Thoughts on thoughts

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Sometimes I make the mistake of asking my family members what they think I should write about. More than anything else, it gives me a glimpse into their thoughts.

‘Write about me,’ one giddy teenager proclaims, while spilling toothpaste on herself, next to her pyjama clad twin, who at least suggested the more mature topic of the crisis in higher education. That tricky topic was echoed by an older sibling who maintained I should consider the debate around decolonisation of universities.

‘Explore why one moment they (our offspring) are watching Barney and Noddy and the next they have rejected their childhood,’ said Andrew, ever conscious of the aging process in others, ‘or sadistic teenagers’ (corrected by one to ‘edgy’ teen) without taking his eyes off FIFA ’16, handed down by Michael who is now on to FIFA ’17.

I won’t ask him, the footballer, I thought, because he will either suggest how they have not yet solved the FIFA cheating glitch with the new version, or something like the vagaries of the English Football transfer window. And the only thing I know about that particularly confusing aperture is that it is now closed.

Sean believes I should review a book and I just might dissect one of the Jeffrey Eugenides novels I have recently finished (if you haven’t discovered this writer and need a chuckle, while coming to grips with deep stuff, he’s your man – Jeffrey, not Sean). Sean’s first suggestion was a self-conscious exploration on the writing of a blog, but, as you can see, I’m way ahead of him.

Liam is MIA tonight, but he told me to stop writing or I would be late for mass (such a good boy! I can say that because he is at the Marais’ house annoying them). Mika on the other hand hummed and hawed and suggested ‘cooking.’ Mwahahaha. But I could mention that Lizzy is now baking banana loaf which smells sublime.

I eventually broke down and asked Michael who merely said ‘I don’t know’ – I hope that is not what he is thinking, but I do have a fair idea now about what each of my other beloved relatives is contemplating. Which begs the question: What am I thinking about and why do I not have a topic of conversation at hand?

The answer is a trifle sad, I must confess: other than worrying about my school’s upcoming Umalusi desktop submission and my own inertia in beginning some of the policy writing I need to do, and wondering whether eight o’clock is too early to go to bed and read my book in the school holidays, I’m not really having any deep insights on life or personal epiphanies. Teasing out the semiotics of such thoughts, what I have realised is that my whole focus generally is on the needs and interests of my family (which is good but can be a bit Betty Crockerish) and my school (Yes, important during term-time); yet I have not cultivated any actual hobbies of my own which often has me getting caught in the middle of trying to please everyone and ignoring my own self.

So, to my horror, on a Sunday night I am having to admit that I am suffering from housewife’s angst. It’s disturbing to admit that even executive women can subjugate their ‘self’ to the vagaries of external views (even though in this case, to be fair, I actually asked the family what I should be sharing in my blog). But I think we women, all too often fall prey to a subversion of self which we mistake as Christian kindness, but often erases ourselves and our own interests or needs, as we try to please everyone.

No more of that. (Even though from time to time – I must remain a bit of a martyr in order to use that against the progeny) I shall employ  a new philosophy which I cannot politely name (it rhymes with ‘bucket’). I shall indulge my own thoughts and share my own ideas.

After that I shall ask my family what they think about my blog.

Personal Assistants

So I have graduated to being managed by a personal assistant. Her name is Gizelle and, like the ballet character after whom she is named, she glides through my life, effortlessly and gracefully fielding calls, managing staff appointments; gently correcting my mistakes (and they are many); protecting me from cute Grade 4 groupies whom I simply don’t have the heart to turn away, but who were becoming accustomed to spending every break with me, not to mention running the administrative nightmare that goes with managing a large school.  And she makes me tea, leaving it steaming on my desk like the lingering whisper of an elfin gift.

Ariel Dorfman refers to the life of a secretary as ‘responsibility without power, the fate of the secretary throughout the ages.’ Now far be it from me to question Dorfman’s experience of personal aides, but Gizelle’s petite, ballerina-like personage may look fragile, but she is a tower of strength and surprising talents, despite her youth. No one argues with her – especially not me.

Wikipedia has this cute explanation of what a personal assistant does: ‘The personal assistant is required to do any task that the manager requires whether personal or professional.’ Seriously? Truth be told I feel guilty every time Gizelle brings me tea, because that is personal and I believe that her duties should be professional only. I wonder how many managers cross the line by exploiting their assistants to do more ‘personal’ work than ‘professional’ work. The Marius Fransman situation is a case in point of how patriarchal managers view those who work for them, especially when they are young, naïve and vulnerable women.

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-08-08-band-of-brothers-anc-integrity-commissions-fransman-report-contains-some-disturbing-nuggets/#.V6o-D_l97rc

The expression ‘my PA’ has a certain feudal ring to it and carries overtones of possession which are worrying. I certainly hope no James Bond wannabees on our staff have tried to flirt with the Meridian Miss Moneypenny. (I don’t think they’d dare.) But on a feminist aside, just google ‘secretary – images’ and see how many pictures of male secretaries with woman bosses come up…yeah…none. The job is almost exclusively considered ‘women’s work’ especially when the boss is a man. And I think as a result  is often considered to be a servile position.

Now I would be hypocritical to say that Gizelle does not field calls from Caitlin (‘Please buy electricity’ – now there is a scary assistant!) or remind me to respond to my sister’s message (an even scarier personage to ignore), but I wouldn’t dream of requiring her to fetch my dry-cleaning (if I had any) or buy my husband flowers/ whisky/ cigars. The school does not pay her to serve me, but to support me.

And thank goodness it does. Her prowess on the computer is lightning fast. She can take complex, scattered data and make graphed sense out of it and her attention to detail has saved me several times already this year from embarrassment and error. She works long hours and frequently takes work home. I am filled with mild panic at the very thought of her being absent. She has seen me at my weakest, but I live in fear of her seeing the mess in my stationery drawer.

Now here is the thing: she does all of this uncomplainingly (well she did once moan at me for signing a document in the wrong place), while running a family of two young children plus three older step-children and a husband who works shifts. Why am I mentioning this? Well because she may be employed as a ‘personal’ assistant, but it is important for me to remember that she has a personal life. She has hopes and dreams and ambitions.

Once a year, we celebrate our secretarial and administrative staff with a hallmark moment, but truth be told, it is impossible to truly give pen to the contribution of such an éminence grise. All I can say is that I am immensely grateful for the person that is Mrs Gizelle Marais, a woman of courage and one to be respected.

Pokémon gets kids Go-ing

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I had a surreal (get it?) conversation with my son on our drive home last week. It went like this:

Me: How was school? (I’m not very original)

Youngest Offspring: Fine. (Teenagers are not original either)

Except me and my friends [sic] had to keep re-taking the tuckshop. Did you know there is a gym at Cobblewalk?

Me: Yes, but I can’t afford it.

L-Shaped Child: I’m a Mystic.

Me: I am glad you are growing spiritually, my boy.

Techno Spawn: Mom, please will you drive less than 20km/h or else they’ll think I’m cheating.

Me: No.

Needless to say Mom’s own little pocket monster was not too impressed with his parent. Sigh. Goes with the territory, I suppose, along with having to remind school children that there are no squirtles on the grass at Meridian Pinehurst.

This craze (and I use that word deliberately) has certainly had a galvanising effect on global anti-social sedentary adolescents. It is entertaining to sit at my desk in my bedroom which overlooks our street, and see youngsters tearing down the pavements in search of close encounters of the virtual kind. However, I have warned my younger boys of the dangers of the ‘lures’ being for humans – and that they may be the prey so they should be alert, but that they should also be aware of the danger of roaming around, heads down with smart phones in their hands – again, they are targets for thieves. I am also concerned that in their desperation to capture that elusive Pokémon that they blindly traverse busy roads and get hurt or cause an accident.

As an English teacher, I am aware that the lines between real and imaginary have become even more blurred and have resigned myself to the fact that my son may NEVER use the word ‘literally’ correctly.

Just off to ensure Blanche is washing the dishes…

Raising Civilised Children: “Because I said so”

 

My children nixed my idea of writing about how each displays their bad moods, pleading their privacy, telling me to write my own story. My reply was that firstly they ARE my story (such great material for humour) and secondly I thought many overburdened parents could relate to tales of the vloermoere, sulking, swearing, passive aggression, door-banging and yelling that accompany the varying weather conditions in our house. But sadly that chef d’oeuvre has been decimated on the cutting floor.

Now of course I would love to use my standard response to the proletariat’s desire for its voice to be heard, by my usual response of ‘Your argument is invalid because I am the mother,’ but I suppose I should refrain from exposing the ugly underbelly of the household and write about myself.

My Mom Is A Scary Lady, I Cant Wear Sweats Whenever I Want Noooo

This is for the most part a totalitarian home, but I consider myself to be a benign dictator so I shall take the sensitivities of my offspring to heart and not reveal who once threw a knife at which offending older sibling (fortunately it was someone with poor aim) or who breaks out into giggles when the rioting rabble is called in front of Judge Judy to account for mischief. I shall have to leave that until another time when I can skilfully slip into conversation which artist punched a wall in frustration when a piece wasn’t going right; or which one at five declared (with hands on hips mind you) that I was not the boss of said defiant spawn. Needless to say, that didn’t go down too well, and the rebellion was quashed before it began, to the amusement of the other four.

But I digress.

The nature of running a household of five children (permanent residents) has brought me into conflict many times with my beloved fledgling revolutionaries. And that is normal. One of the hardest things to do when you get home after a stressful day though is to say ‘No’ or have to make tough decisions which you know will not please all the people. Solomon had it easy: he only had to settle disputes between two women over a baby. I wonder how he would have managed choosing a sandwich spread which met with everyone’s culinary preferences. I did have to use holiday time to … er …redefine parameters from time to time, but in general I have been blessed with good kids. Of course they will tell you that they were beaten into submission and have had the spirit crushed out of them. Don’t believe a word of it. I still sleep with one eye open.

Unlike Bob across the border though, I have mellowed with age and, truth be told, I would handle the tribe more gently if I had my time over again – perhaps. But one cannot second-guess one’s younger self and raising children does become easier as they grow old enough to reason with (unless they think that the rules are negotiable, because that’s when Attila the Mum resurfaces.)

My household is not a democracy. I admit it. It cannot be. Now that does not prevent discussion (and much heated dialogue has been had – some still ongoing about perceived poor parenting in the past) however at some point a parent must be a parent and take a stance or make a ruling. Funnily enough children feel safe within boundaries. I think the trick is allowing them to be heard, and apologising and sometimes backing down if you are wrong. Unqualified mercy is also important. And one day – watch – they will do the same for their own children.

My mom used to say I’d get my come-uppance one day – boy was she right – and I plan to live long enough to see the Big Five get theirs. Because according to the one who thinks I am ‘Hello Kitty’ cute (see previous post), my ‘days of tyranny have ended’. But first I am going to stamp up the stairs and bang my door.

Pizza

Favourite meal: pizza (must have avo – none of this ‘in season’ nonsense.)

Now Andrew’s favourite restaurant, Mitico, offers winter specials at R65 for any pizza plus a carafe of wine. He has taken me there once or twice because then he gets two carafes of wine.  He loves the place so much that he manufactures reasons to go there for his midday prandials and is not fussy who his date is or how far away he must park. He is so undiscriminating in whom he takes with him to dine there that this holiday the owner’s eyes bulged out when he sheepishly admitted I was his wife.

The restaurant is a unique experience. Andrew is welcomed by the jovial Italian host who is always present with ‘Welcome to your dining-room.’ (Kind of true because he eats there more often) and the waitrons are friendly and also know him. Move over Cheers, everyone here knows his name. The street view is also entertaining: Hardy tourists with white ankles in shorts on ‘safari’ to see the wildlife of Africa mingle with business folk on route to luncheon meetings and students on their trendy way to general sloth. We watched an emaciated, string-haired dame wander up Kloof Street, carrying a sign which read, ‘My husband was abducted by aliens…’  Clearly the aliens sent her back. (but probably many a hausfrau around can relate, because several stop to chat): Tamboerskloof’s own Kruger Park.

Oh and the pizza is good.

At our home trattoria we make our own pizzas from scratch – well Shannon takes out her issues of the week on the dough, although in desperation (She can be fickle) Michael and Liam have taught themselves to mix them too. Fortunately no one has thought to ‘toss’ a pizza because with Shannon’s lack of ball skills we would have to clean the floor afterwards too.

It doesn’t end once the bases have been cooked (a process which requires several hours and the latest in my arty child’s music files, mixed with raucous singing – especially when Lizzy is here at her coastal residence – and young people in various stages of either  sleepwear or going-out evening attire). Preparation involves much flour, bacon and various combinations of cheese, spinach, mushrooms and feta. If I am lucky no one has nicked the last pepperdews. And of course there must be avocados. Then the bun fight starts, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. You see if we’re all at home that means 9 pizzas need oven space (more if there are visitors) and heaven help the upstart who nips in to put the starving waif’s personal masterpiece in when another famished adolescent is waiting. Michael needs to be watched because he hides bacon under his cheese as well – and let me tell you there is no respect for age or beauty – it’s push in or be last – jungle rules.

It is no wonder poor Andrew escapes to the Bo Kaap to get away. My husband needs to escape the aliens.

Writer’s Block

Rowling wrote the opening of the Harry Potter Books on a serviette in a coffee shop. So. I’m in a coffee shop. But there are no serviettes; my coffee is finished and there are no book ideas. People keep saying I should write a book, but I am ashamed to say that I keep being distracted by people-watching.

I should be beginning a saga about the triumph of endeavour and the resilience of the human spirit. Instead, I am amusing myself by gleefully reminding myself that that toddler clunking his toy cars on the table like Roger Taylor and screaming fit to bust is not mine.  Aaaand… oops… he is so desperate to get Mom’s attention (while she discreetly breastfeeds the next in the line of future teachers’ nightmares) that he is threatening to paddle in the water feature.  I catch the eye of a new mom, gracefully sipping her latte while engaged in dignified conversation with the older, elegant version of herself and we share an amused look. What she doesn’t realise is that I am also thinking, ‘ hee hee – that will be you in two years, chick.’

It’s a motley crew that surrounds me at the neighbouring tables: the man next to me has an eye patch and his female companion, nice and comfy in her ugly scuffed Uggs is patiently listening to his bluster. A pregnant mom battles up the adjacent stairs with a somnolent pre-schooler in her arms, who wakes up halfway and wails (more schadenfreude for the old cow at my table). How I remember those days of schlepping ‘sleeping kids (and/or large bags of dogfood in shops) around!

Outside the picture window a gardener diligently weeds the island circle and my thoughts digress to his life off the job. Did he walk all this way to work from Dunoon? What struggles has he overcome and how is this menial labour covering all his needs? An old man shuffles past, supported on both sides by two young women, presumably his grand-daughters. Both are laughing uproariously at something he has said, heads thrown back, delighted in his company, despite his slow progress.

I chuckle at the awkwardness of a succession of men carrying wives’ handbags which dangle unnaturally from their arms, as they attempt to come to terms with this perceived ‘unmanly’ contraption. (One looks quite heavy too). A man hops out the entrance to stand waiting for a lift at the entrance rotunda, clearly unused to the crutches perched painfully beneath his arms.

Then it strikes me that I am witnessing precisely what I was guiltily trying to contemplate: Here, from my booth in the hospital cafetaria, I am watching people survive adversity and conquer their personal demons  simply  by living.

Whether it is family, like the old man, dogged stoicism, like the gardener, companionship or Prozac (what Dennis the Menace’s mom across the room is dreaming of), or even the faith supported by benign and innocuous ministers of religion like the one I saw clutching his bible as he strode off to visit the sick, something drives each of us to overcome life’s difficulties.

It’s certainly not the crappy abstract art that some painter has prostituted his talent to produce  for the clinic’s walls!

Grocery Shopping in the RSA

Did you know that the inflation rate on food in South Africa stands at 12.5% for the third quarter of 2016 and that is not factoring in the inflation of an additional 5% per growing (and therefore gobbling more) child permanently resident in our household. (I dare not say which one is not growing further for fear of reprisals.)

So grocery shopping is not fun anymore, if it ever was. I suffer from terrible trolley envy when I stand in queues, wandering how that man in the mesh vest behind me can afford the box of prawns and all that tinned coconut milk, or the aging prune in front can even begin to pay for 2 ply toilet paper and lamb, not to mention my veritable outrage that someone else won the free shopping spree at Spar, when I deserve it more!

When the munchkins were small, shopping was even more of a mission and they each had their ‘positions’ in, on or around the trolley. I’d bribe them to behave by buying the cheapest biscuits I could find and I’d do our weekly shop of R500 for all 6 of us (and that was including nappies). Now of course that’s what it costs every second day in the supermarket, but in those days I could feed us all on a tin of baked beans, a chunk of cheese and half a loaf of bread (well everyone except Michael who used to flick his beans on top of the kitchen cupboards when no one was looking. It’s no wonder the kid had hypoglycaemic issues.)

My beloved gannets eat well when we are poorest though and they all know that when it’s Woolworths food then Mom is down to her last few shekels. The problem with buying where the beautiful people shop though is that it is just iniquitous to spend so much on ordinary items like mince and cheese.  Mind you, the price of dairy products has reached stratospheric heights. I am seriously considering hooking Maggie’s tail up to a churner so we can make our own butter (after all Dr Tim says butter is all good now) and I’m sure there are enough germs around the old homestead to ferment our own cheese and let’s face it, the foul language that flies around here at times is certainly enough to turn the milk.

Eggs also seem to be costing the earth these days, but I draw the line at keeping chickens in the yard. Besides, Maggie’s Labrador innocence deserts her in the face of feathered wings and she has been known to brutalise a pigeon or two over the years with frighteningly savage precision.

Then there are avocados: now have you EVER been able to find three ripe ones out of a pile of the green rocks they usually offer without having to donate a kidney for the ones in the fridge which are specially ripened? And those ones are always black. I wonder if they cook ‘em a little to soften them – it would explain their crispy skins too? We have discovered to our great joy that we have an avocado tree in our garden which from time to time drops mango-sized scrumptious avos onto the lawn like …well…avo from heaven. So this earth mother thing may well work.

Now shopping for my husband’s favourite delicacies is an exercise in Russian-English translation because he insists on scrawling unintelligible items on the shopping list. What, pray tell, may ‘spinyhjatyi’ and ‘tuhmatyi souz’ be? And ‘buzzy’ water? Trust me at 6pm on a week night I have no sense of humour and even less desire to be a UN translator.  What are ‘tjops’ or ‘Barbie Q Spices’? I do not care to purchase ‘limmon wyatr’ or ‘lzzaneya shits,’ never mind that this has all played havoc with ability of the children in the house to spell correctly, not to mention contributing to the vulgar language use.

And when I get to the till and the burly chap who is built like a side of beef himself has selected enough racks of pork ribs to fill an entire sty also wants to pay for his telephone bill and his City of Cape Town Services accounts for the last three months when he was vegging in front of the rugby instead of paying his dues., my temper graduates to DEFCON 2 readiness. Then the sweet cashier politely asks whether I am collecting ‘the stickers/ other random Stikeez (more Slavic giveaways) supermarkets throw at unsuspecting shoppers with kids. Did you know that as we speak, Checkers is generously throwing in doll-size plastic groceries for every R150 you spend? Seriously?! (I wonder if they have Barbie Q spice)

‘Hell no,’ I say, even though the delightful Gabriella, Michael’s girlfriend, is collecting the said stickers (why, I didn’t ask!). I want the points on my loyalty card – for when the Woolworths card is full.

And when you pay they ask you if your card is for a cheque or savings account. More like ‘check out or spendings.’ Who can save anymore?!

Andrew says we should shop online to save money, but where’s the fun in that?