Monday, 31 March 2008

How a craze starts among kids... introducing Squidgees

Perhaps I am flattering myself to think that I started this craze in SA... maybe not, but I was definitely instrumental. Whatever the case, the meteoric rise of squidgees as a wild craze amongst school kids is just fascinating. If you read this blog often, you will know that I'm really interested in playground folklore, skipping rhymes and games, and also in small, cheap, whizz-bang novelties and toys, in which I trade, in a modest way.

Anyway, late last year I was prowling the aisles of one of JHB's wholesalers of cheap gimgracks and gewgaws, and I picked up a packet of things called 'Plant Crystals'. The contents of the packet looked like a tablespoon of pink couscous. The packet instructions told me to cover them in plenty of water and wait eight hours.

Now, any toy that tells me to cover it in water and wait just irresistible, so I bought two packets. (Had I known that I was picking up a packet of The Next Major Craze, I would have bought 5000 of them.)

I was not disappointed. Do you remember that wonderful scene from Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, where poor orphaned James spills his packet of precious magical squirmy green things in the garden, and the single peach on the scrawny peach tree begins to swell? That's what I felt like when I Just Added Water.

Within ten minutes, the couscous looked and felt like frog spawn. Five hours later, I had a glass bowl full of perfect, pale pink pearls, each one the size of a chickpea. And, in eight hours, when their swellage was complete, the couscous grains had absorbed every drop of water and metamorphised into a deliciously cool, swimmy bowl of shining slippy little globules, each one perfectly spherical, and reminiscent - pardon the comparison - of the springy eyeball of a fresh fish.

When my kids got home, they were fascinated - even the 16-year-old, whose interests are normally confined to playing death metal lead guitar and smoking endless cigarettes in his bat cave. The next morning, my eight-year-old daughter went off to school with a lunch box packed with pearls. She was mobbed. She gave five or six pearls each to a selection of friends, who put them tenderly into their lunch boxes and bathed them in water. She promised to bring more 'squidgees' (as they were quickly christened) the next day.

The next morning, I was astonished to see, as I pulled up into the parking lot, a crowd of around 15 little girls, all (and I promise I am not making this up) clutching jars and lunch boxes, clapping and chanting my daughter's name.

I headed back to the wholesaler and bought 5 more packets, which filled a large bucket. The next morning, at school, the excitement had reached fever pitch. My daughter doled out the squidgees. Almost every one of the 200 little girls in the school had some. By break time, a rumour began flying around that squidgees could get pregnant, and make NEW squidgees. Mothers began to phone me asking me where to get them. Little girls fell to their knees and begged me for packets. Within a few hours, I received word, via a parent, from a teacher, that squidgees were no longer welcome at school, because they were too distracting. (And I don't blame the school for slapping a ban on them.)

I hastened back to the supplier, bought their entire stock of 150 packets, and sold them at a handsome profit at a Halloween function at another local school. I still regularly scour my suppliers in search of the elusive squidgees - and I continue to sell them by the bucketload as the craze has spread to other schools.

What are these curious things, I hear you ask? Known variously as plant pearls, crystal soil and magic soil, they are made of exactly the same stuff (polyacrylamide) that's inside a disposable nappy - that squidgy stuff that absorbs every molecule of pee and makes the nappy hang down to the knees. Except, in this form (designed for cut flowers, for germinating seeds and for helping soil retain water) they have been engineered so they swell up to perfect, slightly-smaller-than-grape-sized spheres. You can also get them in cubes. They have amazing properties: non-toxic, biodegradable and able to absorb up to 100 times their own weight in water. If dug into the soil to improve its water retentive properties, they last up to five years. In a vase, they last for three months (although they need to be rinsed now and then under plenty of running water to keep them smelling fresh; a teaspoonful of household bleach also helps).

I've used them for germinating seeds (broad beans, peas, sweet peas, rocket, and a variety of garden annuals) and they worked like a dream.

You can buy them pre-coloured, or colour them yourself by adding a few drops of food colouring to the soaking water. The colourless ones are the best, though: they are virtually invisible when covered in water - you can't really see them - but when you plunge your hand into a glass vase full, you see funny little indentations and pock marks all over the skin of your hand. They bounce. They slither. They furiously resist being squashed between finger and thumb. If you forget to keep them wet, they gradually dry out and revert to couscous.

And, oh my giddy aunt, a foot-bath of these things is the best fun you can have with your pants on. I am desperately tempted to empty a catering-pack of the things into my swimming pool (I've had to lock them away from my teens for the same reason) but I just can't think what to do with them after I'm done wallowing and frolicking. And I also don't know if you can swim in them. Last week, I caught my teens plunging their faces into a bowlful to see if they could breathe under them. They couldn't.

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Sunday, 30 March 2008

The disappointingly disappearing chickens

Regular readers of Salmagundi may remember that I once had a healthy flock of chicks that, in spite of spreading panic when they infested our home and lives with bird lice, we dearly loved nonetheless. Mrs Jones and her offspring (in the picture; the bright red is a slice of watermelon – they loved watermelon, those chicks) lent colour and life to our garden and entranced us, and occasionally drove us into irritated frenzies by coming up onto the verandah very early in the morning and pecking peremptorily at the door because their breakfast was late (like, it was already five past five, helloooo!).

Then Sara the wobbly dog came along and played so enthusiastically with the two roosters that they died (and as sad as I was for their passing, I really didn’t like the roosters – they did nothing but argue and attack the babies, and they were always gorily covered in blood because of their constant squabbling). Worse, though, was that the lack of male presence, as much as I'd disliked it, drove Mrs Jones and what was left of her brood into the next-door neighbour’s garden, where there was a resident rooster.

(NB: Sara didn’t actually KILL the roosters – this is a dog with precious little brain and absolutely no blood lust; she just played with them in such an enthusiastic fashion - lunging playfully at them and the like - that they died of heart attacks. I promise, if I’d known birds that were usually so unbearably bossy could expire so easily, I would have been more vigilant. In fact, if you look closely at this pic, you’ll notice one of my cats sitting among the chickens – my animals generally get on pretty well with each other.)

So that was the end of the chicks.

Recently, my friends S&G have been forced, for various reasons, to downsize, and in the process get rid of their ‘girls’: four chicks, called Goldie, Black Betty, Molly Mohawk and Mags. Would I have them? they asked. With pleasure, I said. I did already have, after all, a fully equipped hen house and a big garden; and, truth be told, I really missed Mrs Jones and her kids.

So S&G brought ‘the girls’ around and we penned them up in the henhouse for the afternoon to give them time to acclimatise.

When I let them out later, they looked at me in that fussy way that hens have (they put their heads on one side and stare at you searchingly, much as a critical mother-in-law might), then wasted no time in quartering the garden looking for juicy grubs and scratching up my herb patch.

Sara tried to make friends with them but hens, unlike roosters, are more than a match for an excitable dog: they simply spread their wings, squawk like hell and lead with their beaks. Sara retreated, defeated.

Still, disappointment loomed.

That evening, S phoned from where he and G were having a weekend away and asked after his girls. And I had to admit a terrible thing.

‘They’ve run away from home,’ I said.

There was a crackly silence on the line, then S said, ‘Do you know where they are?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘They’re next door.’

Another silence, then: ‘And how did they get there?’

And I had to admit to real embarrassment: ‘They climbed a tree and jumped over the fence,’ I said. ‘It was like The Great Escape.’ I stifled a sob.

S laughed. ‘So they’re okay? They’re safe?

I was offended. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but they’re not with me.’

S didn’t get it. I was really hurt. I’d provided a perfectly loving home, complete with all the things hens hold dear to their little birdie hearts – fresh water, plenty of space, a warm and safe haven for roosting in, endless food including a newly planted herb garden – and they’d simply upped sticks and gone over the fence, quite literally.

Mags has been back, briefly, to visit, but the other three girls have well and truly absconded.

I’m gutted.

PS Here’s another pic, of Sara the wobbly dog with another of the cats. See? She’s as soft as a lamb, my Sara, and proves the point that she wouldn’t harm a flea. Or a chicken. (Also, admittedly, I'm so thrilled that I've finally learnt to upload pics that I'll post just about anything -- but, having said that, I do think this pic is quite groovy.)

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Grocery shopping: when ‘out of stock’ drives you out of your mind

When I’m rich I’m going to get myself a personal shopper. Not for clothes and other unimportant trivialities, but for groceries. Because grocery shopping, in and of itself so damned irksome, comes with a whole bag of extra irritations.

In addition to all the usual annoyances – finding parking; checking every single ingredient on every single food product you put in your trolley lest something in it causes you to grow an extra head or turn your toenails blue; checking the sell-by date ditto; forking over much of your salary for eight measly bags of essentials; running the gamut of the trolley-pushers whose sole aim in life is apparently to allow the trolley to run full-tilt into the back of your car; etc – there’s the matter of just finding the things you need.

Our nearest big supermarket, 20 kilometres distant, has improved immeasurably over the eight years I’ve been shopping there – at least now they know what capers, poppadums, anchovy fillets and coconut milk actually are, and sometimes they do even stock them – but it still hasn’t got a handle on, oh, you know, replacing things when they run out.

When enquiring after a product – say, the contact lens solution my kids use, and which I usually buy from this supermarket – they always follow the same protocol (perhaps they are trained in it, who knows).

First, they make you repeat the name of the product several times and in a variety of ways, while looking at you in a puzzled fashion, as if you’re speaking Urdu. ‘Contact lens solution? The solution you use when you insert your contact lenses? The fluid that comes in a blue and white bottle that you use if you wear contact lenses? The stuff you use to clean your contact lenses? The bottled liquid that’s usually stocked here, on this shelf, right here, where I’m pointing?’

Then they suddenly break into smiles, apparently at last understanding what you’re after: ‘Oh, eye drops!’ they’ll say, smirking a little as if you’re the half-wit.

‘No, no,’ you’ll say. ‘Not eye drops. Con. Tact. Lens. Sol. U. Tion. You use it if you wear Con. Tact. Lens. Es.’

They’ll look a little sadly at you, as if sorry to be such a disappointment (or perhaps sorry that you’re being such a disappointment), and say, ‘Oh, contact lens solution,’ and just as you think you’re getting somewhere they’ll add, ‘I don’t manage this aisle. I’ll go get the person who does.’

You might ask (or I do, anyway), ‘As a matter of interest, what aisle do you manage?’ And they’ll say, ‘Stationery,’ and you’ll ask, ‘And who’s the person you were chatting to here, in this aisle, where the contact lens solution is usually stocked, while I was looking for it?’ And they’ll say, ‘Alfie, from Pet Food,’ and you’ll have to suppress the urge to poke them in the eye with your car keys.

Off they’ll go to find the manager of the aisle you’ve been searching high and low, and that manager will finally turn up, often out of breath and looking fractious, as if you’ve just interrupted something very important (a conversation, probably, in Dairy with Camilla from Fruit & Veg).

You’ll then repeat the first few steps, all the way up to and including their assumption that it’s eye drops you’re looking for, and your assertion that it’s not.

Then (and this really is my favourite part of the process) they will begin searching the shelves high and low, muttering under their breath and sometimes moving other products out of the way in case the contact lens solution was cunningly hiding from you, but they, with their greater knowledge (presumably) of the aisle they manage, will be able to locate it.

You’ll watch this for a while, then you’ll say (if you’re me, through gritted teeth), ‘It’s pointless looking. I’ve already looked. It’s not on the shelves. Do you have any in stock? Perhaps in the back? Has it run out? Is it on order? Would you like me to stand here and burst into screaming sobs and begin tearing my hair out by the roots?’

They’ll look at you in some surprise for being so unreasonable and say, ‘I’ll go and ask the manager,’ the manager in this case being, assumedly, the god of the supermarket. And off they’ll go, at a calm and measured pace, leaving you with an unhealthily hammering heart and teeth that are being ground down to nubs.

You will in the meantime take the line of least resistance and move along, finishing your shopping. And by the time you're ready to find a checkout, still no-one will have informed you about the availability or otherwise of contact lens solution. So you’ll go and find the manager yourself (he usually has to be called away from something very important – a chat, in all likelihood, in the Bakery with Vanessa from Canned Goods).

The manager will, of course, have absolutely no idea of what you’re talking about, and you’ll be required to repeat the first few steps, up to and including etc. He’ll then tell you, immediately and without evident thought, that the product is out of stock but is ‘on order’.

You will then (if you’re me) say, ‘Do you really know what product I’m talking about?’ and if he nods (and he always does), you’ll say, ‘Okay, what’s it called?’

The manager will clear his throat and look embarrassed, then search about his person for a piece of scrap paper on which he’ll ask you to write down the name of the product so he can order it for you. This piece of scrap paper he will return to his pocket, to be used later when he needs to swab his fingers after a messy clean-up in aisle 7, then throw away.

And you’ll pay for the groceriers you could find, then go to the chemist to buy the contact lens solution, where you should have just gone in the first place.

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Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Most beautiful beings: sea-wind flower-animals

This is my favourite creature of the moment. It's a sand anemone and I’m afraid its picture doesn’t do it justice. They're hard to photograph -- you really have to be there to understand their unusual beauty.

Why is it my flavour of the month?

First, the word ‘anemone’. Isn’t that a tongue-tripper? Don’t you just want to say ‘anenome’?

Then, how’s this: the word ‘anemone’ comes from the Greek for ‘wind’. Doesn’t that just blow your mind? It’s a plant that grows in the sea, yet it comes from the air. You have to love it.

And it gets better. You know what its dry-land cousin is? The lovely little buttercup.

And you know what these sea flowers live on? Oh, animals. Yup, they’re predatory. In fact, in their juvenile state, they’re not even static. They swim about in the sea in larva form. Only when they’re ready to settle down and have babies do they attach themselves to a rock and turn into these fantastical beings.

Okay, I’m stretching this a bit, because the land anemone (the buttercup) is just a sweet meadow flower but the one I’m talking about – not, sadly, actually biologically related; only the words have similar roots – is the sea anemone.

Sand sea anemones, which grow in great clusters on the beach near my seaside flat, are intertidal – they gather together with black mussels on rocks – so only when we’re there at low water are we lucky enough to see them.

They’re extraordinarily beautiful, marvellously minute aliens. When they’re all closed up (when
the water isn’t over them, which is mainly when we see them, as in the pic), they usually cover themselves with miniscule particles of sand, hence
their name. But in our seaside town,
shells are more abundant than sand, so
you know what they glue all over themselves?

Yes. Tiny little shell fragments – mussel shells, cowrie shells, abalone shells; iridescent mother-of-pearl; pink, grey, blue, green...

So the closed-up anemones look like nothing less than miraculous miniature mosaics.

In their centres (they have little whorls there – they seldom close completely) are amazingly striking colours: Prussian blue, scarlet, grass green, Persian purple. It’s difficult to believe nature could make these jewel-like colours, because you’re so much more used to seeing them in stained-glass windows. But it does.

And when the tide turns and the sea starts flowing in, these sea-wind flower-animals unfurl and send out fleshy tentacles, turning the dense, dead black rocks into gracefully waving fields of technicolour submarine buttercups.

It’s enough to make you believe in God.

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Friday, 21 March 2008

Nose picking and other nasty habits

I have too many nasty habits to count, including smoking, sometimes biting my nails, often drinking too much, and almost always associating with unsuitable people.

But there are nasty habits and nasty habits, and some I just don’t get.

Two of them I grew up with: my father and my brother farted and picked their noses freely, and for reasons that remain unclear to me to this day, in our household it was somehow considered okay for ‘the men’ to do this, while ‘the women’ (my mother, my sisters and I) were required to blow our noses in private and indulge in flatulence far from the madding crowd.

How is this okay? Do men really believe that women think it’s not disgusting to watch someone mining their nasal passages (then, in my brother’s case, rolling the results and flicking it at us)? One of my sisters hit back at this prejudice by picking her nose through a tissue: she still does this, without shame, in public, on the grounds that if her actual finger doesn’t touch the snot, it doesn’t count. (And that’s how our families f*k us up.)

And I still don’t understand how lifting a butt cheek and letting rip in public is fine just because you’re male – because aren’t you, after all, also just an ordinary socialised human being?

Another of my sisters married a man who, in spite of exhibiting fierce intelligence and ordinary civility in most other spheres, couldn’t understand why having a grand ole ‘pump’ (as my late sainted mother used to call ‘breaking wind’ – and isn’t that just an adorable expression?), while all around were enjoying a port after dinner and perhaps some polite conversation about the latest croquet match, elicited such outrage.

‘Don’t be so naff!’ he’d say, curling his lip in a condescending way, as the echo reverberated around the room and the stench set in. ‘Don’t pretend you don’t fart too!’ (Well, yes, but, erm, not in front of Auntie Janet and Grannie Mop.)

The men in our lives also thought it just dandy to ‘readjust their tackle’ (as the saying goes, and I can’t tell you how depressed that makes me) whenever they felt like it. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to maintain eye contact, never mind my train of thought, when the person I’m speaking to is scrabbling about in his trousers.

Have you ever seen a woman do this? Okay, maybe we don’t have tackle to readjust, but have you ever had an itch down there that, even if your very life depended on it, you’d scratch in public? I think the eye-witness accounts of women having a jolly good skrommel in their pants in the ATM queue answers that question.

My father was also a great spitter in his day. And I don’t mean light saliva; I mean great green gobs of phlegm, dredged up from deep within himself. His favourite place to do this was in his car, out the driver’s window.

One of the crowning-glory moments of my childhood was when, as a passenger in the back seat of my father’s car, I heard him begin the process that meant a huge spewie was coming on: exaggerated neck undulations and copious throat clearing. Then he drew back his head, putting as much force into it as he could, shot his neck forward and spat out his window.

Which was closed.

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Tuesday, 18 March 2008

White people can’t dance

And here’s proof.

As much as it’s my policy never to out myself on Salmagundi – which Johann, who is regularly named on this blog, resents, and with reason – I just can’t resist posting these pics.

While this living-room boogie-fest was happening deep into the small hours of last Saturday morning, I’m not sure what my bop-buddy D was thinking – but I hope it was that he was John Travolta (and the visual proof says maybe), because I was most definitely Uma Thurman at her jivey best.

I swear, I was there: svelte, sexy and feeling every scintillating doo-wop-wop and sha-la-la-la. If you’d entered me in Dancing with the Stars (or whatever the latest reality show is that tests toe-tapping talent), I would have won, hands down.

T stayed safely behind the lens and it was only when she emailed these pics that I realised why. Oh my goodness and golly gosh! (as T might say – and when she lets rip with an authentic swear word, she adds, ‘Excuse my French’; she is just too charming). How alarmingly embarrassing!

After my initial recoiling from the computer screen (I actually reared back and knocked myself right out of my chair, and I am not even making this up) I looked at the pics again (carefully, through slit eyes). Although there will always be a cringing discomfort at how appalling they are, I’ve decided I really love them.

Look: we can’t dance, okay? But we still love to. And if making life livable includes dancing a bit every day (as Robert Fulghum* says), then my friends and I have got at least one thing right.

* Robert Fulghum’s rules for life: all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten

Share everything.
Play fair.
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

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Friday, 14 March 2008

Two speeding fines in one week, and I wasn’t even driving the Merc

I know I don’t have a leg to stand on here, because I did break the law, but come on! Don’t our cops have better things to do than hide behind bushes aiming radar at normally law-abiding citizens who travel 11kph over the speed limit? (I got both fines in the mail today, and in both cases I was nailed R150 for doing 71kph in a 60kph zone.)

What really infuriated me was when I read where I’d been trapped. The first one was on a busy through-road in Cape Town on which, during rush hour (when I was photographed ‘speeding’), it is genuinely dangerous to travel at the speed limit. The road carries a very heavy load of trucks, buses and taxis, which invariably go significantly faster than the speed limit, and trying to keep at 60kph practically guarantees you will be mercilessly crushed beneath their wheels. Or at least sworn at a lot.

I know from experience that there’s little more frightening than being tailgated by a humongous lorry. It happened to me a while ago, when I was still driving a dinky little CitiGolf, and I received a fine in the mail of R625 for speeding. I was so shocked by this outrageous amount that at first I thought ‘R625’ was the name of the road I’d been travelling on at the time of the infraction.

After I’d located the actual name of the road – the N2, which I very seldom use – I remembered the day it had happened and wrote away to ask for photographic proof of the transgression. The pic, when it arrived, made me laugh: it clearly showed me, big-eyed with alarm, behind the wheel of my miniature car, and a truck the size of an apartment block directly behind me – so close you could see the whites of the driver’s eyes. I sent it back to the traffic department, accompanied by a letter asking if, in the circumstances, the prosecuting officer had been in my position, s/he would have kept to the speed limit. The fine was quashed.

The second fine I received today was recorded on a handheld device, on a quietish country road between my home in the village and my seaside flat. Looking in my dairy, I was able to recall exactly when it had happened, and the circumstances. It was a rainy day (I know this because I referred to my weather tree*), and I had actually spotted the officer aiming the radar sitting way back in the shadows under a huge wild fig (and I must say, even while I understand its purpose, the cagey manner in which these guys get you just rubs me up the wrong way).

But here’s the thing: the traffic cop was indeed nailing people in the 60kph zone – but at a point in the road just before the speed limit rises to 80kph, then, about 200 metres on, to 100kph. So, naturally, round about here, any driver who knows the route is probably relaxing his/her guard and beginning to accelerate. How sneaky is that?!

*How to make a weather tree

Draw a big tree on a piece of A2 paper. Give it 12 long branches, each representing a month of the year, and on each branch draw a leaf for each day and number it (so January’s branch, for instance, will have 31 leaves, each labelled with a number from 1 to 31). Stick this on your fridge.

Draw up a key using colours – red for very hot, orange for hot, yellow for mild, green for cold, blue for rainy, purple for windy, etc. Put a little pot containing crayons or kokis in these colours on top of your fridge.

Then, every day, colour in the appropriate day-leaf with its appropriate colour, according to what the weather’s like.

Once the tree is finished, you can watercolour the trunk and branches and give it a gorgeous background, and voila! a luvverly picture you can keep for posterity – or for comparison, year by year, if you want to make it an annual project.

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Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Obedience training for mad dogs: do what they know best

My friend T and I took our dogs to the beach last week.

T’s dog, Max, a pure-bred golden retriever with, at age six months, paws large enough to flatten a smallish human being (say, Paris Hilton, why not?), is a darling lollopy creature who rarely stops moving and with ears and a tongue that stream back in the breeze. He knows and loves only three things: food; Sara; and running amok.*

Sara, my own dear wobbly dog, is slightly brain damaged, and often goes into fits of sheer, exuberant joy. Even when relatively calm, she takes the command ‘Down!’ to mean she may feel free to behave as if she’s just had ten thousand volts shot through her.

So the wide-open expanse of a long white beach were just what we needed for our high-spirited animals.

We did not reckon, however, on the presence of a stern man with his two exceptionally well-trained border collies. These two dogs – whose attention was focused solely on their owner; not for them the carefree romping through the waves or snuffling after kelp of normal beach-bounding hounds – responded with frankly bizarre instantaneousness to the man’s commands. And, even more bizarrely, the man did not utter one single word: all the commands he gave were purely through hand signals.

T and I and our dogs meandered along the beach in the wake of this man and his über-dogs, admiring his technique. And while having dogs trained to the level of circus animals isn’t really my thing, I must say it was quite something to watch. Using his silent semaphore system, this man caused his dogs to sit, stay, circle around, dash off in tandem, stop at a certain distance, sit again, turn, wait, walk back, go right, go left – everything, practically, but put up an umbrella and pop open a coolbox full of frosties.

In the meantime, of course, Max and Sara caused untold seashore havoc, chasing gulls, wrestling with crabs, being bowled over by rogue waves, digging pointless craters, etc. And T and I, far from being silent signallers, screamed constantly at the tops of our voices. ‘Maaaax!!! Put down that child!’ ‘Sara!!!!! Get off that jellyfish!’ Etc. And, needless to say, we were roundly ignored.

The crunch came when the man, who was walking ahead of us, turned around to walk back along the beach towards us. Suddenly he found himself faced with two dogs who very obviously hadn’t had a second’s training in their lives. So goodness knows what he thought when Sara, simply thrilled to see another human being off whom she could possibly ricochet, pricked up her ears and headed towards him at warp speed.

The man, remaining resolutely silent, did something that made me just wet my pants: he stood stock-still, more or less like a Nazi soldier at inspection time, extended his arm, and held out one unyielding finger towards Sara. His command was clear: ‘Stop! Or I vill make you!’

Sara could not have been more elated if he’d been dangling a steak from that digit. In utter ecstasy, she picked up speed and, tongue lolling out alarmingly, headed for the man with redoubled joy.

Although I was laughing so much I thought I might actually pop some vital organ in my insides, I found enough breath to scream, ‘Saaarrraaaa! Nooooooo!’ (I didn’t know what the man would have done had Sara actually reached him – karate-chop her to death, maybe?)

Somewhere in the slightly miswired depths of Sara’s brain, she must have heard the edge of hysteria in my voice because, thankfully, she slowed, looked back (her tongue practically licking her tail), smiled widely, wiggled her eyebrows (‘What? Huh?’) and then, when I screamed again, jog-trotted to a very obviously reluctant halt.

During these few moments of frenzy, Nazi-man hadn’t moved a muscle: he’d simply stood there, that uncompromising digit raised.

Now, as I called Sara back (‘Sara! Sara! SARA! Come! Come! Come! COME!’), he stared at me with scorching contempt.

Sara, too, stared at me, but her expression said, ‘Aw. Why not? C’mon. Lighten up. I’m only having some fun.’

‘No, Sara!’ I said. ‘Come here IMMEDIATELY!’

Sara didn’t come because I’d ordered her to. I’d love to say she did, but she didn’t. She came because Max chose that moment to find, somewhere at our feet, some unnameable bit of mouldering flotsam with an eye-watering stench which he tried very hard to eat in its entirety while T hauled uselessly on his collar to get him off it, and Sara only wanted to see what was going on.

While T and I, in fits of giggles, held onto our irrepressible hounds, Nazi-man and his two robotic border collies came past us and stalked off into the distance, death-rays of contempt coming off all three.

After T and I, too, had turned, and were making our way back along the beach, we decided we would also try our hands, so to speak, at semaphoring our dogs. ‘Look, it works!’ I screeched, as I pointed towards a gull and said to Sara, ‘Sara, chase gull!’ And she did.

‘It does!’ agreed T, as she gesticulated wildly towards the ocean and shrieked, ‘Maxi, in the sea!’ and Max hurled himself bodily through the waves.

We proved this point all the way back. ‘Sara, toss that shell mindlessly into the air!’ I instructed my dog (with relevant hand signals), and she did. ‘Max, trot like a Lippizzaner!’ T told her dog (with appropriate hand signals), and he did. (Max walks like this whenever he’s weary, but still). ‘Sara, bound in a dilly way all over the beach,’ I instructed, with hand signals, and she did. ‘Max, run over to that pile of stinky sea-excrement and try to eat it all frantically within five seconds,’ T instructed (with hand signals), and he did.

Which just goes to show: if you stick to what your dog knows, it will reward you with instant and otherwise utterly uncharacteristic obedience.

* Maxi also loves T but, like all teenagers (which is more or less how old Max is now, in dog time), only when he absolutely has to. This concerns T, who recently asked me, ‘Do you think Maxi’s entered teenagehood, because he’s giving me a bad vibe?’ Pressed to explain, she said, ‘Well, he’ll come into a room, then just stand there and stare at me. Accusingly.’ After I stopped laughing, I told her she’d get used to it. Teenagers are just like that.

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Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Now I know what it’s like to drive a big f*koff German luxury car

Following my idiotic accident, when I reversed into my friend’s 4X4 and did fairly substantial damage to both cars, I have now finally sorted out the insurance and my standard Japanese-issue family sedan is in the shop for a week, getting its panels beaten.

In the interim my friend Johann, showing really rather astonishing trust in my ability to pilot a motor vehicle, has lent me his vintage Mercedes to drive. And he didn’t even say things like, ‘Now, be careful,’ when he gave me the keys. In fact, he said, ‘I’m sorry it’s so dirty’ (like I would notice: I drive a dog-and-junkfoodmobile), which just shows what quality of a man he is.

What I know about cars is dangerous (obviously), but I can tell you that the Merc is a special, limited-edition import (because Johann told me this) and has leather seats and is very very large, a bit like a tank, and has doors that close with a satisfying thunk (rather than the apologetic tik my own car manages), and can go at 140kph when you think you’re only doing about 80 (and I hope Johann isn’t reading this). It is also amazingly easy to drive (oh, power steering, how did we manage without you for all those years?).

But that’s all to be expected from a German car, apparently. The truly astounding thing is what happens to me when I get behind its wheel.

For years I have railed helplessly as drivers of big f*koff German luxury vehicles sideswiped me on the highway, overtook me with withering disdain and at hair-whipping speed, parked wherever the hell they wanted to and who cared who was inconvenienced, pushed ahead of me into traffic queues, chatted on their cellphones at stopstreets while I hooted, unheeded, behind them, etc.

Now I understand: it’s not their fault. As soon as I slide behind the wheel of Johann’s vintage Merc, a profound change comes over me. Not only do I feel cocooned in a virtually indestructible shell of eye-poppingly expensive metal, I myself feel indestructible – a bit like god, really. I instantly forget every road manner I ever learnt. Effectively, I own the road. I drive too fast. I park nonchalantly, anywhere I feel like it. I wear my R120 thrift-store sunglasses as if they were Ray-Bans. I easily imagine myself at St Tropez, hanging out with Johnny Depp and his pals. I swear, even my boobs seem bigger.

This alarms my wobbly dog, who has stopped hanging her head out the window and allowing her tongue to flap wildly all over the back exterior of the car – she’s savvy enough to know that having your tongue ripped off in a 140kph wind isn’t an experience you’d want to record in your Me Book. Rather, she lies down on the back seat and morosely licks the leather.

My kids, too, are embarrassed. ‘Mom, you aren’t a rock star or something, okay?’ my daughter said, when I hopped out at the filling station, tossed the petrol jockey the keys and said, ‘Do your thing, my good man. But don’t scratch the paintwork.’ Then stood around admiring my new cleavage.

My son takes refuge behind a book, scrunching down in the seat until he’s all but invisible. When we get home and I switch off the motor, he stares at me and mutters, ‘Jesus,’ then hoofs it inside and doesn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.

Fortunately for me, my loved ones and the driving public at large, my stint behind the wheel of a big f*koff German luxury car will end on Thursday. Between now and then, I’m going to have to get my mind around returning to being the driver of a lightweight family sedan. And having normal-sized breasts.

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Leaving your house to the tender mercies of teens: an acceptable proposition or utter madness?

Since I moved away from the city eight years ago, my far-flung family (none of them related to me by blood, but all very near and dear) have often made the great trek to visit me. I appreciate this enormously: when you’re spending precious annual leave flying in from Europe, the States or Aus, often with wives/husbands/partners and/or kids in tow, and with a long list of family and friends plus tourist attractions and the like to visit in a limited time, taking a day or two out of your busy schedule to drive to the middle of nowhere is a big ask. And yet they do it, some of them every year.

So this year, I’ve decided, I will go to them. I haven’t been out of South Africa in 12 years, so it’s high time; and I want to see my lovely friends in their own homes, meet their friends and families, and experience their lives the way they occasionally do mine.

Having negotiated the terrifying price of an air ticket to Europe (the States and Aus will have to wait another dozen years, alas) by the expedient method of ‘borrowing’ it from my mortgage bond, I began thinking about what I’d do to secure the health and welfare of my pets and home in my absence. Over dinner with friends on the weekend, I mentioned that I’d probably be leaving these responsibilities in the hands of my children, who will, in December when I plan to go, be 17 and 18 years old respectively.

The hysterical uproar at this announcement left me shaken. After everyone had picked themselves up off the floor and wiped the tears of mirth from their cheeks, they began trading stories of what they’d got up to when they were teenagers and their parents left them alone in the house.

T: ‘We had a party and my mother almost had a heart attack at the state of the house when she got back. You know what teenagers are like: the bedroom was in the lounge, the lounge was in the pool…’

J: ‘We went to sleep and left a candle burning in the kitchen. The curtains caught fire and the house almost burnt down.’

M: ‘We took my father’s car out for a spin and crashed it. We couldn’t drive it home, it was too damaged, so we just left it at the side of the road and it got stolen. My father still doesn’t know what happened – he thinks the car was stolen out of our garage at home.’

R: ‘Our dog ran away.’

S: ‘One of my friends used our phone to call his girlfriend in America. He spoke for hours and the phone bill was astronomical.’

J2: ‘A friend of mine ate too many magic mushrooms and had such a bad trip we thought she was going to die. We called an ambulance and the medics wanted to know where the adults were and when we told them we were on our own, they called the police. My folks still think I’ve got a drug problem because of that.’

M: ‘We blew the sound system.’

R2: ‘One of our cats died in the roof. We could smell something horrible but we didn’t know what it was. My mother found the cat when she got back. She kept asking how we hadn’t noticed the cat had been missing. I don’t even think we remembered to feed the poor things, they just had to forage.’

L: ‘I drank so much I threw up in my parents’ bed – and you don’t have to guess too hard what I was doing there, with my equally drunk girlfriend. I couldn’t get the smell out of the mattress. My father knew exactly what it was the minute he got into bed on the first night he got back. He was furious. I blamed one of my friends.’

J3: ‘I got into a wrestling match with my sister and she made me so mad I almost killed her. I had my hands around her neck and she’d actually passed out before I realised what I was doing.’

T2: ‘My boyfriend rode my father’s motor bike into the swimming pool.’

R (again): 'Someone put the hosepipe through the living-room window and switched it on. For a joke.'

The sheer range of calamitous occurrences truly appalled me. (And the mere thought of one of my children having sex in my bed..!)

Were my siblings and I just abnormally lucky as teenagers? (We certainly weren’t abnormally well behaved, or at least not when my parents were around.) Sure, when we were left on our own, glitches happened, but the worst I can remember was when one of us burnt a hole in a cushion with a cigarette – and we were so aware of the dire consequences that we managed to get the thing recovered before my parents returned.

Almost all the people who contributed to this hair-raising comparison of home-alone experiences also volunteered to teen-sit for me while I’m away. My first thought was, of course, an aghast No! How could I possibly leave my home and best beloveds in the hands of such hooligans?!

But on reflection I realised that all of them, having experienced at first hand what teenagers get up to in the absence of adult control, would know exactly what to look out for.

So I’ve drawn up a roster of house-sitters with misspent youths, and my trip is on.

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Saturday, 8 March 2008

RIP my loyal email address: killed by a spam tsunami

This week I say goodbye to a devoted beast of burden: the email address I've had since the dawning days of the Internet. Oh, I adore my dear addy, which has served me so well over the years. (Okay, I admit it has no particular cadence, my email address, being a clumsy portmanteau word combining my surname with my husband's - but I love it nonetheless.)

It's served me dutifully, but now I'm putting it out to pasture, so it can stumble around in the cyber-wilderness and finally expire with a few faint farts and squeaks.

Why (I hear you ask) would I do such a thing? Why would I murder a sequence of letters that has kept me connected over so many years with friends, family and foes? What did my pore ole email address do to deserve such treatment?

Well, spam, spam, spam, of course. Look, I really have done my darnedest to solve the spam problem. I have filtering software. I mark things as junkmail. I never, ever, open junk mail and I certainly don't offer to unsubscribe to it. I haven't put my email address anywhere in cyberspace, ANYWHERE, for at least eight years, ever since I learned that putting your private email address on a website is a bloody stupid move.

But still, my email address is indelibly carved on the mailing lists of spiteful spammers in China, Korea, Mumbai and Buttfuck, Illinois, and a flood of junkmail has turned into a torrent that has become unmanageable.

So, farewell, dear There it is. (Free to spam it until eternity... har evil har... it will bounce back at you and cause pustules to erupt from your flappy bits.)

(Almost forgot to give you the new one! Here it is:

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Tuesday, 4 March 2008

My dirty little secret: I love Judge Judy

One of the nicest things about being a freelancer is that the organisation of your time is, by and large, your own. So, for instance, I choose to work in the morning (starting at 6am, when my kids leave for school, and breaking at about noon) and at night (from about 8pm to midnight, depending on my workload). This leaves the bulk of the day free for me to be Mom’s taxi, family shopper, internet homework researcher, chief cook and bottle-washer, and all the other delightful pastimes that come with parenting.

The highlight of my weekdays is, however, my 12.30pm appointment with my television. That’s when Judge Judy entertains me for half an hour, arbitrating in some of the most astonishingly petty cases brought by some of the most astonishingly stupid life forms possibly in the entire universe.

Judy Sheindlin, a former family court judge (and reportedly one of the 30 richest women in entertainment in the world), is anyone’s idea of a mother-in-law from hell. With her white-lace-collared black judge’s robe, sprayed-to-stay hairdo, pinched little mouth and a pair of glasses she wields like a weapon, she settles disputes over piffling issues brought by ex-cons, unemployed nogoodnicks, shady salesmen, slutty young things, bitter middle-aged women, obese old men and the like. Most of the cases are laughably simple: my own teenage children would have absolutely no problem ruling on them.

It’s the way Judge Judy handles them that has me in stitches. Irascible at best (and don’t, just don’t, interrupt her, okay?), and sometimes so blatantly rude and cruelly insulting it makes me gasp, she listens with ill-disguised impatience to the drivel these people bring to her TV courtroom. She slices through lies with staggering perspicacity, irritably sideswipes all attempts to be distracted by extraneous information, and often, when she announces her judgment, you can practically hear the unsaid end to her statement: ‘I rule in favour of the plaintiff, in the amount of $321,45c, [and what unbelievable cretins the two of you really are].’

Unfortunately for Americans, whose popularity isn’t exactly soaring right now, viewers of Judge Judy might think that the people who appear on the show represent a fair cross-section of the American public. And who knows, maybe they do. In which case it’s no surprise they made George Dubya president – because he’s possibly the brightest of the lot. What a truly terrifying thought.

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Monday, 3 March 2008

O please let me not be 70+ and still hankering after cute young boys

For reasons too convoluted to go into (but not terribly interesting), we ended up on Friday night for dinner at a very expensive restaurant, hosted by an old rich man we barely knew.

Among other things, the old rich man – 71, I know because he told me repeatedly; and let’s call him Don Juan, why not? – had taken a fancy, earlier, to one in our party of six: my friend T, who is darkly beautiful but also very shy. Don Juan, wanting only T, generously invited us all to join his table – which we did, although with varying levels of discomfort and disbelief.

Which grew progressively more intense (and the apparent generosity was exposed for what it really was) as Don Juan ignored all present and leaned with laser-like focus into T, showering her with bizarre pickup lines (which included a flattering reference to her body temperature), and T leaned progressively farther away from him.

Finally, when Don Juan’s failing prostate called him serendipitously from the table, T swopped places with one of the male members of our party. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this,’ she said. ‘I know he’s paying for our meal, but he’s… he’s… so OLD.’

T was happy thereafter to be sequestered between a bouncy French photographer and a Jesus-lookalike masseur, both on the sunny side of 45 (relatively young where we come from).

But Don Juan was not to be deflected. Soon – all too soon – he too had engineered a seat swop, and T was once again being showered with unwelcomely creepy compliments. Her body language simply could not have been clearer: if she’d leaned any further away from him off her seat, she would have been horizontal.

Fortunately, Don Juan was too old to keep going for long, and tottered off to bed around midnight. At which stage, and at long last, T could relax, regain verticality, and flirt merrily – and without intent on either side – with people nearer her own age. And we escaped back to my place and partied happily until the break of dawn. (We also, in deference to what we realised was going on, agreed among us to split the outrageous bill; in Don Juan’s defence, even though he hadn’t got what he’d clearly set out for, he refused all offers of payment. I do think, in retrospect, his generosity was genuine.)

Anyway, for reasons of friendly connections (also too convoluted to go into here – and not because they’re interesting either, promise), I had reason to have coffee the next morning with Don Juan.

‘So,’ he said, ‘your friend T: did she notice I was paying special attention to her?’

‘Yes,’ I said (too tired and hungover, to be honest, to bother with mincing words).

‘And when she swopped seats that first time: was that because of me?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Why?’ he asked.

I did a quick search through the quagmire that was pretending to be my mind (I had had three hours sleep, my house was trashed, and there was a Jesus-lookalike masseur recovering in my bed) and said, ‘Surely, at your age, you’ve learnt to read body language?’

‘At my age and with my money,’ he drawled, giving me a look that I think he meant to be sexy but appeared to me that he’d lost control of his left eye muscles, ‘all that matters to me is women.’

Oh dear.

Please let me never be really old and richer than God, and still be looking for a happy ending – or at the very least not with people young enough to have been spawned from my own eggs.

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Sunday, 2 March 2008

Funky design in Fat Banana toys

Further to my post about crappy toys, take a look at the groovy selection of old-fashioned and funky toys on sale at Fat Banana Feet.

I came across the site after its owner, a South African, commented on my post about children's playground rhymes: she named her business (which is based in the UK) after the classic chant, 'Skinny Malinky Long-Legs, Fat Banana Feet'.

It's heartening to to see such beautiful design and quality in kids' toys. My favourites: a line of 'Ugly Dolls' (see above), a pink Fantasy Flyer pedal plane, and a pair of bowwow dog speakers.

Another classic is this wooden rocking motorbike (below). And, if you're a Harley fan with a bit of cash to spare, check out this wooden beauty.

Visit Fat Banana Feet at

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