Spare a thought for the broken hearted

Spare a thought for the broken hearted, those whose marriages have fallen apart; those for whom there is nowhere to go, and nothing to say, until this lockdown’s over.

Spare a thought for those pretending that everything’s okay when everything’s not; those who smile to hide the hurt inside. Waiting.

Spare a thought for those sitting at a table that’s no longer theirs, in a chair where they used to belong; a guest where once they were host. Toiling in a garden that’s now someone else’s; walking a dog of whom they’re not master any more; mocked by the happy family photos on the walls.

Spare a thought for those who wrap their children in the comforts of their home, knowing that this innocence will soon be wrenched from them; who talk of a future now out of reach; who tell them the forecast’s fine when a storm’s edging over the horizon.

When will it come? Who knows? Weeks, months, it’s all the same.

Spare a thought for the lied-to lovers, those who see the truth but are unable to speak it; those who know that their love just wasn’t enough.

Spare a thought for the broken hearted.

A coronavirus fairy tale

Once upon a time a beautiful Princess fell in love with a handsome Knight. The King set them up in one of his many castles, and within a few years they had created a family of their own, adding two Little Princesses to the Royal Gene Pool.

But one day, a terrible illness spread through the kingdom, and everyone had to stay in their homes. The Knight drew up the drawbridge and swore he would would keep his family safe.

The Princess and the Little Princesses were now stuck in the castle, and the King and Queen were very upset. The Queen went to the castle, but the Knight wouldn’t let her in. The King told the Knight that he was being ridiculous and that rules don’t apply to Royalty, but still the Knight wouldn’t let down the drawbridge.

Alas! Alack! Despite the Princess and Little Princesses being safe behind their walls, and the Knight claiming he did not want to pass on the illness to the rest of the Royal Family, it was a situation that could not be borne. After all, Princesses, and Kings and Queens for that matter, could not be expected to do as the peasants did.

And so the Princess sent messages to the King and the Queen, and the King and Queen sent messages to the Princess, and they all agreed the Knight was in fact an evil Ogre who had deceived them all these years. He had weedled his way into the Royal Family and kidnapped the Princess, and was now holding her and the Little Princesses prisoner.

So they came up with a secret plan, hoping the Ogre wouldn’t find out. When the Ogre lowered the drawbridge so the Princess and the Little Princesses could go out for their daily ‘exercise’, they would instead sneak off to the palace and play with the King and Queen.

Their only mistake was asking the Little Princesses to lie to the Ogre – unless underestimating the Ogre was also a mistake, because he knew all along, and knew this was just an illusion.

You see, the Ogre wasn’t really an Ogre – he was always a Knight. And the Princess had her own keys to the drawbridge, and could make her own decisions. He reminded the King and the Queen of the rules, and that the Princess was an adult and could come and go as she pleased, and suggested that in future they should support him through this difficult time, and not undermine him with the Princess as it was having a detrimental effect on the Little Princesses.

Little did he realise, he was actually dealing with Dragons. Dragons who would rather see the kingdom in flames than do as they were told. Dragons who would sooner have the Knight cast out of his family than relinquish their control of the Princess.

But there was one thing they forgot. In the end, the Knight always slays the Dragon.

Always.

Since the Dragons owned the castle he lived in, and the Princess sided with the Dragons, the Knight didn’t know how he would keep the Little Princesses safe. He didn’t know where they would live, or if the Princess and her Dragons would try to take them. He suspected the Dragons would claim he was really an Ogre, and use all their resources to destroy him. All he knew for sure was that this wasn’t a fairy tale, and that there was no longer any hope for a happily ever after.

It’s too early for this…

‘Daddy, daddy, I can see willies!’

What?

‘Outside, there are two men with willies!’

I leapt out of bed and ran to my daughters’ room, to find them sitting on the windowsill staring up the street.

‘Where?’ I said. ‘Show me!’

And they pointed at two men walking up the road.

Wellies,‘ I said. ‘They’re called wellies.

‘That’s what I said.’

‘It really isn’t.’

A few minutes later I was in the toilet, standing up, ready to do my business when I heard a noise behind me. Glancing over my shoulder, there were my two daughters standing about a foot behind me, peering between my legs with big grins on their faces like it was present time on Christmas morning.

What the hell are you doing?

‘We’re going to watch you wee.’

‘Why on earth would you do that?’

‘Because it’s fun,’ they said, giggling.

‘That’s just so creepy.’

‘Go on, wee. Be a good boy.’

‘For crying out loud, get out of here and leave me alone!’

Then at breakfast, I asked what they’d dreamed about.

‘I dreamed that I went for a walk through the woods to my Granny’s house,’ said my eldest. ‘I met a wolf and told him I was going to Granny’s and he went there and he gobbled Granny up into his belly.’

‘Don’t just tell me Little Red Riding Hood.’

‘No, this is what I dreamed.’

‘This is Little Red Riding Hood.’

‘But it ends different.’

‘So skip to the end.’

‘Okay. I had to get into the house, so the woodpecker -‘

-cutter.

‘The woodpecker-cutter chopped a hole in the roof and then he cut the wolf open and cut off his head and cut up his tummy and cut off his arms and then Granny came out and she was all covered in poo.’

It’s not even nine o’clock yet.

Coronavirus and my four-year-old’s fear of death

Every night when I put my kids to bed, I read them a story, kiss them, cuddle them, tell them they’re loved, turn out the light and then sit in my bedroom next door for ten minutes in case of problems. It’s a relaxing time of listening to their childish conversations drifting down the hallway while I read a book, though it can be abused, like last night when my four-year-old came into my room 90 seconds after I’d left, saying she’d had a bad dream.

‘In a minute-and-a-half, you already fell asleep, had a bad dream, woke up, climbed out of your bunk bed and came in here?’

‘Yes.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Well, it wasn’t an asleep dream, I had my eyes open.’

‘Oh. So, not a dream.’

‘Can I stay in here with you?’

Normally I’d send her back to bed with a flea in her ear, but at a time like this, I figure I have to bend the rules a bit. ‘Go on. But only for a few minutes.’

‘What are you reading?’

War and Peace. There’s no better time than right now.’

‘Can you read it to me?’

‘Not really, sweetie.’

Then my two-year-old came in and refused to leave, so last night saw me and my daughters cuddled up on the bed as I pretended to read them Tolstoy, but instead made up a story about a magic horse and the girl he befriended. I bet they can’t wait till they get to read ‘grown-up’ books now. How disappointed they’ll be!

But it was much better than the night before when things took a decidedly more morbid tone.

I was listening to their conversation as usual when the little one told the big one to go to bed. The big one must have misheard, because she said, ‘I don’t want to be dead, because when I’m dead, I won’t be alive anymore, and that’s sad.’

Nothing followed this, so I turned back to my book.

About a minute later, she appeared in my doorway her fists balled in her eyes, and sobbed, ‘I don’t want to be dead because then I won’t see you or mummy anymore!’

‘Come here,’ I said, and gave her a big cuddle. ‘Why are you thinking about dying? Is it because of the virus?’

‘Because I might get ill,’ she cried. ‘And when Aunty Sue got ill, she died and it was sad.’

‘Oh sweetheart. I’ve told you before, this virus doesn’t really affect children. The youngest person who’s died from it was a teenager. You don’t need to worry about dying because it’s not going to happen for a very long time.’

‘But what if you and mummy die? Who’ll look after me?’

‘That’s why we live in families,’ I said. ‘There’ll always be aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews and friends around when we’re gone.’

‘But I won’t have a mummy and daddy anymore.’

‘No, you won’t. But by the time that happens, you might already be a mummy yourself.’

Then came the really awkward question: ‘Where do you go when you die?’

‘Where do you think we go?’

‘My friend at school, her grandpa went up into the sky. He was ill so he went there to get better, but he can’t come back.’

‘I think that’s as good an answer as any,’ I said. ‘Nobody really knows what happens when we die. Lots of people think we go to a place called heaven, a nice place above the clouds where everything’s great. Others think that when we die, we’re born again as babies with no real memory of our former lives.’

‘What do you think happens?’

‘I really don’t know,’ I said. ‘I quite like the idea of a family of souls. Every time someone in a family dies, they’re born back into that family somewhere down the line. So if I die, and then you have a baby, I’m that baby. Which makes me my own grandfather.’

‘But you can’t be my baby! You’re my daddy!’

‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said. ‘Whatever happens, nobody’s ever really gone. I’ll always be part of you, in your thoughts, your memories, your DNA. I will live on through you, and you will live on through your children. Dying is nothing to be afraid of. It’s sad, but it’s normal. It’s okay to be upset, and it’s okay to miss people, but we have to accept it and let them go. Life is for the living.’

Then my two-year-old came in and, completely failing to read the room, pointed at my man-boobs and said, ‘Bluebell and Buttercup.’

Bluebell and Buttercup are our guinea pigs.

My eldest is worried about death. My youngest thinks I have breasts like a South American rodent. Those parenting classes never prepared me for this!

My kids have broken the Naughty Step!

A while back, I wrote a three-part guide to disciplining your children. In the first part, Understanding your toddler, I explained a child’s understanding of the world. In the second, The Fundamentals, I explained the theories underpinning different forms of discipline. And in the third, The Naughty Step; or, How smug am I?, I explained why I’m the king of infant behaviour modification.

Actually, not quite. I wrote the first two thinking I was doing really well at this parenting thing and I could share these techniques with other people. And then life happened, and the nice, obedient little girl I was looking after turned into a massive arsehole that I was incapable of controlling, and I didn’t really feel like finishing a series that would make me a fraud.

The Naughty Step has remained my principal means of disciplining my kids, however, and I stand by it’s utility, even if at times it doesn’t feel like it’s working.

The theory is pretty simple – the best form of discipline is a combination of love withdrawal (punishment) and induction (guilt), and the Naughty Step fulfils both criteria. You first get down on their level, get their attention, and warn them that if a particular behaviour continues, you’ll put them on the Naughty Step. If they then do the behaviour, for example hitting their sister, you put them on the Naughty Step and say, ‘I am putting you on the Naughty Step for X-number of minutes [equal to their age] because you hit your sister.’ Then you turn around and walk away.

You ignore all the crying, shouting and screaming. Every time they get off the Naughty Step, you put them back on it without a word or eye-contact, and restart the timer. This is very difficult at first – when I started it with my eldest, I had to put her back more than sixty times. After a few days, she no longer got off that step.

After the allotted time has elapsed, you get back down to their level and repeat the reason they’re there: ‘I put you on the Naughty Step because you hit your sister. We don’t hit people. Okay?’

Then you get them to say sorry, hug and kiss, draw a line under the incident and move on. No lingering nastiness, no lasting discomfort – crime, punishment, atonement, forgiveness, restoration, all in the space of a few minutes. It’s a remarkably effective tool and just the threat of the Naughty Step is normally enough to prevent behaviour escalating to inappropriate levels.

At least, it was an effective tool, until today, when my children broke it.

‘You really need to go and tidy your playroom,’ I said.

‘No.’

‘Girls, I’ve asked you three times already to tidy your playroom.’

‘No.’

‘Right. If you don’t tidy your playroom, you’ll both go on the Naughty Step.’

With lots of sighs and moody hand gestures, they turned and left the room.

After a few minutes I thought it was suspiciously quiet, so I went to see what they were doing and found them both sitting on the Naughty Step.

‘Why aren’t you tidying your room?’ I asked.

‘We’ve decided we’d rather sit on the Naughty Step,’ said my four-year-old.

‘Oh,’ I replied. ‘Well, go and tidy your room.’

‘No, we’ll just stay on the Naughty Step.’

‘Go and tidy your room or I’ll, I’ll -‘

‘You’ll put us on the Naughty Step?’

Bugger, I thought, they’ve outsmarted me!

What do you do when your kids aren’t afraid of the Naughty Step anymore!?

Day Four of Home-Schooling: the health risks of spending time with your children

In the same way that suffering through The Best of Frank Sinatra eight hours a day while working in a bookshop ended with me buying the CD when I left, the rather annoying Cosmic Kids Yoga has, after four days, become something I actually look forward to doing. I can even overlook the praying hands ‘namaste’ stuff.

There’s just one problem left: it‘s bloody difficult.

Today, for example, we did the Jungle Safari, and oh my gosh, it races through 13 minutes of poses and stretches so quickly I was out of breath by the end. I had no idea I was this out of shape. There’s my kids pressing their foreheads to their feet; here’s me hunched over like an arthritic octogenarian still nowhere near his knees let alone his ankles. If you think you’re relatively healthy, check it out – it might disabuse you of some misconceptions.

I ache all over. I’ve already pulled muscles in my butt, my groin and both upper thighs. I’m hobbling around groaning like I just ran a marathon, all from writhing about on my lounge carpet. Who’d have thought the living room floor could be so damaging?

Of course, spending all day with your kids also sends your stress levels skyrocketing. We shouldn’t be awarding honours to public officials but to teachers for bearing with our little monsters. Yesterday my four-year-old erupted into one of the year’s worst tantrums – stamping feet, slamming doors, projectile tears, the works – because I took the garden hose off her. Why? She was chasing our 22-year-old cat around the garden, continuously spraying her. Not good.

There’s also the difficulty of the four-year-old being able to read, write, play football, tie shoelaces and construct an imaginative narrative, and the two-year-old wanting to do all those things with her big sister but being incapable of any of them. So either the little one is screaming and crying because she wants to do what she can’t, or the big one is screaming and crying because she wants the little one to leave her alone, or else ‘play properly’ i.e. the way my bossy eldest wants her to.

I had a bittersweet moment last night when I heard the youngest talking to herself in bed. I crept up to the door and spied around the crack. My eldest was fast asleep; my youngest was sitting up with a torch and a book reading the title over and over again, trying to teach herself to read: ‘Me and My Mummy, Me and My Mummy, Me and My Mummy.’

So in the evenings I’ve been getting on the exercise bike as a stress reliever, and I’ve discovered that that is far more dangerous than any other household activity, because I think I might have broken my penis.

It’s something apparently far more common than practically anyone realises, so it’s important to make people aware of the potential damage they can cause their best friend when they put on lycra and climb into the saddle.

No, I didn’t get it caught in the pedals. No, I didn’t ride over it. After about half-an-hour of cycling, I reached down to scratch an itch and, well, there are no words to describe the terror of being able to feel two testicles but nothing in between.

I scrabbled around like someone who’s lost his wallet. ‘Where’s my dick? Where the hell’s my dick?’

A quick inspection revealed it was still there – it was just completely and utterly numb. Entirely free of sensation, like my manhood had been replaced by a rubber sausage. Oh sweet Jesus!

After a panicked hour, I could finally feel it again. And then I started researching, and discovered I wasn’t alone.

When you sit on a chair like a normal person, your weight is distributed between your buttocks; but when you sit on a bike saddle, it puts pressure on your perineum, squashing the nerves and blood vessels that lead to your genitals. Indeed, meta analysis of 62 studies showed between 50% and 91% of cyclists experienced genital numbness and 13% to 24% had erectile dysfunction. This is because, as other studies show a narrow bike seat can cut blood flow to the penis by 66% and even a broad one by 25%. In some cases penile numbness can last up a week (a week! Can you imagine?!).

So, is a rubber manhood just part and parcel of cycling, something to put up with and get used to? Apparently, that’s an emphatic no.

According to cycling health specialist Andy Pruitt, ‘Numbness of any kind or duration should not be tolerated, period…Imagine taking an electrical cord and garden hose and driving over them with your car again and again and again. They may rebound initially, but over time they’ll stay collapsed and won’t function as well.’

Yikes. By the end of this crisis, I’m either going to be a hundred times fitter or else a crippled eunuch!

Explaining coronavirus isolation to my kids (and wife)

My two-year-old is too young to understand what’s going on in the world, but my four-year-old is definitely switched-on enough to know that something’s up, and since her response to not being able to go to gymnastics was a tantrum, I figured it was time to put on my dad hat and level with her.

‘Lots of people are getting ill,’ I said. ‘Most of them will get better; many of them won’t even realise they were ever even ill; but some of them won’t get better. It’s very bad for old people, and people who are already ill. But you don’t have to worry about it – it doesn’t really affect children.’

‘Why not?’ she asked, sharp as a tack.

‘Nobody really knows,’ I replied. ‘Trouble is, while you might not get ill from it, you can carry the virus and pass it on to others and make them ill. And we don’t want to do that. The government – the people in charge of the country – they’ve said that we shouldn’t go and see people unless we absolutely have to. That includes gymnastics.’

‘But I want to go to gymnastics.’

‘I know, sweetheart. But – look.’ I got three books off the shelf and placed them on the floor, then got six teddy bears. ‘Most of us are going to get this. For most of us it’ll be no worse than a cold. But a lot of people will have to go to hospital. There are only a certain number of beds.’

I took the first teddy bear, and touched its hand to the second. ‘This one’s ill,’ I said, then put it on the first book. ‘He gets a bed in hospital. Now the second bear is ill.’

I touched the second bear’s hand to the third’s, then put it on the second book. ‘He gets a bed too. But now the third one’s ill too.’

I had the third bear touch the fourth and take up the last bed. ‘Now this fourth one’s ill, but there are no beds, so he can’t get better.’ I then showed the virus infecting the remaining two, but there were still no beds.

‘This is what happens if we all keep going to gymnastics and seeing our friends and going to cello lessons,’ I said. ‘There aren’t enough beds, so they can’t all get better. Now let’s see what happens if we don’t do those things.’

I reset the simulation and had the first bear get ill without touching the second bear, and take its bed, then the second, and then the third.

‘But this time,’ I said, making the first bear stand up and jauntily walk away, ‘this bear gets better and comes out of hospital. That means that when this bear gets ill’ (I picked up the fourth bear) ‘there’s a bed for him. And when the second bear gets better’ (I picked up the fifth bear) ‘there’s room for this one, too.’

I repeated it with the sixth bear and showed them all eventually leave the hospital. ‘You see?’ I said. ‘They all still get ill, but instead of all getting ill at the same time, and not having enough beds, they get ill over time, and have the best chance of getting better. That’s why we can’t go to gymnastics right now. We all have to look after the people who need hospital beds – all of us – and the best way of doing that is to do what we’ve been asked to do.’

She got really excited by that and wanted to do it herself, so she re-enacted what would happen if everyone got ill at the same time (not enough beds) versus what would happen if we flattened the curve. Success.

Explaining it to my wife, who is both autistic and has Emotionally Unstable (Impulsive) Personality Disorder, is altogether more difficult.

She’s adamant that she’s still going to see her friends because ‘it means, just hang out with people you know, not strangers.’

It doesn’t mean that at all. You’re just as likely to catch it from friends as strangers – more so, as you’ll be in closer proximity.

‘Everyone I’ve spoken to says they’re still going to go to swimming and gymnastics.’

Well they shouldn’t – what part of, ‘Now is the time to stop ALL non-essential social contact’ is so difficult to understand?

‘I don’t care what they say, they can’t tell us not to, they can’t tell us what to do.’

They can, and they have.

‘I think it’s stupid and pointless.’

I had no idea you know better than the Chief Medical Officer, the Science Advisor to the Government, and all the experts at the World Health Organisation.

‘But we’re not ill or over 70 or pregnant.’

No, but we could carry it to someone who is and they could die, or take the bed away from someone who needs it. Stop being so selfish and bloodyminded. They wouldn’t be asking us to do this without good reason. Our grandparents went to war, we’re being asked to stay home and watch Netflix.

‘I’m not cancelling anything. You can’t stop me.’

It’s not me telling you to do it, it’s the government. You know, the people who pay your benefits. It’s incumbent upon us to be informed, responsible and conscientious citizens, and that means avoiding ALL non-essential social contact, even if it inconveniences you.

‘But it doesn’t mean not to go to gymnastics or see your friends.’

That’s exactly what it means. Is gymnastics essential? Is seeing your friends essential? Is going swimming essential?

‘You just don’t understand it because you’re autistic and you take things literally.’

What’s not to understand? There’s no room for misinterpretation; there are no shades of grey here. It’s as black and white as it comes – avoid ALL non-essential social contact. Not some, not most, not the ones you don’t mind dropping, but ALL. Jesus Christ, we’re talking about people dying here.

I even made her watch tonight’s press conference on YouTube. She watched him say, ‘Now is the time to stop ALL non-essential social contact,’ and her response? ‘He doesn’t mean all.’

Dealing with a global health crisis is one thing; dealing with a stubborn, recalcitrant ass-hat who has no intention of abiding by the government’s instructions is another altogether. God forbid we get locked down for fourteen days together or I’m going to have to lock the doors and hide the keys.

Be responsible, goddamnit. There’s a time to rock the boat and a time to do as you’re told. It’s pretty damned clear which this is.

EDIT: this policy is projected to reduce the UK death toll from 260,000 to 20,000. It’s not a lot to ask for a thirteenfold saving of life.