Monday, 6 April 2015

What time is it, Mr Wolf?

These days I don't seem to have time for anything which is confusing, because I apparently do less of everything than I used to. I work part-time not full-time, I no longer attend a couple choir rehearsals a week, I don't sit on any committees, I don't go to any clubs or societies, or spend long hours on the allotment or in the garden. I'm not attempting to learn any foreign languages. I seldom watch tv, hardly ever go to the cinema, practically never go out with friends or to the pub. From producing one or two knitted items a month I have gone to one or two a year. I don't sew, play my guitar, go to the gym, or do any of the other things that used to fill my evenings six or seven years ago. I hardly ever blog.

In spite of this I no longer have any time at all to do anything. My children have eaten it. They seem to have the same sort of effect on time that blackholes have on matter, sucking it all in and making it vanish without trace. Somehow they enable me to spend my entire day running from pillar to post without ever actually achieving anything: they get us out of bed at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning, while simulaneously rendering it impossible to leave the house before 11.

Much of this is just down to the fact that it takes far less effort to keep a household of two adults - both of whom are quite capable of looking after themselves - on the road, than it does a family of four. Especially when two of the four essentially represent a fifth column busily working away to undermine the best efforts of the rest. But at least in part it seems to relate to the fact that small children (or at least my small children) seem to find "time" as a concept extraordinarily difficult to grasp.

I don't mean telling the time, though that is also proving an uphill struggle. But my kids seem to live almost entirely in the present, which is perhaps hardly surprising, since they haven't really been around all that long. A lot of my clothes are considerably older than either of them.

As regards historical time, the boys have two main categories: "before I was born" (which is for anything you might see a photo of, in which mummy and daddy look broadly recognisable), and "the olden days" (which is for everything else - grandparents, Romans, dinosaurs, the Big Bang...). Added to this is a sub-category of "when you were little" which floats from one to the other of the main divisions depending on what is being discussed. Telling them that I did tap-dancing as a child makes them concerned that they would have suffered from bouncing around inside my tummy (since in this instance "before they were born" is understood as "immediately before"). Alternatively, saying that no one had mobile-phones when I was little is as likely as not to result in them assuming we also didn't have electricity, wheeled vehicles, or fire.

Anyone over about 8 is ancient to them. Today R showed me a label he had peeled off something or other bearing a serial number 41009 and said to me, "Is that what number [i.e. age] you are?" Some days it does feel like it.

In an attempt to give P some historical perspective I recently got him to help me make a time line with a ball of string. We carefully marked off various events (the birth of members of the immediate family and a few historical events/periods he has touched on a school - World War I, the Great Fire of London, Viking invasions, etc.) using a scale of 1cm to the year, as far back as birth of Christ and then spread it out down the road to see how they related to one another. It was quite a fun project, but on the whole I think P was less impressed by the scale of historical time than he was by the fact that I let him use the sellotape*.

The other side of this coin is that they have no grasp of the passing of time at a more immediate level either. If they want to do/have something they want it now, and any delay is unacceptable. And adults' priorities are a closed book. Whatever you are doing, however essential, you must stop and do what they want. Ask them to wait two minutes and you might as well have said a week. So what if you're cooking? Leave it to burn and come and mend my lego. Who cares if you're up a ladder trying to mend the light? Read me a book. What's so urgent about going to the loo, anyway? Besides you're just sitting there, surely you can peel my tangerine.

But if I say we need to get ready to go out in five minutes and then go to collect the coats and shoes, I will invariably come back to find they have got the marble run or the paints out, because five minutes is ages and plenty of time to do something else, no need to rush.

Time-words have proven the most difficult vocabulary of all for the boys to grasp. We spent the longest time patiently trying to explain to both of them that "tomorrow" is a word meaning "the day after today", each time thinking they had got it, and then waking up yet again to the same question: "Is it tomorrow today, then?" "Yesterday" means "any time in living memory": "Do you remember yesterday when we went to the beach?" "That wasn't yesterday, it was last year." "No, the other yesterday". The distinction between six weeks and six months is lost on them. Tell them we are going on holiday in August and they start packing immediately: tell them we are leaving to catch a train in ten minutes and they launch into a complex game involving the construction of a den made of all their bedding and most of the sofa.

The net result of all this is that living in our house at the moment often feels like you've entered some sort of time warp. Jobs which ought to take a few minutes - loading the washing machine, writing a couple of birthday cards, a bit of washing up - can last anything up to two hours by the time all the distractions and interuptions are accounted for, and every attempt to leave the house is a battle which leaves me feeling all of my 41009 years. I know I shouldn't complain. As a great many very well meaning, and completely infuriating people have told me, time flies by before you know it, and no doubt I should be relishing these years.

But I still find myself perpetually wondering, "How can I find the clean the bathroom; to vacuum the floor; to make tomorrow's dinner because I'll be working all day; to get to the shops for the birthday present, because the party's on Saturday morning; to get to the allotment and plant the potatoes; to read that book I borrowed six months ago, but haven't opened". The worst thing is that a lot of the things that I don't have time for are the ones the boys enjoy the most - the playdoh, the painting, the snuggling up on the sofa with a book - but it is impossible to impress on them, "You need to let me get on with cooking the dinner now, because when that's done I'll have time to play, and it will take two hours to cook, and if I don't do it now, you will be hungry later". They don't understand how time works, and they don't understand that the things that have to be done have to be done when they have to be done. So when I complain, "I don't know how I'll find the time", R says, "It's easy - just look at your watch".

* Sellotape is a closely controlled substance in our house, since left to their own devices the boys sent to use it to mummify themselves, or more often one another.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Knight time

Last May, for his fifth birthday, P had a big Viking party, for which we hired a hall and made cardboard Viking ships as props, and made the boys shields and Viking costumes, and gave the guests Danegeld to go away at the end, and generally got into the spirit of the thing, which was all enormous fun for people who like making daft things out of cardboard and don't have much of a social life to encumber their evenings anyway.

But then we realised we'd set a precedent. Ever since R has been saying, "For my birthday...this, for my birthday...that", and planning what he was going to have. However R's birthday falls immediately after Christmas and time, energy, and enthusiasm for throwing a big bash tend to be in shorter supply at that time of year. Nevertheless it seemed a bit unfair to say he couldn't have a big party just because his birthday is when it is (a fact which is, after all, more our fault than his), so we eventually pulled ourselves together and booked the hall for a belated birthday party at the end of the month, sent out the invitations, and set about making things for a "knights" party.

First there were the pipe-lagging horses, and their insulation-tape bridles. The ears were tricky, since changing the size and angle by only a few millimetres could make what was clearly a horse immediately change into a donkey or even worse a cow, but once we we got the general pattern sorted these were fairly straight-forward to construct.

Then there were the party bags. I looked online and found some castle-shaped party bags but a glance at the price convinced us that paying that amount for a paper bag was a sure sign of idiocy, so we resolved to make them ourselves. Little Dorrit turned out to be pretty much exactly the right size to be half-wrapped in silver paper for the bags, but the doors and windows were fiddly to cut and we spent several nights after work in the week before the party cutting and sticking. They worked out fairly well in the end, though, and we found some pencils which gave them all a flag to fly from the crenellations in a pleasing sort of way.

Finally there was the "dragon" pinata. R was determined that he was going to have a dragon to vanquish as P had had one the year before and clearly the idea of being invited to beat the **** out of something and getting showered with sweets as a reward is every little boy's dream. This time, though, we undertook to build one from scratch having attempted, with only moderate success, to convert a shop-bought donkey pinata last time. The donkey-dragon looked ok to begin with, but although its add-on wings and tail were dislodged after the first few blows, the donkey itself proved to be infinitely sturdier. Even with ten or more 5-year-old Vikings hacking at it with plastic swords and axes for a full fifteen minutes it refused so much as to dent. Even had they been fully grown Vikings with real axes I reckon it might have taken a while. Ultimately it had to be disembowelled by hand.

For our version we used a water bottle cut in half and wedged back together in the hope that a good whack in the right place would cause it to spring apart. In this respect it worked fairly well, but building a dragon round a water-bottle is no mean feat. After four hours of faffing and fiddling with bits of foam, double-sided sticky tape and tissue paper, I managed to produce something which, while possibly a "wyrm", certainly wouldn't have given St George, Beowulf, or even Bilbo Baggins a sleepless night. Far from a fearsome fire-breathing serpent it looked like a cheerful, yappy little sausage-dragon. Over night its head fell off and had to be done again in a tearing rush on the morning of the party. The boys named it Errol Greengrass and took it off to watch Scooby-Doo. Didn't stop them hacking it to pieces with great glee in the end, though.

Still, in spite of having had to stay up until 1am baking and icing cakes, stuffing party bags, and putting together cardboard shields and paper crowns for small people to decorate, the party went off well in the end. And now I get to spend my first non-cardboard infested evening in a week drinking wine and wondering what P is planning for his next birthday, and whether three and a half months is long enough to prepare.