Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The fury of the work-at-home mom

A novel I read recently has a character, a freelance journalist, who always answers the phone with a snappish "YES?". It is important, she explains, to sound extremely busy and stressed when you're working in a home office, or you run the risk of being treated like an unpaid concierge.

Oh, I can relate. I try to be civil, but I often answer a ringing phone or a buzzing intercom with an outraged 'WHAT?'. Churlish, I know, but you have to work at home before you appreciate how maddening it is to be interrupted a dozen times in a morning by the gas-meter reader, the mielie lady, a delivery, a Jehovah's Witness, an estate agent, the dentist's receptionist, the plumber and - quelle horreur - a friend who thought she'd nip in for a chat and a quick cup of tea*.

If you're a mother with school-going kids, as I am, you have only the five gleaming hours between 8 am and 1 pm to do your work, because the afternoon is entirely consumed by lifting and carrying, homework, appointments, catering, shopping and many other grindingly dull chores.

(Look, you can try and get some work done, in five-minute bursts as you race between car, kitchen and kid, but there is no point because you will achieve nothing apart from a vicious headache, a galloping heart and a feeling of rising panic that can only be quelled by a stiff bottle of white wine and a packet of cigarettes at 5.30 pm on the dot.) No, afternoons are not for working.

I started working at home a year or two before my first child was born, as a freelance writer and editor, and the first few years - even the toddler years - were fine, because small children are pliable and (yes) easily bribed. I fondly believed (hah!) that as the kids got older and turned into tweens and teens, they'd get more self-sufficient, and leave me in peace in the afternoons as they obediently did their homework, or melted on their beds and listened to music.

What I didn't realise is that my kids would need to talk to me. Often. Every few minutes, in fact. And not Serious Talks About Serious Shit. Just plain old shoot-the-breeze stuff. Comments, observations, quips, questions and (most of the time) demands for stuff they really need right now. If I'm lolling on the couch for a 20-minute post-prandial stab at the crossword (yes, there are some perks to working at home), they ignore me completely. But the minute - the very nano-second - they see me sit down in front of my keyboard, they begin their assault. Not all at once, you understand, but at 3-minute intervals, and in rotation.

Each kid (and there are three of them) has four or five urgent requests per hour. (Can I go to horse-riding lessons? Can I have an iPod? My brother's dissing me, can you kill him? Did you buy me an exam pad? Can I tell you a joke? Can you take me to Pretoria in half an hour? Why is there no milk in the fridge? What is there to eat? Where's my homework diary? What's for supper? What's your favourite animal? Can I use your printer? Have you seen this new video on YouTube? Where' s my hoodie? What does fellatio mean? and so on).

I start out diplomatic. (Okay! Sure! It's on the hall table! Yes, of course! Come back in 15 minutes! Oh, har, har, that's hilarious, darling!) After ten interruptions, I start to get testy. (Go and watch some TV. I'm SO not interested.) After fifteen, I lose the plot. (All I ask is ONE HOUR to finish my work. Is that too much to ask? Stop dangling around my study. No, I don't know where the fucking sticky tape is! Shut the door, and don't come back for another hour. Have a sweetie - shit, have a packet of sweeties! Go and play on the railway line! Have a beer! Take some drugs!).

After twenty interruptions, blood begins to trickle from my ears, and it's at this point I switch off my PC, give a fat middle finger to whoever's waiting for the work, and resume the horizontal couch position. 'Come and give me a big hug, kids!' I say warmly, trying to make up for being such an old grouch. 'Tell me about your day! Who wants some popcorn?'

All three kids then melt into the woodwork - 'Uh, duh, we have homework to do, you know.' I wait five minutes, and then sidle back into my study, and they burst out of their bedrooms with fresh lists of demands.

Please don't think I'm bellyaching. I'm lucky to be able to work at home, and to have time with my kids before they leave the den forever. I chose to work from home, and I've never regretted it. But if you happen to phone me at 4.30 pm, and ask me what happened to the work I promised you three days ago, be prepared for... well, let's say you'll be safer poking a hungry bear with a sharp stick.

* Friends who pop in for tea are quite rare these days. I think they got the message, and the message was, fuck off, can't you see I'm working?

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Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Sara & me


Sara, my wobbly dog, has had some coverage in this blog.

She is in always-fragile health (although this is an anomaly, given her generally terrifying energy levels). Stung by a scorpion, she developed epilepsy and has some low-level brain damage, which, even though she’s a polite animal, basically makes her a bit doo-lally – jumping willy-nilly on friends and strangers, and no amount of even Oprah-inspired training stops her; occasionally erupting into hysterics of what appear to be overwhelming joy, in which she springboards off anything in her vicinity, including handy humans; plunging up and down like a jackhammer; and so forth.

But Sara the wobbly dog has also become my lodestone. Where recently, with my kids grown up enough to fend for themselves (as long as the fridge is full and the utility bills paid, of course), and I having become a freewheeling person, Sara demands that when I have full-day meetings or long-running projects that take me away from home for extended periods, she is looked after. My darling friend Johann, with his berserk kennel of animals, stands in where necessary, and Sara loves him very much (hey, maybe more than me – he lets her sleep on his bed!), but even he says, ‘Sara stations herself at the gate, and she waits there till you get back.’

Without ever having intended such a thing, I have a loyal loving creature who would apparently quite literally wait for me until hell froze over.

Yet she isn’t shy about what she wants. ‘Special needs’ she may be, but Sara knows what’s what. If I’ve been working all day on my computer and forgotten (as I do) that she needs a walk, she comes and nudges my mouse hand. ‘Hey,’ I say, ‘I’m busy’ (because I imagine I am). But she won’t give up. She nudges, then pushes, causing me to ‘send’ when I mean ‘save’ and suchlike, until I say, ‘Oh, okay then,’ and find her leash and take her down to the field where she can be let loose to run, and there’s a dam, and agile ibises she thinks she may catch, but only in her wildest dreams, and by the time we get back she’s tired and I’m … hey! Relaxed!

Sara sleeps at my bedside (chasing those birds in excited REM sleep, and sometimes going into rictus and scaring me into lying down on top of her because the weight and warmth of my body seem to ease her epilepsy – I stopped her anti-epilepsy drugs, they made her dof), wakes up and goes to sleep when I do, moves from room to room as I reorganise linen, gather laundry, open curtains, load the dishwasher, switch on and off lights… When I’m working, sometimes for stretches of 18 hours, she lies under my feet, pricking her ears when I get up for coffee, groaning and sighing when I return.

Sara is always not entirely with me. Because of her condition, anything could go wrong: her liver could fail (this is very common in dogs like her); she could just exhaust herself; she could break a bone, perhaps a vital one (because of her berserkness); her brain could simply submit to its electrical impulses… at any time, she could be gone.

But in the meantime, she radiates such joy. I love when she suddenly launches herself on me when I’m lying quietly reading, and knocks all the breath out of me, then sits panting into my face with an expression of mischief and glee; when she gets outraged by one of the cats (who tease her mercilessly) and emits a shrill, excited bark because they’ve had the temerity, for instance, to wander past a toy she believes to be hers; when my kids get home from school and she spends the next 20 minutes ricocheting off the walls from sheer delight; when I say, on our beach walks, ‘Sara: in the sea!’ and she attacks the incoming waves, no matter their height, leaping over them as if she has wings; when she’s at rest and I ask her, ‘Sez, alright?’ and she rolls those lovely brown eyes up at me, as if to say, ‘What d’ya think?’

I recently read a book called Marley & Me by John Grogan, a lovely simple story, simply told, of a man and his dog. Marley – like Sara – wasn’t perfect. Marley, like Sara, gave a fair amount of grief throughout his life.

But in the book, when Marley died, John’s last words to him were, ‘Marley, you’re a GREAT dog.’

I cried buckets, because Sara too is a GREAT dog.

And Sara was there, panting and wobbling, to lick up my tears.

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Monday, 25 February 2008

And another thing about teenagers: there's so much of them


‘So, Mom, can I have a couple of friends over on Saturday night?’ my 16-year-old daughter asked.

Since we were going to our seaside flat, where there’s a gorgeous beach, but no TV reception and no nightlife, so reading and resting – anathema to teenagers – are all that are on offer, I said yes because I imagined they would keep her from bouncing into my bedroom seven times an hour, throwing herself dramatically all over me and sighing loudly, ‘I’m booooooored!’

Until we were on the road she hadn’t mentioned that we would have to pick them up on the way there, and I suppose because she isn’t that good at maths, she hadn’t added up how five large people and their luggage, all our food and supplies, and a dog, were going to fit into our normal-sized family car. I did what any parent would do in the circumstances: I closed my eyes and told them to tell me when they were all packed and in.

And so we were off. And immediately back again for various forgotten items (contact lens solution, cellphone, sleeping bag, etc). And then we were off again, and I was saying, ‘Whatever’s been left behind now, that’s it, you can do without it,’ and surreptitiously watching the teenagers in the rearview mirror rolling their eyes because I was being so, like, uncool.

And then we were at the holiday flat and the teenagers were standing out on the verandah admiring the view and discussing what they should wear to the beach (um, a swimming costume maybe?) and I was carrying boxes of food and piles of bedding and towels up the stairs, until I said, ‘Hey, guys, what am I, your packhorse?’ and they all pitched in, with, of course, much rolling of eyes. (One smartarse actually said to my daughter, ‘What’s the, like, hurry?’ and I said, ‘So you don’t want to get to the beach, like, today?’ and they all laughed in that terrible patronising teenage way.)

Then it was much later and my daughter, who was still on the beach, SMSd me a please-call-me (not because she didn't have airtime but because you don’t, like, waste SMSs on your mother). I called her and she said, ‘We met some friends from school down here, can they come for dinner?’ And I was distracted by too much reading and resting and said yes without asking the vital question: how many? (And, possibly, ‘what gender?’, but what would the point have been? Of course, they were all boys.)

And when they started trooping in through the door, I felt like I was watching one of those silly movies where nine clowns climb out of a Mini although in this case it was nine great galumphing teenagers climbing into my relatively small seaside apartment.

I found another packet of pasta and added another few tins of tomatoes to the bolognaise sauce, and was able to do all this without being noticed because I was Just The Mom and the teenagers had commandeered the sound system and all the sofas and chairs. (Why do teenagers sit like that – all spread out with their legs everywhere? Each one takes up enough room for three normal people. And the boys all have Such Huge Feet.)

When I said the magic words – ‘Food’s up, guys’ – there was what seemed at first to be some sort of seismic upheaval in the room but was in fact only nine ravenous teenagers elbowing each other out the way in order to get at the grub. Following which there was an astonishing few seconds of bliss – silence but for the scrape of cutlery on crockery – before a second seismic upheaval (for seconds) and another few seconds of bliss.

Following which, thoroughly cowed, I took to my bed with earplugs.

Which must have fallen out some time during the night because I was woken the next morning by the hysterical screeching of what I assumed to be a wild animal in pain. I leapt from my bed, flung open my door, and found the four remaining teenagers (all girls; the boys had not been invited to spend the night, not only for the obvious reasons but where would I have put them?) involved in what looked like a violent scrap on the living-room floor but turned out to be a ‘tickle fight’. Ye gods.

‘You want to keep it down a bit, girls?’ I asked and they all rolled their eyes and the smartarse said to my daughter, ‘What is it with your mom?’

So I took the dog and went to the beach and by the time I got back they’d all gone out. The place looked like it had been ransacked by Visigoths but the silence was sublime. I moved a huge pile of sopping clothes and towels off a verandah chair and settled down with a good book, the dog at my feet. Heaven.

On the way back home later that day the teenagers agreed they’d had such a good time that they wanted to come again. But my daughter had a ‘really good’ idea (inspired, no doubt, by the smartarse) in addition: ‘Next time, Ma, why don’t you stay at home and have some peace and quiet, and we’ll go to the flat on our own?’

I admit I gave it a few seconds thought because on the face of it it was a massively appealing notion. Then I remembered the four hours I’d taken to clean up the dross and debris of just one night of teenage bedlam – the stacked plates in the sink, the begrimed pots, the gazillions of used glasses and coffee mugs, the wet clothes on the beds (and, for that matter, everywhere), the horror scene that was the bathroom after all the girls had ‘got ready’ in it (including lots of wet towels, all on the floor), the drifts of sand they’d dragged back from the beach in their takkies, the spillages and breakages, and I said, ‘Maybe when you’re older.’

I watched the smartarse roll her eyes in the rearview mirror and mouth to my daughter, ‘So uncool!’ and I thought, You got that right, buddy.

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Snake strangles cat : photo (not for the faint-hearted)

My sister, who lives in Australia, was sent this incredible photograph by a work colleague, and she sent it on to me, saying, 'It’s a classic innit? Somewhere in darkest Terra Australis I think. '

Incredible, specially when you consider how (relatively) small the snake is. Do you think it seized the kitty on the floor and dragged it up into the rafters?

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Thursday, 21 February 2008

The tiresome twittering of The Times

Scanning the newspapers this morning for signs of bad taste, I was rewarded with two more examples of articles featuring well-heeled Jo'burgers trumpeting on about their own exquisite flair. (Clearly the folk at The Times paid no attention to my recent post complaining about that newspaper's obsessive reporting on who's got what toy).

We have, today, an interview with an interior designer (fave watch: Maurice Lacroix; fave labels, Bvlcari [sic], Versace and Vespa) and, a few pages on, in the 'I Love My Shop' section, a piece of puffery about Frankie & Fred, a new boutique selling things for discerning children.

"I have travelled extensively, and have continuously been looking for clothing, toys and gifts for my own children," confides the shop's owner. "Every item in my store has been chosen by me on the basis that it... 'works' for my own children... For fashion, I stock Diesel Kid from Italy and Cakewalk from the Netherlands and, for babies, Zutano from the US... It is such fun watching boys with their Diesel jeans and girls feeling great with a Cakewalk outfit."

Cakewalk? Boys with their Diesel jeans? Shopping continuously looking for toys and gifts that "work" for my children?

Am I living in the same city - no, on the same planet - as these people?

Each to her own, I guess (I'm a Mr Price kinda girl when it comes to dressing my kids), but what I can't understand is why The Times thinks its readers are remotely interested in the spiritless squandermania of Johannesburg's haves (and I include so-called Black Diamonds in this category, just in case you think I'm having a go at white girls).

Whatever happened to Local is Lekker? What about interviews with local artists and craftsman who are using their creativity, their initiative and their own two hands to make beautiful things that put bread on the table?

How about giving me an insight into the real lives of ordinary people? How about interviewing a poet, or a hobo, or a street musician, or a street child for that matter? I don't care who you choose - nurse, undertaker, teacher, paramedic, painter, philosopher or plumber - and I don't even mind if you mention what they bought at Stax last weekend. But for pity's sake, give me someone with rolled-up sleeves.

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Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Jo'burg Zoo's shop : packed with ticky-tacky crapware

I was crestfallen visiting the new shop at the Johannesburg Zoo last weekend to find it stuffed to the gunwhales with gimcracks, gewgaws, gizmos and other crappy toys, fresh out of a container just shipped in from China.

(Not that I don't appreciate cheap whizz-bang toys: on the contrary, I adore novelty flashers, farters and squeakers, and until recently ran a thriving garage business peddling these marvels to parents, kids and schools.)

But, hell's bells, can't the Johannesburg Zoo do better than this (see left)?

Okay, to give them credit, there were about a dozen hand-made offerings from the excellent African Toyshop, such as pull-along wooden frogs, painted wooden vans and buses, and the like, but the prices for these started at around R350. There were also a couple of nice rope swings, a few locally made T-shirts, and one or two other hand-crafted items.

The rest was drek: crudely painted turduettes of the Big Five, sloganned caps and Bratz-style colouring-in books printed on bogroll-quality paper.

If I was a hard-working, passionate African craftsperson, eager to find a buzzing outlet for my beautiful beading, my sculptures, my funky screenprints, my hand-painted pots, I would lie on the floor and sob at the sight of this sorry excuse for a shop.

And really, the Zoo has no excuse for this lapse in taste. In all (ok, most) other respects, Johannesburg's Zoo is just splendid. It's spacious, leafy, clean, beautifully laid out and so interesting, especially if you take the time to explore the smaller denizens, which footle quietly about in their well-kept little habitats. (I've become very attached to the lonesome otter, the skittish lemurs, the owls - who are so stern and enigmatic - and the dear, silly-billy baby chimps).

I used to hate the Johannesburg Zoo (and all zoos, and most animals, for that matter), but I've changed my mind about it. When I was a gal in the Seventies, the JHB Zoo was a frightful place. Lions, tigers, panthers and other big cats paced up and down in ghastly, tiny cells*; the concreted bear pit was a vision of hell, and the baboons swaggered around with swollen, shiny, warty blue-and-pink bums that really offended my nascent sexuality.

The whole place stank to high heaven. Especially stinky was the giant, orange, pumpkin-shaped children's toilet block, which had overflowing miniature lavatories and a deep air of menace. Bees got into your Fanta Grape Can and stung your lips. The candy-floss was sticky. The ill-tempered Shetland pony in the farmyard always bit your hand, hard, when you offered it a carrot. And you always, always, threw up on the back seat on the way home.

I don't mean to put you off. If you have small kids, and want to give them a bit of a romp in a big, airy, forested place, with no stinkiness, take them to the Zoo. Go early, when the place is empty and the air is still crisp.

And do avoid the shop.

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Friday, 15 February 2008

Rich, spoiled and boastful: Jo'burg's suburban Marie Antoinettes

What's with rich South African women? Really, what's with them? What's with the boasting, the preening, the strutting around? Have they (to paraphrase my late sainted granny) no modesty? Have they (to quote my favourite anti-hero, Ignatius J. Reilly) no sense of geometry and theology?

It's been a while since I've had a little rant about South Africa's glossies, but this one - a back- copy of a local lifestyle title that I picked up during my weekly raid on my local library's magazine exchange - had a feature in it that really put a wasp up my fundament.

What does one make of a feature that drools, across five pages, over a Mother's Day Brunch thrown by a handful of 'glamorous moms' and 'lifestyle professionals' in some over-decorated Johannesburg McMansion?

Well, one reaches for the sick bag.

Before I quote some of the nauseating snippets from the feature, let me come straight out and ask: do these Marie Antoinettes blush at the sight of themselves flaunting their wealth and privilege? Have they any idea how shallow, spoiled and decadent they look? Do they feel the slightest trace of shame at the knowledge that only 5 km away from their bougainvillead verandas there are homeless people lying in stinking alleys, and children going to bed on gnawing stomachs?

Yes, I'm sure they do. Anyone who has money and a heart must feel that way. To be fair, I'm sure each one of these women is a decent and well-meaning woman who gives to charity, is kind to the needy, and does her bit on the school PTA. I'm sure that each one of them pays her taxes, forbids her children to use racist words, knows all the words of the National Anthem, and thanks her lucky stars that she lives in Sandhurst and not Soweto. So why, for crying in a bucket, would she agree to participate in this sorry, boastful little circle-jerk?

Let me ask them directly: my dear sisters, do you know how you look? I'm sure you agreed to join this brunchette in a jolly good spirit, as a favour to your friend and hostess. You probably didn't know that the 'journalist' who wrote the story would make you look so ridiculous.

Am I being nasty? Damn right I am. But I have good reason.

Take this:

'The mood was relaxed, the vibe totally chilled, as XXX's guests - most of the them professionals in the lifestyle industry - took time out from their frenetic schedules and relaxed with babes in arms.'

We have, in this assemblage of sleek, hair-tossing fillies, an 'acclaimed' interior decorator, a 'caterer extraordinaire', an'ex Miss South Africa', a 'former footware and accessories buyer', and, of course, their babies. (One infant is described, sickeningly, as 'the perfect social accessory'; another, Baby D, 'practically stole the show in an outfit bought at a vintage store in Paris'.)

'Of her approach to throwing a party, [the caterer] said: 'It's very abundant, with a focus on fresh food that's decadently styled. I love to play with different ingredients and believe every event should be different from my last' (Now there's an original viewpoint).

We have a writer ejaculating over the colours (spicy saffrons and deep burnt oranges set the tone for the flowers, food and decor), the flowers ('I wanted a very warm autumn look') and the bubbly (the fruity pink Palmes D'or, 'a rich melange of strawberries and brioche', was enjoyed by all.) We are advised to 'use ribbons and blooms' in the presentation of our food, and to 'pour cocktails into in beautiful glasses' (as opposed to dog bowls).

'We're all fashionistas' trills a member of the Mommy posse. `We've learnt to manage motherhood in heels!'

Bleggggh.

This is only one example of a repellent trend in the press. 'Lifestyle' features like this infest most magazines and newspapers (The Times is the worst offender, obsessively carrying featurettes with celebrities bragging about their toys, shoes, cars and gadgets. (I don't know about you, but I don't give a thruppenny fuck about how many shoes these local starlets have in their cupboards, or the gadgets they've recently bought)

Sies, Mavis.

Look, I'm also one of the lucky ones. I live in a fantastic, comfortable house, drive a nice car, and have never experienced a moment's hunger or cold. I'm not pointing a finger at anyone who wants to boast about their toys.

Actually, that's a complete lie. I AM pointing a finger.

Stop showing off. Stop putting pictures of your infants in magazines. Quit bragging about what you have. It's... well, it's just immodest. Insensitive. Rude..

And deeply, DEEPLY boring.

POSTSCRIPT: Okay, I was feeling a bit grumpy when I wrote this. But I was heartened to read, the very next morning, a column in The Weekender by Brian Rostron, in which the words 'Marie' and 'Antoinette' pop up again, in much the same context (although Rostron's having a go at the wealthy polo-pony set of Plettenburg Bay):

"THE row over poor black people being evicted for polo ponies in Plettenberg Bay is another reminder that sometimes it seems that — polo ponies aside — we are hellbent on creating a nation fit for golf estates and a land suitable for golfers. This certainly has the sulphuric whiff of 1789, the start of the French Revolution, or even 1917 in Russia.

" A great many white South Africans still behave as if they were Marie Antoinette. Our pigmentocrats are not playing dairy maids at Versailles, as did Marie, but are occupied on those splendid, water-guzzling golf courses that are advertised on TV, designed by champions like Greg Norman and Ernie Els."



He continues:

"I was reminded of this diatribe last Sunday as I drove round some of the higher, ritzier suburbs of Cape Town overlooking the bay. New houses there are swollen and gross: super-sized. They are the Big Macs of our nouveau South African style. What on earth is the model for these vulgarians: Buckingham Palace?"

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Tetris sickness and insomnia

I’ve had insomnia all my adult life and I long ago gave up the fight against it. Trying to battle insomnia is utterly self-defeating: the more you want to sleep, and the more anxious you get about it, the less you can.

In a strange way my berserk sleep patterns have shaped my waking life. One of the reasons I’ve never been able to hold down a 9-to-5 office job is that at least a couple of times a week, often more, I stumble through a working day in a state that resembles drunkenness (without the attendant silly dancing). On these ‘off’ days I’m irritable and fuzzy-brained. I make lots of mistakes; I double- and triple-check all my work but even then I often miss obvious errors. In this exhausted condition I’m also very clumsy – I’ve learnt through electrifyingly nasty experience not to put my coffee cup on my desk next to my keyboard after a sleepless night.

My friend M recently lent me a book called Counting Sheep by Paul Martin (Flamingo, 2002). Not only did it tell me everything I’ve ever wanted to know about insomnia but didn’t know who to ask, plus tips for beating it (none of which have worked for me, but still), it also taught me all sorts of fascinating things about that undiscovered continent, the Land of Nod.

For instance, you’ll spend a total of about 25 years asleep during the course of your life. (And that partridges, like many birds, sleep on one leg – and that gourmets can tell which leg, by its taste.)

One of the most interesting titbits in the book for me, though, was about the effect of computer games on our drifting-off minds. ‘People who play lots of computer games sometimes experience ‘‘screen dreams’’ as they fall asleep,’ Martin writes, ‘in which they see vivid images of the game they have been playing.’

Bingo!

When the computer game Tetris first came out, my sister and I spent hours playing it. (Do you remember Tetris? It was that game where you had to twist and turn various falling geometric shapes to fit them together into an ever-rising landscape.) I had such vivid ‘screen dreams’ that I had to stop playing it – my ‘Tetris sickness’ (as my sister scathingly dubbed it) kept me awake.

I had a similar reaction when I learnt to touch-type. (A skill that I learnt at secretarial college – and one that made an otherwise appallingly boring and useless year worth every second.) For months I couldn’t sleep at night because as soon as I closed my eyes, I saw a keyboard and began mentally doing typing exercises.

From Counting Sheep I learnt that Tetris sickness isn’t unusual. A team of scientists at Harvard Medical School got volunteers to play Tetris for several hours, and many of them experienced ‘vivid dreams about Tetris as they fell asleep’.

Even more interesting, among the volunteers were five amnesiacs who had extensive brain damage in their temporal medial lobes, our conscious-memory brain regions. Three of the five had Tetris sickness as they drifted off to sleep, even though they had no conscious memory of having played the game!

Counting Sheep is, incidentally, a wonderful bedside book to have if you’re an insomniac…

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Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Valentine's Day is nasty: throw rocks at it


Do you hate Valentine's Day? Do you want to heave at the sight of evil teddy bears tucked into heart-emblazoned coffee mugs, all wrapped up in crunchy cellophane and tied with red, scissor-curled ribbon? Feel the need to vomit when you go to the supermarket and see heart-shaped cellophane boxes filled with heart-shaped, foiled-covered, fatty, loathsome chocolates? Me too, dear curmudgeon. So, here are some anti-Valentines day cards to cheer you up.
























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The venomous stress of school dances

It’s my kids’ Valentine’s Ball on Saturday and it got me thinking about the dances I went to when I was at school.

One that sticks in my memory (and, I daresay, that of my date) was the matric dance I went to with my brother’s friend Charles. I’d always had a secret crush on Charles so when I was stung on the foot by a bee (I’m allergic) at about 5 o’clock on the evening of the dance, it wasn’t something that was going to stop me going.

‘We don’t have any more antidote,’ my mother said, frantically hunting through cupboards. ‘We’re going to have to go to the hospital.’ (I got stung a lot. We had, god knows why given my allergy, a huge wisteria right outside our back door, and swarms would settle in it in summer; getting stung was simply a matter of walking outside.)

I immediately segued into what I now recognise (because my own daughter does it) as a Force 10 Tantrum. I furiously decried my mother’s insensitivity; tearfully, I told her that she was evidently intent on ruining my life; when she stood firm, I began shrieking and tearing at my hair; finally, I kicked a cupboard and threw myself on the floor of a carpeted room.

My mother, worn down, gave in. ‘But if the swelling gets worse,’ she said, ‘you’re to come right home.’

I was wearing – forgive me, but it was the ’80s – a tight black catsuit and nifty strappy little sandals, and by the time Charles fetched me my beestung foot was distinctly uncomfortable. But I put on a brave face, waved bye-bye to my longsuffering parents, and walked elegantly down the garden path.

In the car, I tore off my sandal. ‘I’m sorry, Charles,’ I said, ‘but I can’t wear this shoe. My foot’s getting too big.’

‘You’re going to my matric dance with one shoe on?’ he said.

I thought about this. ‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘It’ll look odd. I’ll go barefoot.’

By about 9 o’clock the swelling had crept up my leg to the extent that I had to cut a slit in my catsuit pants to relieve the pressure.

By about 11 I was having trouble breathing (all that energetic dancing!) and I asked Charles if he could take me home.

My mother, who was, of course, worriedly waiting up, took one look at me and went pale. ‘We’re going to the hospital,’ she said. When I insisted I was fine, just tired, she steered me into the bathroom. ‘Look at yourself,’ she said, positioning me in front of the mirror.

So intent had I been on attending to the lower half of my body that I hadn’t noticed how the bee venom had attacked the top. I looked like a chipmunk. I was having trouble breathing because my windpipe was swollen. As were my neck, cheeks and the flesh around my eyes.

At the hospital, in the middle of the night, my poor mother stood stoically silent while the doctor berated her. ‘You know she could have died?’ he said crossly, giving me a fat injection.

My mother gave me A Look. I know what she was thinking.

(And, perhaps not surprisingly, but terribly disappointingly, Charles never asked me out again.)

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Valentine's Day: maybe this year...?

I’ve only ever received one (ONE) Valentine’s gift in my entire life, and that was when I was 14. I think this says more about the men in my life than it does about me – I was married for seven years; don’t you think my then-husband could just once have got himself to the local cafe in time to buy a measly box of chocolates?*

The only present I ever got was, in fact, a box of chocolates. It had been stuffed so determinedly (perhaps frantically) into our mailbox that it was bent practically in half. The accompanying card, home made, had a red heart inexpertly drawn on the outside and inside the following verse, scrawled in what was evidently a schoolboy’s neatest hand: ‘Though we walk across the field no more, I still thee adore.’ (Yes, ‘thee’.)

It puzzled me for ages. I had never ‘walked across a field’ with a boy that I could remember, far less one who had once and apparently still adored me (and perhaps had a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare).

Years later – literally years, I was by then about 16 – I got a phonecall out of the blue from an old schoolfriend of my brother’s, Craig. Would I like to go out with him, he asked.

I had only the vaguest recollection of Craig from when we were kids and at a mixed-gender primary school together (our high schools were monastic – blots on the face of civilisation, in my opinion) but I had no other options for that particular Friday night so I said okay. ‘I’ll pick you up in an hour,’ he said.

Only an hour! Eek! But the issue wasn’t what to wear or how to get my hair ready in time – I was a jeans-and-Tshirt-type girl and have never even owned a hairdryer – it was how to prime my father.

My father was Old School: any potential date was, to my immense embarrassment, expected to sit down in the living room with him and my mother, and endure 15 minutes or so of excruciating grilling pretending to be chit-chat, during which he would be required to reveal his name, age and address; his parents’ occupations and, if possible, income; his nationality as far back as his great-grandparents; his future aspirations; and, of course, his intentions vis-à-vis me. (‘Well, Mr H, I really only want to get her pissed enough to bang her.’)

I tried to get around it by telling my Dad that he already knew Craig (‘He was G’s friend in Standard 5, remember?’) but he was having none of it. So at 7pm when Craig knocked on the door I was already resigned to my fate: a boy who might have been keen on me and maybe even dated me more than once, but who, after being interrogated by my father, would take to the proverbial hills.

Craig, however, turned out to be – well, perfect. His hair was neatly combed and he was wearing a ‘letter sweater’: first team rugby, he told my father with just the right mix of modesty and pride. His parents, he said, were recently divorced – it had been ‘hard’ for him and his brother, he murmured sadly, looking down at the carpet, but they were ‘learning to live with it’. He didn’t drink, he told my father: it interfered with his training. Et cetera.

My father, thrilled to finally meet a young man of calibre (as opposed to the dope-smoking, motorbike-riding, beer-swilling, long-haired louts I usually hung around with) went so far as to extend my curfew by an hour – I could be home by midnight instead of the usual 11pm, he said. ‘But,’ he added, putting his hand on Craig’s shoulder in a ‘between-us-men’ fashion, ‘not a minute later, okay, pal?’

Craig all but saluted, and off we went. Down the garden path, out the front gate, into his car, around the corner… where we stopped.

‘Christ,’ said Craid, wriggling out of the sweater, ‘this thing’s hot. I don’t know how those guys wear them.’

‘It isn’t yours?’ I asked.

He laughed. ‘Are you mad? Me, play rugby? Nah, I borrowed it.’ He tossed the sweater into the back seat, then stuck his hands into his hair and skromelled it around until it stuck up all over his head like a porcupine. He grunted his approval at his reflection in the rearview mirror, then he indicated the passenger footwell. ‘There’s a coupla beers down there,’ he said. ‘Chuck us one.’

Bemused, I passed him a beer, which he popped and drank down in one go. Then he crushed the can and asked for the other.

‘Are your parents really divorced?’ I asked.

‘Not yet,’ he said, ‘but it’s coming. My fucking bitch mother’s been having an affair for years. With the pool boy!’ Here he laughed so hard he snorted beer out his nose. ‘My father’s such an idiot. He’s almost as bad as my pansy brother – can’t see what’s right in front of his stupid eyes.’

Then he did the unforgivable. He turned to me, put a hand on my thigh and said, ‘Like your father, hey, babe? I did my homework. I heard about him. But I had him completely fooled. What a turkey!’

Well, you know what they say – you can insult your own family, but woe betide anyone else who does.

‘Take me home,’ I said.

‘Why?’ he said, cheerfully, clearly not believing me for a second. ‘We’re just getting started! I’ve waited for two years for this!’

‘Two years?’ I was beginning to feel thoroughly creeped out.

‘Ja,’ he said. ‘I’ve liked you since we used to walk to school together, remember? Across that field? But my folks were so strict that I wasn’t allowed to see girls then.’ He gave a nasty laugh. ‘They should have had that rule for themselves! Then maybe my mother wouldn’t be screwing the help!’

‘That Valentine’s Day card and the chocolates – they were from you?’

He had just enough shame left to look slightly uncomfortable. ‘A bit soppy, hey?’ he said. Then he perked up. ‘But look where it’s got us!’

Where it got us was me back home (after an energetic scuffle in the car, during which I jumped out and ran away) and Craig heading, I presume, for the hills. I never heard from him again.


* I lie. I’ve just remembered, my then-husband did give me a card once, one he’d made himself. It had a picture glued to the outside, clearly snipped out of some medical journal, of a mess of bloodied body parts, and it read, ‘If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the way to a woman’s must be through her mind.’ Inside, it read, ‘Be my Valentine or I’ll smash your brains in.’ Romantic, huh?

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Monday, 11 February 2008

Air travel and me: puking, mewling, travelling tots

I read Crabmommy’s tragicomic account of travelling by air with her babe and had to have a good ole larf, even if these things are only ever funny long (looong) after they’ve happened. Or if they don’t happen to you.

Some time in the early ’90s, when my kids were terribly-two-years and hysterically-six-months old respectively, their father and I took them to Joburg for some or other reason – probably to show them off to extended family and friends, because this is what new parents do, and never does it cross their minds that extended family and friends may have better things to do with their time than observe mewling, puking, all-night-waking, sometimes-shrieking, often-whining, heirloom-breaking, undersized human beings.

We had, as I recall, driven there overnight in someone’s bakkie (it had required delivering to someone else, I think, I forget the details), so I’d put the kids to bed in the back and we’d had a fairly trouble-free journey to Jozi. But then we had to fly home.

As it happened, there was an ODI cricket final on TV the day we left. It was a nailbiting finish, with rain interrupting play and South Africa suddenly having to score 700 runs in four overs or similar. My brother, who’s a sports journalist and fanatic (he considers formal wear an Arsenal ‘away’ shirt; for casual occasions he wears their home strip), and who was also our lift to the airport, refused until the last over to be shifted from his La-Z-Boy for love, money or threats of unimaginable physical violence.

So naturally, once the last damned ball had been bowled with about half an hour to spare before our flight took off, we had to drive to the airport at toe-curling speed, which made me nervous and made the children cry and made my then-husband look accusingly at me and mouth, ‘If we die in a 10-car pile-up, it’s your fault.’

Check-in was ghastly – the ground staff were understandably tetchy because we were so late, and couldn’t find us seats together. To avoid an embarrassing domestic affray right there in the domestic terminal (my then-husband was beginning to mutter, never a good sign), I agreed to take our six-month-old daughter, who didn’t have her own seat (our two-year-old did) and would have to be on my lap for the two-hour flight back to Cape Town.

Let me just say here, to put this into perspective: my daughter was born arcing (thanks, Crabmommy) and screaming, her face puce and swollen with indignation, and she didn’t quieten down by so much as a nanodecibel until she was over a year old. Even now, at nearly 17, she occasionally lapses back into her birth state, shrieking blue bloody murder, kicking cupboards and hurling her body onto her bed and sometimes, if she’s in a carpeted room, onto the floor.

Additionally, one of the few ways I could circumvent her terrifying tantrums was to make sure I kept her ‘in routine’: nice, calming, warm bath at 5-ish; nice, calming, warm dinner at 6-ish; nice, calming, warm bed at 7-ish. The flight, alas, left at 5-ish, so I knew I was in for an unhappy time.

Not as unhappy, however, as my fellow passengers’.

You know how we are always the people who, when flying, check in early, find our seats, stow our bags in the overhead compartments, fasten our seatbelts, and settle down in a civilised manner? And how, when the passenger who’s been holding up the entire proceedings finally deigns to get on the plane and comes down the aisle, it’s always someone who’s (a) massively overweight, (b) sweating heavily, (c) approaching on a cloud of garlic breath or body odour, or (d) holding a screaming child? And we just know they're going to sit down next to us?

Well, this time, I was (d). And the people I was billeted next to were two young men, neatly buckled in and already obediently reading their in-flight magazines.

Young Man A looked up at me as I loomed over him, my daughter shrieking and pulling my hair while I cast around desperately for someone to help me stow my bag (the air staff were, apparently, too busy with cross-checking – and I’ve always wondered what that is, actually – to help) and said, ‘You have got to be joking.’

Young Man B was too distressed to comment. He put his head in his hands and groaned.

‘I’m sorry, boys,’ I said, wincing as my daughter wrenched hard enough on my hair to pull a hank out by the roots, ‘and there’s worse to come. I think it’s only fair to tell you that this is as good as it’s going to get.’

Well, it was way past horrendous. My daughter, whose endurance was (and still is) superhuman, hollered and writhed all the way back to Cape Town. The young men (who, to be fair to them, did initially try to help, but quickly backed off when they discovered that if they got too close to the baby, she bit) decided, in a spirit of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’, to simply order round after round of strong drink, so by the time the plane touched down I had been roundly terrorised, verbally, physically and emotionally, by a 6-month-old and two lads.

My daughter, by then finally exhausted by both the increasingly risible attentions of the drunkards and the physical exertion of depilating me hair by hair, fell sound asleep. The lads clambered over me and her, reclaimed their bags from the overhead compartments with much amusing banging and crashing, and filed off. I sat there, limp as an electrocuted octopus.

My husband, who’d been seated at the bulkhead (and I haven’t to this day worked out how he got those seats and I got the one over the wing and next to the toilet), came lolloping up the aisle towards me, our son gambolling good-naturedly in his wake.

‘Hey, that wasn’t so bad, was it?’ he said.

There were children present, so I mouthed to him, ‘… —

Not entirely by coincidence, the divorce followed shortly afterwards.

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Weirdly wonderful weather

Here in this little southwestern corner of Africa, we have a uniquely Mediterranean climate – wet, cold winters and dry, hot summers. For someone who was brought up on the Highveld (where Juno lives – see her posting below on how lekka Jozi is), this took some getting used to.

Western Cape weather is just so infuriatingly well behaved. The seasons segue into each other with bothersomely little notice (and in some areas it’s boasted that all four seasons are experienced in a single day – which I would argue is both excessive and boring, if such a thing is possible). And then, once they settle in, they just last for ever.

In Joburg, by comparison, spring comes with a fabulous fanfare of fragrance – I still can’t smell peach shampoo without experiencing a real ache of nostalgia for the extravagant explosion of densely scented blossom we had every September in our suburban garden when I was a kid.

Autumn was a time of riotous colour – for weeks, the streets were lined with trees in shades of russet so rich that when all the leaves fell and left stark, dark branches outlined against the fierce blue of the Highveld winter sky, you could almost (almost) bear it.

As a translocated Joburger I’ve always missed the tempestuous electricity of summer-afternoon thunderstorms – when my mother, who couldn’t swim and was apparently also clueless about the potentially fatal effect of lightning on water, naively allowed us to frolic in the pool while the thunder crashed down around our ears, driving us into ever-escalating frenzies of excitement.

And trading the Highveld winters, when the static electricity caused by the dryness would make my hair stand on end and shock me every time I touched a door handle, for the seemingly endless chilly damp of the Western Province, was hard.

So this weekend’s bizarre weather here in the climatically boring western Cape Boland, while causing consternated frowns on the faces of every farmer in the valley and for several miles beyond, and provoking much discussion about global warming (what else?), thrilled me to the very core of my being.

In a summer climate where dryness is the watchword and drought is more or less perennial, it was weird to experience actual humidity yesterday. My daughter, a born-and-bred Capetonian, was perplexed to discover that she couldn’t get dry after having had a shower. And her friend R was annoyed to find that her hair straightener (without the use of which she is simply unable to show herself in public) didn’t work – the ambient damp recreated her curls, whether she wanted them or not.

By Sunday afternoon a huge cloud cover had moved in, blanketing the vastness of our valley like a duvet. Under it, we stifled: the air was preternaturally still; even the cicadas weren’t indulging their usual ear-splitting mating rituals. Dips in the pool didn’t help: the water just warmed up on our bodies when we got out; evaporation wasn’t possible because there was so much moisture already in the air.

When the thunder began rolling down the valley, the animals (all, like my daughter, born and bred in the western Cape) ran around looking frightened and confused. The cats tried to crawl under the cupboards; the dog, whose neural system doesn’t operate on all cylinders anyway, rushed about the garden barking wildly.

Then lightning split the heavens and the rain came down. Crashing, pouring, driving, bucketing, roaring down. The landscape turned an eerie shade of yellowy-green, as if a bunch of glo-sticks had broken in the sky. It was absolutely glorious!

And the cherry on top was the explosion of flying ants. Who knows how long they’ve waited for these exact climatic conditions to trigger their rebirth – we haven’t had weather like this in the eight years I’ve lived here – but suddenly they came pouring out of the ground, whirring upwards on agitated wings like little tornados.

The farmers are furious: their grape-picking season has been truncated, because you can’t pick wet grapes and by the time the earth dries out the crucial time-window in which to harvest will be over. And I’m sorry for their loss, but for a few brief hours I remembered being a child again, living in the anarchic splendour of the Highveld weather. There was so fantastically much of it!

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Wednesday, 6 February 2008

How many blogs do you read in a day?

The blogosphere exhausts me. No, not because it's depressingly full of crap (crap I can deal with) but because there many very good, even brilliant, blogs out there (and this is only South African blogs).

I'd so like to visit each of of these hens' teeth a couple of times a week, flick through the latest posts, and leave a pithy comment or two. But who (apart from Steve Hofmeyr) has the time to spend the whole day blogging? I'm lucky, because I'm a freelancer, so no one gives a tinker's cuss about how I spend my time, but even so I can't justify spending more than 30 minutes of a working day checking out my favourite blogs. And because I have rather a lot of favourites, I can't really do justice to them. A quick scan of the latest post and I gallop on to the next one, hardly ever lingering to leave a comment. (Posting on my own blogs is usually done after hours, and even then rather intermittently.)

This got me thinking: how much time does the average South African blog-reader, let's call them Jason and Tiffany, spend checking out their faves every day? Ten minutes? Twenty? Longer? How many blogs do they visit a day? And if Jace and Tiff are blogging at work, how do they get away with such time-wastery?

How do they find the time to post such long-winded comments? Reading some of the slow, smelly deflations left by readers on, say, Tertia.org, Steve Hofmeyrs' blog and Thought Leader, makes me wonder how anyone gets any work done at all.

And another thought: does blogging cut into Jace and Tiff's magazine- and book-reading time? Not to mention their TV time?

Just wondering.

Here are the South African blogs I try to look in at every day:

Thought Leader - usually infuriating, often funny, but always thought-provoking. A wonderful platform for some of SA's best (and, ye Gods, worst) columnists. I particularly enjoy reading Charlene Smith, Llewellyn Kriel, Ndumiso Ngcobo, Tony Lankester, Arthur Goldstuck and Ferial Haffajee.

The South African Insult - can't do without my daily fix of invective. Sarah Britten's other blog, A Little Britten, is not to be missed, as are those of many of her colleagues on....

The Times PlanetBlog David Bullard, Hogarth, Fred Khumalo - the usual Sunday Times suspects, and more.

So Close Tertia Albertyn's wildly popular site is a South African (nay, a WORLD) blogging phenomenon, and well worth a read even if you're not interested in toddlers, parenting or infertility. Expect biting wit, brutal honesty and a brain like a planet. Oh, and about 500 000 devoted fans, all of whom want to share their potty-training tips with you.

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Monday, 4 February 2008

Post-weekend blues

There’s something about waking up on a Monday morning and realising that you’re going to have to fill in a lot of insurance forms, for one, and come to terms with unexpected and dissipated sexual behaviour, for another, that can just start your week off on a bad foot.

I’ll start with the insurance incident, mainly because it’s a teeny-tiny bit less embarrassing. Baldly put, I came home from the pub at 11.30 on Saturday night, reversed into my driveway, and hit my friend T’s very fancy expensive enormous 4x4. And did I just tap the bumper? Did I hell. I ramped over the driveway lip (that nasty little bit of concrete that separates, god knows why, the driveway from the road) and barrelled into her very fancy enormous expensive car’s back hatch.

Well, for goodness sake! I didn’t remember she’d left her car there! My driveway isn’t illuminated! And who the hell expects a very fancy expensive enormous 4x4 to be there when you… well, when you least expect it?

I lay in bed this morning, thinking about this bureaucratic tragedy (and it is only bureaucratic, because I have usurous insurance, and the least they can do is pay out when I do finally have an accident – the first, may I add, in over 20 years of driving and forking out ever-higher premiums), and then another little memory came creeping in.

A memory of … a man. A memory of … a man, late at night. In my house. On my verandah? Yes, on my verandah. And later…?

Here, I experienced some sort of sudden and definitive brain shut-down. So I got up and went and helped myself to some leftover lasagne from the fridge (when in doubt, eat), and I phoned my friend T. ‘I’m sorry, darling,’ I said, ‘I hit your car on Saturday night.’

T made a poor job of stifling giggles.

‘And this is funny because…?’ I said.

‘You know what the last thing was you said to me on Saturday night?’ said T. ‘You said, ‘‘I’m going to shag this man tonight, and nothing – I repeat, NOTHING – is going to stop me.’’’

Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god.

Let me just say this for the record: I am SO not a slag. I can barely operate in a social environment; and when I do, I’m hesitant and stupidly blushy, and I sometimes snap at people who are only trying to be friendly. And when men approach me, mainly I regard them as pirates attempting to board one of Her Majesty’s Ships, and I threaten to kill them immediately if they don’t back off and take their Jolly Rogers with them.

(I wear a wedding and engagement ring, although I am neither affianced nor married. I thought I wore them for sentimental reasons until a therapist I once was forced to see – for reasons unconnected to what’s happening here, okay? – told me that I wear them to ward off predatory men. See? I’m an emotional basket case.)

So this morning, from worrying lightly about losing my no-claims bonus, I slid like buttered lead into the bone-deep depression of having had an illicit liaison, ill considered and (to my profound disgrace and chagrin) barely remembered.

And how many millions more times worse did things get when my kids got home from school and wanted to know if the ‘new man’ in my life was ‘just a friend’ – or, said my daughter, looking at me with eyebrows raised to such heights of irony they practically disappeared into her hairline, ‘A friend with added benefits’?

(‘With added benefits?’ Where do they even come up with these things??)

‘Don’t be silly, darlings,’ I said, ‘Mummy’s just having a little bit of fun.’

My daughter looked at her brother and smirked. ‘‘‘Mummy’’,’ she said. ‘‘‘A little bit of fun.’’’ Oh god.

Just when I thought I would have to kill myself from shame and embarrassment, I got a couple of emails from the boys of Boulevard Blues. They enjoyed my post about barmaiding at the party they played at, and they’re going to post it on their own new website. (Good, clean fun! Yes, yes, yes!)

And tonight, when I got an SMS from a number I don’t recognise that said, ‘R u ok?’, I did have a small recall of a man with a lovely mouth and an easy laugh and a gentle manner and great legs that made me feel just a little bit better.

‘Yup,’ I replied. ‘And u?’

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Friday, 1 February 2008

The handyman cometh (I hope)

My home’s natural state is one of entropy. Bolts snap, windows shatter, screws and nails fall out, leaks open in the roof, pictures drop from the walls, and for months and months that’s the way things stay.

It’s not that I’m not willing to do the stuff necessary to fix them – I can get a pane of glass measured as well as the next person, or re-hang a picture, or calk a roof – but mainly I don’t have the gizmos necessary for the jobs. I have, in my so-called tool cupboard, a very very large screwdriver and a very very small screwdriver (both hopelessly mismatched to any normal household repair job), a hammer (used mainly for despatching cockroaches, the only living creature I have no compunction about murdering), a jar full of screws and nails unsuitable to any hole probably anywhere in the universe, and (inexplicably) a hermetically sealed package of curtain hooks.

So, for long weeks at a time, my family will work around small inconveniences: a light fitting that has lost its shade and evinces instant blindness when switched on, a door that requires wiring closed when we go out, a piece of heavy-duty plastic package-taped over a cracked window, a tap that necessitates a pair of pliers (borrowed) on constant standby in order to wring the smallest drop of water from it.

Then, one day, I will notice that all around us is chaos, and be moved to let my fingers do the walking through the Valley Handbook – ‘an essential guide for visitors & residents’ (I quote from its cover) to ‘living in the valley’*.

This time, under ‘Handymen’ I found an entry for one FN. There are, if you’re interested, also sections for ‘Burial Services’, ‘Courriers’ (sic), ‘Essential Oils’, ‘Export/Import Agents’, ‘Fencing’ (I got all excited and thought it was with swords, but it’s the other kind), ‘Fish & Chips’, ‘Poison’ (again, exhilaration – could I perhaps get my monthly supply of arsenic there? but alas no), ‘Prisons’, ‘Sewage Obstruction’ (the mind can only boggle), ‘Snake Line’ (not a dancing school, surprisingly) and ‘Watch Repairs’ - never let it be said that all needs aren’t catered for in our little town.

Anyway, I called FN, who agreed to come round for a look later in the day – 5pm? Fine, said I.

At 4.45, driven to near dementia by the unrelenting heat (it reaches over 40 degrees as a matter of course during the first two months of the year here), I leapt into the pool in my clothes. I don’t do this because I’m too impatient to get into my swimsuit or even swim nekkid – it’s because it’s just so endlessly pleasant to sit on the verandah, allowing your clothes to dry on you, and experience real coolth for a blissful 20 minutes or so while they do.

And then someone knocked on the door. I was wearing a white top and a long white skirt, so I was effectively nekkid anyway when I hauled myself out the pool, and quickly grabbed my towel for modesty’s sake. At which point the Wobbly Dog went into an hysterical spasm, snatched the towel out of my hands, and raced down to the bottom of the garden with it, flinging it about in a crazy way. It wasn’t feasible to go after her – I would have tripped on my long, wet, clinging skirt and killed myself – so, holding my clothes away from my body as best I could, I went to let in the early-arriving handyman.

I had no qualms about doing this. Handymen, in my fairly extensive experience, are always one of three types: 1) Excessively fat, with attendant plumber’s bum; 2) excessively hairy, with attendant BO; or 3) excessively short, with attendant aggressive attitude. So what did I care if the handyman had a shuftie of my bra through my wet top or, for that matter, my panties (and, okay, attendant cellulite) through my wet skirt?

Well, shock and horror: standing at my door was a vision of loveliness, a tall, slim person with sparkly blue eyes and a mellow voice (as I discovered when he said, ‘Hello, I’m the handyman,’ and I said, ‘Ak, ugh, eyissee, ooo, well, you’d better come in then’), and wearing a very interesting hat.

He was gracious enough to pretend not to notice that I traipsed around the house holding my skirt out like some ether-frenzied little old Victorian lady, and that every time he turned to ask me a question I dropped my skirt and crossed my arms over my sodden see-through top like an equally ether-frenzied Victorian virgin. He took assiduous notes, nodded in all the right places, made ‘hmm, hmm’ noises when it was necessary, and left telling me he’d phone me in the morning with a quote.

And as he got into his lekker big bakkie outside my house, he turned back and grinned. ‘Enjoy the rest of your swim!’ he called, and I have to admit I closed the door, collapsed on the floor and giggled like a schoolgirl.

He’s coming tomorrow to fix things. I wonder what I should wear?

* On the subject of valley publications, a round-robin email was sent out today by a local swish hotel. Deliciously unproofread by anyone with even a glancing knowledge of English as she is writ, it exhorts potential visitors to pop in because (and again I quote), ‘this is an proper chance to let lose and enjoy the small town welcome, and come prepared as our towns olives and wine tasting will have your tows curling up and leaf you talking about it for ever’. You’ve got to snigger quietly because otherwise you’d pee your pants.

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Common ancestry: all blue-eyed people are related

As a blue-eyed mutant, I was fascinated to hear, on John Robbie's show this morning, that scientists have discovered that all blue-eyed humans have a single, common ancestor. According to Science Daily, a team at the University of Copenhagen have tracked down a genetic mutation which took place 6-10,000 years ago and is the cause of the eye colour of all blue-eyed humans alive on the planet today. Before that, everyone's eyes were brown or green. Isn't that astonishing? I'm descended from a freak of nature! Even more incredible is that I have all these new relatives: Vanessa Williams, Paul Newman, Cameron Diaz, Frank Sinatra, Hugh Grant, Gabriel Byrne, Daniel Craig,Stephen Hawking, Marie Curie, to mention but a few. Here are more of my blue-eyed relatives. Cuzzins!!!







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