Sunday, August 23, 2015

Up up and away - tales of flying

While I love to travel, I don't enjoy flying. The truth is it terrifies me. Despite having a (very) basic understanding of the laws of physics I still cannot quite wrap my head around how such a massive and heavy machine manages to get up into the air in the first place, and then stay up there. And I worry even more when I see people checking in with a lot of luggage which is going to further weight the plane - why do you need that much stuff, why? And don't even get me started on the amount of hand luggage people drag around with them. 

I've noticed that more recently I haven't been quite as frightened when flying which I'm convinced has something to do with a visit to Bodrum in Turkey - home to some of the worst driving I've ever encountered anywhere in the world. It was so terrifying that at the end of each journey I almost regressed to my early Catholic roots and made the sign of the cross. Since then few things are as frightening by comparison. I think BA or any other airline that has those programmes to help people get over their fear of flying, should send them to Bodrum for a couple of days and get them to catch a few taxis. Likewise the army should send young recruits there to toughen their resolve in preparation for their entry into conflict situations. 

People do strange things on aeroplanes. Depending on how long the flight is, they settle in and make themselves these little nests: put on their pyjamas or slippers, brush their hair, apply face creams, produce strange packages of food to snack on, or insist on waking up and eating a cooked breakfast at what amounts to 3am in the time zone they've just come from. How people eat at that time is a mystery to me and more so people that actually request to be woken up to eat breakfast is even more puzzling. I don't sleep much, and since I started travelling with my children I sleep even less - in the very early days worrying about some kind of Flight Plan situation. My husband assures me that were anyone to attempt to steal our son on a flight they'd bring him straight back.

I cannot get over my instinctive revulsion when people take off their shoes next to me on a flight. I can deal with socks, provided they don't happen to be smelly socks. But bare feet make my skin crawl. While there is the obvious odour one anticipates with feet that have just been liberated from enclosed shoes, this also has lot to do with grooming, or more so lack thereof. It's also a sad and unfair irony that despite their tremendously invaluable, sturdy and reliable service to us throughout our lives, almost all feet are ugly, a handful of them are OK and perhaps 0.1% of them are actually good looking. Although there was this one guy who had really knock out feet. At the start of the journey he took off his shoes and extended these lean tanned hairless extremities onto his foot rest and for the first time in my life the inward cringe thing didn't happen and instead I became transfixed with the beauty of what I was seeing. His brown toes were symmetrical and straight and stood side by side in very slight descending order of heights -  like children posing oldest to youngest in a family photograph. The nails were short and clean and nicely shaped, the undersides of his feet a heathy pink colour, and not a callus in sight. They were works of art, and he knew it. He kept them out for everyone to admire for the entire journey. 

My sister once sat on a long haul journey next to a very large man with excessive body odour. "He took over both arm rests and his body was touching mine," she told me shuddering at the memory of it. The flight was very full so she was unable to request a seat change, so she drank perhaps a bit more than she might ordinarily have in the hopes of numbing her sense of smell and surviving the journey. It reminded me of an overnight Greyhound bus journey I did years ago between my university town and home. I sat at the back in the smoking section amidst an assortment of colourful and depressed looking characters who chained smoked rollies, and ate pungent food from greasy packages. These were not people who wanted to engage in conversation. Instead they exhaled great plumes of blue smoke and looked out of the windows - the passing lights eerily reflected on their faces - as if contemplating revenge scenarios or simply wanting to forget. The entire experience felt never ending and Kafaesque - a journey of the lost souls.

Travel with children appears to be contentious subject these days, and I've even seen online articles suggesting that there be child free flights on offer. Recently I was on a flight to New York, sat close to a family with three children under four, including a baby. At every point in the seven hour flight at least one of those kids was kicking off. The guy next to me was trying to get some shut eye with his eye mask on, ear plugs in, and a blanket he'd kind of sausage rolled himself in. With a degree of sweat from all the fitful tossing and turning, he looked like someone doing a Native American cleansing ritual. I kept waiting for him to pull off the mask and ear plugs and shout out: "For the love of god, can you please keep those children quiet," in that way people who don't have kids think is even remotely possible. But he was one of those nice polite American guys so he kept it together until eventually he just gave up and turned on his screen with a truly miserable expression on his face. Not angry mind you, just a look of abject defeat like someone thinking: I hate my life right now but there's nothing I can do about it. Come to mention it an expression not that dissimilar to the parents of said three kids. 

On a recent flight back from Portugal I sat between my daughter and a well dressed woman in her early 50s. The family across the aisle from us consisted of a couple, their baby, a toddler and two small boys who talked loudly throughout the flight. Eventually I heard snoring and looked across to see the father passed out with the baby (also on its back) asleep across his chest. They looked like they had been wrestling and fell asleep mid manoeuvre. Later when I saw the father awake he looked like one of those people you see on TV being released from a hostage situation - wide eyed, crazy hair, and discombobulated.  The mother resembled someone who reared wild bears for a living: dishevelled, soiled clothes, a well entrenched frown and fixed grimace on her face. While their children took it in turns to have loud conversations, run off down the aisle, or shriek intermittently, the parents uttered regular 'shhs' and 'be quiets,' in an attempt to be considerate to other passengers.

These were good people just trying to get from A to Z with their brood and I felt sorry for them. Those of us with small children have all been in that situation and I always maintain that it's unfair to put a child into an environment like that and expect anything other than childlike behaviour, and people shouldn't judge it. While some parents shelf certain forms of respectable human activity like travel or restaurant visits until their children are more socialised, my husband and I have taken ours on our adventures from day one. And kids do adapt pretty quickly, and they get used to things and so their behaviour improves accordingly. But again you have to make some allowances and can't sweat the small stuff.

While this family were grappling with their small vertically challenged rugby team of boys, my two sat in zombified states staring fixedly at their iPads, wearing earphones and not uttering a peep. I looked up from my soduku, took a sip of my wine, smoothed my nicely pressed shirt, and said to the women next to me in in a manner I imagine sounded annoyingly superior: "Ah yes, I remember those days. It's tough, it's really tough." She nodded as if to say: 'Thank fuck that isn't me,' but instead managed a pained smile and said: "Yes me too, I remember those days," as if recounting a traumatic event she'd rather forget.

I once got into a row with a woman on a flight coming back from the USA. The flight had been delayed for an hour on the ground with us in it, and then we had a seven hour flight on top of that. So the children (who were six and just gone four at the time) had been in a confined space for roughly eight hours. As far as I was concerned, and I appreciate people with small kids have fairly low standards in this regard, it was a surprisingly good and easy flight apart from my daughter throwing up on my husband, or him losing his wedding ring within the machinery of my son's seat while doing a magic trick to amuse the children. But apart from that, the children had been amazing at keeping themselves busy and entertained by us, with no running around, screeching or crying. 

As we started the decent and the fasten seatbelt sign came on, my husband had packed away the children's earphones and so everyone in the immediate vicinity was tortured with the exceptionally annoying high pitched sounds of Princess Sophia the First. The woman in front of me leaned back and said in an icy pinched voice: "Could you please lower the volume on that thing." 
(I couldn't actually reach my son with my seatbelt on and he didn't know how to lower the volume himself)
Me: I'm really sorry, but it's either this or him crying. He's a little kid. He's had a long journey and he's done really well, and I'm sorry if we've ruined your flight. (I tend towards exaggeration and sarcasm in confrontational situations)
Her: You have ruined my flight

Me: Seriously? Wow!  Well, I don't really know what to say. I wish you a happy life
As we disembarked, each of the air stewards who'd been privy to this exchange (loudly) complimented us on how well behaved our children had been and I turned and gave the disgruntled passenger my broadest fuck you smile. 

I've since thought of other ways I could have handled that situation. Maybe taking the iPad from my son and shoving it up her arse, for example. But I'm also reminded of the fact that I've had plenty of practise sitting through screechy kids TV and I'm kind of used to it now, and not everyone else is. Where I'd seen seven and a half hours of happy quietly amused children as an enormous achievement, she saw those last 20 minutes of having to listen to Sophia and friends as having ruined her entire flight. She was definitely a glass half empty person I decided.

Travel does change significantly as your children get older. I remember the days when my daughter was on a goat's milk formula because she was reacting to cow's milk. We purchased it online via New Zealand, and whenever we travelled I'd pack a tin in my hand luggage and two tins in my bag and live in mortal fear of our luggage being lost or us getting stranded somewhere. Even the regular formulas in other countries are different and can result in a baby refusing to drink, never mind trying to find one made out of goats milk. Or getting into a state of panic if my daughter lost her pacifier on the floor of the airplane and I didn't have a backup. Or hoping I'd packed enough clothes and nappies for the flight in case one of my children's bowels began to act up. And then where to put the dirty nappies without totally stinking out the wash room and cabin? Or deciding which of us got to sit next to my son when he became mobile and wanted to crawl and climb into absolutely everything. And loudly protesting at his confinement when the seat belt sign was on. Or attempting a difficult manoeuvre of holding the children while they used the toilet so they wouldn't fall in, and listening to them natter away about a toy or TV programme as little kids tend to do when using the toilet. And while appreciating that it's not right to rush someone in these situations, finding the pretzel like pose necessitated to suspend a small child above an aeroplane toilet in a confined space while they poo excruciating and saying things like: "OK, OK, that's really interesting about Diego the Animal Rescuer, but are you done yet, can you hurry it up please, my leg has gone into cramp and my back is spasming."

And then there's sleep: I deeply envy people who can sleep on planes. My husband, a frequent traveller, can sleep standing up - or in the most discomforting positions. He'll simply turn his head to the side and he's out. I look at him and sometimes feel a sense of resentment knowing that I have several hours of bleary eyed cotton mouthed sleep deprivation ahead of me. Likewise my sister (perhaps in fear of a repeat malodorous journey) pops a sleeping tablet, which she chases with a large glass of red wine, and she surfaces again only when the plane is touching down. Given my fear of flying I don't want to take any kind of sleep medication. I worry that if there is an emergency situation, I will need to have my wits about me. The more I think about it though, perhaps being blissfully passed out if the shit hits the fan is the way to go, but I digress. So I read the shopping magazine and earmark a bunch of stuff I think I absolutely have to have, then I put it down, and watch about 3 movies back to back. Then I'l sit there with a painfully full bladder and ponder how in god's name I am going to climb over all these sleeping people to get to the toilet. I am always quietly pleased when I see another insomniac - his or her face faintly lit by their little TV screen. I feel a camaraderie with these people. If anything happens, it's up to us to sound the alert and help save everyone.

But I doubt I'd be that brave. A friend of mine was on a flight in Asia recently when the large man in the row in front of her started shouting and flailing around. "At first we thought he was some kind of terrorist or a lunatic trying to take the plane down, and people started screaming" she told me. It turns out he was epileptic, and soon after this episode he fell into a deep sleep almost on top of the small frightened Chinese lady that was sharing the row with him. He had a further fit later in the flight, and when they checked his person they found his medication and saw he'd skipped his dose most likely due to travelling and a change of time zones. My friend had been one of the two people to help secure and settle the man on the two occasions and I looked at her in awe admiring her calm attitude and bravery in what must have been a frightening situation. I'd probably have been one of the people screaming or maybe trying to rugby tackle the poor man to the floor shouting: "No you don't, you fuck, I have two small children at home." I made a mental note to ensure that should any kind of zombie infestation or Mad Max apocalypse occur to have Susie on my team.

I'm always surprised by how fussy people can be on aeroplanes, treating the air stewards like something between waiting staff and servants. I once overheard a middle aged American woman get seriously miffed because there wasn't champagne available in our coach section. I wondered if she made it her business to demand champagne at 11 in the morning in her regular life or if this was just something she deemed a life and death necessity when flying. Eventually the air steward gave in and got her a glass from business class. I'm just so thankful that I get to sit back and legitimately have any kind of alcoholic drink during the day, that I'll have pretty much anything on offer. And given my nervousness regarding the mechanical miracle I am seated in, it can sometimes be a life saver of sorts. And the air staff are a rare breed I have some affection for - people that must have to put up with all kinds of crazy and difficult situations in a very confined space, while maintaining their cheery disposition, enviable manners, and sense of calm. Talking to some of these people, as you do when you don't sleep, you hear about their children, or juggling life with boyfriends they hope aren't cheating, or the best places around the world to get good duty free shopping. 

There is only one occasion I saw a pissed off air steward, which was on an American Airlines flight my husband and I did years ago en route to Las Vegas. We were instructed to collect a 'bistro bag' while boarding the plane. This consisted of a bottle of water, a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a piece of fruit - I think. I'm not sure about the fruit. Anyway, the guy sitting next to my husband and I called the air steward over: "Excuse me, but I've just opened my sandwich and it has ham on it"
Air steward: Yes and?
Man: Well, I'm Jewish you see
A.S: Yeah but it looks like you ate the potato chips. So that bistro bag cannot be given to someone else now and I don't have spares
Man: But I didn't realise the sandwich had ham on it until I opened it up
A.S: Well you should have told someone you were kosher BEFORE taking the bistro bag

I believe American Airlines were having a salary dispute with their staff at the time, which might have explained why the air steward was so intolerant. And the sad truth of it is that that sandwich wasn't even very good, and certainly not worth fighting over. But that's the thing about airplane journeys - maybe it's the altitude? Perhaps it's the back stories of the staff and passengers - what they are leaving behind and what awaits them at their destination?  Or the fact that even with seasoned travellers, you're aware of the element of risk you are taking each time you fly. And these things make you a little bit anxious, and a little precious about something like a small bag of mixed nuts or an unappetising sandwich. And, I suppose, a little more in need of, well, a glass of champagne at 11am.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A woman walks into a department store

As I step into the the threshold of my 40s along with most of my friends and FB acquaintances I've noticed a distinctive trend: People moving into this next stage of their lives either rediscover religion or running, and both with equal zealousness. Or there's the rest of us who like posting a lot of funny memes about how we find salvation in the bottom of a wine glass. I click 'like' and post my lols along with everyone else, but inwardly the truth of it concerns me somewhat: Is life so disappointing, have I become so jaded, that the only way to deal with it is to mildly numb myself at the end of each day? Did I mention a lot of these posts involve the necessity of drinking wine when you have children? OK, well, that does in fact make perfect sense. Ignore me.

Then there's the worrying and insecurity aspect of ageing, which may have something to do with the Jesus thing, and the excessive exercising thing that people have going. Personally I don't subscribe to either of these religions, however I have starting reading 'Waking up: A guide to Spirituality without Religion' by Sam Harris, and like everyone else I aware of the significant health benefits of entering into middle age being fit and not carrying extra weight. For the record I am not fit and I am carrying extra weight.

And then there's vanity. On a recent shopping trip to a department store (to purchase a tablecloth) I remembered I needed some face cream. The word need when it comes to cosmetics is a very relative term, especially given the amount of available space or lack thereof, in my vanity cupboard. But I digress. I approached the somewhat overly made up sales person in her late 40s at one of those formidable looking makeup counters.

Her (with a genuine smile): Hi how can I help?
(Phew, thank god, this woman is friendly. Sometimes these ladies can be terrifyingly aloof)

Me: Hi I'd like to get some of the x face cream. My husband got me a little pot for my birthday and it was genuinely amazing
Her: Oh, that's really lovely stuff isn't it? Would you like the cream or the lotion?
Me: What's the difference?
Her (guiding me over to the display area where there are dozens of different creams, lotions and potions) and waving her beautifully manicured hand over it lavishly: Well, the cream is thicker you see, and you might prefer something a bit lighter in summer. So maybe the lotion?
Me: Does it have an SPF?

Her: No, no, because that would thicken it. But we do an absolutely brilliant separate SPF
Me: And how do you apply that - after the lotion?
Her (wide eyed): No no, before, always before
Me: Hmmm, well, I'm not sure. I've still got a good cream with an SPF I need to finish off
Her: I'll tell you what, I'll give you a couple of samples of the SPF and see how you get on. Is there anything else? What about a concealer?
Me: Well I currently use a really good correcting serum from Stila that I like. And it's light weight and it evens out redness and gives me a good glow
Her: Oh you have to try our stuff - it's so light weight - and it blends in with your own complexion. It's gorgeous.

Me: Hmmm, well
Her: I tell you what, I'll give you a sample and you see how it goes. Is there anything else?
Me: Well, come to mention it, I do need an eye cream, I've run out

Her: Ah, fantastic, do you want the large one or the small one, the price difference isn't that much. (The price difference would buy a meal and a glass of wine in a not too shabby restaurant).
Me: I think the small one would be fine, thank you

Her: And have you seen our new makeup range? It's literally just come in today. What about those lipsticks huh?
Me (never one to walk past a perfectly good makeup display without at least admiring the colours): Hmm, that's a nice one
Her: Oh it's gorgeous, and on you, with your colouring, it would be beautiful. Here, let's try a bit on. See? Wow, that looks amazing on you!

Throughout this entire exchange I am 100% aware of the fact that I am getting the hard sell and that she is appealing to my vanity. And yet there is also a part of me that is buying in to it. You know in that way you think that if you get the new mascara or nail polish, you too will be like the girl in the ad: Enviably young, a fantastic mane of hair, legs that go on forever, fabulous gravity-defying boobs, and driving around Paris in a convertible wearing short shorts and high heels. Only to get home and realise that actually the mascara is OK, not amazing, just OK, despite what you paid for it. And you are still 5-10 kgs overweight, the kids don't eat the fish fingers for dinner despite asking for them, and you have a ton of laundry to get through.

We ring up my three purchases - remember how I said I was only going in for one thing?

Me: Wow, that's quite a total. And there was me coming in to buy only the one thing
Her: Awww, now, don't feel bad. You deserve it. You're looking after your skin
Me (remembering something my friend told me recently about how you should spend more money on your skincare than on your clothes): Yup, I suppose you're right. These days it takes longer and longer to get that fresh faced look in the morning. You know?
Her: Oh I know, and my eyes, well they've fallen slightly, and barring surgery, there's nothing I can do about it.  Nothing

We both sigh simultaneously, taking a moment to commiserate with each other about the unfair and inevitable evils of ageing. And it is at this point that I realise this woman is a great sales person precisely for this reason: She is as brainwashed by the beauty industry as the rest of us. Her self worth is directly related to her features and her ability to defy ageing by spending a good deal of her salary on expensive products. This is not indulgence, this is necessity. I mean, would you feel guilty about buying toothpaste or washing up liquid? Of course not. She believes purely and absolutely like a Novice nun. And what better way to spread the word (and make a good commission) than coming from a place of absolute conviction right?

And then there are clothes, and I didn't even bother to go and look for any of those. It's kind of sad for me  - not sad as in world hunger sad I appreciate, but in terms of something I used to get excited about and enjoy in a creative mix and match and self expression way. But in recent months I've lost my pleasure in clothes shopping. For years I could make clothes work - even the really inexpensive and cool ones I'd pick up at flea markets and second hand shops. Or at least I thought I did. I look at some old photos and there were some questionable ensembles. But as I get older I find myself trying on things and noticing a bad cut or a poor fabric and it bothers me. I'll get a couple of things, try them on at home, and take almost all of it back. I'd much rather have just one well tailored jacket in my cupboard than a half a dozen ill fitting ones, and those are hard to find unless you are willing to cough up. And so I just don't shop that much. Good for our household income, bad for the economy.

Then there's the fact that I went shopping earlier this year with a friend whose family have a silk fabric company in Italy.  She'll eye something, feel the fabric between her fingers, turn it over and scrutinise the stitching: "For that price? Forget it," she shakes her head despairingly as if to say: What do these people think I am? An idiot? And I stand by thinking, oh my god, I've bought from this place before, that makes me an idiot. And now I do the same - I really look at these things before buying, and what's genuinely astounding is just how much badly made clothes with cheap fabric blends cost.

I'd by lying if I said my disinterest in clothes shopping also wasn't influenced by the fact that I've gained weight in the last couple of years, and I genuinely don't think anything looks good on me. When you are slender and if you have a good eye, you can make a hessian sack look chic, but when you are carrying extra weight, it takes a good cut to flatter the good bits and hide the rest in order to get a pleasing silhouette. At least according to those of us with a well instilled sense of self loathing and body dysmorphia that is. I ask my mother (who has become my go-to person on ageing questions) and she concurs wistfully: "Oh yes, certainly as you get older and your figure fills out a bit, it's all about a good cut. Finding things that fit on the shoulders, and also across the chest, for example. Or having a bigger chest and a smaller waist. Store clothes never fit as they should. Now if you can get your clothes made for you - even better." And then we talk about a seamstress that was referred to me by my middle aged dentist (as she added fluoride to my kids teeth). "You should see the shirts she made for me - as good as those by Theory. And she's not expensive either. OK, now spit and try and get it in the little bowl this time, not on the floor. There's a good boy." I nod, make a note of the address, and then go over and dab up the pool of fluoridey water my son has produced on the floor. 

Sunday, August 09, 2015

A cat of nine tales

This week our six-year-old cat went MIA or AWOL or walkabout, as my 7-year-old daughter and I like to say to each other. Her record, the cats' that is, is three days missing. She does this from time to time in the warmer weather. On this occasion it was two and a half days, but somehow I'd managed to convince myself that this time was different: I had printed the 'MISSING CAT' fliers using impact font and photos of her in various poses to show off her distinctive markings and her soulful character. On the morning of the third day, I was washing my face getting ready to go and put these fliers up around the neighbourhood, when my husband, who was making tea downstairs, called up excitedly: "Honey she's back!"

And there she was outside the conservatory. Looking a little thin, but otherwise fine, and very non plussed. As though she'd simply nipped out to get milk and bread and wondered what all the fuss was about. And of course I made a big fuss - I was awash with relief, and guilt, and a whole bag of emotions. I fed her, gave her her favourite treat, and then watched as she sauntered upstairs to her spot on the sheet covered spare bed where she set upon sleeping for the next 24 hours. A bit later in the day I curled up on the bed next to her and we both had a nap.

I do wonder where cats go. This recent disappearance prompted me to buy a location device, which you attach to your cat or dog's collar - or your keys or phone. I didn't read the fine print, and hoped this would be a kind of tracking device that would somehow work with google maps and show you exactly where your cat is by way of a throbbing red dot. Something between a Bond film and and Indiana Jones flight mapping scene. Not that I want to stalk my cat or infringe on her privacy, but in times where she does go MIA for three days, it would be useful to locate her. Also to see if she has a routine, because maybe she is being fed elsewhere?  But as it turns out the this locater doesn't work with the Internet, and instead transmits to a handheld device, has a range of up to 
400 feet in a clear line of sight, and uses visual and audio directional beeps to help you locate your cat. It's clever, but not quite what I had in mind. My husband tells me the GPS tracking thing does exist and it's call TAGG - although it only currently works in the USA. This is all neither here nor there because there is the small matter of getting a collar on her to attach this to in the first place, but more on that later.

Our younger cat, who is now a year and a half old, is a male that we got as a kitten. I had made that choice very deliberately so as to make a gentle introduction to our fragile natured older cat by way of a companion. Thinking this way she'd still get to be the boss cat of the house and she'd also have a friend. She never took to him, and now he has grown into a great big panther of a cat, and despite being neutered, is territorial and terrorising of this small fragile creature. On the eve of her most recent disappearance he was taunting her in the garden and then chased her right across the grass up and over our fence and out into the street. I ran out to try and get them back, but by that point they had both vanished - cats at full tilt are very fast.

I had heard of cats running each other off in this way - they are not companionable creatures and are very happy to be the only animal in a household. There was a stray Bengal we used help take care of with another family where we used to live,  who had similarly been run off from the home he shared with his sister. The sister is a twin so uncannily similar to him, that when he too went missing recently, people kept calling in saying they'd seen him, when they'd actually seen her. He, unfortunately, had been hit by a car and during the four days he was missing was lying in someones garden where he had been placed by the driver who quite possibly thought he was dead and didn't want him run over by other cars. It was only by chance that an elderly woman and her grandchild walked past, saw him, and called in to my friend saying they'd seen a cat of that description sleeping under a tree. It was a call that saved his life, because he wasn't sleeping, he was in fact dying and probably would not have lasted much longer. My friend found him terribly dehydrated, with his jaw dislocated and lopsided and his front leg so badly damaged it has since had to be amputated. After extensive surgery, dental work, and various treatments, the good news is that he is fine, and recovering, and amazingly agile despite missing a limb.  

This happened a couple of months ago and it was so traumatic and raw that I imagined a similar fate had befallen our cat. 
My mother, who has provided a home for many strays and rescues over the years, had a practical and reassuring opinion: "She knows where her home is, and cats won't starve - as long as they are not injured they will hunt and provide for themselves. And when her food source runs out she'll come home." 
If she's not injured, because that's the catch right? One day, like the Bengal, she might not be so lucky.

I think owning cats somewhat prepares you for when your children become teenagers and start going out with their friends. The insomnia and grey hairs inducing worry, the whole 'I hope they are being sensible, and safe, and not doing things they shouldn't be doing' thing. Dogs are different: They are loyal, fairly predictable in terms of their character, and provided your property is enclosed, they are not going anywhere. Not so with cats. Each time our cats exit our property via trees or leaping up and over our fence, I know there's a risk that they might get hit by a car, get attacked by a dog or fox, or decide that another family is more indulgent of their specific needs. 

When our cat went missing this week I told the grocery delivery man about it. He used to breed cats and seemed to know a lot about them. A muscular individual with incredibly well groomed eyebrows and the faintest hint of eyeliner, "Ave you got a collar on er?" he asked in a gruff voice. Me: "No, she won't wear one, she gets incredibly depressed. The last time we tried putting one on her she hid under the stove for days." Also, there is the small matter of us actually having to pick her up and hold her in place to put a collar on her - which would require either a tranquilliser or a falcon glove. He advised that cats with no collars are often assumed strays, and there is a risk they adopt another family that feeds them. It's a terrible admission to make on my part, but sometimes I think this wouldn't be such a bad thing. Provided the individual, couple, or family in question were kind and loving and she was the only pet in the home, I think her existence would be a much more peaceful one that she currently has. Right now her life is a bit like having to dodge Cato in the Pink Panther - never knowing where our younger cat might be lurking ready to pounce on her. Also if she does adopt another family I won't be reading up on Botox following the added worry lines I get each time she decides to go on one of her excursions.

"Maybe she does it so we appreciate her more. You know? The way some twisted individuals do where they break up with with you from time to time so you want them more?" I ask my husband. He looks at me in that way he does where he thinks what I've just said is completely nuts. But he's indulgent: "No honey, she's just scared, that's all. And maybe she's getting fed by another family."  In this recent MIA incident I started having these bizarre fantasies featuring our younger cat keeping her locked in a shed somewhere and disappearing at night to go and taunt her. What he was in fact doing was patrolling the garden so he could chase her off. It's like having a gorgeous and perfect boyfriend who's actually secretly this psycho that is setting about alienating all of your friends and family because he's threatened by you having affection for anyone other than him. My husband sometimes jokes that the cat would be happy if everyone left except my daughter (who he adores) and me. Given the dark and menacing way he eyes my husband as he prepares for bed at night, I think he might be on to something.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The age of innocence

"OK Mum, I get that the egg is inside of the mother and the sperm comes from the father, and that they meet and that's how a baby grows. What I don't understand is how the sperm gets from inside of the father's body to inside of the mother's body so it can meet up with the egg?"

Oh dear god, I think to myself. I thought I had more time?! There I am sitting outside, minding my own business on a warm May afternoon, enjoying a Pepsi Max while the kids play, and suddenly I get this thrown at me. My daughter is seven-years-old. Isn't 'the talk' something you have with them when they are teenagers? I feel panicky, what the hell do I say?

Suddenly I remember something my sister, who has an older son, told me years ago when I asked her how she handled these kinds of questions. "Children will only ask as much as they can deal with," she said sagely, "So answer their questions directly and simply. Don't offer any more information than is required as that will only confuse them."

So I take a deep breath, tell my daughter to sit down, and explain that the penis (something she's familiar with as she has a younger brother) is shaped to fit into the vagina, and the sperm is passed in this way into the mother. And that's it - that is all I say.

Although it is prefixed by the predictable bourgeois caveat: This only happens when a woman and a man love each other very much and decide they want to start a family together. After they are both well into their 30s, have been to university, had a few years of working and establishing a career, have a home together, are financially stable, and the man in question is just like your father. "You know respectful of you, non violent, angry, or scary in any way, and is kind, patient, funny and smart. And he has integrity." (Rightly or wrongly, I use every opportunity I get to influence my daughter's choice in future boyfriends.)

She looks at me, and I fear there will be more questions, but instead she says casually: "OK Mum, thanks" and then calls her brother to continue jumping on the trampoline with her. And the conversation I've been dreading since the day she was born, is over as quickly as it was raised.

A few days later I begin recounting the story to a good friend of mine and her expression can only be described as one of abject horror. She darts her eyes back and forth between her daughter, who is seated nearby, and me in a kind of 'Zip It!' way, and so I zip it.  We move away and she says to me: "I don't want my children knowing this kind of stuff, they are far too young."  I try to explain that my daughter had come to me, not the other way round, and how could I not answer her question honestly? But I can see that this is a topic of conversation she is deeply uncomfortable with and I shelve it. 

Since both my children were roughly two years old they have been asking me questions about how their bodies work. Starting with things like 'What happens to the food I eat in my body?' And then, given the amount of pregnant women and babies on the school run, this soon became 'How do the babies get inside of the mummy's tummy?' And we have quite a few body books for children. However you are hard pressed to find a book for children under the age of 7 that talks about penetration - not ejaculation, just penetration. So my children knew about the sperm and the egg, which even my husband, who avoids such topics like the plague, is comfortable talking about in a scientific way. But it was only a matter of time before 'the special cuddle' would no longer be sufficient, and the question would become: So how does one of these things travel from one body into another? Given my daughter is doing multiplication, division, and Greek myths at school it was inevitable. 

My son, who was not there when my daughter asked me the question, has not yet raised the same question himself. Right now I think he's still quite happy with the ambiguous 'special cuddle' although recently he did ask his father at the breakfast table: "Dad, did you drink champagne when you had the sperm inside of you?" My husband shot me a questioning look, and I in turn responded with a: 'How the hell am I supposed to know?' look of my own. So my husband did what any self respecting man would do in that situation and changed the subject.

While I do have what some consider to be very liberal opinions on most things, I also have a strong sense of propriety in our home. My husband and I cuddle and might share a brief kiss in front of our children, but that's it. I shut and sometimes lock the door when I use the bathroom, if not a line of children and cats come filing in and disturb me during a small time of the day I actually have to myself. My husband and I don't talk about our private life nor the private lives of others in front of the children, nor are the children allowed to watch adult TV which deals with adult themes. Also some time ago I informed my son that he was not to grope my breasts, something he enjoyed doing in public places especially. I explained that they are a private part of my body, and that since he was weaned at 11 months, I reclaimed them and he doesn't have the right to grab me there when the mood takes him. I appreciate that a lot of people have very relaxed body boundaries with their small children, but I believe children need to have an understanding of what parts of their body are private and that others require the same respect. It's all leading towards an understanding of safe body boundaries, and as with all these things, it starts at home.

But I am also a factual sort of person, and I'm not about to start avoiding the subject or making up some Stork nonsense to tell a child who has a perfectly reasonable and intelligent question with regards to a sequence of events. The fact that my daughter didn't require any further information leads me to believe that it was simply the missing element of the equation. It also made me appreciate that the 'how are babies made' talk is distinctly different from those tricky conversations you have further down the line with your children about their changing bodies, hormones, and having feelings for the opposite sex, and indeed, the actual sex talk and the safe sex talk. I've already informed my husband, that while he might have dodged a bullet up until this point, he will be responsible for having these talks with our son when the need arises. And I've told him scheduling frequent business trips during this period will not be excusable.

The topic of sex education came up again on FB recently when a friend of mine posted some pictures from a badly illustrated children's book, and again the questions ignited the debate: When is the right time to tell our children, should we even be telling our children about these things? What about Sex Ed at school? What about their innocence? Aren't we sanctioning and encouraging this kind of thing by telling them about it at a young age?

I don't believe sex is some nasty or shameful or verboten thing if it is done between two consenting people that are of age. It would be kind of bizarre and hypocritical for me to communicate otherwise to my children given it, sex, is was what brought them into the world in the first place right? Also, I would much rather my children learn about these things from their father and me, with perhaps the help of age appropriate books, and have the facts, rather than hear about it at school from some kid with an older sibling, as I did. I think I was eight, and this girl told me a dirty joke, and then seeing my blank face she asked: "You do know about sex right?" And I was like, "Yeah, yeah of course I do," not wanting to come off as ignorant. And she pressed me for information and then laughed and told me her version of what sex involved. And I was so disgusted, and it sounded scary and nasty and horrible. So much so that I never once asked my parents or older siblings about it because the whole thing revolted me to such an extent that it was simply something I did not wish to discuss with anyone, even if I had questions. And later when I did have questions, I asked my friends. No internet back in those days for research alas, but then again, given what's out there currently, maybe it isn't such a bad thing after all.

Also, I think if you have the matter of fact age appropriate talk with your children, even as young as mine, and attempt to answer their questions simply and honestly, they have an understanding about how their bodies work, that certain things are perfectly normal and healthy, and what is and isn't appropriate. And perhaps being informed in this way means that should they as tweens or teenagers find themselves in an awkward situation they can identify it and have some sense of what is OK and what is not. Because as much as we like to think we can, we cannot be with our children every second of the day. My view is to inform them and equip them with the necessary tools, in this case, information.

I appreciate that this is a very personal and not to mention contentious subject. Unlike pretty much everything else, it's not something that I argue about with my friends. Each one of us decides what is appropriate in terms of how we approach or don't approach this subject with our children, this is just my take on it.

On a separate note, yesterday my daughter and I found an insect in my sons hair. True to form, my daughter was disgusted, my son was rather proud of the fact and asked to see the insect once it had been removed. And then the discussion became whether or not he had a flea or he had head lice. I don't know what lice look like and it didn't look like a flea. He maintained, rather indignantly, that he had lice.
Me: So, have you had an itchy head? (Even though I have not seen him scratching his head of late.)
Him (Scratching his head): Yes
Me: Well, maybe, just to be safe, we need to get you some of that shampoo
Him: Yes, but I don't want to kill the lice. It's not right to take a life

Me: I agree with you, but at the same time, it's just to wash them off. You don't want an itchy head right?
Him: Right

I comb through my son's hair and there is no sign of anything else at all. My daughter then uses this opportunity, after I have already called my husband and asked him to stop off at a pharmacy on the way home, to tell me that that singular insect might have had something to do with the fact that earlier that day they had been playing games in a garden with lots of tall plants and trees.

Rewind even earlier that day to the walk to art camp.
My son: Mum, can you take me to space?
Me: I'm genuinely flattered that you think I have the ability to do that, but unfortunately I don't. There is however a man called Richard Branson who is working on it
My son: So can I go?
Me: Well, perhaps when you are older yes

Him: But what about black holes?
Me: What about them?
Him (worried): I don't want to go near one and get sucked into it
Me: I'm certain that whoever is operating the space tours will know about such things and avoid them
Him: But if you cannot see them, how can you avoid them?
Me: I don't know.

My son is either worrying about black holes or earth being hit by an asteroid. I don't say as much, but the latter bothers me from time to time too.

And then a car passes that is emitting black smoke from its exhaust, and my daughter waves her hand in front of her face and starts talking about how the entire human race is going to be wiped out by pollution. "I'm telling you Mum," she says earnestly, "unless people stop all this polluting and start getting better about recycling, we are all going to die - every last one of us." And she repeats this loudly and while pointedly looking at a man in a hardhat who is having a cigarette on a bench. The only plus side to this unfortunate neurosis, is that with all the black holes and pollution preoccupying their minds, I think I might be off the hook with any further sex talks for now.