Saturday, February 26, 2011

Grass don't grow under MY feet!

Ya know that flat my of my brother-in-law's, the one the tenants screwed up and the rental agent allowed to fall to wrack and ruin? Well, in the space of a month my husband and I (and a really talented, diligent contractor) have cleaned it out, renovated it...and rented it out!

He finished the work yesterday, we took the deposit and signed a lease with a couple of nice young black career women, and by Monday the cash should start flowing in the correct direction again. Here's a pic of the kitchen after installing a new floor, new kitchen cabinets, new kitchen stove, and new tiled counter tops. Didn't that contractor do a super job??

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cell C, I am fed up and now I am lodging an official complaint

One of the wonderful things about South Africa is the Advertising Standards Authority. This is a proactive organization with teeth and it is not afraid to use them. I love the ASA!

When a company is advertising something falsely, misleadingly, or if the advertisement is offensive, you can lodge a complaint with the organization and it will investigate. If it agrees with you (and they seem to be very pro-complainant) it will make the company remove or modify its advertising to be more acceptable.

I am going to complain to the ASA about Cell C and its false advertising about the "Whoosh" stick. The advertising is patently false...they fact that the stick may, on occasion, reach lightning speed does not give them the right to mislead potential buyers into thinking it is always that fast when, in fact, for a significant portion of time the stick is either miserably slow or completely off line (I had a four hour drop out earlier this week that wreaked havoc on my attempts to get a vacant flat rented!).

The ASA has its own standards for reporting. You can report a company on line via their complaint form or by email, but whichever you choose, they require certain information. The following is from their website:

All complaints lodged with the ASA must meet the following criteria:

* The complaint must be in writing.

* The identity of the complainant(s) must be disclosed.

* The contact details of the complainant(s) should be clearly stated.

* The complainant(s) identity or passport number must be provided.

* The grounds on which the complaint is based must be clearly stated.

* Where the complaint relates to advertising on broadcast media (e.g. television, radio or on cinema) information should be furnished on where and when the advertisement was screened / transmitted.

* Where signs, posters or any form of outdoor advertising is involved, the nature of the advertisement and the wording should be specified.

* When the complaint is about print advertising, the relevant advertisement should be attached.

* If possible, the contact name, address or telephone / fax number of the advertiser should be provided.

Complaints may be submitted as follows:

* By delivery, to the ASA at Willowview, Burnside Island Office Park, 410 Jan Smuts Avenue, Craighall Park, Johannesburg;

* By post to, PO Box 41555, Craighall, 2024;

* By telefacsimile, to +27 11 781 1616; or

* E-mail complaint to:

* Use the e-complaint form on this website

Their website is located at If you are as fed up with Cell C's misleading advertising and crap product, you now have a productive avenue of complaint. Use it!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Old age ain't for sissies

You’ve heard the expression “old age ain’t for sissies,” right? Well, I’m here to tell you it’s true.

Next month I am going to be 64 and I cannot believe how much my body has deteriorated over the past decade…especially the last year. I have been reasonably healthy most of my life…ok, I’ve had some serious challenges from time to time, but I’ve pretty much conquered most of them…but lately I find myself facing certain—shall we say “structural”—challenges that are almost certainly more related to aging itself (and the result of body abuse in my youth) than anything else.

Most people express surprise when they find out how old I am. I am fortunate in my genetic heritage because, despite my age, I am still regularly perceived as being 10 to 15 years younger than I really am. I don’t have much grey in my hair, and what I do have I have coloured away…a nice, natural-looking strawberry blond that suits my complexion and doesn’t scream “she dyes her hair!” In fact, it is close enough to my natural colour that when it starts to grow out, it is barely noticeable. I don’t have much in the way of wrinkles…I am podgy and that helps to plump out the facial skin…and I use a very good (read that “costly”) moisturizer to keep the dry skin at bay. I have always had dry skin (not much in the way of pimples as a teen, either), but as I age it gets drier and flaky.

But in just the last couple of years, not only is age beginning to show, I am beginning to really feel it. Suddenly…just since my cataract surgery in October…I have permanent bags under my eyes: dark hollows surrounded by puffy bags so pronounced, I can see them if I look down. Last year I tripped up some stairs and broke a bone in my foot: the x-ray revealed a big toe so afflicted with arthritis it should be immobile from the damage (it isn’t…I can flex it fine…but sometimes it hurts like a mutha…).

When you get older, your body begins to deteriorate and, popular wisdom aside, your diet and fitness levels in your younger years have much less effect than you would like to think. We each carry a genetic timebomb that, like it or not, will begin to assert itself despite our best efforts, provided we live long enough. This is why, despite all the hype about diabetes, for example, being a lifestyle disease, you will find fitness freaks who discover they are diabetic anyway…those genes trump anything and everything you might try to do to overcome them! (We have fat, sedentary diabetics in my family…we also have slim, active ones.) That’s no reason to let yourself go and court the Big D, of course, but if you are counting on stringent dieting and arduous gym visits to keep it away, you are starving and punishing your body for nothing. If you’ve inherited the genes for diabetes from both of your parents, the best you can do it stave off its onset…I wasn’t diagnosed until 63, my husband’s grandmother wasn’t diagnosed until her 80s…but you cannot turn off your genetic inheritance with diet and exercise, no matter how fervently you believe otherwise.

One thing young people don’t take into consideration is the kind of damage they might be doing to their bodies with their diet and exercise programs. Sounds counter-intuitive, but the things you do in your youth can come back to haunt you, big time, in later years. A youthful diet low in calorie-laden (but calcium rich) dairy products, for example, can set you up for bone density problems later in life (most of those calcium tablets don’t have much benefit aside from enriching the companies that make them…your body simply excretes calcium that is not taken in through diet); regular strenuous exercise can wear or damage tendons, ligaments, even muscles and joints…things you won’t think much of as your young body heals up…things you will remember and regret when, in later years, you develop chronic tendinitis, joints aching from wear, even surgeries to repair damaged muscles. In my early 50s I had to have surgery to repair a torn abdominal…originally damaged in my youth due to exertion and exacerbated by pregnancy. Over the years it grew from a little “lump” next to my navel to a tear so big I now have a scar more than 12” (30+cm) long on my tummy and two Kevlar patches inside!

Young active lifestyles often include lots of outdoor activities…I spent a lot of time on horseback, on motorcycles, driving a convertible, laying on the beach in skimpy swimwear, hiking in the boonies…lots of outdoor stuff with lots of skin exposed. I am fair skinned and light eyed and in my youth, sunscreens had not yet been invented, nor were UV-protected sunglasses widely available. Despite public pronouncements by a certain arrogant and grossly misinformed supermodel, you do need sunscreens, especially if you are light skinned because skin cancer is a reality, it is the most common form of cancer, and sun exposure is the leading cause. And, believe it or not, those cute, cheap sunnies from the drugstore or trendy boutique are not doing you any favours…if they lack UV protection and you have light coloured eyes, you will end up like me—cataract surgery a full 10 years (or more…my late husband had cataract surgery in his 40s) before the average: UV rays not only damage your skin, they damage your eyes as well.

How many times have you fallen off a horse or a bicycle, while roller blading or ice skating, while skiing, or playing some sport like basketball or volleyball? We often just shrug off the bumps and bruises, but sometimes they are more serious than we know: George Eads (Nick Stokes on CSI) fell playing basketball and actually fractured his lower spine. But because he could walk around he never sought medical treatment for it. Ten years later his spine was x-rayed, the fracture discovered, and he now has five screws in his back, holding his spine together properly. When he hits 60 or so, its gonna come back to haunt him even more.

I have a condition in my lower spine called “lumbar facet syndrome.” Six years ago, in response to my complain of crippling pain in my lower spine, I was x-rayed and told I had degenerative disc disease. No cure, not even palliative care…I just had to live with it. Last year it was x-rayed again, this time I was told the condition was facet syndrome. Again, no cure, no palliative care. And so I live with it…but it has its costs.

I trip a lot…I trip because the problem is worse on my left side than my right, and when I walk, my left foot doesn’t raise as high as my right, so any unevenness on the pavement, a tile that is not laid exactly flat, a lump in the carpet, a dog toy I don’t see…any one of these may catch the front of that foot and trip me.

I have trouble getting up from low seats, even if they have arms. Between the compromised abdominal muscles (yah, they are “repaired” but that doesn’t mean they are as good as new) and the fact that the left leg doesn’t have the strength the right one does (the facet syndrome involves nerves being pressed upon, causing both pain and weakness), if I sit in something where my butt is significantly lower than my knees, I may need help getting back up.

This, of course, means I can’t sit on the floor…or even get on the floor to look under the bed for my shoes. It means going up stairs is a problem because only my right leg is strong enough to lift my body up the steps. Getting things out of low cupboards can be daunting…I have bend from the waist and hope I can find the desired item before the blood rushes to my head and I pass out.

Long walks are out of the question unless I load up ahead of time on codeine (a medicine that is blessedly available over the counter here). A shopping expedition always begins (and often ends) with a codeine tablet.

My Grandma Violet lived to be 89 years old. In her later years, she had trouble sleeping, often waking at 4 am and unable to go back to sleep. For most of my life, I have slept like the proverbial log, but after I broke my foot last year, sleep became elusive. Now I have my delicious “log” nights intermittently, sandwiched unpredictably between “wake up every hour” nights and “can’t get to sleep, can’t stay asleep” nights. All things being equal, it appears that aging is beginning to affect my sleep as well as my waking hours.

It is easy to be contemptuous of the aging and the aged. And it is so easy to say 1) “I’ll never be like that,” 2) “I’d rather be dead than old or infirm,” or 3) “I hope I die before I get that way.” But saying and doing are very different things. My late husband had a dear old auntie who was horrified at her brother’s last decade: a stroke victim, he spent his last 10 years of life paralyzed and being cared for my his wife and, later, by a nursing home. So horrified was this auntie that she told all and sundry that if she had a stroke, she was not to be kept alive through “artificial” means (like IVs, feeding tubes, etc.). In her 90s, Auntie had a stroke…and I discovered that even the most horrific averse training…like watching your brother taken care of like a baby for his last ten years…can mean nothing when you are actually facing the Grim Reaper. Auntie changed her mind in the hospital bed and spent her own last days in a nursing home, unable to swallow or speak, communicating in writing and being fed and hydrated through a tube.

And so I say again, old age ain’t for sissies. It takes guts to get up and do the necessary tasks of living when every bone, joint and muscle hurts and you know that it will not only be worse by bed time, it won’t be any better tomorrow, either. It’s easy to suffer through a painful tendinitis when you know with therapy and meds, it will be better in a few days or weeks…it’s not so easy when you know that if you stress that wrist just a tiny bit…like pick up too many plates from the table at one time…it is going to pain you for days…possibly forever. When you have to decide on how much necessary work you will do based on your ability to stand, walk, or bend, your life becomes controlled not by your desires…or even your pocketbook…it becomes controlled by pain and endurance, one of which increases, the other of which decreases, based on the things you did decades past and thought nothing of.

Most of us either think we will never decline in our later years…or that we will simply not live to pay the piper. But if you look at the numbers of Baby Boomers entering retirement age every year, you have to face the fact that the odds are that you will get that old…and unless you live in a padded cocoon, you will begin to experience physical decline. And it is then that you will discover just how strong and indomitable you really are.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Money and brains

I prefer not to think of people as stupid…misguided, perhaps, or misinformed—even unthinking…but not stupid. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to stick to my resolve, difficult to refrain from assigning “stupid” or even “bone-deep stupid” to a person, based on a remark or an outlandish expectation.

My brother-in-law is a nice guy…smart, too. But being nice and being smart do not protect a person from being preyed upon by the unscrupulous members of our species. He owns a three bedroom apartment in Joburg but because he lives six hours away, he engaged a property letting and management company to manage it and keep it rented for him.

Like most people, my brother-in-law believed that since he was dealing with the largest company of its kind in the country and they had signed legally binding documents, his property was in good hands, it would be kept rented, it would be taken care of. He was wrong.

Oh, they rented the property, all right, but the quality of tenants they put into the flat left a lot to be desired and, a couple of years down the road, the interior of the flat has been so badly damaged and compromised that it was not rentable any longer. So, the agency called my brother-in-law and asked for money to paint and do repairs, something he normally agreed to, but this time they asked for an unusually large sum of money and red flags went up. Since we live in the area, he asked us to take a look for him…and we did.

The first clue there was something really wrong was the agent, when we went to her office to collect the keys…there was only one key instead of a complete set, and she said the security gate was broken. Then she lied and said the flat was needing work because whenever she called the owner, my husband’s brother, to ask for funds to fix things, he said “no.”

I immediately had to wonder why she wasn’t withholding money from the tenants’ deposits to fix things damaged during their tenancy. That is what the deposit is for, after all. And what was with this one key? Shouldn’t there be more keys to the place? Lost and missing keys and even changing locks when the tenant doesn’t return security and front door keys…that’s deductible from the deposit…where are the rest of the keys?

And then we got to the flat and I understood it all…despite a written contract that mandated the agents inspect the flat several times a year (to make sure the tenant wasn’t trashing the place), despite the agency taking security/cleaning deposits from tenants that were supposed to be used to remedy damage and clean the place after exit, the flat was a wreck. Cockroaches, bold as day, ran all over the floors, carpets and countertops and infested the cabinets and kitchen stove. The stove was so filthy it was literally uncleanable. Kitchen cabinets were missing doors, their bases rotted from water damage. The melamine countertops were blistered and burned and no longer secured to the walls; vinyl tile floors had holes, stains, large paint marks (for paint colours not used in the flat!) and were curled at the corners and lifted from the floors…more water damage. The bathtub had a hole in it and the wall behind it was water damaged clear through to the adjoining room (brick walls…it had soaked through the brick!). In the living room and bedrooms the carpet bore multiple melted imprints of a hot iron…somebody had used the carpet for an ironing board in several rooms…and in the centre of the living room the carpet there was a puddle of solidified candle wax the size of a plate. That, of course, is in addition to the multiple holes and stains in the carpeting and the fact that it was harbouring an infestation of roaches sufficient to make a strong man quail.

The bathtub had a hole in it and after the tub was removed, it took days for the wet concrete floor beneath it to dry out…the flat had been empty for more than a month at this juncture, but the space beneath the tub was still damp…and beginning to smell. One of the bedroom light fixtures…the fixture itself, not the light diffuser…was broken and needed replacing and the light fixture in the kitchen and open plan living room were so encrusted with grease and dirt that they had to be taken down and soaked in degreaser to clean. The closet in one bedroom, a fitted wardrobe made of white melamine, was so damaged it had to be removed…even the bricks supporting the door hinges were damaged, huge gouges out of them. The bedroom doors have heavy steel door frames…they had been pried open on at least one occasion, damaging both the door frames (which had to be pounded back into shape like at a body shop/panel beaters) and the doors (which had to be replaced).

The damage was extensive and horrifying…and costly to remedy. And while the agent’s expectation for paint was outrageous (she was asking for enough money to paint the flat several times, and the neighbouring flats as well), she wasn’t asking near enough to fix the damage to the unit and put it back into rentable order.

And so, my brother-in-law cancelled his contract with the agency and appointed his brother and me as managers. For the last week our contractor has been in there, pounding out door frames, removing all the damaged stuff and discarding it, getting the place fumigated, and preparing to put down new floors. This past weekend we bought tiles, grout, and adhesive, new bath hardware (the old was damaged beyond repair), new doors, a ceiling fan/light to replace the broken fixture, doors, paint, and a new kitchen stove. Next week the cabinets will be finished and he will install them…and all of this is costing my brother-in-law the equivalent of eight months rental income, just to make the place habitable again.

But that eight months income is gross, not net. The flat is in what Americans think of as a “condo” complex, so there are monthly levies to pay to the company that manages the exterior of the building (landscaping, paving, painting, roofs, drains, security, etc.) as well as the monthly mortgage (bond) payment. So, when the flat is empty, he has what is called a “negative cash flow,” meaning money flows out of his pocket to support the place rather than money flowing in. So, occupied or not, the flat has to be “fed” every month.

I have already begun advertising the flat for rent. The contractor looks on track to have it finished by 1 March, and we are hoping to have a tenant for it by then, to get money flowing back into my BIL’s pocket. The ad specifically states that the flat is freshly renovated with new tiles, cabinets, counter tops, kitchen stove, shower/tub (most of these flats have tub only), satellite dish, new paint, etc. Even someone who can barely reason must appreciate that if all this is new, a lot of money has been put into the place and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist…or even an accountant…to see that with that kind of money going out, the owner surely expects a return on the investment.

And so I come to the “misguided, perhaps, or misinformed—even unthinking…but not stupid” part. I got an inquiry from a person this morning who would like to see the flat. The only catch is, he can’t move until 1 June, would I hold the flat for him until then if he pays the deposit and first month’s rent now? He doesn’t plan to pay rent for March, April, or May, though…just secure the flat by paying the deposit and June’s rent. In South Africa we have a word for people like this…”chancer.” Why would anyone in his right mind think that, after spending all that money to renovate this flat from top to bottom, end to end, we’d agree to let it stand empty for three months…with no income…just so he can have it in June?

I honestly don’t suspect the guy of intentionally wanting something for nothing, I suspect he is as naïve as most people are to the reality of rental ownership, and I further suspect he thinks I am a greedy bitch when I told him that if he pays March, April, and May’s rent, he can move in whenever he wants. The problem is, I don’t think most people understand that most landlords have a bond (mortgage) on their property and that they must pay property taxes, trash collection fees, even minimal water and electricity charges whether the property is rented or not. Owning rental property is a business, and businesses have expenses, even when there is no income! In this country, there are no fixed-rate mortgages, so when the landlord agrees to a fixed rental for a year, he may actually lose money if the interest rates rise…this actually happened to us with our Cape Town property. I have heard people complain when their landlords raise their rent at lease renewal time…I heard a neighbour complain that his rent was going up 10% and the flat wasn’t worth 10% more—but maybe his landlord’s costs have gone up? Maybe his interest rate has been increased, the amount he has to pay the Body Corporate for maintenance of the property raised…or he knows he’d better bank that increase in order to paint over the purple, turquoise and lime green walls the tenant used to cover over the neutral palette that was the original colour scheme?

So, again, I hesitate to think of people as stupid, but how much actual thinking does it take to realize that asking a landlord to keep a flat empty for you for three months is a very stupid idea that will cost the landlord money? OK, if the landlord is your mum or grandmum, maybe…but a complete and total stranger will be willing to disadvantage himself to the tune of three months rental in order to have you for a tenant? Are you really that special? Or just that unthinking?

Friday, February 04, 2011

What would you ask God?

Yesterday I posted the following on my Facebook page: Some of us are believers...some of us are not. But, for the sake of argument, let's say that the god of the Christians is sitting across the table from you and you can ask him/her one question and get an honest answer. What would that question be?

I got some interesting responses:

What’s your real view on homosexuality?

"Is the Christian bible really your words, and if so, did you really intend for all humanity, regardless of nationality and cultural background, to follow and believe the Christian bible as interpreted by assorted clerics starting in Europe over a few centuries in the dark ages up until today?"

"If you gave humans free will and logic, then is it true you still punish for all eternity those who use those skills to determine you don't exist?"

"Why did you invent plague, famine, and mothers?"

"Why do u allow children to be so horribly abused?"

"How is it you allow horrible things happen to innocents?"

"If the only way to God is through Jesus then how come if someone is born in another part of the world where the teachings are the Buddha how come they miss out on going to heaven?"

“How did you come into existence?” about YOU? If you had the chance to put a question to God and get an honest answer back, what would you ask? Leave a comment...I'm interested to know.