Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Wonderful parodies of Obama Hope Poster

I do love a meme, and here's a dream meme. Parodies of Shepard Fairey's iconic poster of Barack Obama [left] are popping up all over the Net. In fact, the poster has become so wildly popular that there is even an online Photoshop tutorial that shows you how to make your own. And another site that lets you enter your own slogan.

A vast collection of these spin-off posters are displayed here, [not all of them tasteful or nice].

Here here are my favourites:

Via Boing Boing.

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Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Tax woes and eenie-meenie-miney-moe’s

Once a year, and usually later rather than sooner, I am compelled to do my books for my longsuffering accountant, who then tries (with frankly astonishing success) to translate my scribbles into something the taxman can actually make sense of.

I am not an account-type person, and have trouble understanding things like percentages and ratios or even, if I am completely honest, how to add two and two, so doing my books is an exceedingly painful process for me, and usually involves at least a bottle of red to get me through it. This does, unfortunately, have a bearing on why my later spreadsheets are rather more shambolic than my earlier ones, but my magician/accountant has long since learnt to factor in alcohol-induced missteps.

I know that the right way to do my books is not in a crazed drunken rush one day before the final deadline for tax returns, but regularly and soberly at every month end. I know this because my accountant reminds me of it often, when he phones or emails with increasing impatience to ask for my figures, and I tell him with increasing unhappiness that I simply can’t bring myself to try to make sense of the large box of slips marked ‘tax return’ that sits under my desk.

But, like death, tax will not be wished away, and finally the awful day comes when I have to tackle The Box. I do this by, on some random morning, rising like a zombie from my bed, immediately opening a bottle of wine and swiftly having a couple of hefty swigs, then hauling out the box and scattering its contents across the kitchen counter, all before my conscious mind can kick in and ask me what the hell I think I’m doing.

And then the fun begins.

I’m okay with the stuff that I can recognise – mainly bank-card slips that give the name of the vendor. But with alarming frequency I come across cheques made out to, for instance, ‘G de Graaff’ or ‘Lydia Verloven’ or (most worryingly) ‘cash’, for quite large sums that I simply can’t account for. When I hunt for the cancelled cheques (which happens with decreasing frequency as the day wears on, the level in the wine bottle drops, and my attention to detail wanes) there’s never any clue on them what exactly I was splashing out for. So that’s where the eenie-meenie-miney-moe comes in: I close my eyes, randomly choose a category (home improvements? stationery? computer expenses?) and write it up.

So it’s probably fair to say that my final tax return doesn’t precisely reflect my expenditure.

But then, it hardly matters, since most of my money goes to (in decreasing order of frequency and volume) grocery stores, bank charges (the bastards!), veterinarians and schools. None of which, as even I know, are even vaguely tax-deductible.

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Dead bunny on winning T-shirt: who killed Flopsy?

A dead bunny skewered by chopsticks is the winning design of Big Blue's Makhulu Polane T-shirt design competition. The winning designer, Gerrit Breitenbach, of Johannesburg, has scooped the R20 000 cash prize, and his T-shirts will be sold in all Big Blue and Kitsch & Kool stores this November and December. Breitenbach, is of course, no loather of bunnies; his brilliant design is a reference to Bunny Chow, a unique and iconic South African dish consisting of a hollowed-out half loaf of white bread filled with curry.

'The Bunny Chow is a very simple affair consisting of a hollowed-out quarter, half or full loaf of bread filled with any available curry including beef, mutton, chicken or beans,' writes Allan Jackson, author of Facts About Durban. ' The Bunny Chow should be freshly made out of mature curry and the piece of bread, or virgin, which was removed to make room for the curry should be placed on top of the Bunny before it is wrapped. Some chefs add sambals to their Bunnies but many feel that this is an unnecessary elaboration. ' More here.

But back to the competiton. Here are some of my favourites among the top 30 designs. See the rest at Big Blue's website or on Facebook

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Proper coffee: do you do it?

Living as I do in a backwater, I often miss trends. They pass me by, and until they’re shoved right under my nose I’m not even aware of their existence.

Making proper coffee is one of them. I’m not a coffee person (one cup gives me the jitters; another, and I can’t sleep for 24 hours) but many of my friends are. I’ve had an oldfashioned coffee percolator for yonks and that’s what I haul out when coffee is called for. I keep a packet of ground filter coffee in the fridge, sealed as instructed, for this purpose.

My friend Johann told me recently that this wasn’t good enough. I was amazed. ‘So what should I be doing, then?’ I asked him.

He made a contemptuous phttt-ing noise.

‘Seriously,’ I said, ‘tell me. I honestly don’t know. Oh… you mean I should have one of those Bodum plunger jobs?’ And even as I launched into the reason I don’t (the one and only plunger I ever had popped on me the second time I used it; it gave me a couple of nasty burns and I was cleaning coffee off the kitchen walls for months), he was laughing snarkily.

‘Pressure!’ he finally said.

He refused to enlighten me further – for a trendy person like Johann, I am often an embarrassment.

Once, we were out for dinner and he was about to use the bottle of ‘spring’ water ‘kindly’ put on the table by the establishment. ‘Don’t open that!’ I shouted, loudly enough to make him jump and other diners to look around in curiosity.

Johann sighed. ‘Why?’ he asked.

‘Because it costs the bloody earth!’ I said. ‘Seriously, I’ve been in one of these places before’ [it was a well known seafood-restaurant chain] ‘and it’s a total rip-off. They put it on the table so you’ll drink it, then they charge you through the nose for it.’

Johann rolled his eyes but didn’t open the water. When the waiter turned up, he confirmed that the bottle of water cost R22. (TWENTY-TWO RONT FOR A BOTTLE OF WATER???!!!)

I asked the waiter (rhetorically, obviously), ‘Would you pay R22 for a bottle of water?’ and he looked uneasy.

Johann gave me A Look and said to the waiter, ‘Ignore her. She’s mad, but she’s not dangerous.’

Anyway, I suffered in ignorant silence for quite a long time about the coffee, until three visits to friends in rapid succession cleared things up for me. Friends A have one of those hissy, steamy machines that require the use of a gynaecological-looking gizmo to produce what amounts to two sips of coffee in a cup the size of a thimble, with a cocaine-like kick that would keep me awake for a week. Friends B have similar, but with an additional goedemadoetjie that makes milk into froth.

Friends C – and this is where I realised how hopelessly out of touch I am – have not only the hissy, steamy machine, the gynaecological-looking accoutrements, and the milk-frother-thingie, but also (a) a coffee roaster and (b) a coffee grinder. Friends C buy raw coffee beans and make their own coffee literally from scratch!

It put into perspective my woefully gigantic lack in the coffee department. But I’ve priced these hissy-steamy gadgets and all their add-ons and they cost enough to put down a deposit on a small villa in Tuscany, so my move into modern-day coffee gadgetry is nowhere in the near future. Fortunately, my sister did give me a Bodum plunger for my birthday, so while I’m not entirely on track yet where coffee is concerned, I’m getting there. Slowly, and with a little help from my friends.

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Sunday, 19 October 2008

Simon van Gend made me cry: listen to this song and you will too.

How rare is it that you hear a song for the very first time, and it resonates so sweetly that by the time the second verse rolls around you're weeping? This happened to me yesterday, when I tuned into SA FM and heard the Simon van Gend Band being interviewed by Michelle Constant. The interview, which included a few tracks played live in the studio, ended with Freewheeling, a song from the band's new album, Guest of My Feelings, which was launched in Cape Town yesterday. I've never heard of Simon or his band, but I'm on my way to buy his CD. Click here to listen to the song.

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Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Why we still live in South Africa: a majestic whale in Kalk Bay

A friend sent me these heart-stopping pictures, in an email with the subject line, 'Life in the far South still has its moments'.

And in the body of the email, he said, 'I'm trying to see how many people I can send this to, and how to work into the conversation the sentence, “Oh, yes, that's the view from my balcony in Kalk Bay”.' What he means is that he's going to send these pictures to everyone who has left South Africa on the grounds that life here is kak.

Click on pic for a bigger image

Well, it's not actually the view from my friend's balcony, but his friend took the pics close to his balcony last week. Look at the mountains. Admire the turquoise sea... and how about the colour of the sky? How deathly blue is that?

Click on pic for a bigger image

Can anyone identify this big lovely? It looks like a Southern Right Whale to me, but I'm no whale expert.

Thanks James, and whoever took these pix.

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Tuesday, 14 October 2008

IQ tests: what do they really measure?

For the twelve years of my school life I was an IQ guinea pig. Every year like clockwork I was called out of class and subjected to a battery of tests that usually lasted the whole day. Earlier on, other pupils did them with me; in my last three years of high school I was the only person tested.

The man who ran these annual questionnaires was a stick-insect-like creature who smelled of laundry left too long in a closed hamper and had the interpersonal skills of a wet vest. Much, much later I learnt – when I was forced into a combative interview with him for refusing to take science as a matric subject – that he was the Education Department’s psychologist. Who woulda thought?

As was the way in those days, I never asked why I had to repeatedly do the tests or what they were for, much less what my results were. In fact, it was impressed upon me that my IQ score was highly confidential – particularly from me.

About 15 years ago I decided to take an independent IQ test to satisfy my own curiosity. I booked an appointment with Mensa (the organisation for extraordinarily clever people) and the night before the test I went out with friends and drank tequila until 5am. (This wasn’t by way of preparation; it was purely circumstantial.) So I wrote the test in a post-party haze, and squandered quite a bit of time by rushing outside periodically to puke in the shrubbery.

Nonetheless, clearly I am extraordinarily clever, because Mensa not only passed me with flying colours, but harassed me for several months afterwards to become a dues-paying member. (My decision not to join was vindicated some years later when I was invited by an actual Mensa member to attend a club quiz night at a local pub as a guest. Woefully little drinking got done, the competition was fierce practically to the point of fisticuffs, and there was no dancing afterwards. It was the least fun I’ve ever had in the company of alcohol.)

Tonight I decided to take advantage of the ether age by attempting some of the many online IQ tests available to those with a modem and time on their hands.

I did three separate tests. All were offered *free!!* and guaranteed *immediate results!*.

With awful Internet predictability, all wanted me to sign on after I’d completed the tests and pay the low-low-never-to-be-repeated price of $9.95 to find out what my IQ actually is. (Ah, I get it: the tests are free, the results are not. Not clever enough to work that one out, me.) Some also offered *a comprehensive analysis of your strengths and weaknesses!* and *a full breakdown of your mental faculties!* (which, frankly, I can do well enough on my own with a bottle of tequila).

So I am still no wiser as to the alacrity or otherwise of my grey matter. And anyway, I can’t really see how answering questions like ‘If John is taller than Jack, and Mary has a cousin in Indianapolis, how many apples does Sophie have left in her basket?’ can measure intelligence. I have friends who can barely find their own bottoms in the dark with both hands, yet are geniuses when it comes to design, music, horticulture, philosophy, animals, languages, etc.

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Monday, 13 October 2008

Gustave Stinkpoo's 127-year-old practical joke: and other treasures from census returns

I came across the delightful name Fanny Whip the other day, as I was browsing the 1881 UK Census. This 67-year-old coachman's wife, of Berkshire, wasn't the only Victorian woman to be saddled with a name that we sneering 21st-century-ites cannot help but find hilarious; there are three other Fanny Whipps in the same census.

There is also a Donald Duck, a Peter Rabbitt, two Oliver Twists, eleven Julius Caesars, more than a hundred Harry Potters and - oh I do love this one - 51-year-old Africa Bastard, of Kent.

If you like history and appreciate whimsy, strangeness and pathos - or if you are obsessed with family history, as I am - you will have such fun snooping around census returns
(**see end of post for details) .

After wasting so much time hunting for silly names, I had a look around the Net to find out what other hidden oddities and nuggets lurk in British census returns. And, oh joy, there are plenty.

If you're a celebrity spotter, you might enjoy a bit of retro-digging: Charles Darwin
, Emmeline Pankhurst, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, William Wordsworth and even Karl Marx. Click here for census images of other famous names.

And then there are the many unusual and archaic occupations and trades. We have coachmen, straw-plaiters, fish hawkers, rag sorters, umbrella makers, horse clippers, laundresses, chaff cutters, letter returners, convicts, ostlers, pettifroggers, beadles, messmen, curriers, cobblers, cutlers, idiots and vagrants.
Louis Harty Fowler of Lancashire gives his occupation as 'wizard', while John Holden calls himself 'The Queens Magician & Wizard Of The Wicked World'. William Neal listed no occupation, because he was 'too idle'.

Best of all, we have a group of young lodgers in a boarding house who must have had too much ale to drink on the night that the census enumerator came around, and decided to give his leg a jolly old pull. Their entries include [these come from British Genealogy; if you'd like to see the original image, click here

* G. O'LEARY Peacock Feather Trimmer
* John REGAN, Dolls Eye Weaver
* Mouse REGAN, Ratcatcher
* Charles HORSEFLESH, Dog Fancier
* Pancho FLIPBACK, Grave Digger
* Gustave STINKPOO, Turpentine Boiler
* Charles BIGTOP, Tiger Slayer
* Joseph BROWN, Urinal Attendant
* Henry DANDELION, Horse Hair Platter

RG11/76 folios 43-45

Then again, they might just have been telling the truth.

You can access the index to the 1881 British census for free at the amazing site Ancestry.co.uk, but you will need to pay a nominal subscription fee if you want to see the original scanned-in pages, or look at census returns for the years 1841-1901. Or sign up for a free two-week trial.

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Wednesday, 8 October 2008

A snotklap for the ANC. Don't you love SA slang?

Ray Hartley, editor of The Times, uses the word 'snotklap' in his recent post about Mosiuoa Lekota breaking ranks with the ANC, South Africa's governing party. A magnificent choice of word, and one that any South African will understand and appreciate. It's one of those words that is just infused with hilarity, and that is impossible to translate.

But let me try:

The literal translation of the Afrikaans word klap [pronounced 'clup'] is 'hit' or 'smack' . But it also has many nuances - it also means beat, vanquish, smite, consume, devour, beat about the ears, give a kick in the pants to, and so on. For example, you might say, 'We klapped a couple of bottles of brandy last night'. Or: 'We really klapped the Ozzies at the cricket'. Or: 'Do your homework, or I'll klap you.'

When you have a hangover, you might say, 'I can't come to the meeting, I feel totally klapped'.

Now add the word snot, which means the same in Afrikaans as it does in English.

Snotklap [pronounced snort-clup] means a big, open-handed smack about the side of the face that is so severe that it causes the snot to fly sideways from your nostrils.

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My daughter doesn’t laugh any more: she just says she does

Last night my son was trying to break up his baked potato with a spoon and it wasn’t working, so I put on an Obi Wan Kenobi voice and said, ‘Use the fork, Luke, use the fork.’ (My son's name isn't Luke.)

He and I thought this was wildly funny and screamed with laughter. My daughter, also amused, said what sounded like, ‘Loll.’

Loll? Did she mean ‘droll’? And if she did, where did she get such a rare word and how did she know how to use it?

Alas, my daughter had not eaten a thesaurus. What she’d actually said was ‘LOL’, which in SMS-speak means, she tells me, ‘laughing out loud’.

‘So when you or your friends find something funny, do you just say that word, rather than laugh?’ I asked in amazement.

‘Ja,’ she said. ‘And if it’s really funny we say El Em Aye Oh,’ which apparently means ‘laughing my ass off’.

Well, for heaven’s sake, what next? Will we start saying the word ‘hug’ instead of doing it, when we want to express affection? Or the word ‘sigh’ when we’re fed up, instead of just going ahead and sighing? Perhaps we’ll hold up a picture of a smiley face when we’re happy, or one of those winkey-eyed ‘emoticons’ (emoticons!?) when we’re just kidding.

I’m all for anything that gets my kids to communicate in writing, even if SMS-speak makes mincemeat of English spellings, punctuation and sentence construction. But when the new language of the ether starts replacing human actions and expressions, then I’m prepared to start to get a little bit worried.

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Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Smokie rocked at Grand West. Pity about the security guards, though

I haven’t been to a concert since I went to see Sting at the Bellville Velodrome about seven years ago (and he was awesome!). The sad truth is, we just get too old for these things: fighting your way through crowds, standing for several hours, and driving home afterwards in the dark when your eyesight isn’t all it used to be.

But when my friend A called to see if I wanted to go to Grand West to see Smokie with her, I said yes yes YES! I may even have screamed a little.

My taste in music, it is widely agreed by practically everyone who knows me, is execrable – and Smokie is way up there in my all-time greats, along with Abba, Neil Diamond, Bob Seger and the like.

As the big night drew nearer, I became so excited I actually had trouble sleeping. And by the time it arrived – it was last Friday – I was practically sick with excitement.

A and I got to Grand West early and within 10 minutes I was fabulously disoriented. I live in a very small village and hardly ever go to the city, so Grand West’s garishly loud, surreal interior décor was a massive culture shock for me. We had a few bites of sushi and a couple of glasses of red wine (and I almost fainted when they brought the bill), then A dashed off to the casino for a quick flutter, me hot on her heels (I was genuinely afraid of losing her – I had visions of myself forever wandering this giant indoor adult playground, never able to find an exit). A is a good gambler; I am utterly useless and lost a lot of money on the roulette table in a very short time. But no matter! There were better things to come.

Finally, it was time to find our seats, and A (who booked for us) had done us proud – we were on the side, two rows from the front, with a fabulous view of the stage. By now I was speechless with anticipation, so you can imagine my disappointment when the support act came on: Kobus Muller, the 22-year-old winner of SABC2’s ‘Supersterre’ competition.

What were the organisers thinking? I don’t doubt Kobus’s talent for a second, but talk about inappropriate! Smokie’s fan base is largely older (35+) ex-glam-rockers, into loud bass, louder drums and frenzied lead singing. Kobus, bless him, sang some Afrikaans liedjies and for a highlight did a cover of Josh Groban’s ‘You Raise Me Up’.

Anyway, thankfully he didn’t stay too long, and soon enough the moment arrived, and Smokie took the stage. A and I went wild! That we were the only people in our entire block who did didn’t matter – we were into it, body, heart and soul!

I don’t know why the audience took so long to catch on – perhaps it was the venue (which looks more like a huge school hall than a concert arena), or maybe others in the audience were just more mature than us. But we didn’t care. We leapt around in our seats, whistled and yelled, cheered and clapped, and sang our hearts out.

When ‘Don’t Play That Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me’ came on, we couldn’t be contained, and ran to the front, where we joined a small group of similarly-aged (mainly female) hard-core fans, staring up in joy and adoration, dancing our socks off, and screaming adulation when the song was over.

Which is when a line of cross-looking security guards filed in and instructed us, without further ado, to return to our seats.

We were a bit taken aback (um, this was a rock concert, wasn’t it?) but it didn’t seem age-appropriate to get into a slanging match with them, so back we went.

But not for long. By an hour into the concert, Smokie had finally captured their ageing audience’s attention big-time and we hard-core groupies were having real trouble staying in our seats.

Then something fabulous happened. A line of gorgeous young women – they couldn’t have been older than early 20s – came filing past us, sailed past the security guards, and ran up to the stage, where they threw panties at the band members (I’m not making this up!) and grooved and rocked and screamed and tore their hair and their clothes.

We needed no more urging. In a flash we were out of our seats, back down at the front of the stage, and dancing with the hard core. Very fast the front filled up, people streaming out of their seats, dancing and clapping and singing. It was absolutely fantastic.

For us, that is. The security guards were mightily pissed off. And rather than leave well enough alone, they waged an irritable battle to try to get us to ‘behave’. Over and over they told us to get back, to return to our seats. Over and over they were ignored.

By this time, the place really was rocking. It was loud, it was energetic, it was marvellous. Those security guards didn’t stand a prayer of restoring order, but that didn’t stop them trying.

The fifth time some big surly man with an orange vest on and a walkie-talkie at his belt told me to return to my seat, I shouted to him, ‘For god’s sake, man, look at us! We’re all in our 40s! Do you really think we’re going to start a riot? Chill!’

‘Get back,’ he said.

My friend A danced around in front of him. ‘What you going to do? Arrest me?’ she shouted, laughing maniacally. (She’s one of the most badly behaved people I know, including my teenagers.)

[I thought afterwards what the scene would have been like if we oldsters had actually tried to storm the barricades – how much groaning and inelegance there would have been if we’d even tried to climb up onto the stage. Perhaps we should have. It would have been good for a laugh.]

It was then that one of the band members – an original one, with grandpa-white hair and swollen knees in tight jeans, and a glass of wine constantly to hand (I ask you, when last did you see a rocker drink wine as an in-concert libation?) – shouted through his microphone, ‘Ignore these guys in the orange vests! Don’t let them stop you! This is a concert, man! Come on up!’

‘See?’ I shouted to the security guard who was still trying to shoo me away. ‘We’ve been personally invited! Leave us alone!’

Perhaps realising that I was well above his fighting weight, he did. But he quickly moved on to softer targets – the line of young women who’d started the party. They were summarily dismissed (they hadn’t bought the expensive, near-stage tickets, and had got in up at the front by devious means; and I bless them for it). As they were ejected from the front, they were loudly congratulated by all those they passed on their way out.

But the security guards’ bizarre vigilance didn’t stop there. Three rows back from the front was a young girl, maybe 12, whose father had helped her stand up on her seat, the better to see. Within seconds, not one, not two, but three security guards had pushed their way through the heaving throng, loudly yelling at her to get down. Shocked and embarrassed, she did.

My good deed for the night was to push back through myself, take the girl by the hand, and lead her to the front. ‘I’ll look after her!’ I shouted to her dad, and he smiled and gave me the thumbs-up. I stationed her in front of me and said to a security guard who immediately rounded on us, ‘Go away! All she wants to do is to be able to see the band! Leave us alone!’

He muttered something into his walkie-talkie (perhaps he thought I’d be frightened into thinking he was calling backup) and then hovered, looking mean.

By now, nobody was taking any notice of the security guards anyway. And when the band said, ‘Thanks and goodnight,’ a 40-something woman standing next to me clutched my sleeve in distress. ‘They haven’t done Alice yet!’ she shouted.

‘Don’t worry, they will,’ I assured her. And very quickly the call was taken up throughout the arena: ‘We want Alice! We want Alice! We want Alice!’

So Smokie came back on again and, well, what can I say? The crowd went wild. For their encore they played ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’ followed quickly by – at last – ‘Living Next Door to Alice’, and by the time they exited the stage, we were in a state of near-delirium, dripping sweat, grinning widely, pumped to the hilt.

Smokie was, simply, astonishing. The two leads (guitar and vocals) are well into their 60s, and they look every day of it – but boy did they give it stick. And there was something so endlessly appealing in their joy at playing to over a thousand people who clearly just loved them. It made their bald spots, their spectacles, their stick-insect limbs, their utter lack of youthful beauty, mean nothing at all.

* In June this year, Juno posted a piece about the poor crowd control at Carnival City. I’m struck by how the security detachments just get it so wrong. They don’t let us enjoy ourselves when there’s clearly no danger of riot; but they also don’t do anything when it’s obvious there’s a crush situation arising.

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Working mothers and bums on seats

When my kids were very young (3 and 4), I took a fulltime job as a director of a publishing company and put my children in crèche. It was the worst year of my life, and it wasn’t much fun for my kids either.

For reasons I never really understood, board and other ‘important’ meetings were often held after hours. I was one of only two women on the board and the only one with very young children. Not attending wasn’t an option (there wasn’t a man among them who would have understood that I was a single mom, and that my kids came first), so I spent a lot of time hysterically driving hither and thither, desperately trying to find childcare, and feeling so stressed out I thought my head might pop.

Once, particularly memorably, a male member of the board came past my office at about 5.30pm, shortly before one of these meetings. ‘See you in the boardroom,’ he said. Then he swung a sixpack at me. ‘I’ve got beers,’ he added with a big fat grin.

It perfectly summed up my life then: the male board member, whose kids were safely in the care of his stay-at-home wife, blithely assuming that not only would I be at the appallingly badly timed meeting, but that I’d be willing to share a few beers with the blokes afterwards.

Leaving fulltime employment to go freelance with two little kids was terribly nerve-wracking. I literally didn’t know where my next paycheque would be coming from, but nothing – nothing! – could have been worse than the life I’d been trying to live.

Once, running late for a flight to Durban to do a huge transparency buy-in (at the time, by far the biggest the company had done – about R1 million worth), the kids’ crèche called me and asked me to take them to the doctor. They had been coughing (it was winter) and they wanted me to have my kids tested for TB.

When the skin tests came back negative for TB, the doctor advised me to have their lungs X-rayed. I phoned my secretary and asked her to book me on a later flight, then rushed them to a local clinic, where I queued for about an hour for the X-rays, then waited for about another hour for the results.

Finally the radiologist arrived. ‘Can you make this quick?’ I asked her. ‘I’m running late for a flight.’

She gave me a look that could have stripped paint from walls. ‘Cancel it,’ she said. ‘Both your children have pneumonia.’

I did as she had so icily suggested and took the next week off work. My children are allergic to antibiotics – their treatment involved twice-daily visits to a physiotherapist, plenty of nebulising and lots of bed rest. Mine involved heavy self-medication with Jack Daniel’s and crying myself to sleep at night, scarcely able to believe what a bad mother I was.

It marked the end of my fulltime career, and for the next 10 years I worked as a freelancer, writing and editing from my home office, sometimes doing stints ‘in-house’ when I absolutely had to (subediting or managing contracts), and occasionally borrowing money from friends when things got really tight.

The advent of the Internet should have been a revolution for working mothers who do the kind of stuff I do, and in a way it was. But in another way, nothing changed: employers still believed that if you weren’t in an office – if your bum wasn’t on that seat – you somehow wouldn’t be productive. Rather alarmingly, the most negative reaction to my suggestion that I edit via the ether came from the then high-profile editor of a women’s magazine – the very publication that loudly trumpeted the rights of women to both raise their children themselves and have a meaningful working life. ‘It would be setting a bad precedent,’ she said by way of refusal – a comment I’ve never been able to fathom.

Several years later I landed a good contract with a big corporation to do their electronic publishing – not surprisingly, via the electronic medium of the Internet. I did this for two years, working from my home base 100km away from the nearest city (and the company’s headquarters), and not once did anyone suspect that I wasn’t ‘in the office’. Why should they? Most of my work was conducted via email and Internet, from a company mailbox, and any personal communications by cellphone (without a landline area code to give the game away).

I recently resigned from this contract, purely for reasons of a personality clash: my boss and I ended up just not getting on. So you can imagine how annoyed I was when, in a conversation with her recently, she said, ‘I realise that you being so far away has been a big problem…’

‘No!’ I said, at once. ‘It hasn’t been a problem at all. My resignation has nothing to do with where I work; it has everything to do with how you and I can’t communicate.’

Alas, it wasn’t enough. I heard today that the new incumbent has been told that her acceptance of my old position hinges on her presence in the office at least three mornings a week.

This is such a setback for people like me – and it’s so dispiriting to learn that, no matter how many huge leaps have been made for working women who are raising families (some of us single-handed), and how electronic communications have revolutionised our lives, that same old hoary rotten chestnut sticks: ‘bums on seats’.

I feel depressed to think that my resignation will be put down to the simple fact that I didn’t get in my car every day and drive to the office, jam my arse into that chair in that cubicle for the day, then leave it again at 5pm and drive home. It’s especially galling because my job was huge – I was working about 55 hours a week towards the end – and, because of its very nature, much of it was done after hours and on the weekends.

And perhaps the worse thing (for me) is that my boss is a woman (granted, one without children, but still) who has come to this entirely baseless conclusion.

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Monday, 6 October 2008

Haunting photos of ancestors: can you read this portrait?

Something about old family portraits makes me feel quite emotional. There is often a certain luminosity about faces captured in sepia in Victorian and Edwardian studios; an innocence, a sense of yearning emotion .... it's difficult to put this poignant quality into words, but if you take a close look at the picture on the left [of a distant cousin, not related by blood] you might know what I mean. I know nothing about this man, apart from his name, but I feel that this portrait reveals so much of his inner life.

[Sydney Edward Christiane, 1905-1958.]

Why are these old portraits able to reveal so many emotions, and to stir emotions in us? Is it because the sitter had to remain perfectly still while the shutter sluggishly opened and closed? Is it because having a portrait taken was an expensive and serious business, and no occasion for cheesy grins or fingers held up in rabbit-ear formation? Or, perhaps, is it because the sitters are all long dead, and we, their descendants, knowing what happened to them in the unfolding decades of their lives, read into these faces profound emotions that were, actually, expressions of, say, boredom or frustration?

I don't know. But here's a challenge for you. Take a look a the face on the left. This picture, taken around 1910, is of an ancestor of mine, my great-great aunt.

I know a lot about her - she left a fairly extensive diary - her family, and her life. But perhaps I am reading things into the picture that just aren't there. Are you able to discern anything about her personality? What do her eyes tell you, and what does her mouth betray? Was she a bright spark? A dullard? Was she feisty or passive? Pliant or stubborn? Calm, or excitable? Open and honest, or secretive? Happy, sad, angry, contented, frustrated, depressed - or a bit of all?

Answers on a postcard. Or just leave a comment.

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Saturday, 4 October 2008

Meeting distant cousins: the delight of genealogy and family history research

Who gives a toss about some old fossil who lived 150 years ago? I do. Especially if that old fossil was a grandparent, or uncle, or cousin, of mine.

I am passionately interested in family history, and have every free hour I have over the last ten years or so tracking down my ancestors. I won't bore you with who they are, or were, or - oh joy - the disgrace and infamy associated with their lives, suffice to say that I am very satisfied that I do not come from a boring family.

Thanks to the incredible power of the Internet, I have discovered, in my family tree, a possible Jack-the-Ripper suspect, several bigamists, a wife-beater, a servant-rogerer, a novelist, a surgeon, several needlewomen, a milliner or two, a straw-plaiter, dressmakers, candlemakers, tailors, dairywomen, stationers, acturies, and plenty of servants, serfs and forelock-tuggers.

Most gratifying of all, I've discovered distant living cousins, who have sent me pictures of my long-dead kin. See this post about 'reading' old family portraits.

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Friday, 3 October 2008

The endless appeal of the feeble South African joke

I've been looking at some of my traffic stats, and am astonished that a post about feeble South African jokes of the sixties and seventies is Salmagundi's fourth-most-viewed page. They are not even good jokes, and I can't believe you think they're worth reading. Do you have no taste, dear reader?

All I can say is this:

There was a young man from Umtata
Who was an incredible farter
He could fart anything
From God Save the King
To Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

Yes, I know it rips off an older song, but I reckon this version is best because, face it, how many words - apart from Carter, which doesn't count - rhyme with farter?

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