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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Tuesday, 21 July 2009

So… what have I learnt?

I turn 45 in October, which means I’ve been alive since before man walked on the Moon. Not only that, but I remember when phones were made of Bakelite, had dials, stood on the hall table and were heavy enough to kill a horse, when mail meant a stamp and a trip to the postbox on the corner, when French money was francs, when ‘jogging’ was what you did to someone to wake them up, when computers took up entire basements of university buildings, when you dressed up to board an international flight, when cucumbers weren’t English and tomatoes weren’t Rosa, when paperbacks cost 20c, when therapists were masseurs, when masseurs were sex-workers, when sex-workers were prostitutes, when pets belonged outside and children were seen and not heard, when being gay meant being jolly, and when Rod Steward was actually still rocking.

I write this because my 17-year-old daughter asked me yesterday if I ‘still felt the same inside as when I was born’: ‘And not,’ she clarified, ‘counting what you’ve learnt; just how you feel.’

I do, as it happens: I’ve felt ‘the same inside’ since as long as I can remember. (Do you?)

But I have learnt some things. These are a few.

* Beauty isn’t what you see, it’s what you experience. Prettiness is all very well, but compassion, intelligence, a sense of humour and plain old-fashioned kindness are much more gorgeous. No amount of makeup can disguise meanness of spirit.

* Children are worth the heartache and expense. It’s a biological imperative to breed, yes. But if you put the energy in, you will get it out. Children who are loved and respected will pay you back, a thousandfold, in a thousand different ways, for the house in Tuscany you sacrificed for their upbringing and education.

* Pets are divine. Dog person? Cat person? Goldfish person? Who cares. As long as you understand the unspoken pact between you and your pet – you look after and love them; they look after and love you – that’s all that matters. (As a dog AND cat person, whose canine and feline pets all run to the car to greet me when I get home, this is a biggie for me.)

* A meal cooked together heals most ills. Osso bucco or samp, it doesn’t matter: preparing food and eating with loved ones keeps the wild world at bay for a few hours at a time.

* If I get cancer, I will not have chemo. ‘Cancer’, they say, ‘can be beaten.’ Not in my experience, which, in the last four years, has encompassed fully five people close to me – all, incidentally, entirely blameless when it comes to lifestyle: none smoked, ate badly, or drank or lay about excessively – who all fought long, painful fights, complete with expensive and extensive chemo treatment, and eventually died traumatically.

* No matter what they tell you, blood isn’t thicker than water. Family – and all that goes with that – is often more debilitating than supportive. You can choose those family members you like to keep contact with just as much as you can choose your ‘family of choice’ – your friends. The rest? Fukkem.

* Marriage is a really, really bad idea (with apologies to those of you in successful ones). Most of the people I know are either divorced or (for reasons I can’t begin to understand, but trust are sound) remain in marriages that suck at their souls. Why bother? Being alone is different from being lonely, and some of the loneliest people I know are married.

* Longevity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Want to live to 90? Be my guest. Just don’t moan to me (although you won’t be able to, because I’ll be dead) when you can’t walk without a Zimmer, pee without a bag or eat without dentures.

* Music and red wine are an unbeatable combination. Alone or in company, a glass of good red and Neil Diamond (for instance; I’m not proscribing here) are all you need to get glad.

* Sunshine on your shoulders makes you happy. I, too, can make it through winter, with a big enough supply of firewood, my gutters cleaned out and my roof sealed. But give me balmy weather, any day: no muss, no fuss. Braais, swimming pools, not having to wear shoes and sleeping with the windows open. And lots of sadness-beating vitamin D.

* Bed is best. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.

* We’re lucky to be living in the electronic age. Remember when we queued for hours to draw money at the bank? When paying bills meant writing out cheques and mailing them? When being at work meant you had to be in an actual office? (When being a woman at work meant being a secretary or a nurse or a teacher?) When getting a flat tyre on a deserted road late at night was a calamity, because help wasn’t a cellphone call away? When losing touch with friends was permanent because there wasn’t Facebook? When making friends across continents wasn’t possible because there wasn’t email?

* A safe, reliable car isn’t a luxury. I’ve taken five years to pay off a brand-new car, and I haven’t regretted a cent. After years of driving skedonks with never any certainty of arriving at my destination (and much of that time with little children accompanying me), it’s worth more than gold to have a car I know won’t give out on me.

* Nobody ever really grows up. You know when you were 8, and you thought that when you reached 13, you’d know what’s what? And at 13, you thought by 18, you’d get it? And at 18, you headed eagerly for 21, when life would make sense? And at 21, you thought 30 would be it? And at 30, how you thought maybe 40 would bring understanding? Well, no age ever does. No matter how old you get, there are always more questions than answers. And that’s not a bad thing.

* It’s okay to be wrong sometimes. But only sometimes. Just kidding. Be wrong all the time if you want! In the immortal words of, I think, Dr Phil: do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy? Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how to say sorry: it’s seldom pleasant, but it’s almost always necessary.

* It’s also okay not to back down if you really believe in it. As part of the generation of kids who were ‘seen and not heard’, it’s taken me a long time, and too many skirmishes to bear remembering, to learn how to stand up for what I believe in without becoming strident. And, hell, sometimes I still do become strident. So? What you gonna do? Arrest me?

* No matter how badly off you are, there’s always someone worse off than you. Everyone’s battling in the recession, and I hear from friends every day who’ve lost their jobs and had to downsize in unexpected and dismal ways. Some have even lost their homes. But it takes just one brush (and in South Africa, every day, you can have several dozen) with someone living hand-to-mouth, literally worried for their survival, to realise how lucky we are to have houses (even if the banks do own them – temporarily, we hope), groceries in the cupboard, cars that work, warm clothes, etc.

And you? What have you learnt? Good lessons or bad, I’d love to learn from them too.

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Monday, 13 July 2009

Problems opening Blogspot, Thai excellence and hospital dashes with children

Thousands of fans of this blog (okay, two or three) have complained that they cannot open Blogspot pages like this one, and that the message 'Operation Aborted' appears.

The problem lies, apparently, with Internet Explorer. Blogspot lists this as a known issue and have not yet resolved it. Since May this year.

This stumble-bum approach brings to mind a shopkeeper who knows that a big empty cardboard box is blocking the entrance to his shop, but hasn't enough staff to tackle the problem.

In the meantime, if you can read this, Tony and Ali, I suggest you use Firefox instead.

On the subject of inefficiency (said she, segueing effortlessly onto a different topic) how is this for a heart-warming story of professionalism and excellence?

My sister and her family have been on holiday in Thailand, at a resort a good three hours from Phuket. Last week, my 10-year-old nephew developed a sore tummy in the middle of the night, with a bit of light vomiting. Suspecting a bug, my sister and her husband thought nothing of it, but the next morning, when the little chap couldn't sit up by himself, they had the presence of mind to call for a doctor. The Thai doctor, a surgeon, took one look at the boy and summoned an ambulance (see pictures), and the entire family piled in to the vehicle for a breakneck three-hour dash to Phuket. When they got to the hospital, they were received like five-star guests: their luggage was whipped up to the hospital VIP suite; the boy was scanned, needled, poked and prodded, and within the twinkling of an eye a surgeon had been summoned. My nephew's about-to-burst appendix was delicately extracted in a two-hour operation, and he is doing excellently.

In short, the quick-thinking actions of the first doctor (and his parents) probably saved the life of my little nephew: a burst appendix is a serious medical emergency.

The hospital, says my sister, was 'five times' better than any private hospital here in South Africa (and we have some damn fine hospitals here) and she was overwhelmed by the professionalism and friendliness of the team. I am in no way suggesting that we should expect anything less than excellence from Thailand, but can there be anything more terrifying than your child getting suddenly sick in a country far from home, where you don't speak the language?

Plus, she and the family get to spend an extra week in Phuket as the lad recovers, the poor darlings.

This brings to mind times in my life when I have had a sick child, and wondered whether I should stick it out, or risk making a fool of myself by rushing the child to the nearest emergency room. Every single time, I have gone to the hospital. And, sure, sometimes I've been sent away with a pack of paracetamol, but I reckon it's better to make a fool of yourself ten times over than to ignore the mommy instinct that chimes as clear as a bell.

Here, for your entertainment, are some of the things that sent me and my kids to the hospital in their tender years (two of them are boys, which explains a lot)

- a swallowed 50c coin
- another swallowed coin; different boy
- an ear partially torn by a falling log (the lad was building a teepee at Scouts)
- a febrile convulsion after a hernia repair
- an eye socket bashed by a swing
- a concussion after tumbling onto a concrete floor from the top of a bunk bed
- a fingernail and tip torn when my baby daughter stuck her hand under a door and someone opened it
- an accidental swigging of turpentine after a carpenter filled an energy-drink bottle with the stuff and left it in my kitchen; my daughter thought it was water
- a foot torn open after my son tried to open a stuck door by kicking on one of its panes of glass
- a head stuck between burglar bars (okay, not the hospital, but paramedics arrived just in time to see my gardener using a car jack to stretch the burglar bars)
- a gashed head after my son crept into a concrete culvert and stood up too quickly. He put a piece of paper on the wound, went into the school hall to write an exam, and flaked out on the desk
- a sudden blindness in one eye, and numb hand, after a bruising rugby game. I thought the boy was concussed, but it appeared to be a migraine.

The fact that I haven't been near an emergency room for two or three years indicates that my children are getting older and wiser. But I'm not counting my chickens.

Thanks Annetjie for the pictures.

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Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Home for the Bewildered: blog ennui

For being so neglectful of this blog, I deserve nothing less than a running fuck-slap. (Isn't that an incandescently excellent expression? Doesn't it perfectly sum up what you would like to deliver to your ex-husband, your thick-as-a-plank boss, or the boned-headed 'consultant' at your local cell-phone shop?)

I wish I could claim credit for this shiny, nuggety expression, but I can't. I magpied it, with delight, from the irrepressible and fearless Briget of the blog Because i can. Briget says the rudest and funniest things about about her enemies (mainly, her ex-husband, and her husband's ex-wife), and does so defiantly, without giving a fig about being sued or interdicted or beaten to a pulp by vicious lawyers or online crazies.

My goodness, but I wish I was as brave as Briget, and had the balls to say online what I really think.

But back to the future: why do I need a running fuck-slap? Well, my my knuckles are a bit bruised after my darling co-blogger Muriel gave me a good rapping, via email, reminding me that this is a joint blog, and that I should take the trouble to contribute to it. I offered Muriel a few feeble excuses as to why I've been absent, knowing perfectly well that she wouldn't buy them.

The truth is that I've been slack-arsed about posting on this blog. Why?

Good question. Truth be told, I haven't been in the mood for sharing.

For the first time in my life, I feel curiously - and excitingly - silent. As someone who has spent her entire life chattering (I was born a chirper, and have spent my whole life talking), this newfound silence is a novel experience.

It's not that my brain isn't thinking: it is. But the fact is that I haven't found anything really useful, entertaining or nasty to say on this blog over the past few months. I haven't felt the slightest need to whine, whinge or criticise. I haven't wanted to lambast anyone, or be maddened by politicians, or get aimlessly cross about sillly things and small-minded, evil people.

I have blog ennui. My attention has wandered, my interests have changed, and my priorities have gone for an aimless walk in the woods. Ever since I turned 47, a month ago, I've felt slightly disconnected, somewhat astonished, and not a little outraged to learn that I'm three years away from my sixth decade on this earth.

I am looking forward, in short, to going to the Home for The Bewildered Blogger.

There are three possible reasons (or excuses) for my sudden volte-face:

1. Being angry is just too exhausting

2. Please pass my knitting, and a double gin and tonic while you're about it

3. I have a running-fuckslap deficiency.

Or all three of the above.

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