Category Archives: play time

D is for Dad

notepadWinter has us, and our children’s sports, in its sopping, phlegmy clutches. Football games are cancelled days ahead because of waterlogged pitches. Frosty ground encountered one Sunday provided variety, but the same outcome. “It wouldn’t take a stud,” explained the official dolefully, as if he was a horse breeder excusing the performance of his mare.

Each of the children has missed activities as their constitutions struggle to ride out the waves of respiratory viruses that ebb and flow through their classrooms and settle in our home, making stately progress from one upper bronchial tract to another. The 1&onlyD, who cannot be stopped practising gymnastics by a sodden floor or icy bars, has had to be collected mid-session, when all her spinning and tumbling had the effect on her, that it would have on any of us: an acute headache.

Confined to quarters, we take up indoor pastimes. My children (15, 13 and 10) have moved on from the games of their younger childhood when the roll of a die decided everything. No.1 son, almost ten years ago, had a phase of playing snakes and ladders with the earnestness of a grandmaster. I had to leave him mid-game once to help Mother in the Middle get his siblings ready for bed.

“I’ll play for you,” he said.

“Sure,” I replied, already on my way to the stairs.

Twenty minutes later, I heard a shout of, “Daddy, Daddy.”

I came to the top of the stairs. “Yes, what is it?”

“You’ve won,” explained no.1 son, who was punctilious in completing the game according to the rules and with fairness to his absent father. I humbly accepted his congratulations on my victory.

From games of luck they all progressed to electronic gaming: DSs, Wiis, Kindles, PS3s and X-boxes. I was and am alienated, but also complicit in my alienation. Their screen time gave (and continues to give) me time to pursue my own interests at home. But computer games, above all the ravenous FIFA, remind me powerfully of our mortality and that time is short.

This winter, we have begun to play classic indoor games of duelling: draughts, backgammon, chess and darts. With chess, we strain our minds, but tend to stumble across a checkmate, having no sense of strategy informing our play.

We play darts in no.1 son’s room, stepping carefully over school uniform and electronic accessories that layer the floor, to collect our darts from the board. 301, nearest the bull, around the clock, darts cricket. Our host plays his spotify play-list as our accompaniment. None of us has the consistency to win routinely. Big leads are built and then frittered away as the final dart to finish the game keeps missing its target.

It reminds me of when I was a teenager. Alone at home, revising for another in the wave of exams that just kept coming, I would take my study breaks at the dart board. After a game of around the clock, I would set myself challenges to stay alive – or return to my revision if unsuccessful. Each set of three darts would have to score above 30; or every dart had to be within the circle bounded by the treble band.. or back to the books.

Reassuring and familiar, yet recently I had a jarring moment of disequilibrium, of falseness. I was setting up the score-sheet on a scrap of paper, each player’s initial underlined. Both boys, G and R, then me. Hesitantly, I inscribed D. It felt like that time you call your partner’s parents by their given names for the first time. Self-conscious and awkward. D stood for Dad and Daddy. Me for over fifteen years; addressed that way by my children up to and beyond 100 times in any single day. Yet when I went to self-identify as Dad, it felt odd and artificial.

I don’t believe I am experiencing any deep-seated denial of my parenthood. It is such a prominent part of my identity in the physical world as well as here, my on-line presence. I think it is because, ‘Dad’, when vocalised by me, or written in my own hand, has to mean my Dad. Taking that title for myself felt like I was taking it from him.

Next time we play darts, I may write C, or just let my children do the writing and have their own D. I know how important that is.

 

 

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Injured (playing with the kids)

226“So, how did you injure your shoulder?” the physio asked, eyeing my back, perhaps looking for clues.

“Playing tennis last August. I don’t play often.”

The bright light of that summer morning in St Andrew’s reappeared. No.1 son and I hitting balls back and forth. I was careful to direct the ball back to him, to keep the rally going. But soon, he was dinking little drop shots that, however hard I dashed and far I stretched, I just couldn’t reach. I was goaded, you see. My response was to up the tempo with some booming serves. That put an end to the cheeky drop shots and, three months on, had me seeking the attention of a physio.

“Just tennis? You did nothing else to it?” The physio began digging her thumb in amongst the tendons and joints of my upper back.

“Eh, yeah. No. Oww.”

“It won’t hurt for long,” she reassured me, with talon poised for another incision.

Rising to the challenge of a contest with a child is a common fault of adult men – and one that keeps the physiotherapy profession busy. I like to think we are infected by the carefree spirit of the child, and forget the limitation of our bodies. Less generously, we’re showing off. Dave, the ‘funny falling down man,’ as my kids know him, was guilty of this.

Dave visits us from the States while on business. He comes equipped and attired for meetings and strategizing: pure wool suit, Italian shoes and man bag.

On a wet day five years ago, he joined us on a trip out to burn off the kids’ surplus energy. While I kicked balls and played chase with the kids, Dave watched, apologising for the unsuitability of his clothing. Eventually, I declared there was time for just one more race. As we lined up, Dave appeared amongst the racers. On the G of ‘Go’ he hurtled forward. Closing in on the finishing line, he tried to ease up, but his leather soled shoes found no traction on the wet ground. He skidded, tripped and flipped head over heels, landing four or five meters past the finishing line on his shoulder. The kids howled with laughter. Dave struggled to his feet, clasping his shoulder.

At home, we sponged the mud and grass stains from Dave’s suit and dosed him up on pain-killers. Over night his shoulder seized up and I had to help dress him before he left for work. He struggled through his week of meetings. It took a course of intensive physiotherapy in the States for mobility to be restored. Even now, he claims there is a lump on his shoulder – a reminder of the dangers of competing with kids.

My physio had asked me: “Just tennis? You did nothing else to it?”

“Eh, yeah. No. Oww.”

And another image of that week in St Andrews flashed into my mind. Not the tennis court on a bright morning, but a patch of grass by the East Sands. The 1&onlyD and I waiting for Mother in the Middle. The 1&onlyD performing handstands and then turning cartwheels. I was asked to award marks for precision and flourish.

“Nine… Nine… Ten!”

“Go on, Daddy. Your go.”

“Five… Six… Six. Now try a round-off [cartwheel with a two-footed landing].”

“Four.. five”

“Owww”

Just the tennis, then. Not showing-off or being over-competitive – that would be dangerous for a man of my age.

—————————-

2 March 2015 – edited and revised.

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Out of the house by ten

ten oclockFrom around the 12th month of parenthood, I realised that domestic harmony depended upon getting out of the house by ten in the morning. The build-up of unexpended child energy after that hour could damage fixtures, fittings and other household occupants.

Twelve years on and I have found that it’s a realisation that recurs most weekends and holidays.. at about 11.30 in the morning. The kids are turning feral. The slow, relaxing start to the day has paradoxically made me twitchy and ill-tempered. And yet, that simple dictum – ‘out of the house by ten’ – still slips my mind until it’s too late.

Weekend sports activities are a blessing that take away from me the need for initiative. Matches or practices have to be attended and so we are up and out before that mid-morning hour that can have an effect as transformative on my kids as midnight did on Cinderella.

Christmas holidays mean a stretch of three weeks without structured sporting activity to make us be virtuous before midday. How did we fare? How did we channel the energy of our sporty kids?

My memory of last month is already a little hazy, but I couldn’t swear that we made it out once before ten. December’s dark, cold and damp mornings are a strong discouragement. So, for the kids, are the bright, shiny digital devices that they acquire at that time of year.

The urgency for morning activity no longer applies to no.1 son, who has embraced fully the teenager’s role of laying-a-bed ’til noon. The major threat is his younger brother. We spent Christmas week staying with relatives in South West London. On Boxing Day morning, I woke before seven to the sound of no.2 son dribbling his new Premier League football barefoot around the Christmas tree and across our relatives’ parquet floor hallway.

The new football had been taken outside on Christmas Day before noon. Two sons, a nephew, brother-in-law and I played six or seven variants of football in the park, culminating in foot-volleyball on the deserted tennis courts. Good appetite-enhancing activity.

The 1&onlyD was more difficult to draw outside. We had a few walks in Richmond Park, but could never generate our off-springs’ enthusiasm to walk all the way across the park to the lodge where Mother in the Middle and I were wed. When the 1&onlyD’s younger cousin arrived a few days after Christmas, she had a companion with whom to devise gymnastics routines. Up until then her only opening had been the Boxing Day night talent show. There was piano and guitar playing, poetry reading and the 1&onlyD springing across the living room floor.

Back home for New Year and the late mornings and lazy days persisted. The boys and I invented an indoor cricket game in no.2 son’s bedroom. His new carpet has a dense texture that makes it a spin bowler’s paradise. The game was played in high spirits and skilfully, but provided no aerobic benefit.

Then like the lip of a cliff, always visible in the distance, then suddenly at our feet, we tipped over the edge, careering back into seven o’clock starts for school and work. No.1 son was welcomed back to football with a series of punishing ‘suicide’ runs. The 1&onlyD has succumbed to gastric ‘flu and hasn’t been back to gymnastics. No. 2 son had a surprise early fixture on Saturday. His team competed for about ten minutes before a combination of the cold and sheer effort got the better of them and their game went about 18 months backwards.

After the lots-nil defeat, the coach walked over to the parents on the opposite touchline. In a gesture of exasperation, he spread his arms and implored “What have you been doing to them?”

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Sorry for breaking your greenhouse again

greenhouse

Sorry for breaking your greenhouse again

This was the opening sentence of no.2 son’s short letter of apology.

One of the great appeals of our house is that the garden backs on to an allotment, meaning we are not overlooked. It also means that nobody has the pleasure of watching the regular games of back garden football. They would probably make for a frustrating spectator experience as they are frequently halted as we either wait for next door neighbours to return balls that have landed in their gardens, or for us to trot around to the allotment to search for balls amongst rhubarb, potato plants and nettles.

But a ball, struck with a shallow trajectory, that leaves the garden at its north-west corner has a distinctive consequence. Four times in under 18 months, the ball has headed in that direction and as soon as it has disappeared, there has been the sound of glass fragmenting under the impact of football.

The first occasion was no.1 son’s birthday party. A well struck shot was deflected by a defender’s head. The sudden shatter sent the boys running indoors.

The second and third times happened while I was at work. We took preventative steps. For a while the goal was moved to the house end of the garden. Then, we moved it back to the allotment end, but in the south-west corner where a skied drive couldn’t damage a gardener’s greenhouse. The only exception was when no.2 son wanted some goalkeeping practice. I would trust myself to keep the ball down and let him dive around on the newer grass in the other corner.

And so, last night’s football ended with no.2 son in goal, and the net in front of the fence that shielded the greenhouse. This morning, instructed to work with his sister on cleaning out the guinea pigs, no.2 son took a shot, saw it skim off the cross-bar, skip over the fence and CRASH.

After the first smash, I left an apology note with my phone number in the damaged greenhouse. A few days later, I had a voicemail, telling me not to worry. By note, I reiterated my apology and offer to pay for repairs on the second occasion, but heard nothing. Third time around, before I could get involved, the boys, collecting another ball from the allotment, met the gardener on the allotment. He shouted at them and they ran. That ball was never returned. The gardener must be getting very annoyed.

This morning, I stepped into the garden and no.2 son said he had to tell me something. The cross-bar had been to blame. I sent him indoors to write an apology note and together, hand-in-hand, we walked to the allotment.

Two gardeners were standing beside the patch on the other side of our fence. No.2 son thought he recognised one. The men turned to us as we approached.

“Are you the gentleman, whose greenhouse we keep smashing?” I asked of the older man.

“Yes. It’s beyond a joke. It’s four times now.”

As I sought to get in an apology or four, he beckoned us towards the greenhouse. “It’s wrecking my seeds. The cold’s getting in and killing them. And,” turning to no.2 son, “you can’t be much of a footballer, if you can’t keep the ball down.” He winked at me.

We sighed and shuffled our feet looking at the damage and the collection of broken panes from previous smashes. The gardener waved away my offers to pay for the damage, “It’s the seedlings I’m losing. I’m not bothered about the cost of the glass.” We discussed whether netting above my fence would help – he thought not. I fought off the temptation to suggest he use non-smash plastic panes on his greenhouse roof.

As we left, reassured of each other’s humanity, he reached into a compost bin and pulled out the ball. Handing it back to no.2 son, he explained that he had given away one ball (smash number 3) to a boy on the allotment who said it was his.

No.2 son pulled out of his pocket his hand written apology note. After the ‘I’m sorry’ statement, the gardener would read, “the ball hit the cross-bar and bounced over the fence,” and be left to infer that no.2 son is a very fine footballer and not really to blame at all.

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Activity holiday

Big swing - being hauled upwards

Big swing – being hauled upwards

A dozen people pulled a rope, hoisting higher Mrs TL and me, clinging to a wooden plank. The ascent ended and we dangled while ropes were secured, slack taken in. It was quiet and precarious. I made limp efforts to reassure my wife. A count of three was shouted up to me. I reached above and behind and flicked a cord from a knot. Before I could face forward, we hurtled downwards. Then an upswing, which peaked before we described the same arc, but backwards. Then back and forwards for 60 seconds. The quiet as we dangled was chased away by my wife’s scream so gutteral that no.2 son will be impersonating it many years from now.

That was my experience of the Big Swing. The most startling experience – and probably the only one I wouldn’t want to repeat – of our Easter activity holiday. My description omits the harnesses, helmets, the testing and retesting of the buckles and the 16 other mums, dads and kids who had already ridden the Big Swing that afternoon. But, you know, our ride was scarey!

We spent five days of our Easter holiday at Boreatton Park in Shropshire, one of the bases of PGL Holidays. The holiday had been a bit of an impulse buy; one that Mrs TL felt less and less comfortable about as it approached. The Big Swing was early proof (day 2 – the first full day of activities) that her anxiety was well-placed.

The holiday centred on three and a half days of organised physical activities. The range of pursuit, the competence and friendliness of the instructors, the quality of the facilities and the potential to alarm the wary holiday maker were top-notch. Good basic cabin accommodation and hearty food with plenty of options kept you in good nick; evening games and time in the bar were there, too.

What did you do at Easter? Us? Oh, we kayaked, shot rifles, swung, fired archeryarrows, built shelters, climbed, fenced, canoed, zipped along wires and abseiled. Left to our own devices, at home or perhaps in the countryside, we may have managed a few walks and some roller-blading. But under the eager guidance of PGL’s youthful multi-pierced ear instructors we did loads. And (you will understand the significance of this if you have children) we didn’t have the stress of making decisions and negotiating between preferences and vetoes. We did what we were told when we were told. There was barely a complaint.

The younger children – the 1&onlyD and no.2 son – approached every activity with gusto and commitment. The 1&onlyD excelled at the kayak game. Both water sessions ended with a game to get everyone wet. The challenge was to move from sitting, to lying, to standing and ultimately, as only the gymnastically balanced 1&onlyD could manage, walk to the front of the kayak.

Each activity was done jointly with between one and four other families. In our survivor session in the woods, the family from Formby built a shelter in 10 mins  from tarpaulin that looked like a stealth bomber. Ours looked like a tarpaulin dropped on a bush. When we worked jointly, our comrades built a shelter that made use of tarpaulin, trees, branches, logs and counter-balancing forces that left me content to collect ‘camouflage’ materials if I could be allowed to be associated with it.

Sporty no.1 son is no adventurer. He opted out of the Big Swing – a courageous act in its own way, when everyone else is doing it. The next day, on his second attempt at the climbing wall, he reached half-way and wallasked to come down. The instructors, in a way that we as parents couldn’t have done without nagging, coaxed and convinced him to carry on. He made his way to the top. In the same way he was helped to complete two abseils down a 12 metre high tower.

Our stay culminated with the high ropes challenge. 10 metres up, you complete a circuit involving walking along wires, a beam, clinging to ropes and swinging on a barrel. No.2 son started, then refused. But he climbed back up to complete the course. Mrs TL confronted her fears with heights. I was happiest when at the end of my circuit. Finally, no.1 son, despite being very scared, took on the high ropes and managed to get around.

Again, I’ve not mentioned the harness, the safety buckles and the metal high ropesrunners you are tied to as you tackle the circuit. The 1&onlyD was one of the children happy to swing in their harness, comfortable with its security, while most of us clung to the ropes, fearful of a fall that would be checked within inches.

And that’s the delicious balance of the heights and climbing activities: they are made to look frightening, but they are so well constructed and managed that any real risk is removed. The draw is the danger, yet the instructors spend their time reassuring us of their absolute safety. The thrill is psychological and no less fulfilling for that.

It was a memorable holiday, taken as a family and spent together as a family. Each of us having little triumphs that we shared. The weather was bright throughout, although I doubt that affected the cheerfulness of the instructors who walked us around the 250 acres chanting songs.

fencingFresh air, physical activity, psychological challenges, new experiences and over 100 hours without watching, or even asking about, television. We reached home mid-evening on Good Friday. Within minutes the television and Playstation were on and I was being asked, “Dad, can you play football outside.”

 

Disclaimer: I have received no payment or benefit for this article and all opinions expressed are my own.

 

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Back garden football

back garden footyMy boys play football in league and cup matches, friendlies and tournaments, school games, development centres, holiday clubs and pick-up matches. But their football began in and always returns to our back garden. It’s there I’ve seen them develop from toddlers and toe-pokes against whom I would contrive defeats, to opponents with step-overs and stinging shots, that imperil my aging frame.

Garden football has a distinctive sound. There’s uttered congratulations – directed most usually at oneself (“Did you see what I did, there..?”) and there’s a contagious bubbling of chuckles. The exertion as one boy pits himself against the other in our small space of ground, brings out breaths of laughter that bounce from one to the other as they battle for space to fire the ball past me.

There can be moans and yells. The play quickly gets tasty as the countermeasure to a neatly executed skill is a tap on the ankles or a push in the back. But the accusation and denial are soon swept away as the game restarts.

There’s a balance to the competition between the boys. The tightness of the space handicaps no.1 son’s height and stride advantage. The older boy’s superior passing is nullified in the one-on-one game. His younger brother’s power and pace provide for a close match-up.

Last week we had a typically breathy, sweaty, happy game. The springing forward of the clocks freed up time for outdoor play after work. The boys sprang around like lambs and I revelled as much in the atmosphere as I did in their athleticism. The light was a diffuse gold and the air was rich with the scent of blossom. All three of us in plain white shirts – theirs school, mine work – gave the scene a historic look, distant from the shiny, gaudy patterned replica tops they would choose to wear. The boys traded skills, appreciated the best the other could offer and I was unusually lithe in net. We tumbled into the house when the golden light faded, garrulous with our efforts.

Idyllic, no? A perfect picture of parent and children?

While nothing I have written is untrue, the whole is far more complicated. The emotions of joy and fulfilment described so far are only part of the story. Garden football is also a source of guilt, frustration and irritation.

Having lauded the pleasures of back garden football, you might think I take every opportunity to play. But that, as no.2 son, in particular, would attest, isn’t the case. Here are the reasons I give for not playing: I haven’t finished my meal; I haven’t digested my meal; the grass is too wet; I’m about to eat; it’s too early; I’m having a cup of tea; you’ve just played all morning; it’s too late; I’m going out. I pass up more games than I play. Frustration on one side; guilt on the other.

But, as long as the grass isn’t too wet, or the hour too late, I do usually propose an alternative: “why don’t you two play?” No.1 son is back to the TV before I can finish my proposal. Creaky, maladroit me is the magic ingredient. Two football crazy boys need their Dad with them to have a fun game. Irritation and more frustration.

Garden football exemplifies the different approaches parents (if I am justified in generalising my experience) and children (if mine are typical) take to their relationship. Mine is one of credit and debit; theirs is one of infinite and unfulfillable need. If I’ve spent a long (and happy) time playing, I feel that I have earned some credit in our relationship. The credit means I can cruise for a little while, capitalise on my investment. The other parties keep no accounts that are tallied. They merely have an immediate and on-going need for garden football. We play for an hour before lunch: I feel I deserve a rest in the afternoon; they want to start up again and are as frustrated with a refusal as if I had forced them to do homework or clean their rooms all morning. I inhabit a middle-ground that doesn’t satisfy them. Logic would say I should either play all the time in search of their approval or never play and be no less resented.

At the back of my mind is a recognition that at some point the scales of interest and dependency will flip. Their time will become precious to me and they will ration the amount they dedicate to me. It’s nice to think there could be an equilibrium, but I doubt it. While I’m still wanted, and retain the physical capability, I must drag myself away from the computer screen, the cup of tea and lead my boys out onto our own pitch for yet another game of back garden football.

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BMX party

The kids have had an assortment of active or games-themed birthday parties: park football, 5-a-side football, gymnastics, trampolining, multi-sport, laser-raven 006quest, laser-tag, disco and my favourite, Raven.

For no.2 son’s eighth birthday last weekend, we went to the National Cycling Centre, where there is a hangar-sized indoor BMX course. We arrived early to guard against hitches completing liability forms for 14 youngsters. But the check-in went smoothly, giving us time to view the course from the stands. The kids went quiet. It was big and dangerous.

When our time came, the lucky 14 (no.2 son, brother, sister and eleven friends) were taken to get kitted up in protective arm and leg guards, helmets and gloves. Most were so small they had to wear elbow pads on BMX ridertheir legs. A brief orientation led by a coach on the flat didn’t bode well as many of the kids seemed to have difficulty braking. But onward they went, onto the course. One-by-one they set off up and down the humps, so large and steep that they disappeared from view whenever in a trough. “Level pedals” and “Stand up straight” bellowed the coaches – and we were soon to find out why.

After a couple of mini-circuits the group moved to the more challenging part of the course, which ended with a steep climb that they had to pedal up (standing up straight) before coasting over the lip (level pedals) and stop or bear sharp left – or keep on straight into the pack of gasping parents. On their first laps, most didn’t quite have the momentum to make it up the final slope and had to be dragged up before they slid back down. A few crested the slope, then wiped out. There was one ugly collision – but both boys were back in the saddle in minutes.

BMX crashDespite bumps, crashes, near misses and tired muscles they overcame their fears and all completed laps by the end. Only once was the first aid official called for – the accident happening somewhere in the distance, out of our sight.

For a breather, one coach took the birthday party to the top of the eightBMX hill metre start hill used for elite competitions. The coach lined up the kids at the starting apparatus – without bikes. He pushed the button for the countdown and with a crack that had them all jumping, the starting barrier fell away leaving them teetering at the top of the hill.

Sweaty, tired and sore, but exhilarated, they went off to the cafe, where the party tea featured hot-dogs as long as football cakesome of the kids’ arms and a football pitch cake, decorated by Mrs TL while in the midst of a migraine.

No.2 son had a great, scarey time. No.1 son wants his next party to be there. More worryingly, the dads are looking to book a session and, caught up in the convivial atmosphere, I may have agreed to leave the touchline.

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