest, sticky hands reaching for my face.

‘What day is it daddy?’

I have to think.

‘Uh…it’s Saturday.’

‘But what does that mean? What other day is it?’

I know what he wants me to say.

‘It’s mummy and daddy and James day son.’

‘Yay!’ he leaps in the air, landing on my unguarded stomach.

‘Oooff,’ I protest.

He takes my face in his hands, turning it to make my eyes meet his in the half light.

‘Does that mean no school today?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘And no work either?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Yay! Let’s go downstairs then.’

‘It’s still too early son.’

I glance at my wife but there’s only a shape there, head buried under the duvet. I’m on my own.

‘Please daddy,’ he pleads.

‘OK son, give me a second.’

My feet search for the floor and I pull my dressing gown around my torso. My son jumps onto my back and I amble down the stairs. I enter the living room and slouch onto the sofa.

‘Daddy, let’s play sword fights!’

‘Too early, let’s watch TV for a bit first.’

I scan through the channels until I find a cartoon about a little girl and a duck. This holds his concentration long enough for me to prepare some breakfast. Coco Pops and a strawberry smoothie. When I present the cereal to him he turns away.

‘I want chocolate, daddy.’

‘You’re not having chocolate for breakfast son.’

‘I don’t like Coco Pops.’

‘But they virtually are chocolate, they even turn the milk into chocolate.’

I raise the spoon to his mouth but it remains determinedly closed, his eyes fixed on the TV screen.

‘Come on buddy, if you try these I’ll let you have chocolate afterwards.’

He eats some breakfast. It’s a small victory but I’m not sure for whom. The duck cartoon finishes. I put on some episodes of He-Man and we engage in a sword fight which only concludes when I agree not to defend myself and allow him to bash me over the head several times with a foam light sabre. We watch more TV but soon his attention becomes patchy, which is unfortunate because it’s getting to the good bit when Skeletor attacks Castle Greyskull. He looks at me (my son, not Skeletor), demanding my full attention as always.

‘Daddy, let’s play a game.’

Reluctantly I’m pulled upright and we go in search of fresh entertainment and stimulation. We move into the other room and I’m ordered on to the floor to search under the sofa. I pull out several boxes but he’s not satisfied.

‘No daddy, keep looking, that’s not the right one.’

‘That’s all that’s under here son.’

‘No, there’s more daddy, look harder.’

I know what he’s looking for and quickly realise my efforts to hide it so far under the sofa that it will be forever forgotten have failed. I pull out the dusty box.

‘Yay! It’s Pie Face!’ he wails.

Pie Face is a simple concept. Fresh cream is piled onto a plastic hand attached to an arm on a spring. Players take turns placing their faces in the middle of a comic mask. A spinner selects a number and the player then has to turn a handle the required number of times. At a random point the spring is released and…..well, the rest is obvious.

It’s not yet dawn but James wants to play Pie Face. He dearly wants to play Pie Face. The only hitch is I don’t think I have any cream. I search the fridge, there is no cream. I look for something which might work as a substitute. I go right to the back, a place best avoided, a place of neglect. I pull out a tub of full fat soft cream cheese and check the expiry date. May 2014. I remove the lid and a cloud of noxious blue dust escapes. The smell is indescribable. I can’t play the game with this stuff, I’ll just have to tell my son.

I go into the other room. He’s waiting for me, an expectant look on his breathless, red little face. Messy golden hair and pleading blue eyes, a hint of mischief and vulnerability.

‘Did you find something so we can play the game daddy?’

I meet his little eyes which are fixed on me.

‘Yes son. Yes, I found something.’

My face is stuck in the mask. A mound of rotting, putrid yellowing cream cheese is just inches from my nose and mouth. I’m having to hold my breath but my son seems completely oblivious to the foul smell.

He has invented his own set of rules for Pie Face. Rather than having us both take turns on the mask he has me set in this position permanently. His job is to spin the arrow to select the number. I point out that if it is the same person getting the pie in the face all the time then the need for having the spinner is removed. He goes ahead regardless. He even manipulates the chosen digit with his hand. He spins the arrow and stops it at five.

‘It’s a five daddy!’

I turn the handle five times. Nothing happens. He spins it again.

‘It’s a five again daddy!’

The spring releases on the second or third turn this time. It’s a surprise even though I’m expecting it. The slimy cheese rolls slowly down my face like spittle on a wall. My son leaps and howls with delight. Then he orders me not to move while he goes to summon Debs. She has to see this. Some minutes later she arrives, all hair and yawns, to inspect my face.

He wants to play again. I pile more rotting cheese onto the hand. Then he decides he wants to video the experience and runs to get the little camera Santa gave him. I have to repeat the Pie Face experience several times until he gets the shot he wants. I think I’m on the point of being sick.

‘I think that’s enough Pie Face for now buddy.’

I’m cleaning my face, afraid I’ll never be able to rid myself of the smell, when there’s a knock on the door. I’ve still got kitchen roll in my hand as I answer. It’s one of my neighbours, an older woman. She wants to tell me there’s been a bit of a mix-up and I seem to have taken her green wheelie bin. She’s been left with my bin. I smile and try to laugh it off, after all, it’s only a bin. But the look on her face quickly betrays that this is serious. She’s as solemn as a priest and trembling slightly. I tell her she can have the bin back now.

‘You see, the problem is that your rubbish is now in our bin. Your rubbish is a lot messier than ours.’

I nod my head. Soon I’ve agreed to have her bin cleaned and returned to her on the next occasion it is emptied. I’m left with the impression that she believes I deliberately switched the bins.

‘Easy to see how it could happen,’ I offer, ‘these bins all look alike!’

She walks away shaking her head. I go to find James. Now that it is daytime he’s gone back to bed. I find him and Debs cuddled up together, watching videos and giggling conspiratorially. But now I’m fresh and want to make the best of the day.

‘Come on guys, it’s mummy and daddy and James day! Let’s not waste it in bed, let’s go have some adventures!’

There’s no evidence they’ve heard me. They’re huddled around a phone, his fingers scrolling images.

‘We can go out for some breakfast, some shopping, to the park?’

Nothing.

‘Alright, well…I’ll be downstairs if anyone wants me.’

I clean up the remnants of the Pie Face game. I throw the rest of the cream cheese in the bin. My neighbour’s bin. And then I wait. Getting my son and wife out of the house in the morning is hard. Like a hostage negotiation, a delicate balance of gentle persuasion, exasperation, patience, reward, false promise and constant disappointment. The processes of washing, grooming, dressing and reasoning run on and on. Our expected breakfast turns into brunch, and then lunch.

Eventually we’re in a bistro. I’m picking half-heartedly at an oily, leafy salad while my son munches on stubby chips and plays a game on my phone, which emits tinny digital sounds. Debs tells me off for taking food from his plate while he’s distracted.

I notice a dark-haired woman at a nearby table frowning in our direction. At first I think she’s also spotted me stealing some chips but instead the object of her dissatisfaction seems to be my son. I’m not entirely certain about the source of her irritation, it could be the noise of the phone or the fact that my son is engaging with an electronic device rather than another human. I look down, and then back up to see that she’s shaking her head now. Against my son’s protests I turn the volume on the phone down a little but I’m not minded to stop his game. My wife and I often take our son to eat out, wanting to make him comfortable with the social dining experience. But we also entertain him how we can. Playing a game or watching a video keeps him amused while allowing us a few minutes of grown-up chat.

My son knows how to make my phone do things I’ll never understand. He’s pressing buttons until he hears a song, something he recognises and likes. He surprises me by jumping from his chair and starting to dance, right at the side of the table as amused servers and customers walk past. There’s a few twists and shaking feet and even a move which takes him to the ground and back. The sound of his laughter dominates the restaurant. I find myself looking again at the dark-haired woman. She’s watching him but talking quietly to her dining companion. I see her eyes raise skywards and her jaw tighten. She’s grasping a paper napkin.

My son keeps laughing. He’s often shy when in public places but he feels comfortable here. He’s giving all of himself to us today. I don’t want to inconvenience or disturb other people but I won’t stop my son from dancing or laughing. I won’t apologise for him or curtail his expression. Self-consciousness will come crashing around him soon enough without my help. The woman notices me and returns a stern gaze. I smile at her. The world’s big enough for lots of different kinds of people.

After lunch it’s playtime. That means a trip to the adventure playground and its many highlights. There’s the giant slide which it took me months to coax my son to go down. Now he barely allows his bum to reach the bottom before he’s racing to climb up it again. There’s the ball pit where my son wrestles with me and always seems to lose his socks. My explorations to the bottom of the pit in search of socks have uncovered a range of strange objects too disturbing to relate here. There’s the huge climbing frame in which the woman with the big eyebrows who works here told me off for trying to get to the top. She stood there impatiently pointing at me and tapping her foot while I tried to explain that I couldn’t get down because I’d put my back out climbing the rope ladder.

But my son’s favourite item is the cannon. I gather foam balls and position the oversized ordnance to an exact position. Then I move to my location and dance around while he fires the balls at my head. I pretend I’m trying to get out of the way but the foam bounces off my skull while James jumps up and down chanting ‘This is awesome!’

Soon, however, I can see tiredness in his eyes and it’s time to go home. The three of us cuddle on the sofa watching cartoons. We’re all hungry again so I leave them to play snakes and ladders while I prepare dinner. I throw together something which resembles a spaghetti bolognese because it’s one of the few dishes which I know he likes. I want to try and make it as healthy as I can so I finely chop onions, carrots and mushrooms. It’s mummy and daddy and James day so we’re allowed dinner in front of the TV. When I present his plate he begins to bawl.

‘It’s spaghetti bolognese son, it’s your favourite.’

‘Waaah!’

‘It’s alright, you don’t have to eat the onions.’

‘Waaah!’

‘Or the carrots.’

‘Waaah!’

‘Or the mushrooms.’

He begins to eat, watching me intently to ensure I don’t try to slip any vegetables back onto his fork. Soon it’s bath time, which brings us to the routine which my son fears and despises beyond all others. Hair washing. On worse days than this Debs and I have had to carry him bare-bummed kicking and roaring up the stairs to force him into the bath. Now though we have reached a teary accommodation. He’ll let mummy wash his hair if she does it really gently. I’m branded an inelegant buffoon and banished from the room. Indeed, if he even spots me coming up the stairs he begins to scream with alarm.

‘Daddy’s coming mummy! Don’t let him wash my hair! Don’t let him wash my hair! He’s too rough!’

Instead I prepare his bedtime treat of milk and cookies and presently Debs carries him back downstairs. His blond mop is damp and slicked back and his cheeks and arms are red. He’s wearing Superman pyjamas. He watches some more TV and munches cookies slowly while his hair dries in front of the fire. Soon pale crumbs speckle the dark carpet like little stars in space. He’s very tired now. Everyone can see it but him.

There’s the inevitable row over going to bed but his heart’s not really in it and soon he is resting his head on my shoulder while I carry him upstairs. As we get to the bathroom door he puts his arms around my neck and squeezes. No words. Just a little squeeze. I brush his teeth and clean his face and hands and then he runs to the bed, where my wife is waiting with a book, and leaps onto it like a WWE wrestler. He lies on the bed, following every word of the story, stopping Debs several times to ask questions or tell us what he already knows. I go to move beside him but I’m startled momentarily by a large furry object on my pillow. It’s one of my son’s favourite teddies. Despite theexhaustion he is delighted by my instinctive shocked reaction and begins to laugh. A little at first and then in floods until he’s giggling uncontrollably. I hold his little body which is trembling with good-humoured abandon. His laughter is so contagious that soon Debs and I are helplessly joining in. It‘s one of those rare, undefinable, irrepressible moments of parental joy when all the pressures of the world are far away and I don’t have to pretend to be cynical about everything. Eventually I compose myself and move to say goodnight to my son. He’s a little afraid of sleeping on his own so Debs usually stays with him, to help him get over. But he’s trying to delay it now, as if he’s not quite ready to let go off the day.

‘What about….’ he begins mischievously, ‘a family cuddle?’

It’s a sweet little ritual of his. He snakes an arm around our necks, pulling us to him like he’s a butterfly and we’re the wings. He holds us there. And I start to think about how happy I am at this moment, about times when I was not. Some regret over time I’ve wasted, some fear over how fast time moves, how quickly things change. A little worry over the uncertainty of the future. I force myself back into the moment and smell my boy’s neck. I put my mouth next to his ear.

‘Thank you son,’ I whisper softly.

He turns his face until it is touching mine. Then the giggles come again.

‘Silly daddy.’

The grip of his tired arm loosens. He shifts towards mummy and they fit together as one, ready for sleep. I’m about to leave but he remembers one last thought.

‘What day is it tomorrow daddy?’

Again I have to think.

‘Uh…it’s Sunday.’

‘But what does that mean? What other day is it?’

I know what he wants me to say.

‘It’s mummy and daddy and James day son.’

His eyes are closed now, a certain, safe smile.