Happy New Year (or “Why I hate Jude Law”)

Stuck for something to do this Christmas and New Year? Desperate to get out of the house in order to escape Aunty Flo’s attempts to foist brazil nuts (that she’s sucked the chocolate off) onto you? Keen to avoid being forced to watch Crocodile Dundee for the eighteenth time? Do me a favour – don’t go to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan. I used to read the books when I was a kid, and avidly devoured the adventures of Holmes and Watson. But there are three impeccable reasons not to see the new big screen depiction of the man from 221b Baker Street.

1. Robert Downey Jr is not Basil Rathbone
I like Robert Downey Jr as much as the next man (and the next man happens to be wearing a badge saying ‘I ? Robert Downey Jr’), but let’s face it, he’s no Basil Rathbone. Like Sean Connery as James Bond, or – erm – Steve Guttenberg as Sgt Carey Mahoney, some roles were born to be played by only one man.

2. Guy Ritchie is the director
Guy Ritchie is the cinematic equivalent of the ugly guy who once managed to convince a supermodel to sleep with him – they both had a one-off success, and are forced to spend the rest of their lives trying to achieve it again while silently accepting that they were just punching above their weight. My grandmother is a better movie director than Guy Ritchie, and she’s been dead for almost twenty years.

3. Jude Law
The three kindest words I can think of to sum up Jude Law are “irritating little tosspot”. And it’s all downhill from there. Arrogant, self-involved, over-rated – just a few of the phrases his own mother would use to describe her son.

Of course, part of my antipathy towards the man whose name uncoincidentally rhymes with “Rude Bore”, is that he’s been able to turn a fundamental lack of talent into millions of dollars. He’s also managed to find a seemingly unending supply of beautiful women who are attracted to men of limited height and ability. Fair play to him for that.

But it’s not just jealousy that makes me hate the 17th most famous person to come out of Lewisham.

Last spring, I was taking a flight back from London to New York, and noticed the aforementioned Mr Law as I sat having a glass of wine in a British Airways lounge. He walked through alone, smirking the smirk that only the truly atrocious can somehow seem to muster. Nothing specifically wrong with that though, and I thought nothing more of him as I got on the plane and sat through the seven hour flight.

Now, at this point, I should say that I had been away working for over a week, and we had just found out that The Special One was pregnant. Being away made me as popular as a human rights activist in China. So when the plane landed, I was understandably keen to get back home as quickly as possible.

As somebody who made around 25 transatlantic flights in 18 months in an attempt to woo The Special One, I am a world class expert at the Race To Immigration Slalom Challenge. Essentially, the challenge involves bobbing and weaving between fellow passengers in an attempt to make your way to immigration as quickly as possible, in the vague hope that you get there before the passengers of the packed flight from Haiti that arrived at the same time as you.

On this occasion, I ducked and dived past a couple of people, before coming across a man, a woman and three children who took up the whole of the corridor. I edged behind one of the kids, and waited patiently until she inevitably zig zagged enough to allow me to pass by.

“Ooh ooh, there must be a fire. Quick, quick!” said a voice that managed to be snarling yet effeminate at the same time.

I turned around to see a thunderous Jude Law, looking angrier than an angry thing on its angriest day, rolling his eyes and muttering swear words vaguely under his breath.

There are three things of note to say here:

1. The woman – who I presumed to be a brow-beaten childminder – and the children had not been immediately evident in the airport lounge. Clearly Jude is such a good guy that he decided to go into the lounge, and leave the kids and the hired help outside. Maybe he gave them a discount voucher to buy a sandwich at Pret A Manger? After all, he has to save money where he can – it can’t be cheap maintaining an ex-wife, three kids and the occasional illegitimate child.

2. Jude was angry because I’d had the temerity to walk past his daughter. I hadn’t knocked into her, caused her to cry, or – for that matter – even made her notice that I was passing her. Clearly life as an award-winning actor means that you have to have a ten yard exclusion zone around you and your family at all times. Oh, except that Jude hasn’t won any kind of award in more than ten years. Unless they give out awards for Least Convincing Actor To Play Alfie, that is?

3. I ignored his comment and walked on to immigration. As I waited in a lengthy line (watching in horror as Law was led to the front of the queue), I realized that what I had really wanted to say was “No, there’s no fire Jude. I just want to get back to my wife as quickly as possible. But of course, you don’t have a wife, because you f***ed your nanny.”

Anyway, despite his obvious character flaws, I’m prepared to move on. In the spirit of the festive season, Happy New Year Jude. And may 2010 see your tiny little winkie get you into much less trouble than it has over the last few years.

The longest day – part 3

1501 Decide that a change of scenery might be a good thing for both of us. The Artist Formerly Known As The Youngest has returned from a sleepover, and insists on being taken out so that I can buy her all the things she needs to make me a Christmas present. Try to point out the irony of the situation, but then quickly remember that I am in America.
1515 Baby smiling in stroller, step-daughter animatedly chatting and laughing by my side. Feel certain that I will be the subject of an hour long network TV documentary on parenting perfection.
1517 You always get a meltdown when you least expect it. Attempt to soothe The Little One’s tears by slaloming the stroller with a deftness of touch that would have had Franz Klammer weeping. Send The Artist Formerly Known As The Youngest into the pharmacy to get the liquid glycerin she needs.
1518 TAFKATY comes out of the pharmacy to ask if she should buy the one in the tub or bottle. Distracted by the frenzied crying, I say it doesn’t matter.
1521 Gently try to let my twelve year old stepdaughter know that it’s my fault that she bought the wrong thing, and that it’s probably going to be quite difficult to make soap from glycerin suppositories.
1522 Inwardly pray that she doesn’t ask me what a suppository is for.
1525 Try to pretend that I’ve not heard her, and attempt to distract her with the offer of a slice of pizza for lunch.
1530 It’s amazing how insistent a twelve year old can be. Who said that the youth of today have the concentration spans of a gnat?
1550 Give in.
1551 Being seen in charge of one crying daughter can elicit looks of sympathy from passers by. Having two on your hands makes you look like Herod.
1610 New York City grocery store aisles are not designed to accommodate strollers. Knock around seven cans of canned asparagus on the floor, and ensure that at least two old ladies will be hoping for hip replacement surgery this Christmas. Notice a glint in The Little One’s eyes as I skittle one granny over. Make mental note to watch my back when she gets a little bit older.
1629 Mentally berate myself for not remembering mittens for my daughter. Feel sure that The Special One will notice if she returns home and finds her with fingers turned black through frostbite.
1647 Make it back to the house with all ten digits seemingly intact. Decide to maintain an all-night finger vigil, just in case.
1702 Remember that Americans don’t use the twenty four hour clock. Vow silently to ensure that I translate my timings into the twelve hour system, just in case my ramblings are ever published.
1711 Start to panic that there won’t be enough milk left to last The Little One until her mother gets home. One of us may survive the resultant domestic armageddon, but nobody’s putting any money on it being me.
1722 The tears begin. Grab tissue and hope that I can stop crying by the time The Special One walks in, in just 38 minutes time.
1731 Daughter senses my weakness, and turns on the waterworks. Half expect that she will issue a list of demands to be fulfilled in return for pretending to be asleep when her mother arrives.
1739 Throw my last turn of the dice, by offering her the remaining few millilitreers of milk. Pray that sleep arrives before she can remember that she was supposed to be crying.
1745 Overcome by my subterfuge, The Little One closes her eyes and falls asleep. I look around the living room, and realize that it makes Calcutta look like a bijou area of Kensington by comparison.
1746 Begin running around like a crazed maniac, wiping down surfaces and throwing debris into any available cupboard. Consider sticking a broom up my arseass to speed the process, but don’t have time to find one.
1755 As I pick up the last toys, The Little One suddenly begins to shuffle and squawk, causing me to freeze motionless in panic. Time passes with all the speed of an unstarred McDonalds server.
1759 Out of the corner of my eye, I see The Special One walking up the path. The Little One drops her head. I jump into my chair with the grace of a leaping salmon, grabbing and opening a magazine as I fall. I am relaxation personified.
1800 “Tough day, honey?” asks The Special One. “Not at all – we’ve just been hanging out,” I reply. “So why are you reading Country Living upside down?”
1801 I swear that I see my sleeping daughter smile knowingly at me. We all know who’s boss, and it isn’t me.

The longest day – part 2

1201 Set a new world record for the Sofa To Kitchen 30 Yard Dash, grabbing coffee and returning to daughter in 5.7 seconds. Daughter looks at me as if to say “what took you so long?”
1203 Realise that the Manchester United game will be on TV in less than half an hour. Talk to The Little One about buying her a car when she’s old enough if she sleeps through the whole thing. Talk to myself about developing better negotiating skills.
1205 Decide that some milk might aid the sleep process, easily resisting the devil in my head suggesting Ambien.
1207 My daughter is clearly destined to be a mathematician. Every time I lower her from my chest, The Little One is utterly fine until she’s moved through 90 degrees. 89 degrees is fine, 90 degrees unleashes the flaming bowels of hell. Attempt to force nipple of bottle into mouth anyway. Am quietly impressed by The Little One’s ability to emit 57+ decibels while having her mouth clamped as tightly shut as Susan Boyle’s ladybits.
1210 Silently curse myself for not having attempted to give my daughter a bottle before. Wonder if I can quickly rustle up some kind of contraption using bits of rubber tubing to trick The Little One into believing she’s drinking from an actual nipple. Quickly shelve the idea when I realise that the neighbours can see through the window. Seeing a ten week old seemingly suckling from a 36 year old man’s nipple might be a little too much for them.
1215 Try pleading with daughter. Am given a look which makes it clear that she accepts my unconditional surrender, and that I should report to my domestic prisoner-of-war camp for my eighteen year sentence.
1218 Give up trying to feed The Little One. Wonder whether I can put the breast milk into the hastily-grabbed coffee I forgot to put some semi-skimmed in. Waste not, want not.
1220 Ten minutes to the game. Am sure I see The Little One’s left eye start to droop. Decide it’s a combination of wishful thinking and early-onset cabin fever.
1223 No, that really was an eye that I saw closing.
1225 As the United team walk out, The Little One finally succumbs to tiredness. Although to be fair, it may have been the promise of the car finally working its magic.
1229 If ten weeks of fatherhood have taught me anything, it’s that nothing can be assumed to be forever. As a result, I sit and wait in doomed expectation for the young lady to stir at the very moment I turn my attention to the problems in United’s defence.
1240 Aston Villa score, but I am too caught up in the fact that my daughter is still asleep to notice. Begin to look around for hidden cameras, convinced that I am now part of some sick Japanese gameshow, and this is the attempt to lull me into a false sense of security.
1258 She’s been asleep for almost half an hour, and still I can’t quite accept that it’s real. My brow is now furrowed in the manner of a man who has just turned down a threesome with Linda Evangelista and Claudia Schiffer because he assumes that the supermodels are playing a joke on him.
1317 Right, it’s half time, and she still hasn’t as much as moved. Begin to worry, and try to gently poke her to make sure that she’s still alive.
1322 Go off to the kitchen in search of cling film to put near her mouth or nose so that I can make sure that she’s still breathing. I’m sure that’s what they do on Midsomer Murders, right?
1325 Have a moment of clarity as I’m about to put cling film over my sleeping daughter’s mouth and nose. Decide to let her sleep, but surreptitiously have a look on Google for ‘paralysis brought on by leaving your daughter alone for 5.7 seconds’.
1330 Convince myself that United will only equalize if The Little One wakes. Start wafting milk bottle under her nose in order to tempt her out of slumber. Am quietly impressed that she has inherited her father’s stubbornness.
1409 Can’t quite believe that my daughter has happily enabled me to watch the entire football game, and I’ve spent all but three minutes worrying that she’s dead/paralysed/critically ill/all of the above.
1417 Full time whistle goes, and The Little One wakes within seconds. I break it to her that she’s going to have to wait well over 16 years for the car. Her cold stare suggests that only by making me pay for four years of law school will she gain her revenge.
1433 Decide to have another go at at the bottle. Realise that I have no idea how I’m supposed to defrost milk, given that the tiny sachets expressed by The Special One don’t appear to come with microwave instructions. Briefly consider introducing The Little One to icepops, before melting the milk in a bowl of boiling water.
1435 Put a little bit of milk on the back of my hand because I’ve seen people do that on the TV. Realise that I have no idea what I’m supposed to be checking for.
1440 Fear that my daughter may eat my hand if I don’t put it out of her reach, such is the voraciousness of her appetite suddenly. Become terrified of ‘reprisals’ should she reach the end of the bottle and still be hungry. After all, to misquote Michael Caine, “she’s a big girl, and I’m out of shape.”

To be continued (I told you it was the longest day)…

The longest day – part 1

I was left alone with a ten week old child this Saturday. I can only assume that The Special One had exhausted all other options and – left with no other choice – decided to leave The Little One in my care. As a public service to new fathers everywhere, I’d like to share my diary from that day with you.

0915 Stare at the clock in abject horror. Mentally calculate that I’ve got somewhere in the region of ten hours to survive without accidentally physically or emotionally scarring my beloved daughter for life. Idly ponder whether I’ve got more chance of winning the Nobel Peace Prize by the time I’m 39, before realizing that I’ve just walked out of the bedroom leaving my impossibly young daughter all alone with my prize winning collection of antique razor blades.
0916 Look up the numbers for local doctors and hospitals just in case. Plan quickest route to hospital, before remembering that I don’t drive. Phone all taxi companies in the area to put them on standby.
0930 Daughter wakes from milk-induced coma, thoughtfully administered by The Special One prior to leaving. Change diaper, and beam with pleasure as The Little One smiles and laughs her way through the entire process. Transfer her to the bed, and lie next to her to play and chat.
0940 Wonder what all the fuss is about this whole childcare malarkey. Casually consider whether my ‘Dad of the Year’ mug will arrive in time for a Christmas morning brew.
0941 Daughter begins crying. Starts with a casual ‘I’ve just watched ET, and I can’t quite believe that he’s gone back home’ affair, before progressing to ‘I just stubbed my toe on a cast iron sewing machine thoughtfully left on the floor’. She then pauses briefly at ‘I’m sure I didn’t put “must get a demand for thousands of dollars of back tax on the same day that I get fired” on my Christmas wishlist’ before slamming headlong into ‘my fiance just dumped me at the altar to run off with my mother, but not before making me watch as he pureed three lovable puppies in a blender bought for us as a wedding present’.
0945 The high-pitched screams remind me that I must replace our smoke detectors. That is, if The Special One spares me my life when she gets home and finds The Little One still crying.
0951 Holy crap, has anyone ever got quite this red, hot and bothered before? The Little One is looking a bit peeky too.
0955 Check clock. Realise that I’ve only got through 40 minutes so far. Decide to put the wine rack in the downstairs bathroom, to put it out of temptation’s path.
0956 With daughter crying on shoulder, I hunt desperately through my music on iTunes trying to find something that resembles a lullaby.
0957 Hope that the neighbours don’t report me to social services for accidentally playing Slipknot at high volume whilst in charge of a minor.
0958 I don’t care what I might have said in the past, I’ve always loved ABBA! The first bars of Dancing Queen provoke instant calm in The Little One, and I lower her down onto my chest for a celebratory dance. Am given a look that suggests I will be tolerated at best. She must have learnt it from her mother.
1001 Crying starts again immediately as the song finishes, and I frantically try to line up another track. Inwardly pray that Dancing Queen is not the only song that keeps her happy, for fear that I may turn into a babbling mess after ten hours. “Having the time of your life”, my arse.
1002 Take A Chance On Me seems to work too. Am now in full-on whoop-and-holler, and begin to create devious Baby Whisperer playlist.
1034 Michael Jackson is a hit with the kids. Not the first time that sentence has been used, clearly.
1042 Am now on a roll. Have discovered that Queen has a similarly soothing effect, and croon along happily with Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
1045 Decide that I need to vet future lyrics for appropriateness, after serenading my daughter with Bohemian Rhapsody’s “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.”
1101 Blimey, she does NOT like Radiohead. To be fair, even Radiohead’s kids don’t like Radiohead, but I thought I’d try out a little bit of commercial credibility before heading back to the cheese.
1109 Is it wrong to play Amy Winehouse to your ten week old daughter?
1115 Mind wanders to the fact that I’ve not had coffee yet. Daughter still calm from all the dancing and singing, so decide to take my chances. I put her down with her favourite glow worm toy, and walk into the kitchen as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star plays.
1115 and 12 seconds Manage to turn tap on before screaming begins. Walk back into living room, pick daughter up, and press button to soothe her with the help of REM’s Shiny Happy People. Hand slips at last moment, and we end up dancing to Can’t Fight This Feeling by REO Speedwagon.
1130 Finally make it back to kitchen, with Freres Jacques being emitted by the glow worm.
1130 and 27 seconds Oh for crying out loud.
1140 Back to the kitchen. Four tablespoons of coffee go into the percolator. Am midway through administering tablespoons five to ten when I hear a bone shuddering thud back in the living room.
1141 Soothe cat, who has fallen backwards off the arm of the sofa onto the wooden floor. Presumably in shock at The Little One remaining quiet for thirty seconds. Cat refuses to dance to Barry Manilow with me, but seems offended when I walk back to kitchen. I think she was hoping for some N’Sync.
1148 Finally turn coffee machine on. Adopt the appearance of a man who has five minutes to defuse a bomb, with beads of sweat dripping down my brow as I wait to see whether the coffee will be completed before The Little One inevitably explodes.
1153 Does she have x-ray vision, enabling her to sense when the coffee is going to be ready?!
1159 Look at the clock. Struggle to understand why time is moving more slowly today. Surely it must be 7pm already. On Wednesday. Wonder how I’m going to make it through the afternoon. Decide to hide the Brit Out Of Water collection of fine malts.

To be continued…

Comes with instructions

As every long suffering wife or female partner will readily testify, it is absolutely verboten for men to read an instruction manual before plugging in a piece of technological gadgetry. Any male choosing to even remove the ‘How To…’ guide from its plastic will have his membership of the Men’s Union terminated with immediate effect, a punishment which also applies to any man choosing to ask for travel directions or for assistance finding a product in a shop. 

Clearly, this can cause problems. I spent more than half an hour attempting to hook up my laptop to the TV on Friday night, despite the fact that a quick trip to the basement and the abandoned pile of various manuals would have probably saved me all the effort. And I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve walked out of a store without the item I needed, only to find three months later that the thing I had expensively imported from Guadeloupe or Ulam Bator was on a shelf there after all. 

Call it stubborn male pride, call it fierce independence or call it bloody-minded stupidity (a title that The Special One is not without merit in using), but whatever it is, I just can’t help myself. Whether it’s a $5 piece of tat or an expensive hi-tech bit of kit, instructions may as well be written in Chinese, such is their value to me. 

Of course, children – our highest of the hi-tech gadgets, after all – are perfect for somebody with this kind of attitude, as they come without any kind of manual whatsoever, and you just have to figure it all out for yourself. Unless you live in New York City, clearly, where babies really do come with their very own instruction book. 

Don’t worry, the manual isn’t pushed out alongside your newborn; they tried that for a while, but they had problems getting the sharp corners through the birth canal. Instead the city simply sends you the instruction pamphlet when they postmail the birth certificate to you. It’s conveniently entitled “Your New Baby”, just in case you get it confused with the manual for your answering machine, and it purports to be from Thomas Farley (MD, MPH), the commissioner of the New York City Health Department. 

Not daring to risk my membership of the Men’s Union, but also not wanting to miss any valuable parenting lessons, I took the booklet to the smallest room in the house and settled down to bask in its glorious authority. I feel that there are some essential tips that I need to share with you all: 

1. Coming at the start, as page 1 has an alarming tendency to do, you have to imagine that page 1 contains the essential stuff that new NYC parents need to know – the vital facts, just in case you only read one page. The three points that the aforementioned page 1 mentions are “enjoy your baby” (a critical reminder when you’re changing a vivid orange nappydiaper at 3am), “talk to your baby”, and – of course – “limit TV”. That’s right, New York parents have to be reminded not to let their kids watch TV before they need to be told about trivial stuff like, you know, feeding and medical care. It’s no surprise that the “how to comfort your crying baby” section over the page suggests “turn down the lights and turn off the TV.”   

2. Apparently, you should “never shake your baby”. It’s helpful suggestions like this which explain why I never pick up instruction books.   

3. “Keep Your Baby Safe” is the helpful advice of one section. I think that Thomas Farley has heard that I can never remember in the morning where I put my wallet and keys the night before, panicked, and put this section in. Although if that is the case, I don’t think that putting the baby “on the hook by the door” is the solution to anybody’s problems.   

4. Does anybody really need to be told “Don’t Let Anyone Smoke Around Your Baby” these days? And don’t even get me started on “Keep Your Baby Away From Poisons”. Although to be fair, I’d accidentally left Brit Out Of Water Jr playing with a pile of arsenic when I went off to the bathroom to read this pamphlet, so I was mighty relieved that New York City was tipping me off to this inadvertent danger.   

5. In the 2009 list of The World’s Most Ridiculously Obvious Statements, “Be The Best Parent You Can Be” ranks only one notch lower than “Don’t Introduce Your Daughter To Tiger Woods”.   

Incidentally, the final section of the manual is entitled “Planning Pregnancy” giving details of emergency contraception usage among other things. I can only imagine that this is New York City’s little joke at the expense of new parents, gently telling them that if they’d only read this booklet then they wouldn’t be in this sorry mess in the first place.

The one thing I’m still puzzling about is where the remote control for the baby is. She makes an awful amount of noise when she’s hungry, and it’d be useful to be able to use the mute function. Of course, if we’d splashed out on the Sky+Tivo baby, I’d be able to fast forward through the diaper changes too, but you can’t have everything.

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me… a sky high electricity bill

When I was a kid, at the bottom of a hill down the road from our little cul-de-sac stood what could only be described as a bungalow on stilts. It was the kind of house whose owners had a year-round commitment to proving the old adage that you can have all the money in the world but you can’t buy class or taste. They’d built the house themselves, presumably making full use of the services of a partially sighted architect, and a landscape gardener who had tragically lost all but one finger in a horrific accident involving a strimmerweed whacker and a pair of garden shears. Sure, their home gave them a lovely view over some North East Wales hills, but I can imagine that the only upside to living there would have been the fact that you wouldn’t have to look at the outside of the house all day long.

Anyway, their lack of sophistication came to a height every Christmas. Each year somewhere around the start of December, word would spread around that the family at the bottom of the hill had put up the Christmas lights on their house. And, over the next week or so, we’d each have to make our way down there to check out for ourselves whether they had managed to surpass the garish extravagance and tastelessness of the year before. They rarely let us down.

It’s around this time of year that British tabloids like The Sun do a small news feature on the couple from Dewsbury or Weston-super-Mare who have either spent £15,000 on their Christmas lighting, or are being threatened with legal action by neighbours for erecting a ‘son et lumiere’ spectacular which plays Also Sprach Zarathustra every hour on the hour for 25 days straight. It’s as reliably annual a story as ‘Postcard Turns Up At Address 67 Years After It Was Posted’ and ‘Dog Saves Cat From House Fire’.

Living in the ‘burbs of Brooklyn at Christmas is like having a place on a winter-themed Las Vegas strip, only marginally less tasteful. Imagine Blackpool with less vomit and more inflatable snowmen, and you’re heading in the right direction.

A few specific things to note:

1. Electricity consumption in the area must go through the roof at this time of year. Eco-awareness has not yet come to South Brooklyn it would appear, unless there is secretly a crew of 36 people cycling non-stop on exercise bikes hooked up to the grid, in a church hall somewhere in the neighborhood. If you’re on such a team and you’re reading this, do reach out to me and I will lavish you with all the mince pies a man with limited baking skills can create.

2. One of the joys of Christmas (NB, other seasonal quasi-pagan/religious festivals are available – see local listings for details), as far as I am aware, is that you put decorations on your tree and around your house as a family. Imagine my disappointment on Sunday when I discovered crack teams of professional house decorators at at least five houses in the area, erecting elaborate displays that wouldn’t look out of place at Disney World. Come on people – if you want the decorations, at least put the time in yourself. Although to be fair, if I had a set of 2000 fairy lights, and it was me who had to take each one out looking for the duff bulb, I might be tempted to turn to paid assistance too…

3. Young children would do well not to learn their Christmas traditions from the decorations that they see in gardens in the area. After all, the nativity story does not – as far as I’m aware – read “And so it came to pass that a penguin was born in a tent, and the three wise snowmen did travel from afar, bringing gifts of decaying pumpkins left over from Halloween, giant illuminated candy canes, and reindeer made of wire. And then Santa arrived on his inflatable Harley Davidson, wearing Ray Bans to protect him from the millions of red, white and blue lights that shone from the trees. And peace reigned, except from the houses whose speakers did blast out Hark The Herald Angels Sing.”

The red mist descends

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – if you want to experience the pretence of peerless customer service, but an experience that’s as much fun as having your testicles scraped with a rusty razor blade, New York City is the only place for you. Despite having lived in the city for well over two years now, it still somehow comes as a surprise to me when I’m inevitably regarded as an irritant by somebody who makes their living from ensuring that I hand over cash to the business which they represent.

Take, for example, a discount department store that shall remain nameless. We’ll call it “Century 22”, which should be enough to confuse at least 75% of the staff that work there. I would normally avoid it like the plague, but had the recent misfortune of being dispatched to explore its dubiously stocked aisles for some curtains for our new home.

As an aside, I would like to make it clear that The Special One had rightly not trusted me with making an aesthetics-based selection on my own – asking me to pick out appropriate curtains would be akin to asking Joseph Goebbels to judge the prestigious Humanitarian of the Year contest. But even I couldn’t mess up picking up some pre-selected curtains.

Inevitably the course of true drapery never runs smooth, and having discovered that the store only had four of the aforementioned curtains, I looked around for somebody who could help me. I can only assume that nearby staff had seen me piling into the racks of carpets with befuddlement and frustration on my face, as by the time I glanced up, I could have been forgiven for believing that an announcement over the loudspeaker regarding an imminent outbreak of anthrax had caused all employees to scatter to the four winds.

Now, at this point, I should point out that the staff of “Century 22” all wear a badgebutton on their uniforms reading something along the lines of “I care – just ask me!”. So when I finally found somebody, I gave a winning smile and asked if she could check to see if they had any more curtains in stock. The response of “you’ll need to find somebody in drapery, I work in homeware” was almost certainly coquettish flirtation, although the fact that she turned on her heels and walked off would seem to be playing too hard to get, if you ask me.

After five minutes of wandering around, a manager finally and reluctantly disappeared off to a computer before returning to tell me triumphantly that they had fourteen more sets in stock, and introduced me to a colleague who would help me find them.

Which is when I met the true hero of the story. As long as the story we’re talking about is “How To Turn Customers Into Mortal Enemies”.

We’ll call our hero Marcus. Largely because that’s his name. When it came to ‘effectiveness’ being handed out, Marcus was infront of the mirror preening himself and making sure he could still fit into his skinny jeans. And let’s just say that he hasn’t exactly taken out a lifelong subscription to Enthusiasm Monthly, either.

After five minutes of sorting through the entire curtain stock of the store (something I had done myself in around three minutes flat), Marcus went back to the computer to check that a mistake hadn’t been made. On his puzzled return, he spent ten minutes repeating the entire process once more. And then he disappeared upstairs to check the stockroom.

By this point I’d already been in the store for half an hour, and there was a vague chance that the smoke coming out of my ears could have set off the sprinkler system. But safe in the knowledge that returning home with new curtains would bring a smile to The Special One’s face, I swallowed my impatience, and hung around pretending to be interested in pillowcases.

Twenty minutes later, and there was still no sign of Marcus. Store customers couldn’t get access to the kitchen appliance or luggage sections, such was the unbearable angry heat radiating from my cheeks and making it impossible to get within twenty feet of me.

And then I saw him. Marcus. Standing and laughing with some colleagues near the bathroom towels, about thirty yards away. My guess is that they weren’t discussing curtains. I’d go as far as to say that he would have struggled to tell you what a curtain was at that precise moment. As I approached with my face full of thunder, I began thinking of all the things I would say to him to make sure he never treated a customer like that again. I was almost looking forward to it.

Then I realised that I was English, and meekly asked him if he’d found anything. He told me that he’d have one last look through the stock on display. You know, just in case. And I let him. Fifteen minutes later – an hour or so after my arrival – I left emptyhanded, having thanked him for all his help.

I showed him who’s boss, I can tell you.

A long overdue Halloween missive

It’s pretty astonishing how being a father to a month old baby can change your perspective on the things that matter in life. Although, for the avoidance of doubt, I will never like peanut butter, no matter how much my daughter comes to believe it to be the lifeblood that keeps her in existence.

Nut spread issues aside, all other opinions and theories are now officially open to change. And that was never more evident than in my reaction to Halloween this year.

Now, bear in mind that I am the man that wrote this. I think it’s fair to say that I have never been the biggest fan of Halloween. Most Americans tend to take it more seriously than, say, breathing. In the same way that the likes of Hallmark have managed to persuade us that Administrative Professionals Day is a worthy use of our hard-earned cash, so costume manufacturers have managed to convince Americans that a pagan ritual is a good reason to provide extensive job creation for 7 year olds in Indonesia.

But then introduce a small child to the mix (one too young to even see a pumpkin two feet away from her, let alone participate herself) and everything changes. Suddenly when Halloween arrives, you’re focusing on whether you’ve got enough sweetscandy for everyone, and pondering whether you should probably go out and buy another three tons of mini Snickers bars just in case.

Of course, the presence this year of She Who Was Born To Worry probably helped foster the festive spirit. Particularly as after a couple of visits from local kids, she designated herself The Candy Witch, refusing to dole out more than one sweet per child, and giving venemous looks to anyone who failed to say thank you.

So while I resisted costume this year, and instead dressed merely as ‘confused new father operating on two hours sleep’ (a look that I pulled off with comparative ease, if I’m honest), I nonetheless entered into the spirit of the occasion. Fortunately enough questionable events occurred to ensure that I could maintain the healthy dose of overarching cynicism that you all have come to expect of me.

1. The little princess with dietary restrictions
The very first knock at the door came from a tiny princess, who could have been no older than six. She immediately endeared herself to us by pushing her nose up against the screen door to peer inside. Indeed, she was so sweet, I even managed to fight off the overwhelming need to get some spray cleaner and wipe off her smudgy little paw prints from the glass.

And the first thing she said as The Special One opened the door and proffered the bowl of many delights? “My mommy says that I’m not allowed any chocolate.” This came as a blow, given that the “many delights” in the bowl were solely chocolate-based. Thankfully The Special One managed to convince her that the Reese’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup (the root of all candy evil, by the way) actually contained no chocolate, and sent her on her way with a smile on her face. But what parents send their kids out with specific dietary restrictions? “Now, little Elsie, remember that high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavourings are fine, but chocolate and gelatin are out. And don’t ring number 87’s doorbell this year – you know your brother’s never been the same since the electric shock.”

2. The little brothers and sisters
The age range of the trick-or-treaters varied wildly, from the three year old who practically had to be dragged up the steps to the door, to the dubiously aged teens whose skirts were short enough that their parents felt the need to accompany them. As a side note, I’m all for the principle that Halloween is an opportunity for women to show some skin, but I live by the motto that says if your parents need to come with you, you’re not old enough to show some skin. And as a further side note, if my daughter is reading this in – say – 2025, the age at which you are old enough to show some skin at Halloween is approximately 35.

Anyway, I digress. Kids of all ages came round, and they all received candy for their efforts. Even the ones who had dressed as “a kid wanting candy”. But on at least six separate occasions, once they had received their bounty, a kid would proffer another bag and say “Candy for the little one – she’s too young to come.”

Now, I’m still new to this parenting lark, but I tend to believe that if you’re too young to trick or treat with your whole family in tow, you’re too young to be eating sugar snacks. Leading me to the inevitable conclusion that “the little one” is a Halloween scam, with kids taking advantage of doting parents who sigh wistfully at the thought of poor little Johnny in his Merlin outfit, crying at home on his own while the older children go out to forage for him.

Next year, “the little ones” will be getting a bag of raisins and somw dried apricots, mark my words.

3. The double dippers
I appreciate that I’m getting on a bit now, but I’ve still got all my own teeth, and most of my mental faculties are intact. Sure, I forget the occasional thing or two, but The Special One’s electro-shock punishments are having a positive impact on my will to remember, I can tell you.

Anyway, the point is, if you come and get candy from The Candy Witch while dressed as a purple fairy, and then you come back twenty minutes later to try to get some more, we will remember and we will send you away with a flea in your ear. If you come back as something completely different (say, a pink fairy), we will almost certainly not rhave any recollection of you whatsoever and will lavish you with as many Twizzlers as a girl can eat.

4. Commuting to Trickortreatsville
Despite my cynicism, I have to say that Halloween promotes a healthy sense of community, with all the residents of a neighbourhood interacting with each other on a level that’s more harmonious than “for the 837th time, can you sodding well turn that music down?”

But when you’ve got carloads of kids being shipped into an area by their parents because it looks like a place where you might get Toblerone rather then Tootsie Rolls, it’s suddenly less about community, and more about a 12 month campaign of reconnaisance and intensive evaluation of candy sales across the five boroughs. The kids probably sell their swag in their schools for the next year. Or save it for the next Halloween, to provide the gift of gastroenteritis to unsuspecting locals.

Still, I’m starting work on my Halloween costume for 2010. Like a born-again convert, I’m going to put some serious effort into getting it just right. I’m thinking ‘new-ish father operating on three hours sleep rather than two, but still as confused as ever’. Better start working on those bags under my eyes right away…

The red tape of parenthood (aka “I’m drowning, not waving”)

I promise that normal service will resume shortly, working on the assumption that all babies sleep for 12 continuous hours every single night after the age of 1 month, right?

Anyway, you’ll no doubt be delighted to know that things are calming down at Casa del Brit Out Of Water, although to be honest it would have been difficult for things to get any rockier. After all, there can’t be many newborns who have their first trip out of the house to move house, the second to be rushed to hospital, and the third to go to a funeral. But we always knew that she was going to be special, I guess.

What isn’t so special is the administrative black hole that you immediately fall into as soon as you have a child. Never (knowingly) having had a baby in the UK, I’m not sure what the red tape situation is over there. But frankly as I alluded to in the last post, the paperwork nightmare that is childbirth in the US is enough to convince anybody that one son or daughter is plenty enough, thank you very much. From trying to convince a pharmacy that your doctor didn’t write a prescription for a non-existent child, to persuading your healthcare providers to not send letters addressed to Newborn Child Jones, it’s far from easy to plot your way through the minefield of technicalities and odd requests.

That said, nothing can be as odd as the sheet that has to be filled in immediately after your child is born.

I have filled in some ridiculous forms in my time. And yes, Inland Revenue, I’m looking at you. But nothing can prepare you for the glorious majesty of the “mother’s worksheet” element of the New York birth registration form. It’s the document that is used to put together your child’s birth certificate, so in many ways, it’s pretty important. But when you’re handed the form by your midwife mere moments after the birth of your daughter, and you’re holding a glass of champagne in your hand, it’s kind of difficult to digest some of the questions you get asked.

Of course, there are the expected teasers such as child’s name, mother’s name, date of birth, social security number etc etc. But just after they’ve got you warmed up, they throw in a few corkers.

For a start, they want to know the mother’s ancestry – the nationality, lineage or country which the mother or her ancestors were born in prior to coming to the US. For clarity, even if your family has been in America for a couple of hundred years, you can only put down “American” if you are of native American extraction. Apparently the response should reflect what the mother considers herself to be, and is not based on the percentage of ancestry of any given parent or grandparent. Anyway, don’t tell The Special One, but I put down that she’s British. I mean, she’s been to Old Trafford and she’s been on the London Eye, so surely that’s enough?

Next they want the weight of the mother at birth, and the weight of the mother pre-pregnancy. Now, I’ve only been married for two years, but even I know that you never EVER even mutter the actual weight of your wife, let alone put it down on paper. I can only assume that this question has been placed on the form as a nasty little trick against men. Any unwitting new father who – in the adrenaline rush of the moments immediately post-birth – writes down any figure that is not at least 25% under the actual weight, will find himself sleeping on the sofa until their son or daughter is approaching university.

Somewhat easier, but still perplexing, is the question on whether any illicit drugs were taken by the mother during pregnancy. Among the options are heroin, cocaine, methadone, and methamphetamine. You’ve got to appreciate the effort, but do we really see anybody fessing up to a weekly freebase and the occasional snort of charlie?

Sadly on the question regarding whether the mother had swollen or bleeding gums during her pregnancy, there was no answer box marked “it’s none of your sodding business really, is it?” for me to tick. And on the question regarding whether the mother was at all depressed (‘a little depressed’, ‘moderately depressed’, ‘very depressed and did not receive help’ or ‘very depressed and did receive help’), can I make it clear that any mother who ticks ‘not depressed at all’ must surely have either high tolerance for discomfort, or else made full use of the narcotic options mentioned earlier.

One last question stood out, asking “Thinking back to just before you were pregnant, how did you feel about becoming pregnant.” The four options given are as follows (with my commentary in italics):

1. You wanted to be pregnant sooner (but my joke of a husband was firing blanks, and it took me a while to find a new tennis coach)
2. You wanted to be pregnant then (back THEN I wanted to be pregnant, but boy would I change my mind after the last nine months of hell)
3. You wanted to be pregnant later (what do you mean, condoms have only a 98% success rate?)
4. You didn’t want to be pregnant then or at any time in the future (if it hadn’t been for those 16 vodka cranberries and the glint in the fireman’s eyes, I wouldn’t be stuck with this thing or that stupid lump of a man…hold on, my children don’t get to read these comments in the future do they?)

Can someone tell me what use any of these statistics are? My guess is that the public relations industry lobbied hard to include them, simply so that it creates a much-needed job for a PR flunkey who gets to issue an annual press release saying that 27% of New York babies are unwanted accidents.

Oh, and one thing the form makes very clear is that the father is of no importance whatsoever in this process. All they want to know is his name, date and place of birth, and social security number. Essentially it’s a case of ‘who are you, and can you pay for this thing?’ No questions about depression, nothing about my ancestry, and not even a passing interest in the state of my gums.

To be fair, I’m kind of glad they didn’t ask about my pre- and post-pregnancy weight. It’s not easy eating for two, you know.

Fourteen days that changed the world

Been a long time since we rock’n’rolled, huh? Lest you think I’ve been idling away at Expat Mansions, wilfully neglecting this esteemed journal, let me reassure you that I’ve had one or two things on my mind. Specifically, I’ve been preparing the raw material for what could be my new book entitled “Life: How To Change Everything In As Short A Timeframe As Possible”.

So, cue the Scooby Doo style flashback fade, and let’s take a look back at the last two weeks:

Day One
I wake up at 2am to find The Special One at the edge of the bed, telling me that she’s going downstairs to make herself a baked potato, and that I should go back to sleep. Given that I am Enlightened Man, I intuitively understand that is pregnant female code for either “I have taken leave of my senses and need to be institutionalised” or “I have had a few contractions and I think I’m going to give birth today, so you should rest and relax in preparation for the fact that I will be shouting obscenities at you in a few short hours.”

I plump for the latter, and within a couple of hours, I’m hearing The Special One make the kind of groans that got us into this whole mess in the first place. And, as it turned out, the noises only got louder for the next twenty hours.

From a mother and child’s perspective, the benefits of a homebirth are clear: better outcomes, more control over decisions, and a more relaxed environment for a baby to come into the world. From the father’s perspective, ease of access to your own refrigerator so that you can get the champagne out when your child is born, should not be overlooked. Pink champagne, of course, given that we had a beautiful baby girl at 12:37am on October 1. American manufactured, with British parts – and there couldn’t be a better example of the special relationship between the UK and the USA.

Day two
I’m no expert, but nowhere in the baby manuals do they generally say “if you give birth after midnight, and get to bed at 4am, you should move house later that morning.” But the winning combination of a baby turning up 11 days late, and my wife having an idiotic husband, conspired to cause the movers to turn up less than nine hours after the birth. Suffice to say that my name was mud for some considerable time afterwards.

Day three
My punishment for such a challenging schedule was to clean our old house for seven hours straight. On my own. The arrival of a new tenant was a shock, although the mouse (or small rat) at least had the decency to be dead.

Day four
If I dislike B&Q or Homebase, I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate Lowes and Home Depot. Especially when I get home from buying a brand new microwave, and find that it has a brand new dent in its brand new door.

Day five
Did I not mention that I was launching a brand new corporate website for the company I work for? It’s always useful to have to be sending constant emails when you’re looking after a five day old, and you’re simultaneously unpacking enough cardboard boxes that a passing news crew mistakes your home for the favelas of Sao Paolo. In related news, I also stuck a broom up my arseass and swept the floor as I walked.

Day six
No, you don’t understand, I really hate Lowes. Who knew that not all toilet seats were the same size?

Day seven
Let me give you some marriage guidance advice, should you need it. If you have a child, and you move house on the same day, you’re going to be unpopular. If you then spend a day on telephone calls as you attempt to organize a conference for your company’s senior management team the following week, you should probably keep your suitcases close by just in case.

Day eight
I’ve never spent any time in UK hospitals, so I don’t really have any point of comparison with their US equivalents. But given that the American ‘system’ forces you to pay through the nose for private healthcare, I think that when you race to the emergency room with an eight day old child, you should be considered as an emergency. I mean, I’m sure some people are happy to be able to watch TV in the waiting room; I’m not one of them.

Oh, and by the same token, private healthcare should entitle you to access to someone who doesn’t need five attempts to get a lumbar puncture right.

Day nine
Hospital food in the US is astonishingly bad. If Obama wants to make this country a better place, he could do worse than outlawing the production of hospital meatballs.

Day ten
Only in America would you get hospitals that have 50 channels of cable TV at every bedside, but no water fountains anywhere on the ward.

Day eleven
The best thing about American hospitals? Leaving them. With your eleven day old baby, safely in your hands.

Day twelve
When you’ve given birth at home rather than a hospital, it’s almost as if your child doesn’t exist. Try convincing your healthcare providers to pay for, say, some antibiotics for your apparently non-existent daughter, and you’ll find you’ve got more chance of getting a quick roll in the hay with Megan Fox. And add that freckly girl from Lost into the mix if you think there’s a remote chance of the battle over the subsequent hospital bills being over before the London Olympics. The 2124 London Olympics, that is.

Day thirteen
If you have a child and move on the same day, you’ll be unpopular with your wife. If you then spend a day on the phone organizing an international management conference, you’ll need your suitcases nearby in case you get thrown out. And if you then have to go back to work to actually oversee the conference, you’ll almost certainly have to look into expensive jewellery options if you want to remain married.

Day fourteen
I take my 803rd look at a photo of Brit Out Of Water, Jr taking in the world from her bed. Realise that it’s all worth it.

Brit Out Of Water, Jr.