Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Balu raises a helluva hullabaloo and saves my skin

As regular salmagundi readers know, I occasionally take myself and my dogs off to the West Coast for an escape from the stultifying Valley heat and a wander along the beach.

We went there last night; and this morning, at dawn’s crack, the dogs and I took the long coast path, a gorgeous cliffside meander with eye-boggling views over the fantastic Atlantic, all the way to Pearl Bay. Pearl Bay is mainly a surfing spot, but the beach is endless and breathtakingly beautiful, and this morning there wasn’t a single other soul to be seen. It was simply glorious.

The sand on the Pearl Bay beach is soft and sucky, and the walking is hard and time-consuming, so when we finally got back to the parking area at the head of the beach, nature was calling me quite desperately.

I’m not keen to use the beach loos, as they’re often in a bit of a state, and this morning was no exception. So, crossing my legs, I took quite a bit of time to lay strips of loo-paper down on the nasty toilet seat before finally sitting down.

And that’s where I was, my pants around my ankles, having a long-overdue pee and indulging in a lovely sigh of relief, when a large pair of man’s hands pushed at the door (the lock of which was, of course, broken) and a deep voice shouted something angry and intimidating in Xhosa.

My brain went into overdrive. I was completely trapped and helpless – pants around ankles; in stall with broken lock, in cement toilet block with only one narrow way out; and nobody around for miles. I pushed back at the door and, in a voice I didn’t recognise, screamed, ‘Get away!!!’

And little Hullabaloo, who’d been innocently sniffing around in the bushes outside (and clearly hadn’t even been seen by my would-be attacker), went completely mad. She started barking and snarling like I’ve never heard her before, and the man immediately stopped pushing on the door. ‘Get him, Balu!!!’ I screamed, frantically trying to yank my pants up with one hand while I used the other to hold the door closed.

And she must have, because by the time I emerged, my pants wet (yes, I’d peed all over them) but mainly safely up around my waist, there was no sign of the interloper and Balu was leaping around in excited circles, barking her head off.

I assume the would-be assailant had been waiting in the men’s loos (which are just across a dividing partition from the women’s) for a likely victim, and he may even have gone back into them and slammed the door on my ravening hound, but I didn’t stop to find out. I ran away as fast as I could, not looking back, Balu and Sara hard on my heels – and Balu, dear thing, turning furious circles and barking hysterically all the way.

Well down the cliff path, I stopped and put my hands on my knees and panted my lungs out. I was crying a bit (shock, I suppose) and smelled like a urinal, and my heart felt like it was trying to crawl out of my chest, but I was in one piece.

And I said to Balu, ‘My darling Monster Baby, as soon as my ship comes in, I’m going to buy you an entire sofa, and you can eat it all yourself!’

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Monday, 22 March 2010

Janet finds the solution to un-housetrained pets

My auntie Janet sent me this clipping of a fabulous gadget she came across to keep pets off beds and sofas (‘but maybe it’s a bit late for you’, she added in her letter).

What I most love about it is how the little dog in the picture is leaping off the sofa as if several thousand volts have just been shot through him ('A jolly good idea,' I can hear Janet saying). The ‘loud tone’ must loud indeed.

A possible drawback of this gadget is that, if you live in a home that’s already replete with loud sounds (those from my variety of neighbours; and of course my dogs themselves, for whom barking is a joy and a delight), the ‘loud tone’ emitted by this gadget could be enough to send you over the edge.

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Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The collapse of South Africa’s middle class?

Was anyone else worried when they read the lead story in last weekend’s Sunday Times? And did anyone else think, ‘Well, at least it’s not only me’?

Headlined ‘The Crunch’, the article made it very clear that South Africa’s middle classes – the backbone of our tax systems – aren’t coping with their expenses. Economist David Roodt pointed out that people earning between R100 000 and R500 000 a year (that’s between about R8 000 and R40 000 a month) are ‘most definitely taking huge stress’: ‘They are the taxpayers in the economy,’ he said, ‘but they are not at the receiving end of the (money raised in) taxes.’

As a freelancer, I’m way nearer the R8000-a-month mark than the R40 000 one, and every month I slide a little deeper into debt. Once I’ve paid my bond and the single insurance policy (on my car) I have left, my rates and taxes, my electricity and communications bill, and buy petrol and groceries, there’s less than nothing over. For over a year now, I’ve been living off what used to be quite a big surplus in my housing bond account: I now have about another two months’ worth of money in that, then there’s genuinely absolutely nothing left.

The Sunday Times article accused the middle classes of irresponsible spending during the ‘fat’ times – taking advantage of easy credit, the article says, they ‘splurged on homes and cars’ and ‘did not save’.

In my experience, this isn’t entirely true. Ten years ago, I owned two properties and had a reasonably small bond. I had a modest money-market savings account that I fed each month. I had an up-to-date retirement annuity. I had some disposable income each month, which I used for some capital projects (home improvements, buying a new stove, that kind of thing) and a bit for fun (travel, dining out).

Ten years on, my bills have risen astronomically – but my earnings haven’t; in fact, I’m still earning the same today as I was ten years ago! As time went by and I became aware that my earnings weren’t keeping up with my expenses, I cut back: I paid off my car (a 2004 Toyota Corolla), I cancelled a life-insurance policy, I stopped going out for dinner, I switched to cheaper ‘no-name’-brand groceries, I froze payments to my retirement annuity (and would have cashed it in if the law had allowed), I began shopping for clothes at secondhand stores.

Time passed and things didn’t improve. Electricity prices rose, petrol prices went through the roof, food became significantly more expensive. I rebonded my properties and, of necessity, began drawing a little money out of the surplus each month to pay my bills.

Last year, much against my will, I put one of my properties on the market. It’s still there: I’ve had three offers, all three for hundreds of thousands of rands less than I bought it for. I refused all three, and now, with no end in sight to my own personal financial crunch, I’m wondering if I did the right thing: perhaps I should have just cut my losses?

And I’m not alone. Many of my friends are, like me, freelancers; most of them have, like me, over the course of their careers been responsible about saving, mainly in the form of shares or property. And most of them have recently been forced, like me, to try to cash these in.

The problem, of course, is that we are South Africa's middle class, and the properties we’re trying to sell are middle-class properties – in other words, we’re trying to sell our assets to people who’re in the very same boat as we are. We’d dearly love to sell our properties and alleviate our debt loads, but we can’t: the people we’re trying to sell them to don’t have the money to buy them! The South African middle class is fast running out of ready cash.

Almost two years ago, in July 2008, a hearing held by the US’s congressional Joint Economic Committee warned of exactly this situation in America: what was happening financially in that country, they said, wasn’t just a middle-class ‘squeeze’ but the beginnings of an actual collapse.

At the hearing, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren pointed out that while inflation-adjusted average household income in America had declined by $1 175 since 2000, basic expenses for an average household had increased by more than $4 600. She said, ‘Seven years of flat or declining wages, seven years of increasing costs, and seven years of mounting debts have placed unprecedented stress on ordinary families. By every critical financial measure, these families are losing ground … the strong middle class that has been the backbone of the American economy … is in jeopardy.’

What happens when the middle class collapses? When most of us have lost our jobs and/or our houses, and can’t support ourselves, never mind pay the taxes that keep the country running?

My dilemma, in the meantime, is on a micro scale: I’ve lost a tooth and need to see my dentist; my car desperately needs a service; one of my cats requires veterinary attention for a skin disorder; and there are two large holes in my roof that I should get fixed before winter. I was lying in bed last night, going through this list and trying to decide which one was most critical.

Then I realised that it was a pointless exercise: I don’t have enough money to attend to any of them.

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Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Calamity Janet isn’t impressed with Hullabaloo

My auntie Janet had a stern word with me late one evening on her recent visit to South Africa, on the subject of my ill-bred animals. ‘They shouldn’t, for instance, be sitting on the furniture – where your guests might like to sit,’ she pointed out, nodding her head meaningfully at the inside sofa, where the Wobbly Dog and Flossie the Lost Child were peacefully bedded down (while, it must be said, we perched on uncomfortable bar stools).

But I didn’t realise quite how appalled she was until we popped in to visit old friends, Sally and Francois, at their home in Franschhoek. Sally and Francois have lovely animals – among them, Sabre, a gazillion-year-old Rottweiler-cross who, having left his obnoxious leg-humping days behind him too long ago to count, now moves slowly but cheerfully from room to room, delighting in growing old with those he loves; and a new addition, Okey-Dokey.

Okey-Dokey looks precisely like Hullabaloo, only he’s short-haired – and what a little darling he is! Obviously a well-brought-up creature, he doesn’t jump, lick, eat sofas, swim in the pool then roll around on the beds, steal food off tables, disembowel cushions or any of the other countless heinous crimes that can be attributed on a daily basis to Hullabaloo. Janet was entirely charmed by him.

As we were leaving, Francois happened to mention that Okey-Dokey (who’s still a young dog) hadn’t yet quite got the hang of house-training. ‘He still poos in the house now and again,’ he said.

I tutted sympathetically. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘My little darling took about six months to house-train…’

I was interrupted by a howling sound that I thought only people having their limbs sawn off could make. It was Janet, in a state of loud disbelief. ‘House-trained?’ she hooted. ‘House-trained??!! I’ve seen monkeys better house-trained than your dogs! Your dogs are completely wild! Wild, I tell you!’

Fearing the onset of an aneurysm (you never know with Janet), I quickly ushered her out of Francois and Sally's house.

But it must be admitted that when I looked anew at these pics of our pasta evening, I realised that Janet may, indeed, have a point. It could be that it isn’t normal to have your animals (in this case, Kali, a visiting ridgeback, and Maui, one of the resident cats) join you at (or, okay, on) the dinner table.

(Interestingly, by the time Janet had been in our house for about 24 hours, Hullabaloo suddenly began behaving impeccably. I asked Janet if she’d employed violence or other not-officially-approved methods of discipline in my absence, and she denied it vociferously. But I have to wonder.)

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Calamity Janet rides again – but this time, it's Brian who moves the cheese

On her many and various travels, my auntie Janet has managed to wreak several kinds of havoc on herself, among them, a broken ankle in Holland, badly skinned knees in Arniston, and a close encounter with a big spider here in Kasteel. (Sadly, this list is rather short – there have been several more interesting ones but she’s specifically told me I can’t mention them.)

My friend Johann, who met Janet and her flu bug on her latest visit to South Africa, has therefore dubbed her Calamity Janet, a fitting and even rather romantic name for a woman who travels regularly all over the world, falling down steps, losing (in some cases) actual bodily parts and dealing with the vagaries of a multitude of water systems and food types.

It was, however, my uncle Brian who, on this visit, exposed himself to the hysterical ridicule of the gathered company, on an evening when pasta was on the menu.

It was a warm evening and we ate out on the verandah. But once I’d prepared the sauces, tossed the salad, sliced the bread, grated the Parmesan, sought out the chilli and cooked the pasta, I laid everything out inside, in the kitchen, for people to help themselves.

Brian, a warm and pleasantly wicked gentleman who is also, clearly, a good husband, gallantly helped Janet with her meal, dishing up a generous serving of pasta and passing it to her for her to help herself to whatever sauces her stomach desired, before serving himself.

A few moments later, Johann asked me where the Parmesan was. ‘How odd,’ I said. ‘It was here just a minute ago.’

We looked around at the food-laden counter but it was copiously clear that the Parmesan was no longer in evidence.

My memory is not what it used to be and I had a chilling moment during which I wondered whether I had actually grated the Parmesan, or if I’d just thought I had.

‘Hang on a minute,’ said Johann, who sometimes surprises me with the agility of his mind. ‘Was it on a small plate?’

‘It was indeed,’ I said, grasping with relief at this straw.

‘Then Brian’s got it,’ he said.

And he had. Brian, whose memory is also apparently less than crystal-clear, had handed Janet her plate of unembellished pasta, and then taken up the next plate with a white-looking substance on it, assuming it to be his own serving of pasta (and forgetting, as sometimes happens – and don’t I know it – that he hadn’t, in fact, yet served himself his own pasta). Onto this bed of freshly grated Parmesan he’d dolloped a generous portion of arrabiatta sauce, topped with a healthy serving of salad, and gone outside to enjoy his meal.

He’ll never live it down, of course.

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The freezing north, the boiling south

‘Yesterday Catherine bought me a pair of long-johns,’ my father wrote in his most recent email from Holland. ‘Makes having a pee a bit of a production but it’s worth the wrestle. In 3 degrees below – and forecast today of 20 cm of snow tonight and tomorrow – they’re just the job. I never would have thought I’d spend any time in Europe’s worst winter in 20 years, let alone a couple of months. Another first – and indeed a last as far as I’m concerned.’

Simultaneously, here in the southern hemisphere, the summer finally roared in like a lion, with temperatures so hot in a nearby town on Sunday (they peaked at 50 degrees) that a bike race was called off. My cousin Steven, who lives in Manchester, is here to ride the Argus cycle race, and was so stunned by the heat in the valley that I did the decent thing and took him to Yzerfontein on the west coast on Saturday, to take advantage of the cool onshore breezes that always blow there.

Well, almost always. Although the Atlantic Ocean waters on that coast are so cold that you can sometimes get an ice-cream headache if you just put your feet in, it was so hot that I actually had a swim in the sea. Sure, the breath was knocked out of my body as I plunged under, but it was worth every gasp.

(Steven, an Englishman to his ankles, declined even to remove his takkies for a walk on the beach; there was absolutely no way he was going to get in the water.)

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Sleeping al fresco

My house is an old Swartland one, with four bedrooms, three of which are the size of modest ballrooms; all three have king-size beds in them and one has, in addition, a single bed. In total, with fold-down couches, the inside of my house can comfortably accommodate the sleeping requirements of at least 10 people.

But it is, oddly, the verandah that appeals most to visitors as a venue for catching a few Zs.

I can understand this in the case of, for instance, my friend Hilton, who has a fierce allergy to cats. I have four, so Hilton always opts to sleep outside on one of the verandah divans (unlike, it must be said, the individuals illustrated here, who chose, respectively, one of the dogs’ baskets and the naked floor).

Hilton did have one unfortunate experience when, late at night, he chose the divan most favoured by the cats for daytime snoozes and grooming sessions, and as a result effectively slept on a bed of cat fur, and practically had to be resuscitated the next morning.

But that’s another story.

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When bad service is a real eye-popper

My driver’s licence comes up for renewal next month, so off I went to the Malmesbury Traffic Department to timeously do my citizenly duty (unlike, say, Julius Malema).

First, I had two driver’s licence photos taken, then I drove to the traffic department, where I secured the necessary form and filled it in, then I settled in for the wait in the eye-testing room, along with about 10 other people. Malmesbury has only one eye-testing machine and its operator has a personality disorder common to many ‘service providers’ who ply their trade in this medium-sized Swartland town –it’s called Can’t Do.

So my eyes didn’t pop out in surprise when, after 40 minutes of waiting, I finally took my place in the eye-testing chair and the operator, without so much as a glance at me, asked me for my old licence (‘Old licence,’ she snapped), took a quick shuftie at it, and tossed it back across the table at me. ‘Can’t do,’ she said.

I exercised what was, I thought, extreme patience. ‘I have here with me my form, filled in and accurate in every detail. I have two licence photographs of myself. I have R100. I have my ID book. What is it about me that makes you unable to process this request?’

‘Glasses,’ she said, disinterestedly looking over my shoulder at her next victim.

‘I don’t wear glasses,’ I said. ‘I had Lasik surgery over 10 years ago.’

‘Restriction on licence,’ she drawled. 'Next!'

I picked up my old licence and studied it. Sure enough, there was the restriction, dating back to when I first got my driver’s licence in 1982: ‘with glasses’.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,’ I said. ‘I’ve had this card renewed twice already and both times I just did the eye test. My vision is 20/20.’

‘Can’t do,’ she said. She had not yet actually looked at me at all during this entire exchange.

‘Please look at me,’ I said.

She sighed enormously and dragged her unwilling gaze back from over my shoulder.

‘I’ve had this card renewed twice, here, in this very traffic department,’ I said, slowly and clearly. ‘The glasses restriction no longer applies. All you have to do is give me the eye test, and you’ll see that I have perfect vision.’

She didn’t even bother to pretend to listen. ‘Can’t. Do,’ she said.

‘Then what’s the point of giving this eye test?’ I asked. ‘Surely, if you come for an eye test, it’s to test whether you can see properly. If you give me the eye test, even though I’m not wearing glasses and haven’t for over 10 years, you will immediately notice that I can, in fact, see properly.’

‘Can’t do,’ she said. ‘Next!’

Like speaking to a brick wall.

I went back to the main office, where I queued for about 15 minutes at the Enquiries counter. There, I was told that the previous two renewals of my driver’s licence (for both of which I had the mandatory eye test, and for both of which I scored 100% for vision) were ‘mistakes’ and that I required (wait for it) a letter from my eye surgeon to confirm that I’d had Lasik surgery.

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I said. ‘It was over 10 years ago. I don’t even remember who did the surgery.’

The dude shrugged, look over my shoulder and called, ‘Next!’

This simply beggars belief. First, why insist on a mandatory, government-administered eye test if the results don’t hold any water? Second, although I try to be a law-abiding citizen (really, I do), I’ve apparently been driving on an illegal licence for over 10 years. Third, requiring a letter from a surgeon who operated on my eyes over a decade ago is madness of an order I actually am too exhausted to get my mind around. And fourth, WHAT IS WITH THE SERVICE INDUSTRY IN MALMESBURY??

But I’ve decided that two can play at this game. At the suggestion of a slightly less law-abiding friend (whose name shall, for obvious reasons, remain a secret), I’m just going to go to the chemist in the next few days, buy a pair of specs with clear glass in them (you can get them for about 100 bucks), and go and do the mandatory government-administered eye test wearing them. Much easier than trying to track down a surgeon whose name I can’t recall (I had surgery on my eyes, not my memory, for god’s sake).

* A footnote on my myriad visits to the Malmesbury Traffic Department. Over the last two years, my son and my daughter have sat (and failed, both numerous times) their learner’s and driver’s licences. My son failed his learner’s four times and it has now expired, so he has to go and sit it again. My daughter failed her learner’s twice and has failed her driver’s twice, and her next appointment for a test is in April.

Thus far, this is the time and money I have spent at the Malmesbury Traffic Department:
Getting photos: total of about 2½ hours, total of about R200
Securing and filling in forms: total of about 2½ hours
Queuing: total of about 6 hours (no exaggeration)
Costs of licences and appointments: total of about R1 000
Waiting for children to complete tests: total of about 9 hours (again, no exaggeration)

That’s a total, in time, of around 20 hours (almost three full working days) and, in money, of over R1 000.
And what, so far, do I have to show for it? Zip.

Above: Me, in happier times: wearing spectacles and a legally licensed driver.

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