Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Things I miss...and don't miss...about America

I miss...

Dreyers Rocky Road Ice Cream. Rocky Road ice cream of any kind, in fact...here, Rocky Road is a kind of candy...and not very good, either. I haven't even found any good chocolate ice cream, either...for some reason, plain chocolate isn't good enough, so whenever I can find chocolate, it is full of chips or chunks or blobs of bittersweet chocolate (ew!) or little shreds of Belgian chocolate (not as good as it sounds).

Oscar Mayer Weiners. We don't have weiners here. We have Viennas, Russians, bangers, bratwurst and, occasionally, "American hot dogs." Most of them aren't that good...and none of them hold a candle to Oscar Mayer Weiners. On a positive note, however, I have managed to find French's mustard. In the Kosher section of my local market. Who knew??

Central heating. That bears repeating: central heating. Tonight it is supposed to get down to 1C...just one degree above freezing...and we live in brick houses with no central heat. Some of us have fire places, the rest of us have portable heaters that we drag from room to room. And we live in brick houses that cannot, for the most part, be insulated as there are no hollow spaces in the walls to put the insulation. Once one of these houses gets cold, it is like being inside a refrigerator!

Window and door screens. And our windows are configured in such a way that it is almost impossible to screen them. We have security gates on all of our exterior doors and burglar bars on our windows, but nobody has screens to keep the worst villains out...biting and stinging bugs. As someone horribly allergic to mosquito bites and bee stings, I find this to be an egregious oversight on the part of local home builders!

Things I don't miss...

Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards: I have been here more than seven years and have experienced none of the foregoing. In that time, there has been one light (and very short-lived) snowfall in Johannesburg, a small surprise tornado in Pretoria, a mild earth tremor near the Wild Coast, and while the coastal areas get some impressive winter storms, nothing approximating a hurricane. Don't miss US weather at all.

Gender politics. Gender equality is enshrined in the Constitution and protected by the courts. In fact, it is taken so seriously that when two gay men approached the courts saying that the country's marriage laws discriminated against them, the court agreed and gay marriage became legal here. Abortions are legal and I have yet to see or hear of a medical facility being picketed because they perform abortions: a woman and her doctor make the choices and nobody else may have a voice. We even have an Equality Court that costs the plaintiffs nothing to bring a case to justice. This country takes equality seriously!

Attitudes about the poor. America seems to view poverty as a choice people make and should be punished for. South Africa, by contrast, recognizes that poverty is most often a result of circumstances and the government has a role in helping to change those circumstances. Every month people move to the large cities looking for work, making homes for themselves in rude squatters camps until they can better themselves. In American, such squatters camps are routinely bulldozed, the squatters chased away, as if destroying their meagre possessions will make them disappear. In South Africa the government brings in chemical toilets, clean water, and subsistence levels of free electricity in an effort to prevent disease and devastating shack fires. Free hospitals and clinics are available for anyone who hasn't the money for private care. Taxpayers do not moan and complain about paying for these things...they seem to accept that it is just a part of living in a country with a 25%+ unemployment rate and rampant poverty that, if allowed to fester, will create even greater social problems.

Aggressive religious presence: Oh, we do have the occasional religion peddlar come to our door, but they politely go away when asked and they are rare...perhaps one or two visits per year. And we don't have a movement of religious nuts trying to take over our schools and government, either, even though we do have a religious-based political party (which gets little more than a blip worth of votes each election...what does that tell you?). Don't think that South Africa is an atheist-leaning country though...it has an incredible abundance of churches...virtually every one I have ever heard of and quite a few that are new to me. And the people attend church, too...you can always tell when church lets out on Sundays because the roads, malls, restaurants and parking lots are suddenly mobbed! Not being Christian ourselves, Hubby and I make it a point to get our Sunday morning errands completed before they "release the Christian hordes," as he likes to put it.

Personality politics: In this country, you don't vote for a person, you vote for a political party...then the person who is the head of that party takes office (if it is the presidency) or appoints the mayor or whatever office the party has been elected to. This is actually a good thing: not only are we spared mudslinging campaigns prior to the elections, we also can get rid of a crappy politician before the end of a term...his own party replaces him mid-term!

Political signs, billboards, TV spots, etc.: Pre-election signs are limited in size to about the size of a sheet of newsprint. That's it...nothing bigger! And you can't say anything about your opponent in those signs, either...maybe a picture of your party's leader and an admonition for you to vote, but not much more is allowed. The absence of backstabbing, muck-racking, mud-slinging political advertising is a breath of fresh air, even though our politicians really aren't any better.

Inadequate regulation in financial, fuel, transportation, and other industries: The global economic downturn didn't hit South Africa all that hard because our highly regulated financial industry was forbidden to participate in the subprime fiasco that bankrupted Iceland and caused world-wide financial havoc. Gasoline prices are regulated by the government, so oil companies can't gouge or raise prices at will: the government raises...and lowers...the price according to market forces, not according to opportunities to gouge a little more money out of the driving public. Government exists to serve the citizenry rather than big business.

On balance, I think the things I miss are pretty petty in comparison to the social and political nightmares I'm glad to be shed of. Seems it ain't time yet to think about going back.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Doublethink vs cognitive dissonance

According to Wikipedia, doublethink is “a word coined by George Orwell in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, describes the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct… Its opposite is cognitive dissonance, where the two beliefs cause conflict in one's mind.”
The way people think…or don't think…continually fascinates me. Today I saw the following posted on Facebook: “When you carry the Bible, the devil gets a headache. When you open it, he collapses. When he sees you reading it, he faints. When he sees you living it he flees. When you are about to re-post this, he will try to discourage you. I just defeated him! Please, put this as your status if you love God ♥”

Sounds innocuous enough…if a little OTT on this, the first Monday after the failed Rapture, but wait: the person who posted this is a rabid PETA-sniffing vegetarian (and possibly by now a vegan), a person whose love of animals exceeds what I consider rational. (I eat selected members of the animal kingdom…I consider compromising one’s health and the health of children because of holding animal “rights” higher than human dietary needs to be beyond rational and even unnatural…you won’t find a chimpanzee agonizing over the rights of the bushbaby he hunted, killed, and is munching for lunch!)

It’s not the irrationality of vegetarianism and veganism…especially veganism…that has the thinking pot boiling this morning, however, it is the peculiar lack of cognitive dissonance…the pure doublethink…of having a virtually fundamentalist view of God and the Devil existing side-by-side with excessive devotion to the supposed “rights” of animals. How can one be as devoted to the Christian God as this Facebook status would indicate while holding animals in such high esteem as to be willing to compromise one’s health…and the health of innocent children…in order to spare their lives?

I often wonder if Christian fatuists actually read the book they so rave about. Have these animal rights worshippers not read about their god’s command to kill innocent lambs and sheep and burn their carcasses on altars? In my view, this is the sacrifice of animals for ego and an egregious waste of food in a time of uncertain food supplies, a serious moral crime on two fronts, commanded by the very deity so beloved by these same people who believe eating a bacon sandwich to be a grave crime against animal kind.

This worshipped diety has called for the deaths of animals, the enslavement of animals, the torment of animals (what about the “scape goat,” set loose in the desert without the protection of its herd or the direction of the herders who direct it to forage and water?), and nothing in the New Testament indicates that this exploitation of animals for the betterment of human kind has since been proscribed.

For me, this would set up the worst kind of cognitive dissonance: I would either have to renounce a god that demands the destruction and maltreatment of animals for nothing more than ego gratification or I would have to renounce my beliefs in the sanctity of the rights of the animals: the two beliefs are simply incompatible. How, after all, does one worship a deity with whom one disagrees on such fundamental issues as right and wrong? If you believe killing and eating an animal is a moral issue, and that people who do it are wrong and lacking in their moral fibre, how do you worship the very god who gave them dominion over the animals as far back as Genesis, followed up by countless demands for the sacrifice of animal flesh?

Those who are capable of holding both of these beliefs at the same time without their consciences rising up and doing battle over the conflict, are engaging in classic doublethink. And I would sure like to know how they do it because I can’t seem to shut the damned cognitive dissonance machine in my brain off. It comes on line when the conflicts arise and bedevil me until I actually sit down and think about the dissonance and then make a decision about what to do about it.

Some people, I am told, deal with cognitive dissonance by engaging in rationalization. There was, for example, a group of religious fanatics whose leader predicted doomsday in 1844. These people literally gave away all of their possessions and followed their leader to some lonely hilltop where they awaited the destruction of the earth and their own divine rescue (I don’t know about you, but if I was their god, I would have left them behind simply because of the overweening arrogance that allowed them to believe they were all that special!). Anyway, the end of the world didn’t happen (surprise surprise) and they coped with the failure of its materialization through rationalization: they decided that their devotion to God was so great that God had decided to spare the earth and its inhabitants. They came down off that hill destitute but fully believing that their little band of believers had saved the entire planet due to their devotion. And they founded a cult that became a church (as cults eventually do, if they last long enough) and, ironically enough, the church holds vegetarianism as one of its precepts…cognitive dissonance and doublethink, all in one package!

So I have to wonder here, if people actually think about the things they believe or if they just go with whatever strikes a resonant chord in their emotional make up, no matter how dissonant those various chords might be. I know I tend to be one who thinks, simply because those dissonant chords make me terribly uncomfortable until they are resolved. From recent observations, however, I’m having the uncomfortable thought that I might be a member of the minority, here…

Friday, May 20, 2011

Getting back in the saddle...

I’ve been gone a while…real life sometimes gets in the way of cyberlife, ya know?
There’s a spinal condition called “lumbar facet syndrome” and I’ve had it for some time now. Some x-rays that were taken five years ago showed some problems and ever since then, it has gotten progressively worse. Now, it has progressed to the point that I cannot stand up long enough to chop an onion without having to sit down to relieve the pain.

As you can imagine, this has put a bit of a crimp in my lifestyle. I like to go and do and run around, I like to cook, I like to explore my environment…and being unable to walk for more than a few minutes at a time really gets in the way of living my life. So, doc put me on some muscle relaxers and anti-inflammatories and told me come back in two weeks. Right.

So, for the next two weeks I took my pills religiously, did the stretching exercises she recommended and Hubby and I hied ourselves off to a nearby resort, Sun City, for a few days. It was not what I had hoped. Oh…Sun City was cool and we are planning to go back…but the meds did next to nothing for me. By the time I returned to the doctor, I was eating our local version of Tylenol and Codeine (no prescription needed) like they were jelly beans and just barely functioning.

This time it was a cortisone shot in the butt, physical therapy, more muscle relaxers and some prescription pain killers. That worked…kinda sorta…until I had my first physio appointment. Eina! as they say here in South Africa. Ouch! All the gains made from the meds were kicked out the window after just one physio appointment, and the therapist said she took it easy on me!! I have another appointment in three hours and I can tell you, I am not looking forward to it!

So, with my sore back I am still trying to live as normal an existence as I can, taking meds to allow me to move around and accompanying Hubby on our various excursions around town. I’m still not terribly fond of Johannesburg…it’s kind of a wannabe New York, with all the rudeness and self-absorption but none of the theatres, restaurants, museums and shops that make New York worth putting up with its otherwise crassness…but it is a new place with lots to see and experience that I haven’t seen before.

Mother’s Day saw us at Monte Casino for lunch. Monte Casino is…well…a casino. It is also an entertainment complex, or so it bills itself. Casinos in South Africa are plentiful…but they are very small, compared to Las Vegas or even Lake Tahoe. Most of them are themed, and Monte Casino looked kinda like a Tuscan village (faux Tuscan architecture is very big in South Africa…its everywhere you look, from apartment complexes to housing tracts to shopping centres to casinos). If you’ve been to the New York, New York casino in Vegas, Monte is rather the same style: you are indoors but in a faux outdoor setting with cobbled walks, building storefronts that house shops and restaurants, meandering walkways, a stream with pedestrian bridges, and a ceiling painted to look like the sky at twilight. I think it is Hubby’s favourite casino although I’m not as keen on it as he is. And, Monte boasts the only legal crap table in the whole of Africa.

Well, it has some decent restaurants, I’ll say that for it, and because we belong to their “loyalty club,” we get to see movies at the theatre complex for only R10 (less than $2)…and these are movies that are current—we recently saw Thor. So on Mother’s Day we went to Monte for lunch and we went to the “Gourmet Garage,” a place decorated like a ’50s American café on Route 66. I had ribs and Hubby ordered a steak. Unusually, he ordered a steak and salad rather than his usual steak and chips (French fries) and I remember thinking “there’s no carbs in that meal” but then decided not to be a nag…he a big boy, he’s been a diabetic for nearly ten years, if he doesn’t know what he is doing by now, he never going to.

I should have been a nag.

Two and a half hours later we are home, I am struggling to open the concertina security gate to the patio, and I start to hear strange noises coming from the TV lounge. I look inside and there is my husband in the middle of a grand mal seizure! We don’t have a central number in this country, like 911, to call in emergencies and I made no less than six telephone calls, including two to the police (who would not send me an ambulance but, instead, tried to give me a ten digit telephone number to call—WTF??) before I found the number of an ambulance/paramedic service on a handy list on my fridge (from a local real estate agency---thank you Pam Golding!!). A paramedic arrived in advance of the ambulance but by then, Hubby’s seizure was over and he was sitting, dazed and confused, on the sofa. I checked his blood sugar once he stopped seizing and found it to be 0.5 (on a scale where 6 is normal, 12 is high and 20 is diabetic ketoacidosis). He was in danger of falling into a diabetic coma due to low blood sugar, so I quickly gave him a Coke (with sugar) and instructed him to drink it.

We spent five hours in the emergency room before they agreed to let me take him home. The doc booked him off from work for the week and it took him most of that week to recover. A seizure is a violent thing: it locks up all of your muscles rigidly and when they finally relax, they are painful, like doing too much exercise when you are out of shape. Your brain is deprived of oxygen the whole time of the seizure and when you get your oxygen back, the brain is reeling from the shock. It can take days for your ability to think clearly and react quickly to return. Hubby also bit his tongue and when the seizure relaxed, he fell backwards on a soft, cushy sofa, causing his now completely slack body to collapse…and his tongue fell back into his throat, blocking his airway. Let me tell you, I was scared. I was still trying to get an ambulance to the house when this happened, and to allow him to breathe, I had to put my finger down this throat and depress the back of his tongue in order to clear his airway. So, there I was, one hand busy keeping his airway open, the other one frantically dialling number after number, trying to get some help.

He’s ok now and went back to work this week, but none of this helped my back at all. Trying to shift him (he is much bigger than I am) didn’t help, and the tension surely didn’t help. For the next five days or so, I could not sleep worth a damn and every time he moaned or snored, I would bolt upright in bed, checking to make sure he was ok!

On top of all of this, the baby Yorkie was frightened by the whole thing and ran off to hide. I eventually found her in the back of Hubby’s walk-in closet, hiding behind a box, shaking in terror. Poor thing…less than a week later she had to have oral surgery to remove some baby teeth that hadn’t come out on their own and were causing the adult fangs to grow in at an angle that would eventually pierce her palate. While she was at the vet, they bathed and brushed her…two of her least favourite activities…and my normally hyper little Yorkie pup spent the night dozing on the bed next to me, wrapped in a fleece and occasionally opening those big brown eyes and looking at me as if to say “What did I do to deserve this?”

So, that week passed and this most recent week has been one of catching up with lost sleep and recuperating from the shock of my husband’s seizure. I don’t think anyone realizes how much the closest family member suffers from this kind of an event…my husband asked me a few days after “Do you think I suffered any brain damage?” while, during the seizure I was thinking “Don’t die! Don’t die!”

It’s been a rough couple of weeks…

Monday, May 09, 2011


Apparently Google did some kind of "upgrade" to the system between my last post and now and just didn't bother to tell us users about it. As a result, I could not publish because of a timestamp error that was incorrectable.

Seems the solution was to go into "Settings" and select the new editor (even though I like the old one better, it doesn't work for me any more).

So, if you have a Google (Blogger) blog and it is suddenly not allowing you to publish, please go to SETTINGS, scroll down until you see the choice of editors: whichever editor you have, (new or old), choose the other one, then put up a test blog entry like this one to see if it works.

I'll be back when I have a post ready.

NOTE TO BLOGGER: 1) for crying out loud, TELL people when you change things!! 2) give us a place to report glitches like this that does NOT involve the user forum...you know, something that your engineers actually see. The problem is that a question can languish in the user form for months, unanswered, and that means your engineers don't know about the problem...and the blogger eventually has to move to a competing blog platform because he can't find a way to make yours work.