Manual? What Manual?

I’m a parent – no, really, it’s true – and let me tell you, no-one could be more shocked than I. Does every father live as I do, in constant dread of the hand on the shoulder and the words “Sorry sir, been a bit of a mix-up”?  Or the inevitable letter from the Department of Ensuring All Destinies Run As They Should (DEADRATS), clarifying that only individuals of the highest mental and emotional calibre are permitted to have children, and that as a Grade-3 Minor Idiot (Category B), I unfortunately don’t qualify?

The lament is often heard that children don’t come with an instruction manual. That sounds reasonable, but it’s total BS coming from a dad. Because dads don’t read manuals anyway. We just pick up the DVD recorder, hedge strimmer, or 15-month-old baby girl, and expect it to operate within specified manufacturing parameters.

But being a dad is incredibly hard. Since I never seem to hear any other dads saying this – they’re too busy romping off with their sons on 6am camping expeditions, or teaching their daughters kung-fu – I assume there was some sort of no-complaining clause in the paperwork that I never received because of the whole mix-up by DEADRATS. Or else those other dads are just better than me.

Maybe, though, they’re not: maybe they’re more like icebergs, just 10% showing above the surface, but underneath, they’re paddling like crazy. Or do I mean swans? Possibly ducks? Hard to say. What is an analogy, after all, but a pig with five legs? The point is, possession doesn’t automatically confer expertise. Just because you own a few kids doesn’t mean you know how to operate them. That takes years – and even then, you’re probably only familiar with a fraction of their functions.

Of course the rewards of parenthood are among the most wonderful experiences this world can offer (and I speak here as someone who has seen the Northern Lights dozens of times, on Youtube). Every evening when I get in from work I’m greeted by stampeding feet and the giddy, affectionate sounds of happiness. But that’s enough about the dog. The kids might look up briefly from the TV too, if I’m lucky.

Sadly, though, there are no DEADRATS watching over us. DEADRATS don’t exist at all, unless, possibly, maybe in the health service somewhere. It’s entirely up to us to make sure things Run As They Should. But as the philosopher-poet Ralph W. Emerson  said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Hard as it is to take advice from a guy whose middle name is Waldo, I think that where parenting is concerned, there’s no other choice.

Don’t Change a Hair for Me

Here’s a cautionary, and true, romantic story.

Seán and Jenny had a wild romance: fiery, adventurous, hungry… especially hungry. They both loved fine food and tried to visit a nice restaurant at least once a week.

Giddy on passion and reckless zest, they developed an eating-out routine which combined their shared taste for theatrics with a soupçon of adrenalin. This involved Seán rising from his seat mid-dessert and sinking to one knee before Jenny, producing with a flourish the unmistakable, iconic cube of a ring box, as every eye in the place turned to watch this age-old human fairytale.

They were good actors, and invariably Jenny’s happy Oh-darling-I-do! would elicit a round of applause. More importantly, it also brought material benefits: free drinks, at least, and sometimes – you’d be surprised how often – a torn-up bill. Cakes were produced, waitresses sang songs. There are at least three upmarket bistros in Dublin where you can still see, pinned up behind the bar, a yellowing Polaroid of the allegedly betrothed, toasting their fictitious future with champagne donated by the beaming manager who’s embracing them both.

Even if their romantic hamming hadn’t moved the boss, some well-to-do fellow patron might pull out his credit card, spurred to generosity by this sentimental reminder of the beauty and optimism of l’amour even in our uncaring, dog-eat-dog age. The world will always welcome lovers, after all.

On holidays the pair fished for every conceivable freebie by claiming to be on honeymoon. They even brought props to support their Bonnie-and-Clyde sham: wedding cards, a bridal veil, leftover confetti. Happy, daring, aphrodisiac times ensued.

But of course they were playing with fire. Not just the fire of potential discovery, but the fire that smoulders, usually undetected, in the hearts of the young and infatuated. The lie oft-repeated became an internalised truth. Jenny made certain assumptions, subconscious perhaps but no less important for that. Seán meanwhile remained blissfully non-committal as the years whizzed by and the pretend engagements mounted.

It could only end one way. After five years they parted. Badly.

Five more years passed, years of hard graft, hard knocks. Lessons were learned on both sides. And finally there was a reunion. In a different restaurant, surrounded by another crowd of strangers, peace was made. Dessert was ordered. And Seán produced another little jewellery box – this time for real.

Tears in her eyes, Jenny rose to her feet. “Too late, darling, too late,” was all she whispered as she walked away. There was no applause. Seán quickly settled the bill, dozens of sympathetic watchers pretending not to see, and left.

George Wells

Energy Saving Lightbulbs

Bloody energy-saving lightbulbs, eh? They’ve attracted a lot of chatter lately, and the last thing this debate needs is rabid, misinformed invective from me. But here it is anyway.

For I have vast and unhappy experience of Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs), aka energy-saving or long-life bulbs. It started when an electrician skilfully smashed one in our small bathroom, a facility used mostly by the kids who were cavorting barefoot nearby. Naturally, he sloped off without a word, believing perhaps that placing one large shard of glass in the sink was sufficient duty-of-care for one lazy shiftless lifetime, and possibly unaware that (a) CFLs contain mercury and (b) mercury is bad.

That’s when I learned the proper, EPA-approved clean-up procedure for such scenarios. I won’t bore you with the details because well, they’re boring, but highlights include not being allowed to vacuum or brush (because that makes the mercury airborne) and using sticky tape to pick up small fragments and powder (because you’ve got all weekend to do this, right?)

Also, be aware that CFLs don’t play nice with dimmer switches. Don’t use them together, or, bang!, you’ll end up exploding both.

We have a CFL upstairs which has started to flicker. Constantly. It cost €7.99 a few months ago, but now it has to go. Last week I replaced the candle-style CFL in a child’s reading lamp, for €5.99, because it was melting.

Yes, melting. The whole energy-saving point of CFLs is they don’t get hot – unless, it seems, a fly gets incinerated inside their ugly tubular coils, which is what happened here. But c’mon, who knew that insects would fly towards lights? You can’t expect the bulb people to plan for something as rare as that, can you?

In the kitchen, we have an even more expensive “soft” CFL which supposedly replicates the warmer glow of incandescent bulbs. It also replicates their curvy, tasteful, almost mammary appearance. Sadly, however, it fails to replicate the not-being-a-piece-of-crap aspect of old-fashioned bulbs, in that it only works half the time. Weeks will pass without a single lumen – then one day it’s back, shining away. And I can’t throw it out if it’s still semi-working. I’m not made of lightbulbs.

Look, I’m being moderate here. I haven’t mentioned CFLs’ alleged links to epilepsy and migraine, the cancer scares around their ultraviolet emissions, and the distinct probability that the CIA is using radiation to brainwash and seduce our beautiful redheaded women. I’m not a crackpot.

But dammit, I’d rather sit in the dark than clean up after another broken “long-life” bulb.

George Wells

Number Withheld

Yesterday I received four calls from a blocked number. This has been going on for weeks now.

I received them, but I didn’t accept them. Nor will I, no matter how often the dastards call. Like many others, I won’t answer blocked numbers. The era of friendly, unsuspicious telephone-obedience is over, and good riddance to it. Telemarketers, stalkers, creditors and odious prank-calling radio DJs have brought the age of telecommunications innocence to a shameful, paranoid end, like a bankrupt businessman’s relationship with first-class airport lounges.

These days, making a call with your number blocked is like wearing a balaclava to a speed dating event. It’s like covering someone’s eyes from behind, yelling “Guess who?” but refusing to take your hands off. It’s like going to a job interview with one of those black rectangles from old-style “identities concealed” news reports pasted over your upper face (which would actually be totally cool, now that I think of it).

You may well be experiencing similar harassment yourself; I know of two other confirmed cases (and we’re all on the same network, for whatever that’s worth). One guy, Dave, actually answered recently, and got thirty seconds of silence before he hung up. But still that infuriating impersonal buzz keeps coming.

It’s gotta be a call centre. If a reasoning human being was behind this, and they really wanted to get through, surely they’d have the cop-on to change the “send number” setting on their mobile, or fire off a text message. If they’re using an unlisted landline, they should know that entering 142 before dialling makes your number visible just for that call.

Call centres, on the other hand, navigate by the pure hard stars of bits and bytes. Once your number’s on their list, once you’re scheduled, then no force on earth can prevent that hateful ring-ring from finding you. Their evil computer brains advance-call the next number even if no-one’s yet ready to talk to you. Not a microsecond of company time is wasted; immediately poor Jimmy Q Agent on node 212 finishes one call, he’s connected directly to you or me, wondering who the hell this is while he fumbles the intro of his why-you-need-underpants-insurance spiel.

Except he won’t be connected to me. I don’t care how often he calls, who he is, or what he wants. I’m not taking his call. Show your number, you dirty feckers, and maybe we can talk.

George Wells