Laura, Muffy, Frank and mudballs

November 29, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about my pre-school days mainly because my current job is using the same level of brain power that was required then.

At first I hated pre-school.  The entrance gate was at the end of a long path up to the school.  That walkway was my Via Dolorosa, my path to daily crucifixion and the drama of separating from my Mom involved much gnashing of teeth, tears and despair.

I have no recollection of my teachers at my nursery school in Johannesburg.  I can’t remember their names or what they looked like.  In fact, I have no memory of ever being taught anything.  Well, actually I recall one lesson where the teacher chucked a sponge in a bucket of water and showed us how it absorbed the liquid.  I am not sure if the point was to teach us about water or absorption or buckets or sponges.  The teacher asked where water came from and someone said ‘the bath’.  I recall guffawing and collapsing into a heap of hysterics in front of the class.  I probably scarred the kid for life.

I remember endless, unsupervised colouring-in sessions.  We used the back of perforated computer paper that someone’s dad must have donated.  I often studied the hieroglyphics of computer codes, letters and numbers and wondered what it all meant.  Then I turned it round and, using my Crayola crayons, drew myself the usual house, a sun, a tree and my mom, dad and brother.

The only figure of authority that stands out is Frank, the fat black caretaker who made our peanut butter and tuna fish sandwiches.   Frank had a hat fetish and always swiped our caps and popped them on his own head.  He made our food, washed dishes, cleaned up and then waddled round the school, all the while accumulating a pile of hats.  We learned to guard our caps but sometimes, when I was so engrossed in my colouring, I felt Frank lifting my cap off my head and it was too late.  By home time, Frank had a leaning tower of 10-20 hats balanced on his head.   It drove us nuts and we were forever jumping up and flapping our arms as we tried in vain to tumble the pile off his head.

I had two close friends at school.  One was called Angela but she was known as Muffy.  It was an appropriate name as Muffy was very scruffy.  My other friend was Laura, our church vicar’s daughter.  She and I had an explosive love-hate relationship.

Laura, Muffy and I spent most days making mud balls.  We permanently had sleeves of dirt.  Making a mud ball was a fine art and it took a couple of days to create a decent one.  We never did anything with our masterpieces – the joy came from the process of making them.  The first step was to create a paste of mud and water and I moulded it into a ball with my hands.  I covered it with sand and gently rubbed it over and over.  Eventually my mud ball was hard and as smooth as a baby’s bum.  At home time, we left our mud balls within in little piles of sand which looked like molehills scattered over the playground.

On one occasion, when I was making mud balls with Muffy, we heard that Laura was on top of the jungle gym and had a skirt but no panties on.  We skipped over to the play area and most of the school paraded under the jungle gym to have a quick peek at her naked bum.  Laura spread-eagled her legs from one pole to the other and was blissfully unaware that her acrobatics were causing us all such excitement.

I always found school eye and ear tests and vaccinations deeply traumatic.  I felt it was a violation of my personal rights to choose.  I thought, who the hell do these people think they are by jabbing a sharp needle into my flesh?  I remember very little of preschool but every eye and ear test and vaccination stands out with great clarity.  While all the other kids stood in the queue like calm little lambs, I wept and wailed and flung my body against the walls.

I realise now that my terror was a fear of the unknown.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I remember one of my classmates said we had to put on the ear phones so they could check if we’re deaf.  Four-year-old me wasn’t really sure what ‘deaf’ meant.  I thought, ‘What if I’m deaf?  Oh no God, maybe I am deaf!  Oh no, I’m deaf!  I’m deaf!  Maybe that means I’ll be taken away to a special school.  No more Muffy and Laura!  No more Frank and no more mud balls because I’M DEAF.’  I worked myself up into a frenzy of blind panic.

Our teachers should have explained what the big ear phones and black glasses were for.  They should have told me I would not be taken away from my Mommy and sent off to a special school for deaf and blind people.  The teachers should have explained the vaccination process and said we needed the injections to keep us free of disease so we wouldn’t die.  Instead, I thought they were leading us like lambs to the slaughter.

I once watched an interview with the writer Anna Quindlen and she said that after the untimely death of her mother, she never wanted to have kids in case they died too.  Now she is so glad she did.  She said her three children have taught her 90% of what she knows in life that is worth knowing.  She said, ‘Children help you relive everything about life and, when you are a parent, you are old and experienced enough to appreciate it.  The first time round, good things like sunsets go by too fast.  The second time round, you can experience it all over again because you see life anew through your kids’ eyes.’

Given the pleasure that 4-year-old me got out of making a simple mud ball, I think she could teach the 30-year-old me a lot about how to appreciate life!


I’m jealous

November 23, 2010

The British media is in a frenzy of excitement over the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton.  The paparazzi and journalist dogs are hopping about on three legs while their fourth is permanently lifted as they frantically mark their territory on every scrap of information that is remotely related to the couple.  Have you ever walked past Wills or Kate?  Ever been their waitress?  Ever served them in shop? Ever blow dried Kate’s hair or done her nails?  Any titbit will do!

On the Tuesday of the engagement, there was live breaking news coverage the entire day.  The BBC rapidly dispatched reporters to all corners of the UK.  One stood at the bottom of Kate’s parent’s driveway.  One stood outside a pub in the Middletons’ village of Bucklebury.  One stood at St Andrew’s University and another at St James’s Palace.  After the engagement was announced in the morning, there was not much more news to break until the happy couple did their photocall and interview later in the day.  The reporters merely stood outdoors and shivered into the camera while repeating everything we already knew.  They scraped the barrel for material which included interviewing random government ministers and foreigners from Australia and Canada who cooed with sickly delight.

Since then, The Daily Mail has interviewed the cleaner at the resort in Kenya where they got engaged.  Apparently Will and Kate were joined there by two South Africans who tipped R100 compared to William’s $100.  Newspapers interrogated Kate’s old school friends.  We also now know that she gets infusion blow waves at Richard Ward’s salon in Chelsea.  She has her hair cut and coloured by a Portuguese guy called Nando Lopes who charges £155 for a cut.  She enjoys a classic French manicure in the salon’s Metrospa.  She uses Karin Herzog Oxygen Face Creams costing £35 for 50ml.   An anonymous source described how Kate laughed with Camilla over Charles’s awful tartan curtains at Highgrove.  At the end of that article on the internet, a reader commented, ‘OH GOD HELP US!  Do we have to endure 8 more months of this?’

Reading all this detail is a bit like driving past a car wreck.  You know you shouldn’t look, you know it’s inappropriate to be so nosy but you can’t help indulging your curiosity.

To be honest, it’s really bothered me that Wills and Kate have got engaged.  I’ve been dealing with some pent up resentment about the whole thing.  After some navel gazing, I understand why.  I’m jealous.

I don’t feel any bunny-boiling jealousy over the person she’s marrying because my own husband is pretty marvellous. I’m jealous of the life of opportunity she’s landed in.   I’m jealous that, by simply marrying someone, doors have opened for her.  Kate Middleton now has a unique platform to make an impact.  She will never sit in a job interview.  She’ll never pour over job web sites.  She’ll never be rejected.  She’ll meet all sorts of interesting people.  She can make things happen.  Her mere title will command people’s attention.  As Napoleon said, ability is nothing without opportunity.  Kate now has more opportunity than she has ever dreamed.

I’ve always had a near demented fascination with famous people, particularly royalty.  In my youth, I wrote letters to every member of the British Royal Family and every European queen.  They all replied via their secretaries except for the Duchess of Kent who never replied at all.  Maybe it was because I started off my letter by saying, ‘I am very interested in the less significant members of the Royal Family, like you.’

I have an overactive imagination and have day dreamed about being high profile, having access to important philanthropists, meeting with the Prime Minister, talking to influential movers and shakers and donating cash to worthy causes.  The problem with having such intricate, intense fantasies is that real life is such a drag in comparison.

I’ve always daydreamed about my future, imagining I’ll do this or that when I’m older.  It has just dawned on me that I am older.  That time has come.  I can’t keep saying that maybe one day, I’ll be a PA to the Queen or one day I’ll clean Prince William’s shoes with my tongue.  I am grown up now.  My reality is that unless I make drastic changes, this is the life I’m going to lead indefinitely.  I can’t say, ‘After I’ve finished school, after I’ve finished university, after I’ve married, after I’ve had kids, after I’m working for the Queen of England.’  No more afters, Julie.

I think I need to analyse my reality and keep a check on my imagination.  My life is now, not in the future.  And sad to say, it is more than likely I will never have much contact with the Royal Family, other than behind a barricade guarded by police officers.

The gas bags, the melodramatics, the shy nerds and me

November 17, 2010

At first I thought a blog was a pointless idea and felt my voice echoing back at me through cyber nothingness.  I’ve got some momentum now and the echoes don’t bother me anymore because I enjoy tapping away at my keyboard and structuring my thoughts on issues that are important to me.

Recently I decided to stretch myself more so I joined a couple of online writer colonies.  I imagined them to be a kind of electronic country club for writers where I could hobnob with experts and join a tribe of focused, encouraging authors who could then become my mentors.

I quit the writers’ colonies two days after I joined.  They reminded me of a cyberspace version of Toastmasters.

Writer colonies and speaking guilds are supposed to nurture and encourage and bring out the best in people.  They bring out the worst in me. After Alastair and I had been married for a few months, I asked if there was anything he learned about me that he didn’t know before our wedding.  He said he never realized I was so judgmental and impatient.  I was indignant but then I remembered my descriptions of ‘Freaks! Loons! Odd Bods!  Morons!’ in the car after Toastmasters and realized he may have a point.

These confidence-building societies have noble intentions but they’re cringe-inducing too.  They become inauthentic because they don’t appear to regulate the quantities of hope that they give to the hopeless.  Another reason I don’t enjoy Toastmaster-type clubs is because I physically feel other people’s nerves.  I writhed in my seat and wished I could hide by retracting my head into my collarbones, like an anxious tortoise.

Most of the talks were arbitrary, inane ramblings with little structure yet the speakers were given heaps of praise by the judges.  This is encouraging for the recipient but the audience (or was it just me?) rolls their eyes.  It was a bit like someone pooing in front of you and then everyone is obliged to applaud in encouragement.  Meanwhile all I kept thinking is, ‘No matter how well you sugar coat it, your speech was still shit man!’

Toastmasters, like the writers’ colonies, is predominantly made up of 3 types of people –

  1. The Gas Bags.  These are people who love the sound of their own voices.  They speak for the sake of speaking and write for the sake of writing.  They join writers’ colonies or Toastmasters for a platform to gas on about issues and flaunt their opinions to a “captive” audience.
  2. The Melodramatics.  At Toastmasters these are the people who speak with every single muscle in their faces so it feels as if you’re watching a play rather than a speech.  In a writers’ colony, The Melodramatics are the people who use verbose, fancy language and you are so distracted by the fluff of their writing that you lose the thread of their topic.
  3. The Shy Nerds.  These are the people who join a writers’ colony or speaking club to socialize and meet people, preferably their future husband or wife.  At Toastmasters, these were the mad professor types with grouting between their teeth and spec lenses the thickness of the base of a Coke bottle.  They are sweet and friendly but lack some basic social skills.  At the writers’ colony, I bet these are Jekylls who use the anonymity of the web and transform into Hydes.  They would never ever speak to people face to face with the same assertiveness and arrogance of their writing.

To be honest, I wasn’t that good at Toastmasters.  I find impromptu public speaking reduces me to a bit of a wreck and I feel I display symptoms of early onset Parkinsons.  Once you pick your topic out the hat, there is very little time to process your response.  I wondered, ‘If I prepare for impromptu talks in advance, will they become less intimidating?’

I had an unforgettable English teacher at school who said that we should always write or speak from the heart about things that we know.  I remember her saying, ‘Don’t write about spring in Miami if you’ve never been to Miami.’  The topic at the forefront of my mind at that time was my job moves from accounting to consulting to unemployment.  I decided that no matter what topics I was given, I would always twist it to fit a preplanned two minute discussion on my career journey.  The only unprepared part would be an introduction, linking the topic to my prepped spiel.

The first session was easy as the topic was ‘Who am I?’  The second (and my last) session topic was ‘If you were an object, what object would you be?’ The link to my career journey was tenuous but creative and I felt I spoke the best.  I thought I was a shoo-in for the winner’s prize because my talk was the least cringe inducing.  Instead the winner was a popular member of The Melodramatics.

I did come top in something though. During the impromptu speech, the judges count the number of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’.  In spite of my prepared talk, I said 18 ums.  That was the most out of anyone at the session.

First Toastmasters.  Now writers’ colonies.  Another club bites the dust.

Are you living or just breathing?

November 12, 2010

One morning during rush hour, something was different on the Washington DC subway.  A musician named Joshua Bell played his violin on the station’s concourse while commuters hustled passed him.  He played 6 Bach pieces for 45 minutes.

No one noticed.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  Six people stopped briefly.  Twenty people tossed a few coins into Joshua’s hat and he collected $32 in total.  A 3-year old boy was mesmerized by the music but his mother shooed him along because she was late for work and had to drop him off at school.  Few people bothered with Joshua, especially if you consider the thousands of commuters that pass through the station every morning.

Joshua Bell is not just any old rookie violinist.  He is one of the best in the world.  In fact, he is so good that he once played an intricate piece of music on a violin worth $3,500,000.

The Washington Post organized Bell’s violin playing experiment on the subway and the results were exactly as they predicted.  No one noticed the same music that two days before Bell had played to a heaving theatre in Boston where tickets had cost in excess of $100 each.  No one realized that they were walking past a world-class musician who was playing for free.

I am sure the same thing would happen in any London tube station.  As you know from my incessant whining on this blog, The Black Dog is my regular ‘companion’, following me around like toilet paper stuck on the edge of my shoe.  One of the reasons she hangs around is because the anonymity and aloofness of London eats away at my sensitive, friendly soul.

My career upheavals have tainted my perception of the UK but even if I had a great job, I still think living in London would piss me off.

People in London live in oblivion in the same way that fish swim past each other in an aquarium.  We don’t notice things around us.  This week, I charged on to the bus and a man barked at me about how I had pushed in front of a lady with a baby.  I was horrified – I didn’t even realize what I had done!  Shame on me but that stupor is an inherent part of human traffic in London.

One of the things I noticed about South Africa during my trip there in September is that Africa is awake. I love listening to African music and the drumbeat reverberates into your core and makes you feel so alive.  Traditional African rhythmn captures the spirit and energy of the continent.  We are alert.  We are awake.

I’ve been reading an amazing book by Zimbabwean author Peter Godwin and he writes that in Africa, we live and love more vividly because life is infused with constant tension. He says, ‘In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life as a spectator but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue.  You feel perishable, temporary, transient.  You feel mortal.’

Maybe in big international cities there are so many stimuli vying for our attention that we subconsciously switch off as a defense mechanism to control what grabs it.  In places like London, people live in frenzy, as if they are stuck in the ocean on a sinking ship with not enough life jackets for everyone.  Maybe people live in this dazed rush to anesthetize themselves from the fear that there may not be a life jacket for them.  We’re busy but not awake and we don’t honour own consciousness enough.

I recently read the book called Pollyanna.  I aspire to be more like the perceptive optimist Pollyanna.  I came across this gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous (as she would say) conversation between her and her Aunt Polly.  Pollyanna says:

Oh of course I’d be breathing all the time I was doing those things, Aunt Polly, but I wouldn’t be living.  You breathe all the time you’re asleep, but you aren’t living.  I mean living – doing the things you want to do:  playing outdoors, reading (to myself, of course), climbing hills, talking to Mr Tom in the garden, and Nancy, and finding out all about the houses and the people, and everything everywhere all through the perfectly lovely streets I came through yesterday.  That’s what I call living Aunt Polly.  Just breathing isn’t living!

I don’t want to just breathe.  I don’t want to miss out on good things around me.  I want to live too.


What men want

November 2, 2010

I have a theory about men.  I think they are easy to please and not at all as complex as women.  A man needs at least three things to be content in marriage.  Alastair and I have been married for two and a half years and this time has convinced me that my theory is accurate.

I am surprised by divorce stats and wonder how women miss the three fundamentals to keeping a man happy.  Resolving conflict, relationships with families, communication and finances are all important but they’re still not part of my three categories.  In most cases, if a man gets these three things to his satisfaction, there is no need for his eyes to wonder or for him to ever want to leave.

Think of someone you know whose marriage has bust up.  There are two sides to every story but, if you consider the man’s point of view, I guarantee you that he is dissatisfied in at least one of these three crucial areas.

1.  Respect

Men want to feel respected.  They want to be regarded as important and needed and they hate to feel dismissed.  Men are as delicate as women and, while their egos seem resilient to an outsider, they are in fact as fragile as a raw eggshell.  Men long for their wives to feel proud of them and to never doubt their ability to provide and lead the household.  This desire is hardwired into their psyches.

The other day, Al and I had a little barny and in my state of rabid frustration I am ashamed to admit that I let off a few verbal stink bombs, one of which was a naughty swear word directed at him.

The day after our disagreement, when the dust had settled and all was forgiven, Al sidled up to me and whispered, ‘Julie, can I just ask you one thing?  Please don’t swear at me again.  It really upsets me.’

I realized I broke one of my very own cardinal relationship rules.  Alastair didn’t mind if I ranted and raved and frothed at the mouth about the issues that were frustrating me.  But the poisonous swear word with his name on it made him feel invalidated and disrespected and that bothered him more than anything else.

2.  Physical touch/Sex

Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages is an international best seller.  I bet you that any woman’s language of love has an equal chance of being any of the five but I predict that most men have physical touch as their primary love language.

If a man has a bad day, he likes sex to commiserate and if he has a good day, he wants it to celebrate.  I once read a book about marriage and a woman was flabbergasted that her husband wanted sex on the night of his best friend’s funeral.  He, like most men, saw physical affection as a deep comfort and expression of her love for him.

One of my close friends believes that That-Time-Of-The-Month is God’s gift to women to give us a short, guilt-free break.  Her husband treats her like a leper during these few days so she it milks to her advantage (mainly because she is secured by his adoration on every other day of the month).  She said she looks forward to this week because she hops into bed in her flannel PJs, puts on greasy moisturizer, reads her book, then turns out the light, closes her eyelids and that’s the end.  She said that on some occasions she extends the leper period and her husband is none the wiser.

Physical touch is a challenge, especially when the courtship phase is over and the familiarity of marriage sets in.  It’s a big effort to create anticipation and romance when you’ve just done a number 2 with the door open.  This is a conundrum because feeling comfortable enough to emit unpleasant sounds or odours in your partner’s company is also a unique expression of physical intimacy.  On the other hand, if you’re too relaxed with your husband or wife, it is a challenge to sustain physical intrigue and excitement.  This is one of the reasons why people say marriage is a lot of hard work.

3.  Food

This is not a deal breaker but it has been my experience that men love a good meal.  If you cook well and have hearty, hot suppers waiting for your husband when he gets home from work, it shows you care and, trust me, you will get a big tick next to your name.  It’s part of that nurturing, comforting, maternal side to which men are by instinct attracted.

Alastair is touched when I bake and try new, adventurous recipes.  He is a human hoover and tucks into a good meal in the same way that Jessie, my beloved miniature Daschund, snorted and snarled as she guzzled a bone.  Al plans and daydreams about future meals like the kid in the TV Bar advert of my childhood (“Imagine it was raining crispy rice and toasted coconut, imagine a river of milk falling into a chocolate whirlpool swirling with crispy rice and toasted coconut.  Imagine eating all of that … now”)

Respect and sex are the most vital of my three categories.  Food is less important but definitely earns brownie points and, if on the odd occasion you are not up for rule 2, the fact that you have loaded his stomach helps.

Don’t say I didn’t ever warn you.