Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Et tu, Brute?

Our eyes locked as we were introduced, and when we shook hands and smiled at each other I felt a little buzz. I didn't mean for it to happen, I honestly didn't. But then we started talking and laughing and getting along like a house on fire. And very soon we were meeting up for coffee, and then a drink, and then, inevitably, we found ourselves in that most compromising and illicit of situations - a night in the 151.  And then all hell broke loose.

Let's call her Olivia. Olivia and I were introduced by a mutual friend who brought her along to my husband's birthday party - we like to say she crashed it, only because she's the kind of person who would never crash a party. Olivia was fairly new to London socially and back in those days my husband and I went out a lot, both together and separately - life before kids - and were happy to meet new people. Olivia and I soon started meeting along with the person who introduced us, let's call her Mary. The three of us had a great time together, but Mary had an even busier social life, and soon it was just the two of us meeting up, although, and this is relevant: Mary was always invited.

As it happens with most good relationships, the more time you spend together, the more time you want to spend together, and in the case with Olivia, I soon grew to love her and she became one of my closest friends. Despite coming from entirely different backgrounds and not always having an enormous amount in common, there was an attraction and a joy in each other's company that perhaps emanated from a fascination with each other's differences. But also there was and is a shared love and enjoyment of many things and probably mutual values that are difficult to articulate here, but certainly things that have sustained our friendship. 

My growing friendship with Olivia contributed towards the eventual disintegration of her relationship with Mary. And as things took on a bitter downward spiral between them, I did reflect as to whether or not I had somehow contributed towards this dynamic. Could I have done something differently? Not continued to see Olivia? Should I have made a choice between them? I felt absurd even thinking about such things, but it also almost felt that it was expected of me. I subsequently maintained my friendship with both, which was probably difficult for each of them. I like to think even in the briefest of descriptions here, the organic nature of relationships and how they develop hopefully goes some way to illustrating that you cannot reduce human relations, how they form and how they break, to such a crude sentiment as 'stealing a friend'. 

Some time later I suppose you can say I was on the receiving end of all of this. A person I introduced to my group of girlfriends decided that I was too bourgeois, self possessed, boring, lacking in ambition, obtuse, trivial, (I'm guessing here because I never did get the courtesy of a concise reason) dumped me as a friend. In the run up to being dumped I remember a particular evening where I had to endure this person making it very clear that she was bored and resentful in my company. There's something very menacing and heart breaking when you come to realise that someone you consider to be a friend actually resents you. I think I have some idea of what Caesar must have felt like. Bloody Brutus. 

After getting pregnant with my first child, I didn't hear from her again until some years later when we were both invited to the same function. Nervous ahead of what I imagined to be an awkward encounter, I sent a message to her extending an olive branch and was told via text that as far as she was concerned we had nothing in common and she had no interest in my friendship. I don't recall offering my friendship but it was more along the lines of: 'If we are both going to be at this function I'd like it to be cordial and friendly, and I hope life is treating you well.' But her acerbic unfeeling response was a reminder that by not having her in my life in the intervening years, I had in fact lost nothing. 

And while I was not worthy of her friendship, apparently some of the people I had introduced her to, for a while at least, were. I'd be lying if I said that it didn't upset me that they continued to be friends with someone who had behaved in such a hurtful manner towards me, and that I didn't hope for better judgment on their part. But I reminded myself that I didn't have any right to dictate who my friends were friends with, and maybe she was a different person with them, and maybe I had contributed to the breakdown in that relationship too. And as long as she wasn't poisoning my name to my friends, it wasn't my business. Recently a mutual friend told me their friendship had fizzled as they found her far too self centred. And yes, that did give me a small degree of satisfaction. Horrible to admit, and probably juvenile on my part, but I think all of us feel somewhat vindicated when someone other than us has an opinion that we might otherwise have thought ours only. That perhaps outside of us and our projections sometimes a person just is, objectively speaking, a bit of a shit.

In subsequent years the people I see and socialise with has greatly reduced because I have children and I get a night out a week, maybe, and that's usually with my husband and we have to get a sitter. I know I need to get out more independently because it sure beats the hell out of being passed out on the sofa by 8.30pm in stretch pants with the kids still running around when they should be in bed. But more positively, I'm at a point in my life now where I know who my friends are, and I am confident with that. There is also no way in hell I  would put up with someone's bad behaviour on a night out. Maybe it comes from being a parent to small children, but your bullshit tolerance dramatically reduces. If someone was behaving like a brat I'd get my purse and leave. Life is too short, as is my free time, and I don't want to spend it with someone who doesn't want to spend it with me. What's the point? 

Some of the mothers I am friends with sometimes get together for lunches or dinners or a playdate and I am not always invited, and it's fine. Likewise I cannot always include all of them in a single sitting and I see them separately. I like to think that if someone has a problem with me they will tell me, and we see each other when we can and we get on with our lives. Some of my friends live in other countries and we occasionally talk via Skype, email or on the phone. Sometimes we don't talk for months. They have whole new lives outside of me with a whole new circle of friends - people they shop with, people they have dinner and drinks with, people they confide in. I am no longer their best friend any more. And again, that's genuinely OK with me. How could it not be? How could you not wish the people you love anything but good friends and support in their lives, especially when you are not there to provide it? What I know is that when we are together, in whatever capacity, we meet, and in that moment, it's as though no time has passed at all. Because good friendship endures in this way.

Certainly I know friends that are still part of a wider social circuit that feel the brunt of so-called friend stealers. People who have an almost ambitious and ruthless attitude to collecting people and intentionally excluding the person that introduced them. My reaction to this is that it says more about them than it does about you. Basically they are still behaving as though they were in junior school, and lest we forget, kids can be cruel right? I would also like to think that people who were genuine friends of mine would see through this and not participate. Good friends don't simply dump you in favour of the next best thing, and if they do, well, they aint your friend.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Smashing tofu in bad guys faces

This week we were on the way to my mother's apartment with takeout Chinese food. She has recently had foot surgery and is stuck indoors so we thought we'd treat her to lunch. So I say to my 4-year-old son: "Guess what, I got that deep friend tofu you really like."
My son: "Actually I hate tofu. If there was a bad guy I'd smash that tofu in his face."
Me: "Er... ok then."

What is it with small boys and:
Bad guys?
Smashing things?
Smashing things in people's faces?

'Hating' things

A week earlier we had had the same dish and he'd had seconds and thirds.

It reminds me of our rescue cat, who is probably a year or so older than my son, although approaching middle age in cat years, and equally inconsistent. We got a cat flap and I spent a couple of weeks coaxing her to it, holding it open, and letting her out of it. I thought things were going swimmingly in the direction of step 2 which was getting her to use it independently. The next week she absolutely refused, point blank, refused to exit that way, no matter what I did, what snacks I got etc. So I had to let her out of the front door again, which is a pain, especially when she wakes us up at 4am by scratching on our bedroom curtains to alert us to the fact that she needs to go out to pee, mouse, or terrorise the half-asleep birds. She's intelligent enough to know that the sound of her attempting to tear up the new curtains can rip me out of even a deep sleep, but stubbornly refuses to use the cat flap. I am getting desperate enough to hire a cat trainer to come in and help with the problem. 

My daughter is about to turn 7 and wants a disco party. "Not a fairy entertainer Mom, not that sort of thing for little children - a proper disco party." I remember when my daughter was mad about fairies and we did the fairy entertainer thing and attended many fairy parties and had fairy tea sets, wings and dresses. I imagine she would still love it if she were to attend a party of this kind, but she was rather emphatic about what she wanted for her own party this year. It's strange, wonderful, and a little scary watching how your children slowly start to grow up. And so much of it feels very independent of me in terms of what I encourage or expose them to which is a reminder of the influence of things outside of the home too.

Fortunately (so far so good) this is not about an interest in boys - it's still all about the girlfriends, dancing with them, what outfits they are going to wear, and some One Direction songs she likes. Oh and a disco ball, apparently there has to be a disco ball. There was also a request for a chocolate fountain but I don't want to get sued by the venue for clean up bills after.

I'm watching a new TV series on Amazon Prime called Transparent. It's about a father who comes out to his adult children as a transexual. It's such good TV. While the father's coming out is the central premise of the story it's also about each of the children, the mother, their relationships with each other and the people in their lives. I find it refreshing to see another family's quirkiness and dysfunctional relationships with each other.

Everyone that I know has told me that their family is nuts. Some of the stories people tell me, I think to myself, 'Jeez, and I thought my family was crazy, but that's a whole new kind of crazy.' And yet all of these people, at least on the surface, seem fine and (mostly) functional and go about their businesses. It's also a reminder to all of us parents to young children that it's OK that sometimes we get it wrong, sometimes our children see us angry or making mistakes, or flawed, because life isn't always going to be perfect when they leave the nest. And learning about conflict and mistakes and humanity at home in a safe environment is preferable to being tossed into the big bad world and having to learn it there with people who are not always going to be loving and forgiving. I don't even want to think of my kids out there in the world without me holding their hand, but I suppose one gets incrementally prepared for these things, a lot like the forthcoming disco party that is almost upon me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The bidet, and why you need one, possibly

When we started refurbishing our house a couple of years ago, my mother strongly encouraged me to get a bidet. "Do whatever you want with the rest of the house, but make sure you get a bidet."  She was emphatic perhaps even solemnly so - the way you tell your college-aged daughter never to leave her drink unattended on the bar.

A bidet made me think of those houses I visited as a kid - the fancy ones owned by older relatives with avocado-coloured baths, carpeted bathroom floors, and fleur de lis border patterns. Or hotels in Dubai - with what appears to be a bottom washing obsession in the Middle East.

It felt kind of old fashioned and ostentatious, and it wasn't something on our must-have list. But then I remembered something a friend of mine had randomly told me about years before. She said that (weirdly) she had had a bidet in the small ensuite in her room in halls at university. "Best thing ever," she enthused, "great for, you know, washing down there after sex." I also remembered my mother washing my (then) toddler nephew's muddy covered feet in the bidet or was it dog poo covered? Or teaching him to wash his little hands using the tap on it, or filling it with water and allowing him to play with his little floaty toys in it.  (And yes, my mother is equally if not more hygiene obsessed than me, so this was done when it was clean).

And then there is the fact that before that wonderful life-changing invention that is wet flushable toilet wipes, it really was the only way you could properly wash your bottom without stepping into the shower or bath. Unless of course you are a tourist in a park bathroom in London that has diarrhoea and washes your backside standing at the communal basin where everyone can encounter this breathtaking (and the smell really was breathtaking but not in a good way) sight. 

But I digress ...

As it turns out when we were designing our bathroom, we had the space next to the toilet and I found a bidet that was pretty modern looking (not an avocado or fleur de lis in site). The architect seemed amused that someone in this day and age would want one but said she'd stick it in the plans. And I thought to myself, 'even if we don't use it, it makes the bathroom look smarter (at least to some people) if we ever resell.' 

And so it came to pass that we had a bidet for the first time, and the thing is, I have come to love it. I really love my bidet.

Apart from the fact that it really is good at cleaning your bottom and is useful for the aforementioned feminine hygiene thing (if you face the other way),  it's also kind of a broader family love affair.  My four-year-old son (when he remembers it's there) loves weeing in it. I only wish I had had one when we were toilet training him because he so loves not having to stand on his toes to reach the regular toilet. I remember being little and always feeling that the world was far too big for me and being delighted when finding things that were my size - that for once I didn't have to struggle, that for once the world didn't expect me to fit in with it but fit to my needs instead.

The cat likes to perch on the edge of it while I turn on the tap and uses it as a fountain to drink from. My other cat likes to lie in it in the summer using it as a kind or large cooling ceramic nest. I don't know if my husband uses it because eleven years and counting we still do not feel the need to be in the bathroom when the other is using the toilet. Thank god. And my daughter eschews it in favour of the regular toilet and toilet wipes in the kids bathroom. But me, my urinating son, and the two cats - we are all big fans.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Random stuff and some YouTube clips

Herewith a random collection of observations and things that are not necessarily related. Stuff I would ordinarily post as and when on FB were I still on FB, or Twitter if I could remember my Twitter password and get my head around the whole hash tag thing. (PS: If you cannot see the YouTube clips try viewing this page in a different browser like Safari.)

This afternoon I was grocery shopping with the kids. This is always a big mistake because my kids, normally fairly even tempered and only somewhat crazy, become absolutely manic in the grocery store. God knows why, but they run around wild, and usually pick their moments (when I am talking to the butcher or ordering something from the fish counter) to engage in a kind of wrestle mania performance with each other or run down the aisles shrieking. So there I am telling my son off for being wild and making shouting noises at the checkout only to look up and see a very tall, very willowy Uma Thurman looking at me. I tried to appear nonchalant as I continued my lecture on how his behaviour was inconsiderate to others, but it's not everyday that you have an A-lister watching you reprimand your kids. The girls working the tills got all giggly and started showing each other pictures of Uma Thurman on their phones. She looked tired and in that moment I felt like inviting her back to mine for a glass of wine, but obviously I didn't and she almost certainly wouldn't. What with me being a complete stranger that was dressed in dirty shorts, crazy unkept hair, no makeup and lest we forget the wild kids.

Recent conversation had with my children about my daughter's upcoming birthday party:
My daughter: Mum I would like to have 'One Direction' play at my party
Me: *Sigh* I'm really sorry, but 'One Direction' would cost a gazillion bucks and we just don't have that kind of money
Daughter: Pleaaaaase Mum? Even if they did just one song?
Me: I'm sorry but even that would cost too much money. What if Daddy were to sing a 'One Direction' song instead?
Daughter: Oh yes, that would be brilliant. And we have to play 'Eaton Style' because that's one of my favourite songs. It's by the same people that did Gangnam Style, but it's about Eaton, the school. And apparently, when the headmaster saw it he thought it was hilarious! That's what Dad said. And we could make it a disco! Although there isn't a theme, but everyone has to come dressed very fashionably. And I will be dressed as a peacock (?). And can you fly me through the air so that I land in front of my friends on a pillow, because it is my birthday right? Maybe Dad can attach strings to me and lift me up and then swing me into the party?
Me: Er...
Her four-year-old brother (noticing a small window in one of my daughter's many spitfire monologues) interjects: Yes! And Buzz Lightyear will be there and he will have rocket blasters that will blast fire and he will zoom up and into the air!
My daughter: No, no, no, I'm sorry this is my birthday not Christmas. There will be no Buzz Lightyear, but you can be a butler if you want to
My son: I am not going to be a butler at your party

Yesterday a person overtook me on a winding country road on a double yellow  - the American equivalent of a solid line in the middle of the road that you are never, ever, supposed to cross because you will be facing on-coming traffic. I was doing the speed limit as he/she (the person passed so fast I couldn't determine gender) overtook me on a particularly dangerous bit of the road. 

The same happens a lot in London where I live. The speed limit around my house is 20 and people continually tailgate me because I stick to it. My feeling is that they can get stuffed - the speed limit exists because it's a built up area and there are children and animals that could cross in front of you at any time. And don't get me started on people who talk or text on their mobile phones while driving. Put the f**king phone in your bag or cubby hole and leave it alone until you reach your destination! I like to think of myself as someone that tries to look at things from all angles and who tires to understand the other person's perspective, but I think all of us, no matter how tolerant we are or think we are, have certain things that we rightly or wrongly cannot relate to.  Along with my revulsive reaction to smoking during pregnancy, and domestic violence, people using their phones while driving is something I just cannot wrap my head around.  This documentary short by Werner Herzog, created to try and abate the enormity of the problem, is a must see for everyone that thinks to themselves 'Well I'm an experienced driver and I can do both at the same time' or 'I'm just quickly going to send this text.'

Two of my mid-year resolutions are to do cookery classes to expand my repertoire past the same three or so things I make pretty well, and to introduce myself to popular music so that my children don't have to be subjected to my antiquated music taste for much longer. So for the holidays I bought a 'NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL MUSIC! 50 (all uppercase font) CD to play in the car, and have been listening to '100% Top 40 Summer 2014' on Rdio. I thought I'd get protestations from my husband (a big National and Midlake fan) but surprise surprise even he's got into it and his favourite summer track is 'Selfie' by The Chainsmokers. I kid you not.

My summer anthem has to be Talk Dirty by Jason Derulo (Featuring 2 Chainz)

My children are huge fans of 'Track 9' aka 'Turn down for what' by DJ Snake and Lil Jon. Having just YouTubed it - it's a pretty insane and probably NSFW video, and for the record my kids have not seen it. I can see that it's catchy, but why they love it so much is one of those mysteries you experience on a day to day basis when it comes to kids.

Another big favourite of both the children is Katy Perry's 'Roar'. 

On the subject of Katy Perry's 'Roar' (a big hit with the six and seven year old girls in my daughter's summer camp class), the kids have had a couple of talent shows at camp this year. It's very hard not to laugh in these things because some of the kids come up with some very weird stuff. Yesterday two boys, approximately seven-years-old, put on a play they said was about the environment. This involved one of them holding aloft what resembled a wooden weather-vein bird while his friend stood around for a long time looking a bit lost, and then he proceeded to make a sandwich wrap with a large sweet orange pepper he had brought along, taking care to slice off little pieces of the pepper with a plastic knife, and place it in the wrap. There was no dialogue and only some strange music being played in the background. I kept waiting for something, a point I guess, but it failed to appear. Maybe the pointlessness was the point? The children and handful of parents in the audience clapped gingerly, and I wondered if like me they were thinking, 'Wtf?' It reminded me the Dude's Landlord's performance in The Big Lebowski.

Another group of boys around the same age, perhaps a year older, did a skit which involved them using pogo sticks as large guns and shooting each other while making shooting noises in what appeared to be a robbery gone wrong. There was some dialogue relating to shooting and (I think) betrayal, and then the last man standing was himself 'shot' by someone (who we all thought was dead) with the last bit of energy he could muster before properly dying. More nervous smiling and unsure spatter of clapping followed.

The girls mostly got up and sang popular R&B songs with accompanying dance moves while the boys in the audience rolled their eyes.

My daughter came home this week asking us if 'dick' is a bad word and says the girls in her class say it is. My response was: Well, Dick is short for Richard, in fact I worked with a Dickie, and it is also refers to a man's penis, and in that instance it could be construed as a rude word. My son thought this was funny.

On a final note, like everyone else I was deeply saddened to hear of Robin William's death. Just last week I had happened to watch the standup show he did in Washington in 2009 on Netflix. I remarked to my husband that I had never seen a stand up show like that before, not even Jerry Seinfeld is that good. Williams had remarkable timing and energy and pace and if you have Netflix do watch 'Robin Williams - Weapons of self destruction.'  There are a lot of actors out there we think of as comedians but doing stand up and having the wit, intelligence, stamina and timing to pull it off in front of a live audience is something entirely different. To see Robin Williams doing standup is a remarkable work of artistry and reveals the comic genius he was and always will be.

Here it is on YouTube

Monday, August 11, 2014


Our neighbours, who live across the street, fight a lot. Quite loudly, and more often than not these arguments take place in the early hours of the morning and peak with one of them slamming a car door and driving off quickly and noisily. I could be wrong, but I think alcohol plays a part in things. Their house has a stone gargoyle on the porch along with a 'Beware of the dog' sign, and indeed one can usually hear what sounds like a large dog barking from within its shadowy confines. I was telling this to a friend of mine who said it sounded like a classic drug dealing house. He said, conspiratorially, "Just think about it right? Potential customers are told to look for the house with the gargoyle on the front porch and the large dog is there to make sure everyone behaves themselves and to keep a look out for the police."

A few years back, I ordered one of those cots that turns into a cot bed for my son. We were on our way out, when I noticed a very large, very heavy box on their porch which read: 'Three in one cot/cotbed'. I looked at my husband and said, "Oh dear god, either those crazy people have a baby, or that's our cot bed. Irrespective, it's bad news." The thought of a baby in a house full of fighting was obviously the worse of the two potential evils, and if it was our cot bed, I didn't see it making its way to us. They just didn't strike me as the kind of people that would knock on our door and say: "Hey neighbour, we got your delivery by mistake. Here it is, along with some brownies we made you. Welcome to the neighbourhood." Although if my friend is correct about them dealing, those may have been some interesting brownies. But I digress. So my husband put on the breaks, walked onto their porch, and checked the address label. And sure enough it was our cot. Good news for the baby that wasn't, bad news for us.

My husband jumped back as their dog barked and popped his furry head between the broken blinds glaring menacingly at him. But being the decent chap he is, my husband rang the doorbell to inform the couple that it was our parcel and he would be taking it back. Mercifully they were not home, and he single handedly dragged the extremely heavy and cumbersome item across the street and to our house while I waited in the car with the children who were strapped in. Later, upon unpacking it, we saw the warning label which said the item required at least four men to move it for health and safety reasons. 

For the remainder of the holiday each time a delivery was delayed, we'd joke that our warring neighbours were now enjoying watching TV in the evenings with my son's dinosaur lamp lighting their lounge, or that their psychopathic dog was using our daughter's pink bedroom rug as its bed.

One day I actually saw one of our neighbours (up until this point we'd only heard them: a man, a woman (aka 'you fucking bitch') and their dog. In the cold light of day, as opposed to the early hours when I lay awake at night somewhat terrified listening to their shouting and the sounds of car doors slamming, the man didn't look so threatening. And what was really surprising is just how young he was. I waved and said hello, and he waved back from his vantage point under the tree where he sat smoking a cigarette.

This year we have not heard a single fight. I realise this is tempting fate, but I do wonder if perhaps they have split up. The car is the same, the dog is the same, so one of them still lives there but perhaps they are in a healthier relationship these days, or maybe they entered into couples therapy? One can hope.

Our other neighbours are the congregation of the Triune Baptist church across the street from us, which dates back to 1840 when this was still a whaling town. We've been told there is a pew and secret hiding place in the front of the church where slaves, liberated by the whalers, would hide when there was a raid. One day the ladies of the church were having a yard sale and my daughter and I wondered over and introduced ourselves and were invited by Mrs Jackson, the Reverend Michael Jackson's wife, to look inside the church and to attend a Sunday service which looks to be very musical and festive. 

The people behind us never fail to have company over. I don't think they have children, and almost every evening they appear to get home from work and have drinks around the pool with their friends. It reminds me of years ago when I had just left university and I visited a good friend of mine who lived in Cape Town. My friend and the people she shared a house with didn't wait for weekends to socialise, and almost every evening involved drinks and a barbecue or a picnic on the beach. Funny how for some reason these things stop and we live our lives in a gloomy regimented weekly existence longing for each weekend as though our very salvation depended on it. Why can't every day be fun and relaxed? Oh yes, that's right, we have kids and we have serious jobs. And that means preparing meals, helping with homework, bath time, story time, and collapsing into bed by 11pm after we have checked our email for the umpteenth time, if we are lucky. I know for certain my children would love it if we forget about the schedule and had a more relaxed weekday existence, but in their case this would involve a ton of TV and all meals consumed in front of the TV with not much in the way of vegetables or homework.

Growing up all the kids on my street used to play in the street. Tennis, football, imaginative games, and games with our toys on the pavements. Very few cars came down, usually only drivers that lived there, and then one of the kids would call out: 'Car!' and this would be acknowledged by the others 'Car!', 'Car!' 'Car!' we'd call to each other in turn, and everyone would step onto the pavement while the car slowly moved past. It was a motley crew of kids of various ages and dispositions, but somehow we all sort of hung out together. No one was ever run over, no one was ever kidnapped, approached or messed with. At least not in the 21 years that I lived here, and not to the knowledge of my family. At five in the evening our various mothers in curlers or aprons would come out of the front door and call their respective children in for dinners and baths. 

As kids we'd always be at each other's houses, or hopping over fences and walls to get in and out of each other's yards. Balls were thrown over and sometimes returned. Cups of sugar were borrowed, flowers were stolen from our garden (my mother kept a beautiful garden), and there was the requisite gossiping and the occasional short-lived spat. But I was very fortunate to grow up with neighbours in the true sense of the word and the ready-made friends this allowed me. If I forgot my key, I knew I could go to Aunty Dawn (who suffered from a lot of headaches) and she'd give me something to eat and invite me to wait in her cool dark house and play with her Siamese cat Ming while I waited for my mother to get home. My good friend Christie lived next door and had the best comic collection ever that she generously allowed me to read. And along with my friend Kim and her sister over the street, we spent a lot of time swimming at each other's houses. And my best friend in the whole world Caroline, who I met on my first day at school aged five and am still friends with, lived just a street up. And Caroline's home was my second home.

This was a street we rode our bikes on, and then later, learnt to drive on, in my case once with my mother and once with my father who is gone so many years now. Once was enough for them by the way - they decided to leave teaching me how to drive to the professionals. Then as my friends got older and got their licences, they'd pick me up and drive me home.  Ours was a street I had walked down so many times tired and hungry after school with a ton of school books on my back. A street I had kissed on, been sick on (too many forbidded teenage drinks). A street I had met my friends on in the middle of the night (dressed in black and armed with spray paint) to play war games in the veld at the end of our street. 

Two years ago while I was visiting South Africa, my mother and sisters and I took a drive past to see the old house. I believe it was Douglas Coupland who wrote that the house we grow up in is a kind of hard drive and we return to it in dreams when we need a kind of reset mode to ground us. I lived in our house on Uys Krige street for the first twenty one years of my life and often dream of it. And I can still mentally walk through it and describe in detail what it looked like and how it was decorated even though I haven't seen it in 18 years.

As we approached our old home, I was genuinely surprised and if I am honest, a bit pissed, to see that there was a security station and a security guard we had to report to and state our business to before he'd let us through to actually enter our street.  Unfortunately these kinds of private road situations have been springing up in Johannesburg over the past few years because of rising crime and car jackings. 

The trees we climbed as children on the pavements are now very grand and established looking and most of the houses have tall walls surrounding them - the front doors not quite so invitingly accessible any more. And a lot of our old neighbours have moved on or have passed away. We couldn't quite see our house from the street because it has a wall, but then it always did, and didn't feel comfortable ringing the door and asking to look around given it was a Sunday afternoon. But it felt different, everything felt different, alien somehow. And along with the bored-looking security guard making us feel like strangers who didn't belong on what was always (in my mind at least) our street, I realised with great sadness this wasn't home any more and realistically probably hadn't been for quite some time.

I suppose it was unfair of me to expect everything to stay the way it was and for things to effectively freeze in time when I had moved on. And perhaps the alien otherness I experienced was not just our street that had changed, but a reflection of the changes that I myself had experienced through early adulthood when I left, to middle age when I returned. But wanting things to stay the same is the selfish nature of nostalgia I suppose, and I am always somewhat envious of friends who talk about 'going home.' I ask: "How long have your parents had the house? Did you grow up there? Did your parents keep your room the same? Are the neighbours still the same? Oh, man, you're soooo lucky."

Saturday, August 02, 2014

You couldn't make this stuff up

My daughter, who is six and a half, loves makeup. When I told her we were going to New York City for the weekend she gushed: "Oh Mum, I LOVE New York. You and I can go clothes and makeup shopping," like this was something we did most weekends. I stared at her open mouthed for a second, and then remembered, oh yes, this is my daughter after all, why am I surprised? But she's only six and a half and I'm increasingly realising that my daughter is growing up - a lot faster than I had anticipated.

My sister recently told me that as a child I was always in my mother's closet and specifically at her high heel shoes. I could even do cartwheels in them. And I also loved her makeup and would regularly apply the blues, silvers, golds and green eyeshadow colours that were fashionable in the late 70's early 80's. My father was fundamentally against younger girls wearing makeup, wearing mini skirts (which were hugely popular in the early 80s) or getting our ears pierced. But with three daughters it was a tidal wave of what appeared to be hard wired femininity and soon he realised he couldn't fight it. 

I'm beginning to realise this with my own daughter, and also having been through the battles with my dad, I know that you have to give your children leeway to express themselves. I believe it was Carl Jung who (very) accurately said, 'what we seek to suppress seeks to express itself.' One only has to look at the amount of homophobic preachers and politicians that bang on with their anti-gay propaganda, only to find themselves at the heart of some or other gay scandal - almost always. But that's another subject for another time. But this sentiment is true for children - the more you make a big deal out of something, the more they want to do it. At this stage, wanting to wear makeup is not a case of that uncomfortable tween thing of wanting to be attractive to boys, but more so it's an artistic or creative expression of self that's very much tied in to my daughter's love of illustrating. I also appreciate her enjoyment of makeup and clothes almost certainly comes from my love of makeup and clothes, and she wants to be like me. I guess it could be worse - at least she's not talking about Sauvignon Blanc.

This morning she told me she needed a chair and more light so she could apply her makeup for camp. I told her she didn't really need to wear makeup for camp, but she told me she knows that, but she likes to. Then I told her that we were leaving the house in two minutes and she quipped, "Yup, that's all I need", and I responded: "Really? I can do mine in about two minutes too" before stopping and wondering if I was encouraging her. Later we paused downstairs as her brother put on his shoes, she ran back upstairs, came down again and said breathlessly, "Oh I'm relieved, I had time to put on my lipstick." 

Earlier this week I told the children we were going for a swim. Cue: grumbling and groaning and protestations of wanting to stay in the house (despite it being gloriously sunny and beautiful outside, and the fact that we have ready access to a pool that we just don't have for the other 10 months of the year). So I said: "I am giving an official order - we are going to swim!" And my daughter looked at me with a smile on her face and said: "Mum you cannot order someone to swim - that kind of thing should be a choice." 
Me: "Um, er, yes that is correct, so let me rephrase it. In my professional opinion as your mother it would be a good idea for all of us to enjoy this opportunity of beautiful weather and go and have a swim."

When I was a kid my parents didn't believe in a democracy. We feared my father and obeyed my mother (who was actually a big softie) if only to avoid my father's wrath. What they said went. We are trying to raise our own children to question things and think for themselves, and as a valued part of our family know that their vote counts and they have a voice. But occasionally it backfires when you just want them to get on with something because it makes your life easier and the whole  'Because I said so' stuff you try,  just doesn't wash with them. If this is what I am dealing with now, I can only imagine how their teenage years are going to be, which seem a lot closer now than I would ever have imagined. Being the youngest of four, by the time I became a teenager my parents were, I think, exhausted and fed up with fighting against teenagers. I got a fair amount of rope and therefore didn't have much to rebel against and never really went through the whole "I hate you" thing with my parents. I appreciate that not all children are the same and with some kids a lot of rope can result in a lot of problems. But for me the independence (within reason) was fantastic and apart from a handful of stupid things, I was a pretty responsible kid and never really got into anything seriously bad. Although I do recall relishing the moment ahead of going out and saying goodnight to my parents (and getting my spending money) their shocked expressions in response to whatever weird and wonderful outfit I had put together. It never failed to please me. Teenagers huh?

Yesterday my son, who is four, attempted to lick my breasts (through the clothes I was wearing) at lunch in a restaurant. I tried to look nonchalant and surreptitiously move him away with my hands. This kind of subtle approach never works for him, and soon it became a game and he became more determined and obvious, until eventually I almost shouted: "Enough already, stay away from my breasts!" Which got me a couple of suspicious glances from other diners. He responded matter of factly with: "Dose are not your breasts, dose are your booboos!" As though that justified the whole business. Given some people like to nurse their children until they are old enough to get a driver's license, I hoped that they'd just assume I'd recently stopped nursing him and was in the process of weaning him with an admittedly hard line approach. In truth I stopped nursing him when he was approximately nine months old, but his fascination with my breasts has prevailed. Somehow, in the embarrassing moment,  me being perceived as a harsh mother denying her four year old son her her breast to nurse seemed a smaller vice than them assuming, probably correctly, that despite his diminutive size, he is likely a future breast man. He regularly sticks his hands down my shirt or tries to kneed my breasts in public saying 'cupcake cupcake'. I've told him repeatedly that they are a part of my body, and more so a private part of my body, and he does not have license to touch me there whenever he wants. I imagine one of these years, probably not too far in the future, along with the inevitable distate for girls most little boys develop, he will be disgusted by the very thought and deny ever having gone through this phase. With a compulsive documenter/writer for a mother my kids are getting away with nothing! *Maniacal laughter*

On the subject of breast men, I picked up a copy of The National Enquirer this week. I love this magazine because it makes me laugh with its crazy over the top stuff and is often a much needed form of escapism from the regular news which is deeply depressing. But unlike the Daily Mail which is also full of crazy offensive shit, it doesn't masquerade as a reliable and reputable source of world news.  The Enquirer usually goes after the Queen of England with some or other insane story about her, or O.J Simpson (probably true in this case because he is genuinely crazy), and this week it was about President Obama who they say is a lecherous man. They 'support' this claim by including various pictures of him with younger women (at graduation functions etc) and then state that he is looking obviously pervy and lecherous in the pictures, even though he appears to just be smiling or looking interested in what they are saying. They maintain that his marriage is on the rocks, and his wife Michelle (accompanied by photos of her looking a bit sour - probably just attempting to extract a piece of food from her teeth with her tongue in an unnoticeable fashion) is just biding her time until his second term is over before she leaves him. Oh and that most of this information is coming from a Japanese politician?! I actually looked this up and surprise surprise the first link to corroborate this was from none other than The Daily Mail.

I do wonder if people working at The Enquirer believe the stuff they print, like there's this team of crazy conspiracy theorist types who collect these stories and see it as their duty to tell the world. Or if they know it's all a load of crazy made-up stuff, but it sells, and they have fun with it. I'm going with the second.

Back in London my mother took our now six month old kitten to have the snip. She told me if all animals recovered from surgery with the same gusto as he has, the vets would be out of business. Apparently the vet warned my mother that our cat may have a reduced appetite for a few days because of the anaesthetic, but my mother informed me that a few short hours after getting back from the vet he wolfed down a large piece of cooked salmon that was meant to be her dinner. Why my mother was feeding the cat her dinner is not clear.

Today she took him in for his post surgery checkup and the vet informed her that at 4kgs he is now ready to eat adult cat food. My mother told the vet that that's all he's ever eaten, having eschewed the not inexpensive kitten food we bought for him at 9 weeks. Back then he sniffed at it and then proceeded to wolf down our older cat's food instead and continued to do so until I stopped bothering with two different kinds of food. Plus of course he steals our human food off of the kitchen counters and our plates when he thinks we are not looking, and eats flies and other unfortunate creatures he happens to catch in the garden. So basically he eats everything except for the food he was meant to eat. The animal is a trooper though and tough as nails. We feel it has something to do with the fact that he is a pavement special with multiple blood lines of the street cat variety, and perhaps there's a kind of genetic memory for dealing with what life throws at your with optimism and resilience. 

We're hoping that his neutering will make him less likely to level violence at us and our older resident cat, but I'm not holding my breath. The crazy Burmese that used to visit us was as violent as ever, repeatedly attacking my poor mother once to the point that her hand swelled up and she required a tetanus shot. When I asked her what happened she said he had jumped on her lap and was enjoying having a scratch until he decide it might be a good idea to sink his fangs into her hand, narrowly avoiding a rather large and visible vein. His family blamed his psychotic behaviour on the fact that they had builders at their house and this prompted a distinctive character change in him. That and the fact that his first castration was botched and he had to go in for a second time to remove the remaning bits, and somehow this had pissed him off permanently. I think if I had to go in twice to remove my masculinity I'd be pretty pissed too. While I was having this conversation with the cat's very earnest owner I had the dawning realisation that cat people are all somewhat nuts. I guess I have to include myself in this.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Night must fall and we shall be forced to camp

Along with the children, my husband and I recently attended what I can only describe as the most wonderful and extravagant 50th birthday party, or joint birthday party. Two of our friends celebrated this milestone by having what was effectively an amazing private music festival for around 400 of their friends. The event spanned two days on a farm, with pretty much round the clock live bands, excellent catering, a 24-7 bar, a wonderfully equipped babysitting creche, and luxuriously kitted out tents for our overnight stay. I'm told this kind of glamorous camping is referred to as 'glamping'  - but have to admit that my experience of camping per se is severely limited thanks to negative past experiences.

I have never been keen on communing with the outdoors except when it involves admiring nature or the animals knowing full well that the day's activities will end with a hot tasty meal that doesn't require me to kill or clean an animal, a nice glass of wine, and a soft warm bed that where my body does not have to make direct contact with the ground. Oh, and a toilet and hot shower that does not include a risk of athletes foot, or encountering bears or insects in order to access it in the middle of the night. I'd go further and say my ultimate fantasy camping experience involves conjured images straight out of Poirot episodes or Out of Africa, where, despite being in the middle of the Egyptian desert or African bush, people dress up beautifully for dinner and eat around tables with white clothes, silverware and crystal, and there is a gramophone playing while we enjoy post dinner port and hear the lions roar (far far far) in the distance.  

When I talk about my views on camping, a friend of mine (who does one of those back to basics men and the earth type camping trips with his mates on a fairly regular basis) shakes his head in disgust, tells me I am bourgeois, and that the reason why I have such a shamefully negative attitude is that I just haven't done it properly in the past. He is referring to the time, after I caught a fish and had to clobber it to death with a small mallet, I spent the whole night freezing cold and getting sharp pains in my shins. And then another whereby I spent another entire night unable to sleep because of what felt like a dozen rocks penetrating every part of my body. Oh and the communal bathrooms, well, that's just a deal breaker every time. I appreciate were the world to come to some sort of nasty post apocalyptic end, I would not fare well in the living off of the land and roughing it stakes.

We are currently on holiday, and in the absence of the wonderful person who regularly helps clean our house in London, the children have been set to work to make their beds in the mornings, tidy up after themselves, and help in the house.  They are rising to the occasion to such an extent that I realise that (a) even small children are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for, (b) they are actually quite keen to help and feel like they are contributing and (c) we are probably doing them a great disservice back home by not getting them more involved with helping around the house. A friend of mine told me that having grown up with people to look after her home and prepare the meals for the family, she left University and moved into her own apartment with absolutely no idea how to cook or run a household. Another guy I shared a communal house with at university, and who was a fairly good cook, told me he learnt while he was growing up by hanging out in the kitchen and watching the family's Zimbabwen chef. I suppose these things are relative. I learnt how to cook because as a teenager I spent four years eating as a vegetarian after reading a book of how animals are killed in abattoirs, and my mother (quite understandably) refused to cook separate meals for myself and my carnivores relatives. 

This holiday we have used Uber for the first time here on Long Island. Our first driver was a large African American man who had a 4 out of 5 rating. Upon entering his car his said enthusiastically  "Hmmmmhmmm, what is that smell? Yeah, that's the smell of dinner folks,"  before admitting that he didn't really know his way around where we lived and that even his Sat Nav got confused. We got to the restaurant fine in the end, with navigational assistance from my husband who was using Google maps that is, but I did have a residual concern that we were going to be late or take a circuitous route. I guess this is a potential downside of inexperienced drivers in the navigational stakes working as part of the Uber service.  In London I more often than not plonk myself down in the back of a black cab and check my email or make calls with the assurance that my driver knows exactly where he is going, although most recently, I have had at least two black cab drivers cheekily admit that sometimes they have done the circuitous route intentionally to garner a bit of extra cash - notably when passengers are four sheets to the wind.

While waiting for our Uber collection back home after dinner, my husband and I saw fireflies for the first time in our lives. At nearly 40 I love the fact that I can still experience or learn something new for the first time. Apart from say, muggings, an acid trip, or getting arrested that is. But these little insects were quite mesmerising; at first you think you are seeing something out of the corner of your eye they way you sometimes do when you get up too quickly, but then you see another and then another, like tiny burning embers floating past you. And as quickly as you see them the little light in them goes out. Quite beautiful.

Our homeward bound Uber driver was a tall, thin, gaunt-looking man from Turkey with a slight lisp, who had lived in the USA for 25 years. He had a very large and unexpected collection of TicTacs and chewing gum, as well as drinks and a singular packet of Doritos on display in the storage bit between the front seats that faces the back seats - where one would, say, normally put a box of tissues, and in the gap where the arm rest usually sits. He told us to help ourselves, and I wondered if he was testing out a sort of mini shop slash taxi service concept. When we told him we had not yet visited Istanbul he quickly and rather dramatically blurted out: "Oh don't, dont visit Istanbul!". My husband and I looked at each other and then at him, "Er, why?" Expecting some terrible tale of unexpected crime or natural disasters, only for him to counter, "Because you will never want to leave. Istanbul is soooo beautiful." The rest of the journey was spent listening to him telling us about all the things he wanted to do in his life but had missed out on doing - seeing the 'Pyramints' and having children being just two. 

This week we were grocery shopping in the local store and I overheard a group of three tall hearty-looking college-aged American men discussing whether or not girls would like avocado's. It's a small store and at various points this topic repeatedly came up depending on what food stuff they were looking at. I imagined they were using one of their parent's holiday homes and hosting one of those parties you see in movies where there are kegs, someone has a very bad drug experience, and the whole party gets busted by the cops. The guys then went on to the butchery section and ordered what looked like half a cow while the butcher gave them precise cooking instructions. After he had handed them the large parcels of meat, one of them handed him some money. He told them it wasn't necessary but they insisted, and he said thank you and that he appreciated it. I felt certain that in his 20 or so years of working in the store it was probably the first time he had been tipped for serving steaks, but with this being America (a heavily tip-driven place) I could well be wrong.

Subject header credit to Withnail and I (1987). Full quotation: Monty: "Come on lads, let's get home, the sky's beginning to bruisenight must fall and we shall be forced to camp."