The human face of high-profile parenting

‘Home Alone’ scenarios can happen to the most responsible of parents.  Been there – almost.  It’s simply called being human.

Whatever else he is or isn’t, he’s a dad and he’s human.

I don’t propose to pronounce on David Cameron as a politician or pass comment in any way on his policies or leadership skills.  I do, though, feel a bit sorry for him today.  The media are having a field day about the fact that himself and his missus forgot their kid in a pub.

On the face of it, it sounds outrageous.  You conjure up a mental picture of Dave and Sam staggering out of the pub, weaving an unsteady path home via the kebab shop and forgetting all about the sprog in the loo.  A bit Royle Family.  Dave and Denise.  You start tut-tutting and thinking about putting social services on speed-dial.

But it wasn’t like that. When you read on a bit, you get closer to the truth of what happened.  It was quite a human error.  A bit like Jesus on the day out with his Ma and Joseph.  They went home without him – each thought the young lad was with the other.  It can happen.  It does happen.  And it doesn’t necessarily mean the parents or designated minders are irresponsible pissheads.  It could happen to the best of us.

Real-life ‘Home Alone’ scenarios happen every day. They just don’t hit the box office or the media.

I have to say all that because I did it myself.  The circumstances weren’t quite the same but the child was forgotten nonetheless.  It was back in the day when travelling with a baby was akin to packing for an Antarctic expedition.  Babies these days are way more portable than they used to be.  Modern baby accoutrements are either neater or collapsible – or disposable.  (With the exception of modern baby buggies.  WTF is going on there?  They’re like small tractors).  Back in my baby days, everything was huge and cumbersome and impossible to fit into the back of a normal car.

On the occasion in question, we were bringing baby on her maiden voyage from Donegal to Kildare.  That meant we had to bring three days’ supply of nappies, baby food, bottle-warmer, bottles and the wherewithal to sterilize them.  We also had to bring the cot (which had to be dismantled), the bouncy chair (which couldn’t be dismantled), the playpen (a wooden affair that folded but was still bulky), a high chair (again, wooden and uncollapsible), the buggy, the changing mat, the bag (big bag) of baby toiletries and toys and gallons of gripewater.  We were terrified we’d forget something essential and we set about packing like it was a military operation.

Space… the final family car frontier.

The real problem was that we were doing this in the early ‘80s.  Two major factors made it particularly difficult:  First, everything was huge and unrefined then.  Solid and sturdy, to be sure, but big and awkward and unyielding and a pure bastard to pack.  Secondly, it was the ‘80s – we were in the throes of recession and on a budget.  And the budget didn’t run to niceties or the convenience of disposable nappies, travel cots and the like.  Not even for a weekend.  We had to stick to the normal terry nappies – which meant we had to bring the nappy bucket, the industrial-sized box of Napisan and a box of nappy liners.  Most of you reading this post won’t even know what they are.

The same went for the bottles.  The bottle sterilizer was the size of a small barrel and, even though you tried to be efficient by packing stuff into it, it was still huge and awkward.  And, of course, the economy size bottle of Milton had to go in too.  Really – it was like moving house.

On the day of the voyage, we went at it with a will.  He looked after the stuff that had to be dismantled; I did the clothes and supplies.  We broke sweat over the course of a couple of hours and finally felt we were ready for off.

We sat into the car and ran through the checklist:

Cot? Check

Complete with the bag of nuts and bolts to put it together again? Check.

Nappies?  Check

Nappy bucket and Napisan?  Check

Food? Check

Bottles?  Check

Sterilizer?  Check

Playpen?  Check

Buggy?  Check

Highchair?  Check

Bouncy chair?  Check

Dummy? – Oh Jesus, don’t let us forget the dummy and a few spares – Check

Toys – Pooh and Half Pint?  Check

Ask anyone who’s ever travelled with a baby or small children… precision packing is an art form.

And so it went on for many minutes.  The interior of the car was dark such was the volume of paraphernalia packed into it.  I couldn’t move. There was even stuff packed around my feet.  We finally reckoned we had everything.  House locked.  Engine on.  Ready to rock.

Except for one, quite important thing.  The child.  I turned around to check that she was OK before we finally set sail, and there she was… gone, so to speak. Inside on the bed in her huge, not-very-portable carrycot (which was the top of a huge, not-very-portable pram) lay the source of all this precision packing.  We had all but driven off and left her behind.

The tale has been recounted many times over the years and I think of it every time I see one of those ‘Baby on board’ signs on car windows.  We laugh about it now and marvel at how well designed and portable baby gear is this days.  But, at the time, I was riddled with guilt.  I couldn’t believe I’d ‘forgotten’ my own child.

But I only had to deal with my own guilt and self-censure.  I didn’t have to deal with the media sensationalising and scandalising and making me look, at best, ditzy; at worst, negligent.  I’m neither.  And I never was.  I was stressed, sleep-deprived, busy and anxious.  In other words, a normal, human person.

So, all politics and celebrity aside, I’m sorry for the Camerons as human, fallible parents.  Sorry for their daughter, Nancy, who’s a pawn in this media game.  Sorry for them as a family that a misunderstanding was made so public and that so many will pass judgement and rub it into them.  Happily, there has been a groundswell of support and empathy from parents all over the UK.  But there will be always be the finger-waggers and the nay-sayers who’ll be only too happy to pass judgement and point fingers.

So I offer the Camerons empathy and understanding.  The best of parents have the worst of moments sometimes.  It’s how they learn.  It’s how they get their experience.

It’s what makes them great.

Um… hello? Haven’t you forgotten something?

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My Lent ain’t over till the fat lady shrinks

Outing the inner goddess is a total pain in the soon-to-be-smaller arse.  Forget about all the fads and wonder-diets.  I’m on the ‘cardiologist’s diet’ – if it tastes good, spit it out.

Mea culpa, gentle readers. I’ve been absent for ages despite my good intentions to post more regularly to these pages.  I wish I could say my absence has been because of something wildly exciting and fabulous but I can’t.  The last six weeks have been Misery.  And that capital ‘M’ is intentional.

Wallowing in self-imposed misery has left me little time for anything else.

I am, you see, on a diet and exercise regime.  I have always maintained that there is an absolute goddess within me and, for a while, I was quite happy to let her remain hidden.  She’s in there.  Somewhere.  I know she’s in there.  Doesn’t matter that nobody else can see her.  I can coax her out anytime I like if I want to.  No big deal.

But, over the last 18 months or so, it seemed as if the inner goddess herself was getting a bit lardy.  (Either that or she has a twin in there with her). She seemed to be growing which, of course, meant that the outer manifestation was growing too.  And could be seen to be growing.  I began to think about giving her a bit of a talking to.  But it was easier not to.  Me and her (or them) ambled along, enjoying our food and believing that whipping cream with a hand whisk constituted a good cardiovascular workout and would sort out the bingo wings to boot.

And then the bubble of total delusion burst.  Pure, unadulterated vanity took over.  I decided I was not facing another summer of elasticated waistbands and voluminous T-shirts.  Time to open the goddess’s chrysalis and let her emerge in all her glory.

I'm not quite up there with Samantha Brick in terms of vanity - but I was just as deluded.

But inner goddesses, it seems, get quite reclusive in middle age.  They’re decidedly reluctant to allow themselves to be seen and demand an unholy amount of coaxing.  They don’t like the fact that their host body is ageing, mostly sedentary, menopausal and popping HRT like Smarties.  Doing without the odd treat now and then is no longer enough to entice them out of their confinement.  They demand almost total carbohydrate deprivation and a stupid amount of gym time.

And the process is, as stated earlier, pure misery.  I’m battling since January and she’s either incredibly shy or incredibly stubborn.  Whichever, the process of unleashing her is tiresome.  Anyone who’s ever tried it will know.

And what they’ll also know is that there just isn’t an easy way.  No magic formula or wonder-food that will do it for you.  And, even if you find a way that works for you, there’s no guarantee it will always work.  Inner goddesses, the bitches, move the goalposts.  Last time I unleashed mine, I did it with a regime of home exercise and a relatively normal diet.  Now – four years later – she’s way more demanding.   I’ve had to completely alter what I eat, the amount I eat, when I eat it and the way I cook it.  Food shopping takes me twice as long as I scrutinise the food values on everything and cooking takes forever as well as I weigh out the ingredients and portions.  I almost count the grains of rice and sugar.  I put my food on a small plate and eat it with a small knife and fork.  It seems bigger and lasts longer that way.  I also record every morsel I eat and every drink I sup in a handy little free phone app (My Fitness Pal) which calculates my calories, tracks my progress and shows me graphs of how I’m doing.  It also allows me to enter my gym time and gives me a calorie allowance for that.  It doesn’t stop me from feeling hungry and miserable but it’s unexplainably motivational and I kinda feel a loyalty to it.  (Yes… I know… irrational.  Food deprivation, most likely.)

My typical dinner... well, almost.

And I’ve had to give in and join a gym.  The Wii Fit (aka the Wii Bastard) just doesn’t do it.  At least three times a week, I endure 80 minutes of absolute torture.  I pound a treadmill, pedal a bicycle and row my way to nowhere on a machine that seems to be in a different time continuum.  I close my eyes and try to pretend I’m rowing across a calm sea and, when I think I’ve done about 15 minutes, I open my eyes and look at the display.  Generally about six minutes.  It is not normal, I tell you.  Not normal at all.  Dark forces are at work.

But what kills me most about the gym is that it’s full of people who have no business being there.  Beautiful specimens of tiny womanhood in designer Lycra and pristine runners.  They come in with their fluffy handtowels and big, huge stopwatch wristwatches and do all the posey stuff of stretching and pulling their feet up behind them and all that.  Then they park themselves on a treadmill beside me and take off at a rate of knots, their perfect ponytails bobbing along behind their colour-coordinated headbands.  Once, I got either intimidated or motivated – I’m not sure which – and tried cranking my speed up to 6kph.  Not a good idea.  Something started to creak loudly.  I’m still not sure whether it was me or the machine.  One thing’s for sure – I will never, ever become one of these people who become addicted to the gym.   I hate it with a living passion.

The good news, though, is that I’m getting there.  The pounds are slowly starting to drop away and my waistbands are loosening.   I’m still chasing the correct BMI for my height but that’s creeping ever nearer also.  Mind you, I sometimes think it would be easier to grow two inches than lose two pounds.

This is a Microsoft stock photo. This is not me on my scales. Look at the weight... I wish.

And, overall, I suppose I must feel better.  I don’t know really.  Whenever I ask myself how I feel, the answer is invariably the same.  Hungry.  Always hungry.

So, as the rest of the world welcomes the end of Lenten fasting and anticipates the treats of the Easter feast, my misery continues.  I’m staying true to the diet which is, incidentally, informally known as the cardiologists’ diet – if it tastes good, spit it out.  And I’ll plod on with the treadmill and other instruments of torture.  And I’ll try not to look at the thin, bendy people with the watches and ponytails.

That bitch Gaga goddess has a lot to answer for.  But I’m determined to out her.  I’ll keep you posted… if I don’t eat my laptop in the meantime.

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Valentine, dude… what have you done?

Do you heart or hate St Valentine’s Day?  I reckon him with the heart would hate it.

Anti Valentine's Day - when Be My Valentine is replaced with a more cynical but more astute 'Meh' that says it all.

Does he, I wonder, have any idea what he unleashed?  Is he sitting up there in the communion of saints scratching his head in bemusement?  He neither intended nor envisaged, I’m sure, that February 14 would become such a tacky, tasteless, three-ringed circus of heart-emblazoned teddy-bears, woeful lingerie and overpriced flowers.  Does he know that greeting card and chocolate manufacturers rub their hands with glee in his name?  Would he be sad to know that, on his special day, young, already insecure adolescents will fret and worry and wonder if they’re ‘loved’.  St Valentine.  He might well scratch his befuddled head.  Dude, what have you done?

The legend of St Valentine is, admittedly, quite a romantic one.  It seems that he was a Roman priest who defied Emperor Claudius ll in 269AD or thereabouts.  Claudius, we’re told, was a bit of a boyo and was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns.  He was having trouble recruiting soldiers and reckoned it was because the young men with significant others were reluctant to up sticks and head to war.  Single men, Claudius reckoned, made better soldiers.  So, to boost recruitment and get himself an army, he banned all engagements and marriages

Unattached and spoiling for a fight.

.

Enter St Valentine, then priest of the parish.  He got the name of being a benevolent, sympathetic pastor who would marry young couples in secret in the name of love.  He was found out and brought up before the Prefect of Rome who imprisoned him and sentenced him to death.   During his time in captivity, legend has it that young lovers came and threw flowers and notes of encouragement at his window.  His jailer’s daughter too, it seems, was good to him and visited him regularly and he fell in love with her.  On the morning of his execution – February 14 – he left her a note: “From your Valentine”.  A touching little tale of romantic love that inspired subsequent generations to make a simple declaration of love on this commemorative day.

Angst and anguish - Valentine's Day for the adolescent

But somewhere along the timeline, it lost its simplicity and sincerity.  It has become ultra commercialised, ultra materialistic and, for some, a total stress-fest.  No more than Christmas, it can be a very lonely time for singles who, although they might ordinarily be happy with their singledom, have their noses rubbed in this notion that they’re missing out on ‘love’.  What nonsense.

I first fell out of love with St Valentine’s Day when I was a teenager.  I was a gawky, insecure adolescent who posed zero threat to the postman – there was absolutely no danger of aggravating his hernia hefting the mail to my door.  I knew I’d never get cards, plural, but one… please dear Jesus… just one.  One will do.  Just so I can bring it in to school and show and tell with the rest.  Days before the event, I’d even consider sending one to myself such was the depth of insecurity.  I never did – but it crossed my mind every year.  Sometimes I got one; sometimes I didn’t.  On the occasions when I didn’t, I’d hold my head up, stick my chin out and announce that the whole business was materialistic nonsense.  But inside I’d be gutted.  On the occasions when I got one, I couldn’t have cared less who it was from.  I was just grateful.  I could join in the gossip in school.  St Valentine’s Day for teenagers can be misery.

And then, happily, you reach a stage when you realise that real love has nothing to do with cards, flowers and frippery.  You remember your teenage years in a bittersweet way and are thankful you’ve moved on.

Then, when you have children, you start getting sucked into it all over again.  Myself and the other half aren’t really into the whole mushy, soppy, flowery thing and, when the children were small, that worried them.  Relentless marketing had taught them that people who love each other must exchange Valentine cards.  We didn’t.  In their little heads, that meant we didn’t love each other.  For a quiet life and to ease their little minds, we conformed.  And it wasn’t always easy – it demanded a trudge around several shops to find a simple, romantic card that was fit to be put on the table at dinnertime. Coarse, unfunny, double entendres were the order of the day and some even had pop-up appendages.  Classy.

The Valentine's Day flochart for guys. Funny - but, sadly, true.

And before you know it, you’re back to the pure misery again – only this time you’re observing.  You watch your children go through the self-same misery of waiting for the postman and wondering and worrying if anything will arrive.  Your heart aches.  You wish you could make them understand that it doesn’t matter but you know you can’t.  You know you can’t put an old head on young shoulders.  You find yourself saying the heartfelt prayer of years ago… One…please dear Jesus… just one.

So I wonder does he know the madness of his legacy?  What would he make of it all?  Could he ever have imagined that the simple note to the jailer’s daughter would result in an estimated 1billion cards being exchanged every February 14?  Does he know that he’s second only to Christmas in terms of spending and uber-tacky bling?

I doubt it.  If he did, he’d rapidly fall out of love with himself.

And so sayeth all of us.

So where is he now?

The Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street in Dublin claims to hold the remains of St Valentine. The story of how the remains of St Valentine came to rest in Whitefriar Street states that a Fr John Spratt visited Rome in 1835 and, because of his preaching prowess, Pope Gregory XVI decided to make his church a gift of St Valentine’s body, then believed to be in the Cemetery of St Hippolitus in Rome. The remains of Valentine were duly transferred to Whitefriar Street Church in 1836, and since that date have been venerated there, especially around the time of the saint’s feast day.

As is the case with some other famous saints, there are rival claimants for the honour of possessing the body of St Valentine. Some accounts claim that the remains of St Valentine were, in fact, buried in the Church of St Praxedes in Rome. In 1999 there was widespread newspaper and television coverage of the claim that St Francis’s Church in Glasgow holds the ‘real’ relics of St Valentine.

St Valentine's statue in the Carmelite Church, Whitefriar Street, Dublin. Are they the real bony relics? Who knows? Who cares?

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Fear and loathing in the supermarket

There’s a price on my head.  But I have to check if that price is right or if I’m on special offer.

One of these days, I’ll be found in a bruised and lumpy heap in a supermarket aisle.  Crazed customer service personnel will point and laugh and start hurling random grocery items at my bludgeoned and battered form.  The most cruel among them will grab a wayward trolley and drive it over me.  The real sadists will turn up the muzak and make me listen to it.  I am fast becoming the bane of supermarket customer service departments.

Lock and load: Customer service - with attitood

I am, you see, on a crusade.  And, worthy though I think it is, I can see where the customer service people are coming from.  I’m a nuisance in their day. They hate me.  They want to hurt me. They dive for cover when they see me coming.

It’s all to do with overcharging.  A few months ago, I bought three big jars of coffee in one of the big supermarkets.  They were on special offer and were very good value indeed.  And my preferred brand to boot.  They were stacked high to the ceiling in a display all by themselves with big mad signs saying just how great a bargain they were.  And don’t we all love a bargain?

I pegged three of them into my trolley and carried on shopping.  When I came through the checkout, I uncharacteristically checked the till receipt.  I think I had a rough running total in my head and it didn’t seem to tally with what I had actually paid.  I looked at the bottom of the receipt where the special offer deductions are usually shown and there was no sign of the saving on the coffee.  I looked for the coffee in the listed items and there it was… at full price.  A small mortgage.  I headed for customer services.  It was their error.  They apologised and rectified it.  No harm done.

I'm a self-appointed, price-checking, customer-service-annoying crusader

But it made me examine my shopping habits.  How often do I check my receipts?  Not often.  Sometimes.  Well, hardly ever.  Actually… never.  Checkouts are usually busy; I’m generally trying to make the hateful process as quick as possible; I’m usually dreaming about winning the Lotto and getting a little minion to do the shopping for me.  Bottom line: I pack and pay and get the flock outta there as quickly as possible.

But, after the coffee incident – which had added nearly €8 to my bill – I decided to be a bit more vigilant.  I started scrutinising all my supermarket till receipts.

And here’s the alarming thing… almost every time I’ve grocery shopped since, something has been wrong.  What’s more, the errors have always benefitted the shop.  Special offers not being recognised; things scanning in at a different price to the shelf price; reduced-to-clear items with handwritten reductions scan in at full whack.  That sort of thing.  Almost every single time and across a range of supermarkets.  I have resolved, therefore, for the New Year to always check the till receipt but, furthermore, to bring discrepancies – no matter how small – to the attention of the customer service personnel.

So that’s why they hate me.  That’s why they want to maim me.  Yesterday it was baked beans.  Shelf price 54c; scanned in at 65c.  Discrepancy of 11c.  I had two tins.  Overcharged by 22c.

Now 22c is not, I grant you, a fortune.  It would, in fact, be easier to just forget about it and carry on.  Taking the matter up with customer services is actually a ferocious palaver.  You generally start losing the will to live about midway through the process.  First of all, you go back to the shelf to make sure you’re right; then you join the queue at the desk; then they page a gofer-type to go and check the shelf themselves; then they page a manager to come and do some sort of important-looking whizzery with the till (it always seems to involve a key of some description and the word ‘void’ gets used a lot).  Then they handwrite the adjustment on your old receipt; get you to sign a slip like you were signing out the crown jewels and then… they give you your 22c.  They do all this with a face on them that would turn milk and you can feel their laser eyes boring into your back as you leave.  They hate you.  They want to maim you.  They want to throw the tins of beans at your head and dance on your neck.

Beans means...

But they may get used to it because I’m not going away.  I just don’t think it’s good enough and I’m going to be a thorn in their flesh until they start getting the message.  I’m lucky – 22c is not going to break me but there are families out there on tight budgets and every cent counts.  It adds up.  A 22c overcharge on a small amount of shopping (my total on the day was just €28) represents less than one per cent – .785 of one per cent to be precise.  But say your weekly grocery bill is, for argument’s sake, €150 – .785 of one per cent of that is €1.18.  Over the year, it’s over €60.  Imagine if you were overcharged by €60 on one shopping occasion.  You’d raise the roof and bay for blood.  It’s the same thing, folks, except it’s happening over time.

So they hate me.  And they’re going to hate me even more before I’m finished because my next step is to annoy them about their overcharging policies.  I’m not satisfied that refunding me the difference is always in accordance with what their policy states.  For instance, some chains have a policy that if they overcharge you, they refund you the full price of the item; others double the difference; some give gift vouchers.  I’ve had my overcharging experiences in four different supermarkets and have only ever received a refund of the overcharged amount.  I’ll be getting on their case about that one soon.

If it's going cheap... make sure it does

In the meantime, I will continue to be loathed and despised.  I will likely have to buy a flak jacket to absorb the impact of bean tins thrown with the great, venomous force of an annoyed customer services person.

They’re aiming to please?  Er no.  They’re aiming for me.

You have a nice day, now.

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A pair of Christmas muppets

Who knew that 50p could buy such twinkly, sparkly, Muppety memories?

The other day marked a little anniversary for me.  Thirty three years ago, myself and himself headed for Dublin and launched an assault on the jewellery shops.  Sometime around lunchtime on the day, we chose a solitaire in a white gold setting in Lawrences on Grafton Street and we officially plighted our troths.  We got engaged.

It was a lovely day.  Grafton Street was buzzing with Christmas and we were charmed with ourselves.  I’m sure there were throngs of people milling about the place but we didn’t really notice any of that.  We were completely wrapped up in ourselves and our own business and absolutely nobody else existed.

The ring was too big for me and we pleaded with the man in the shop to size it for us on the spot.  I couldn’t bear to go away without it.  Couldn’t wait another day.  The best he could do, he said, was to have it ready for us by close of business that day.  Fine.  We’d come back.  We went back out onto Grafton Street and continued to be totally absorbed with each other.

Grafton Street at Christmas last year. Twinkly and pretty.

Somewhere along the street, there was a group of students busking with a piano.  They were fundraising for something or other and they belted out the favourite Christmas carols with youthful enthusiasm.  Every so often, though, the pianist launched into the signature tune of The Muppet Show.  It was the big thing on the telly at the time and it was fun.  It tickled me pink.  When himself saw how much I enjoyed it, he went over to the pianist and asked him to play it again. He put 50p in the coffers. A very generous contribution at the time.  The pianist immediately drop-kicked Silent Night and thumped out the Muppet Show.  Every time we passed the piano on our rambles, himself flung in another 50p and yet another holy carol got abandoned.  It reached a stage where, when he saw us approaching, the pianist immediately launched into the little ditty secure in the knowledge that another 50p was coming his way.  It was fun and romantic and carefree.  We picked up the ring and went to McDaid’s for a celebratory drink.  The plan was to go somewhere nice for an intimate meal before we joined the human race again.  Instead, we lingered too long in McDaid’s and settled for a batter burger from the Capri Grill in Naas on the way home.  It was a magical day.

Roll it on 33 years and we’re yawning at each other across the kitchen table, complaining about our aches and pains and working out the mundane logistics of Christmas.  Should we order more oil?  What will we get for your mother?  Have you any idea where the poxy spare bulbs of the poxy lights are?  That sort of thing.    Neither of us can think of anything worse than beating our way through the crowds on Grafton Street.

That’s what happens over the course of 30+ years. Things change.  People change.  Attitudes and responsibilities change.   And I think it’s called ‘life’.

Thirty three years ago, we were different people with different priorities.  Thirty three years ago, our lives were a good deal simpler.  Thirty three years ago, we didn’t have an ounce of sense between us.  And I’m glad.  When I remember the silliness and immaturity of our younger days together, I’m glad we were the way we were.  I’m glad we were completely green about grown-up matters.  I’m glad we had fun.  I’m glad we more or less grew up together.  I think we were normal.    We were married less than a year after our Christmastime engagement and we were parents less than a year after that.  Like most people, we made it up as we went along and muddled through.  A right pair of muppets.

Thirty three years on, we’re still here, still muddling and, hopefully, we’ll muddle on for another while.  Nobody, thankfully, has a crystal ball.  If we could see the future it would scare us.  If the self-absorbed, carefree couple on Grafton Street 33 years ago had the facility to see the middle-aged couple comparing aches and pains, life for both of them might have turned out differently.

And yes… I accept that life sometimes means looking after the mundane things.  There are times when, although you really don’t want to, you have to talk about boring logistics and stupid stuff like health insurance and spare bulbs.

But life also means having special days too.  Days when the world is yours and nobody else exists.  Days when you know that, no matter what the future holds, you’ll handle it.  Days when, for 50p, you can hijack the carol singers and laugh and sparkle your way down Grafton Street at Christmastime.

Happy Christmas everyone. Carpe diem and all to that.

 

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Superhero Santa and his saintly alter ego

Like every superhero should, Santa has a quiet, unassuming alter ego.  And he’s not just for kids – if you’re a thief, a murderer, a spinster or from Limerick, you’re in.

At this stage, small children all over the country are just about holding it together such is their excitement.  Tonight, they’ll get a dispensation to stay up late.  They’ll curl up on couches in their jamas and watch in wide-eyed wonderment as the latest Christmas must-haves are beamed into living rooms across the land.  Their parents will sit with them in wide-eyed horror as they try to explain that maybe Santy wouldn’t be able to fit a half-sized, fully functional, motorised mechanical digger or the like into the sleigh.

Parents - have the strong drink at the ready. Photo: thejournal.ie

Tonight, folks, is the Late Late Toy Show.  For the teenies, Christmas has begun.    The countdown has officially started.  The Jumpered One will gush and gabble and the most precocious of the nation’s tots will charm and irritate in equal measure.  After tonight, there are only 22 big sleeps until Santa delivers the loot.

Well, maybe 22 whole sleeps is wishful thinking – chances are the sleep of Christmas Eve will be a rather brief affair.  Already knackered parents will likely have their slumber disturbed in the very early hours as the little darlings, sick with excitement, whoop and squeal and start Christmas Day somewhere around 4am. They’ve waited all year for this.  Santa, bless his ample belly and his hearty ho ho ho, has dropped off the bounty.  They just can’t wait any longer.

You''ll never get a digger into that.

Santa.  Isn’t he just the best?  When you think about what he does, it’s mind-boggling.  So many countries, so many children and a very narrow window of a mere few hours to get around them all.  He really is the most enduring of the superheroes.  Batman, Superman, Spiderman et al enjoy peaks and troughs of fame and jockey for position in the popularity polls depending on their film releases, their PR machines and their subsequent media profiles.  But Santa endures.  He can fly, he can time travel, his sleigh is a cross between the Batmobile and Dr Who’s Tardis, he can magic up toys, he has a computer-like memory, he can morph into a thin person to get down chimneys (I wish he’d share that one) and he’s generally just the coolest.  He doesn’t really court the media and is really quite a shy hero.  A big, cuddly lump with a heart as big as a mountain.

And, as all proper superheroes should, he has that air of mystery about him.  Santa is a man with a past and an alter ego.  In the way that Superman is Clark Kent, Batman is Bruce Wayne, Spiderman is Peter Parker, Santa is St Nicholas.

To give him his full title, he’s St Nicholas of Myra (which is in modern-day Turkey) and he’s a saint with a very busy portfolio indeed.  He was born around 270 AD and died around 343 AD.  He’s best known for being the patron saint of children but he’s also patron to many other interest groups.  The patronage of children thing came about  because, rumour has it, he did some awesome deeds and was extremely kind to kids.  Apparently, he inherited great wealth from his parents and used it to help the poor and hungry whenever and wherever he could.  One gruesome story tells of an evil butcher who, in a time of famine, murdered three young boys and pickled them in brine planning to sell them as ham.  St Nicholas, who was in the area to help the famine-stricken people, exposed the butcher as a murderer and managed to raise the three boys to life.  That’s believed to be the first instance of when this humble, shy saint showed this affinity with and kindness to children and gave a little preview of his superhero powers.

St Nicholas of Myra. A busy portfolio of patronages.

But perhaps the story that really gives St Nicholas the association with his patronage of children and associates him with Christmas is the story of the poor man who had three daughters and who fell on extremely hard times.  He couldn’t afford a dowry for the girls and, therefore, it was likely that they would remain unmarried.  The poor man was, it seems, in a lather because single ladies of that era had little option but to become ladies of the night.  St Nicholas heard of this predicament and knew that he just couldn’t let that happen.

But he was shy and modest and didn’t want a big media fuss.  Legend has it he went to the poor man’s house in the dead of the night and threw three purses of gold through the window.  (I’m presuming the window was open – I don’t see him as a vandal or an ASBO wannabe).

A variation on this tale is that he dropped one purse of gold every year for three years as the daughters came of age.  When it came time for the third daughter to come of age, the father lay in wait to see if he could find out who the anonymous benefactor was.  St Nicholas twigged that someone was lurking to try and spot him so he abandoned the window plan and lobbed the dosh down the chimney instead.  A further little detail of this story is that the daughter had washed her stockings that night and had hung them over the embers to dry.  The purse of gold allegedly fell into the stocking.

Waiting for the pennies to drop.

This little story about the three gold purses is also believed to be where St Nicholas got the label of being the patron saint of pawnbrokers.  He helped people to get their stuff out of pawn and the three gold balls that are still the symbol of a pawnbroker are supposed to have been inspired by the three purses of gold that St Nicholas gave to the poor man’s daughters.  Again, because of this story, he’s also believed to be the patron saint of spinsters.

And that’s not even the half of it.  The list of patronages attributed to this modest man is the length of your arm.  He’s listed as the patron saint of pharmacists, sailors, thieves, murderers, students, shoe shiners, dock workers, coopers, judges, brides and many more besides.  His association with thieves and murderers is that he supposedly had good counselling skills and talked them into repenting and mending their ways.  The association with coopers comes, apparently, from the earlier story about the pickled boys in the barrel. And the brides thing is obviously associated with the three girls he provided the dowry for.  The rest, I have no idea about.  He’s also listed as patron of several geographical areas – including Limerick.  Not even going to speculate about that.

Superhero Santa. Of course reindeer can fly too.

So that’s a flavour of superhero Santa’s mysterious and exciting past.  As interesting an alter ego as you could get.  This dude is good.  Top of the superhero charts, in my opinion.  One of the superpowers he possesses that’s often overlooked is, perhaps, his ability to make us enjoy the gift of giving and to take time to think of others.  OK, he mightn’t be able to scale tall buildings in a single bound, or see through lead boxes with his x-ray vision but there won’t be much call for that sort of thing on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Eve, he’ll just make the magic happen.  The over-excited children will get their hearts’ desire and their parents will get the best gift of all.  They’ll get that special warm glow that only parents get when they witness the wide-eyed innocence of a happy child.

Santa.  AKA St Nicholas.  Mine and many others’ hero.

Twenty two sleeps. 🙂

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Sad tidings of great tackiness – a one-act tragedy

Just when you think the commercialism of Christmas can’t get any worse… it gets worse.  What was once delightful and delovely is now degraded and ‘deluxe’.

Let's hear those till bells ringing, cha ching ching chingling too...

Every year at this time, I join the choir of people who bitch and moan about how early Christmas starts. But I’m only making noise.  I know when I’m beaten.   Like it or not, the god of Mammon owns Christmas and we must all worship at the shrine of commercialism from about the end of August.  That’s life these days.  We can bitch and moan all we like but we’re stuck with it.  We make the tut-tutting noise every year but there’s no going back.  Even those of us who truly despise the commercial modernity of it all must still accept it.  There’s just nowhere to hide.  It’s everywhere.

Bad news for the Good News

But really, folks, it’s just gone too far.  I saw something yesterday that turned my stomach.  I have always comforted myself that, even though Christmas has long since gone off the rails of sensibility, there are aspects of it that will never change; traditions that will endure; customs that will win through the commercialism.  Yesterday, I realised I’m wrong about that.  Even the simplest and purest of things has been targeted by the marketing department.  Bear with me.  I’ll explain.

As far as I’m concerned, there are two times in your life when Christmas is really special:  first, when you’re a child; then, when you have children.  You get to experience both sides of the most beautiful conspiracy ever.  It’s magical.

And built in to part of that magic is ritual and tradition.  There is not, I will wager, a parent of my generation who didn’t serve their time to the demands of the Nativity Play.  An excited child would run to your arms at the crèche door to tell you they were about to debut as an angel, a shepherd, a wise man or even a Mary or Joseph.

Tinsel, tinfoil, precious jewels and superglue. Sorted.

There followed feats of messy creativity and crude engineering.  Angel outfits were fashioned out of lots of glitter and anything white; wings and halos were crafted out of wire coat hangers swathed in silver tinsel; little wise men followed the star clothed in striped granddad shirts with tinfoil crowns; Joseph and assorted shepherds watched their flocks with Yasser Arafat-type tea-towels all but nailed to their downy little heads; and Mary would be all calm and serene in somebody’s baby-blue, remodelled silk nightie.

The performance, when it happened, would invariably be too charming for words and there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house – mostly tears of laughter, it has to be said.  Inevitably, stage fright would take over. At least one angel would throw a strop, a shepherd or a wise man would likely break wind – noisily – and Mary, delivered of her Tiny Tears child Jesus, would unceremoniously drop him on his head in the manger (that somebody’s daddy made).  It would never make Broadway.

But it would certainly be worth the magical time spent butchering a perfectly good shirt, boiling the checked tea-towel to get the bolognaise stain out of it, maiming yourself cutting the coat hangers  and supergluing yourself to yards of silver tinsel.  Definitely worth the last-minute adjustments in the small hours of D-Day to unbend wings, re-wash the tea towel, straighten the halo or re-glue the jewels in the cereal-box-and-tinfoil crown. It’s a parental rite of passage.  It’s all part and parcel of the event; all part of the tradition; all part of the priceless memory.

Well, it isn’t anymore, it seems.  Yesterday, browsing around one of the temples of Mammon, I nearly dropped when I spotted racks of ready-made, plastic-packaged nativity play costumes.  A ‘Deluxe Mary’; a ‘deluxe’ Joseph (who can double as a shepherd, it seems), a deluxe angel (€20) and an economy angel (€9.99).  The Wise Men are also ‘deluxe’ and the deluxe donkey and lamb are, apparently, interchangeable.

Deluxe angel - she's €20. And no halo.

‘Deluxe’ Mary.

A 'yellow pack' option - €9.99 complete with halo.

That simple, pure and innocent experience of the humble nativity play has joined the spendfest of tackiness and competitiveness; sullied and degraded with dollar signs and shiny polyester.  It made me angry and sad in equal measure.  Angry that nothing – not the simplest of traditions or customs – is safe from the claws of commercialism; and sad that the upcoming generations of parents will never know the magical, frustrating, exquisite experience of making their child a nativity play costume.

 

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