It is probably worth mentioning that I cannot remember the last time I felt psychologically prepared for a conversation with either of my children. Most days, I only seem to have my wits about me after 9.30pm. And by then, of course, they’re snoozing quietly in their beds like perfect cherubs.
You know, I had no sincere interest in alcohol before my daughters were born. Now, I think about whiskey all the time. Sometimes before breakfast. I rarely touch the stuff, but now I think about alcohol constantly anyway. To understand, you’d need to have lost an argument about a certain toy elephant before the sun has even risen, I suppose. Ultimately, all that prevents me from taking to drink is the firm awareness that it wouldn’t help my circumstances in the slightest. In much the same way that half a gallon of whiskey wouldn’t help the man who feeds the lions at the zoo, I remain uneasily sober.
My children, meanwhile, are brilliant and skilled negotiators. If England had sent my eldest daughter to negotiate Brexit, then the EU would have ceded Spain and Portugal to the British Crown, without perhaps ever really knowing why.
All of which goes a long way to explain how it came to pass that I finally agreed to watch The Sound of Music with my two little girls. It was a concession to the Christmas Season, or whatever it’s called. Just understand that I went into that conversation fully aware that I do not enjoy movies with singing. I was resolute about this. There was no way The Sound of Music was happening.
You see, whenever a character breaks into song, I break into hives. I’m being completely serious. If a character launches into verse – and particularly when I see no reason for them to do so — then my left forearm begins to itch horribly. And if an unseen orchestra joins in, suddenly, for no particular reason at all, matters become unbearable for me.
I know, I know – but why would I make up such an absurd fact? When my entire life is populated with so many other, less plausible facts?
But I had no choice. My daughters are persuasive and cute. I think they were being a little disappointed with me too, which is the worst thing. They have a way of looking at one another sometimes – their expressions seem to convey well, he tries, doesn’t he? He does his best, but we must acquiesce to the facts concerning our father’s many, considerable limitations, and ask less of him going forth, etcetera.
But anyway, as they pointed out, it’s Christmas. What was I going to do? And their little faces were so joyful when I capitulated. I’d saved their entire childhoods from ruin; with a single word, I had lifted them from a mire of cultural deprivation, blah blah. You know, the usual nonsense I have to contend with. They bounced around, overjoyed. They jumped on the couch. I demanded they stop. They ignored me. I threatened to set bear traps on the roof – and dine on reindeer for Christmas – and they dutifully pretended to believe me and wailed and laughed at the same time. It’s a sort of ritual we have. I’m always threatening to capture Santa Claus — when I’m not firmly denying his existence, that is. If this sounds like unreasonable behaviour for an adult, remember: unlike most, I’m parenting while sober. Which is probably not the easiest way to do it.
Anyway, as I was saying – I’d relented. Or surrendered, is a better word. I sank to the couch and forced myself to endure my first ever viewing of The Sound of Music.
Something odd happened, then. I realised that, in my private life, I am much the same man as Captain Von Trapp. You know, in his glory days, before that pesky nanny turns up, turns his head, spoils his children, and almost completely ruins his life.
The story takes place in Austria — in around 1938. Captain Von Trapp is in a tight spot. His country is about to be forcibly united with Nazi Germany and, to add insult to injury, his household has been infiltrated by a rambunctious nanny who seems to think she knows better than him.
I strongly identified with Captain Von Trapp. We are alike in almost every conceivable way. He is strong and forthright. He has created a wonderful life for himself and his children. He’s enjoyed a successful career and lives in a beautiful home with an enviable view of a lake and surrounding mountains. In that detail, we part ways; my house is small and cramped, and has no view of anything interesting.
But like me, Von Trapp’s children seem naturally intelligent and talented. I had to sympathise with him there. Faced with such challenges, he has managed to make the children obedient nonetheless.
When Von Trapp first appears, things are clearly going well for him. He is at his finest; a picture of perfect confidence; the pater familias; a man’s man, lady’s man, man about town, etcetera. If you haven’t seen it yet, Christopher Plummer offers a brilliant portrayal of a man who has life completely figured out. He’s masculine, self-assured, elegantly attired, dignified without being ridiculous. He is a man utterly at ease with himself and his station in life.
Crucially, when he speaks his children obey him — not fearfully, however, and with only a small degree of irony — but they do obey. And this impresses me. It should impress anyone.
I too have a similarly commanding presence, but Captain Von Trapp is far out ahead of me on so many fronts. When he enters a room, his children line up like soldiers on the parade ground. Yet it took me seventeen minutes this morning to convince my youngest daughter to put on socks. Make no mistake, Captain Von Trapp is a parenting genius, and anyone who says otherwise is a fool.
He is also a progressive. It’s 1938, and he driving around town in a convertible with his openly gay friend. I think he’s gay. It’s 1938, as I said, and the man seem to work in musical theatre, so I’m going with my instincts on this one. Anyway, what do you know — Von Trapp is dating a baroness? She’s a hot piece of Nazi crumpet, it turns out. This Captain Von Trapp is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Now, let’s take a step back for a moment and ponder this. To the man’s credit, he loathes fascists openly, which is to be appreciated, considering he’s an Austrian in the late 1930s. Oh come on, I’m not trying to offend anyone. During the Anschluss the Austrian people famously fought off the Nazis with, you know, bouquets of roses and stuff, don’t give me that nonsense. There’s movies about this stuff. One of them is called The Sound of Music, for goodness sakes!
Anyway, wouldn’t be much of a story if Captain Von Trapp stayed with the Nazi, would it? And this requires proper emphasis. The man has been enjoying his entanglement with a sultry aristocrat. But when she outs herself as a Nazi, he kicks her to the curb.
This struck me as impressive. Of course, I’m sure I’d have done the same thing if I was in his shoes. Though conceivably, I might have needed an extra few days, perhaps a weekend at the Royal Suite of the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, just so I could work through a few issues with the baroness in question. But after that weekend, obviously; I’d have grabbed my children and fled over the alps faster than you can say ‘paternity test’.
But somewhere in all this, tragedy strikes — as it frequently does, I’m sad to say — because sneaking into Von Trapp’s majestic and fascinating life is a mischievous former inmate of the local convent. Unhappily preoccupied with the Anschluss and that saucy bit of Nazi crumpet I mentioned earlier, the excellent Captain is wholly unaware that all is not well at the Villa Von Trapp.
Suddenly, everybody is breaking into song. My left forearm is covered in welts. Von Trapp’s children — once orderly and obedient — now teeter on the edge of open revolt. Stop it, children! I want to shout at the screen. Think of your father! He’s dealing with … stuff! Have some pity!
And I watch on helplessly in silence as his eldest daughter goes sneaking out at night to meet a creepy Nazi boy. I want to throw things, break things. I want to warn her father, but I am powerless. It’s the nanny’s fault. Anybody can see it’s the nanny’s fault. What a horrible situation, it’s even worse than being surrounded by Nazis.
Worst still, were it not for the corrosive influence of the nanny, I’m certain Captain Von Trapp would have rightfully knifed that Nazi kid, right in the throat. ’You are sixteen, going on seventeen’ — Excuse me, but no. But Von Trapp? He let’s the matter slide. Of course, in his defense, he’s been going through some things of late. His children are scarcely what you’d call obedient anymore. More worryingly, they’re showing signs of wanting careers in musical theatre.
It’s one thing to close the door on hot Nazi crumpet, but a mysterious nanny has appeared out of nowhere. She’s making clothes out of curtains and singing nonsensical songs about jam and bread. A man can get confused, I suppose. Of course, she’s also recently decided not to become a nun. That would distract me on a personal level as well. So there are a lot of confusing variables at play. After the movie, I read that Captain Von Trapp ended up working in musical theatre in America. Lost his marbles altogether, poor bloke. If it could happen to a man like that, it could happen to anyone.
In summary, chilling stuff.
Of course, it’s possible I might have misunderstood certain parts of the narrative, but I think my analysis is sound in most respects. And my take away here is that sometimes it’s the father who is the most vulnerable member of the family.
So that was this year’s Christmas movie. How are you going?
I’m about to make cheesecake. My daughters have never tasted cheesecake, you see; I’ve been firm about sugar over the years. I’m against giving cake to my girls. It’s a thing I’m really strict about. But what happened is, I went into the kitchen and they said they’d like to try cheesecake, and I explained that I was very firmly against it. The sugar, and all that. A debate then ensued; we had a frank exchange of views — some might call it an argument — but if it was, I emerged from it victorious. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get started on the cheesecake. Keep me in your thoughts, and Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it. I’m really glad you’re all still here, by the way. Please stay safe, healthy and happy if you can.
With chaste affection,