Sunday, 25 November 2007

All in a day's work

I was on a plane to Belize, on my way to an author workshop, reading an in-flight magazine article about some high-flying London investment banker. Reading it made me think that when I grow up I should don black court shoes and expensive corporate couture and earn tons of money for brandishing something mysterious called power. Of course, I shouldn't. And here's why.

I'm here in Belize working with a team of teachers. That's one of the things I do for money (there are several): get teachers together and coax publishable textbooks out of them. It's sometimes fun, and occasionally it takes me to out-of the way places like Belize. (Map below for those of you that think I'm talking about somewhere in France.) But that's not why I shouldn't become a corporate ballbuster like Nicola Horlick.

Thing is, I heard today that one of my authors won't be able to complete the job. "There are serious problems at his school," said one of the others. The others looked up, with grim expressions, nodded and shook their heads with the kind of concern that tells you this is something a touch more serious than petty thievery or bullying or cheating on tests. In South Africa that expression means that the school is having issues with heroin or tik. In the US it means that a kid came to school armed with an automatic rifle. In Belize, however, we weren't talking drugs or homicide. We were talking...

"Demon possession."
I look carefully at the faces around me to check whether they're having me on. But no.
"Several of the children at the school have been possessed," I am told. "The demon seems to be near to the pit latrine," he adds helpfully.

He's not kidding. The school has been closed for several days, entire community in an uproar. It made national news. (For the article, click here.) Children have been hospitalised. A high-profile exorcist has been brought in at great expense (8000 dollars, I am told); the money has been raised from the concerned Belizean public. After all, what can one do when your community has been stricken with a nasty demon? Collect some cash and pay to get it taken out, that's what. The exorcist reportedly found a box containing - surprise, surprise - some dolls with pins stuck in them, and some sand with "a very particular odour". To prove that she wasn't "a mock", as my source called it, she led some representatives from the school to a graveyard, where she showed them some sand with a similar odour (although, being older, it obviously had a different colour).

Of the ten Belizeans in the room, not one had any degree of scepticism about the story. I wondered whether mine was written all over my face. Or whether they could see the other thought: you just don't get that in boardrooms in London, man. You just don't get that good voodoo shit up there on the 47th floor.

(the tiny country between Mexico, Guatamala and Honduras)

Friday, 23 November 2007

Chocolate brownies: three takes

OK, up til now I've resisted writing blog posts about cooking. Partly because I had an idea of devoting a whole blog to the activity of bread-making. But let's face it, I'm just not conscientious enough a blogger to get another whole blog off the ground given that I keep forgetting to write on this one. And, to steal a turn of phrase from Padma Lakshmi (who I'd never heard of til I flicked through Vanity Fair this morning in an airport) - I am too the kinda girl that starts thinking about what to make for dinner more or less when I'm eating lunch.

So. Chocolate brownies. I've made a lot of these this year, in a variety of ways. The revelation about chocolate brownies was a thing I read by Nigel Slater, who points out that if you stick a skewer (or knife or whatever) in your brownies and it comes out clean, you have screwed it up. Really truly. Just start again. I mean, the thing in the pan might taste quite nice and chocolatey, but it will not have the magical squishiness of a true brownie, ok? Yes, you can redeem it with ice cream, but in the long run you'll have to make more because the first lot won't have fulfilled that special brownie thing you were after.

So in this post I'll give you three brownie recipes, starting with the muddiest and richest, and ending with the lightest (though there's nothing really light about any of these).
1. Nigel Slater's recipe - the richest, darkest heaviest brownies imaginable. Closer to pudding than to anything like a chewy cookie.
2. A slightly cakier brownie - still rich and squishy, but closer to something you'd keep in a cookie jar (as opposed to the fridge).
3. Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Fudge brownies - a classic, that strikes a heavenly balance between lightly cakey and slightly chewy.

Nigel Slater's brownies
(I can recommend Mr Slater's fabulous article about these.)

300g golden caster sugar
250g butter
250g chocolate (70 per cent cocoa solids)
3 large eggs plus 1 extra egg yolk, beaten lightly
60g flour
60g finest quality cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder

You will need a baking tin, about 23cm x 23cm, preferably non-stick, or a small roasting tin.

Set the oven at 180°C/Gas 4. Line the bottom of the baking tin with baking parchment. Cream the sugar and butter well til it's very, very white and fluffy.

Meanwhile, break the chocolate into pieces, set 50g of it aside and melt the rest. As soon as the chocolate has melted, remove it from the heat and let it cool a bit. Chop the remaining 50g into gravel-sized pieces.

Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking powder and mix in a pinch of salt.
With the food mixer running slowly, introduce the beaten egg a little at a time, speeding up in between additions.
Mix in the melted and the chopped chocolate with a large metal spoon.
Lastly, fold in the flour and cocoa, gently and firmly, without knocking any of the air out.
Scrape the mixture into the prepared cake tin, smooth the top and bake for 30 minutes. The top will have risen slightly and the cake will appear slightly softer in the middle than around the edges.Pierce the centre of the cake with a fork - it should come out sticky, but not with raw mixture attached to it. If it does, then return the brownie to the oven for three more minutes. It is worth remembering that it will solidify a little on cooling, so if it appears a bit wet, don't worry.

The second take is a fraction less like chocolate pudding. When I say a fraction I mean a very small fraction.

Brownie recipe #2

340 g dark chocolate
250 g butter
3 eggs
250 g dark brown sugar
110 g flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 170°C and line a baking tray with baking parchment. Grease well.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
In a small bowl or jug (or double boiler) melt the chocolate and butter together.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and slowly beat in the sugar. Beat in the flour mixture and lastly fold in the chocolate mixture. Scrape it all into the pan, and bake it for about 17 minutes, then keep checking every 3 minutes til it's done just well enough to be midway between gooey and cakey. But not liquid.
Take it out and leave it to cool before cutting.

The last lot is Mollie Katzen's recipe, taken from her lovely classic, "The Moosewood Cookbook". She has a lovely blog which you can find here. I've been making these since I was 12 and I LURVE them. I've put the metric measures in though the original recipe is in non-standard and imperial measures.
Moosewood Fudge Brownies

Let soften: 1/2 lb. (250 g) butter (don't melt it)

Melt: 5 oz. (150 g) bittersweet chocolate. Let cool.

Cream the butter with 1 3/4 packed cups (about 200 g) light brown sugar and 5 eggs. Add 1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract. Beat in the melted, cooled chocolate and 1 cup flour.

Spread into a buttered 9 x 13"(23 x 33 cm) baking pan. Bake 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees (180).

Optional: chopped nuts, or 1 tablespoon instant coffee, or 1 teaspoon grated fresh orange or lemon rind, or 1/2 teaspoon allspice or cinnamon, or a mashed over-ripe banana, or none of the above.

Yet another option: instead of uniformly blending in the chocolate, you can marble it. Add chocolate last, after the flour is completely blended in and only partially blend in the chocolate. It looks real nice.

I hope you like these. I know I also have a recipe for vegan (!!) brownies somewhere at home in Cape Town - I will dredge it out and link it into this post soon.

The quest for the best yogurt in the land

Life in the UK has its upshots. Like yogurt. My current favourites are Onken, followed closely by Yeo Valley. More suggestions welcome, as the little one seems to have a thing for yogurt. But hopefully Onken will take note of my nice letter and broaden the range. We live in hope.

Dear nice Onken people

I recently moved over to the UK from South Africa. I did it for love: I fell in love with someone that lives in London, and realised that come what may, we had to be together. I hadn't really thought I would leave sunny, beautiful, friendly Africa for soggy, cold Britain. But here I am, gradually finding my feet in this city and discovering little unexpected and pleasing things about this initially strange place.

One of my happiest discoveries was your yogurt. Specifically your Wholegrain Biopot yogurt. I didn't used to be so crazy about yogurt, but a couple of months ago, my partner and I discovered that we're expecting a little one early next year, and pregnancy has done peculiar things to my appetite. Put me off chocolate, for one thing. Given me an enormous daily desire for fresh fruit and yogurt. So I sampled a lot of different kinds. Not all of them, mind you, but quite a few. And kept coming back to yours.

Now, there's only one problem. For an enthusistic yogurt eater like me, your range of flavours is *just too small*!! The wholegrain range (which I admit is my favourite) only seems to come in three flavours - and of these, I can only usually find the strawberry one at most supermarkets. And the fruit range seems to come in a few more flavours (according to your website), but again, only a few of them only seem to be stocked at my local Sainsburys (and believe me, I've looked at both the nearest branches - Woolwich and Eltham!).

My suggestion to you is: how about broadening your range? Here are a few suggestions:

- apricot
- apple
- passion fruit
- lemon (as a mild variation on vanilla... though I've never seen your vanilla in a supermarket, I would happily buy it)
- stewed fruit
- muesli
- hazelnut
You might even branch out into sweeter flavours like caramel and chocolate.

I hope you like these ideas. Because I really like your yogurt.

Best wishes
Lisa Greenstein
5 Hurricane House, Gunyard Mews
SE18 4GE

PS. I would be more than happy to sample new flavours in process of research and development!

Friday, 16 November 2007

Africa is not one country

The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it - George Kimble, geographer, b1912.

I took a screenwriting course last year. We were told: In Hollywood movies, you don't specify that your characters are black, unless there is a Reason - in the plot or character - that makes them need to be black. White is neutral. Black carries meaning. Black implies underdog, underprivileged, marginalised. Black cannot be neutral. Hollywood, I thought. Americans, I thought. And then I came to Britain, and discovered that a similar set of assumptions apply.

Last night, I was asked what road safety is like in South Africa. And when I’d said that I thought it had improved in recent years with stricter laws around drunken driving and speeding, the next comment was: “But there can’t be much traffic, can there? I mean, most Africans can’t afford a car.”

It’s not the only comment I’ve had like this. My partner tells me repeatedly that the most valuable thing he’ll ever give me (aside from his undying love and devotion) is a British passport. “Africa is fucked,” he likes to say; “HIV and Aids are decimating your workforce, which is going to screw up the economy. Your crime rates are off the scale. And if that doesn’t finish Africa off, global warming will do the job.”

It’s as though “Africa” (the world’s 2nd largest continent, by the way, at 30,065,000 sq km) – all 54 countries of it – is actually one homogenous problem that can be summed up in the image of a single, starving, disease-riddled child. It inspires a mixture of pity and resignation in the British, who love solving the problems of others, but can’t come up with a solution. Do we feed, clothe and treat Africa? Or do we leave it to die? Whatever we do, we don’t take a closer look at the fact that the “Africa” brought to our TV sets and newspapers is NOT the one experienced daily by most of the people on the African continent. I’m not denying that Africa is home to a lot of suffering. I’m just saying that’s not all there is.

Moreover, what the British seem to find difficult to grasp is the fact that South Africa has been – and continues to be – a country of continuous, if gradual, change. The government currently in power may have many flaws (their embarrassing views on HIV prevention; their refusal to take a stand against Robert Mugabe), but there is no denying that they have brought substantial improvements to the lives of millions of South Africans over the last 13 years.

So here, for the uninitiated, are some of the facts and figures of my country. I'm not seeking to answer big questions here, just to give a few basic facts, the ones I'm afraid I can't quote offhand without checking online databases. I can't help thinking that the information below tells you very, very little. Much less than a photo essay or film might. There are a lot of people living here. A lot of different people. The figures will tell you a little, but meeting some of the people would tell you a whole lot more.

Population: almost 48 million
Race demographics: Black African 79.6% (38 million); White 9.1% (4.3 million); Coloured 8.9% (4.2 million); Indian/Asian 2.5% (1.2 million)

Don’t be fooled by the homogenous appearance of that pale purple section of the graph. Within that black African population, there are distinct linguistic and cultural groupings. If we look at the population in terms of language groupings, it looks like this

("Coloured" is a contentious term still used for people of mixed race descended from slaves brought in from East and central Africa, the indigenous Khoisan who lived in the Cape at the time, indigenous Africans and whites. The majority speak Afrikaans.)

Facts in brief about South Africa at November 2007

SA has about 12 million learners, 366 000 teachers and around 28 000 schools, including 390 special needs schools and 1000 registered private schools. The government has allocated 5.4% of its 2007/8 budget to education.
Total adult literacy rate (2000-2004) 82
Net primary school enrolment/attendance (2000-2005): 89
Phones per 100 people (2002-2004): 47
Internet users per 100 population (2002-2004): 8

% of infants with low birthweight (1998-2005): 15
% of under-5s suffereing from underweight, moderate and severe: 12
% of under-5s suffering from underweight, severe: 2
% of under-5s suffering from wasting, moderate and severe: 3

Life expectancy at birth (2005): 46
% of population using improved drinking water sources, total (2004): 88 [99% of urban populations; 73% of rural populations]
% of population using adequate sanitation facilities (2004, total): 64 (79% of urban populations; 46% of rural populations)
% of routine EPI vaccines financed by government, 2005, total: 100
% of 1-year-old children immunized against (2005): TB 97%; DPT 98%; Polio 94%; Measles 82%; HepB 94%
Estimated adult HIV prevalence rate (15+ years), end 2005: 18.8%
Mother-to-child transmission, estimated number of people, all ages, living with HIV, 2005 estimate 5 500 000

Economic growth, as measured by GDP, has increased from around 3.3% (1999-2004) to around 5% per annum.
Employment has risen by about 2.7% per year since 2001. By March 2007, the estimated unemployment rate was down to 25.5% (from 28% in 2004)
The number of South Africans living in poverty has dropped steadily from 52.1% in 1999 to 47% in 2004 to 43.2% bby March 2007.
The government has built more than 2 million homes and electrified more than 3 million homes. More than 16 million people have been provided with first-time access clean water.
Free basic municipal services are now provided to more than 70% of South Africa’s population
The Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, Medium Term Budget Policy Statement, October 2007

Information in this posting taken from:

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Why is Michael Moore so darned irritating? - A review of Sicko

Like any skilled polemicist, Michael Moore makes his message easy to watch and simple to translate. Put crudely, this film tells us: the healthcare systems in civilised countries aim to take care of people. The healthcare system in America aims to make a profit. You could’ve worked that message out from the trailer, or, if you were at the gala screening at the Odeon in Leicester Square last night, you could’ve worked it out from the letter of apology sent by Mr Moore, who was supposed to be there for a Q&A, but couldn’t make it. It’s a plea for a return to socialised (or state-run) health facilities in the USA, a plea to echo the systems of Britain, France or Cuba. A reasonable plea, made in Moore’s now-recognisable brand of ram-it-down-their-throats docu-satire.

a reasonable premise
This year, 18 000 Americans will die because they can’t afford their healthcare bills, Moore tells us. We meet a man who lost the tops of two fingers in an accident; because privatised healthcare sticks a hefty price tag on all procedures, he had to choose between a $12 000 ring finger and a $32 000 middle finger (he went for the cheaper option). His counterpart in the UK, a man who chopped off several fingers in a similar accident, got them all sewn back on for free. We meet ex-physicians from some of Moore’s health insurance corporates (Cigna, Blue Shield, Humana and the like), who tell us their salary bonuses were directly linked to the number of medical cases in which treatment was denied. We meed a dozen or so other ordinary Americans who had treatment denied in the US, including volunteers from the smoking remains of 9/11. It’s all contrasted with the happy, free medical care available in the UK and France, where Moore interviews well-paid, affluent doctors and their happy, satisfied patients, including ex-Americans contemplating their good fortune to live in countries with free medical care.

the sincerest propaganda
It was somehow unsurprising that Moore sent a letter of apology to his British audience. The generous assumption would be that Moore’s family commitments back home were real, and the letter was one of genuine regret that he couldn’t make the screening. But to be cynical just for a second, the letter-in-lieu-of-appearance also came across as a masterly ploy. Firstly, the filmmaker got in the first – and last – word. Secondly, he got to pre-empt the potential criticisms that would inevitably arise in the audience, given his uncritical depiction of the NHS. And thirdly, nothing disarms a British audience like a good, self-deprecating apology.

Indeed, Moore’s mood palette consists primarily of apology, self-deprecation, and of course, contained indignation. It all comes across as disarmingly personal and sincere: Michael apologises for the havoc his country wreaks in others; Michael winces at his own desire to reclaim his national pride; Michael sighs and shakes his head in outrage at the wronged little people – those routinely denied treatment. Michael apologises for wanting to reclaim his national pride and fly his flag.
In his signature cap and oversized T-shirt, and staggeringly overweight frame, Moore makes a point of never prettying up for camera. If anything, he wants to appear Ordinary, The Little Guy, though he sure ain’t physically little, and nor is his influence something to be toyed with; one respondent to his online request for information waved the filmmaker’s name his health insurance company, only to get his denial swiftly overturned by the CEO.

Still, the discourse of sincerity carefully offsets Moore’s calculated use of good old agitprop. His favourite trick is to raid the archives for charming, grainy clippings – old news clips, snippets from Cold War anti-communist propaganda, bits and pieces of Hollywood classics – and splice them together wittily. Of course, it’s all under the guise of Irony and Satire, and the audience laps it up. We’re all far too visually literate to take in this kind of imagery in any other mode than the ironic. Or are we? Isn’t Moore just shoring up the same set of layered emotional responses that propagandists have used in every other generation, coating it in a palatable and fashionable layer of irony?

not quite documentary
Most documentary film-makers I’ve encountered will tell you that documentary-making tends to start with a question. And through the making of their film, they thrash out the complexities of the question, sometimes arriving at an answer, sometimes not. The principle of documentary is that of investigation. Moore, on the other hand, sets out with an argument, and constructs anecdotes and a ton of imagery to make you listen. It’s remarkable that his work still gets billed as documentary. Perhaps, like so many of the questionably categorised medical procedures mentioned in the film, it’s ‘experimental’. Perhaps he’s just constructed a genre of his own, and when he gets the guns out for the same repertoire of usual suspects (all our woes can be traced back to George Bush and the war in Iraq), it’s no different from the director of Rocky including the showdown fight at the end, or the director of James Bond making sure there’s a decent supply of car chases and gadget play. It’s what we’ve come to expect of the genre. Still, I have seen dozens of variations on the idea of documentary (indeed, some say that every documentary film-maker has to explore what it is they mean by documentary), and none leave me quite as irritable as Michael Moore does.

conclusion – a convincing prescription, if you can stomach the dosage
Inevitably, I find that I have the same experience during the last half-hour of any Michael Moore film: I’ve had enough. Someone let me out. It’s fun to watch, but after a while the guy is just too annoying for me. But even if you want to slap Michael Moore by the end of it, and tell him to lose the floppy cap and whingy tone, there will be few – if any – audience members that leave the cinema feeling that he has gotten it wrong. If anything, he leaves you feeling grateful to be in Britain, land of the glowing NHS, and wondering whether, if healthcare privatisation gets out of hand here, you might consider emigration to Cuba.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

To have and to hold til death do you part?

You spend a lot of time thinking about it - how it feels, how hot or cold it is, its state of health, its levels of perfection or imperfection, how toned or flabby or marked or decorated or improved it's looking. But how long do you intend to hold onto your body? Can you face the idea that once you're dead, it's no longer of any use to you, and you might as well pass it onto someone that has some use for it?

Although 70% of the British population agree with donating their organs in principle, nowhere near that number of people are actually on an organ donor list. Which puts Britain (like other countries, SA included) in a tough position: thousands of people waiting for transplants, and not enough organs.

I read today in the Independent Online that Britain's chief medical officer has made a "radical" suggestion: that, at death, everyone should automatically become an organ donor - unless they've chosen to opt out. Known as a presumed consent system (or "opt-out" system) this is the reverse of the current "opt-in" system. At present, in Britain (as in SA), you're only an organ donor if you've gone to the trouble of thinking about it, deciding to do it, and then getting yourself a sticker for your ID.

On the opt-in system, the UK had a donation rate of just over 12 people per million in 2003. Other EU countries which have switched to opt-out systems include Belgium, and the Czech Republic, with donation rates just over 20 people per million in 2004, and Spain, whose donation rates went up from around 17 to over 35 per million. The stats don't really paint the picture clearly enough though: for every additional organ donated, someone gets a chance to have an operation that'll most likely save their life. It's hard to believe anyone could argue against this.

Ironically, the organ donor crisis in Britain (according to the Independent) is due in part to the success of increased road safety. Cars are safer, people are wearing seatbelts, the airbags are working and - I'm guessing - the strict DUI laws are paying off. Predictably, the healthiest organs come from those that died (or find themselves kept alive on life support systems)in the aftermath of a road accident. So increased road safety means less roadkill means fewer organ donors. Kinda creepy illustration of how one man's meat is another man's poison, but in the meantime, thousands of people wait for kidneys and other tissues which are getting buried in the ground.

And yet, as things stand, it looks highly unlikely that anyone will bite the opt-out line. The main argument against the opt-out system is that "protecting individual autonomy is more important than boosting transplant rates". I wonder, though: what individual autonomy do you have after you are dead, though, over your physical body? And why would you want to take this body - that you've (hopefully), for so many year, lavished with so much attention and concern - and bury or burn it, rather than giving it back? Perhaps it's the insistent myopia of my non-recyclable corneas, but I just don't see the argument.

Friday, 13 July 2007


Much energy is wasted in trying to charm others. And in wanting to charm - I tell you, the opposite happens.
(Sri Sri Ravi Shankar)

What about Switzerland???

Neutral in every other sort of war, the Swiss would be the immediate victors of any battle for pre-eminence in matters of chocolate making. Weird, then, that they don't get a mention in this article in todays online New York Times:

Bryn Dyment, a Web developer in the Bay Area who grew up in Canada, said he was shocked when his parents took him to a candy counter in the United States. He found out that not every child in the world was eating the same chocolate bars he was.

It wasn’t until he moved to the United States as an adult that he realized just how vast that divide is.

“You get in these religious arguments with people,” he said. “I haven’t met a Canadian who likes a Hershey bar, but Americans think you’re crazy when you say that, because they think everyone loves a Hershey bar.”

(See "The World's Best Candy Bars? English, of Course" in today's NYT)

I can never decide when I love it or hate it when faraway journalists pre-empt my story ideas. The differences between British and American chocolate have been a matter of great personal consideration for me over the past two days. But how could they write it without mentioning Switzerland? Weird, man.

Things I'm loving about Central America

OK, granted, I'm seeing little more than airports and aeroplanes and generic hotels for three days, but even so, there have been some highlights:

1. The easy-going chaos of the airports. Teeming with people, loads of airport officials, but none of the paranoia of Heathrow. Sounds like a tour-pamphlet cliche, but everyone's so friendly, even the security staff and passport control.

2. Immigration at San Salvador. You know the usual no-man's land feeling of arrivals; those sanitised carefully regulated corridors that lead from aeroplane to passport control to customs, manned by tight-faced uniformed matrons? Not in San Salvador, man. Arrivals and departures are all one thing. People milling between the restaurants and the duty free-shops and the departure gates, going in all directions. Oh, immigration, yes, that way - follow the yellow signs. Families streaming in to hug people while they're queuing to get their passports stamped. The mystified-looking guy at the front of the immigration queue that peered into my face and asked whether I was in South Africa for a holiday or for work, then seeing the confused look on my face, just waved me through, what the hell. And then, when I went outside to wait for the bus to the Quality Inn, found the airline staff, their ties and top buttons loosened in the after-flight heat, smoking and chatting while they waited for the same bus. Is there an english word for gesellig?

Arriving at San Salvador

3. Peruvian chocolate. It's dark, bitter, slightly crumbly and you can taste they make it with unrefined sugar 'cause it has the smoky metallic edge of molasses. Totally different to the milky Swiss stuff I usually love, but when in Peru...

Chocolate de leche - milk chocolate, but almost darker than most stuff that passes for dark chocolate in SA - mmm

4. The way the air of San Salvador envelops you in a sleazy, hot embrace the second you're outside any air-conditioned zone. Hot countries, man I love them.

5. Business class. Yes, notwithstanding the reservations expressed in my last entry. This is day two of the mammoth transit adventure, and I'm actually just grateful for the steady supply of fresh orange juice and quietness and internet access.

6. The sound of Spanish.

View from my hotel room in Belize

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Business and class

Greetings from Lima, Peru, from a hotel room conveniently situated exactly 5 minutes walk across from the baggage claims and customs declaration area at the airport. Yes, once again, I'm on one of those ludicrous professional (mis)adventures where you spend more time in high-pressurised cabins and air-conditioned airport terminals than you spend at your destination. By Friday, I'll have taken four flights, each to a different country in an absurd South African dance known as Avoiding-The-USA-Because-They're-So-Damned-Sticky-
About-Awarding-Transit-Visas. This dance only seems complicated until you come across its not so distant cousin, attempting-to-Connect-via-The-USA-Although-They're-So-

I didn't have time for the second dance, so I'm caught up in the first one. Blessings and gratitude to my publisher, though, who's sent me business class (by mistake, I suspect, but he still deserves blessings and gratitude for this).

Now the lovely thing about traveling business class is not that it's marvelously luxurious. Actually, it's not. I mean, yes, stretching out in fully reclining business class seats makes a trip a whole heap less stressful than cramming into economy class pigeonholes. (And, yes, I was charmed by my little personal salt and pepper shakers, each with a tiny stopper on top. Not quite Alessi, but not far off, for an airline meal.) No, the real luxury of business class is all about the myth of luxury.

Luxury is a relative notion. Relative to the norm. And on aeroplanes, the norm is so dire that the more luxuriant classes (business, first, whatever code names they give it) makes you feel special. You feel pampered and privileged when they serve lunch on real crockery, and the food has actual taste and texture. These are things you'd take for granted in the most basic cafeteria. But airlines have gotten us so used to plastic plates, fridge-hard (or microwave-overheated) food, brusque treatment and minimal leg room that a little bit of fresh and spacious goes a long way. You feel like royalty when the staff treat you like someone doing very big business with them. But the truth is that all those economy class tickets are the biggest part of their big business. All the people behind the snootily whipped-across curtain that separates the stretchy business-class section from the piled-in economy barracks behind - they're the ones keeping the airline afloat. (Well, maybe afloat is the wrong word to use in relation to an aeroplane. But you know what I mean.)

Now I could interpret this in a couple of different ways. For one thing, I could use the experience to remind myself that things just feel better all round when we don't take them for granted. But I'm not Oprah, and I know you can figure that out for yourself. Anway, like I said already, that scale of luxury is so, so relative.

This time, the experience got me thinking about the myth of class. Human beings love to differentiate themselves from each other. We live in an age of overzealous individualism, caught in a weird cycle between wanting to be unique, and wanting to belong to our own (er, special, unique) group. But nowhere is this undermined quite as radically as at the airport, where you are a generic body, labelled with passport number and ticket number, shunted along various conveyer belts til you're transported to your destination. With the material evidence of your daily requirements folded into a suitcase that, let's face it, looks much like every other suitcase there. Open up any suitcase there, and you'll find that your collection of jeans and jackets and mobile phone charger and iPod and underwear don't look all that different to the next one. And yet, we're each special and individually unique, we know it. Which makes the airport experience disturbing. We know it, and more importantly, the airline companies know it.

So what do they offer? They offer you a range of ways to buy into an idea of class. You can do it at duty-free (and in a telling typo, that almost read beauty-free): you can buy radically expensive branded items that'll let you associate yourself with the rarefied air of glamour and celebrity and international allure that hovers mysteriously and invisibly over international terminals. You can do it by purchasing first or business class tickets that'll let you into special lounges, give you special treatment. Extra leg room, liqueurs, those cute salt and pepper shakers (I really liked them!) Comfy, sure, and I'm not knocking it. The extra comfort has made the difference between a near-unbearable trip and one that's downright pleasant.

Here's the crunch, though. When you get wherever you're going, you're going to be glad to be there, or not. You're going to be looking forward to going home again, or not, depending on how your life is right now. What will change after these few hours of flying? Little, it seems to me. And that hovering air of glamour and class that's promised in their plush lounges - it's nothing but OTT trimming on an oversized waiting room. I'm having a wonderfully easy trip, I guess I'm saying. But the most exciting part of it is that in a week's time I'll be on my way home, where the salt and pepper isn't individually packed.

[*The dance goes like this: you need to go somewhere relatively near to America, about two weeks from now. The most sensible route is to fly to Miami and connect to your destination. Then you remember that you have a South African passport. You go to the US Embassy's website and discover that the Americans require you to get a transit visa. To arrange this, they require you to go to Pick N Pay and buy a $10-voucher. The voucher entitles you to 9 minutes on the phone to a consultant at the US embassy. During this 9 minutes you must book a compulsory personal interview at the embassy. The interview schedule is generally backed up 1 to 3 months in advance. If you go over 9 minutes, go back to Pick N Pay for a new visa. And start again. If you get the appointment arranged, you can go to the embassy in a month or two, along with a pile of admin: bank statements, hotel bookings, fully paid-for plane tickets. Then they need 14 working days to process your visa. And all this just to go in transit...]

Friday, 6 July 2007

So you think you're a metrosexual...

OK, I've had enough of these goddamn false claims to metrosexuality. If you were a metrosexual, honey, I wouldn't be sleeping with you. But you don't believe me, so I've devised this clever little test for you and all your friends.

1. You set your alarm extra early...
a) ONLY on those rare days you have a meeting before 9 am.
b) Most mornings. Work commitments...
c) Every morning, to facilitate your extensive cleansing routine. You allow an extra 45 minute sleep-in on weekends only.

2. Your magazines of choice are:
a) Anything to do with movies or IT. And the TV guide is a magazine, right?
b) National Geographic and/or New Scientist.
c) Wallpaper, and you're occasionally tempted by Men's Health. Oh, and there's that nice one they're doing now that focuses on men's holistic wellness.

3. When you have your hair cut, you secretly wish:
a) That your close shave on 2 will take more than 6 weeks to grow back so that you don't have to waste another hour doing this until next season.
b) That the head massage would go on for another 25 minutes, preferably in a private room.
c) That you could ask the hairdresser to tutor you to do that gel-and-fingers maneuver as skilfully as she does. Oh, and you must remember to get the name of that hair treatment she used this time.

4. You're out one Saturday with your closest guy friend. Your ex sends a weird sms. Your reaction:
a) You don't notice over the noise of the ten pin bowling.
b) You read the sms, then get back to ordering the next round.
c) You read it. You show it to your friend. You both spend three hours speculating your friend about the motivation and psychology of this behaviour.

5. The movie you went to see this week was:
a) Diehard
b) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
c) Moliere

MOSTLY A's: Uh, your feminine side is safely kept under wraps. Only brought out on special occasions and when absolutely necessary. Maybe. You have a decently strong handshake and when you eye a girl, she gets that primal thing that your metro acquaintances can smell but not understand.
MOSTLY B's: You know how to wash out the bath. But you don't colour code your cupboards. You're still mostly guy. Women notice you, sometimes, but you're a little oblivious to them.
MOSTLY C's: You've got it bad. There are petite, clean-minded girls queuing up to date you. Unfortunately, most of them suspect that you're gay. But they love talking to you.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Little Miss Make-Me-Beautiful

I read a magazine article recently that cited a growing phenomenon among 20-something girls. Increasing numbers of young women are forking out thousands and thousands of dollars (or rands or pounds, depending on where you are) to keep their faces youthful. Skin wraps, laser treatments, Botox injections. Plastic surgery as required to keep lips fuller, eyebrows higher, noses straighter.

Now, my kneejerk reaction to this kind of thing is to shake my head at this sad, limited idea of beauty. Are arched eyebrows and airbrushed golden skin really the cornerstone of physical beauty? And if your opinion of yourself is so low that you believe you need to stitch yourself into the shape of beauty, are you really going to feel any more beautiful by the time the scabs heal? But I was reading this article in one of those magazines in which every 100 grams of "Thou shalt cultivate thy inner beauty" is offset by 15 tonnes of "Thou shalt hate thyself for not resembling Kate Moss". Where every ad is based on the unquestioned premise that happiness and fulfilment lie in the magical promised land of Looking Better, and no matter where you are, you aren't there yet.

So I can hardly squish these young creatures for buying into the idea that they might Look Better. And if prevention is better than cure, and they have the disposable income for unadulterated prevention... well, good for them. But the article went on to point out that the women in question were usually offsetting their treatments with a heavy-duty lifestyle: all-night partying, bingeing on alcohol, coke and other party drugs.

OK, so we have a generation girls that are worshipping at the altar of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. Nihilistic hedonism is where it's at. They're well-heeled enough to know that the lifestyle will make them look haggard and withered well before their time. So they pay someone to patch up the damage, smooth it over, for a while anyway. The cosmetic surgeon knows that Little Miss Make-Me-Beautiful is wasting her money. But he isn't about to tell her that. He has big mortgages to pay. And she's not the kind of girl you'd want to get into a fight with. She might think it cool to scratch your eyes out.

So no one tells her. No one tells her that it's temporary. No one tells her that what you do leaves an imprint on your body. No one tells her that she's wrecking herself from the inside and no amount of fixing from the outside can fix that. No one tells her that she could head off to a meditation retreat for ten days, breathe some fresh air, feed and stretch her body, and she'd do more to get rid of those circles under her eyes and to refresh the prematurely slack, sagging skin on her young face than any nipping and tucking could ever do.

Why doesn't anyone tell her? Because the people that are in the business of doing the telling are the people that have something to sell. Selling cosmetics. Selling treatments. Selling accessories and appliances and clothing. And selling magazines. So it wouldn't really pay to let her know that this is an endless and pointless cycle. There is no beautiful end to it. So they take her money, and the convince her that she should tell the laser guy to remodel her gleaming youth into Younger and Better. And the people the wrote the magazines that idolised the brainless celebrities write articles like the one I read, shaking their heads. Wondering why she does it.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Lily white Olympians and other bedside stories

You know, I deal with fractions quite often. I write maths textbooks, so me and fractions have quite a close relationship. I can write neat little exercises that'll teach your 6-year-old to define fractions, compare them, convert them to a different form and whip them through any mathematical operations. Fractions, as far as I know, are useful little buggers as long as you're lining up a set of equal parts of a whole.
Now, according to IOL yesterday:

Next year's Olympians will be the last "lily white" team to represent South Africa at the world games, according to Butana Komphela, chairperson of the National Assembly's sports committee. This was after several MPs baulked at the 74-member team's racial composition, expressing concern that it was 37 percent black and 63 percent white.
Right. So we're dividing up a sports team according to percentages. How very useful. A percentage, in case you've forgotten, is a fraction with a denominator of 100. So this little piece of journalism is really telling us that:

37/100 x 74 = 27,38 black people
63/100 x 74 =
46,62 white people

Terrifically useful. One wonders what 0,38 of a black person (or 0,62 of a white person) is; no doubt Dulux could put together a consulting team from the Old Guard and come up with a range of earth tones ranging from Titanium Albino to Ebony Stallion, with a fine mid-range of Skinny Lattes (with and without wings?) to guide us. Or am I being petty? Is the use of percentages so commonplace in defining the demographic breakdowns of human groups that we should overlook the fact that, really, people are different? OK, OK. Moving along. Now that our MPs have embarked on this useful mathematical endeavour, they offer the following little gem:
They also regarded the team's gender make-up of 62 percent male and 38 percent female as being "unpalatable".

62/100 x 74 = 45,88 males
38/100 x 74 = 28,12 females

I'm tempted to wonder about that 0,12 of a female. Is that the really effete guy on the rugby team? Or the gymnast whose prepubescent body is so pumped up on hormones that you can't really distinguish it from a young boy's?

Yes, yes, they're stats, I hear you say. But why the hell convert a real team of 74 people into a hypothetical team of 100, I want to know. What USE is it?
What would happen if you lodged the complaint without resorting to the obfuscation of mathematics?

I'll tell you what I think. As soon as you word it sanely, you're complaining that 74 people are going to the Olympics.
The gender ratio: 46 men to 38 women. The race ratio: 27 black people to 47 whites. We're talking about 74 exceptional individuals, each at the top of their field, each of whom has sacrificed most of their life to training and reaching a level of sporting excellence so finely tuned that most of them will only be able to maintain it for a few short years, at most. We're not talking achievers, we're talking super-achievers. These are the obsessive, tenacious, never-say-die few. They have genetic advantages. They have talent. They have the peculiar blend of mental attributes required to go the distance and train til they want to die and then train some more. They are lunatics. They are NOT average.

And Butana Komphela, bless his lily white socks, wants to apply a law of averages to them.
He said the team would have to get to the airport quickly as it would be the last time an unrepresentative team would be allowed through immigration.
He added that it was time the sporting federations felt the government's whip after they had in many instances failed to transform their teams voluntarily.
It was not until people were severely punished that they would know that there was a rule of law in the country, Komphela said.
I'd like to challenge Mr Komphela to go to a school playground. Go play PT teacher for a day. (Sorry, make that Arts and Culture educator in charge of Phys. Ed. or whatever the OBE-speak is for that post these days.) Check out how fairly talent gets spread out. God doesn't queue children up and dish out talent and commitment in equal measures. Sure, provide the opportunities as equally as you can across the board. Teach girls to throw and catch and kick balls; teach black kids to swim. Redress the balance, go for it. But don't pretend all kids are created equal. Don't pretend that we're all equal parts of the whole. Equality is based on maths, not on humanity. Life doesn't divide well into fractions. Life's not fair, Mr Komphela. And you can't severely punish anyone for that.

Friday, 15 June 2007


Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

(Robert F. Kennedy)

My favourite break-up line ever

Watched "Secretary" again last night. What a fine film. Worth seeing for the best break-up line of all time:

You're my fiancee!
I don't want you. Get out.

I mean, poor Peter. But when you know, you know, right? I wish more people had the balls to say it out loud and clear when they do want you. And when they don't. Makes things so much clearer, doncha think?

Monday, 11 June 2007

Radical participation

I remember the first time I heard the name "Burning Man". I was on a boat in the Red Sea. We were diving three times a day. There was barely time for anything besides getting our dive kit on and off between dives, eating and sleeping. The occasional game of 30 Seconds. And several good conversations. I wasn't having a rough time. I wasn't premenstrual. I wasn't even homesick. I was certainly not susceptible to unbidden tears. But the words "Burning Man" sent a shiver down my spine. And when Richard described, in a few broad strokes, what the event was about, I almost cried at the thought of it.

Now, I've never been to Black Rock. I've never seen the Man burn; I've never partaken of that magic. I've only heard of it, and wondered what it might be like. The photographs tell me one thing only: that I can't tell til I'm there. I'm not sure I'm ready to go there. But, it seems, there is ready to come here.

(If you've never heard of Burning Man, I am not the person to tell you about it. Rather go read this:

Last week, I discovered that a friend his helping to organise Afrika Burns, which bills itself as "an art festival heavily inspired by Burning Man". In other words, a little bit of Burning Man comes to Africa. Ambitious, I thought. Fucking awesome, I thought. Damnit, I'm going to be away in July, I thought. And then: Thank God for that. I mean, how the hell would I, within a month, come up with a creative offering that was equal to the task of radical participation that Richard had described that day in Egypt?

Out of curiosity, I checked out the website, and then checked out the Facebook group that the organisers have set up to keep participants in the loop. As I skimmed through the online information, I couldn't help getting the sense that the organisers haven't quite gotten their point across. I see a lot of people lining up to buy tickets to the rave of the decade. "I hope this isn't gonna be another crappy hippie trance party," says one. I cringe. Depends, I can't help thinking. Are you going to make it more than that? What are you bringing, besides those cool expectations?

See, Burning Man isn't about going and getting wasted in the hippest, most spectacular and most wildly creative setting you could imagine. It's not about going and being entertained. There's nothing passive about Burning Man. My descriptions should adhere to E Prime here, in fact: everything about this event screams ACTIVE. Do it, make it, bring it, and give it. Freely. Think of surviving in a harsh place. Then think of doing that while simultaneously sustaining others - not just with bread and water. With art. With flowers. With buildings. Think of generosity of spirit. Multiply it by 1 000. That's how I think of Burning Man. Think radical freedom of expression. Multiply that by a whole lot of powers of ten too. Getting there.

So. Burning Man comes to Afrika? Amen. You're thinking of going? Amen. Just grant me one wish: Go without expectation. Go with arms full of your gifts, and palms open, expecting nothing. And make it something beyond any of our wildest dreams. Everything you're hoping for, take it with you and give it away. That's the only way it can ever come back to you, and even it doesn't, you'll find it already has.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Internet dates that didn't happen #1

Dear M______

I hardly know you very well, off these few emails, and you seem, you know, genuine. I imagine your friends refer to you as "such a sweet guy". I imagine you get along passably well with ex-girlfriends. But. M_______. Forgive me for taking this liberty - but, as we're unlikely to meet, it seems pointless to miss the opportunity to point something out to you, with all the best intentions. Take a look at these:

"If you would prefer to cast this tentative friendship adrift for any reason, then please let me know." ??!!

"I'll expect an email if/when I receive one." ??!!!

"If you would prefer to keep things virtual, that's also cool." ????!!!!

Read them a couple of times.

You wrote them.

Did you see what you were writing?

Do you see what I'm trying to tell you?

Do you know what's coming?

It's your interpersonal proactivity dial, dude. You seem to have set it to 0. As in Radically Tentative. Houston, we have a problem. I mean, I'm all for considerateness and sensitivity in men, but you're taking it to a new level here. Out of the thousand-odd matches that datingbuzz threw at me, you're one of a tiny handful that had something at all to say. And yet, here you are, running out a line in tentativeness like nothing I've ever seen before. It's like driving with your handbrake on, dude. Ease up. I mean, I'm taking myself out of the loop in any case ... but I'm pretty convinced you're one of the creatures that would find himself hooked up in a heartbeat if you could just take a deep breath and put yourself on the line. Do you know what I'm saying?

Now. I'm really in two minds about sending this email. Will I press send? Or will I simply delete it, and let you go on your gentle way, out of fear that you might find my point of view a little uncomfortable, a little prickly? You might take offense. You might simply be hurt. And I don't like hurting people. What am I trying to achieve here, I wonder?
Well, I'd like to think that I just might inspire you to do something out-of-the-ordinary. So I think I might just hit the send button. Go on. Stretch yourself. Risk something. Pursue someone. Put yourself on the line.

All the best

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Quotation of the weekend

"Silence is usually understood to be something negative, something empty, an absence of sound, of noises. This misunderstanding is prevalent because very few people have ever experienced silence. All that they have experienced in the name of silence is noiselessness.
But silence is a totally different phenomenon. It is utterly positive. It is existential, it is not empty. It is overflowing with a music that you have never heard before, with a fragrance that is unfamiliar to you, with a light that can only be seen by the inner eyes.
It is not something fictitious; it is a reality, and a reality which is already present in everyone - we just never look in.
You inner world has its own taste, has its own fragrance, has its own light. And it is utterly silent, immensely silent. There has never been any noise, and there will never be any noise. No word can reach there, but you can reach.
Your very centre of being is the centre of a cyclone. Whatever happens around it does not affect it. It is eternal silence.
Days come and go, years come and go, ages come and pass. Lives come and go, but the eternal silence of your being remains exactly the same - the same soundless music, the same fragrance of godliness, the same transcendence from all that is mortal, from all that is momentary.
It is not your silence.
You are it.
It is not something in your possession; you are possessed by it, and that's the greatness of it. Even you are not there, because even your own presence will be a disturbance.
The silence is so profound that there is nobody, not even you. And this silence brings truth, and love, and thousands of other blessings to you."

Meditation - The First and Last Freedom)

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Go find me a verb please - one that works

I know this might lose a lot of you off the bat, but how often do you think about the verbs you choose? A while ago, a friend told me about a language called E-Prime. Simply put, E-Prime refers to the sum of the English language, minus all versions of the verb "to be". In other words, E-Prime contains all the same words as English, except for the following: be, being, is, isn't, am, are, aren't, was, were, weren't.

It sounds like an interesting thought experiment. Except that various academics have written extensive papers explaining the significance and virtue of a language minus the pernicious verb "to be". And I find myself wishing that more writers - journalists, especially - would take note.

Why use E-Prime? Several reasons spring to mind.

Firstly, E-Prime jettisons the passive voice. No longer can you construct sentences using is seen, was said, was killed, will be found, was written, will be done. Instead, E-Prime forces you to ascribe agency. Who sees it? Who said it? Who killed it? Who will find it? Who wrote it?

So what? Well, it results in clearer, easier to read, and - most importantly for me - more accurate and specific writing. Too many unexamined assumptions lurk behind that passive voice which has become the ubiquitous construction of so much so-called information these days. In my role as editor, I spend a lot of time excising the passive voice from new authors' work. Changing apparently simple textbook statements like Gold is mined underground to We mine gold underground. What difference does the change make? A lot, I'd say. Apart from the fact that students, especially second-language students find the passive voice confusing. The change subtly ascribes responsibility to the statement, subtly imparts a deeper level of understanding: Things do not simply happen, passively, then wait for us to observe them. People make them happen. Someone chooses to mine that gold; someone sets up the infrastructure and someone else goes down with a light on his head and sweats his way along the coalface. The first statement does not open this awareness to the reader. The second statement does.

Secondly, E-Prime encourages you to take responsibility for your own subjective opinions. The rose isn't red, darling; the rose appears red. The movie isn't great, sweetheart; we watched it; you liked it; I loved it, and those other silly people walked out. What is the movie? It's a movie, that's all. If you want to say something about it, E-Prime nudges you closer to clarifying your opinions accurately. E-Prime cannot eliminate opportunities for spouting dogma and unexamined prejudice. But it can encourage the speaker or writer to acknowledge and "own" their point of view.

So. I wouldn't advocate that you rewire your brain to yank out any versions of "to be" from your everyday usage. But next time you want to write something, think carefully about what you want to say. And take a little meander into your brain, and find a suitable verb for that sentence.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

"It's just like the 60s, but with less hope."

I guess a film about a pre-orgasmic protagonist is bound to be a little anticlimactic. But in the case of John Cameron Mitchell's recent film Shortbus, the anticlimax is both relief and disappointment.

Many will rage and roar that it's porn. Certainly, there's porn out there with a lower body count in terms of sheer fornication. But there's nothing about Shortbus that's designed to turn you on. Rather, it'll make you laugh, and wince. Unlike most mainstream films, this one doesn't mystify or demystify sex. It doesn't cast sex as mysterious collateral for the main plot. Instead, sex - in all its forms, from masturbation to twosomes, threesomes and wild orgies - is simply part of the story, part of the question that each character is trying to answer for themselves: What do I need? How am I going to find it?

Like any ensemble comedy, really, this one deals with people in pain. Specifically, a fringe bunch of New Yorkers who find their way to the lounge-cum-pleasure-palace called Shortbus, where they play out the extremes of their sexual fantasies. But, at the heart of it, they are people in pain, people looking for solace and solutions, looking to connect with others, to turn on their lights, as it were, in a city where the lights keep going out. Heironymous Bosch would turn in his grave: here's sexual deviancy that's not just refreshingly real - it's uplifting, playful, fresh and unimpeded by moralising overtones.

It doesn't exactly get there in the end, I must admit. I could have done with a more convincing turning point for the main character, a more emotionally satisfying ending. The closing scene felt a little like a pantomime encore pantomime, with the cast gathering for one last rowdy number, almost tearful at the imminent farewell, but mostly celebrating what a fine old time they'd had making the show. Which, no doubt they had.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Quotation of the weekend

"Don't get sad. You're in your best place. You have peace of mind. You have self-respect. And you have creative ideas for hand-cuffs." - the lovely LDH.

An eye for an I

I must admit, I don't like thinking too hard about disease and injury. Yes, hospitals make me uneasy. The thought of surgery makes me squeamish. The details of my death are something I figure I can ignore. And I've had the good fortune of decent health and a relatively accident-free existence. Lucky me. But I'm feeling quite proud of myself of late. I finally got round to looking my internal organs in the eye, as it were, and registering as an organ donor.

It's easy - you can register online, they send you the stickers to put on your ID and driver's licence, you let your family know, and that's it. There are currently 3 000 South Africans awaiting organs for transplants that could save their lives. Because of shortages of organs, fewer than 1 in 3 of them will receive those transplants.
This from the Organ Donor Foundation's website:

Research has shown that organ donation is acceptable to the majority of South Africans and contrary to popular belief, a grieving family takes great comfort from the knowledge that they are able to help others through the donation of their loved one's organs and tissues.

With excellent long-term survival rates of over 80%, transplantation can no longer be considered experimental and is accepted as the treatment of choice for most patients with end-stage disease.

I'm not going to apologise for the proselytising tone of this post. Sometime, when you need an eye, a kidney or a heart, I really want to know that you're going to get one. The only way that can happen is for more people to get the little red sticker.

South Africa:

Friday, 25 May 2007

When I grow up...

Just back from my big adventure to the soggy island known as England, and the slightly smaller, but no less damp island of Arran in Scotland. Where I discovered that you can never tell what's going to happen when you grow up.

This isn't Arran. It's Holy Isle, which is the view from Arran.
When I grow up I'm going to be a Buddhist monk there. Well, in one of my other lives.

When Nicole grows up, she's going to be a doctor during the week, an artist on the weekend and a sailor around midnight. No, wait. She already is...

Dani, my favourite piece of she-fluff. I would've voted her least likely to juggle radical chic with domesticity.
But my prescient skills are really quite shite.

Me and Nicole. After 20 years of not seeing one another, we had a lot of catching up to do. When we grow up, maybe we'll get to be the Scrabble equivalent of John Turturro in Quiz Show.

And when Nikolai and I grow up, we are going to be notorious co-authors. Of something. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Airports and nationalism

Because I come from South Africa, and not, say, the UK or US, I need a visa stamped into my passport before I can set foot in most countries on earth. When I travel to the Caribbean on business, I go via London instead of Miami, because the Americans won’t even let me pass through their doors in transit without half a ton of paperwork and an expensive visa application process. I have friends who’ve gone through the mill of proving that their grandparents were born in Lithuania in order to get a Lithuanian passport. Which amounts to EU citizenship. For the sake of sidestepping their travel visa headaches. (Or, in more cases, to allow them to live and work in the EU.) I can’t help wondering what their ancestral connections really prove to the powers that be. What on earth makes that individual a more palatable entrant to these countries than someone whose passport has a different country name on it?

I guess I could say, quite confidently, that I really don’t get nationalism. In fact, I get it less now than I did at school. Whenever I cross a border post by car, I’m struck by the absurdity of the wire fences that divide countries. Erected by labourers, manned by civil servants. The official dance of stamping bits of paper barely conceals the absurdity of it. What is this, exactly? Why do we need to do it? I can’t say I understand.

The last time I crossed from South Africa into Namibia, I mistakenly took my old passport, which had been invalidated when the new one was issued. The woman working at the desk didn’t notice. Relief for me. But also silent triumph. This is how significant the paperwork is. Its only significance is bestowed by the people handling it. Today, at Heathrow, I watched an official toss my make-up remover and body oil in the bin, because of some rule about containers that can hold more than 100 ml of liquid. She knew it was body oil, not napalm or whatever. She knew it was make-up remover. I knew the rules. She didn’t make them. Dumbly, we both complied. Dumbly, the liquids got tossed in the bin. Did this do something to advance national security in Britain? Somehow, I think not. I didn’t feel safer for it. I simply felt that some sort of tyranny of idiocy was at play, and neither of us had the power to do anything about it.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

The soft and the spiky

cactus flower, Nieu Bethesda

"It is my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues." - Abraham Lincoln

Choices and choicelessness

Two years ago, a teacher from India told me: "When you are truly free, you do not spend your energy making choices. True freedom is choiceless." I argued with him. Daily, we have to make choices! Doesn't taking responsibility mean making choices, and making them carefully? He shook his head. "Be choiceless," he said.

It was anathema to the crowd. Which shoes go with that top? When exactly should I text that guy from last weekend? Who will I invite to next Saturday's party? Or would it be better to go alone? How can I tell your partner she's not doing it for me in bed? Should you tell her? Should I tell him? Should I look around for someone else? Trade up? And while I'm looking around, what about my career? Which job will catapult me further along my trajectory to ultimate career fulfilment? Choices, choices.

Perhaps I'm starting too big. The tyranny of choice starts at the banal level of our daily machinations: what we eat, where we sleep, what we buy and what we use. Over and over, we teach ourselves to step back from the options before us, appraise them with a cool, objective eye, make lists of pros and cons, merits and demerits, advantages and disadvantages. Splice them neatly into good, better and best, and then go for the one that tips the scales in the superlative direction. And yet. Stepping back means disconnecting. Appraising means judging. So you find you've ticked checkboxes, but you end up unconvinced. All you have to do is cast your eyes back in the direction of the choice you gave up, and you know what you get? Not satisfaction. Not contentment. You get regret. 'Cause you're never really sure you've gone the right route.

Mr Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice (subtitled Why More is Less) argues that a culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction. He has a point, though I'd say he spends way too much time analysing in detail exactly how rotten we can make ourselves feel by buying into a culture of choosing, comparing, striving for the best choices, and falling into disappointment later when we compare roads taken with those that might've been. And not enough time getting to the crux of it. So. Stop losing sleep over it. Here's the deal:

  • Most choices are a whole lot less significant than we give them credit for. Let it go. Do the one that feels right. You might not know the exact reasons. You probably don't need to.
  • Once you're on it, love it. You're already there. Your life is not around the corner. This is it.
  • Stick with it. Follow through.
  • Be grateful. The grass may well be greener on the other side. But seeing as you're here, you might as well notice it's pretty spectacular on this side too.
  • There's a path you're going to take. Sniff it out. Gut feel is a good thing. Trust yours.
Go on. Be choiceless.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Quotation of the weekend

"Anything worth doing is worth doing full frontal." - DdB, my favourite piece of girl-fluff.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

The Polytheism Pop Quiz

Current reading:

  • The Iliad by Homer
  • The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Which have made me wonder why, considering the prevalence of consumerism in the 21st century, that there's quite so much enthusiasm for a measly one-god-fits-all idea. In the context of divine powers, how can less possibly be more? No, the Greeks had some fine ideas. You want gods? We'll give you gods. A whole extended network of them. Choose the one that suits your needs. Moreover, we'll give each one a unique selling proposition, as well as decent dose of proactivity.

The Greek gods weren't afraid to march into a war zone and slap mortals about for buggering up an invasion (we could do with a bit more of that). Nor were they shy of replying to requests (could definitely do with a bit more of that too). A couple of heartfelt pleas to the heavens could rustle up a supernatural hero with impressive six-pack and arrows bristling, striding down a mountain in your direction, ready to draw arms on your behalf. (Or a moonlit goddess if required.) And if one god got a bit nasty, you could go and make friends with another that was more understanding. Such a practical approach. And so MANY of them, too. No matter how specific your prayer requirements, there was likely to be a god or goddess that could fit it into his/her portfolio.

So, So. In the interests of offering you more bang for your deistic buck, please consider the offerings of the polytheistic pantheon. Please note that this is an abridged list. More gods available on request.
  • Zeus. If you're coming from a Christian background, Zeus may be the god for you. Think booming voice, anger, judgement, thunderbolts. Big daddy.
  • Poseidon. For those interested in alternative lifestyles, Poseidon might be your man. Has a really sexy trident and lives under the sea.
  • Hades. Goths, CLAWS members and anyone with a fondness for self-pity might go for Hades. He's known to be unpitying and invisible, so you'll get to do all your wallowing in solitary misery, and pine for the underworld.
  • Hestia. For the domestically inclined among us: the virginal goddess of the hearth. Warm, homely and a little boring. But won't hurt you with arrows or anything.
  • Hera. Think you test the boundaries of your sexual identity? Hera's got a few up on you. Wife AND sister of Zeus, famous for getting the other gods to tie him up. Go Hera.
  • Ares. Feeling down? Take comfort - you're not as disliked as Ares. He's considered a murderous coward. His symbols are the vulture and the dog.
  • Athena. Overachievers, look no further. What doesn't she do? She's a fierce, brave warrior; goddess of city, handicrafts and agriculture. She allegedly invented the bridle, the trumpet, the flute, the pot, the rake, the plow, the yoke, the ship and the chariot. And she was Zeus's favourite and got to play with his thunderbolts. Yeah, a bit irritating, I agree.
  • Hermes. No more unanswered prayers. Hermes is messenger of Zeus, known for swiftness. Get it, on time, direct from the skies, delivered in cool winged sandals. We think should consider a subscription.
  • Artemis. Guys that are intimidated by women: Artemis has you dialled. She's virginal, hunts with arrows, and wild animals are afraid of her. We just can't guarantee she'll help you get over it, but you can worship her if you like.
  • Apollo. For those that prefer natural blonds. Not much imagination; only tells the truth. But does stuff with a flute. He reminds me of that guy from Blue Lagoon. But, by all means, if blond does it for you, go ahead.
  • Aphrodite. Goddess of lurve. Something tells me she's gonna be the most popular.
  • Haphaestus. A good choice for those that believe in the mythology of Shrek, Beauty and the Beast. Anyone who's had the "You're a really nice guy, but I just want to be friends" speech. Ugly and lame, but he knows how to make stuff out of metal. And a nice guy. Why doesn't he get more air time, we have to wonder?
Who's the one for you?

Tuesday, 8 May 2007


One of the many faces at the Owl House. I think Candice took the photograph.

Why I liked Venus

  • because Peter O'Toole gets the gleaming, soulful heart of a dirty, dirty old man
  • because Jodie Whittaker's smoky scowl is as convincing as her legs
  • because two old men dancing and weeping made me want to dance and weep
  • because it has grimy, damp, poky interiors
  • because love isn't always young, airbrushed and gorgeous
  • because I should be so lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky.


So a close friend looked deeply into my eyes (hers blue into mine hazel) and asked:
"Do you view all your friendships romantically?"
If we hadn't been laying back on the grass, too comfortable to move, I would've had to walk around in a circle to think about that. Instead I turned it over a few times. Being the kind of friend that knows you sometimes have to rephrase the question so that it'll fall into the hole you're aiming for, she put it another way:
"Are all your friendships really, at the heart of it, love affairs?"
And there it went, like a ring, twirling round and round as it scooted down. Into the heart of it.
Of course they are. Of course I treat my friendships as grand passions. The surprise of the question was that it made me realise there's a world in which there are other ways of wearing it. There are lighter friendships, ones made of utilitarian fabrics. The ones that are there to stave off rain; the ones that are there to let air in. There are the flimsy, flashy ones that you can wear out at night, but will never keep you warm. There are the thick ones that will always keep you warm but stifle your inner beast. There are the leather ones you wear to belong to the group, but sometimes bother you with their herdlike smell. There are many, many, many. I admire those who can survive the variety of them. But the question - so astute! - made me realise I'm not one of them. I make it hard for you. So I'll start this thing off with a word of thanks. If you've found yourself here, it's probably because you're in my treasured constellation. You're one of the beloved. Or you've found your way here by chance, by invitation, by coincidence. Surviving my love is no mean feat. It's demanding, intense, unrelenting, unswerving, brutal. True friends stab you in the front. This is your invitation to stay for the ride.

All my love