connection speeds

For the past three years, approaching Christmas Day I’ve done a job at a children’s hospice. They arrange for an excellent Father Christmas to visit the place in an exciting way through some local emergency services and I take pictures of it.

This year the whole thing was marked by the absence of a huge character. In previous years this kid, aged 9 or 10, had been the biggest character by far. He was the boss kid, organised everyone into place, set the agenda, demanded people sing Christmas carols louder – although he was always the loudest. He was the first to run over and leap into Santa’s arms, improbably confident for any kid, endlessly energetic, he just did not stop.

A few weeks ago this kid died. Before Santa arrived I was chatting with a couple of staff and one of them mentioned it. Oh, HIM?!? Really? No…

My brain struggled to process the information. There are all sorts of children at the hospice. They span across boundaries of social class, race, nationality. These horrific life-limiting conditions can happen to anyone. We are all at their mercy. A number of the kids look sick, wheelchair-bound, disfigured in some kind of way, as if they are suffering. This kid did not. This kid did not look sick in any way. Part of you wondered if he was an imposter, a fraud. He was clearly fine! Look at the chopsy git!

Light Googling revealed local news articles saying the kid had an extremely obscure medical condition of the type only a handful of people suffer in the world. His parents had a number of his organs donated when he died. How must that itself affect you? Knowing your dearly beloved kid is being sliced up for his organs?  Perhaps the knowledge that parts of him are living on, helping other people live on, perhaps that outweighs it. It must.

Here was a kid infused with a life-force and energy so vivid and animated and in-your-face loud. In certain moods it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to find him an annoying little gobshite. Then you found out he died. It affected me more than I might have expected, because I dumbly hadn’t expected it. But if you keep going back to a children’s hospice for a few years running you are likely to encounter sad stuff.

But still… not him. Not THAT kid.

It hit hard because of where I am at personally right now, how we are thinking about babies a lot, attempting to conceive. You don’t know where this path might lead you. Awful stuff like this can happen to anyone. Much is down to dumb luck.

It can fundamentally change your life more than having healthy kids. The practicalities of the day-to-day might be wildly complex and cumbersome. You can be caring for them for much longer, until they are adults and you are nearly dead. It might feel like they have stolen your life and you resent them for it – as explored in Graham Swift’s 1996 novel and its film adaptation Last Orders. As with stupid random death, there’s no reason or rational explanation for any of it, which can be the most difficult thing to fathom. That lingering unanswerable question: why us?

Over the following hours and days my brain kept circling back to this kid. I shared some not especially good pictures of the kid to a memorial page I found on Facebook. It felt like an obvious thing to do.

Last night, Christmas Eve Eve, we went to a drinks and nibbles evening at the house of some friends on the other side of town. It was an unusual thing for us to socialise like this. We don’t have many friends as a couple or go out that much generally. I can’t remember the last party or social gathering I or we went to at somebody’s home.
The evening was pleasant and the people were nice. It was fun chatting to the really young kids and the not so young kids. On leaving in the middle of the evening to get back to the dog, an elderly lady called out to us from next door. She was leaving after posting Christmas cards, feeling a little wobbly. I held her hand and walked her back to her front door, a few houses away, listening to her talk. In such situations you are always unsure how weird or strange it might get. Had this been orchestrated a little more than it seemed? Had this lonely old lady been waiting on the doorstep for someone to leave the party next door? Might she invite us in? (The week’s new mini-series of The League of Gentlemen was fresh in my mind). But it didn’t get weird at all. It was fine.

Such stuff gives me a gratifying sense of connectedness, which I suffer a marked deficit in. I work largely alone, don’t have many hobbies or socialise with anyone. I chat with dog walkers and plenty of them are quite odd. Now and then I feel this is something I should get up off my arse, be brave and address somehow. Yet I shy from it because people often irritate me, or so I tell myself. And because I don’t know quite what to do. A book club?  Football? Evening classes? Nothing really appeals.

People my age tend to have their social circle expanded through children, other parents. As of now, we have none. You see documentaries and news stories about old people who say the secret of their longevity is as much social interaction and keeping the neurons sparking, as it is exercise or diet. Basic human connectedness is important, but today it is worryingly easy to relegate, ignore, forget.


the strength to reproduce

Becoming puppy parents has brought a keener focus on the idea of being human parents.

Over recent weeks we’ve adapted and realised what it is to be a parent of sorts, to have responsibilities, to have a cute little dependant, to no longer be quite so free.

It’s hard not to apply this to thoughts about children. But still we waver indecisively.

Are we capable? Are we strong enough?  Both of us: physically, mentally, financially. Are we selfless enough?  Being child-free until your mid-thirties means you’re comfortable having time, hobbies, relative freedom, being selfish.

Time imposition

I resent the amount of time it takes to do laundry. The monotonous drudgery of sifting clothes, washing, hanging stuff up to dry and putting stuff away: it takes so long it makes me angry. I suspect more advanced civilisations exist where they push material through some kind of tube and it is done in seconds, like a car wash.

Time dedicated to laundry at this point in life would pale in comparison to the amount of time and gargantuan imposition a small human being would bring. (And the added laundry load doesn’t bear contemplating). Would we want our lives changed so drastically forever?

Puppies have immediate rewards in cuteness and plain undiluted joy. As well as a lack of major additional laundry. (Old towels is about it). For all the hard work of training and cleaning up piss and shit and vomit, there is obvious pleasure to be had from early on. They also sleep for a good amount of time, letting you do other things. It is not relentless.

Is this really the case with those alien baby things? No.

[Read: Sorry Sperm]


Of course we might not be able to have children anyway. We’ve never tried. There could be all sorts of health complications. I might not be spunky enough after angrily frittering away my most potent stock over the course of my lonely twenties. She has a number of health complications meaning she takes regular medication. Neither of us are ‘young young’. There are no guarantees.

I also have concerns about her, for which I feel guilty but cannot escape. Is she physically and mentally strong enough for all that? She is easily drained on both counts, quickly fearful of any potential health issues. This is perhaps understandable given the early loss of both her parents. Would motherhood summon a total neurotic meltdown, a tsunami of postnatal depression? Do I deep down believe she is strong enough? A brutally hard and maybe impossible question to answer.

If we did it, would I feel greater financial pressure? Already I feel painfully inadequate about my puny earning power. I am impelled to constantly buy equipment in order to keep up and advance professionally. Whether I actually do or am is a moot point. But this doesn’t help. Even so, we get by ok month to month. We don’t really go without, except holidays and socialising. That doesn’t really happen, partly because we have very few friends. But if she’s off work and I’m stumbling along with my few hundred quid here and there way of earning, would that be enough to comfortably support a family? Possibly possible, but not comfortable either financially or mentally.

Feeling even more inadequate and insecure about my earning will help nothing and nobody.  Could I do anything else?  Could I actually get a different job earning a more respectable wage? And if I did would I be totally miserable?

[Read: Pondering Parenthood]

If we don’t

It’s ok if we don’t, of course. That’s the liberated twenty-first century view. You can do what you want. You don’t have to make excuses to anyone and there are plenty of solid rational reasons not to. The biggest fear is probably what older versions of yourself will think. Will 40, 50 or 60 year-old versions of ourselves be wracked with painful regret about a life unlived, or unfair resentment of each other?

Or can you coach yourself into being philosophical about it all? Spend time with nieces and nephews, try and volunteer doing something with young people, without implicating yourself as a pervert.

Even then, will we have enough to keep ourselves occupied? Will there be a gaping hole that can’t be filled which ultimately separates us?  There are far too many unanswerable questions in all this. You can’t ever know, one way or the other. You can overthink it until your head hurts a lot.

Scary clocks are ticking, not yet with major serious urgency, but they are ticking nonetheless.

sorry sperm

It’s late afternoon. I’m bored, restless and a little sad, walking aimlessly through an old neighbourhood, weaving around sprightly cheerful old people walking towards me.

I reach a place I don’t ever remember seeing before: a clearing beyond some suburban housing, a copse of trees which reaches high and majestic into the sky.  Behind them a more developed forest, the beginning of something. Leaves lie thick, deep and moist on the ground, like it must be autumn. I run up a small incline, mildly wary that this might be a hideout for local gangs or bored kids. None are here and there’s no evidence of them, no litter or debris.

There’s rustling though. In the half-light I see, is it a hare? It seems very large. I can’t figure out if it’s stalking or being stalked, until I catch a glimpse of an even bigger hare. This seems ridiculous, something out of Alice In Wonderland. I don’t believe myself and walk on, arcing back around towards suburbia, marvelling at the shapes in the high treetops.

The leaves and ground underfoot here is boggier than I recall. Turning over my left shoulder I see two figures, a man and a woman, children on their shoulders, all wearing some kind of protective boiler suits. Have they been bog snorkelling? Sounds and looks fun. The children laugh.

I follow them inside their perfect house – light blue walls, red door – and look around the place.  It’s unruly but somehow ordered. I befriend the boy and scare the mother. I tell him not to speak or play with me here, I could be anyone, and go back downstairs to his mum. I’m not sure where his father is. I leave the house and wake up.


Lately in waking life I have been thinking more about children, the idea of having them, being 33 in the next month or so, and of never having them. My best friend and his wife are pregnant with twins.  They will soon be moving into a new house in a commuter-belt town.  Added to this, I really enjoy the time I spend with my nephew and niece, 6 and 3.  Their lack of any real care or stress about anything is infectious and freeing and I begin to miss it when I haven’t seen them for a couple of months.

I’ve thought about it and discussed it here before.  But perhaps it was my best friend’s news – delivered in a stunned tone on a telephone call shortly after the first scan (twins!)) – and pondering it more since.  That has made me think again. Everyone is growing up, getting married, buying houses, having babies, getting dogs, seemingly growing reconciled to their careers. That’s what Facebook says anyway.

At almost 33 I am more nervous about paying my rent each month than I ever have been; more uncertain about a career path or lack of one as I have ever been. Freelance work is slow at the moment, all regular jobs look unrealistic, unobtainable, over 4 years out of a regular full-time workplace. I feel unemployable. I am worried.

Unlike my girlfriend – who is incredibly supportive – I am not hung up about the whole marriage thing, but do regularly hanker for a dog, holiday, travel, a nice house, a solid supply of good quality wine; and occasionally (often privately) think of children.

Having children is like experiencing a tremendous thunderbolt of love. I see that. I get that. You want to provide them with the best of everything and give all you can.

While I am indefinitely nervous about paying my rent every month, ‘big progress’ of the kind gently encouraged by parents, doing ‘life things’ on any level, it all seems impossible or hamstrung at best.

Everybody lives life differently, yes. It’s unhealthy to compare yourself with others (though equally impossible not to), yes.

And yet all this stuff can’t help but add up to feeling at least a little inadequate, at least a little failed.  Sorry sperm.

pondering parenthood

Long term goals and lifestyle pondering (as in the last post) have made me consider bigger, serious, scary life things. I’m talking.. I don’t know why but I am talking parenthood. And whether I ever want to be a father. Whether I would regret it if I never was, and how much.

It’s largely arisen as a result of growing more comfortable in a relationship. She has stacks of issues, her internet presence is far from compelling and she annoys the living crap out of me at fairly regular intervals (getting out of bed and leaving the building remain painfully slow processes and I generally do *a lot* of waiting around because everything takes her so long.  Sometimes I exercise superhuman levels of patience, particularly for a not very patient person, and still she moodily considers me impatient and unreasonable and I don’t know what to do other than dissolve into a puddle of hopelessness). But despite all this, yes, I love the girl. I want to live with her. I’ll be 33 this year. She’s only a couple of years younger, uncertain what she wants but pretty great with my niece and nephew, now 3 and 6 and less exclusively like vessels of human excrement.  More like actual small people with developing personalities.

On the one hand my brother’s nauseatingly soppy, overbearing, pandering parenthood style puts me off. But I know it doesn’t have to be like that; it’s just his way. There’s also the exhaustion and the sheer effort and the sleep deprivation and the massive imposition on every single aspect of your life. I like having time to do stuff I like doing. I’m not sure how I’d feel about having to give most of it up for some wailing little emperor who dribbles and snots and shits his pants every few minutes. Fuck the little bastard.  There’s also the whole conception, gestation, birth, early life stuff – all of which can have complications and be immensely difficult.

On the other hand though, I read books and see films (recently Ewan McGregor in tsunami emotion-fest The Impossible), and admire cute families in the street and can’t help wondering what that kind of love must be like, that type of kinship and bond and friendship and closeness. To be *that* important to someone, hopefully for the rest of your life, even afterwards.  To have someone be *that* important to you. It’s unfathomable. Would I be ok dying, likely an underachiever together with an underwhelming highlights reel, with it still being unfathomable? Or do I want one day to fathom it?

It’s commonly the only single thing people are proud of doing, their kids.  Often stupid people who appear on daytime television chat shows and genuinely haven’t done much with their lives, but then neither have I.  And another life is pretty undeniably something significant.

This guff also arises in the face of a current on-going malaise, a tide of futility (trying to pinpoint noteworthy achievements on CVs and job applications is gallingly difficult); a defence against yet more professional patronising and rejection; a lack of any progress in an area where I’d deeply love to make progress; indulgent, possibly immature bleating about unfairness; and  a lingering fog where nothing seems particularly meaningful or important.  Except feeling.

empty nests

One consequence of living an alternative loner lifestyle is the struggle to empathise with Normal People Issues.  The ‘being busy’ and need to broadcast ‘being busy’ is a frequent bugbear which I might have mentioned once or twice here.  The truth could quite possibly be that many people are substantially busier than me.  I have always been time-rich.  But the compulsion to broadcast the fact every which way, thereby justifying existence at every turn, is a separate issue.

Also brought home to me recently by my mother, in what developed to be a disconcerting series of ‘open conversations’, was the impact of children leaving home.  My Dad often emits a sense of apathy towards children generally, and certainly has seemed to, towards me.  He’ll usually help if asked to do something, if it doesn’t conflict with other plans, but he will need asking and will seldom volunteer support unbidden.  This is teamed with a sporadic, general fumbling awkwardness.  He also battles with depressive demons which can have a distressing impact upon my mother, as well as upon himself.  (I privately, perversely enjoy this fact.  Yay!  I don’t think I’m *quite* as much of a mental fuckup as him!)  He’ll whine and growl and hit things (never his wife) and verbally abuse himself in the most crazy untamed fashion.  It’s little short of a fit.  While this has been far from easy over the years, Mum has grown stronger in dealing with him and forcing him to seek help – medical or otherwise.

In telling me of his latest trauma, and responding to my gentle probing about his medication and whether he’s ever spoken freely about a dysfunctional relationship with his long dead father, that my Mum told me about how he’d responded when my brother and I left home.

On both occasions of returning from dropping us and leaving us at university for the first time, he apparently took longer than necessary to find his way home.  Of course the cynic could say this might be cover for any reason: but he told mum he needed time out, that he stopped the car in a layby and wept.

Wept for what?  She said she was loathe to use the word ‘jealousy’ – if you can be jealous of your kids, but she did.  Jealous of having the education and opportunities that he never had.  For seeing us grow up and leave the house.  I wasn’t sure if jealous was the right word.

My greatest experience of physical loss and grief is the impact of the first family dog dying, the gaping hole of one less figurative and literal heartbeat lumbering around the place.  Multiply that to the noise and impact of children.  I never really had before.  Particularly the effect of my louder, boisterous brother, was and is still, now when he enters or leaves the house with his entourage of family, profound.  Extracting that first, and then me, to leave just my parents and a dog.  It must throb for a while, take some getting used to.

Living alone for so long makes these things difficult to appreciate.  Having nobody actually physically there for so long – whether housemates or even a pet – means although you’re lonely you don’t actually miss anyone or anything either.  You pine for the idea of something, which is quite different.

Mum telling me that about my Dad, the stolid, emotionally illiterate fool, unexpectedly moved me as I sat in my lounge chatting to her on the phone.  Briefly I found myself leaking.  Partly through disbelief.  Really?!  Dad gives a fuck?!  Fuck off..  But I didn’t let on.

I was doing nothing, as usual that Sunday.  And it was Mothers’ Day.  So I decided to buy a bunch of flowers and drive home.

Over a short visit, in part bonded over the shared experience of being a Samaritan – something she had done in the past which I was now doing, I spoke more openly with her about myself.  She never asks questions so I volunteered information and she appeared to listen and engage, which isn’t a common occurrence, as I’ve bemoaned here before.  It has happened before, (Nov 2010 post); it’s just rare.  I spoke a little of loneliness, general rejection, shit first dates, unrealistic ambitions, an aimless career – because if I had a career which occupied me and which I cared about, that would squeeze other things away.  While I knew my brother would have scorned such openness to our mother, the fragile character of his conception who would merely worry and be too childish to cope, and although it wasn’t a comfortable experience – I’m dreadful with eye contact when it comes to speaking about such things – it wasn’t one I regretted either.

“You’re in a bit of a pickle, aren’t you?” she pityingly deduced from her armchair that evening.

“Yes.  But I have been for years, Mum.  It’s not exactly new.  Just never seems to change or get easier.” I shrugged from the floor, semi-distracting myself by antagonising the dog.

kissing and comfort zones

I’m not comprehensively disabled around small people.  On the contrary, I enjoy their company and like playing the goofy uncle who asks silly questions.  It’s the greetings and goodbyes which I tend to fumble, and could do without.  It’s possible my own Dad wasn’t such a great example here, being himself rather disabled around small people and in showing affection towards them.  Yet it feels like an innate disability of my own too, a personal gene of inhibition.

Kissing children makes me uncomfortable.  Upon meeting and parting I much prefer to pat them on the head, ruffle their hair or, if it seems as if I must, kiss the top of their head.  Kissing their faces just feels a little ‘icky’ somehow, for me, a bloke with little experience of small people before these particular small people came along.  Of course it’s different if they’re yours or if you have parental experience.

But then, I find kissing grown-ups on the cheek to often be a little icky too.  While I naturally affect breezy confidence when kissing cheeks, in truth I’d prefer if the casual convention for males to kiss females upon meeting didn’t exist at all.

There’s far too much jeopardy, too many variables, stuff that can go wrong.  She doesn’t present a cheek or doesn’t expect or want a kiss – stay the hell away you creep, and just accepts a hug instead, leaving you almost head-butting the back of her head and not knowing what to do with your face, or dangling out into thin air, or kissing her ear, or what if you both turn your head in the same direction and accidentally kiss each other’s lips instead?  All of these things have happened and sporadically return to haunt me.  I remember them far too well.

Even as a child I had weird issues with it; one vivid memory of refusing to kiss “Auntie” Pat on the cheek and throwing a huge tantrum because it meant not getting a slice of my favourite chocolate cake and crying the whole car journey home.

Then there was the time when I’d just kissed one female former colleague and went to kiss a second I knew equally well but was so taken aback by her awful skin I just shook her hand instead, “oh hey you, aahh..”   As her limp, dead, hate-filled hand sat in mine I became the most evil person ever.

So in that moment at the weekend when my brother asked me to strip naked and then dress his daughter, 2, I was stung with no little terror.  We’d been happily playing with a Peppa Pig jigsaw I’d bought her for Christmas when he dumped a pile of clothes down next to us.  Was I cool with this?  I asked myself.  Sure, I mean, I suppose..  erm..   I asked her if she wanted to put some clothes on and my brother poked his head back around the door, asked if I was ok with doing that.  I’d never dressed anyone before, never changed a nappy, kept some discretionary uncle distance.  Actually I wasn’t ok doing it.  I was massively awkward.  I was jelly.  “Er not really,” I confessed.  “I am a bit awkward to be honest.  Don’t want her kicking off.”  I felt clumsy, inadequate, failed, relieved.

There was a similar feeling later that day when we visited extended family discovered in the last few years thanks to the internet.  Our families have met several times since and enjoyed a poetic symmetry.  My mother’s new found half-sister had two daughters, whereas she had two sons; the elder daughter had two children, a boy and a girl, roughly the same age as my elder brother’s two children, a boy and a girl; the younger daughter was single.

At dinner I was enclosed in a corner of the table against the wall and subsequently found it difficult to contribute to wider conversation further down the table, contending with children’s squealing playful noises and my brother’s commanding central seat.  After a few faltering attempts I gave up.  Conversation then moved towards the absent younger daughter who, it was casually mentioned, now had a man.  Terrific, I thought.  Well done.  How dare she shatter the hitherto perfect symmetry of our families?  The bitch.

I rose from the table, went into the garden to play football with a six year old and broke his goalposts.