Monday, 28 December 2009

Remember the original MCQP parties?

A friend of my son’s recently gave me these pics – her dad’s, taken of him, me and friends about 15 years ago (!) of our first outings to the Mother City Queer Project parties. (For her, they are no doubt an oddity; for me, they are a memory: I went to the first four or five parties and didn’t once think to take any pics, so these were wonderful to get.)

This one is from the 1995 (second) party, the Secret Garden, held at the River Club, when we went as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. My abiding memory is of wearing practically nothing (just bikini pants, as I recall; and red body paint) and somehow contriving to walk home at 3am through Observatory (a suburb not known for its low crime statistics) unmolested. And waking up late the next morning wondering why my duvet looked like someone had just had their throat slashed on it.

This one is from the following year, 1996, the third MCQP project, the Twinkly Sea, when we were merfolk. We were much more modest then, and donned bathing suits. How sensible of us!

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Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Bobby isn’t a baboon spider

It’s long ceased to be a joke (for me) that I once specialised in natural history. When an identification of a wild creature is required, the call will go out (often from Johann): ‘Ask Tracey!’ Then everyone will fall about laughing.

Once, very late in the evening at Johann’s house, he and I were required to deal with a snake in the bathroom. (The circumstances are just too bizarre to go into, and anyway if I did you probably wouldn’t believe me, so let’s just leave it at ‘there was a snake in the bathroom’.) Johann didn’t know me well at the time, and I was quick to tell him that I’d actually written several guidebooks to wild things (which, really, I have), and he was pleased to open the bathroom door about 5mm and allow me a peek, and I, crazed by about 72 hours of constant wakefulness and a lot of Jack, declared it to be a deadly poisonous adder.

Amid much nervous giggling and unintentional falling over and deciding what to leave each other should we be killed by fatal adder envenomation, we managed to get the snake into a box and close the lid. Our plan was then to go outside onto Johann’s very large and utterly unilluminated plot, and release the snake there.

Johann found a torch and, with much hissy fitting, we stepped out into the dark, dangerous night. I held the snake box; Johann held the torch; and, clutching at each other, we ventured forth. Several aeons later, having negotiated a surprise rhododendron and extricated ourselves from a rogue bougainvillaea, we found ourselves at the top of the plot.

With terrible suddenness, the torch gave out.

With equally terrible suddenness, Johann screamed like a girl, spun on his heel and sprinted back in the direction of the house. And I was left in the dark, alone. Aside, of course, from the deadly adder in the box.

Realising that I was a heartbeat away from completely losing my marbles from sheer terror, I tossed the box as far from me as I could before crashing back towards the house, hurdling the bougainvillaea and decimating the rhododendron. There, we toasted our escape from near-certain death with several more Jacks.

Some days later, when reality had got a hold, we looked up the snake in a guide book – interestingly enough, one written by me. It was a not-uncoincidentally named brown house snake (the pic above is one Johann took of the actual creature), and as harmless as an earthworm.

Obviously, I have never lived this down. And now I’m about to smear yet more egg on my face by admitting that Bobby never was a Harpactirella lightfooti (basically, a baboon spider built for speed). Although he has similar markings to that species, his legs aren’t robust enough to make the grade.

He’s a rain spider, a member of the family Heteropodidae (now called Sparassidae): big (they’re also called ‘giant crab spiders’) and quick and scary (and ‘huntsmen’), but as harmless as an earthworm.

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Sunday, 20 December 2009

Kids’ prize-givings: I’d never missed a single one

The thing, when there are two parents, is that there is always someone on standby – to fetch and carry, to be present and correct, to ameliorate emotional matters.

So being one parent – with all its many, many pros – has that one con: that it’s only you. If you can’t do it, no-one will.

(Actually, not entirely, as I discovered when I was immobilised for many months, and my friends fetched and carried.)

But of all the things I missed when I was missing from the normal round of things, this one I missed the most (and I can hardly believe, given how much I’ve whinged about it in the past, that I’m saying this, but I am): at my daughter’s prize-giving at the end of this scholastic year, she won three prizes, a certificate for Maths and two cash prizes for English – and she wasn’t there to receive them, and I wasn’t there to see her get them. A nasteh first.

My children’s father long ago lost interest in their day-to-day triumphs and failures, so it has always been literally doubly important for me to be there for them. So, for instance, it was really vital for me to be there when my daughter was made a prefect in grade 7, and she and I were only the only English people up on the stage accepting this honour AND she was the only one with a single parent there to represent her (all the other kids – Afrikaans to a man(boy/girl) had proud mom&dads standing behind them), and I thought Well, at least I’m here. Hey, I may have been an English woman, and indubitably I was dressed inappropriately (because, and I’m not making this up, I always am), but by god I was there.

This might explain why, when I saw the animated Disney movie Up, and the little boy Russel gets his badge at the end, and there’s someone there to stand up for him, I cried so hard I leaked mucus all over my duvet. So please be patient with me for posting this pic of my kids, embarrassed practically out of their heads, when I insisted on snapping them and their certificates after a prize-giving a few years ago. Aw.

Anyway, I missed my daughter’s prize-giving this year, for the first time, and I just want to put on the record that it is the only time I have EVER missed a school function of either of my children, and I only missed it because I literally couldn’t be there. Really, of all the things I missed, I missed that the most.

At least it came with a cash prize, and she went out immediately and spent it lavishly on really silly fashion.

I am SO proud of her!

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Things are back to normal here in Lala Land (If you don’t like dogs, don’t look at this post)

Here’s Sez the Wobbly Dog (being happily laid on by Masters in Energy Transference); T and Johann (the Masters); Maxi (his glinting eye in this pic giving the lie to his unending patience); and Balu the devil dog (my little bear), as always almost too dark to see.

Happy, on the single divan on the verandah.

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Wednesday, 9 December 2009

My perfect child

Between nursing a recalcitrant patient, studying for matric and running a relatively large household, my daughter had little time for fun. But she did take a night off to go to a Hallowe’en party. Here she is with her boyfriend, ready to hit the town.

Interestingly enough, she came home in a different T-shirt, which makes me think the party was a usual crazy valley one. And a couple of days later I received this pic via email, of our friend Tequila Steve wearing hers. Hmm...

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Spine surgery

A discectomy is where a surgeon removes parts of a damaged vertebral disc or, as in my case, the entire thing. I was a little disappointed at how small the incision was and how neatly it had been stitched and taped up. I kind of felt I deserved something longer, and with punctuated staple marks down either side of a raw red welt. (Well, c’mon: value for money? The damn thing cost me practically my entire life savings.)

My daughter, who had over the preceding weeks coped with all sorts of things a teenager shouldn’t have to, lost her bottle when it came to removing the holding stitches. Johann (of course) did it. And some days later, when I asked her to check the wound to make sure it was clean and healing properly (it’s down low on my back, not easily visible even with the help of a mirror), she literally squealed. ‘I’m not doing this any more!’ she said. So Johann did it.

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Waiting to go home from the hospital

There were many mad cow jokes about these pyjamas, not least by the donors of them, Ronaldo and his preternaturally beautiful woman, M. I can’t remember this photo being taken thanks to the miraculous powers of morphine. (In the pic I am lying in the hospital reception, waiting for Ronaldo to tell the receptionist that I promised faithfully to pay the bill before whisking me back home.)

Mercifully, I remember very little before it was taken either, when I was seized by a powerful back spasm as my damaged spinal disc ruptured and flung to the floor, bereft of breath but generously gifted in the hysterical tears department, necessitating a rude interruption of Johann’s spiritual health for a speedy and tense drive to the hospital. There, excessively costly medical personnel did all manner of interesting things to me involving X-rays, MRIs, scalpels and anaesthetics, after which (again, thanks to morphine) two of the only things I remember were being able to pee for the first time in countless weeks without screaming in agony and vomiting copiously into my father’s lap. (Sorry, Dad.)

A measure of the lengths my friends and family went to to help me through this awful time was the spine specialist telling me that surgery was necessary immediately, and not least because ‘it is clear your husband is at the very end of his tether’. Morphined to the eyebrows (and I can’t tell you how much I love morphine, really), I said in dreamy tones, ‘My husband? But I don’t have a husband.’ The spine specialist said, ‘Well, the man who checked you in was in a state of near collapse. He simply can’t take it any more.’ Johann.

Before hospital I was bedridden for almost six weeks. Johann came every single day. He lay in bed with me while I moaned and groaned and occasionally cried frantic tears of frustration and pain (and also fetched and carried kids, brought supplies, made meals, etc etc etc). T (Maxi’s Mom) was in constant contact and cared for me, my dogs and my children in equal measure. And my daughter Bella, who at the time was studying for her matric exams, took over the day-to-day running of the household, and when I threw tantrums (and I did, I am sorry to say), had the amazing (and very un-teenage) compunction to not only not take offence, but ignore my pathetic behaviour and just keep on keeping on.

Simply astonishing human beings.

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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

An unusual birthday

On Sunday 18 October, the day before my 45th birthday, my sister and her husband travelled out to the little village where I live and cooked a fabulous meal for me and company. My friends T (Maxi’s Mom) and Johann, who by then had been on near-24-hour call for me for more than a month (going well above and beyond the normal call of duty) joined them, me, my gorgeous children and another friend, L, plus my Dad, around a lunch table that I couldn’t sit at, but which I lay very happily beside.

This photograph was taken late that evening (from left going clockwise, T, me, my daughter and son, L and Johann). These are my friends and children on my bed with me, which is where, perforce, time had to be spent in my company. The hairstyles are entirely T’s fault.

This photograph, of Johann in hysteria and me in the position I occupied for the better part of three months, prompted Johann to remark later, ‘God, but we’re fun!’ And there I was thinking it was because we were drunk.

In spite of my immobility and a regime of powerful medications (or, okay, maybe because of those), I drank a lot of wine and smoked a lot of cigarettes on my birthday. The hangover was, naturally, appalling, but it was worth every second.

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Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Goodbye to my dear old dog Duke

This morning my Old Faithful, Duke, hobbled off to the big bone-heap in the sky. He didn't do this voluntarily: it was I who took him to a vet and instructed her to administer the killing injection.  Even though I've agonised over this for months, I feel like a right, heartless bastard for ending Duke's life, and I'm not proud of myself.  Every time I think of his dear old grizzled face I start weeping again, and wish I'd changed my mind.

If I had done so, he'd be snoozing at my feet right now, whimpering, shivering and letting off the most atrocious old-dog farts.

The vet asked if I'd like to be there in what she called his 'final moments'.

I declined. I gave him a hard hug, scratched him once behind his fleabitten old ears, and walked out out of the building carrying his empty collar.  Every time I think of his last look at me - an expression of utter trust, adoration, and fervent hope for a juicy bone - I want to smack my head against a wall.

RIP, you grand, friendly old dawg.

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Thursday, 22 October 2009

The whistling halls of our neglected blog

I know this blog is whistling eerily in the wind, with tumbleweeds spinning through its echoing halls, but I would like to assure you that both Muriel and I are still alive and thrashing (well, I'm thrashing; Muriel, dear girl, is writhing).

She's still in bed, five weeks after slipping a disc in her back, and here is an SMS update from her: 'Not much improvement to back, alas - still unable to sit and battling to walk. One more week in bed and the doctors will "reassess". Still determined not to have op but fast running out of options." (No txt spk for our Mur: she writes full essays, with perfect spelling and punctuation, when she sends an SMS.)

She sounds sanguine enough, but if I know Muriel she is probably tearing tufts from her scalp, gnawing the headboard and swearing like a sailor.  No one wants to be pancaked for five weeks, but for an energetic tornado of a gal,  it must be, well, terrible, Muriel.  She is definitely not the languishing sort. 

I know she will snort  if you offer her syrupy sympathies, so here are some suggestions about how to gladden her heart:

- send lots of email chain letters, appeals and petitions.
- forward any Nigerian scam emails you receive; she loves these and always sends fat cheques, which place not the slightest dimple in her bulging bank account.
- phone her at midnight, and every two hours thereafter, for a heart-to-heart. Use her land-line number, not her cell number.  We do not want to encourage laziness in Muriel.
- send the Jehovah's Witnesses to her house, and tell them to knock repeatedly on her bedroom window, because the doorbell isn't working.
- park your car outside her bedroom window and pump up the volume!  Muriel loves music, especially rap and boeremusiek.

An orphaned, feeble puppy or kitten placed on the kerb, and pinched hard so that it whimpers all night, may also do the trick.

If all else fails, send a group of young, perfect mothers over to Muriel's place, and encourage them to bring their toddlers!  There is nothing she appreciates more than a gang of feral toddlers exploring her house and its cupboards, and the louder they scream and perform, the more cheerful she becomes.  Muriel believes that parents should take an entirely hands-off approach to young children and frowns on parents who selfishly try to discipline their offspring.

I have nimbly avoided explaining why I've not posted for so long on this blog. OK. Although my excuse is not iron-clad, like Muriel's, here it is, anyway:  I'm moving, with my kids, to Cape Town in five weeks' time, to join my dearest, who has been living and working there for the past few months.

The sheer amount of admin involved - packery, throw-outery, house-sellery, change-addressery stuff - has kept me on the hop, and I'm also studying for the matric exams of my eldest son, who writes his first proper exam in a fortnight.  So I'm pretty busy, but I will be back here, and blogging wildly, once the dust settles and we are all snuggled together in our new nest in Hout Bay.  (Which will only be ours if we sell our existing house, and soon.)

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Thursday, 8 October 2009

Muriel has a hernia

If you fans of Salmagundi are wondering about the yawning Muriel-shaped hole in this blog, I am sorry to tell you that she has been arrested, deported and flung into a filthy prison on St. Helena, where she will rot in despair for the rest of her days, and good riddance to Her Terribleness.

Okay, that's not strictly true, but I am sure Muriel would prefer gnawing her own wrists in a squalid cell to what she's going through now. Muriel has a herniated spinal disc and has damaged her sciatic nerve: she is now mostly immobile, in excruciating pan, and has to be crowbarred off the ceiling every few hours to be force-fed a new dose of painkillers. Here's more from her email:

"It has been endless rounds of docs and specialists and piles of meds and mainly staying in bed. And also spending about two hours a day standing at my computer – I can’t sit and can only lie on my left side, it is too dire – to try to get the most basic work done so I can keep earning some kind of paltry living.

"Having been offered an operation that will cost 'up to R100 000' (said the spine specialist, casually), I have completely abandoned mainstream medicine and am now under the care of a chiropractor who pummels and yanks me and hangs me upside down twice a week. He thinks he can get me right but has warned that it will take a long time – maybe up to two more months – I am going mad with frustration.

"The pain is unbelievable so I am on constant pain meds that make me a bit stoned (which is actually quite nice) but it doesn’t make for a clean brain.

"Thank God for my amazing friends and my amazing daughter who have kept the household running and have been doing all the running around and transport, etc, including lifting and carrying me to docs all over the bloody province (a genuine downside of living in the middle of nowhere!)."

So, how can we cheer her up? Grapes? Filthy jokes? Normally, I would advise sending a few crates of tequila, but perhaps we shouldn't encourage her to mix her meds. Big kisses, Mur.

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Monday, 21 September 2009

Maddened by Jozi's aggressive vendors and window-washers

I've tried to be gracious, generous and friendly as I've driven around Johannesburg over the past 17 years. Really, I have. I've always tipped unpushy parking guards, always greeted road-side vendors (while politely declining their wares), and always dished out random rolling car-coins (what my cousins charmingly call 'shrapnel') to blind beggars, street children and the heart-breaking human flotsam and jetsam on the streets of Johannesburg. Like most drivers in Johannesburg, I have a chatty (albeit paternalistic, I admit) relationship with the 'regulars' on the street corners on my various routes.

I don't want to sound prissy, but I have always believed that how you behave towards destitute people defines you as a person: if you can't give something to them, the very least you can do is offer a cheery greeting and a little facile banter, followed up, if necessary, by a firm refusal.

This is all very well when you're dealing with, say, five or seven or even ten road-side beggars a day. But how about thirty people at a time?

In the past two years or so, the number of roadside peddlers, beggars, panhandlers, vagabonds and window-smashers has increased tenfold, due, no doubt, to crushing economic times, and - gee, thanks, Mad Bob Mugabe - to a flood of ragged refugees from Zimbabwe. And so, too, has the level of aggression at intersections. Particularly towards women drivers.

I hesitate to pull out the gender card here, but I have noticed that, as a woman driver, you definitely get the short end of the stick.

I drive though the Grayston Drive intersection in Sandton on average 18 times a week. Every time I do, I count the number of panhandlers at the intersection, and it is never less than 38 individuals operating on two sets of traffic lights. Yes, you read that right: thirty eight!

If these vendors peacefully peddled their goods, I would have no objection - after all, I'd far prefer that they were making a living selling stuff than resorting to crime. But the sheer doggedness and belligerence of these vendors is just wearing me down.

Swarms of 'window washers' - young, swaggering men armed with plastic bottles - besiege my car and any car in the vicinity that seems like a soft target: that is, in the main, cars with women drivers. They squirt soapy water on the windscreen and proceed to 'wash' it. I shake my head and flap my hands to indicate a 'no thanks', but to no avail.

When they're finished smudging my window, they demand payment by thrusting a hand towards my open window. I respond by driving off, at speed. If the traffic light is red, and I am stuck there, I roll up my window and look away, infuriated. Most vendors walk away, resigned, but some of them get nasty: I've had my car bonnet thumped, my side mirrors bashed and, last week, a threat as a young thug drew his finger across his neck in a throat-cutting gesture.

Infuriated, I rolled down the window and, in my bossiest mommy voice, gave it straight back to him by wagging my finger and promising to have him arrested. He jeered, made a lascivious thrusting gesture with his groin and gave me the middle finger. Then I drove off, heart pounding, and dissolved in infuriated, helpless sobs.

I am terrified by this, and I'm enraged too. All I want is to go peacefully about my business, without harassment or abuse. And, damn it, am I, as Jane Citizen, not entitled to feel safe and secure?

And I'm sick of hearing the Metro police force making excuses about why these intersections aren't properly policed. The most common excuse is, 'We move them along or arrest them, but they return the next day. And, besides, we can't be everywhere all the time'.

Well, duh, isn't the answer to have a permanent police presence - just one car would do - at the worst-affected major intersections in Johannesburg? (The Greyston intersection, the Nichol Highway offramp and the main Bruma intersection are just a few that spring to mind). And, please, Mr Metro Plod, don't insult my intelligence by telling me you don't have the manpower: how about pulling several hundred of your officers out from behind the bushes where they're hiding with their speed cameras, and putting them to work making intersections safe? Look, you're going to lose a lot of traffic-fine revenue, but the idea behind a metropolitan police force is to enforce the law and keep citizens safe, not swell State coffers.

God, I'm maddened by this. What's more (and I love to pull the World-Cup card here): if I, as a tough old Jo-burger with eyes all over the back of my head, am afraid to drive through a busy intersection that is as familiar to me as the back of my hand, how do you think a carload of hapless tourists are going to feel?

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Thursday, 17 September 2009

Kika, the content thief: blog plagiarism at its most brazen

I don't know why I still get upset about this. It's not unusual, at all, for bloggers to steal, lift, nick and plunder other people's work: it happens all the time, often in the most subtle of ways.

But I do get my knickers in a knot when I stumble across bloggers who brazenly pinch the work of freelance professionals who have spent years, even decades, honing their craft, and who are trying to earn a living from the fruits of their labours.

I am more or less resigned to the fact that, if you post content online, the chances are that sooner or later someone will re-use or rehash what you've written or photographed. I don't mind this, generally speaking, because I do believe in the free exchange of information, particularly when whoever's reproduced that content takes the trouble to acknowledge its source.

But I do get maddened when I see amateurs passing off someone else's excellent work as their own. I suppose my outrage stems from the fact that I know, from long experience, how difficult it is to make money as a freelance writer, and how many years it takes to build a portfolio and make a name for yourself.

My old pal Rob Woodburn, a South African who has lived in Australia for many years now, is a freelance photographer, journalist and travel writer whose compelling blog, Lost in Transit, is packed with superb photographs and high-quality travel articles. Lost in Transit was the first travel blog to appear in the online editions of two leading Australian newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and the blog has a significant and devoted following.

This prestige has not deterred a certain Australian blogger, one 'Kika' (no surname, no contact details) of Sydney, from audaciously lifting Rob's photographs and text, and passing them off as her own work.

Is it possible that 'Kika' genuinely doesn't realise that lifting text and photographs without permission is not acceptable? Maybe. Then again, maybe not: if you have the savvy to create your own blog, I reckon you should know full well that stealing is stealing, whichever way you slice it.

I am tempted to post a picture of this Kika here, so you can identify her, but, then again, I'd have to take it off her personal blog, and that would be stealing.

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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

What would you ask your dog, if you could?

Imagine a genie hoists itself out of your beer bottle one night and says, 'You have five minutes in which to ask your dog ten things. Your dog will give you truthful answers, in your own language.'

This is the question I asked my 10-year-old daughter, as we were wedged in traffic on the way to fetch her brothers from school. I was fascinated by the selection of questions she wanted to ask our basset hound, Velvet (in pic, left) , and equally intrigued by the questions offered by my teen sons.

After much debate (which - hooray! - made the hour-long trek home whizz past) we came up with the following shortlist. In no particular order:

1. Can you converse with other dogs, and, if so, what do you talk about?
2. What is your real dog name, if you have one? And what are the names of the other dogs in the family?
3. Why do you poke your head out of the window when you travel in a car?
4. Do you really feel cross, anxious, sad, jealous or afraid, or am I just reading too much into your expression?
5. Do you have dreams, and what do you dream about?
6. Who is your favourite in our human family, and why?
7. What's the pecking order in this house? In other words, who is the top dog, and who is the top human?
8. Do you have any complaints, or something you'd like to tell me?
9. Would it be possible for you to not poop in the house?
10. Why do you love me?

Other suggestions received, but rejected as being too obvious, or too difficult to answer, included:

- Where do you like to be scratched?
- What on earth is so appealing about sniffing other dogs' bottoms?
- Why do you howl and whine when you can't come inside?
- What does it feel like to be a dog?
- Why don't you listen when I tell you something?
- What do humans smell like?

So, what would you ask your dog? Or your cat? And what would you tell your pet, if a genie gave you the opportunity?

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Friday, 11 September 2009

The War of the Inanimate Objects

My Aunt Janet, who lives in Manchester, is an intrepid traveller but it must be said that she seldom returns home from a jaunt without an injury of some kind. Her latest trip was to visit my father and his girlfriend Catherine at Catherine's home outside of Amsterdam. There, his lifelong engagement in The War Of the Inanimate Objects conspired evilly with Janet’s innate proneness to accidents. Here’s my father’s account of events.

The day that Catherine’s Blackberry hid itself in a balloon was the day I realised that we might be losing The War of the Inanimate Objects.

You’ve all been in the firing line. With the chair leg that makes contact with your big toe when you’re not wearing shoes. With the knife that takes a slice out of your finger when you’re chopping onions. With the car door that closes on your fingers, the lemon juice that squirts directly into your eye, the screw that you drop on the floor and never find again...

The balloon was a hot-air monster in which Catherine, a Dutch TV presenter, was doing a shoot for a travel series. When she disembarked, her cellphone didn’t. It was slyly out of sight in the basket that was last seen heading for the outskirts of Amsterdam. Score one to the enemy.

Then at 3.30 in the morning the onslaught really begins. The burglar alarm, which isn’t primed, decides to come alive. And stay alive. No amount of putting the code into the keyboard will switch if off. We can’t hear the first telephone call from the alarm company because – you’ve got it – the alarm is shrieking away. Janet suggests I switch off all the power and switch it on again. I switch it off. The alarm doesn’t stop. I switch it on again. Nothing happens. We’re in total darkness. Score two to the enemy.

The alarm company is now trying to phone a mobile landline that has no power. They can’t phone Catherine’s cellphone because it’s in the hot-air balloon. We go outside to get away from the noise. I make contact with the alarm company with my South African cellphone. For security reasons they need to phone me back but don’t have international roaming facilities. Score three.

After a minute or two the power comes back on. But we’re now outside, in the street, Catherine wearing only her bathrobe, me in my Bjorn Borg underpants (the paparazzi would have had a field day). The front door closes and locks. We don’t have a key. The score is 4-0.

I bang on the door. Janet and her husband Brian can’t hear me because the alarm is still wailing. But finally I manage to get their attention. Janet rushes to open the door, and trips and falls down the stairs. Score five.

Brian opens the door. Janet is moaning on the floor. Catherine runs around, making an ice pack for Janet’s ankle. The alarm is still shrieking. Finally we make contact with the security company again and receive instructions how to disconnect the alarm from a mass of electronics that looks like the arming system of a nuclear bomb.

Final score: 5-1. Plus we have no burglar alarm system, I have a bed-ridden sister with a severely twisted ankle and a ruined holiday, and Catherine has sleepless neighbours who are not amused and a dog traumatised by the bizarre behaviour of the humans she’s been brought up to love and trust. And there’s still the prospect of a drive through morning horror traffic jams to Amsterdam to collect the Blackberry.

So who says that inanimate objects are exactly that? That they don’t retaliate? And here we are surrounded by them. The War goes on. Watch out for that banana peel.

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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

If it's already bad now, what am I going to be like when I’m old?

I’ve always been a jump-up-and-down sort of girl: running, swimming, cycling, dancing, that sort of thing. And I’ve had twinges in the past, but they’ve usually been utterly explainable (hip and knee damage from running, for example, and if that isn’t a reason not to run I don’t know what is).

So when I woke up last Monday (that’s 10 days ago) unable to get out of bed, and established that I wasn’t handcuffed to the bedposts and hadn’t had my limbs sawn off in the night by a crazy person, I was a bit worried.

It was Johann’s fault, obviously. Johann, on a Sunday-night drinking spree (these things happen in these parts), thought it immensely entertaining to leave not one, not two, not even three… okay, EIGHT SMS messages on my Telkom landline.

What happens when you leave a cellphone text message on a Telkom landline is this. It goes into a computer. In the computer sits a Ken-doll-type man with his brain removed and a synthesizer clamped to his voicebox, which blurts out a bizarre American accent. And when he gets your message, he dials your landline number and repeats it, twangily verbatim.

But the thing is, he does dial your number. And your landline does ring.

I very, very seldom answer my landline (as Rosie and Ronaldo, the only two people left on the planet who still call it, should know by now). But that doesn’t stop it ringing.

When it rings, I know this: It’s either Ronaldo (in which case I’ll talk to him annoyedly or phone back at a more convenient hour on my cellphone) or Rosie (and then it’s for my daughter, and in order not to kill both of them I do a brisk few laps of my bedroom walls); or someone trying to sell me something I can promise you beyond a shadow of a doubt that I don’t want (not even if it comes with a ‘free’ blow-up mattress or apparently all-expenses-paid holiday for two to Mauritius provided you attend a time-share seminar).

So I obviously enormously didn’t appreciate Johann’s eight Ken-doll Telkom-voicemail phonecalls last Sunday night, and every time the phone rang I tensed up in bed and thought, ‘If I knew who that f*cker was I’d tear them limb from limb.’ And I’m pretty sure that’s where the back problem started.

(Johann wasn’t at all fazed. ‘Don’t you love having such interesting friends?’ he SMSd me the next morning, when I texted him to tell him that he’d done irreparable damage to the muscles that enable me to stand upright.)

Ag, but you know life goes on, and by last Wednesday I’d been bitten by about a gazillion bastard midges and even if I couldn’t bend down or stretch around to scratch the suppurating welts because my back was too sore, the suppurating welts took my mind off the fact that I couldn’t stand upright.

But now, genuinely, I can’t stand upright. I finally caved and phoned the local physio and begged her for an appointment. She was shamefully unsympathetic and told me she couldn’t see me until Friday. (Friday!) So I got in my car and drove 25km to the next town (the nearest place with a chemist) and told the pharmacist on duty what my problem was.

‘And have you tried a heat pad?’ she said.

I clutched the counter. My eyes might have bugged a bit and it’s possible I foamed slightly at the mouth. ‘I’m begging you,’ I said, ‘and it would be on bended knee if I only bloody could. Give. Me. Some. Scheduled. Drugs.’

She did. (She told me not to tell anyone. So I’m only telling you. Don’t you tell anyone.)

Unfortunately I did also tell her that I needed to ‘think’ (why?) so she hasn’t given me anything even vaguely hallucinogenic. But the relief of not having to drag my ailing body around like Quasimodo simply can’t be described.

I’m really worried about what I’m going to do when my body breaks down for good. Thank god Johann is going to be there to look after me.

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Moving swiftly on from the snail house

My daughter’s snail house was such a hit that my friend Wicked Mick helped his daughter make one too. And when an art-exhibit opportunity came up in our village that encompassed a box that was, after all, more or less the dimensions of the snail house, my daughter thought she’d like to reproduce it for a wider audience.

But things happened between the planning and execution stages. There was, firstly, a dream: one that, shared during a brisk walk with the dogs, became the inspiration for a new box project – a bed. A populated bed.

Then, the things that crept into – that populated – the bed were made of silver foil, and so ‘The Shining’ suggested itself as a topic.

This bed was discussed and planning done, and even some execution, but then more inspiration came (at a very late date; indeed, well past the deadline) from an unexpected source: Johann, grumpy from an afternoon nap, needing some sort of diversion. If he weren’t 43 years old, I would have given him a Farley’s rusk and put him in his bouncy chair. My daughter, who’s had long experience with a baby brother, knew what was needed.

‘I’m making this bed,’ she said, plonking it down on the kitchen counter next to Johann’s lower jaw, ‘and I need to populate it.’

This is what emerged. It might not cut the mustard as an artwork, but we like it.

Here’s what we have in ‘Populated: The Shining’: An alien woman in a luxurious bed, clutching a teddy and holding a lollipop; a worm; a cat; a dog; a notebook; a laptop; a die; a bottle of wine and a glass; a blancmange with a spoon; a rose in a vase; and (the ‘shinings’) a scary monster with red eyes and a forked tongue and an octopus-like creature emerging from under the duvet, having snagged one extremely alarmed teddy, reaching out a silvery tendril to get the other.

* Click on the pictures for better views.

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No-see-ums... but SO-feel-ums

When I lived in the city, midges took one form, in my experience: tiny, deeply annoying insects that flew into your open mouth while you were doing your morning run (when once you partook of such outlandish activities) and lodged round about your uvula, causing you to stop, hunched over, hands on knees, hawking and spitting so alarmingly that passing motorists screeched to a halt and kindly offered to call emergency services.

In the country, midges are different. They are, like in the city, practically invisible; but here the little bastards bite. Not that you feel them when they do: they’re called ‘No-see-ums’ in North America, apparently, for this very reason.

But good god do you feel the effects!

I knew nothing of biting midges when I first moved to this small country town nine years ago. So once, when I was sweeping my pool and my neighbour came around for a chat, and, after observing a cloud of the little buggers around my head for a few minutes, said, ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t watch this,’ I didn’t know what he meant. Until the next morning, when I woke up entirely transformed into something festooned with weeping sores, with puffy cheeks and leaking eyes, and very very sorry for itself.

I’m not alone in this: miggie fever grips a few sad members of our community for a few months each year, transforming them from relatively ordinary human beings into twitching, scratching, suppurating, terribly tired aliens.

Does anyone out there know why country midges differ so intensely from their city cousins? My friend T (who suffers as I do – and ‘suffer’ isn’t a word I use lightly for the fallout from these bites: symptoms range from a flu-like feeling to deep muscle aches and utter exhaustion that can go on for days at a time) suspects it may have something to do with the chemicals used in crop-spraying in these parts, and I have to wonder if she has a point.

Any ideas?

Click here for more about biting midges.

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Dogs that lick loudly

As any regular reader of salma knows, I think my dogs are among the most fantastically amazing creatures on the planet (yes, even The Worst Dog In The World). But having dogs brings with it several unpleasantnesses, including but not limited to dog farts (which actually make me angry I find them so offensive), large quantities of money that could better be used to buy wine having to be handed over to the vet, and a car backseat that will never be the same again.

But it wasn’t until a particular unpleasantness was confirmed by my friend Amanda that I realised there’s yet another annoyance that certain dogs come with: loud licking.

Now, I know most dogs lick. The Worst Dog In The World licks everything all the time. (She tries to lick me dry when I get out the shower. It drives me completely crazy.) But that’s kind of general, all-purpose licking, and it’s usually not too noisy.

Loud licking – the schlurping, schnuffling, slooshy kind – usually happens at night, when all else is still. And loud licking is one of the very few unpleasantnesses that can be ascribed to Sara the Wobbly Dog aka The Best Dog In The World. But goodness me is it unpleasant.

Both my dogs sleep in baskets beside my bed and often I wake up in the (otherwise) quiet hours to this noise, which can only be described as very, very nasty. It sounds like a humungous vampire bat sucking every last drop of blood from its equally humungous prey; it is actually Sara, choosing the inappropriate hour of 3am to give her bottom a jolly good wash.

Not wanting to wake up completely, I usually lie still and scream as loudly as my sleepy vocal chords will allow, ‘Shut up!’ (I often have to remove a cat from my head to do this.)

This frequently has the profoundly unwelcome result of sending The Worst Dog In The World into barking frenzies, so is clearly not the solution.

Lately I’ve taken to sitting up, switching on the bedside light, and then staring in mute but total outrage at Sara (often while removing a cat from my head).

Sara then instils gigantic guilt in me by stopping her loud licking immediately, but also freezing as if in mortal terror; sometimes she will roll her eyes and stare back at me, her expression infinitely sad (as illustrated).

It reminds me of when my father would take my three siblings and me to the Milky Lane in Hillbrow on a Sunday afternoon for an ice cream treat, and I’d order a chocolate double-thick and, lost in pleasure, I would get right down to the bottom and then suck through the straw with all my strength to get the very last drop. As the strains of the massive slurping sound died away, I would look around, immensely satisfied, and realise that my father was staring at me with an expression that told me very clearly that the minute we got back into the car I was going to get a big fat walloping. And that, apparently, is the expression I now use on Sara.

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Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Thompson brothers recover from the weekend

Dazzle is under the red blanket.

Dean is under the blue.

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Saturday, 5 September 2009

Our ancient and creaky dog: do we move him, or kill him?

We have, in one corner, our ancient staffie, Duke. At almost fourteen, he is arthritic, creaky, stone-deaf, and riddled with skin cancer. He's an elderly, grizzled old chap who is too sore to jump up on a couch, who pees everywhere and who limps around our home with a pained but cheerful attitude. He's had a hip replacement, a knee replacement and about five thousand other procedures during his life. All he can really do, at his age, is snooze by the fire and gently deflate.

I'm not an enthusiastic dog lover, but I do have a deep affection for Duke, who has been my constant companion over many years. He's snoozed at my fire, snored on my pillow, licked the dinner dishes clean and - thank you, Duke - saved me twice from being bitten by other dogs during our early-morning walks in the suburbs.

In the other corner, we have a family - mine! - who is moving house and city, from Jo'burg to Cape Town - in three months' time. Our two younger dogs - tiresome but loveable basset hounds - will come with us, but what to do with Duke? Should we put him through the trauma of a move to a new house in a new city? Put him on a train, a plane, or in a car?

Or should we bid him farewell? In polite parlance, 'put him down'?

That is, ask the vet to kill him?

Or, if we take him along, are we really being fair to him?

Is it fair to prolong the life of this dear old dog just because I'll miss him?

You tell me, because I don't know what to do.

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Friday, 4 September 2009

Thoughts on death and stuff

Dean, T and I were talking about death the other night – are we afraid of it? where do we go when we shuffle off? what will our atoms be reconstituted as? – and Dean came up with something interesting: ‘We spend our entire lives accumulating stuff that can be packed up in one day.’

True. Anyone who’s moved house knows that (a) you always have more stuff than you think you do; and (b) nevertheless, you can usually shift the whole lot in one day, although obviously usually with help.

It puts an interesting perspective on the value we place on objects. Everyone knows you can’t take it with you when you go, and when you die, whatever ‘it’ might be – car, flat-screen TV, sound system, bed, wardrobe of clothing, artworks, books, whatever – loses any value you placed on it while you were alive and becomes something that must be disposed of in some way. It surprised me, when my Mom died some years ago, how quickly my sisters and I were able to whip through her fairly extensive wardrobes and divvy stuff up into piles – some for us, some for her friends and some for various charities. It seemed, I don’t know, weird that after she’d spent 64 years on the planet, we could dispose of most of her belongings in a couple of hours.

(And we loved finding, even after she’d been deathly ill for 18 months, one or two of her ‘hidden purchases’. Although my father, a very generous man, never put any kind of limit on what my mother could spend money on, she – a child of the Scottish ghetto who grew up during The War – never could shake feelings of guilt when she bought something entirely for herself. She only ever bought on sales, and even then, she’d secretly show her newest pants or skirt or pair of shoes to us, her daughters, then hide them away in the back of her wardrobe, to be taken out and worn with elaborate casualness at some later date. In the extremely unlikely event my father noticed she had on something he hadn’t seen before and said, ‘That’s a nice dress, Jess. Is it new?’ she could say with a clear conscience, ‘This old thing? Oh, I’ve had it for months.’)

Another great leveller when it comes to things we ‘value’ is having children and/or pets. I remember watching with open-mouthed dismay (and from too far away to stop him) as my then 2-year-old son dropped, with quiet concentration and really rather admirable precision, a precious chain-and-pendant of mine down a drain. I felt like dropping him down after it and to be honest I still miss that pendant. But who will care when I’m dead? It was only a thing, and it meant something only to me.

And when an excitable pet sweeps an costly knick-knack off a table with its tail or jumps up and tears a pricey top, well, there’s a lesson in that too: don’t spend your hard-earned bucks on expensive stuff. (Buy wine rather, or go away to a new exciting place, or make a fat donation to a children’s or animals’ welfare.)

Of course, this high-minded kind of thinking works only when your friends buy into it too. I told T today that, following a week of misery from miggie-bite poisoning (biting midges are a spring terror in this part of the country, and I have a nasty allergic reaction to them), I thought I might die. ‘Well, if you do,’ she said, ‘remember that you promised to leave the tapestry in your lounge to me.’

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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

It’s so nice to laugh

I think one of the nicest things about my kids (and they are legion, those nice things) is that they’ve both got such a dippy sense of humour. (See below.)

Of course there have been times in our home when nastiness has gone down – one of the most recent was when my 19-year-old son lost his ID book and I had a meltdown. (His ID book was needed URGENTLY for a really really really important transaction.) In the absence of the option to tear him limb from limb (because they arrest you for that), I let loose on his snake-pit of a room. ‘Clean it ALL up!’ I roared (in the – vain, as it turned out – hope that the ID book might emerge from the chaos.) ‘Every Drawer! Every Shelf! Every Cupboard! Every Single Square Centimetre!’

An uneasy silence, broken only by the shuffle of things moving about on my son’s side of the house, reined for several hours.

Later, when I’d calmed down to a panic, I apologised to him. I gave him the usual speech – I have many things to be responsible for and not only him and his sister, he has to learn to look after his own stuff, I can’t mommy him forever, identity theft is a real danger, etc – and then added the inevitable maternal BUT: ‘Your room really is a mess, my darling boy. It’s probably not a bad thing that you cleaned it up.’

He said, ‘Well, there’s nothing like abject terror to get a body moving.’

I found this interesting, because I can’t remember the last time I terrorised either of my children, and I did so very seldom when they were younger, and only if they were (a) tantrumming in a public place – in which case I dragged them to the car and smacked them there; or (b) in clear and present danger, like trying to poke their fingers into electric sockets or hauling a large potplant off a table directly onto their heads.

Yet I am apparently able to instil ‘abject terror’ in my kids? Wow. I am heady with power.

Anyway, we laugh a lot here. My son has a bizarre laugh (a kind of high-pitched winnying, sometimes veering off into a series of snorts) which of course we find hysterical; and both my daughter and I find the way we laugh respectively infectious, so it doesn’t take much to set us off.

Today I asked my daughter (a learner driver) if she’d drive me up to the shops to buy - I hate to say this, but cigarettes: I wanted her to pop in to the shop because I was wearing my slippers and didn’t feel like getting out the car.

‘Sure!’ she said. (I could ask her to drive me to the edge of an active volcano, into the sea, straight into hell, whatever – as long as she has the wheel, she’s happy.)

As we left the house, she did a double take – she suddenly realised she was also wearing her slippers. ‘My god!’ she shrieked. ‘I’m turning into you!’

And that kept us practically insane with mirth for the entire trip.

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Schnaafing in maths class

I know I shouldn’t find this funny but I do. My daughter (who at 18 already has a misspent youth) at school recently ground up a piece of blackboard chalk, dabbed it around her nostrils, then acted hyper. Her maths teacher threw her out of the class. When my daughter told me what had happened (which I suspect she only did because she was worried a formal letter from the school about her putative drug use was soon to follow), I laughed so hard I spewed tea out my nose.

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Sunday, 30 August 2009

Wonderful women

One of the things I miss profoundly in my life is good girlfriends. With the exception of Maxi’s Mom (T), my closest female friends live in other cities or provinces or countries, and I seldom see them, and although we are always in contact via email and phone, I really feel the lack of personal connection.

Entirely by chance, I’ve had the amazing good fortune over the last two weeks to have spent a lot of social time with women, and I’ve just been blown away by how damned awesome they are. From the gorgeous youngster (forced to grow up quickly, beautifully brittle, dedicated student) to the hippie wild-child (photographer, cancer survivor, brave heart), from the queen of tarts (consummate baker, searcher and now finder of love, courageous businesswoman) to the business wizard (gentle wife, electronic angel, kindly leveller), from the whip-snap nurse (good-humoured mate, skinny seeker at what she thinks is a ripe old age of bigger boobs, sense-of-humour sizzler) to the branding supremo (gardener, party-girl, golfer par excellence) – all have totally wowed me.

All but one of these women have children; many are single mothers. I’ve loved – LOVED! – comparing experiences with them, and laughing with them in the face of what is actually frequently unkind reality. In the case of the single mothers, it’s all too often absent or unsupportive fathers - it can’t be coincidence that in all cases there’s a lack of financial and/or emotional input; but just sharing the load between women (even when it’s only spoken) really does help. And whether they have partners or not, it’s just been a blast talking about our kids – finding all they say and do sometimes worrying, often funny, always fascinating.

With women, it’s possible to talk long and deeply about Relationships – with our children, our siblings, our friends, our lovers, our parents. There may not be enough time available to go into every aspect of all of them, so instead we skip from topic to topic. Nobody minds. One of the things I really love about women is how they’re so eminently capable of segueing seamlessly in and out, backwards and forwards, up and down. No conversation can possibly become too convoluted. Women never lose the thread.

I’ve been newly astonished by how vulnerable and valiant women are: they will admit their failings and openly ask for advice; and they will genuinely consider what is offered. They listen carefully while I blurt my own many imperfections, and suggest solutions seriously thought about and tailor-made for me.

I adore my male friends – they make my world turn – but it has been a real privilege to spend so much time recently with women. I’m hoping it will happen more often in the future.

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Thursday, 27 August 2009

Maddened, whining blogging is so last year: get over it, and entertain me

When I first started blogging, I did so mainly because I was indignant. No, more than that: I was infuriated and exasperated by everything: taxi drivers, bureaucrats, criminals, politicians, racists, poseurs, fundamentalists, new-agers, fussy eaters, spam, pot holes, traffic, Telkom, Eskom, the SABC, drunken drivers, broken traffic lights, rude people, lazy people, cashiers, school mommies, teenagers, husbands, ... well, I could go on and on, but I am sure you get the idea. And I am sure that you are irritated, every day, by every one of the above.

This is not to say I didn't blog about positive and happy matters. I did. But it was the blowing-gasket, get-it-off-my-chest posts that really cheered me up. And when someone commented on my post, and agreed with me, I felt vindicated, validated and a whole lot better. An example: when a woman was unspeakably abusive to me in a supermarket queue, for no reason at all, I blurted it out right here on this blog.

Imagine my astonishment, six months later, when I met the self-same woman at my daughter's school, and found her charming and sweet. She didn't recognise me as the person she'd insulted, and I was so floored by her warmth that I didn't have the heart to jab my car key into her eye, let alone remind her of how deeply her comments had upset me. Could it be - gasp - that I had over-reacted? Been unnecessarily cold and aggressive? Of course not! Like Mary Poppins, I am perfect in every way. (Yeah, right.)

But, reading over that post now, I have to ask myself: What was the point? Did this supermarket Hitler read it? I think not. Did anyone else give a flying fuck about the pain and humiliation I felt? (No is the short answer.) And, more pertinent: if I post a rant about how offended I feel by Julius Malema's ignorant comments, by taxi drivers trying to disrupt a brilliant bus transport system for Johannesburg, or by the sight of small children lolling alongside their begging mothers at traffic lights in this city, will it change a thing? Of course it won't, because, frankly, no one cares. I am farting into the wind here, and so are you.

This is not to say that social media (the fancy-pants word for blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc) doesn't have its uses. I am lost in admiration for people who plug themselves into this dazzlingly effective electronic grapevine and make sparks fly and oceans part. I followed the uprisings in Iran, and the accompanying Twitterfest, with great interest. But when an aggrieved tenant fights with an aggrieved landlord (as is the case in the recent Roy Blumenthal vs landlord spat), and it spills onto the Net, and then into the media, I just tune out.

I'm getting off the point here, so straight back to it: I am sick of outraged and indignant blogs about inconsequential things. I have given up reading the rants of serial complainers. You may have a valid reason to be enraged at your ex-husband, his new wife, your landlord or the broken streetlight outside your house, and I do (really) sympathise. But this does not make for interesting blogging. If you were the only blogger in the world, I might be entertained by the hurdles in your life. But you're not: you, like me, are one of a million other maddened people on this planet. I don't want to read about your problems, because I have enough of my own. What you're doing, to be blunt, sounds a lot like whining.

What I want is to be entertained, engaged and enchanted. I want to hear a fresh voice, a new perspective, an interesting insight, a brilliant idea. I want compelling, readable content on the few blogs that I read. I want to peek through your kitchen window and see what you're cooking up and who you're dancing with. Most of all, I'd appreciate a laugh. (Thank you, my dear co-blogger Muriel, you provide all of that, and more.)

You may be shaking your head as you read this, and thinking, 'Well, what a hypocrite. She's whining about whining bloggers.'

You have a point. But, sorry for you, my point is better than yours: stop moaning. It's boring.

And, to move on, may I slip in a few little complaints before my fingers are cut off by fellow bloggers and I have to type with bloody stumps?

I am SO annoyed with: Julius Mal... arrrrrrgggggh!

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Monday, 24 August 2009

Class of… then and now

My daughter (18) has made me swear on Dean’s Southern Constellation that I won't identify her in this school pic, taken a few weeks ago – her matric class. And I won’t. But I do want to post it, because it is such an interesting counterpoint to my own.

My matric-class pic was taken eight years after the Soweto Riots of 16 June 1976, which is now marked annually in our country as Youth Day – the black students of a huge township southwest of Johannesburg decided they’d had enough of being educated forcibly in Afrikaans, then seen as the language of the oppressor (and there were other issues too), and staged a walking rally which turned into a riot when a policeman panicked and opened fire. Many schoolchildren were injured or killed.

In 1982 (at left) I was in matric. (My brother, then aged 19, was a conscripted troepie in the army – had already been for a year and would be for another; it wasn’t a happy time for him). I went to a girls-only government school.

My children – English-speakers – have been educated largely in Afrikaans because of where we live. The Afrikaans community in these parts, although at times wary and, yes, sometimes bigoted (show me a human being who isn’t), is largely open-hearted, welcoming and unafraid of change. I love her matric-class pic because it shows how much can be accomplished when people are brave – this school not very long ago was a bastion of the white and mainly Afrikaans. (There are differences in this pic that you can’t necessarily see because of skin colour.)

This is why I love living in South Africa now.

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Gizmos and gadgets. And the geeks who love ’em

I got terribly excited the other night when I saw, on a home-shopping TV ad, a gizmo that you can buy that grows tomato plants upside-down. Without sparing a single thought for why, I immediately SMSd my friend Johann to tell him about it.

He was as excited as I. ‘Where can I get one?’ he SMSd back, his enthusiasm practically melting the phone.

Thing is, my excitement was purely for Johann: I have barely enough time and space for ‘real’ gadgets (egg whisks, soup ladles, fridges, those kinds of things) without forking out money and finding room for the fly-by-nights.

And fly-by-nights they most certainly are. My brother-in-law once remarked lugubriously, in passing, ‘All you get from Verimark is disappointment’ (and I’m not pinpointing Verimark here specifically; Glomail, Homemark, they’re all as bad as each other).

How right he is. I once – ONCE – bought a product from Verimark. It was a word-finder, and it cost a pretty penny, but it was for a writer-friend who was in the throes of producing a tome and I thought it would be a pleasant alternative for him to a paper Thesaurus. Hah! He was as pleased as punch when he opened it, but much less happy when it wouldn’t work. We took out and replaced the batteries. Nada. We re-read the instruction manual. Nothing we did would make the damned thing respond.

I took it back. (This required a lot of driving, as I don’t live near any Verimark stores.) It was replaced. The second one didn’t work either – but it didn’t work differently from the first one. The first one wouldn’t even turn on; the second one switched on fine, but then refused to recognise anything we typed into it.

We ditched it, and I put it down to a lesson learnt.

Not my dear Johann. He’s a total whore for home-shopping channels. Not even when he tried Brendan McCarthy’s ‘miraculous’ seven-day fruit/veg detox diet (during which, even if you start out looking like a bug that lives under a rock - and Brendan does, if you can believe the mind-numbingly repetitive TV ad – you end up with sculpted tanned abs and wearing a pair of sexy swimming trunks), and, on day four, while attempting to drink his broccoli juice, his body simply went into revolt and he hewied instead.

He regretfully gave away the R1 000-worth of produce he’d bought in preparation for his New Self, and shelved the equally expensive juicer – but did that stop him TV-shop whoring? Not a bloody bit of it.

Next he bought Memory Foam Slippers. These are slippers that you can walk on – in fact, an elephant can walk on them, and does, in the ad – and the next time you put your feet into them – WOW! the ‘memory foam’ has exactly the same shape as it did when you first bought them three days before! And not only that – they are apparently so attractive that you can wear them anywhere! (If you’re a homeless person, recently released from a psychiatric ward, or maybe me.)

Johann was so stoked about these new-age Stokies (remember those? Salt Rock takkies?) that he actually took them off in my living room and invited one of my guests to stick her hand into them to ‘feel’ the memory foam. To my gobsmacked astonishment, she did. ‘Very firm,’ she said, smiling uncertainly.

Johann’s not wearing them any more. I wonder why.

My late sainted mother was every bit as bad as Johann when it came to stuff you could buy to make your life easier and/or more exciting. My mom once bought an extendible fork. One of them. One extendible fork. It looked like an ordinary fork, but if you pulled on its tines-end, it would extend into a metre-long eating utensil. For what? What in god’s name might you need an extendible fork for??

My mom also bought a rock you could put into a pot of boiling eggs that would change colour when the eggs reached your desired softness/hardness. So we often had eggs boiled blue for breakfast.

She bought a gadget that kept food piping hot using only two tea candles. So lots of lukewarm meals, too.

She bought another gizmo that would take the top off the most recalcitrant jar. My father still had to run the bottle under hot water, tap the lid against a hard surface, then strain to open the jar until his eyes popped out.

She bought super-hero oven gloves that you could slip on and then remove from the oven a roasting pan that had reached a thousand degrees Centrigrade (if, for example, you were smelting gold at home). Pity you couldn’t feel a single thing through the gloves, so were never sure if you actually had a grip on the oven tray, with obviously tragic results.

Yet despite these endlessly repetitive cycles of attempt and failure, some people (my mom and Johann prime among them) refuse to accept that home-shopping via TV is a complete waste of time and money.

My 18-year-old daughter was in the room when I SMSd Johann excitedly about the upside-down tomato-growing thing.

‘What would you need one of those for?’ she asked.

‘Well, what if you live in a flat and don’t have space to grow tomatoes?’ I responded, having been temporarily brainwashed by the TV ad.

‘A window box?’ she said.

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Dining up the Eiffel Tower

My father, who at 75 is ageing disgracefully, recently had dinner at the Jules Verne restaurant which is on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a Michelin-rated restaurant with a very long waiting list, and you have to book months in advance to get in. You also have to be pretty heavy in the wallet to afford it – according to one of the websites I consulted, one of the set-menu dinners (without wine) is priced at about 160 Euros – that’s about R1 750!

Here’s what my dad had to say about his experience.

We arrive in a taxi and move through the hoi polloi of sweaty tourists like royalty, to be greeted at the special entrance to the Jules Verne by an immaculately suited maitre, reservation list in hand, who directs us into the tiny cage elevator that grinds up to the restaurant floor.

A table at the window and you have half of Paris below you. Waiters dressed up like pox-doctor’s clerks hover around speaking English, Spanish, Lebanese, Hindustani – any language that happens to be eating there at the time.

The food is, according to my gourmet girlfriend, good but she’s had better. Foie gras for me to start. A sole meuniere which doesn’t come laid out on the plate like at the Ocean Basket but stripped from the bone and, I think, overcooked, on a bed of truffelled spinach or buffalo’s nostrils or something. Dessert is cheesecake which Catherine said wasn’t as good as the previous one we had off the Champs Elysee. Who am I to judge, having gone from mousetrap cheese and biscuits to desserts that look like Picasso doodles on my plate (and a late-night snack of Rennies to ease it all through my groaning alimentary canals)?

At the next table, a banker from Luxembourg is speaking Luxembourgese which, Catherine detects, is a mixture of French, Dutch and German. With his son. Obviously on a trip paid for by little old ladies who have invested their life savings with him. And he phones his wife halfway through his foie gras to tell her where he is and what he’s eating. I thought Catherine was going to clock him with her baguette.

Behind us is a large family group of a handsome brown-skinned young man with a blonde, obviously very English, wife and some cafe au lait kids. Filthy rich. Probably in oil or weapons of mass destruction.

Also at a window table is a young, very British, man who vaguely resembles a pop star - Bono? Dino? Dunno? - who drinks his champagne like quaffing draught Bass and stares into his blonde girlfriend’s cavernous cleavage.

The serving staff is a disciplined bunch of young men - we saw only one girl waitron - who, according to their dress, have specific roles to play. Some could only come out of the kitchen with food and then had to wait for other waiters to take it from them to the table. An apprentice waiter scurries about looking like Gerard Depardieu in shirt sleeves – he’s not entitled to war a jacket yet. Overseeing all is a suave, multilingual maitre who moves silkily about, charming the ladies, joking with the men. He immediately makes a lifelong enemy of Catherine by insisting on speaking Dutch to her when she speaks French like a native. He is arrogant, she says, Eiffel Tower or not.

Paying the bill must be painful if you’re not the Sultan of Oman. Three glasses of wine cost enough to keep the muesli bunch [that’s us in Riebeek Kasteel] in local plonk for a week.

But, for a first and last, an eyeful of the Eiffel, from a table at the Jules Verne, is certainly one to remember.

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Friday, 14 August 2009

Mrs Grape and other very, very, very fat people

I couldn’t sleep last night so I got up and made myself a cup of tea and a piece of toast with lots of butter and Marmite, and got back into bed to watch Oprah and scatter crumbs all over my sheets. But last night’s show was Yet Another One about weight loss and gain, and pretty soon I lost my appetite. (In fact, I haven’t eaten since and may never again.)

It featured actress Kirstie Alley, who has turned being very fat into a personal promotion (one in remarkably questionable taste) and a man called Michael Hebranko, who once weighed over 1 000 lb (about 455 kg), lost it all over some years, then put it all back on again.

Now, although like many people my age, I could afford to shed a few kilos, I am nowhere even vaguely near obese. I am, however, occasionally known as Mrs Grape* in our village, particularly on mornings after big parties, when I have been known to eat a lot. (A doctor friend once told me that this is not necessarily because I am hungover, but because I haven’t slept enough: apparently some people’s minds confuse tiredness with hunger, and who knows, maybe he’s right.) By ‘a lot’ I mean, for example, the leftover Thai curry from the night before, a slice of pecan pie with ice cream, a packet of chips, a couple of bowls of broccoli soup (my favourite hangover cure) and perhaps a bag of nuts – this spread over a day. While I’m filling my face with food, I also clean the house and do other chores, and almost always walk for an hour or so with the dogs in the afternoon.

I’m telling you about my own ‘fat’ days because once I’ve munched my way through the list of food above, I feel so full that I sometimes worry I might explode and scatter my innards all over the walls. So how, I have to ask, does someone like Michael Hebranko reach a weight of 455 kg without popping?

Here’s how. He described, on Oprah, how, at his fattest, he could eat 24 pork chops, about 1 kg of bacon and 24 eggs at one sitting. And I assume by ‘at one sitting’ he means ‘at one meal’ – breakfast, perhaps? God alone knows what this man managed to put away for lunch and dinner, and I dare not ask if he snacked between meals.

This echoed the dietary habits of another gigantically fat man, ‘Half Ton Dad’ Kenneth Brumley, who ate in one day what a normal-sized man would consume in two weeks, including ‘ chilli-cheese fries for breakfast’ and ‘three or four cheeseburgers at a time’. (I was going to post a pic of Kenneth here but I actually can’t bring myself to – if you want to see him and read his story, click here.)

So, basically, these people get this fat because they eat far too much and exercise far too little. (Another gigantic fatty, Renee Williams, claimed that she’d reached a weight of 440 kg in spite of eating ‘normally’ – her morbid obesity was genetic, she said. Excuse me while I roll my eyes.)

Both these men got so fat that they were bedridden for, literally, years at a time – they were not able to move at all; in other words, they never got out of bed even to wash or go to the toilet. (The mechanics of that just doesn’t bear thinking about – and the least of it is that these people are so fat they can’t wipe their own bottoms.)

Now, I have two questions regarding these people (and there are quite a few of them in the good ole US of A). The first and most obvious is, how can they afford to get that fat? Food is expensive, and eating enough every day to feed a family for a week must burn through bucks like nobody’s business. (And since these fatties can’t get out of bed, who’s earning that money? Or are they all on some sort of welfare?)

Living in a country where many people survive on ridiculously small sums of money – often feeding families into the bargain – this seems astonishingly profligate. And forgive me for being hard-hearted, but the fact that these people are often helped with super-expensive interventions, including (but not limited to) being removed from their homes by squadrons of people and forklift trucks, being hospitalised, having gastric-bypass and other surgeries, and being under close medical supervision for years at a time, just makes me bloody furious. What an incredible waste of money!

The other question – and one that I haven’t seen tackled on Oprah yet, which I think is interesting in itself – is who enables these people? If they can’t even get out of bed to brush their teeth, how exactly are they getting their hands on this gigantic amount of food? Who is supplying these colossal quantities of calories for these gargantuan people, day in and day out? And, more to the point, why are they doing it? I mean, if the greedy bed-bound fatty threatens to kill you if you don’t bring them 20 Macdonalds burgers with all the trimmings, and now, you can just run away – it’s not like they can run after you and catch you.

* ‘Mrs Grape’ comes from the movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? starring a gorgeous young Johnny Depp and a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio: Bonnie Grape, Johnny Depp’s character’s widowed mother, is morbidly obese and housebound.

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Thursday, 13 August 2009

Bye, Guy

Guy Wllloughby – actor, playwright, novelist, journalist and all-round party-boy - lived here in RK for a while, and after that we met now and again in social circumstance (usually weird).

He was an extraordinary man in many ways, and I remember him for his ability to carefully listen to, well, everything. Despite his sometimes flamboyant public persona, he was a thoughtful person, and very kind. His razor wit wasn’t that obvious when he was in small groups of people he felt comfortable with, because then he was better at taking in than giving out – a gift. He liked details, and his life bore this out, I think.

He often channelled Oscar Wilde and was known to quote him: ‘One can survive everything nowadays, except death, and live down anything, except a good reputation.’

Boy, did he live it.

I miss you, Guy, because you were clever, generous, unusual and brave.

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Lost children

There are always those who are meeker than the others: who, because they don’t shriek or pull hair, don’t really get noticed.

This is mine: Dental Floss. Dear thing, named on a whim by one of my berserk children, and now going by the gentler name of Flossie.

Half-cat, half-badger, she is very seldom noticed. Except in instances like these, when a timid creep into a welcome underwear drawer brings comfort.

And is So Pretty!

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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Juno makes us drool on 702

Juno’s other blog, Scrumptious, is a veritable Swiss-roll of recipes intelligently and clearly written for people who love food but don’t want to be bamboozled by complicated instructions or hard-to-find ingredients. She regularly cooks for her family of husband and three kids (who, as they’ve grown, have ‘just got hungrier and hungrier’), and is a dedicated party girl.

She’s also confoundingly modest. She was interviewed recently by iconic South African journalist Jenny Crwys-Williams on Radio 702, along with a slew of eminent cookery writers, both local and international, and she didn’t say a thing about it. I only found out what she’d been up to when I was scrolling through Scrumptious for her latest deliciousnesses.

Click here for the interview. Juno’s bit is at the end, but the whole insert is just delightful.

I, of course, have no problem with blowing my own trumpet (something I learnt from my good friend Tony Park, although I haven’t yet finessed his ineffably charming way of doing it). My own fondness for Jennifer Crwys-Williams (and goodness, do I wish her name were easier to spell) stems from The Penguin Book of South African Quotations, which she edited several years ago (and which she’s since updated), and which neither my late sainted mother nor I, despite our best efforts, was ever able to track down. ‘Children are the shit detectors of the modern world’ was apparently a quote of mine that Jenny thought worthy of inclusion in her original edition, and which I didn’t know about until my friend Pippa, doing research for an article, found and told me about.

So, there we are: in some small way, I – and my opinion of children – am recorded for posterity. Along, of course, with Juno’s foodie blog, in eminent company – not necessarily the renowned chefs who shared the kudos with her on Jenny’s radio show, but a gaggle of dancing daisies on her windowsill. ‘They gyrate and wriggle when the sun hits them, and they cheer you on when you’re cooking.’ Yes!

* A hello? point in Jennifer Crwys-Williams interview was the BBC-style out-take on the chocolate guy. Can’t those stuffy peeps at the Beeb just get with it, for goodness’ sake? Not everything is a soap opera. Some things are just what they are.

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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Dean isn’t only a wine maker…

He also makes pecan pie.

Well, he did, recently, under my steely gaze. I am precious about my shortcrust pastry (which has to be made with VERY cold butter and VERY cold hands; Dean, bless him, has toasty hands, just like his heart), so the rolling part was accomplished with much concentration.

For pecan pie, you have to whip up quite a storm in a teacup: the syrup mixture (a disastrously delightful combination of butter, eggs, brown sugar, syrup and vanilla) has to be beaten until it foams. And that’s where Dean hands-upped.

So here I am (a girl who’s been around the block a few times) showing Dean how to properly spank a monkey. Clearly, bedroom skills are sometimes useful in a kitchen.

For the recipe (it’s very easy, honest), go to Scrumptious.

* Click here for a great review of Dean’s wine.

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A beautiful noise: Neil, Steve, Chris and a CD system that’s done its time; and how T saved us

I had to LMAO at this Sunday’s Times review of Steve Hofmeyr’s Songs of Neil Diamond, in which the reviewer wrote about the ‘double awfulness’ of the CD, since it features ‘onse Hof’ (for non-South Africans, a song-writing Boereseun probably best known for his prolific ability to spawn illegitimate children with his fans) and Diamond, ‘whose music I loathe’. (I am, obviously, quoting the review; I LOVE Neil Diamond.)

When I pointed this out to my friend Johann (a man of infinite wisdom – and, like onse Hof, an Afrikaner), he similarly laughed and said, ‘Why buy Steve Hofmeyr doing Neil Diamond? Why not just buy Neil Diamond?’

Quite. It’s not like we’re back in the 1980s when you couldn’t find a Chris de Burgh* album in South Africa if your life depended on it (because it had been, um, banned).

Johann is, incidentally, Very Much Not a fan of Neil Diamond. Recently, however, I happened upon a Neil Diamond CD at his house (makes you wonder…) and played it, and he was so freaked out that he SMSd our mutual friend T to say, ‘Neil Diamond playing in my house! What next?!’ Interestingly, when T went for lunch at Johann’s house the following weekend, she reported back that when she arrived Neil Diamond was playing with no apparent arm-twisting on the part of anyone else there. Really makes you wonder…

Anyway, this is all a very roundabout way to get to my sound system, a Wharfedale, which has given me frankly astonishing service over the last nine years, during which time it’s played practically non-stop. The radio in this house (Kfm) goes on when I get up, which is usually on the dark side of 4am, and doesn’t go off until the house closes down, which can be anything between 8pm and 3am the next day (and, sometimes, not at all). The CD system, pressed into hectic service once or twice a week (and sometimes more often), with careless and frequent CD changes, and a lot of jolting from windmilling arms and berserk bodies, and with no regard at all for the finer nuances of volume control, has similarly done a sterling job.

Recently, however, it hasn’t been happy, and playing 15-year-old CDs that are worn and scratched (and have, in the case of a David Bowie double-CD, actual bites out of them) has proved beyond its failing capabilities. Late at night, when we’ve been out of options, we’ve tried several remedies, including (but not confined to) Maxi’s Magic Spit (making Max the dog lick them), ordinary human spit (usually me, and often after Maxi), Mr Min (definitely doesn’t work), chilling in the freezer (works; and interesting some days later when you’re looking for the ice cream), and vigorous rubbing on various fabrics (seldom successful).

So all hail the remarkable T who, two hours into a recent frustrating stop-go music session punctuated by swearing and licking and freezing and rubbing (and Max looking progressively more annoyed as his tongue was pressed, literally, into service), pulled out a few new CDs: a Kim Wilde (remember her?!), two ABBAs and a Neil Diamond!

My ageing Wharfedale has never been happier, and I’ve put off having it serviced for another week or two, while I have four CDs that actually play. Neil Diamond has been top of the bill.

* Do you have any advice how to prolong the life of abused CDs? Any suggestions very welcome.
* What’s up with Chris de Burgh’s new album of covers, Footsteps? I can’t believe the man who gave us Spanish Train and other stories is cashing in like this. One of his most remarkable talents was to be able to put lovely, original lyrics to pretty music. Not that it’s going to stop me seeing him in concert in November in Cape Town…

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Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Swine flu closes several Johannesburg schools: should you keep your precious at home?

I am not sure my daughter's school secretary believed me when I phoned her on Tuesday morning to tell her - quite truthfully - that ten-year-old Elinor had a strep throat, a little cough and a few swollen glands, and that I was keeping her at home for a day or two.

If the school secretary didn't believe me, I don't blame her: she's probably received dozens of similar calls from parents this week. And I am sure she has been as unfailingly polite and sympathetic with me as she has been with every one of the parents who have phoned her to say that their darling Emmas and Sarahs and Jessicas won't be in for the last few days of term.

And my darling little Elinor won't be in, either. Yes, she does have just a cold, and, yes, I know that this is a mild bacterial event, and that she'll in all likelihood be fine in a few days.

But, to be truthful, the long and the short of it is that I'm keeping her at home, against all my normally strict school-skipping criteria (see below) because I don't want her, with her little cold, to catch swine flu.

Because if she gets it, I will get it, and - as I am not in as rude a state of health as she is - I will probably have to go to bed for a week.

And, without blowing my own trumpet (or mixing metaphors), I modestly declare that I am the central pole that holds up the family circus tent. If I get sick, darkness will enfold my family. Children will starve, or be abandoned on roadsides. The fridge will be empty. No meals will be served. Homework and studying will not proceed. The elephants will stampede. The clowns will go psycho. The mummy blanket will collapse.

So, should you keep your little darling at home?


Here are my criteria, honed over decades, for deciding whether an average healthy child is 'sick' enough to stay home:

Namely, you may skip school if you display the following symptoms:

a) you have a temperature above 38 degrees celsius
b) you have an alarming rash on your limbs or trunk, or any rash that looks infectious
c) you seem to have flu, and are clearly unwell
d) you have conjunctivitis, impetigo or any other fast-spreading local infection
e) you have a severe gastric disorder: namely, you have erupted at least three times during the night, on opposite ends of your body
f) we had to call an ambulance in the middle of the night, for whatever reason
g) (rarely, and only with compelling circumstances) you are a teenager who is so overwhelmed by the pressures of life that you just need a duvet day.

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Saturday, 25 July 2009

Marley & Me: he sure wasn’t the worst dog in the world; I’ve got that one

My friend T and I recently rented the DVD Marley & Me and watched it, fittingly, tucked up in my double bed on a cold winter’s afternoon, with three large dogs, all lying more or less on top of us.

We quite liked the movie although it can’t compare with the book. And what we did decide is that, as bad as Marley was, he definitely can’t compare with the Monster Baby.

All puppies go through a destructive phase, where everything chewable, from shoes and underwear to furniture and fittings, is fair game. I’ve known puppies to eat entire boots, but mine is the first puppy I’ve known to eat an entire sofa.

This sofa, a vintage Sanderson-linen three-seater, was donated to my verandah by my friend Ronaldo, and arrived somewhat threadbare and with one wobbly leg, but otherwise perfectly serviceable. I planned, at some stage when my bank balance allows, to have it recovered and the leg fixed, and give the sofa many more years of life.

I hadn’t reckoned on the Monster Baby who, once she’d eaten – and I mean eaten, not just chewed – all the cushion covers, got stuck into the cushions themselves with a zeal that can only be described as devilish. Sometimes she didn’t even bother to snack on them on the verandah, and instead dragged them down to the bottom of the plot, the better to ravage them in peace.

Cushions summarily dealt with, she then began on the upholstery itself. As the sofa now stands, a short six months after the advent of the Monster Baby into our household, it is no longer recognisable as such: its skeletal remains resemble nothing less than something the dog dragged in. (Dean was so impressed by the damage that he took a picture.)

My experience last weekend of leaving the Monster Baby in the house without human supervision for the first time was a salutary reminder that I do, indeed, have the Worst Dog In The World. I left at about 8pm, having fed the dogs, waited till they’d done their business outside, brought in their baskets, filled the water bowl, and made sure everything that could be chewed was stowed.

I got back at 1.30am to havoc. Sara, The Wobbly Dog (who, as it happens, is The Best Dog In The World), was aware that things weren’t all as they should be, and was waiting by the back door; when I opened it, she shot into the night and high-tailed it down to the bottom of the plot. Hm, I thought, strange behaviour. Turning around, I stepped into a dog turd. Bugger, I thought, and turned on the kitchen light.

My kitchen bin is a big black plastic drum with a tightly fitting lid, and I always make sure the lid is on properly because it shares space with The Worst Dog In The World. This hadn’t, however, proved the slightest problem for Monster Baby, who’d overturned the bin and, apparently, rolled it around the kitchen until the lid popped off. Then she’d riotously extracted every last bit of garbage from it and strewn it frenziedly throughout the house. In every room (and I mean every room) there were kitchen scraps, tin cans, used tissues, the contents of ashtrays, wrappers, old tea bags… The extent of the mess was simply unbelievable.

I think I screamed. Well, I must have, because Monster Baby came shooting out of my bedroom (where she was up to other nonsense; more about that just now) and shot past me out the back door, to join Sara at the bottom of the plot.

In the course of an hour-long clean-up operation, I discovered something more: Monster Baby, who has finally got her ‘evacuating’ under control (she was a real challenge to house-train), had forgotten everything she’d learnt, and had just crapped and pissed everywhere. So in among the contents of the garbage bin were several nice big jobbies, and she’d carefully anointed every loose rug in the house with a generous dose of dog pee.

Later, when I’d finally picked up all the rubbish, scrubbed the pee and poo off the floors and carpets, and put things to rights, I called Sara back in, but condemned Monster Baby to a cold and lonely night on what’s left of the verandah sofa.

The next morning I discovered the cherry on top: Monster Baby had chewed and, in some cases, eaten (I presume because no trace remains) the entire contents of my bedside drawer. These included nail files, lip ices, ear plugs, several pens, a man-size bar of chocolate plus wrapper, two puzzle books, a box of tissues and some pretty potent painkillers – which, apparently, had no effect on her What So Ever. (She has opened this drawer before and stolen chocolates from it; I don’t know how she does it because I’ve never been able to catch her in the act. Clearly, I need to find another place to stash my sweeties.)

When I related all this to my friend T, she said, ‘Shame, poor Monster Baby. She was probably scared about being left on her own for the first time.’

I don’t think so. I think she twigged that she’d have a few hours of freedom from the usual rules, and used them the best way she knew how: by being The Worst Dog In The World.

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