Ticket to write

January 30, 2014 § 3 Comments

I finished writing a song today. It popped into my head as I sat under a tree in one of Johannesburg’s city parks yesterday afternoon, ants gnawing at my legs. And it wasn’t even the song I’d planned to write – that one is still being evasive and resisting capture.

But I love the accidental song. It’s light-hearted, slightly silly, the kind of song I picture being sung in a musical comedy or perhaps a Disney cartoon. And when I sing it, I beam so broadly that I battle to enunciate my words, or I collapse into giggles halfway through a chorus. My friend says that’s joy. I think he may be right.

The sad thing, though, is that I know it’s never going to go much further than being posted on Soundcloud and a few shares on social media. That will be it: not because it’s a bad song, but because it’s slightly old-fashioned. It’s not the kind of song you’ll hear on the radio. It belongs to the 70s, maybe the 80s at a push.

And that’s something of a conundrum for me, because as much as I write for myself – from songs to blogposts and magazine features to the novel currently languishing on a slush pile somewhere – I confess I need the feedback of an audience. At heart I’m a performer, and the page is my stage. Without an audience, the work simply echoes through the auditorium, leaving a hollowness in its wake.

And the irony of it all is that for the first time in many years I’m beginning to believe in my ability as a writer of things. All kinds of things. Things I’d like to share. And yes, things I’d like to be recognised for writing.

So I’m standing behind the velvet curtain, pacing on the boards, just waiting for that buzz from the audience that tells me it’s almost time for the show to start.

What if nobody comes?

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Solitude’s the only game in town

January 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

I’m in a strange kind of mood. I suppose the closest word I can find to describe it is ‘melancholy’. But it’s a mood that arrives when I’m a little tired, a little overwhelmed, a little sad about something.

Right now I’m missing a dear, dear friend so much it hurts a little. It physically hurts. I can feel the ache of their absence just behind my sternum. We talk often – a couple of times a week at least – but it’s just not the same as being together. There’s an energy in our meetings that replenishes me, but which I find incredibly hard to walk away from. It’s a wrench, and it’s the wrench that hurts a little. It leaves me feeling lonely whether I’m alone or in a room full of people. So yes, I’m melancholy and out of sorts.

The upside, however, is that it’s the perfect frame of mind for songwriting. Well, for me it is. Somehow when I’m in this state, I find it easier to express myself in lyrics and melodies and harmonies. What would probably bore someone to tears if discussed over a cappuccino, somehow works when I pick up my guitar and begin to sing. My melancholy leaves me through my fingers on the strings, or my pen scratching at the blank page trying to find just the right word in just the right place.

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I started working on a song last night; the chorus came to me late one night in November and it was time to add some verses and a bridge. The bridge was half-written when my husband got home from work, and immediately I stopped writing, because the melancholy isn’t enough. I need solitude as well.

The melancholy isn’t enough. I need solitude as well.

And now that’s all I’m craving. I’m alone in my home office, but it’s not solitude, because everywhere I look are distractions, tasks, deadlines, all manner of things demanding my attention. I’m too easily diverted by them.  And I need to be able to try things out: sing the same thing over with a different word or phrase, without wondering if someone else is listening or getting irritated.

So if anyone wants me this afternoon, I’ll be far from the madding crowds in a park somewhere, with just my journal, my guitar and a pen.

Please do not disturb.

There’s nothing new

January 22, 2014 § 11 Comments

I’ve watched the online debate about diets over the past year or so with great interest, partly because I’m a fatty, but mostly because I write about health for a living. And I’ve been a health journalist for, gulp, almost two decades.

For those who don’t know which debate I’m talking about, I am referring to the current trend towards a low-carbohydrate, high fat diet (LCHF), one branch of which is the so-called Paleo diet. Maybe it’s just the people I follow on social media, but there is a lot of discussion online about this way of eating at the moment, and it’s extremely polarised – people are either evangelical about it, or completely anti-it, and never the twain shall meet, as my mother was fond of saying.

And here’s what I think. (And I’m taking an ethnographic approach, which is to say, I’m coming from an observational point of view.) This too shall pass. Yes, you heard me. It’s a fad, and it will pass, or at least go out of favour and cycle back into favour, as all diet fads do.

Here’s the thing. Not only am I a fatty, but I come from a family of fatties, so I’ve been around diets all my life. I remember the typed food plans stuck to the inside of one of the grocery cupboards. One proclaimed: “Cut all fat out of your food!” When my mother had lost weight on that one and regained it all afterwards, the next typed food plan proclaimed: “Fat burns fat!” Sound familiar? Simply put, there is nothing new under the sun.

Remember food combining? People were evangelical about that too. Remember Atkins and South Beach? They are the forerunners of LCHF. In my career as a health journalist I’ve seen eggs flip-flop – several times – between being paragons of perfect protein and the chief cause of cholesterol, designed to clog your arteries by the devil himself. I don’t know what to believe about eggs anymore, so I just eat ’em because I like ’em and they work for me. Fat has been good, and fat has been bad. Ditto carbohydrates, cholesterol, salt, sugar, even certain fruits and vegetables! I think the only thing we can all agree on is that broccoli is good for you, whether you like it or not.

And all the while, my cynicism grows. Because here’s what I know about diets – and I’ve tried a vast number of them: 1. All diets work and 2. Diets don’t work.

Yes, I know, I know, but let me explain. If you pick a diet and stick to it rigidly, you’ll lose weight. For the most part, they work, unless you have a very weird metabolism. But then you’ll stop, because most of them aren’t sustainable in the long run, and soon you’ll stop measuring or weighing, or you’ll sneak a piece of cake or binge on a packet of biscuits, or have the forbidden glass of wine, and the deprivation cycle will kick in.

I love how Martha Beck illustrates this in one of her books: she suggests you try to not think about polar bears. What happens? Your brain immediately transports you to the snowscapes of the north pole and you see a polar in your mind’s eye. The same thing happens when you swear off pizza or beer or chocolate. And that’s what makes diets unsustainable.

But I also say diets don’t work, because if they did, weight loss wouldn’t be the ongoing two-steps-forward-one-step-back process that it is for so many. And there certainly wouldn’t be a multi-million dollar industry that revolves around the adipose tissue on your stomach and thighs.

Here’s what I think, and yes, I’m not a scientist or a weight-loss expert outside of my own struggle with my weight or what I’ve observed. But for what it’s worth…

I think we don’t cook from scratch enough, and we lean too heavily on food that is laden with hydrogenated vegetable oils, corn syrup and other things designed to keep food on supermarket shelves for as long as possible. I shudder every time I see words like ‘industry’, ‘manufactured’ and ‘factory’ used in conjunction with food. It just seems wrong to me. Surely food is ‘grown’ or, in the case of meat, poultry and fish, ‘reared’?

And when I see some of the psychedelically-tinted trash that people eat by the truckload, I shake my head and wonder why we’re all so confused about why there’s an obesity epidemic.

I also think we’ve forgotten how to enjoy our food, and how to listen to our bodies. We eat mindlessly. Our cues are all wrong: we eat because we’re watching sport, watching TV, watching movies, not because we’ve felt that familiar tummy rumble. (And obviously I’m not talking about a third-world rural setting here; that’s a whole other issue.) So we eat when we’re not hungry, and then we eat well beyond our natural satiety levels.

Basically, I think we just overthink the whole thing. What we eat has become an obsession – every mouthful is analysed, pulled apart, discussed and often villified. No wonder we don’t enjoy eating anymore. I’ve resolved, this year, not to eat anything I don’t enjoy, and to eat consciously, in the sense of paying attention to the food – its taste, texture and aroma. I’m also going to pay attention to my body’s response to it. Is it delicious? Am I really hungry? Am I satisfied? And if that means putting the fork down when it’s halfway to my mouth, then that’s what I aim to do. That’s it.

No counting, no weighing, no demonising of food groups or forbidden foods, no skipping meals to make myself feel virtuous.

I really like Michael Pollan’s approach to food, although I confess I haven’t quite got it right. But it makes sense to me on an instinctive level. (And if you’d like to read his thoughtful, balanced take on Paleo and raw food, click here.)

This is what Pollan says about the way we should eat: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple as that.

I think he might be on to something.

Seeing and believing

January 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

On Saturday afternoon I took my kids to see ‘Frozen’. I had flu and a bad haircut and the very last thing I felt like was going out in public. But I had promised, and my threats to snore and blow my nose loudly were met with derision and eye-rolling, so I gathered my tattered locks about me, shoved some tissues in my bag, and off we went.

I’m so glad I did. I didn’t take my eyes off that screen the entire time. It was one of those good, old-fashioned Disney movies, but with gutsy, brave, human princesses who kicked ass at every opportunity, and didn’t rely on a man to provide their happy ever after for them. My heart soared with the magnificent songs and I laughed out loud and had a perfectly wonderful time.

At home, as I reflected on the film over a cup of tea, I recalled a trip to the movies many years ago, when my boyfriend and I decided to go and see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade during the university holidays. I remember it vividly because we decided to see it at noon, on the spur of the moment, and as we filed into theatre, so did an alarmingly high number of 10- to 12-year-old boys. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all. We looked at each other, aghast, but we’d paid for our tickets, and we were students, so we weren’t going to waste that money.

As it turned out it was an absolute blast. Not just because Indiana Jones movies are action-packed, thrill-a-minute films, but because of the way the kids responded. They laughed uproariously at every lame joke, guffawed at every slapstick moment, cheered when Indiana triumphed, hooted at the baddies and generally managed to suspend their disbelief in a way that so many of us seem to have forgotten how to do. And it was completely and utterly infectious. Within minutes we were hooting, cheering and guffawing along with them. It was 20-odd years ago and I still remember it as if it were yesterday.

Be honest – when last did you get through a movie without once thinking, “Ooh, that CGI wasn’t very good,” or “Hmm, bit of a continuity problem there,” or something along those lines? How often do you sneak a peek at your phone? Kids don’t do that. Unless it’s a really terrible movie (or they need a wee) the lights dim and the sound swells, and they’re lost. They are one with the story.

And there’s something very revitalising about watching a movie in that state of utter absorption. When you’ve had a good laugh at complete nonsense, or a quiet weep at a tender moment, and lost yourself in a story for a couple of hours, somehow you emerge from the movie theatre’s womb-like interior feeling a fraction reborn.

My friend, Natalie, said the other day that she couldn’t remember when last she’d had a good belly laugh, and that made me terribly sad. But I know no better way than to allow yourself to be a child again. And an excellent way to do that is to take a child to see a movie they want to see – not the one your friends are all watching, or that one the art critic recommended that will make you feel erudite and smug at next week’s dinner party.

No. Go and see something slapstick, something animated, something that’s family-rated and all-round good, clean fun. And if you don’t have kids of your own, borrow one or two for the afternoon from a friend or family member who needs a break. And then, buy all the junk food you fancy, put your phone away and suspend that disbelief. Get stuck in. Believe.

Go on. It’ll do you the world of good.

Confessions of a blogger

January 8, 2014 § 11 Comments

Okay, so here’s my sordid little secret: I started blogging because I’ve always wanted a newspaper or magazine column, and no-one’s ever offered me one.

So I started my own, here, partly as a bit of a brand-building exercise, but mostly because I wondered if I had what it took to produce something completely out of my head on a regular basis. And I wondered if anyone would read what I write in the vast ocean of bloggery that exists on the internet. Perhaps there was a good reason I’d never been offered a column.

It started off as a fairly haphazard thing, and then I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to test my competence unless I set a deadline. Which is why I decided that Wednesday would be blogging day, and that I would blog at least once a week. A daily blog seemed too much, a monthly blog too little. But I’ve worked on a weekly newspaper, and even though the deadlines come around pretty quickly, that felt manageable. (In reality, that basically gave me 24 hours in which to publish something each week – being a proper journalist, I seldom start writing anything until the very last minute!)

And perhaps this will sound like a humblebrag, but I am still astounded that just over 600 people follow this blog. Because I don’t offer prizes or give-aways or anything of that nature. These are just word-based snapshots of me.

I write about whatever takes my fancy on a particular Wednesday, whatever has been occupying my mind. There have been the odd rants, a couple of remembrances and other assorted ramblings. And somehow, people seem to enjoy them. It really does astonish me.

It’s been an enormously beneficial process for me, from a number of points of view. It’s my space, first and foremost. No-one tells me what to write, how long it needs to be, or what angle to take. That provides simultaneous freedom and sheer terror. The nature of my day job means that I can write almost anything as long as you give me a good brief, so not having one is a quite anxiety-inducing. It means I have to ask myself what I want to write about – and I don’t always know, as my crowdsourcing of topics (this one included) on Twitter will testify.

I think it has improved my writing. As people have responded to the way I write, it’s given me courage and self-confidence to push myself a little more, experiment with different kinds of posts, really craft the words I produce here, and not just churn out the transactional kind of writing I do on a daily basis.

It has built my personal brand a little – I have had a few offers of work as a direct result of the blog, so that’s been really positive.

I’ve also learned a few lessons along the way. Here they are; perhaps some might help you:

1. Be yourself. Find your own voice. Without wanting to sound all Oprah-ish, it’s about authenticity.

2. Rewrite. Give yourself time and distance from what you’re written if possible, and go back and edit it with a fresh eye. Get it as close to perfect as you are able. Don’t question, just trust me. You’ll thank me later.

3. If you are looking to build a following, and you’re an ordinary Joe or Jane like me, you need to blog regularly. It doesn’t have to be rigid, but if you can blog a couple of times a month at least, you’re more likely to build an audience.

4. Don’t blog too often. Remember that people are assailed by vast amounts of information every day. If blog posts are popping into their mailboxes every five minutes, they are going to delete them without a second glance.

5. Be ruthless about the content you produce – have you tackled the topic in a new way, or from a fresh angle? Ask yourself: “So what?” If you can’t answer that, you’re less likely to engage an audience. And be assured that if you get halfway through the post and think, “Meh!” then so will your readers. I find this the hardest part to get right. Today I started and discarded half a dozen posts because I couldn’t even interest myself in what I was writing. And sometimes I write something and think it’s wonderful, and hardly anyone reads it. Other times I dash something off in a hurry and it gets a big response.

6. Don’t get hung up on the numbers. If you obsess about how many people are reading your posts, you’ll drive yourself nuts.

7. Followers do not equal reads. I have 600-odd followers, but apart from one or two posts, a really good stat for me is about 150-200 reads. More often than not, I get around 50 or 60.

8. Keep on keeping on. It does take a fair amount of discipline to blog regularly – especially when it’s all you and no-one is paying you to do it. And often, life gets in the way. But there’s a reason you started blogging – unless that reason has changed, keep on keeping on.

9. Write for you. Perhaps I’m making an incorrect assumption, but people blog because they enjoy writing in some form. So enjoy it. And bugger what anyone else thinks.

10. Finally, and most importantly, if your blog allows comments, distinguish between honest engagement and trolling. And then repeat after me: don’t feed the trolls.

Road trippin’

January 1, 2014 Comments Off on Road trippin’

A couple of times this week, as we’ve driven between our timeshare resort and the village of Clarens, I’ve caught a glimpse of a bridge over a small river. The bridge, and the road on either side, appear to be the forerunner of the broad highway we now use to go to Clarens, and is no longer in use. But it makes me smile, because it takes me back to the holiday journeys of my childhood, before the roads were wide double carriageways with expansive emergency lanes.

When it comes to holidays, my childhood was spent on the Garden Route. With the exception of one set of friends who lived in Johannesburg, most often we holidayed with family and friends in George, Knysna, Stilbaai and Stellenbosch. And to get there from Port Elizabeth, we piled into my parents’ drab green Peugeot 404, and drove.

All families have their road tripping rituals, I imagine, and we were no different. I’m old enough to pre-date seat belts, so there was none of that. The three of us bounced around in the back seat, my sister and I at the windows and my brother in the middle – a dangerous place to be, given that he was often caught in the crossfire of our frequent fights.

There was no stopping at roadside restaurants as one might today. My parents had to be frugal and so we always took our own food – the much anticipated padkos. I don’t remember all of it, but I do remember that there was always coffee, and I loved to dunk a Marmite sandwich into it. And there were always boiled eggs – not those horrible over boiled, green-yolked things, but slightly soft-boiled eggs that oozed unctuously, saltily onto your tongue.

There was no radio in the car. We had no game consoles or DVD players or MP3 players. You could read, if it didn’t make you want to hurl (which is why I never could read in a car) or you could look out of the window. And you could sing.

And so, we looked out of the window, and we sang. We sang songs that only ever saw the light of day when we travelled. We sang One Man Went to Mow and The Quartermaster’s Store and You Can’t Go To Heaven. There was also one, alarmingly, called The Darkie Sunday School. I’m glad I don’t remember too much of that one. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re brought up white in apartheid South Africa. But we would sing and sing, with my mother, until my father begged us to sing what he called The Silent Song. Everyone’s a critic.

But what I remember most of all, is how beautiful – and arduous – a drive it was. The mountain passes, and there were several – twisted and turned on narrow roads that perched precariously above steep drops. If you looked down, the view was dizzying, terrifying, and you knew you would fall to your death if the car put so much as one tyre in the wrong place. No singing was allowed on the passes.

My mother, a forester’s daughter, would point out the differences between natural forests and cultivated forests, and proudly show us which of the cultivated ones her father had planted. I remember the precise picnic table we always used at Storms River Mouth, where we always made our first stop, and the time my sister and I were disturbed by a clumsy group of embarrassed men, who accidentally disturbed us as we squatted behind a bush for a pee.

And I remember the Coca-Cola rivers. The rivers along the Garden Route, in certain places, look like cola. They’re not dirty; there’s a geological reason for it, which escapes me just now. But they look just like Coke as they swirl over rocks on their way to the sea.

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for the beautiful new roads, for safety, for clean ablutions, for all of the things that modern road travel brings. But it’s good to remember the simplicity and frugality of the past sometimes, when we weren’t distracted by gadgets and gizmos so much, and could entertain ourselves for hours with nothing but the scenery and a few songs. And it’s also good, from time to time, to go off on what my kids now know as an Adventure: sometimes, even just driving around town, I take an unfamiliar road just to see where it goes. And they roll their eyes and groan good-naturedly, but it’s always a lot of fun.

All of this talk of road travel brings me to my hopes for 2014. That I’ll celebrate the good things in the past and strive to incorporate that sense of a simpler time into the way I live – every day. That I’ll lift my eyes from my screens more often to watch the scenery, and sing whenever possible. That I’ll appreciate the beautiful new roads as they rise up to meet me. And that once in a while I’ll give myself permission to go off the beaten track a little, and see where I end up. Because who knows what wonders may lie in store? Who knows where those roads may lead?

I wish the very same for you, wherever you may be. Happy New Year, everyone.

Where Am I?

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