Friday, 27 February 2009

Paying a pound to pee

Another flashback to Travels with Muriel (this one of 29 December), and thanks to Donald for forwarding this bit of trivia. He writes, in his accompanying email, ‘I saw this and thought of you. Actually I thought of your outraged, scandalised, hands-in-the-air (if you hadn’t been lugging an articulated suitcase behind you) look in Edinburgh bus station, one early morning in December.’

It’s bad enough getting off a bus after hours of nipping, then having to pay to pee, but Irish budget airline Ryanair is considering installing a coin slot on the door of its inflight toilets. How’s that for adding insult to injury? Aeroplane toilets must be – maybe aside from those on coaches and trains and at outdoor concerts – the very pits of the human excretory experience. (Go to for the full story.)

It reminds me of when my sister and I were in London in 1993 and the exchange rate was (outrageously, we thought) 6:1. We were in Harrods and, needing the loo, were directed to the ‘paying toilets’ – a pound a go. My sister wasn’t having any of it. ‘I’m not paying Six Ront to pee!’ she said, and we took ourselves sniffily to the cheap toilets a floor down (no charge, but also no nice smelly stuff to wash your hands with or fluffy towels to dry them).

And here’s a little ‘small world’ aside. While we were in the cheap loos, my sister was in a stall and I was outside washing my hands (with non-smelly soap), and my sister was, as she does, regaling me through the closed door with all sorts of comments and opinions about, well, everything. While this was happening, a stranger walked in and immediately pricked up her ears. ‘Is that Beatrice Hastings I hear?’ she asked, in a South African accent. (Beatrice Hastings is not really my sister’s name but I don’t have her permission to repeat this story so I have changed it to protect her flawless reputation.)

(I must add here that my sister, who is in adult education, did admittedly have a distinctive voice then – she'd had polyps on her vocal cords which were surgically removed and left her for some time afterwards sounding like Bette Davis.)

‘Indeed it is,’ I said.

‘Hi Beatrice!’ called this total stranger, in Harrods cheap loos in the middle of London. ‘It’s Jenny from South Africa here. I was on your course last year. How’re you doing?’

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Warning: learner driver

I’ve just crawled to the booze cupboard and swallowed a belt of Jack Daniel’s straight from the bottle. Then I staggered to the bathroom to put some iodine on the half-moon crescents my nails had gouged into my palms and take two paracetamol for the gigantic stress headache that has my forehead in a vice grip. There’s not much I can do about the heart palpitations or the layers of enamel I’ve ground off my teeth.

I’m teaching my 17-year-old daughter to drive.

This is my second attempt at driving instruction. The first was last year, with my son, and I gave up after he drove into a tractor. (‘Daniel, watch out for the tractor… Daniel, the tractor…! Daniel?! Daniel!! Watch out for the …. aaarggghghggh!’) Previously he had driven into someone’s garden wall by way of an acacia tree, but I reckoned all learner drivers are permitted to make one horrendously expensive mistake in their mother’s car (provided, of course, it involves only rubber and metal, and not flesh and bone). After the tractor incident, however, I forked out for driving lessons instead – and my poor son is still licence-less and doesn’t show much inclination to ever get behind the wheel of a car again.

When I learnt to drive, it was courtesy of a usefully besotted boyfriend – in his car. I recall being so panicky that I once drove all the way from his house in Emmarentia to ours in Parkwood without changing out of first. The smell of moving parts under stress was rank in the air by the time we arrived, and that was just my boyfriend. So I’m aware of how nerve-wracking it is to pilot a car as a learner.

My daughter has the twin advantages of good coordination and being keen as a bean (which, it must be said, my son never was – it took him FOUR goes just to pass his learner’s test). But there is still a very steep learning curve to negotiate.

My daughter can’t get her head around, for instance, not looking down at the gearshift when she changes gear. So we pull off (our teeth rattling in our heads as the car jolts down the road like a horizontal jackhammer), then it’s time to put the car into second, and suddenly we’re veering towards the nearest storm drain. ‘Eyes on the road!’ I shriek, and my daughter’s head jerks up as if on a spring, the car stalls, and for a few moments all you can hear is the blood thundering like a herd of buffalo through my aorta.

‘Hand brake. Clutch in. Put it in neutral,’ I say in a helium voice that would be funny if we weren’t both so freaked out.

But hey, everyone’s got to start somewhere. And although I’ve been my family’s chauffeur for 19 years, I’ve never enjoyed driving. So I can’t wait for the day when I can legally and with a modicum of confidence hand the car keys to my daughter and she can take over.

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Beautiful full-size body candles

Have you noticed what an intrinsically crappy design a wax candle is? Thin candles dribble wax all over your table, and thick candles burn a third of the way down before their wicks drown in a molten pool of wax. Next time you use the candle, you have excavate the wick with tip of a sharp knife. (And, no, freezing candles before you use them doesn't help at all, because, duh, they defrost as they heat up.)

Tea lights are singularly usesless, with their lifespan of three minutes and their horrid little tin containers, and candles scented with anything else besides wax are, well, an abomination.

You'd think that someone would have perfected this design, considering the ancient history of the candle (the Egyptians were making beeswax candles 3000 years ago).

What I want is some thick, handsome ivory-coloured church candles that burn evenly and for hours.

Anyway, the reason I mention candles is because I wanted an excuse to show you these wonderful body-sized candles, created by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz.

The artists made casts of their bodies using beeswax and paraffin , with a wick running down the middle, and then lit their candles at the beginning of the show.

Via BoingBoing.

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Thursday, 26 February 2009

Kissing ban: I don’t know whether to laugh or cry

Regular readers of salmagundi may recall that in my blogs of 24 and 27 December last year I did quite a bit of moaning about the annoying predilection of the Brits for unashamed Public Displays of Affection. So when I read that a train station in the UK had banned kissing on the platform, I was thrilled. I even hoped that they might extent the snogging stoppage to the interiors of various forms of public transport (I was subjected to PDAs in the Tube and on a coach).

Then I realised that this is actually just yet another rule in a country that my British cousin aptly called a ‘nanny state’, intent on thoroughly suffocating the free will of its people by wrapping it up in so many regulations that it can barely breathe.

Whatever happened to simply exercising a bit of self-control?

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Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Parking in Cape Town

I live about 100km from the city and seldom have reason to travel into it, but this morning I did, for the first time in quite a while, and once I’d got there – after two hours in stop-go traffic and I know they’re making the roads nice for the World Cup next year but must they do it All At Once? – I was surprised by how much on-street parking was available.

Time was, in Cape Town city centre, you’d sell your left boob for a parking space. Not this morning. Although it was peak hour (about 8.45am by the time I finally got there), there was plenty of parking available – and this in Long Street!

I pulled into a parking space miraculously vacant directly outside the place I was due to have my meeting. I gave thanks to the goddesses for their generosity, got out my car and saw the sign. ‘Wheel clamping zone’ at the top, and with a graphic underneath illustrating this very thing; and, in smaller type, ‘Ticket available from parking marshall; be sure to press the red button’.

Curiouser and curiouser, as my late sainted mother used to say.

There was no traffic marshall, never mind a red button, in sight. I made enquiries of a few people standing idly about on the pavement (as people in Cape Town tend to do) and no-one had a clue what I was talking about. Parking marshall? Red button? Huh?

So here was my dilemma: go into the coffee shop where my meeting was due to take place without getting a ticket from the not-in-evidence parking marshall or pressing the nonexistent red button, and risk getting my wheels clamped; or not.

Since no instruction whatsoever was given on what to do in the unfortunate event of a wheel-clamping, I obviously chose instead to get back into my car, remove it from the ‘convenient’ parking space, drive it to the nearest take-a-ticket parking garage, and pay R28 directly through the nose for the privilege of leaving my car for all of one hour and 10 minutes in a place where a ‘parking marshall’ was actually in attendance.

I didn’t give this much additional thought (other than the irritation that comes with being thoroughly ripped off in a minor but terrifically niggling way) until I was walking back up Long Street to the parking garage after my meeting, and noticed again the extraordinary number of empty on-street parking spaces. I lived in Cape Town for almost 20 years and one thing I can tell you with utter certainty about Long Street is this: there was never a parking space available.

What is this? People are obviously not going to risk going to the clearly gigantic bother of getting their car’s wheels unclamped (given that there is no information what to do if this happens) by not doing what the signs tell them to do; yet what the signs tell them to do apparently exists in a parallel universe because it’s certainly not in this one.

I’m all for milking the city’s citizens/visitors dry just because they have business in the CBD and want to do this via the modern expedient of getting there by personal automobile, but to make it literally impossible to park without the scary notion of possibly having to track down someone (who?!) to remove an external brake from your car in order to get home again seems completely insane. Even by Cape Town’s standards.

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Monday, 23 February 2009

What makes a perfect parent?

I write a regular column for a South African parenting website, focusing on teens in the 13-18 age group, which is intended to raise topics of interest and stimulate debate. The e-community is invited to comment on the columns, and recently I’ve wondered if I have a thick enough skin for it.

The columns I wrote on teen hygiene, teen-speak, the right of teens to privacy, piercings and tattoos, and movie age restrictions didn’t get much feedback. Then I wrote one on my son being gay – and while the vast majority of people gave interesting, measured and largely supportive feedback, some of them (and I’m sorry to say it was mainly the Christian Right) chose to foam at the mouth. ‘Gay people are just as abnormal as paedophiles,’ wrote one – and that’s a mild sample.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been, but I was quite astonished that homophobia is still so alive and well. I gave my son the comments to read and he put things into perspective by finding the raving loons very funny.

But I hadn’t yet opened the real boxes of frogs – money and single parenting. My column on what it costs to raise teenagers these days (my point was that it’s very expensive) drove some people into frenzies. And the nay-sayers (and I’m sorry to say they were mainly men) didn’t stop at giving an opinion – they went on the attack in a way that gobsmacked me. I was accused of ‘buying’ parenthood rather than being ‘hands-on’; ‘punishing my ex financially’ (haha, I wish!); raising ‘brats’…

But that was nothing compared to what people had to say about my column on being a single parent. Among the dozens of infuriated responses (again, interestingly, mainly from men) were these three gems: ‘It is fair to say that single motherhood brings FAR more harm than drugs, drink or even war’ (yes, 'even war'!); ‘Don’t be fooled by this article - anyone who believes a child can be raised successfully by a single parent is very mistaken’; and (my favourite) ‘You have to wonder how come this woman [me] hasn’t managed to find herself a man in the last what, 16 years???? SIXTEEN years!!!!!!! Heck, from the columns she’s posted, she hasn’t even managed to find a woman who’s willing to put up with her on a permanent basis.’

In my column I’d mentioned that I’d been divorced for 16 years. Nowhere did I mention the state of play of any of my other adult relationships – yet this respondent (whose pseudonym didn’t reveal if it was a man or a woman) assumed I was such a crap person that I hadn’t ‘managed to find myself a man’ – or even, for that matter, a woman! I was quite amazed to discover that there are genuinely still people out there who consider a person significantly lacking unless s/he has ‘found’ her/himself a ‘permanent’ partner.

I know I should ignore the gratuitous personal attacks – or, like my son, just laugh at them – but I have to admit reading them and feeling… well, misunderstood, I suppose. (I know, I know: aw, poor me!)

Fortunately, just when I think I should go online and defend myself (something that is, anyway, discouraged by the editor of the site), usually someone with intelligence gets there before me and points out the stupidity of the offending responses.

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Sunday, 15 February 2009

Cute little puppy…

Two dogs known to us – a cheerful Border Collie and a dark-chocolate Labrador – had eight little babies and my daughter rilly rilly wanted one.

‘Just come and see them, Mom,’ she said and I said no because I know what ‘just coming and seeing’ can lead to (and not only with puppies).

But there came a day when I was dropping my daughter off at these people’s house and she said, ‘Ag pleeeeeez, Mom,’ and for reasons not known to me (aside from the spaghetti bolognaise that is masquerading as my brain) I did.

They were adorable. Beyond adorable. They were fluffy and they romped. They had puppy breath and they wriggled like beetles when you picked them up and they had round soft fat tummies and they nibbled your earlobes. I was savagely tested but I held out: too well do I know that old adage, ‘A puppy isn’t just for Christmas, a puppy is your mother’s forever.’

I turned hard on my heel and left.

But one little puppy wriggled under the fence and gambolled (and I do not use that word lightly), giddy with freedom, after the car.

I was already sold but I wasn’t telling anybody.

A few nights later I had a conversation with my housemate, Dean. (‘After a few glasses of wine,’ he adds, unnecessarily, whenever I tell this story – because more than one person has asked me, ‘For heaven’s sake – why??’)

‘I don’t think a puppy would be a bad idea,’ he said.

Let me tell you a bit about Dean and his take on my children’s pets. Once, when my daughter was much younger, about 10 or 11, Dean made a deal with her that involved something controversial – homework or tidying her room or some such – and it went like this: if you do such-and-such, your mother will get you a hamster. (At the time, the thing my daughter wanted most in the whole entire world was a hamster.)

My daughter did whatever was required and of course I had to get her a hamster. Harriet.

Dean was not living with us at the time, so naturally was not required to entertain the hamster, or clean out its rank cage, or ensure its endless supply of food, water and silly toys, or endure the noise it made while it ran mindlessly on its wheel all night. He was also not present when a large ball-shaped thing rolled into the kitchen one night while I was making dinner, and I was on the point of booting it into touch when a shocked scream rang out: ‘Don’t, Mom! That’s Harriet!’ Someone had given it a hollow sphere in which it could run through the house unmolested by cats, dogs and other sentient beings. I still wake up in a cold sweat, thinking what might have been.

Anyway, apparently intent on not learning by my mistakes, I took Dean’s advice to heart, phoned the pup owners, and booked the one that had run after our car.

Now I have a 7-week-old cross-breed puppy (with eyebrows that are suspiciously reminiscent of a Rottweiler’s) who ‘eliminates’ freely all over the house, screams with outrage all night when put to bed in the bathroom on a thick pile of newspapers, wants attention at 4am, eats shoes, terrorises the chickens (in spite of being a fraction of their size), irritates the cats (and has not been put off in the very least by a good snotklap or two from clawed paws), doesn’t consider a good meal eaten until she is actually bodily in her food bowl, and thinks Sara’s ears are her own personal chew-toys.

But goodness me is she cute.

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Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Owl feathers, Juju, lemons, and the evil eye

Here's the thing: I plucked a few wing feathers from a dead owl, and bad luck has stalked me since then. I'm not, let me assure you, a grave-digger or plunderer of any sort, and I don't usually stop to inspect roadkill. But when we - my husband and I - saw a ruffled, rumpled object twitching on the side of a remote Karoo road a couple of months ago, we screeched to a halt. It was a lovely old owl - I couldn't identify it because most of its face wasn't there - and it was stone dead, squashed flat by a lorry or tractor, its wings fluttering eerily in the hot Karoo wind.

I find owls very stirring. I am hopelessly sentimental about any sort of owl, even though I'm not much of an animal person. When I visit the Johannesburg Zoo - which is a block or two away from my house - I do so just to gaze, open-mouthed, at these noble old birds. So, it seemed natural to me to suggest to my husband that we pluck out a few big wing feathers to remember this dear old soul by: 'Owl feathers are powerful voodoo and juju medicine,' I remarked. 'These feathers will bring us lots of good luck.'

I was, of course, not being serious. I'm an atheist, a passionate Darwinist, a mocker and scorner of all supernatural claims, and a dyed-in-the-wool sceptic. But I wanted the feathers because I like to collect things, especially little natural artefacts, which have a particular resonance with my view of the world - fossils, feathers, flowers, pebbles, shells, grasses, seed pods, stone tools, bones, skulls, claws, tumbleweeds, gourds, leaves, and so on.

So we took three feathers, shed a little tear for the dead owl, and continued on our way. Two feathers - cream, with a pale coffee stripe - were dangled from the rear-view mirror of my husband's car, and the remaining feather was pinned up on our family notice board.

And that was when the bad luck came streaming into our house. Of course, I didn't immediately connect the two - why would I, as some one who doesn't believe in bad luck, fate, karma, crystals, , ghosts, aliens, homeopathy, reincarnation, the easter bunny, or anything of the sort? But, one has to hedge one's bets, and so these three feathers have been relocated. I'm not telling you where I've put them, but do check under your car tomorrow morning if you have been the slightest bit mean to me at any time during the last thirty years.

Also, feeling beleaguered by a run of bad fortune over the past twelve months, I have taken another vital precaution. Last week, I popped into a restaurant in the Oriental Plaza - a buzzing shopping centre just west of Johannesburg's CBD - to pick up my usual order of the vegetable samoosas, mutton curry and chilli bites. On the counter was a small plastic dish filled with salt. On top of the bed of salt stood a lemon, and on top of that, skewered into the skin of the lemon, a fresh red chilli.

'Is that an insect repellent?' I asked the owner. 'Oh, no,' he said. 'It's because this is a successful business, and there are a lot of people out there who are very jealous, and who want to harm my business.'

'Really?' I said, intrigued. 'Do you mean that this bowl of salt with a lemon and chilli on top wards off the evil eye?'

'Exactly,' he said. 'Try it yourself, in your kitchen.'

So I did. What do I have to lose? One lemon, a chilli and a cup of salt, that's what.

But I have to say that it's been 24 hours, and so far our luck is holding.


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Sunday, 8 February 2009

In the bag (eventually)

This morning I spent a good half-hour employed in such strenuous exercise that by the time I was finished sweat was pouring into my eyes and I was saying a lot of rude words through gritted teeth.

I was not doing stomach crunches or even jogging up a hill.

I was stuffing a down sleeping bag into its cover.

The first time I removed the sleeping bag from its cover, it unfurled from its tightly rolled state like a hibernating animal waking up. It puffed up gorgeously and provided a night of warm, comfortable repose.

For which I paid a heavy price the next morning, when I rolled the thing out flat on the floor, and tried to squash all the air out of it and simultaneously re-roll it into a neat, tight curl so I could put it back in its cover.

I gave up trying to squash the air out of it bit by bit because as soon as I’d squashed the air out of the top, the bottom filled up again with a contented sighing sound. Finally I lay down bodily on top of it and, making swimming motions with my arms and legs, got all the air out of it that way. (My children laughed. Oh, how they laughed.)

Then I leapt up and quickly began rolling it up… contented sighing sounds filled the room as the bloody thing puffed itself up again. Clearly, this wasn’t going to work.

I wiped the smile off my daughter’s face by telling her she’d have to help me. ‘You press the air out of it and I’ll come behind you and roll it,’ I said.

This we did with what appeared to be some measure of success – only, on trying to fit the now rolled-up sleeping bag back into its cover, we discovered the cover had shrunk to about half its original size in the night. That, or the sleeping bag had magically doubled in volume.

I said the F word several times and then decided that sheer force would have to be employed. It took us a combined 20 minutes of huffing and puffing and getting our fingers trapped in tight folds of slippery fabric, but finally it was done. Far from the sleek, neat thing of beauty I’d purchased, it was now a nasty-looking, lumpy, bumpy object.

This monumental struggle put me off using the sleeping bag at all, but of course sometimes needs must, and the next time we extracted it from its cover, it rewarded our efforts by looking as creased and dejected as I might have felt had I spent a few months stuffed into a cover that was several sizes too small for me.

The other bit of camping equipment that similarly comes in a bag that shrinks the first time the contents are removed is tents. Some time ago I bought a lovely three-man tent that came complete with a double groundsheet, a nifty little interior section made of ‘breathable’ fabric, and a small verandah section. This miraculous mobile home was relatively easy to erect, requiring only three snap-apart bendy poles and a bit of ingenuity. Taking it down was equally effortless.

Putting it back in the cover it came in was entirely another story. Once I’d carefully flattened and rolled the double groundsheet and put it into the bag, there was no room for anything else – scattered around me lay several metres of snap-apart bendy poles and enough fabric to make shell-suits for a family of six.

I couldn’t understand it. I knew the tent had come out of the bag because I was the person who’d taken it out; how, then, could there be so little space for everything to go back in again?

After several false starts, force once again had to be employed, and even then, there was no space in the bag for the bendy poles, which now live strapped to the cover with bungee cords. And of course the tent, on those rare occasions I now use it, emerges looking wrinkled and tatty.

I would love it if the manufacturers of the covers for tents and sleeping bags would make them just the tiniest bit bigger to start with. I’m not asking for great wads of room – just enough space to get the damned things back in without practically having a coronary doing so.

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Saturday, 7 February 2009

Why I love Facebook, and why Janet Street-Porter is entirely wrong

Facebooks sucks: it's boring, dangerous, deeply stupid and suitable only for losers who have no friends. These sociopathic retards inhabit a shallow, sad, pathetic world, suggests writer, presenter and and foodie Janet Street-Porter, whose tirade against Facebook in the Daily Mail raised a rash on my ankles this morning. Facebookers, says Porter-Smith, should eschew the' shallow allure' of living our lives in cyber space, and return to the real world, where they could have actual flesh-and-blood friends.

Well, more than an ankle rash. More like a desire to give Janet a good smack in her puffy and elasticated broeks (that's knickers, Janet), from me, and all the other smart, interesting people who use Facebook here in South Africa.

Why should I give a toss about what Janet thinks? Well, I care because I'm a great fan of this Janet: she's foul-mouthed, opinionated and clever. She doesn't give a continental fuck about what anyone thinks of her, she is a free thinker, an open-minded dame, and someone I would dearly love to have over for a dinner party involving a few tequilas.

Which makes her column all the more disappointing. And which just makes me more depressed about the world, as a whole: even the cleverest, quickest people succumb to utter, obdurate stupidity at some point in their lives; this tends to happen chiefly - have you noticed this? - between the ages of 2 and 4, 14 and 19, and 85 and 105.

I don't know how old Street-Porter is, but what I do know is that she has written this sniffy little piece with no real experience about how the Internet works. 'The truth is,' she huffs, 'that we live in an age where we over-communicate. It started with texting and emailing: now it's "blogging" and social networking. It's verbal diarrhoea, with zero content of genuine interest. '

Note the quote marks adorning the word 'blogging'. My goodness, this sounds like my grandmother, who put quote marks around 'jeans', and the 'Beetles'.

Street-Porter continues (and this was written this week, not seven years ago, I kid you not): 'Most blogs are a litany of the humdrum, with bulletins about new tricks the cat can do, or how many times a day the baby has pooed.'

Let me repeat that: A Litany of The Humdum.

The article Janet wrote is so long and whiny and disappointingly sanctimonious that I can't be bothered to reproduce it here: read it for yourself.

But what I can do is offer some thoughts about Facebook: why I love it, why I think it's a brilliant and inspired idea, and why I think it is - generally speaking - a force for good in the world.

I joined Facebook, reluctantly I admit, some 18 months ago, when I was writing a feature for a local magazine about social networking. I couldn't write about this phenomenon without being part of it, so I signed up, and was disappointed to find that not many people of my vintage were on the site. That is: I couldn't find any friends out there, apart from my teenage sons and their friends (and tempted as I was to intrude, by asking to be 'friends' with them, I resisted the urge). For the first three months, I lurked, alone and feeling spare, on the site. And then, suddenly, a big burst: people my age - that is, around 45 - started to join Facebook. A trickle became a deluge, and before long I was having the time of my life rediscovering long-lost mates.

I set up a group for my old pals from high school, in Johannesburg, and joined other groups with similar connections, and, within a few months, these groups mushroomed from five people to seventy-five as more and more people of my age (many of them influenced by their Facebook-addicted teen children) flooded Facebook.

I am not exaggerating when I say there were joyful cries echoing through cyberspace, as old school friends, who last saw one another when they were eleven or twelve, reconnected online. I have made contact with more than 40 women whom I last saw as young gals during the Seventies. I've found old university friends, touched sides again with people I've met in my career as a freelance journalist, and rekindled old, old family friendships. People who I never thought I'd ever see again have popped up and given me the friendliest hullo.

I've spend many hours persuading my friends - yes, real, clever, flesh-and-blood ones, Janet: like you, I have plenty of them - to join the site, and not a single one has shown the slightest regret. On the contrary, all of them consider Facebook to be a singularly inspired and useful tool.

Facebook has been a revelation to me, and has given me so much pleasure and reward. Sure, it's sometimes annoying and banal, and it can be a terrible time-waster if you're not very strict with yourself.

But, then again, you have to embrace the good, and discard the bad and the banal. That's one of the skills you learn when you grow up, Janet.

Give it a real try, luvvie, and come back to us in six months' time.

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