Sunday, 26 January 2014

My Emotional Attachment To "To Kill A Mockingbird"

I was a rummager as a child, a silent little ghost who slipped in and out of rooms in the pursuit of books like a breeze under a door. I had a few friends, but time spent in each other's company outside school hours was infrequent and I spent a lot of time living in my imagination. I was best friends with Katy Carr, Sally J. Freedman, Anne of Green Gables, Jo March and Scout Finch, hanging around with these fictional girls and trying to incorporate parts of their personalities into my own. I wanted Anne Shirley's gumption, though much like the lovable redhead herself, I was hard pushed to explain exactly what that was. I wanted the courage of Jo March, always pushing the boundaries of what a girl could do and still be accepted by her peers. Like Katy Carr, I wanted to become wise and kind and loving, the heart of a busy household and beloved by all. And I wanted Scout Finch's father.
My guess is that I've read "To Kill A Mockingbird" at least 20 times. I first read it when I was far too young to understand it, curled on my uncle's bed around the book I'd hunted down in my mum's wardrobe or my aunty's chest of drawers or my grandad's work bag in my uncontrollable need to read something, anything. I can narrow my age down to maybe 7 or 8, given that my mum and I were living with my grandparents, both of whom were still alive, and that I'm pretty sure our Rach hadn't been born yet. Too young, anyway, to fully comprehend things like rape and racism and the mentality of people living in small Alabama towns which had nothing to fear but fear itself. But something about that book spoke to me then, telling me to persevere and to keep coming back until it all made sense.
It would be easy to say that the character of Atticus Finch appealed to a young girl without a father and offered a literary relationship which was missing in my real life, but I don't think that's strictly accurate. I did, after all, have the most amazing grandfather a child would ever need, a man who made sure every day of his life that I never for a second felt the absence of a father figure. I think it's more truthful to say that in Atticus, I saw reflected the only man I ever called "Dad," a docker with ginger eyebrows and room in his heart for his 5 children and all the grandchildren they could produce. Atticus was a lawyer and my grandad had had to curtail his education to contribute to his family, but despite the scholarship my grandad never got to take, he shared with Atticus Finch a wisdom and integrity that cannot be taught in schools or universities.
As I got a bit older and started pulling away from family in the turbulence of puberty, To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus were stabilisers, able to pull me out of the maelstrom of my hormones to a more innocent, less terrifying time. I gained a deeper understanding of the book and its motifs even as my own body made me a stranger to myself, a young girl with the curves of a woman and a mind caught between childhood and a future which was at once alien and appealing. It would pull me back to my roots even as my terrible attitude pushed me away from the people who loved me, reminding me of what I had waiting for me once I was through this driving blizzard of emotion and mood swings and overwhelming, inexplicable anger.
The blizzard was still raging, harder than ever, when I lost him aged 13. I'd been so caught up in my own problems, moving to a tiny town in the wilds of Scotland, 8 hours and a world away from my life in England, that I didn't even know he was sick. He hadn't been well for a long time, diabetes taking part of his foot and the loss of my nanny two years before taking his fighter's spirit, but I don't think anyone knew how bad things were until they were very bad indeed. Too bad.
For a few years after he died, I refused to speak about him. While my head knew that this was a betrayal of his love, to hide away the feelings and not open myself and them to scrutiny was the only way I could deal with the loss of my biggest supporter, my strength and the man who taught me how wonderful fathers can be. Keeping him locked away hurt, but not as much as acknowledging that he wasn't coming back.
Throughout this painful period, I had my book. Wandering through its pages, I could enjoy again the relationship between a father and his little girl without having to accept that for me, things had changed. I clung to Atticus as a baby clings to a finger, desperately avoiding letting go without quite knowing why. Of course, I read other books - hundreds, possibly thousands of them - in this period, but it was Mockingbird to which I always returned, allowing its now familiar pages to soothe and calm. When the world came too close, I retreated between its covers and hid until I felt ready to emerge, rested and fortified with the same strength I used to draw from my grandad's arms.
Now I'm 31. To Kill A Mockingbird and I have been together for over 20 years, yet I frequently find myself without a copy of my own. On discovering that a friend or acquaintance hasn't been introduced to the beauty of this book, written through the eyes of a child and deceptively simple, I feel compelled to press my copy upon them, hoping that they'll find in it something of what I did. Of course, people don't. The readers amongst them  have their own best friend books, the books to which they return when feathers are ruffled and weeks have been long and life just feels like it's too much. But, given that I never seem to get a copy back, I have to assume that they do find something in its pages that speaks to them as it did to me, and I don't mind buying it yet again.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Getting to be a gobshite because I'm sick

I've spent this week trying to fight off a cold.  Doesn't that sound noble?  Like I've lowered my head, squared my shoulders and gone into battle, knowing defeat is inevitable but still determined to go down with my pride and dignity intact.  What I've actually done is feel sorry for myself, cough a bit louder when other people are around, and proclaim to anyone who'll listen that I feel AWFUL, but not bad enough to go to the doctor and get a sick note (cough.  Cough cough cough).  Basically, I'm suffering from man-flu.

Anyway, this much maligned and misunderstood condition means I'm in no mood for the idiocy of others and have decided to allow myself full rein to moan about anything that takes my fancy.

*  The guy sitting behind me in work.  You are not an opera singer.  I am not an opera fan.  Let's make these two facts work together.

*  Customers who don't read your emails, then call, ask you for an update, then ask you to put it in an email.  What, like the email I just read that update from that was sent to you three days ago and you didn't read?  Like THAT email?

*  My right nostril.  You have surprisingly little to do in life.  Remain fairly unclogged, catch germs and smell things.  You are currently failing on all three points.  Sort it out.

*  People on Facebook (or the internet in general) who can't spell, have little knowledge of or respect for the rules of grammar, WRITE IN CAPITALS, and write long status updates of utter drivel, which I'm forced to read because my brain tells me that something that long must have an interesting conclusion.  Seriously.  You just made me make an effort to be bored by you.  Pack that shit right in.

*  Anybody who calls my work phone 2 minutes before I'm due to leave.  Most of the people who call the call centre I work in are calling from the call centre they work in.  Given that most people's shifts begin and end at 7 or 8 am, why would they subject another human to the teeth-grinding fury that comes from having to regain the will to be helpful when their brain is already on the train home?  And don't give me that "different time zones" crap.  At any given moment, I can tell you the time in UTC, CET and EST, at the very least.  And I time my calls accordingly.  I don't call New York at 11pm CET, because I don't hate my customers.  It would be nice if they could return the courtesy.  Even if they do hate me, which they shouldn't.  I'm actually lovely to them.  Even at 06:58 CET.

OK, that was a lie.  And unreasonable.  But you know what?  Today, I don't care.

Ooh, I feel better now!  

My work desk.  Note the tissues - the reason for the rage.  I'm usually a little ray of sunshine, honest.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

It's all about trust

When I was pregnant with Dom, my midwife told me that my two cats weren't a problem as long as I didn't go near the litter tray. She had me tested for toxoplasmosis and told me to enjoy my furbabies. My friend, however, was told by her midwife that the cat had to go, and go he did.

It's entirely possible that Mooch regrets my choice of midwife.

The thought that our midwife could easily have said the same thing still freaks me out now - even though I already knew that cats were fine as long as certain precautions were taken, I know for a fact that, had we been told by a medical professional to get rid of the cats, Mat would have moved heaven and earth to follow orders. As he'd never been around babies, he was very reliant on the advice of authority figures such as doctors, midwives, some fella down the pub who had a kid... I was a bit more relaxed, though in general I did think that the doctors should be obeyed. They're the professionals in this, after all. In fact, unless something seemed very strange to me (or unless I just didn't want to do it), I often didn't even think to question it - I did as I was told.

However, I had possibly more opportunities than some to question the advice I was given. As I'm from England and live in Spain, I had some knowledge of how things are done in the UK. I knew, for example, that eating sushi, shellfish and deli products was completely verboten.

Except, in Spain, it's not. Pregnant women are actually advised to eat a small amount of shellfish (though some varieties are still off the menu), and a more common sense attitude is applied to food in general. In my antenatal class, the midwife explained that they would never suggest that you go to your uncle's farm, have a squirt of milk straight from the cow and gnaw a chunk off the pig's leg that's curing on the back of the barn door (OK, the exact words are mine, the sentiment was hers). However, if you want to have some Philadelphia or a slice of jamon serrano on your toast, feel free. Supermarkets and the firms that supply them are so rigidly regulated that the likelihood of their products causing any harm to a growing foetus is practically nil. The rules given to pregnant women haven't been updated along with food hygiene laws, so they are out of date. As an extra precaution for the nervous, she suggested freezing steak before cooking if we planned to eat it rare, and only eating sushi which had been frozen prior to preparation and had not been left to stand.  This would kill off the bacteria that could cause problems and allow us to still eat our meat with flavour.

Anyway, I'm not here to tell anyone to go and eat a slab of beef that's still mooing. Everyone has their own comfort levels and will do what they feel is right, or what suits them. But it's an interesting way to look at things that I'd never previously thought to question.

Unfortunately, it then opens the door for a lot of uncertainty. I'm much more aware that doctors may not always be right, politicians usually don't have anyone's best interests at heart but their own, companies sell us food and cosmetics that they are fully aware could kill us, and that almost everybody has their own agenda. Of course, this isn't exactly surprising (especially the part about politicians), but now that I see this reaching into every area of my life, I'm obviously much more aware of it. Since I had Dom, I've done my own research on things like vaccinations (I'm with the doctors on this one), extended breastfeeding, circumcision (still over my dead body - luckily, not a 'thing' here) and the like. I've educated my own doctor on what contraception is suitable while breastfeeding and refused a painkiller that he said was OK for lactating mothers when its own literature said otherwise. In short, I appear to have grown a pair.

Maybe I'm very naive to have only come to this conclusion in my thirties, but it genuinely never came up before.  Sure, everyone's heard stories of cancer sufferers who decide they're going to fight the disease using nothing but herbs and organic chicken, but they're few and far between.  Until you're in a position where you're dealing with lots of new information and people on a daily basis for something can be literally life or death, it just doesn't come up.  Or maybe I was just lazy.

So yes, it is scary when you realise that there really is nobody out there that you can trust. No-one has all the right answers and nobody does everything perfectly. Doctors recommend the NuvaRing when it's known to have side effects on nursing babies and my own mother has to be reminded that Dom's food should not be salted. It's a terrifying world once it becomes apparent that we're effectively on our own in making some huge decisions and have the potential to mess up so much. When I left the hospital with Dom for the first time, I hovered by the door expecting someone to come and ask me where I thought I was going with that child and had I sat the exam so they knew I knew what I was doing? Even now, 18 months on, I find it hard to remember sometimes that I'm the boss (well, one of them) and I get to decide what works for my son. There really is no-one you can trust 100%, even yourself. We're all just doing the best we can with the tools we were given, and sometimes the only answer is to trust your gut.  

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Did NOT see that one coming.

I didn't plan on writing a post-Christmas/New Year post.  I mean, who wants to read a hundred posts from different bloggers bemoaning their lack of money, willpower or waistline?  The flip sides are those who either become inspired by the new year, or the cynics who sneer at all of the above.  However, given that parts of our family pretty much imploded over Christmas, I think I need to get it all out of my head.  I've got a giant cup of tea, the remains of Dom's advent calendar (we had to hide it because he was turning into Damien every time he spotted it.  One year olds don't understand the concept of advent, especially those who've previously never known of the existence of chocolate), and anything up to an hour of peace.  Let's see if any of this mess will make more sense when I'm done.

A bit of background information.  Mat's mum died when he was 21 and he and his dad soon stopped speaking.  About 5 or 6 years ago, Mat called up his dad and they re-established contact.  His dad, Stephen, has been over to visit us several times, both on his own and with his girlfriend, Debbie.  Debbie's 17 year old daughter Leah has also been over with them twice.  We all got along pretty well and everything was hunky dory. Mat and I spoke to his dad a couple of times a week and kept him updated on the latest antics of the Littlest Cat.

Stephen called us up in August (AUGUST?) to ask what we were doing for Christmas.  Given that it was still around 40 degrees in the shade, we hadn't really had that conversation yet and agreed to let him know once we'd reached an agreement.  Mat really liked the idea of a big family Christmas with the baby and, despite preferring a stress-free Christmas at home and not relishing the idea of travelling with an energetic toddler, I eventually agreed.  We booked our flights on October 8th and arranged to stay with Stephen as he has a 3 bedroomed house that he lives in alone.

Mat was a bit annoyed when arrangements were being made for the Christmas period, as his dad seemed reluctant to be at all flexible with his time.  We were going back from 22nd - 29th of December and Stephen, who owns a shop, had already booked to go away with his girlfriend on the 27th.  We understood that he would probably be busy in the shop on the 23rd and 24th (this didn't really turn out to be the case), but were a little put out that he didn't want to include us in his plans for Christmas day.  He was going to his girlfriend's house and her mum was cooking, which apparently is a long-standing tradition of his.  Given that they've been together only a few years, Mat was less than impressed that this "tradition" was taking preference over us and the baby, but said nothing.  People make their Christmas plans way in advance and he couldn't exactly invite an extra 3 people for dinner to someone else's house, and he clearly didn't want to spend it at home - Mat offered to cook for everyone, but the offer was declined.  There was a bit of a discussion about the plans for Boxing Day (26th) - my mum was having a gathering of all of the family and we felt that the easiest way to see everyone would be to invite Stephen to this.  We would then all go home together and have the evening with just Stephen, Debbie and Leah.  Stephen was reluctant even to agree to a couple of hours, but eventually was talked into it when Mat pointed out that his other plans meant he wasn't going to see much of Dominic at all over Christmas, and that we were bringing him home specifically so that his family could spend time with him.  In the end, all was arranged and everyone was happy - or so we thought.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, Mat called up his dad to see if he was going to have a Christmas tree, as he doesn't usually.  Stephen was out so he spoke to Debbie, who assured him that they were having a tree and joked with him about his dad's Scrooge-like tendencies where decorations were concerned.  End of conversation.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve.  Mat had gone out with his friends the night before and was still missing in action.  I wasn't upset as it had been several years since he'd been able to have a good drink and catch-up with his mates and I felt he deserved the break.  I'd stayed in, watched TV and chatted with his dad.  I left the house the next morning to see a friend and agreed with Stephen to be back around 3 as he was going to take Dominic into town to see the lights and give me time to wrap some presents and wash my hair.  Mat still wasn't home, though he was there when I got back at 3.  His dad stormed in at 3:30, told me it was too late to go into town as the shops were shutting at 4 and that he was going out, and stormed back out again, clearly very annoyed.  

As the afternoon wore into evening, Mat got more and more angry that his dad wasn't home to spend Christmas Eve with us and the baby.  We had both tried to figure out what could have angered him so much since the morning and I could only conclude that it must be something at work, as neither of us had seen him in the meantime.  Mat didn't agree, though he was just as much at a loss to explain the mood swings as I was.

Stephen came in just before 7.  I asked if everything was OK and he snapped, "Why?!"  I said that he'd seemed a bit flustered when he'd been home earlier that day, to which he replied, "Well, it's one of them, isn't it?"  (In other words, I don't want to discuss it).  The atmosphere in the house was horrendous and Mat eventually told him that he could read him like a book and wanted to know what the problem was, because it was blatantly obvious that there was one.

Stephen flipped and started shouting, so Mat took him into the hall as the baby and I were in the room and we DO NOT shout in front of Dom.  I couldn't hear what went on but they weren't out there very long, just long enough for Stephen to tell Mat that he had decided weeks ago that he wanted nothing more to do with him and that he had only been waiting to get Christmas out of the way to tell him so.  Mat asked what had prompted this and was told that when he'd phoned about the Christmas tree, he had left Debbie so upset that Stephen had thought upon his return that something had happened to one of her parents.  This didn't ring true as, first of all, I had heard the conversation - it was all very light-hearted and had ended on a cheerful note.  Secondly, Debbie is Head of Retail for a multinational company  and has just turned down the position of CEO.  That's not a level you ascend to if you're so thin-skinned that a jokey conversation about a Christmas tree makes you cry.  

Mat started to tell his dad that his mother would have been ashamed to hear this.  He barely got the first words out of his mouth when his dad was on him, pinning him against the wall by the throat and shouting in his face.  The baby and I were still in the room and Dom was screaming his head off - he's never seen violence before and, up until that point, the only thing he's been scared of is the hoover.  I can't forgive that, ever.  To his eternal credit, Mat remained calm and just kept telling his dad not to upset the baby.  We left the room and Mat's dad told him to get out.  

Bear in mind, it's 7pm on Christmas Eve.  I was about to put Dominic's bath on and get him ready for bed when all this kicked off.  Stephen told me that the baby and I could stay, but that Mat had to leave.  I reminded him that we are a family and told him that I wouldn't dream of leaving my son's father on his own on Christmas Eve.  We started to pack up our things and arranged for someone to come and get us.  I told Mat to go on ahead with Dom (we didn't know where we were going at this point, but we were making calls), get him to bed and I'd follow on with as much of our stuff as I could manage.  

Stephen then said that we could stay and he would go to his girlfriend's.  He'd planned on spending most of the Christmas period there anyway, so it was agreed that we would stay in his house until we left on the 29th.  We were to go out on Boxing Day so he could come and collect some stuff, and then we could come back.  

We did this and managed to have an amazing Christmas despite what had happened.  I could not be prouder of how Mat dealt with the whole situation, and more grateful to the friends and family who ensured that this is not our enduring memory of the period.  Stephen came back on Boxing Day and left us a horrible note telling us that we'd left his home like "a shit-hole of a doss house" because we'd left a light on (for security, we stayed out on Christmas night).  Other than that, we haven't heard from him.  

Had this all been the product of one day, I'd assume that the stress of Christmas or the pressure of having visitors (even his own family) had got to him.  However, he reminded us several times that this had been planned for some weeks.  And if it wasn't enough to drag us from another country to tell us we were no longer wanted, the Christmas card they gave us made their point very clear.  
Hilarious, right?

I'm sad for Mat's sake that this has happened - the poor fella has lost enough people in his life and now has no family except the one we're building, but I'm going to make sure that our family is everything he needs.  What I can't forgive is how Stephen has walked away from Dominic.  He played with him, cuddled him and spent time with him before Christmas, knowing he was going to cut him off afterwards.  What type of cruel, callous, heartless individual does that to a baby?

I've got more to say on this subject, but Dom is currently being a scary lion and deserves my full attention, so I'll come back to it.