Within a month we have both Adrian’s and Ingrid’s birthday to celebrate, and Adrian’s friend Hanna has her birthday two days before Adrian.

So we have within the space of about 5 weeks:

  • Hanna’s birthday party
  • Adrian’s actual birthday
  • Adrian’s birthday party
  • A gathering for the extended family for both kids
  • Ingrid’s actual birthday
  • Ingrid’s birthday party

We celebrated Adrian’s birthday early in the morning before school with a little cake and candles and singing the birthday song.

We hadn’t actually intended to have much of a party for him, thinking him too young, but Adrian had very definite wishes about which friends he wanted to invite, so we had a party anyway. Adrian asked for a strawberry cake, so we had both that and some cookies, and chocolate sprinkles on top.

Ingrid’s head has been full of birthday thoughts since early September. She makes lists, and plans, and draws and writes invitations. She considers types of cakes (Swiss roll? or waffles with ice cream?) and whom to invite and what games to play.

The narrator is a boy, just turned seven. His parents have financial difficulties and take in a lodger. Soon the lodger kills himself, and the boy is the one who finds him. This is the beginning of a spiral of terrors, where an otherworldly entity makes its way into this world, into the boy’s house, and into the boy himself.

The boy gets help from Lettie Hempstock, an eleven-year-old in the house at the end of the lane, and her mother and grandma. They turn out to be not quite from this world either.

The boy may be the narrator but he is mostly a passive participant in this story. The nameless alien entity comes into his life, and he cannot do much about it – all he can do is go to Lettie and ask for help. And when that doesn’t quite solve the problem, all he can do is wait for the Hempstocks to do something more about it.

This passivity, this helpless hanging on while knowing that there’s nothing you can do, is not a comfortable feeling. There is no sense of adventure, of daring – it’s mostly just about being afraid. That is what, to me, pushes the book from the fantasy genre into horror. I picked up The Ocean at the End of the Lane expecting it to be a modern fairy tale but got a horror story instead, and I’m not very fond of horror stories, no matter how good they are.

But this passivity is also very necessary, because the whole book is an allegory of childhood (certain angles of it at least). The book drips with allegory: life can be terrifying when you’re a child and the world is large and incomprehensible; parents are not always strong and wise; adults can seem like monsters at times; childhood innocence lost; adults don’t remember what it is like to be a child; etc.

The allegory is layered on so thickly that at times the story itself gets second priority. The boy is ordinary, unexceptional, not particularly interesting in any way. Which of course helps the allegory along, because the boy is everyman, but doesn’t make the story any stronger.

The themes of myth and fairy tales and ancient “gods” in a modern world is very Gaiman in a way, but at times the book reminded me more of Stephen King. It’s a Stephen King book set in Sussex instead of New Hampshire: a horror story that revolves around kids and has nameless horrors that you cannot afterwards describe, from beyond space and time.

It is all perfectly well executed, with wonderful skill and great mastery of language. But it feels more like a personal therapeutic/philosophical exercise than a novel. Felt great while I was reading it, but disappointing afterwards. I liked both Coraline and The Graveyard Book better: the ideas were fresher, the central characters more active participants in their own stories.

Finally, it really really irritates me that the boy gets the blame, and blames himself, for everything that goes wrong, when he has no idea that his actions could possibly lead to this. He thinks it’s his fault when it really is the oh-so-great-and-powerful Lettie who doesn’t properly explain the situation to him.

Quite often someone (especially a child) in a book or a movie is expected to do or not do certain things, but is not given sufficient information to make the right decisions. It is an annoying plot device. “Don’t let go of my hand” is not enough of a warning – the difference is huge between “don’t let go of my hand or you may fall and skin your knee” and “don’t let go of my hand or the world may end”. In some movies they don’t even say anything, and only when the poor kid has done X, someone tells them that they really really shouldn’t have done that. If something is so bloody important, you better say so before!

Adrian is now three years old. He is so big and so small at the same time.

It’s been a lively, changeable month. On some days Adrian is happy and active. On other days, mostly tired. On yet others he is angry and frustrated, yells and cries.

The anger and frustration mostly come out when he is tired. The trigger is often Ingrid getting something before him, or something better than him. I buy two new toothbrushes – and he wants the one that Ingrid got. Dinner is ready – and he is so angry that Ingrid got to the potatoes first.

The Estonian playgroup’s autumn season began this month. Adrian and Ingrid both came. It struck me how active he is and how intensely he participates compared to absolutely all the other kids. Most sit passively; some become restless and wander around or start fighting to get away. But only Adrian has always been fully present – and Ingrid was the same when she was there with me. (Now she’s in another group with older kids, without parents, so I don’t really know what she does.) He points out the pictures of the songs he knows; shouts out the name of the animal we’re about to sing about; cheers when we’re about to sing a riding song. Infectious joy!

Often the teachers at the nursery also tells me how much he loves taking part of all the activities. So much so that he gets stressed because he cannot be everywhere and do everything that the others are doing. By the time it’s time to go home, he is often quite tired.

At home he likes playing with the iPad. For several weeks he played Pettson’s Inventions all the time. I thought that the game would be way too hard for him, but he persevered. At first it was only guesswork and he asked for help a lot, but after a while he figured out some of the “rules” and managed to put the inventions together on his own.

He likes board games but doesn’t understand how to play them. When Ingrid and I play, he likes to join us and move the pieces around, or just play with them. Luckily most games have enough pieces that he can play with some of the pieces while we can play the game our way. Otherwise we take one game and he gets another, right next to us. Sometimes he does it on his own as well: takes a board game, spreads out all the parts, and then plays with them.

We’ve also been doing some jigsaw puzzles together, after a long time of no interest in puzzles. But already it looks like he’s lost interest.

Adrian has noticed that Ingrid brings home crafts projects from school and has now started doing the same. He has made two “surprises” out of small pieces of cardboard and colourful tissue paper, glued or taped together. He says Ingrid should “put them on her arm and then put water on them and then count”, as with fake tattoos.

We don’t have much time for art or crafts at home (which I think is really unfortunate but that’s another topic). He might do it if I suggested it, but left to his own devices it’s not something he asks for. But in the few drawings he has done, he’s moved on from susapusa (tangles) to individual roughly circle-shaped things, usually quite large.

He likes listening to music. For quite a while he mostly chose Sõit-sõit-sõit külla, a CD with Estonian folk musicians singing with and for their kids. Now it’s mostly Barnkammarboken CDs. He listens more to the lyrics than he used to, and joins in. He likes listening with Eric’s large headphones.

The songs he loves best are all by Astrid Lindgren. Which is quite fascinating: they are from different CDs and different movies, and I don’t think he knows that they “belong” together, but still there is something in them that speaks to him.

Those are also the songs he asks for when I sing for him at bedtime. Här kommer Pippi Långstrump, Pippis sommarvisa, Idas sommarvisa (aka den andra sommarvisan, “the other summer song”), Mors lilla lathund, Kalle Teodor… The iPad comes in handy: I can look up the lyrics in the dark bedroom. The lyrics for some of those songs are not easy to remember.

We also read a bedtime story every night. His current favourite bedtime books are Disney Princess: Pretty Please and Pippi Kurrunurruvuti saarel.

He’s been going to bed much earlier than he did a few months ago. Usually we brush his teeth and put on pyjamas at 8:15 and after that it’s bedtime, but sometimes he asks to go to bed even earlier.

Most mornings he still half-wakes around 5:15 or 5:30 and then has trouble falling asleep again. Sometimes it takes an hour before he is fully asleep again, rather than tossing and turning and whimpering. I actually think get fewer hours of good sleep now than when we nursed at night. (We now nurse a teeny-tiny bit at bedtime, and that’s it.)

Breakfast normally consists of porridge. Lots of it. On weekends he often asks for French toast instead, or sometimes ordinary toast. Sometimes he eats cereal as well (corn flakes and oat squares).

At lunch and dinner I have started insisting that he try some vegetables. He does not like the idea but almost always takes at least a little bite nevertheless. Very rarely he asks for another piece. I think he has only done that with raw carrots and bell peppers, and once with chickpeas.

He likes topping off his dinner with a piece of dark chocolate.

He uses the word “yesterday” to refer to any time in the past.

He mixes up ljud and ljus, “sound” and “light” in Swedish. In the dark bedroom he asks for more sound; when the iPad is too quiet he says he wants more light.

Favourite movie: Disney’s Funny Little Bunnies (a Silly Symphony from 1934).

At the three-year checkup today he was officially recorded at 15.2 kg and 94 cm. The nurse also evaluated his speech, his ability to understand and follow spoken instructions, and to draw scribbles. Then she mentioned child-proofing and I steered the conversation in another direction, keeping quiet about letting Adrian cut with a sharp knife.

Back to school. Ingrid chose the location. First she posed, then she did a song and dance number.

This month has been packed with news and newness.

First and foremost, this was “back to school” month. Ingrid went from grade 0 to grade 1, from Kindergarten to “real school”. She was very excited about this, and still is. New school building, new teacher, new classroom, new routines, new just about everything.

In grade 0 the kids had no fixed places; now Ingrid has her own seat and desk. In grade 0 there were communal boxes with pencils and crafts materials; now she has her own pencils and crayons and glue stick, as well as writing books and a reading book.

Her schedule is mostly filled with Swedish, i.e. reading and writing. There’s also maths, as well as “social studies” and “nature studies”, and even a bit of English. The class teacher is in charge of all of this.

The kids also have a music lesson once a week, and gym class twice a week, with specialist teachers. Twice a week they go to the school library where they can borrow books to read in the afternoons.

School work ends at one o’clock and after that it’s after school care: playing with her friends, reading, doing crafts projects etc.

This year the grade 0 kids are in the same building as grade 1, so several of Ingrid’s friends from preschool (about half a year younger than her) have “caught up” with her, including her very best friend Elin.

Ingrid has rediscovered beading and regularly brings home beaded circles and hearts decorated in geometrical patterns. Then she hides them somewhere in the house and prepares a treasure hunt for me, with drawn clues leading me to the final treasure. Her sketches of the hiding places are often really carefully observed. Last time, for example, four of the hiding places were in different lamps, and each one was clearly distinguishable: my desk lamp, a reading lamp by the sofa, the lamp over the kitchen table, and the ceiling lamp in the hallway.

Also new for this month is a new bicycle for Ingrid. She could still use the old one, but because it was relatively small, she couldn’t go particularly fast on it, and not particularly far either. When we were going somewhere together by bike, I sometimes had trouble keeping my balance because I had to cycle so very slowly.

On her new bike she can keep up much better, so the bikes are our main mode of daily transportation. We cycle to and from school, to friends’ birthday parties, to playgrounds…

Every other Sunday we cycle to a beaver scout meeting. Eric was a boy scout when he was a kid, and scouting seemed like the kind of thing that Ingrid might enjoy as well, so we’re giving it a try. She’s enjoyed the first two meetings and is looking forward to the hike next weekend.

The one activity to which Ingrid has not tried cycling is swim school. It’s on Friday evenings, quite late, and I suspect she might not have any strength left for the trip back home afterwards.

Favourite books: Bamse and Kalle Anka, and the Daisy Meadows’ fairy books.

Favourite on-screen entertainment: kids’ programmes on SVT Play, especially Världens bästa fritids but also Vampyrskolan, Max och Ruby etc.

Favourite toys: Lego. Yes, Ingrid has actually been playing with toys recently! She has been making little cars and houses, and then playing with them. Sometimes she ties the cars together with pieces of string and makes a train out of them. Often the cars are flying cars. Sometimes the cars live in the house. I bought a box full of doors and windows for her, and I think we also need more wheels, and more figures who can live in those houses and fly around in the cars.

The August self-portrait never got done, but here’s one for September. Perfectly boring, but that was the intention: to practice the basics of lighting, exposure and focus. I am a much more cooperative subject than the kids and much easier to practice on, despite the added effort of running back and forth between the camera and my position.

Speaking of which, the second photo shows my “studio” for this session: a messy bedroom with an unmade bed, the window opened wide and the curtain bunched up to let in more light, the lamp cord tucked away to leave the wall bare and clean. The window ledge acted as tripod. (For next month maybe I’ll finally get myself a real one.)

A clear sign that it’s autumn: noticing that I need to stop mowing the lawn well before I’m tired, not because the kids need to be put to bed but because it is getting too dark outside.

Birthdays are coming up, and it’s made me think of gifts and gift-giving. Sometimes the most thoughtful, loving gifts can fall flat – and spur of the moment gifts can end up being unexpectedly valuable and long-lived.

I got a pin cushion for my birthday when I was maybe six years old. Or maybe seven or eight, whatever – a very very long time ago. It was given to me by a girl whom I didn’t really know, the daughter of some acquaintance to my parents, who just happened to be nearby when I had my birthday, or something random like that. And she probably happened to have just finished it. I have no memories of the girl. But I still have the pin cushion, and I still use it.

A similar “hey here’s a crafts project I had in a drawer at home” was given to us when we moved into this house five years ago. We had a housewarming party and invited the neighbours. A lady and her daughter from across the street came by and gave us a crocheted potholder. It just so happened that the potholder was green and white which matched our other potholders pretty well, as well as most of the rest of the kitchen. It’s still in use.

During my years at university a crafty member of one of the clubs made hand-painted mugs for each of the club members. I got one, too, even though I never drank tea or coffee. She knew it, but was kind enough to give me a mug nevertheless. It’s been with me through the various moves since then, packed away and unpacked, but never really used much. Then the kids came along, and Ingrid loves colourful mugs much better than plain old glasses. So now the mug is in constant use.

Another unexpectedly useful gift was a toaster we got as a wedding present. We did not then own a toaster and had never thought about needing one. And I myself still almost never eat toast… but the rest of the family do. So it’s still with us, still looks stylish and works well, and earns its keep every weekend morning.