You can ring my bell

February 26, 2014 § 7 Comments

I committed a revolutionary act last night. It was my aunt’s birthday, so I picked up the phone and called her.

I didn’t text her first to see if she was available or not, I just called. And on a landline too. She was home, she wasn’t busy, so she answered, and was utterly delighted to hear from me. And given that she’s one of the warmest, sweetest people I know, I was delighted to hear her voice too.

It doesn’t sound like a revolutionary act, does it? And yet, talk to the digitally savvy about Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that WhatsApp will soon carry voice calls as an option and they throw up their hands in dismay. “Does anyone even talk on the phone anymore?” they lament.

That saddens me. The irony in a world that is increasingly dominated by so-called social media, is that we are becoming less and less social. We don’t talk anymore – we text. We spend more time looking at our phones than we do other people’s eyes. (Mea culpa.) And we hardly ever pick up the phone and just call someone to see how they are, tell them we love them, or tell them some news, however trivial it may seem.

In an age when we have all of the communication tools possible available to us, it seems we communicate less and less.

I watch so-called ‘twars’ unfolding on Twitter all the time – they’re hard to avoid unless you only follow quote-spewing accounts. And it’s fascinating to me how often people are saying very similar things, yet they think they’re disagreeing with each other. Chances are, if they were having the same discussion over a meal, or opposite each other in someone’s living room, they’d be agreeing heartily .

Because you see, communication is more than just the words we say or write. And if we’re using Twitter as an example, even the most skilled writers battle to convey their thoughts in a 140-character limit. When we communicate in the written word alone, we are losing out on the auditory cues we pick up from people’s tone of voice, and the visual cues we read from their body language. This makes the ‘social’ part of social media a complete misnomer, and it’s what makes writing so difficult – you only have a third of the communication arsenal at your disposal.

I’ve been a journalist for 20-odd years (gulp) and I still don’t record my interviews. I take notes when I interview people, and to date – touch wood – I have been accused of misquoting somebody once. And that was the one time I had recorded the interview and transcribed it. I quoted the person verbatim, yet she disagreed vehemently with the quote I ascribed to her in the article. Why? Because I had quoted what she said, not what she meant. Body language and voice add layers of meaning that just don’t come through if you simply write down the words.

So this reliance on text to communicate worries me enormously. I fear we are losing our social skills completely. It’s all too easy to bully online – for adults and children. In an online forum, you don’t get the same feedback you’d get from someone if you said those insulting things directly to their face . So it’s easy to dismiss the hurt you might be causing. It’s the most cowardly form of bullying there is, I think.

Or I watch my teenage daughter and her friends with growing concern. They will text each other merrily for hours on end, but put them in a room together, and they don’t know how to have a conversation, or just to hang out together. They are 15 years old and they don’t know how to talk to each other. Within  15 minutes, they are taking photos of each other on their phones and sharing them on social media.

I worry that we are becoming, and raising, a generation of people with no social skills – and not in the ‘which fork to use at dinner’ sense – but in the sense of not having the ability to read another human being from their body language, tone of voice and general demeanour. Yes, we have inbuilt instincts, but a lot of that ability comes from practice. Life is a lot like a big poker game, and it’s important to be able to read the other players so you can decide which cards to play.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop being someone who loves to have a chat over the phone or over a cup of coffee. I don’t see conversation with other human beings – whether for work, play or duty – as an intrusion or a waste of time. I don’t need you to text before you call me, or apologise for disturbing me. Because if I was unable or unwilling to talk to you, I wouldn’t answer. It’s as simple as that.

And I have some wonderful ‘chats’ with people on BBM and SMS and WhatsApp and Facebook and Twitter. But I love to hear the sound of their voices too. There’s nothing I love more. And if I can’t see you in person, I’m happy to settle for hearing your voice. That’s two-thirds of the way to being with someone, which is always first prize.

So at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, if you have something to say, step away from the keyboard. Call me!

Over exposure

February 20, 2014 § 15 Comments

I’ve just seen the following tweet on my Twitter timeline, and I admit it irritated me a little. And it irritated me because it is all too familiar.

photo

Somehow people still seem to misunderstand what it is that writers do, so I thought I’d explain a little, in the clearest possible terms.

Writing is our job. It’s what we do to make money. It’s how we send our children to school, put fuel in our cars, and buy clothes to wear. It is a skill that takes years to hone, and which you would not need us for if you could do it yourself.

I don’t know what you do, but imagine you arrived at work in the morning and you had landed your dream job, with the corner office, after years of working towards that goal. Maybe you’d had to do some other jobs along the way, but now, finally, you were doing what you’d always wanted to do, and knew you had the skills to do it. And then imagine that your boss said, “There’s just one catch: we can’t pay you a salary. But what we can do is send traffic to a website of your choice. Just think of the exposure!”

What do you think the chances are that you would grab that job with both hands? I thought so.

And yet, writers are asked to do this all the time. Exposure is the favourite carrot to dangle in front of our noses. But here’s the thing. If I offered to pay the school fees with exposure, I’d be laughed off the school campus. If I tried to pay for groceries at the supermarket with exposure, they’d call the men in white coats. Exposure just isn’t a valid currency anywhere in the world as far as I’m aware.

And writing isn’t some kind of fun hobby. Those of us who write for a living take it as seriously as you take your job. We read about grammar and spelling and punctuation, we read style guides. We keep office hours and then often write well into the evening too. Now and then there are things we can just sit down and churn out, but that’s because we’ve spent years practising. And even then we go back and rework, rephrase, rewrite until we are happy with what we have crafted. Why? Because we know the impact that changing one verb can make, that placing a comma in just the right place can make all the difference to the meaning of something.

Mostly, good writing is a slog. It requires dedication, an eye for details, a measure of ruthlessness and a dash of flair. And that’s on top of being able to construct grammatically correct, stylistically sound sentences that are clear, concise and impactful. And it takes the ability to continually self-assess and redo something as many times at it takes to get it right, not just written. It is an exercise in endurance.

So, when you ask us to write for nothing – and I’ve done it, so I know – we actually lose money. Because we could have been writing for someone who’s prepared to pay us for our work in the time it took to write something for you. That’s not a sensible business model, is it? This is our business. This is what we do. It’s how we earn a living.

It is actual work, and it does take a lot of effort. And all we ask, is to be remunerated in return. I don’t think that’s overly demanding – do you?

A beautiful noise

February 19, 2014 § 6 Comments

I am a compulsive singer. I am that annoying person who hums along to the movie theme. I burst into song at the slightest provocation; my brain makes lyric associations with almost anything people say. It’s got so bad that my children throw words at me as a challenge. Yesterday’s word was ‘yoghurt’ – I haven’t come up with a song for it yet.

Last night I was walking around the house screeching bits from Bohemian Rhapsody in my best imitation of Freddie Mercury’s falsetto; I took a walk around my neighbourhood in the afternoon and belted out some show tunes. Right now, I’m singing River Deep, Mountain High at my desk because someone posted a video of Ike and Tina Turner singing it on Twitter. I know. I’m certifiable.

My late mother told me I started singing at 18 months. One night, after she’d put me to bed, she heard a little voice coming from the darkness of my room. A familiar hymn we sang at church, horrendously mispronounced, but perfectly in tune, issued forth from tiny me. And thereafter, every night, after story time and kisses, I sang to myself quietly in the dark until I fell asleep. And I did that for years.

My waking hours, however, are a little more raucous. Sometimes I sing along to things, sometimes I sing harmonies. Sometimes I sing softly, sometimes loudly, which raises epic eyerolling from my kids and giggles from their friends. I have been known to sing harmonies with buskers I pass on the street, or reinvent lyrics of silliness on the spot. And even when I’m not singing out loud, I’m singing in my head. There is a constant melody – a personal playlist – always about my person. I just love to sing. 

When I tell people I’m like this (just in case they haven’t noticed) often they shake their heads and say, sadly, “Oh, I can’t sing. If you heard me sing… I’m tone deaf. I sound too terrible.”

Well, here’s what I think. “So what? Why does it have to be about what it sounds like? It’s not a performance, it’s an activity. And if it makes you happy, then let rip – who cares if it’s slightly off-key or your voice sounds like Leonard Cohen with a razor blade lodged in his vocal chords? Were you planning to release an album or play at Madison Square Gardens? Of course you weren’t.

So forget about what you sound like. Just sing. Open your throat, open your heart and let it out, and bugger what anyone else thinks.

Go on. I dare you. Make a beautiful noise.

A stone’s throw

February 13, 2014 § 3 Comments

On Friday I received an email that no parent ever wants to receive – news that my daughter’s bus, on its way back from a school camp, had been stoned by angry youths. A window had been broken, the bus had reversed out of the situation, and they were coming home via a different route. No-one was hurt; everyone was safe.

I was bathed in a plethora of feelings: relief, separation anxiety, fear, sorrow. I cried for most of the almost two hours between hearing the news and finally hugging my child. But not once was I angry, as many others were.

Because while I don’t condone the rock-throwing, on some level I understand it. Those rocks, hurled through the air at a bunch of 11-year-old girls, are the symbol of people’s intense frustration with a government that is failing its people. And in so many ways, they are the most South African of metaphors.

Because those self-same rocks might be used to weigh down the tin roof of a shack in shantytowns all over South Africa tonight, by people who have nothing, people who have to scavenge signs and sheets of plastic and corrugated iron to fashion themselves a makeshift shelter they call home.

People use rocks as a form of protest because while apartheid might have been dismantled and removed from our legal framework, in a very real sense it still exists. And those rocks are really all people have to protest with. Too many South Africans don’t have economic power, they don’t have social power, they don’t have educational power. All they have, are those rocks. And so, I can understand why they throw them, even if I don’t condone the violence and wish my daughter hadn’t been caught in the crossfire.

No. If I feel any anger at all, it’s towards the cronyism and corruption I see from our ANC-led government. The lies, the empty promises, the self-aggrandisement, the first-class seats on the gravy train for a small handful of people. And then, the blind loyalty of so many to a once-great liberation movement, now a party, that seems to have lost its way entirely.

This is not the freedom so many lost their lives for, surely?

Come out and play

February 5, 2014 § 4 Comments

Yesterday I sat in my life coach’s office and bemoaned having every evening free.

I know, I know. And it’s a particularly odd thing to bemoan given that I spent the best part of last year consciously putting down things that brought me no joy. I was completely and utterly burnt out, and stepping away from all of those irksome things allowed me to move a little closer to remembering who I used to be before I was someone’s mother or wife, or daughter, or sister, or friend. Or employee.

I like to be busy. At school I always did two to three extra-murals a day (none of them being sport, however) and I continued that pattern into adulthood. Not having a schedule is an alarming thing for me. I like structure – it helps me to feel in control, and that helps me to cope with my anxiety. If there were an Olympics for worrying, I’d be at the top of podium for every event.

“But I’m wasting time!” I wailed. (I do a lot of wailing at Judy Klipin, who has the patience of a saint.) “I spend far too much time buggering around on Twitter and playing silly word games!”

And do you know what Judy said? She shrugged. And then she pointed out that my playing on Twitter had brought about valuable friendships, work, and artistic collaborations that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. And it had brought me joy and a lot of fun. And that all of those things were good. So perhaps it wasn’t such a waste of time after all.

And as usual, she was spot on.

That was a revelation in itself, but it also got me thinking. And I realised that it’s actually okay for adults to play. Perhaps that’s obvious to you, but I always feel like I should be doing something productive with every moment of my waking hours. And I’m not really sure why that is, or when I stopped playing.

But perhaps it’s time to give myself permission, and stop feeling guilty for having some fun. I’m allowed, right?

Where Am I?

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