Sunday, 27 April 2008

A fine and beautiful wedding

About five years ago my children – who are imbued with a deep streak of sadism, inherited from their father’s side – persuaded me to go on The Cobra rollercoaster at Ratanga Junction in Cape Town. I’ve never been so scared in all my life, and I cried like a baby for about an hour afterwards.

Other than that, though, I’m not a big weeper. Physical pain makes me curse, not cry; movies that try to tweak my tearducts irritate me; and it takes a serious emotional hammer to smack a few snuffles out of me.

So you can imagine my consternation when, at a wedding on Friday afternoon, I found myself not just shedding one or two modest tears, but actually blubbing – the kind of crying that makes your nose run and smudges your mascara all over your cheeks.

Why?

Perhaps part of the reason is that weddings aren’t common occurrences in our circle of friends. Divorces and separations, yes (depressingly common, in fact); but not weddings.

Also, one of the partners was getting married for the first time – at 40 years old. This wasn’t a kiddie commitment: it was the real deal.

To put this into perspective, the last wedding I went to, last year, was between a 20-year-old groom and his equally youthful bride. I suppose I’m not the sort of person you really want to invite to your wedding, under normal circumstances – I’m far too cynical about marriage and always feel like snorting when it comes to the ‘till death us do part’ bit. I feel dishonest bearing witness to a union that statistics show has only a 33% chance of going the distance. And really, what does anyone know about anything at 20? It’s almost criminal to make a lifelong vow at that age and think you’re going to be able to keep it.

But back to Friday’s wedding: the other partner is older (53) and this was his second attempt at marriage – but the wonderful thing was that his entire ‘previous’ family was there: not only his ex-wife and two grandchildren, but also his grownup son and daughter, who were the ring bearers, and various other relatives. And they didn’t just pop across from down the road; they came all the way from England. So this was a genuine show of love and support, very much from the heart.

Also, the people who got married on Friday – and who have already been partners for over a decade – are both men. What a long way we’ve come, from the days when I would be prevailed upon to pretend to be my gay friends’ girlfriend at their company do’s and family get-togethers (the better to deflect rude and unwelcome enquiries), and queerdom was a maligned and misunderstood subculture that involved assignations in public toilets and invited late-night bashings – the love, as Lord Alfred Douglas wrote in his poem ‘Two Loves’ in 1896, that ‘dare not speak its name’.

Douglas was the lover of Oscar Wilde during a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in England, punishable by imprisonment and hard labour. During Wilde’s first appearance in court on a charge of ‘gross indecency’, he was asked by the court what this unmentionable love was. Knowing what awaited him should he admit his sexual orientation, he did some typically nifty wordwork around the answer, saying (I’ve shortened it slightly), ‘It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect… It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo… It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection... That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.’

That’s why Friday’s wedding was so heartening. It was so gorgeous, this lovely and loving public declaration of an enduring private love affair, so beautiful and fine, that … well, it made me cry.

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Friday, 25 April 2008

Is this the world's rudest food label?

I picked up this tin in a little shop in Randburg yesterday. My first response to the label was, 'You too, mate.'

Anyone know what 'Fu Kuei' really means?

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Thursday, 24 April 2008

Dagga flashbacks

I was a card-carrying dagga-smoker for most of my life, although you would never know it because I always forgot where my card was, dude.

Okay, I’m kidding about the card but not about the dagga. I loved dagga. It relaxed me and made me happy; it de-stressed me and made me dance; it let me sleep. (My sainted late mother, who was a very proper Scotswoman and never touched anything stronger than a glass of white wine, liberally diluted with ice, in all her life, learnt to love dagga, too, when she was dying of colon cancer: she sometimes preferred the dagga banana bread we made her over her morphine.)

I don’t do dagga any more. My teenage daughter is just way too fond of it and it’s not a good thing for a depressive (which she happens to be). So it’s no longer a staple in my house, and my jewelled dagga box now contains nothing more illicit than a few lonely Rizzlas and some pungent reminders of a time that’s passed.

But the dagga stories never lie down, do they? My favourite dates back to my leftover-hippie days in Noordhoek (the old Noordhoek, before the invasion of 4X4s and Woolies, when horses had right of way and surfing was king), when me and my then-lover lived in a rickety house clinging to the edge of the cliff, which became so waterlogged in winter that the paintings grew mould. The house was always filled with city-based escapees – in those days, driving to Noordhoek from Cape Town for the weekend was more or less as adventurous as heading for Dubai is now; in fact, I remember a Capetonian-born-and-bred friend not even knowing how to get there – we had to draw her a map.

We grew spinach and mushrooms in our garden – hey, that’s what people did in Noordhoek in those days, okay? And after we’d had a couple of joints, one night, I went out and harvested a bit of food for the party. To the mellow vibes of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, I chopped up the spinach, grilled the mushrooms, topped the lot with cheese, and presented it for dinner to the gathering. It was enthusiastically received and hungrily devoured.

And so the evening went on.

The next morning I woke up to the usual: a devastation of used crockery and cutlery, cigarette butts in every conceivable place, supine bodies wherever I looked, and the toilet blocked. Bleary-eyed, I put some music on the tape deck (yup, we had tape decks then) and began clearing up: gathering plates and glasses, stacking bottles, emptying ashtrays, putting clothes in a pile for later reappropriation, etc.

When I began washing up (no dishwashers then, of course: we didn’t even have electricity, only a temperamental gas water-heater that worked, apparently, according to the phases of the moon), I discovered some odd leavings on the dinner plates: hard, black bits mixed in with what was left of the spinach and mushrooms.

I looked closer: the mystery pieces were on all the plates. What on earth could they be?

When the truth dawned, I quickly scraped the plates clean and got on with the washing up, ensuring that all evidence had been eradicated before the first hungover party-goers began emerging from Nod. No need to freak people out, hey.

It was snails.

Our eco-friendly veggie patch was infested with snails, and the armful of spinach and mushrooms I’d gathered the night before – it was dark and I was stoned – was liberally studded with them. Wonderfully dagga-bevok, I’d gone ahead and prepared a meal of mushrooms, spinach and cheese … and a robust helping of garden snails.

Tellingly (for the effects of dagga) not one person ever commented on the unusually crunchy texture of the meal.

And I’ve never told. Until now.

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Days like that: letting loose with a long, loud, primeval scream

You know those days when everything goes wrong? When, if your horoscope were something you could actually run your life by, it would read, ‘Don’t bother getting out of bed’?

I’ve just had one of those. It started early when I missed the garbage truck and segued seamlessly into a fight with the Kreepy-Krawly (the Kreepy won).

Then, in short order: I opened the fridge and a bottle of milk fell out and exploded on the floor; the dishwasher’s soap dispenser inexplicably forgot to release the soap (and in the ‘eco’ cycle, which takes almost 3 hours, this was a huge waste of time); the geyser overflow turned from a drip into a torrent; I fell over my own feet and wrenched my big toe (which is only just recovering from an injury sustained while clambering about the rocks at the seaside in the middle of the night, and the less said about that the better); I tore my favourite tablecloth while folding it (it’s a precious hand-me-down from my mother, and is fragile from many washes); and I stood in a dog poo.

In between these minor disasters, I was preparing copy for a financial e-newsletter for which I’m the content editor, writing the first draft of an article from notes taken during an interview, and trying to put together a press release about a campaign for which I had no prior knowledge and precious little source material. The e-newsletter is both boring and complicated (a terrible combination) and requires real concentration to get right. My interview notes were scrawled in my egregious handwriting and I couldn’t work out half of what they said. And after about seven attempts at the press release I finally thought I’d got it right – only to be informed via email that someone else had already written it (admittedly, their version was miles better than mine).

Then a colleague phoned to tell me that the course notes I’d painstakingly updated and put onto her computer about 18 months ago had gone astray when the company upgraded to a new system. ‘No!’ I said, my throat closing up, ‘they must be there somewhere!’ My frustration communicated itself as snittiness, and she was snitty in return.

On my ‘to-do’ list for today were also nasty stressful chores like grocery shopping (my daughter is going away on a Geography camp for the weekend, for which she needs specific and ridiculous things), fetching shoes from the mender, speaking to the insurance people (who have, after the only claim I’ve made in 12 years of paying dues, raised both my premiums AND my excess – it seem so unfair!), organising my son’s 18th birthday party (which I took my eye off for a few moments and in the absence of my control almost turned into a four-day teen-fest based at my house and for which I would be footing the bill), and finding a suitable gift for a wedding I’m going to tomorrow.

(And because of all this crap, these are the things I didn't do : make my bed, take my dog for a walk and read the newspaper. Perhaps I'm too bound by routine, but I just don't feel right if I don't do these things every day.)

Finally, rushing around Pick’n’Pay at the end of a terribly trying day, conscientiously filling the bizarre list of things my daughter needs for her camp, I realised I was bleeding down my legs (sorry for those of you who are squeamish, but these things do happen to women). I seriously considered for a moment just letting loose with a long, loud, primeval scream. Then I sighed, parked my trolley, and resigned myself to the indignity of shuffling through the mall to the Ladies’ (approximately 22 kilometres away, or so it felt).

When I got home, I poured myself a big fat whisky and put Van Morrison on the CD. The first song? ‘Days like this’ (‘When there’s no one complaining… When everything falls into place like the flick of a switch… When you don’t need to worry… When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit… When people understand what I mean… Well, my mama told me there’ll be days like this’).

‘Ja, Van, ja,’ I said, and downed the whisky in one.

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Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Strange, evil, riveting: a book about a polygamous sect leaps into the news

What a peculiar and interesting reading experience I've had these last two weeks. There I was, doing a spot of lurking in my local branch of Exclusive Books, looking for something interesting to read over the weekend, when my eye fell on a new release: Escape by Carolyn Jessop.

I love a juicy autobiography, and I particularly appreciate Amazing Tales of Survival and Derring-Do, and this book caught my eye because it looked rather promising. First, it was at least seven centimetres thick (ie, plenty of bang for plenty of bucks). Second, its cover featured a particularly arresting photograph of a young woman with beautiful candid blue eyes. Third, it promised to spill the beans about how the author, Carolyn Jessop, 38, managed to escape the evil clutches of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a shady American sect that broke way from the mainstream Mormons after the latter renounced polygamy.

I started the book at eight that evening, and seven hours later I was still matchstick-eyed. I finally finished it the next day. It isn't a particularly well-written book but, by my sainted pink pantaloons, it was absolutely riveting. Shocking. Upsetting. Infuriating.

I was shaken to the marrow to learn that polygamy, child abuse, under-age sex, arranged marriages and shocking abuse of women still take place in the name of God (snort) in the 'land of the free' (double snort), and then, apparently, right under the noses of the authorities.

I don't know why this book struck a chord with me, but it did, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. Still, indignant though I was, I took it all with a wee pinch of salt. (The book is written in a 'he-said-she-said' style, and could have done with a good ghost writer. Besides, you can't believe everything you read.

Then, unexpectedly, the thot plickened.

Imagine my astonishment and goggle-eyed interest when I turned on the news to learn some 416 children had been rescued from the self-same sect after a sixteen-year-old child-bride phoned authorities to complain. Details here, from The Guardian.

To say that my nose has been flattened to the screen of my TV set for the past week is an understatement. Very gratifying and entertaining it is, reading a book like that, and then seeing it spring spectacularly into the news. Very sobering it is to see the author herself interviewed
at length on CNN, looking not radiant and calm, but shell-shocked. And how very sweet it is to know that justice might actually prevail.

Most interesting of all: every time a name of one of the sect leaders involved in the scandal came up on the news reports, I recognised it, thanks to Jessop's book. I was fully informed about the doings, screwings and spewings of these goatish old men, with their myriad teen-bride wives.

And instead of feeling a scornful fury at the sight of those drab Stepford Wives trooping up the courtroom steps to attend one of several hearings to determine the fate of their children, I felt sorry for them. Instead of wanting to slap their dazed, robotic faces as they denied marrying their under-age daughters off to the aforesaid old goats, I felt a sense of empathy, because, thanks to Jessop's book, I knew exactly how they got there in the first place.

I wanted to weep, looking at their clumpy old shoes, their dowdy prairie dresses (all of which are cut, apparently, from one permissable pattern) and their weird hairstyles: upswept and hairsprayed into a coiffy wave over the forehead, and double-French-plaited and looped at the back. Even the young girls dress like that - check out these pictures at the sect's new protest site, 'Captive FLDS Children'.

What I learned? Not dismiss everything I read in a book. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

Read the book (there's a long excerpt here), then watch the story unfold on CNN.

(Which reminds me, apropos of nothing, of a wonderful story reported in the news when Richard Adams's 1970s book about rabbits, Watership Down, was selling like hotcakes across the world. An enterprising butcher in the UK who dealt in game put a notice outside his high-street butchery:

'Watership Down,' the sign said. 'You've read the book, you've watched the movie. Now eat the cast.'

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For Max: dog star

O, Maxi, Maxi, dog divine,
Saliva-spewing friend of mine:
I miss your loose-lipped canine smile,
The poos you left in me in a pile,
Your cheerful early-morning starts,
Your suffocating late-night farts,
The way you terrorised the chicks
And dug the garden up for kicks,
Your upside-down demented sleep,
Your ‘scary’ growl, so loud and deep,
Your sweet, soft eyes and gentle soul,
Your love affair with your food bowl,
How shadows make you jump in fright
How you bark but never bite.
You ate the plants, you chewed the trees
You slobbered muchly on my knees,
But Maxi, what a thing you are:
A bright and shining doggy star.


The constellation Canis Major – Orion’s hunting dogs – is known as the Great Dog. Sirius, the Dog Star, is one of the brightest objects in the night sky.

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Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Are males really just congenitally unsuited to housework?

I grew up in a family where my brother (the only son) was exempted from kitchen duty when he was writing matric because ‘he had to study’ – which he didn’t; he lay on his bed and listened to music.

When I wrote matric the following year, this rule had inexplicably been expunged from the family statute books. ‘But I have to study!’ I whined to my father (I had no intention of studying, of course – I wanted to lie on my bed and listen to music), and he said, ‘You’ve had all afternoon to study, my girl, now get those dishes washed.’

While my parents weren’t narrowminded enough to refuse to let their three daughters be educated – and I write that because I actually had female friends whose fathers refused to pay for their university degrees because it would be ‘a waste’, since all they were going to do, ultimately, was ‘get married and have babies’ – there was, in our family, a strangely oldfashioned notion that men ‘didn’t have to’ do housework.

When I look back now and try to make sense of this, I can sort of (sort of) see why my father expected to be waited on hand and foot: he earned the money, my mother ran the house. That his job had set hours and my mother’s was 24/7 never really entered into it. That’s just how things were in those days. (My father did occasionally cook – and my mother, when she cleared up the disaster area he left afterwards, always said she wished he didn’t.)

But my brother? Why was he exempt? Why were my sisters and I forever being commandeered to hang up or fold laundry, or help my mother when she prepared elaborate lunches or dinners for multitudinous guests (which she did often) or get stuck in with the polishing on a Saturday morning, while my brother went off to soccer practice or jolled with friends or lay on his bed and listened to music?

So with my kids – I have a son and a daughter – I determined that duties would be gender-non-specific: whatever had to be done would be done by whomever was closest to hand. (Usually me, but that’s another story.)

The thing is (and I write this with all the love in my heart), my son is just useless at domestic duties. I don’t know how many times I’ve shown him – actually shown him, step by step – how to hang up laundry, how to pack the dishwasher, how to make his damned bed. He just doesn’t get it. The laundry he hangs up comes in with still-damp sleeves folded in on themselves and crumpled pockets and peg marks in all the wrong places; whenever he packs the dishwasher, something comes out broken, or he’s done it so awkwardly that half of it doesn’t wash properly; and let’s not even begin on the state of his bed. This is a young man who, despite having a wastepaper basket in his bedroom, throws his used tissues into a corner ‘because I pick them all up at the end of the week’ (he doesn’t).

And it’s not only that: he just doesn’t see stuff that has to be done. While my daughter will, while chatting on her cellphone, clear the kitchen counter and maybe even (on a good day) give it a once-over with a wet cloth, my son will find it perfectly okay to make a small space in the day’s debris, just big enough for his late-afternoon snack of peanut-butter toast and cup of tea, which he will consume – and then leave the used plate and mug exactly where it is. It drives me dilly.

I shared a house once with a very progressive young man (he liked chick-flicks and often cried in them; he used moisturiser long before David Beckham did; his favourite author was Jeanette Winterson) and his bizarrely slovenly wife. K, the husband, was a good cook, was great with children and could talk openly and honestly about his emotions for as long as you wanted (and sometimes beyond); M, his wife, had no interest in the kitchen, was a self-confessed hater of housework, and her favourite pastime was to stay in bed with a book all day.

You would think, then, that K would understand the mechanics of housekeeping, no? No! He never saw the used coffee mugs lying around, the shoes abandoned in the living room, the dustbunnies gathering under the sofa. M, on the other hand, for all that she didn’t do much noticeable in the way of contributing to the functioning of the household, was typically female in that she was forever ‘clearing away’ – plates to the kitchen, dirty laundry to the hamper, a quick broom across a dusty floor. I would rather, any day, have 10 Ms living with me than one K.

Which brings me back to the question: are men really simply congenitally unsuited to housework? I’d hate to think so, but my evidence tells me otherwise.

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You can't choose your family

It was the American novelist Ethel Watts Mumford who first wrote, ‘God gives us our relatives; thank god we can choose our friends.’

I’ve been thinking about this a lot today because I read a review for Steve Carrel’s latest movie, Dan In Real Life – it’s about, according to the advertising bumf, ‘loss, life and family’. It tells the story of how Dan (Steve) falls in love with his brother’s girlfriend, and how this plays out during the annual family reunion – with, of course, the requisite happy ending (ho-hum). I appreciated 24.com reviewer Gugulethu Mkhabela’s wrap-line: ‘While it’s authentic enough, the cheesy and perfect ending brings you back to the reality that while this movie may look like real life, it’s not.’ Now, there’s someone who clearly knows families.

At one stage I numbered among those directly related to me (my family of origin plus in-laws) 1 husband, 2 children, 4 parents, 10 siblings and 12 nieces and nephews – 29 close relatives. Today, I can count who’s left on the fingers of one and a half hands: 2 children, 1 parent, 2 siblings (one of them an in-law), 1 niece and 1 nephew.

And no, most of my family weren’t wiped out in a cataclysmic disaster such as a tsunami or a train smash. Simply put: 1 died; 3 were lost to me after deeply traumatic disagreements (including an attempted lawsuit) and the other 18 were what is called in war ‘collateral damage’. It is, after all, impossible to maintain a relationship with, for example, a sibling who, for simple reasons of having taken sides in a stupid family spat, won’t respond to your phonecalls or emails.

Years ago, I remember a friend telling me, quite casually, that she hadn’t heard from her brother in years and didn’t, in fact, even know where in the world he was living. I was appalled: ‘How can you lose an entire member of your family?’ I asked her.

At the time, our family gatherings were near legendary. They happened quite often and usually there would be at least a dozen adults including friends, making food (if you were ‘the women’) or playing music or entertaining the kids or (if you were ‘the men’) watching sport on TV. The complement of children could be anything up to 15 with hangers-on, and spanned the ages from adorable babes-in-arms to sullen, metal-studded teenagers.

It hadn’t always been that way for me – I left home and moved to another city when I was 18, and had very little contact with my family other than my mother until eight years later, when I had my first child – but having found myself in the bosom of this large, rambunctious throng, it was simply unthinkable to me that my life could ever be any other way than filled with family.

Obviously, it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were frequent arguments, some more serious than others, but hey, we’d all finally pull ourselves together, have a little weep, and get on with things. That’s what families did, didn’t they?

Apparently not. According to the therapist I saw at the time of the first serious arguments, the cracks in my family were there from the start, and it took only one seismic shift – the death of our mother – to bring the whole edifice crashing down.

Now I realise how easy it is to lose family: all it takes is being judgmental (something my family were truly fabulous at) and a big fat dose of mutual disrespect. As Italian playwright Ugo Betti (who is of the same vintage as Ethel of the equally odd name, incidentally), ‘The family is the place where the most ridiculous and least respectable things in the world go on.’

So now my ‘family gatherings’ are modest affairs, orderly and civilised – and I can’t help but miss, occasionally, the furious disputes that used to erupt across the lunch table. (One I recall with particular fondness was a frustrated brother-in-law stating with angry certitude that ‘women might think they can multitask, but they can’t!’ – a dangerous thing to say, really, in a household containing three headstrong, opinionated sisters – ooh, did we have fun!)

And for my love, affirmation and support, I rely on my ‘other’ family: my wonderful, patient, helpful, eccentric – and loyal-to-the-death – friends. At least, when I argue with them, they don’t get their husbands to phone me the next day and crap on me, or sic lawyers on me.

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Thursday, 17 April 2008

Social phobia: public speaking for wimps

I have social phobia and I’m not just saying that. I have actual panic attacks in groups, I sweat when required to divulge information about myself (like, my name), I bloom like a rose, only so much less beautifully, when required to be noticed in a crowd.

My sister, on the other hand, finds group interaction both interesting and stimulating. Trained as a teacher (and she was a very good one), she quickly branched off into adult education and has never looked back. She loves her job and genuinely connects with her classes.

A few years ago she identified a gap in her curriculum (she runs a company that trains professionals in the basics of written communication) and asked me to fill it. I was keen: I know my stuff because I’ve been doing it for over 20 years, and my passion is words. So I designed the course, never for one minute projecting myself into a future scenario in which I might have to present it.

But of course, if I didn’t, who would?

If you aren’t socially phobic, it’s hard to understand how desperately frightened interacting with strangers actually makes you. I’m not at all concerned about the material I’m presenting – I know it’s valid and useful – but the very fact of facing a room of 25 (hey, even 12 – even five, three!) people is just terrifying. For days before presenting the course I have nightmares – and they’re never about being in a crowd; more often, they involve driving out-of-control in a fast car with no brakes, or falling in a lift, or being trapped in a fire. I get diarrhoea (so much more effective than slimming pills!). I develop ‘nervous breathing’, an anxiety-induced – and, ironically, anxiety-inducing – by-product of asthma in which your lungs never fill properly. I become snappy. And I’m constantly exhausted, no matter how much I sleep.

In the immediate runup to the presentation I develop ‘pre-exam’ symptoms: my fingertips go icy-cold and my brain can deal with little other than getting through the next few minutes – casual conversation is impossible and I often mix up words, giving the impression that I’m either drunk (hah! I wish!) or mental.

As the inevitable happens and the course begins, I segue uncomfortably into a kind of robot reality where things move forward without any willing input on my part: much like, perhaps, being on a train as it hurtles headlong down a hill. All I can do is hang on and make the best of it.

My sister, who doesn’t entirely understand social phobia, often says to me, ‘But surely, after you’ve begun, you relax into it? You get to know the people, there’s interaction, the course flows…?’

Well, no. Every minute, every second, is an exquisite torment.

Good people intent on improving themselves face down difficult scenarios: they jump from aeroplanes or sing in public or swim a stretch of icy ocean.

For me, and for every person who is socially phobic, any interaction with strangers – one or a dozen – is a test of my ability to be human.

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Taming the beast: adventures with Max

My friend T has gone away on a roadtrip and left her 8-month-old golden retriever, Max (those of you who read this blog often will know him) with me.

Max is, and please try and imagine this, BIG. At all of eight months, he’s not so much tall as … well, just really, really large. All round. He has a head like a lion’s, paws like a bear’s, and poos like a cow’s. This last I know because Max scored a Personal Best last night: six – yes, SIX – gigantic deposits in the seaside-flat garden (which, retchingly, require immediate removal, by order of the body-bloody-corporate) and a further two on the beach (washed away on the next wave, and I knelt down and kissed gratitude into the sand). I just have to wonder, where does it all come from? He doesn’t eat enough to produce this much crap – is his body making the stuff? How? From what?

Max also has an enormous personality, and he’s extremely generous with it. Sara, my own dear wobbly dog, has no option but to play second fiddle when he’s around. I give her a little cuddle, and the next thing we’re all scattered across the living-room floor, trying to locate our limbs, because Max wanted in on the group hug. (Listen: when a 40kg dog wants to nuzzle you, just let him, okay?)

Max, an only child, is also not used to sharing his space with other sentient beings – not something I’d given much thought to prior to Max’s arrival, but soon after it, when I was galvanised from my bath by frantic squawks, rudely realised. I rush down the garden naked (not a sight for the faint-hearted) to find Max with his jaws firmly clamped around Maggie, our only remaining chook. I grabbed him by the collar and shook him, but no way was he letting go. Desperate, I took hold of the nearest stick and hit him with it, really hard. He dropped the chicken.

So that you know how awful this was, I need to explain that I’ve NEVER hit an animal – certainly not with a stick. (I smacked Sara once, with my hand, for some nefarious infraction; her cowed reaction so shamed me that I had nightmares about it for weeks afterwards.)

Also, drenched as I was in adrenaline, I didn’t notice that my bare feet were studded with dubbletjies – vicious little three-sided thorns that stick in you no matter which way up they are, and hurt like buggery.

It was only once I’d dragged Max back to the house that the after-shocks set in. First (hanging onto Max with one hand – he was still hankering after that damned chicken), I removed about 30 thorns from my feet. Then I put Max inside and went to find Maggie.

She was, poor brainless thing, sitting exactly where Max had left her, rolling her silly little hen-eyes at me and saying Crrr-crrr in a pitiful voice. I checked her carefully for damage – she was liberally covered in dog saliva, but otherwise seemed unharmed – then took her to the henhouse, where I installed her with a big pile of food and a bowl of water.

Then back to Max – who, appallingly, actually cringed as I approached him. I mean, for goodness’ sake! I have teenage children, I expect trauma on a grand scale – but from my animals?!

Anyway, after a little overnight breather at the seaside flat (where, at least, the chicken population is nil; but where, let me say for the record, Max managed to run away THREE TIMES while on beach walks, and every time I had to run after him like a person possessed, screaming his name; and all he did in reaction to this was look back at me with friendly disinterest, then carry on lolloping off into the sunset), I decided that Something Had To Be Done.

So on the way home from the flat, I bought a length of rope. Ten metres. It’s enough to allow Max to wander into the herb patch, down to the pool, across to the gate, up onto the verandah and a little way into the kitchen – but it stops him tearing after the livestock (including the four cats, by the way, which have moved into the attic, and to which tricky place I am now compelled to ferry food and water by way of a rickety ladder at great risk to life and sanity).

Max seems totally fine with his tethering. It’s not ideal, obviously – once or twice he’s spied Maggie (entirely at ease, apparently, after her near-death experience) pecking about down on the bottom plot, and has lunged furiously towards her, only to be abruptly stopped by the rope. After having recovered from the ricochet, he’s sat down, shaken his humungous head, and adopted a kind of ‘oh well’ expression. (Although it’s fair to say this is his expression at all times, so it’s hard to know if it’s intended.)

He’s also galloped freely about the garden, winding himself around trees, bushes, the braai and other objects, then waited patiently until I’ve come out to untangle him. He seems, on these occasions, to think that I’m taking him for a walk, and bounces about with great delight – a bonus.

As I write, Sara and Max (freed overnight from his tether) are bundled up together on the kitchen floor, sleeping like babies. Three cats are curled up comfortably in the attic opening above my study. And Maggie is peacefully ensconced in her house. Hey, maybe this will work…?

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Why have Cape Town drivers become so rude?

I had to spend two days in the city recently and commute from the suburbs to the CBD to work. I’m not going to bother whingeing about how it took me 1 hour and 15 minutes to get in and out of the city centre – there are roadworks galore going on ahead of the Soccer World Cup, and anyway Cape Town’s accesses to its CBD desperately need an upgrade, so delays are inevitable while this is happening – but my goodness, were people RUDE!

Bearing in mind that I live in a small town that has no traffic lights and only about five stop streets – and where a local who’s hindered by the effects of a stroke one-handedly pilots a golf cart everywhere in complete safety, and slow-moving tractors are in abundance – it’s not all that surprising that I find big-city traffic a little daunting. Still, I’m savvy enough to speed up, not slow down, on onramps; I’m confident without being aggressive at complicated intersections; and I really try to change lanes, when I have to, without causing unnecessary stops and starts.

I don’t know if I’ve just been in the koontreh for too long, or if the manners of Capetonians have deteriorated to the point where, on the road in rush hour, it’s just every man for himself – and, quite frankly, fuck you if you’re politely indicating, leaving the right amount of room between you and the next car, or not racing through a yellow light – but my driving experience was just awful.

And I’m sorry to bring this up as a first point, but I must because it’s a fact: the minibus taxis are still the very, very, very worst offenders. I’ve never gasped at so many near-accidents, heard so many insults flung from driver’s windows, seen so many rude signs flashed, been assailed by so many hooters, or so often been run onto the hard shoulder because some arsehole in a minibus decides he wants to occupy the very same physical space I’m occupying at that very moment if not sooner – and then, of course, brake suddenly directly in front of me with absolutely no warning to pick up another customer.

But the normal suburban commuters in their Nissans and Toyotas and VWs – and, of course, BMWs and Mercedeses and ridiculous enormous 4x4s, and why aren’t those things simply banned from any road that’s actually tarred?! – are almost as bad. People push into long traffic queues with an arrogance and aggression that astounds me; they refuse to let you change lanes, even when it’s clear you’re not doing it to get a jump on them, instead moving as close as they can to the car in front and pointedly not looking your way; they edge across busy intersections on the yellow light where they jam fruitlessly in the middle, preventing scores of cars from crossing the other way… The list of discourteous driving behaviour is just too long and too depressing to complete.

My friend Johann has posed the theory that we get it worse because we have out-of-town number plates – that any Capetonian seeing my registration knows I’m a country bumpkin and therefore I have no right to be polluting their roads with myself or my vehicle (or my bizarre ideas of road manners).

Perhaps he’s right. I’d like to see how that goes down when the World Cup comes around and 10 000 foreigners hit the Cape Town’s streets.

PS I spoke to my friend Ronaldo this morning, while he was in Cape Town and trying to negotiate the traffic. He was practically apoplectic with outrage. ‘What is WITH these people?!’ he said. ‘They’re absolutely disgusting! They have NO manners!’ So it's not only me. And Ronaldo, although he lives out of town, does have Cape Town number plates.

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Sunday, 13 April 2008

Vermicious knids and boiled slobbages: rediscovering Roald Dahl

'Oh, I needn't read James and the Giant Peach,' my nine-year-old daughter said airily, 'because I've seen the movie.' A comment like this is just inviting a swift snotklap from me, especially as I've seen the same excuse limping from the mouths of all three of my kids over their formative reading years.

'Per-lease,' I snorted. 'The movie was rubbish. The book's brilliant. I read it at least fourteen times when I was your age.'

'Yes, mummy, what-ev-ah. And you read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory sixteen times. But I don't need to, because I've seen that movie too. At least six times.'

Have you had a conversation like this with your kids? If so, you'll agree that arguing is futile. The more you plead, the deeper in they dig their heels. Any child who suspects a book is being forced upon it will - rightly and necessarily, I have to concede - refuse to read it, or at the very least regard the book with the deepest suspicion.

But I don't beg my kids to read books because I think they're Improving or Worthy or even Educational. I want them to read because being able to burrow into a book is one of the great pleasures of my adult life, and I want them to enjoy the pleasure of reading for its own sake. Reading was one of the most delicious aspects of my childhood: I can still remember, with a shivering thrill, the utter luxury of being ten years old, sinking into an armchair with a packet of chocolate digestives, and reading until the room darkened and my eyes ached.

It's not that my kids don't read - they do, and, compared to their peers, they read a lot, within the genres that interest them. But, as I often point out to my teenage boys and my daughter, fantasy and sci-fi are not the only canons ever invented. There is life beyond JRR Tolkien and Trudi Canavan. My Little Pinky Unicorn and Ultra-Glittery Retard Kittens have some significant rivals in the world of children's fiction.

Frankly, I don't know what else I can do to get them to read the books I so loved at their age, apart from chopping them to bits and stuffing them up their nostrils. Luckily, in the case of the teen boys, they have magnificent setworks at school, so at least they are getting a dose of old and modern classics. But my daughter has been harder to convince.

She has mountains of Roald Dahl books, many Pippi Longstockings, a vast collection of Williams, many of Arthur Ransome's books, all the Magic Faraway Trees, The Secret Garden, the Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone, Dr DooLittle, Charlotte's Web, Alice in Wonderland, all the Narnia books, and so on, and I still can't get her to spend more than half an hour a day with her nose in a book (reading it herself, that is). I have a copy of Philip Pullman's brilliant Northern Lights lined up for her, but even that she has turned her nose up at, with the usual excuse that she's 'seen the movie'.

No amount of reading of bedtime stories has really made any difference to her nose-in-a-book time. She refused, point-blank, to read - or have read to her - Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, even though I eagerly described the vermicious knids, with their immortal F-Off message.

Until recently. Until I walked into the Listener's Library last year and borrowed a few recordings of my favourite, dearly beloved Roald Dahl and William books, read by proper, well-trained actors with ringing voices and that wonderful, droll English sense of timing.

We listen at every opportunity to these recordings, and she's so hooked that she's now reading them, again, herself. She's read Matilda, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, and has just started The Twits.

The dear girl spent the entire afternoon today lying in an inflatable toy boat packed with cushions in the shade of a silver birch tree in our garden, reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , out loud, to her beloved soft toys, the Bunny Kaylah and the Bear Taylah.

I lay on a blanket next to her, trying to concentrate on my own book, but guffawing every now and then when I heard her giggling over the sentences that so tickled and enchanted me as a ten year old. (Do you remember the bit where Prince Pondicherry's chocolate castle melts in the sun?)

Best of all? She complained with great indignation about the illustrations in the copy of The BFJ I bought her. 'The big friendly giant looks all wrong!' she said.

'Why?' I asked with dripping sarcasm (and I think I was justified, considering the illustrations were the work of the genius Quentin Blake), 'I suppose you've seen the movie?'

'Oh, no, but I've heard the book,' she answered (loftily). 'And can insure you, mom, that my mind picture of the BFJ doesn't look anything like that.'

Bingo.


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Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Heart-stoppingly beautiful motivational posters

If I had R2000 or so to spare, I would immediately place an order for these whimsical and powerful wall posters, which come from right brain terrain. Ostensibly, I'd order them to decorate the walls of the bat-caves of my teenage sons, but the real truth is that I'd like to put some of them - especially the 'Focus' one, the 'Patience' one and, of course, the 'Peace' one - on the wall behind my PC monitor. What I love about these images is how crisply they express how I feel, using, in most cases, just a single word of text.

Isn't it amazing how an image can say everything? It's the same with music. I recently read a line in a book (I wish I could remember which one) that said something along the lines of: 'The music couldn't be described in words. That's why the composer wrote it: to express the inexpressible.'

The 'Integrity' poster (above) brings tears to my eyes, because it reminds me of my late father, who always maintained that integrity was everything, and who lived his life with such honour. Also, it puts in a nutshell what I'm trying to pass on to my own kids. Order them online here; around $15 each.








































































Via the brilliant Design Mom

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A weight-loss experiment

While I’m not what you could exactly call fat, I certainly have a few kilos that I wouldn’t miss if they went missing, particularly around the bum area. And my friend Johann, who is actually perfectly proportioned, thinks he might gain from a bit of weight-loss as well.

So I decided, because I am a selfless person who doesn’t mind putting herself in the forefront of experimentation if it means we can take giant researchical leaps forward, to embark on a herbal slimming treatment that is currently being enthusiastically punted in the press. Johann was keen too: if it worked, he’d take it; if I died, he wouldn’t.

(In one particularly bizarre TV advert for this product, a curiously gummy woman tells us, ‘I was too embarrassed to go out.’ Naturally I assumed her problem was dental, and therefore was quite astonished to discover it was because she was too fat to be seen in public. My question, as cynical as it may seem, is: would anyone notice that you’re as big as an elephant if you don’t have the normal number of teeth?)

Anyway, I began taking these pills a few days ago. They promise, aside from turning you fairly quickly from Princess Fiona into Tanya van Graan, ‘no side effects’, ‘enhanced mood’ (oooh, yes please!) and ‘extra energy’. I mean, really, how can a girl resist?

You’re supposed to take one before breakfast and one before dinner – immediately a problem for me, because I either eat Thai curry for breakfast, then don’t stop eating all day; or I eat nothing at all. It’s not because I have bulimia (I wish!) or anything even vaguely as interesting or hip-svelting as that – it’s that I can honestly only eat when I’m hungry, and that only happens every few days; but, I promise, when I’m hungry, I’m really hungry. (Maybe I haven’t entirely shucked the reptilian part of my brain – I’m available for experimental testing if anyone’s interested?)

So I’ve admittedly not been sticking exactly to the herbal-diet regimen, but these, so far, are my findings:
1. I have a very dry mouth – surely a ‘side effect’? (Johann’s comment: ‘We can live with that! Skinny and dry-mouthed will be just fine!’)
2. I have more or less constant diarrhoea. My friend T tells me that we should poo three times a day (really? where would we find the time?) but this is just ridiculous.
3. I’m not measurably happier (although this may have something to do with the shits).
4. My kidneys are sore and I haven’t had anything alcoholic to drink in three days. (Johann’s comment: ‘Stick with it! Everyone knows you can survive with only one kidney! Anyway, your middle will be thinner with only one kidney!’)
5. I slept for 9 hours last night and a further 3 this afternoon while Eskom shed loads (an irony if ever there were one). I’m completely, utterly exhausted. When’s the ‘added energy’ thing going to kick in?
6. I’m really, really hungry. (Johann’s comment: ‘Don’t worry about that! Remember, it stops fat sticking!’ Now I imagine that everything I put in my mouth has a layer of Pritt on it.)
7. I have put on 2kg.

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Holiday income: hard earned, fabulously spent

Both my kids are working these school holidays, my daughter in a restaurant and my son for a local mosaic artist. My daughter gets paid R10 per hour plus tips to ferry comestibles, while my son earns R15 per hour to smash large sheets of coloured glass into small pieces, then grade them by shape and size.

My first job, at age 14 (I looked older), was in a shoe shop. It cured me forever of any female footwear fervour I may have been fomenting (with apologies for that odd little f-attack). In fact, while I’m not averse to massaging just about any part of anyone’s body – and some, obviously, more enthusiastically than others, depending on whose and which body part it is – I just can’t do feet. Two years of being up close and personal with the malodorous hideousness of what grows between most people’s toes and under their nails put me off for life.

By age 17 I had to up the ante – my father had banned me from ever owning a motorcycle, so of course that was the one thing I simply had to have. And motorbikes cost money. So I worked as a packer at P’n’P, a cashier at Woolworths and a waitress in a local restaurant, sometimes running from one job to another, changing out of one uniform and into the next as I did. (And my parents wonder why I didn’t crack the First Class Matric they were so sure would be mine.)

I left Woolworths never to return the day my mother’s gynaecologist, a lovely woman who had through sheer coincidence the previous day examined me before prescribing The Pill, happened to bring her purchases to my till for cashing up. Although she greeted me in a friendly and professional fashion (these f-sounds just keep coming, don’t they?), I just couldn’t risk the chance that I may have to, some time in the future, once again look in the face of someone who had recently looked at my vagina.

My stint at P’n’P came to an end when I started passing out, sometimes quite spectacularly amid boxes of smashed eggs and shattered bottles of shampoo (and now the s-sounds are having their go). While sympathetic, the management finally told me they couldn’t justify either the shrinkage or the shock to their shoppers. Oddly, after I left that job, I never fainted again.

With only my waitressing job left and three payments remaining on my motorbike, it was unfortunate that I got into a set-to with the leery, sweaty, fatty owner of the restaurant after he’d rubbed himself up against me one too many times – twice, to be precise; I’d thought the first time was an innocent mistake. What began as a polite request for him to stop sexually harassing me turned into a huge argument that ended when I tossed my metal tray at a nearby window and he roared, ‘You’re fired!’ I wanted to say, ‘Too late! I quit!’ like they do in the movies, but I was so humiliated and traumatised that I just took off my apron and crept away.

I had other soul-destroying and/or boring holiday jobs: I was the photocopy girl at a PR company, I worked as a signwriter, I did calligraphy for a conference venue, I sold fruit from a roadside stall, I was part of the security retinue for a computer faire (to my delight, I had to break up a fight on a stand, when an irate software designer, infuriated by a real or imagined copyright infringement by a competitor, poured a cup of coffee into a vital bit of machinery) and I did time in a stainless-steel factory, to name a few. I’ve resigned in fury and disgust a few times and been fired twice (for things that weren’t my fault; no, really, they weren’t).

But what my holiday jobs did teach me was the joy of spending my own hard-earned cash. I recall with what dizzy delight I blew my entire first paycheque on books – all of which I still own to this day and wouldn’t part with for love or anyone else’s money. Using my holiday earnings, I got my motorbike (off which I skidded, fell, was knocked, rolled, etc, until I realised that I was really going to end up dead if I didn’t get rid of it), and also my first car (which was uninsured, naturally, and was stolen a week later, but that’s another story). I used it to buy clothes my mother refused to let me go out in, makeup that made me look like a heroin-crazed raccoon, music my parents wouldn’t allow me to play in the house. Twice I went on road trips with friends to the magical Transkei and blew loads on marijuana, which we smoked down to the last head over the weeks we lazed about on the beaches – millionaires couldn’t have been happier.

So when my kids have to wake up early or work until late during the school hols, and complain that all their friends are either out jolling or allowed to sleep until lunchtime, and then take themselves off to their temporary places of employment with dragging feet, I know that when they get paid, things are going to look a lot brighter. (Although, obviously, I do hope they’re not going to spend their hard-earned moolah on dagga.)

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Thursday, 3 April 2008

Sending my daughter to Siberia

Well, I’m not actually, but that’s where I would have sent her if I’d known beforehand the truly mindboggling hoops I’d have to jump through to get her a simple holiday visa to the USA, land of hope, glory and endless reams of paperwork.

I went to a real live travel agent to book my daughter’s ticket because I didn’t want to trawl through scores of websites to find a flight I could afford, and I knew that getting a visa would possibly be slightly complicated, so I wanted to hand over that onerous responsibility to someone who knows what she’s doing, as opposed to me, who last visited the States 15 years ago and is completely clueless.

The travel agent, a lovely woman with the most hair I’ve ever seen on a human being including people in circuses, found me a reasonably priced flight, did all sorts of typie-typie things on her computer, then declared the ticked booked. ‘You just have to get a visa,’ she said, smiling widely and looking just a bit like a coconut with a mouth painted on.

‘No, no,’ I said. ‘You must do that. That’s why I came to you.’

She shifted a large hank of hair out of her eyes and said, ‘Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t allow third parties to secure visas.’ I could tell by the way she said it that she said it quite often, and that it never made her clients very happy.

Oh well, I thought. It’s only a visa. How hard can it be?

As hard, as it turns out, as Mad Bob’s head.

Bear with me here.

First, you can’t just phone your nearest US Embassy in a friendly, enquiring manner and ask how to go about getting a visa. Oh, their number is there in the phone book, for all to see and use if they wish – but no-one answers the phone.

Rather, you must go to your nearest Pick’n’Pay and buy (yes, buy) a PIN number for the princely sum of R83. With the PIN number you’re given a Johannesburg phone number to call - so no sharecall and certainly no toll-free service, sorree for youuuu.

When you call that number, you’re guided through an annoyingly complicated process by a pre-recorded voice, creepily speaking with a South African accent but making all its Ts into Ds – ‘Make sure you’ve god your PIN number handy. Punch id in ad the sound of the tone. Wanna go to a pardy? Pud on your ten-gallon Sdedson and dans the nighd away.’ (Okay, not the last part, but that would have at least made it fun).

Finally, after punching keys on your phonepad like a speed-freaked accountant, you’re connected to a real live person, who informs you brusquely that you have nine minutes (and I have to wonder how they arrived at this apparently random time limit) to make your appointment – because all this costly phonecall does is secure the visa applicant face-time with an Embassy lacky, nothing more, nothing less.

During your nine allotted minutes you’re required to supply an awful lot of information, so you begin getting anxious and wondering if, when your time expires, you’ll be required to fork out another R83 to complete the conversation. (Simple answer: yes.) So you speak unnaturally fast, and there’s a lot of ‘Pardon?’s and ‘Please repeat that’s and ‘How do you spell that?’s, so it’s all quite stressful.

The first thing I asked was where the appointment would be held – because the person doing the travelling has to go for a personal interview to ‘secure a visa’ and I live 100km from the nearest city, so this is obviously a fairly vital bit of data where I am concerned – but the operator told me politely that he ‘wasn’t permitted’ to ‘divulge the address’ until I had ‘provided him with the requisite information’.

In heaven’s name, why? After I’d put down the phone, just out of interest I googled ‘US Embassies, South Africa’ and the address I’d been provided with popped up, right there on my screen. So any old oke with access to the Internet can find the address of the US Embassy in Westlake, Tokai (for anyone who’s interested), but a perfectly legitimate citizen who’s paid R83 for the privilege of actually getting the information isn’t allowed it until she’s blurted out her entire life history? It’s just madness.

Anyway. I got an appointment for my daughter for a few weeks hence, and then asked if there was any time available other than the crack of dawn because, I explained, I was coming from quite a way away, and there would be morning traffic, so making a 7.30am appointment meant I’d have to leave home at about 5.30 in the morning.

‘No,’ he said.

‘Why?’ I asked, near tears (and using up precious seconds of my nine minutes).

‘It’s not permitted,’ he said. (I could hear pages rustling. I think he read this response from a list of Snappy Answers to FAQs.)

Why in the name of all that crawls on god’s green earth would the only time available for a face-to-face interview be at 7.30 in the morning? Again, just crazy.

Ignoring the sound of my quiet sobbing, he then read out to me the remarkably long list of documentation my daughter would have to take with her for the interview: letters from her father (estranged, so that’s going to be interesting), myself and her school principal giving her permission to travel alone and the assurance that she wouldn’t take the opportunity to defect and spend the rest of her life serving burgers at McDonald’s…

… I said to the dude, ‘Do you really need a letter from me? I’ll be coming with her to the interview. I’ll be, you know, bringing her there, so I'll actually be there myself, in person.’ And he said (and I swear there was a slightly ominous tone in his voice), ‘That may be, but you won’t be permitted to attend the interview with her.’…

… her air tickets; her passport; her ID book; an unabridged birth certificate; and, if her visa is granted, a cool thousand bucks to pay for it…

‘Hold on,’ I said, cuffing away my tears [Tony, that was for you]. ‘Unabridged birth certificate?’ (The eye-popping price of the visa hadn’t yet registered on my frayed cerebral cortex.)

‘Yes, unabridged,’ said the dude. I imagined him adjusting his Sdedson and reaching for his six-guns.

Now let me say this: my children are fairly well travelled, and are in possession of their own SA ID books and passports, and have had, for various reasons, to present proof of their identify to several different authority figures over the course of their young lives – but not once, EVER, have they required an unabridged birth certificate.

For those who haven’t had truck with the US Embassy before, it’s a birth certificate that states the name of the mother and the father on it – and that, quite genuinely, is the only thing that sets it apart from the abridged version that most people get by with for their entire lives. And here’s the real kicker – it takes EIGHT WEEKS to get an unabridged birth certificate out of Home Affairs. I know this because I applied for one for my daughter today.

Sadly for me, the appointment I finally got for my daughter with the US Embassy is in four weeks, so we won’t have her unabridged birth certificate in time. So it’s off to Pick’n’Pay in the city with me tomorrow (a two-hour, 200km round trip, and let's not even begin to think about the price of fuel), to buy another R83 US Embassy PIN number, so I can make another appointment.

I just have to ask a question (and I’m not being facetious here, I really want to know). Does all this ridiculous red tape actually stop fundamentalist Muslims (or whoever it is who’s got it in for the US these days, and let me tell you after this palaver I’m one of them) entering the country with a bomb hidden in their shoe? Is it really necessary to put ordinary, generally law-abiding citizens through this bizarre, expensive, time-consuming pantomime?

I’ve never been a fan of the USA – no, not even when it was the world’s flavour of the month. Now I really hate it. And, as I say, if I’d known, I’d have sent my daughter practically anywhere else but bloody America.

Land of the free? Coalition of the willing? My farting arse.

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