Saturday, 27 September 2008

A really weird thing happened to me on the highway

I was driving into the city yesterday on a nasty stretch of national road that carries heavy truck traffic. My son was in the passenger seat.

For about 15 minutes we were following a huge articulated flatbed lorry carrying an enormous load of bricks (you may know the ones I’m talking about – they also have a gigantic piece of machinery on them that is used to offload the bricks). It was going along at a good clip – about 110kph – and I didn’t feel I needed to overtake as I’m one of those people who do actually think speed kills.

Suddenly I had a very very bad feeling. I don’t know how to put it in words – it was almost as if a colossal invisible force were coming towards me through the windscreen.

By this stage we were travelling behind the lorry in the left-hand lane of a dual carriageway, so – working entirely on an intuition I can’t explain – I indicated, checked for traffic in the right lane (it was clear), and pulled out.

The next second the straps on the back of the lorry snapped.

Because we were already in the act of passing the lorry, only the ‘softer’ debris – the tie-downs and those plastic goodies they use to anchor the towers of bricks – hit our car. Because we were travelling quite fast, they made an almighty noise and gave us a terrible fright.

I drove up alongside the lorry and hooted hysterically. My son got the driver’s attention and pointed backwards to indicate what had happened. The lorry slowed down and pulled over. We did too. I checked my car for damage – there was none.

I’m not a great believer in the huri-guri of life but I do think that if your number’s on it, you’re going to get it. For some reason, yesterday was not my son’s and my time to die – and something warned me to get out of the way of a pile of lethally tumbling bricks.

Perhaps weirdest of all is that, after I’d stopped shaking, I asked my son if he’d felt anything just before I’d pulled out to overtake the lorry. He’s also a pretty pragmatic fellow, so I believed him when he said, ‘Yes – I had a vision of something coming flying through the windscreen.’

To whichever of our guardian angels were flying as fast as we were driving yesterday – thanks hey!

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Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Sarah Palin and evolution: how big lies replicate themselves

On this post, a few weeks ago, I attributed some quotes to Sarah Palin. Turns out these weren't her actual quotes, but were acts of satire by another blogger. Hoax quotes, in other words.

I mention this because this particular post on Salmagundi has received more hits than anything I - and my co-blogger Muriel - have ever posted.

I'm deeply pleased that Salmagundi has received so much traffic, but also abashed that I was replicating a lie. I'm sorry, and I will try hard not to do it again.

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The universe and how it zigzagged through my weekend

Last Friday I resigned from a contract I’ve held for over two years. It paid well and I enjoyed the work (and I must have done it well because it won a few accolades) but ultimately I realised that working for a corporation does two awful things to you: 1, it requires much more from you (and not only monetarily) than it pays you for; and 2, it requires you to absorb denigration and humiliation on an almost-daily basis.

Obviously I was very concerned about where my next bucks were to come from, but the universe is a strange thing, I’ve found: when you need it most, it throws you a lifeline (which is, mainly, how I’ve been able to raise two kids single-handed over almost two decades).

What the universe also does is show you, just when you most need to see it, the wonderful interconnectedness and ridiculousness of life. Which is exactly what it showed me this past weekend.

The ex-FB and the Letter of Demand

My ex Fuck-Buddy, in pursuit of something we shall, for simplicity’s sake, call ‘The Document’ (a sheaf of three foolscap pages awash with psychotic lies, long since consigned to my living-room fire), served a summons on me on Friday evening. (That the ‘summons’ was clearly thrown together by him with help from a photocopier and a bottle of Tipp-Ex we shall, for the moment, ignore.)

Not an hour later, when I was sitting down for dinner at a local restaurant with my dear friends Johann and the priest-turned-masseur, my ex-FB turned up and indicated, by the simple expedient of seating himself with us, that he would be joining us. While I closed my eyes to stop my eyeballs from falling out of my head, Johann told him to piss off.

The minority non-smokers in the restaurant

Seated in the restaurant were nine people (not counting the ex-FB, who had by then pissed off). Two of them – a couple so young and fresh and gorgeous that Johann couldn’t stop himself tripping over to their table, putting his hands on his knees as if talking to babies (which, okay, they were) and saying, ‘Goodness me, but you two make a lovely couple!’ – wanted to smoke.

They asked our permission. We were game (we’re all smokers). They asked the other two tables around us – although none was a smoker, all said it wouldn’t bother them.

And so the five of us lit up.

After we’d all smoked a cigarette, another couple arrived and were seated in a corner nearby.

When the young fresh lovely couple wished for another cigarette, they were polite enough to ask the new arrivals if they objected. They did, as it happened.

So we all – five of us who were smoking – traipsed outside into the icy night air to indulge our habit.

As we passed one of the tables that had been occupied since our arrival (and the occupants of which had, despite being non-smokers, said they didn’t mind), the man sitting there said, ‘Where are you all going? I hope it wasn’t anything we said?’

We laughed and explained that there was a couple who didn’t want smokers around them.

The man looked astonished. He said, ‘There are nine people here who don’t mind, and two who do.’

We agreed with his calculations, but nonetheless retired outdoors for our nicotine fixes.

The harmonica man blows back into my life

After dinner, while Johann followed the sound of music to a next-door venue, the priest-turned-masseur and I sat outside the restaurant for another few glasses of wine and another few cigarettes (joined, for a short while, by my Pilates teacher – ooh, I do so love a pure soul turned momentarily bad).

But shortly Johann was back, leaping around in excitement and exhorting us to come and see the amazing musician performing next door.

It did sound good – very deeply bluesy material, clearly played and sung by someone in, probably, his late 40s who’d seen a good deal of life and knew how to blow heart into music – so a short while later we gathered up our goods and chattels and moved to the music venue.

The musician turned out to be not someone in his 40s (or even vaguely close to it) – but he did turn out to be someone who rang all sorts of berserk bells in my brain.

When his set was finished I asked him if he remembered me. He did – 15 years ago we had a one-night stand. And not only did he remember it, he remembered the venue (which I sure didn’t) and the aftermath (apparently, running across him again in a different sleazy night spot, I propositioned him a second time – and, sensibly, he ran for his life).

I obviously have no wish to compromise the reputation of this wildly talented young man (who is now married with two kids), so unfortunately I can’t tell you who he was, but suffice to say that if you’re ever audience to a rangy muso who looks like he stepped out of the Wild West and plays music that makes your hair stand on end, you’ll have met him.

(Johann’s comment, when I admitted I’d had carnal knowledge of the musician 15 years before: ‘Ye gods, woman, what did you do? Take him out of his pram?’)

Dazzle and the dip

Much later we washed up at a local hot spot where, past midnight and with the shooters flowing freely, cultures were beginning to mix and merge. Dazzle, a slightly built young man with more chutzpah than muscle, offered to lang-arm with me. (‘Lang-arm’, for non-South Africans, is a form of ballroom dance, very fast and energetic, and interspersed with acrobatics performed by the woman but largely choreographed by the man.)

He wanted to ‘dip’ me – bend me over his arm backwards so that my head almost touched the floor – and when I professed doubt he could do it (there is at least 20kg difference in our body weights), said, ‘C’mon, try me.’

I did, and he dropped me on the floor.

I was so consumed by giggles that unfortunately I couldn’t immediately get up, and had to lie there in a foetal position while dancers swirled dangerously around me.

Dazzle and the ladder

Much later still, the same Dazzle meandered back with a group of tail-enders to my place, where we intended to drink coffee and warm up. Arriving first, he let himself in and made a roaring fire. Then, with no explanation or so much as a ‘by your leave’, he went to bed (in the priest-turned-masseur’s billet, but fortunately there were several alternative available beds since my kids were in the city with the father for the weekend.)

But before he did, he did a strange thing: he brought his two-metre ladder inside and installed it in a corner of the living room, where it observed all happenings from then on.

The next day, leaning over the kitchen sink filling the percolator for strong morning coffee, I witnessed Dazzle tenderly laying the ladder down in the back of his bakkie; he may even have given it an affectionate pat.

I’m not sure yet of his relationship with this ladder but will tell you as soon as I find out.

The game ranger and Neil Diamond

Finally, at 3am, there was only me and the game ranger left. (Most people had found beds; Johann was installed, as usual, on the sofa, in a warm and loving embrace with the Wobbly Dog.)

When I put on Neil Diamond (as I always will do at this time of night), the game ranger asked who it was. ‘Neil Diamond, of course,’ I said.

‘I’ve never heard his stuff,’ he told me (look, he spends three weeks out of every four with antelope, okay?), and of course I took the bait – hook, line and sinker – and spent the next two hours educating him on Neil and his wonders.

In the cold light of day I realised that irony had been at play, and that I’d spectacularly missed it. I was embarrassed, but not overwhelmingly so – the game ranger only left at 5.30am, so while he may have been stringing me a line, he was clearly enjoying it. And ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, ‘Solitary Man’, ‘Holly Holy’, and more.

The disappearing post-office box keys

I lost my post-office box keys some time last week (we don’t get street deliveries here in the dorengone so this was something of a mini-crisis). I asked the local postmistress (a darling creature) if she could cut me new ones. ‘It costs R75 and you’ll probably find them if you look hard enough,’ she said by way of refusal.

On Sunday morning I found them outside, next to my car, in the mud – dirty but intact.


See? The universe works in mysterious ways.

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Saturday, 20 September 2008

Waar is Poes?

Not the most suitable title for a children's book, is this?


Thanks James.

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Friday, 19 September 2008

Our lovely word gatvol makes it to New York

Is our lovely local word 'gatvol' about to enter New York slanguage? In this morning's Times, there's a smashing photograph of a portrait of Richard Fuld, CEO of bankrupt US investment bank Lehman Brothers.

The artist, New Yorker Geoffrey Raymond, displayed his canvas outside the Manhattan HQ of the bank on Monday and Tuesday this week, asking pedestrians to scribble their comments on the canvas. Link.

Among comments such as 'Greed!', 'Bloodsuckers!' and 'I hope his villa is safe!', we have, in large capitals just above Fult's head, the word 'GATVOL!' If you're not a South African, you may be wondering just what this delightfully expressive Afrikaans word means. Well, it may be loosely translated as very irritated or fed up. Says the Urban Dictionary: 'Literal translation: gat (ass or hole) vol (full). Probably intended to mean a dug hole full to the brim (“up to your neck with…”) but given a slant by the double meaning of the word “gat”. '

It's prounounced gutfall, with the 'g' a gutteral sound, as in the 'ch' in 'loch'.

Wonder who the South African is?

Here's Geoffrey Raymond's blog, The Annotated Fuld.

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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Not so stupid, my Wobbly Dog

My Wobbly Dog’s favourite things are, not surprisingly, walks and food. (Oh, and my daughter, who cheerfully permits her to chew on her hands, sleep on her bed, eat her slippers, etc.)

Walkies time in our house is around 4pm, when we run the noisy gauntlet of our dog-infested street (me dementedly screaming ‘Shut up!’ to the barking neighbourhood curs all the way, Sara twisting herself into pretzel shapes from sheer excitement), up to the school playing fields, where I let Sara off her leash and she spends an hour or so in a frenzy of sniffing, excreting, chasing, and running headlong for short distances with speed and style to rival a greyhound (a bit of which, given her shady past, she could conceivably have in her blood).

After we get home she has a cooling-off period of about half an hour before she gets supper.

That’s how it’s been for about the last 18 months and, if it were up to me, that’s more or less how it would remain.

But Sara has other ideas.

Recently, she’s been preparing herself for Walkies earlier and earlier. It started about two weeks ago when, at around 3pm, she came to where I was being industrious at my keyboard and nudged my mouse hand, causing me to inadvertently send a filthy email intended for a close friend to a business associate.

‘Are you mad?’ I spluttered, frantically pressing keys in the hope that I could avert catastrophe (but, as anyone who’s mistakenly pressed ‘Send’ knows, there’s no retrieving an errant email once it’s been winged on its way).

Sara was utterly unfazed. She stared at me adoringly and wagged her tail.

‘Go away,’ I said to her, and sat down to compose an apology to my colleague.

But she continued to hound me (there’s a reason for that verb, I’ve discovered) in such a determinedly optimistic way that, at 3.30pm, I finally gave in and we went for an early Walkies. Which also meant she got fed a half-hour earlier.

A few days later, around 2.30pm this time, she was back at my desk, giving me searchingly enquiring looks. I’d learnt a nasty lesson (the inadvertent addressee of my email had been very much less than amused), so I quickly removed my hand from the mouse and said to Sara, ‘No! It’s not time yet! Go and play with the chickens!’

But she wouldn’t. Instead, she positioned herself about a metre from me, sitting bolt upright, tail wagging slowly, and fixed her soulful brown eyes on me. Every time I looked at her she smiled widely and her tail did the fandango.

Finally I could take the pressure no longer and off we went again, on early Walkies. And she got an early dinner.

A few days later – yup, you’ve guessed it – she was back at her old tricks again, this time around 2pm.

‘Look,’ I said to her. ‘I’m not just your walking buddy, okay? I’ve got work to do. How do you think I pay for your astonishingly expensive dogfood made exclusively of hand-reared baby ducks? Go and find someone else to stare at.’

She didn’t. She just sat there and stared at me. And stared at me. And stared at me.

This time, though, I didn’t give in, and I stayed at my computer, typing furiously, avoiding looking to my right (where Sara sat, and sat, and sat), until 4pm. Sara’s always excited about her walk but this time, when I finally stood up and said, ‘Okay, now we can go,’ she went completely bananas, leaping around my study, knocking things over, barking, walking on her hind legs, etc. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Cheesh, calm down! We’re going, okay? We’re going!’

Today, on the dot of 1.30pm, Sara came into my study and sat down, tail wagging gently, and stared hopefully at me.

But I’ve had time to think about it, and now I know what she’s up to. I think that she thinks that if she goes Walkies an hour earlier each day, finally she’ll manage to wind the clock back an entire 24 hours – and gain an extra walk and an extra dinner in the process.

I turned to her and told her this. And I swear she smiled, shrugged, and went outside to play with the chickens.

It’ll be Walkies as usual at 4pm today, with dinner to follow, but you can’t fault The Wobbly Dog for trying.

Left: The Wobbly Dog, fresh from a muddy puddle after a walk, relaxes on the sofa.

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Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Men behaving badly: my males-only luncheon deteriorates wonderfully

I invited 12 people for lunch on Saturday, evenly spread across the various genders (two gay men, five straight men, one gay woman, four straight women) but for various reasons only the men were able to come. I realised on doing a headcount on Saturday morning that while I would be in my element (I do so love men), the straight men might find the gathering somewhat on the testosteronic side.

There was nothing to be done at that late stage, however, but vok maar voort (as they so charmingly say in this neck of the woods). And anyway perhaps the universe was trying to tell me something: my menu, drawn up before I realised no women would be able to make it, was steak and potatoes followed by strawberries and ice cream – which seemed to me, on reflection, to be a particularly masculine kind of meal. (My reasoning behind this menu was that it’s fabulously easy to prepare and requires very little kitchen time – fairly male-oriented logic, now I come to think of it.)

I apologised to each man as he arrived, asking forgiveness for the lack of female company and explaining that it was circumstances, not design, that had created this male-heavy guest list. None seemed at all fazed.

The lack of the gentler gender showed itself very quickly when, an hour into the proceedings, a fierce argument – Creationism vs Evolution – blew up. There was much banging of fists on the table and use of expletives, and in order to circumvent actual violence, I hurriedly served lunch.

Here, too, the masculine imperative reigned: there was no holding back in loading plates with steak and potatoes (and the sour cream was a hit), and the French bread was quickly demolished, along with plenty of butter. The salad, however, was politely picked over then quietly pushed to the side.

Where libations were concerned, there was enthusiastic quaffing, mainly of red wine and, to a lesser extent, beer – there was a conspicuous absence of requests for white-wine spritzers or vodka-tonics.

The strawberries and ice cream disappeared in double-quick time – but not before a general request had noisily gone out for a bowl of castor sugar to dredge over the fruit, the ice cream alone apparently not being sweet enough for my guests.

By the time I was serving coffee, what little caution had been there to start with had been tossed to the winds. My liquor cabinet was raided and the coffee fortified with Irish whiskey, Amarula and/or Kahlua, with a couple of guests eschewing the coffee completely and one eschewing a glass and instead drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. Two boxes of mint-thin chocolates disappeared almost instantaneously.

By now it was getting dark and a wicked little wind had blown up, prompting someone to go inside and light the fire, and shortly thereafter the entire party to abandon the verandah for the warmer confines of the living room. Here, between about 8pm and 3.30am the following morning, happy havoc ensued. CDs were played, danced to, discarded, stepped on, lost, found and replayed. Several men kissed other men (and not only the gay ones). Everyone fell down at least once. Furniture was moved around and, in some cases, broken. And the wine flowed like a river, sometimes across the table and onto the floor.

I was first up on Sunday morning, for the irksome reason that Eskom was going to turn off our electricity for the whole day and I needed to do a few dishwasher loads before we lost power. I did a quick recce of the house to assess the situation and found all four available beds occupied, and one man fast asleep on the sofa, curled up in loving repose with Sara the Wobbly Dog.

As I cleared up the carnage, I reflected on my men’s-only luncheon party and how it differed from its mixed-gender cousin:
* Alcohol consumed: 29 bottles of red wine, 16 beers, a bottle of whiskey and a good quantity of other sweet/creamy liqueur-type things ferreted out from the back of my liquor cabinet. (No white wine, no white spirits, no mixers, no soft drinks.)
* Food consumed: 3kg of fillet, 14 baked potatoes, 2 containers of sour cream, 4 French loaves, about a pound of butter, 2 litres of ice cream, a mass of strawberries, two boxes of chocolates, and enough additional sugar to make a diabetic cringe; later, several bags of chips, a lot of biltong and at least a loaf of toaster bread. (The only thing left over: about half a large bowl of salad.)
* Entertainment: mainly hard-rock music, played at full volume; no quarter given when it came to care of carpets, throws or other soft furnishings; chairs and tables bizarrely rearranged, possibly in drinking games; lots of boy-on-boy action, a fair bit of it across traditional gender lines.
* Morning-after revellers still in situ: five, all of whom ate a healthy breakfast and two of whom stayed on for lunch (because Eskom didn’t, after all, switch off the power).

I had such a good time – as, apparently, did my guests – that I’ve decided I’m going to make my males-only luncheon a regular event.

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Friday, 12 September 2008

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there in Corporateland

There’s lots to be said for being a freelancer. You can go to work in your pyjamas, you don’t have to sit through endless pointless time-wasting meetings or share a kitchen with 20 other slobs, the coffee is better, you can arrive at work at 5am or midnight, and take lunch at 10am or 3pm and if you don’t want to go back to the office afterwards, who’s going to tell on you?

But there’s also lots about freelancing that’s sucky (as my daughter would have it): no leave pay, no time off for being sick, no holiday pay, no bonuses, no free lunches. And now I’ve found a new one: no grievance procedure.

So what do you do if, as a freelancer, you find yourself working on a contract with someone who, in your opinion, isn’t professionally fit to lick your plates before you put them in the dishwasher after a really cheesy lasagne? Short answer: suck it up or give it up. Out there in Corporateland there are lots and lots and LOTS of rules, but none of them favour the freelancer.

Still, there are moments that can add levity even to a situation where you’re seriously considering bailing, even when you know that doing so will savagely compromise your lifestyle – ie, you won’t be able to pay your bond or the kids’ school fees, put petrol in your car, or buy cigarettes and wine.

I had one earlier this evening, wingeing my head off about this honestly awful situation to a friend who happens to be a specialist in industrial relations, and who is also a Very Sensible Man Not Given To Emotional Outbursts. He said, when I finally wound down (with a few hiccupy sobs), ‘Well, Muriel, I must be honest: I wouldn’t have handled things like this.’

My heart sank. Mainly what I’d done was send a few mildly worded emails, then a few more emails containing slightly stronger words (‘I feel I must make the point…’, ‘in my carefully considered opinion…’, etc) to the nasty colleague in question. But as he said that I knew – I just knew! – that somehow, somewhere, I’d missed something. Perhaps there were mysterious official channels I should have explored, reports I should have filed, bigwigs I should have consulted, etc?

‘Well, how would you have handled it?’ I asked.

‘I would have shot her. No, I would have STABBED her. I would have wanted to see BLOOD,’ he said.

What a darling.

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High-tide heels: fashion suggestion for waterlogged Cape Town fashionnazis

Here's a croc, a sexy shoe and a flipper all rolled into one neat package, from the Global Warming Collection.



Via email. [Thanks Margie].

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Thursday, 11 September 2008

Cheap frills: Madonna's African orphan in tartan and lace.

If it wasn't bad enough that Madonna swanned into Malawi, tossed a few coins of her vast fortune at some orphanage, and then made off with a little boy she'd chosen from a photograph, now we have to contend with pictures of dear little David dressed up like little Lord Fauntleroy in tartan and lace. This picture, from the Daily Mail, shows the child arriving with his nanny - note the matching hat - at David Ritchie's 40th birthday party. Link.

But no worries that Madonna is going to deprive little David of getting in touch with his African roots. According to a report in Der Spiegel, after David was rescued by St. Madge he was ' whisked away to a waiting airplane and jetted off to civilization, to swinging London and Los Angeles, and into a "Safari room" filled with African kitsch from the fashionable Los Angeles children's furniture store Petit Trésor.

'David's new room alone is said to have cost the proud mother €22,000. Mr. Banda [the boy's biological father] could spend a lifetime working for that kind of money.'

Makes you want to puke, doesn't it?

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Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Has anyone lost a Jeep Grand Cherokee? I know where it is

A very expensive car has been parked across a stop street close to my house, apparently abandoned, for three weeks. It's been reported to the Metro cops, the Rosebank Police, and our local security company several times, and yet no one has stepped forward to claim it. Heck, I've even phoned the Inanda Club, because it has a club sticker on the windscreen. To no avail.

I guess that in most cities in the world, one wouldn't raise an eyebrow at the sight of a car worth hundreds of thousands of rands sitting locked, dusty and covered in leaves and bird poo. But this is Johannesburg, where anything can happen. What are the possibilities? Each one of the three explanations listed below opens up further possibilities, but, for now:

a. The owner of the car ran out of petrol, or broke down, which would explain why the car is parked in such a peculiar place - ie, with its front wheels virtually in line with the stop sign. But, if so, why hasn't the owner come to retrieve it?

b. The car is a stolen car. This seems likely to me, although I was told by our local security company that it hasn't been listed as stolen.

c. The owner of the car has so many cars that he or she doesn't mind leaving it mouldering away in a side street for a couple months, for whatever reason.

d. Something sinister has happened to the owner of this car.

Anyway, if you know anyone who owns this vehicle - a beige Jeep Grand Cherokee, with an expired [2005] license disk, an Inanda Club sticker on the windscreen, a pair of jumper leads inside the car, and a Gauteng licence plate beginning with JPS, let me know by posting a comment below.

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Monday, 8 September 2008

Nelson Mandela's grand new statue: majestic and fitting

If you wince every time you look at the colossal, ugly, disproportionate statue of Nelson Mandela that looms over Nelson Mandela Square, [left] you will be heartened to take a look at Jean Doyle's splendid new statue, which was recently unveiled at the entrance to the Drakenstein Prison [formerly Victor Verster Prison], near Paarl.

The bronze statue, unveiled last month, was comissioned by the Sexwale Family Foundation to commemorate Mandela's historic release from Victor Verster on 11 February 1990.

I'd read about the new statue in the papers, but the only photo I saw of the sulpture - actually, a photo of the maquette - gave no sense of its scale and quiet grandeur, nor of its dramatic mountain surroundings.

These pictures [left and below] were taken on a bitterly cold and snowy day last week, while I was visiting my family in Franschhoek. The children in our party fell silent as they approached the statue - and this lot never stop chattering - and listened with big, solemn eyes as my sister read the inscriptions around the base of the statue. I had goosebumps too - and it wasn't the snowy weather.

When we all bundled back into the car, with blue noses and frosty eyelashes, I was bursting with pride to tell my daughter that her father and I watched Nelson Mandela delivering his famous release speech on the Grand Parade in Cape Town, all those years ago.

The statue delivers. It's everything a statue should be: grand, imposing, uplifting and powerful. I'm sorry that this statue isn't in the middle of Johannesburg, or Cape Town, where many more people would be able to see it. Not that it's going to fade into obscurity: I am told that thousands of foreign tourists to the nearby town of Franschhoek make pilgrimages to the prison to see the spot where Nelson Mandela began his walk to freedom. Now they have something to photograph.

How do you think the new statue compares with the one in Nelson Mandela Square? A no-brainer, right?
















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Do you want to be a schoolgirl again? No! No!

My schooldays were most assuredly not the best days of my life, and I’ve never done that annoying adult thing of telling my kids that they were. In fact, I more often tell them just to grit their teeth and get through their own school careers with as little fuss as possible, because once they leave school they’ll discover a whole new fascinating world out there, mercifully devoid of the pondscum that they were forced to rub shoulders with every day of their lives from age 6 to 18. And that’s just the staff.

This morning at my daughter’s school I was talked down to like a naughty child, kept standing in a draughty corridor, and remonstrated with about various breaches of school protocol. And that’s only the way the haglike secretary treated me. My poor sick daughter, who was a weeping, shivering wreck by the time I fetched her, was ganged up on by a bunch of grownup bullies, ably led by the moronic secretary and backed up by the ugly vice principal, for wearing a ring, carrying a cellphone on her person during school hours (a rule she wasn’t aware of, since it was introduced two weeks ago, while she was away in England), and having some silly badges clipped to her blazer. These appalling people gave her a grilling until they literally reduced her to tears – and only then did they agree to phone me to tell me she was ill and needed collecting.

I recall only two adults who made a real positive difference in my life when I was at school – my high-school Art and English teachers. For the rest, it was a nasty mishmash of being given endless detentions for various ridiculous infractions (eg, wearing non-regulation panties), groundless accusations of cheating (this happened surprisingly often to me and it still burns my arse – I never once cheated on a single test!), unreasonable loads of homework at inappropriate times (most irksomely, projects during the school holidays), inexplicable mark-downs on essays (once, particularly memorably, because I had dotted my i's with open circles), etc.

Then there were the teachers who took a disliking to me (I was a loudmouth) and made my life unpleasant just because they could – the History teacher who frequently made me stand in the dustbin for entire lessons; the vice principal who told me that I’d been voted to be a prefect but that she personally had vetoed it; the Housecraft teacher who knew I couldn’t knit to save my life yet took apparent pleasure in ripping out my efforts at the end of each lesson; the principal who once caught me out in a stupid schoolgirl lie and hounded me literally for days until I broke down in hysterical sobs and admitted it: Yes! I had worn my takkies home after sport rather than changing into my school shoes like I was supposed to!

So little of my school career seemed to be about education, so much about who held the clout and how it was wielded. And it saddens me that so little seems to have changed – that the powers-that-be still think it’s okay to shout at a teenage girl who is clearly not well until they make her cry. Bastards.

Left: Me at the very beginning of a not terribly illustrious and largely unhappy school career.

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Thursday, 4 September 2008

I inadvertently eat half my own lips for dinner

Dentists, they say, have the highest suicide rate of any profession. And it’s little wonder when you consider how universally they’re feared and loathed.

When I was growing up, either anaesthetic wasn’t invented yet or our family dentist was at best heartless, at worst sadistic. I wondered for ages why my mother didn’t find us an alternative to the bastard whose questionable ministrations we were forced to endure every six months, until, years later, she admitted she’d had a crush on him. Well, all I can say is, it must have been a doozie – befuddling enough, anyway, to withstand all four of her children howling in pain and misery while in his clutches.

This monster of the mandibles used to say, ‘Tell me to stop if it hurts,’ before launching himself into our dental caries (as we then knew them). There we would lie, utterly defenceless, mouth clamped open and unable to verbalise anything, never mind the instruction we so dearly wished to give, while he powered down with his drill. Once, my sister, driven half crazy with pain, and getting no respite despite the distress gurgles she was emitting, was simply unable to stop herself and wrenched her head sideways in an effort to get away from the agony. He drilled straight into her lip.

Over the years I’ve amassed a wealth of my own personal dental horror stories, from being forced by a set of unfortunate circumstances to undergo root canal without any pain relief whatsoever, to having an extraction in the chair that almost ripped a hole in my face. These are regularly complemented by any number of similar nasties experienced by friends and acquaintances. (Do you have one? Please share it.)

Not necessarily painful but very embarrassing was when I had to have four wisdom teeth extracted. They were impacted and beginning to displace the other teeth in my mouth, so I opted for a general anaesthetic and had them all out at one go.

When I went back a couple of weeks later to have the stitches removed, the dentist’s nurse gave me a funny look, and kept on glancing at me and grinning in a very unsettling way while I waited my turn (because dentists, like doctors, always run late).

Finally, she ushered me into the dentist’s lair, where I found him laughing fit to bust, and the nurse had a fit of uncontrollable giggling of her own.

‘What?’ I said, and they both just laughed harder.

Finally, over fits of mirth, they told me what was amusing them so much. Most people are confused when they come out of a general anaesthetic, and a few become aggressive and abusive – and, apparently, I was one of this latter group. According to the dentist and his nurse, I had spent a good 15 minutes tongue-lashing anyone who came within a metre of me, using astonishingly bad language which included making allusions to people’s mothers and their private parts. I, of course, remembered none of this.

Although I liked that dentist – he was one of the few I’d come across who actually understood that having your mouth operated on hurts, and was generous with pain relief – I never went back.

My most recent dentist is also an understanding and empathetic fellow, so when he told me yesterday afternoon that he had to replace the fillings in two of my back molars, and I asked him to fill me to the top with pain medication before he began, he cheerfully complied. Soon I couldn’t feel the entire right side of my face, and although the procedure took over an hour, I didn’t feel a thing (although the sound of the drill still makes me wince).

My face remained numb well into last night, and I ate dinner with half a mouth, dribbling water becomingly out of the paralysed side between bites, to the hysterical excitement of my kids.

It was only this morning when I woke up that I realised I’d gnawed pretty thoroughly on my own lips while eating supper last night. But that wasn’t the dentist’s fault.

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And staying on the animal theme… Never say never

I was once like Juno – ‘born without the animal gene’, as my equally non-animal-loving friend Mandy puts it.

Then, a few years ago, a cat – a large orange creature with as little regard for humans as I had for its species – moved into my house and, despite being roundly ignored and sometimes even forcibly ejected from the premises, refused to budge. It made itself comfortable on beds, clawed at my hands while I was trying to cut up chicken for dinner, sharpened its nails on the furniture and left large tufts of titian fur on everything. It drove me completely nuts.

But it also did something else – it woke up my dormant ‘animal gene’. Within a year I was cooing at people’s pets (whereas before it wasn’t beneath me to surreptitiously kick them, particularly if they were a dog nosing my crotch or a cat kneading my thighs) and being moved to tears by news reports of abused animals.

Nowadays my home, once the exclusive habitat of humans, is more or less run by creatures – four cats and a dog, all rescues; and, at last count, four mommy hens and their total clutch of 16 babies.

Interestingly, recently a message came up on an e-newsgroup I belong to, from a journalist who was suffering heartbreak. What, he asked, did one do to get over a romance gone sour? Although the advice ranged fairly widely from taking sweet revenge to moving swiftly along (‘The way to get over someone is to get under someone else,’ advised one female reporter), a surprising number of people advised getting a pet.

Perhaps it seems obvious that transferring the companionship and affection denied you by a human to an animal will help fill an emotional hole, but according to a recent report in Newsweek (www.newsweek.com/id/91445), having a pet can actually improve your health. Research has shown that pets can help reduce stress and blood pressure in owners, increase longevity in heart attack survivors, and even relax and improve the appetites of Alzheimer’s patients. More to the point for the obesity-ridden western world, pets also get owners ‘off the couch’ – ‘They need exercise, so it propels people out the door,’ says veterinarian Scott Line.

As for ameliorating loneliness, nearly half the respondents in a study considered their pets to be companions; only about 2% considered them to be property – and 97% of people admitted talking to their pets (‘The other 3% lied,’ was the opinion of the survey manager – clearly a pet lover himself).

This does, however, have a down side. A friend of mine, considering if the woman he’s been dating for several years is The One, told me in a recent conversation that he’d propose marriage to her ‘if only she’d stop talking to her cats like that’.

And, of course, there’s the bed imperative – I still have to work out how to sleep with four cats draped around and over me and not wake up in the morning with backache from having been squinched into bizarre positions all night.

Above: I stroked a cheetah (salmagundi, September 2007).

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Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Would you let your daughter sit on a giant seal?

I have a certain fear of wild animals, after a frightening encounter with an enraged baboon a few years back.

So why, I ask myself with terror in my heart, did I allow my daughter to sit on, and hug, a vast, bloated lump of fur, teeth and claw? And why did I allow my darling six-year-old niece to do the same? Looking at the nasty yellow teeth in my snapshots, I can't believe that I allowed these girls to cuddle a wild beast. But this was no ordinary seal - this is Pietie, the corpulent Cape fur seal who is the toast of tourists visiting the harbour of Hout Bay, and a persistent thorn in the side of the authorities. Read Pietie's story here.

Well, if it's any excuse, my daughter is no ordinary girl - she is a dinkum Dr Doolittle; a reincarnated Gerald Durrell. She is a born lover of animals: she's obsessed and enchanted by any creature with fur, feathers, scales or shell.

Melting eyes and soft ears turn her legs to jelly. If it has a face, she loves it. If it has whiskers, she wants to hug it to death and keep it in her room as a pet. And animals love her back - they drape themselves all over her, slobber on her pyjamas and try to lick her face to the bone.

This has to be a genetic thing. I am befuddled by her obsession with animals. Readers of this blog will know I am not crazy about domestic animals. I don't mind looking at wild ones, as long as they are far away, and preferably behind a tall fence. The only animals I ever feel sentimental about are the noble, clever ones: horses, owls, dolphins - and, of course, a certain dog. I also have an affinity with our close cousins the great apes, but don't get me started on the subject of chimps, gorillas and orangutans held in captivity, like second-class humans.

Okay, so those are my excuses for letting this girl sit on this big, fishy, foul-smelling old fatty-puff.

Also: Pietie's custodian, trainer and feeder, Danny Abrahams [see pic], was persuasive. I gagged at the sight of him feeding reeking sardines to Pietie, mouth-to-mouth, but heck, I had to hand it to him for his spirit of entrepreneurship.

Abrahams draws a large crowd of appreciative tourists, which is more than can be said for the other stalls at the harbour, which peddle the usual made-in-Chafrica tat. He claims to spend thousands every month on buying tons of stinky old fish for Pietie, and, judging by the number of fish he fed the bloated one while we were there, he is probably telling the truth. Whatever the case, my little Ms Doolittle was in heaven for ten minutes.

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When I’m 74 I hope I also have a second teenagehood

My dad’s been a widower for over three years and recently I thought I might hook him up with a gorgeous friend of mine, a Woman of a Certain Age whose husband died after a long illness some time ago. I planned it carefully, down to the last-minute invitation to my dad, determined that neither he nor the widow in question would know that they were being set up (there’s nothing that can sink a prospective romance faster).

So when I phoned my dad a day before the ‘impromptu’ lunch I’d planned, I was a bit put out to discover that he wasn’t available. In fact, he wasn’t even in the near vicinity.

‘I’m on my way to Wilderness,’ he said. ‘Can you hear my iPod? It’s plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter!’

I could, as it happened, loud and clear – it was blasting out Simon & Garfunkel – and it didn’t escape my somewhat envious notice that while my septuagenarian father owns the latest in music technology, the best I can boast is a CD system that sometimes doesn’t stick.

But my cellphone was also picking up a lot of wind interference. ‘Close your window,’ I shouted. ‘I can’t hear you properly.’

He laughed a wicked laugh. ‘That’s not my window,’ he said. ‘It’s the open roof of my new Mercedes coupe.’

Reclaiming my tongue from where it had slid down my throat, I blurted, ‘Please don’t tell me it’s red.’

‘Naah,’ with James Bond nonchalance, ‘it’s silver.’

Well goodness golly me, and there I was trying to make sure my dad wasn’t lonely in his old age.

‘Old age’ is, of course, a relative term. Where my dad’s concerned, it applies hardly at all. Although he’s 74, he still has all his own hair (a veritable silver mane) and teeth, he plays squash regularly, he loves consorting with unsuitable people, he enters with almost indecent enthusiasm into debates on a range of topics from modern-day sexuality to music and technology, he travels extensively (and lectures on a variety of topics on several different worldwide cruise liners), and he's just published a volume of his memoirs, tantalisingly titled ‘The King’s Eye and John Vorster’s Elbow’.

For someone like me, whose hopes for ‘old age’ stretch only to reaching 60 without irrevocably embarrassing my children, declaring bankruptcy or losing control of my bladder, my father is a lesson indeed.

Left: My father in his early 20s in Kenya with a friendly lion called Prince. Romping with Prince, he recalls, was great fun, but alerted him to the fact that he’s allergic to cats after he broke out in lion-sized hives.

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Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Sarah Palin shows her daughter how to kill a caribou

I think this picture of Sarah Palin just says it all, doesn't it? Palin, the Alaskan governor and hockey mom snatched from obscurity to be the running mate of Republican candidate John McCain, is shown in this undated photograph posing with her daughter next to a caribou she's just 'hunted'. Palin, please note, opposes abortion, stem-cell research and same-sex marriage. She also favours the teaching of Creationism in schools.

And you thought our politicians were hypocrites?

And here are her views on Creationism:

'The simple yet elegantly awkward moose proves God's creation and not evolution is the source of all life. How could something as oddly shaped and silly looking as a moose evolve through so-called "natural selection?" Is evolution a committee? There is nothing natural about a dorky moose! Only God could have made a moose and given it huge antlers to fight off his predatory enemies. God has a well known sense of humor, I mean He made the platypus too.' Link

POSTSCRIPT: I believe that the quotes above are a hoax, written by some satirist. In which case, I apologise for posting crap.

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