Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wedding Etiquette and Other Forgotten Things

We have a couple of friends who are getting married soon. I haven’t been to a wedding in South Africa, but I’ve been to a bunch of them in America, and virtually every one of them has left me shaking my head…not at the nuptial couple, but at some of their guests. Who knew that the abandonment of manners and consideration for others had reached even such personally significant events as weddings?

Most of the grim wedding guest gaffes I have observed have involved alcohol or children…or both. One wedding, the mother of the ring-bearer, a cute little rosy-cheeked blonde boy, used up her drink tickets (how the bride and groom had chosen to limit the hits on the bar) and spent a good portion of the reception cadging tickets from the groomsmen and other men. She was young and pretty and flirtatious…and seriously intoxicated. The little boy was looked after by his slightly older sister as Mama reeled from man to man, flirting her way to inebriation. I don’t know how she got home, but I can only hope she did not drive herself and those kids!

Another wedding, held in a rose garden in a San Francisco Park, was lovely…until a baby started crying. One of the family members was making a video of the event and, according to my friend the groom, the infant’s wailing drowned out the vows and even a good bit of the music. Also marring the event was the infant’s toddler brother running amok during the ceremony and later at the reception. Neither child had been invited, and the bride and groom simply had assumed that their guests did not need to be told that a formal wedding was an adults-only affair.

My own wedding, an informal affair held in an Indian restaurant, had its own surprising and unexpected event. When I sent out the RSVP cards, I made sure to limit the number of attendees by giving the guest only two choices: 1 person attending or 2 persons attending. Imagine my surprise when my brother’s RSVP card came back with “4 persons” inked in. Sure enough, he showed up with his girlfriend and her two young teens who proceeded to turn up their noses at the buffet offerings (which were purposefully chosen to appeal to people who do not have much experience with Indian food…plenty of simple, unspiced choices). Imagine my surprise when our 35+ invited guests sat down to their chicken tikka and breyani and these two (uninvited) kids scarfed down a bag of McDonalds!

While it is technically incorrect to address an invitation to “Miss Mary Smith and Guest” as a wedding does not qualify as a dating event, many people are uncomfortable attending a wedding singly. Having no other way to formally indicate that Miss Mary may choose to attend with an escort, the “and Guest” tradition has pretty much taken hold. Unfortunately, a shocking number of people seem to no longer understand that the day is about the bride and groom rather than themselves, and take a wounded…or even insulted…attitude when they perceive that little Perceival and Priscilla are not part of the invitation. The “love me, love my kids” attitude is fine for single mommies shopping for a new husband, but it just doesn’t fly at some else’s wedding…even when the bride is a sibling of the invitee. Children, unless specifically invited (in which case a wise bride will have provided diversions for them), are not part of the wedding invitation.

I have to wonder what my old colleague must think whenever he and his wife view their wedding video. They wrote their own vows, heartfelt words pledging themselves to each other, but all that can be heard on the video is the screaming of someone else’s infant. American life being as transient as it is, they may no longer even be in contact with the mother of that child, may even have forgotten who she is, save for the obliterating of their vows by her child’s screams.

One of the outstanding memories of my own wedding is seeing my brother’s girlfriend leave the restaurant, only to return later with a McDonald’s bag in hand. Did it not occur to her the insult this must have dealt the restaurateur, who had gone out of his way to prepare a menu designed to appeal to both Indian food aficionados and neophytes alike? Did she not recognize this as a learning opportunity for those children, an opportunity to teach them to put someone else first for a short time? These children were in their early teens, easily old enough to wait an hour or two for the food of their choice or to politely nibble on a bit of salad if they couldn’t bring themselves to try a piece of tikka chicken or some plain boiled rice. In truth, they shouldn’t have been there at all, they were not on the guest list and, despite their refusal to sample the food, they counted in the head count so we paid for them, invited or not, whether they ate or not.

And that is a large part of the problem with uninvited guests at a wedding, particularly at a reception. The bride and groom pay “per person” for the food and the caterer prepares a quantity of food based on headcount. Buffets may be able to accommodate an extra person or two, but plated meals are a real problem: if the caterer has set up for 100 guests and four extra people come, what are they to do? There aren’t enough place settings, chairs, or food to accommodate the extra parties. And if the extras are uninvited children, there’s nothing for the kids to do except get bored, tired, and disruptive.

“Not my kids!” I hear some of you saying. Yes, your kids! We all have different ideas about what is acceptable behaviour from children, some of us more liberal than others. What is acceptable behaviour to you may be profoundly offensive to someone else, and another person’s wedding is simply not the place to demonstrate the result of your child-rearing philosophies to a large assemblage. Even if your children are beautifully behaved, the centre of attention should be the bride and groom, not some cute little tot who has recently mastered…and simply must show off…her curtsey or his alphabet. Bottom line, if your children’s names are not on the invitation, they are not invited…do not bring them!

The same goes for your boyfriend, girlfriend, neighbour, mother, cousin…unless the invitation clearly indicates that you may bring a guest (i.e., the invitation is addressed to more than just you), you are to attend solo. And be sure to RSVP, otherwise you will show up as an “extra,” your invitation notwithstanding. Failure to RSVP is the same as declining, so don’t be shocked if you rock up and the bride, groom, and caterer are all surprised…and even dismayed…at your arrival.

It amazes me how many people do not seem to understand that a wedding is A) a solemn affair and B) an affair in which the bride and groom are intended to be the centre of attention. What you choose to wear and what statements you choose to make at your own wedding is, of course, your own business, but hijacking someone else’s wedding and competing with the nuptial couple for attention is just tacky and in bad taste.

Women are not supposed to wear black (a funeral colour and worn only if you wish to tastefully display your disapproval of the marriage) nor are they supposed to wear white or near-white colours, which are the bride’s colours. Daring cleavage, bare midriffs, bare thighs…each a serious fashion faux pas at a wedding. Also eschew attention-grabbing hair styles and colours, hats that grab attention and/or block the view of other attendees, stripper heels, and tight pants. In fact, at a wedding, women should be wearing dresses or skirts and pants are seldom appropriate unless they are of the flowing palazzo pant variety. All of this, of course, does not apply if you are attending a theme wedding or if the bride has assented to something unusual in your garb, knowing it will likely take attention away from her.

Men can be fashion fumblers at weddings as well. Unless otherwise reliably informed (eg, by the bride, not the groom), don’t plan to wear jeans, sandals, sneakers (takkies), caps or hats (unless you are Jewish or it’s a Jewish wedding and you are sporting a yarmulke) and for heaven’s sake, wear socks!! Formal trousers, a dress shirt, leather shoes, a tie, a sport coat…minimal attire for men at the average wedding. Make sure you shave or, if you have facial hair, that it is neat and trimmed.

This is a day belonging to someone else. It is not a platform for you to display to the assemblage how eccentric or what a fashionista you are, or how politically “relevant” you have become. It is not a place to display evidence of your love of animals, the environment, a political party or leader, a religious leaning…this is not a venue for you for anything except to witness the bride and groom become united in matrimony and then share a feast in their honour. If you do not feel you can attend the nuptials and keep PETA in your pocket or Green Peace silent in the harbour of your brain, if you don’t think you can spend several hours watching two people wed and celebrate their union without drawing attention to yourself and your pet causes or peeves, then stay home!! If you feel you absolutely must have a large audience to which to demonstrate your beliefs or feelings or even your sartorial eccentricities, you are well within your rights to throw a party of your own…at your own expense…but you have no right to hijack someone else’s celebration for your own purposes. Good manners and respect for the bridal couple dictates that you do everything in your power to help create a positive, pleasant atmosphere that the bride and groom can remember happily for the rest of their lives.

If you are lucky enough to be part of the bridal party, this means you sacrifice a bit of your own convenience for the rare opportunity to help the bride shine on her special day. Have your own grooming needs taken care of the day before the wedding…nails, hair colour and cut, facial, etc., because on The Day the bride is going to need your help. You are an “attendant” and that is more than an empty title…you are expected to be with her in the hours before the wedding, both for moral support and for practical matters, like helping her with her gown and veil, buttoning 10,000 little buttons, remembering something blue and the coin in her shoe, last minute touch ups to hair and make up, etc. etc. As a bridal attendant, you actually have a job and your reward is that you get to be part of the wedding party…remember that the bride is that star of the show and that you are one of the supporting players.

Remember this is a celebration, but it is their celebration, not yours. Keep your alcohol intake modest, leave everybody at home except those whose names are on the invitation, remember to RSVP, dress appropriately and most of all, enjoy yourself…your joy will simply add to the joy of the celebration!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hey, you selfish people! I've got something to say to you!

Yesterday I wrote on my FaceBook page: “Sweet Violet is annoyed at selfish people who think their immediate petty concerns and personal biases are more important than loving and supporting members of their families on momentous occasions.” Several people agreed with me…and why not?

I have a friend who is getting married soon…the countdown is now being ticked off in days, it is so close. Three weeks before the wedding, the Matron of Honour, the bride’s sister, announced she would not be with the bride before the wedding helping her prepare, because she had “other plans”!

Hold on! Other plans?? WTF??

It seems that the bride, assuming her sister knew that being Matron of Honour was not just an empty honorary title but includes the honour of helping the bride with the last moment preparations, neglected to specifically ask her sister to help her prepare. The sister actually told the bride “if you had asked me back in June, it would be different but now I have made plans of my own…”

OK, I don’t know if the sister thought the bride had let her off the hook or if she honestly didn’t know that helping the bride was part of the duty she accepted when she accepted her part in the wedding party or if she felt slighted because the bride neglected to specifically ask her to be her personal attendant before the ceremony (that is why they are called “bridal attendants,” people…because you tend to the bride!), but the fact that the sister would not rearrange her schedule to properly fulfil her obligations—and help her sister—qualifies the woman, in my book, for the title of “Unmitigated Bitch of the Year.” Getting her hair and nails done with a sister-in-law from out of town (for this wedding, nogal,) has a higher priority than being with her sister as she prepares to wed for the first time? I do not think so!!

The bride, of course, is very hurt by this and her fiancé is, predictably, angry about it. But one thing the sister (and co-conspirator sister-in-law) are probably not realizing is that their behaviour is terribly revealing of the selfishness of their characters. The bride, hurt by what feels like an abandonment and a betrayal, is seeing certain of her family members in the harsh and revealing light of reality and, while she does not like what she is seeing, she is a smart woman and she is learning lessons from this. By this act of casual cruelty these women have shown that their own petty concerns supersede the bonds of family: making sure they are coiffed and manicured, that their own personal appearance is flawless, obviously comes before helping their family member, the bride, shine her brightest on this, her most special day.

Another friend of mine is getting married in just a few weeks, and much of her family has told her they will not be in attendance, including her parents. Why? Because she is not marrying a person of whom they approve. Now, I have met the affianced and I think it is a brilliant match. They complement each other where it is needed, they share enough interests to not be in regular conflict…and the love between them is palpable. But because The One is not one they would have chosen for their daughter, her parents are staying away on this momentous occasion. They have a bias against the chosen one and, truth is, it doesn’t matter if the bias is based on race, age, gender, religion or anything else, it is a bias and hugging their bias self-righteously to their breasts is more important to them than their daughter’s wedding and future happiness. How myopic and self-absorbed can these people be?

I have some friends who, like me, were cursed with a self-absorbed, self-centred, narcissistic parent. Some of them were so unfortunate as to have been saddled with two narcissistic parents! Believe me, a parent who thinks s/he is the centre of the known universe and everyone else exists to serve their wants, needs, and whims, is a pretty tough way to grow up. And, sadly, narcissistic parents don’t let go when their kids reach adulthood and go out on their own. Many narcissistic mothers see their kids, particularly their daughters, as extensions of themselves and are relentless in their attempts to exert control over them, no matter how old they are or how far they move away. They will manipulate other family members, lie about the “errant child,” create crises in which they appear to be the maligned victims (and the “errant child” the perp), and even go so far as to try to sabotage their child’s relationships with her own children, partner, and sometimes even employment. The happiness and well-being of the targeted child is considered only insofar as it directly affects the parent: in any contest between the parent’s wishes being fulfilled and the offspring’s happiness, invariably the parent sacrifices the child.

This kind of narcissism is not limited to family dynamics and when it is, it by no means operates only from the parent down to the child. Children, particularly adult children, can be just as destructively selfish and self-interested with regard to their parents. At one end of the spectrum are those who simply abandon their parents without cause (or with causes they have created in their minds in order to justify their abandonment) and at the other end are those who engage in elder abuse, even worse, in their quest for personal gratification and fulfilment. In both cases, though, these are people who lack compassion and empathy for others, particularly members of their families…oftentimes a specifically selected member…and who happily seize their own happiness at the expense of others.

My friends are getting married but in both cases, their days will be tarnished by the knowledge that people they love and care for do not love and care for them enough to set aside petty concerns and personal biases and join together in the celebration of their happiness. If you are a person who has refused to attend a wedding because you have some issue with one of the participants (or even a guest…perhaps your ex and his new bride are going to be there) I urge you to rethink this…your behaviour on this one day will be forever remembered. Your absence in the wedding photos…or worse, your sour, disapproving face…will forever be a reminder to your loved one that you refused, for just a few hours, to put aside your biases and ill feelings and share your loved one’s happiness. You will not only will forever tarnish the joy of the event and its memories, you may well rupture your relationship with your loved one for the rest of time.

Here is what I have to say to you: Grow up! Suck it up! Quit being so self-absorbed and selfish! There are things in life more important than your petty concerns, and the rest of your child’s life, your sister’s future happiness, your son’s marriage to the love of his live…all are more important than a bias or a prejudice you may well reverse at a later date. You cannot, however, later reverse your rejection and mean-spiritedness on that special day…so grow up and put on a happy face and celebrate your loved one’s special day. There will be plenty of days in the future for you to resume your spoilsport ways.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reluctant Genius

It will come as no surprise to most of you to learn that I have what is considered to be a “high” IQ. I don’t say this as a point of bragging but as a means of establishing my credentials and qualifications for the topic upon which I am about to pontificate. I first learned my IQ as an adolescent and have since had it tested again in adulthood. The number fluctuated very little…within the “standard deviation,” and I have little reason to believe it has changed much in the less-than-a-decade since my last test.

A word of caution here: when I speak of people whose IQs are lower than mine, there is no judgment intended. I am not better or superior to them in any way save for the fact that my IQ is in the top 0.3% of the population, something I was born with like my blue eyes. And just as my blue eyes do not make me a superior human being to people with brown eyes, neither does my higher IQ make me a superior human being to people whose IQs are lower than mine…in fact, the nastiest excuses for human beings I have met in my life were invariably people with high intellects…often higher than my own. It could well be that the simple fact of my above average ranking puts me at risk for being a less-than-stellar member of the human race.

In practical terms, however, and assuming a uniform distribution of IQs amongst the participants, if you took 1000 people, I would be one of the top three in terms of IQ (the other two being higher than me). It is estimated that 68% of the population has IQs between 70 and 130, the “average” being 85-115 (100 +/- one standard deviation). So, unless you are rocking an IQ below 70, you are in excellent company…probably better company than I am!

And this is what this is all about…the burdens of being “smart” in a society that neither understands nor values uncommon levels of “smartness.” I know it sounds like the rich man complaining about a miniscule hike in the price of bread, but there really is more to it than immediately meets the eye.

First of all, it is tough being a smart kid, no matter what age you are. My late husband, Chuck, was a big man and growing up, he was very large for his age. When he was three, he was the size of a five- or six-year-old. People expected him to act his size not his age, and he dealt with a lot of pressure from people who had unrealistic expectations of him based on his size, rather than his age and developmental level. Just because he was as big as a five-year-old did not mean he was as emotionally mature or physically developed as a five-year-old.

Smart kids get the same kind of pressure. We may have the intellectual capacity of children several years older, but emotionally and developmentally, we are not on their par. Parents seem terribly impressed with the idea of their children being prodigies of one kind or another, but from the kid’s point of view, it sucks. In my own case, I had an unusually well-developed singing voice and the gift of perfect pitch, a gift that cost me a good portion of my childhood while my mother shopped me around various talent shows, TV programs, movie auditions, nightclubs and county fairs, trying to make me into the next Shirley Temple. I didn’t want fame and fortune, I wanted to play paper dolls with Janet who lived across the street.

In the second grade I was given a bunch of tests which revealed why I was weeks ahead of the rest of my class in our workbooks and other tasks…I had an unusually high IQ. This, unfortunately, did not translate into more a more stimulating curriculum or even blanket permission to plunder the classroom library when my assignments were done. No, this culminated in a three-way tug-of-war between my mother, my father, and the school (notice Little Miss Genius was not consulted on her fate) and ultimately I was skipped a grade, mid-year…with devastating results.

I am not referring only to the dismal academic results…which were pretty bad because I completely missed borrowing numbers in subtraction and wasn’t introduced to multiplication at all. No, I went straight from second grade and learning to carry numbers in addition into a classroom where the kids were learning long division. It was more than fifty ago and to this day I can remember the overwhelming sense of being totally over my head with no hope whatsoever for catching up.

Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy if you will, but that is exactly what happened…I never caught up. I failed math miserably and ultimately became math phobic to the degree that I seldom balanced my checkbook as an adult, I simply took the bank’s word for it when my statements came in. The whole idea of taking out that statement and my check register literally put my stomach into knots and made my hands shake. Small wonder I happily leave the household finances to my husband!

Being a smart child is often a curse for the child, something parents who may never have experienced the isolation a “superior intellect” can generate may not be able to relate to. I was once excoriated by another classmate (9th grade French class) for “ruining the curve” because I consistently scored perfect test papers. It did not occur to me that “doing my best,” which is what parents, family members and teachers all encouraged, was sealing my fate as an outsider with the other kids. Between my mother’s obsession with making me some kind of media darling and my eagerness to please the adults in my life with academic achievement and intellectual prowess, I was socially doomed.

People have peculiar expectations of a person once that person is outed as a “brain.” At the tender age of seven I was apparently expected to absorb that missing year of math by osmosis because nobody ever offered to teach me how to multiply, a prerequisite to learning how to divide. Everyone just assumed I knew…or would figure it out…or learn on my own. I don’t know what they assumed, but despite my lovely IQ, I did not truly learn my multiplication tables until well into adulthood, which had some really unfortunate effects on my later school career…imagine how it felt to bring home report cards with five As and a C-, the math teacher having felt sorry for me and having given me the benefit of the doubt instead of the deserved D.

As an adult I regularly come across people who, when my eyes glaze over as they discuss something far, far out of my particular set of intellectual gifts, become annoyed or downright angry with me because I “don’t get it.” I’m supposed to be smart, right? So what is my excuse for not grasping the finer points of string theory or why the borehole pump can pump water up from the below the earth but can’t pump it uphill through a pipe?

The smarter you are, the fewer mistakes you are supposed to make. It is as if there is some unspoken rule that says the smarter you are, the faster you must master something. Today I type like the wind, but I have been at it for decades. When I was in secretarial school, I struggled to get to 55wpm so I could graduate…I had long since completed the rest of the course (I was allowed to work at my own pace and I completed a nine month course in under six) but I struggled with getting that typing speed up to snuff. And yet, an astonishing number of people took this as evidence that I wasn’t as smart as my other achievements might indicate I was…if I was so smart, why was I having trouble hitting the marks necessary for graduation?

Which brings up another of the curses of being saddled with the giant, economy-sized brain: schadenfreude. It’s part of the bully thing…delight in someone else’s misfortune and if they don’t find enough misfortune on their own, let’s give them a little. Any person who is outside the norm, however that norm is defined at any given moment, is subject to negative repercussions from those around him. They can be anything from a quiet snigger because his shoe laces are the wrong colour for that particular day of the week to an outright physical attack, and anything in between including sabotage, rumour-mongering, and harassment. We are presently seeing an epidemic of suicides among young gay people for exactly this reason: they are singled out for being different, that differentness is defined pejoratively, and then they bear the brunt of social disapproval ranging from ridicule to ostracism and even assault.

Believe it or not, that’s how it feels to be the smart kid. Unless you can do something with that smarts that the other kids find really cool, if you are lucky, you are just ignored. If you are not lucky, you can get everything from pranked to hurt. The only way to survive it is to hide your light under a bushel in order to fit in…if you can.

It doesn’t get better as an adult. If you hook up with a bunch of other intellectually gifted people, you can become “average” or “normal” within the group. But outside the group you learn to be wary, and even inside the group, people sometimes fall prey to the same set of expectations of intellectual magic that those outside the group throw at you…the ability to “just know” stuff you have no clue about!

The worst part of it, however, is that eventually you start doing it to yourself and that can paralyze you. If you expect yourself to know stuff, to know how to do stuff, to be able to do something perfectly the first time…if you do not give yourself room to fail and to learn from your failures…eventually you stop trying for fear that you will fail, which you are not allowed to do. And when you don’t try, you cannot fail. Of course you cannot succeed, either, but that’s OK…your successes were all too often the catalyst for an outburst of jealousy or schadenfreude on the part of your peers, so they aren’t too hard to give up.

Some of us just throttle back our expectations and, essentially, coast. I liked being a secretary, for example. It was not hugely intellectually challenging, for the most part, but I like making order out of chaos and I like organizing and such, all of which is a big part of the job. Don’t get me wrong…stupid people don’t make good secretaries, it really does take a brain to do the job well…but in the big picture, it’s not a job that regularly requires brilliance. Some of the finest secretaries I have known were highly intelligent underachievers like me.

Some people do take their intellectual prowess forward and carve out empires for themselves, some of them large like Microsoft or FaceBook, some of them much more modest but which make just a few people wealthy. And yet, for all their money and obvious intellect, are Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg considered “hot” by the girls or “cool” by the guys? Strip away their millions and would you want to hang out with them? (I would, but I'm a geekophile.)

But intellectual superiority does not mean, by any stretch, that the individual is a superior human being. Smart kids do not pop out of the womb with their values and morals fully formed, they learn just like every other kid. And some of them, unfortunately, learn that their formidable intellects can be used to manipulate and even control others, especially in these times when parents are afraid to be parents and opt, instead, to be pals or cheerleaders or even servants to their children. A highly intelligent child cursed with wimpy parents can easily develop an overweening sense of entitlement that grows faster than he does, resulting in a cynical narcissist of an adult who truly believes he is better than everyone around him…and entitled to exploit others without conscience or consequence. I have met numerous such people and they are an embarrassment to others of equal…and even higher…intelligence, and they can be very dangerous people to be around.

There is a downside to being super-smart. From unrealistic expectations of others to perfectionism in ourselves, people of very high intelligence face challenges seldom recognized or appreciated. When you are seven and your teacher expects you to know how to do something you’ve never encountered before and reacts to your failure with “They told me you were smart…guess they were wrong, huh?” you realize that while the other kids can expect to be taught things, you are expected to magically “know” stuff, a disheartening realization for a child. When you are 16 and you don’t grasp a concept, people think you are malingering because you are smart, after all, so you must be able to instantly grasp everything from Latin declensions to calculus to why the earth rotates clockwise and not anti-clockwise. When you are an adult and struggling financially, you get “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” There is a whole set of expectations, mostly unrealistic, that plague those with very high IQs, expectations that expose a total lack of understanding what it means to score high on the Stanford-Binet.

IQ does not measure what you know, nor does it measure what kinds of things you can learn…and it isn’t an accurate predictor of success in anything. So, people with high IQs may be unaware of many things and they may have difficulty learning certain kinds of things as well. There is more than one kind of IQ…in fact, there are seven recognized forms of intellect and most IQ tests measure only three of them. It is entirely possible for a person to be a linguistic genius and be hopeless at math, or to have a superior grasp of spatial concepts and math and be unable to spell “dog” without help from a dictionary (my brilliant engineer of an uncle qualifies here). A high IQ not only does not intimate that a person is capable of understanding and performing in all intellectual endeavours, it doesn’t mean that a person can magically know things to which s/he has not been previously exposed. It doesn’t even mean a good memory…I cannot remember a string of numbers, like a phone number, more than seven digits long…in fact, number strings more than four digits long often get jumbled in my head, even short term. But I can spell just about any word I have ever seen (and many I have never seen, just heard), I retain information about botany and biology and medicine without effort, but can’t remember (or even truly grasp) the basics of elementary physics. And yet, my IQ measures in the 99.7th percentile.

So, the next time you are tempted to be scornful of a “smart person” who doesn’t know something…or doesn’t grasp something you are trying to explain…remember this rant. Like everyone else, we have our strengths and our weaknesses, we are not necessarily smart across the breadth of human knowledge and experience, and our brains, while high functioning, are not magical…we have gaps in our knowledge and understanding just as everyone else does. We are, after all, no more than human.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bad economy? Where?

The next time somebody tries to tell me that the economy in South Africa is bad, I am going to stick my fingers in my ears and sing "LA LA LA LA" both out-of-tune and loudly!

In a bad economy, people are scrambling for jobs and companies are scrambling for work. Shrinking bottom lines are powerful motivators for individuals and businesses alike...and nothing in what I have seen in Joburg...supposedly the economic hub of the me any indication that either people or companies are hurting for the folding stuff.

Shops and malls close at 6 pm (if not earlier!). If your little retail shop is suffering a drop in sales, if your shopping centre is pulling in less profit because your stores are not doing so well, why aren't you extending your hours? It takes only the smallest application of common sense to realize that people who are stuck in offices all day can't come to your shop during office hours...why aren't you open after office hours so they can come in and grace you with their custom after they've been home, changed their shoes, and had dinner? Do you have any idea how lucrative late shopping hours can be? Ask any mall in California, where they are customarily open until 9 pm. Of course, if your little retail shop is making more money than you know what to do with, if your mall is raking in such bucks as to make the mint blush, keep your small town hours and roll up your sidewalks and lock your doors at 6 pm. It will leave us more money to spend on eating out rather than slaving over a hot stove after an exhausting day at the office.

And it's not just the retail sector...the services and trades seem to be rolling in such dough they don't need to return calls or respond to inquiries. I have a motorized security gate that has a dead motor...this morning I was promised a visit from a technician today (and he will call an hour ahead for directions). Well, it's 3 pm, the day is fading, no call so far. And this is after waiting ten days for another repair service to return my call/come see my gate. I also need garden fencing...none of my inquiries have resulted in a single call back. Who knew the garden fencing industry in South Africa was so overwhelmed they don't have time to call new customers back? Or so lavishly lucrative that they don't need to call a customer who wants some fencing and labour-intensive installation?

Nope, the next time somebody tells me that the South African economy is doing poorly (less than 4% inflation rate right now), I think I am just going to laugh out loud. Because if it really was that bad, wouldn't these people be fighting with each other to get my business instead of conducting marathon "ignore the new customer and her money" sessions?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cataracts, in-laws, and a new house: The continuing adventures of Sweet Violet

Come Wednesday it will be three weeks since my first cataract surgery, two weeks since the second. Newsflash: the world doesn’t come to a screeching halt because you can’t see well enough to chop an onion without chopping fingers into it!

The way they do the surgery, they do one eye at a time with a one (or more) week break in between the ops. Since both of my eyes had cataracts, I opted for the “soonest” option…I am one of those people who hates having a sword hanging over my head so, knowing a second surgery was necessary, I chose to have it sooner rather than later.

Well, it was a good thing the first surgery was so uneventful because the second one was not. I was in a different hospital (same surgeon and anaesthetist, tho) and the chaos in the place was unbelievable! It was a specialist eye hospital, from which I expected a superior experience in comparison with the little general clinic where I had the first surgery…didn’t happen. The nurses were running around like headless chickens, the admitting office was not admitting people in the order of the surgical schedule causing the doctors to moan “where’s Mr. Schmidt? He’s on the schedule next, why is he still in admitting?” and all kinds of other dislocations. Because of the chaos, the nurses apparently didn’t get as much of the numbing drops into my eye as they were supposed to because when the surgery started, I could feel it!

OK, no searing pain or other horrifying experience, but when I said “ouch!” the second time (I was drugged, so I didn’t have the presence of mind to use the Afrikaans “eina!” so maybe they didn’t understand me the first time) the doctor called for additional sedation injected into the cannula embedded in the back of my hand and it all went ok from there…until I got back to my room, that is. Seems the hospital was out of hard plastic eye shields and couldn’t discharge the surgery patients without them! In my case, I had my shield from the previous surgery and was allowed to go home, but the little packet of tape, gauzes, and eyewash solution I was given at the first hospital was conspicuously missing. Had this been my first surgery, I would have faced the second with some trepidation!

Puddin’ was such a little darling! When I came home from the hospital and lay down to sleep off the drugs, she came up into the bed and refused to leave me. Hubby actually picked her up and took her off the bed, thinking she might be disturbing me, but she stubbornly came back up and curled up beside me. She refused to leave my side until she was satisfied that I was okay. Isn’t that just sweet? I tend to think of Yorkies as narcissistic little balls of hyperactive energy, but obviously there is more to her than that!

My mother-in-law, bless her heart, came up to stay with us. She has had the surgery so she knew what to expect and just took over the kitchen. Bright lights and pungent odours were extremely painful for the first week or so…ordinarily I can chop an onion without shedding a tear, but not this time! Also, the week between surgeries was hectic on my vision…my right eye had a clear lens set for distance vision (I need reading glasses now), but my left eye was sorely nearsighted and it was like looking at everything through a yellowish-brown veil. Trying to coordinate the two was something less than amusing and more often than not, I would have to close one eye or the other which, of course, screwed with my depth perception. Thank you Ma, for coming to our rescue! We had three weeks of fabulous curries, chutneys and breyanis, and I didn’t cut off even one finger!!

We continue to add to the list of things that need fixing. This house has great bones and the original builder, a German mechanical engineer, did a great job of planning both the structures and the garden. Unfortunately the owner between him and us just lived here. He maintained nothing, he fixed nothing, he just lived here until it began falling apart around him and then he sold it to us, never bothering to tell us about the delayed maintenance issues he was dodging. We dug into our cash reserves (always slim after buying a new house!) to address the most critical issues: non-functioning kitchen stove, five (out of six) malfunctioning toilets, dead kreepy-krawly in the pool, and dangerous electrical problems, and got those addressed, but we are waiting for the money from the sale of our house in Cape Town to finish the extensive list of second-tier problems…carpeting (they took the carpets that were custom cut to fit over the under-carpet heating pads), fixing the garage door, security gate motor, and adding a wall/gate combo to separate the driveway from the street, increase the gardener’s hours so we can get the mess that should be a beautiful garden cleaned up, etc. When we replaced the faulty tap in the kitchen we discovered to our horror that the thing had been leaking under the sink and because the cabinets are pressboard covered with melamine, they have rotted under the sink. So, some serious work in the kitchen will be required as well.

The pool is about 90% recovered from its ordeal…we signed the papers on this house in late March and the Seller lived here another five months without doing even the barest minimum of maintenance. The pool, which was sparkling blue when we offered for the house, was a murky green when we moved in and seriously low on water. I think he neither ran the pump nor topped up the pool in that five month period. He must not have watered or cleaned the garden in that time as well, because it was a mess, complete with dead plants and heaps of fallen leaves that should have been raked up (remember, March is the beginning of autumn here, September is the beginning of spring…we moved in on 1 September and last fall’s leaves were still strewn over the garden and planting beds!). Hubby has spent a small fortune for the pool to be repaired (the suction line had a leak and needed replacing, which required digging up the back lawn and removing some of the pool surround paving) and a slightly smaller fortune on chemicals to kill the algae and whatever was making heaps of white foam on top of the green water. It was disgusting, but it has improved somewhat.

Once we got here and started watering, the change was amazing! We are just up the road from a small river and the soil here is remarkably fertile. There is a trumpet vine climbing the wall of the front courtyard and after a month of watering, it has begun blooming…profusely!! The flowers are kinda pinky-coral coloured and quite lovely . Sadly, much of the giant papyrus in the same planting bed has died back from the neglect, but hopefully copious and regular applications of water will wake it up. These things are astonishing…some are at least 3 metres tall! I’ve only ever seen papyrus that tall in a tea garden in the Midlands, where the weather is like Oregon…wet, wet, and on a good day, wet.

Yesterday morning we went to an antique show and sale at the Wanderer’s Cricket Ground, a very old-school clubby kind of place. The ballroom had been taken over and only the members of the SA Antiques Dealers Assn were allowed to show, so it was a fairly high-end event. And man, were there some beautiful pieces! One guy had a penchant for Tiffany, Lalique and Gallé, and he literally had several millions of rands worth of inventory on display! There was a Tiffany lamp, looked like gilded calla lilies (arum lilies) for half a million rands (around $200K) and some magnificent Lalique vases approaching a million rands each in price. His was probably one of the best displays because of the sheer beauty of the Lalique pieces. I found a beautiful little chased sterling silver needle case that Hubby kindly purchased for me. After a little research I have determined it is English, .965 silver, made in Birmingham in 1909 by the Birmingham Guild of Handicrafts. It will do well for my tapestry needles, which are blunt at the end and therefore difficult to store in a pin cushion.

MIL went home yesterday, and so I now have the house back to myself. Seems a bit quiet and empty. She’s such a nice lady…I don’t think my husband truly appreciates how lucky he is to have a mother like her. She is neither intrusive nor critical, always supportive but has no compunctions about stating her feelings on a matter…she just has that magical way of making her feelings known without trampling on anyone else’s. I am truly blessed with her as a mother in law, and I miss her (and her culinary expertise!). We are going down to visit her in Durban next month and she has even invited Puddin’!

I fear Hell House is treating the new tenants no better than it treated us. Saturday Hubby got two phone calls from the alarm company for that house, saying the alarm was going off. The new tenants haven’t given the alarm company their phone numbers, so the company called us. We tried to call the tenants but nobody answered the phones. I sent an SMS and got a reply last night…the electricity keeps tripping off, which for some reason is setting off the alarm. I swear, that house has a malevolent spirit and I am so glad we have moved away…far away!

But for us, life continues apace, fixing that which is broken, keeping ahead of the dust and dirt and entropy, making this house into a home.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

It's tough...

It’s tough when you don’t know what you said…or didn’t say.

It’s tough when you don’t know what you did…or didn’t do.

It’s tough to know that you cannot change another or what they choose to believe, even when you know how grave is their error, even when that error carves a grievous wound.

It’s tough to find balance, to keep the love and shrug off the hurt.

It’s tough to find the boundary, to draw the line that protects you but does not punish them…for they are as entitled to make mistakes as you are entitled to bleed from them.

And yet—

There is nothing in the rules of relationship that says you must honour that which another has cast aside. There is nothing that obligates you to accept their errors for the truths they believe them to be, nothing that requires you to bend your neck to their disrespect, their disdain, their scorn. Nothing requires you to sacrifice dignity and self-respect to those who would malign you, even in error, and nothing demands that you give over your truth to the self-serving untruths that disparage you.

It’s tough when those you have loved since before their first heartbeat know you not and care even less.

But it is not the end of the world.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A bit under the weather...

Last Wednesday I had my first of two eye surgeries to remove cataracts and have a prosthetic lens inserted in my eye. It went so well that I was actually looking forward to doc doing the same today (imagine someone cutting into your eyeball...while you are awake! Now you can imagine how well that surgery went, given I was looking forward to today's procedure!)

Unfortunately, today's surgery was not the cakewalk last week's was. I dunno why, but the anaesthesia was not as effective as last time, and I was painfully aware of the doctor's activities. They do not give you a general anaesthetic for this procedure, just something to relax and calm you, and they put anaesthetic drops in the eye, but something just didn't go according to plan.

Now, 8 hours later, the eye is tender, bloodshot, and I am going to need the pain meds in order to sleep tonight (didn't need them last time). The only difference between this surgery and the last one is the location: same doc, same anaesthetist, same procedure, just a different hospital. And I naively expected that, since this was an eye hospital...a specialist venue...that the experience would be even better than my experience last week in a small general hospital. Wrongo! This place was chaotic, the check in procedure was a mess and even had the doctors complaining about not getting their patients up to the operating theatres on time (because they were stuck in the admissions area), and it was even out of the hard plastic shields that are taped over the eye after surgery (thank goodness I had my own shield from the last surgery!)

I've had amazing medical care in this country, today being my first "clinker." The admin clerk had an attitude big enough to build a road around and was totally without concern for the very reason her job even existed: funnelling patients into the hospital to have procedures for which they pay, procedures which, ultimately, pay her wages. The doctors set up surgery schedules and they aren't random: my doc likes to get "simple procedures" (like mine) done early and out of the way so that she has time for more complex...and possibly lengthy...procedures later on. Also, diabetics are instructed not to take their morning insulin or tablets and aren't allowed to eat, so they need to be seen first to minimize problems for their metabolisms. I was originally #2 on the surgical schedule but because of the screw ups at admission, I ended up being #4 in the parade of patients going through the operating theatre which kept me there longer than I should have been, postponed my meds and morning meal and generally wreaked havoc on my equanimity, not to mention my metabolism.

It is over now, and tomorrow I will go to the doc and see what the outcome is...will let you all know.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

“Sorry, we are fully booked”

September 17, 2010

“Sorry, we are fully booked” : Racism and Discrimination today

I am a white American. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the same year I graduated from high school, and so I have spent the majority of my life living in what was supposed to be a free and equal society.

My friend Walter, an African-American, once told me that racism in America is not only not dead, the newer, less blatant forms of racism are perhaps more difficult to deal with because they are less obvious. Instead of telling a person flat out, for example, that an apartment complex does not rent to them, a black person might be told a unit has already been rented when, in fact, it is still vacant and the landlord is holding out for a white applicant. Services may be refused under the guise of ineptitude (poor service or bad seating in a restaurant), or being too busy (a contractor who eagerly comes out to your house to give you an estimate but doesn’t respond with a quote, responds with an outrageously high quote, or mysteriously doesn’t have time to take on your job) or a host of other ploys designed to exclude people of the targeted category. It is not only people of colour who are targeted in this manner, but mixed-race couples, gay people, foreigners of any colour, non-Christians, and even women. When discrimination against groups of people became illegal and, eventually, unpopular and socially unacceptable (“politically incorrect”), it went underground and “We don’t serve your kind here” became “Sorry, we are fully booked.”

South Africa is increasingly suffering from the same phenomenon. As the nation continues to normalize, to move away from the strictures of apartheid, certain relics of it remain in the form of people who, while acknowledging the changes in the laws, have made no changes in their hearts. And Walter is right: it’s tough when you find yourself in an otherwise inexplicable situation and, when all other explanations fail, sometimes you just have to play the race card, no matter how reluctantly.

A couple of years ago, in Cape Town, we came across this problem. It was so stealthy we failed to tip to it until we were actually told “We didn’t want to take this job because we know what you people are like!” But the warning signs were there, had we only seen them. We called a referral service to find a contractor who could refinish some water-damaged louvered doors. The contractor came out to the house, looked over the job, agreed to do it, took my email address and promised to send me a quote. After a few days…during which I called to find out where my quote was…I contacted the referral service to request another contractor or that they press this guy to get going on the quote. The quote finally arrived and the amount was reasonable, but then we had trouble getting them to come pick up the doors. Once the doors were finally collected, they kept them forever. Finally, in exasperation, I called and asked them to bring back my doors…and they demanded 100% payment before I had even seen the work. When I objected, they send me a new demand that worked out to 100% payment minus the VAT (sales tax). Again, I called the referral service and the doors were quickly returned. But the work was frightful! The sanding was coarse and the wood was splintery. The colour of the two doors no longer matched. And the varnish was spotty, and one door had been left unvarnished on one side.

The following day a woman called me, demanding payment. I said they would have to do the doors over again, this time properly, for us to pay them, at which time she began screaming at me over the phone, saying that she knew that the job was going to be trouble because of what people like us are like. When pressed to explain what she meant…what kind of people are we that she could know in advance that we wouldn’t pay for the work…she hung up. Since we have a perfect credit rating and no complaints or judgments against us, it is not possible she was referring to our payment history; since we lived in an up-market suburb in a very nice house, she could not mean we were too low-income to trust for payment; since there was a top-of-the-line Mercedes SUV parked in the driveway, she could not mean we were too poor to afford their services. What, other than something unpleasant and smacking of racism, could she mean? Surely her husband saw the Ganesha statue and godlamp in the living room and, judging from their company name and the Bible quotes on their business card, they considered themselves über-Christians, but was it the fact that Hubby is Hindu, non-white, or we are a mixed-race couple that offended their sensibilities? What kind of people did they perceive us to be that they felt justified in doing a worse-than-half-assed job on the door and demanding full payment in advance, essentially cheating us?

We have moved to Johannesburg and bought a house. We don’t know why the seller has done the same…blatantly cheating us by intentionally concealing defects and outright lying to both us and, in the end, the estate agent as well. He told the estate agent on 28 August that the garden would be cleaned up and the pool in perfect condition when the handover was done on 1 September…it wasn’t. Now he has lied to the conveyancing attorneys, telling them that they handed over the house to us in the same condition as when it was sold: not true…when it was sold, the pool was clean and blue, the garden lush, clean, and well-watered. And he warranted the “fixtures” in the house to be in proper working order, which they are not. Would he have done the same to a white couple? We will never know, but if racism is behind his unethical actions, then he’s also a hypocrite who can be bought and sold for a handful of silver: he had another offer for the house, and it was only slightly less than our offer, but he took the greater sum and sold to us. Is he just a greedy cheat? Or is there more to it than that?

So, we engaged a handyman to come take care of the worst of the problems, especially toilets that were leaking so badly that we were wasting money…and water…every minute of every day and every night. Hubby called a referral service that referred us to him, and…well, I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t.

First, he couldn’t seem to get us a quote. He came to see the property, I gave him a list of faults and problems, and walked him through the house, showing him everything on the list. It took a week and several phone calls from both me and Hubby, but finally the quote was in and, because it was reasonable, we accepted it. It called for a R5000 deposit, but the banks are closed on the weekend, so the internet transfer could not be effected until Monday anyway.

When we accepted the quote via email, he told us he could not start the job on Monday (despite knowing the urgency of some of the work) but we agreed for him to start on Tuesday. Late Monday, however, he calls me and says he can’t come on Tuesday, that a customer for whom he has just built a brick wall now wants it plastered. I asked him if he could plaster her wall on Wednesday because the leaking toilets are costing me money every hour that they run. He agreed to come on Tuesday but a little late…say 9 am.

So, 7 am Tuesday he shows up. He replaced the seals in the toilets and did some other work, then left in the afternoon, saying he would be back in the morning…I haven’t seem him since (and the toilets are still leaking). I called him Wednesday morning to see when he would be in, and he went into a long complaint about “I haven’t seen any money in my account…” I reminded him that it takes a couple of days for a bank transfer to occur, but that Hubby had given me R2000 in cash to hold him over until the bank transfer went through. “Okay, okay,” he said, “I’ll be by later today.” He didn’t show up.

The following day I sent him an SMS asking what time I should expect him to arrive. He did not respond, Hubby tried to call him on the phone several times…he didn’t answer. I sent an SMS this morning asking if he was coming back or if I should call the referral service for another workman. This time he did reply, but he said only “Pls send your bank details that I can refund u.”

Obviously he got the money, but I had ceased to think money was the issue when he failed to show up for the cash. Hubby thinks that the guy had a problem with a white woman (me) being married to a non-white man (him). This seems to be a peculiarly sensitive topic among certain white South Africans, for the same person who would do business with a non-white couple may well refuse to accommodate a mixed-race couple in which one member…particularly the woman…is white. To do business with such a couple is tantamount to approving of the relationship and preventing mixing of the races was a huge issue in apartheid South Africa and may well still be among some of the older white South Africans.

As a white American woman, I have always believed that I am acceptable, that only a few unreconstructed Neanderthals would refuse my custom because I was female and everybody else would be glad for the business. And those who discriminated against me because of my gender have, for the most part, been pretty up front about it...I was once actually told that I was being refused a promotion because "we don't put women in that job"! But for the most part, I get a decent table when I walk into an empty restaurant, I got the house when I offered at the advertised price, and the contractor who flaked out on my house remodel had shown up drunk for work several times (although not to the initial meetings), so it didn't occur to me that he might have abandoned the job because I was female. So it has been a bit of a shock at times to find myself on what may well be the receiving end of the same kind of discrimination that people of colour apparently have to deal with every day for their entire lives, to bump my nose against the concept that I am not acceptable…that I am somehow flawed or unworthy…not because I am too uncouth, too poor, or even too Left Coast, but because my other half is an unacceptable colour, race, or faith.

It sucks. Not in just the emotionally outrageous sense…how dare you refuse to give me a decent table because I’m black or gay or Muslim or an unaccompanied female??...but in pragmatic terms as well: How much time and energy and effort are wasted in futile pursuits, writing offers for houses that will never be accepted, making dinner reservations that end up in an interminable wait for a table (a wait designed to exhaust your patience and send you elsewhere)? How many times will I show a potential contractor through my home, preparing a detailed list of needs and pointing out what I want, only to have to do it over and over again because this one cannot be bothered to send a quote or has suddenly become too busy to book the project? How many people will look into my eyes and smile at me and make promises they have no intention of keeping because my surname is Indian but I when they got to the door, I was the "wrong" colour?

We cannot know…and, just as Walter once said, it’s actually much tougher this way. In an earlier time they would tell you to your face…sometimes hurtfully…but at least you were not left sitting around wondering why your offer for a house was turned down, despite offering at the advertised price, no speculating why the contractor smiled through your explanation of your needs but failed to submit a quote, no questions in your mind why, in an empty restaurant, you are seated next to the door to the toilet. There was no need to wonder, question, speculate: they would just tell you “We don’t serve your kind here” and you knew. You knew.

Settling in...

Saturday, 11 September 2010

I still have no internet, so I can’t see what is going on in the States regarding the ninth anniversary of 9/11, but I expect there are memorial services all across the nation and perhaps even some protests. I hope those morons who are planning a Qur’an burning think better of their scheme, it will do nothing except create more resentment against Americans on the part of Muslims worldwide. How would they feel if a bunch of Iraqis, unhappy over the deaths of their compatriots in George Bush’s personal little vendetta, burned a few barrels of Bibles?

I am sleeping better here in the new house. I am not sure why except, perhaps, I feel more settled. We own the house and, despite the rude surprises we keep finding (newest surprise: the kitchen stove works erratically at best), the house is ours, we decide what to fix and when, and we should not have to pull up stakes and bugger off to parts unknown again, since Eskom now has Hubby in HQ and probably won’t change that anytime soon. They have nearly 20 years of new build projects ahead of them and his expertise is required on them all.

We are largely done with the unpacking. The study is still boxed up as is my sewing stuff, but the boxes are out of the cottage where we had them stored, so I will soon be able to photograph it and put ads on the internet to rent it out. Of course, I’ll need my internet connection back, but that is in the works. The pool guy has spent two days digging and laying pipe but still doesn’t have the pool working, and we are awaiting a quote from the handyman guy for the list of 30+ items that require his attention. The house was not left in the best condition, a victim of studied neglect and less-that-stellar housekeeping. I don’t profess to be the world’s most immaculate housekeeper, but in a country where every middle-class household has a maid and the supermarket bulletin boards are full of ads from women looking for maid work, there’s just no excuse for crusted crap under the stove knobs and on the switches on the wall behind the stove.

My maid, Thandiswe, is working overtime to help get this place in shape. Truth be told, she’s doing a lot more…and harder…work than I am. We are missing some stuff, but I expect it will turn up as we continue opening boxes and distributing their contents. The new dishwasher is here, but not connected yet, as we can’t find the drain connection, but hopefully the handyman will be able to help us with that.

The kitchen stove is a nightmare. First of all, it is one of those ceramic glass things, which I hate even more than I hate the electric plate-type stove. Secondly, it is grimy…I am afraid what we’ll find under it when it is removed. Third, it doesn’t work properly: when I tried to boil water last night to cook some pasta, every time the burner heated up to full heat, it turned itself off. There are no numbers on the knobs to let you know the level of heat you are calling up, but if you turn the knob all the way to the end of its travel, it shuts off the burner. Cooking on this thing is quite the challenge, as you can’t be sure the burner will stay hot or if it will decide it needs a rest and shut itself off. Hubby, however, has solved the problem for me…he bought me a gas stovetop (hob) and the installer is on his way to take a look at the job. This will be a vast improvement!!

Day 12: settling in

Well, nothing is fixed yet…the handyman, despite promises to send us a quote for the 33 items on my list plus a few more things, has not followed through. Nothing with this house seems easy, but somehow it isn’t demoralizing the way it was with Hell House.

To install the gas bottles for the new stove, we are going to have to build a little brick shelter for the bottles. Code requires that the bottles be located at least two meters away from a drain and not near windows, etc., which gives us little leeway for position. Apparently in some of the oldest parts of town underground gas lines still exist, but we aren’t there so we have to use bottled gas. But that’s OK…it’s what Gramma Violet had out on the farm when I was a kid and it is what I used very successfully in Cape Town. They install two 19 litre bottles with a switching mechanism so that when one goes empty, I can switch over to the other one, and have a virtually uninterrupted flow of gas. I still have to struggle with the stove-with-a-mind-of-its-own for the rest of the week, but the oven kinda works (it seems to run hot) so I can roast and broil most things. Cooking scrambled eggs this morning on a stove that shuts itself off when it feels like it was a true-to-life challenge!

Today is Sunday and the weather is lovely. We’ll probably go out for a while later, but Hubby’s gouty foot is still not well, so we’ll need to keep the hiking around to a minimum. We thought we’d go look at some nurseries and get a bead on prices…I need house plants (mine stayed in Cape Town) and we need a few things for the garden for screening along the boundary walls. I also have some outdoor pots that need plants. We live in Sandton, a pricey area, and we assume any nurseries we find here will reflect that fact. Witkoppen Road, near where we used to live, has mile after mile of nurseries, some of them with tea gardens, and we expect not only lower prices, but a welcome for the Yorkie, assuming we keep her in her pram. She hasn’t had an outing with us in ages, so this should excite and delight her.

A strange man came to the door yesterday, a black man with a couple of other men in a yellow bakkie (small pickup). He claimed to have been with the man who picked up a bunch of trash for me the other day…I don’t know what the other men were up to, but they were going to other houses…and asked me for money for petrol, saying he would carry away the compost heap the last owners left us! I didn’t recognize the guy and sent him away, but the experience was odd…do these people really expect complete strangers to just give them money…or even get close enough to the security gate to get grabbed? Crooks sometimes amaze me with their arrogance and stupidity…but I have to shake my head at some of the stuff victims fall for or things they do that make them targets. Do you put your handbag on the passenger seat beside you when you drive? Don’t be surprised when you become the victim of a “smash and grab,” where someone breaks your car window with a brick, rock, or hammer and grabs your handbag and runs while you are stuck at a traffic light. Happens all the time here, and you’d think by now women would know better.

In Cape Town we constantly had “visitors” at the front door with scams and sad stories trying to pry me loose from some cash. And while I am sure some of the people were in desperate straits, a man in new Levis and Nikes doesn’t strike me as a guy whose fortunes have badly floundered. We have a rule in our household…we don’t give money…never. If a person is hungry and asks for food, we give food…always. But we don’t offer it. Seems that one of the common scams is to get money to feed a bad habit…like drugs or alcohol…by concocting a sob story and playing on the sympathies of affluent householders. Many people refuse to give money but offer food, only to find their kind offerings abandoned at the corner near their house, discarded because the drug dealer won’t trade tik for a half a loaf of bread and liquor stores demand cash. So, we don’t give cash and only food when it is requested.

But evidently enough people pass out cash that the scammers are encouraged to continue. This guy apparently observed my refuse removal because he referenced the “white bakkie” that was used and he claimed to have been the helper, but the helper was the brother of the driver, so surely he would know the driver’s name? I am thinking that the guy (or someone he knows) observed the hauling and decided to take a chance that I’d be sympathetic to his “situation” and give him money based on the idea that I should have recognized him and, not being able to, would be a bit ashamed of myself and give money to assuage that shame. I ain’t falling for it. It wasn’t Mike’s brother, he didn’t even know Mike was Kenyan!

We just got the quote from the handyman…Tuesday morning at 7 the work starts and with any luck, Thandiswe will be able to move into her own room no later than Wednesday. Since her satellite TV hookup will be installed Monday, this should make her a happy camper! She values her privacy such that she is bathing and cooking in the cottage rather than in the main house, so having her own private space should make her happy. This house has a really large staff room, bigger than my own bedroom. But, it has to serve as a studio flat, so it needs to be big. Other houses we looked at had a staff room barely big enough for a double bed, a fact Thandiswe discovered to her surprise when she met and visited with the maids on our street when we lived in Hell House. She came home and told me, the shock evident in her face and voice, that the maids she visited had rooms no bigger than my dressing room. I suspect she was subtly checking to see how big her room would be at the new house, and I assured her that her space would be generous and we’d see to it that it was comfortable.

So, Tuesday the handyman puts in her new toilet and will replace some damaged cornice, then she can finish her painting and get moved in. And I hope she is happier there…she’s already using her own wash lines to hang out her laundry, and has moved her dishes and other possessions in…I think she’s anxious to get her own space back, it’s been nearly a year that she’s had to share space with us.

4 PM
We’ve been out and about most of the day, Puddin' riding along in her pram or the baby sling Hubby got for her. It’s the longest outing she’s had since we moved up to Joburg and she had some great fun. Garden centres here often have tea gardens where you can have something to drink and a light snack, and we stopped at one where we had a sandwich and she, from her stroller, had a wonderful time barking at the chickens prowling about the place. Quite funny, considering that she loves chicken so much that if you so much as say the word in her presence, she pricks up her ears and starts looking for her share, and while we doubt she associates the chicken tidbits we feed her with the creatures prowling around the tea garden, she had a great time barking at them. Now, however, she is worn out, sprawled in my lap, her chin on my knee, snoozing it off.

We got the toilet for Thandiswe’s room and the cistern kits for the rest of the malfunctioning toilets, and six star jasmine plants to put in the flower beds in front of the cottage. When the damp-affected wall is repaired, we’ll be putting the cottage up for rent and a filled flower bed shows better than an empty one. So, tomorrow the pool guy returns, the alarm guys return, and the satellite TV guys come back to put in the HDTV decoder and the extra cabling. Tuesday the handyman starts his work and sometime in the undetermined future the phone company should come in and install the phone lines and the ADSL lines. Next Saturday the gas installers should be here to put in the new stove and then I should be able to start unpacking the study and the sewing and put the house finally to rights.

6 PM
Just found out that the lovely Jacuzzi tub doesn’t work. Got water, got plug, got tub…jets do not function. How much you wanna bet the Mr. Seller knew this and failed to mention it??

Saturday, October 02, 2010

More stuff...and more unpacking...

Day 8: More unpacking, Manie the Handyman arrives, and even more unpacking
Well, ADT was supposed to be here tomorrow to set up the alarm but they rocked up this morning before I even had my shower. Seems Mr. Seller “didn’t know” his alarm code, which makes me wonder why he even had the ADT account, especially since the ADT guys discovered the contacts on the front door and the kitchen door are not functional. We know he had an active ADT account because he transferred it to his new address. How did he use it if he didn’t know the alarm code? Or is that just one more thing he withheld from us? Curiously, the installation team reprogrammed the box and installed a new box next to the alarm box, but they couldn’t fix the two non-functional contact sets. Huh? So, the alarm itself is working but because the front door and the kitchen door have faulty contacts, they aren’t covered…these are the two doors most accessible from the street! Go figure…

More unpacking…good thing I have a big free standing cabinet as the kitchen doesn’t have enough cupboards for pots, pans, dishes, glasses, and food. I need a pantry and that useless space Mr. and Mrs. Seller created out of the atrium (which I wish they had left!) is prime space for it. Eventually…but for now, my big double armoire is pressed into service for the dishes and serving ware.

1 PM
Manie looks like a good find…he worked for his brother-in-law in a landscape and irrigation business and should be able to take care of the irrigation, once the bees have buggered off (there are "foraging bees" here now to harvest the honey Henri couldn't get off the pipes and valves and such). He also has more than 20 years experience with construction, both large and small, and ordinary plumbing jobs don’t challenge him, so changing some washers and stopping the toilet leaks are within his scope of work. We have jobs large and small here, and he seems to be competent for them all. Let’s see what the quote comes in at…

Got a call a couple of hours ago that the dog house is on its way…YAY! It rains here in the summer and Nash and Candy need a place to be safe from the storms.

2 PM
Something is leaking…I think it is the air conditioner. This house came with the cutest little old fashioned coal-burning iron stove set into a brick nook in the hallway, something I really looked over when we were here the first time. I do not recall seeing a large plastic jug secreted behind the stove but it was one of the first things I noticed when we moved into the house. I asked Hubby if he had any idea what it was…there was a black tube leading down the chimney space and into the jug…but he didn’t know either. Well, it seems it is for the purpose of collecting the condensation from the air conditioner…for some reason, instead of the tube leading outdoors where it could release the condensation onto the roof and into the gutters, it goes into the chimney and down into a jug hidden behind the stove. Ok, a rocket scientist I am not, but somehow I think a plastic jug behind a coal-burning stove is not the smartest choice one could make and…here’s the kicker…where was that jug when we viewed the house in March?? Had I seen it, surely I would have asked about it!

6 PM
Thandiswe and I unpacked the bathroom…this bathroom has not one single cupboard or cabinet…not one. No under-sink cupboards, not even a medicine cabinet! Fortunately we have a pair of large lined baskets that slide neatly under the sink counter and they will just have to do until the bathroom remodel brings us a real set of cupboards and some cabinets.

Hubby and I hit the supermarket…two of them to be exact…and between them there was but one sad, limp, wilted head of lettuce. Ordinarily the shelves are packed with bagged salads and fresh lettuces and other produce, but both stores were completely sold out! Never seen anything like it…oh, wait…I take that back…a couple of years ago Hubby and I must have gone to half a dozen markets looking for a bag of frozen peas and nobody had any…it was bizarre!

So, now it is time to make dinner…hopefully tomorrow will be a bit on the quiet side, with only the pool company scheduled to pitch up and disturb my peace. Time, of course, will tell…

It's starting to get ugly...

Day 7: Unpacking and fixing

Today is our seventh day in the house and repairs are soon under way. The wasps and bees will soon be history…Henri, the bee guy, is on his way to relieve us of our unwanted charges.

Later today the dishwasher should be delivered…hurrah, my first since leaving the US. After the refrigerator fiasco with DEFY, we popped for the extra money for the Bosch…we’ve had one service call on the Bosch washer in its almost seven years with us and the service was swift and sure: no calls in five years now. DEFY would have been cheaper in the initial outlay, but if the fridge is any indication of their build quality (we KNOW it is an indication of their service quality) it would be penny-wise but pound-foolish to buy one of their appliances again.

The dog house is delayed until later in the week, as is the pool repair, but today Manie, a professional handyman, should pitch up and take a look at the myriad of little things that need attention, from doors that won’t stay closed to a malfunctioning curtain rod to sticking drawers to a broken drawer slider.

We still don’t have telephone service and, therefore, no internet. Seems that we actually have to present a physical presence at the telephone company offices to place an order for service, even though the house has a phone line already installed…nothing like convenience to the customer, ya know? Small wonder more and more people are eschewing the phone company in favour of cell phones and wireless internet providers. Cell phone companies are in every mall, large and small, and the wireless internet guys come to you with their product and service. In a time when companies are seeking ways to boost their business, Telkom seems bent on diminishing theirs with crappy service and forcing customers to go through hoops. We will be considering the change to wireless…and the people who moved into Hell House are already wireless. That’s the way the world is moving anyway, and Telkom is giving South Africans a huge push in that direction with their cavalier attitude towards the convenience of the customers and their service delivery (it takes a personal visit to the phone company and then WEEKS of waiting to get your phone service turned on here, even if the house is already wired, as opposed to a single phone call and just HOURS for the service to be turned on in Silicon Valley).

So, Hubby is off to Telkom, to see if he can get our phone and internet turned on while I wait for the bee guy, the handyman, and my new dishwasher. While I wait, Thandiswe and I continue to unpack boxes, trying to figure out new places for all the old stuff. Soon the cottage will be empty and we’ll begin advertising it…the next phase of the move in will be getting tenants!

11 am
The previous owner did not pay his electricity account for the last three months and somehow the payment the attorneys were supposed to make to clear the account is lost in transit because Eskom just showed up and cut off the power for non-payment. Joy. When this happened at Hell House, it took 23 hours to get the account restored. We may be in for a dark night and more take out food.

5 pm
The power is back on, after Hubby made a trip to the electric company and made a fuss. He transferred the electricity account to our name but it seems the previous owner neglected to pay his bill for rather a long time since his past due balance was R107,000…yup, six figures!! Now, Hell House was shut off for a past due account of R3300, which probably represented between two and three months arrears, so you have to wonder how long Mr. Seller went without paying his electric bill!! According to the electric company, Mr. Seller went into their office last week and paid R50K to keep the lights on, so his complaint to Hubby that Eskom “overcharged” him would seem a bit hollow…who pays fifty thousand bucks in such a situation?

The bees are gone. Another mark against Mr. Seller here…Henri, the bee guy, says the nest has been there a very long time and it was a very big nest. The seller told us back in March, when we viewed the house for the first time, that the irrigation system was not working, so we expected a non-functional irrigation system. What he didn’t tell us was that it was not working because there was a big bee swarm inside the utility box that houses the valves and controls!! That I consider to be a definite deception on his part…Henri spent two hours here wearing a bee suit and carrying around a smoker, collecting what he termed “killer bees.” This is Africa, after all, and these are African honey bees. He also said this swarm was super aggressive: Thandiswe was standing well away from the box when Henri went to examine it and a bee flew right at her and stung her on the face!

But they are gone now, along with their cousins the wasps and with any luck they will find a happy home with Henri in Pretoria. He carried away a big wooden box full of bees…with their “lovely queen”…and two big black bags full of honey and honey comb. Thank goodness they are all gone, and I wish Henri luck with them!

We are making headway with the unpacking. Hubby’s wardrobe is pretty much liberated, a good portion of mine found and hung in the closet, and today we pretty much unpacked the dining room, including the liquor cabinet and the wine stash. The parts I really want to tackle…the study and my sewing/craft area…will just have to wait until the necessary stuff is addressed.

Manie and I crossed wires and so he will be here tomorrow morning…just as well, since we found three more things to add to the list, a door that won’t lock, a window that won’t close, and a problem with the dishwasher…no place to drain it! Another deception on the part of the seller, since there was a dishwasher in the kitchen when we viewed the house and there is a tap to fill it and a plug in the wall to plug it in, but no drain!!

Poor Yorkie is having a fit…Hubby put up the second baby gate today so we can open the patio door for ventilation but she cannot sneak out into the patio. Until the pool is repaired and cleaned, I don’t want her out there…I need to take her in the pool and teach her how to get out if she ends up there accidentally and today the water is a lovely lime green with white foam spread across the surface like so much lace…not exactly something I am keen on leaping into, Yorkie in hand.

We are awaiting take away food yet again, the order placed before the power was restored. I tried cooking breakfast this morning, but it was not as successful as I would have liked since the stovetop seems to have a mind of its own and no markings on the knobs to tell me if the thing is hot, cold, or in-between. The ceramic stove top is made by DEFY as was the one at Hell House, so I assumed that the heating was done essentially the same way…the furthest you can turn the knob away from “off” is the hottest…it appears, however, that turning it all the way to the end of its travel actually shuts it off again! The soft boiled eggs first turned out raw (insufficient heat to the pan) then turned out hard cooked (too much heat). This is going to be a steep learning curve. The oven, however, seems to work and the bagels I baked the other morning came out quite nicely.

So, today rolls to a close with yet more evidence of deception and mean-spiritedness on the part of the seller, a triumph over the forces of nature as the bee swarm was relocated without sending me to the hospital, and another dozen or so boxes emptied and flattened.

Tomorrow we resume.