Historically, Truth Matters

It is quite predictable that, having stated in a blog post that I intend to blog twice a week I would then not find the time for three weeks to write anything. This is in part due to it being January, which is an impossibly busy month, but also to the fact that I try so very hard not to be perpetually grumpy on this blog. My last post was grumpy, so I thought this one should be playful, or whimsical, or hopeful, or hilarious, or at least realtively sanguine. But it is not to be, for I have been occupied with History Day. 

Be not fooled into thinking that I have anything against history — Mrs S is twenty kinds of nerd, and History Nerd is one of them — or that I object to my children learning history in school. I encourage it. I would have been thrilled to my clumsy, nerdy toes to have had a history day in school when I was growing up. Come to school dressed up, spend the day learning about what life was like in another time: what could be better? So when we had a notice home telling us about history day, and that C’s class would be focusing on medieval times, and R’s class would be studying ancient Egypt, I started planning. 

That letter home should have been the first warning that all was not as it seemed, for it suggested that the girls in C’s class of four and five year olds may want to dress like this:

 

Int he market for 18th century garb? This image is from jarnaginco.com.

 
Historical this style may be, but it is from a different era: the 18th century. You may at this point be taking umbrage at the perceived insinuation that you should have known this. Rest assured I do not expect everyone to be able to identify historical fashions to the nearest century, but I do expect those teaching history to my children to correctly match the wardrobe with the era they are teaching. The most basic internet image search will furnish you with dozens of pictures of medieval dress. How about this?

If you would like to have a beautiful costume such as this, visit http://www.revivalclothing.com

Or, if you want something more fanciful and regal:

  
Or more authentic still:

  
  
The point is: long, rather unstuctured gowns, a veil or very simple cap (but not a mobcap) perhaps a sincture at the waist, and you become a medieval lady. The argument from the school, had I raised the issue, might have been that they were going for something simple, that most students could manage. But medieval doesn’t need to be difficult: a tunic or nightgown from mom or a big sister (safety pins at the neck and sleeves as needed for fit), a cord as a sincture at the waist, and a scarf pinned to the hair as a veil and presto! Add cape if desired. 

So, ignoring the misguided advice of the school, I set to work making C a medieval gown. (R was more or less abandoned at this point. I ordered him a cheap pharaoh costume online. Obviously this displays great favouritism, and I explain it thus: I only had time to make one costume. I have two little girls who like to dress up, so a medieval lady costume will get much more use than a pharaoh costume.) I have precisely two domestic skills: I can cook and I can sew. I did, however, discover, while sewing a six-panelled gown by hand, that it is just possible to be too medival. (I ordered a sewing machine this week in preparation for next time.) But after two weeks of pricked fingers and a few glaring mistakes, C had a gown fit for a fourteenth century princess:   

 
   

Obviously sharing this image is somewhat boastful: look at me! I can sew! (Assuming you ignore the scruffiness of the hem, visible in this picture: C was adament about having a train and I was improvising.) But that is not actually the point. I am trying to zero in on the level of historical accuracy I expect from a history day. I chose a wildly anachronistic fabric. Metallic gold brocade? Nope. Not medieval. But the shape and feel are right, and it is shiny and fun, so clearly I can temper my grumpy pedantry from time to time. If I hadn’t been looking for an excuse to start sewing again, or if I hadn’t thought this dress would get a lot of wear as dress up, I would have put C in one of my long tunic-type shirts as described above and been done with it.

We arrived at history day (parents were invited to stay for the morning in the Early Years classes), where all the boys were dressed as knights and most of the girls were dressed as 18th century housemaids, and were introduced to a variety of activities to teach us about medieval times. We could paint a coat of arms on a shield. We could decorate a plastic gobelet with coloured sharpe markers to have at the snacktime medieval banquet of bread, butter, apples and “wine”. We could practice juggling with beanbags like a court jester. All of these sounded great: little lessons to be had, but appropriate for four and five year olds, and fun. But wait, there’s more…

We were invited to make little pouches of potpourri. Now, if you were going to explain to a group of four and five year olds what potpourri had to do with the middle ages would you tell them 

(A) People in the middle ages might have wanted a pouch of potpourri to sniff because there were no toilets and people threw their waste into the streets, animals were everywhere, there was no rubbish collection, no refrigeration, and many people believed that the foul odours of everyday life, called miasma, were what made people sick, so if you had something nice to smell it would not only make walking through town bearable, but you believed you might avoid sickness.

Or

(B) People in medieval times never took baths. They also never ever washed their clothes, and they never took their clothes off no matter how smelly or dirty they got because being naked was sinful. So they needed potpourri because everybody stank and without it they couldn’t have stood to be around eachother.

If you said (B), congratualtions! Give yourself five points, a cookie, a bit of extra deoderant, and a diploma certifying you to be a Tudor PR agent or a primary school history teacher, whichever you prefer. If you said (A), bad luck. You may console yourself with a self-righteous blogpost so that everyone knows how much more you know about history than anyone else in the known universe.

Additionally, we were invited to do some medieval dancing. Huzzah! Now, if you were teaching five year olds about medieval dancing would you:

  • (A) Tell the children that medieval dancing was very slow and boring, and that they would have hated it because there are lots of rules and it isn’t fun like dancing is now.
  • (B) Say that medieval dancing was always very serious and no one was allowed to smile.
  • (C) Say that medieval people only danced to songs in 4:4 time.
  • (D) Say “Let’s dance to a medieval song!” and then teach a dance to Greensleeves, a Rennaissance song in 3:4 time.
  • (E) All of the above.

Full marks will only be awarded for (E). Marks will be deducted if you decide to loudly count out the 3:4 beat to “help” the children (and perhaps to make a point), but they will be restored if you remember just in time that, no matter the absurdity of the exercise, good manners are fitting in any age. 

I can hear the shrieks of anger from the primary school teachers even as I type this: “You have no idea how hard it is to plan an activity day like this! You have no idea how much work it is! We use resource guides! We’re not historians!” Followed swiftly by “So there are a few details they got wrong. So what? The kids are five. They’re not even going to remember.” This will not do. First of all, I do know how much work goes into planning a History Day. Second, I know teachers draw heavily on teaching resources, which may themselves be inaccurate. Maybe my exasperation should be directed towards the author of a sub-standard teaching manual, or towards whoever taught this unfortunate teacher that all medieval people were dirty, dour, prudish savages. I am not denying that the children had fun, or saying that days like this aren’t a great addition to school learning. But there’s no point in teaching something that isn’t true, even if it’s fun. In fact, there is every reason not to teach falsehood. If you learn something that’s not true, it’s not real learning: it’s just setting up a mental stumbling block that could trip you up at any point in the future.

And five year olds do remember. If we don’t expect them to absorb what they learn at five, why are we teaching them to read and write and count? Even if a five year old doesn’t remember every fact he learns, what you teach him will create an impression, and that will stick with him. Tell him that medieval people smelt worse than he could possibly imagine and you create the impression that these people knew nothing, and were too lazy and disgusting to bother with basic self-care. He might return to history to be shocked and amused by how gross and ignorant everyone was back then, but you’re already fermenting trouble for the future, should it be suggested that he could learn something of value from studying the middle ages. If you set up the contrast of the fun, sweet-smelling modern times versus the boring, revolting medieval times, you strip away the value of studying history. In a short twleve years that five year old child could be informing his Intro to Philosophy prof that there’s no point in studying Plato or Aristotle, or even Aquinas or Descartes, Kant or Kierkegaard, because those are all dead white guys who lived a long time ago and “humans have moved on,” so he won’t be doing those pointless assigned readings. (True story.) 

I know that kids think gross history is fun. Horrible Histories, a UK series of books and TV shows aimed at kids, trades on this, and mostly does a brilliant job. There is a whole sketch in which the unwashed peasants of the dark ages exchange buckets of pig manure for Christmas, but by the end of the scene you have a pretty good idea about why poop was so important to peasant farmers. Behind the deliberately hammy horror, there’s a sort of reverence (but by no means a preachiness) for history. Pig poop is funny. There’s no arguing against that. But isn’t if fascinating the use farmers did, and do, make of it? By all means gross kids out, but not to make historical figures seem like the dregs of some revolting carnival freak show. The aim should be to turn them into scholars, not voyeurs. Five year olds are plenty old enough for a simple explanation of why things were different back then. What they are not old enough for is sneaky Hegelianism that subtly assures them that their age is a pinnacle of some historical destiny, and that they may sneer at all who went before. True, what happened back then was not always good, and we hopefully know better now. But it is hard to even take the transgressions of the past seriously if we’ve decided their perpetrators were buffons. In another ten years these five year olds should be having a good think about how people not unlike themselves became the authors of such atrocities as slavery and the Holocaust (those are the two that still make it onto school syllabi, afterall), and it is short-sighted to set up the kind of thinking that says “People used to do bad things because they were stupid, but I am an enlightened modern person and therefore not suceptible to such errors.” 

I read somewhere — perhaps some knowledgeable reader may provide the citation that eludes me — that the study of history consists of being taught that things were a certain way, only to be told the next year that ‘Actually, you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’ But it’s a lot easier to build upon and give nuance to a basic view of history that is at least arguably true, and it’s a lot easier to teach a student who has learnt to take a genuine  interst in what people did in the past. So, even if it’s just a history day for five year olds, let’s start by getting the information right. Do it because you care about truth, or do it to avoid angry rants from disgruntled former-academic classroom parents, or, if you must, do it to avoid returning to the Dark Ages, when ignorance stalked the land like a living pestilence… Actually, I’ll have to ask you to stop right there. But that is a topic for another day.

Rennaissance Rabbits

When one’s children are ill one takes refuge in the television. There is no sense in going to bed when a child is unsettled, for being awoken from a deep sleep under the duvet is infinitely worse than being woken from a light doze on the sofa, or simply braving the exhaustion and staying up with something reasonably engaging on the box. The next day the child will be even more tired than the parent, which will make him, or indeed her, especially difficult to entertain in a constructive manner. Of course, the parent will be too tired for the constructive occupation of offspring in any case, so the TV is once again invaluable. It is only when one’s child has been ill through the night that one may tuck him in on the sofa under a fleecey blanket, with several pillows, a number of well-loved soft toys, an unlimited supply of juice, the odd cracker, and enough banal television to cook his brain, and feel like an exemplary parent. One may even avoid loading the dishwasher on the excuse of keeping the child company. It seems like a no-lose strategy. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the honeyed tones of Mark Rylance can’t ruin it for everyone.

  

 Recently, the adult members of the S household have gotten around, finally, to watching Wolf Hall, the BBC adaptation of HiIlary Mantel’s novel of the same name. It aired close to a year ago, and was duly recorded, but only recently viewed. A few episodes in we have primarily been treated to a very good performance by Mark Rylance in the role of Thomas Cromwell, that coniving rotter of Henry VIII’s court. (Ms Mantel’s portrayal of the man is rather more sympathetic than Mrs S’s, or history’s, estimation of him.) We are already in no doubt of Cromwell’s scheming capacity for menace towards, for example, good Queen Catherine of Aragon and the sainted Thomas Moore. Of course, we are meant to understand how very damaged Cromwell is: beaten and abused by his father, leathered by the brutality of Rennaissance mercenary warfare on the Continent, and ultimately (spiritually) broken by the death of his beloved wife and young daughters…it’s no wonder he prefers politics to family.  Also — and this is a key narrative point of the drama — Catholics are mean and elitist too boot. Much has been said about the questionable historicity of the enoblement of Thomas Cromwell. (If one feels swayed to sympathy with Cromwell by Wolf Hall, simply keep in mind that this man orchestrated the dissolution of the monasteries. Suffering doesn’t make you a saint if it is palliated by revenge.) However, no rancour for the subject can really detract from Mark Rylance’s accomplished and subtle performance. 

Little N has been ill recently: a fever, maybe a bit of an earache, a sniffle, but nothing serious. She is simply a bit too sick to sleep well. So, being tired in the daytime, and still under the weather (which is, in any case, cold, drizzly and gloomy), she was tucked up on the sofa with cozy blankets, beloved cuddly animals, juice, etc, and allowed to watch her favourite show, Bing. This is a BBC animaion aimed at toddlers that follows the everyday escapades of a young rabbit named Bing. This bunny is cared for by Flop, a stuffed animal of uncertain species, diminutive stature, unending patience, and unfathomable folksy wisdom. We are not meant to wonder (though Mrs S of course cannot help herself) how it is that childrearing works in this cartoon world where all the toddlers (mostly rabbits with the odd elephant and panda thrown in) are cared for by these mature soft toys (mostly elephants, maybe a dog, and whatever Flop is) when the toddler rabbits are at least 50% larger than those who are apparently responsible for their welfare. And how are these mis-sized cross-species families formed to begin with? Where are the mommy and daddy rabbits? Ah well: traditional families are very passé these days, and perhaps the producers assumed that patent absurdity produces less outrage than blatant post-structuralism. However, despite completely undermining the metaphysics of the family, Bing, like Wolf Hall, is a fabulous show. Unlike Wolf Hall, it is sweet. It understands children, and how one should speak to them (assuming that one has this rarified parental existence devoid of all time-pressure or other responsibilities: let us say it is aspirational). Flop is always gentle and understanding. Common Flop catch-phrases are “It’s all right, Bing. It’s no big thing,” and “Good for you, Bing Bunny!”. The show always has a lesson to teach, and it is not subtle. At the end of the five-minute episode, Bing comes on screen and recaps the story, explaining what he learned. Then Flop enters and summarises with the words “[i.e. Using the toilet]: it’s a Bing-thing.” Thus endeth the lesson. 

Bing and Flop

  
The real fly in the ointment is not the uncertainty of Flop’s ontology, nor the mysterious origins of the giant toddler-rabbits. It is that Flop is most definitely and unistakably voiced by Mark Rylance. (A beautiful voice he has, too!) This means that if one has, for example, spent the evening watching Wolf Hall while listening out for a poorly two-year-old, and the morning indulging said child’s wishes for a Bing marathon, incompatible narratives begin to nonetheless entwine themselves in one’s sleep-deprived mind. Mrs S is genuinely surprised each time Flop does not conclude an episode with the sentence “Politically-motivated execution: it’s a Bing-thing.” Likewise, when she resumes watching Wolf Hall, Mrs S will no doubt expect Thomas Cromwell to say, when mulling over the marital strife of Henry VIII: “It’s all right, King, it’s no big thing…if we accuse her of adultery and incest we can chop her head off.” Whether this overlap in cast imports menace into the simple morality of a children’s show, or inappropriately softens the edges of an adult tale of bad behaviour, Mrs S does not know, but watching, or rather listening to, either now makes her feel all peculiar in the head. 

One truly hopes Mark Rylance is not a devoted method actor. (But if he is, Mrs S would very much like to know what kind of animal he pretends to be when he practices Flop.)

Upon reflection: a giant toddler bunny being guided by a small stuffed I-know-not-what is a passable description of either show. It’s picturing Damien Lewis with bunny ears that causes the metaphor to break down.

When N gets up from her nap Mrs S will insist on watching Frozen instead. Expect soon an essay on how Anna is a much more satisfactory heroine than Elsa…

Angst, Eliot and Puffins

Mrs S has spent the week in a state of acute literary frustration. The novel wasn’t working so she spent a couple days writing embarassingly unironic smut about beautiful people with slightly tragic pasts. It seemed to lack a plot, so she set part of it in Zurich, and threw in a few arms dealers in a peripheral kind of way. It was only marginally better than E L James’ best efforts, or so she hears, but in her defence Mrs S didn’t try to dress up violence as romance, relying instead on clichéd sentimentality. Then she pulled herself together, put away the purple notebook (the height of Mrs S’s organisational ability is that she keeps a purple notebook for purple prose) and tried to address the plot and sequencing issues that are hobbling her more serious writing. Meanwhile, she realised that she hadn’t considered any adventures recently, and sat down to blog. 

The background sound to all of this activity was the older children’s indescribably boring school-supplied reading books, and so she tried to write a humorous piece about how the schools were destroying children’s capacity to love the written word. But it turned out as joyless and turgid as the books she was condemning, and she could not bring herself to click “publish.”

The problem this week is that the words were no fun anymore. There was  no beauty, no joy, no play. It reminded her, as things sometimes do, of a passage from T S Eliot’s Ash Wednesday:

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly

But merely vans to beat the air

The air which is now thoroughly small and dry

Smaller and dryer than the will

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still.

Lovely verse. Eliot, though apparently serious to his deliberately-English core, knew how to play with words, and this is why he is a joy to read. He is good to read for many other edifying reasons, but it is the turn of phrase that makes the heart to flutter and leap upwards. The children are not equipped for deep analysis of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, but they shrieked with laughter when she read to them “I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” They were delighted with the image of “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes.” 

Getting back to playing with words seemed to be the key to undoing all the angst of the week. Mrs S would never claim that poetry is the one and only means to impart a love of language, or that one must read poetry to one’s children or they will never learn to love to read. (It doesn’t work on all kids. Some respond to non-fiction, some to adventure, some to fantasy, some to sports-type stuff.) Nor would Mrs S claim that a bit of verse cures all authorial ills, but tonight Mrs S read one of their favourite poems to the children, and they said parts of it along with her, so she knew it had made more of an impression than the horrible school books. And she felt much better and wrote much better afterwards. So, if you too have any lexicographical blues, or if you have a poetry-susceptible child, Mrs S recommends The Puffin Poem, by Florence Page Jacques:

Oh, there once was a Puffin

Just the shape of a muffin,

And he lived on an island

In the bright blue sea!
He ate little fishes,

That were most delicious,

And he had them for supper

And he had them for tea.
But this poor little Puffin,

He couldn’t play nothin’,

For he hadn’t anybody

To play with at all.
So he sat on his island,

And he cried for awhile, and

He felt very lonely,

And he felt very small.
Then along came the fishes,

And they said, “If you wishes,

You can have us for playmates,

Instead of for tea!”
So they now play together,

In all sorts of weather,

And the Puffin eats pancakes,

Like you and like me.

  

Potatoes of Penitence

If God has never thrown a potato at you, well, you just aren’t praying in the right way. Of course, the right way, in this case, is a very specific wrong way. One year ago today, or so Mrs S is informed by the Facebook algorithmic powers that be, Mrs S was in a particularly foul mood. She was tired and had a sore back, and was walking home after collecting C from nursery school, pushing N in the stroller, and wondering how she was going to make it the whole mile, with a tired three year old in tow, let alone make another two mile round trip to collect R in a couple hours’ time. To make matters worse, she had no idea what she was going to cook for dinner. Many days Mrs S only perseveres with the day because she is looking forward to dinner. 

As Mrs S walked, she fumed silently. Every idea she came up with seemed perfect, except for one missing ingredient. No tomatoes, or no garlic, or no chicken stock, or, repeatedly, no potatoes. Potatoes! Ugh. She was not going to the grocery store. No way. Not today. She doesn’t even particularly like potatoes. Just a hundred yards from home Mrs S’s internal whining turned into a vulgar sort of praying. “Why, Lord?” she demanded to know, “Why the hell don’t I have any potatoes.” Only, perhaps she didn’t use so genteel or spiritual a word as ‘hell.’ Perhaps it was a bit earthier, a bit more Anglo-Saxon. Suffice it to say it was not her finest spiritual communion. It is one thing to rant and rave to oneself, and to wonder in sweary solitary reverie how to feed one’s offspring without a ready supply of starchy tubers in the larder. It is quite another to curse at the Lord as one bemoans the bareness of the pantry. 

 

The Penitential Potatoes. The small one on the top left found its mark. Things could have been much worse.

 Now, Mrs S has always suspected it was her long-suffering guardian angel who actually took aim, but whatever the mechanism of its flight there was some almighty power behind that potato. It hit her plumb on top of the head and then bounced down to rest between her feet. Mrs S’s gaze flew to the passing tractor with its trailer overflowing of fresh potatoes that was rumbling past. It hit a bump and  four more potatoes landed in front of Mrs S, three of them of menacing proportions. It is a demonstration of the mercy of God that He answered her abominable prayer without killing, or even concussing, her. It is a demonstration of His justice that she had a pounding headache for the rest of the day, and of her reformed and penitential spirit that she didn’t demand to know why the hell that was. The family had a lovely stoved meat pie filled with the leftover Sunday roast and topped with the projectile potatoes, and a great deal of amusement at Mrs S’s expense.

Mrs S remembers being taught that prayer is A.C.T.S., meaning that prayer is adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication. “Lord, why the hell don’t I have any potatoes,” does not fall into any of these categories. In an attempt to form them in the faith, Mrs S has simplified the language for the little S children. There are four kinds of prayers you should say, she tells them: ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’. (Incidentally, these are the four cornerstones of healthy familial relations as well.) This underlines the problem with swear-prayers. You might be tempted to think that “Why the hell don’t I have any potatoes?” is supplicatory, but good and proper supplication always starts with ‘please’, not ‘why the hell.’ In short, if you’ve been adoring properly, you’ll get the language right; if you’ve remembered the ‘I love you,’ you probably won’t start with an accusatory curse, no matter to whom you are speaking.

Each family, each domestic church, has its own special feast days, and ways of celebrating them. Some are of broader significance and some are more private affairs. Tomorrow is the feast of the Nativity of Mrs S, and she does not imagine that everyone will be marking the day with sushi and rosé as she intends to, but the S children are all stirred up because there will be presents (and for most children it is as exciting to give a gift to someone beloved as it is to receive) and cheesecake. Special days are good pedagogical tool. Religious holidays come with ready-made lessons, because that’s how the Church calendar was devised: as a microcosm of human experience in relation to God, in a single year. Each day gives us something to think on. You could even say that the Church calendar examines and celebrates the action of God in the world. That is why this year, on the anniversary of the potato pelting, Mrs S instituted a new feast in the calendar of her domestic church: the feast of the Penitential Potatoes. Afterall, seeing one’s mother hit on the head by a potato apparently flung from heaven is one of the more vivid spirtual lessons a child can have. C still remembers it, and R and N  have heard the story, and the explanation. The Feast of the Penitential Potatoes will be like a little lent the day before the great Feast of the Nativity of Mrs S.  On this day of penance they shall dine on potatoes and whatever else is available in the fridge. And if they have not the cheese, or sausages, or beans they wanted, they shall not whine and swear. They shall practice manners and gratitude. They shall be reminded of the universal call to conversion, of the need for repentance and continuing formation in virtue. 

At least, that all seemed like a good idea to Mrs S when she realised that once again on the 22nd of September she had no idea what to cook for dinner. But this time there were potatos in the pantry, and she thought it was best just to get on with cooking and not pester Heaven with the problems she created for herself through her lack of domestic virtue.

Take the Children to Church, No Matter What They’re Flinging

Yesterday, as on every Sunday, Mrs and Mr S took the children to mass. Church attendance is non-negotiable in the S household. Illness and misadventure are the only excuses for missing a week. Anything else can be rescheduled. This is not to say that mass with three children, aged two, four and six, is a deeply spiritual experience. Even when the children are good it’s not by chance, but through the exhausting efforts of their parents. The last time any of Mrs S’s neurons vibrated in prayer during mass was probably the second of August when she was at mass at a conference in Oxfordshire and the children were tormenting the S-in-laws in Buckinghamshire. Be that as it may, the fact remains that children do not learn to behave in church by staying at home. So the S children go to church. 

Not everyone is happy to see young children at church, and to these people Mrs S has vociferously defended parents who bring barely-civilised hoodlums into this sacred space: how else are they to show them the importance of religious practice? Parents are the first teachers of the faith, and they have an obligation to bring their children to mass. Sunday worship is not just about personal contact with God, it is a matter of justice to the Creator. In short, it doesn’t matter if you get nothing out of it (and parents should expect to get nothing out of it for at least ten years and likely longer, because they will be far too busy looking after their children). Sunday obligation is not about having good or powerful feelings: it’s about doing what is right. Of course, within certain tolerances, parents should ensure the good behaviour of their children, and, if possible, remove them if they are uncontrollably disruptive; but some wiggling, baby babble, and quiet conversations between parent and child concerning the mass should be tolerated. There should be no loud toys, no buffet of crunchy food in crinkly packets, no running naked & screaming (or even clothed & screaming) down the aisle without swift and draconian repercussions. Cuddly toys and simple books for the tiny ones are fine. Bribes are expedient. (After-mass donuts are the accepted currency in the US; in the UK biscuits/cookie seem to be the norm.) When there is a lone parent grappling with a pack of children who, having separated the doe from the herd, are circling her like irreverent, screeching and dancing wolves going for the kill — death by social humiliation — allowances have to be made, even if the wolves start howling naked in the aisle. If they’re still doing it as teenagers, then you may judge. In the meantime, if the children of others offend you during mass, offer it up. Pray for the grace of imperviousness to distraction. Stay after mass to pray in silence. Find a different mass to attend. Befriend a struggling parent and offer to help, since you are clearly an expert in such matters. Jesus knows you’re there. Be at peace.

So, to the dismay of some members of the congregation, the S children go to church. This week Mrs S was feeling smug, because none of them were howling naked in the aisles and R, now six and a half, was even following along with the readings in the mass book. 

“Cleary,” Mrs S thought, as she knelt for the consecration, “the children are so good because I am a good and worthy parent, unlike those other parents with little monsters…” 

This made the Lord chuckle, and He guided two-year-old N’s hands to a fascinating little pouch in her mother’s handbag. N took out said pouch and, tugging at the zipper, exerted rather more force than was required. The pouch flew out of her hands, and the venerable ninety-three-year-old woman kneeling one row back was pelted with a large number of brightly-wrapped tampons.  This created a dilemma: when an unsuspecting elderly parishioner has just been assaulted with feminine hygiene products, does one pretend to be deep in prayer and remain kneeling; apologise, even during this most sacred part of the liturgy; or scramble around the pew to tidy up? Fortunately, four-year-old C took the initiative and returned the items to Mrs S’s bag. 

N, who it must be said is a child possessed of a quiet dignity but a carrying voice, waited for a pause in the words of institution and then said sombrely to the victim of the flying tampons: “I sorry. Those for Mommy’s bottom.”

Mrs S considered that perhaps she had been hasty in her insistence that parents of young children should not expect to get anything out of the Sunday church. It appears there is always soul-enriching humiliation on offer. Embrace it, parents! For the sake of your children’s souls, embrace it!

It All Adds Up

  Mrs S married Mr S primarily for his mathematical abilities.  So many people focus on emotional compatibility, or shared interests, or looks, or wealth. Mrs S was mostly thinking about the children’s homework. When they met on the platform of Shadwell station in south London, on the 31st May, 2003, Mrs S noticed Mr S’s rower’s physique right away, but it wasn’t until she found out about the Cambridge maths degree and masters in particle physics that she started to take him seriously. You see, Mrs S crashed out of math in high school as soon as quadratic equations came up. Could there be a more pointless form of torture? She felt betrayed by imaginary numbers, as most of the numbers she’d been using in math since about eighth grade had been imaginary, and she thought it was unsporting to introduce rules about how and when she was allowed to use them. It was her imagination, wasn’t it?  Apparently not. So, after scraping an unimpressive C in Algebra 2, Mrs S dropped math, and was so happy to do so that she was only mildly offended by the fact that her Algebra teacher was also exultant. Tactless, that. The only pang of regret Mrs S ever felt was five years later, sitting her GREs (standardised graduate school aptitude tests) when it took her six consecutive questions to remember what to do with negative exponents. This wouldn’t have been a problem were it not for the fact that the test was set in a computer format that didn’t allow you to go back to change your answers, and selected your next question based on your performance thus far. So once it was revealed that Mrs S’s knowledge of negative exponents would require a negative exponent to accurately quantify, she was doomed to have no other type of question ever again. But even these pangs were shortlived, as it turns out PhD programs in philosophy, even good ones, don’t care all that much about mathematical aptitude if you have good scores in verbal reasoning and logic. 

 So, since she was fifteen, Mrs S had known that if there was to be any mathematical talent in her future family, she would have to marry it. The education of her future children depended on it. After they finish fractions, decimals and basic geometry Mrs S will be useless at helping with math homework, after all. This is what made Mr S such a perfect prospect. And before you start feeling too sorry for him, you should also know that he is of such a disposition that, far from being disappointed or insulted, having a woman fall for him because of his numerical brilliance was likely the fulfillment of a youthful fantasy…or would have been if he were given to fantasies. But despite his wife’s lack of numerical comprehension Mr S does fine out of the deal, really, at least Mrs S thinks so: she does cook nearly every night.  (On the downside, Mr S is continually annoyed by Mrs S’s failure to say “maths,” as he thinks is proper, but Mrs S maintains that as she has nightmares about math, then the pluralisation of her nemesis would only make matters worse.)

Now, twelve years after that fateful meeting in Shadwell, and nine years after they were married, Mr and Mrs S have three children. At two, four and six, they are obviously much too young to be bringing home anything so frightening as algebra (Mrs S avoids even contemplating the eventuality of calculus), but Mrs S is already relieved that she can pass off anything complex and numerical to her husband. R, the eldest, is only six, but it is already obvious that he has his father’s mathy streak.  He sometimes asks for daddy to teach him “some fun, really hard maths” instead of having a bedtime story, which is all the more surprising because he loves books. 

The only issue there has been with R’s math progress to date is that he is skeptical of his need to memorise his math facts because he is “really good at estimating.” The problem Mrs S has found with winning this argument is that R isn’t wrong: he is excellent at estimating. Of course, in primary school they expect precision. It doesn’t matter if R can tell instantly that 23+46 is about 70 if he stubbornly refuses to memorise 8+5=13. Nonetheless, he enjoys learning math with his father. His retention isn’t perfect, but he does follow as it’s being explained to him. They’ve covered fractions, percentages, basic statistics, square and triangular numbers, simple geometry like perimeter and area, and different strategies for adding and subtracting large numbers. These topics are by no means beyond Mrs S’s abilities, but given that R is only six, and things can only get more difficult, Mrs S is very relieved that she snagged a mathematical husband.

C, aged four, is a different beast all together. She usually remembers that 20 comes after 19, but occasionally she still thinks it’s 19, 91, 92, 93… Sometimes she understands how to add one.  And sometimes she doesn’t. Mrs S taught her to add up on her fingers, which worked until they got to five plus one:

  

 “Hold up five fingers. Now hold up one more. How many do you have?”

“One.”

“No, count ALL your fingers.”

“Ten?”

“No, sorry: count the five fingers and the extra one.  How many?”

With furrowed brow, C looked at her hands, counted the five fingers on one hand, then looked at the single finger on the other hand.  “One.” she said again. 

Mrs S smiled and managed not to laugh.  She didn’t want C to think she was making fun of her when all she was doing was remembering.  “We’ll do some more math after lunch,” she promised, speculating that they might have better luck with counting beads or beans than fingers.  

Lunch was leftover pasta, and Mrs S put it into the microwave to warm up and went to grate some fresh cheese.  Suddenly C was very upset:

“Mommy! Mommy! The microwave is broken! The numbers are going backwards!” 

Mrs S glanced over just to make sure that was the only purported problem with the appliance. “They always go backwards. When they get to zero it will beep,” she assured her daughter.

“But they’re counting all wrong!” C cried indignantly.

“No, they’re just counting down. You learned to do that in school. Remember?” Mrs S said.

C sighed and nodded. “Yes, but I thought it was ridiculous.”

Mrs S was once again incredibly grateful for her husband, because someday someone might have to explain negative exponents to C, and it certainly isn’t going to be Mrs S.

A Dog Can Herd Ducks, but Mrs S Cannot Punctuate

  Mrs S has had a long day. She was a parent helper on C’s class trip to a Willows Farm. C considered the highlight of the day to be holding a guinea pig, as the animal in question was strawberry blonde, just like C. Children grow up so fast these days: even a four-year-old has opinions on how to properly accessorise with small animals. Next week she will probably want a strawberry blonde handbag chihuahua. (Note: she won’t be getting one.)  

 
   Mrs S, on the other hand enjoyed watching a sheepdog herding ducks through an obstacle course. Ducks waddling through a tunnel, over a see-saw, and up a tower before shooting down a slide, at the urging of a dog is something you don’t see everyday, unless you are the one who trained the dog to herd ducks. She spent much of the rest of the day wondering why it was called a sheepdog show. She was almost surprised when the group arrived at the sheep race and there weren’t any ducks; just sheep, which wore coloured harnesses and were, oddly, being ridden by cuddley toy lambs. Somehow, Mrs S would have preferred it if the sheep were jockeyed by baby monkeys. Or guinea pigs. Or ducks. But sheep riding sheep in a race seemed as odd as deciding to race sheep in the first place. Nonetheless, the race was exhilerating, and took place right next to the reindeer enclosure, so there was plenty to see.  

 Upon arriving home, Mrs S was looking forward to a a quiet evening of food, facebook, and undemanding television. But as is so often the case, facebook was the fly in the ointment, for one of the first things Mrs S read was a complaint from one of her most literate friends about people who double-space after full stops (periods). Having thought that, after a day watching a dog herding ducks, the world could not get any more strange, Mrs S felt herself grow giddy, and then indignant. There was a point of punctuation snobbery with which she was unfamiliar. Her previously solid grammar-nerd credentials were crumbling before her eyes. This simply could not be happening. Hoping to prove her friend a deranged crank, and save the reputation of her typing teacher, who was beginning to look like the villain in all of this, Mrs S sought help from her trio of editrices. (She does in fact know a male editor as well, but no grammar nerd worth her salt would pass up the opportunity to use a relatively obscure feminine plural, so only women were explicitly consulted.) Much to her horror, the editrices sided with her learned, but possibly unbalanced friend, who himself replied to her request for clarity on the spacing conundrum with a scathing article, and suggestion to ignore the ad hominems therein while still embracing the substance of the anti-two-space creed it espouses. To make matters worse, there was a decided age split in the one space and two space camps, and Mrs S did not like the side of the line she fell on (although the Matriarch, a writer and editrix herself, did have a beautiful rant on how the aesthetics of Millennials had no business dictating the norms of typography). Then Mr S weighed in by sharing details of an article he had read that claimed one should never use two spaces on a CV because it would reveal the applicant to be, bluntly, old. As a woman in her early thirties who has nonetheless been dying her hair to cover greys for nearly a decade, Mrs S almost wept at the thought that all the chemical manipulation of her follicles is in vain, for she double-spaces at the end of a sentence.  

Mrs S, like most others, has no particular reason for using a double-space, apart from the fact that she was taught at school that two spaces ought to follow a full stop, as day follows night. Both one-spacers and two-spacers argue for the aesthetic value of their preference, and that it is better for readability. Mrs S is somewhat ashamed that she has no real preference. Clearly both conventions are floating around, yet she completely failed to notice. Her main hang-up about dropping the (possibly) superfluous second space is that she doesn’t know how she will get herself to stop typing it. Touch typing only really works if you don’t think about it too much. Should she try to wean herself off spaces there will be an infuriating number of find-and-replace searches in her future. There will be the whole 130 pages (and counting) of the novel to fix. It will be trying.

After she calmed down, Mrs S poured herself a G&T she reflected that a day spent with 44 four and five-year-olds, watching a sheepdog herding ducks is not best time to make such a significant, life-altering decision. Either way feathers will be ruffled, friendships threatened, editrices irritated. Mrs S will take time to reflect. Does a second space perfectly compliment the first, like a strawberry blonde guinea pig nestled in the lap of a strawberry blonde girl? Or is it a grotesque over-embellishment, like a cuddly toy lamb playing jockey on a racing sheep? Mrs S isn’t sure, but she feels she is entitled, even obliged, to have a professional opinion. Afterall, every writer should be able to say ‘This is how you end a sentence. Period.’ (Space, space.) 

The Benefits of Cheating at Cards

All three children believe they have exclusive usage rights over their grandmother.  As a result, when the Matriarch comes to visit she is never without a child in her lap, and N decides that walking is just too complicated for two-year-olds.  Why walk when you can put up your arms and say “Ga-ma carry me.”?  Under this regime the Matriarch was likely having the least free Independence Day she could recall.  They woke her up at unsociable hours, ate her breakfast, clomped around the house in her shoes, and demanded her attention at every moment.  Now it was 11am and at least the baby was napping, but the Matriarch had been conscripted to play dozens of rounds of Uno with the two older children.

Uno, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a reasonably simple card game.  There are four colour suits: red, yellow, green and blue, and each card has a number as well as a colour.  Players lay down cards in turn, and must match either the colour or number of the card just played.  If they cannot match either the colour or kind of card they pick up a card from the deck.  The game is made more complex by coloured non-number cards that can skip the next player, reverse the direction of play, or make the next player draw two cards from the deck.  There are also wild cards that can be used to change the colour suit, and wild-draw-fours that both change the colour and make the next player pick up four extra cards.  The object of the game is to be the first to play all your cards.  It is called Uno because when a player plays his second-to-last card, leaving only one remaining in his hand, he is required to declare it by saying “Uno!”.

Mrs S has many fond memories of playing Uno at her grandmother’s kitchen table at family gatherings.  The rules were largely secondary to the main objective of the game: to make sure that Uncle K always lost.  “If Uncle K loses, we all win,” the children were taught by Aunt H (Uncle K and the Matriarch’s sister).  Of course, Uncle K is a strategic genius, and combined with his rather flexible approach to the rules, he was nearly impossible to defeat.   If you played fair.  So, in the bosom of her family, Mrs S learned to cheat at cards.

In retrospect, Mrs S has realised that this is one of the most valuable skills she ever acquired.  Everyone should learn to do it.  You need to really know the rules and how to play a good clean game to be any good at playing a dirty one.   Cheating isn’t low-level rule-breaking, like shoplifting or brawling in the street.  Cheating is manipulating the system, bending it to your advantage: think sophisticated smuggling ring.

But the real value in being able to cheat becomes apparent when one is playing games with young children.  This is because young children are terrible at games, but they will not stick at it long enough to get better if they lose all the time; and if they don’t get better, it will never be any fun to play cards with them.  So they need a great deal of assistance if they are to win, assistance that they usuallly do not welcome.  Therefore, helping them along takes a certain knack, a sort of reverse-cheating.  Now reverse-cheating is a powerful concept.  Think about what would happen if the bad guys who sell and smuggle weapons to warlords instead decided to use their considerable knowhow to get food, medicine, clean water and school books to those displaced by war.  Same basic skill set, completely different outcome.

Mrs S’s children are at that terrible-at-every-game phase, and purposeful, well-planned cheating has not so much as occurred to them.  R is preoccupied with playing all the “powerful cards”, not yet grasping that those should always be held until the end, or until there is someone you really need to screw over.  C has a sound grasp of the rules, but applies them inconsistently, as she doesn’t really believe that they apply to her.  This means that the burden of making sure the children each won a roughly even number of games fell completely upon the Matriarch, which must have difficult because purposefully losing at Uno would feel like a betrayal of everything she had been brought up to believe.  Reverse-cheating at Uno is less tricky than reverse-cheating at, for example, Candyland, because in the latter you are battling strong predestination, whereas in Uno the Matriarch only really had the strategic ineptitude of R and C and an occassional run of good luck for herself to contend with.  Nonetheless, ensuring that one always loses at Uno is nearly as difficult as ensuring that Uncle K never wins at Uno, so sometimes, whether through luck or irrepressible competence, the Matriarch won, greatly upsetting her grandchildren.  Mrs S, who was cleaning the kitchen whilst this was happening, wondered how it would end.  Between a six-year-old drunk on the power a wild-draw-four gave him over the next sequential player, and a four-year-old willing to bend any rule, including those defining what constitutes winning, in order to win, the situation could easily turn nasty.

But the Matriarch is a steady hand when it comes to disappointed, power-hungry, rule-averse children.  She quickly deals the next hand, saying “Maybe you’ll win this time.  Let’s see what happens.”  And she guides them through play:

“Are you sure you want to play that card?…Ah yes, that’s better,” she will say, carefully engineering her own demise.

“Oh my, C!  You only have one card left.  What do you say?” she asks.

“Snap!” C said.  Mrs S would have made the four-year-old draw four for not declaring Uno, but the Matriarch is kinder.  She laughs and carries on, and C wins.  Then the cards are dealt again so R can win.

As Mrs S listened she wondered at the wisdom in the Matriarch’s gentleness with the kids.  Everyone was having a good time, and what is more, the game was so friendly no one was worried about sitting in front of a window (a dangerous position in the card games of her chidhood, as if play continued past dark someone was bound to spy your hand reflected in the window, and no mercy would be shown.)  No one was cheating for his own advantage, and, most importantly, no one had asked for a snack in at least half an hour.  And still Mrs S thought wistfully about the raucous, anarchic Uno games around her grandmother’s kitchen table.  Maybe that’s where her thoughts belonged on the Fourth of July: back home with the rebels.

Chess for Beginners

Mr S had taken C to a birthday party.  R had “made dinner” for himself and N, meaning he had put some turkey dinosaurs and oven chips (fries) on a baking tray.  They were in the oven and he had been instructed to find something to play with his little sister until it was time to put the peas in the microwave.  Mrs S was shamelessly and irresponsibly using those fifteen minutes to write.  It was peaceful.  

R came through to the kitchen to put the peas in a bowl.  

“What were you playing with N?” Mrs S asked as R sent peas skittering all over the table.  

“Well,” sighed R, “I wanted to play chess with her, but she wasn’t all that interested so I won quite easily.  And I even started with a really silly move so she would have a chance!”  

Later Mrs S told Mr S that it was sweet that R wanted to give his two-year-old sister a chance to beat him at chess.  Mr S just wanted to know what the silly move was, that R was convinced ceded all the natural advantage that four years, a basic grasp of the rules, and interest in the game confered. 

“Apparently he moved out the queen’s knight,” said Mrs S

Mr S seemed rather irritated that Mrs S did not know that this was not a silly move.  “There are recognised openings that use a knight,” Mrs S heard before completely glazing over.  Mr S is no Kasparov, but the first thing he bought with his own money, at the age of five, was a chess set and a book on how to play.   Now, Mrs S prides herself on being able to take an interest in anything.  Then along ccomes chess and shows her up as an intellectually lazy, strategically deficient stupid-head.  She is always tempted just to call the chess pieces horsies and castles, but Mr S has more than enough upset in his life just reading the coverage of the Greek situation, so she nodded periodically and tried to tweak the paragraphs she had written earlier in the evening while still looking attentive.  She didn’t feel guilty because she was fairly sure Mr S would know she wasn’t listening and wouldn’t be terribly offended so long as she tuned in again when he started talking about something else.  

Once upon a time Mr S thought it would be fun to teach Mrs S to play chess, but she wasn’t all that interested, so he won quite easily.  Then he commented that it would be really good fun to see how few pieces he would need to play with before it was a fair match.  And they have not played since.  But on the plus side they are still married.

Tigers don’t eat chocolate

R, a boy of six, and C, his sister, were deep in conversation as their supper went cold on their plates.

“If I was a lion I would eat zebras,” C declared.

“Yes,” her older brother agreed. “I would eat lots of zebras every day if I was a lion.”  

Of course both children say ‘zeh-bra’, not ‘zee-bra’, and Mrs S has unresolved feelings about this.

“Lion, RAAAAAWR!” growled N, the youngest, determined not to be left out of the conversation. After all, she is two years old now, and that is almost twenty-nine.

“Eat your dinner,” said Mr S, scraping his pate clean. ‘It’s made of pigs.”

“Piggy. OINK!” N informed her family sagely.

“Is this this rice I like?” C asked, poking at it.

“Have you tried it yet?” asked Mrs S.

“Yes,” said C.

“Did you like it?” asked Mrs S.

“Yes,” replied C.

“Then it’s the rice you like.”

“How much of my dinner do I have to eat to have a treat?” R asked.

“All of it,” said Mr S.

“Eat all your meat and the bushy tops of your broccoli,” Mrs S said.

“I don’t want my rice,” said C.

“Kitty Cat. Meow-Meow!” N announced.

“You need to keep eating,” said Mrs S.

“Just four bites, because I am four,” said C.

Mrs S assessed the food left on her middle child’s plate. “Four proper bites,” she qualified.

“I’m finished,” R said, setting down his fork.

“N finished too! Treat!” demanded the two-year-old.

“You have to eat your dinner first,” Mrs S said.

“If I was a tiger I would eat…” C stopped to think.

“Birdies. Tweet tweet!” N suggested. 

“I’m finished,” R repeated.

“Broccoli,” Mrs S said, provoking a soul-rending sigh from her son, who picked up his fork again.

“Tigers don’t eat birdies,” said C.

“Chocolate,” N said.

“Tigers DON’T eat chocolate!” C laughed.

“Daddy! Chocolate!” N said again, directing her request to her father with great emphasis.

“Eat your dinner first,” Mr S said. Mrs S picked up N’s fork and began to feed the stir fry to the little girl.

“Mommy do airplane. Neeeyow!” N said, and Mrs S flew the aerobatic-equipped fork into the toothy hangar with impressive sound effects.

Briefly, the mouths of all three children were filled with food, meaning that whatever they were saying was too inarticulate to be recorded here. During this moment, seeing that plates were being emptied, Mr S got up to fetch a chocolate biscuit (cookie) for each child, and Mrs S tried to remember if the dishwasher was empty or full, and if full, if it was clean or dirty. She imagined she might have the energy to load it up with the dinner dishes if it was empty. If it needed unloading first, however, she was reluctant to commit. Sure, she had the energy now, but there were still three kids to get into pajamas and off to bed. And as soon as the kids were sent upstairs to change and brush their teeth, however cheerfully they went, and however eager they were to hear a bedtime story, watch a bit of TV and snuggle up with Mommy and Daddy before going off to sleep, they would bicker, slam doors, and run around as though possessed. After ten minutes, when nobody was changed or had clean teeth, they would roll around on the floor in shrieking at the injustice threatened: no books, no tv, no songs, straight to bed. If Mrs S bellows loudly enough they will suddenly grasp the gravity of the situation and be downstairs, all correct and minty, in under ninety seconds. Mrs S thought the whole drama could be avoided if, instead if sending them upstairs with calm and cheerful instructions, she just stood over them from the get go, and barked like a drill sergeant: “Upstairs NOW! Jammies! Teeth! Or there will be NO nice things at bedtime!” But hope always won out, the wild fantasy that tonight would be the night when they filed upstairs in an orderly fashion, undressed, put their clothes IN THE LAUNDRY BASKET (INCLUDING SOCKS!!!), put on their jammies, brushed their teeth, and arrived back downstairs in approximately five minutes, without stopping to jump on the bed or slam a siblings fingers in the door. And she would ask nicely.  

Of course on this night that approach was once again utterly ineffective. After food was finished it was twenty minutes before the children were ready, another twenty-five before the girls were in bed, and a further twenty before the firstborn was tucked in.  

Mrs S didn’t load the dishwasher.  But she did drink some homemade limoncello, and tried to forget about the dirty dishes in the sink.  Mr S offered her some chocolate, but Mrs S demured.  She cannot mix alcohol with sweets without feeling sick to her stomach.  She told Mr S she doubted tigers had this problem.  He looked at her oddly.  He has a tendency to tune out when the children are babbling about the theoretical diets of animals they are not.  “Do tigers drink limoncello?” he asked, in a tone that implied he wasn’t really listening to himself either.  Clearly he finds the theoretical diets of animals not in his care a dull topic, no matter who brings it up.

“I don’t know, but I’m told they don’t eat chocolate,” Mrs S said.

An hour later, as Mr and Mrs S watched the end of romantic comedy-drama Mrs S was ashamed to be enjoying, C came downstairs in tears, because if she was a tiger she really would still want to eat chocolate.