Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Folly of Prohibition: why banning guns won't work

When did banning something make it go away?

In the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting…the 27th in America in the past 10 years…people again are trotting out the knee-jerk “ban guns” demand. And while it may sound good at first blush, a little critical examination will reveal that legal prohibitions against things that members of the public really want and are willing to break the law to obtain benefits nobody in the society except the criminals.

In 2010 the US government spent more than $15 billion…that’s $500 per second…on the War on Drugs. And that is just the tax dollars spent on a drug policy that is and has been an unmitigated failure…except for those who have exploited and grown rich and powerful in the black market America’s prohibition of drugs has created.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution took effect in January of 1920 and for the next 13 years, thanks to another black market created by the US government, liquor continued to flow throughout America due to the likes of Al Capone and Bugs Moran. The government hemorrhaged money into enforcing Prohibition and went without substantial potential tax revenues, since the production, transport and sale of alcohol was, officially, not happening. But it was happening and it spawned and supported America’s first major foray into organized crime, an organization that stayed with us even after the Amendment was repealed in 1933: the Mafia. And the cost, both in dollars and in lives, has been vast and the legacy of Prohibition continues to this day, nearly a century later.

Prohibition of abortion did not stop abortion, it merely drove it underground. From conscientious doctors who wanted to provide desperate women with a medically safe alternative to an unwanted pregnancy to back-alley butchers who killed women with perforated uteruses and septicaemia to distressed women who attempted to abort themselves with coat hangers, knitting needles, and noxious potions, abortions continued despite laws prohibiting them and prescribing draconian punishment for doctors caught providing them. It didn’t go away, it simply provided yet another black market opportunity for illegally-generated wealth while it dealt death and disaster to those forced to seek abortion outside the clean, sterile, safe walls of a hospital or bona fide clinic.

With this for a history to reference, who in their right mind can possibly believe that banning guns will not result in a new black market and increased opportunity for a new organized criminal element to rise to wealth and power—illicit gun dealers? Why target the tool when the real problem is the people using the tool? If we want to spend tax money on making and enforcing a law designed to reduce or eliminate these kinds of horrific killings, why not invest that money into something more likely to have a positive result, like government-funded mental health programs and mental health laws that improve the quality of life not only for the mentally ill, but for those around them as well.

We live in a society that, in the span of just a couple of generations, has gone from valuing and admiring courtesy and “good guys” to a culture that admires the rude, the snide, the cruel, the sarcastic. It is no longer enough to win, you now have to rub the other guy’s face in the dirt and spit on him. Gone are the days when the losers in a contest were consoled, their successes during the course of the contest praised, and encouragement for the next time given. Instead, they are humiliated, castigated, shamed, and hauled over the coals, as if rebuking them further provides some kind of inspiration to do better next time. We embrace and admire and make wealthy celebrities of people whose stock-in-trade is cutting, degrading, mortification of people who have done nothing more than fail to live up to an expectation. Gordon Ramsey, Simon Cowell, Anne Robinson of TV’s Weakest Link: all epitomize the sadistic set down trend that passes for humour nowadays, entertainment wrought at the expense of the feelings of those whom they verbally abuse. And, being the Great Apes that we are, we humans imitate and try to top our celebrity mentors and we turn our friends, families, classmates, co-workers, neighbours and even complete strangers into the butts of our cruelly conceived and thoughtlessly delivered attempts at humour.

Brutality has not always been considered acceptable entertainment. Historically speaking, American entertainment has had guidelines, regulations, and controls in the past. The Hayes office controlled the content of movies for decades, which is why old movies showed married couples sleeping in separate beds and you didn’t see graphic sex or violence in the theatre. That said, French and Italian cinema produced some pretty steamy pictures at about the same time, and you didn’t see their societies implode as a result. I remember my first Sam Peckinpah film and how horrible the graphic killings were. It does desensitize a person to see this kind of thing, and when it becomes everyday fare both in films and video games, it has to desensitize a person to the carnage: imagine the impact on someone already disaffected and feeling disenfranchised?

In any given contest there is only one winner. Everybody else are either fans or losers…and if you aren’t the winner, the way you avoid being identified as one of the losers is to throw your lot in with the winner—become a fan, a sycophant, a toady. And so the winners of the world, be they jocks or bankers, celebs or mean girls of any age, are joined by their fans in creating the us vs. them paradigm in which “them” are grievously insulted, assaulted, disrespected, humiliated, diminished and generally shat upon, all in the name of entertainment and humour.

And what are these “losers” supposed to do with their feelings of outrage and hurt? Suck it up? Shrug it off? Not have any feelings at all? One of the things people do when they are deeply and repeatedly wounded is they stop feeling. They become emotionally numb, at least on the surface, so that they don’t feel the pain so sharply. One of the problems with that, however, is that this causes a loss of empathy and compassion because if they can’t access their feelings of pain for themselves, those feeling for others are pretty inaccessible as well. They aren’t really numb, though…they just repress the pain and it goes underground where it festers and grows. And if the targeted people are already struggling with issues of low self-worth, if they’ve been bullied before, if they aren’t pretty or popular or have some kind of physical anomaly or are socially awkward…how do they assimilate the emotional assaults and carry on with equanimity? With little or nothing available to the average person in the way of mental health care, a lot of them don’t. Some of them become withdrawn and anti-social, some of them become willing to do anything to be liked, some of them engage in self-harm, some join gangs where they feel accepted, some commit suicide. And some of them turn their rage outwards and they kill.

Normal, mentally healthy people do not commit mass murders. And quite a few of the shooters in recent tragedies had mental health problems that could have been treated, or at least managed via medication or even hospitalization if it had been available to them. What few people seem to have noticed is that this mass murder as a means of payback or gaining recognition is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Very, very few comparable acts have been committed outside the US…and there has to be something to that. What is it about contemporary American culture that spawns this kind of heinous act?

One of our biggest failings, I think, is the abandonment of the mentally ill. Jared Loughner, had he been born a couple of generations earlier, would have been in a state hospital not for committing a crime but because he was mentally unstable and dangerous to himself and others. Today, state mental hospitals are almost exclusively for the criminally insane—after their mental illness has led them to commit crimes. In 1967 California passed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act which, unfortunately, has only been enforced as far as relieving the state of the burden of care of the mentally ill; the provisions which would cost the state money have been assiduously ignored. Other states followed suit with similar limitations and basically put the mentally ill out on the street and took away the power of family members to do what is best for those people, and the state washed its hands of responsibility. Given that a significant portion of Americans do not have any medical insurance and those who do have it ordinarily have very little mental health coverage (certainly not enough to pay for extended confinement for a mentally ill family member), there appeared not a crack but a chasm in mental health care: with the exception of the independently wealthy, care for the seriously mentally disturbed was out of the financial reach of most Americans and the state washed its hands of any responsibility.

This “not my brother’s keeper” mentality has added to this problem by making people unwilling to have tax money spent to house and treat such individuals. Because the mentally ill are not gushing blood or spreading communicable disease like TB, the average American sees no reason why the mentally ill can’t just “suck it up” and behave like the rest of us. Ignorance of mental illness is rife—I remember being frustratingly unable to pry open the minds of people in the Andrea Yates case and get them to grasp what psychosis meant and why she could not be blamed. People kept saying “she must be crazy to do such a thing” without truly grasping exactly what crazy meant in the context of her situation.

Part of this “not my brother’s keeper” mentality includes a slavish but uncomprehending dedication to both competitiveness and capitalism. Socialism is beginning to take on the spectre that Communism had back in the days of the Red Scare and any program intended to help the unfortunate using tax monies is branded “Socialism” and backed away from with abhorrence. But the truth is, those countries that foster cooperation and respect and care for the less fortunate, like the Scandinavian countries, have the lowest crime rates, the highest education rates, the greatest “life satisfaction” scores. And these countries are heavily Socialist--they invest tax monies in their people through high-quality education, health (including mental health) care, and a societal attitude that does not foster a heavily competitive, win-at-any-cost kind of society. Norway had a single spree killing in 2011—America had four. In the decade from 2003-2012, inclusive, the whole of Scandinavia had just the one massacre, America had 27...five of which occurred in California, the most populated state in the Union, and six of which occurred in Wisconsin! In fact, the most recent massacre in Scandinavia, prior to Breivik’s attack, appears to have occurred in the 15th or16 century!

Scandinavians value the idea of not only a free and equal society, but one in which the more fortunate help the less fortunate through government social problems. You seldom see tax refugee Swedes or Danes, and the idea that allowing poor people to freeze to death or starve, or that their children should die due to lack of appropriate medical care, doesn’t seem to have much traction. And yet, despite the high tax rate and socialist government, many people make money and live affluent lifestyles...Sweden alone boasts at least nine billionaires (in USD), of which only two have left to escape taxes.

The bottom line here is that this is a complex problem that will not respond to simplistic solutions. Mentally healthy people do not commit these kinds of atrocities, mentally unbalanced people do, so it would seem the very first line of address should be to tighten up the mental health laws. Gun laws? I dunno—Texas, a state rife with NRA-types only accounted for one massacre in the past decade, and that was on a military base where gun control laws would not apply. And yet Wisconsin, a state with a low population and even lower profile, had more massacres in the last decade than any other. What is going on in Texas that has kept a well-armed civilian populace massacre-free over the last decade that is not going on in Wisconsin? Or, conversely, what is going on in Wisconsin that so many citizens feel the need to spray death upon their unsuspecting neighbours that is not going on in Texas?

More than anything, we need to think...really, truly think...about this situation and not take action simply because it is an action. Ill-conceived laws hastily passed end up getting tossed out by the courts, leaving us right back at the starting point, but with precious time having been wasted. It’s not enough to control guns—or even ban them. The disturbed and truly determined will find other ways... there are numerous other ways of committing mass carnage than firearms including running a motor vehicle into a crowd or busy establishment or even bombs...any fool can make a bomb, instructions and ingredients are readily available. Most of all, however, we as a people have to start changing our attitudes, remember we are our brother’s keepers, and that compassion and empathy get us all further in the long run than selfishness and scorn.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Saturday morning when I got up, my internet connection and my phone were working. Why is this significant? Because for most of September and October sometime between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, my phone would go down and the technicians from the telephone company could not give it a permanent fix.

By their third visit, they were blaming my telephones and my house wiring (which they installed just 2 years ago). So fixated on blaming my telephones and in-house wiring were these guys that, once they had confirmed that the line was working up to the pole outside my house, they simply ceased to troubleshoot any further and blamed my equipment. Over the course of 3 weeks they blamed my telephones, my wiring, my modem/router, my line filters, even the weather!!...but failed to troubleshoot beyond the pole.

A week ago a tech came out and when he started his blaming the customer song and dance, I lost my temper and read him the riot act and demanded he go up on roof and check the wiring from the pole to my house and from there, the wiring up to the first telephone in the series, and to replace it if it looked worn. He balked. He called his supervisor to complain about what I was asking, moaning about how long it would take to replace that wire. I refused to "no" for an answer and I actually yelled at the technician (something I seldom do--my maid has worked for me for 5 years and I haven't raised my voice to her even once in all that time).

My husband stepped in and spoke to the supervisor who informed us that the technician told him we had illegal extensions and that was causing the problem. Hubby had to get out a phone bill to prove our extensions were installed by the phone company and we paid a fee every month for each of them. The technician pretended he couldn't read the bill when the supervisor asked him to verify that. Finally, he was told to comply and my husband actually went up on the roof with the technician to ensure he did as I asked.

And guess what? On the roof they found the wire that lead from the pole to the kitchen phone had lost some of its insulation and the bare copper was exposed to the rain, wind, birds, falling leaves and whatever else. The technician replaced the wire, but remained unconvinced that it was the source of the problem. But I got up on Saturday and my phone and my ADSL were working...and this morning it was working, despite a hellacious electrical storm last night.

 I, for one, will not be surprised if they keep on working since the one place the technicians repeatedly overlooked in their troubleshooting had a fault and that fault was finally corrected. I expect things will work just swimmingly, at least for a while...until something new comes along to toss me off the internet again...

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Snow? WTF??

Bird of Paradise flowers in my back garden in the snow
It is snowing outside.

I live in a brick house with no central heating, and it is snowing outside. In Africa.

The inside of my house is like the inside of a refrigerator.

I hate snow.

It never snowed in Cape Town--not even a little bit. Every time I think Joburg maybe isn't as bad as I was thinking, something like this happens to remind me why I was right about this place.

I HATE snow.

And it is snowing outside.


Monday, July 09, 2012

SPAM

I have just had ten spam comments on this blog in less than an hour. KNOW that if you comment here and include a link to another site and the comment (and link) are not truly relevant to the blog entry, you will NOT get published. I approve EVERY comment before it gets published, so you don't even get a nanosecond of face time with readers or with me (because I don't click links that have an unknown source).

So give it up, asshole--you are wasting your time and I have ALL DAY to sit here and send your crap to the spam bin.

Monday, July 02, 2012

PUPPIES!!

Friday night and early Saturday morning (29 and 30 June) Puddin' presented us with a litter of 6 little Yorkshire Terrier puppies--cutest little things on feet (well, actually, on bellies just now!). Mama and babies doing very well!








More pics as time goes on!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Profit or Loss? Customers write your bottom line

Pick n Pay is South Africa’s second largest supermarket chain. From the store’s inception in 1967 until 2009, it was considered a paragon, an example of how to do business. Since 2009, however, it has been losing market share but nobody seems to have a definitive reason for it. I can’t tell you what kind of errors in strategic decisions Pick n Pay’s management made—but I can tell you why Pick n Pay has lost roughly R144,000 in annual sales: I quit shopping there.
I have to agree with business analysts that the real decline began in 2009, but for me, I knew there was trouble when I first started shopping there in 2004. Frankly, I expected Pick n Pay to be little different from its American counterparts—to be an Africanized Safeway—and I was disappointed. Naturally, there had to be some cultural differences, but the differences I saw right at the beginning were differences that impact the consumer negatively…and that is never good for business.

On my very first trip to a Pick n Pay, breakfast cereal was on my list. When I got to the cereal aisle, several sections of the shelving was bare. This was bad enough but when I approached one of those shelves, I saw something that made me shake my head: a sign printed exactly for the purpose of apologizing for being out of stock. This was not a hastily hand printed or computer generated note, it was a professionally printed “tent” sign with space for someone to write in the name of the missing stock item. Why is this bad? Because it told me that this was a natural part of doing business in this store (and, I learned later, not this store alone): it was OK with management for them to be out of stock on staple items.

Frankly, I was shocked, both at the absence of the goods and at the cavalier attitude of the chain’s management as evidenced by those purposeful signs. “We can’t be bothered to keep enough inventory to keep our shelves full,” the management might as well have said. “We encourage you to visit our competitors for your needs.”

This has been a signature issue for me with Pick n Pay: lack of stock. Some stores are worse than others, some have gotten worse with time. I will no longer buy fresh fruit and veggies at most Pick n Pay stores because it is not fresh, the quality is poor, and in many cases, it is way too green for use. In early 2010 when I first move up to Joburg, I shopped at a Pick n Pay in FourWays that carried amazingly good fresh produce. But the last few times I have stopped in that store, it has declined there as well. Nowadays, I buy my fresh items at a Woolworth’s store (which also suffers from stock depletion but at least what they DO have in stock is good quality).

I cannot say if the problem with stock depletion on the shelves is lack of replacement goods in “the back,” ineffective stocking practices, or poor inventory control, but I can say that last year I confronted the manager of my nearest Pick n Pay Hypermart (a giant store with extra departments including a café, a pharmacy, garden department, housewares/furnishings and toy departments) about them being out of stock of their house brand beans and crushed tomatoes. I had been looking for the items for six weeks and they were constantly out of stock. I told the manager that if they weren’t in stock when I came the following week to do my shopping, I was not going to shop there anymore and that would cost him about R7000 per month in revenue.

When I returned, the items in question were in stock—but when I queried the manager as to the reason they had none, I was told it was the fault of the employee tasked with ordering new stock—even though his computerized inventory system told him the products were out of stock on the shelves, he just didn’t bother ordering any!

I suspect something a bit more nefarious was afoot—I needed the products for making Chili con Carne. The store-brand beans and crushed tomatoes are half the cost of name brands, so by forcing me to buy name brands, the cost of my chili was doubled—but the store’s bottom line is plumped by the sale of the more expensive brands. Whatever the reason, the store brand beans and tomato didn’t stay in stock long and soon we were playing “musical grocery stores” again, hunting for the stuff we wanted to buy.

If it was just beans and tomatoes, I could rightfully be accused of being petty—but it didn’t stop there. Bread—low GI white bread, specifically, eaten by thousands of diabetics and people watching their weight—would be gone from the shelves by closing time on Saturday and the shelves would be bare all day Sunday. Mundane things like dishwasher rinse—out of stock for 6+ weeks, although available in a different Pick n Pay store, so it wasn’t like the chain didn’t have any to stock. Maruchan noodle soups—the chicken flavour sells out instantly, but rather than order extra chicken because it is the most popular, the chicken flavour remains unstocked until the unwanted beef and shrimp stuff slowly disappears from the shelves. Minced garlic, capellini (angel hair) pasta, Barilla pasta sauces, sliced Colchester cheese, sliced cheddar cheese, capers (small), black olives, fresh cream, jumbo eggs, baby potatoes, fresh garlic, English muffins, fireplace matches, outdoor bug spray, Mitchum deodorant (unscented), Sprite Zero (2 litre)—if I really put my mind to it, I could double this list and still not cover all of the items I have tried to buy at the Pick n Pay stores near my house, only to find them out of stock, sometimes for more than a month at a time.

Part of the problem is that their stock forecasting is waaaay off base. They cannot accurately anticipate how much of anything the customers are going to buy, which means they cannot keep the shelves stocked. This, of course, assumes they do forecast stock.

Another problem is that they stock during store hours. This is disruptive and just plain stupid. American supermarkets stock shelves after hours and when the store opens in the morning, everything is in place. Trust me, you do not want to be the first shopper in the door at a Pick n Pay market on a Monday morning—the store looks just like it did at closing time on Sunday—the cupboards are bare.

When it got to the point that we had to hit three or four Pick n Pay stores to do a full week’s shopping, we changed our shopping habits. We go to Pick n Pay for the low GI bread and one or two other items that Woolworth’s doesn’t carry and we buy the rest of our food at the Woolies. Pick n Pay’s inability to keep their shelves stocked with the products I want to buy has cost them R7000 per month or R84,000 because I now spend the money at Woolworth’s.

But that's not all of it—my husband and I are diabetic and suffer from certain other chronic conditions for which we buy medication and the pharmacy inside the Pick n Pay Hyper near our house has the best prices on meds. But some things are more important than saving money…like your life. I cannot count the number of times I have come home, unbagged my meds, started putting them in my little pill dispenser boxes, only to run out of something: they shorted me on my meds. On one occasion, they simply left out my husband’s blood pressure meds and, because he takes so many meds, he never noticed one pill was missing. Ten days later he was in the ER with symptoms that were eventually put down to stroke-level high blood pressure.

And every trip to the pharmacy, they are out of something. This is just inexcusable—we have been filling our prescriptions at this pharmacy for more than two years; our prescriptions are on file (physically) and are good for six months. They know I will be coming in around the tenth of each month because that is when I am nearly out of meds; they know my husband will be there about two weeks later because that is when he runs out of meds. They have the prescriptions on file—how hard is it to have enough to fill our prescriptions when we get there? And most of the stuff we get is ordinary, run-of-the-mill stuff: blood pressure meds, cholesterol meds, thyroid meds, insulin, pain meds—only one of the drugs on the prescription is uncommon and running out of it is understandable since you don’t want to keep a large stock of a perishable that doesn’t get prescribed with regularity. But insulin? What pharmacy runs out of insulin?? Or a prescription pain med that has been around more than 100 years? Or small insulin needles? What kind of pharmacy runs out of insulin, for mercy’s sake, twice in one month??

On 9 June we refilled my prescriptions: they shorted me on my blood pressure med and my insulin and gave me the wrong size needles—the ones that leave bruises the size of a 5 rand piece (a quarter) because they were out of the smaller ones. They told my husband they would deliver the missing drugs to the house. A week later, no delivery. Hubby goes to the pharmacy where the pharmacist says he was off sick and he left a note about my drug delivery but it appears nobody read it. Hubby collected my meds and left.

Three days ago we went back to the pharmacy to refill Hubby’s prescriptions. They were out of insulin again and still out of the proper-sized needles. This time they did deliver as promised, but that trick only works if somebody is home to accept the delivery. What happens if everybody is at work when the delivery comes? How many times a month should a person have to go to the pharmacy to collect the drugs from a single prescription, a prescription that is on file and can be anticipated, stock-wise??

So, we are done with Pick n Pay. What used to be a minimum of R12K monthly income to the chain is now going to their competitors. And I don’t care what the analysts assign as the reason for their decline, I don’t shop there anymore because I cannot buy what they fail to keep in stock.

And I am pretty sure that I am just the tip of a huge iceberg of dissatisfied, disgruntled, disgusted customers who are taking their custom to the competition and started doing so in 2009.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Big boobs: blessing or curse?

Breathes there a maiden raised in our culture who, upon seeing a full body profile of herself that reveals a modest bustline, has not wished for bigger boobs?

The desire for large breasts is nothing new—when I hit puberty in the late 1950s, I prayed for big. Jayne Mansfield was famous for her large (often brazenly displayed) breasts more than anything else. Women wore tortuous undergarments and teenaged girls “stuffed” with gym socks, toilet paper, or anything else readily at hand, all to give the illusion of a fuller, more generous endowment.

Well, I got my wish. Jayne Mansfield reportedly carried around a pair of 40D or DDs…I’m packing a pair of 44 DDs. And it ain’t what it is cracked up to be!

Breast augmentation surgery is the single most-often performed cosmetic surgery in the world today. A lot of women out there are unhappy with themselves and many of them think (consciously or subconsciously) that the answer to their self esteem issues is a pair of big breasts. And it’s not just women with AA or A cup breasts who are seeking enhancement—women with respectable B and C cups, sizes that are a good fit for their clothes, balance of bodily features and musculoskeletal health are focussing their feelings of inadequacy or inferiority on their breasts, believing that by “fixing” their “inadequate” breasts they will be fixing themselves. But when the surgery heals and they are still as unhappy, still feel as inadequate, still don’t have the life they thought their breasts would bring, do they hie themselves off to a therapist to fix their psyches? No—a large number of them return to their plastic surgeons for even bigger boobs or for other “work,” continuing to believe that changing the outside will somehow fix what is wrong on the inside. It’s like believing a paint job and a new roof will magically fix the problems caused by bad wiring, leaking pipes and termite-eaten timbers inside a house.

Even if you are emotionally well balanced, there are other issues to consider before moving from smaller to spectacular. One of the social downsides of big breasts is the perception others have of them: for every cup size you go up, expect people to perceive your IQ to go down at least 10 points. If I had a nickel for every time someone could tear their attention away from The Girls long enough to actually hear something I said and react with a surprised “You’re very smart, aren’t you?” I would be a rich woman today. And if you are a blonde (natural or otherwise), make that IQ drop 20 points per cup size.

Then there are the gender-specific reactions you have to deal with. Depending on the kind of manners your social/work set of friends ascribe to, expect anything from chilly to hostile reactions from women and salacious to downright crude reactions from men. And if you change your wardrobe to include clingy, low cut tops or otherwise showcase your new assets, expect those unpleasant reactions in spades.

You see, even if you are socially well-integrated, adding inches to your bosom will suddenly take you out of the social niche you have carved for yourself. Others will have to reassess where you fit in their group because by increasing your bust size, you are changing the dynamic of the group. Whatever primary attribute you had that defined your place in the group, in-your-face breasts will cause that place to be redefined. You may have been the “funny one” or the “smart one” or the “sweet one,” but once those massive mammaries make their debut, you will be the “sexy one” or the “pathetic, attention-seeking one” or even the “not-to-be-trusted man-stealing one.” Whatever your role in your social and work groups, suddenly pitching up with big boobs is going to change it, for good or for ill.

Do plastic surgeons ever tell women about the downsides, medically, of having large breasts? I know they discuss such things as breast feeding after augmentation and capsular contracture and ruptured/leaking implants, but do they tell you about backaches and shoulder grooves and things like that? I’ve been toting around a pair of “big ’uns” for decades now and I can tell you from personal experience what to expect.

Nobody…and I mean nobody…escapes the pull of gravity. My mother barely had a B cup, her mother barely an A, but given enough years, even gravity got them. And when you are big, you tempt gravity early. Factor in a few lifestyle choices…like having babies and breastfeeding, going without a good, supportive bra, or exercises that make them bounce (jogging, running, even dancing) and you guarantee sag. So, you’re too smart to let those ligaments stretch out and introduce your nipples to your navel, right? You’re going to wear properly supporting brassieres to keep The Girls perky and pretty forever, hm?

Welcome to the world of bra fashion where the prettiest bras are made for those who have no boobs at all. Welcome to wide, cushioned straps, breath-restricting bra bands, “structurally engineered” bra designs that look more like bridge trusses than boob supports, and the horrors of twisted, bent, pinching, rubbing, and broken underwires. Welcome to bras for big boobs, where the really pretty ones (if you can find any) offer little or no support and the ones that support you properly look like something a nun…or your great grandma…would wear.

Being female and vain enough to think your whole life will be improved by having big boobs, you are not going for the industrial strength bras, are you? So you opt for the pretty ones despite your horror at their cost…and you discover something new. Your back hurts. The muscles in your upper back are having to support the weight of your boobs because your bra isn’t. You get a different bra—maybe a sports bra—only to find that in order to properly support you, it has to be cinched so tight around your ribs, it is a challenge to draw a deep breath. Or, if your bra doesn’t need to encircle your ribs like a constricting boa, then your shoulders take the weight, digging grooves into your shoulders and even abrading the skin. And your back still hurts.

So you try an underwire bra…you didn’t have trouble with them when you were only a B cup, so you know they should be ok. Trust me, honey, there is a HUGE difference between a B cup underwire and a DD cup underwire, and it is not just how wide the wire is. Small breasts do not have the weight large ones do, nor do they move around as much as big ones. The wires in smaller bras do not take on the stresses that the wires in larger bras do. In large size bras, the wires bend, twist, and move, all due to the stresses the weight of the breast puts on them. Most commonly, I have found, is that one wire (usually on your dominant side) will eventually poke through the end of the casing—usually at the end between the breasts, not under the arm—and pop out. Mending a bra to contain this escaped wire is next to impossible and the cheaper the bra, the less likely the manufacturer has taken steps to prevent this by reinforcing the fabric at the ends of the casing. But even the “good” bras that don’t suffer from underwire escape have a problem—when the wire can’t move to accommodate stress, it stresses in the same place over and over again. I cannot begin to tell you how many bras I have had—good, expensive, well made bras—that have a broken wire and it is always the right wire and always at the same spot where it breaks. A comfortable, supportive, pretty bra for big boobs that doesn’t break your budget is yet to be designed.

Then there are the practical aspects—buying clothes that fit. OK, if you are a bimbo and habitually run around in Daisy Dukes, thigh-high boots, and skin-tight sweaters à la Pam Anderson, then you probably don’t have much to worry about. But if you need proper business attire, if you like your clothes to fit you properly, if you like to look well turned-out, giant gazongas are going to get in your way. Unless, of course, you are rich enough to have your clothes custom-made or custom-tailored (that’s the secret of the Hollywood stars and starlets who have ginormous bosoms but still manage to look “normally” dressed—someone who makes or tailors their clothes for them). Forget one-piece garments like swim suits, jump suits and dresses, forget suits (unless they come as separates): you will have to buy to fit the boobs, which (unless you are obese) will automatically mean the bottom part is going to be too big. Regardless of passé fashion to the contrary, blouses that strain at the bosom and expose your bra to even the unprying eye are not properly fitted nor are they proper business attire. You can also say goodbye to such things as ruffled necklines and shirt fronts, neck bows (which have just come back from the 80s), and jewellery that hangs down to the bosom: shorter pieces fall between the boobs and get stuck, longer pieces refuse to fall gracefully and usually end up framing The Girls, one strand of beads or chain on each side. In fact, anything that shows detail between your waist and your throat are no longer appropriate as the boobs themselves are your primary accessory now. No shirts with pockets, no tshirts with sayings, no jackets with zippers and buttons and plackets—not even busy prints! Simplicity is the word of the day when it comes to dressing the overblown upper half.

Now, imagine shopping under even some of those conditions. Tastes aside, finding clothes, especially good quality designer clothes, to fit a 40”+ bust is an uphill battle. Even prêt a porter design is made with the slender female physique in mind—and that includes a slender upper torso. If you are into quality clothing and looking chic, big boobs will sabotage you every time.

So, before you break open that piggy bank and head to your local Dr. Rey clone, give this exposé another, slower read-through and then spend some time thinking about it. You may decide your money is better spent on some chicken cutlets for less than 1% of the cost of a boob job, and use the rest of the money for those fab boots or that gorgeous leather coat…or even some therapy sessions to figure out why you feel so bad about yourself you are willing to mutilate your body in an attempt to feel better. Now that would be a truly healthy, long-lasting, life-enhancing use for that money!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Renovating your rental

So, the day has come that you are the proud owner of a rental property…or perhaps you are still looking forward to that day. Whether you inherited a property, built a new home and the old one is now going up for rent, or you bought (or added on) something specifically to rent out, you are about to embark upon a new phase in your life: you are going to be a landlord.

One of the things few people think about when embarking upon landlordhood is preparing a property to be lived in by renters. Oh, you can just take the money and give them the keys and let the debris fall where it may, but if you want to be a landlord and have the least difficulty with the actual property, you may want to consider some strategic renovations before you stick that “For Rent” sign in the front lawn.

First of all, expect that your tenants will damage anything that can be damaged. It’s not that all renters are wantonly destructive (some are but most are not), it’s just that people tend not to take care of your property the way you would. Part of it is the wrong-headed notion that landlords are rich (you own more than one house, right? You must be rich, then!), but another part of it is simply that people just don’t care—it’s not theirs, it doesn’t matter. This attitude is the cause of ruined carpets, broken drapery rods, bent blinds, burnt counter tops, damaged floors, and a host of other problems you will know nothing about until your tenants move out. And all too often, the damage not only exceeds the security/cleaning deposit they paid, you end up losing subsequent rental income because you cannot rent it out the way they left it and you can’t wave a magic wand and have it in pristine condition overnight, either.

If you can possibly afford it—or if a tenant has thoroughly trashed your rental unit and you pretty much have to renovate from the ground up—here are some practical renovation ideas you might want to consider before you place that first ad.

Kitchen
The kitchen is called the “heart of the home”—it is also one of the most likely places for your tenants to cause damage. I recently renovated a 3 bedroom flat and the kitchen was so badly damaged I had to strip it to the bare walls and start from scratch. Here are some lessons I learned:

Countertops: no Formica/Melamine countertops. One hot pot placed on the counter top and you have a blister—the blister will break and cause a hole. Water will get into the hole and swell the substrate…which will then mildew and smell, as well as provide a handy breeding place for nasty little bugs. Formed surfaces like Corian and natural surfaces like granite are hard-wearing but not impervious to the inventive kinds of damage tenants can inflict, and shockingly expensive to replace. What to use? Ceramic tiles with a dark grout. Use the same tiles for the counter top and backsplash and keep extra tiles and grout (in an air-tight container). Tiles won’t burn or scorch but, like natural surfaces, they can be cracked or broken. Fortunately, however, a broken tile doesn’t require the replacement of an entire counter top—just replace and regrout from the spares you have kept aside.

Floors: fatuous manufacturer’s claims to the contrary, laminate floors are a bad idea in the kitchen (anywhere, actually), especially in a rental. I had a laminate floor in a room in a house I used to live in…somebody dropped something heavy on it—the corner of a piece of furniture…and it dented the floor. No big deal? Well, that’s what I thought until I mopped it. The dent actually broke the surface seal and water got into it, and it swelled up. I still didn’t think it was a big deal until I tried to replace the damaged panel—not an easy task. Vinyl flooring is a popular choice in the US, but vinyl floor tiles will come up at the corners and sheet vinyl can be torn, burnt, and the surface scraped by pushing something heavy over it…like a refrigerator (you don’t need to ask me how I know this). Again, the best floor for tenants is ceramic tile, for the same reason it is a good idea on the counter tops: a light coloured tile will make the room look large, light, airy, and clean—dark grout will not show accumulated dirt and stains from spills. And a single broken or chipped tile can be replaced much more easily and cheaply than any other flooring choice. Use a larger tile than those on the counter top and backsplash, make sure they are tiles made for floors (not wall tiles—those are too thin) and that they are safe when wet…and keep an extra box or two for replacements.

Cupboards: if the existing cupboards are in good condition, then spray them for bugs (do this after every tenant moves out while they are empty) and paint them inside and out with a washable enamel paint. Additionally, it is a good idea to cover all of the shelves with a sticky-backed vinyl, otherwise you may be looking at some serious clean up time when your tenants vacate. It is amazing the kinds of sticky messes you will find on those cupboard shelves!

If the cupboards are not in good condition, replace them with real wood carcasses if at all possible. It may cost a bit more in the in the beginning but in the long run, they save you money. Pressboard carcasses need only one sink overflow or burst pipe or liquid spill to swell up and subsequently crumble. Don’t ask me how many of those I have had to replace due to water damage—I have lost count. Before you install new cupboards, spray them with a sealant on all surfaces to help kept them water resistant.

Resist the urge for trendy: install plain cupboard doors with simple, inexpensive, easily sourced knobs and pulls. If your tenants lose or break a knob or handle, you don’t want to have to replace them all because the cutesy ones on the rest of the cupboards are no longer available. And make sure your hinges are sturdy and affixed with stout screws. You don’t even want to know the kinds of things tenants can do to cupboard doors!

Do not remove cupboards without a good reason. “It’s the fashion” is not a good reason. No kitchen ever has enough storage space, so don’t make it any less. If there is an expanse of counter space, like a breakfast bar, that has no cupboards above, consider adding some suspended from the ceiling. Abundant storage space appeals to people and you want to appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of people in order to have the best choice of tenants.

A good reason to remove a lower cupboard is to install a bank of drawers. Few kitchens have enough drawers. If the kitchen has fewer than eight drawers, consider adding more.

Walls and ceiling: no wall paper…it peels, it is hard to clean, it stains. If there is wallpaper, steam it off and paint the walls with a washable enamel paint. Use a light neutral colour on walls, ceilings, and woodwork, including doors. If your tenants want to repaint, refuse permission: tell them they can use colourful curtains and accessories but leave the paint alone because you have kept extra cans of paint for touch ups (and you have, haven’t you?).

Fixtures: keep lighting fixtures simple: no fancy chandeliers or dangling pendants—simple ceiling fixtures that give good light and aren’t so pretty your tenants will be tempted to steal them. Remove under-cupboard task lighting if possible—the more stuff you leave to damage, the more that will be damaged.

Avoid ceramic sinks if possible: the porcelain can crack and chip away from dropping pots and such into the sink. A thick stainless steel sink can better withstand the kind of abuse tenants tend to give. And avoid the trendy taps and clever single handle faucets, too. A simple tap with two twist-type handles is the simplest (and therefore cheapest) to repair.

Appliances: provide as few as you can get away with and only built-in items that are difficult to steal. (I once rented out a furnished unit and within six weeks the tenant had stolen and sold everything that was literally not nailed down including the refrigerator and the kitchen stove!) You may be required to provide certain minimums, so check your local laws, but if you are permitted to rent out a house with no kitchen appliances, do so. Otherwise, go for built-ins like a counter-top mounted cooking surface and built-in oven. Again, don’t go for trendy: the simpler the appliance, the fewer gadgets like timers and probes and electronic clocks, the more difficult to break and easier (read that “cheaper”) to repair. Avoid ceramic and glass-topped cooking surfaces as they are easy to scratch and crack and difficult to repair. Better a simple top with plug-in coils or a gas top with sealed burners.

While it is unlikely that you will provide a refrigerator for your tenants, when you renovate, leave room for any size fridge in the kitchen—you have no idea how large a fridge a prospective tenant might have and you certainly don’t want to lose a good one over fridge space! So, don’t box in the area for the fridge, leave it open and leave plenty of room.

If the kitchen has a garbage disposal, you may want to consider removing it. Not only can it be dangerous in the hands of a tenant’s children, your tenant may not be too careful what s/he puts down it, giving you headaches and plumber’s bills. Same thing with a dishwasher: remove it and put in that bank of drawers or a cupboard door and tell the prospective tenant it is a cupboard for the trash bin. If you feel you absolutely must provide a dishwasher, buy the cheapest one you can find with the least amount of features…you will probably have to repair (or replace) it frequently. Definitely do not provide a microwave oven. If the kitchen has one built in, remove it and make the space into storage.

Bathrooms
Ceramic tiles are the only floor treatments to consider—seal the floor before setting the tiles to waterproof the floor, then seal the grout, especially at the baseboards/skirting boards, once the tiles are installed.

If the bathroom has only a tub, consider adding a shower as it makes the place more “rentable.” Most men prefer a shower rather than a tub bath. But do it right—spend the money to have a plumber open the wall and install a proper shower and don’t add a hand-held shower head. Don’t give the tenant anything to break or pull loose (I had a tenant rip the hose completely out of the wall, making a huge mess and necessitating an expensive repair). Avoid shower doors if you can—one more thing to break or for you to have to laboriously clean when the tenants leave. Shower curtains are cheap and you can expect your tenant to provide his own.

Check the tub—if it is fibreglass, consider replacing it with a porcelain-finished cast iron tub. I had to replace a fibreglass tub last year because it had a hole in the bottom—a split at least eight inches (20 cm) long. Then I had to spend a small fortune repairing the bathroom in the flat downstairs (which I do not own) because of the water damage caused by my tenants continuing to use the tub with a hole in the bottom!

Tiles around the shower/tub should be the same ones you used in the kitchen counter and backsplash so you don’t need to keep a lot of different spares on hand. If the sink is mounted on a cabinet, tile the top of it to prevent scorch marks from curling or flat irons and cigarettes (it is not enough to say your unit is non-smoking—I have had to completely repaint an entire 120 sqm non-smoking flat to be rid of the nicotine stains and stale cigarette smoke smell, and I had to strip, sand and paint a beautiful natural wood bathroom cabinet that was ruined with cigarette burns).

If the sink is a wall-hung model, replace it with something supported from the bottom. A cabinet-type sink base is best. People lean—even sit!—on sinks. A pedestal-style sink is not as secure as it looks (often the pedestal is not supporting the sink, it merely hides the pipes). And provide an over-sink mirror that is the door to a built-in medicine cabinet: those are harder to steal or break than something just hung on the wall.

Make sure the toilet is in good working order and that the valve behind the toilet (for controlling water flow) is not stuck or corroded shut. If you don’t already have one, a low-flow toilet will reduce the water consumption and therefore your bill. Be particularly certain that the toilet is secure on the floor and that there are no water leaks that can cause costly floor damage.

Provide a locking door knob or handle. Don’t cheap out here by putting in a sliding bolt or chain or hook and loop lock—those are easily forced and they take out your door jamb, too. Install simple, bright lights in the bathroom, preferably over the sink so the tenant has enough light for shaving/make up/hair styling. And stay away from wall paper: if it is already installed, remove it and paint with the same enamel paint as used in the kitchen.

In general:

Window treatments: It might be tempting to put in cute curtains, but the smart money is on putting up a sturdy wood pole to hang curtains from and leaving the decorating to the tenants. Metal rods and brackets are easily torn from the walls, pull-type drapery rods are easily damaged. Vertical blinds and even custom metal or wood blinds all fall prey to the carelessness of a tenant. Solid wood poles mounted with long solid screws (or molly bolts, if you have hollow walls) above every window will last the longest.

Floors: high traffic areas like entries, hallways, back doors/mudrooms all benefit from ceramic tile with sealed grout. They are the easiest to clean and least likely to show wear. Wood floors, if finished with polyurethane, also hold up well. Carpet is a bad idea but if you must install it, choose a dirt-friendly colour to hide the inevitable stains and invest in a really, really good vacuum because you will need it when the tenants leave.

Walls, ceilings, woodwork: wallpaper is to be avoided. Washable matte finish paint in a neutral colour on the walls, white on the ceilings, white gloss enamel on painted woodwork, polyurethane on natural wood. Keep paint in sealed cans (lay a sheet of plastic wrap over the surface of the paint to prevent it from drying out) for touchups later.

Locks: make sure all windows and doors have fully functioning locks. You don't want too get sued by your own tenants when a burglar comes through an unlockable window and someone gets hurt. Keep a complete set of keys for every lock in the house, including any padlocks (like for the garage door) that you supply. If there are remotes, keep one for yourself. If there is an emergency—or if the tenants lose their keys or move without returning the keys—you will need a set.

None of these renovations will prevent a tenant from damaging your property, but they will cut down on repairs and the dead time (your rental will be empty and not generating income) while you are doing the repairs. Best of luck in the landlord business!


Friday, April 27, 2012

France: the mood is rude

Ok, it’s official—France is the rudest country on the planet.  Seems that a company called Skyscanner.com, which claims to be Europe’s leading travel search site, surveyed its users seeking informed opinions (i.e., from people who have actually travelled to the countries they are disparaging) about how various nations treat foreign travellers. A whopping 1200 people responded from all over the world (although a preponderance of them were European) and to nobody’s surprise, 19% named France as the place most likely to insult or offend foreign visitors, with Russia following closely behind with 16.5% of the vote. With 33 countries named by the respondents, just three countries—France, Russia and the UK—managed to amass a full 46% of the total vote!

So, if France is the rudest country in the world, it must stand to reason, then, that the French are the rudest people in the world, right? Never having been to France and having met precious few French people in my life—although the one I knew best certainly would win no prizes for her courtesy towards others—I am not in a position to definitively declare the French a race of boors, but simple logic would lead you to the conclusion that, in order for France to be declared the rudest country in the world, it must be because its citizens are significantly lacking something in the courtesy department, hein?

So this got me to thinking…

When people want to give something a touch of elegance, when they want to evoke sophistication and grace and classiness, the go-to vibe is inevitably French. Whether deciding to call your coffee shop a bistro or sidewalk café, whether evoking illusions of Versailles or the Champs Élysées, whether channelling Coco Chanel or Christian Dior…if we want to bring to mind class, elegance, and style, we turn to the French.

We even do it with language. If we want to sound erudite and urbane, we toss in a vis à vis here and a faux pas or billet doux there, knowing the cognoscenti will recognize us as one of them, and everyone else will just pretend to know what we are talking about. Despite our recent falling out with the French, renaming their delightful fried potato fingers “Freedom Fries” in a petulant attempt to teach them a lesson about reciprocal support in times of trouble, we still look to the French for those things we subconsciously consider better than prosaic American sensibilities. If it’s French, it must be classy!

So how do we reconcile this sense of Frenchness being sophisticated and worldly with their apparently deserved reputation for being the rudest people in the world? French was once the language of diplomacy and international business, having been supplanted by English in recent years, and a mental image of couture-draped women dripping gems, French tripping lightly off their tongues, is what pops up when one thinks of embassy functions and soirées. Exceedingly polite diplomats and foreign functionaries concealing their deceitful intentions behind correct smiles and polite French phrases, rigidly correct, excruciatingly refined…this perception does not square with the exasperated “Merde!” muttered as another foreign tourist butchers a patriotic Frenchman’s mother tongue with his crude accent and ridiculous phrase book.

I suspect that France—and the French—are no more rude than anyone else, that the denizens of big cities like Paris fall prey to the stress of their environment like New Yorkers and Johannesburgers, and that in more laid back environments we might find gracious hospitality rather than rude rejection.

Then, again, maybe the French are just more willing to be honest than the rest of us, less politically correct, more true to themselves and their expectations of what it takes to make a satisfying life—which, in their culture, may not include being excessively patient with visitors who seem to think everybody in the world should speak English and drop what they are doing to serve the unintelligible stranger.

There is something inherently flawed in judging other cultures based on our own values. An American or Brit might find himself repulsed by the Japanese visitor’s loud slurping and lip smacking at dinner—while the Japanese host would find himself insulted at the carefully silent dining habits of their American or British guests. Perhaps what we non-French consider rude the French consider merely expedient. It is absurd, after all, to go to a foreign country and expect its denizens to ape your own sense of manners and courtesy. When in Rome, do as the Romans do—don’t expect the Romans to suddenly exhibit the manners and mores of your culture.

Maybe we should apply that to our judgments of the French as well, n’est pas?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Earn respect?

Do you think people should earn your respect? Really? Why?

When I was growing up, respect was not something you earned. Respect was freely given, in fact, it was considered an entitlement. It was DISrespect that had to be earned. Now, if you think I’m full of crap on this, put on your thinking cap and follow along with me.

In a circumstance in which respect is not freely accorded to others, disrespect reigns. When you respect the rights and feelings of others, you don’t do things that might infringe on those rights or impinge on their feelings: you don’t cut in front of them in line, you don’t cut them off on the highway, you don’t interrupt when they are speaking, you don’t insult their politics or religious inclinations, you don’t assault their ears with loud cell-phone conversations, or impair their breathing with your second hand smoke—and they don’t do the same to you.

Common courtesy and manners, the lubricant that oils the wheels of social interaction, are based on simple respect for the feelings and rights of others. When respect is absent, disrespect reigns…and when you behave disrespectfully, you invite others to behave towards you in the same way.

Speaking altruistically, you must give respect to get respect and a society that values pleasant social interaction must be based on the simple tenet that we must all respect each other if we are to avoid conflict and make progress.

But there is another, more practical and less esoteric reason that respect must be freely given rather than earned: the sheer impossibility of doing so.

You see, there are billions of people on this planet and even if you live an insular life in a small town, you are going to meet quite a few of them. And each person is going to be different, have different mores and beliefs and feelings…and each one will have different criteria for earning respect. Moreover, those criteria will not be tattooed on their foreheads, nor will they thoughtfully hand you a list of them…in fact, if asked, they will likely be hard pressed to even articulate what it takes for you to earn their respect. And if they really thought about it diligently, it is most likely that one of the critical criterion would be that you show respect to them.

You are no different. You have some kind of nebulous concept rattling around in the back of your brain that defines what it means to earn your respect. And you hold countless numbers of complete strangers to this amorphous, undefined criteria in order to “earn” your respect, without telling them or even being able to articulate it yourself. This is grossly unfair. It is setting a standard to which you expect others to measure up without ever telling them what the standard is. It virtually guarantees failure on the part of others and virtually guarantees you a conscience-free pass to be rude and disrespectful to the majority of people you meet! I mean, if they don’t earn your respect, why should you treat them respectfully?

This attitude is the most basic underpinning of bullying. If you don’t respect someone because you believe they have to earn your respect and you have made it impossible for them to do by creating an impossible and/or invisible set of standards, then you don’t need to respect their rights or their feelings, do you? If you further create some gates that a person must pass through in order to even try to earn your respect—like they must be straight, or Christian, or politically conservative, or a certain race or ethnicity or gender—you further create a situation that you feel absolutely justified in not respecting those who are unable to pass through those gates. If they can’t jump through the hoops and avoid the obstacles you have set up, then you feel perfectly justified in disrespecting them.

When you consider that there are potentially billions of people doing this, that if you meet 100 people in the course of a week, each one of them may be doing this to you, you may begin to see how this cannot work as a way of life. If you meet 100 people and each of them has a different criteria for having their respect earned and none of them are willing to tell you what you must do to “earn” their respect, you are basically screwed. It is a hit or miss situation where “earning” someone’s respect is accidental rather than by design or intent. It is, with rare exception, impossible.

But it goes even deeper than this. Consider for a moment: what kind of a person truly believes that his respect is so rare a commodity that others must earn it? What kind of a person has so little respect within his heart that he must dole it out only to those who are willing to abase themselves to “earn” it? If you think of yourself as a “good person,” what are you doing withholding that most basic entitlement of humans, the right to be respected simply because they exist?

That’s right—we all have basic human rights—and the right to be respected is one of them. We earn DISrespect when we have done something worthy of it, but respect is your birthright. And to expect others to earn your respect is tantamount to saying that you are entitled to withhold from them a right that came with their first breath, setting yourself as a superior being above those from whom you withhold your respect. It speaks ill of your character, and reflects badly upon your moral fibre.

Many of us have bought into the notion that respect must be earned out of ignorance and lack of critical thinking. We aren’t really bullies and we deplore the lack of common courtesy we are subjected to in daily life. Curiously, while we take the position that strangers must earn our respect, we fully expect those strangers to treat us with the respect and courtesy we have made no effort to “earn” from them. It’s a one-way street in our minds—others should treat us with respect but they must earn ours—and we don’t even realize it!

If you take the time to really think about it, you have to come to the conclusion that respect simply cannot be earned. No one person is sufficiently intuitive and simultaneously fluid of personality that they can divine and appropriately react to an infinite, and infinitely changing, set of demands. You cannot please all of the people all of the time—and when it comes to earning respect, you cannot even know what all of the people think you need to do.

If you want to be respected, there is a simple way to achieve that: respect others. Respect their feelings, their rights, their existence. Give them respect as a matter of course and only withhold it when a specific person has done a specific thing that is worthy of withdrawing it. Set the bar high—determine that taking your respect away from a person is a serious thing, not to be taken lightly or in response to something small, like disagreeing with you politically. In fact, to my way of thinking, it is only demonstrating an ingrained lack of respect for others that warrants the withdrawal of my respect.

You might consider this the next time you think another person should earn your respect rather than you giving it freely and giving him a chance to earn your disrespect instead.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Manners, people! Bring your manners!

Geeze, there are days it just doesn't pay to leave your house!

I only had to be out a couple of hours this morning--refill some prescriptions and pick up a few groceries--nothing major. And while it is a Monday morning, it is a public holiday here, so I expected things to be a bit more crowded than on a normal Monday. It wasn't nearly as busy as I expected, but that was probably because I got to the store as it was just opening.

One sack of groceries--that is all I bought, which isn't much. I was in the queue, waiting for an open till, within a short time. The little automatic queue monitor flashed "6" and the electronic voice intoned "Teller Six" and Hubby and I set off for the till. Oddly, the woman behind us cut in front of Hubby as we headed for the till and when I hesitated a moment to allow him to get around her and catch up with me, she swooped past me and presented herself at Till 6 in my place! Fortunately Till 7 was available so I took my trolley there, but the Rude Cow at #6 never did seem to figure out that she had jumped the queue in such an egregious fashion--she was absolutely shameless--even clueless--about it.

We then had to go to the big market to pick up the prescriptions and I needed a couple of things from there as well. Much to my amazement, a younger version of the Rude Cow from Woolworth's appeared! She and her male companion, apparently oblivious to my big trolley being pushed by PlusSize me (who knew a woman my size could be invisible??), decided to enter an aisle as I was turning into it. My trolley was already more than half way through the turn when they jostled it and leaped in front, rushing past. Good grief--would their worlds have fallen apart if they had waited a whole two seconds while I completed the turn and left them sufficient room to go past without crashing into my trolley? What about the woman who parked her trolley in the middle of an aisle so that nobody could get around it and when I said "excuse me?" to her back, she moved but left the trolley in the middle of the aisle?

What is it with people who behave so badly in public? We were in another store on Saturday morning where someone had let a completely unmannered little girl of about 5 loose. Every aisle I entered, she got there ahead of me and every time I needed to stop to choose something, she managed to park her little body right in front of where I needed to be, doing absolutely nothing except taking up space and refusing to budge even when politely asked to do so. Where were her parents? Why was she allowed to run amok in the store? Where are the kidnappers when you need them?

There was a time when people left their children at home until they could behave in public (do not give me that lame tripe about kids needing to be in public to learn manners and I should be more tolerant. If you are a parent and truly believe that, then you are in desperate need of a course of etiquette yourself!) and if a child transgressed in public, s/he was brought up short, on the spot. Now, parents seem to be unaware that "having a baby" equates to raising (as in teaching, training, disciplining, and paying attention to) a child. Like the bride who doesn't think about the marriage, only the wedding, these parents seem not to look past their expectations of adorable, cooing babies and into the real future of the savage little beasts they are supposed to tame.

These little beasts grow into the thoughtless, self-absorbed Rude Cattle I encountered this morning. From supermarket trolley wars to airline passengers refusing to turn off their phones to women having no shame about dating married men, this "me me me" mindset has just gone too far. Manners are an expression of respect for others--and the idea that strangers have to "earn" your respect is a completely bankrupt, narcissistic, utterly stupid notion--and when you show disrespect for others, you invite them to reciprocate. Discourtesy and disrespect breed further discourtesy and disrespect...it creates a hostile environment. People with good manners will not point your faux pas out to you, as that is just as rude, so you must monitor yourself. Slow down--nothing is so important that you cannot wait 3 seconds for someone or at least say "excuse me" in an apologetic tone of voice as you go past. Think before you stop in the middle of a walking space to chat with a friend, before you leave your trolley in the middle of the aisle then block the rest of it with your body as you leisurely peruse the selections, before you gridlock an intersection because you just cannot wait for the next light, before you cut off another driver or refuse to let someone in--THINK--

You just aren't THAT important that everyone else on the planet should give way to you, now are you??

Friday, April 06, 2012

Happy Birthday, Dear Hubby!!

My husband's 40th birthday was last Sunday. We celebrated it by going to Sun City for a week, being careful to come home on Good Friday so as to minimize being stuck in crowds--South Africans loooove to travel over the four day Easter holiday and Hubby timed the trip so that we would be leaving as they would be arriving.

We wanted to try the off-road Segway safari, but a big rain before we arrived left the trails too muddy for that, so it is postponed until our next trip. This trip we decided to try a 6am game drive since the later ones seldom turn up a lot of animals. Seems they rise and eat early, then retire to the shade of trees and thickets when the sun starts to heat things up, so the early morning game drives show more promise.

And it worked! Although the leopards remained elusive, I have finally seen my first wild lion (unfortunately a sighting too brief to photograph), and we actually happened on a rhino actually standing in the road! A small herd of elephants were snacking on some trees and I saw kudu for the first time in this park (our third game drive in this park).


We made it down to Waterworld where Hubby learned to jet ski. And while he seemed to enjoy it tremendously, I couldn't convince him to try parasailing or any of the other water activities (save swimming and floating in the heated pool which was, unfortunately, thickly populated with children).

We took a boat ride on the lake, which afforded us some lovely views...
And at the boat dock there was a huge cluster of carp and catfish (and those fish were gigantic!) including this monster of an albino catfish...
We drove back this morning and have been greeted (and kissed to death) by the little doggies, sent the maid (who was house sitting) home, wer  and are blessedly, peacefully, home again. I love our little trips and travel, but the best part has to be getting back to my own cosy environment!!

Friday, March 30, 2012

When Eskom hands you lemons...

Originally posted in 2008--Edited today

I happened upon a thought provoking article on the web today, in a place I didn't expect to find it.

Tessa Silberbauer, writing for IOLjobs, had this to say:

"The other evening, while sitting and looking at the puddle of candlelight in front of a mirror, I had to laugh at myself.
"For all my belief in saving resources and environmental awareness, I've still been spoiled by "progress": I've forgotten so much.
"How to word-count longhand work, for example (I had to re-write this article by hand to conserve battery power, after writing the original on my PC just before a power cut). And I've become so used to having light when I want it, that I've forgotten how little I really need.
"I'm not alone in responding to power cuts, with anger sometimes. I know that there are serious losses, and that these are hurting us all. But there are also advantages to take, when we focus on our abilities rather than what we can't control.
"We can choose whether to be part of the solution, or part of the problem. Most of the time, it will be a mixed effect; but there is no excuse for refusing to do what we can, just because our contribution is small. " (see the rest of Tessa's excellent article here: http://www.ioljobs.co.za/article_view.php?fArticleId=4237298)

Being part of the solution does not mean that our contributions must be gargantuan. A grain of sand is minute, but enough of them make up a beach. And while your contribution may be only the size of a grain of sand...remembering to shut off your geyser during peak times, for example...if every household in South Africa did just that one thing, our power problem would be diminished significantly.

A painless way to be part of the solution is the change your attitude. Instead of revelling in the "kick 'em while they're down" mob-mentality of blaming Eskom and demanding pointless action (like sacking the managers, which is monumentally stupid and counterproductive), we can channel our energy into a positive, productive course of action. Tell our friends that moaning makes things worse, not better, because Eskom and the government already know there is a problem, so it's time for us all to look to solutions.

Yesterday I had a conversation with my husband's auntie, who is a bank manager in Natal. Her bank gets power cuts at about 2 in the afternoon, and sometimes her town also gets a second power cut in the evening. Now you may not realize it, but even after banks close their doors at 3, work continues inside the bank...work that ordinarily requires electricity. Auntie is very service oriented, and it bothers her that her customers, who have only a short window of opportunity to use the bank anyway, are losing an hour (and sometimes more) of opportunity to use her services. Her solution has been to install UPSs and soon her bank will be open, even during power outages. She is turning this into a marketing opportunity by posting discreet signs in her bank and at the ATMs (and is considering taking out ads in her local newspaper) advertising this fact. Not only will her customers remain loyal, but she expects her ability to remain open and functioning during the outages may draw new customers to her bank. The lady has a firm grip on the concept of taking the lemons of the power crisis and turning them into the sweet lemonade of opportunity.

Another friend of mine reports that they have dug out the old board games and play Monopoly and Scrabble and cards in the evening when the power is down. Where they used to go to separate rooms to watch TV and play video games, the family is now coming together and interacting. More lemonade.

Silberbauer's comment about being spoiled is well-taken. Since when can we not live for two hours without electricity? So, you are expected to adapt a little, change how you do things, make some plans and organize your time and activities around a short loss of power...so what? How selfish can we be, expecting our personal situations to be the hub of the universe? Can we not look for the good that can come out of adversity? Can we not take advantage of the downtime to replenish, relax, reconnect? Have we forgotten that electricity is our servant and not our master?

Being mad at Eskom only hurts you by feeding a negativity of spirit...it doesn't hurt Eskom or change the situation, it only changes you...and for the worse. Scheming to punish Eskom by lawsuits or demanding a management change or, worse, attacking Eskom employees, accomplishes nothing positive. Money awarded through lawsuits takes money away from projects designed to alleviate the crisis and, ultimately, comes out of YOUR pocket and the pockets of people like you, because Eskom's profits go to your government...and its losses come from your government, which you support with your taxes. It is never wise to change horses in midstream, and a new management team for Eskom will inevitably cause delays downstream...where the work of alleviating the power shortage is being done. And what good does it do to pinion an Eskom employee and demand answers from him or even assault him for the power issues? Better to look in a mirror and ask, "what have I done to contribute to this problem and what am I doing to help resolve it?" because you will get more answers there than from the poor guy who comes to read your meter and knows no more about what his bosses are doing than you do.

So, the government, through refusing to give Eskom the go-ahead to start building power stations years back, has handed you a basket of lemons. I'd be interested in knowing what you have done to make lemonade out of them.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Forgiveness: a mistake?

I have had a lot on my mind lately (in addition to having a lot on my plate). I turned 65 earlier this month and have done a lot of reflecting.

One of the things you get with advancing age (along with arthritis and dimming eyesight) is sufficient experience to gain some perspective. Unfortunately, too many people also become used to jerking their knees rather than actually thinking—which is a waste of both experience and perspective, since they both go unused.

Like all others, Western society has a herd of sacred cows. I’ve always been the kind of person to examine those cows, to test the reason for their sanctity. Maybe I am an iconoclast, maybe I am just, as my mother used to call me, a “shit disturber.” Whatever the reason, I find it very difficult sometimes to not dismember a sacred cow with the sharp blade of critical thought—and when I do that, it seems impossible to put the poor cow back together when I am done.

My subject matter is eclectic. I didn’t like Hemingway despite my sophomore English professor’s adoration of him and his writing—I found his writing juvenile in the sense that it was choppy and lacking in flow. I take issue with modern interpretations of Christianity. I am not on board with the child-centred lifestyle so many parents indulge in today. I detest pop-cultural icons like Kim and Paris and the vapid, self-indulgent consumerism they inspire. But most of all, I despise “popular wisdom,” especially when it may be popular, but is anything but wise.

One of my favourite straw men is the silly notion that, in order to heal from some traumatic event, you have to forgive the person who hurt you. What unmitigated bullshit! Gail Meyers, in her article When Your Mother Has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, addresses the topic very wisely. This “forgiveness imperative” that is plaguing our society right now is, of course, based in the Christian notion of being forgiven by God for our sins. If someone as powerful and omnipotent as God can forgive us for terrible sins, who are we, puny little mortals that we are, to withhold forgiveness from each other?

Not only is this unnecessarily guilt-inducing for victims, it is wholly inaccurate. To quote Meyers: “Forgive as the Lord forgave you." (Col. 3:13) How did the Lord forgive you? Did He just ‘forgive and forget’ your sin as you refused to repent or even acknowledge it as abusers often do? No, you confessed your sins to Him, acknowledged your sin, repented and He forgave you. God does not forgive a person denying they have done wrong and continuing in their sin. Quite the opposite. In Luke 17:3 it says, ‘If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.’ In the Greek, "rebuke" is epitimao, which in this case means to honestly, frankly, politely speak as you tell a person how you feel that he has wronged you. It does not say a thing about stuffing your normal human response of anger, pretending you forgave, ‘forgetting’ and returning for more abuse as some would have you believe.”

Dr. Susan Forward, in her book “Toxic Parents” also addresses the subject of forgiveness: page 189 of her book Toxic Parents:
—   “The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this absolution [forgiveness] was really another form of denial: ‘If I forgive you, we can pretend that what happened wasn't so terrible.’ I came to realize that this aspect of forgiveness was actually preventing a lot of people from getting on with their lives.
—   “Responsibility can go only one of two places: outward, onto the people who have hurt you, or inward, into yourself. So you may forgive your parents but end up hating yourself all the more in exchange.
—   “Clients all too often discovered that the empty promise of forgiveness had merely set them up for bitter disappointment. Some of them experienced a rush of well-being, but it didn't last because nothing had really changed in the way they felt or in their family interactions.”

If you are guessing that I am not a big fan of forgiveness, you are correct. I think the pressure on victims to forgive those who have harmed them is reprehensible. It is revictimizing the person, demanding that they, in essence, disavow their right to experience their own feelings and instead, invalidate themselves in favour of the person who hurt them!

This is just not acceptable! One of the unhealthiest things we do to ourselves is to “stuff” our feelings. This repression and refusal to acknowledge reality leads to a host of new personal difficulties from drinking problems and eating disorders to being unable to trust or even love others, and more. Women who stay with abusive partners are people who have learned to stuff their feelings. People who blame themselves for the behaviour of others—like a man who was brutalized as a child saying “I deserved it…I was a handful as a kid,”—are people who have learned to stuff their feelings. Anorexics, people who cut themselves, the perpetually but inexplicably angry or anxious, even the promiscuous, are people who have learned to stuff—to disassociate from—their feelings.

Don’t get me wrong…I am not saying we should never forgive. I am simply saying that we should not forgive indiscriminately—or prematurely—or because others say we should or that forgiveness will somehow heal our hurts, because none of that is true. I think forgiveness has its place, but it is not a healing tool. In fact, if you expect to get something out of forgiving someone who has hurt you, you really are viewing it all wrong. Forgiveness, to be genuine, has to be a selfless act, selflessly given, with no conditions or expectations attached.

There are a number of people in my life who need forgiveness—but I’m not handing it out. I am also not bitter or “withholding” or any of the other epithets others cast at those who refuse (or are unable) to forgive. I am rational, I am intelligent, and I am good at critical thinking. Refusal to forgive is directly related to those people refusing to acknowledge their sins, apologize, and trying to make amends of some kind. It is Biblical, as it were, in that before I will forgive another’s trespass, that other has to own up to his trangressions and be truly remorseful for them. Absent that, there is no forgiveness.

No—it is not harsh—it is eminently pragmatic and protective. Normal people, when they learn they have hurt you, actually feel bad about it. Their internal processes generate a feeling of guilt which they expiate with an apology. It is the people who refuse to acknowledge they have done wrong, who rationalize or justify or blame their victims, who feel no remorse, no guilt, who should not be forgiven. They do not understand selfless acts given selflessly. They see life through their own set of warped filters and perceive forgiveness as consent on the part of their victim, an assent to continue the assaults that generated the need for forgiveness in the first place.

For some transgressors, the knowledge you are forgiving them can be enraging. How dare you take it upon yourself to imply they are wrong in anything they do? Because, after all, you only give forgiveness to those who have done something wrong. Others use forgiveness sanctimoniously—just see how big, how magnanimous, how humble (and wonderful) they are to forgive you for your sins against them. They may even tell you, in supercilious tones, that they forgive you, that they know you don’t hurt them on purpose, that you are living your life as you choose and they forgive you for the pain those choices have inflicted on them. That isn’t real forgiveness, for all that they might believe it is. It leaves them feeling pure and good and self-righteously superior. It isn’t real forgiveness, it is a game they play with your feelings and your self-esteem, your mind and your soul. It makes them your judge, with a perceived right to forgive or punish what they perceive as your sins—it allows them to think they have a right to control your life and that your behaviours (and even beliefs and values) must align with their own. It takes away your power—in their minds—and give it to them.

So, is forgiveness a bad thing? No. Not if it is appropriately and judiciously dispensed. Given too freely, it has no value. Withheld parsimoniously, it loses its purity, it become a cudgel with which to beat those who would have forgiveness into submission.

If you ascribe to the Christian model, forgiveness cannot be dispensed until and unless the transgressor acknowledges and repents his sins because that’s how the Christian god does it and no mere mortal can be smarter, better or more righteous than God. If you ascribe to something a bit more terrestrial, logic dictates that forgiveness still cannot be dispensed until and unless the transgressor acknowledges and repents his sins, otherwise all the forgiveness represents is permission to continue committing the acts that required forgiveness in the first place.

Forgiveness absent repentance is nothing more than permission to carry on as before.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

And I still don't get it...

You would think, at this venerable age, nothing a person could do would surprise me, that by now I would have experienced enough that little in the human condition would give me pause.

So, when my phone went “ping” repeatedly this morning—at 5:30—you would think I would expect it to be my deadbeat tenant, messaging me that she had her most recent instalment on her arrears, right? Silly me, I thought it might be from a family member notifying us that someone was desperately ill or critically injured!

I do not understand people who become aggressive (or, in this case, passive-aggressive) when they are, by any measurable standard, clearly in the wrong. This woman is more than two months in arrears in both her electricity and her rent. We finally cut her electricity off for non-payment last month, an act that finally had the desired effect of her coming up with about a third of her debt to us in cash. As part of our agreement to turn her lights back on, she had to agree to pay us R1000 per week against her outstanding debt or see the power cut again.

The first week she tried to short us by R50. My husband refused to turn the power back on until the full R1000 (about $125USD) was paid. The second week she paid OK, but in the third week her rent was due and she whined to my husband she could not afford to pay the rent and the back payment so he let her slide and pay the rent only. Then she skipped a payment and ignored our reminder texts, so Hubby turned off her electricity. Three days later, I received a text at midnight that she had the money.

I do not understand her hostility. She signed a lease agreeing to pay rent and electricity and from the second month of her tenancy, it has been like pulling teeth to get money out of her. And she has come up with some of the most inventive lies I have ever heard to explain her tardiness with the rent. She deposited it via EFT to our bank account and the bank put it in the wrong account (yah, right); her ATM card wouldn’t work so she couldn’t draw cash; she has a new job and will get paid next week (we checked—payday was three weeks away). She promises money in a week, three days, tomorrow—all forgotten as soon as the door is closed or the phone put down.

So when she got two months in arrears and Hubby called her, she got hostile and nasty. And she took it out on the maid by being rude to her (and my maid is the sweetest, kindest lady you would ever care to meet) and the tenant who lives in the little studio flat at the other side of the property. But always nice as pie to my face or my husband’s face…just rude and hostile over the phone or to people who have nothing to do with her little drama.

Finally Hubby cut off her electricity. Of course, we sent her a message (in writing—hard copy) that this was going to happen, when it was going to happen, what she could do to prevent it, what she had to do to get it turned back on. She ignored us. He turned off the power. I don’t know what she thought would happen—maybe my good-natured Hubby would relent and restore her power without any action on her part?—but she lasted just short of a week with no lights, hot water, kitchen stove or power for her refrigerator. She brought money and she agreed to pay R1000 per week towards her arrears—and she can’t seem to manage that.

My husband says he doesn’t think she is malicious, just unable to appropriately prioritize and right up to 5:30 this morning, I agreed with him. She told the maid a couple of weeks ago that she spent R2000 for an elective surgery for her cat—this was the same week she cried poverty to my husband and said she couldn’t afford both her rent and the arrears payment. On Monday of this week, she told the gardener that she was moving to a “big house” in our area, which just happens to be one of the most expensive places to live in all of sub-Saharan Africa. “If she can’t afford to pay her rent here,” my maid asked, “how can she afford a big house in Sandton?” Good question, isn’t it?

But the thing that gets me is the hostility and passive-aggressiveness. We’ve been through this before, some years ago, with a tenant in Cape Town. This woman stopped paying her rent, claiming tough times in her business and lack of funds, but the truth was, her lease was about up and instead of paying her rent for her last two months, she used her rent money to pay for the deposit and first month’s rent on a very high-end house in the posh district of the up-market suburb we were living in. For months afterward she insulted us and our lawyers, and indignantly claimed we were accusing her of being a liar when she really, really was broke and just couldn’t pay up. On move-out she did R7000 worth of damage (50% more than her deposit covered) and accused us of “padding” the damages—she offered to have a carpet cleaned (offering about 10% of what a cleaner would charge) when the problem with the carpet was not soil but a hole nearly half a meter in diameter where the carpet had rotted from moisture. She had had a large potted plant sitting in that spot and had allowed the thing to drain into the carpet!

She damaged the walls and although it was a no-smoking flat, nicotine literally dripped from the ceiling light fixtures when we took possession of the flat. Cracks in the walls so bad they required replastering, stains on the paint from thrown or spilled coffee or cola, paint ripped away from the walls, cigarette burns in the wood bathroom cabinetry…and the whole garden dead from lack of water, despite the presence of an irrigation system that took but one turn of a handle to operate. She did so much damage that it took more than a month to set right and not only did she claim she was leaving it the same condition as she got it (she was the very first tenant and the place had been completely renovated just before she moved in), she was the very picture of righteous indignation at our demands that she pony up and pay for the damage she caused.

And she was not without funds. We sued her and she cried “poverty! poverty!” right up to the day the court issued an order to seize her pretty little lavender BMW and sell it to satisfy the debt. Suddenly, large sums of money began appearing in our attorney’s trust account, and within 10 days the debt, which had grown by 50% with the inclusion of legal fees, was satisfied. She had had the means to pay us all along, but not only refused to pay, acted as if there was something wrong with us for not believing her patently false cries of poverty.

I don’t get this. Oh, I clearly understand being short on funds…I was poor for a good portion of my life. But what I don’t understand is getting yourself in an arrears situation when it is not necessary—and then becoming hostile to the people to whom you owe money. When you are in the wrong, isn’t it obvious that you make your situation even worse by becoming hostile (either actively or passively) to the people you have wronged? I have had situations in which I was unable to pay bills—I didn’t handle it by becoming hostile to my creditors!

The good news is, my deadbeat tenant is moving out at the end of the month and new tenants—people with a squeaky clean credit history—are moving in and at a higher rent that the deadbeat was supposed to be paying. The bad news is, we are certain that the deadbeat, as soon as she is gone and we have no leverage (like turning off her electricity) to force the money out of her, will completely forget the debt, expecting us to do the same. I don’t know how she sleeps at night.