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.

In praise of silliness

November 15, 2017 § 6 Comments

I’ve spent a large part of this afternoon trying to shoehorn ‘Eric Clapton’, ‘Layla’, ‘ukulele’ and ‘Hawaii’ into a bad joke. Why? Because a Facebook friend, after I’d posted a particularly bad musical pun, asked if I could please construct 10 or so more of those puns by the end of this month.

He didn’t have to ask twice. But so far, I’ve only managed three, and one was a bit of a stretch. I absolutely love puns, dad jokes, bad jokes – anything that makes you groan. One of my favourite jokes of all time is this one: What do you call a fish without an eye? Fsh…

While I’ve been wondering if ‘ukulayla’ is up to standard, Zimbabwe has been undergoing a coup-not-a-coup-maybe-sort-of-a-coup, Donald Trump has insulted Kim Jong Un on Twitter, the Middle East is still a mess, and the world continues to go to hell in a handbasket. And you might well point at me and think I’m insensitive to everything going on around me.

Quite the opposite. I’m oversensitive – and it gets to the point where I just can’t take on any more doom, gloom, or overgrown men-children in the room. And then I resort to cracking a joke, because I think we could all do with lightening up a little.

The older I get, the more I realise just how little time we have on this earth. I’d much rather spend my time laughing and making others laugh (or groan) than buy into the litany of calamity that threatens to overwhelm me some days.

Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. And it’s not just the philosophers and sages who tell us this – science says laughter can relax the whole body, boost immunity, trigger the release of endorphins, protect your heart, defuse anger and conflict, and even burn calories! It may even help you to live longer.

So I’m choosing to be silly, and to seek out the similarly silly to hang out with – I think, if anything, we need more silliness, not less.

As for my musical puns, to the unending relief of my non-punning Facebook friends, I have only managed to come up with three so far – mainly because when you post one, a whole thread of puns ensues, so it’s hard to be original after that

But I was just wondering if, when Eric Clapton performs in Hawaii, he plays a ukulayla.


How to survive South African bureaucracy

October 25, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’ve had the misfortune of having a lot to do with government departments of late, so I thought I’d compile a handy guide to help you to get through your next Home Affairs or Licensing Department ordeal experience.

  1. Block out an entire day. You probably won’t need it, but it’s better to manage your own expectations, and hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised when they spring you earlier than you expected, and you emerge like some sort of Hollywood jailbird, blinking at the bright sunlight outside.
  2. Prepare your mind. You will need a calm, zen-like demeanour to handle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are coming your way. They are. There’s no avoiding them. And there’s little point in getting angry or sarcastic, or throwing your toys. Forget Parliament and the Zuptas – this is where the true power lies in our country. You are at the bureaucrats’ mercy, and they know it. Keep calm and carry on: acceptance and obsequiousness are the watchwords.
  3. Get there at least an hour before it opens. I know people say the afternoon is quiet, but if you mis-time things, you could arrive after the dreaded queue cut-off time – which can be as early as 1.30pm some days. I’ve seen it happen more than once. If you get there at the crack of dawn you might queue for an hour before they even open the doors, but at least it’s by your own choice. Somehow, that helps with the acceptance.
  4. Dress appropriately. You will be standing for a long time, even if you get there early. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. Don’t forget to wear layers for the inevitable changes in temperature.
  5. Carry an umbrella. I queued a few weeks ago in the pouring rain. I wore a raincoat, though, because I am exceedingly clumsy and I thought my queue-mates might like to keep their eyes. In rain or shine, it makes sense to take an umbrella, because it’ll keep you dry in the wet, and provide portable shade for those days where you have to queue in the blazing sun. Those days are inevitable. Pack your umbrella.
  6. Pack padkosYou’re going to need it. You are going on a journey of several hours, and you’ll be cranky if your blood sugar drops. It’s hard to be obsequious when you’re cranky. I also take a flask of coffee with me now, and there’s nothing as satisfying as the envy in your queue-mates’ eyes as you crack open the flask and the aroma of coffee fills the room. Take sandwiches, fruit, water and a chocolate biscuit or two. Life is always better when a chocolate biscuit is in it.
  7. Don’t believe the website about what you need. Most government websites were last updated during the Rinderpest, and they inevitably get things wrong. Your best bet is to do a recce the day before to find out fees and forms and other requirements. However, the same bureaucrat might give you a different story the next day, so you might require a third visit. I think they’re secretly part of a government initiative to build resilience in its citizens.
  8. Forget the enquiries desk – speak to the security guards. They always know exactly what you need and where you need to be. And they’re usually much more friendly. They are the best source of information, seriously. Even the toothless, prune-skinned car guard at one of the places I visited had a better grasp on the process than the enquiries desk.
  9. Pack the essentials. No matter what you are going to do always have at least one certified copy each of your identity document and proof of address. Two, to be safe. Just assume that if you’re dealing with government, you need those two things. And if it has anything to do with identification, take along two passport-sized photos as well.
  10. Carry any fees in cash. Some departments will take credit cards now, but the systems often go down, so cash is the safest. I work on twice whatever the designated fee is – because often there’s some or other fee or extra that you didn’t think of, like a temporary driver’s licence because you left it too late to renew the permanent one. Of course, I don’t know anyone who would be so irresponsible, (cough) but maybe you do.
  11. Take something light and mindful to do. You might as well regard it as a time to catch up on reading or knitting, or to practise Sudoku, or whatever takes your fancy. Just choose something that’s easy to pack up when you have to move along in the queue.
  12. The chairs are the prize. Just when you feel you are losing hope, and your ankles are swelling up like a child’s swimming tube, the prized rows of chairs swim into view. You’re making progress. You can do this. Reward yourself with another chocolate biscuit for strength. Perhaps it’s worth packing a whole box of them, actually.
  13. It ain’t over till it’s over. Don’t think you’ve made it just because you’re in the last chair, in the last stage of queueing. Something will be wrong, and you’ll have to go back to another queue. Don’t relax till you are walking back to your car with all the receipts in your hand. Hope is a terrible thing.
  14. Mind your manners. These places aren’t always kind to the elderly or the disabled. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but please give up your seat if necessary. You won’t lose your place in the queue – people just accommodate and remember whose turn it is – and you can add a little credit to your karmic score. Go on. I know you were brought up well.
  15. Talk to the people next to you. It’s hard to be hopeful in South Africa sometimes, but government queues are both great levellers, and places of great camaraderie. Somehow when we’re all united in our struggle to be properly documented, we forget our differences, and relate to each other as human beings. People laugh and joke, and help each other out, and it’s a beautiful thing. Besides, if you need a bathroom break, they’ll be more inclined to keep your place if you were nice to them.


A kindness of compliments

October 4, 2017 Comments Off on A kindness of compliments

There’s a documentary that did the rounds on social media recently: a group of students, I think, embarked on a portrait photography project where they photographed people ‘before’, and then ‘at the precise second at which they were told they were beautiful. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. Their faces lit up, they smiled, they blushed. They were so beautifully vulnerable in that moment that their humanity shone through the mask they’d been wearing a moment before.

And it doesn’t really matter what the compliment is. I have smoothed my way through the bank, the police station, the supermarket, just because I paid someone a simple compliment about a tiny thing: “That colour really suits you. What a beautiful dress. What a fabulous tie. I love your nail polish…”

Because what that compliment does, for a brief moment, is to make the person feel that there is more to them than the labels society affixes to them. They’re not just a teller or a cashier or a constable – they’re a human being. A human seen.

And I don’t know about you, but in the world we live in today, I think we could all do with a little more of that.


Waiting room

September 27, 2017 § 1 Comment

In the school holidays one of my daughter’s friends lost her father to a motorcycle accident. Another friend had two friends die in as many days. Still another friend got news that a young relative had been found dead at the bottom of the stairs to her flat – she’d gone home early complaining she wasn’t feeling well.

And maybe it’s this rash of deaths; maybe it’s part of my own journey through middle age, but I have this increasing sense that we – that I – have to live life with a greater sense of urgency.

I am fairly cautious by nature; risk averse, as financial advisers like to put it. I think things through and I lay my plans: “When X, then Y…” partly because it gives me the illusion of control, I think. Only Y seldom comes, because I never seem to get past the planning stage.

I think we all do this to an extent. “When I retire, I will…” or “When I lose weight, I will…” or “When I find the perfect girl/guy, I will…” or even, “When she or he apologises to me, I will…”

And so, we’re all just stuck in the waiting room – waiting for some mythical future perfect circumstance that will allow us to live our dream, take that risk, mend that fence, launch ourselves off the precipice.

“But I need money,” I hear you protest. And it’s true – you can’t just set off for Madagascar or Mongolia without a plane ticket and all the other travel accoutrements that cost you your hard earned cash. Starting a new business takes money. As does studying. As do a myriad other dreams you may have – and you might not have that money now. I get that.

But dreaming and thinking and strategising don’t cost you anything. Research is the easiest thing in the world in the information age. And if you have money for a daily or even weekly cappuccino, you have more money than most, and you can start there – by making a small sacrifice and popping the money you would have spent in a piggy bank, under your mattress, in a savings account. And then you need to take action.

Because the one thing we all have in common is that we can start. Not when we’ve lost the weight or received the apology, or retired, or found that perfect someone. Today. Right now. Just break down the goal into small steps and take the first one.

Sure, it’s risky. We might get hurt or damaged – or even broken – along the way. We might not even know how we’re going to take the second step. But is that any reason to put off living? Because sometimes you need to take the first step to weigh up your options from a new vantage point. Perhaps there’s a road further ahead that you couldn’t see until you took that step.

And while you go, remember to tell those you love, that you love them. It doesn’t matter if they’re a friend, family, or significant other. Tell them often. Tell them till they’re tired of hearing it. Tell them so often that when you’re gone, they can’t be in any doubt that you loved them. Fiercely.

Forgive, and move on, remembering that forgiveness is for your peace of mind – it’s not about letting the other person off the hook.

Stop waiting for that perfect circumstance. It doesn’t exist. All you have is this moment, right now.

Because life is short, and it can change in an instant. And if we never get out of the waiting room, then all we are left with is regret, which is really the poorest of substitutes for a life.

Fine lines

September 14, 2017 § 2 Comments

I lost two whole working days this week. In the early hours of Monday morning I was awoken by the first symptoms of food poisoning, which lasted well into the afternoon. (Don’t eat raw sausage meat, children. There may be dire consequences.)

Today I was also off sick for a rather different ailment, but I found the parallels interesting.

It began as I got into bed last night. A very close friend was going into hospital for a procedure that had some serious risks, and I was more than worried. I was scared. And my elder daughter, who’s 18, was planning to do something today that’s slightly outside of my comfort zone, but perfectly acceptable for her age and stage in life. It’s nothing crazy, I must emphasise. It’s a perfectly ordinary thing, but it freaked me out more than I expected it to; far more than it should have.

And that’s when I switched from worry – a pretty normal state for me – to anxiety. I felt that familiar boulder drop into its spot behind my sternum, the racing heart, the dry mouth, a million dark moths bumping into the inner walls of my stomach.

I barely slept. At almost 1am I was still awake, alternating between sobbing into my pillow and writing Facebook posts to distract myself. I read, I watched silly videos of cute babies, I joined Twitter conversations – cheery, sassy on the outside as tears rolled down my face.

I finally dropped off and woke with a jolt at 4.30am, tired but wired, unable to sleep another wink, the moths still beating their familiar refrain. In this condition, eating isn’t really possible, nor is sleeping. Nor is thinking – certainly not thinking straight. Oh you can overthink, and think yourself down the most dark and twisted pathways, till even the Big Bad Wolf seems like a knight in shining armour, but thinking well enough to work, to function, to do the simplest mundane tasks, seems impossible.

So my day today looked much like my day with food poisoning on Monday. I spent a lot off it on my bed. I napped when I was able to, but not in a restful way. The dishes remained unwashed, the curtains drawn. I treated the food poisoning with fluids, and just allowing it to run its course; I treated the anxiety much the same way. And  by 5pm, just as most of the food poisoning had worked its way out of my system on Monday, so had  most of the anxiety today. But I had lost another day – a day in which I planned to be very productive.

Tonight I will slowly set my home to rights – control is the flip side of anxiety – and then I will catch up on some work so that I don’t arrive in the office in a state of panic tomorrow. And I’ll probably be fine.

I tell you all of this, because I’m one of the lucky ones. We use the words ‘worry’ and ‘anxiety’ interchangeably, but really, they’re very different. I’m lucky because I only have severe (for me) anxiety attacks like this every now and then. Others life with this every day. I’m lucky because I’m self-employed and can give myself a day off if my slate is not so full, although there have been times when I’ve just had to grit my teeth and push through, even though it makes the day a gruelling obstacle course and I don’t produce much of value. For others, the latter scenario is a daily struggle.

I’m especially lucky because I don’t have to explain myself to an office full of colleagues that sometimes, nothing in particular has triggered my anxiety, but I feel as if I’m choking. I don’t have anyone telling me to stop worrying, or to toughen up, or that anxiety is not a good reason to have a day of sick leave, when I know that it’s every bit as debilitating as waiting for your body to expel a vicious gastric bug.

So I will be fine. I am fine. But there may be people in your life who aren’t. Perhaps they suffer from anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, or some other kind of mental illness. We tend to separate mental illnesses from physical illness, the head from the body, but I’m here to remind you that the head is a part of the body. The brain is just one of your organs – and just as susceptible to illnesses, which are just as physical and chemical as any other illness.

It’s time to stop making that distinction, and to treat those with mental illness, whether acute or chronic, with the same compassion you’d spare for those with so-called physical illnesses. That’ll help to remove the stigma, which should never have arisen in the first place, if you think about it logically.

If we can do that, more people might seek help and set themselves back on the way to mental health. And that’s beneficial for all of us, and for society as a whole.

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