By the sweat of your brow shall you eat

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My wife gets anxious at the weekends. But not just because she has to spend more time with me. She likes to GET THINGS DONE and with the working week behind her, she hunts around for other things to fill up her time. And ours.

It’s not enough for her to drift her way through the weekend like a jelly fish, happy to float along with the tide whichever way it ebbs or flows, which is how I would choose to spend my Saturdays and Sundays, if I had the choice.

Time and tide wait for no one

No, in her world, time is precious and must be used purposefully. Pleasure should be earned. Lists must be drawn up and ticked off. In our house, the clock never stops tocking for ticking.

It was different during the summer when Gavin Williamson was flip flopping across the education system in his muddy sandals, changing his mind every few days about the exams. Then, she spent the weekends working out which way Gavin would jump on Sunday night and what impact that would have on her school plans on Monday morning. She simply didn’t have time to worry about other things like the laundry, the empty light sockets, the coffee stains on the skirting boards and the permanent imprint of my backside on the sofa.

Now schools are back to the new normal, her usual weekend urges are returning. In fact, I wonder if the return of a new series of ‘Taskmaster’ is really just a coincidence?

Plans preen like horses in a paddock

It’s Saturday morning. We’re in bed and I can hear several plans for our weekend preening themselves inside her head, like horses in the paddock before a race.

‘I don’t want to fritter away another weekend doing nothing,’ she says.  

‘You say to fritter, I say frittata, let’s call the whole thing off,’ I sing, Fred Astaire to her Ginger Rogers.

I’m hoping that a pre-emptive strike of breakfast buffoonery will put her off her stride.

‘By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground,’ she says, citing the Bible.

‘Fake news!’ I say. ‘No need to sweat. Simply order online at ‘Just Eat’.’

‘It’s a metaphor, not the post Brexit farming policy.’

‘Can’t we be lilies of the field? No toiling. No spinning. Just lounging around.’

She’s heard all this nonsense before. It’s the usual sound and fury signifying nothing, except the fact that I haven’t grown up yet. She’s already put her coffee mug back on the dresser beside the bed, swung her legs out from under the duvet and is standing up sounding reveille. Metaphorically, of course.

It’s two hours of cleaning for everyone

‘The house is dirty. There are coffee stains all the way up the stairs. Can you ask everyone to do two hours of cleaning up? And I mean proper cleaning: washing floors etc. Piling things in tidier heaps doesn’t count.’

Muck In to Muck Out,’ I say.

‘What?’

‘It’s today’s slogan. Muck In to Muck Out. Like Rishi’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ only for the indoors economy.’

‘Do you need a slogan to do some housework?’

‘It’s motivational. Like songs on a chain gang.’

‘I’ll be back in two hours. You will remember to tell them?’

And with that, she is dressed and gone.

Downstairs my son is playing ‘Mortal Kombat’. He looks at me as I come into the sitting room.

‘She said I could do ten more minutes when she left,’ he says, getting his retaliation in first.

He knows it’s 11.05am and, according to the family by-laws, wearing pyjamas downstairs after 11am is banned. We call it the Pyjama-Shed. It’s like the TV watershed only for clothes.

It’s time to Muck In to Muck Out

‘OK,’ I say. ‘But after that we all need to ‘Muck In to Muck Out.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘Two hours of house cleaning. For everyone.’

From the kitchen, my daughter shouts out: ‘Why don’t you just hire a cleaner?’.

I explain to them that this weekend the house is going to be run like a Kibbutz not a Fun Fair, which means everyone needs to help make a success of Project Clean.

‘If everyone chips in it will all be over quicker,’ I say.

‘I’ll chip in £5 for someone to do my share’ says my son.

‘By the sweat of your brow shall you eat,’ I say.

‘That’s just so typically pompous of you,’ says my daughter.

‘The sweat part really worries me,’ says my son.

I decide I must persuade them, not just bully them into cleaning. So, while I make them a second round of pancakes for their Saturday brunch, we discuss how we are going to implement operation ‘Muck In and Muck Out’ together.

They start by saying that leadership will be crucial and that I need to set a good example on how to GET THINGS DONE.

I am the Pater Familias

‘You are the Pater Familias, after all’ says my daughter.

They are young, they say, and haven’t developed the skills yet necessary to clean a whole house by themselves.

They are sure that if I can start and show them how to do it they will ‘pick it quickly’ and will soon feel ‘empowered skills-wise to join in’.

‘Why don’t you start by washing the kitchen floor and we’ll come down once we’re dressed,’ says my daughter. 

I am impressed by the way they have listened to me and I think I have their support when my son asks if I have a Health & Safety Policy.

‘Health and safety policy?’ I say, flummoxed.

‘You’re asking us to handle dangerous substances: bleach, cleaning fluids etc. Surely you have a health and safety policy? This isn’t Victorian Britain,’ he says.

This reminds me that I haven’t renewed my life insurance.

‘Just get dressed and get back down here to help,’ I say, a little peeved.

I look at my watch. My wife has been gone an hour and nothing has been achieved. If she walks in now, I will pick up my first yellow card of the weekend. I have no more time to waste. Even though I am still in my pyjamas and in breach of family by-law, I immediately start sweeping the kitchen floor.

An hour later, the kitchen floor is clean. The sitting room has been hoovered and the cobwebs in the window frames are gone. I haven’t seen the kids since our chat, but I am pretty sure I am demonstrating leadership and they would be proud of me if they were here to see me scrubbing away.

Rufus Norris couldn’t have staged it better

I am wiping away the tea and coffee stains on stairs when the front door opens and my wife walks back in. Frankly, the timing is perfect for me. Rufus Norris, the director of the National Theatre, couldn’t have staged it better.

I am still in my pyjamas, so it looks like I have been cleaning ever since she saw me last in bed. I’m sweaty and grubby from the effort and the wooden floors are wet and smell slightly of pine, so I clearly haven’t just started. Cunningly, I have even hoovered up the cobwebs in the front door frame. First impressions count when you’re creating an immersive drama.

‘In the sweat of your brow shall you eat,’ I say, a complacent smile running all the way to my ears.

‘Good job. Thank you,’ she says.

‘It’s looking much better, isn’t it?’

‘Where are the kids?’ she asks.

‘I don’t know. I’ve been so busy down here.’

‘Did you tell them they had to clean, too?’

‘They said they’d help once they felt more empowered skills-wise,’ I say.

She puts down her shopping bags in the hall with a thud.

‘Enough of that nonsense. It’s time for them to Knuckle down and Muck In.’

Muck In to Muck Out,’ I correct her.

But she doesn’t hear because she’s halfway up the stairs, bounding two steps at a time, to find the children.

This article first appeared in the Chiswick Calendar

Does Mother really like roast parsnip soup?

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Mother is slowly sipping roast parsnip soup under the watchful eye of her carer. She eats her lunch purposefully, bowing her head down as she brings the spoon up to her lips. Her right-hand trembles but this time the soup doesn’t slop over the side of the spoon.

‘We’re going make you big and strong again,’ says the carer, cheerfully, as Mother swallows the warm soup.

‘Huh,’ says Mother.

Dismissing the idea she can ever be strong again

The noise she makes is so indistinct I am not sure if she is agreeing with the carer or dismissing the idea she could ever be strong again as ludicrous; a naïve and unconvincing cliché.

‘Good soup?’ asks the carer.

‘Yum, yum,’ says Mother, smiling and rubbing her stomach.

I’m bemused again. What does she mean by choosing that childish phrase and child-like gesture? Is she taking the mickey out of us for the daily fuss we make to ensure she eats and drinks more than she did in the days before her fall? Or is this her dementia playing Twister with her personality? I hope it’s the former.

Her voice is full of wear

It’s certainly becoming harder to gauge her tone and her voice, which used to be vibrant and camouflaged her ninety years of wear and tears, is quieter and weaker now. She lives inside herself more than before the fall. Since returning she stays in her room longer and tunes out of family conversations sooner. She’s like a camper who has moved her tent to the corner of the field. She’s still happy to be on the same camp site as everyone else but keen not to be as close as before.

I’ve also noticed she has started to find simple things, which others would take for granted and unremarkable, surprising and worth commenting on. Sometimes to the confusion or embarrassment of others.  

‘She tells me I am ‘very clever’ to draw the curtains by myself,’ my daughter said.

‘This morning, she said I have ‘brilliant hair,’ said my son.

‘I have ‘beautiful taste in teacups’,’ said my wife.

Is she being over solicitous?

At first, I thought this was her being overly solicitous. Now I think all her innocent and candid observations are a function of her mild dementia and the world, its objects and its people have become wonderous, almost unreal, to her.

She can still play the dame, though. She is more than willing to give me a piece of her mind in small, sour pieces if she thinks I am out of line. Only yesterday, she accused me of being overbearing and acting like a prison governor.

‘What are you going to do if I say ‘No’? Force feed me?’ she asked when I politely suggested she had a small second helping of pasta.

‘But you need to put some weight on,’ I said.

‘What is this place? A gulag for the old?’ she replied.

Have I created a gulag for the old?

As I had just finished reading ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, I was able to explain to her that she was definitely not living in a gulag.

‘And if you were, you would be punching and kicking your way to the front of the queue to get a second helping of my wife’s wonderful penne al’arrabiata,’ I said, looking forward to telling my wife how I had defended her cooking.

‘Creep,’ said Mother and slunk slowly away from the table.  

Luckily, Mother likes soups more than pasta. Minestrone is her favourite. But she must like this roast parsnip soup because she’s nearly done with it and is dabbing a chunk of bread around the sides of a near empty bowl.

‘What sort of soup was this?’ Mother asks.

‘Roast parsnip,’ I say.

‘Your father liked parsnip soup. Got the idea from a woman in the local pub.’

‘Was it nice?’ I ask, imagining why my father would be discussing parsnip soup in the saloon bar.

‘No. She was imprisoned for embezzlement. Got quite a stiff sentence.’  

‘I meant was her parsnip soup nice?’.

‘Actually, I can’t stand parsnips’

‘No idea, darling. I never tried it. I can’t stand parsnips.’

‘You won’t be wanting more of this then?’ I say holding up the soup ladle with the last vestiges of the roast parsnip soup.

‘No. I don’t think so. Too many parsnips make you windy. If you know what I mean?’

The carer looks at the kitchen floor. I pour out the remains of the soup into a bowl for myself. I decide that next time I will ask her what soup she wants before I make it.

My Godfather coined the phrase ‘Mid-Life Crisis’

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My Godfather, Elliott Jacques, was a psychoanalyst who coined the phrase ‘mid-life crisis’. The Economist obit labelled him a ‘guru’. I wish he was alive today because I am sure he would have been willing to listen to my laments about my mid-life crisis unlike my family. Who knows, he might even have found me a worthy case study for one of his psychoanalytical papers?

At the very least, he would have given me a family discount on his hourly consultation fee, which is more generous and sympathetic than my family are being at the moment. They don’t seem to want to listen to me at all, especially my midlife crisis, which they think is an act.

The family are tired of my Boomer laments

In fact, they’re so mightily bored by my ‘Boomer Laments’, as they call them, that they are evolving ways to avoid listening to me at all. Uncle Elliott would have probably called them ‘avoidance strategies. For example, they turn up the volume on the TV when I come into the sitting room as a signal to me not to open my mouth. At dinner, when I am about to speak, they all simultaneously plug in their Apple EarPods and dive into their podcasts, like a synchronized swimming team, disappearing under the water in a pre-planned move.   

Last night, I think I even heard my daughter suggest the family should introduce a traffic light system for me in which I have to give them a summary of what I want to talk to them about before I can actually say anything.

‘Like submitting a play to the censor for approval?’ asked my son. 

‘That’s right. If we think what he wants to say might be interesting or even new, we give him a green light. If it’s his usual old nonsense then we give him a red light,’ she explained, holding up some cardboard squares which she has painted red, yellow and green.

Are they trying to get rid of me?

I’ve started to wonder if the family are hatching a conspiracy to ostracise me completely. I worry that one day I will come home and they will have disappeared beyond even Matt Hancock’s worldclass track and trace system, leaving me behind in the house with Mother, who can’t hear well and, sadly, has far bigger problems of her own to deal with than listen to my whines.

My paranoia has got so bad I have started drinking the CBD oil, which I bought for Mother to ease her arthritis, but which she has rejected as being useless. I am not sure if it is effective but since I started sipping it three times a day I have begun to have recurring nightmares which involve Uncle Elliott.

In these nightmares, I am laid out on his old leather consultation couch in South Kensington and I am always asking him the same question: is it possible for a man to become so boring and self-obsessed that his own family no longer want to talk to him?

‘Yes,’ replies Elliott. ‘You’re very stale, pale and male. It’s surprising they’ve put up with you this long.’

‘How can I get better?’ I ask in the dream.

‘Read the Guardian,’ he says, at which point I wake up sweating.  

Must I become woke to keep their affections?

I don’t know what to do with this advice. Coincidentally, I am thinking of binning my subscription to The Times because it is getting quite right-wing, but I am not sure I am yet ready for a daily dose of wokeness from the Guardian.

More importantly, I am not sure I should be basing important life decisions on a series of bad dreams and the advice of a dead Godfather, even if he was a Jungian and, therefore, would have encouraged me to use my dreams as one way of coming to terms with life.

I decide the only way to know for sure if the family have finally given up on me is to speak to my wife. She is my Delphic Oracle and if she’s in a good mood she may give me up to two minutes of fee free top-quality life-style consultation which is normally more than enough time for her to sort out my trivial problems.  

I finish my pitch to her by saying: ‘Penn State research shows men of my age face 20% more stress than their parents. I am suffering a new type of generational squeeze and a new type of mid-life crisis. Is it any wonder that I may not be happy?’

I’m just not happy…  

My wife pauses and then says in an American accent: ‘You’re just not happy because your life didn’t turn out the way you thought it would?’

Confused, I ask her why her she is mimicking an American accent.  

‘Don’t you remember the American comic Dennis Leary?’

‘One of my favourites,’ I say.

‘Remember the sketch where he talks about his harsh upbringing in a poor Irish family?’

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘Remember the name of the school of psychoanalysis he in the joke?’

My wife is telling me to shut the f**k up

A long-forgotten joke suddenly comes back to mind and I realise the oracle is telling me what to do in her own oblique style.

‘The School of Shut the f**k Up,’ I say under my breath.

‘That’s right. The School of Shut the F**k Up,’ says my wife.

‘That’s your advice?’ I say.

She looks me solemnly in the eye for a moment and then brightens a little and asks ‘What shall we have for dinner?’

I guess I will have to let go of my mid life crisis for a little while.

This article originally appeared in the Chiswick Calendar

My diet got stuck in the buffet car

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I am standing naked on the bathroom scales my eyes shut tight. I bow my head like a criminal in court waiting for the judge to pass sentence on me.

I already know the verdict. I am guilty. The only question is how severe the judge’s sentence will be.

My crime? I have broken all the dietary vows which I made in good faith to myself and my family so recently. I have left the path of dietary righteousness, fallen off the wagon, gone off the rails and ended up with my diet stuck in the buffet car. Again.

Fasting not feasting is my plan

My diet had been going so well. I had shed a lot of tummy tonnage thanks to a home-made puritanical regime under which I basically stopped eating and drinking. Fasting not feasting, I said to myself every morning, like a monk reciting a litany. And for a while it worked, kilograms folded away like salami slices at a deli counter.

Unfortunately, the last four days have been a dietary disaster. I have put back on all the weight I had lost in a Bacchanal of liquid lunches, saucy dinners, cheesy snacks and takeaways. This morning I have to face up to the fact that my Götterdämmerung against my gut is heading towards defeat.

I went on a Boomer bender

It started to go wrong when I ate Mother’s half eaten bacon sandwich which her carer had left on a plate next to the recycling bin. I picked it up and seconds later it was gone. After that, I went on one long Fresher’s week with a few other like-minded, ‘getting-to-be-old-timers’. In short, I have been on a four-day Boomer bender of stupendous self-indulgence.

I have drunk stouts, ales, beers, lagers, wines and even a quarter of a bottle of Madeira, sometimes at the same sitting and from the same glass. I have eaten out at lunch time and dinner and filled my face excessively with a complete disregard for portion control or carbo-counting.

If we all ate cicchetti there’d be no war

I stuffed my face with platefuls of pleasure from France, Italy, Spain and India and, best of all, I have discovered cicchetti, those small Venetian snacks, which would bring about World Peace instantly if they were made compulsory at every diplomatic shin-dig across the globe or wherever else people with power gather.  

Mae West said: ‘You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough’ and, in the last few days, I have done my very best to live up to her epicurean philosophy, in a social distanced way, of course.  

Frankly, I don’t think I have had so much fun since I stayed up all night with a bottle of brandy replaying the news footage of Teresa May holding Donald Trump’s tiny hand so he could make it down a staircase without tipping over.

My family will be disappointed…

Of course, I realise I have let my family down. I feel guilty. This isn’t the first time I have made them promises about my beer gut and ended up on the losing side in the Battle of the Bulge.

But this time, I feel more guilty than usual. They are genuinely worried my bulk makes me more vulnerable if I catch Covid19 so they’ve have been gently nagging at me for a while to do something about it.

‘Lose you love handles before the next wave,’ said my daughter, who is a marathon running, yoga loving girl whose idea of a blow-out is a Caesar’s Salad without the croutons or mayo dressing.  

‘I can’t help it if I am a gourmand,’ I replied.

Gourmand is French for greedy pig

‘Gourmand is French for greedy pig. You mean gourmet,’ she said. ‘But whatever you want to call yourself, it’s time for a change.’   

Faced with this caring onslaught what father would not try to do something to reassure his family that he really does want to carry on living? The question was how to lose weight? Every diet I had ever followed has been a failure. What could I do? 

‘How about some gentle fasting?’ said my wife.

‘At the siege of Stalingrad, the Russians gave their citizens only 250 grams of food a day. If you copied that you’d lose the pounds pretty quick,’ said my son. 

‘That’s inappropriate in so many ways,’ said my wife. 

A light breeze comes in through the bathroom window and I realised I am getting cold standing naked on the scales. I lift one eyelid open a millimetre at a time, like a weightlifter slowly raising a heavy barbell which may be too much for him. My wife calls from the bedroom.

‘What do the scales of justice say today?’

I’m not sure my scales work

‘Are you sure these scales work?’ I reply, having spied the number staring back up at me from the bathroom scales. 

‘That bad?’ she says.

‘It’s a small set back,’ I say. 

‘Sounds more like Dunkirk,’ she says.

She’s right. The number staring up at me from the bathroom scales represents a full-scale retreat. As Joe Strummer might have said if he had made it to middle age: I fought the gut and the gut won.

‘Today’s a new beginning,’ I say. ‘I’ll soon be back on track.’

Behind me, I hear something that sounds like ‘hah’.  

This article originally appeared in the Chiswick Calendar

Let Operation Booze Cruise begin….

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My kids start work today

My teacup overfloweth with joy. Both my kids start work today. 

I am happy for them because this is a landmark on their journey to adulthood. The rat race needs running and it’s their time to step onto the wheel of capitalism and keep it spinning. I hope they enjoy their turn. Really. The old toad work is not always too bad. 

I am also happy for myself and my wife. This could be the beginning of the end of the one-way flow of cash which has poured, like the mighty Orinoco, between the generations of our family since their birth.

Maybe the Bank of Mum and Dad can stop lending money?

From now on, the Bank of Mum and Dad may not have to issue as many gilts, loans and subsidies as in the past. It will be a slow change at first, for sure, but the Bank of Mum and Dad now has a chance to rebuild its balance sheet and turn its attention to funding its own pet projects. Rents might even be charged, tithes collected.  

The more I think about it, the more my inner Boomer smiles at the thought of what today might mean. ‘Me Time’ is coming closer and, frankly, I’m shovel ready for it. I hear myself silently singing the theme tune for Euro ’96: ‘It’s coming home, it’s coming home, Me Time’s coming home.’

Me Time is my new creed. Selfish? Tick. Irresponsible? Tick. Self-indulgent? Tick, tick, tick. Right now, I’d happily sell our insanely overpriced London house and blow the cash gained from the sale on a ten-year blitzkrieg of booze cruises, spa treatments and fine dining. Oh, and fine wine, too. Gallons of it, preferably. It’s nearly time to test my liver to the max. I’m bored of Boris, Brexit and the pretensions of Global Britain and lock down. I long to cut loose from responsibility in all its myriad forms, preferably in a simply furnished Tuscan villa with a private chef.  

My daughter is training as a teacher and my son has got a temporary gap year job with a local manufacturer of spectacles. His role is to inspect the glasses for damage. If the glasses are scratched it’s his job to stop them from leaving the warehouse. 

My son’s job is in quality control

As today is his first day, I have decided to give him a fatherly pep talk about the nature of work over the Cheerio’s. You know the sort of stuff: turn up on time, work hard, don’t be Bolshie. Simple homely truths which I am sure he knows already but work has historically been a concept he’s struggled with, so I want him to get off on the right foot. Work is my least favourite four-letter word, he told us aged eleven, staring at a pile of homework. That’s your side of his gene pool talking said my wife.

I also want him to feel good about work because if he feels good about it, he will stick at it and the longer he sticks at it, the more money he will earn. The more money he earns, the more I can successfully argue we should no longer finance his trips to the pub and I can divert the savings towards Operation Booze Cruise: Punish the Liver 2022, which is my vision for my future.

I’m not being entirely selfish. I remember the shock of my first job. How absurd it felt, how strange the rituals. How pointless much of it seemed. I don’t want him to come home tonight feeling like I did after my first day, confused and worthless.

‘Quality control is really important,’ I say. ‘Your role is vital to the company.’  

‘It’s a job, Dad. Don’t get all parenty about it.’ 

‘It’s essential the glasses are up to scratch, not scratched,’ I say. ‘Geddit?’ 

‘Sadly yes,’ he replies. 

‘Just remember my golden rules: turn up on time, work hard and don’t be Bolshie,’ I say.

Mother is about to share her wisdom

Mother looks up from her toast. I can tell she’s going to offer a few words of wisdom but whether they’re going to be relevant to this conversation or relate to something we discussed last night I can’t be sure anymore. Her focus is not what it was.   

‘I had to drag him out of bed to make sure he went to work. He was terribly lazy when he was young. Though his brother was worse.’

My son looks at me and raises his eyebrows. My moral authority is shot to pieces. Mother has handed him the Ace of Spades in the intergenerational game of Parental Poker. 

‘Turn up on time, work hard eh?’ he says. ‘Sounds more like do as I say, not as I do. Or did, in this case.’

Mother’s carer, who has just put a cup of sweet tea in front of her, sits down at the kitchen table and looks around at us. She’s only been coming for a week so she isn’t clear what the dynamics of the family are. She’s wondering what will happen next, observing. I feel like the subject in a psychological experiment.   

‘Have I said something wrong,’ says Mother. 

‘Definitely, not,’ says my son getting up to go to work. ‘Not as far as I am concerned. What do you think, Dad?’ 

I decide to keep my head down and hold my tongue. He’s going to work. Breakfast will get done. That’s all I can hope for right now. I must keep an eye on the big prize. Operation Booze Cruise: Punish the Liver 2022 is still on track, for the moment.