Bringing up baby

Some years ago, me and Mrs E came under a certain amount of pressure around the kitchen table, particularly from numbers 1 & 2, to get a pet. After a number of months of resistance, we finally agreed that we could increase the headcount in the family with a hamster, an ideal pet that doesn’t actually do very much, is almost entirely nocturnal, and enjoys biting humans. So we trawled off to the pet shop, and the boys, after being encouraged away from the snakes and spiders, selected their new best friend. (The NBF, by the way, maintained the BF element for about 5 minutes after arrival, which might have been predicted, and ‘Brains’ maintained a hermit like existence for his entire life, doing what hamsters do, which, from my experience, is as little as possible.)

Anyway, we had a fairly memorable exchange with the shop assistant, who gave us a light/medium grilling on the importance of being prepared in the art and science of hamster rearing. Would we, for example, like to read up on the subject, just to make sure that we were completely ready to manage a new pet in the house? Perhaps we could take away a £6.99 book and check the safety features in our home, then return when we were absolutely certain we could cope with the upheaval.

I remember this meeting quite clearly, partly because Mrs E, who doesn’t raise her voice in public terribly often, raised her voice in public.

“Look”, she said, and I remember, all around us, people began to do just that.

“I’ve raised four children without a manual, I think I can manage a hamster”.

And so she could.

I mention the story of Brains (RIP) entering our lives in this way because we’ve just welcomed in a small puppy which has taken over our lives far more forcibly than the hamster, or indeed, any of the children ever did.

Just to give you some context here, I work away most weeks, returning on a Thursday evening to help with the telling off duties, so I end up speaking on the phone to my wife a couple of times a day. And for the last three weeks, almost every phone call between the two of us has focused on bringing up the new baby.

“Whatever did we talk about before we had Luna?”, Mrs E said at the end of a call last week, as I imagined the children looking longingly at their mother, desperately keen to tell me about achievements at school, new girlfriends, enthusiasms for improving readings, exercise routines and what they wanted to do when they grow up. (As if.)

In truth, having children has just about prepared us for the challenges of bringing up Luna, and so here’s a bit of a brain dump on how:

We are, for example, the only people who have ever owned a dog, just as in our own self-centred ways we were the only people to have ever had children, and thereby we reserved the right to bring every conversation around to how beautiful they were, whether they were eating/pooing in the right direction, what they’d learnt to do, and so on. Twenty years on, I can just about face talking about how boring we must have been to those around us, and only really justify it in that I’ve seen every other new parent I’ve met since behave in exactly the same way.

We’re ‘socialising’ the puppy in the same way as we took the kids to the park, and we look at her in that sort of benevolent angst that all the other dog owners do. Isn’t it great, we think, when they’re playing nicely together. But if your puppy starts getting above itself, we’ll take ours away before you can say obsessivemiddleclassttwit.

And, in the same way as we spent hours poring over the early learning centre catalogue to get yet another worthy toy, we’ve filled Luna’s living space (which started off as a bed in the corner of the kitchen and has now spread to pretty much the whole of the house), with dog toys, balls, chews and goodness knows what else. And, just like the children, she dutifully ignores all the toys and contents herself with a cardboard box. Most of the children have grown out of chewing table legs, but #4 still gives it a go now and again, and it’s quite sweet to see them side by side, munching on bits of furniture.

Already, Mrs E has trained her to have a better sense of personal hygiene than #3, although to be fair that’s not too high a hurdle to jump. Luna does catch you out though – when you’re home from a run, for example, she greets you by licking you as a makeshift salt lick – delightful at first, but a bit off putting when you realise she’s just had same tongue inserted in her own bum, and before that it was licking bird crap up off the pavement.

There’s a fundamental difference though, in the whole bringing up puppies and children thing. When our kids were born, obviously we loved them to bits, but their faces all looked like something between Winston Churchill and The Hood from Thunderbirds.

the hood winston





So, looking down into the pram, you might be forgiven for the odd shuddering recoil.

Thankfully they’ve all grown out of this look, although #3 does give a passable ‘Never Surrender’ look in a certain light – God knows what he’d be like with a big cigar and a homburg. In contrast, showing someone a picture of Luna always gets the same reaction. Altogether now…aaaah:




I’ll be your dog

Well, following the Emu’s previous blog on The Big Decision On Becoming Dog-Owners, we’ve finally agreed the way forward. As a result, we made the all important call to the breeder a couple of weeks ago, and had a discussion that I suspect we’d find more familiar had we ever tried to wedge one of our kids into Eton. It appears that when you decide to buy a dog from a respectable  breeder, the interview kind of goes in the opposite direction to the one you’d expect, and it’s really up to you to pass the interview on whether you’re really qualified to own a dog. I’m not sure that we had the equivalent of this qualification when we first contemplated bringing kids into our world, but that may say something about the society we live in. Anyway, we passed the audition about whether we’d be fit to take on a puppy, and, given that there was a national waiting list and two large litters, we were duly allocated ‘bitch number 7’ and given a 90 minute viewing appointment in February, at which we will be paired with the ‘right’ puppy.

At which point, there was a suitable amount of what Hank Williams might have called ‘a’whooping and a’hollering’. I don’t think I’d realised just how much everyone else in the family actually wanted this puppy, and the sight of four people jumping up and down like they were on individual trampolines will stay with me for some time. And might be referred back to when the dog needs walking at six in the morning when it’s teeing it down with rain.

And that’s when the real challenge of naming the dog started coming in. At our allotted time in February, we’ve received instructions that we need to provide a small snap collar that is marked with the puppy’s name. This means that we not only need to have sorted a name by then that won’t sound ridiculous to the breeder, but also will a) mean something and b) be acceptable as something that can be called out in public and at the vet’s. For example, where we live, if we name a dog Elsie or Ruby and call it in the park, there’s a fair chance that we’ll be mobbed by ten year old girls in floral dresses and T-bar sandals.

And the meaning thing is a big deal as well. My absolute favourite ever name that we’ve come up with (thanks to our chums N&N) is Brilleaux, after the wonderful, wonderful Lee Brilleaux, who I mentioned here earlier and who really deserves some sort of recognition in the Emu home. I carefully worked out a hustings and lobbying plan for this name, and canvassed all members of the family to get them to vote in the right direction, but was eventually worn down by the counter-lobby (which I suspect may have been led by my wife, who has been heard in the past to say that ‘All Doctor Feelgood songs sound the same’). The counter-lobby finally won, with a text from #1, stating firmly that Brilleaux was ‘only suitable for a ‘boy dog”.

We also have a slight problem with other ‘meaning’ names, and my not-so-subtle attempts at calling a dog after my heroes have met similar obstacles. And as a result, Tegla (Loroupe), Grete (Weitz), (Alf) Tupper and Tuppy (Glossop) have been received with a certain amount of sniffiness by the committee.

Fortunately, I work in an industry that prides itself on knowing one end of a data based decision from another. And, if there’s one thing that I’ve learnt from a career in careful  observation of management actions, setting strategic direction and addressing important opportunities for process improvements (and so on), it’s that by turning very important data into attractive red, amber and green colours, you can make the whole exercise of making decisions far easier. So, taking our shortlist of potential names, and taking all feedback into consideration, we arrived at the following table (pls note #2 might not have been taking the exercise entirely seriously):

number 7

Oh, I forgot to also mention that I’ve also learnt from  observing management actions, setting strategic direction and addressing important opportunities for process improvements (and so on), that this is also an excellent way to hide behind the reality of actually having to do anything. And because it’s unlikely that our breeder is actually going to allow us to call our new member of the family ‘Bitch Number 7’, and because the really valid name (Brilleaux) has been outlawed, we’ll do whatever any responsible business leader will do, and make a decision by completely ignoring the management information and going with our gut instinct.

Which is what we’ve done.



It was twenty years ago today…

…and I’m sitting on the bottom stair in our old house, and I’m biting onto my knuckles, because, upstairs, our two week old baby boy is crying, and my wife has been taken into hospital with mastitis, septicaemia and God knows what else, and I’m scared witless, and I haven’t got a clue what to do.

Quite a levelling experience, altogether. Fortunately, we muddle through and after a couple of weeks, we’re back to a fragile three again, and we start enjoying the first of a number of small people that are to enter our lives over the next eight years.

So, he starts to respond differently after a couple of weeks, and we get past that point where you’re not sure if he’s smiling or not, and he’s got a face that melts your heart, and everything starts feeling pretty right with the world.

And he starts crawling and talking and walking and it all goes really fast and before you know it he’s holding his baby brother in his arms and tickling him, and they’re both giggling away, and that’s pretty good.
And he toddles off to nursery school and learns songs about crocodiles and parachutes and makes friends that last him right up to now, and all the time he’s getting this really great sense of humour, and he’s naughty without being horrible, and that’s all pretty good too.

And, before we know it, he’s at school, and cutting quite a dash in his grey shorts as he goes off for his first day, and he loves it to bits, and he really likes learning, and all that seems to fall into place. And he starts getting those crazes, and the one that really sticks it the guitar and he starts practising for hours, and he gets really good at it, and I couldn’t be more proud. And we go for hours with me running and him on his bike and he tells me all about the absolute ideal colour for a stratocaster, and I couldn’t be less interested in that as a specific subject, but it’s just great to hear him so excited, and eventually we go to a guitar shop with his birthday and Christmas money and buy an Epiphone Casino that’s almost as tall as he is, and he sits down to play it and, you know, he’s really quite good. So he plays in a few bands and loves it, then he starts playing drums and he’s pretty good at that as well, and we start sharing all those stories about Things That Happen At Gigs, and that’s all good too.

And he does pretty well at school, and takes a few chances, and makes a few mistakes, and goes through those rites of passage as he learns to drive, and (separately) learns to drink, and meets a girl, then stops meeting the girl, and all the time he’s handling it pretty well, and it’s great to have him around, and before you know it he’s the third adult in the relationship, and telling his parents to grow up when they argue, and you can’t help but laugh. And he runs his first half marathon, then runs his first marathon, and we get to see him cross the line, and because we’ve both run marathons we know what that’s like, and there are moments like that where you just want to freeze time because its really not going to get much better than this.

And he gets his place at University, and it’s his absolute first choice, so he’s chuffed to bits, and after a fabulous summer he packs everything he needs into the car and gets deposited into a little room that reminds me of a Cat B prison I once visited, but which he absolutely loves, and we go away from there thinking that actually, these things can sometimes work out quite well.

And then a couple of weeks later, we’ve just come off the phone to him, and we’re talking about him in the kitchen, and his younger brother puts ‘Wish You Were Here’ on the stereo, and there’s that line about ‘two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year’, and I just start crying.

And it’s not because I didn’t want him to grow up and it’s not because I selfishly want to have him around all the time. It’s because we won’t get to see the world through his eyes any more, because over the next few years, we’re going to feel like this a few more times, and because, well, you’re allowed to miss people when they’re not around, aren’t you?

Well, it was about twenty years ago that Mrs E’s mother gave her the fairly mature advice that she should enjoy every minute of being a parent, because you only ever borrow your kids. It’s only taken twenty fairly wonderful years to understand what she meant.

What, Me Worry? I’m Dad!*

Mrs E is a worrier. Not just one of those people who worries a bit, but a  true international level, get out of bed in the morning and get started type worrier. On the odd occasions when she relaxes, she sometimes reflects that she hasn’t got anything to worry about, which of course starts to worry her.

And because we appear, without really noticing ourselves, to have super-sized our family, most of her worry tends to get focussed on the kids. I call them kids, in reality of course, they’re large bodies that have started to cast ever larger shadows in the house; one of the current discussions in the house, for example, is whether we’re going to need to replace the current stupidly large vehicle with a larger one when the eldest leaves home and there’s less of us. Maybe we should stop feeding them. That’d save a few quid.

Anyway, we sat down together after a long week last night, and started our regular evening worry exchange. Mrs E has worried herself at new heights around #1 for the last 6 months, and he’s finally got into a good place which allows a brief respite of worry until we can start fretting about him being away from home, drinking  too much, not eating properly etc, so the focus expanded a bit.

Here are some of the things we worried about (note, the ‘he’ is largely interchangeable between kids, depending on the mood of the day) :

  • is he working hard enough?
  • is he working too hard?
  • is it worth continuing with activity x/y/z?
  • does he have enough friends?
  • does he have too many friends?
  • why is friend x an absolute t****r?
  • will he ever get a job?
  • is he eating properly?
  • is he getting enough exercise?
  • is it possible to be cool while wearing a bike helmet?

and so on…and, of course:

  • is he happy?

And, I was reminded of this conversation when I listened to a Garrison Keillor podcast this morning. Mr Keillor is the kind of person who could read out the phone book to you in a voice of gravel and honey and you’d instantly relax, and in ‘Lake Wobegon Days’ he manages to weave stories and messages in a way that you relax into and find yourself smiling and nodding along to, and occasionally stopping and shouting out ‘yes, that’s absolutely right’. Which is a bit awkward if you’re listening to the podcast on a run, as I was.

Anyway, this is what he said:

“It’s terrifying to see the brood getting ready to fly from the nest; to see your children standing on the cliff, with the wings they have made out of hot wax and chicken feathers. And they’re putting on lead anklecuffs, and you want to say darling don’t jump; don’t do that, you can take the car, take the car…drive, or something. But they will jump, and they will fall, and they will have a limp for the rest of their lives…as you and I do.”

And meanwhile, in this house we’ve currently got ourselves occupied with taxing bicycle journeys, friendships, exams, more friendships, self-image and everything else that is likely to hit potholes over the next few years. But if we didn’t worry then that would feel wrong as well. And in any case, the best people I’ve ever met are the ones who’ve had a fall and learnt how to travel with the resulting limp.

And partly because I really don’t want to end a blog with the word ‘limp’, I wish you all well with your mistakes and those of your loved ones.




*Three points for this reference

Caution! Genius at Work. Not.

Who, or what, you might ask, is rattling the cage of the Emu this week? In a week that saw yet more high profile senior church resignations, an indignant Alex Ferguson nearing physical combustion, and, apparently, our beloved monarch actually exploding at both ends, where would you best start?

Actually, I’m tempted to fill you in on a perspective on all the above. Firstly, I really think we need to stop this indignation that our senior public figures are anything but tarnished and corrupt menaces to society. We may as well face up to the fact that anyone holding down any position of authority in the last 30 years who hasnt been found out yet has just done an ok job of hiding their indiscretions. That way we’ll save a lot of future energy. We need to come to terms with the fact that lots and lots of people don’t necessarily enter the church, politics or show business with purely altruistic intentions.  There’s a trust thing there that we’ll return to another time.
Sir Alex complaining about referees not being fair is a bit like Alanis Morisette writing a song about being ironic, and calling it ‘Ironic’, without actually including any examples of irony in the lyrics. In other words, really ironic. Anyway, the sight of SAF pushing his way past one of his assistants in his hurry to get down to swear at the fourth official will stay with me for some time as a great example of quality people management at work.
As for Her Maj, I was intrigued at the way in which she was discussed on the radio. I was first alerted to her plight by Radio 5, where Alan Green gravely informed us of her condition at the start of the Arsenal/Spurs game, and reassured the nation that, should there be any change to her condition, that he would interrupt the match commentary to keep us informed. The next morning I tuned in to Radio 5 again, to hear the news team ask an expert what the Queen might be experiencing at the moment if the bout of gastro-enteritis was particularly debilitating. Honestly, I reckon I could be one of these experts if they want a straight answer on that one, although I’m not sure I would have quite spoilt so many breakfasts as the real expert they interviewed. The last word on this goes to the Emu family’s real medical expert, Mrs E, who, on hearing the news, expressed horror that HRH had been hanging around with the sort of people that carry such bugs.

So, we could cover all that this week, and we won’t. Instead, we are here to  explore the murky world of mobile phone engineering.

This started a couple of weeks ago, when #2, who bought an iPhone from the proceeds of his paper round three years ago, announced that it had gone, well, a bit HRH. So, off he went to the Apple store, to get it checked in for a repair. And back he came a short time later, noting that you aren’t allowed to go into such a shop and get a device repaired. You need to book an appointment, with (and we will return to this word later) a Genius.

So he booked an appointment. And went for his appointment. And the Genius told him that his phone was broken.* So he asked about getting it repaired and was told that a standard repair would cost £130, or as we might otherwise term it, about the price of a second hand 3 series iPhone.

We had the usual family conflab and agreed that we should probably go with this solution. So later that day, we trooped off to the Apple store to get a replacement…

Slightly Grumpy Customer : “Hi, my son came in earlier, and you told him that he’d have to pay to get his phone repaired out of warranty. So can we go ahead with doing that please?”
Apple non-Genius person: “Yes, ok, but I’ll need to get a Genius to talk to you about this. Can I book you in for an appointment?”
SGC: “No, we’ve gone through that, we just need to get the phone repaired. Can you get someone to help please?”
AnGp: “Well, it will be difficult, as you do need to have an appointment, but I’ll see if I can get Ed. He’s a Genius.”

AnGp returns, with Ed. Ed, disappointingly, seemed to have few of the trappings of Genius about him, unless you count being middle aged, slightly overweight and with stary eyes, in which case most of the blokes in my local pub should be up for Nobel prizes very soon.
Ed: “Yes, we can offer you our repair service on this phone. It’ll cost £130, and we can give you the replacement unit straight away if we have one in stock*”
SGC: “So, you’re not offering to repair it, you’re replacing it”
Ed: “Yes”
SGC: “With a new unit?”
Ed: “Well, these are termed ‘replacement units'”.
SGC: “So, they’re refurbished then?”
Ed: “Oh, we don’t use that term”
SGC: “OK, but they’re built from parts of other phones that have been returned?”
Ed: “Yes, so when you trade your phone in, it’ll be recycled as well in the same way”
SGC: “So, it’ll be refurbished?”
Ed: “Yes, I suppose so”
SGC “And then sold to someone for £130 as a replacement unit?”
And so we went on, examining the new model that Apple seem to have built for income upon income. I would bet money that all that was wrong with my son’s phone was a software error that a proper hard boot would fix, or possibly the replacement of a minor technical component. The sort of thing that you might sort out if you were in the repair business, for example.
SGC: “So, what’s the guarantee on this then?”
Ed: “It’s 90 days”
SGC: “Surely it should be a year?”
Ed: “Well, no, because its a replacement unit”
SGC: “And if it goes wrong on day 91, I have to pay you another £130?”
Ed: “Well, yes, but that won’t happen – these things hardly ever go wrong”
I ran out of energy some time after this, and gave in. I did ask Ed to look at my iPod, and he was good enough to ask the AnGp to book me an appointment for the following weekend, which is the soonest a Genius would be able to look at it*. In the meantime I asked if it would be the same story with the iPod, which had a dodgy on/off switch.
Ed: “Oh no, it’ll be much cheaper, let’s have a look in the catalogue* – it’s £75”

Which, for a two year old device that cost £120 and needs someone to look at a switch, also seems a little steep.

So, what do we conclude from this diatribe?

Well, for a start, there’s a new model in town for making money from kit that looks fantastic but only seems to be designed to last two years. To Apple’s credit, they tend to talk about being ‘beautifully designed’, but I’d quite like the stuff to be beautifully engineered as well. This is my industry, so, as the wonderful Claire Skinner says in ‘Life is Sweet’, allow me to know. The component parts are generally cheap to manufacture, and, if engineered properly, easy to replace.
Secondly, this economic model that supports Apple’s hilariously titled ‘repair service’, must be getting the Apple finance team super excited. I’ve met a number of finance teams in my life, and never seen them in a state even approaching super excitement. But I would imagine in Cupertino California, there are regular examples of team members achieving a shuddering climax over their final quarter spreadsheets.

Finally, I really really do have a problem with that G word. At a time when we appear to be dragging language through a very thorny hedge, you kind of expect some of the precious words in our lives to be, we’ll, precious and protected. And genius is one of those words. Genius should be reserved for Einstein,  Newton, Turing, and, if you only take into account his first six albums, Elvis Costello. I’m sorry Ed, but it really isn’t the right word for you.

* note, it really doesn’t take a Genius to do this.