How to explain to Duncan that his girlfriend can’t come and live with us, after falling out with her mother?
The world of a sixteen year old is very different from that of his middle-aged parents.
I do feel sorry for him when I refuse. It’s true we do have the space – though we don’t actually have a room spare to give her. But he can’t see what we lack – and maybe it is just as well that he can’t. As a family, we are chronically short of time, and energy. Duncan’s sister Julie has been very ill over the winter, in and out of hospital. She needs to know that she can take the time and space she needs to recover without worrying about anything else. And Joe and I need to be able to relax when we come home from work – years of caring for Julie have taken a heavy toll. The last winter has been tough on all of us, we just don’t have the emotional resources to deal with anything more demanding than deciding which movie to watch.
The Elsa we have seen is a lovely girl – kind, resourceful, and sweetly vulnerable. Other people’s teenagers are always more appealing than your own. It’s been a pleasure to have her around. Perhaps it would do us good to open up to someone outside the family?
But no, reason kicks in: is this really doing Elsa any favours? Most parents are there for life: she will have to mend the relationship with her mother sometime. At sixteen, storms come and go – but let’s face it, back at home in your own bedroom is still where you would rather be. And what will she do if and when she falls for someone else if she depends on Duncan’s family for a roof over her head?
I’m not a big fan of diets, but here I am downloading the NHS diet plan and back to counting calories.
Julie has been in and out of hospital like a yoyo the last week, so our family life has been pretty chaotic. But as soon as she started to stabilise again, she declared that one of the things she wanted to do was lose weight.
Now in the aftermath of crisis Julie’s head is not in a good place. Dieting can seriously mess with your head at the best of times: all those obsessional routines about calorie counting, all that guilt when you “sin”. She’s already surveying the wreck that is her sixth form career after two months of chaos and trying to work out how to recover that. To diet as well: is that a good idea?
I figured the best thing would be to offer to be her diet buddy. I could do with losing a few pounds anyway, and by dieting alongside her I could offer her support and moderate some of the extremes of behaviour.
In fact it’s been quite fun. Its been a few years since I’ve looked at the world of dieting, and there are lots of apps and much better sources of advice. I insisted we try the NHS plan because it is moderate, and because Julie had already successfully used their running program last year. We printed out the star charts and put them on the fridge, as instructed, and signed up to a free calorie logging app which allows us to be “friends” and share information. There’s been a fair amount of giggling and “Did you know…?” conversations. It’s fun to work on a project together.
For millennia, human beings have adapted successfully to colder climates by wearing clothes and shoes. Leathers, furs, the wool from farm animals, rubber and now synthetic polymers, have all been used to solve the basic problems of heat loss, and water repellency.
But despite the accumulated wisdom of generations, teenagers still leave the cave on a cold winters night without a coat or a decent pair of shoes. For as long as there have been clothes, there have been harassed adults telling teenagers to put something warmer on. No doubt somewhere up above the Arctic circle, there are Inuit teenagers walking about outside in T-shirts and trainers while Inuit parents yell at them.
Today I broke my winter hibernation and braved the horror of the January sales for the single purpose of getting Duncan a decent coat and a pair of boots that will withstand another two months of snow and ice.
What I want to buy: a coat that is warm, weatherproof and well made, shoes that have a sole with decent grip.
What a sixteen year old wants to buy: a coat that makes him look cool, a coat that folds away to the size of a postage stamp when he takes it off (or which actually vanishes into thin air), shoes that make him look six inches taller.
We battled long and hard, up and down the heaving aisles of January shoppers. But the task has been completed at last, and I can rest up for another year. I have fulfilled my parental obligation to purchase appropriate winter clothes for my ungrateful offspring, who will almost certainly entirely neglect to wear them.
I think I’ve got it pretty bad. I used to have it under control, but some days it’s pretty much all I can think about.
I’m talking about my lunchtime walk in the Botanic Gardens. Give me a sunny day, and woe betide anyone who tries to keep me in the office over lunchtime.
Today was particularly good. I took my new coat for a walk. There is a real child-like pleasure in wearing a new coat for the first time, on a sunny day, in such a beautiful garden.
I have to take my pleasures when I can. Julie is in and out of hospital. I need my walks in the sunshine more than ever.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Julie is difficult to communicate with in crisis, and while she is in and out of hospital she has to communicate with lots of new people, some of whom seem to have their own agenda when it comes to helping her. Scratching my head, I hit on an idea that seems to work better than I expected. The Priority Game.
When I tell people that Julie has gone back into hospital, they’re often very dismayed and shocked. I can understand that, though I wish I could explain that by the time an admission to hospital takes place, it comes as something of a relief to everyone concerned. The worst time is the time nobody else sees: the time immediately before admission, when the crisis is building, and we’re descending into chaos.
I try to keep normal life going as long as possible, even if it’s just going through the motions. This is because often we do pull back from the brink, and it’s easier to get back to normal if you’ve kept the engine running. So often Julie has hardly missed a day at college, and I’ve hardly missed a day at work, and nobody is any the wiser, even though the most appalling scenes are being enacted in our bathroom, and we’ve spent half the night in A&E.
But sometimes the crisis does gain the upper hand, and you find yourself going over the cliff edge. And actually once you’ve let go and committed to falling, free fall is quite a pleasant sensation. (Just as long as you don’t think too much about what’s going to happen at the bottom.). Just before you let go is a horrible feeling: everything is starting to disintegrate under the pressure, you miss out on sleep and exercise and eventually you know you’re losing. I know I’m feeling the strain when I start doing things I never normally do: putting my keys down in the wrong place and spending half an hour hunting for them, or snapping at someone at work. For a day or two, going to the hospital and letting somebody else take over the job of caring for Julie is a secret relief.
Of course hospital is not an easy solution and not a viable long term one. Acute psychiatric wards can be tough environments, even when they try to be comfortable and welcoming: impossible to disguise the amount of human suffering they contain. This is Julie’s first stay in an adult ward, and there are new norms and protocols to adjust to. Everyone seems so much older than her; everyone seems to smoke. Visiting there after a long day at work is a strain, and Julie is missing out on college. But they try to relieve distress, it’s a place of safety, and the initial plan is for her to come home again very soon.
Amateur Photographer is 130 years old. Yes, you read that right: an astonishing 130 years, starting in 1884 when you have to wonder just how many amateur photographers actually existed. As part of their celebration they published a two page spread of covers, picking out one from every year of publication.
Of course it took thirty or forty years for photographs to appear on the cover at all: it is only after the first world war that the whole of the front cover was consistently given over to a single stand-out image. And for the next forty years the pictures rotated round the standards of birds, pets, celebrity, cute children and landscape: eclectic, silly and wholesome. It was only in 1963, the year before I was born, that the women start to appear. Then pretty much every cover features a woman, the monomania of the next thirty years. At first pictures of the female face, but as the sixties wear on, more and more of the female figure appears – more and more female flesh. By the seventies, women pose in swimsuits, corsets, lingerie. 1994 hits a new low with a young woman posing suggestively with a snooker cue, but then finally the run breaks. The women vanish and for the last twenty years the covers are largely a parade of chunky pictures of cameras.
My generation grew up in a world saturated with female flesh used to sell everything from cameras to cars to newspapers. Being born in the sixties I was unconscious that it had ever been different. That world has largely gone, ditched as it became obvious that it no longer sold, in a world in which women also buy cameras and cars and newspapers. The astonishing thing is that it lasted until 1994 (and beyond). By the time I was an undergraduate in the eighties, feminism was beginning to seem irrelevant, a force that was no longer needed in a world in which men and women were now equal. And yet at the same time if you walked into any newsagent the shelves were groaning with magazines like Amateur Photographer, middle of the road magazines using pictures of semi-naked women as bait to catch sales.
The time line of magazine covers gives a fascinating glimpse into a little piece of social history. Amateur Photographer was warming up to the idea that sex sells, and doing its bit to make a generation of young women feel uncomfortable going into a corner shop, at just the same time that my school teachers were telling us that women had nothing left to complain about. And once sexy covers became normal it took a lot more than a few women expressing outrage to take them off the shelves again. The changes that finally took the women off the front cover of Amateur Photographer were probably too numerous to count: millions of individual decisions about what makes one magazine more attractive than another, made by men and women from week to week, probably unconscious of the steady drift in public opinion. A steady drift caused by so many things: by women’s greater earning power, by it becoming normal to hear a female point of view, by a growing consensus that using female nudity to sell magazines wasn’t “just a bit of fun”. One year commercial necessity put near naked women on the front cover, then one year it took them off again.