Friday, 14 December 2007

How Pimms helped my social phobia

I suffer from social phobia, which people who know me well find unbelievable because I am, with friends and in small groups, fairly confident, some may even say loud.

The phobia strikes when I’m required to interact with strangers and especially when I’m in crowds. It takes the form of a debilitating shyness that renders me near-speechless; in its most drastic form I may suddenly develop the impression that I’m naked, and even checking and rechecking that I’m wearing clothes doesn’t help. It also manifests physically in the form of an angry red rash that spreads over my chest, neck and face – which is why, when I deliver lectures or give presentations (which, incidentally, terrifies the life out of me), I always wear a scarf.

So as much as I was looking forward to the village’s annual street party a few evenings ago, it was with the usual slight trepidation about whether my social phobia would make things difficult for me.

When I arrived, the party was already in full swing and the village square was packed with people. I felt the usual irrational twinges of anxiety – why was everyone looking at me? had I remembered to put on underwear? did I have a booger dangling from a nostril? – and just when I thought I was going to go into panic mode, my friend V called me over.

She was manning a stand that was selling Pimms at R10 a glass, which she was dispensing from two jugs, one of which was empty.

‘I’ve run out of Pimms,’ she said, picking up the empty jug, ‘and I have to go and mix up some more. Would you mind watching my stall for me for a few minutes?’

And before I could explain to her that there was simply no way I could deal with the general public, she dashed off.

Left without a choice, I moved in behind V’s stall and stood there uncertainly, feeling as if a spotlight had suddenly been turned on me. My chest started heating up, the first sign that the rash was about to climb and spread and turn me into a glowing blob of humanity visible from outer space.

‘Two Pimms, please,’ said someone, waving some money at me.

‘And two for me… no, make that three,’ said someone else.

‘Ooh, that looks delicious, I’ll have one too,’ said a third.

Trying not to let my hands shake too much, I poured the drinks and took the money. More customers kept arriving, and I kept pouring and taking money and giving change, and soon, to my surprise, I realised that I was actually enjoying myself.

‘Is it an English thing?’ someone asked, looking with some suspicion at the fruit-filled jug I was pouring from.

‘I think it is,’ I said. ‘And you should probably drink it on the lawn, under an umbrella, after a rousing game of tennis,’ I added.

‘I don’t play tennis,’ he said, ‘but I’m always happy to sit on the lawn and drink…’

We both laughed – and there I was, right out of the blue, making conversation with people I don’t know from Adam!

By the time V returned with the full jug, the other one was empty. ‘Wow,’ she said. ‘You’re making good sales.’

‘Can I stay here?’ I asked. I’d realised that the fact that I was behind a stall, giving me a degree of separation from the crowd, had made me feel safe.

‘Sure,’ she said.

So I spent the rest of the evening selling Pimms. And chatting to strangers.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

What's the cash value of being a fulltime mother?

I know this is a debate that has been trotted out a gazillion times since women first began burning their bras (or at least wearing sexy ones under their business suits when they attend board meetings), but since a person who is very close to me is currently involved in a vicious fight with her ex husband regarding maintenance, I thought I’d raise it again.

The person – let’s call her Q – has been a fulltime single mother to her two children since her divorce 14 years ago. (Her ex husband has since remarried twice.) She has also always held down a fulltime freelance job, which has enabled her to pay about two-thirds of her children’s monthly expenses.

Her ex, who recently was shafted from a high-paying executive job, now calls himself ‘unemployed’ – despite having received a large golden handshake (or perhaps that should be arsewipe) from his previous employer, plus a monthly ‘retainer’ in excess of what Q earns for doing actual work. That there is nothing to stop him getting another job, or indeed earning a reasonable freelance living as Q has always done, seems to have slipped his mind. As has the fact that for years, while he was earning many times what Q was , he has paid only about a third of his children’s expenses.

But let us forget about the nasty itty-bitties of money per se for the moment, and concentrate rather on the simple mechanics of a full-time mother’s time.

I know, because I have raised children single-handed myself, how much of my time goes to the care of my kids. (I, too, work fulltime, if from home, to support my children.) In an ordinary working day, from the time my little darlings open their sleepy eyes to the moment they lay down their weary heads, I devote anything up to eight hours to the feeding (purchase and prep of food, plus post-meal clean-ups), cleaning (laundry, housework, etc), transport (school, extramurals, friends, entertainment, shopping, etc) and guidance (homework, general chats, hugs and stuff) of my offspring.

Eight hours is, for most people, a normal working day.

And that’s on top of earning a living. (Oh, and trying to have a life.)

The thing is, in terms of the division of costs, how do you put a monetary value on a mother’s time? (And please note my question isn’t should you?, it’s how do you?). Do you apply the minimum domestic workers’ wage (a shamefully low figure, but better than nothing)? Do you give it some sort of specialist price tag (it is, after all, a specialist job, and more so if you’re doing it solo)? Do you provide for leave pay, and if so, how much? (And in the unlikely event the fulltime mother actually gets paid leave, who stands in for her in her absence, and who pays for that?) What about if the mother gets sick – who picks up the slack for her, and how is that compensated? A year-end bonus – is that an option, especially if the absent father is getting a big fat one from his employer?

Q’s ex husband lives a fairly comfortable lifestyle. He has a live-in financially-contributing girlfriend, a car, a motorbike, a mountain bike and a surfboard, a large house with a swimming pool and a fancy garden; property investments; a valuable pension plan and an enviably small bond; he takes holidays if he wants; he shops at Woolies.

Q, by contrast, is a living example of cutting your cloth: her bond is large because she borrows from it constantly (she has to), she shops at Checkers, she does her own gardening and most of her own housework, she has no pension or savings, she never takes holidays (she simply can’t afford to: as a freelancer – a career choice she made consciously in order to be an effective fulltime mother – she won’t get paid if she doesn’t work). While she will be the first to tell you how much she enjoys her life – she clearly adores her kids, and loves raising them – there is no doubt how carefully she has to budget to come out on top. And even then, sometimes – often – she doesn’t.

And the kicker is: she is the fulltime parent. Her ex sees the kids the mandatory twice a month – and even then he has, apparently, complained about how much ‘running around’ he has to do for them. (It’s probably worth mentioning here that, according to Q, her ex has never once helped her out with school-holiday childcare, even when she was desperate because she had to keep working. Why? Because, said he, he had ‘a proper job’. This may only be my point of view, but I think she has two: fulltime mother and fulltime – if freelance – employee.)

Q is the person who, every single day (and very often at night), in sickness and wellness, for richer or poorer, relentlessly and with very few breaks, attends with close and careful attention to the details of her children’s lives that will, eventually and hopefully, turn them into happy, healthy adults. She is solely responsible not only for their physical wellbeing but also for their mental, emotional and spiritual growth – a task that is very hard to compute in terms of filthy lucre.

So: what price do you put on that?

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Why are some of Jesus’ emissaries telling our young women to ‘submit’?

I’m not a religious fascist but I went to a wedding recently that might turn me into one.

It was a service that disturbed me on many levels but the emphasis – and I mean emphasis – on the wife’s expected ‘submission’ to her husband, even excused and justified as it was, repeatedly, by reference to The Good Book, deeply sickened me.

Do these people, who purport to live ‘in Christ’ (and who, may I mention here in passing, worship The Cross – written like that in their song sheets, with initial capitals – in the kind of way that could bring to mind graven images, false idols and the like), have any idea of the reality of women? Especially in South Africa, do they know that rape is practically pandemic? That women, according, coincidentally enough, to a report in today’s Sunday Times, still earn ‘peanuts’ compared with men? That the abuse of women – spiritual, emotional, financial, physical – is terrifyingly widespread, often inhumanly vicious, sporadically acknowledged, and drastically underreported and under-addressed?

Why, then, was a 20-year-old bride allowed by those who love her and care for her to be married, in ‘the presence of these witnesses here gathered’, to a man of equally tender years who swore to ‘love and lead’ her as long as she swore to ‘love and submit’ to him?

Why were the readings – one from Ecclesiastes, if memory serves; the other a darkly Gothic lesson from Revelations – so intent on pushing home the message that marriage survives only if the wife ‘submits’? (The Ecclesiastes reading was particularly vociferous – it mentioned, too, as did the Revelations reading, how a bride should be ‘clean’; I heard no similar reference to the state of purity, physical or otherwise, of the groom – and it was read by a clearly very sincere young woman. The mind can only boggle.)

Why was the sermon, delivered from typed notes by an intense young man, so hell-bent on pushing womanly submission as the only route for a workable marriage? (Bless his steel-rimmed spectacles, he also tried to deconstruct the Revelations reading for us, his congregation: all I got out of it, and I listened carefully, was the Christ would come again riding a white horse, in robes dripping with blood – and, quite frankly, I just can’t imagine Jesus, a carpenter who befriended prostitutes and fishermen, who turned water into wine at a wedding, who had a Last Supper rather than, say, a Last Judgement, when he knew he was going to die, doing something so ridiculously theatrical.)

Why were the prayers, offered up by a succession of intense young men, so centred on the bride’s submission, so intent on pushing this message home to its – let’s face it – captive audience?

‘Submit’ was a word – an exhortation, really – that came up often enough in the 45-minute ceremony for my father, an old-fashioned 73-year-old guy, to lean over and whisper in my ear, ‘There seems a lot of submitting going on here, don’t you think?’

I had to conclude, on serious subsequent thought, that a powerful emotion drove the ceremony, that something pretty overwhelming caused the necessity for this succession of otherwise intelligent young people to tell an equally intelligent young woman that if she didn’t ‘submit’ to her husband, her marriage was doomed to failure.

And it wasn’t faith.

It was fear.

It wasn’t even fear of disappointing Jesus Christ or burning for eternity in the fires of hell (although, that said, no opportunity was missed to remind we ‘unbelievers’ in the gathering – nasty, dirty sinners that we are – that it was never too late to repent, to turn our lives over to ‘The King’).

It was fear of Woman.

I don’t want to get up on my soapbox (which, of course, I’ve already emptied in the employ of washing my children’s and husband’s raiments), but I have to wonder, given the social climate of the world today, if Jesus would really have objected to a ceremony in which the husband and wife were exhorted to rejoice in a marriage of equals? If both partners agreed to love and honour each other, in health and in illness, riches and poverty, etc, with no-one leading and no-one submitting?

If the husband were gently reminded that if his wife found a higher-paying job than he, and it served his family well, that his dignity could remain unimpaired, and that he shouldn’t feel compelled to beat her for infractions, minor, imagined or otherwise?

If the wife were similarly advised that, in spite of being the childbearer in the family, if she wanted to go off and study exotic plants in the Amazon for a year, and the family could manage the strain, she should feel happy to do so – secure in the knowledge that she was going to ultimately contribute in amazing ways to this Christ-blessed union?

If the husband were told that changing nappies and grocery shopping and doing school runs didn’t detract from his manhood?

If the wife were granted her right to tussle as enticingly in the boardroom as she did in the bedroom?

If the husband were reminded that if he made some stupid-arse decision about the family’s savings, and the wife objected, this is no reason to go out and get drunk with the boys and then go ahead with the stupid-arse decision anyway?

If the wife were exhorted to use her god-given intelligence, spiritual strength, pain-withstanding abilities and emotional superiority to occasionally overrule the husband when it was obviously necessary (and in the nicest possible way)?

But no.

And please don’t come with how the message disseminated at this service could be ‘interpreted’: it was abundantly clear what the message was, and it was repeated many times and in many ways. Simply, it was that marriage – this kind of marriage; the marriage I witnessed with a fair amount of horror – has a chance only if the husband ‘leads’ and the wife ‘submits’. There really wasn’t much room for interpretation.

I hardly know the bride (I’ve met her once, in passing). But I can tell you this: if it had been my daughter being married, I would have been on my feet and screaming. No way would I allow my child – of whatever gender – to enter into a life pact of such alarming unevenness.

Seriously, I’m not being gender-verskrik. If it were my son who was getting married, and he were being asked to promise to ‘love and submit’ while his affiance’s vow was to ‘love and lead’, I would have a problem with that too. As if life isn’t hard enough!

I’ve never had an easy relationship with Christianity, the religion I was born into. I went to Sunday School from age dot to 17, when I was thrown out of the confirmation class for being a ‘disruptive influence’ (what a pity nobody bothered to listen – although I told several adults with ears – to how the minister in charge of the regular Friday-night confirmation youth gathering repeatedly tried to put his big hairy mitts into my panties).

But Jesus and me, we’re okay. I get him and I’m pretty sure, in spite of my pagan ways, he gets me. (Hey, I had a four-year relationship with an ordained minister; I’m no bigot.) And, driving away from that wedding, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have been okay with what went down there.

Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ For me, that’s one of the most powerful things anybody’s ever said. And I see nothing about submission in it.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Heavy metal

My 16-year-old daughter, who has many talents and skills, is nonetheless not academically inclined, and by midyear it was clear that her promotion to the next grade wasn’t a sure thing. She’s no fan of school, so the notion that her 12-year sentence might be lengthened to 13 was enough of a spur for her to really hit the books for her end-of-year exams.

And hats off to her: she did it. We went to the school to fetch her report yesterday, and not only has she passed, she’s managed to do so in some style.

I made no secret of how I felt about this – I slumped over my steering wheel and murmured, ‘Oh thank god, oh thank god, oh thank god’. And my daughter, who counts rampant opportunism among her many talents and skills, struck while the iron was hot.

‘So, Ma,’ she said in that special tone reserved by teenagers for wheedling things out of unwilling parents, ‘what kind of reward do I get?’

Temporarily brain-damaged by sheer relief, I said the unthinkable: ‘Anything you want.’

Which is how she ended up with a piece of metal through her eyebrow.

It wasn’t easy watching the tattoo artist – a 40something with the super-skinniness of a chain smoker and a highly decorated hide – squeeze a fair bit of my daughter’s flawless facial skin between the points of what looked like a pair of miniature ice tongs, then use a gun of sorts to shoot a thin piece of plastic tubing through.

And when my daughter’s pupils dilated suddenly, she turned pale and she whispered, ‘I feel dizzy, Ma,’ it was all I could do not to slap the tattoo artist to the ground. I clenched my teeth and reminded myself that my daughter actually wanted to be mutilated in this fashion.

The last act in the process was to feed the slender metal post through the plastic tubing and secure each end with a tiny screw. If I’d been watching open-heart surgery I couldn’t have felt more sickened.

But then I remembered being in a cheap Paris hotel on a school tour when I was 16, and piercing my boyfriend’s ear with criminal inexpertness – using a piece of ice from the hotel’s ice machine to numb the lobe and a needle from the complimentary sewing pack to do the deed. There was a fair amount of blood and, a couple of weeks later, an infection that required antibiotics to clear up.

At least, in my daughter’s case, the tattoo artist wore surgical gloves, used sterilised equipment and gave my daughter stern and detailed instructions on the care and cleaning of the piercing.

And, when we were on our way home and my daughter – who couldn’t stop looking at her newly decorated face in the passenger vanity mirror and grinning – said, ‘Thanks, Ma, you’re so cool!’ I sort of felt it was worth it.

Stumble Upon Toolbar