More life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old self-taught guitar-player who never learned to read music, I’ve spent the past two months attempting to master the cello. Hard? Damn straight. But nothing worth doing is ever easy.

At first, I thought my age would count against me – Yo-Yo Ma started at 4, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist du jour, is only 20 – but I quickly realised that studying an instrument isn’t about simply learning the notes: it’s about utilising important life skills that have far wider applications than music (Life lessons from learning cello). I might not have the flexibility, patience or single-mindedness of a child, but I like to think my adult insight makes up for this deficit.

So here are more life lessons from learning cello.

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

The first few days, I mastered the C-Major scale across the four strings, and it sounded pretty good. Up, down, up, down, what could be simpler? I learned the notes and finger positions and figured I’d be a virtuoso in no time. If I know where the notes are already, I thought, I’ll be able to play proper music, without having to waste time on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

As they say, pride comes before a fall.

After six days, I looked up the sheet music for Schindler’s List – one of the pieces of music that inspired me to take up cello – and worked out where all the notes were (not being able to read music, after all). I figured it’s a slow piece, so there shouldn’t be much of an issue. After all, I was playing Nirvana a week after first picking up the guitar. How hard could it be?

Hard. It sounded like a leaky arsehole. Eurgh!

There’s playing notes and then there’s playing music, and the two things are worlds apart, especially when it comes to the cello. On the piano, you can make a perfect note every time with a single action – whether you’re five or fifty-five, press a key and you’ll get the same sound. On the cello, multiple things have to happen to make a note – the fingers of your left hand have to be in the exact position, not a millimetre out of place, and you have to be applying the right pressure; in your right hand, your bow has to be held properly, and it needs to be pressing on the strings correctly, with the correct force, moving smoothly and perfectly straight at the right speed. And for music, you need to adjust the force for expression, accelerate or decelerate. Without vibrato (where you rock the fingers of your left hand), everything sounds horribly thin and unappealing.

While you might be able to go up and down a scale and make it sound okay, and you can play the notes to Schindler’s List after six days, to make it sound good takes years. This realisation was a massive blow to my confidence, and I was of a mind to quit outright. But you have to be resilient if you want to achieve anything good – which brings me to my second life lesson.

2. Take it one step at a time.

A journey of a thousand miles starts beneath your own feet. All you have to do is take one step.

That’s all such a journey is – a succession of individual steps. Don’t think about all the months and years it’s going to take you. Don’t think of all the steps you’re going to have to take. The only thing you should think about, and the only thing over which you have control, is the very next step. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually you’ll get there.

That’s how we achieve any difficult, incremental goal whose attainment is way off in the future, and it’s a vitally important skill to have when learning an instrument – one step at a time. It helps you remain patient; encourages you to take it slow and master the basics; prevents you from racing on ahead and becoming disheartened; and limits much of the frustration and despair that you will inevitably feel.

And remember: you can’t take the second step until you’ve taken the first. So after those rapid first six days, I picked myself up and went back to the very beginning: the cello position; holding the bow; bowing an open string; moving from one string to an adjacent one; skipping over a string; first finger; third and fourth finger; and learning to read the notes on the bass clef. You need a solid foundation on which to build, and if you don’t get the basics right, it’s all just wasted effort.

So when the other day, after two months of nursery rhymes, I learned to play the cello part from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it sounded amazing, a just reward for my perseverance. Of course, it’s one of the easiest classical pieces to play, but who cares? I’m proud of myself. And that is so important in a world where you’re surrounded by people better than you.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

(Props to Jordan B. Peterson for this one). This, I think, is probably the most important lesson any of us can learn, whether it’s as a musician, a partner, a parent, or, really, anything. There will always be someone better than you. And I’m not just talking about listening to Stepjan Hauser and despairing that you’ll never be as good as him – I’m talking about all the crap that social media throws at us on a daily basis about our abilities, our relationships, our worth in regard to other people.

Part of the reason I raced ahead to Schindler’s List in six days was from watching videos on YouTube showing how far ordinary people had come in just one week with the instrument. I felt like I was in competition, and I compared everything I was doing with them. And it’s strange, when you start learning the cello, how many people suddenly appear out of the woodwork to say, ‘My cousin’s a professional cellist,’ or ‘My nephew’s just been accepted into music college,’ and I just felt so bloody inferior to them all, so darned useless.

But really, it’s not about competing with anybody else, because I’m not anybody else – I’m me. And each day I sit down to play my cello, I get a little bit better; it feels a mite more natural; and I’ve taken another step towards that distant goal.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Of course, taking it slowly, mastering the basics, and judging yourself only against yourself, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of the bigger picture. Yes, right now I’m playing Algy the Bear, but ultimately I want to be playing River Flows In You, and it’s not wrong to keep that distant dream in the back of your mind to give you both a goal to work towards and the motivation to get there. Just make sure it helps you, and doesn’t hinder you.

To help me on the way, I’ve started taking lessons. Originally I’d intended to teach myself, but after following five separate teachers on YouTube, all of whom were excellent, I found they were actually confusing me more than helping as they all said slightly different things. When you’ve learned five different bow holds, you start to second guess everything you do, so I decided I’d need one single tutor who could correct all the mistakes I’m making.

In terms of ultimate goals, she asked me how far I wanted to go with the cello, and I realised I hadn’t really given it much thought. I played her River Flows In You on my iPod and told her I wanted to play things like that. ‘So, professional then,’ she said, and it threw me through a loop. When I started to play the guitar, it was to play rock songs; I knew I probably wouldn’t ever be as good as Kirk Hammett from Metallica or Slash from Guns N’ Roses, but I’d definitely be able to master Nirvana, Oasis and Weezer (yes, this enables you to date when I started playing the guitar). But when I took up the cello, it was to play classical music – I mean, that’s what it’s designed for, right? You don’t take up cello because you want to play RnB. Doesn’t everyone reach the stage that they’re playing classical music? Does that mean they’re all professionals?

She’s teaching two other ‘mature’ students, one of whom has reached Grade 4 in eighteen months, the other Grade 8 in two years – whatever the hell that means. They want to play in orchestras. I only ever thought about playing in the spare room – I was learning the cello for its own sake, but I guess the essence of music is performance, so it’s something to consider, provided it doesn’t interfere with lessons 1-3 above.

5. Have fun!

And, all of the above notwithstanding, have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing, even if it’s just Baa Baa Black Sheep. After doing an hour of scales, I like to reward myself by working out a rock song and then making as much noise as I can. Pachelbel’s Canon in D is virtually identical to Green Day’s Basket Case, while U2’s With or Without You is pretty easy. Pantera’s Walk is less so. Lamb of God’s Redneck is a non-starter.

So these are five more life lessons from learning cello:

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

2. Take it one step at a time.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

5. Have fun!

School gate politics

Since we live our lives surrounded by other people, I follow one simple rule to avoid complications: be distantly polite. Say hello, ask how they are, keep the conversation to mundane topics like the weather and how your kids are doing, and then leave. Not complicated, is it?

Unfortunately, this seems to be a minority viewpoint. I’ve mentioned before how women with kids can be incredibly petty (Millennial mothers: Grow the hell up!), and nothing I’ve experienced in five months of the school gate has convinced me that I’m wrong. If anything, I think I underplayed how obnoxious people can be.

Just before Christmas we had a new girl start at school from a couple of towns over. She hadn’t been getting on at her school (or I’m inclined to think the mother hadn’t been), so she transferred to my daughter’s school. No probs, no foul. The mother’s a bit full on – you can’t get a word in edgeways – but hey ho, we only see her at the school gate, though her and my wife had liaised about setting up a playdate since our daughters hang around together at school. So far, so normal.

Then yesterday, my wife got a text from her. A very nasty text, accusing my wife of gossiping, spreading dirt, and trying to turn the other mothers against her, saying that she hadn’t gone to the effort of switching schools to be judged by such a spiteful person as my wife, and telling her to stay away from her and her family in future or things could get ugly. To which my wife’s response was: what the hell?

The mother then texted to say she’d seen screen captures of messages my wife had sent, and that she wants nothing to do with us, she’d hoped we could be friends but not anymore.

Now, I know my wife isn’t perfect – she’s irresponsible, stubborn and impulsive – but she’s also helpful and generous and desperate to be everyone’s friend, and calling her nasty and judgemental, and accusing her of spreading gossip, is a gross misrepresentation of her character. Only last week, my wife was telling me how excited she was at setting up a playdate and making a ‘new friend’ – this woman – so it infuriates me to have her so maligned.

Since she wasn’t receiving any coherent responses from this woman, my wife contacted a mutual friend from school, one of the other girl’s mothers, to say that she’d received this nasty text and had no idea why. And then we got the explanation.

My daughter told us one day that the new girl had wet herself at school, so she’d been extra nice to her. It’s no biggee – they’re four, most of them have had accidents at school. When my wife met up with her friend the other night, she happened to mention this in conversation, which I figure is a pretty normal thing for parents whose kids are in same class to discuss – like that one of the girls fell over and skinned both knees, or that the Polish kids all hang out together speaking Polish. I mean, when the only thing you’ve got in common is that your kids are friends, what else are you going to talk about other than your kids and their interactions with their friends?

Well, this ‘friend’ mentioned the girl wetting herself to the girl’s mother, who immediately demanded to know who told her. So the ‘friend’ pointed the finger at my wife, and then showed this woman a text message my wife had sent on the very first day they’d met her, saying, ‘Wow, she’s a bit full on,’ because the new mum had blurted out her entire life story to them at the school gate, warts and all.

Those are the two times my wife has ever mentioned that family to anyone else. A text message from almost three months ago saying, ‘Wow, she’s a bit full on,’ and mentioning in passing that our daughter had been extra nice to the new girl because she wet herself. From that, she’s been accused of running a campaign to turn all the other mothers against the new woman, of being cruel, vindictive, spiteful and judgemental. Even though the ‘friend’s’ daughter has wet herself, like, five times! Who cares? They’re kids.

The way I see it, if this woman is so sensitive about people knowing her four-year-old wet herself, she’s the one with the problem. She’s clearly paranoid about being judged by the other mums, and while I don’t know what happened at the other school, she’s come to this one looking out for any sign that she’s being mistreated and totally overreacted to the very first perceived slight. Which makes you wonder if anything really did happen at the other school, or if this is all in her head. I wonder how many other people she’s going to attack and call it self-defence? Or how long before she pulls her child out of this school because of perceived mistreatment?

I composed a very pleasant response to this woman saying that we didn’t judge her at all, we’re all just trying to navigate this very difficult time in our lives without messing up, and it was never our intention to make anybody feel ridiculed because that’s not who we are. And that’s the truth. But we’ve had no response.

Now, however, I do judge her – I think she’s a bit of a psycho. I’d like to say that I can understand her response and I’m trying to see things from her point of view, but really, all I can see is somebody lashing out and accusing people of things that simply never happened. For someone who doesn’t want to be gossiped about, attacking another mum (who is, I am proud to say, rather popular at the school gate) is hardly a good way to stop gossip; indeed, it’s probably the best way to start it. Because, after all, if you’re a paranoid person the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

I’ve told my wife to watch out for her ‘friend’ too. I mean, who shows someone else a text message about them? Who, when someone is cross because she thinks the other mums are talking about her, pours fuel on the fire? What was her role in all this nonsense? It’s the school gate, not the bloody playground!

And now I shall leave it there, because I’m still angry about how this has played out and I’m feeling the petty caveman building up in me once again. Attack me? Fine, I’ll take in on the chin. Attack my wife and kids? You’d better bring your A-Game, baby, because my dictionary doesn’t go up to B.

I await a rather awkward Monday morning at the school gate. She doesn’t want anything to do with my family? The bloody cheek. I want nothing to do with hers.

But if pressed, I will be distantly polite. If everyone behaved the same way, none of this aggravation would have happened.

My deepest regret

I don’t know what it is that makes us look back sometimes, hunting down the smallest, most insignificant and mostly forgotten corners of our lives to find new material with which to torture ourselves. Perhaps as you get older it becomes easier to look back instead of forwards, given there are more years under your belt than over it; and perhaps the valleys of negative events are etched more vividly and viscerally into our memories than the featureless plain of happier times.

For whatever reason, a particular regret has been playing on my mind of late. I tend to live my life without regret, since everything I’ve done, right and wrong, has contributed to who and where I am now – the mountain does not blame the wind that shapes it. True, some things I might wonder about – what if I’d gone to university at 18; what if I’d continued my nursing studies; what if I hadn’t met my wife? – but for the most part, I don’t worry too much about the past. After all, the only thing we can influence is the present, and we can always strive to be better in the future. I have no qualms admitting when I’ve done wrong, and am not too proud to refrain from asking forgiveness.

However, as an intensely moral person, there are a few things I’m sensitive about. I like to think that, while I’m not necessarily a nice, or kind, or even friendly person, I am at least a good person; that is, when the chips are down, I do what is right, not what is easy. In my life I’ve helped drunks back to their flats, carried old people’s groceries to their cars, taken injured wildlife to the vet and tended those I couldn’t save. I’ve broken up fights, stood up for the weak, given lifts to people in distress and taken the punishments I knew others couldn’t endure. It is when I have fallen short of these ideals that I find most difficult to forgive myself.

So what is my deepest regret?

Every summer from the age of 9 to 15, I was sent off to Christian camp. It was an organisation called Covenanters, and I hated it. While I had some very enjoyable experiences over the years – rock climbing, abseiling, surfing, cliff diving – I detested everything else. I have never been comfortable in a social environment, struggling to form friendships or fit in, and since it would be another 15 years before anyone realised I had autism, I had zero insight into or support for my difficulties. My coping mechanisms didn’t extend beyond locking myself in the toilet to cry and lying awake at night wondering what I could say to my parents to get them to pick me up. Alas, these were my prime ‘character building’ years, so I had to take my punishment like a man.

The first three years of camp weren’t actually that bad because I was less aware of how much of a social misfit I was, and because we stayed in posh boarding schools – it felt a little like Harry Potter many years before Harry Potter was a thing. Other than group showers and raiders from other dorms, the indignities were kept to a minimum.

Unfortunately, in the final four years, camp became a literal camp. Home was a circular bell tent in a muddy field, the toilet was a plastic bucket behind canvas, and the showers were sprinklers over a wooden pallet. I no longer even had the minimal privacy of a bunk, and finding a toilet to cry in meant walking down to the local village on the occasional free afternoon.

Worse, puberty had kicked in, and with it a heightened sense of my own awkwardness and inability to get on with people. Desperate to fit in, everything I tried made me ever more of a social pariah. I just wanted to curl up in my sleeping bag and be left alone, but of course, that made me more of a target. Considering these were Christian camps, the boys who went to them were the furthest from Christian behaviour I ever met. I suppose I could have spoken to an adult, but back then I was conditioned to putting on a brave face as I died a little more inside with every day that passed.

The final three years, the camp was at Polzeath in Cornwall. It was truly awful when I was 13, but I had my brother in my tent, so no matter how bad it got, at least I had an ally. When I was 14, it was just about the worst two weeks of my life. My brother was now a Junior Officer, so I barely ever saw him. I was a piece of meat served up to the butcher’s block, and they tore strips off me.

There were six to eight kids to a tent, ranging in age from 12 to 15, and there’s a lot of difference between a 12-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, especially when the older ones get their kicks from bullying the younger. If it’s never happened to you, you can never know what it’s like to have people go through your bag and mess with your stuff; to hide your things or tread them in the mud; to pour water in your sleeping bag; to ostracise you, make fun of you, call you names, mock everything you do and everything you stand for over two entire weeks, what you wear, what you say, how you say it, what you do, how you walk, every insecurity, the drip, drip, drip of breaking you down until you’re a wreck. And God forbid you show any emotion, or they circle round like hyenas. Baby’s crying, aw, you miss your mummy?

I saw my first porno mag that summer, many, many times, because when they realised I didn’t like it, they kept forcing it on me. Look at the flaps on that one! they’d say as they shoved a photo of a vagina in my face. What’s the matter, are you gay?

Other than me, the youngest in the tent was their whipping boy, but he spent the whole time trying to be their friends while I spent the whole time keeping my head down and trying not to get noticed. They held him down once and shaved his head with face razors while he screamed, and still he went back for more. The couple of nights it got physically violent – after they told him his parents were dead and he was an orphan – I stepped in to protect him, taking the blows and the anger directed at him, which made my situation even worse. So of course, he joined them in mocking me, because he wanted to be in their tribe, and it was obvious I was never going to be.

Understandably, I didn’t want to go back to camp when I was 15. I mean, fuck that, right? But there was still character-building to be done, so back I went.

Things had changed, however. Between the end of that awful summer of 1994 and the start of the next, I had changed. I’d started listening to a band whose lead singer had just killed himself, and for the first time I found a voice for my frustrations, a channel for my angst. I’d started teaching myself to play the guitar, and I’d discovered hitherto untapped depths of resilience from all the bullshit I was enduring at school.

I made plans. This time, I swore I wasn’t going to let camp beat me. I bought clip-on shades for my glasses so I could hide behind them if I needed to; a bunch of band T-shirts so I could wear my identity like a suit of armour on my chest; a cross-pendant necklace to remind myself of strength in the face of suffering; and a bag chock full of cassettes and batteries so I could shut out the world and be alone with my music. I would bring my guitar to fill up the spare moments; sign up to every activity and volunteer for every shitty job going, just to stay active and stay safe.

As an officer, my brother had to help set up the camp, so we arrived a day earlier than the other campers and spent the day erecting the marquee and toilet tents. There were only two others like me, so the three of us were put in the same tent that night.

Sometimes the darkness never seems to end; the morning never comes; and you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so desolate. I remember sitting at breakfast on a rough wooden bench, surrounded by adults, and none of them spotted I was crying behind my shades as I ate my cornflakes, lost in utter devastation. The night with those boys had broken me. Despite my preparation, nothing was different; I was no different. I wouldn’t survive the next two weeks.

Behind the scenes, however, my parents has been pulling a few strings to make things a bit easier for me. They’d insisted I be appointed tent leader – the camper in charge of the group when the junior, senior and tent officers weren’t around – and that I be the oldest in my tent. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the group dynamics of a bunch of teenage boys can probably tell you that appointing a leader is an utterly futile gesture, but there you go. It was better than nothing.

I moved my things to my assigned tent, put in my headphones and waited for my bullies to arrive.

And then the strangest thing happened, so strange I can scarce believe it even now – as they arrived one by one, and as the day passed, and then the night, and then the next day, they didn’t pick on me. I was shocked. Stunned. I felt like I was walking along a tightrope, and any moment I’d fall off it and they’d start on me, but as we ended the first week, and entered the second, it still hadn’t happened. I was surviving!

Of course, they didn’t think I was cool – that’d be too much to ask – but they didn’t mess with me either, and I was free to listen to my music, play the guitar, and do all the activities I’d signed up for without anyone making fun of me. I was so used to being excoriated simply for existing, to be free of it was like feeling the sun on my face after a lifetime of winter. For the first time, I wasn’t sneaking off to the village to cry in the toilets. For the first time, I felt like I could make it to the end without sobbing down the phone to my parents.

But there was a reason, and this brings me to the thing that’s been on my mind lately, my deepest regret. The youngest kid in the tent was a 12-year-old called John who looked 10 and dressed like he was 8 – tailored shorts, checked short-sleeved shirts, elasticated bow ties and neatly combed hair, like his mum had picked out his outfit, as she clearly had. You can imagine how the kids in my tent treated him.

The reason they didn’t bully me that summer was because there was someone else to pick on. And, to my eternal shame, instead of sticking up for him, all I could think was: thank God it isn’t me. Oh thank God it isn’t me.

I don’t want to minimise it in any way, but their bullying of him wasn’t bad relative to some of the stuff I’d not only witnessed but endured. They made fun of his clothes, of how young he looked, and how posh he sounded. They got cross with him when he was rubbish at inter-tent sports, and criticised him for being him. They teased him relentlessly, but they didn’t physically attack him or mess with his things or tell him his parents were dead. But of course, having been bullied all my life, looking at it objectively, and trying to say who had it worse, is to do a disservice to the lived experience – to John, it was torture.

How do I know this? Because he told me. Because we took it in turns, in pairs, to wash up at mealtimes, and he was my partner, and as I stood with my hands in the bowl in that greasy hot water, and as he dried up the plastic camping plates, he’d tell me how much he was struggling, and how he was looking forward to his parents coming to pick him up, and how he just wished it was over now, and you know what I said to him? Do you know what I did?

I cringe when I think of it. Despite knowing how he felt, despite being the person best-placed to help him, I fobbed him off with the exact same platitudes I couldn’t bear myself. ‘You’ll get through it. You just have to toughen up. It’s not that bad. You’ll look back on this experience and laugh.’ And worst of all, I gave him advice on how not to make himself a target.

He turned to me for help, me, his tent leader, and what did I do to help? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Other than a couple of, ‘Come on, guys, knock it off’, when they were taking it a bit too far, I let the others pick on him because I was afraid that if I intervened they’d start to pick on me. How cowardly. I had the chance to do the right thing and I stood by and did nothing. And that cowardice haunts me to this day.

I keep trying to excuse myself. I wasn’t doing the bullying, I say; I was never mean to him myself. But that’s not good enough – by allowing it, by enabling the others to act as they did, I’m equally culpable.

I was young, I tell myself, only 15 – but I knew right from wrong, even at that time, and I chose to do the wrong thing; rather, I chose not to do the right thing, out of fear for myself. I wanted him to be bullied, not me – age is no excuse.

I was bullied myself, I say, I was psychologically damaged, so I’m not responsible for whatever actions I took to protect myself. But that doesn’t work either, since knowing so intimately the damage that bullying can cause, I should have prevented it happening to another.

And he could have gone to an adult for help, I argue. But then, so could I. That’s victim-blaming at it’s finest. And he came to me, who was close enough to an adult to have done something. It was more than I ever did.

None of my excuses work. After six years of being eaten alive at summer camp, in the seventh I threw fresh meat to the wolves and fled up a tree. That’s about as far from a ‘good’ person as you can get.

If I could go back there, I’d tell the others to back off, no matter the consequences. I would rather I had been bullied that year than John. I was already damaged; I could take it. Instead, I might have started a sequence of events that led to him being bullied year on year. I could have stopped someone feeling as bad as I did, and I didn’t.

I’ve carried that guilt with me all my life. I knew him for two weeks twenty-five years ago. I don’t know his name or even where he was from. I don’t know if he remembers me; if this was a single blip he quickly got over or a recurring theme, if it shaped him as a person or lies forgotten. In truth, none of that matters.

What’s important is that remember. And it still torments me.

But then perhaps, as with everything, this event, and my inability to forgive myself for it, has made me the person I am today. Perhaps it’s this failure to do good that has made me so determined to do good in my life, and I should accept that while I’m always going to feel sore about it, it ultimately led to good. I can’t change what happened. I can’t change what I did, or really what I didn’t do. I can only promise never to repeat that mistake. You regret the things you don’t do far more than the things you do.

And if anyone knows a John in his late thirties who went to Covenanter Camp at Polzeath in 1995, tell him I’m sorry I wasn’t there for him when he needed me. If it’s any comfort, it’s my deepest regret.

Am I missing something?

Since my wife and I both have autism, sometimes we misunderstand each other; sometimes we get the wrong end of the stick; and sometimes we are simply incapable of understanding the other’s point of view.

I live with my wife; I have kids with her; I spend practically every waking moment with her; but after the conversation I just had with her, I’m pretty sure she lives in a parallel dimension where up is down and black is white, or I do. I have no comprehension of what just happened.

She rushed into the lounge, her face aglow with excitement. ‘I’ve just realised something,’ she said.

‘Oh, yes?’ I replied, eager to hear what it was.

‘You know the alphabet? If you count seven letters above A, you get H.’

‘Yes.’

‘And if you count seven letters above B, you get I.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Well, if you count seven letters above C, you get J.’

I waited for more, but no more came. ‘And?’

‘Well isn’t that amazing?’ she said.

‘Isn’t what amazing?’

‘That if you count seven letters up from A, B and C, you get H, I and J.’

I frowned. ‘Still not seeing the significance.’

Her smile fading, as though talking to an idiot, she said, ‘Seven letters above A is H.’

‘Yeah, I get that.’

‘And seven letters above B is I.’

‘Yeah, and seven letters above C is J. So what?’

She sighed. ‘You’re not getting this.’

‘No, I’m not. Seven letters above A, B and C are H, I and J. Why is that significant?’

‘Look,’ she said, starting to lose her patience. ‘If you put the numbers A to G in a line, and then on the next line put H to N, all the letters on the second line will be seven in front of the letter above.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Well, that’s amazing, isn’t it? I just figured that out.’

‘You figured what out?’

‘That H, I and J are seven letters ahead of A, B and C.’

‘I’m still not understanding why that’s significant.’

‘Because, like, mathematicians could make algebraic equations out of it.’

By now, my frown was so deep my eyebrows had merged with my moustache, and she got even more annoyed.

‘What?’ she said. ‘You knew that seven letters in front of A, B and C are H, I and J, did you?’

‘Yes. I don’t get why this is news to you.’

‘Because H, I and J -‘

‘I know,’ I said. ‘They’re seven letters in front of A, B and C, but so what? Why seven? What’s the significance? Do they spell something out? Do they mean anything?’

‘No, but seven letters ahead of A, B and C are H, I and J.’

‘So what? Three letters in front of A, B and C are D, E and F. Four letters ahead are E, F and G. What’s interesting about that? What the hell are you talking about?’

She was very cross by now. ‘I’m talking about how, if you put the letters A to G in a line -‘

‘I know! The second line are all seven ahead! So what? Who cares?’

‘You’re just not getting it!’ she cried.

‘No, I’m not, because you’re not explaining it, you’re just repeating it!’ I cried back. ‘Why seven? If you make a line of three letters, the next row will all be three ahead; four letters, they’ll all be four ahead. Shit, we don’t even need letters. Three in front of 1 is 4; three in front of 2 is 5. Look at your phone – every number on the second row is three ahead of the first row. Who cares? Why exactly does it matter!?!’

‘Because if you choose a letter and go seven ahead, and pick the next letter and go seven ahead of that, they’re next to each other!’

‘Of course they’re bloody next to each other! If you go ahead any number of letters, from one to twenty-four, they’ll be next to each other! Twenty-four above A is Y, twenty-four above B is Z. So what?’

‘You just don’t want to admit it’s amazing because you didn’t come up with it.’

‘Come up with what? That some letters in the alphabet are ahead of other letters in the alphabet?’

‘No, that seven letters above A, B and C are H, I and J.’

‘But that’s not – that doesn’t mean anything.’

‘Not to you. I think it’s quite a profound idea.’

By this point, I wanted to rip off my own arm and beat her over the head with it. ‘That’s not profound. It’s not even an idea. That’s saying what you see. The sky is blue. Who cares? That’s half an idea. You need to say, the sky is blue and therefore. You have to provide significance. Meaning. Like, neo-Nazi organisations often put 18 in their name because 1 and 8 are the letters A and H, which stand for Adolf Hitler. Or, it’s called the alphabet because the first two letters are alpha and beta. That’s interesting.’

‘Well, I’m still pleased with myself for coming up with it.’

‘Well, you go and be pleased, then. I’m going to try and figure out what planet you’re on, because it definitely isn’t mine.’

And, try as I might, I still can’t figure out what the hell she was on about.

Am I missing something?

What happened to my patience?

When I was younger, people marvelled at my patience; my perseverance; my ability to face down the impossible and keep going until I’d redefined the limits of what could be achieved.

I taught myself to play the guitar, painstaking hour after painstaking hour; I spent three years in a band with a girl so abusive she sent seventeen other band members running into the wilderness with their tails between their legs; and I tolerated decades of bullying without ever lifting a finger to defend myself.

Maybe that’s the problem, and the reason I no longer have any patience or perseverance or endurance. Maybe that’s why my fuse has become so short you might as well cut out the middle man and light the dynamite directly.

Or maybe it’s what happens to you when you have kids?

Throughout my life, people have often suggested I become a teacher, but trying to help my four-year-old daughter read her school books has well and truly made a mockery of that idea. This afternoon was a prime example.

‘Sound out the letters, come on, you can do it.’

Tuh – O – Mmm.

‘Yes, well done! And what does that spell?’

Mike.

‘No, don’t just guess – try again.’

Tuh – O – Mmm. Mike.

‘No, it’s not Mike. Say the letters quickly. Tuh – O – Mmm, T – OMmm, Tom.’

Tuh – O – Mmm, T-OMmm, Mike.

‘How can it be Mike? It starts with Tuh, not Mmm. You can say the sounds, just put the sounds together to make the word.’

Mike.

‘I’ve already told you it’s not Mike! How can it be Mike when the M is at the end of the word, not the beginning. It’s Tom. Tuh – O – Mmm. Tom.’

Tom.

‘Yes, Tom. Now the next word. You don’t need to sound it out because you’ve already said it twenty times.’

A – Nnn – Duh.

‘Okay, spell it out, then. What does it say?’

I don’t know.

‘But you just spelled it out and it’s one of the words you already know.’

Cat.

‘What do you mean, cat? No, it’s not cat! A – Nnn – Duh. Just put the sounds together and you get…?’

Dog.

‘And. You get and. Tom and. Now, what’s this word? Sound it out.’

L – I – Nnn.

‘Very good. And that word is…?’

Phil.

‘Phil?! It starts with L. You said yourself it starts with L, so how could it be Phil?’

Lif.

‘Why do you think there’s a Fuh in it? You sounded out the letters, L – I – Nnn. L – INnn. Lin. Say it, L – INnn. L – INnn. Tom and…?’

Lilf.

‘Go to your room!’

I’m sure she does it on purpose. That’s got to be on purpose, right?

But then, my wife does the same, like this afternoon.

Wow, I only need to roast this beef for fifty minutes.

‘I don’t think that’s right.’

Yeah, it says 25 minutes for every 500 grams.

‘How much does it weigh?’

1.3 kilograms.

‘Then that’s not 50 minutes, is it?’

It’s 25 minutes per 500 grams.

‘So that’s about 65 minutes, then.’

Why?

‘Because the kilogram takes 50 minutes, and the remaining 300 grams take another 15. Plus you need to put it in for 20 minutes first.’

Now you’re just making it complicated.

‘You have an NVQ in catering, how is this difficult? 20 minutes, plus 25 for every 500 grams. Put it in at 230 for 20 minutes, then turn it down and time 65 minutes. Total time, 85 minutes. Got it?’

That’s ages.

‘Well, do you want it cooked properly or do you want it raw in the middle like it usually is?’

Cooked properly.

‘Then put it in for 20 minutes followed by 65. Simple.’

Half an hour later and she says to me, It’s had 20 minutes, so I’ve set the timer for 50 minutes, okay?

’65.’

Why 65?

‘Because you’re not cooking a kilogram of beef! You’re cooking 1.3 kilograms. You have to cook the extra 300 grams! What about this are you not getting?’

I’m going to cook it the way I always do, and if it’s not right, it’s not right.

‘Honey, it’s not right, and the vegetables are going to be cold by the time the meat’s done. Are you leaving any time for resting?’

Fine, you cook it if you think you’re so perfect.

How can I not have a short fuse when this is my daily life?

Not to mention that my four-year-old keeps writing on her bedframe, but she makes sure to sign it with her sister’s name.

I didn’t do it, it was Rosie. See? It says Rosie.

‘Don’t lie to me.’

It was Rosie. Look!

‘Tell me the truth.’

I am telling the truth! Rosie did it! See, she wrote her name.

It’s a diabolical scheme with just a couple of flaws: Rosie is two. Rosie can’t write.

Not that Rosie is any more compliant. I gave her a bath this evening.

‘Put your head back or the shampoo will go in your eyes. Put your head back. Your head back. Do you want shampoo in your eyes? Put. Your. Head. Back.

Oohh, daddy! Uh-huh, uh-huh. I got shampoo in my eyes! Wahh! Mummy! Daddy got shampoo in my eyes!

And then:

I want get out. I want get out.

So I got her out.

Wahh! I not want get out!

So I dried her off and took her downstairs.

I not want nappy.

‘I really think you should have a nappy.’

I big girl.

‘You’ll use your potty if you want a wee-wee?’

I use potty.

‘You’ll tell me if you need to go?’

Yes.

‘Do you need a wee-wee now?’

No.

‘Are you sure you don’t need a wee-wee?’

I not need wee-wee.

‘Okay. Whuh – why are you weeing on the floor? Quick, get on the potty! Get on the potty! Oh God, it’s everywhere!’

Why I wee-wee?

‘That’s a bloody good question, a bloody good question!’

I not want go on potty.

I’m surprised I’m not shooting blood out of my eye-sockets by now!

Tell me they get less annoying as they grow older. Please, tell me that! (Except my wife – I guess I’m stuck with her the way she is…!)

The little things that kill: living with depression

As humans, I think we’re programmed to believe that only the big things matter. As kids, we innately believe that accidentally breaking the TV is worse than deliberately breaking a pencil, and even though we develop a better understanding of morality as we grow older, we continue to associate damage with size. I’ve argued before that we can see evidence of this in conspiracy theories, as we mistakenly believe that large effects must have equally large causes, and so invent labyrinthine plots to fit reality to our preconceptions, rather than our preconceptions to reality.

The same is true when we look at our lives. We spend so much time looking at the ‘big picture’ – our income, job, achievements, social status, family relationships – that we miss the little details that make up the whole. So often we reduce the wondrous complexity of our individual experience to a linear sliding scale, with ‘success’ at one end and ‘failure’ at the other, and pigeonhole ourselves as monolithic entities, without appreciating that we are a multitude of successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses – we are not the sum of our parts.

Yet despite knowing better, we apply this same misunderstanding to mental health.

In the media, in fiction, among our families and friends, the emphasis is always on singular, disproportionately large and simplistic explanations. A person is depressed because they’re single, or they lost their job, or they’ve suffered a bereavement; they kill themselves because of a relationship breakdown, money worries or a sudden trauma. It’s comforting to think like this, because it means the causes can be identified, and therefore treated. Like a weed growing in our minds, all we have to do is cut out the roots, and the mental illness will wither and die.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. For most of us with lifelong depression, it doesn’t have a single identifiable cause. It’s not a weed that can be excised, but a symbiotic parasite so interwoven throughout our being that the only way of killing it is destroying the host. I’m always suspicious of people who say they used to be depressed but they’re now ‘cured’, because I don’t believe it ever really goes away. Sometimes you’re winning, sometimes you’re losing, but you never stop fighting, and just as in any war, there are casualties in this conflict that can never be made whole again.

What people don’t want to acknowledge – what is perhaps terrifying to accept – is that there are millions of causes of depression, most of them so small and inconsequential that they pass us by unnoticed as the parasite slowly winds it’s way into our bodies. You don’t suffer a shock one day and wake up the next with depression – if only it were that easy! No, it creeps up on you, little by little, so that by the time you realise how much of a hold it has on you, it’s too late.

It’s the everyday things, the little things that don’t seem to matter, that lead you into depression. It’s the family get-together you skip because you can’t face the hassle. It’s the meal you miss because you can’t be bothered to cook. It’s the text message from a friend you mean to respond to, but put off so long you no longer know what to say. It’s the hobby that you can’t seem to find the time for any more. It’s the chocolate bar you insist is a one-off treat as the empty packets pile up around you. It’s yesterday’s clothes you put on because it’s too much effort to pick out a new outfit. It’s the letter you don’t open because it looks scary. It’s the lawn that grows too long because there are more important things to do. It’s the cross word with your partner that doesn’t get resolved. It’s the walls you put up against the people you love.

And it’s the escape you sink yourself into, the dark pit where you can curl up and feel safe. It’s the irritation you feel when people try to reach out to you. It’s the excuses you use to avoid anything that might help. It’s the growing awareness of how awful you feel, and how awful you are, and how awful the future appears, and how little you want to leave your isolated little hole.

That’s depression. Not a comet landing in your neatly ordered life and leaving devastation in its wake – it’s the glacier that slips slowly and silently and unstoppably into your world, covering everything in an impenetrable sheet of ice, where you can see your friends, your family, the sun, but they’re like ghosts behind glass, drifting away in a dimension you can never reach.

And the worst part? Most of the time you don’t have the self-awareness, the reflexivity, to even understand what’s going on. You think this is normal.

It’s only rarely, very rarely, that we can see ourselves from outside, when we have what alcoholics call ‘a moment of clarity’, or drug addicts ‘hitting rock bottom’, where we understand what we’re doing, and where we are, and the damage we’ve done to ourselves and others with our self-destructive behaviours. Most of the time we feel numb, and pointless – most of the time we don’t think what we do matters to anyone else – but for a few brief moments the cloud lifts from our minds and we can see how we fit into the world around us, and the impact we have on our loved ones, and we finally feel something, albeit bitterness, pain and regret.

And then, all too soon, it’s gone.

So what should we do in these moments? We have to focus on the little things. We have to do the opposite of what we want. If we want to hide in a dark hole, we need to step out into the light. If we’ve put up walls, we need to tear them down, hug and kiss our spouse, to enact the affection we no longer feel until we feel it again. We need to play with our children to bring back some of the joy. We need to laugh. We need to respond to friends and family. We need to restart the hobby we dropped. We need to open the post, mow the lawn, and make tomorrow a little easier than it is today.

In short, we need to resume the habits we’ve dropped, set us back on the right course, and do it quickly before the cloud returns in the hope those habits will hold us together until our next moment of clarity.

The little things got us here. Focusing on the little things will get us through.

For a time, at least.