The meeting

March 7, 2018 § 1 Comment

Early this past Saturday morning, on a familiar road, I happened upon four young men. They were congegrated on a corner, leaning on an electrical supply box, seemingly oblivious to the crisp, autumnal air.

On top of the box was an assortment of drinks: a bottle of water, a take-away coffee, a carton of amasi. They chatted and laughed. One playfully punched another’s arm, as young men often will.

I drew closer and stopped at the lights, and noticed that one of them held a handwritten sign, and a paper cup loosely in his left hand. I knew his face; I’d seen him often at this very corner. Except now, the shuffling gait, the stooped spine, the pleading eyes were gone. Now he seemed tall and proud and vital.

This morning he was simply a young man, taking a few minutes before the work day began to chat to his colleagues in the sunshine. To talk about the news, perhaps, or share a joke.

Soon they would scatter to their respective corners, their sparse belongings obscured in the recesses of high walls, or the crook of a tree. Soon all of them would don their professional personas, and work the cars at the lights: shuffling, stooping, pleading: all in the name of making a few bucks for food, shelter, clothes.

And you can think of them as con artists, sure: there’s a sense in which they perform to extract money from passing trade. I couldn’t help but think, though, that many of the ‘respectable’ jobs we’re so proud of – the ones that distinguish us only by the buying power they give us – really aren’t that different when you really boil things down.

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Bank queue

January 25, 2018 § 3 Comments

I had to stand in a bank queue today to collect some new cards. It’s payday, it’s been hot, and it was just after lunch so there were four or five people ahead of me. Still, I needed my cards, so I decided to wait it out.

Two people ahead of me was an older woman, impatiently pacing on the six-inch spot she occupied, moving huffily from one hip onto the other. When one of the two bank employees behind the enquiries desk dared to walk to the other side of the branch to fetch something, she boomed, “Great! Now one of them has left!”

The woman returned to her post and finally it was Loud Woman’s turn. She asked for her card, and it wasn’t there, despite her having a text message on her phone telling her to come and collect it. It was a frustrating situation, to be sure, but not nearly frustrating enough to warrant the shouting that ensued.

Patiently the bank employee explained the processes. Impatiently, Loud Woman shouted over the top of her, the volume increasing with every sentence. Eventually, after some further investigation, it transpired that the card was actually for her mother-in-law and she’d received the message because she was the contact person for the account.

Did she apologise? Don’t be ridiculous. She didn’t even have the good grace to look sheepish. She barked a curt thanks at the object of her abuse and stalked out of the bank.

Finally it was my turn. I went to the same counter she had. We exchanged some commiserations about the rudeness the bank employee had just encountered, and chatted about this and that as she processed my transaction.

An elderly man stepped up to the counter beside me. He greeted no one; just snapped out his business, and while he waited for the teller to help him, started attacking the woman helping me for delaying the queue. By his estimation she was taking far too long, wasting time by talking to me – a woman who had been standing and helping me the whole time I’d been at the counter, fighting with a sluggish network computer to process my cards. He leaned on one elbow and thrust a finger in her face with the other arm, shouting and called her a liar to her face, while she smiled and placated and practised the finest example of ‘the customer is always right’ I have ever seen.

I’d like to say I stood up for her; I’m ashamed to say I didn’t. The truth is, I was utterly gobsmacked by what I was witnessing. I honestly couldn’t form a coherent sentence.

And when he’d gone, she and her colleague shared an almost imperceptible chuckle and a head shake, and they carried on being their bright and sunny selves. “You can’t win,” she said to me. “If you don’t chat to the customers, then they complain about you. And if you do, then they also complain.”

Some days I think human beings really haven’t evolved much at all. And people who do these kinds of jobs, are my everyday heroes.

Note to self

December 31, 2017 § 6 Comments

I’m not usually one to celebrate a new year. For me, 1 January is just another day. I don’t set resolutions, and I’ve spent the last few New Year’s Eves alone – which suits me just fine. I take down the Christmas decorations, give the dogs Rescue Remedy, and go to bed around 9pm. After all, it’s midnight somewhere in the world, right?

This year, however, is different. I’m still having a quiet evening at home, although I’m in the company of my younger daughter and three of her friends. But I have a very real sense of being on a cusp; of facing the future in a completely different frame of mind.

The last three years or so have not been easy. I don’t expect the year ahead to be any easier. But I am different. For the first time in ages, I’ve got to the end of a year and felt tired, but not profoundly exhausted. (This is the first time in three years I’ve not had shingles, as a case in point.) I haven’t even taken a holiday, as I didn’t feel like I needed one yet, budgetary constraints notwithstanding.

Instead, I’ve stayed home and I’m working quietly on all of those things I don’t usually get to – really preparing for the working year ahead. The pace of work is slower, and I take frequent breaks for tea, a swim, to hang out the washing, or pull out some weeds. (Welcome to Glamour Central.) But my plan for 2018 is really to hit the ground running. To bring my A game. To stop using hackneyed phrases…

So I’m making resolutions this year – but not those kinds of resolutions. And I’m putting them here so I can find them easily and refer to . You really are not obliged to read them. And if you don’t want to read them, you should probably go and do something else right about now.

So here they are – in no particular order:

  1. To consume less – in all kinds of ways – and to live lightly upon the earth.
  2. To be more present, wherever I might be.
  3. To celebrate the small stuff – even if it’s just with an air punch or a 30-second dance party.
  4. To strive for excellence in everything – because that’s who I am. I just forgot for a while, but baby, I’m back. Watch this space.
  5. To work harder, faster, smarter.
  6. To finally see those ideas in my head come to fruition
  7. To remember when obstacles rear up on the path ahead that my mother raised a resourceful, creative daughter.
  8. To ask for help when I need it, and offer it when I am able to help others.
  9. To rest from time to time.
  10. To connect with people who energise me.
  11. To start a band. (Well, I’m thinking about it.)
  12. To find a way to travel more.
  13. To be kind and gentle to myself.
  14. To do whatever it takes to ensure my cup runneth over, and then give from the overflow. The stuff inside the cup is for me.
  15. To be firm with my boundaries.
  16. To not be so good at saying ‘no’ that I forget to say ‘yes’ from time to time.
  17. To do stuff that scares me – especially when fear of success is the problem.
  18. To persist. Giving up is not an option.

That’ll do for now.

If you’ve read this far, Happy New Year, everybody, and thank you to those who take the time to read these blogs. I appreciate you more than you know.

Now it’s time to stomp all over 2018 and make it our own.

 

 

For Aunty Pam

December 8, 2017 § 4 Comments

Some people leave an indelible mark on you from the first time you meet them. Aunty Pam was one of those people.

Of course, she wasn’t my aunt at all – but that’s how we did things then. You’d never think of calling someone who was your parents’ age by their first name. But Aunty Pam would soon feel to me as though she really was one of my family members.

I first met her as a teenager – she was a friend of my boyfriend’s family. When I married him some years later, Aunty Pam did the flowers. When we had children, she and Uncle Peter became unofficial honorary grandparents. They faithfully remembered birthdays and Christmases, and we kept in touch with the odd phone call or lunch. When my husband and I divorced, my relationship with Aunty Pam and Uncle Peter remained unchanged.

I learnt so much from her. She was the most down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, warm, generous soul you could ever hope to meet. She was wise and witty. She was sharp as a shard of glass, and she called a spade a damn shovel. She had the ability to cut through any bullshit and see through to the heart of things. And she had enormous compassion and a remarkable grasp of human nature – which is probably what made her such a great nursing sister.

One of my favourite memories of her was a discussion about her retirement plans and where she wanted to live. I asked about a retirement home, and she almost spat with disdain at the thought. “I’m not going to one of those places,” she said. And then she twinkled: “I wish to be a burden to my children.”

On Tuesday this week, as I silenced the alarm on my phone, a call rang through, and I heard that Aunty Pam had died. Next week Tuesday, Aunty Pam’s friends and family will gather to celebrate her life. Sadly, I can’t be there as I have family matters of my own to attend to.

I will miss her enormously. I will miss her broad accent, which she never lost despite having left the UK several decades ago. I will miss her toddling off to my kitchen to make more rooibos tea, which she drank in copious amounts after she stopped drinking red wine. I’ll miss her throaty chain smoker’s laugh – she remains the only person I ever allowed to smoke inside my house, because in later years she simply didn’t have the mobility to get up and smoke outside. I’ll miss her pragmatism and wisdom and generosity, and I’ll miss her annual Christmas cards, which arrived promptly in early December every year, including this year.

But most of all, I’ll miss her for her kindness, which she dispensed in large helpings to anyone who needed it. Kindness, I think, is the currency of love.

Rest in peace, dearest Aunty Pam. I loved you very much, and I will never forget you.

Raising agent

December 8, 2017 § 1 Comment

This evening my elder daughter boards a plane for Europe with a sense of possibility. She’s seeing the realisation of a dream that has been partially fuelled by her own hard work.

She wanted to go on a Contiki tour to celebrate the end of more than a decade of schooling, but it cost a lot more money than we had. So I sat her down and asked her if she was willing to work for it. It might take a little while, I said, but I thought we could create a fund with the small amount I had in my savings account, and work to raise the rest of it. I would bake and sell shortbread, she could tutor and babysit, and we’d even wash cars – with all proceeds to the fund.

It would require a team effort. So she, her sister and I made a pact, and the fund was launched. I crafted a Facebook post that explained the goal, and that we didn’t expect anything for nothing. We had a rough figure in our heads, and within a week, between donations and the services and shortbread we were offering we’d raised 60% of our goal. 

She tutored and babysat at every opportunity. The three of us baked and packed and delivered more shortbread than we ever thought we’d see in our lifetimes. I even washed a car with th  gracious assistance of its lovely owner. And another week or two later, we’d reached our goal.

I am delighted that she’s going. But I’m even more delighted that she learnt a few lessons along the way.

She learnt that people who love you will support your dreams in ways big and small if you’re prepared to put in the effort. She learnt that it’s possible to pay cash for big ticket items if you’re prepared to work, be disciplined, and exercise some patience. She learnt about the power of lots of small drops adding up into an overflowing pail of water. And she learnt that the simplest of elements – butter, flour and sugar – can be transformed into dreams when they’re seasoned with resourcefulness.

The shortbread recipe was passed on to me by the mother of one of my dearest friends. I like to think she’s looking down on us from heaven in approval of what her delicious recipe has helped to bring about. Thanks, Nini – we couldn’t have done it without you.

And thank you to everyone who contributed. You’ve helped to make a young girl’s dream come true.

On guard

November 29, 2017 § 2 Comments

Earlier this year I had occasion to interview the chairman of one of South Africa’s biggest retailers, who also sits on several other boards as a non-executive director. It was a Q&A interview, with some standard questions, including this one: Who/what inspires you?

This was his answer: “Security guards. They’re always so cheerful.”

It was an interesting answer, and it got me thinking – and noticing how many times in a day I interacted with security guards. The answer, if you live in South Africa, is “a lot”.

And they are, for the most part, friendly and cheerful. In shopping centres, they will always direct you to the shop you’re looking for. At government departments, they usually know more than the information desk clerks do. But it’s at business premises, I think, that they come into their own.

Because at corporate headquarters and office parks across South Africa, the security guard is the new front desk person. They are the person you interact with long before you talk to a receptionist. They are often the person who sets the tone of an organisation before you’ve even parked your car. I’ve left packages with them. I’ve chatted with them when I’ve been training people at companies a few days in a row. And they are often far more friendly and helpful than the reception staff, many of whom double as switchboard operators and, as a result, only give you half their attention.

But I wonder how many companies value them? I wonder how many companies grumble about how much security costs – and don’t interrogate how much of that goes to the guard, and how much to the security company?

Because I suspect they aren’t very well-paid. I know that from time to time when I hire a security guard on an ad hoc basis, I’m horrified by how little it costs – because I know the guard isn’t getting all of that. They work long hours, often in uncomfortable conditions, and might be called upon to put themselves in danger to keep us all safe and sound, they’re probably poorly paid – and they’re still cheerful!

They might not be on your payroll, but they’re a vital part of your organisation – and not just because they keep you safe. They also set the tone for visitors to your company. Maybe it’s time to appreciate them just a little bit more, and see how you can improve both their working conditions and their lot in life.

Wanted: stunt double

November 22, 2017 § 4 Comments

When I think back on my teenage years, I think I could’ve done with a stunt double for watching movies. Of course, in those days, we didn’t go to the movies as often as people do now, so a few events stand out for me – and they are filled with great danger and peril.

The first time I was allowed to go to the movies by myself was uneventful. My mother dropped me off at Kine 500, Port Elizabeth’s biggest cinema at the time, to watch Christopher Reeve in Superman. The movie was released in 1978 so I must have been nine years old, and I remember how grown-up I felt to be allowed to do something like that by myself – to buy my own ticket, my own popcorn, my own fizzy drink.

But I also remember getting a good tongue-lashing for not being exactly where I was supposed to be afterwards. I think I was distracted by the bookshop a block away, and wandered off.

Fast forward to 1982 and I am off to the movies with my new boyfriend, Shane* and his best friend, Evan*. This time it’s at the Rink Street cinemas, across the road from St George’s Park and the King George VI Art Gallery. I am in my only pair of jeans: skintight Wranglers that I loved and wore at every opportunity, a fact Evan felt obliged to comment on – not so sotto voce – as I sashayed up the steep stairs into the complex. I remember wondering what he was doing there anyway. Weren’t Shane and I about to have our first date? It was all a bit odd.

Still. I was 13, my jeans looked fabulous on me, and Shane was good-looking, from another school, and two years older than me. I could almost die of the glamour – this wondrous creature had asked me to go to movies with him. We queued for tickets, and proceeded to the snacks counter. I don’t recall what we were watching: I was so besotted with Shane I didn’t think we’d be paying much attention to the movie anyway. He gave me a smouldering look (for a 15-year-old), and took my hand as we walked across the plushly patterned carpets. Had I been a Victorian woman, I would almost certainly have swooned.

Somehow, I managed to keep my cool, and we ordered our snacks. The woman behind the counter filled our drinks and plonked them down in front of us. The popcorn followed: three boxes lined up in a row. Evan took his. Shane took his. I took mine – but missed, somehow, and knocked the whole thing over. We stood in a sea of popcorn, a queue rapidly forming behind me.

I blushed. Evan laughed. Shane tried not to, and we kicked the popcorn under the counter. “Never mind,” said Shane. “You can share mine.” I almost swooned again, and forgot my blushes.

The following year, after Shane had broken up with me (and I had made him see what he was missing out on by leaving some very lovelorn song lyrics in a letter in his postbox) I was off to the movies with my best friend, Tammy*. We were inseparable – we spent almost every afternoon after school together, riding all over the place on our bikes in an effort to get thinner thighs (yes, I know). We pored over pictures of Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and dressed to the nines at any opportunity in an effort to lure ourselves boyfriends.

One such opportunity was the movies – you never knew who you might see there. So we were off to the Rink Street cinema again. We spent hours getting ready: we bathed, did our hair and make-up, and both dressed in khaki dresses with red accessories. (Please don’t judge – it was the eighties.) I’d made my own dress – it had a dropped waist and pockets, and Tammy’s was a much more elegant affair – it skimmed her body perfectly, and had buttons all the way down the front.

I was so well-accessorised that even my shoes were red. And despite Tammy’s pointing out that it was well-known that only prostitutes wore red shoes, I loved them and wore them as often as possible. Suitably coiffed and clothed, we clip-clopped up those same precarious stairs to the movies.

This time the popcorn buying proceeded without incident, and Tammy and I settlled in to watch the movie, having not, unfortunately, found any suitable boyfriend material. I forget what we watched, but the end credits started to roll and we hurried out as Tammy’s mother was waiting outside in the family’s pale green Anglia. The ignominy of having to leave in such an Embarrassing Car would be the subject of a mother-daughter fight all the way home afterwards.

But I digress.

We’d chosen to sit near the back. There were several steps down to the exit. I was 14 and in high heel shoes. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but before I knew it, I was somersaulting down those stairs, legs in the air, and shoes flying. One landed in front of the screen, one among the rows of seats, and I landed in the most unladylike position you could possibly imagine. I hope I had my good underwear on.

The other patrons stared in amazement; Tammy was bent over double, laughing at my indignity as only a best friend can.

So this is just a warning. There haven’t been any incidents of late, but given how clumsy I am, anything can happen. I’ve not yet been able to find a stunt double who’s up to the task.

 * Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

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