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.