The changing man

I think I’ve changed in recent times. I’m older, maybe wiser but definitely more self-aware. I think the reason for this increased awareness is because a lot has happened in the last few years – marriage, lifestyle changes, moving house etc. Yet although these changes have mainly seemed like a natural transition, my male ego is telling me that something is missing.

Basically, I don’t feel as though I have a great knowledge of ‘man skills’. Would I know how to mend a hole in the roof? No. Fix the car if it broke down? No. Do some essential re-wiring? No. Truth be told, I’m a bit crap and I feel as though my masculinity suffers as a result. As you may well have gathered by now, I’m not what you would call the ‘alpha’ male. Don’t get me wrong, I like to consider myself ‘one of the guys’ – I love sports, beer and fart jokes. I play football, can work a barbecue, mow the lawn, clear lofts and garages and perform basic household tasks relatively successfully. But, other than that, I have many gaps in my ‘man skill’ knowledge.

So why does this matter to me? After all, isn’t the notion of the ‘alpha’ male less relevant in today’s modern and more equal society? Well, yes and no. The role of a man with regards to modern family life appears less ‘traditional’ and stereotypical and more of a ‘partnership’ role with his significant other where responsibilities are shared. On the face of it, this should benefit me as surely it means there is less emphasis on me to solve problems and fix leaks myself? Not entirely, because this new, modern man has not simply left the old ‘man skills’ behind, but instead must acquire new ones as well. Today, it appears as though men must be as equally adept at changing a nappy as they are putting up a shelf. Capable of cooking a chilli con carne with the same level of expertise as they would tile the bathroom floor. It’s pretty intimidating.

So, in my role as husband, joint breadwinner and homeowner, I feel it is my duty to have as many of these man skills as possible.

Take DIY for instance – I’m rubbish at it. It’s not necessarily that I won’t try, but I tend to be concerned that I’ll do more damage than good if I attempt anything more complex than hammering a nail in the wall. For example, when we moved house, my father-in-law very kindly came down for the weekend and did a lot of jobs for us. He is a very intelligent, practical and creative man. Which is something that, when it comes to home maintenance or improvement, I definitely am not. So, when he had finished the comprehensive list of tasks that my wife had given him (Mrs.D is a teacher and, therefore, lives by her lists) he donated his old drill to me. This was very kind but, in all honesty, it is a very expensive drill. Whilst extremely grateful at his generosity, I haven’t yet used it a great deal because I don’t really know how to use it properly. My wife has used it more than me, but this comes from the fact that we are at opposite ends of the ‘taking risks’ spectrum. I will deliberate and procrastinate before using the drill, whereas Mrs.D will drill first and ask questions later – despite the fact there may well be wires directly behind the walls she is puncturing. Anyway, this drill is, I’m ashamed to say, a bit wasted on me. One of my oldest friends, a plumber by trade, quite rightly teases me for this ineptitude and I fear that my father-in-law despairs that his daughter has chosen a drill-deficient husband.

But it’s not just about the drill (so Freudian analysts, you can stop right now). As with any house, there are a number of improvements we would like to make – changing the flooring in the kitchen, replacing the bathtub, removing and replacing the light-fittings. I’m sure that you can imagine my clueless expression when confronted with these potential projects.

Another example revolves around cars. I haven’t got the foggiest clue about them and I reckon I’d struggle to do a good job of changing a tyre. Any engine problems or anything that stops the car from working would not cause me to spring the bonnet open. Instead, I’d be dialling the AA. I have two other friends who take old, broken-down Land Rovers and fix them up to be fully functional road-worthy vehicles. If I were to join in, my contribution would be limited to changing a brake light and going to a local petrol station to increase the tyre pressure.

As for the other new skills that a modern man is expected to learn – I’ve thrown myself wholeheartedly into one of them. About a year ago, I started learning how to cook. I had a lesson with one of my wife’s colleagues and then, when it was my week to cook in the evenings (Mrs.D and I take it in turns), I went about following recipes in cookbooks rather than simply purchasing ready-meals or shoving some pasta in a pan. I have to admit I have really enjoyed it. There is a real pleasure in taking basic ingredients to form a meal that is at least edible. This week, I have taken delivery of a new cookbook (Jamie Oliver’s ‘America’) and, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m pretty excited about trying the recipes out. My competence in the kitchen hasn’t yet expanded to being able to knock up meals from scratch without reference, but I hope I’m getting there and I like to think I’m more confident and competent than I was before.

Should I one day be fortunate enough to become a father, I want to be able to show my children basic skills, teach them sports and generally be a proactive, caring, parent and hopefully a role model as well – the kind of father whose kids come to him when they need ‘dad advice’.

But for the meantime, my quest for self-improvement isn’t just limited to the cooking and I guess what’s happening now is that I am starting a gradual journey towards becoming an all-round modern man. Tomorrow, I am booked on a course at a local college entitled ‘Grow your own vegetables’. Next month, I am booked on a full-day course entitled ‘DIY basics – plumbing’. I’ve also been looking at courses on basic car maintenance. I am under no illusion that I’ll ever become a master of all trades but, by gaining a little bit of knowledge and confidence every so often, I reckon I’ll be happier in myself. Not to mention feel a bit manlier. I am Jonny – hear me roar…

The life and death of a goldfish

The second part of the title is slightly premature as, at the time of writing at least, our goldfish ‘Rocky’ is still with us – but he (I assume it’s a ‘he’, I don’t really know how you would possibly check for the sex of a goldfish) appears to be slowly making his way to the great big tank in the sky. It’s a sad sight to see as he bravely fights against the swim bladder problem that has often caused him to float upside down near the top of his tank for the past few weeks.

I don’t know what has caused it. I know that some goldfish need to have the food pushed down into the water because they struggle, often with similar problems, when coming up to the top for food. Rocky, however, has been unaffected by this for the past 4 years, so maybe it’s just old age or something else that has stricken him? It’s certainly not for lack of care – we have always fed him the appropriate amount, cleaned his tank and done water changes as and when necessary; we have added swim bladder treatments and made sure that new water has been treated accordingly.

Part of me has occasionally wondered if it would not simply be better to just put him out of his misery and take him out of the tank to breathe his last. But I just can’t do it – it would be awful and, whilst he is still breathing, he remains in the tank whilst we hope for a remarkable recovery.

Rocky first entered our lives in March 2008, about 3 weeks after Mrs.D (who was then Miss.H) moved into my small but cosy one-bedroom flat. He was not always alone of course. Various friends have come and gone in that time. The tank started out as a three-fish home with ‘Red’ and ‘Bruce’ initially swimming alongside Rocky. Sadly, they eventually passed away along with their successors ‘Bob’ and ‘Otis’. Since the passing of Bruce in late 2010, Rocky has been the sole occupant. He has been a constant presence – a witness to my somewhat clumsy proposal (to my wife, not to him obviously) and has been around as my wife and I embarked upon married life, entered our thirties and eventually moved into a new home last summer.

Other pets (of the non-fish variety) have been suggested at various times. We would love to own a dog but because, for the majority of the time anyway, we are both at work and away from home for around 9-10 hours a day, it would be unfair on the dog. Hence why, at this time in our lives, Rocky has been the ideal pet. He has seemed quite happy swimming around amongst his plastic plants and borderline-tacky ornaments (well as happy as you can be when you effectively live in your own toilet), eagerly awaiting the next batch of flakes to pop into the tank. When we’ve been away, he has had those fish blocks that keep him fed and occupied for the duration of the break.

So – when the time does come to say goodbye to him, it will be a sad day – the end of an era. It sounds daft but this because, for just over four years, this little fish has been around during a lot of changes – some exciting periods as well as some difficult moments. But ultimately he has been a part of what has, and is, undoubtedly the happiest time of my life.  His swimming days may soon be over but, despite being a little goldfish, he will be missed.

10 Things: Modern grumbles

I have to apologise in advance – because what started out as a light-hearted look at modern irritations turned into a bit of a rant. Sorry about that and thanks to my lovely wife and proof-reader for pointing it out…

1)   Kindles: Call me old-fashioned but, when I read a book, I like to have an actual copy, not a download on some device. I prefer the feeling of stretching the back of the book a bit when you start –in the knowledge that this will hopefully be the start of a satisfying  (albeit short-lived) relationship with the words on the page. But truthfully, if you replace a shelf-full of books with a Kindle, you can’t show off as much. Yes, that’s one of the main reasons I think we all keep books – to show off when people come round. I can honestly admit that I disliked ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac and have only kept my copy so that people will see it on the bookshelf and hopefully jump to the conclusion that I am a hip, edgy beatnik-type. A Kindle would rob me of that utter delusion.

2)   Self-service checkouts: “Would you like to purchase any of our promotion items?” “Do you have an advantage card?” “Please scan your first item”. “Verification needed – please wait for assistance”. “Do you have your own bags?” “Please place bag in bagging area”. “ Bag not recognized – please remove bag from bagging area”. “Unidentified item in bagging area”. “Please replace bag”. “Item not recognized – please try again”. “Please stop trying to destroy bagging area or I will call security”…

3)   The Nike running app: For always, ALWAYS deciding to stop working when I have think I have actually made a time that I am proud of, despite the fact I am wheezing like an asthmatic 80-year old carrying his shopping.

4)   Gastro-pubs: I don’t object to the fact that they exist, just the fact they seem to have taken over every single pub in Britain. I mean, sometimes I just want to be able to walk into a pub, get served at the bar and not be forced to sit at a table (due to ‘policy’) where a disinterested waitress will get stroppy because I just want a beer and, therefore, am unlikely to tip her. If I am actually eating, sometimes I’ll want something other than pork belly – maybe just a greasy burger or a piece of steak that looks like it’s been on the floor and was definitely NOT subject to ‘the 10-second rule’. Sometimes I want to feel I have lived dangerously by eating that steak and drinking out of a pint glass that looks like it hasn’t been washed since the most recent ‘change of ownership’.

5)   Gourmet cat food: I don’t have a cat and my feline-based gripes have already been documented on these pages, so the reason for including this is down to the fact that I saw an advert for it on the TV the other night. “You should put that in your blog”, said Mrs.D. So here we go…Why on earth would you want to pay more money for ‘gourmet cat food’ to show how much you ‘love’ your cat? Surely the very fact that you put up with its evil antics is enough to show that you at least tolerate the furry beast in the first place? Besides, is the cat really going to turn around and tell you that it really appreciated its latest meal with the hint of flaked salmon as opposed to the usual, congealed lumps it happily scoffs? No, because it’s a sodding cat! This is an animal that will happily lick its own genitals, so I can be pretty sure its taste buds won’t care whether the food is ‘gourmet’ or not.

6)   Reward cards: Shop at your local supermarket 10 times and you’ll get 5 points on your reward card. 200 points give you 20 tokens – which you have to redeem online. When you collect 1000 tokens, you can then apply via post (including a copy of your passport photo and a print-out of all your tokens) for a gold card, which will save you 47p off your next food shop. Alternatively, you can use it to pay for a night in a 2-star hotel somewhere near Bournemouth (dinner and breakfast not included).

7)   ‘Chuggers’ (those people who try to stop you in the street and get you to donate to any number of charities): Don’t get me wrong – I am a charitable person. I have taken part in a number of charitable events over the years and am more than happy to support friends and family when they do likewise. However, I do object to being accosted by ‘perky’ students who try and prevent me from reaching my destination by blocking my path and trying to get me to part with my hard-earned cash in order to earn them commission from whatever bib they are wearing that day. I also don’t see why they stand so close to each other. If I’m going out my way to avoid one of them, I’m certainly not going to change my mind within 20 yards. I am far from a rude person but, apart from on a football field, one such encounter with a chugger has been the only time I’ve ever sworn at a stranger in public.

8)   Rocket: I don’t think I was even aware of this herby pest five years ago – it was obviously the new leaf on the block at some point. Now it seems to be everywhere – salads, sandwiches, pizzas, burgers – you name it, it’s there and intent on ruining my meals by sneaking into my mouth unannounced and nestling in my teeth whilst I curse it.

9)   Companies that contact you over ‘mis-sold PPI claims’. Like a swarm of midges that just won’t give up, I have lost count of the number of adverts I have seen, as well as the HUGE number of phone calls and texts I have received from various people on the off-chance I have unknowingly taken out payment protection insurance. I fear that, come the apocalypse, all that will remain will be call-centres still trying to ring us about our financial history.

10)   Simon Cowell: I don’t really need to elaborate further on this one.

Don’t bet on it

There’s a reason I’m not much of a betting man. That reason being that I’m crap at it, despite my instincts telling me otherwise. Every so often, my theories about sporting events come true and, afterwards, I usually curse myself for not placing just a small amount of money on the outcome.

The most recent example of this came at the end of February. One of my oldest and closest friends invited me along to watch the Arsenal vs Tottenham game. He supports the home side, whereas I am a Tottenham fan. Before, the game, we sat down for a bite to eat and noticed that, laid out before us, were the strategically placed betting sheets for the match. Checking out the odds (and pretending I was seasoned at this sort of thing), I noticed that the Tottenham striker, Louis Saha, was 7/1 to score the first goal. I was pretty confident going into the game about my side’s chances and Saha had been in decent scoring form since he joined, so I was very tempted. However, in between mouthfuls of roast pork (the food at the Emirates Stadium is very good by the way), I missed my chance but convinced myself that I had saved myself the princely sum of £5 in the process.

So, the inevitable happened and, after just four minutes after kick-off, Saha turned in the Arsenal penalty area and his deflected shot went into the back of the net. The emotions were overwhelmingly contradictory. I was delighted that my side had scored but couldn’t celebrate as I was surrounded by Arsenal fans – so I stayed in my seat, happy but wearing a rueful smile that comes from the knowledge I could have been £40 to the good. In the end, Arsenal came back to rout Tottenham 5-2 so my team and I had both lost out.

For the remainder of this story, I lay the blame squarely at my iPhone (and Rupert Murdoch). One of the apps I look at most regularly is the Sky Sports app and, a couple of weeks ago, they had a banner over the home page advertising a free £10 bet with Sky Bet, the betting site linked to Sky Sports. I pondered this and decided that by signing up and receiving a £10 free bet, I had nothing to lose. So, when the next Tottenham game came around – against our other London rivals Chelsea – I went for a ‘scorecast’ bet, with Tottenham striker Emmanuel Adebayor to score first and the game to end 2-2. The odds on this were 250/1 so I looked forward to the considerable winnings that my free £10 bet would provide. Needless to say, the match didn’t turn out that way. It was a draw, but 0-0. Adebayor didn’t play too well either.

You’d think that would be the end of it, but with a bit of time on my hands in the evenings last week when I was away on business, I decided to have a bit of a flutter on the US Masters golf tournament. I had previous in golf predictions, correctly predicting Phil Mickleson to win the Masters in 2004, and Greg Norman to win the Open Championship in 1993. Of course, I hadn’t bet on either of these possibilities – but I was just 15 in 1993 so you’d be concerned if I had.

Anyhow, this time out I sacrificed the princely sum of £5 again (you’ll have gathered I’m not a huge risk-taker) and, having been an avid follower of the Masters, split my £5 on two bets: £2.50 on K.J.Choi to win and £2.50 on Jason Day to win. Choi has a good record in the Masters and Day is a good young golfer who was runner-up in 2011. So, what happened? Choi missed the cut (9 over par after 36 holes) whilst Day withdrew after the first round.

I should have heeded the warning signs before even downloading the Sky Bet app. A couple of weeks beforehand, my wife and I had been out to Wimbledon greyhound stadium with another good friend of mine. Mrs.D and I studied the form book for each race, looking at previous results, class, running type and all the other information – in the hope that our £2 bets each time would at least pay for the admission, beer and questionable burgers. We both struck out completely, winning not a penny.  My friend, however, won some money on most of the races that she put money on. Her secret? “I just picked the names I liked”, she said.

So, I shall be deleting the Sky Bet app and not put my precious £5 sums of cash at risk. When my instincts kick in when the next Tottenham match or golf tournament comes around, I shall just keep my predictions quiet. And then kick myself afterwards when they come true.

A very British panic

Great Britain is an odd nation. Historically, we are perceived as walking around with our stiff upper lips, flipping a nonchalant middle finger in the face of adversity whilst taking a break for tea. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is a famous old wartime slogan that has recently become a marketing phrase – adorning various products from t-shirts and pillowcases to mugs and bags. It has become so ubiquitous in fact, that I would not be surprised were it to turn up on sanitary towels or condoms. To be honest, I hate it, seeing the phrase makes me turn my nose up in spasm every time I see it. In short, it makes me anything but calm.

But anyway, that’s not why I am writing this. I am writing because I believe that there are some instances that make Britons shed their calm, collected skin and instead turn into frothing, irrational idiots. An example of this came last week when one of our senior government ministers incorrectly predicted an imminent strike by petrol tanker drivers – which would, in turn, lead to a shortage of petrol. The minister, Francis Maude, said it would be advisable for people to hold an extra supply of petrol cans in their garage. Despite the safety risks associated with this, a considerable proportion of the British public rushed out to fill up their vehicles and excess containers before the supply ran dry for an indefinite period of time. The subsequent queues that formed outside petrol stations across the country were ridiculous. Of course, this panic proved unjustified as any strike was postponed and normality duly returned. Maude was undoubtedly an idiot for his comments, but a large number of the British public seemed to blame him for a serious accident that happened as a result of this, whereby a woman in York was left with 40% burns after trying to decant petrol into a container for her daughter. She did this in her kitchen – next to a lit cooker. Whilst a horrific thing to happen, the fury and blame that was directed towards Maude for this was absurd. Yes, he was foolish but he could clearly not be held responsible for such a careless act committed by someone else.

The point is, that when us Britons do panic, we often panic totally unnecessarily and then look for someone to blame, usually at the time when we realize we have been a bit foolish.

Another example of this is our response to snow. There were reports of an invasion by the white terror earlier this week and it partially became true. I was in Manchester due to work and Wednesday saw a considerable flurry where I was based. Reports on the news suggested that it was slowly making its way south and, inevitably, the obligatory advice followed. ‘Only undertake journeys if they are absolutely necessary’, ‘look in on elderly people to make sure they are ok’ and ‘don’t run around your garden naked whilst whistling the theme to ‘The Snowman’’ (I may have made the last one up). Attention turned to the airports even though no flights were due to be cancelled. Are the gritting trucks out yet? Have the council spent enough to make sure roads and paths are passable?

Like the petrol, this turned out to be mostly a false alarm, albeit there were areas in Scotland and Northern England that did have a considerable amount of snow.

But this panic over snow has stemmed from the last 2-3 years, when Britain has had colder winters and periods of very heavy snowfall. During these periods, opinion tends to be divided. Some love the snow (myself included) and become almost childlike in their response to it, greeting any disruption with a shrug and a smile, hoping to enjoy it before it melts and turns to slush. Yet, the more vocal majority panic and blame. Like the petrol fiasco, a considerable number of people rush to the shops whenever snow is first mentioned, stock-piling as much food and as many ‘essentials’ as humanly possible in order to make it through the coming apocalypse.

These same people are quick to point at the blame at the government for not planning effectively, criticising our infrastructure and transport for not being able to cope and pointing out that other countries are ‘laughing at us’ for effectively grinding to a halt due to a few inches of snow. ‘Canada/Sweden/Russia all seem to cope just fine with four times as much snow as we have had’ they cry. This may be true, but these countries have traditionally had more snow and are therefore better equipped to deal with it, being able to spend a lot more to alleviate the problem. Whilst the last 2-3 years have seen colder winters, heavy snowfall is not ‘the norm’ for us and therefore it is still something of a surprise and an oddity when it hits. Besides, if we were to spend millions on grit/salt/vehicles etc, the same people who complain about us not being prepared enough would be the same people who are complaining that we are turning into a ‘nanny state’ and throwing money away. It seems to be a no-win situation.

Perhaps, in these extreme moments of panic, we tend to look at ourselves afterwards and, disliking what we see, hit out at those who we can pinpoint for blame, justified or not.  Justifying it doesn’t matter as long as it diverts away from the fact that we have let our mask slip and behaved less than smartly.

Of course, it’s not just potential lack of petrol and lots of snow that do this. In recent years we have panicked and blamed before, during and after the swine flu epidemic that was never anything near an epidemic at all. We have cursed an Icelandic volcano that disrupted travel plans and blamed those who run our travel industry for not having a proper contingency plan. Who knows what the next event will be – there is a hosepipe ban in some parts of the country at the moment so maybe that will escalate? Or maybe we will have to wait until the first snowfall of next winter?

Either way, we end up with egg on our faces when we panic. If there is a way of panicking with dignity, we are not going to find it. So, when faced with potential reasons to panic, maybe we should just take a deep breath, keep calm and carry on. Oh crap – I said it.