Life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old casual guitar player who can’t read music, I’ve embarked on a journey to learn the cello – an instrument that doesn’t spoon-feed you anything the way a guitar or piano does, and that requires time, patience and practice to play a single note. I’ve had my cello three days now, so how am I doing?

It’s going really well, actually. When you get it right and the instrument rewards you, there’s an immense feeling of satisfaction because you know you’ve earned it. And unexpectedly, I’m discovering that a lot of what I’m learning on the cello has a wider application – that the lessons of how to play are also lessons on how to live – so I thought I’d share them here.

Day One: Confront your fears

I had a girlfriend once who played the violin, and she never tuned it. ‘These sorts of instruments are too hard to tune,’ she said. ‘You have to take them to a specialist to get it done properly.’

So before getting my cello, I built up a massive complex about tuning. Since it’s a rental and came with luthier setup, I figured I’d leave it exactly how it came and be done with it.

When I got it out of the bag, and after adjusting the height until it felt comfortable, I tentatively plucked the strings. To my ear, and having no frame of reference, it sounded fine.

Being a guitar player, and thus well-versed in left-hand fingering, I ignored the bow for the moment and decided to practice some scales by simply plucking the strings (pizzicato). Since cellos have no frets, I knew the first step was to put tape on the fingerboard to mark first position, so I watched various YouTube videos explaining how to do this. They were all clear on one thing: you had to make sure the cello was in tune. Checking it against some tones I found online, I realised my cello was about one whole step down and all four strings needed tuning.

Bugger. With swelling anxiety, I read that, if you want to be a cellist, you have to be able to tune your own instrument. I knew if I left it, it’d grow into such an issue I’d never get over it, so I bit the bullet and watched a bunch of videos on how to tune a cello. With a healthy amount of trepidation and the certainty that I was going to mess up the very thing I’d been waiting for all week, I turned the first peg.

Wow. With 30-40lbs of tension in each string, the instrument makes one hell of a frightening cracking noise when you adjust the peg. And that peg is held in place by friction only, so you have to push it into the hole as you turn it, or else the moment you let go, it spins the other way and undoes all your hard work.

But you know what I discovered? It’s surprisingly easy, and once you’ve done it, your cello sounds so much better. There is no reason whatsoever to be afraid of tuning.

I spent the rest of the day plucking up and down the C-Major scale across all four strings, feeling rather pleased with myself. I’d conquered my fears and found them baseless, and was already being rewarded by my instrument.

So the big lesson of the day: confront your fears. You might just find that there was nothing to fear all along.

Day Two: Act with confidence

Since I was already building up anxiety about the bow, I took the lesson of Day One and dove right in. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d already read that in the first couple of weeks it’ll sound awful, but I wasn’t prepared for just how awful it sounded. The A-string is close enough to the violin (see my feelings on violins) that you can experience the screechy, scratchy drowning cat sound without even trying, especially if you’re fingering with your left hand at the same time. The lower strings sound better, but far from perfect. Like I said, the cello doesn’t spoon-feed you anything – instead of simply pressing a key, you have to do several tricky things at the same time to get a decent note.

Since practice makes perfect, I spent most of the day practising, but it wasn’t very good. I was nervous, which meant I was very tentative with the bow and I was trying to play quietly so I didn’t inflict the wretchedness on the rest of the family (and the neighbours).

Just when I was ready to give up for the day, I thought I’d throw caution to the wind and give it a bit of welly and – boom! – the sound improved massively. It was like flicking a switch to turn night into day. I realised that if you play nervously, afraid of the sounds you’ll make, you make bad sounds, whereas if you play with confidence, even if you’re unpracticed, you make good sounds.

That’s a great lesson for life – if you go into something worried that you’re going to fail, you will, but if you trust yourself and do it with confidence, even if it’s something new, you can achieve far more than you ever thought you could. The best at climbing trees are those with no fear of falling, after all.

Day Three: find what works for you

After two days playing the cello, yesterday evening my left wrist and right hand ached. I’ve watched more than a dozen videos and read about twenty articles on that ever-important bow-hold, and they all seem to say something slightly different. No matter which one I use, it cramps up my hand after a couple of minutes, and various parts of my body start to punish me.

Stepping back a moment, I found I was way too stiff. By trying to do everything right, and contorting my body into uncomfortable positions to fit someone else’s idea of ‘the correct way’, I was not only making myself sore, I wasn’t making a very good sound. You don’t grip the bow tightly, locking your fingers into place – you need a light, relaxed touch. And you don’t sit rigidly in the ‘correct’ posture – you need to be loose and gentle. Not all bodies are built the same, just as no people are built the same, so find what feels natural and right for you, and relax into it. You need to let go of your tension and flow, not only because it stops you getting sore, but because it makes everything sound better.

I spent today practising the C-Major scale with the bow up and down the four strings, and I’m feeling nowhere near as stiff, and not only that, it’s sounding great.

So, from three days of practice, I have these rules for life:

  1. Confront your fears
  2. Act with confidence
  3. Find what works for you

Who knows what I’ll discover tomorrow?

Autism at Christmas: advice to make everyone feel welcome

*This is a re-post of something I wrote in January 2018. With Christmas fast approaching, I thought it would be helpful to remind everyone how you can help your autistic relatives enjoy the festive period by following a few simple steps: 

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, and a wife with the same, I have just experienced an incredibly stressful holiday season that has left my nerves in shreds and my marriage hanging on a knife-edge. For the avoidance of future issues, and to help out my fellow Aspies and their families, I thought I’d share what happened to me and offer some friendly advice on how to make things run more smoothly.

1. Keep the disruption short

My wife asked if we could spend a few days over Christmas with her sister and family, a four-hour drive away from home. As a supportive husband and father, of course I said yes. Two or three days at somebody else’s house is about my limit.

It wasn’t until two weeks before Christmas that I discovered my wife had actually arranged six days with her sister. I protested and tried to change it, only to be told by the wider family that it had already been arranged and changing it would be inconvenient. For them. The neurotypical ones.

Not wanting to cause a fuss, I loaded the car with everything including the kitchen sink (a toy for my daughter), and we set off.

In short, it was two rather pleasant days, two rather annoying days, and two days in which I wanted to push people off the quayside and throw stones at them as they struggled to stay afloat.

People with autism need space to recharge our batteries. I’m not talking simply physical space – we need mental space, a way to escape the slowly building pressures and strains of being forced into relentless and unpredictable social situations. Such a thing is generally impossible in an unfamiliar environment filled with somebody else’s stuff and driven by rules and routines different from your own.

Without this release, as time goes on you become more tired, more stressed, more prickly, more antisocial, less able to cope. And then you look and act like an asshole as you start to isolate yourself, avoid eye-contact, mumble two-word responses to questions, and refuse to participate, all as a way of surviving. And are told this isn’t the way you’re supposed to be behaving over Christmas. By neurotypical people. Who you already warned that you’d get like this if you had to spend six days with them, but who chose to ignore it anyway.

So to the families of Aspies – think carefully about the duration of the holiday arrangements, and when your loved one is showing signs of stress, leave them alone. You might think that trying to include them in activities will bring them out of their funk, but in reality it’ll likely make things worse as they’ll feel pressurised and even more trapped than they already do.

2. Keep the numbers small

I had been informed that there would be a total of eight people at Christmas, including myself, my wife and my two kids, perhaps because it was known that I’d become anxious or refuse to go if this number was any higher. So imagine my surprise when a further seven people turned up, to take up every spare room in the house and leave me to feed the baby on a hard wooden chair at the dining room table every night.

I’ve mentioned many times before that autism is an exhausting disorder. When I’m with other people I spend inordinate amounts of mental energy consciously processing those things that most neurotypical people take for granted, namely how to have a conversation, when it’s my turn to speak, what I should talk about, how I should phrase things, where I should look, how much eye-contact I should make, how to interpret what they’re saying, reading their body language, regulating my posture and my proximity, working out relationships, the appropriate register, making sure I’m not talking too loudly or too soft, dominating the conversation or saying something inappropriate. I do all this to ‘pass’ for normal in a process called masking, and it is incredibly stressful, overwhelming and draining, and causes massive anxiety.

That’s with just one other person. Put me in a house with fourteen other people and I’m on overload. I can’t mentally process so many inputs and interactions, and something has to give – normally my peace of mind and my ability to function. I tend to come across at these times as arrogant and antisocial as I struggle to regulate what I say or how I should say it. My coping mechanism is to withdraw from the social encounter, deal with people one-to-one, minimise the number of simultaneous interactions – something that’s impossible in a crowd.

So if you want your Aspie family member to have a good time during holidays, less really is more.

3. If you make a plan, stick to it

It is well known – so well known, in fact, that it’s hardly worth mentioning – that people with autism hate change. I have discussed this many times and pointed out that it’s slightly more nuanced than that. My wife, for example, cannot handle change that involves the cancellation of something already arranged. I am the opposite – cancelling things doesn’t really bother me, but adding things in with little or no warning makes me freak out. The looseness of Christmas exposed my wife and I to both of these types of change, leading to great emotional distress for both of us.

Our second day was a case in point. It had long been arranged that everyone would go for a walk at the beach in the morning and in the afternoon someone would kindly look after our kids so my wife and I could head off to a coastal village to have a look around and spend some adult time together.

We left the house at 11.45 and arrived at the beach for 12.30, which by my reckoning, as a stickler for accuracy, is not morning. A minor point, perhaps, but incredibly frustrating for a person with autism. An hour’s walk in the wind and rain at the beach and I was more than ready to go back to the house, head off to the pretty village, and spend some quality time with my wife.

Unfortunately, somebody suddenly announced, ‘We’ve decided we’re all going to the pub for a drink.’ And that was that.

My wife was okay with this, as an additional activity is fine for her. I, on the other hand, panicked. Telling me I have to go into a stressful social situation – a dark, noisy, crowded pub at Christmas with people I don’t know very well – with barely a couple of minutes to get my head around it caused me massive unnecessary anxiety. For other people, going into a pub is probably a pleasant experience – for me, it is a torture that must be endured, and I need to mentally prepare myself for that. Unable to do so, I found it horrendous.

Unfortunately, staying at the pub over an hour, walking back to the car, driving back to the house, meant it was nearly dark by the time we got there. Then the person who said they would look after our kids had to prepare the food for dinner, thus we were unable to go to the coastal village. While I found this annoying because I’d been looking forward to it, my wife found this change of plan – the cancellation of something already arranged for no good reason – very upsetting and difficult to process.

Most of the people I know with Asperger’s suffer problems with anxiety, and changing plans tends to send our anxieties skyrocketing. Indeed, it can ruin our whole day as dealing with the psychological and emotional fallout lasts for hours. So if you must add or remove something from the schedule, make sure it’s for a good reason and not simply because of a sudden whim. A little sensitivity goes a long way to sparing your Aspie relatives a great deal of unnecessary anguish.

4. Don’t expect others to conform to your emotional standards

I lost count of the number of times I was told to cheer up, be happy, enjoy myself, join in, stop being a bah humbug, as though my emotional reactions were somehow ‘wrong’ because they differed from those of the people around me. Not only, therefore, was I expected to behave in a neurotypical manner and suppress my natural tendency towards a quiet, ordered life, I was also denied the right to feel my own perfectly normal emotions.

I was even told that, as my kids made it ‘magical’, I should feel magical. I asked precisely when an adjective had become an emotion and if such a feeling could be described to me, and therein lies the rub – people with autism often struggle to understand or appreciate their emotions. I certainly approach them from an intellectual viewpoint, and I find the concept of happiness, as it relates to me, very confusing.

To me, happiness isn’t about feeling good, it’s about not feeling bad. If I am ‘enjoying myself’ it means I feel absolutely nothing – the everpresent irritation, the tightness between my shoulder blades, that electrical storm of focused energy that buzzes around inside my head as I process, process, process, are not there. It doesn’t mean I’m smiling or jumping up and down. If I’m reading in a corner I’m quite possibly quietly content.

But like most people with Asperger’s, I won’t lie, and perhaps that’s why I stand out. I found Christmas extremely difficult, and when people asked how I was feeling, I told the truth. While everyone else was supposedly having ‘such a good time’, I spotted tears when they thought nobody was looking, heard whispered arguments from behind closed doors, noticed when formerly talkative people fell strangely silent and when couples sat beside one another without a single word passing between them beyond mildly passive-aggressive statements. So maybe I’m not so different after all.

I played with my kids and made sure they were happy, and I’m not sure why everyone was so bothered that I should display outward signs of pleasure for their own gratification. It seems to me less about making sure I’m enjoying myself and more about feeling threatened that somebody isn’t buying into the same sentimental bullshit that they are.

So don’t heap added pressure on your Aspie relatives by expecting them to feel a certain way – we’re already expected to behave in ways that don’t come naturally. Allow us our own emotions and to react exactly how we react, and we’ll do the same with you.

5. Turn off the gosh-darned music

As soon as the household arose, the radio went on. As it was rigged up throughout the house, the music would play in the kitchen, the dining room and the lounge, at quite a loud level, right up until bedtime. This was despite people coming and going, having conversations, playing games, making phone calls, watching videos on their handheld devices, and everything else that goes on in a house at Christmas.

My God, it was overwhelming. It was like a thousand tiny drills boring into your brain morning, noon and night. When you’ve heard Shane MacGowan slur his way through Fairytale of New York six times by lunch, you’re ready to agree with that line ‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.’

People with autism tend to have oddly-balanced sensory systems. Normally, we have very sensitive hearing and struggle to filter out one sound from another. Stick me in a house with fourteen other people over Christmas and I can hear three or four simultaneous conversations, making it very difficult to pay attention to my book and thus get the mental space that I need. Add music to the mix and my sensory system is utterly overwhelmed, especially when that music is loud.

So spare a thought for your autistic relatives over Christmas – a quiet space or some quiet time is certainly in keeping with the Christmas spirit of peace and goodwill to all men.

6. Don’t lecture from a position of ignorance

While walking towards the aforementioned (awful, awful) pub, I explained my reservations to a member of my wife’s family. ‘For me,’ I said, ‘going to a pub is the equivalent of sitting a really difficult exam. I discussed this last month with Luke Jackson, an autistic author, and we agreed that while for most neurotypical people going to the pub is relaxing, for those of us with autism it’s jolly hard work. You see, you go to work, get stressed, and then go to the pub to unwind. But while you’re unwinding, we’re becoming more and more wound up. Afterwards, you go home and go to bed because you’re relaxed. We go home more stressed than when we left, and then have to spend a few hours unwinding and de-stressing before we can be relaxed enough to go to bed, which is awfully tiring and has a knock-on effect for the following days. That’s what it is to have autism and why I’d rather we didn’t go to this pub.’

Quite clear, I thought, frank, easy to understand. So how did he respond (other than, ‘Cheer up, you miserable bugger.’)?

He said, ‘Oh, how ridiculous. No, I don’t believe that at all.’

‘Well, that’s the way it is.’

‘No, of course it’s not.’

And that’s the level of understanding I tend to get from my wife’s family. This is just one of multiple examples over the six days of me explaining to someone how my autism affects me, only to have them disagree with it. What? Why on earth would you belittle and undermine my understanding of my own condition and my own behaviour!?!

With all humility aside, I am an expert on Asperger’s Syndrome and how it affects me. I’m sought out to give speeches educating people about autism and I’ve written a well-received book about it, for Christ’s sake, one that’s sitting in the health section of every Waterstones in the UK. So why on earth would you dismiss what I say because you think you know best about a subject you have never studied, experienced or lived with?

Probably because there were some subsequent discussions about how ‘Asperger’s didn’t exist in my day,’ and how there are far too many people walking around using modern diagnoses as an excuse to cop out of life. Because that’s not condescending at all!

So if you want to keep cordial relations with your Aspie relatives, be sure to treat their expertise with the understanding and appreciation it deserves. Unless you’re a bigot, in which case we probably don’t want anything to do with you.

7. Bringing up the supposed links between MMR and autism isn’t going to win you any friends

I always find it strange that people dare bring this up. Without knowing very much about it, surely they know it’s a controversial conspiracy theory and therefore inappropriate to raise with people they don’t know from Adam. I don’t go up to somebody with cancer and say, ‘Hey, have you heard they have a cure for cancer, but they keep it hidden because they can make more money treating the disease than curing it?’ because that would be remarkably insensitive.

I have explained at length that MMR does not cause autism, and am armed with enough facts to shoot down any and all attempts to suggest otherwise. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people like my mother-in-law and various people in the house over Christmas telling me that my wife’s autism was caused by the MMR jab.

‘Andrew Wakefield was paid a hefty sum of money to find a link between MMR and autism so people could make compensation claims,’ I told them. ‘He was also marketing his own competing vaccine. This is what we call a conflict of interest and why his study has been completely discredited.’

‘He’s very popular in America.’

‘He had to go to America because he was struck off by the GMC for faking his research.’

‘Well, I still think he’s right.’

‘No, he’s not. The only study suggesting a link between MMR and autism had a sample size of twelve and was faked, whereas meta-analyses of studies featuring over 14.7 million kids – yes, 14.7 million – showed no statistically significant difference in rates of autism between those who’d had the vaccine and those who hadn’t.’

‘Well, I think that if you’re genetically predisposed towards autism, the shock of having three vaccines at once can trigger it.’

‘But where’s the evidence for that? If that was true, proportionately more people who’d had MMR would have autism than those who didn’t have the vaccine, and that’s not the case.’

‘She was different after she had the MMR. I know she was.’

And so I had to bite my tongue, or else I’d say something suitably cutting. Emotion trumps logic every time, and that’s damned annoying.

So don’t bring up this crap with your Aspie relatives during an already stressful time and then argue against facts with feelings. As I said, autism is my area of expertise, and trying to make out that you know more than me about it just makes you look ignorant.

8. And lastly, compromise is not a dirty word.

Nor are compassion, empathy or understanding. It seems odd that those of us with autism, who have clearly defined and specific needs, are the ones expected to fit in with everyone else. Yes, the ones who, because of their condition, have the least capacity to modify their behaviour to suit others are the ones who have to make the effort to adapt their behaviour to suit others. It doesn’t really strike one as fair, does it?

I’m not saying that the neurotypical side should make all the movement, but surely we could meet somewhere in the middle? It might make Christmas a little more enjoyable for all of us.

UFOs over Highcliffe

Calling all airheads and aviation fanatics: can you help me identify something I saw in the sky?

I took my kids to the beach this morning, at Highcliffe on the UK’s South Coast. The sun was bright, the sky was clear, and we took off our shoes and socks and made sandcastles on the first truly glorious day of spring.

Their grandmother is flying to Spain today, and with the airport nearby in Hurn, we eagerly looked to the sky at the sound of every engine, waiting for a plane to appear from behind the trees that line the top of the cliff. Sometimes a Cessna would appear, someone on a flying lesson or out for pleasure; sometimes a helicopter on a sightseeing tour. Much higher up, passenger jets from Gatwick or Heathrow left contrails across the sky.

But once when we looked up, I spotted something I couldn’t identify in the sky. It made no noise and seemed to be at very high altitude, though without clouds it’s impossible to tell. It was silver, roughly cigar-shaped with the front and rear tapering to points. I noticed it because it was reflecting the sun, twinkling bright and dull and bright again as though catching and losing the sun, making it look as though it was rolling along the length of its axis. There were no wings that I could see, no tail, no lights, no contrail. It was travelling in a straight line, out into the Channel, with no deviation, and seemed to be getting higher (and smaller) as it went.

‘There are two,’ said my three-year-old, to whom I’d pointed it out.

And she was right. Following the silver object was a second, identical in appearance and motion, reflecting the sun like a mirror. It was almost like seeing two daytime stars, though not so bright that you couldn’t see they had mass and form.

We watched them for two or three minutes until they flew too close to the sun and we lost them. During that time, they were clearly either under power or the influence of gravity – not balloons as it was a smooth, continuous movement, and they didn’t alter course or change their positions relative to one another.

My daughter says they were spaceships, but that’s because she’s three. At first I thought they might be satellites in low earth orbit, particularly given the way they reflected the sun, but I’m not sure a satellite would be so easily observable during the day, or so slow moving. And I’m certainly not ready to credit them to little green men!

My best guess is that we saw a pair of helicopters flying high enough that I could neither see nor hear their rotors, even though I’ve never seen helicopters look like that before. Presumably they took off from Bournemouth and were still climbing to altitude when we saw them, en route to France. Until somebody in the know tells me different, that’s what I think we saw.

All I can say for sure is that they were objects, they were flying, and I’m unable to identify them, making them, by definition, Unidentified Flying Objects. But if they were aliens, I can’t imagine that after conquering interstellar travel there’d be much to interest them in rural Dorset, except, perhaps a cream tea that’s out of this world! (Shoot me now…)

[Click here for UFOs over Highcliffe update]

But how did her baby get into her tummy?

Ah. We have reached a developmental threshold. I thought we’d hit it before Christmas when my daughter said, ‘You know I was in mummy’s tummy? Well how did I get out?’ but that was only the mechanics of birth (and she didn’t believe me that mummy pushed her out her noo-noo). No, this question – the creation of life and the sexual dimension it implies – is altogether trickier, deeper, and represents a significant step outside of ‘that’s the way things are’ to ‘why are things that way?’ Yikes.

I must admit, I fudged the answer. I was alone with her in the car at the time, and I figured something like this ought to be discussed with her mother first so we can decide the best time, best way, and all that. To be honest, I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with the concept of procreation for a few more years at least, so I wasn’t ready, and a garbled response about eggs and seeds probably isn’t the best way to introduce a three-year-old to the mysteries of the adult world.

My mind racing, I considered implying that birds and bees had something to do with it; storks, cabbage patches, magic; even the age-old ‘when a mummy and daddy love each other very much…’; but given that bees are dying, storks are terrifying, and one of her friends has two mummies, it’s no longer that simple.

I turned it on its head and asked her how she thought they got in there.

‘I think mummy swallows them,’ she said, and we left it at that.

Phew! Dodged a bullet.

I was taught about sex at the age of four or five – penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs. While I’m not sure about the appropriate lower age, there is definitely an age where you should already be clued in – I remember everybody making fun of a ten-year-old at my school because he thought he came out of his mother’s butt. Sucked to be that guy – pooped into the world.

There’s a danger to leaving it too late, too. When I was on a bus travelling through Alabama twenty years ago, I remember seeing a massive billboard that said: ‘Talk to your children about SEX, or SOMEONE ELSE WILL!’ You definitely don’t want them learning from porn and thinking, like today’s eleven-year-olds, that that’s how people actually do it. And, of course, the consequences of a lack of sex education have been devastatingly explored in fiction, from Stephen King’s Carrie to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Message received and understood.

But there’s a way to do it, and I know that showing embarrassment or squeamishness can send out the wrong message and lead to problems later down the line. I met a girl at university who said, ‘I’m bisexual, but I’m terrified of penises, so I’ve only ever been with girls and I don’t think I’ll ever have sex with a man, so behaviourally I’m a lesbian.’ (My response to this statement was, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m Gillan, what’s your name?’). I don’t want that kind of confusion for my girls.

And I certainly don’t want them to think sex or masturbation or specific body parts are ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’ or ‘shameful’ either. I want them to be body confident, with a healthy sexuality free from the hang-ups that I, an awkward, sexually-inexperienced autistic bloke might pass on to them.

So I started researching this topic online (very carefully – I don’t want to be on a watch list!), and I discovered I’m a lot more old-fashioned and out-of-touch than I realised.

Today’s Parent, for example, suggests teaching a child of 0 to 2 the words penis, vagina, vulva, clitoris, bum and nipple, meaning I missed that window. It also suggest explaining to them when and where it’s appropriate to explore their bodies – gently and in the privacy of their bedrooms, apparently – which I must confess I thought was a conversation for much, much, much later on.

For the 2 to 5 age range – where we’re at now – it suggests opening up about consent, explaining it’s not appropriate for others to ask to see or touch their genitals, and not to keep secrets about this, which is definitely good advice but, God, how do you have that conversation without implying the world’s full of sexual predators? Also, now’s the time to mention sperm and egg, perhaps leaving the gory details for when they’re older.

All of this seems alien to me. Far too young, I keep thinking, let them be children a little longer before you strip them of their innocence. But other sites, like Family Education, all seem to agree on this basic framework – the proper names for genitals and where and when it’s appropriate to touch yourself somewhere between 0 and 3, the egg and sperm speech and stranger danger around 3 to 5, and the more explicit details about 6 to 8.

I’ve been living under the erroneous belief that I could sit them down in about five years, have a one-off Q&A session, then avoid the issue until their first date when they’re sixteen, with a couple of ‘women’s issues’ interventions along the way. Instead, you need to mention sex throughout their upbringing, stressing issues of consent and context, in order to create a sexually healthy adult.

I guess I agreed to all this when I became a father, and next time she asks I’ll be better prepared. Sometimes, I think it would be better if a stork delivered us fully-formed to our parents. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about stretch marks and post-partum incontinence!

How to get a baby to sleep

When people ask me how I am these days, I tend to answer the same way. I point at my fourteen-month-old and say, ‘For the past two months, this one has been staying up till at least midnight every night, often till two or three in the morning, and I have no idea how to get her to sleep. All she does is scream and scream. I’ve not had a single night off in over a year and I’m physically and emotionally wrecked.’

I figured that response was fine, since it was true. However, since I can hear like a bat, I’ve started noticing people talking about me in other rooms – family and friends and whatnot – saying how I’m always moaning, I’m never happy, I’m always going on about how tired I am, etc., etc. Yes, I have become ‘that guy’. Sucks to be me.

But it’s a real problem nonetheless. She’s too young to be disciplined, threatened, bribed or reasoned with; too old to cry herself to sleep because she can stand up – and special as she is, stand-sleeping is beyond her.

Since I’m clearly not allowed to be honest, and my family, friends and whatnot don’t have the insight to realise my moaning is a cry for help, I thought I would offer the pearls of my wisdom to other parents who find themselves in a similar position: stuck with a screaming child that won’t sleep, and clinging to the end of their rope by a single breaking fingernail.

Here are the tactics and the techniques I’ve tried, considered and/or been recommended to get my daughter to sleep. Use them wisely and with a pinch of salt.

1. Don’t let her nap during the day.

Upsides: It makes her tired.

Downsides: By ‘tired’ I mean ‘cranky’. You get no down time during the day, and now she’s too irritable to sleep.

Overall verdict: Counterintuitively, kids need to be less tired to sleep, so a baby who has regular naps and is well rested goes to bed easier than one who is exhausted. The more you know.

2. Move her bedtime back a couple of hours.

Upsides: You defer the problem till later.

Downsides: You defer the problem till later.

Overall verdict: You still have to face the horrors of bedtime, only now your kid is even more tired and irritable

3. Let her stay up till she goes to sleep naturally.

Upsides: You don’t have to do anything.

Downsides: Where the hell is my evening?

Overall verdict: Who’s the parent here anyway?

4. Give her a bath.

Upsides: It’s fun!

Downsides: It’s too much fun. She’s more awake when she gets out than when she got in.

Overall verdict: A great way to kill an hour. Not a great way to get her to sleep.

5. Leave her to ‘cry it out’.

Upsides: None.

Downsides: It wakes up the rest of the household and makes you want to die. After ten minutes, she’s choking and hyperventilating and it then takes you thirty minutes to calm her down, which makes it counterproductive anyway.

Overall verdict: Might work with earplugs and sociopaths, but painful for all concerned.

6. Shout and scream right back.

Upsides: It feels good.

Downsides: It doesn’t help get her to sleep.

Overall verdict: The only people you should be shouting at are reality TV stars and politicians. Or when they’re both.

7. Take her for a drive.

Upsides: You get to see interesting places, people and wildlife, and avoid watching teleshopping.

Downsides: When you get home after an hour speeding around the countryside, she’s more awake than you are.

Overall verdict: Save your petrol money, pay for a nanny.

8. Take her for a walk.

On these mean streets? In the dark? You must be joking.

9. Give her Calpol.

Upsides: When she’s ill, it soothes her enough to sleep.

Downsides: Unless she’s ill, why are you giving your kid painkillers, you psycho? It’s not a freaking sedative!

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable, you’re at the top of a slippery slope that leads to sprinkling benzos on their breakfast cereal and fixing their ouchies with ketamine.

10. Spike her evening milk with rum/gin/whisky.

Upsides: Your elderly relatives will respect you for following their advice.

Downsides: Are you freaking kidding me?

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable…

11. Cuddle her on the sofa.

Upsides: It’s nice, she goes to sleep, and you get to catch up on a box set..

Downsides: It is physically impossible to get her from the sofa to her cot without her waking up and starting to scream.

Overall verdict: It’s great for killing time on the long evenings when she just won’t settle, but you’re simply deferring the problem till later. And worse, now she’s slept for a few minutes, she uses it as a springboard to propel her past midnight and into the early hours. Depends how much you want to catch up on Game of Thrones, I suppose.

12. Rock her in your arms.

Upsides: Really effective and gives you biceps like Dwayne Johnson.

Downsides: Cramp, boredom, and you’re still left with the problem of transferring her into the cot.

Overall verdict: Can work if she’s really tired, but if she’s not, get ready for her eyes to pop open and her lungs to fill during the transition.

13. Sing to her.

Upsides: You get to practice your aria with an uncritical listener.

Downsides: Pretty hard to get the right pitch and intonation when someone’s screaming at you.

Overall verdict: It can work, but you’d better keep singing because the second you stop, she’s going to give you feedback, and you probably won’t like what you hear.

14. Read to her.

Upsides: You get to do something interesting and she gets to work on her grammar.

Downsides: You have to have the light on. And even if she does fall asleep, you face the awkward prospect of having to get up and creep across the creaky floorboards without waking her up.

Overall verdict: quite good, but it can take a long, long, LONG time.

15. Stay in the room with her.

Upsides: You get to sit there and completely ignore her. You have the power!

Downsides: If she’s anything like my kid, she starts off quiet, then starts talking, then starts shouting, crying, screaming, choking, hyperventilating and then dying, until you have to sort her out. End result: she wins.

Overall verdict: She wins.

16. Bring her into your bed for the start of the night.

Upsides: She goes to sleep happily and easily.

Downsides: You still have to transfer her back to the cot, and since she’s been so happy and comfortable, it makes her doubly angry when she wakes up mid-transition and even less likely to settle.

Overall verdict: It’s better to avoid the aggro.

17. Bring her into your bed for the whole night.

Upsides: The easiest technique of all.

Downsides: Where do I begin? You have the same bedtime as a baby; you’re going to get kicked in the nuts and punched in the neck half of the night; babies are a real passion-killer; you’re paranoid you’re going to roll over and squash her.

Overall verdict: Don’t. Do. It. Once you’ve started, how and when do you stop? It might seem like the easy option in the short term, but do you really want your ten-year-old still sharing a bed with you because she never learnt to sleep by herself? Jesus, cut the apron strings.

18. Give her a relaxing massage.

Upsides: A great way to bond with your child.

Downsides: She giggles the entire time like it’s the funniest thing ever, which isn’t relaxing at all.

Overall verdict: If laughter makes you sleepy, go right ahead. If you’re normal, might be best to skip this one.

19. Give her a slap.

Upsides: I’m not even going there.

Downsides: If you want her to stop screaming, slapping her probably won’t achieve that. Well, I guess it depends how hard you slap…

Overall verdict: Not an effective tool for bedtime, or daytime, or any time, actually, unless you like the look of prison.

20. Knock yourself unconscious.

Upsides: You sleep.

Downsides: She doesn’t.

Overall verdict: Doesn’t solve the problem.

21. Put her on her back in the cot, slip your arm through the slats, place your hand on her chest and pin her to the mattress.

Upsides: You’re in the room with her; you’re in physical contact with her; she can hold onto your hand; she’s reassured that she’s not been left alone; she’s lying down and can’t stand up; when she whines you can rock her gently; you can sing to her at the same time; and eventually when she goes to sleep, you don’t have to transfer her because she’s already asleep in her cot. Job done!

Downsides: This can take up to forty-five minutes; depending on the size of your forearms and the gap between the bars, your arm will probably ache after three; once she’s asleep you’re faced with slowly removing your hand from her chest without waking her and you still have to get out of the room; and if she isn’t tired after all, you’ve just wasted three-quarters of an hour.

Overall verdict: It works. It’s time-consuming and labour intensive, but my God, it works. Most of the time. And it’s the only way I’ve figured out to get her to sleep these days. You might as well try it – what have you got to lose?

Spare me the armchair experts!

My wife has just had a knee operation, which means she’s on crutches for the next fortnight. Having been out of hospital a full two days, we have been bombarded with visitors who all seem to know everything there is to know about knee operations and how best to recover from them. Which is good, because the next person who offers an unsolicited, unqualified opinion will need all their medical expertise to extract their own leg after I rip it off and shove it up their ass.

Now, I don’t profess to being medically trained. True, I spent six months working in an old people’s home as a medication technician, six months as a student nurse, six months as a medical secretary and a year as a doctor’s receptionist, and am the son of a pharmacy technician who spent every mealtime of my childhood talking about pharmaceuticals, but still, I don’t consider myself an expert because I’m not. I do, however, consider myself sensible in matters of healthcare – enough at least to be able to sift the nuggets from the bullshit, and where I am ignorant, trust the advice of those better qualified than me. I just wish others had a similar awareness of their own limitations.

‘How long did the operation take?’

‘Two hours.’

‘Oh, no, it wouldn’t have taken that long.’

‘It took two hours.’

‘No, it would’ve been an hour tops.’

‘Well, the surgeon told her afterwards that it took two hours.’

‘No, it would’ve taken an hour.’

‘Well, you know what? I’m going to trust the surgeon because I’m pretty sure he’s the one to know.’

Same with the stitches. ‘How many did she have?’

‘Two.’

‘Two? It must have been more than two.’

‘No, it was keyhole surgery. Two stitches, that’s all.’

‘No, she definitely had more than two.’

‘Would you like me to get the discharge summary and we can see who’s right?’

Then there’s the recovery period. She’s been told she won’t be able to drive for two weeks.

‘Oh, it’ll be much longer than two weeks.’

‘Or we could trust the experts and see how it goes, yeah?’

‘It’ll be longer than two weeks, you’ll see.’

Grrrrrr!

They’re also experts at how to navigate with a reconstructed knee.

‘When you go upstairs, you should do it backwards by sitting down and using your good leg to propel you up one step at a time.’

‘That’s not how the physiotherapist showed her how to do it.’

‘Well that’s how I’d do it. That’s what she should do.’

I’ll admit, I lost it a bit. ‘Or, how about this for a novel idea – why doesn’t she do it the way the medical professionals told her to do it? You know, the ones trained in anatomy and physiology who are experts in post-operative recovery.’

‘Alright, alright, I was only making a suggestion.’

‘A suggestion that would involve her dragging her bad leg up the stairs? Why don’t we just stick to the things we know about, yeah?’

I’m off that Christmas Card list!

Same with the meds – everyone and their grandmother thinks they’re a freaking expert.

‘What’s she taking for the pain?’

‘Paracetamol and Ibuprofen.’

‘Oh, there’s no point using Paracetamol, it’s not strong enough – I’ll get you some Nurofen.’

‘She’s already taking Ibuprofen.’

‘Well, she should try Nurofen.’

‘Nurofen IS Ibuprofen. They’re literally the same drug, only one’s four times the price.’

‘Well, Nurofen’s better than Paracetamol.’

‘You’re comparing apples and oranges. Paracetamol and Ibuprofen do different things in different ways – one’s a painkiller, one’s a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory. Anyway, the hospital said to take both.’

‘Well, it’d be better if she was taking Nurofen. I’ll get you some.’

Good Lord, it’s like talking to a brick wall. There again, why would I expect anything more from a person who, whenever we have colds, gets cross with us for not following her advice to take 5000% of the daily recommended dose of Vitamin C?*

Frankly, I am amazed there are so many trained pharmacists, physicians, surgeons and physiotherapists hanging around in a little village in the New Forest working as farmers, cleaners, baristas and shopkeepers instead of, you know, pharmacists, physicians, surgeons and physiotherapists.

I’ll tell you one thing though – for people so concerned with health, they’re taking massive risks with it – every time they open their mouths near me!

*If you’re interested in why this is so ridicuhous, the human body can only absorb a finite amount of Vitamin C and it pisses out the rest, but exceeding the daily recommended dose by so much risks diarrhoea, nausea and in extreme cases of prolonged use, kidney stones or even renal failure. And that’s before we bring up the fact that there’s no evidence Vitamin C shortens colds. Admittedly, there is some evidence to suggest that it can make cold symptoms less severe, but only if you start taking it before you’re aware you have a cold. Drinking down five effervescent Vitamin C tablets every day because you have a sniffle isn’t going to improve your lot in life other than by the placebo effect. But hey, why would I bother saying all this to someone who thinks Nurofen is better than Ibuprofen because it’s in a flashier box with a higher price tag?