Monday, February 19, 2007

Of life and death

Whenever people are feeling vulnerable, when they or someone they know has been a crime victim, or when the crime rate in their area is higher than what they deem to be acceptable, somebody brings up the Death Penalty. If they live in an area that eschews it, they call for its introduction; if they live where the Death Penalty exists, they call for more its more liberal application. Without regard to its efficacy, just application, or ethical/moral implications, the Death Penalty has come to be seen by some as a panacea for whatever criminal ailments are plaguing their society.

Facts, however, do not bear out the intuitive expectation that implementing draconian punishments will automatically result reduced crime. On examination it becomes obvious that such an expectation is actually quite illogical: who commits a crime with the expectation of getting caught? And if you aren’t going to get caught, then what does the prescribed punishment matter?

Interestingly, the reality seems to be exactly opposite what is expected. America is a perfect microcosm in which to study the subject, for each of its 50 states makes its own policy: 38 of the 50 states prescribe the death penalty for certain crimes while 12 states and the District of Columbia proscribe it. Data collected over the past 15 years indicates that the crime rate in death penalty states has not fallen as dramatically as the crime rates in non-death penalty states, indicating that the much-touted deterrent value of capital punishment simply does not exist.
· Populations are from the U.S. Census estimates for each year
· Murder rates are from the FBI's "Crime in the United States" and are per 100,000 population.
· The murder rate for the region (death penalty states or non-death penalty states) is the total number of murders in the region divided by the total population (and then multiplied by 100,000)

As indicated in the chart above, as executions increased, non-death penalty states did much better than death penalty states with regard to reducing their murder rates. In 1990, the murder rates in the two groups were a mere 4% apart. A decade later however, the murder rate in the death penalty states was 35% higher than in the non-death penalty states, reaching 37% by 2001. (Source: )

There is nothing to indicate any causality in the higher murder rates in the death penalty states, but it is clear that if the death penalty did have any effect, it was definitely the opposite of what was expected.

There are those who don’t care whether or not the death penalty has a deterrent effect. Their position is that if a person commits the ultimate crime, they should be subject to the ultimate penalty. The problem in this kind of thinking is that there is presently no way of absolutely knowing whether or not the convicted is, in fact, the actual perpetrator. Jurisprudence is an invention of man, who is inevitably fallible…and so his inventions must be no less fallible than he is. In other words, it is shockingly easy to convict the wrong guy…certainly death penalty advocates do not want innocent people executed?

And yet, some proponents of capital punishment remark that the percentage of executions of innocents must be statistically negligible…and therefore acceptable. But what would their position be if that lonely statistic was a son, a father, a brother? Would such a proponent complacently accept the execution of the son she birthed, the father who loved and guided him, the brother they loved? Or would they rail against the injustice of executing a person they knew to be innocent? How statistically negligible are your loved ones?

A woman once answered that question by saying that the men in her family (women are seldom executed) lived such exemplary lives that they could never be in a position to be wrongly arrested and convicted of a crime. That is probably what went through the mind of Clifford Henry Bowen: despite there being no physical evidence linking him to three murders, and twelve witnesses who placed him more than 450km from the site of the crime, Bowen was convicted and sentenced to death. He spent five years on Death Row until a court overturned his conviction because prosecutors had failed to disclose information about another suspect who resembled Bowen, had greater motive, no alibi, and habitually carried the same gun and unusual ammunition as the murder weapon.

Surely Johnny McMillian had no idea that a murder committed while he was picnicking with friends would land him on Death Row. But that’s what happened…McMillian, a black man, was convicted for the murder of a white woman in a trial that lasted only a day and a half. Three witnesses testified against McMillian and the testimony of multiple witnesses who were with him at the picnic was ignored. A post-conviction investigation by a television show revealed prosecutorial suppression of exculpatory information and perjury by the prosecution’s three witnesses.

The innocent can be…and are…convicted and sentenced to death for crimes. Statistically speaking, in the US, for every eight executions, a Death Row inmate is exonerated and set free. How many of those executed might have been innocent but were unable to prove it before their deaths? This is the major flaw in the pro-death penalty argument: there is no way to accurately insure that the person being put to death is, in fact, the person who committed the crime. And regardless of the statistical insignificance of the execution of innocents, executing your son or father, my brother or uncle, or any else’s family member who is, in actual fact, innocent of a crime, is simply wrong.

Life imprisonment of the innocent may not be just, but at least it is not irrevocable. Peter Limone spent 33 years in prison…originally sentenced to death…for a crime he didn’t commit. Two other men, convicted with him, died during their prison sentence. Limone was eventually exonerated after it was revealed that the FBI had been in possession of exculpatory information at the time of his trial and for the entire term of Limone’s incarceration. Had Limone’s sentence not been commuted to life imprisonment (due to the elimination of the death penalty in his state) he would have been executed long before this evidence was revealed. Limone was released from prison after the evidence came to light. (Go to for 123 examples of death sentences handed down to innocent people.)

Many people have allowed themselves to come to expect the insupportable from their governments: perfect safety. Risk is inherent in a free society, and the only way to remove risk from a society is to remove its freedom as well. People sometimes fail to realize that true freedom includes the freedom to make bad, wrong, anti-social, and even criminal choices. Certainly there must be consequences for making those choices, but the consequences must come after the choice is made and the action is taken, not before, and the consequences must not come at the expense of the basic human rights of the accused, who may not, as we have seen, be guilty as charged. The life and basic rights of any accused must be preserved against the very real possibility that he was not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted.

In matters of life and death, one MUST err on the conservative side.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

There’s a reason the Road Accident Fund is broke. RAF III

The Naidoos needed insurance information from the Lemoens. Since the car was owned by Mother Lemoen, the information needed to come from her. Because of her rude telephone call to Mike the day of the accident, her number was in Mike’s cell phone. But, because of her rudeness to him, Mike was unwilling to call and subject himself to further abuse. Mrs. Naidoo volunteered to make the call. In her best business voice, she asked Mother Lemoen for her insurance information, but the woman had no idea with whom she was insured. Unfortunately, Paul Lemoen, the other driver, took the phone from his mother and belligerently challenged Mrs. Naidoo’s quest for information. Upon learning her identity, he launched into a lengthy rant, accusing Mike of having been rude to his mother by hanging up on her in the middle of their phone conversation. Mrs. Naidoo calmly responded that her husband had ended the connection because his mother had been verbally abusing her husband, to which Lemoen bellowed that his sweet little old mother would never do anything like that, and so Mike was a liar on top of everything else. And then Lemoen hung up on Mrs. Naidoo!

The Naidoos supplied their insurance company with what little information Mrs. Naidoo had been able to get from Mother Lemoen and learned that repairs to Mike’s car was going to come to R157,000. After a tense few weeks, they learned that the insurance company was authorizing the repair, but not before they got a letter from Mother Lemoen’s attorney, claiming R22,000 for the repair of her car…the car she had screamed to Mike was a write-off. In a matter of weeks, Mother Lemoen’s car was back on the road…it took five months for Mike’s car to be repaired.

The Naidoos eventually received a copy of the complete police report. Mrs. Naidoo checked for Lemoen’s driving license number and discovered (through the format of the number) that Lemoen was driving on an invalid license, as he had not converted to the credit card format, the conversion period having ended in August of 2002…2 ½ years before the collision. The police report, she found, took no notice and made no specific mention of Mr. Lemoen’s driving with an invalid licence…would it make a difference to the insurance company? She also noted that the Constable’s drawing of the scene did not include the skidmarks of Mr. Lemoen’s car or any witness statements.

A couple of months after the collision Mike was informed that the criminal charges against him had been dropped by the police, but that he had been found to be the responsible party in the collision. Additionally, the police had declined to prosecute the Lemoens for Crimen Injuria, despite have an eye (and ear) witness to the offence. And the decision was not open to discussion or appeal. Mike’s insurance company was tasked with paying not only for the repair of Mother Lemoen’s car (despite the driver having been driving without a valid driving license) and his own car, a total figure approaching R200,000.

A year and a half after the collision, Mike received mail from the Road Accident Fund, a form he was asked to complete. Thinking it was just a matter of a bureaucracy being rather behind in its paperwork, he completed the form and sent it back.

Then, almost two years to the day after the collision, Mike received a phone call from a Mr. Evans of the Road Accident Fund, asking for a personal interview, as a claim had been filed and they needed to speak with Mike before deciding the claim. Three days later Mike and his wife sat down with Mr. Evans, and a remarkable set of revelations unfolded. It seems that Mrs. Lemoen’s superficial forehead cut had somehow come to R26,000 in medical bills, enough money for a complete facelift! “How,” Mike asked Mr. Evans, “did Mrs. Lemoen come to have a cut on her forehead if she was wearing her seatbelt?” Mr. Evans conceded this to be a valid question. If, after all, a settlement from the Road Accident Fund was calculated based on the degree of negligence of the various parties, didn’t Mrs. Lemoen’s failure to wear a seatbelt constitute significant negligence on her part?

After he had put numerous questions to Mike, Mr. Evans remarked that he had already spoken to Mr. Visser, who very clearly remembered the collision, and remained indignant over the treatment Mike had suffered at the tongues of the Lemoens. “That Indian guy,” Evans quoted Visser as saying, “He jumped right out of his car and ran to help them, didn’t pay no attention to himself, and they cursed him!” Mike’s statement coincided with Mr. Visser’s exactly, Mr. Evans revealed, and their stories did not support Lemoen’s version of the events. “Visser is a completely independent party,” Evans told the Naidoos. “He has nothing to gain or to lose in this, so he is believable.”

Evans was a disarming kind of guy…short, stout, carelessly dressed and groomed, one’s first impression of him might be that the guy was a dimly lit bulb in the long chain of flickering South African bureaucratic lights. Whether it was by accident or by design, Evans’ appearance was such that his naturally sharp and wily mind was not immediately obvious. When Mrs. Naidoo handed him some freshly printed colour copies of the accident-scene photographs, Evans grinned broadly as he accepted them. Opening his folder, he showed her dark black-and-white photocopies of her original photos and pointed out the barely visible skidmarks in one of the copies. “This,” he said, pointing to the colour version of his black-and-white photo, “this is what I wanted to see.” He explained that from the photos of the skidmarks they could calculate Lemoen’s speed and trajectory, and from that, what degree of negligence in the accident should be assigned to him.

“But the police assigned responsibility for the accident to me,” Mike interjected. Mr. Evans assured him that the Road Accident Fund was conducting its own investigation and that they would actually be bringing an accident reconstruction specialist out to the scene to reconstruct in the most minute detail, based on testimony, Mike’s photos, and scientific calculations, how to parcel out the fault.

Mike remained puzzled. This seemed to be an awful lot of effort…reconstructing the accident scene, taking the whole thing to court for adjudication, which meant paying not only the accident reconstruction specialist and Mr. Evans, but court costs, and lawyer’s and advocate’s fees as well. Wasn’t this kind of overkill for Mrs. Lemoen’s medical claim? He didn’t doubt the claim was inflated (having a physician for a father-in-law could be quite helpful in such an instance, could it not?), but wasn’t this investigation costing more than the R26,000 she was claiming in medical expenses?

Mr. Evans shook his head. “If that is all it was, we would give her the R26,000 for the medical bills,” he said.

It turns out that Mrs. Lemoen, who doesn’t live in South Africa but in a pricey yuppie suburb of London, whose husband’s base salary is more than likely in excess of £500,000 (R6.5 million) per year (and which, surely, includes a fine medical aid scheme), and who, herself, apparently owns a lucrative import-export business in the UK…this well-heeled and privileged woman who neither lives in South Africa nor pays taxes here, is claiming damages from South Africa’s Road Accident Fund (which gets its money from your pocket and mine at the petrol pumps) the amount of FOURTEEN MILLION RANDS.

Sloppy police work? Or something more insidious? RAF II

Into the chaotic scene came a constable, white and female, who began directing activities and taking statements…or, rather, she took Mr. Lemoen’s statement. Mike’s wife stood on the verge observing, beside another onlooker who suddenly said, half to himself, “He’s lying! That man is lying to the police.”

“What do you mean?” Mrs. Naidoo asked, turning swiftly to the man.

“I saw the whole thing,” the man replied, “and that man is lying to the police.”

“Are you willing to speak to the police? To tell them what you saw?” she asked, fumbling in her purse for a piece of paper. “Can I get your name and telephone number? The other driver is my husband.”

The man, Reggie Visser, wrote down his name and phone number. “He’s lying,” Mr. Visser replied. “Your husband did stop at the stop sign. I was saying to my wife what a beautiful car that was, looking right at it. And he only stopped in the road after the other car hooted him. But the other car had plenty of room…he didn’t need to hoot your husband and make him stop. With the turn lanes, this road is four lanes wide here and the verges are wide and paved and they were the only cars on the road. He had plenty of room to go around, if he hadn’t been going so fast!”

“You’re willing to tell this to the police?” Mrs. Naidoo asked again.

Mr. Visser nodded and Mrs. Naidoo excused herself for a moment, setting off to find her husband. She located him with his boss and a group of co-workers and gave him a copy of Mr. Visser’s contact information and urged him to speak to the constable when she was finished with the other driver. She then returned to Mr. Visser’s side where he gave her further details about his observations. He focused on his personal indignation at the foul reception Mike had received when he rushed to the other car to check on the condition of its occupants, stating that he, himself, had declined to approach the car and offer assistance out of fear for his safety, after hearing Mike being cursed. Mrs. Naidoo thanked Mr. Visser for his helpfulness and rejoined her husband.

Once his car was towed away, Mike climbed into his wife’s car. Without calling for an appointment, she drove him straight to the doctor, who sent him for neck X-rays, but, despite the horrific damage to Mike’s car…the missing right front wheel assembly had ultimately been located jammed beneath the car that struck him…Mike himself had suffered nothing more than a bruised knee and a bad case of emotional shock. But the shocks weren’t over. En route to the hospital for X-rays, Mike’s cell phone rang and, on the other end of the connection was Paul Lemoen’s mother, screaming invective at him! Somehow she had obtained his cell phone number and was screeching, not about the jeopardy to which her family members had been exposed, but that her car was a write-off and now what was she going to drive? (It had been less than an hour since the cars had been towed away, so it was highly unlikely that such an assessment had yet been officially made.) She continued to scream in Mike’s ear, demanding to know why he ran a stop sign and then stopped crossways in the middle of the road where her son could not avoid hitting him. She continued to shriek and rant almost without stopping to take a breath and Mike, receiving no opportunity to comment or even answer her questions…and still suffering from the shock of the collision, finally broke the connection in the middle of Mother Lemoen’s harangue.

Neither Mike nor his wife could recall anyone taking photos at the scene so, to be on the safe side, they returned to the crash site late the same afternoon with a digital camera and photographed the intersection, the chalk mark the police made at the point of impact, and 17 metres (55 feet) of skid marks. Rather than take advantage of the wide expanse of empty pavement available to him, according to the witness, Mr. Lemoen hooted at Mike and when that did not result in Mike’s car moving (the hoot caused Mike to apply his brakes!), Lemoen applied his brakes when he was but 17 metres short of impact. As Mrs. Naidoo stood at the beginning of the skidmarks and photographed Mike standing at the point of impact, only 17 metres became obvious to her that, because Lemoen took no evasive action and braked a mere 17 metres short of her husband’s car, Lemoen was hardly innocent of wrongdoing.

Mike took the following day off from work to sort things out, appearing at the police station in the morning to file the obligatory police report. What he discovered at the police station was nothing short of shocking! First, he found a criminal charge had been filed by the Constable against him for reckless endangerment. Second, although Mike had approached the Constable at the scene and had given her Mr. Visser’s contact information and pointed Visser out to her, Mr. Visser’s name did not appear in the police report, nor did any information from any witnesses. Third, and perhaps most unsettling, the Constable’s report consisted exclusively of her observation of the scene (position of the cars, etc) and Mr. Lemoen’s statements…she had failed to interview Mike or Mr. Visser at the scene, so her criminal charge against Mike was based solely on Mr. Lemoen’s statements. And Mr. Lemoen’s statements to the Constable were full of inaccuracies, including a charge that Mike had done nothing to render them aid! Mike showed the Inspector his cell phone call records, proving that he had been the one to call the police and for medical assistance. He then informed the Inspector that he was afraid to offer any further assistance, fearing possible physical attack, because of the Lemoens’ belligerent, hateful language towards him. He offered Mr. Visser as a witness to both his actions and their words.

The interviewing Inspector seemed reluctant to take any information about Mr. Visser…the Constable, after all, hadn’t listed him in the report as a witness. Mrs. Naidoo became quite indignant at this, claiming that it was the Constable’s duty to poll the bystanders in search of a witness, to which the Inspector responded by citing the Constable’s experience and high level of competence. Mrs. Naidoo’s insistence that Mr. Visser be interviewed and that the Constable had not been sufficiently diligent in her inquiry earned Mrs. Naidoo a threat from the Inspector that, if she was not quiet, he would eject her from the interviewing room.

As the Inspector interviewed Mike, Mrs. Naidoo reviewed the Constable’s report and noted that there was nothing entered in the blanks for Mr. Lemoen’s driving licence number. Near the end of the interview, Mrs. Naidoo spoke up again, asking the Inspector the reason that Mr. Lemoen’s driving licence number was missing. The Inspector told her that Mr. Lemoen did not have his license on him at the time of the collision, that his mother had brought it to him later, and that the number had not yet been entered. Mrs. Naidoo then asked if the police had taken any photographs of the accident scene, as she and Mike would like copies of them along with a complete copy of the police file. When the Inspector said no photos had been taken at the scene, which meant that the police had no record of Mr. Lemoen’s skidmarks, as they not appear in the Constable’s drawing of the scene, Mike handed the Inspector a copy of the photos he and his wife had taken the afternoon of the collision. The Inspector took them and placed them into the file. Before leaving the police station, Mike laid a charge of Crimen Injuria against the Lemoens for having repeatedly called him a c**t and a k****r, citing Mr. Visser as a witness.

Next: There's a reason the Road Accident Fund is broke...

The Road Accident Fund: where has all the money gone? RAF I

This is a true story. The names and certain identifying information have been changed…not to protect anyone’s privacy, mind you, but to prevent punitive, frivolous litigation…no joke! By the time you reach the end of this story, you’ll understand.

Driver #1
Name: Paul Lemoen
Age: Appx 44
Car: Nissan
Travel Direction: North

Driver #2
Name: Mike Naidoo
Age: Appx 32
Car: Honda
Travel Direction: East

Eye witness
Name: Reggie Visser
Age: Appx 45
Car: Red bakkie (small pickup)
Travel Direction: Parked at side of road

In the 1980s-1990s there lived a physician in an upmarket sea-facing section of Cape Town. He kept both his surgery and his home in this very sought-after, very expensive, very scenic area. Although the entire makeup of the good doctor’s family is unknown, he had at least two sons. One, Thomas, grew up to become a famous South African sports figure, unfortunately rumoured to be involved in at least one high-profile sports scandal, and believed to have been involved certain questionable…but profitable…dealings. The other, Paul, emigrated to the UK and by 2002, after having held several directorships and a position as Corporate Secretary, had become the Finance Director of one of the UK’s largest companies specializing in sports-related goods and services. A Google search on his name indicates that he may well be a member of the Board of Trustees for a major UK charity, one that had nearly £2,5 million in income for its 2005/2006 fiscal year. Clearly, the good doctor’s sons grew to become men of substance…and his son Paul has established deep roots in the UK.

In February of 2005, Paul Lemoen and his family were in Cape Town on holiday. Shortly after Valentine’s Day, Paul and his wife decided to take their kids up the coast and they borrowed his mother’s car for the journey. About 45 minutes north of Dr. Lemoen’s Cape Town residence, Paul was rapidly approaching a T-intersection where Mike Naidoo had stopped at the stop sign before beginning to make a right turn across the northbound lane and head south on the same well-paved highway that the Lemoens were travelling north on.

Parked at the side of the road was Reggie Visser, a contractor who had an appointment at the company where Naidoo worked. He had travelled from the southern Cape Town suburbs and was early for his appointment. Knowing that Mike’s employer had very strict security regarding entrance to the job site, Mr. Visser had parked his red bakkie on the side of the highway, off the verge (paved shoulder), and sat chatting with his wife, whiling away time until the hour of his appointment arrived. As Mike Naidoo pulled his car up to the stop sign, Mr. Visser took specific notice of it, since it was a sleek, stylish sports model with the top down. Mr. Visser noted the car came to a complete halt, for it gave him extra time to admire the pretty little silver car and to comment to his wife “Look at that beautiful car!”

As Mike Naidoo crept forward to begin his turn across the northbound lane, both Mike and Mr. Visser heard the sound of a car hooting. Mr. Visser’s first reaction was to look in his rear view mirror, where he saw Mr. Lemoen’s white Nissan approaching at a high rate of speed. He looked back to Mike’s car and saw that Mike’s response to the hooting was to stop his car. Mr. Visser then took a quick look at his surroundings, noting that there were no other cars on the road, neither north- nor southbound, and then, before he could take note of anything else, Mr. Lemoen’s car’s tyres began to screech…and then the white Nissan impacted the silver Honda, sending the it sliding into a spin.

When the Honda came to a stop, spun more than 200 degrees to the left, the right front wheel and tyre were missing. Once the car came to a halt, Mike undid his seatbelt and with not even checking his own condition, ran immediately to the stopped Nissan and inquired as to the condition of the occupants. Mr. Visser, a coloured man, had already exited his vehicle and was en route to the stopped Nissan when he heard the occupants of the white Nissan begin to hurl invective at Mike, calling him names that qualify in this day and age as “hate speech.” Mr. Visser turned away from the white Nissan and approached Mike, who had retreated from the Lemoens’ verbal onslaught, to inquire as to his condition.

Within seconds of the collision, Mike had called the police and then his insurance company to request an ambulance. The woman in Mr. Lemoen’s car was bleeding from a cut on her forehead, a cut that, according to Mr. Visser, had not prevented her from exiting the vehicle and soundly cursing at Mike, using smutty and racially offensive language. Mike and Mr. Visser, both non-white gentlemen, recoiled from the offensive language, Mike to call his wife and Mr. Visser to join his wife in the red bakkie.

The woman in Mr. Lemoen’s car returned to the front seat. Mike, unaware that even the smallest forehead or scalp wounds usually bleed profusely, was alarmed at her bleeding, but fearful of his safety after how the Lemoens had addressed him, remained with his car. Soon the emergency vehicles arrived and, immediately behind them, Mike’s wife.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day!

Today is Valentine’s Day.

So far my day has consisted of sleeping late, getting a pretty pair of yellow gold hoop earrings with tiny white gold filigreed hearts suspended in them, brunch at my favourite café, shoe shopping (nope…didn’t find any I liked), and a trip to the spa where both Hubby and I had a massage and champagne in the Jacuzzi. While all this has been going on, the workmen are busy demolishing my kitchen and putting in some new cupboards, sink, taps, and granite tops. This evening we have reservations at the Five Flies…a Cape Town institution and a restaurant that most certainly deserves its 5-star rating. Life is good…and my husband is a superstar!

On the other side of the coin, however, today I have also endured such dismal service that we left less than a 10% tip (we usually tip much better than that, been nearly run down by people who think their sense of urgency gives them a right to be rude to others who are proceeding at a merely normal pace, got half the spa treatment hubby had planned because somebody wrote down the wrong package and therefore didn’t book enough time for us (waaaah! no pedicure!), and I watched a completely uncontrolled two year old dash through the café, ignoring his mother’s whiney, wimpy pleas for him to return to her side, and cringed when he crashed into the side of a server who was carrying two plates of hot food…thank goodness she was nimble, or she would have spilled scalding soup all over that kid!

I’m trying very hard to focus on the positive aspects of the day, but today seems to be an extension of yesterday’s equally frustrating experiences in having to deal with the inexplicable idiocy of others. Woolies, for some odd reason, has chosen to display racks of clothing in the middle of the walkways, reducing space to barely one person wide. So, as I passed by one of these racks and neared the end, why did this woman with a trolley full of food look me straight in the eye and enter the same narrow corridor I am in? Does she think she can pass right through me? Does she think I can step aside (and through a glass display case) to allow her to pass? Or maybe she thinks I will walk backwards to the end of the rack of clothes, allow her to pass, and then make another assault on the inner sanctum? (not bloody likely!) I stood my ground, looked her directly in the eye, and eventually she backed her trolley out (a distance of a meter or less) and permitted me to exit that very narrow space that she should not have entered until I had exited.

Why do people behave like this? Why did a woman try to crowd onto the lift yesterday when it was clear that at least two people (one with a trolley) wanted to get off? Just how much IQ is necessary to comprehend that if you let someone out of a confined space, there will be more space for you to get in?

Then there are people who seem to think they are being put upon when you expect them to do their job. I’m sorry, but when I tell a waiter I need “a few more minutes” to peruse a menu (because he just gave it to me 37.6 seconds ago), I don’t mean the guy should go on a hike through the Andes before he gets back to me to take my order! And what is with having to hoist a flag and wave it vigorously in order to get your bill? And why, why, why do so few waiters bother to bring you a pen with your credit card slip? Am I supposed to prick my finger with the dirty table knife he neglected to clear away and sign it in blood??

It’s been a stressful couple of days, I’m afraid. I am currently collecting a subscription (weekly issues) from CNA, but they cannot seem to keep their stories/rules straight. First they told me it was every two weeks, and they were sending back my every second issue because I wasn’t coming to collect them. Then, when I back ordered the missing issues, they told me they would call me when they came in…which they did not…which meant some of them went missing. Then they put up a rule (and posted it on the wall) that they would keep the issue for two weeks, then return it to stock. HAH! I went in yesterday (having missed one…and only one…week due to having houseguests) and guess what? They had returned last week’s issue and now I have to backorder it…and wait four to six weeks for it! (Interestingly, the two-week sign is missing from the wall now.) This, after having just caught up and waiting twelve weeks for an issue I missed when I was laid up with my sprained ankle. They have done this to me so many times, I’m just about ready to give up the subscription and assuage my collecting fever some other way.

Still steaming about CNA and hungry (bad combination…my normally long fuse shortens as my blood sugar drops), I decided to soothe my grumpy soul with the ultimate balm…shoe shopping. Since I am currently looking for a pair of simple black leather shoes with mid-height heels, suitable for wearing with a skirted suit, my first thought was Green Cross. My grumpy-meter spiked several points when we found them closed for stock taking in the middle of the evening shopping hours. Canal Walk was packed…crowds surging in and out of stores like shoals of fish swooping through the water…and some dimbulb decides to close the store for inventory? What’s wrong with doing it when the mall is quiet (i.e., while most of the shoppers are at their own jobs?)…what’s wrong with doing it after hours? Why close early while swarms of shoppers…people who just might spend a wad of cash in your store (I spent more than R900 the last time I was in there!)…are jamming the mall?

So, today I’m trying block out the irritations and stresses that seem to be finding me lately like a heat-seeking missile and to focus on Valentine’s Day…the brunch was tasty, even if I did have to wait nearly an hour for it because the waiter’s mind (and body) were missing in action. And while the spa visit wasn’t entirely what we had anticipated, my masseuse was really, really skilled and my back feels more like rubber than wood now! The mess in my kitchen…well, I’ve chose to view it as the harbinger of better things…you can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg, and you can’t transform a kitchen full of water-damaged cupboards and rotting melamine tops into a showplace with a Franke sink and taps and beautiful Rustenberg granite tops without first making one helluva mess!

And my new earrings are beautiful and match a heart-shaped silver filigree necklace Hubby gave me a few years back…and he actually took the whole day off from work in order to spend time with me today…

Yup…the day isn’t over yet, but I’ve no doubt that, on balance, it’s gonna be a terrific day and tonight I’ll climb into my bed with yet another smile on my face…and in my heart.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Coffee mugs and global commerce...

My husband really likes his coffee. So much so that, as a Christmas gift from me, he picked out one of those whiz-bang super-duper fancy-schmancy coffee machines that, if it had a set of wings, surely it could fly!

Six weeks after Christmas he seems happy with his coffee maker. He’s a mechanical engineer, after all, and he seems to be rather pleased with his new toy, fiddling with this control or that, visiting all manner of specialty coffee shops, buying tiny sample bags of this exotic coffee or that, all for trying out in his new…it grinds its own beans! machine.

One of the more interesting side effects of his new coffee obsession is his attention to coffee cups and mugs. Like most people, we have an eclectic collection of odd mugs, mostly broken sets, but a few strange souvenir mugs from various venues. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, some tall and narrow, some short and stout, all of them holding differing amounts of liquid. Hubby likes a big cup of coffee, but one of the unfortunate things about his fancy-schmancy coffee machine is that, while the spout height is adjustable, it is only adjustable to accommodate mugs of the short, shorter, shortest variety. A tall mug that will accommodate a man-sized serving of coffee just will not fit. Alas, my man’s hero-sized Tigger mug from Disneyland has had to be shelved!

So, the other day we were wandering through our local Pick ‘n’ Pay (South Africa’s answer to Safeway, for American readers) and happened upon some mugs that seemed to be the answer to his prayers…just tall enough to slip under the spout and wide enough…in a pleasingly tapered shape…to accommodate a healthy helping of coffee. And, to make them downright serendipitous, they were blue and white, which is the colour scheme of my kitchen accessories. We bought four, but only after searching through a dozen or more to find four relatively perfect ones…the rest having nicks, chips, kiln-marks, sloppy paint, or other such imperfections.

Hubby was overjoyed…we got home and he slipped one under the coffee machine’s spout and it was one of those millimetre-close fits. “Super,” I said. “Give me the mugs and I’ll wash them for you and you can make yourself a cup of coffee.”

Did I mention that they cost less than R7 each…less than a dollar? A peculiarly low price, considering that they seemed to be well made out of quality materials. They had a soft matte glaze that I recognized from more high-end crockery in the States, and while they were obviously seconds, they were nicely designed and made. It hadn’t seemed particularly odd in the store…just a really good buy…but at the sink I had to give them a second thought. The bottom of each mug was covered with a bar coded paper sticker and as I removed the first one I saw the words “The Cellar.” Odd, I thought, continuing to work the sticker off…wasn’t “The Cellar” the name Macy’s uses for its housewares section (which is ordinarily larger than an entire Boardman’s store and more fully stocked with higher quality merchandise)?

I continued to scrub at the sticker until it finally rolled up into a little gummy ball in my fingers and what did I find beneath it? “Made in China Expressly for Macy’s”! I let out a hoot of laughter, distracting Hubby from communing with his Beautiful Machine. “Macy’s!” I crowed. “These were made for Macy’s!” He looked momentarily non-plussed, then wondered aloud if Macy’s knew that merchandise made expressly for them was being sold by other retailers. Ordinarily, when seconds of this nature are released through other outlets, the identifying labels/marks are removed or obliterated…there should have been a big blob of black paint obscuring Macy’s name before this went on the shelf.

Other questions are brought to bear? Did the Chinese manufacturer have Macy’s permission to wholesale Macy’s QC rejects to other vendors? Did the Pick ‘n’ Pay buyer recognize that s/he may have been buying goods that the commissioning retailer may have ordered destroyed (a common practice for seconds in the ceramics industry)? Does Macy’s know that substandard merchandise bearing its name is being sold overseas? Is Macy’s earning anything from the sales of its goods here in South Africa?

My husband is happy with his new mugs, but this whole thing brings up some hard questions for me in relation to South Africa’s newest trading ventures with China. Will my next trip to America find me looking at South African goods that the commissioning manufacturer never intended for sale in the US…and for which he receives no earnings? Somehow, I don’t think that’s such a far-fetched idea anymore.

Monday, February 12, 2007

MWeb comments

My MWeb blog can't seem to get my comments to me in such a way that I can identify the commentator or his/her blog name. So, this is a space for you to just click comment and make your comments on the MWeb blog until (and if) Mweb ever gets it fixed.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Trees, SUVs and Chainsaws what do they have in common, trees, SUVs and chainsaws?

I couldn't have answered that question either until Thursday of this past week rolled around. Hubby, who has been rather jaunty since his promotion last November, cheerily ambled into our newly air-conditioned bedroom on Thursday afternoon and smilingly inquired of me "Did you know that a tree limb fell on your car?"

Given his cheerful and smiling disposition, it was clear that he was pulling my leg. I think I answered him with something like "Uh huh, yeah, right," and went right back to my computer. But he persisted. "No, really, come see," he urged. But I know his puckish sense of humour, so I naturally assumed that he actually wanted me to "discover" something new or amusing that he brought home...and so I went along with him and padded barefoot behind him out to the garage.

Imagine my surprise when he opened the garage door and in the driveway I saw a huge tree limb, with all its associated leaves, twigs, branches, bits and bobs, astraddle the bonnet of my Mercedes ML! He was not kidding!

Upon examination (after my heart was returned to its normal position in my chest), it wasn't as bad as it looked. Although the entire bonnet was buried under a heap of green, the limb hadn't fully separated from the tree and it was tenuously suspended just inches above the paint. Slowly, carefully, Hubby backed the car down the driveway until it had cleared the Limb of Damocles. Miraculously, the car was unscathed, but now we were faced with the problem of getting a humungous tree limb down without squashing anybody or sending someone into heatstroke...our little bow saw was going to take a lot of sweat to get through those broken limbs.

So today we took ourselves off to De La Rey, Cape Town's answer to Home Depot or Lowe's, and ended up bringing home a 2000W Ryobi electric chain saw. A rather pricey alternative to the bow saw, to be sure, but it cut through those tree limbs like a hot knife through butter. Hubby, an engineer and not one of those super-macho lumberjack wanna-be types, seemed to enjoy the experience tremendously. Bzzzzzzzzzzt! Before I knew it, the offending limbs were in the driveway and in only a few minutes more, those limbs were cut into manageable pieces and stowed away. Only a dearth of chain oil slowed his hack and slash enjoyment of his new toy.

Next Saturday promises to be an interesting day. By then Hubby will have secured a supply of chain oil and it's a sure bet that no woody plant in either the front or the back garden will be safe!