Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sweet Violet braves the public spaces…

Hubby and I like to eat Sunday breakfast out. One of our favourite places is Beanz, a little coffee shop just down the road from us in the Table View Mall. The breakfasts are generous, well priced, well-prepared and the service is usually quite good. A couple of weeks ago we had breakfast there and, with our bill, there was a little gift: a keychain doohickey that beeps and flashes a light when you whistle. I eagerly seized on it because, as Thandiswe well knows, I am always misplacing my keys…particularly in my handbag.

Within 24 hours, I put the gadget to use and it worked like a charm. But when Hubby and I went out and he was the driver, we discovered a peculiarity of the thing…it beeps constantly around him! It became so annoying that I moved it to the secondary part of the key ring where it could be detached and stowed either in my bag or in the car’s cubby while he was driving.

Today it was my turn to drive for the first time in nearly a week, as Hubby is back at work. Without thinking, I put the key in the ignition, started the car and drove away…with the beeper still on the key ring. I went to a couple of places, including the mall, and the only time the thing beeped was when I opened my purse and whistled into it. It beeped and flashed and I quickly located my keys so I could make the journey home. Not once did it beep out of turn, despite its nearly non-stop racket when Hubby is around. I’d love to know what that is all about…a machine’s natural affinity for an engineer, perhaps?

Despite his unfortunate experiences with the key beeper, Hubby likes gadgets. But he’s difficult to buy for, as he either has all the gadgets he likes or the gadget he wants is out of my price range. He also likes watches, but those are totally out of the question: he has Patek Phillipe taste and I have a Timex budget. So I determined to find him a gadget he would like in a price I could pony up and found just the thing at our local computer store…a laptop lapdesk, complete with fan, adjustable tray, and carry handle. Hubby likes to use his laptop on the bed, but always ends up in some kind of distorted position that ultimately puts a strain on his neck and shoulders. I figured this thing would do the trick. It was about ten days before Christmas and I suspected the store’s stock would deplete quickly, so I grabbed one.

Well, mostly I was right. He opened the package and when he saw the picture on the box, his eyes lit up. “Cool!” he said, and pulled the box open. Unfortunately, the unit was broken…the first thing that came out of the box was an irregularly-shaped shard of plastic with fracture marks on the edges. When he got it out of the box, the unit was in two pieces, the top broken away from the bottom. We set it aside to return on the weekend.

Unlike in America, the day after Christmas is a holiday…Boxing Day. When we went out that morning to get a couple of McDonald’s Egg McMuffins and found the McD’s closed, we just went home and stayed there, figuring bigger fish, like the malls, would be closed as well. To allow the after-Christmas shoppers to have their wild way with the mall on Saturday, we waited until Sunday to return the broken lapdesk. Imagine our surprise when the salesman told us they had a 7-day return policy and the store had made no exceptions for Christmas shoppers! I don’t know if the scowl on my face made a difference, but the salesman took my receipt and the broken merchandise back to speak to the manager. He returned with both good and bad news: the manager was making an exception to the 7-day rule, but they were out of stock. Another salesman, the one who had assisted me when I purchased the item, took the initiative to get on the computer and check stock throughout their network of store s…the computer network linking the stores was down. So, he then picked up the phone and called the store in the biggest mall in our area, Canal Walk, and confirmed they had four units in stock and we could go there to make our exchange. I was impressed both the store’s manager, Lance, and the salesman who put such effort into making sure we got what we paid for with minimum of fuss. The next time I need something computerish, Incredible Connection at Bayside will be my first stop.

But, yesterday, we had to go to Canal Walk to make our exchange and, since it was Sunday, we decided to have breakfast there. South Africa has a chain of family restaurants called Spur, pretty much a steak and burgers place, with a rather eclectic Native American theme. They also serve breakfast, and our breakfast experiences at the various Spurs we’ve sampled have been fine. Not spectacular, mind you, but unworthy of any negative remark. We expected, of course, nothing less.

*Sigh.* When will I learn to trust my gut?

The greeter turned us over to a young woman who couldn’t find the menus. It was 10:30 am, they had been open for an hour and a half, and the hostess couldn’t find the breakfast menus…a red flag I should have heeded.

Someone else found the menus, handed them off to here, and we found ourselves escorted to a spacious booth and left with our breakfast menus. The restaurant was nearly empty. In fact, in the non-smoking section where we were seated, there were only two other occupied tables, one of which was nearly done with their meal. There were more employees than patrons. So why were we ignored for fifteen minutes? Waitron after waitron walked past our table, oblivious to our closed menus. These were not busy servers with their hands full, these were servers sauntering empty-handed past us without a flicker of recognition of the universal signal that the patrons are ready to order: the menus are closed and pushed to the edge of the table.

Finally, I got up and went to the front of the restaurant where half a dozen employees milled about, joking and laughing. “Can I get someone to take our order?” I asked sharply.

A young man in a red shirt followed me and took our order. Because neither of us like our eggs frazzled to a crisp around the edges, we ordered our eggs scrambled. Hubby ordered a medium-rare steak and pork sausage with his eggs. The drinks arrived promptly, served by the waitron who should have taken our order…no excuse for his failure to take our order was proffered. The restaurant began to fill up and we waited for our food while other people, who came in later than us, got served and we still waited.

Finally our server came with our plates, only to put in front of us the strangest excuse for scrambled eggs I have ever seen in my life: They look like they had been partly poached and then chopped up with a knife and fork! At the look of incredulity on both our faces, the waitron offered that they had been prepared in a microwave, but he could take them back for proper scrambled eggs, if we would like. I was speechless…Hubby sent them back. Within minutes our table was visited by a section manager, a pleasant young man named Tiaan who apologized for the problem and assured us that the proper eggs were being prepared.

All around us, people were receiving plates of food while we waited…and waited…and waited. Hubby checked his watch and looked up at me, “Shall we leave?” he asked. “And go someplace else?”

We were there forty minutes by the time our plates finally returned. The waitron placed them in front of us and I was utterly shocked! The eggs…duly scrambled…were brown and glistening with grease. Overcooked yellow-brown crumbles are scattered around the plate, leading my eye to the withered mushrooms, shrivelled grilled tomato slice, and warmed-over French fries. Hubby’s plate fares no better: his mushrooms and tomato match my own, his sausages are dry and shrunken, his medium rare steak dry and well done. Even the toast is amazingly below par: more warm bread than toast.

By this time we were starving and ate enough to assuage our hunger: Hubby is diabetic and it was well past time for him to eat. I held the larger bits of egg in my fork to allow the grease to drip off them and ate the edible part of the bacon, leaving everything else on the plate. Hubby pretty much followed suit, his steak too chewy to finish, his mushrooms rubbery and overdone. Obviously, the kitchen had taken so long to prepare the eggs that the rest of our meal had gone cold and, rather than replace the food, it was microwaved to death and then brought to us at the table.

Not one to mince words, when the waitron came back to check on us and asked how the meal was, I told the truth: “I’ve been eating in Spur restaurants for more than five years,” I told him. “And, hands down, this is the worst meal I have ever had at a Spur.” I then proceeded to show him what was wrong with the food, after which he left and returned with the section manager, who received the same demonstration of inferior product. When my husband forked up a piece of steak and showed him a cross-section, grey all the way through, the man had the good grace to look chagrined: he knew the order had been for medium-rare.

Unlike another restaurant in which we had dismal service, however, Spur knows how to deal with an unhappy customer. The section manager acknowledged that the food was substandard, validating our disappointment. He asked what he could do to make it better and we gave him some advice regarding service: no ignoring a table that has not yet ordered; no idle waitrons sailing past occupied but unattended tables; plates returned to the kitchen go to the head of the prep line, customers are kept informed when there is a delay; waitrons check the plates before delivering to the table so the patron isn’t the one who discovers the kitchen’s errors. Service, we told him, is what you have to sell…it is what will set you apart from the competition, particularly in a tough economy when your competitors are sharpening up their own game plans. Eating out is a luxury, particularly for families with kids, and if the restaurant next door is serving similar food at a similar price, you’d better have something extra up your sleeve, like prompt, cheerful service, to get that increasingly rare bit of disposable income.

A sharp fellow, Tiaan nodded his acknowledgement and asked again if there was anything further he could do for us. Hubby asked for the bill and Tiaan took away our half-finished plates…the food really was so bad that we barely ate. When the bill came, however, it was evident that Tiaan wished to retain us as customers: we were not charged for the awful food…only the drinks were on the bill.

This is as it should be: The management acknowledged the service was poor…since when should a customer have to come up to the front desk and ask for someone to take their order?...and validated our experience. The food really was poor, and management acknowledged that as well. No defensiveness or attempts to lay blame on the customer, just an honest acknowledgement of the truth. They apologized and allowed us to give some suggestions for improvement. And, rather than offer us vouchers for a percentage off another meal, they simply did the right thing: the food was terrible and they didn’t charge us for it.

Spur is one of those places where you go when you want burgers or ribs or an assembly-line steak. We’ve eaten there often over the past five years and will continue to do so. But we’ll probably stick to lunch and dinner there…it’s beginning to look like Beanz is the only place in Cape Town capable of preparing eggs properly.

The holidays pretty much over, it seems the normal quotient of idiocy is reasserting itself in the shops. I went to the food section at Woolies the other day…our single premium food chain in South Africa…and found myself blocked in an aisle by a six-year old who was guarding the two hand baskets of food at her feet. She stood in the aisle, the baskets on either side of her creating a barricade that extended full across half the aisle. People with trolleys (shopping carts) had to stop and let oncoming traffic by before they could proceed. I couldn’t figure out why that child was there and where her mother was and why the management hadn’t moved her. Don’t people in this country know about kidnappers?

As I wended my way through the aisles, picking up this little goodie and that, I saw a woman, hands full of packets, striding rapidly in my direction. I turned a corner just in time to see her approach that child and drop the armload of groceries in the baskets, then turn around and head back into the aisles! WTH? Has no one told her about wheeled trolleys she can take into the aisles with her? When it comes to aisles being blocked, I definitely prefer the rolling barricade of a temporarily abandoned trolley that I can push away from a display I want to browse over a pair of unmoving baskets and their six-year-old sentinel.

She was ahead of me in the queue, baskets overflowing and straining the muscles in her arms and shoulders as she hefted them to move them along. There were plenty of trolleys…it wasn’t a matter of having no choice…but I still wonder at the choice to strain her back and shoulders with the overloaded baskets, to block aisles to other patrons must go single file around her hoard, and leave a tiny little girl alone in a busy store, vulnerable to the predators we all know are out there.

So, it is now New Year’s Eve and Sally’s having a braai (BBQ) and we are invited. We’ll fete the new year with braai and bubbly and the next time you hear from me, it will be 2009!

Happy New Year to you all!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

What a lovely Christmas Day

Christmas has come and Christmas has gone, and we are left with the memories of yet another year spent in the pleasant company of friends, eating, drinking, and making merry.

Turkeys are making their way into the South African consciousness for holiday fare (apparently gammon…ham…is the traditional Christmas dinner centrepiece here) and for the first time in five years I was able to score a turkey of respectable size (15 lbs) for our feast. I saw a bin of frozen turkeys at the market and instantly recognized the brand from its distinctive wrappings: Jennie-O. American turkey in a South African supermarket? Yay!! I grabbed the biggest one I could find and buggered off before anyone could take it away from me!

Finding cranberry sauce was a task and a half! The markets that normally carry this rare delicacy were sold out and it was only by dint of diligence that my husband found some jars of a South African version of the stuff displayed in a refrigerated case in the meat department. So, armed with a big American turkey and a couple of little jars of cranberry jam, I began my preparations.

Thandiswe is on holiday in the Transkei, visiting her family, so my dear friend Linda organized some household help for me. The day before Christmas Linda’s aunt, Cynthia, came in to clean and help with the prep for the Big Dinner. We peeled and chopped and cut and sliced and minced and mashed our way into a fridge full of little plastic containers of ingredients. By Christmas morning, all I had to do was assemble everything and apply heat.

My first Christmas in South Africa was not so easy. I searched for a week for a turkey…not a frozen bird in sight…and eventually settled on a 5kg (11 lb…about half the size I usually prepared in the States) fresh bird from a local market. The neck and back skin had been trimmed away, leaving me no way to stuff the neck cavity and no way to cover the stuffing in the body. The skin was covered with little black pinfeathers that had been been pulled nor singed…I spent hours with tweezers and a barbeque lighter just getting the bird ready to stuff! This year, however, was a snap: I read the labels on the plastic wrapping and came away quite chuffed: this was an American turkey, bred, hatched, reared, butchered and packaged just the way I was familiar with. Ripping open the package I found the wire leg clamps and…wonder of wonders!...a red and white plastic pop-up timer already embedded in the breast! I was ecstatic!

While not as large as the 24 pounders I had so often prepared in the States, this was a respectable sized bird and possessed of all the wiliness common to frozen turkeys. It was slick, slippery, and awkwardly built, and getting it to hold still while I stuffed bread seasoned with herbs, onion and celery up its backside was no small feat. I finally corralled the beast in my lasagne pan and rammed the dressing home, clamping the legs back together to keep it from spilling out. I popped it into the turkey roaster that I had carried all the way from California with me and shoved it into the oven to roast.

When the guests arrived, the bird was already out of the oven and resting, and I had the potatoes on the stove. I am ever amazed and the differences in familiar things here: as I collected the utensils for mashing said potatoes, my friend Sally, a cook in her own right…asked me what on earth I had the hand mixer out for. “Potatoes,” I told her. “I am making mashed potatoes.” She continued to look confused.

Into the bowl I tossed a glop of butter, a small container of smooth cottage cheese (soft cream cheese, for Americans) and on top I poured the hot potatoes. I opened the milk carton and put it next to the bowl, and gave the whole bowl a squash with the hand potato masher. Once each potato piece had been broken up, I turned on the mixer and began to whip the potatoes, adding milk as necessary for consistency, while Sally stood there watching me intently. Until that very moment, I had no idea that South Africans didn’t use a mixer to whip up mashed potatoes!

Eventually the meal went on the table, with Sally’s deft hand making the gravy. I demonstrated the use of cranberry sauce with the turkey meat, and passed around the mashed potatoes. The look on Sally’s face was priceless when she took the first bite and she polished off her serving pronouncing them the best she had ever eaten. I haven’t yet told her how much better they are with some roasted garlic added!

We ate at about four and it was after ten by the time we had our house back. Sally and I and her step mother spent a couple of hours in the kitchen washing up, but we ended up leaving a pile for poor Cynthia, who had promised to come back on Friday to help me clean up. It was the kind of day you look back on fondly, thinking about the wonderful food, the looks on the faces of the guests when they beheld their first golden roasted turkey and appreciatively tucked into the succulent flesh. It was the kind of day that stays in mind, lively conversation, fascinating stories, the house ringing with laughter and good cheer.

It was a terrific day, shared with wonderful friends, that left us pleasantly tired and ready to toddle off to bed, our tummies and hearts full.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I don't dream about a White Christmas...

I don’t like snow.

It wasn’t always like that, but after having spent most of my winters in sunny Southern California, moving to a snowy clime was a rather radical change for me.

I was 19 when I moved to the greater Boston area and I arrived on a sultry, stormy summer’s day…between the humidity and the no-see-ums, a particularly odious species of nearly microscopic biting fly...I was not terribly impressed. But soon the weather cooled and I was faced with one of the most spectacular autumn landscapes I had ever seen in my life. I was enthralled, I was enchanted…I was impressed!

Unfortunately, the weather just couldn’t quit while it was ahead and those snappy, crisp autumn days segued into a bitter winter chill that settled into my bones and simply would not leave. No amount of layering, no wrapping in blankets, no degree of heat from the furnace could give me comfort, I simply huddled and shivered and prayed for deliverance. Paradoxically I was, at the same time, looking forward to my first white Christmas. It didn’t snow in San Diego…you had to go up to the Laguna Mountains for that…and our rare Christmas trips to Oregon hadn’t netted any snow that I could recall.

And so, at 19, while cursing the cold that left my fingers fumbly and my feet numb, I would still peer out the window every morning hoping to see that pristine blanket of snow heralding the beginning of the holiday season. And every morning I would find myself greeted by the depressingly brown landscape of dead lawns, barren flowerbeds, and naked trees. It was disheartening.

We lived in a government housing project out on a little spit of land that was surrounded by water. It was nearly an island, with nothing but a narrow two-lane causeway connecting us to the mainland. It was too cold to go for a walk or a bike ride or take the children out, there were no shops, no activities, not even a bus to take me to town. There was nothing to do all day except watch TV, clean the already immaculate little apartment, and occasionally glance out the window and past the dull brown landscape to the flat grey water of our little inlet.

Thanksgiving came and went, and we spent it with my in-laws, New Englanders to the core. On days when the sun was out and the winds did not whip frostily across the water, I would try to take the kids out for a little walk to the playground, the baby snuggled into his bunting and tucked securely into his carriage, my daughter toddling precariously in her rose-coloured hand-me-down snowsuit, looking for all the world like a miniature pink Michelin Man.

Christmas morning finally came and I was in a frenzy. We had a command performance with my formidable mother-in-law at noon, and she was a stickler for punctuality. With two kids to get ready, and needing to carve out enough time for myself so that she could not have anything to further sharpen her tongue on, I barely glanced in the mirror, let alone out the window. Our presents were already bagged and ready to carry with us to Braintree, but while my husband slept in, I had two little ones to bathe and dress and then myself to prepare. It wasn’t my daughter started squealing that I went out to the front door, looked through the storm door, and was greeted with a pristine panorama of white that blanketed the neighbourhood up to the tops of the car tyres. It was fabulous! Christmas morning and a fresh snowfall…I was entranced.

Eagerly I grabbed my boots and coat and reached for the storm door handle, only to find the door frozen shut! Apparently the blowing wind had stacked snow up against my front door and blown it into the cracks around the door and then it all froze solid. I was not amused…how was I going to get out there and make a snowman—my first—if I couldn’t get the blasted door open? Weighing my options, I finally decided to wake my husband up. He was going to have to get the door open sooner or later if we were going to make it to his mother’s house by noon, so now was as good a time as any.

He was not amused. While I was focussed on getting the door open so I could play in the snow, he immediately assessed the situation as being more dour than I had realized.

“Plow hasn’t been by,” he grunted in typically truncated New England fashion. “Gonna have a helluva time getting the car out before the plow comes.”

I nodded, not immediately realizing the ramifications of what he was saying…I just wanted him to get the damned door open so I could go out and play! An unspoiled mantle of snow stretched from the front door out to the car, the ugly desiccated lawn covered over with glittery white, and the naked trees now had an ethereal coating of ice on their branches. The dry barren earth of yesterday had been transformed into a breathtaking fairyland and I wanted access to it!

Finally, he got the door open and with a whoop of joy I rushed out onto the front stoop, a cement pad with three steps leading down to the sidewalk. The snow had developed a hard crust in the cold morning hours and so I was able to run on top of it for a few yards before one foot punched through the shell and I plummeted…with just one leg, mind you…down into the soft wet snow beneath. I was stuck.

My husband, knowing what was ahead of him, had gone back into the house to get dressed. I hollered and flailed about for a bit, eventually extricating myself from the hole I had made, but now sweaty inside my woollies. And I had snow inside my boots…or I should say, ice water. I carefully picked my way back to the house, only to be met with an exceedingly unhappy husband, dressed and wrapped like a mummy, who muttered the single word “Coffee” as he snatched the snow shovel from the front closet and headed outside.

He had a fearsome temper, so I put the coffee on before I stripped off my wet clothes. The water in my boots and my feet had equalized their temperatures by now, so I was stumbling around the house on numb stumps, and my hair was wet from sweat and exertion. I stripped down and put on my bathrobe and went to the window to watch my husband shovel a path from the front door to the curb, where the car was parked, our apartment having no garages or carports.

Suddenly, I realized what had my husband in such a bad mood…the road was invisible under the blanket of snow and the car was locked tightly into its place next to the curb. Not only was he going to have to dig a path to the car, and dig the car out, he was going to have to put tyre chains on the thing or we’d never get out of the projects and across that narrow causeway…it was Christmas day and we lived out in a low-income enclave…we weren’t likely to see a snow plough any time soon.

His father and uncle worked for the DPW—Department of Public Works—and a surreptitiously placed phone call worked wonders. As my husband, fuelled by caffeine and bile, dislodged and moved tons of snow, his uncle dispatched a snow plough to our neighbourhood. And, in a real life cliché, as the last few shovelfuls of snow freed the car from its icy imprisonment, the snow plough came around the bend and scraped the roadway clean, depositing the gathered snow in a sinuous, freezing hillock parallel to its path…and burying every car parked at the curb, including the one my husband had just dug out. I made another pot of coffee and hurried to make a hot breakfast, knowing he was going to have to start all over again.

His mother was not happy that we were going to be late. “You’ve known for weeks what time you had to be here!” she barked into the phone. “Why must everything always be last minute with you?” Who knew that my order for a white Christmas was going to be filled with such thoroughness and alacrity?

Before long my husband came back into the house, his face set in a grim line. “Is the car dug out?” I asked with false cheer, shushing the toddler and jiggling the fussy baby. “Shall I get the kids ready to go?”

He grunted and grabbed the coffee pot. “Undercarriage is frozen to the street,” he muttered, wrapping his reddened hands around the hot mug. It seems that the wind from our grey little bay had blown snow under the car and, when the temperatures dropped in the early morning, it had formed a crust of ice like the one I had broken through, only this crust of ice was a solid chunk linking the undercarriage of the car to the pavement below. He went next door to borrow tools and resumed his dismal, freezing endeavours.

Time passed and, with the exception of regular trips to the house for coffee, it was hours before he came in to say the car was finally freed. I was afraid to tell him how many times his mother had called, haranguing us…well, ME, in particular…for our lack of foresight and planning and giving me a blow-by-blow account of the ruination of her Christmas dinner.

As I dressed the kids, he went out to warm up the car, only to return minutes later, red-faced with frustration and suppressed rage. The door locks were frozen and he couldn’t’ get the car door open.

When he resolved that, the battery was low and couldn’t turn over the engine. A neighbour helped with that.

The windscreen wipers were frozen…not the blades frozen to the glass, mind you, but the joints where they pivoted, so we had no wipers.

Eventually, two hours late, we set off for his mother’s house where we were greeted with a furious mother-in-law and starving guests who had to wait even longer while my husband showered and cleaned up after his Herculean labours of the morning. His mother, so angry at our tardiness, focussed her fury on me and, when he finally presented himself, turned on him. His pent-up frustration over the morning’s events erupted and a fight of magnificent proportions ensued, culminating in my being commanded to pack up the kids and get into the car, we were going home.

Calmer heads eventually prevailed, but the day had been spoilt. The baby slept, my daughter…not yet two…was cross and wary, petulant and fussy, unlike her normal sunny self. Eventually the day ground to a close and, with a mountain of gifts for the children piled in the car, we wound our way through the slippery streets to home, only to find…

Someone had parked in the space my husband had worked for hours to clear, the parking space that had been ours every night for the three months we had lived in our little flat. Now, with a car full of presents and two sleepy children, we couldn’t park the car. As I juggled sleeping babies and trod ever-so-carefully on the now-icy walk, he went from door to door, banging noisily and rudely demanding to know whose car was parked in his hard-won space. I got the kids into the house and into their beds and skidded my way back to the car…standing in the middle of the road with the driver’s door open and the engine unpack it. Several trips…and not a few pratfalls on the icy walk…later, I had fetched the contents of the car into the house, but he was still making his rounds, spreading his own particular brand of Christmas cheer to the neighbours.

As I changed the sleeping baby, I heard the car door slam and the engine rev. I tucked the little one into his crib and began undressing my limp little girl, expecting my husband to walk through the door any minute, the parking problem resolved. It didn’t happen.

Hours later I stood alone on the icy front step looking across the shimmering road…and our now-empty parking space…to the moonlight playing on the dark waters of the bay and wondered how something so pure and magical as the season’s first snowfall could initiate a day so full of acrimony and ill-will. It was now after 10, the children soundly sleeping and I was alone on this, my first white Christmas. My husband was, I knew by this time, drowning his sorrows at one of the local taverns, oblivious to the pile of unopened gifts scattered beneath the tree…he had wanted to get home before full dark and so we had not opened them at his mother’s house…and to the slumbering babies, and to his wife who was standing shivering on an icy stoop, gazing at the new moon and asking herself just what was so wonderful about a white Christmas, after all.

I hate snow.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Remembrance of Christmas Past...

I began kindergarten in 1952, when the Korean War was still raging. My father and uncles being veterans of World War II, and living in former military dependants housing in a Navy town, awareness of war was as much a part of my life as my annoying little brother.

Christmas, of course, was a big deal. We Baby Boomers flooded the country, our births a joyful counterpoint to the years of war and killing, a celebration of new life and a return to normality. Gender roles were rigid and fixed and while our mothers may have chafed under the social pressure to be housewives instead of career women, we malleable little girls craved what the society…and television commercials…told us we wanted: Tiny Tears baby dolls that cried real tears, doll buggies, miniature kitchens and child-sized brooms and mops, little ironing boards with irons that actually got hot, and a host of other toys that were really nothing more than scaled-down training tools for the lives we were expected to lead.

We knew that Christmas was a time of giving and, being children, we were most concerned about who was giving what to us. But the tradition of helping the less fortunate…and the ever-present spectre of war…gave a different colour to giving. We dropped coins in the bell ringer’s kettle and thanked God every night in our bedtime prayers for our own prosperity but the reality of need did not directly touch us. Christmas to us was a glittery tree with brightly wrapped presents containing dolls, toys, games, and homemade sweets from Grandma. A packet of socks or underwear was unwelcome and even considered quite contrary to the entire concept of a joyful Christmas.

The awakening came, as many do, in school. One morning, well before the Christmas season was upon us, the teacher came to the head of the class with a stack of thin cardboards. She distributed them to us kids, one per child, and then demonstrated how to fold the scored cardboard into a box. The resultant boxes were the exact size and shape as a cigarette carton, and plain gray on the inside. The outside, however, was bright white with a vivid red cross and the words “American Red Cross” emblazoned across the top.

We were to fill these, we were told, with gifts for soldiers overseas, soldiers serving in Korea where it was bitterly cold in the winter. We didn’t understand…what could a bunch of first graders buy to make a soldier happy? Should we give them some of our Lincoln Logs or a colouring book? I was reluctant to part with my precious crayons, but if it would make some miserable soldier happy, I could be persuaded to do so. But then Mrs. Brown passed out a mimeographed sheet, still redolent of the solvents used to reproduce its purple print, a list of suggestions on it. Woolen socks. Bars of soap. Chocolate bars. Cigarettes. Dried fruit. Woolen scarfs. Medical creams and ointments. Vitamin tablets. The list went on and on and on, and I was disappointed that not one entertaining item was there for the soldiers…only what we kids considered to be “bad” presents.

We took the assembled boxed home with Mrs. Brown’s list and dutifully gave them to our parents. My mother, being the “me first!” type that she was, promptly discarded the box and list in the trash. My father, however, retrieved it and, after a disagreement with Mommy, went out for a while. When he returned, he gave me the box and inside was a brand new pair of woollen socks. He was a war veteran…he understood.

Over the next few days, more items found their way into the box…a large bar of soap, some pencils, books of matches, a couple of wash cloths…and then one evening Daddy suggested that maybe the soldier who got this box would like to have a Christmas card as well. It was months yet until Christmas, but I liked the idea. So, with my crayons and some blank newsprint, I set about to draw this soldier a Christmas tree. I also decorated the inside lid of the box.

When we brought our boxes back to school I discovered several other children had also made Christmas cards and Mrs. Brown liked the idea so much, she gave us all time and materials to make even better cards with construction paper cut-outs, glitter, sequins, and, of course library paste. I made a second, fancier card to accompany the first, and soon I had a fine package for my soldier, filling me with pride.

Before long, a woman from the Red Cross came to our classroom and made a considerable fuss over our efforts. Every classroom in our overcrowded elementary school had taken on the same project, and she now had hundreds of wonderful Christmas presents to send to the soldiers in Korea, presents that would remind them of home. She thanked us all, gathered up our boxes and took them away, leaving us feeling proud of ourselves and our efforts, but puzzled why a soldier so far away would want wool socks instead of something fun, like a game. It was not until years later that I finally figured out our packages were destined for soldiers who had no access to such luxuries as soap and warm socks: American prisoners of war in North Korea.

It never happened again. By the next school year, the “Korean Conflict” was over and our awareness of war became limited to the war movies our fathers could not pass up, our classroom “duck and cover” drills, and the Friday noon air raid sirens. With more than a dozen military bases within spitting distance of our school…including a naval air base from which the new supersonic fighters were flying…we were certain we would be a prime target for those “godless Communists” and their atomic bombs. And so we forgot about Korea and the soldiers, and the Christmas boxes faded from our memories as well.

But from this experience I began to learn the joy of giving. It was exciting to see the box slowly fill up and even through my parents were providing the goods, it was my project and I took personal pride as each new item as joined the others. Decorating the box and making the cards for the enjoyment of another…knowing I would never receive thanks or even an acknowledgment, was a new kind of pleasure. I can remember the red construction paper card with the lopsided green tree that I had laboriously cut, with dull, blunted scissors, from another sheet of construction paper, its ragged edges painstaking decorated with glitter-encrusted library paste, sequins, shreds of tissue paper, and scraps of rickrack and other bits and pieces gathered from our mothers’ sewing baskets. I thought it was the most beautiful card in the world and it made me warm inside to think of the pleasure that soldier would find in receiving it.

We cannot ever know how our circumstances can influence others…even strangers on the other side of the globe. Sometimes I find myself wondering who got my Red Cross Christmas box…and if it gave him anywhere near the pleasure to receive it as it gave me to put it together for him. The misery of that anonymous soldier, cold and wretched in an enemy prison camp, was the catalyst for a child, thousands of miles away, to first learn the rewards of giving and sharing.

It has been many, many years since that Christmas box project was undertaken by a classroom of young children, but the effects, for me, have lasted a lifetime.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Taking the kids on holiday: 12 tips

Whether it’s a road trip or one of several commercial carriers, travelling with children requires some special planning.

1) Take enough “stuff” for each child for at least 24 hours, even if it is only a two hour drive/flight. You have no idea what kinds of delays you may encounter: I was once on a 2-hour flight that ended up taking 15 hours due to fog and bad decisions by the pilots. There was no extra food on board, there was no way to get more, and the parents who packed for a two hour trip had wet, hungry, cranky babies by the time we finally got to our destination.

2) If anyone is on chronic medication, take enough for several days and keep it with you. Don’t put it in checked baggage or pack it in the boot/trunk of the car.

3) If driving, break the trip up into “legs.” Every two hours or so, stop and let the kids get out and walk around. If you spot a playground or other activity area, give the kids a 10 minute break where they can work off some energy. If you are flying, when the aisle is clear and the turbulence low, take the child for a walk. Make sure you stay with your child at all times.

4) Be careful what you bring for snacks. High GI foods (refined white flour and sweet items) will give your children energy spikes, making them restless. Not a good thing while they are confined in a small space and expected to be still. Protein snacks and low-GI foods, fruit (not fruit juice…too much energy), flavoured waters (no energy drinks except for the driver), are good choices.

5) Do not allow the children to quarrel. If you have one child who picks at another, discipline that child firmly. If necessary, separate the children by putting the “good” child in the front seat (as a reward) while one of the adults sits in the back with the misbehaving one. It is important not only for the psychological well-being of the children, it is important for the driver not to be distracted by altercations going on in the back seat.

6) Bring along quiet activities for the children. This is the time things like GameBoys are invaluable. There are also inexpensive electronic games that can be purchased. Colouring books with crayons or coloured pencils can pass time (no coloured felt-tip pens, unless you want your upholstery decorated by the dropped ones). A clipboard and some plain copier paper will provide the opportunity to draw or write. Crossword puzzle and find-a-word books are good choices, as are books for older children. Of course an iPod is a good choice, assuming your child can listen without singing along, Infants tend to sleep with the motion of the car, but toddlers can be restive. Decide before the trip begins that, no matter how much your child screams and protests, you will not remove the child from his restraints while the car is in motion. If the child cannot be distracted into quiet with food or activities, then either pull over at the next rest stop and let the kid out for some exercise or just grit your teeth and grin and bear it.

7) If you are driving, it is a good idea to take along an energy converter that allows you to plug in normal appliances. This will allow you to charge cell phone, flashlight and lap top batteries on the road. It is important that your cell phone be functional in the event of emergencies and that laptop, along with a few DVDs, can go a long way towards keeping the kids entertained on long trips.

8) Another good idea for a road trip is a mini-fridge that plugs into the car cigarette lighter. These things are fabulous for keeping perishables fresh while travelling, especially through hot areas. Baby bottles will keep, as well as perishable snacks like cheese sticks and fresh fruit.

9) Bring water, even if you are going by commercial carrier. If supplies run out on the plane, you’re covered. If you are driving and you have an infant who drinks formula prepared from a powder, bring along enough water to make formula until you return home. Changes in water can have dramatic…and unpleasant…effects on a baby’s digestive system. If you are flying, then several weeks before the trip wean your child over to a ready-mixed formula that can be purchased at your destination.

10) If you are going by car, bring along some emergency supplies: a rechargeable LED flashlight/torch, a supply of small plastic bags for disposing of icky stuff (also good for a carsick child to keep in his lap), a roll or two of toilet paper, a packet of wet wipes, plastic cups, a pair of scissors, a sharp knife, a first aid kit, a small sewing kit. If you will be going through snowy areas, also bring a big sack of cat litter (the cheap clay type), a fold-up shovel, tyre chains, a small tarp, and work gloves. If you need to put on chains, kneel on the tarp so you stay dry and wear the gloves to protect your hands; if you get stuck in the snow, the shovel will help dig you out, and the cat litter will provide traction.

11) On a car trip, pillows and blankets are a necessity. Not only do they facilitate sleep, rolled blankets and piled pillows can be used to separate warring offspring.

12) When travelling by car, resist the urge to see how far you can get on a tank of fuel. Especially when you have your family on board, frequent fuel stops are important so that you don’t end up stranded. If weather conditions strand you, having plenty of fuel will allow you to run the engine for heat and for recharging battery-powered items like your cell phone. Frequent fuel stops also give the driver an opportunity to walk around, which improves alertness, and gives the kids a few minutes to stretch their legs as well.

Travelling with children can be fraught with difficulty, but as with anything else, some advance planning can minimize the problems.

Have a happy holiday season and Bon Voyage!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Ten Ways to Improve your Christmas Shopping Experience

I was in two malls yesterday…no, not Christmas shopping, I was looking for paper clips…and it is likely I won’t go again until after the “festive season.” Based on my brief but brutal experiences yesterday, I have come up with a list of ten “DOs” and “DON’Ts” for holiday shoppers.

1. DO bring your manners with you. Smile at people, give way, say “excuse me,” “please,” and “thank you.” Wait your turn, no matter how tempted you are to jump the queue or how big your hurry. Courtesy is contagious: spread it around.

2. DON’T bring your children. You will have to divide your attention between minding your children and minding your shopping, which means you will not be able to give either of them your full attention. Leaving your kids at home will reduce the numbers of people in the mall, it will improve the experience and mood of other shoppers not to have to deal with little children darting between their ankles and chattering teens clogging up already narrow aisles, and your own shopping experience be unmarred by whining demands for every plaything on display. Offer to watch a neighbour’s child so she can shop without distraction if she will watch yours.

3. DO be aware of your surroundings. You aren’t the only person in the mall entitled to a positive shopping experience. If you have taken your children, keep them close with you so they don’t get in the way of other shoppers; walk no more than two abreast so your entourage doesn’t block the aisles and walkways for others; park your shopping cart/baby stroller/large box in such a way that it doesn’t prevent other from getting around it or seeing the display. Avoid making sudden stops and look behind you before you turn around. Stop at the corners of aisles before you enter: don’t just bull your way into an intersection aisle and crash into other shoppers.

4. DON’T stuff your wallet with large bills/notes and bring the marginal credit cards with you. Do what you can to maximize speed at the cashier, so don’t hand over big bills for which the have no change or credit cards that may be rejected. Make sure your purchases all have bar codes or price tags on them before you join the queue to pay up.

5. DO be thoughtful in the parking lot. Don’t “swoop and squat,” grabbing the parking space that someone else has obviously been waiting for. It makes for ill will in a season that is supposed to be one of goodwill towards our fellows. When you find a parking spot, make sure you park correctly. Take the time to park properly in the space, not sticking too far out (if you drive an SUV, refrain from parking in compact car spaces, for example), not parked at an angle that will make it difficult for cars to enter or exit adjacent spaces…you could return to find yourself the recipient of some instant karma: you parked with selfish disregard to others and return to find your vehicle damaged. Also, be sure that you park only in spaces you are entitled to occupy. A disabled person does not know you will be in the store for “just a few seconds,” so he will park out in the hinterlands and struggle to get to the shops because you, able bodied but thoughtless, have taken his space.

6. DON’T have conversations in the aisles and walkways. If you run into a friend and you simply must chat with her, go to a bench or a coffee shop where you can chat to your heart’s content without being a traffic hazard.

7. DO let others out of lifts, shops, restrooms, and other small spaces before you try to get in…and insist that your children do the same. It doesn’t take much brainpower to figure out that letting people out makes more room for you to get in!

8. DON’T be in a rush. Sorry, but the fact that you are in a hurry doesn’t give you the right to toss away the rules of common courtesy. If you are running behind schedule and feeling impatient, that is your consequence for your own failure to manage your time appropriately and you cannot take it out on other drivers, shoppers, or the clerks. If you are behind schedule, then you must reorder the schedule if you can’t make up the time without trampling all over someone else’s feelings or rights. You may have to hold some of your shopping over to another day, you may have to give up something you want…but you cannot use being in a hurry as an excuse to burn the etiquette book.

9. DO be prepared and shop smart. Make a list of the people you need to shop for and order them by priority. Then, beside their names, list possible gifts and the stores where you think you might find the items. When you enter one of the stores on the list, shop for everyone who has this store name next to their own name. You won’t need to come back this way, allowing your shopping to become a progression rather than endless loops of backtracking. Also, if you run out of time or money, if you shop from the top of the list down, those people who have the lowest priority can be dropped from the list if necessary.

10. DON’T be a humbug! Go with a good spirit and with good cheer. Smile at the people who crash into your cart and forgive those who steal your parking space or snatch the last copy of that CD your child has been whining endlessly about. Be aware that you are blessed to be able to walk through the aisles with enough money to buy something for the people you love most: too many people in this world are hard pressed to have even enough to eat. Spread good cheer instead of crabbiness about that which is not perfect about your shopping experience. It is your own attitude that ultimately dictates how pleasant or unpleasant it will be, not the oblivious actions of those around you. Smile! Be of good cheer! Now get out there and shop!!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

"Thank you for marrying me again"

Our primary purpose for this ceremony was for the tying of the thali, the wedding necklace. In the Tamil culture (the Indian ethnic group to which most South African Indians belong), the tying of the thali is the single most important part of the marriage ritual. It is the most sacred symbol of marriage, so much so that if the bride becomes widowed, she must return to the temple to have another ceremony for the removal of the thali. It is meant as a symbol not only of the wearer’s status as a married woman, but, through its sacred power, to protect the wearer and her loved ones from harm. During the ceremony the thali and the flower garlands are offered for the blessings of the divine power.

The thali is actually five pieces of wrought gold tied by the priest onto a gold-coloured cord. It is custom-made, each family having its own design. The groom’s family has the thali made in their particular design. The first official symbol that his family supported our marriage is his mother taking her own thali to the goldsmith to have a copy of it made for me. Immediately prior to the ceremony, with the assistance of one of the aunties, the priest took the pieces of gold, threaded them onto the cord and knotted them into place. He then wrapped the thali around a coconut and set it aside.

When it is time to tie the thali, the priest takes it out and blesses it. The groom unwinds the cord from the coconut and the bride holds the coconut in both hands. The groom, facing west ties the first knot of the wedding necklace around the bride's neck. As one of the aunties bent down to hold the gold thali charm at the right position between my breasts (so the cord would not be tied too short), the priest turned on a CD player from which the loudest, most cacophonous music burst forth! It was a recording of a black long flute-like instrument intended to resound at a high pitch and crescendo to muffle all other sounds in the immediate area. The tying of the three knots is timed precisely to the most auspicious moment as determined by the astrologers and priests. The thali tied with the help of his aunt, Hubby then reached his right arm around my head to put a dot of kum kum, a vermillion saffron powder, on my forehead symbolizing that I am a married woman now. Another auntie, holds up a flame in a clay lamp symbolizing the divine witnessing the nuptial knot: the three knots represent the union of mind, spirit and body.

The priest took a piece of white cloth, about the size of a handkerchief, and placed rice and herbs in it, topped with the coconut. Hubby was then instructed to tie the corners of the cloth together, making a packet, which was then handed to me. I got to carry this coconut for the rest of the day, until we came to auntie’s house and I could put it down next to the god lamp.

You may have noticed the beautiful garlands we are both wearing. These are made by the “garland ladies” (the Indian community has ladies for everything…samoosa ladies, garland ladies, sweetmeat ladies…) the day before the ceremony, long garlands of carnations and baby’s breath that are worn and exchanged by the couple during the ceremony. The garlands are exchanged three times during the ceremony, symbolising a sweet and endless partnership and a life of hope and love to be shared. From the moment of this exchange, the bride becomes an equal partner in the discharge of duties (dharma).

Because the fire is such a significant part of the entire Hindu custom, the nuptial couple must pay reverence to it. Agni, the sacred fire, symbolizes light, warmth, power, eternal cosmic energy and purification. We take twigs of trees that have been dipped in ghee and feed them to the fire in the brazier. The fire acts as universal witness to the ceremony and conveys all that is happening to the Gods. Since the flames always travel upwards and never return, once the message of the wedding reaches the Gods, it is considered eternal.*

In the bigger, longer ceremonies, the couple take seven steps around fire, each step symbolising an aspect of married life: nourishment, moral support and strength, chastity, happiness in parenthood, commitment, cherishment., friendship, respect and love. Because we were already legally married, the priest has us take flame in a lamp and describe circles with the lamp, symbolising the walk around the fire.

The priest dispensed with the grindstone which the bride customarily puts her foot on. But he did not dispense with the placement of the silver toe rings on my feet. The toe rings symbolises that I shall be as strong and steadfast as the stone, with courage and faith in the face of adversity. In the Hindu culture, one does not wear gold on the feet as it is an insult to the goddess Laxshmi, goddess of wealth, to tread upon her sacred symbol, hence toe rings must be of silver. Hubby soon found himself kneeling at my feet, working those toe rings over my chubby little red-tipped toes. (When you know your feet are going to be in the wedding ceremony, a good pedi is de rigueur!

Finally, the priest takes back the turmeric wrist threads and the grass rings, and the guests come forward and shower flower petals on our heads. His mother first, as she is his only surviving parent, then his grandmother. “Showers of blessing” they smile at us, flower petals flying everywhere. “Showers of blessing!”

And so we are now officially married in the customs of his family and culture. In the back of his mother’s Mercedes, we are driven by his brother to the home of a maternal aunt and uncle, where the wedding feast is to take place. His grandmother has made the most wonderful vegetarian breyani…the whole meal must be vegetarian…and a dessert called “soji” that is made from, of all things, cream of wheat. “Wedding soji” is a subclass of soji. And my husband’s particular favourite.

But before we can go into the house and begin the feast, there are still rituals to be performed. An auntie stands at the entrance to the house holding a metal vessel with a mixture of water and herbs. She says a prayer and sprinkles the water on us, then lights a camphor cube and places it in the water where it burns…taking the blessings and prayers to the gods, and ward off evil spirits. “Step into the house on your right foot,” she warns us, so that our married life will begin “on the right foot.”

I place the wrapped coconut next to the god lamp until Hubby takes it outside and breaks it against a stone. Breaking the coconut symbolises the sacrifice of ego, the milk signifies love, the white meat is for purity, and the broken shell symbolises the end of selfishness. An auntie ties up the rice and herbs in the white cloth and instructs me to put it into my rice jar at home (and yes, I do have a rice jar), mix it with the rest of the rice in the jar, thereby ensuring that my rice jar will never be empty…there will always be food in the home.

We eat…truly a feast of fabulous proportions, with Hubby’s talented grandmother the chief chef…and afterwards retire to the “lounge,” South African for living room, but really more of a parlour for special occasions. Two dozen people cram into the room and the family reminisces until fatigue sets in and people begin to drift away from the gathering. I spend the time listening avidly as these people speak their minds on politics, now and then, family and the mundane events of daily living.

The last to leave, we climbed into our little rentaPolo and made our way back to the B&B. We were tired, ready for rest but, at a red light, he reached over and patted my right hand and gave me a serious smile.

“Thank you for marrying me again,” he said, and my heart melted.

Symbols, rituals, and ancient beliefs

When we were to be first married in California, I tried to incorporate something of my soon-to-be husband’s culture into the day. He was, after all, half a world away from his family on this most important day. I therefore asked him to find an “auspicious” day for our marriage, an important consideration in his faith and culture. He consulted his mother, who consulted a Brahmin, and the day of November 8 was chosen.

When we decided, five years later, to marry in his cultural traditions, we again asked his mother to consult a Brahmin for us for an auspicious day. I hoped November 8 would again be such a day, since it was our actual anniversary and the sentimentalist in me wanted both ceremonies to share the same day. Happily it was, and so on the day of our fifth anniversary, we were married again, this time in the Hindu fashion.

It was a joyful, if exhausting, day. On the one hand, since we’ve been legally married for five years, one could view the event as a renewal of our original vows, but it was more significant than that. Despite my having been well and truly accepted by his family from the beginning, this was treated by them as a true wedding, small and intimate perhaps, but a real wedding nonetheless.

At 61, you don’t really expect to hear people “oooh” and “ahhh” over your appearance. When we arrived at the temple, the Aunties were already gathered, along with a few uncles, and I was greeted with “Oh, what a beautiful bride you make!” and “How lovely you are!” unexpectedly affirming comments. How wonderful these people are, taking me into their hearts, despite the fact that I am so much older than their beloved nephew and the vast differences in their culture and mine. Truth be told, I feel more accepted and loved by the members of this family than I do by many of the members of my own.

Hindu weddings, like western ones, are flexible in their structure. There is no rigid format to follow, but there are certain elements that must be included for the marriage to be considered official. For Western religious weddings, there are the exchange of vows, the blessings, the prayers and often, the exchange of rings. These have both direct and symbolic meaning, but the composition of the ceremony is variable, assuming the essential elements are observed. Hindu weddings are no different in this regard.

But Hinduism is an Eastern religion, very different from our Western ones, and certain aspects of the marriage ceremony reflect that difference. We did not, for example, exchange any vows or promises, a difference I find significant in the most fundamental sense. In a Western wedding, two people come together and make promises to each other in the presence of an authority figure (religious or secular). A promise made is a promise that can be broken and too often it is. Those promises set up an expectation in the bride and the groom, an expectation which is the foundation of the trust that underpins the marriage. The keeping…and breaking…of those vows are central to the security of the marriage.

We took no vows, made no promises. We were participants in a ritual with its origins predating Christianity by millennia, its roots firmly planted in the natural and organic elements of the earth. The ceremony uses flowers, coconut, rice grains, fruit, ghee (made from butter), spices, mango and betel leaves, betel nuts, camphor, and various herbs and spices. Fresh flowers signify beauty and joy, the coconut is a symbol of fertility, rice and fruit signify food for the sustenance of life. Ghee feeds the holy fire, which represents light and warmth. A red vermillion powder, kum kum, is used for blessings and good luck and, when placed as a dot on the forehead of the bride, it is the mark of a married woman.

Everything centres around the holy fire. In the Hindu tradition, fire is the first of the five basic elements, and the only one that is visible, tangible, and which has the power to either nurture or destroy everything in its wake. Fire is therefore invoked as a representation of the ultimate divinity, the sun. Agni, the holy fire, is viewed as the purifier and is witness to most important ceremonies, including marriage. (Hindu prayers involve the lighting of a lamp…the God Lamp…for even the briefest of prayers. The fire carries the message to the gods.)

During the ceremony a brass pot symbolizing the human body is filled with holy water, topped with a coconut (symbolizing the head) and surrounded by five mango leaves and placed on a leaf covered with raw rice. This symbolizes the control of the body, mind, and senses, which lead to self-realization.

Threads dipped in turmeric and tied around a small stick were infused with prayers, then tied around our wrists. The thread symbolized the divine power invoked and is intended to serve as a shield from harm and evil. It is important during a ceremony such as marriage to keep away all spirits of harm and evil (if it works, then I can relax, assured that my mother’s spirit wasn’t there!). The priest put rings on us made of a special grass to indicate purity of mind: this is a grass which is believed to have the capability of purifying water and giving the warmth and speed of fire to metal. We had no engagement rings, so rings made of this grass, which can be substituted for gold and silver in temples, were placed on our hands in their stead.

Monday, December 01, 2008

What is worth fighting for?

Some days I feel like I have been fighting all my life. I grew up in an era in which unjust treatment of women and girls was the norm. “That’s not fair!” is an echoing refrain of my childhood.

I have spent most of my life precariously clinging to the bottom rung of the middle class ladder, sometimes falling into poverty and then desperately clawing my way back up onto that slippery place again.

I have fought the demons of depression and hopelessness, abusive parent and partner, mindless, enraged backlash, and have surrendered to bleak despair. I have been hungry, homeless, jobless, penniless, and without prospects, spurned and despoiled by my own family members and left to live or die by my own hook, no help offered, no help forthcoming.

I know what it is to struggle and to fight for survival, both physical and emotional. It’s hard. It’s wearying. It is exhausting to both body and soul.

Some of us enter into the habit of fighting for everything. Even when life lightens up and we find some abundance and ease in our lives, some of us don’t know how to accept the boon without creating a bit of struggle first. Perhaps we have a deep need to feel we have earned the gain or perhaps we simply feel invisible in the face of greater ease. If you self-identify, after all, as a warrior and a strong person who cannot be overcome, where goes your identity when then war is won and there is no adversity to stand steadfast against?

Others…people like me…become wearied by the seeming endlessness of the struggle to survive. We ultimately learn to conserve our energy and pick our battles carefully. We learn to evaluate situations and scenarios for their importance: will this mean I have no shelter? No food? No medical care? Then for (or against) this I will fight. Does it mean that others will be similarly deprived…which sets a precedent for depriving me and mine? Then I must commit myself to this struggle as well. Not very altruistic, but altruism is a luxury for those whose lives are not consumed by the struggle to ensure continued survival.

A few of the lucky ones…like me…manage to claw their way out of the pit. But survival struggles leave wounds…some which heal over into scars, some of which simply remain raw reminders of the perils of complacency, the energy drain of fighting battles that are too high up the pyramid. We learn to conserve because we know that today’s affluence, abundance and comfort can melt away in horrifyingly short order: one pink slip, one shattering accident, one devastating illness, one untimely death can spell a headlong plunge back into the pit. At some level our psyches never stop weighing, evaluating, calculating, hedging…always on the lookout for peril, always watching for escape routes, second chances, backup plans.

And so we learn to make choices and trade-offs, weigh our chances of success and refrain from investing our energies…and hopes…in those non-survival activities that have a low chance of success. And so we limit ourselves in much the same way outside forces imposed limitations on us, clipping our own wings in order to retain the resources that may be needed tomorrow for survival.

I am habituated to a life of avoiding futility, hedging my bets, having a back up, casting likely scenarios and being prepared for them. To others I appear decisive, but it’s really just my “old self” following its protective program to scout out possible dangers and make preparation. When a danger pops up, I am then prepared and ready to deal with it before my emotions can take control and leave me helpless.

And so I avoid things that have a low probability of coming to fruition, or things that take a degree of passion and dedication that could deplete my resources and leave me vulnerable in a time of need, Beating my head against brick walls affects only me: the brick wall doesn’t even know I was there.

So, I’ll admit it…I have given up on a lot of my dreams. Turns out they were incompatible with my reality and places I needed to channel my resources to ensure survival. Now that the struggle for survival is resolved…at least for now…I find myself in the habit of limiting my efforts and simply refusing to give myself headaches by pursuing dreams that are now past their sell-by date. Rejection is no easier to withstand when you are 60 than it was when you were 20, perhaps it is even more difficult after a lifetime of collecting pain. There comes a time, I think, when you just have to quit fighting and accept the bitterness of life beside the sweet.

But some days I think and I reflect and I wonder…and I regret.

Man, being sick just takes the starch out of me!

Sunday, November 30, 2008


In Western cultures, for the most part we marry for love. The idea that someone else has the right to choose a spouse for us and we are honour/tradition/legally bound to marry the chosen person is outrageous to us, a clear violation of our right to self-determination.

Equally repugnant is the idea that we can be told who not to marry. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that miscegenation laws were still on the books of many US states and that right to our freedom of choice in marriage partners was abridged. In 1958 in the state of Virginia, a black woman and her white husband were arrested in their own bedroom for living together as an interracial couple. The judge offered to suspend their sentence if they would agree to exile: they were to leave their home state of Virginia for a minimum of 25 years.

It took nearly ten years of that time for their case to come to the US Supreme Court, but in 1967 the Court ruled: “Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis…so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious…discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person…resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”*

At the time of this ruling, 17 Southern states (all of the former slave states plus Oklahoma) still enforced miscegenation laws. After this ruling, those laws were no longer in effect and numerous states repealed them. But it took South Carolina until 1998 and Alabama until 2000 to officially amend their constitutions. The laws were repealed, but hardly by a landslide. More than 30 years after the federal government prohibited racial discrimination in marriage, 38% of voters in South Carolina and 41% of voters in Alabama were against repeal of these discriminatory statutes.

Interestingly, when we marry we accrue to ourselves and our partners a host of legal and customary rights that are not available to us when we cohabit. The “it’s just a piece of paper” argument isn’t really correct because without that maligned piece of paper, you are denied certain rights that automatically devolve onto you and your marriage partner. And while I am sure most of us do not have those rights in mind as we blissfully march down the aisle, they exist for us whether we take them into consideration at the moment we whisper “I do” or not.

As many as 1400 federal rights alone, I have heard, exist for married partners that are denied the unmarried. People who cavalierly dismiss marriage as an unnecessary formality surely have not considered the end-of-life dramas involving who is legally next-of-kin in terms of hospitalization, insurance coverage, inheritance, even custody of the body and funeral arrangements. There are immigration rights, tax benefits, Social Security, pension, child custody and spousal maintenance…hundreds upon hundreds of rights that married people have that are denied cohabiting couples, regardless of how long or heartfelt the relationship. A bride of two days has significantly more legal rights than a cohabiting partner of twenty years.

Domestic partnerships and civil unions have been suggested as a viable alternative to those who decide to live together without the benefit of marriage…either by choice or by laws that prohibit their marriage. The problem with domestic partnerships is that while they can address a few legal situations that are controlled by the state in which they register their partnership, they are denied all federal marital benefits and, if the partners are out of their home state, the protections they enjoy under that state’s domestic partnership laws are not necessarily enforceable in a neighbouring state. Imagine falling ill on holiday and finding your partner prohibited from visiting you in the hospital because your family doesn’t like him? Imagine losing your partner in an accident and suddenly finding your home invaded and picked clean by his family, the house you have called home for so long sold out from under you, maybe even your car spirited away because it was all in his name and you have no legal claim because you never bothered to get that oft disdained piece of paper?

Too often when we are in love we don’t look at the future with our eyes wide open. Paul McCartney was love-struck and, smitten, trusted that his love for Heather Mills would last a lifetime…it had with Linda Eastman, after all. Besotted, he refused to acknowledge reality and ask for a pre-nup, much to his later chagrin. In that same vein, we often overlook other practical matters when we partner up, failing to take into account the disastrous potential consequences of our failure to tidy up our relationship with all the legal bits and bobs that protect us…and our partner…in the future.

These laws exist to protect us…well, most of us. Just as Mildred and Richard Loving were denied equal protection under the law in 1958 in Virginia, so are legions of Americans being denied the same protections today in the form of laws that prevent consenting adults from entering into the protected status of marriage. A majority of their fellow citizens agreed that the Lovings should not be allowed to marry, some states even had constitutional prohibitions against such marriages.

But under US law, while states have the right to make certain laws…marriage laws in particular…for their residents, states cannot make or enforce laws that are contrary to federal law. And so, despite the constitutions of South Carolina and Alabama prohibiting interracial relationships, on that day in 1967, Mildred and Richard Loving caused interracial marriage prohibitions to be invalidated in every state in the union, regardless of whether those prohibitions were enshrined in the state constitutions or they were simply in the state’s codified body of law. Two people wrangling with one state over the right to marry the person of their choice changed the law for every person of every colour in every state of the union.

How different is this from the current flap over gay marriage? If you’ll look at the quote in the third paragraph, you probably didn’t notice that I removed the language that refers specifically to race. Doesn’t the principle hold true, whether the discriminating factor is colour, gender, or something else? The judge who exiled them, when asked to reconsider, stated “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”* This contention, of course, was struck down by the Supreme Court as being irrelevant in the face of the rights of citizens to have equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Today people argue that same sex people should not marry because physiologically, they were never intended to do so. This, of course, echoes the same specious logic used by Judge Leon Bazile above, citing God having placed the various races on different continents, with the intent to keep them separate. It takes rather a lot of hubris to speak the mind of an omnipotent, omniscient being when you are neither…how could Bazile know the mind of that omniscient being? How can we know whether or not same-gender attraction is intended or not? And who, after all, has the right to deny his neighbour the same rights he, himself, is allowed to exercise?

I have come to the conclusion that the passing of Prop 8 in California is not the disaster I initially thought it to be. While it does present an immediate setback to gay marriage in California, surely someone is going to appeal this to the US Supreme Court and test it against the Fourteenth Amendment. Bearing in mind that, in the Loving case, miscegenation laws were supported by a majority of voters in the affected states and the Supreme Court didn’t care, I think Loving v Virginia may well set the perfect precedent for not only overturning California’s proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, but, like the Loving case, end the discrimination nationwide.

We can only hope!


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On the mend

Snot does not make good brain matter.

No matter how hard you try to think, no matter how experienced your fingers are at finding the right keys on the keyboard, if snot has taken over your brain matter, you are intellectually doomed. At least until your brain reasserts itself.

It's times like this that I am almost willing to bow down and kiss the feet of the Micro Soft monolith for inventing spell check and a grammar checker, otherwise my snot-tainted mental efforts would be even more puerile than they are. I cannot even correct half of the typos, my befuddled brain guiding my fingers over and over again to the wrong keys. Sludge behind the eyes keeps them half closed and contributes to the slowness of logic function. The "Aha! I get it!" moments are few and far between, and when they do occur, they are sufficiently after the event to be embarrassing.

Everything about me is slow except my nose, which runs with alacrity. My brain is slow, my comprehension, my composition, my life seems to be running in slow motion in comparison to the giddy antics of my dogs, who are enjoying my poor reflexes and the treats they can snatch when my attention is drawn away from my lunch or snacks. Of course I try to foil them with snacks of fruit but that doesn't work on Candy, who shows an alarming propensity to eat anything that crosses her nostrils, from curry to almonds to cauliflower to sweet fruits.

My nose, on the other hand, seems to have moved into superspeed. It can go from clear to "ACK! I CAN'T BREATHE!" to a compromise of one side open, the other side closed, all in the matter of a single minute. I should be owning stock in Kimberly-Clark so I could get some dividends back on the gross of Kleenex boxes I've gone through in the past few days.

Little by little my brain functions seem to be returning, soldiering through the sticky sludge that pollutes their environs to begin to rebuild what is left of my inundated brain, rather like slogging through the layer of mud after a flood. I'm still tired...I wanted a nap after I expended all that energy on a shower a couple of hours ago!...but Hubby says I must be improving since my curiosity is returning and I am asking questions again, instead of just groaning and hacking.

Speaking of Hubby, there's the one bright spot in this, one of my less enthusiastic adventures. Without complaint he has endured my crankiness, whining, moaning and various unpleasant noises that go with an upper repiratory infection. He's brought me tea and fruit and juice, opened and closed windows and doors, endured my alternating needs for heating and cooling, and has generally been a really great sport about this whole thing.

On balance, icky germ or no, I think I'm pretty lucky.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ohhhh...sick sick sick!

I got a flu. I keep trying to write more about the wedding...I have some killer pics for you all...but the flu won't let my brain put words together correctly.

I'll be back when the flu decamps and my brain is working properly again.

Love you all


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Showers of blessing

So, it rained the whole time we were in Durban. It was a cooling rain, leaving the air fresh smelling. For a wedding weekend, it was ideal, as the heat was kept in abeyance and the breezes kept the humidity at bay. All weekend there were mentions of “showers of blessings” from my husband to his mother to the wedding guests. Everyone seemed pleased at the rain.

Durban is a hilly city…a San Franciscan would feel right at home there! So undulating is the landscape that a house on a flat plot of land is a rare…and costly…find. So I was not surprised when we went to visit my mother-in-law’s cousin and found her house perched precariously on the edge of a dizzyingly steep hill. That I had to scamper down that hill on a narrow, roughly-poured set of stairs, however, was a surprise.

Saturday morning saw us at Mum’s house, a suitcase containing my sari and other accoutrements in hand. She had made arrangements for the daughter of her cousin to do my hair, and flowers in the hair is a necessary part of the bride’s attire. The cousin’s daughter is a hair dresser, and the cousin is considered some kind of an expert at draping and tying wedding saris, so I was bundled off to be made presentable. After two stops for flowers, we were on our way to the hair dresser. What nobody told me was that the cousin worked out of her house!

And so I came to this little brick house clinging to the side of a hillside steep enough to make a mountain goat swoon, and I had to clamber down these rough stairs to the miniscule cement pad outside the door. Thank goodness the door opened into the room because if I had had to step off that little pad to allow the door to swing, I would surely have rolled down that hill like a cheese wheel in Gloucestershire! The inside of the little salon was far from glam, but she had all the necessary tools and equipment and four women were packed inside the tiny room! Clearly, the lack of glamour and upmarket cachet was no barrier to business success and I was soon to see why…this girl could do magic with hair!

I have cranky hair. It is fine, thin, aggressively straight, and abundant. I keep it cut in a graduated bob, the kind that is short in the back, but has long, chin-length sides. Think Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux, just blonde and without the pointy bits on the cheeks. Yes…like Posh Spice, but I had the haircut a full year before she stole it from me. Anyway, my challenge to this young lady was to find a way to give me an “up do” sufficient to anchor a bunch of flowers at the crown of my head…and I mean anchor. It was going to have to stay in place for better than 12 hours, with no slipping and sliding in hair so baby fine that bobby pins slide out of it…no mean task!

Well, to my absolute amazement, she succeeded! That night, exhausted and unable to get the pins out alone, I begged Hubby to help. “Good grief!” he exclaimed upon seeing the pins. “She’s built a whole superstructure in there!” And indeed she had! She had started by putting a baby ponytail at the crown of my head and then building a grid of pins…affixed to the pony tail elastic... to use as a platform to secure the flowers to. It was amazing! And effective! And damned difficult to undo!

Once she was done with my hair I hiked back up that narrow, uneven flight of stairs to the dooryard. The driveway from the road to the dooryard was so steep that hubby parked our little rent-a-Polo on the street for fear up being unable to get it up the driveway and into the road again! Inside the main house now, I was led to a room where I shucked my jeans and T-shirt and started climbing into my wedding finery. First the petticoat, or underskirt. This was gold-coloured cotton, red and gold being the traditional Hindu wedding colours. The skirt has a draw string waist which must be tied tightly and securely, for the success or failure of draping a sari depends on this petticoat and it’s snug fit.

Next the blouse, a short, midriff-baring scoop-necked top. Mine was of gold silk shantung, custom made for my full figure and bosom. A row of tiny, hidden hooks and eyes march up the front of this little scrap of a top, making the front closure look like a seam.

Now the sari. Starting at the plain end, a corner is tucked into the right side waistband of my petticoat and the six+ yards of fabric wrapped around me until it comes to the front again and overlaps the original tuck. The sari fabric is now yanked and pulled and twitched and adjusted until the proper length is achieved. Since I was getting married and that is done barefoot, the sari was adjusted for the flat sandals I was wearing. Eventually the length was properly adjusted and now it was time to pleat. Seven pleats of approximately 4 inches in depth were made over my left leg and tucked into the waistband of the petticoat. More tugging and twitching and adjusting, and finally the pallau was thrown over my shoulder.

Now, the pallau has to be draped and secured so it doesn’t keep falling down. Cousin took a single safety pin and secured the back of the pallau through my bra strap and blouse, and then began the job of draping the front of the sari so that I would not have it in my way during the ceremony. Finally satisfied, she took the decorative sari pin and secured the pallau to my left shoulder. I was dressed!

Now, the mad dash back to Mum’s…Hubby still hadn’t changed…and then on to the temple. We arrived late…“we wondered if the had bride run away!” one of the uncles quipped…but eventually we arrived at the tiny private temple, took our seats at the front of the assembled guests, and waited for the Brahmin (priest) to call us forward.

We kicked off our shoes and stood and, accompanied by the soft rains showering blessings upon us, stepped into the temple.

An Auspicious Day: Sweet Violet gets married

Rain is a good omen in the Hindu culture and so the rain that greeted us upon landing at Durban International was a good sign. My husband called it “showers of blessing” which, of course, dissipated my initial annoyance at their unanticipated appearance.

I am not a good flyer and the flight was a bit bumpy but otherwise uneventful. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the minutes pre-boarding. Neither Cape Town International nor Durban International have jetways which means that passengers have to hike out to the tarmac and up a set of stairs to board the plane. Well, the airport back in Silicon Valley has much the same set up, so I’m fairly accustomed to it except for one thing: here in South Africa, they park the planes waaaaaaay out in the boonies instead of nose up to the terminal building. To accommodate passengers, however, the local airports supply large busses…think diesel-powered subway car with seats only at the front and back, the rest of the car just poles and hang straps…to take the passengers from the boarding lounge to the aircraft. It was here that I ran into trouble.

At first I thought myself lucky to get one of the few seats on the bus but the young man seated to my right was so drenched in some kind of peppery-scented cologne that my eyes literally began to water. Before the bus actually got into gear and on its way, I was sneezing. And it went downhill from there. Two allergy pills, a complete shower, a shampoo and 24 hours later I was on the road to recovery, eyes still red and puffy and nose starting to dry up. Whatever it was that guy had on, particles of it apparently clung to my hair and clothing and continued to provoke an allergic reaction long after he had disappeared into the vast landscape that is Durban.

Thursday evening saw us at Mum’s house for a prayer dinner: prayers for the dead. It was a vegetarian affair, with offerings and prayers for those who have gone before us, inviting them to dinner and to the wedding. I concentrated on inviting his relatives, particularly his father, as mine would probably not be particularly pleased. My mother and grandparents were not terribly impressed with my sister’s marriage, and her African-American husband is Christian. Imagine their opinion on my marrying an Indian gentleman whose family is Hindu (or, in their vernacular, heathen)?

Friday was your basic “last minute errands” day. The rain continued off and on, always light and gentle, more showers of blessing washing away cares and difficulties. We shopped for last minute items and drove over to visit Mum, where I got my first look at my thali. I had never seen one before.

Several large green leaves lined a small silver-coloured plastic tray. On the leaves was an array of items, from a folded length of yellow-orange cord to a yellow string wrapped around a turmeric stick, a betel nut, and five pieces of wrought gold. Wrapped with a piece of cling-film to keep everything together, this small tray held the essential items to present to the Brahmin (priest), who would, with the assistance of a married auntie, string the pieces together on the cord and bless them. The thali already bore marks of kum kum, a powdered vermilion, have been blessed by the goldsmith after he created it.

The morning of our anniversary dawned with more showers of blessing. Not only was this an auspicious day to begin any venture, according to the priest, the gentle rains were also blessing us. This, in the customs of my husband’s culture, was fated to be a good marriage. I have to admit, this was the nicest weather I had ever experienced in Durban. Usually is it hot and humid and rain only exacerbates that. But this trip was temperate…warm enough to keep away any chill, but cool enough that Dear Hubby, who perspires at the merest hint of heat, got through the whole ceremony without needing to mop his brow! Truly, it was an auspicious day!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Congratulations, Barack Obama!

Congratulations are in order...Barack Obama is America's first non-white President and that, all by itself, is a reason to celebrate.

This election had shaped up to be noteworthy in more ways than one as many of the presidential hopefuls were "firsts." Hillary was the first woman for stump for the highest office, McCain was the first man of his age to run for a presidential first term, and the Republicans fielded their first female candidate for a shot at the top job. Obama, of course, hit more than one first: the first African-American, the first non-white, the first person of Muslim heritage to even apply for the top job, let alone win it.

But the closeness of the popular vote is troubling, indicating that while some people who are losing their jobs and their homes and the lives of their brothers and sons are wanting a change, others in the same situation are putting political ideology ahead of the welfare of the country and their fellow countrymen.

I think Hillary was a better candidate all around: more experienced, more savvy, and with her husband, the architect of the most prosperous administration of the entire 20th century, at her side should she need an advisor with a proven track record. But the American people went for a pair of amateurs, ignoring the most experienced candidate. Fortunately for America, Bush's fiscal debacle combined with McCain's unfathomable choice of a person with no political acumen or ethical standards as his running mate, combined to taint his candidacy, giving Obama the win.

I hope Obama can pull off his vision for America. But as Bill Clinton can tell him, just winning the election isn't enough...when the other party is out for your blood, they will stop at nothing to find it, even if they have to spill it themselves.

Barack Obama, watch your back...the Republicans certainly are!