Six Mad South African Stories

Yesterday on Camps Bay beach two guys selling cold drinks decided to have a go on our swing ball set. I wish I could have recorded their giggling and the things they were saying to one another (Djy speel kak! Slaan hom! Slaan hon!). One of those lost-in-translation moments.
Yesterday on Camps Bay beach two guys selling cold drinks decided to have a go on our swing ball set. I wish I could have recorded their giggling and the things they were saying to one another (Djy speel kak! Slaan hom! Slaan hom!). One of those quintessentially South African, impossible-to-translate moments.

With this trial going on and on and the awful Nkandla scandal and that book that’s just come out about the crisis our education system is in it’s easy to get a bit despondent and start thinking, fokkit, Hermanus, what’s to become of us, and when that happens it’s good to be reminded that, while we live in a country where the future is every part of uncertain, the flipside of this is that hardly a day goes by without something mad/funny/ridiculous happening that makes you laugh out loud or shake your head in dismay or be warmed to the bone with the kindness and resilience of human beings. And, after all, we are not here to experience perfection; we came to experience love and humanness in all of its manifestations. Here are some true stories gathered over the past twelve months.

The Blind Beggar and the Lotto Tickets

My mom told me this story over chicken curry a few nights back. She was standing in the queue at Shoprite to buy her weekly lotto ticket (‘if you don’t buy, you can’t win’, as my dad always says), and ahead of her was a well-dressed, blind beggar – really smart in a suit and hat, being led around by a young woman who helped him empty the contents of a plastic packet onto the counter. The cashier looked horrified and like she was about to protest but changed her mind and proceeded to count out R72 entirely in brown coins. There was not a single piece of silver in the mix. With the entire R72 the two of them bought lotto tickets. That’s called faith. Or something. I hope they got at least a few numbers right.

The Naked Rastafarian in the Garden

We don’t have a fence around our property, and a while back my kids called me and told me there was somebody in the garden. I went out to have a look, and there, washing himself at the outside tap, was a young Rastafarian homeless guy in his late twenties or so. He had Tresemme shampoo and a loofah. I went over to where he was squatting and said, listen, dude, I don’t mind if you need to wash, but don’t let the tap run for so long, you make everything waterlogged. He stood up and faced me, naked as the day he was born, and nodded that he understood, but the next day he was back, and then he was coming twice a day and it started to get on my nerves. My polite requests that he didn’t come quite so often fell on deaf ears, and eventually, after a couple of weeks, I told him not to come anymore, but there he was, twice a day, and I live alone half the time and the whole situation started to get a bit problematic so we took matters into our own hands and replaced the tap with one that has a removable top. You can’t turn it unless you have the top bit, and we put the top bit inside. The next time he came he stood staring at the tap in bewilderment. Then he climbed up the steps to our deck where there is a working tap, but where all of Green Point would be able to see him washing his bum, so he just stood there for a while not really knowing what to do. I felt a bit bad and went outside and said, sorry, man, but really, it was getting uncool. He shrugged and went off on his way and I haven’t seen him since. Shame. He just wanted to be clean.

The Lady at Fruit and Veg City

All this cancer everywhere really freaks me out, so I’m trying to feed us all healthy food, and the kids and I have a little game where we each have to make sure we get 7 servings of veggies and fruit a day, and it’s quite fun, actually, seeing how many greens you can squeeze into a sauce or a soup. Or, before supper, I give them a ‘starter’ now which is cut up apple and blueberries and cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks and the kids think it’s great, and I feel like a less crap parent. Anyhow, Fruit and Veg have nice stuff lately – fancy mushrooms and tiny baby carrots and fresh, interesting salads so I try and go there more, and as the cashier was ringing up my stuff and I was looking over her shoulder thinking of something or other, she suddenly stopped dead, looked me in the eye and said, ‘where are my manners? Hello. How are you, and did you have a nice weekend?’ I was surprised, but also not, because you do get that kind of thing happening down here. I told her I missed my husband but that I have good friends who kept me busy. She patted me kindly on the arm and said, ‘it won’t be long now.’ And I walked out of a budget supermarket feeling like the world is a kind and gentle place.

The Day my Mom Got Mugged

Arriving home at about 6pm one winter’s evening, suddenly a young man with a knife appeared at my 68-year-old mom’s side and demanded she give him her bag. She said, ‘I’m not giving you my bag. There is nothing in it of value, but it is of value to me.’ He started to argue so she ordered him to sit down where she proceeded to show him her near-empty wallet, her old, worthless cell-phone and the punnet of mushrooms she’d just bought at the Spar. She said, ‘I’ll give you R100 but you are not getting anything else.’ He agreed and went on his way. When she told me the story a few days later I didn’t know whether to be proud or horrified. I still don’t know.

The Honest Granadilla Lolly Guy

Those guys on the beach are so freaking annoying with their cooler-boxes of ice lollies (a lolly to make you jolly?) when you’re trying to read your Heat magazine in peace, but a few months ago I took the kids to the beach and, just as we’d settled, I spotted a friend 50 metres away. Too lazy to go all the way over there, I phoned her and told her to join us, which she duly did. About ten minutes later, one of the ice lolly guys approached us again, this time with a fancy new Samsung smart phone in his hand, and asked us if it belonged to one of us. In the process of gathering her things, my friend had dropped her R8000 phone in the sand, he had spotted it and was doing the rounds. She gave him R50. He probably lives in a cardboard box.

The Jolly Christmas Bergie

On High Level Road about around Christmas time I was on my way to work and a bit stressed and grumpy because when you have young kids trying to get everyone fed and dressed and out of the house on time requires great reserves of patience which is not my strong point, and as the traffic slowed down there, just to my right, was a bergie going through a bin, and while there is nothing unusual about this, what was unusual was that he was wearing one of those red, felt pointed hats with the flashing lights and he had the lights going full tilt while he sang ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ at the top of his lungs. While you might be sifting through the trash for your next meal and Christmas will probably be a bottle of something cheap and lethal, aint no reason to be a misery guts. Big lesson to us all.

On Not Being an Arsehole in the World

Last Friday evening I attended the launch of Ruby Wax’s new book, Sane New World. Ruby is a close friend of my neighbour, and I’ve spent a few evenings around a dinner table with her where her openness about her lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety impressed me. We human beings are not big on admitting when we’re in trouble. We’re so terrified of telling the people around us that we’re frightened and not coping that we soldier on until we find ourselves so far gone that the only option is medication. When celebs (who have a lot to lose) come out with their stuff, it really helps the rest of us be brave about our stuff, too.

Anyhow, one thing she said really stuck with me. Due to her own mental health issues, she took it upon herself to get a Masters degree in Mindfulness and Cognitive Psychology at Oxford University, and learn about the human brain and why we do the things we do. And one of the things she explained was that, when we face social rejection, the same area in our brain which responds to physical pain is activated. Which is why, when people are crap to us on social media, our hearts start pounding and our mouths go dry and we experience a surge of adrenalin. Our brains can’t distinguish between a troll on Twitter and a zombie wielding a chainsaw. The threat is perceived to be the same, so even when the snarky comment comes from a complete arb who has no meaning in your life, you practically poo in your pants.

And I was relieved to hear that I’m not alone. Because when I get a criticized on Facebook or my blog for something I’ve written (though it’s really only happened a very few times) it bothers me a lot. I mull over it for days, wondering if I was wrong or if I should have expressed myself differently. (I am actually far too thin-skinned to be this opinionated about stuff). When I see a new comment has come in, I hold my iPad at arm’s length and read it with one eye shut for fear it’s someone telling me I suck. It’s pathetic, but that’s how I am. I have a few friends whose comments I dread getting. Because, while they are nice enough people, they’re not that good at thinking through the things they say, and I regularly get stung by their words. And I guess this is why we still have wars – we have a hard time thinking beyond our own noses and appreciating that other people have different thoughts and different experiences from ours.

And this whole thing has been quite a challenge for me, because when you’re writing for magazines and newspapers, you know on some conceptual level that you have an audience, but barring the odd email you might get, your readers remain largely anonymous. When you’re blogging, on the other hand, your audience is right there, a click away. You get responses immediately, and you have to deal with them. Lots of responses from lots of people living lives and in circumstances that are different from yours. And while most are really, really nice a few can be less so, and the knee-jerk reaction is to defend your position, and even be a tiny bit not nice back. Because their comment has hurt your feelings. But then you start a war.

So, what I’ve been doing instead is only being nice. I put my thoughts out there, and they get interpreted in different ways, but I elect not to defend my position or explain what I actually meant or point out things they might have misunderstood. It is not my job to convince them that my view is right. They are, after all, as ‘right’ as I am, they’ve just had different experiences. And an interesting thing happens when you consciously operate from a place of tolerance and acceptance (and it’s not always bloody easy): the fight goes away. There is no fight, just human beings sharing their thoughts and feelings.

Yet somehow we’re raised to believe we need to make ourselves heard and stand our ground and fight for our place in the world. And I’m not saying there is no reason to push back, ever, but we’re very quick to draw our guns and go onto the defensive. I have a few people in my life whose entire ethos revolves around their egos and pushing their opinions and being the ‘rightest’ in the world, and they’re tiring and make me wonder who they’re trying to convince. And the thing is, if you can take a step back and not engage you do yourself the biggest favour. Because when people are shouting and being bullies and mean to those around them, more often than not it comes from a place of sadness and confusion. Individuals who feel loved and affirmed don’t need to sound off all the time.

And what I’m learning in the biggest, biggest way is that what you put out you get back. Give that injured inner child of yours a hug, and make a decision to err on the side of niceness. It’s easy making fires and shouting the house down, but contrary to what we’ve been taught, what takes the most strength and the most courage is being kind to the people who might not have been kind to you. And when you do that – are large and gracious – it’s astonishing, the bounty and grace you attract. And I can only imagine that the opposite holds true – be angry and aggressive, and that’s what’s you’re going to experience.

So, forgive me for sounding like the Dalai fucking Lama, but this has been a major a-ha moment for me. There are a lot of people in a lot of pain, and this makes them do (and say) really weird things. And, like Ruby says, if we could learn to be mindful about this stuff instead of going into battle at the drop of a hat, we’d all suffer less in our lives. And that’s what we human beings have in common, really, isn’t it? The quest to be happy and to avoid pain. And I’ll get it wrong and probably be annoyed before I’m done posting this blog, but it’s a step in the right direction. If we all made a decision right now that, for the rest of the day, we’ll be nice to every single person who crosses our paths – even when we feel they’re buffoons from hell – our worlds would become easier to navigate. Because, really, every one of us is crazy and a bit lost and fighting some or other kind of battle. So let’s try and remember that before we throw our word grenades.

10 Things I Know About Men at 40 That I Didn’t Know at 20

Writing for women’s magazines for close on 20 years has taught me some stuff about men and relationships. Here are a few biggies every girl needs to know:

– It doesn’t matter how awesome you are, if he’s not ready to settle down it’s never going to happen.

– He’ll say anything to shag you, but only when he knows you’re not the right girl.

– If he’s 30 or older and has never been in a serious relationship there’s a reason for that. Beware.

– Men want exactly the same things women do – to be loved, nurtured and respected.

– Consistent kindness is much more important than grand gestures. The guy who showers you with expensive gifts is often not the guy who shows up when you really need him.

– Men reveal themselves in the first few minutes of meeting you, so listen carefully to what he says. If he says he doesn’t want children, for example, you need to believe him.

– By the same token, he’ll tell you (without meaning to) how the relationship will end. Listen for clues like, ‘I’m bad at commitment/I was unfaithful/none of my relationships have lasted longer than three months.’ It’s a warning to you.

– If he cheated on his girlfriend/wife with you, rest assured he’ll cheat on you, too.

– The way he speaks about other people says more about him than it does about them. He’s mean about his ex? He’s a mean guy. Run for the hills.

– If he regularly needs ‘space’ or you find yourself making a lot of concessions to be with him, chances are he’s just not that into you. And he never will be. Leave, and find somebody else.