Wednesday, December 22, 2010

for Judy

Judy Orpen was a giggly, intensely serious anthropologist and player of the Celtic harp who studied with me at Rhodes University. It might sound strange to call someone both very serious and full of inescapable giggles but in Judy's case it was true. We were both in Music I and II together in the tiny Rhodes Music Department, and we would often sit on the bench that circled 'round the Jacaranda Tree while she planned practical jokes or poked me. She was incredibly mischievous and loved playing practical jokes, but would immediately become contrite and truly concerned if she felt there was any chance of anyone being the slightest bit hurt.

I hadn't seen her since graduation this year where we had both been at the same restaurant on the outskirts of Grahamstown for a dinner with the proud parents and extended family members. There was a buffet at a restaurant called Yellow Piano, run by a wild-haired German man with tiny dogs and a huge Zebra as pets. It was a beautiful evening, and the kind that one can enjoy nowhere else except for Grahamstown in all its unexpected beauty and eccentricity.

I am friends with her on facebook, however, so I figured I would hear all her most important news. But then Gwynlyn called me, and told me she had heard Judy had died. She had gone into hospital to have some bunions removed from one of her feet, so it didn't make any sense that there were messages all over her wall from people saying how shocked they were, and that there was a facebook group in memory of her.

As I heard many days later, she had an embolism (a clot that can stop your heart) and had died completely unexpectedly. I wasn't one of her close friends in the end, but I truly am honoured to have come into contact with her.

The best way I can explain why is to tell about one of my last encounters with her. One Saturday morning between 7.30 and 8am, I was on my way to Opera Company rehearsal. I always made my way to the Music Department past the Jac Labs and past the little gap in the wall that leads from Drostdy Hall to the road past the Clock Tower and main admin building. People are not exaggerating when they tell stories of how much drinking goes on at Rhodes, so Saturday early mornings are deathly quiet and deserted. I was thus pleasantly surprised to run into Judy, standing next to the wall with a huge brown box on it. I stopped to have a good catch up chat as I thought she was waiting for someone to pick her and her huge box up.

It eventually transpired that she was just resting as she had carried the box (full to the brim with Maths textbooks) from her residence to the wall, and was only half-way there as she needed to get it to the dictionary building. She was giving extra maths lessons to local, under-privileged matric students a little later that morning (As well as studying Music and Anthropology, Judy had also done Maths at the beginning of her BA). She had requested a lift, but no one arrived, so she was calmly carrying them there.

The two of us then continued together, both holding the box. Even with the two of us carrying it, it was slow, heavy work. We had to keep stopping - amidst a few more giggles and many straining noises - to rest because the box was really heavy. I enjoyed being able to help, but I was inwardly astounded at the strength of will and thoughtfulness that evidently came to Judy thoughtlessly.

Eventually we made it to a few metres from the door and some boys took over and we said our good-byes. I have never forgotten it, though, because it was quite extraordinary.

Judy lived and breathed Christianity. Her faith sustained her and gave her an unwavering sense of the urgency of doing the right thing for people: whether it was guarding against saying harmful things to her friends or doing everything in her power to uplift her community. She considered everything and everyone with such care that I think it was often a heavy burden to bear: striving for goodness in a world of fallibility and incredible cruelty is the heaviest burden anyone can carry.

I send many prayers and thoughts to her family and close friends who feel her loss keenly. I know that everything she did will continue to resonate with the many people with whom she came into contact and - this is inevitable for Judy reached out to everyone - helped. I hope that now she is truly happy in the blissful sense we cannot comprehend.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

a christmas carol

As the Christmas decorations go up in Checkers (in September) and carols start to blare over the loudspeakers in malls countrywide (coming soon to an elevator near you), those things that people always say start to be said, and it doesn't have anything to do with being jolly. People feel harassed and put upon by them demm Christians and their holiday-that-isn't-even-their-holiday-it-was-a-pagan-one-the-Christians-stole-like-a-lot-of-other-things. Plus the glossy advertisements clog up the windows, newspapers and television, complete with cutesy children and holly-bedecked, ahem, "maidens". Public Christmas is a bit of a circus, particularly on the South Coast when thousands of binnelanders descend on our little town to be rude to shop assistants, get drunk and disfuguringly sunburnt on our beaches and - it must be said - give the South Coast a lovely big injection of much-needed cash.

That is what the Christmas season is at the end of it all: a huge money-making racket. I'm sure it was back in the pagan days too and the Church was only too happy to jump on that money spinner. (Incidentally, I am reading Bill Bryson's "At Home" (tagline, "The Perfect Christmas Gift") and he says that the Christmas card was invented by someone back in the day to encourage people to use the penny post. Yes, more money-spinners...) Loathing Christmas and all its consumerist trappings, many people on facebook - that omnipotent meter of public opinion - put "Happy Consumerism" or "Happy Consumption" as their statuses instead of Happy Christmas. They also drive themselves crazy complaining about Christmas Carols that come around every year.

Well I've said it and it's true and isn't Christmas a terrible thing enforced on everybody etc. But the realer truth (isn't there always a real-er truth?) is that I love Christmas. For a start, I really appreciate people close to me indulging in shameless consumerism on my behalf: to speak plainly, someone else buys me a book/books. That is never a bad thing. Secondly (and more importantly) I get to wander around and search for gifts that my friends and family will love or (if I'm feeling very creative) I will make something. I put together CDs of music that I have compiled after many hours of planning as to which people would enjoy which songs and in which order. I also cut up old magazines and make collages on bookmarks with a well-chosen quote or (my most recent project) I draw something. Then I get to search for ribbon and paper and wrap it. That part may not sound very exciting but there are such pretty ways of doing these things they are little ecstasies.

Thirdly, I love singing carols. Every year my old singing teacher Mrs. Spiller (a marvelous lady of eighty years old who has taught (and is still teaching) piano and singing to generations of South Coast musicians and music teachers including myself and up and coming theatre star Roland Perold) gets a group of us together (the same group every year) to sing. They are carols nobody recognises (except for a difficult three-part rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" that we always mess up) and contain harmony parts that at worst consist of the words "Jingle-Jingle" and "giddy-up" and at best are quite haunting and beautiful. We sing at old age homes, churches and Christmas markets and sometimes there are eight of us and sometimes there are close to twenty. Nevertheless, all of us meet together after not having seen each other all year because we all love Mrs. Spiller and we love making music.

Perhaps that is still what some people hate about Christmas: being forced together with people you don't really know (and may not even like) every year just because it is Christmas. That's not something that has ever bothered me. I like seeing the people come back every year: hearing what business they are up to, what singing exams they have done and hearing how their voices have developed. I may not see or chat to them for the rest of the year, but seeing them always brings a smile to my face because of the shared memories and the shared music. I really am interested in how they are doing and what they are doing.

So I like that about Christmas. Personally, I love commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ (a man who preached absolute love and goodness) but I don't think that is what makes it special for the cosmopolitan community at large. It is the festive atmosphere and the bringing together of disparate groups, like the motley assemblage of singers or the various people who come back to staff Ramsgate Stationers every year.

A Hindu man came into Ramsgate Stationers the other day looking for big Christmas decorations to put outside his house. He said he didn't celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense of the word, but he wanted to brighten up his neighbourhood and enjoy the holiday with neighbours and friends. I think I know what he means. Whether you believe in the religious aspect or not, Christmas is the most concentrated block of public holidays and long leaves and that results - where I live - in people returning to work together once again with other people outside their usual paths and routines. It is for that reason I will (joyfully) sing my Christmas carols and feel far from an impending sense of dread at the approach of Christmas.

Friday, December 3, 2010

the blog about nothing

Doing nothing is actually not as fun as it sounds. Although perhaps a lot of people would not agree to begin with that doing nothing is not fun. To them I would say it is actually, sometimes. But definitely not most of the time.

After that intentionally convoluted beginning (I hope it is amusingly and not annoyingly so) I should place my philosophising in context. I managed a bookstore in Pretoria for a few months earlier this year, but after deciding that selling my soul to the store (that is actually a book title btw) was not worth it (particularly not for teenage vampire romance novels that have been flogged to death) I resigned and half-heartedly began to search for another job. It was a peculiar time because I knew I only wanted a job until the end of November as I wanted to be home for Christmas and then resume my full-time student vibes. So I would be looking for a job where someone only wanted me for three months and not over the busiest retail time of the year. Ummm...

So I chilled and had the kind of holiday I haven't had since I was fifteen. I woke up late, read some of the things I've been wanting to read for years but never got the chance to, including non-literature books about why the English colonised Africa and not the other way around. I listened to Talk Radio 702 and impressed people at dinner parties because I knew all sorts of bits of information people would never expect me to know.

I watched Oprah religiously. Watching Oprah also enables one to have powerful information at one's fingertips. I watched her show on the North and South Korea divide (and now look what happened! That Oprah woman is a prophet, I swear), another one about how African Americans are 50% more likely to develop diabetes because of Soul Food and another charming one of her interviewing Dolly Parton. Now previously, my knowledge of Dolly probably would not even extend to remembering that she sang "Islands in the Stream" (a song we danced to in our high school musical production of "Footloose"). Now, I know that she has the most wonderful, self-deprecating humour, and that she is warm and funny and down-to earth. I never saw the Twilight episode of Opera and missed out on the ubiquitous Robert Pattison and Kristin Stewart. Oh. Damn.

I also played pool (badly, it must be said despite Tumi, Zwe and Zam's best efforts to teach me. My Port Shepstone friends will no doubt smile understandingly, remembering all their kind-hearted (practically saintly) efforts to teach me decent tennis or ping-pong) and read all the odd articles in the Mail and Guardian online. I even joined as a commentator because I was so incensed by someone's disgusting racist comment that no one else picked up on. Needless to say, I felt very insignificant because my angry comment was completely passed over.

I gymed too. Zumba, swimming, weight-training, treadmill and toning classes. I felt like a housewife arriving for the 9 am class and then going home to have a shower and then out again to do the shopping. And home again for some reading before Oprah.

I must here give all due credit to Zam who let me drive everywhere in her car to practise my driving skills, and gymed and chilled with me all the time. And let me indulge my passion for frozen yogurt from "Memory Lane" in Hatfield. Anyone who goes to Pretoria should get one. Never mind the Union buildings: go and enjoy the sweet and exquisite coldness.

Well now I'm working again (in a place I enjoy) and have next to no time for any of my nothing days. But although I am missing Zwe and Zam a lot, I am being productive in other ways and feeling more energised and purposeful than I have in months.

And I manage to stay up until all hours writing. So doing nothing is fun. But doing something as well as fitting in all those great nothing activities is funner. Here's to the working holiday!
(and as always, to better grammar).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


The 16 days of activism really got me thinking this year. I mean really thinking. I remember marching for women and children at Rhodes (it was around the time of the Zuma rape trial) and thinking of all those terrible things that happened to women and children out there in the terrible world (and probably to several of my varsity acquaintances that I will never know about, considering the statistics). But this year I am in the working world, and not a working world made up of mainly middle-class university graduates; the working world of high school drop-outs, jacks of all trades, people of high and yet non-book-learning intelligence (is there a name for that? I would love to know because a lot of people have it and I would like to recognise it properly). In this working world, I see women that these days are in honour of.

Some of them are people I see in passing. There is an old, frail Indian lady to whom my heart goes out because she is balding. Women are proud of their hair, whether it is straightened religiously every morning into long, immaculate waves or shorn and artistically and carelessly unbrushed. This lady obviously can't afford a doctor or treatment to help, so she sits quietly by herself in the corner of the bus to and fro from work every day, uncomplaining.

Jody is also on the bus with me and we work in the same mall. She always has a complete supply of clothing for all weathers: a headscarf for when it is windy or rainy for her neat, short hair and a rain jacket and umbrella for when it rains. She is a manager at Checkers and is on her feet all day. There is a problem with her foot that flares up if she stands for too long and her foot swells almost out of her shoe. Last night she was at Checkers from 7.30 am until 8 pm because the national manager was coming to look today and they had to get the store looking perfect. In the end, he never arrived. He will (probably) come on Friday. She said she wanted to be a nurse, but growing up in Mooi River, the nearest coloured school was in Estcourt, so she had to catch a train to school every day at 4am. Her parents couldn't afford schooling past Standard eight, so that was it.

The lady behind me on the queue for the bus this morning (she's slim with fine cheekbones and a warm smile and has a coloured scarf wound gracefully around her head) says she wakes up at 2am every morning to make vetkoek to sell. The lady next to her had asked how she managed to stay so thin, and her answer had been that she has no time to be fat. Often stories about the industrious poor make people feel guilty or even de-motivated. This lady had so much joyful spirit and a shining inner strength that I felt inspired to do more just by looking at her.
After she got on the bus with her sealed, white bucket, the smell of sweet dough infused the air within minutes.

But this is the same bus I've been taking for years, and a constant person in all these trips has been Rachael. Rachael is an older Indian lady with shoulder-length curly hair surrounding a wide and thoughtful face. Her smile is genuine and a gold tooth glints from it. She always sits with her hands folded in her lap over her bag and looking out of the window, thinking. In the middle of our conversation yesterday, she broke off and answered her phone, pressing it to her ear and turning away from me. The engine is extremely loud, particularly when it is chugging up a hill, so I wasn't surprised. When she had finished, she turned to me and told me it was her daughter and I smiled, suddenly remembering what she had told me about her son years ago. He was good at science, and worked at the toll booths to make money whilst he was still at school.

Her voice suddenly became so soft that I could only see her lips moving and I wondered if she was telling me a secret. She told me her daughter had left home without telling her and her husband she was going. They came home and found her room empty and her work uniform laid neatly on the bed.
I glanced at her eyes to see if she was unable to control her voice because she is crying, but her eyes were dry but slightly wider than usual, like she was staring into her own oncoming headlights. She said she and her husband tried calling her daughter, but she didn't pick up her 'phone. They cried together, and then prayed that their daughter was safe.

When her daughter called, she called for the first time as I was sitting across from her. She said she was fine, she had a job and she was in another town, but that she was coming for Christmas. She didn't say where she was. I asked Rachael how old she was, and Rachael told me she is only twenty.

It is a moving and equally painful story, even more so because it raises more questions than it answers about why the girl was so desperate to move, why she felt she couldn't tell her parents and who helped her to move and why.

The last woman I want to write about is one I have never met or seen, but her story makes me realise why the 16 days of activism is so close to World Aids Day. My sister worked at a Boston College as a training advisor and it was a tricky working situation for several reasons that aren't important here. It became even more stressful because one of her colleagues - a young man - died of AIDS two weeks ago. Every now and again, people would still come and ask for him, and two days ago was no different. A young woman entered the office and asked for the man. As her English was almost non-existent, a young Zulu student - someone my sister and I knew at school - explained to her that he had died. The woman sat down in a chair and began to cry. She explained that her sister had had a baby by him and had been trying to call him.

Women are most at risk of contracting HIV and AIDS. As they are often seen as equally mystical and beautiful and interchangeable receptacles of pleasure for the man about town, there are more receptacles of the virus that will then be passed on to any offspring (unless they manage to get tested at a clinic soon enough to save their children). I hope more and more women can feel empowered to ensure their safety and health, and more and more men learn to respect them and their decisions (for the real story on how disrespecting women impacts our world see for absolute brilliance. Better yet, buy the book, "Half the Sky". Some of you may recognise her from an Oprah show on SABC3).

So tonight I do think of all those women and millions in the world like them to who - in my heart of hearts - I dedicate the sixteen days. And to all those affected by HIV and AIDS: may you find peace in your hearts, love from those close to you and understanding from your community.

Monday, November 29, 2010

sixteen days...

Spending a large amount of time in my teenage room: I have come across the books I used to read and re-read as a teenager. Harry Potter is obviously great - even more fun because there are so many other fanatics out there to obsess with about what is going to happen, and who Harry's girlfriends are and who will die in the end (at this point we would always look unbearably grave and shudder at the pain of one Weasely twin dying and the other being saved, or perhaps that the ultimate terror would occur and Harry himself would die with Voldemort in a horrible twist). It makes me sad to think I know what happens now. A whole part of the fun is not knowing and waiting in ecstatic agony. I am not even over-exaggerating. It was ecstatic. I mean I read the new book from cover to cover in two nights whilst pretending to study for my trials and then read the last one with my wife, Natasja in rehearsals for our opera.

But the books I re-read recently (with whom I have never had obsessive companions, except my beloved Granny Pam) were the books by Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, famous for writing "Little Women" and "Anne of Green Gables" respectively. I bought most of them at Adams and Griggs in Musgrave Centre in Durban. They were all selling off at R20 a book (except a precious expensive few that found their way into my Christmas stocking) and I bought them up quickly and read them greedily. I read them for so many hours that I used to dream I was still reading them, seeing the print and reading new adventures of the characters when I was asleep.

I was trying not to re-read books that I wasn't studying for a long time as there simply is so much to read I will never be able to get through them all. Recently, however, I think nostalgia and curiosity got the better of me and I re-read some.

I love L.M. Montgomery because her descriptions are idyllic and home-y and full of rich and mysterious descriptions of the natural world:
"Emily loved every flower and shadow and sound in it, every beautiful old tree in and around it, especially her own intimate beloved trees - a cluster of wild cherries in the Southwest corner, Three Princesses of Lombardy, a certain maiden-like wild plum on the brook path...Emily was always glad she lived where there were so many trees - old ancestral trees, planted and tended by hands long dead, bound up with everything of joy and sorrow that visited the lives in their shadows" (4).

All her characters nurture their aspirations and have a fascinating and by turns conservative and eccentric neighbourhood in which they grow up. They are also all Presbyterians and know elderly matriarchs who think all other denominations are less righteous than theirs. Finally, they marry their childhood sweethearts (sometimes after some strife) and live happily ever after.

Louisa May Alcott lived about fifty years earlier, and wrote the "Little Women" quartet ("Little Women", "Good Wives", "Little Men" and "Jo's Boys") and then "An Old-Fashioned Girl" (this book, as a reader of many books, particularly the classics and my penchant for long skirts, antiques, old-fashioned morals and all sorts of things "Old-fashioned" was my favourite one) and then "Eight Cousins" and "A Rose in Bloom" (the one follows on from the other). The latter three books all feature strong women who wish to be financially independent women (in the 1800s!), live good lives uplifting their fellow human beings: particularly other women, whether they are orphans or old ladies too poor to live anywhere clean and decent. She advocates equal rights for all: women, servants, African Americans: all marginalised people should have their fair chance.

Most of her heroines also marry their childhood sweethearts, or wise men for whom they have great respect. Jo March marries a German doctor, and together they run a most amazing school where children are taught all manner of things to help them grow up to be good, well-rounded citizens.

Somehow, in all these wholesome lessons, nutritious stories and happy memories I've read for years, I presumed these lady authors had lived happy and fulfilling lives, rather like those that self-help gurus and modern, quaffed chick-lit authors pretend to lead. Reading the books again with my adult eyes, I felt I had fallen short of my childhood ideals. I had wanted to live these lives, making a difference to those around me and reflecting so that I could make my life neat around the edges.

I decided to do some research on my heroines for inspiration: see what they did to become such wonderful artists. I discovered Louisa May Alcott never married. She said she never met any man that she could fall completely in love with, although she admitted she loved many women deeply. Scholars disagree about whether this means she was a lesbian or not. Her childhood was spent moving frequently with her three sisters, mother and philosopher father who - at some point - decided he was a radical socialist and so refused to accept money for any work he did. His friends (among them Thoreau and Emerson) used to leave banknotes tucked away in the furniture for people to find, and his daughters all had to find any work they could to keep the family afloat, including domestic work (Louisa was abused at one of these positions), teaching and laundry.

She served in a hospital during the Civil War (she was an abolitionist) and contracted Typhus, for which she was given mercury as a "cure". She died at age 55 as a result. She still, however, outlived two of her sisters (one of them died of Scarlett fever. Remember Beth of "Little Women"?), her mother and her father (she died just two days after him). She also made sure her family had enough money and a house for the future by writing many novels (the same novels I loved) that she referred to as "moral pap for the young".

L.M. Montgomery married late in life after turning down many marriage proposals in her youth and after spending years looking after her ailing grandmother. From the comments I have read, she actually married because she realised being a single woman in Canada was an unpleasant and alienating life to lead. She married a depressive Presbyterian minister and had three sons, one of whom was stillborn. She also died at a relatively young age (after living for many years with bouts of depression) and there is uncertainty whether she killed herself or whether she had an accidentally potent drug cocktail for her ailments.

As I get older I realise that fairy tales are just that. Life is a messy, circular, woefully difficult business, not a "happy" ending. These women created worlds that I admired but they themselves could never live in them. The nature of stories is that no one can live in them, and yet everyone does. We make our lives by telling ourselves stories about what's happening in and around us, and those intertwine with others' stories until them become our own, or until we think they do. I am reminded of Tennyson's Maud: the melancholic hero continually confuses his memories with scenes from famous books and stories so that his past is surreally interwoven with fictions.

I suppose I can only hope that L.M. and Louisa were writing stories about the beauty and happiness that they did experience themselves, even if in tiny doses or that they had hope that others would live the dreams that they never could. Perhaps that dream was simply to write more honestly and searchingly about their lives through their characters rather than writing "moral pap" to help their families live comfortably. Either way, these women are people I respect deeply for writing about all they did in the midst of their predicaments. Their fictions have marked my past indelibly.

Friday, October 29, 2010

early morning

I had stumbled, bleary-eyed off the bus the other day as I usually do and trundled up to the mall where I work, putting the little earphones of my MP3 player in my ears. I sat inside on a bench (it was cloudy and a bit miserable outside the huge wall of glass that is the entrance) and lost myself in the tales of Odysseus for a while. Homer's writing is really quite vivid. I always imagined somehow it would be dry and difficult, but I have found it interesting in too many ways to count.

I learnt about epics backwards. In high school drama classes, I learned about Brecht's "epic theatre" of the twentieth century, in which the whole story is told beforehand so that suspense can be no distraction from the importance of the content of the story, the action all happens in episodes and repetitive phrases were used frequently throughout. The Odyssey - the original epic - has all these aspects. The events described in the epic are all told by characters to assemblies of other characters in the style of a kind of oral poetry. The repeated phrases in the Odyssey become as beautiful as a litany. "Dawn came, fresh and rosy-fingered" is probably my favourite. Homer - when he rather than one of his characters is telling the story - also takes great care to describe the small and personal actions of his characters. The care with which Telemachus' (Odysseus' son) nurse extinguishes the lamp in his room and does other perfectly ordinary yet perfectly wonderful actions when he goes to sleep at night is simply and lovingly described. Homer actually becomes so attached to one of his characters (a loyal and humble swineherd) that he addresses him directly throughout the story.

I glanced up from my book and because I had forgotten my cellphone at home (it was that kind of morning) I wanted to wait outside to see if anyone else was at work. I put the book back in my bag carefully, but I left the music playing in my ears. I walked out towards the parking lot through the glass doors, and when I walked out I walked out into something sublime.

A vast expanse of concrete was splashed with shining remains of the the rain, the water reflecting the blue panorama and gargantuan white-grey clouds above. The wind gushed around me, making everything fresh and it seemed like you could do anything or be anything in that space. It reminded me of all the times I walked across parking lots with dear friends, exploring worlds with our words and escaping the homes and shops and other people. Seeing that wide, exciting expanse was like a promise that although those other times may be past, new explorations await. I can experience my own odyssey, and live to tell the tales carefully and lovingly.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Grandmother Adventures: Volume Two

One of Granny Pam's greatest storytelling talents is that she manages to talk about all sorts of details about life in an earlier era that everyone else has conveniently blotted out of their minds. Everyone knows that back in the bad-old-days, all people who were not white were treated appallingly, women had far less opportunities and being homosexual was even more difficult than it is now. The minority group that very few people have ever acknowledged are those born mentally handicapped. They cannot tell others how badly they were treated in the past because they have no voice in a society obsessed with a high "intelligence quotient".

Granny Pam's story starts with a woman who was a friend of hers. Tragically, her friend's husband suddenly became ill and was rushed to hospital. It was discovered he had terminal cancer, and only a few more months to live, which he had to spend in the hospital owing to the nature of his illness. His wife had a violent dislike for people who are ill or infirm, and as a result, Granny Pam - on her visits to the hospital - had to placate him and tell him that his wife wasn't coming to visit.

He passed away, and the lady re-married. She fell pregnant again and gave birth to a beautiful little girl. Unfortunately for this little girl, she was born with a heart condition, a cleft palate and downs syndrome. Granny Pam's friend left the hospital without her baby, effectively disowning her. The lady's mother had the same distaste for "abnormal" people and would not have anything to do with the child. The lady's husband went to see Granny Pam, and begged her - the neighbourhood mother with her thriving nursery school - to look after their baby, as his wife would hardly acknowledge her existence.

Granny Pam knew nothing about caring for children with special needs, but took the baby back to her home with some helpful hints from the nurse. The baby's cleft palate meant she could not drink properly, and had to be fed with an eye-dropper. Her heart condition was such that she could be in trouble at any time and need to be rushed to hospital. The sign Granny Pam had to look for was the baby's hands turning blue. Granny Pam explains how she would wake up anxiously at all hours of the night and stealthily shine a torch toward the baby's hands to make sure her fingers were still pink.

The mother relented after Granny Pam had been nurturing the child for about six months and took her back again. She was always sickly, however, and some might say - considering the attitude of her mother and other people of the day - luckily, the little girl passed away when she was just two years old.

Much is made of standing up for those members of our population who cannot speak for themselves. There are animal rights groups, groups for abused women and children ("normal" children, of course) and groups for many other peoples who may be victimised. I wonder, though, how many people work for the good of those who society likes to stuff away in corners and slide their eyes past, learning not to see.

Luckily there are some people whose very nature it is not to be blinded and not to forget.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

beside the seaside

The one thing I will always have with me from my Durban Girls' College days are those songs Mrs. Perrigo (I never even realised how wacky her name is: it suits her perfectly) taught us that must have been written in the 1940s. I found myself singing "Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag" whilst washing dishes the other day and gave a wry smile at the line"while there's a lucifer to light your fag". Language usage changes endlessly. There's also "There's a long way to Tipperary" and - of course "Oh I do like to be beside the seaside". College being what it is (or perhaps was? I'm a bit behind) the version we sang was a little different as the line"There are lots of boys besides, I should like to be beside" to "There are lots of games to play, every day's a lovely day". But that's another story...The point (in my piece from the other side of the boerewors curtain) is that I am beside the seaside, in Southport on the KwaZulu Natal South Coast to be exact, and - in my best English - I do am liking it. A lot.

KZN is so wonderfully green, or I should say greens, because there is not just one shade. The lush grass is a green so bright it is almost luminous, and then the deep and shady greens of the trees and over-hanging vines contrast with the grass and yet more greens that I can't put words to. It is even more beautiful in the pale five am sunlight with a fresh and gentle breeze enlivening everything.

There are always breezes and winds and chuckles in the air. There is sometimes the sharp, salty smell from the sea where I can almost feel the granules in my nostrils, or the sweet, ambrosial smell of the plants after the rain or just the intoxicating whiffs of Jasmine that float around at this time of year. I'm sure it is a large part of why people get so attached to the land here: there is always so much movement and life you feel like everything around you is communicating and that it has caught you up with it too.

And when I got back to the shop (Ramsgate Stationers: so much of a South Coast Institution that it was in Lonely Planet guides for years) that I have been working in - on and off - for almost seven years, it almost felt like I was at another home. We're packing up and moving shop (they have been in the same one for 26 years) and so everyone is a little frazzled, but there is always laughter and joking and caring and understanding (and the odd flared temper thrown in for spice). I feel like I am being thawed after a freezing spell in a hostile retail environment in Pretoria. I feel as though a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

I can't wait 'til Saturday when I can dig my toes into the sand and enjoy the sun.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Crossing back through the Boerewors Curtain

So we were sitting in the "Stone Lion" the other night (a rasta-themed pub/restaurant in Hatfield (which, for the uninformed, is the student part of Pta)) and talking to a man in his twenties (slightly pissed) who was telling us about how he sleeps with his boa (you can't call them pythons in SA, apparently) and that he woke up one morning feeling like he had asthma because he couldn't breathe, only to discover that the boa was constricting him. Whether this story was true or not, I don't know (it's a-helluva-story either way) but when he called crossing over from Joburg to Pretoria crossing the "Boerewors Curtain", he was telling no lie.

I have been living in Pretoria since March of this year and now that I am leaving one of our capital cities on Sunday, I feel like I need to look back and reminisce. Pretoria has the Union Buildings, the National Zoo, roses growing on the side of the road, more Jacaranda trees than it is possible to count and more multi-lingual people than you have ever met before. The least number of languages people speak are two (English and Afrikaans) but I have met locals who speak ten of our eleven official languages. I felt very green when they chastised me about the fact I can only speak English. The World Cup that I experienced was definitely the highlight because everyone (and because there are people of every tribe and colour in creed in Pretoria, that really is everyone) bonded together: the vuvuzelas started in the streets and in the malls at 8 am and only stopped in the afternoon. Every Friday, the malls were seas of yellow.

And there are a LOT of malls in Pretoria. Driving down one road, one can come across six malls: some of them repeating the same shops (Mr. Price pops up in almost every one, as does Clicks). People flock to malls on weekends and they spend money on stuff for recreation like other people go rock-climbing or bowling. Except Pretoria people aren't over-fed mall rats, they are also incredibly fit. There are Virgin Active Gyms in almost every suburb and they are packed with people exercising with their personal trainers, swimming, walking, weight training and doing classes in droves.

Virgin Active (though not specific to Pretoria) has been one of the best things I've discovered since living in Pretoria. Gym has always been a happy place for me, but these have high ceilings, more treadmills than I have ever seen before, a swimming pool and smiling, helpful staff. I remember showering there before work and I had forgotten my shampoo. Lo and behold if there wasn't a big shampoo bottle available in the showers.

The main reason why crossing over to Pretoria is crossing the Boerewors Curtain is - of course - the widespread use of Afrikaans and the many Afrikaners who live here. I am always addressed in Afrikaans when a stranger or shop assistant asks me something, and organisations that have to produce English manuals for their staff use the most atrocious English to do so: "The Main Ingredience for Successful Selling" was the one I got. At Tuks University, Afrikaans historical figures who are hardly mentioned in the public sphere anymore are used for advertising, as the Student election posters using Paul Kruger show.
I suppose things I have loved about Pretoria are things common to any big city: an arthouse cinema, a theatre, a proper gym, being able to watch a movie in 3D and big book stores with books you didn't think it possible to find. I have also been lucky enough to know (and catch up with) some really good people in Joburg and Pretoria (you know who you are), and thinking back on my stay now that I am at the end, that part has been the best. I keep thinking of that saying about churches: that what makes a church great is not the building, but the people who make up the congregation. I think this holds true for cities as well. Pretoria is great because of her people. Thank-you to all my those who made my stay in this concrete jungle wonderful. See you from the other side of the curtain...

Friday, October 8, 2010

the (wo)man in the mirror

I have (and have always had) a slightly warped relationship with mirrors. I was about nine when I realised that certain mirrors in the house were more flattering than others. The one in my room, for example, always makes me look a little thinner than I really am. The one in my father's room (mounted on a huge chest of drawers) is more accurate, perhaps because of the good light streaming in through the windows. When I went to Rhodes I graduated to a kind of mirror-university as well. At Hobson House, there are several flights of stairs, and each wall facing the stairs has a full length mirror. There was another one just down the hall from my bedroom on my way to the bathroom. I must have looked at myself in the mirror twelve times just going to breakfast and back. Perhaps the most famous mirrors are those ones in clothing store change-rooms. You can really see if-your-butt-looks-big-in-this in the Woolworths three-mirror sets, and at the less pseudo-highbrow store, Legit. The changing room mirrors in Mr. Price are by far the worst. It's almost impossible not to feel huge in those slightly neglected cubicles with the spare hangers on the floor and the harsh light hanging above the single mirror that shows up every wobble. Countless articles have been written in Women's magazines about the terrible way our bodies look in changing room mirrors, so I'm not going to whine on about that for a while and then sum it all up in a cute conclusion about how my boyfriend thinks I look beautiful anyway or how I woman-bonded with someone else in the queue who felt exactly the same way.

It's not even really about the mirrors, or the woman in the mirror. It's about (Oprah-revelation moment) me looking at myself in the mirror, and what I see. I am horrified - for example - when I look at my matric photographs. In my head, I was always a little larger than most, but never the little round person I see when I look back. I never saw the round person in the mirror.

At University, I was amazed at how much weight I was losing (finally eating properly and exercising enough) that I'm sure my morning routine (again in front of my mirror, trying on clothes, seeing how thin I looked) became almost narcissistic. My mother lost her temper with me because I kept looking at myself in the mirror to check that I was still thin. I denied it at the time, but she was right, I was terrified of putting all that weight back on and ridiculous as it sounds, I had to keep checking that I hadn't.

This is where writing this blog gets a little embarrassing. I get embarrassed watching all those people on television and reading about them in the magazines: how they were huge but just couldn't stop themselves from eating (tears inevitably leak out of the corners of their eyes as they tell the story) and a fair amount of the population who have never had the misfortune to be overweight look on in complete incomprehension. Then the large person comes on the television show or comes out in the article looking marvelously skinny and happy and everyone claps approvingly. Then a few years later (like me) they put on weight again, despite having lived a healthy lifestyle for years.

So how did I become this embarrassing person? When did I take on this debilitating and trivial (even more humiliating because it is such a seemingly trivial thing to fix) eating disorder? I shouldn't even have to write about this. I'm 23 years old. Surely there are more important things in life I should be focusing on instead of my diet and exercise: something I sorted out years ago. I am intelligent, highly educated and I have a healthy body that responds well to exercise. I am not and have never been prone to asthma or joint problems or sports injuries. I am even well co-ordinated. So what is my problem?

Firstly, I have always seen not being afraid to splurge on dessert or pizza as a sign of feminist forwardness. I shouldn't have to restrict my diet like a girl who wishes to be something close to a brainless barbie doll. Talking about food and what one should and shouldn't eat isn't as important as what is happening in my mind and in my soul.

Of course, what happens to my body is actually what feeds my mind and my soul. If I feed it with coca-cola and cigarettes, I won't be able to concentrate very well because of all the sugar spikes. I may even become moody (not a good look for the soul) or unpleasant.

And anyway, who said that the mind and the soul floated above my body and were separated from it? Our bodies are our mind and soul. When we feel nervous or extremely sad, the pit of the stomach starts to hurt. When I had the idea for my thesis topic, my whole body tingled with joy. It stands to reason that talking about food and nourishing my body is important.

Then there's the ugly factor. When I was at my thinnest, I remember sitting at a lunch table and hearing a then-friend say that she would never be friends with anyone who was ugly. I felt sick and horrified at this person. Firstly, no-one is "ugly" unless they are a horrible, twisted person who makes life a misery. "Beauty" really is relative. Advertising and media saturation makes female "beauty" something standard (stick-thin figure with big boobs, Bridget Bardot lips and big, long hair). Actually, different cultural mores make many different bodies and appearances beautiful. I probably also felt so sick because it nudged at one of the reasons I became thin: overweight people are often thought of as "ugly". At school I remember being told I looked like a dancing couch. Ouch.

It is also (apparently) everyone else's business when a person puts on or loses weight. When people started commenting to my face about how much weight I'd lost and how good I looked (they didn't say anything when I put some back on, though I had heard those same people talking about the weight gain of others so I knew they were talking about me) I felt like they wanted to own some part of my body.

It was around this point I realised I had been sucked into the "beauty" hamster-wheel myself. I now had a friend who wouldn't be friends with anyone like me. I say "like me" despite the fact that I was close to 52 kg and no-one would call me "ugly" because I was fat. It was more because - to misquote George Orwell in his novel "Coming Up for Air" - inside my thin (woman) was a fat (woman) trying to get out. So being thin wasn't a guard against people who were shallow, and I still sometimes felt sixteen kgs heavier. What I did feel was a lot more energetic, cheerful and able to take on the world.

So it is not being overweight that I object to. It is the wilful damage of our bodies that prevent us from experiencing the vitality we have when we are a healthy weight. Knowing that, how did I come to damage my body (again)? I've realised that when certain people work extremely hard they have little time for fun, so food becomes the fun. A chocolate (for example) is super-sweet, in a brightly coloured wrapper and one has to go out to a brightly-coloured shop to get the super-sweet chocolate.

Also, I have to confess and admit that certain foods can become an addiction. I have heard it said that sweets set off some of the same happy chemicals in your brain that cocaine does. Now some people can sample a drug every now and again and not get hooked, whereas others start to spiral into addiction from the very beginning. This kind of characteristic is usually genetic. Now, both my grandfathers were such serious alcoholics that neither of them saw 65, almost everyone in my family is either a smoker or ex-smoker and my uncle is addicted to gambling as well as cigarettes. Clearly, I am susceptible and my earlier blog about my not being addicted to anything was incorrect. Refined sugar is my drug of choice.

Being overweight (and a sugar-addict) can have nearly as many health risks as being a life-long smoker. I could get diabetes, have a heart-attack, a stroke or suffer from countless other diseases. It also hinders my daily life in little, irritating ways.

The moral of the story? People's relationships with their bodies (and the bodies of others) are frequently misinformed and often more complicated than one can explain. I realise that this blog is confusedly written. It's because there are more factors and they are more intricately related than it is is possible to explain in one blog. It's not about the weight, it's about our loving our bodies and wanting what is best for ourselves, but it is about the weight: we cannot love ourselves and masochistically overfeed ourselves.

So the tricky thing is to get off the "beauty" wheel and truly love and cherish my body and encourage others to go forth and do likewise. And I really do need to get over my sugar addiction. Next time you see me, ask me how long I've been clean.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A dedication to Orlando the Marmalade Cat

Orlando may be a city in the United States and the first name of a Hollywood actor, but most importantly, Orlando was the name of my marmalade and white cat. There was also a literary Orlando the Marmalade Cat in a series of children's picture books by Kathleen Hale. The Orlando of the books had a beautiful lady wife and three kittens and an old master who lived alone apart from his cats who Orlando protected proudly.

I got my Orlando for my tenth birthday from Dr. Morphet when we still lived in Durban. Dr. Morphet was (or perhaps still is) a famous veterinary surgeon on the Berea who was forever adopting animals. He is a large man who always dressed in the customary white shirt, white shorts and long white socks with braces to hold the whole ensemble up around his belly. He has a cloud of white hair, a gruff voice and a cockatoo that runs from one shoulder to the other across his wide back. There is also a big Rottweiler he had taken in after it was abused by its former owners who is so gentle I could easily believe he was the Buddha re-incarnated. There was also a permanently pregnant cat with all her kittens running around. I believe these were all quickly adopted by Dr. Morphet's army of loyal pet-owners.

Orlando was not one of the numerous progeny of the veterinary cat. He was a skittish half-grown kitten who Dr. Morphet had been called to rescue after he had been abandoned behind some hospital bins. I was so excited to hold him for the first time, and he must have been excited too because he was never one of those cats that would wriggle out of your grasp every time you picked him up.

He was a gorgeous cat to hold. He had fur that was not too fine but not too long either. He didn't have the squashed, confused-looking face of a Persian; his head was gracefully set on his shoulders and his mouth curled up in the perfect way to convey absolute contentment when he was sprawled across someone's lap or across my desk (on top of all my work!) in the sun. He was mainly ginger but had a white stomach and chin with a little island of ginger in the middle. His wide green eyes was incredibly expressive. When he was being taken to the vet, he would make his body limp and heavy and his eyes would shut off, or when he bit me too hard (he liked biting every now again like he was still a kitten playing with me) and I gave him a sharp tap to stop he would whirl away and then turn back to glare at me balefully.

He wasn't only the crouching aggressor(as many of my friends who became victims of his playful bites might have thought): one of his most moving communications was to come up close to me when I was standing next to him and he was on a table, press the top of his head against my side and hold it there. He would even occasionally - but only very occasionally - touch his nose to mine and look into my eyes, which is something that cats don't generally like doing.

He wasn't exclusively mine as he liked roaming from bed to bed in the house, sharing his patronage with all the family or people who stayed at our house for a while. On the day before I went back to University, however, he would always return to me and act particularly lovingly like he knew I was going away. I don't want to anthropomorphise him, for that would be a betrayal. I do think, however, that it is naive to suppose that animals cannot feel a strong bond with humans after so much time in the same company.

I'm not surprised he knew as he was a companion who was more faithful and constant than some of the friends I've made. He saw me grow up in Durban at Durban Girls' College, and then in Port Shepstone and finally over my holidays at my four years at Rhodes. He was there through all the different stages of my life, always nudging my book or journal away at night so I could pay attention to him, or coming in after I was asleep and creating a little nest of warmth at the foot of my bed. Many other things changed in my life, but he was a constant.

Until he began declining at the end of last year. We tried to feed him different food or put him on medication, but in the end he had throat cancer and several other problems and it was cruel to force him to live anymore. When he died I suddenly felt a real sympathy for cat ladies all over the world that everyone makes fun of. They lose friends when their cats die, and when my father buried Orlando in his large, South Coast garden, I lost one of my dearest, long-time friends.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Agora (or get ready for the Epic-ly long blog)

Shaun de Waal is my favourite film critic. His acerbic wit and insightful commentary is clearly well-informed by incredible knowledge of many different film genres and movements, as well as the history that they portray. As a young film enthusiast, I eagerly awaited Barry Ronge's "Screenplay" and his film critiques in the Sunday Times, and then when my tastes became a little more sophisticated, I stopped reading them as I found them inaccurate, maudlin or plain silly. I have seen him endorse films over-enthusiastically that were really only a little above average, and decided that he is clearly one of those critics who is being paid by someone to write what they want people to read about films.

Not so Shaun de Waal. I have come to trust that when he says a film is good (which is very seldom) I know I have to go to see it. His criticisms are also educative because they often include extra tit-bits of history not included in historical films, or damning criticism regarding the frequent homophobic portrayals of gay people or gay issues. At the core of his critiques, however, there is always a nuanced interaction with the film itself.

Which is why I was a little disappointed by his critique of "Agora". "Agora" is an historical film set during the fall of the Roman empire when Christianity had been legalised and they were setting out to convert all the remaining pagans. Rachel Weisz plays the central character with great sensitivity and skill: Hypatia, a pagan Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who is brutally murdered by the Christian mob (by brutally I mean stoned to death and then attached to a carriage and dragged around the square to show the people) for refusing to convert and disobeying the alleged words (and by alleged I mean that some Christian scholars argue that the letters to Timothy were not written by Paul at all) of the first epistle from Paul to Timothy 2: 9-15. This forbids women from adorning themselves in prayer and from teaching or "hav[ing] authority over a man" (NIV).

This verse is very much in keeping with the bloody and unequal historical time. Hypatia is the only female philosopher among the pagans and is only allowed to be so because her father was also a famous and learned philosopher. She has students who respect her enormously but she is not allowed any say in what happens to them and the men have to argue on her behalf. She also (along with the other pagans) own slaves whom they control absolutely. An important (fictionalised) early scene is when Hypatia's father lines up his slaves and demands to know which one of them owns a cross he has found and is therefore a Christian, saying he will whip them for it. A man slave lies and says he is Christian and takes the punishment for a fellow slave. This is an incredibly Christ-like act. Ironically, after he has converted and left Hypatia (whom he loves: another well-acted and scripted plotline) to become a free man, he becomes the one who inflicts pain on others. When Hypatia's time comes to die, he euthanises her before she is stoned rather than offering to take her place. Tragically true to form for many Christians, becoming a Christian drives out all his higher Christian instincts of love and self-sacrifice for the greater good.

I digress, but the point I am trying to make is that it is a film that handles complex moral issues and vividly portrays some of the shameful things that people do to each other because they deny other people's humanity. These shameful things also happen because people insist on being unquestioning or compromising in their search for truth.

The film also fails for me on several levels. The camera keeps zooming out to focus on the galaxy and the stars, which - in the beginning - is quite beautiful, but eventually becomes a tired cinematic trick to fill in the awkward gaps in between the narrative. This is quite frequent, as the narrative has to keep jumping years or decades, which is always done by zooming out with a few lines of text to keep the audience informed. This is a clumsy way of tying the narrative together.

The narrative itself is a kind of timeline of Hypatia's life related to growing Christian violence, and as such, is more a strung-together sequence of events than a well-structured plot.

Also, Hypatia's main concern is about whether the universe is heliocentric (sun-centred) or geocentric (earth-centred). She also spends much of the film trying to figure out how (if the earth revolves around the sun) the earth can move closer or further away from the sun if the earth moves around the sun in a circle. I felt more than a little sceptical at the thought of that level of philosophising taking place at that time. de Waal's critiques of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood making long speeches about democracy in the Middle Ages come to mind, and yet de Waal failed to comment on this kind of inaccuracy in "Agora".

I do see however, that by making Hypatia an advocate of the Heliocentric model and the Christians advocates of the geocentric model (this is clumsily done in the film), Hypatia can be indirectly compared to Galileo. He too was an advocate of the heliocentric model, and was put under house arrest for the rest of his life after being tried by the Spanish inquisition. Of course Galileo was placed under house arrest in the home of the wealthiest man in the province, but that's another story.

As Galileo is one of the heroes of the anti-Christian cause, "Agora" is clearly - for the most part - vehemently anti-Christian. I was reminded of the TED talk of Richard Dawkins in which he appealed to atheists to be out and proud. It seems the atheists have claimed Hypatia as a pre-atheist hero, and this film is one of many to come that celebrates atheism and denounces religion. It is for this reason that I imagine de Waal was so excited he over-looked "Agora"'s weaknesses.

It seems that whenever atheists see something that is pro-atheist they get so excited that their critical faculties fly away momentarily. In this they are scarily like many Christians who may feel compelled to endorse ridiculous films because they are Christian. "Agora" is better than many of those ("Faith Like Potatoes" is particularly dire) but it was not as good as de Waal made it out to be. One should get angry at the brutality and wilful ignorance of the Christians in the film, but one should not stop thinking or being critical because of it. de Waal got caught up in his own anti-Christian rhetoric, and that was when he lost both his focus for the article (the film itself which became of secondary importance) and his usual uncanny accuracy in determining the quality of a film.

"Agora" is about a violent clash between people with different beliefs. If atheists and Christians and all the people who believe in other things that I have not even got around to mentioning in this blog do not start respecting each other's beliefs and individual freedoms, I can only see more violence. It is no use saying - like Dawkins - that if everyone stops believing, there will be peace, or like the abusive and controlling Christians in the film that if everyone believes the same thing then it will be heaven on earth. Both of these are impossible situations, and the sooner people's primary priority becomes the well-being of others no matter what their beliefs (as long as, of course, those beliefs are not harmful in their turn), the less the situation in "Agora" will be repeated. Discarding one's critical faculties when being faced with these issues - even in so small a thing as a film critique - is a step in the direction of wilful ignorance for a cause, which is never a step towards a higher awareness.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Grandmother Adventures: An Introduction

An adopted grandmother is something that I would imagine is without precedence. Yet for as long as my sister and I can remember, there has always been Granny Pam. She is not a relation of ours, but we know her childhood stories, have eaten her delicious home-made biscuits (seldom made following any recipe) and have climbed the trees in her garden just like any grandmother. And yet she is not any grandmother, for even if there were a precedence for adopted grandmothers and one could imagine them all in a line in twinsets and neatly permed hair, our adopted grandmother would still stand out.

Granny Pam's hair is not permed and short, it is long and always elegantly swept up around her head. She is equally graceful when back-packing and bussing around Malawi alone (at 74) as she is in three-inch heels (at her present age of 83) and a long lack dress going off to a party or a play. Her hobby is fine needlework and she can cook huge, elaborate meals for important events like a society hostess of the earlier part of the twentieth century. When asked what she wanted to do for her eightieth birthday, however, she said skydiving. And she did.

She has almost always lived on farm properties on the KwaZulu Natal north coast. This means that as far as one can see, fields upon waving fields of lush, green sugar cane surround her properties, and make wonderful walking places, her large dogs bounding on ahead or around us. At other places there have been chickens wandering around the garden and then the most delectable scrambled eggs in the morning, a deep nutritious yellow. It is her cats however who dominate the house. Maximum, Minimum, Malawi, Mouse-tache and Ugly-Mugs (guess why) are just a few of the feline characters of epic proportions I came to know in her house. And there have always been beautiful gardens filled with abundant flowers, fruit trees, fragrant herb gardens and large branched trees perfect for climbing and thinking. On one of the longer holidays we stayed with her, I remember sitting cradled in the branches (rocking me and creaking as it is moved by the wind) reading Shakespeare's As You Like It. I could not think of a more perfect setting.

Shakespeare is one of her favourites, and I remember her teaching her extended family's (that of her long time domestic worker, Christina) children their Shakespeare texts for school. In the days when she had a nursery school (pre-1994), those same children and the neighbouring black children would attend as well. They would be pushed into cupboards and hid under beds when the stern inspectors paid a surprise visit. Granny Pam would greet them as they arrived with her charming smile and manner, pleading ignorance to knowing about any black children attending her school.

She would even write and direct nursery school plays for the children to learn and perform. At the end of each year, the parents would come crowding around the outdoor-amphitheatre that had flamboyant trees forming a proscenium arch over the stage.

One year, she had a little girl at her nursery school who could not walk. Her knees were unable to support her, and as a result, she had to crawl everywhere. Granny Pam - initially - did not know what to do with her in the play. She was an extremely intelligent little girl, and such a talented person could not crawl on the stage all night. It was then that Granny Pam hit upon an idea that is quite typical of her imaginative skill. If this little girl could not walk onto he stage as a character, then she would fly on as the fairy princess. Her father made her a harness, and at the appropriate moment during the play - thanks to Granny Pam - the fairy princess was able to swoop down from the flamboyant trees.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Diane J. Savino: The case for same-sex marriage | Video on

What a stunning talk. Viva Diane Savino, Viva!
Diane J. Savino: The case for same-sex marriage Video on

The Blog of Hope...from Benoni

Benoni. Apart from the fact that Charlize Theron was born there, Benoni is not generally considered a place South Africa is proud of. It has such a reputation for prejudice, backwardness and general close-mindedness that most Joburgers don't even believe that Benoni is a part of Joburg. My own experiences there had done nothing to contradict this reputation. The sole time Zwe and I have been there together previously was to go ice-skating in Festival Mall. We got hostile glares, rude comments and disapproving people closing in around us. And that was just from the black people.

Therefore I was not feeling hopeful about our next venture into Benoni on Saturday: we were on our way to my cousin's fortieth in Farrarmere (for the unenlightened: a suburb in Benoni). We took a wrong turn off the freeway and turned off to the very North of Benoni. The barren fields exposed the endless miles of flat, red soil, and the slow-moving traffic down one badly-maintained road past dingy shops made us think we were about to become unwitting stars in a red-neck horror movie. Needless to say we turned around very quickly.

We found our way to the right place and ended up in another mall for a quick drink after the drive. I felt that old (paranoid) feeling return when the large, red-faced man with protruding stomach stared me down the entire time: emitting his disapproval for the race traitor in his midst. I found myself laughing nervously until we had moved out of the range of his bull-about-to-charge vision. Oddly enough however, a few minutes later, we spotted another multi-racial couple. In Lakeside Mall, Benoni.

Zwe dropped me off at the party: we had decided that the fortieth birthday is not the best time to introduce the black boyfriend. My family does not have a problem, but I could not speak for the gathered friends and extended family there, and someone's fortieth is a special occasion. It's about making the day the best it could possibly be for them, and introducing a factor that could cause acrimony is not the way to do that.

Again, oddly enough, I discovered that my cousin's wife's younger sister - a Benoni local - is still dating the black man she was dating when I met her almost two years ago. Her mother (a Benoni local of the older generation) says he's good for her.

It was a good party. The children were noisy and boisterous in the best possible way, and the people were friendly and talkative. The family - of course - were just wonderful.

It was on our way to the Joy of Jazz festival (more on that in another blog) from the party that I experienced yet another piece of evidence that Benoni is changing (or perhaps was never as unremittingly prejudicial as people say). We had driven over a nail and had to stop and change the tire. Zwe has only had to change a tire once, and not in the car he was driving, and I have never had to. Our process was going a little slowly as a result.

Th next thing we knew, a large, white Afrikaner was making his way towards us. He asked us if we needed any help, and we explained the situation. He told us he worked for BMW, and was always called out for things like this. He proceeded to take all the tools from us and calmly changed the tire for us, saying we didn't need to do anything. I crouched next to him, talking and watching his nimble hands do something that my spoiled self has never got the hang of. After he had finished, he smiled, shook hands with us and went off on his way again. He helped us like helping people was just something one did like brushing your teeth twice a day.

My previous blog about the racist made me sad to my very core because it was so disappointing to see that racist, Afrikaans stereotype that I didn't want to believe in played out before my eyes. Many racists - like her - are still people who help other people, as long as they are white. This man explodes that stereotype, and shows - I hope - that for every real live racist, there is a real live person who is an anti-racist, an anti-sexist an anti-supremist. He just helps out where it is needed, no matter who you are.

There are still stories of hope here, even in the most unlikely places. Things are changing, and for the better.

Monday, August 16, 2010

on being an artist

I would not call myself an exciting person. I don't partake of any illegal substances (dagga, cocaine, mescalin, sleeping pills, crushed Ritalin, socks (although smoking them probably isn't strictly illegal - ooh, double brackets!), heroine or the odd Ecstasy pill). I hardly drink anymore and when I drink, I don't get drunk (the night I drunk myself into a stupor in something ridiculous like three hours at Radile's party aside). I cannot hunch over a manuscript, scribbling furiously whilst clutching a cigarette and looking tortured with my unbrushed curly hair tousled by the wind (but then again my hair is so straight it probably wouldn't even be tousled by a hurricane). I don't write through the night and go through to the kitchen desperate for a caffeine fix, looking at the window-glass at my own reflection staring out of the darkness and thinking existential thoughts. I don't drink coffee and I go to bed at eleven. I get tired early.

I don't really party (I get bored after about twenty minutes in a club like Friars, but maybe that's a poor example of a place to have a good time) and I don't dazzle exclusive people at exclusive restaurants with my extraordinary wit and charm (although I like to think my dry sense of humour can charm some people). I enjoy house parties where I can meet interesting people and talk to them, but even that often gets dull after a while as the things that drunk or high people find amusing are often not as entertaining to someone as sober as I (usually) am.

What I do find entertaining, tragic, amusing, intriguing, puzzling and enormous good fun is learning more about the infinite variety of people in the world by watching them, reading about them, listening to them on the radio or reading what they have to say in newspapers and magazines. What I am enjoying even more is describing what I see in the fabulous fund of words that are available to me.

And that is what I find exciting about my life. It is not wild or "artistic" in the traditional sense of the word, but if I can create messy, exciting, dangerous art; why do I need to live a dangerous life?

That may make it sound like I wish to live vicariously through my art, but that is not quite it. It gives me great satisfaction to have beautiful, nourishing relationships with people that are not sustained by wild parties or psychedelic trips onto other planes. I love talking and finding out more about the world, or going for walks or runs in green valleys or on rocky mountains. I love going to a dance class and then coming home and after a therapeutic shower (another of life's little quiet ecstasies), getting into bed with book, pen and paper. Of course sharing that bed with someone else is a not-so-quiet ecstasy that is an important part of my life, but that's another story.

I have often heard it said that some people's lives are so incredible that their lives are like works of art. Those people - although they may wish to - often cannot create art because they live art. My life may not be the stuff of a Hunter S. Thompson or even a Conradian adventure story, but it enables me to observe and minutely capture the intricacies of life around me and preserve them as though in rich, warm amber. I would not call myself an exciting person, but I would call myself an artist.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

the real live racist

I finally met a real one. A real live, honest-to-goodness racist. You don't meet one of those every day.

Now I don't mean the kind that protests, "But I have lots of black friends"; the white businessmen and women who talk about the forty-year old "girl" who brings the tea; or even the one who smiles at the black kids in their class but goes home to their braai on a Friday night to complain about the "coolies" who no-matter-how-fast-you-squash-them-just-keep-popping-up (FYI: that's also a real live experience). I mean the kind that is the unashamed kind.

She is the unfortunate stereotype that has been satirised so many times you half-doubt that they really exist. Surely someone just told a story and in the re-telling it got more and more embellished? Surely?

So I was working in Pretoria (it had to be in the figurative shadow of the Union buildings) and I was working with this Afrikaans girl (she had to be Afrikaans). She and I were the managers in training, and there was pressure on us to perform. On our way out of the centre one day, she told me she was happy to have me there, and although I was confused by her evident enthusiasm at the fact she was "no longer alone", I thought she meant she now had another trainee manager to work with and I smiled tentatively back.

Her enthusiasm waned a little as we approached the parking lot. We were both waiting for our boyfriends and I saw Zwe (my handsome boyfriend who also happens to be black) as soon as I came out. I walked up to him to take his arm and smiled and said I would see her tomorrow, indicating that this was the afore-mentioned boyfriend who was taking me home. She looked momentarily confused. and then the smile froze a little on her face, but she walked on.

By the next morning, I had forgotten it, but she cornered me that afternoon whilst I was shelving DVDs and told me that she wouldn't say it wasn't a shock. This time, I was the one who was momentarily confused. She said she never expected she would see me with someone who was black. She said each person must do what they wanted but she wasn't brought up that way. I was suddenly reminded of people who sniff disapprovingly and say that they weren't brought up to murder anybody, or to pick their noses at suppertime (or any time for that matter). I also suddenly realised she hadn't been talking about having another manager on the floor, but another white person.

Now, white people do make these kind of racist statements to other white people. It's not uncommon (although unusual to be making them to me once they know I am not only quite liberal, but actually dating someone of another race).

But this racist - when asked by a black colleague - whether she would allow her daughter (now two years old) to date a black man, said absolutely not. She would disown her if she did, but anyway, she would bring her up not to. She is so blatant I practically gasp when I think of it. And people wonder why the new generations are not yet free from prejudice...

She is so racist that her black colleagues want to believe they have misunderstood her (because again, surely, those kinds of racists only appear in Leon Schuster send-ups?). I have heard a girl say that she "thinks she is racist". I could only smile sadly at her attempted kindness.

The final straw, however, came when she heard what Jube-Jube did. She was horrified, said it was terrible. "I mean, I know they're just black kids, but they're just kids, you know?"

I know...just black kids.

But I was reading this article by Jonathan Jansen (the black Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State) and he was saying that perpetrators of racist statements are victims of their hatred.

And this racist really is a victim of herself. She is an over-weight girl with bad teeth who hates her job but doesn't have enough skill to work anywhere else. She's had a child with a boyfriend with whom she lives but still hasn't married her (and this in conservative Afrikanerdom). She craves friends but cannot get any because she is imprisoned by her racism and her out of control emotions that threaten to over-whelm her almost every minute of the day. No-one respects her and few people like her of the black or white staff.

The real live racist is actually really lonely. And alone.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

the burger with AIDS

One of my favourite scenes from Trueblood has a red-neck return his burger to the kitchen because he has caught a glimpse of the black, heavily-made up, camp cook, Lafayette making his food. His reason is that the burger might have AIDS.

It is for scenes like this that I've been meaning to write this blog about Trueblood for a while, and trying to think of how to describe it in a way that will make people look past their misconceptions and watch it. It may have the reputation of being a thinly-veiled porn series with a yet another vampire/human love story, but it is actually one of the most ethical and engrossing things I have ever seen on screen, and important viewing for anyone who ever examined the nature of prejudice, hatred, and outright evil.

I must also say that I don't do series. Brothers and Sisters is contrived; Grey's Anatomy is barely more than a soap opera; Vampire Diaries is like the new (and equally as irritating) OC and although House is one of the better ones because it is clever and funny; it still pulls an American sentimental punch.

There is no place for the sacharrine in Trueblood. When Sookie's grandmother is brutally murdered and she discovers her, there is no soft focus or a series of people with serious faces. Sookie's telepathy means she hears the coroner's comical thoughts. The mourning she does is incredibly practical. She cleans the blood off her house-proud grandmother's kitchen floor.

The opening credits evoke the American south (and conservative, Christian small towns everywhere) perfectly. There are images of blonde children in Klu Klux Klan outfits juxtaposed with images of a stripper dancing in a red-lit bar. A toothless, greasy-haired old man smailes while rocking his rocking chair, and a neon sign lit up with the words "God Hates Fangs" (remember "God Hates Fags"?). A black church sings and prays ecstatically and an evangelical baptism takes place. There are often flashes of naked bodies. The American obsessions with flesh and sex and as well as purity and evangelism is constantly present.

I could go on about the brilliant characterisation and witty, ironic dialogue (Tara, the black woman named after the famous slave plantation in Gone with the Wind is just one example), but what I really want to write about are the main targets of the show: the evangelical Christians and the pleasure-driven hedonists who sacrifice (sometimes literally) to the god of pleasure.

Steve and Sarah Newlin are the married couple who lead the growing Christian church and yet they only use their incredible power (or perhaps it's why they have incredible power) to spread hatred and division by using half-truths.

Marianne is an anti-Christian. She hates their puritan ideals and loves pleasure and gluttony and sensation. She is a supernatural being that inspires a cult-like brainwashing of all the people who follow her, and when they have sex endlessly and party continuously, they take no real pleasure in it as they are unthinking. They end up wanting to sacrifice someone to a pagan-inspired "god who comes" in order to continue their frenzied, selfish bliss.

Rich in detail, drama, satire, comedy, quality acting and note-perfect set designs, costuming and social commentary, True Blood is a must-watch.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Alternative boy

There was a thin, pale boy in the shop today wearing a white t-shirt with a print of bloodied lungs on it. He and two friends of his were looking for an Anne Rice book, and found one they wanted and left. This is not unusual in itself except for the fact that they were in the shop buying a book when South Africa (our country that wouldn't have qualified had it not been fortheir hosting the world cup) was beating France (the country rankd seventh in the world) in the world cup.

I had - just half an hour previously - run across to the other side of the corridor (past Clicks, around the esculators) to move the palm in the shiny silver pot that was blocking our view of the television in the hairdressers. It was large and heavy and made a painful, squealing sound when I dragged it across the floor. We still had to sit flat on the floor in the doorway of the shop to see the soccer on the television opposite, but the screen was unobstructed at least. Perhaps the security guards would have stopped me ordinarily, but they were off watching the soccer themselves.

When we scored the goals, a man in his pale-blue clicks shirt careened around the esculators with his arms outsretched and the people gathered in the hairdressers jumped up and down and a little boy skipped past like he had spring-bok hind legs. We hugged and high-fived and laughed uncontrollably with happiness. I had tears in my eyes as the exhilaration seemed to explode up from my toes like a firework shooting upwards out of me. Everyone was sparking, feeling the rush and it was really as if we were all united in absolute and pure joy. All white-english-alienation I often feel was erased in an instant and all that was left was a throbbing heart of pride.

I felt like this about my country when I was a child and I thought about Nelson Madela and my school - Port Shepstone High - where people formed teams and dreamed of making a better South Africa. I have not felt like this for years as the depression at the widespread corruption and the continuing hatred and prejudice that is only passed on from one generation to another is not lessened with time and better education.

And then this boy came in with his alternative t-shirt and said how he was sick of the soccer, how he hoped we lost so that everything would return to normal. He wasn't interested in watching. My lips pulled backwards over my teeth in a not-smile, and I felt intensely angry with him and sorry for him at the same time. I was angry because he wanted to crush the raw energy of such patriotism that I thought no one would ever feel again after Mbeki, Zuma, Jub-Jub, Malema, Eugene Terreblanche and Steve Hofmeyer. And I fet sorry for him because he doesn't realise how rare this unification is. If powerful South Africans continue to suppress people and abuse their power, this may be the one of the last surges of bright, unsullied patriotic fervour for years to come. He doesn't even realise he is sleeping through the appearence of one of the rarest shooting stars: our country all cheering for and with each other.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

what happened at the traffic department

Hearing "Cooler as Ekke" on my way to my learners license made me realise I would pass it. It was a sign from Jack Parrow himself.

Nevertheless I have pit of fear in my belly and read and re-read my learners book. Someone is playing "Waka-Waka" on their phone and I feel a little surge of patriotism and another good feeling about the test. The waiting room for the learners license test overlooks the Randburg taxi rank ("E-News Welcomes You to Randburg Taxi Rank" in Sesotho and Zulu and the occasional joyful Vuvuzela hoot) and is packed full of people of all ages and colours and sizes all looking distinctly nervous except for a white teenager wearing shorts and white lace-up shoes. Her mother says she will wait for her in the car and the girl sits on the corner of a row of seats and doesn't speak to anyone but looks like she is assured this one.

She is. She is the first one to leave the testing room after her paper has been marked correct (or correctly enough to have passed). The testing room is babysat by a large, bosomy woman with glossy hair extensions and dark lipstick who kicks out two applicants during the session (one for cheating, the other for not having her ID). I can't help thinking that her bulky curves are like armour against all the angry, over-grown children who are forced to come back and write tests like they are back at school.

She sits with her back to us marking the papers and calls the failures to the desk from over her shoulder. They leave only just holding themselves together. As she marks the other papers, she calls over her shoulder for each of the rest of us to go to the waiting room. The result is confusing. Half of the people in the waiting room don't realise that they are the ones who have passed. There is a giggly, red-cheeked white woman wearing lace-up ugg boots and sharing all the details of how she crashed her ex-husband's car into her wall (she's been driving for the past ten years without her license) and how she is going to move in with her "boyfriend" (I struggle to reconcile that word with the roguish, tall, white-haired man sitting next to her with his hand on her knee).

I am sitting next to a South African German in his forties. He has a lisp and tells me he does marketing for anti-aging products and then that he is taking his learners for a motorcycle license. I want to ask him if he is having a midlife crisis, but I don't.

We wait in the waiting room for half an hour after the test is finished talking and feeling relieved. The young man I was sitting next to before I went in smiles at me: he was shaking before he went in. He sits in the corner talking what I think is Sotho with five other men, and I end up talking to the German man, the giggly woman and a coloured woman with an infectious laugh and a sunshine personality. We see the armoured lady walking toward the office and all start to feel excited about the fact we think we will soon be leaving. We wait another forty-five minutes, making chit-chat about traffic departments and driving and the soccer.

The lace-up girl's mother arrives and she gets up and stands outside with her mother, waiting. Someone comes with our papers and calls out our names in order and tells us to line up with R45 our ID photo and our ID. The laceup girl's mother and her daughter are finished with the process and gone before the rest of us have lined up. I wish we all had mothers like hers and that she had helped all of us get out there early.

We wait another forty-five minutes in the queue and try to guess what is taking so long (do we have to lick the shoes of the people signing our papers and thank them for taking almost three hours to issue us with papers? Do they re-mark the test in front of you before they give you the paper?) I ask the German man why he is moving back to Germany and he tells me it is because his children are at the right age: he has ten-year old twin boys. And his wife was shot and killed in a hijacking two years ago. I feel my heart shrink in my chest. He smiles and says maybe they will move back one day.

I reach the front of the queue and am issued with my learners license and a single square of single ply toilet paper to wipe the fingerprint ink off my thumb. We all find it funny that it is this small square of paper that is the traffic department's final gift to us.

I blow a kiss to everyone as I say goodbye and wish we had speant the time waiting for the license more productively. I am thinking a group-choreographed dance piece to "Waka Waka" that we could have recorded and sent to FIFA as encouragement and as part of general world cup excitement.

I get my learners signed by a woman who is arguing with a queue of angry people waiting for eye tests on my way out. I leave through the now-deserted ground floor which bars anyone else from coming in even though it is only 3.45. The security guards seem surprised that I say goodbye as I walk out into the afternoon sunshine.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The People You'll Meet

Oh the places you'll go and the people you'll meet! is a line from a Dr. Seuss book. This is a particularly apt way to start this blog as the children's section is my favourite place in the whole bookshop where I work and Dr. Seuss is one of my favourite sub-sections. For me, working in abookshop is alittle like taking care of an orphange: the books are children in my care and I have to make sure they all find homes with worthy people who will love them and appreciate them for who they are. I would never try to convince an avid Wilbur Smith fan to take home Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil". The fan would deride the book, perhaps fling aside something he could not understand and make it into an outcast from all love and understanding. I would feel much more comfortable sending him home with a shiny Clive Cussler or a Vampire Diaries book for his daughter.

I always feel most happy when my own personal favourites are chosen from the store and taken home. With books I suppose I don't even have to feel guilty: favouring one book over another is hardly the same as favouring an orphaned child.

And what a strange lot of adoptive parents turn up at our doors. There is a the large (larg as in there are many of them, they are not over-weight. They probably live on all-organic, home-made produce), red-headed, home-schooled family who wear home-spun clothes and laugh a lot. Peter Jackson could have made them hobbits because I could swear I can see large, earthy feet under their long skirts, cargo pants or leather jackets.

Then there is the dear old lady who comes in once a week to complain to Telkom about her telephone not working (she has a daughter overseas that she needs to speak to!) and to buy a book from us and complain to us about her telephone not working. She always sounds dreadfully sorrowful.

Another older woman comes in and tells us in confdential tones that she treats herself to books and then hides them away so that she has a secret stash for when she is alone. She buys books instead of food sometimes. They aren't naughty books, just regular novels and biographies. I think she enjoys thinking of herself as engaging in illicit activities as much as she enjoys reading the books.

There is a skinny Chinese boy in his twenties who captures you in conversation about the conspiracy theories he and his lecturer have discussed.
1.) Mandela is actually an evil, corrupt man and there is a media scam that makes out he is great.
2.) Immigrants will bring the economies of the world to an end.
3.) Obama is terrified of the Russians who still control the USA (secretly).
4.) Beware the yellow peril! (This from a Chinese man).

You can start by arguing but eventually you just starch a smile and stare. He is unstoppable, and more than slightly nauseating.

There is also an unwashed martial arts enthusiast who you can smell from across the cash desk. His teeth have blackened ends. Every piece of paper he hands across looks soiled and his hair is lank and dirty blonde. Yet he is one of the friendliest people simply bursting for their goodwill to spread to everyone they talk to. Bless him.

And then there was the guy who tried to Derryn-Brown me into giving him my phone number. Needless to say it didn't work.

But not all of them are bad or quite as characaturable as I have made them out to be. Some people almost shriek with joy when they see the book they have been waiting for and others grip theirs firmly and lovingly. Some people speak to you like you are their guardians through the maze of over-stocked bookshops and like they trust you with their books (which are like their new-found children).

And that is when I know I've done my job.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

first kiss

This first blog will probably be a little like a first kiss: exciting, uncomfortable, embarrassing in retrospect but something that will only improve with practise.

I took the leap (or leaned in unexpectedly - to make this an extended metaphor) because my writing is something I wish to take both more and less seriously fom now on. I need to take it more seriously and become disciplined about practising. I need to take it less seriously and play more. I must stop feeling like writing is a gargantuan task reserved only for geniuses who are way crazier and therefore more brilliant than me. I too have stories that need to be told and consumed or savoured or tossed aside. In any case, they need to come into being and become handled and touched and felt. Stories that are half-formed in my own brain will be lost and my own contribution to people's knowledge of the human condition will go to waste.

Dante created a special place in hell for those who let life pass them by. It was a dreadful, empty wasteland of nothingness and in-between. I don't translate myself and my keyboard into an image of a knight with a sword on a quest (Monty Python already ripped that image to shreds and it's too phallic for me anyway) but I do imagine myself walking through a landscape and leaving marks of passage behind. Some people will see them, others won't, and eventually it will be erased by other markings or it will simply be overgrown. At least I walked through the landscape, I didn't remain in the house waiting for my place in the wasteland one day.

Ah, so many mixed metaphors. But i think I'm going to enjoy this blog thing.