“Sometimes the appropriate response to reality is to go insane.” – Philip K. Dick

Comic by Natalie Dee

I had a killer of a match with technology today. Technology: 5 – Colleen: 0. To be fair all five of Technology’s points came from own goals (I got the illumination wrong for a video; ran out of power mid-meeting; broke Liam’s camera tripod and then ran out of data on both my phone and tablet)

But it is the rematch tomorrow and I plan to win on goal difference.

Still, by the time the daylight faded, it became obvious I’d have to wait for better light in the morning to film my presidential address to my parents (sans sign language interpreter, because only Liam is able to do that, but he is not really camera-ready: Having avoided the holiday barber visit, he looks like a sort of New Romantic Wolverine, with his foppish hair and ginger beard. He says he prefers to see himself as brave Mr Tumnus, the Narnian faun, but still he’d need to shave to be my presidential sidekick) My anxiety levels rocketed, following my frustration, as did my asthmatic cough, and I felt my heart racing. I had to force myself to breathe deeply and lighten up, but I realized just how much angst we are all living with, during lockdown, and how easily that can spill over.

I gave birth to five children! I don’t generally scare easily, but I have to admit that lately, when even inconsequential things pile up, I start to feel really fretful.

I have heard from folk living on their own that they have experienced panic attacks, during this time, even though they are not usually the nervy type. I can believe it.

This virus may be an invisible threat, but so is stress and we should recognize that our cortisol levels are probably heightened at the moment. And we can’t fight (except with our family and that’s all rather blah now) and flight is not possible because we are stuck in lockdown. I read an article today about how people are recording raised levels of insomnia too right now.

So we all need to calm the farm, but I find myself worrying about so much all at once: how my four children who don’t live with us are doing; how my sister is coping on her own in her apartment; when and how we’ll return to school; how much or how little to involve parents in our remote learning; which parts of the curriculum to cull; planning for 2021; how to get through the scores of emails in my inbox; whether we’ve flattened the curve; what Bra Cyril will say tomorrow. Then my thoughts deteriorate into a panic about where the hell the ‘nasty hobbitses’ hid the chocolate; whether my tea bags will last if the lockdown is extended; whether The Maestro will notice that I illicitly washed his Bayern Munich top with all the other clothes; how many bananas Liam can consume in a day without popping; and oh hell did we put out the bin today, and other such weighty matters.

I need to take my own advice: exercise more (sigh); reach out to others; sleep more; be kind to myself. My aunt has always told us not to borrow tomorrow’s troubles, so I’m off to get that exercise going downstairs to hunt for the chocolate to eat before I go to bed for a good kip.

As that great philosopher Scarlett O’Hara said, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’

And I have blood pressure pills.

The Lockdown Terrarium

I am in lockdown in a nice safe, middle-class suburb, which unfortunately allows me to be locked away from the reality of my neighbours’ lives down the road in Dunoon, no matter my lefty leanings. Some days I forget why we are even in lockdown because I am so busy I don’t see the news. Because we are only travelling the short distance to the shop once a week or so, not seeing the suffering of the shack-dwellers on the other side of the railway line, and not encountering and engaging with their reality at the moment, we run the risk of living purely in our TikTok-challenge, foodies-Instagram; and meandering-mindless-meme feeds (no matter how clever or funny they are), stuck in a sort of rarified closed-system that is incestuously self-centred. Similar to the way the algorithms on sites like Facebook and other platforms control what we see on our newsfeeds and screens, based on what we search for, making us run the risk of receiving only information that corresponds with our world view, like a kind of inbred feedback system, echoing back on itself; so does Lockdown prevent us from engaging outside our socio-economic bubbles, as we live in our own private terrariums. For example, in my home, the five of us are happily co-existing in our individual work hubs. The Maestro and I are focused on the work of our two schools, me at my window desk in our bedroom and him galloping between his piano in the lounge and his laptop in his den. Caitlin, as an accounting trainee for one of the major accounting firms in South Africa, continues to do her number magic (well it seems so to ignoramuses such as me) disturbed only by her mother’s rant at the person who left a sticky hot chocolate spoon to attract flies on the counter (in the middle of an online meeting with her partner! Oops, Mom.) Shannon’s Art classes continue, albeit in a slightly different form and I hear her mutter that her lecturer’s belief that beetroot and shoe polish are not naturally occurring substances in her home! Liam is committed to his matric curriculum, delivered via live online classes and project work, earphones perched on his woolly head like a disc jockey. He has been rescued from the evil Edward-Scissor-Hands of the local barber, by Lockdown and alternatively yells expletives to his brother as they game themselves out of boredom. (I hope Caitlin’s partner didn’t hear that!) and exercises the now-fat Mad Lab. Liam has also called in our resident musical expert so The Maestro is guiding his beginner piano lessons – I realise now why learner-pianists are called ‘plonkers,’ although in Liam’s case, it’s more like plinking. (No left hand involved in his music yet!) We come together at mealtimes or to bully and be bullied into exercise or chores and we talk about – our lives. Then we carry on. There is not enough cross-pollination of thought outside the home. We are not hearing the tales of people struggling to scrap together enough for food with the collapse of the informal sector. And we can’t see its absence either. Because, worse even than during apartheid, we are here and ‘they’ are there. Lockdown has prevented us from seeing the raw need of indigent workers congregating on street corners or bin people rummaging for food. Liam came to me today though, and proclaimed his disillusionment about the injustices in our society and he wasn’t just speaking about the naked ugliness of the digital divide, exposed so clearly in this time of national crisis. After his Business Studies lesson, he came upstairs and vented about how selfish business is in its ultimate goal only to benefit itself. We discussed the way he can do things differently one day by becoming a social entrepreneur as opposed to a rabid capitalist. I was grateful for that moment in his education where I was able to engage him about the concept of King IV and ‘people, planet, profit’ (in that order!) – see even an English major knows something about accounting principles. But he also nudged my thinking about how Lockdown tends to make us selfish and drains our generosity of spirit in this closed-circuit living we are experiencing, which has prompted this post. So how can we overcome the tendency to be purely inward-looking at this time?
  • If you can, contribute towards the SA COVID-19 Solidarity fund. https://www.solidarityfund.co.za/ The State President has just announced there is a massive tax rebate for doing so, if you need a less-altruistic reason.
  • Call your employees, especially if they live alone. Assure them their jobs are safe. Hopefully you can.
  • Check out your local neighbourhood pages for community projects like food parcel packaging and mask-making. There are still things we can do.
  • Participate in the many fundraising efforts for South African artists who are so often called upon themselves to do free concerts for world causes. https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/16/202932.html
  • Donate Blood if you can.
  • Pray for our essential service workers.
  • Paste more suggestions in the comments section of this blog and share.
Thuma Mina!

The Great Atlantic Crossing: Part 3 …When 10 hours feels like Eternity…

Turkish Airlines Flights Booking & Specials | International Flight ...
I don’t remember much of my family’s flight across the Atlantic, or even much of the final leg to Cape Town, despite the ambitious title of this trilogy of blog posts. Mercifully the children slept for a good portion of the eleven-hour flight to Istanbul. It was the layover that turned out to be akin to the Tenth Circle of Hell: an endless shopping mall to wander around without sleep (or money to spend) for all parents who were ever irritated by sleep deprivation caused in the past by their tiny mites… and the sinner here wanders around with five children she cannot chance losing… oh and there is no Zara in this portion of Hell! Funny term that, ’layover.’ It suggests that waiting passengers get to lie down. Not a chance in Atatürk International Airport in November 2001, where my children and I were marooned for more than ten hours on our way home from the USA to Cape Town (or any modern airport I expect:
Not my child
! Not so my squirming spawn. (As hard as that phrase is to say fast; so hard were they to entertain over this time.) A stopover is only of value if you can stop. For the record, children under nine do not stop. They are physically incapable of just being. They must do. They want to run climb jump eat (all the time, especially if they cannot do) argue with you squabble with each other (the latter two even more so when they are tired and just don’t know it); they want to explore touch roll (boys must roll) and speak (and if you do not respond, they’ll swiftly denounce you with an exasperated. Mom! Stop just saying “Hmmmn”’ when you attempt to deflect their babbling conversation.) The only one who slept was almost-two-year-old Shannon – on the grubby carpet of a vacant playroom – we didn’t care about the dirt by then! This ‘playroom’ was a place of play in name only: it had a few arcade games, all of which needed tokens or Turkish lira, and was not really to suited to littluns or their weary mom. In those days, the transit lounge had not made its way into airport culture. They were bored, my poor babes, so while Shannon snored, I let the boys playfight in the empty expanse. (And when that stopped being playing I used a couple of precious coins to make one of those ride-on animals move– I think it was a bear.) The worst thing about that room (and we spent a good deal of time there on our ‘stops’ in between tours of the facility) was that it did not have a door. I dared not fall asleep for fear of one child wandering off, or being snatched if I dozed off. So I resorted to moving as much as my pregnant belly would allow me, doing a few unenthusiastic jumps to amuse the cheeky squirts, who thought this bowling ball with legs was hilarious, but I was so tired just from being pregnant that it was incredibly hard to stay awake, and I dared not do too much because when we walked around I was already carrying so much heavy luggage in the 2 carry-on bags (like massive weights in each hand, plus the baby bag, sometimes one cut painfully into my arm as I shouldered it so I could carry Shannon as well on our slow (as slow as I could make it) trails around the airport concourse. I was conscious of the need to keep the child growing inside me safe too. I would have given my eye teeth for a trolley; yet despite countless circuits of the terminal, they were not to be had for love or money – or teeth.
Atatürk Airport was quite a hip place to be in those days and full of attractive couples, sartorially elegant in their jeans and leather jackets and their sophisticated sunglasses perched stylishly atop gleaming long, dark ponytails. What I remember most about them though was that they all smoked. The place reeked of cigarettes. We had come from the crisp mountain air of Morman Utah and before that a South Africa cleaned up by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma when she was Minister of Health, in the second clever move she made after divorcing her husband: banning smoking in public places. (Little did she know that Vape Nation would emerge to further plunge us back into the dungeon of civilization.) I had long since given up on the delights of tobacco and the odour of those strong Turkish cigarettes was overpowering. The smell clung to our clothes and hair like a bad reputation. And my asthmatic eldest child began to cough and cough. It didn’t help that the place the nippers enjoyed the most was in the food court where most of the beautiful people lounged: a little fast food outlet with a ball pond. That ball pond is the single most happy common memory of those long hours of waiting, despite the pungent smell of smoke. After making each meal we ate at the diner last as long as we could, the children all piled into the ball pond, and I could wedge myself and the suitcases at the entrance so they couldn’t leave. To be honest I nodded off a couple of times there, only to jerk away guiltily and glance around in a panic, trying to make sure they were all accounted for. But there is only so much ball throwing and ball surfing that any child can take, and so we’d pack up and trudge around the centre for a while again. There should be a memorial somewhere there, called The Trench of Col after the track we walked. After several lifetimes, we spent as long as possible, washing and changing in the bathroom, to the horror of Sean, who, at eight, was mortified to be in a ladies’ loo. But no way was he going into the gents alone, so he had to park his manly embarrassment and just suck it up. Eventually everyone was dressed in what would hopefully be deemed not-too-waif-like for our arrival at home. I zipped up the baby bag, amazed at Murphy’s Law of the Travelling Togbag, which states that the same number of items repacked into a bag, never fit in, and we began the trek to the final departure gate. Then the impish Shannon, chuckled, ‘Ooh, ooh!’ … It was unfortunately a great deal more ‘eeuw’ than ‘ooh,’ so back we schlepped and unpacked the bag again to change her again. The last flight in our odyssey began around two am local time. This time the flight was nightmarish. Sean’s asthma grew worse and worse and I worried he’d need hospitalization when we landed. He gasped for breath for much of the 10 hours to Cape Town and I cursed every one of those beautiful people and their Peter Stuyvesant lifestyle.
File:2011-06-21 16-27-47 South Africa - Crossroads - TC-JNL.jpg ...
But when we stepped off the plane in Cape Town, he was able to take great gulps of South-Easter and then the kindly customs official’s wrinkled brown face crinkled up even more, as he stamped Sean’s passport, and said: ‘Happy birthday, son. Welcome home.’ And we were. Home. ****************************************************************************************** Postscript: ‘Whatever happened to that little mite I was carrying inside me?’ you may ask. Well that child conceived just before the crisis of 9-11, is nearly eighteen now. And once again the world is in turmoil; this time because of a faceless microbe, COVID-19. Once again, Liam is poised on the edge of becoming, in his final year at school, and once again his world is uncertain. But this time I am different. This time I have the memoryof that moment when we stepped onto the tarmac at Cape Town International Airport and thought: ‘We. Can. Do Anything.’ We shall overcome.

The Great Atlantic Crossing: Part 2 – JFK International Airport

Stress-free travel with children - Connector Dubai

Flying with small children involves coping with their restlessness; their painful ears in the pressurized cabin, especially on landing; whining; crying; bathroom visits; nappy changes; smiling sweetly at the vexed stares of strangers who are anxious that they will have the misfortune to have your brood sitting near them; fretful complaining that they don’t want the chicken OR the beef (Michael); and sometimes a meal of your own, if it doesn’t get spilt on you by the toddler sitting on your 5-month pregnant belly.

But my epic journey with my littluns helped to take the edge off the fear of the unknown as we hurtled towards an unknown future in mid-November 2001.

Numbed by the efforts to assuage the squirming termites that were my beloved offspring, I travelled with my four and a half children on a Delta Airline flight to JFK Airport, days after Flight 587 crashed in Queens, leaving behind my 13-year marriage in tatters in Salt Lake City.

Once we’d settled into the six and a half hour flight and one child had already finished his snacks (Michael again), they quietened down and focused on the book, colouring-in and drawing that had been tucked into their backpacks for the journey and Shannon dozed off, allowing me to run through the plan: Land at JFK, meet the ground stewardess assigned to escort us, and our luggage, via customs to our next flight. Easy.

And that’s when it all went wrong. On arrival at Terminal 2, still basking in the glow of fellow passengers’ unexpectedly complimentary comments on how well-behaved my progeny had actually been (Damn straight they were – not teacher’s children for nothing!) and after the obligatory bathroom break… there was no anticipated angelic crew member in sight.

On my enquiry about the pre-arranged assistance, airport staff shrugged nonchalantly and left me standing there, surrounded by 4 midgets and 5 massive black suitcases with our worldly possessions and all our carry-on luggage . ‘Ok, I thought,’ looking despairingly at the forlorn faces of my beloved children, I’ve got this. At least the bags didn’t get lost.’

With eight-year-old Sean’s help, I (wo)manhandled the five big suitcases onto a massive trolley, and I think at that point I realized how difficult it was going to be to ensure he had a childhood and wasn’t constantly called upon to be ’the man of the house’ (although I shall be forever grateful for the times he held cupboard doors while I fixed the hinges and other household repair projects.)

Once we had piled the luggage, Pisa-like on the trolley (and it would be one of those that doesn’t roll easily, but crab-crawls along, we set off to try to determine where to go next. The Information kiosk was no help. The red-lipped, gum-chewing woman with a strong Jersey accent, pointed vaguely in the direction of the terminal doors and shrugged, when I asked her where the international flights left from, and the overhead guides only lit up flights leaving from that terminal.

Now let me explain something about JFK International: in 2001, there were 9 terminal buildings, all the size of massive shopping malls, and spread out over about 20 square kilometres – the airport land is so big it has its own zip code! And I had no idea how to reach my connecting flight. Because I’d expected an accompanying ground steward to help me, I had not studied a map of the place. All I knew was that Our Air Turkey flight was departing from another terminal. I stood at the exit of Terminal 2 and prayed. I turned left.

Kennedy JFK airport terminal map

The first thing I saw as the doors slid open was a patrolling, US National Guardsman in full battledress, with helmet and machine gun. He stared unsmilingly at us and strode on. The reality of post-9-11 America struck me then: these were no ordinary times to be travelling. But I had a battle of my own to fight – with a tilting trolley, anchored down by Michael and Shannon, who were thoroughly enjoying their ride at the bow of my listing luggage ship, foreshadowing the epic shots of Jack and Kate in The Titanic, me pushing awkwardly, and Sean and Caitlin jogging alongside. What a sight we must have looked as we pushed on, my trying-to be brave-but-really-frightened eyes scanning for signs of Turkish Airlines!

If you study the map of Kennedy Airport terminals, you will see that where I needed to go was Terminal 1, so my choice to turn left was almost certainly guided by my guardian angel – if I’d turned right, we’d probably still be wandering around the acres and acres of airport territory.

I entered Terminal 1 hoping against hope that I had guessed correctly and stopped dead. What played out in front of me was like nothing I had ever seen before. The massive departure hall was teeming with angry New Yorkers who did not spare the pregnant mother with small children a lashing with their vitriol, which was shocking for someone arriving from child-friendly Utah; neither did they move aside so we could pass, swearing volubly at us as we zig-zagged our way to an information board.

Security queues snaked everywhere in this vast, cavernous space– this was a time before clearly demarcated security queues and built-in checks. One security person stood in the middle of the hall and waved her metal detector over irate, impatient passengers.

At last I spotted an Air Turkey counter and breathed a prayer of thanks to my guardian angel, gratefully depositing our check-in bags with the ground hostess.

But there was a problem: our flight was about to leave and was actually waiting for us!. A tall, elegant, uniformed stewardess from the Turkish airline escorted us to the front of the endless anaconda of people, which spat out ‘Fuck yous’ at our interloping, completely unperturbed that they were cursing at children.

When we reached the hapless security woman with her prison-warder face, our charming guide left us. Hands plucked Shannon from my arms and moved the children in various directions as she waved her evil wand up and down my body, yelling at me to stand still, because I was spinning 360 degrees to keep sight of all my frightened lambs amidst the cacophony of profanity and echoing terminal chaos.

Escaping the clutches of security, we raced for our departure gate (We must have looked hilarious: various shades of red hair and one brown-haired little boy bobbing along, my portly maternity roundness trying to hold onto Shannon’s wriggling body. At some point, we must have gone through customs, but I have no memory of it.

We made it seconds before they closed the airplane doors and were hustled down the aisle to our seats as an entire planeload of horrified people looked on. Caitlin began to cry as we realized that they had not seated us together and she and Sean were forced to sit in the middle of a row behind me. I shushed them and strapped myself in, with Shannon sitting on top of Liam’s developing head, a situation he clearly didn’t like, as he kicked hard on my tightening stomach. Only 4-year-old Michael, next to me seemed oblivious to the drama, and chattered on about the ‘excitement’ of the departure hall, and when he was going to eat again and he needed to go to the loo…NOW.

Wait,’ I hissed.

As the airbus taxied out and took wing, I had no time to consider that I should be afraid of crashing on take-off like Flight 587 a couple of days before.

When the seatbelt sign flicked off, I turned around again to check on Sean and Caitlin and the whole row had been evacuated away from the tearful children. We settled in together and somewhere over the Atlantic, most of the children fell into an exhausted sleep.

I watched.

The Great Atlantic Crossing: Part 1

A post 9-11 adventure about air travel, written during the COVID-19 Lockdown.

In late 2001, I crossed the Atlantic alone with four small children and a five-month-old bump. We all survived. And that is my claim to fame.

Salt Lake City Airport

On 11 September 2001, while planes were flying into the World Trade Centre, I was vomiting.  The first I heard of what would become a global travel crisis was when my sister in Cape Town, called me in Draper, Utah, exclaiming, ‘What the hell is going on over there?!’

All I could think was: ‘How the hell does she know that I think I am pregnant?! Oh $@&* I think I am pregnant! But this marriage is all but over!’

The days and weeks were a blur of mourning with the mom at the elementary school who had a fireman-brother in New York who was missing, and watching her confidence that he would be found, crumble day by day, as hope died; of being touched by the patriotism of small town Americans, who instantly lined the streets with flags and even lemonade stalls of film and cartoon legend; of praying at mass in the school hall; of being glued to the television talking heads who speculated endlessly 24-7 about stranded aeroplanes and a coming war; of visiting the grocery store, on hyperalert to the perils of anthrax-poisoned fruit; of positive pregnancy tests and a failing marriage, while trying to keep my brood of youngsters busy (They were the only ones excited about their little sibling whose flutters began to be felt beneath my heart.); of the anxiety fuelled by rumours that the upcoming Winter Olympics in Park City would be bombed; of visiting a doctor only to hear that without medical insurance, my fifth caesarean would be performed by the on-call first year GP at the clinic in downtown Salt Lake City; of fear. And loneliness in a foreign country.

And then my sister-in-law saved us. She persuaded my father-in-law to fly the children and me home so I could receive proper medical care. I grabbed the opportunity, telling myself my husband would follow us as promised and that I could forgive him for all he’d done, if I just had some distance to deal with it. So, we booked our one-way trip, via New York and Istanbul on Air Turkey to Cape Town, a trip that would take nearly 29 hours of flying time, but took over three days including layovers.

And then On November 12, 2001, American Flight 587 crashed shortly after take-off from JFK Airport. The Airbus carved out a path of devastation into the neighbourhood of Belle Harbor, in Queens, New York City. All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and 9 crew members) were killed, along with 5 people on the ground. Initial reports suggested it was a further act of terror and once more, panic spread thought the country.

Crash Site of Flight 587, Queens, New York, 2001

And two days later we headed for the airport in Salt Lake City en route to JFK International Airport. I was terrified.

Packing for 5 passengers leaving a country permanently took some doing. We had to take enough that we could start a life again back home, but as little as possible so I could handle it over two layovers, as well as have enough carry-on luggage to keep four children occupied and clean, not mention the toddler’s nappies and food. We took 5 large suitcases, two on-board bags and each child had a backpack crammed with in-flight games, a favourite toy, toothbrushes and snacks.

The check-in bags were packed with the ingenuity of refugees escaping a war-torn land, with Lego stuffed into boots and every cranny filled with what I could cram in; and like migrants fleeing the country, we dressed in layers so we could take more clothes. The rest of our precious belongings, I left behind packaged and ready to be sent on by the children’s father. He never did.

The sadness overwhelmed me as we ascended the escalator at the airport, after check-in. The older children were filled with the energetic excitement that comes with travel, and had given their father a quick hug before bounding onto the moving stairs, but as I glanced back at the only man I had ever loved, after he’d whispered his  assurance that he’d follow soon, I Knew. As he receded beneath me I knew that so had our union.

It was only when he’d faded from view and as we plodded down one of those endless airport corridors, me like a pack horse, laden with the solidly-full two carry-ons and not-quite-two-year-old Shannon in my arms, that Sean plucked at my arm and asked tremulously, ‘We will see Dad again soon, hey Mommy,’ that the enormity of what we were doing struck. I reassured him and Michael who had begun to cry, while Caitlin clung tearfully to my hand.

That was when I realised it was time for the big girl panties to be pulled up and for me to take charge.

We reached the boarding gate eventually and when our flight was called we stepped forward with everyone else. Handing the flight attendant our tickets and passports, I noticed some consternation cross her face as she asked us to step aside for a ‘random’ security check. We waited behind patiently and were escorted to a cordoned off area where the ‘non-specific’ choice of passengers lined up: a dark-skinned Middle-Eastern business man and a Muslim couple, she in full purdah…and us – with our five one-way tickets, in a name that could have sounded Arabic, paid in cash from Cape Town city with a strong Muslim presence, via a Muslim country, on Air Turkey.

Random, my arse! We’d been racially profiled, a fact that was made even more obvious by the stewards’ embarrassment and grovelling apology that they ‘didn’t realise that they were children,’ as they undertook  a thorough search of every child’s backpack – poking teddy bears and even squeezing out toothpaste, before hastily returning the things to their now-dishevelled bags, as the tears brimmed over. What appalled me more was the patient stoicism of my fellow detainees – they’d expected it.

And then we took off for JFK and a future unknown.

3 Things to Remember about Video Conferencng from Home

Happy Young Asian Woman Using Stock Footage Video (100 ...

For the record, I am a Luddite.

I missed the start of the computer generation because as a devotee and part of the vanguard of the baby boomer generation, I was well…booming. Then, in 2003, with 5 children under 12 I was forcibly returned to the teaching workforce upon the collapse of my first marriage and, in the time I’d been away, those nice ladies in the front office of schools had stopped typing all examination papers; the internet was there and I was nowhere!

I remember taking out Dummies Guides to various aspects of the cyber world from the library, cramming at night over borrowed literature from my cousin’s training courses and spending hard-won rands on a series of Saturday morning lessons in a warehouse near Kenilworth Centre to upskill myself on what the difference between hardware and software was. When I say I had no idea how to turn on a computer even, I am not joking – who knew that box on the floor also needed to be switched on, to get the screen thingie to light up!

Those days are long gone fortunately, and I am a veteran of years of 21-page literature examinations typed up with both of my own two fingers and for a good 10 years I no longer do things twice – longhand and electronic. I am actually pretty fast, even if I am a trifle heavy handed and loud on the keyboard (a leftover from the era of typewriters!)

So now that the electronic age has advanced to online learning and remote teaching during lockdown, the age of teleconferencing has really taken off. In my profession, it has been useful to be able to continue my day with some semblance of normalcy which involves countless meetings with staff and other stakeholders in my busy school community.

But it comes with some challenges.

  1. Time and teleconferencing wait for no (wo)man

You cannot be sloppy with other people’s time. This is true of any meeting of course, but it requires the speed of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and the flexibility of a pole-dancer to race down the stairs; empty the washing machine and hang up a load of washing; worry that the back neighbour’s home grown dagga seems to be lasting a long time and the odour may permeate my clean sheets; spring over the mop left out by the adolescent slave; shimmy over the kitchen island to pour the just-boiled water into my favourite tea mug; pause momentarily to smile at the maestro’s hilarious music teaching style, as he informs a piano pupil to avoid using the thumb – ‘humans are more civilized,’ and leg it back upstairs in time to click ‘Join the meeting.’

There is no efficient PA-Paula giving me a wrist-tap reminder of time through my glass door (whoever decided to give the head’s office glass doors, I do not know, but that’s a thought for another time) or delay a visitor with a ‘she’ll be with you in a minute,’ when I’ve nipped into the loo quickly. I have to keep my own time. And I’m not that good at it. It’s exhausting.

  1. Make sure you’ve made your bed 

‘If you wanna change the world, start by making your bed,’ – US Navy Admiral William Raven 

I work in my bedroom, and my bed is visible in the background, if I am not sitting with my back to the window, so I’d better not look as if I am working from the tousled boudoir of a brothel while I discuss finances with my bursar. (The Tretchikoffs on the red wall are decadent enough).

Our school’s organization works on Microsoft Teams though, and the video settings have this nifty button for altering your background so you can appear to be calling from a beach, a Parisienne loft, outer space or in a Minecraft game. The trick is to change the setting before others see you though, so…. see point 1.

I’m also more sensitive to whether the evidence of my crunchie tin raid is still showing in my teeth, because the camera reveals all they say. Then again, you only have to look good above the desk. No one can see your fluffy slippers or ski pants and tackies beneath the table. The alternative is to keep your video off. But as is often the case, I am chairing the meeting, so I have to make a fleeting appearance at least.

By the way, if you want to save your data, turn off the video as much as you can. That also prevents bad connections making you look like a modern Picasso (who’s the Luddite now?!)

It also allows you to sneak out to the ladies’ room if a meeting is dragging, but beware that you don’t get called on for comment just at that moment… one can always blame a poor connection of suppose, which has me wondering now…

  1. Mute your mike if you’re not speaking 

“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.”
― G. K. Chesterton

 Many people are clever enough to wear earphones when on a call so they can listen carefully to what is being said in the meeting. This is an excellent plan if you look good in earphones.

However, many don’t realise that passing traffic outside; the husband/wife/child/dog/parrot/vacuum cleaner/rumbling stomach can be heard in the background and you don’t notice because you have your recording artist look going. Don’t get me wrong, the attention-deficit extrovert in me is always happy to say hello to a bored toddler or be amused that even the high-ups have pets, but it can be disconcerting to be in a meeting and trying to listen to what a manager is saying when we can also hear his spouse’s work-from-home calls at the same time.

As with video, poor connectivity can result in annoying feedback (the sound kind; advice from collaborators is (almost) always welcome) and even staccato type robo-voice. It can be hard when you are the only one affected, but if someone has been smart enough to press ‘record’ at the beginning of the meeting you can listen later at your leisure. In fact, if you drifted off because you spotted an accursed lockdown violator strolling too close to another similar social deviant down the road outside your window, or because you lost track of a technical conversation, it’s very handy to listen to the meeting recording. I don’t recommend it if you have been doing most of the talking – you will the realise that a) you are boring; b) my goodness how nasal you sound, c) you say ‘um’ too much or d) all of the above.

As we enter Season 2 of the Lockdown Series, I am already sick of hearing expressions like ‘the new normal’ and ‘when the dust from this crisis settles.’ (My life can never be described as ‘normal’ – perish the thought – and the ‘dust settling’ is just so clichéd).

But we shall emerge from our Sleeping Beauty castles eventually – out through the wild grass (uncut for weeks because garden services are not essential services) relieved that the wavy fronds can hide the fact that we haven’t shaved our legs for a while, and then we shall have to get back to the office (after we find the razor of course).

Many wax lyrical about how much will be changed and that this period will have launched a new way of doing things, and I do believe that more companies will consider trusting employees to work from home; schools may contemplate a timetable which allows a grade to work from home once a week or other such innovations which will benefit the planet and our travel times in traffic, but I, for one, will enjoy having real meetings with actual people not hologrammed humans.

I suppose I am still a Luddite after all.

Reading: Of Muggles and Magic

Choosing books for boys

In 2000, for a six-month period of about 10 years, I homeschooled my (then) four children, aged eight, six, three and not quite a year.

I may have been a teacher, but I was a high school educator, not a Primary School Wizard. So, I did it all wrong, but one thing I got right was the reading. And that was mainly because I made the eldest one read to himself and both he and I read often to the others (I when I was not busy with another of my whining, squirming, unwilling pupils – not that they seemed any different from some of my former senior students in those characteristics.)

There were no handy online classes or resources back in 2020 (we didn’t own a computer), just little workbooks I found at CNA. There were only a handful of internet users in South Africa at the time. I had never heard of Google and there was no YouTube to search for how-to videos; and no curriculum-aligned, packaged remote learning programme from school.  So, I force-fed times tables to the older two; tried desperately to get my Grade R child to learn to read (and by that, I mean I wondered how and what magic beans Grade 1 teachers sow to take an illiterate to the wonder of the world of books). I puzzled over how on earth to teach my pre-schooler to write his name, although I probably wondered more about how I would get the toddler’s scribbles off the rental apartment’s wall.

At the time, I felt as though I were neglecting Sean, the eldest, by leaving him to read for long periods at a time, or abandoning his sister, Caitlin, to stare longingly at the pages she couldn’t yet read, because the others took up so much of my time, but the time spent exploring books about his own interests, or yearning to be able to read in her case, have served them well. But I also made lots of time for snuggled-up, whole-family story time, when I read aloud to them, the old-fashioned way, ending before they’d had enough, when they pleaded for more. I made no-reading-before-lights-out the consequence for poor behaviour and so put reading on a pedestal as a treat.

My introverted eldest son, a timid eight-year-old who in Grade 2, was a little behind in reading. But he read copiously during this time (no doubt grateful to be away from the haranguing witch, instructing his siblings in the kitchen while scrubbing pots or ironing). He caught up his age lag (he was a November baby) and surpassed his biological age in reading several times over. Today, he has a Master’s degree in English and makes his living writing screenplays and directing films.  

My daughter seems to have thrived on her Mathematics drills and can now write CA(SA) after her MCom and name (the less said about her remembered trauma of my Muggle reading lessons the better). She too is a reader though.

Michael writes a blog with millions of followers for a living and so even if I didn’t teach him to write neatly, he can write!

And the puny Picasso is studying Fine Art at UCT Michaelis School of Art (Handy Andy cleaned the wall too.)

Now I plan to make my fifth child’s matric year miserable by looking over his shoulder at home – it’s only fair he should suffer too – his siblings would say. I shall also be thanking God for Curro’s Microsoft Teams teaching.

What is my point? It’s not to brag about my clever kids (although what mother could resist?), it’s to show that children survive crisis education, no matter how poorly we parents facilitate the learning. What they need is to read.  Studies show that irrespective of socio-economic class or type of school children attend, the readers are statistically the successful ones.

If you do anything with your children during this lockdown, encourage reading, both solitary and family sharing. Teach them to love it, to yearn for learning and to choose it. And read for your own pleasure.

Cut yourselves some slack. You’re doing a great job.

And thank the teachers who know the spells to unlock the doors that we can’t. They’re waving their wands online now. It’s not called Teams for nothing.


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The best toys are like unicorns. They include enough horse to seem real, but enough horn to become magical.

Amber & Andy Ankowski, “Anatomy of the Perfect Toy”, PBS Parents, May 25, 2016

The abandoned doll in the yard next door is a forlorn sight. Lost toys take on a peculiar pathos similar to ghostly schools during lockdown. This child’s moppet has obviously been left during the lockdown after a fleeting weekend visit with the divorced father who lives there, custodial visits now being allowed during South Africa’s national quarantine.  There is something incredibly sad about discarded playthings, perhaps because they signal the absence of their owners.

The little girls who spent the weekend have gone home with their mother and the garden is quiet again, their giggling games a fond memory only. I wonder whether the girls have missed and cried over the little baby doll. I wonder whether she has a name.

Favourite toys always have names. My first doll was called Hygienic, I kid you not – well that’s what it said on the label, so that’s what I called her. She had a hard, plastic head with garish red hair (worse than mine) and a soft body, presumably so as not to hurt the toddler playing with her, so she looked a little odd without her clothes – I had enough naked dolls to run a brothel if I’d known what that was.

I also had a variety of other dolls – remember Tiny Dots? Then there were those ugly Cabbage Patch creatures. I remember playing for hours at the apartment block made out of my chest of drawers where the Barbies lived too. Now I recoil at the thought of the social grooming about body-types they were promoting, but then they were the cool people who populated a Manhattan sort of life I thought was oh so glamorous in my emptied out sock drawer. There were also those odd ones, not unlike a baldish Chucky, that looked like they were straight out of Steven Spielberg central casting, but with the hair a mere contour in the plastic. They were called Cindy and Wendy and cried out alarmingly when tipped upside down (let that be a warning to future mother tempted to do that). I think Cindy could walk too, in a sort of mechanical way – I am surprised we didn’t have nightmares about them.

But my all-time favourite was a teddy bear called Spareman (He was the only boy-doll you see so he felt ‘spare.’) My childhood logic was a little odd, but I suppose ‘Gigolo’ never occurred to my young mind, even though he dated all the other ‘ladies’ and was the groom at every large doll wedding – the ladies were all dressed for those of course – some rather sumptuously if my sister, Brigid, and her harem of coiffured belles played too, although I was never sure if she would get cross with me and take her side of the family indoors. My grandmother who was an artist, made Spareman for me: he was just large enough to fit in the crook of my five-year-old arm and sported a jaunty, painted-on face and a powder blue shirt – no pants now that I think of it, after the brown felt ones he came with disintegrated, so he was definitely a trifle loose on the morals side too.

I took him everywhere and couldn’t (wouldn’t?) sleep without him. I remember one occasion when my mother was driving us cross-country in her little blue Austin Morris to visit family in Ixopo, a small town on the Umkhomazi River in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands. We had travelled some 200 kilometres when it was discovered that Spareman was living McCauley Calkin’s nightmare, home alone. My mother turned around and went back for him. That is love – my mother was a saint! I would never have done that for any of my youngsters.

I lost him forever in America when we moved back to South Africa. He was packed away in a box meant to be forwarded to me with all my treasured possessions; sadly never sent. I hope someone is loving him – but he probably found true love finally with a dumpsite dolly.

It’s heartening though to see how children’s toys are kept for future generations. We found Andrew’s mother’s teddy in her things and it sits on a shelf alongside Mika’s old bear and a gift bear from Sterns which came with a watch and bracelet given to me by staff when I left my last school. Stern Bear glares at Andrew and reminds him that diamonds are a girl’s best toy now. Mind you, they are perched up there like the proverbial three monkeys – cue horror music…

Liam had several toys, all called Max, which made things easy to remember: Max the Wolf, Max the Teddy Bear, Max the Monkey and Max the Lion. I think Winston the Labrador ate a few Maxes. I hope Bandile next door finds his daughter’s doll before she is ravaged by his savage Jack Russel.

I was not impressed when someone gave my girls Bratz Dolls for Christmas once, both because I hated the concept of encouraging brattishness – they needed no encouragement in that department; but mainly because of that spelling! To this day I am not sure whether Mika has been forgiven for tossing one of the three delinquent dollies into the next door neighbour’s garden, but I never moaned at him – I was glad. The girls seldom lacked for baby dolls because Liam was always happy to hop into the dolls’ pram and be petted.

Sean and his best friend Matthew apparently blew up a couple of Action Men – a fact I am glad I did not know about because I would have been furious about the danger of messing around with fireworks, but I suppose the fact that my cousin and I once used a doll as a swingball would make me a bit hypocritical about their destructive streaks.

Michael had a collection of remote controlled cars which were best put to use during nap time when they served as spies, transporting messages between bedrooms. Again, not something I knew about until they were teenagers and confessed to their wicked childhood nap avoidance.

But their best games were those adventure games that Sean (interestingly now making money from screenwriting) scripted and directed with elaborate plots and parts which evolved as the characters joined in.

And there was the ubiquitous Lego, a nightmare to clean up even with the cute Lego vacuum device, but worth hours of enjoyment. When we first moved back to South Africa and Liam was tiny, while he was asleep, I would sometimes try to grab some shut-eye quickly and still be around the children. So I would lie down on the couch while the children built cities and roads out of Lego on the floor. They remember me grumbling if they made too much noise, but certainly loved the games, even if they were frustrated that their mother needed to doze. Shannon remembers feeling for my pulse to see whether I was still alive from time to time and lifting up my eyelids to check whether the kip had become permanent. Liam played with Lego for years and was adept at building fighter spacecrafts and manipulating them dexterously in aerial battles in solitary games, complete with sound effects, when his older siblings were at school.

I did not enjoy the era of tamagotchis, those digital pets that raised the alarm annoyingly if they needed feeding or walking. Fortunately batteries die. and so did those’pets.’

They still all love games of course, mostly online for the boys and the Friends board game was a recent Christmas request, not to mention the Game of Thrones epic, but those like Beer Pong and others have taken on a more salacious turn I am sad to say.

 I miss watching their little bodies absorbed in their fantasy worlds, or building forts out of the tables. I think I have conveniently forgotten how much I had to referee things though and wondering whether Michael and Shannon might actually kill each other.

For now, I have packed things away in a cupboard, and measure the passing of time by the dust on them all…until the echo of children’s feet again sounds along the passage and the games begin again for the next generation…and I can play too.

“The simplest toy, one which even the youngest child can operate, is called a grandparent.”    

Sam Levenson

Easter Eggs and Treasure Hunts

50 Egg-straordinary Places For An Easter Egg Hunt & To See The ...

Every Easter Sunday morning, my mother would trick us by insisting we ate our ‘boiled’ eggs before mass. She loved the fun of our discovery that the eggs were those white-on-the-outside and chocolate-on-the inside ones. You know those ones that leave your face slathered in white candy and chocolate and require serious face-washing afterwards, as well as jaw re-alignment.

I’m not sure whether we were just very dim-witted lasses that every year we fell for the same silly hoax, or whether we learned to play along and continued to battle to cut the extra tough ‘shell’ (fake-exclaiming when we found the choccy middle) or whether I have merely remembered the surprise and laughter of one precious moment.

 You couldn’t do that now – where would you find such white eggs? I don’t think I have seen one that hue in years. My lot would never fall for it anyway, mainly because… well I’m just not that kind of perky mom who makes eggs in the morning, especially not now – we all dash off to church sans breakfast. (We’re generally not fast enough to ‘break the fast.’)

It wasn’t so when the children were little. They’d be up competing with the squawking pigeons (no musical larks in our neighbourhood) at first light. I passed on the tradition of the faux egg, but there was always someone crying because they ‘didn’t like eggs!’

We’d pile into Le Moto (our Toyota Condor back when it was shiny and before Liam etched his name on the door in response to an outraged Michael who was making him move because his ‘name was not on that seat’) and then we’d wait for Sean…. he was busy hiding the marshmallow eggs, for that wonderful promoter of competitive gluttony and accurate accounting – the Easter Egg Hunt – hopefully where the Labradors would not find them before we returned to hunt for them. I would feign impatience that he was taking so long, which the others bought hook, line and sinker because that was our usual morning routine:  us in the car with Caitlin moaning that Michael was touching her, Michael retorting that, ‘Caitlin was breathing!’ Shannon would be kicking the seat in front of her and Liam was no doubt already dozing off; Sean was normally titivating in the bathroom (he had a problematic relationship with his hair in his early teens). On Easter Sunday though, when he finally climbed into the passenger seat and endured my  exasperated scolding, it was with a knowing smirk at the gleam in my eyes. (He wouldn’t have dared do that on any other day of course!)

Turns out Sean still does treasure hunts – with clues now – for the beautiful Jordan. There has been much protesting here that they didn’t get clues when they were little. But that’s what being in love does: you become more creative. They all remember how despite some collecting way more than others, all eggs would be put in one place and shared out equally – otherwise Liam and Shannon would have had none! Shannon does recall finding an egg in ‘her’ tree in the July holiday once though and of course indulging secretly – the things that come out around the kitchen table!

It’s weird not to have gone to mass on Easter Sunday this year – first time ever for me except the Sunday after Michael was born and he was in the neonatal unit with meningitis – grounded by another micro-organism – the irony is not lost on me.  

And It’s not the same to watch mass on video or live streaming. It makes one realise that the Eucharist is really so much about sharing and community worship. I miss my fellow parishioners and my elderly aunts in their Sunday best, who are always in their same pew. I miss my sister arriving with hot cross buns for breakfast – now those are better than sickly sweet eggs, I believe – toasted and liberally smeared with butter – the real thing, not trumped up (interesting word that when one thinks of a certain unstatesmanlike president) Butro or such substitutes.  

But we have done our best: the lamb is done; yummy aromas emanating from the stove. Caitlin decorated the dining-room table beautifully with a white linen cloth, fairy lights and brown paper bunnies (complete with white tails) and cut-out crosses on the table. We had a joint call with Sean and Jordan in Gauteng, and Brigid (who showed off her beachfront view for us poor suburban dwellers). The others all seemed to be sleeping so we couldn’t do a whole-family call. But our table was missing more than just the late Granny Joyce; we were 7 young people and one sister down because of lockdown and distance.

Today is not about the church or dinner table being empty though – it is about The Tomb being empty; and eggs for new life – let us search for that from now on, with the Risen Lord – it is here in our home and we already have the clues.

Have a blessed Easter, everyone.

An Emptying Nest

I am running out of children.

I used to have five children all in one house (sometimes seven when Andrew’s children were here at weekends and during the holidays).

We are down to three now with the lockdown, Michael having moved out (again) and Caitlin has already indicated that she will be moving out by mid-2021 (ever the accountant, she is so organised that she has given me over a year’s notice.) Shannon announced her intention of moving in with Caitlin while she is still at UCT (not so sure how Caitlin feels about that, but I think Shannon is planning on moving where the family cook goes.)

So poor Liam may be stuck with the old folk while he is still dependent on me. One mean older sib once said to him,’You know, Liam, one day that chore chart is just going to say ‘Liam’ for all chores… every day.’ (Said mean older brother’s main reason for moving out was to avoid chores at the time – he now boasts a beautifully clean apartment – go figure!)

But one day they will all be gone… and so will the most important part of my life’s work. It’s hard to believe how much we have survived over the last 19 years, the kids and me. From stepping off the plane (My sister said we looked like refugees – we were in a way) from the USA days after a plane had crashed in Queens in New York and the whole world seemed to have gone mad with fear of travel, post 9-11, to yet another world crisis, this time with COVID-19 lockdowns wordwide and again travel paranoia and bans.

I shall never forget that fateful day when the custom’s official at Cape Town International Airport stamped my passport after the better part of two days travelling alone across the Atlantic with four children and one onboard. ‘Welcome home,’ he said and wished my eldest happy birthday (He was just 10) and I knew I’d be okay, despite all that lay ahead, because we were home.

I set about ensuring that we always had a place where the children would feel safe and loved and would be exposed to the richness of literature and learning. Who knew the joy and love that I would find along the way! With Liam being in Grade 12 this year though, I face the beginning of the end of that long journey to educate and nurture them to be happy and generous humans. Soon Liam will be on his way to being a real estate mogul (with his dog charity on the side of course) and Andrew and I shall have to talk to one another.

Empty Nest Syndrome looms. It is true that as each of the others have left, I have suffered a sense of grief and loss quite profoundly. Once my whole life revolved around the routine of caring for them and now days can go by without speaking to my older boys, one of whom is in Gauteng, or my heart children (my stepson and step-daughter) one of whom is in Stellenbosch at university; the other donating his body to medical science as a live COVID-19 experiment in the UK, I kid you not. (There is something so noble and yet so insane about that! But so typical of our Mika). Now these young people are on their own flights, their own soaring destinies and it is time for Mama Bear to step back and wave goodbye. I suppose that metaphor is not so good now that planes have been grounded again, but soon they like my children will fly again, just as the world recovered from 9-11.

The thing about family though, is that if there is a bond, they never go for good (and I am not referring to the fact that both Sean and Michael left home and then returned, just when I’d given their rooms away to younger siblings, only to leave again on their next adventures.) In September I shall become a mother again for the eighth time (and no, I am not having a midlife-crisis baby, perish the thought – I have my car for that!). Sean will marry the gracious, smart, funny and long-suffering, Jordan, who will make me a mother to another daughter when they marry. Her mother and I refer to each other as the Northern Mother and the Southern Mother already, fortunately not in any Game of Thrones (hey remember that!) kind of way, but in kinship of impending new parenthood. We both agree that this marriage is a union of two humans who bring out the best in the other. (I’m a bit worried about their children one day though – their dogs are hopelessly indulged…)

So the empty nest will one day become a series of many nests that Andrew and I can visit (like cuckoos!). We have joked that between the seven of them they could keep us in meals for a week, but as we kid them, it’s not about what we can get from them as we grow older, it’s the realisation that a whole new adventure extends into the future, with sons-and daughters-in-law to inspire us and grandchildren to feed chocolate cake to and spoil their suppers like my mother did when Sean was little, who will make us ‘surprised by joy’ as the writer, CS Lewis describes finding God. If there is one thing I have learned over my life it is that love is there, waiting in the depths of despair, to surprise us with joy, as I was when I met Andrew.

And there is God. We are home.

At least there’ll be better wifi.

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…and who knows who will move back in before that!