Library lessons

July 24, 2013 § 6 Comments

I took my younger daughter to the library this weekend for a long overdue visit. In fact, one of the things I berate myself for often as a mother, is that we don’t go to the library more often.

I love libraries – especially huge university libraries with many floors where I feel more intelligent just by soaking up the atmosphere. I love the smell of libraries, the slight fustiness. I love running my hands over the spines of the books and discovering all the many things that people like to write about. I love the idea of all of those words being held in one place.

But I also love libraries for the lessons they carry. Yes, there are lessons about books and words and reading, and all of those are good. But it occurred to me on Saturday that libraries also have life lessons to teach us – here are five that occurred to me:

#1. The best things in life really can be free – In a world where we seem to pay for every little thing (or at least that’s how it seems to me) it’s a wonderful thing to find a service like a library, which is free of charge. For some minor form-filling-in and photostatting to prove you’re a resident, you have access to all of those books, great and small, and you can take them out as often as you like. For someone like me, who champions reading at every turn, and who would always rather be curled up with a book, that’s pretty darn cool.

#2. Meet your deadlines or risk your reputation – As the librarian re-registered us on the library’s computer system this weekend, I noted that the category we fall into is ‘delinquent’. Oops. Yes, it’s true. I am the world’s worst returner of library books. I am always, always late and often severely so. I did suggest to the librarian that ‘fundraiser’ might be a better moniker, as we’ve paid quite a lot of money in fines over the years, but he said that option didn’t exist.

#3. Sharing is caring – You really don’t have to own everything you enjoy. We live in an age of conspicuous consumerism. When things break, often we replace them instead of repairing them. Or people drown under the clutter they’ve bought and simply hoarded – it’s sheer madness. A library is a place where you can enjoy something without owning it, and share it with a larger community. I think we’d do well to apply this principle in other areas of our lives.

#4. Delayed gratification can be very satisfying – Conspicuous consumerism is fed by our culture of instant gratification. Is that Harry Potter book you queued all night for really any better than the same book bought a week or two later? No, of course it isn’t. Compare that with the experience of waiting for a book to come into the library because someone else is reading it. You learn a little patience; you learn a little selflessness, and it when it arrives, it’s such a thrill! (Humour me. I’m easily thrilled.)

#5. Joy can be found in something that’s slightly dog-eared – One of my prized possessions is a very dilapidated copy of Inscapes, a poetry anthology edited by Robin Malan. It was our anthology for high school, and I found this one at a second-hand book sale. It’s tatty, and it’s filled with someone else’s pencilled notes, in a really bad handwriting, but I love it because it’s been loved and used. And the poems aren’t any less lovely for all the markings on the page – they’re the same poems, in the same collection, and they still hold the same value as they would in a brand new book.

Libraries aren’t valued the way they once were, and I think it’s a tragedy. Because they’re not just about books. And I’m sure there are many more lessons to learn – if you think of any, I’d love to hear them.


Here comes the bride

July 19, 2013 § 10 Comments

This post has been brewing for a while, but it swung into full flight this morning when it was brought to my attention that engagement shoots are now A Thing. As in, part of getting married. Not only that, but apparently you can even have ‘morning after’ photos taken. Well smack my arse and call me Charlie. This wedding industry thing has got completely out of hand.

The fact that we even have a wedding industry should be cause for alarm. When did a celebration of two people’s love and commitment to each other become an industry? And why have we bought into it? Is there no end to our conspicuous consumerism?

When I see reality shows that focus entirely on someone’s quest for a wedding dress, I want to do the ugly cry. Seriously? Is this what getting married has become? We have to drag a whole entourage of family and friends to choose (and fight over) a wedding dress? And have cameras follow our every move? What happened to choosing a nice pattern or picture and having a dressmaker run it up for you? Or trying on five or six dresses with your mom or your best friend until you find something that works for you? When did these warehouses of white wedding wankery happen? Why have we even allowed them to happen?

And the wedding planners, and rehearsal dinners, and agonising over songs to walk into and walk out to and tie your shoes to and throw your bouquet to. And let’s not forget the limousines and getting dressed shoots, and party favours and lavish receptions and decor what-whats and the megastress and the fighting and the family feuds that ensue. Is anyone even enjoying their wedding anymore?

Perhaps it’s just me, but I thought weddings were about the ceremony – about two people promising to love each other and take care of each other for a long, long time, and wanting all their loved ones to witness that commitment. Because let me tell you, starry-eyed engaged people – that’s the hard part. You can throw all kinds of money at the wedding and have a cadenza because the roses that arrived were cerise instead of pale pink, but none of it amounts to anything.

And just as an aside, it’s outrageous what people spend on their weddings. If you are going into debt to fund your wedding, you’re doing it wrong. If your parents are paying for it and you are spending their money with gay abandon, you’re being selfish. If you’re planning to have kids, trust me, you do not want to know what a good education costs. And you’re spending it all on one day? Get a grip.

In years to come, when life throws things at you that you never, ever anticipated, you won’t be phoning the wedding planner to help you. It won’t matter that it rained on your wedding day, or that your nephew spilled hot chocolate on his pageboy outfit. None of that will amount to a hill of beans. What will matter is the two of you, gritting your teeth and getting through whatever it is together, because you love each other, and you promised you would be there for each other. That’s what your wedding day is all about. That’s what ‘for better or for worse’ is.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t celebrate your wedding – it’s a happy occasion, and of course you should have a party. Just dial it back a little – focus on the things that matter.

And so, before I get any more Ranty McRanty with you, allow me to share some of my favourite weddings with you, and leave it at that.

1. My own wedding, which through circumstances beyond my control was arranged in Port Elizabeth, while we lived in Johannesburg. I took a day off work to make my wedding dress. I remember that someone in the block of flats behind me was taking potshots at the pigeons with his pistol while I sewed. I chose a breakfast reception for two reasons – I knew I couldn’t sit around all day waiting for a wedding, and breakfast is much cheaper per head, and I didn’t want my parents bankrupted. The room only held 100 people, so we really had to choose our guests wisely. The day before the wedding I clambered down a bank to pick some arum lilies for my bouquet because we were struggling to find them at florists. Then I drove past a garden that was filled with them. I knocked on the door and asked if I could have one or two for my wedding, and the woman who owned the house helped me to pick every perfect arum lily in her garden. A family friend did the flowers, another did the photographs, and my beloved grandmother made the cake. I did my own hair and make-up. I scandalised the aunties who clucked around me because my panties showed through my simple sheath dress, so I simply removed them and walked up the aisle with only a strapless bra and stay-up stockings under my dress. My two-year-old nephew – the page boy – read the hymn book upside-down at the front of the church while the minister preached. By the time the wedding photos were done, I was barefoot and the stockings and shoes had been cast aside. We honeymooned in a tent in Fish Hoek, in a campsite that delivered so many great stories and memories that I still wouldn’t exchange it for anything.

2. My brother and sister-in-law’s wedding, which they hoped to hold on Bloubergstrand, but true to form, the wind had other ideas. As we left for the wedding, my younger daughter, then two, was almost blown off her feet. The wedding was held in one of the country’s first Dutch Reformed churches instead. The bride, her mother, and the wedding party, were barefoot. My children were in their fairy outfits. Simple sunflowers adorned the old, dark wood-panelled church, while the wind howled outside. Photographs were taken on the beach and my sister-in-law’s veil blew off into the ocean, never to be seen again. The photographs were magnficent – somehow the wind lifted her dress in just the right way in every picture, and everyone laughed and wore a genuine smile. The reception was held in a nearby hall, which we all helped to decorate the day before, twirling lengths of white cloth and trailing ivy around the pillars. I danced with my brother, windsurfing around that hall with the best of them; my best friend’s three-year-old spent half of the reception stark naked, undecided as to whether she wanted to wear her party dress or her pyjamas.

3. My boss got married and the dress code was jeans. The bride wore a traditional dress, and happily swanned around in it at the reception, but everyone else – including the bridegroom, wore jeans. After the ceremony we retired to someone’s house for  lamb on a spit and simple accoutrements, served buffet style. The speeches were short, and the bride and groom spent time with everyone who attended, perched on the arm of a sofa, or standing around the table. We laughed, we raised a glass or two, and we all left relaxed and happy.

4. My husband’s sister got married in a small chapel on a hill. The day was grey, but the witnesses were so delighted to be there, that no-one noticed. My daughters were flower girls; their cousin was the bridesmaid. I did everyone’s make-up for them and the hairstylist pinned flowers in everyone’s hair. The wedding cake was a tower of carrot cake cupcakes, and the photographs were taken in a nearby field. Thanks to the soft light and the grey skies, they are some of the most beautiful wedding photographs I have ever seen.

5. My husband’s close varsity friend was married in the Greek Orthodox church. Everyone was required to stand through the whole service – except me, because I was heavily pregnant. The flower girls were dressed as fairies – complete with wands, and you have never seen happier little girls. My husband (one of the best men) almost ripped the bride’s dress as they walked around the altar three times. There was (mostly bad) Greek dancing afterwards, but no plates were harmed in the process. The groom’s granny hurt her knee dancing and I gave her some painkillers from my handbag, earning myself a lifelong friend. There was laughter, there was levity, there was love.

In the interests of full disclosure: Long ago I was commissioned to co-author a book on how to plan a wedding, and my best friend and I wrote a damn fine book, I thought. I later discovered it was to carry advertising for the wedding industry, which took the shine off it, somehow.

Plain language paradox

July 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

When I teach business writing courses – and emphasise the importance of plain language – one of the most common complaints I hear is this: “If I write like that my boss won’t accept it.” They are often referring to the same boss who sent them on the course, which is something of a paradox.

But the complaint is a very valid one – many of the top dogs are, in fact, dinosaurs when it comes to modern business correspondence. And I’m willing to bet those same bosses are surprised that their employees sprout fewer buzzwords rather than more, by the time they’ve finished the course.

Here’s an example. Last week someone called me and asked for my help – he’s coaching someone and the person being coached needs someone to look at their correspondence and give some pointers before it’s sent. (It took him about 15 minutes to explain what I’ve just said in a sentence, so mired was his speech in ‘stakeholders’ and ‘outcomes’ and ‘engagement’.) On Monday I sent him an email to say I couldn’t make the suggested meeting time, and this is the response I received:

“No problem. Subsequent to our brief discussion last week further developments on John’s side have pushed out the need for the communication. I shall keep in touch going forward.”

This is fairly typical business English, and it makes me want to go and curl up under a cabbage leaf and die, frankly. Here’s a translation:

“No problem. Since we spoke things have changed, and John’s letters are no longer as urgent. I’ll keep you updated.”

Do you see what I mean? The message is the same in both versions. My version has a more friendly tone, you know exactly what I mean, and there’s no slight furrow in your brow when you read it.

The writer of this email is the MD of his company. And he wants John to learn how to write better. Does anyone else see the irony here?

Jerseys, lightning, tea and sympathy

July 11, 2013 § 12 Comments

Yesterday I discovered that a very dear friend had done something wonderful for me. He got onto the Gautrain and rode all the way to Pretoria to fetch my jersey. I’d lent it to a mutual acquaintance, and was planning on getting it back at some point, but I’d mostly forgotten about it. I didn’t ask my friend to do this for me; I didn’t even know he had thought to do it until he handed me my jersey at a meeting we were both attending.

I was struck by the thoughtfulness and generosity of such a gesture, and grateful to have a friend like that. But it also got me thinking about friendship, because my friends have always been enormously important to me.

But here’s the thing – I can be a bit strange. If you’re my friend, here are some of the things you probably need to know.

1. Once I’ve decided I like you, you’re kinda stuck with me. You actually have to hurt me quite badly to get rid of me. Even if we don’t talk for ages, I’ll be happy to hear from you if the phone suddenly rings or you pitch up on my doorstep. Because I like you, and absence doesn’t change that.

2. I will pick up the phone from time to time, or send you a text out of the blue, because I sometimes get the sense that something is going on with you, and I act on that. Perhaps that seems a little woo-woo to you, but I usually have very good instincts, so I act on them, and I’m seldom wrong. But I’m not stalking you, I promise – I’m genuinely concerned and I want to help if I can.

3. You will always be welcome in my home – whether you just drop in for a cup of tea or join us for dinner, or need to stay over in our spare room. You are not imposing – just ask, dammit. I’ll be perfectly honest if it doesn’t suit me. If you’re lucky there’ll be cake; on other days you might just get tea and sympathy amidst the chaos. But if you’re willing to take me as you find me, pick up the phone and ask if you can pop around. If I’m home, chances are I’ll say ‘yes’.

4. I adore my girlfriends. At school I had some pretty special friends, and that has continued into adulthood. And I like nothing better than to meet them for breakfast and a couple of hours of solving the world’s problems, or picking up the phone for an hour-long catch-up wherever they might be in the world. Their warmth, wit and wisdom has seen me through some really tough times; I hope I deliver the same to them.

5. I adore my boy friends even more. For some reason, I’ve always had more male friends than female ones; something my husband had to get used to very early in our marriage, because I refuse to give them up. They are much more direct than my girl friends – they call a spade a spade, and they don’t let you wallow in misery when you’re being an ass. Need an illustration? One of my friends, when I text him because I’m drowning in self-doubt, responds with one word: “Tit.” That always makes me laugh, and puts things into perspective immediately.

And finally, a story, just to drive the point home.

Some years back, I was having a long phone conversation (on a landline) with a very dear friend of mine, who lived across town. A furious Johannesburg thunderstorm was brewing, and, having heard all the horror stories about lightning strikes through the telephone, I was a bit nervous about chatting to him, even though he assured me he was fine. I could hear the thunder crashing in the background on his side of the call.

And then, mid-sentence, the line went dead. I tried to phone back – nothing. I tried his cellphone – nothing. I knew his wife was out at a work function and his sons, both under five, would be fast asleep. I knew what had happened. He was lying on the floor in his study, unconscious, with a small spire of smoke rising from his chest.

So I did what any good friend would do. I jumped into my car and drove like the clappers to his house. I tried the doorbell – nothing. There was no movement behind the lit windows. There was only one thing for it – I climbed over the gate. As I got to the top, his Staffie came trotting out and gazed at me like the madwoman I was, wagging his stumpy posterior. His Bull Mastiff friend was not as pleased with finding me on top of the gate, and soon my friend came out to see what the commotion was. He couldn’t quite believe what he found. And of course, he was fine – the lightning had just taken out the phone and the doorbell, and his cellphone was on silent.

He helped me down from the gate – which was just as well, because I’m not the world’s most agile person, and going up was a lot easier than climbing down – and we went inside and had a good laugh over a cup of tea.

But if you’re my friend, that’s what you’re dealing with. Just so you know.

How to avoid workouts

July 10, 2013 Comments Off on How to avoid workouts

This morning I viewed nude photographs of Gary Player and was inspired. Good Lord, that sounds bad – let me explain.

I came across this article on Twitter and compared Player’s 77-year-old body to my 44-year-old one. I did not come out well in the comparison. “I know!” I thought. “I’ll ride my bike to my biokineticist appointment later this morning.”

As I begin to write this blogpost, I’ve already decided I’ll be driving because, truth be told, I’m too lazy. I’m also singularly unathletic, as a former post will attest. However, I have realised that something good can still come of all of this. And so, since I’m a self-proclaimed expert in avoiding exercise, I thought it would be selfish not to share what I’ve learned over the last 44 years.

Here then, is your five-step plan to avoiding a workout:

1. Don’t join a gym. You’d think this was obvious, but I know plenty of people whose gym cards mock them from the pockets of their gym bags, inducing all kinds of guilt. Just be honest with yourself – you’re going to pour money down the drain every month, and you’re never going to go to gym. And on the odd occasion when you do make it there, you’ll be so unfit, you’ll just feel terrible for days afterwards. And you’re paying for this?

2. Always have the wrong shoes. I’m told that the wrong shoes can be very damaging, and as someone with a pretty permanent foot injury, I feel one can’t be too careful. Ensure that you always carry the wrong shoes for whichever activity people are suggesting you try. Golf shoes don’t work on the squash court, for example, and squash shoes aren’t good for dance classes. Make sure you get that right… erm… wrong.

3. Don’t risk training when you’re ill. Obviously if you’ve taken to your bed, exercise is out of the question, but ‘ill’ also means you have a headache, hayfever, insomnia, a cold, a fever blister, a pimple, or worse. Any breakdown in your health, no matter how trivial, is an excuse to miss a workout.

4. Double book yourself. Coffee dates with friend always trump planned workout sessions. Just practise looking contrite and telling your trainer or workout partner this: “I’m so sorry, I doubled booked!” As soon as you’ve delivered your line, preferably over the phone, hightail it to that coffee shop so your latte (skinny, of course) doesn’t get cold.

5. Keep an eye on the weather. Having given up your gym membership (see point 1) you are now forced to exercise outdoors. There’s just no space at home. But frame your excuses carefully; be specific. “I really feel like swimming, but it’s far too cold.” or “I’d go for a ride, but it’s far too windy.” (I used that today.) Or even “This darn rain is messing with my running schedule.” Don’t leave yourself open to alternate suggestions by being too general.

Finally, there will be those naysayers who try to persuade you that exercise is good for you. I have incontrovertible proof that it isn’t. My husband is the team doctor for a professional rugby team — people who are paid to exercise — and they spend half their lives in hospital. Things break, they shatter, they tear, they become inflamed. Exercise is dangerous, people. Avoid it at all costs.

And as for Gary Player? Well, he’s not a real athlete, is he? He’s a golfer, and golf, as someone once told me, is a stroll in the park ruined by a little white ball. I’m always up for a gentle stroll, preferably one that doesn’t involve hills.

Weekend away

July 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

I had a manic weekend away.

It was supposed to be a weekend of rest and relaxation, some me-time, and an opportunity to finish the second draft of my novel, and it was all of that, but it wasn’t R&R in the traditional sense – there were no afternoon naps or late morning sleeps. And yet I returned home to my family feeling refreshed. As my best friend put it – my bucket was refilled.

So, what did I get up to? Well, in 48 hours I sat on a bench and watched the sea, walked the Sea Point promenade, met some people I’d only encountered on Twitter, visited a dear friend three times, drank a fair amount of wine with her and others, climbed Karbonkelberg in Hout Bay with another Twitter friend and her lovely dogs (including Alfie the Boerboel x Great Dane, with whom I fell in love), had coffee with someone I’ve always admired, and finished the rewrite of 40 000 odd words (some may have been odder than others). And I may have squeezed in some tweeting because, well, I’m addicted.

And then I got home on Sunday afternoon, and within a couple of hours, the blues set it.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I love my family and my home very much, and I was very glad to be home, and yet I felt quite deflated. Luckily, though, I have wise friends – Ruth pointed out that it’s the glimpse of another kind of life that brings the blues, while Clive noted that the return to the humdrum, the mundaneness of everyday life tends to do that. (I’m paraphrasing.)

And then Clive suggested a very interesting thing – learning, several times a day to stop and be present. Wherever you are, in the midst of whatever you are doing, be fully aware of being in the moment. Now just in case you’re rolling your eyes and thinking it’s new-age woo-woo thinking (yes, baby brother, I’m talking to you) it actually hits the nail on the head.

Because that’s precisely why this weekend brought me so much joy in a bigger picture kind of way. Because I really did live it moment to moment. For once I didn’t have to think about which child had to be where at what time, or what we were having for dinner, or what needed to be picked up at the shops or what time my husband would be home, or whether we needed a babysitter, or what time I had to be somewhere … I’m sure you get the idea.

That’s how my brain works – I feel like I spend 99% of my time working out the family’s logistics, anticipating needs, building in cushion time, balancing everyone’s schedules and trying to get everyone fed and in bed on time. And that’s just for starters. I try to control everything so that things run smoothly, to keep everyone else’s stress levels down, and guess what – it plays havoc with my own. And so the most blissful thing about this weekend was that I had no schedule apart from the drinks I’d arranged on Friday night.

I just did whatever I wanted to do, as opportunities arose. I didn’t have to consider anyone else – I could just do whatever the hell I wanted. I hardly even looked at my watch. And it was bliss.

Was I been selfish? Without a doubt. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing – it’s exactly what I needed. More importantly, it was also a good lesson for me. Because the truth is that I only think I’m controlling everything. Yes, I can plot and plan and strategise as much as I like, but I have no actual control over the future. Shit happens, all the time – my personal history has taught me that in big and small ways. And there’s no telling where or when that shit will happen. We only have limited control over our futures.

And most of the time, we’re so busy worrying about the future – and the past, to be honest – that we really do forget about now, this moment, right now.

And so I tried that today. When I remembered, I just took the time to enjoy where I was, what I was doing, and the things I could hear and see and smell and touch and taste. And it was a really good idea. Time moved a little more slowly today, and that was good – haven’t we all wished for that?

I missed a self-imposed deadline, I didn’t do a task that’s been bugging me for a while, I cooked dinner far too late – again, a self-imposed deadline – and we are all still alive to tell the story. But I was also calmer, less stressed, and I actually enjoyed my day.

So here’s to solitary weekends away. And here’s to being present. And here’s to all the fantastic people I’m privileged to call my friends.

Where Am I?

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