To Believe or Belieb? That is the Question

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This may well have been the most unpopular assembly address I made a few years ago when the Biebs was here before, but I have never shied away from speaking my mind on important matters and as a teacher, a principal in charge (now) of  153 staff members, a mother of 5 blood children, 2 step-children and nearly 1700 learners I am responsible for, I am used to being unpopular:

“Contrary to some of your assumptions based on the title of this speech, I bear Justin Bieber no ill will and despite cringing at some of his inane utterances like ‘I want my world to be fun. No parents. No rules.  No nothing. Like no one can stop me. No one can stop me.’

And: ‘Ann Frank was a great girl. I hope she would have been a Belieber.’ Besides the fact that he’s not quite my cup of tea, I think he’s cute. Not sexy cute; sweet cute. Although I must say I dare anyone to say we had big hair in the eighties…

But your parents have entrusted you all to this school and we have promised them that we shall provide you all with a values-based education. The values we teach are based on Jesus’ life and teachings. This week’s Bieber Concert has raised some issues that I cannot remain quiet about and still claim to be the leader of a faith-based school.

So what did I have a problem with? Here are 10 things that worried me:

  1. Why did people feel the need to leave school early? Or bunk a whole day? Fans who queued all night told reporters it was to be the first to see him; to be the closest to the stage; to have what no one else had. Yet Jesus teaches us ’the first shall be last; the last shall be first.’ Our faith teaches us to stand back generously for others; not to be the first through an intersection or at the front of a queue, not to demand the gratification of our own desires.

Contrary to what many of you were grumbling about, we had no desire to deprive you of the joy of the concert – it was only due to start at 8 o’clock however. It worries me that scrambling for places suggests a need to trample on others or need to get there first to get what you want – that is contrary to Christ’s teachings. It was fitting therefore that Ashley gave a Golden Circle ticket to someone who made the effort to be at school. She ended up with a better ticket than many. Good things really do come to those who wait. Patience really is a virtue.

  1. I know some of you planned long in advance for this concert and many took on odd jobs to save up for it. That is good. And I am glad that you have had the opportunity to enjoy the spectacle of someone you admire. It worries me however that often we only work so hard for ourselves. Jesus said: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Will you work so hard to benefit someone else? Do you love other people enough to work for months on end in order that someone else may benefit? Matric students are encouraged to donate evening wear to the poor after their dance so that their fun benefits someone else too – that is this school’s way. Ashley’s devotion on Wednesday also points to this principle – could you have given up your ticket to give joy to someone else? Jesus gave up His life for you. # just saying
  2. Reporters commented on how diehard Bieber fans braved the rain in the morning and John Maythem on Cape Talk commented in Afrikaans that a good caption for his photo would be: Beliebers bibber in die koue. Jesus speaks of giving our life for others. Would we stand in the rain to feed the homeless or protest abortion or speak out against human trafficking or child soldiers. Would we stand in the rain to worship if our churches had no buildings? No one wants to pray at lines when it rains.

# justsaying.

  1. Idolatry is a sin according to the Ten Commandments. Folk are quick to point out to Catholics their distaste for the statues that abound in our schools and churches, suggesting that we worship Mary and idols. We do not of course – statues and pictures of the Sacred Heart or Divine Mercy are mere reminders of Our Lady’s good example and the glory of Christ’s life, much like photos are reminders of those we love. But think about shows such as ‘Idols’ whose very name points to how we treat celebrities like The Biebs who become more than just heroes, but figures of obsession. When our behavior becomes extreme, we should be worried. When we disengage our brains and blindly follow our heroes, we should be worried. ‘Derek Watts’, a satirical journalist interviewed Beliebers outside the stadium: when asked if they thought whether Justin Bieber was a tool for change in society, they squealed, ‘Yes, yes.’ When asked whether they thought he was an ‘absolute tool,’ they again bleated ‘Yes, yes.’

#just saying.


Do we hang on every word of the Bible and sing worship hymns with as much gusto as we sing ‘Baby, Baby, Baby,’ or ‘As long as you love me’? Not in this hall we don’t. That worries me.

  1. I worry about the sexism inherent in teenyboppers and groupies. It is a fact that most Bieber fans are girls as have been fans of most popstars over the years. In your grandparents era female fans were throwing their knickers at the stage when Elvis Presley and later on the Beatles took to the stage; in fact they reckon that Frank Sinatra was the first such idol – all these men seem to have the same packaged popularity: safe sexuality; easy songs to sing along to and a dream-like allure. Why do boys not throw themselves at the stage of female stars in the same way too? Perhaps because men do not see themselves as needing to be completed only by a fantasy person? They are happy to be themselves. We women should consider that? All people should crave the love of God alone to complete them.
  2. I was annoyed and it took me a whole Tempo bar to unannoy myself that despite the ruling that no one would be given permission to be off school on Wednesday, given verbally to you in lines and in writing in my newsletter to your parents and you, if you read it on the noticeboard, many of you bunked, ignored my instruction or had your parents send me notes/calls instructing me to release you for the day. Let me make it clear that neither your parents nor even I have the right to give you permission to be off school. Only the Minister of Education may do so by law. And just because you may get away with the law, does not mean it is ok morally to break the law. Laws are there to benefit society. If you miss school for reasons other than illness or a death in the family, you are breaking the law. Schooling is compulsory. The minister’s representatives in the Department of Education made it clear that Wednesday was a school day.  Added to that even though you are students at an independent school, you are required to adhere to the College Code of Conduct. That includes obeying instructions of the principal. Why would you think that you were exempt? We live in a society though that seems to think that the laws apply to everyone else, but not to me. We are angered by taxis which ride on the pavement, but gleefully break the speed limit ourselves when we are late. Dagga is illegal, but if you think it’s not dangerous it should be ok; night clubs and movies have age limits, but ‘really, the bouncers should stop all those other young people.’

There is an inherent self-centredness in this. I wasted over an hour of my professional time dealing with those who believed they were exempt from the rules. I was then faced with trying to deal justly with those who quite correctly felt aggrieved that some simply bunked or came at the last minute with notes from their parents, when they had obeyed the rule. Strictly speaking, all who disobeyed the ruling should spend those hours in detention Will I do that? Not this time, but most definitely in the future. But of course since this ‘once in a lifetime experience’ has happened – there will be no need to do it again. No absentee note will however have resulted in a demerit. That’s the rule. It’s how we keep note of attendance. And if you have missed a test, oral or task deadline, no opportunities will be given to make these up. There are always consequences to one’s choices. Do not even think of asking my teachers to give up their free time to teach you work you missed. When Jesus was asked whether the Jews should pay taxes to an occupying power, he told his disciples to ‘render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.’ This teaches us that civil laws must be obeyed.  None of us is exempt.

  1. I worry also about the damage we do to young people who give themselves over to the Big Business that is the music industry. One only has to look at damaged child stars like Michael Jackson, Brittney Spears, Drew Barrymore and Macauley Caulkin, and megastars like Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix and Whitney Houston to see that the media industries do not care about the person of the star. What damage is done to young people who are treated like gods? It is our adoration that does this to them. Even too much love and attention can be bad. How can a nineteen year old survive intact? Already Justin Bieber is showing signs of the arrogance (look at the time he started – an hour late is rude) and possible substance abuse that comes from the adulation of millions – how would you react if 35 million people wanted to follow you on Twitter, yet it’s not the real you they know? If Justin Bieber caves to a celebrity syndrome of self-destruction, his fans will be partly responsible. Jesus said: ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’ We are required by our faith to look after each other. His mother has tried really hard to keep him real with chores etc, but she is no match for the showbiz machine. Agents, like Scooter Braun who discovered Justin Bieber on Youtube when he was 14, care far more about how much the star is worth to them than about their emotional stability or eternal souls.
  2. It worries me that the wholesale avoidance of school, to be over 12 hours early for a pop concert shows a casual disregard of the value of your education and the teachers and authorities who administer it. It may annoy you to be reminded of the relative suffering of others, but I wonder if you would be so careless about school if you understood how truly privileged you are to attend a school like this. No under-qualified teachers who take off when they feel like it, no over-crowded classrooms or violence in the playground. Just last week in Heideveld a Grade 9 student was stabbed by a group of other girls with a pair of scissors.

Your parents would definitely have objected if the staff members attending Bon Jovi on Tuesday night had left early to catch a glimpse of Jon Bon Jovi. I would have been inundated with complaints that their children were losing out on their education. Why is it different if you choose to be absent? Saying that you pay school fees, so you can choose to go without a day of school shows an arrogance and foolishness that no student of this school should have. Wisdom is so respected in the Bible that there is an entire book dedicated to it. Why would you waste the time of those dedicated to impart wisdom to you; why would you disrespect that? In the seventies and eighties students ‘bunked’ school to protest injustice and bring about change in society, not to be early for a concert.

  1. The Bieber Fever reminded me of how superficial some of our heroes really are. Last week there were complaints about celebrating the life of a man like Edmund Rice in a mass; yet we glorify Lady Gagga and Madonna, who dedicate themselves to anti-social and sometimes immoral ways. In the same year that Diana, Princess of Wales died so tragically, Mother Teresa also passed away. Yet the passing of the woman who alleviated so much suffering and made the world a better place paled in comparison to the death of the media idol of a princess. Please do not get me wrong – I am not condemning celebrities, but am saying that we treat them so differently from those whose lives have so much more gravitas. Shouldn’t all people be equally important and shouldn’t we recognize those who make the world a better place. How many of you would have queued for hours to meet Madiba or be in the Dalai Lama’s presence? Do we only want to be around those who entertain us? Our faith should teach us that a meaningful life is more important than the frivolity of fun alone.
  2. Some of you were outraged that you were not given permission to have the day off before the concert; yet fail to be outraged at moral injustices in our country. This was brought home to me when I heard someone complaining that the MyCiti buses were not running and that this would affect transport to the concert. The bus strike meant nothing until we were affected. Did you know that hundreds of domestic workers in this area alone travel from Khayalitsha daily to clean our houses. They now have to spend nearly half of their income or more paying for taxis (R20 each way) Did you know that the bus drivers on strike are complaining that their take-home pay is less than R2000 per month? What did you spend on your ticket to the concert? A girl I heard being interviewed on the news spent R4500 on a room at the ‘One and Only’ Hotel to be close to ‘The Biebs’ and then R6000 to meet him. Whew! How many bus drivers’ families could have eaten off that? What about protesting conditions in Cape Flats schools for a day? Or is that not important enough to risk the consequences of bunking?

# justsaying.


No one is saying that we should not enjoy ourselves, but we should be aware of the relative value we place on things in life. And that there are really important issues that face society. For example did you know that the amount of money needed to feed everyone on Earth for a year is spent every 8 days on the world’s military. Would you buy food for the poor with the cost of your ticket, or donate it to the class charity?

# justsaying.

We criticize the Guptas and deplore the R40 million spent on a recent wedding in Sun City, but are we thinking carefully about the morality of how we spend our money?

Remember the story of the widow’s mite in the gospels? That woman gave all she had to the temple collection.  Do we give even some of what we have?

So I must disagree with Justin in this: Life should not be about fun alone; parents and those in authority like your parents here at school are important; rules do exist – for a reason, even if you do not agree with them, you are obliged to obey them. ‘No nothing’ actually suggests that there should be matters of substance upon which we place importance. Wanting to have no boundaries is not true freedom. In fact true love requires that we prevent those we care about from losing themselves in limitless abandon.

If you are sitting here rolling your eyes and thinking how lame your principal is, you have missed the point of this address.

If you think I hate Justin Bieber and want to criticize him, you have missed the point.

If you think I am trying to guilt-trip you, (ok I’m a Catholic mother so perhaps there is a slight element of truth in that), but if you think that’s all it’s about, you have missed the point.

If you think I am still angry with you or condemning you, you have missed the point.

If you think I don’t understand what it is like to be young and crazy about someone, you have missed the point (To be honest I confess I gave John Travolta’s poster a kiss every night when I was 14. Another teacher who ‘cannot be named’ admits to going gagga over Cliff Richard).

If you think I am just an old killjoy trying to put a dampener on what was for many of you a fabulous evening, you have missed the point.

If you are sitting there complacently thinking this does not apply to you because you’re not a Bieber fan or didn’t attend the concert, you have really missed the point.

My point is we must think carefully about what our choices say about us. There is a saying which states that we should choose wisely because our choices become our actions; our actions become our habits and our habits become our character.

I would be a very poor mother of this school if I did not speak out about character. Because it is people of character and principles who make a difference in this world. I want you to be people of such character. And true happiness comes from God. I want you to have that real, deep, soul happiness.

I shall risk unpopularity to guide you to God.”


Writer’s Block

Rowling wrote the opening of the Harry Potter Books on a serviette in a coffee shop. So. I’m in a coffee shop. But there are no serviettes; my coffee is finished and there are no book ideas. People keep saying I should write a book, but I am ashamed to say that I keep being distracted by people-watching.

I should be beginning a saga about the triumph of endeavour and the resilience of the human spirit. Instead, I am amusing myself by gleefully reminding myself that that toddler clunking his toy cars on the table like Roger Taylor and screaming fit to bust is not mine.  Aaaand… oops… he is so desperate to get Mom’s attention (while she discreetly breastfeeds the next in the line of future teachers’ nightmares) that he is threatening to paddle in the water feature.  I catch the eye of a new mom, gracefully sipping her latte while engaged in dignified conversation with the older, elegant version of herself and we share an amused look. What she doesn’t realise is that I am also thinking, ‘ hee hee – that will be you in two years, chick.’

It’s a motley crew that surrounds me at the neighbouring tables: the man next to me has an eye patch and his female companion, nice and comfy in her ugly scuffed Uggs is patiently listening to his bluster. A pregnant mom battles up the adjacent stairs with a somnolent pre-schooler in her arms, who wakes up halfway and wails (more schadenfreude for the old cow at my table). How I remember those days of schlepping ‘sleeping kids (and/or large bags of dogfood in shops) around!

Outside the picture window a gardener diligently weeds the island circle and my thoughts digress to his life off the job. Did he walk all this way to work from Dunoon? What struggles has he overcome and how is this menial labour covering all his needs? An old man shuffles past, supported on both sides by two young women, presumably his grand-daughters. Both are laughing uproariously at something he has said, heads thrown back, delighted in his company, despite his slow progress.

I chuckle at the awkwardness of a succession of men carrying wives’ handbags which dangle unnaturally from their arms, as they attempt to come to terms with this perceived ‘unmanly’ contraption. (One looks quite heavy too). A man hops out the entrance to stand waiting for a lift at the entrance rotunda, clearly unused to the crutches perched painfully beneath his arms.

Then it strikes me that I am witnessing precisely what I was guiltily trying to contemplate: Here, from my booth in the hospital cafetaria, I am watching people survive adversity and conquer their personal demons  simply  by living.

Whether it is family, like the old man, dogged stoicism, like the gardener, companionship or Prozac (what Dennis the Menace’s mom is dreaming of), or even the faith supported by benign and innocuous ministers of religion like the one I saw clutching his bible as he strode off to visit the sick, something drives each of us to overcome life’s difficulties.

It’s certainly not the crappy abstract art that some painter has prostituted his talent to produce  for the clinic’s walls!




Grocery Shopping in the RSA

Did you know that the inflation rate on food in South Africa stands at 12.5% for the third quarter of 2016 and that is not factoring in the inflation of an additional 5% per growing (and therefore gobbling more) child permanently resident in our household. (I dare not say which one is not growing further for fear of reprisals.)

So grocery shopping is not fun anymore, if it ever was. I suffer from terrible trolley envy when I stand in queues, wandering how that man in the mesh vest behind me can afford the box of prawns and all that tinned coconut milk, or the aging prune in front can even begin to pay for 2 ply toilet paper and lamb, not to mention my veritable outrage that someone else won the free shopping spree at Spar, when I deserve it more!

When the munchkins were small, shopping was even more of a mission and they each had their ‘positions’ in, on or around the trolley. I’d bribe them to behave by buying the cheapest biscuits I could find and I’d do our weekly shop of R500 for all 6 of us (and that was including nappies). Now of course that’s what it costs every second day in the supermarket, but in those days I could feed us all on a tin of baked beans, a chunk of cheese and half a loaf of bread (well everyone except Michael who used to flick his beans on top of the kitchen cupboards when no one was looking. It’s no wonder the kid had hypoglycaemic issues.)

My beloved gannets eat well when we are poorest though and they all know that when it’s Woolworths food then Mom is down to her last few shekels. The problem with buying where the beautiful people shop though is that it is just iniquitous to spend so much on ordinary items like mince and cheese.  Mind you, the price of dairy products has reached stratospheric heights. I am seriously considering hooking Maggie’s tail up to a churner so we can make our own butter (after all Dr Tim says butter is all good now) and I’m sure there are enough germs around the old homestead to ferment our own cheese and let’s face it, the foul language that flies around here at times is certainly enough to turn the milk.

Eggs also seem to be costing the earth these days, but I draw the line at keeping chickens in the yard. Besides, Maggie’s Labrador innocence deserts her in the face of feathered wings and she has been known to brutalise a pigeon or two over the years with frighteningly savage precision.

Then there are avocados: now have you EVER been able to find three ripe ones out of a pile of the green rocks they usually offer without having to donate a kidney for the ones in the fridge which are specially ripened? And those ones are always black. I wonder if they cook ‘em a little to soften them – it would explain their crispy skins too? We have discovered to our great joy that we have an avocado tree in our garden which from time to time drops mango-sized scrumptious avos onto the lawn like …well…avo from heaven. So this earth mother thing may well work.

Now shopping for my husband’s favourite delicacies is an exercise in Russian-English translation because he insists on scrawling unintelligible items on the shopping list. What, pray tell, may ‘spinyhjatyi’ and ‘tuhmatyi souz’ be? And ‘buzzy’ water? Trust me at 6pm on a week night I have no sense of humour and even less desire to be a UN translator.  What are ‘tjops’ or ‘Barbie Q Spices’? I do not care to purchase ‘limmon wyatr’ or ‘lzzaneya shits,’ never mind that this has all played havoc with ability of the children in the house to spell correctly, not to mention contributing to the vulgar language use.

And when I get to the till and the burly chap who is built like a side of beef himself has selected enough racks of pork ribs to fill an entire sty also wants to pay for his telephone bill and his City of Cape Town Services accounts for the last three months when he was vegging in front of the rugby instead of paying his dues., my temper graduates to DEFCON 2 readiness. Then the sweet cashier politely asks whether I am collecting ‘the stickers/ other random Stikeez (more Slavic giveaways) supermarkets throw at unsuspecting shoppers with kids. Did you know that as we speak, Checkers is generously throwing in doll-size plastic groceries for every R150 you spend? Seriously?! (I wonder if they have Barbie Q spice)

‘Hell no,’ I say, even though the delightful Gabriella, Michael’s girlfriend, is collecting the said stickers (why, I didn’t ask!). I want the points on my loyalty card – for when the Woolworths card is full.

And when you pay they ask you if your card is for a cheque or savings account. More like ‘check out or spendings.’ Who can save anymore?!

Andrew says we should shop online to save money, but where’s the fun in that?

Who is the Favourite Child? All is revealed:

Sibling rivalry is alive and well in all households, mine included and I am often pressed to say which child is the favourite – no mean feat when there are seven to choose from. I am constantly bombarded by bragging and begging: all insisting on being the chosen one.

That’s why over the years I have resorted to saying that the angel who brings me tea/ chocolate/ the washing off the line and other requirements of the good life is the favourite. The current favourite is actually not even family – a young man, a first-time visitor to our home and one of Shannon’s friends, who arrived bearing chocolate biscuits for her maman. (That is a clever ploy of mine to avoid crowning any of my own offspring as The One – other people’s children have the additional benefit of also going home to other homes.)

Needless to say my chicks will read this article and declare some hidden message in it as proof that I am cryptically pointing to their being the selected heir to my heart. Of course they have also complained over the years that I have loved my students more than my flesh and blood so they are not always coherent in their utterings.

They love to goad each other about who is the beloved: when I announced during last night’s family hour in the lounge after supper, while we all snuggled under blankets to watch a movie that I was writing about this topic, and Liam declared that as the baby of the family he was definitely ‘It’ – even though he looked more like Gangsta ET in his beanie and hoodie – quick as a flash, Michael retorted that that was impossible, because Liam was the only one without a blanket. Poor thing – he didn’t, but borrowed his brother’s jacket in revenge (which only enhanced the ET look and did nothing to prove or disprove the assertion of being the favourite child.) Then again Michael’s view is that there is no favourite child because I dislike them all equally.

What they have all failed to realise is the truth that my mother taught me when I was pregnant with my second baby and was terrified that I wouldn’t love her as much as my first: you do not divide love – it multiplies.

You certainly divide time and I did find it a bit hectic trying to divide five munchkins into two hands when shopping or crossing a road. But love spreads and curls its tendrils around all of us, growing new and precious relationships among the siblings, bonds we as parents are not a part of and yet are proud of.

I have unique connections with each profoundly different child in the house:

First there is Sean, my ‘eldest and dearest’ as the saying goes? He has the edge he believes because he has been around the longest and because he received more new-baby-in-the-house Lego toys over the years. He is a remarkable young man, truly gifted creatively. He has taught me how wonderful it is to be surpassed by your children’s talents and I step back in awe of his paintings and his writing. His singing voice is pure and brings tears to my eyes when I hear his tenor (and falsetto) covers (mostly when he is in the shower because he is intensely humble). I missed his presence during the years he was at Rhodes and am aware that, having just got him back, we have only six more months before he leaves permanently to make his own way in the world. When we have the time, it is great to unpack ideas and form in books we have both read. Of course he irritates the hell out of me when he tries to debate my household rules and his patronising ‘Mother!’ is annoying at best of times. He has redeemed himself of late by falling in love with a strong young woman whose serenity and gentleness draw him out of his shell and who has returned him to us from his wanderlust of recent years.

Bachelorette Number Two is Caitlin. I knew the day she dressed for Nursery School in cerise tights, ‘cluck shoes’ and a red pinafore over her purple sweater that I was in trouble. To understand my second child you have to appreciate the military concept of 2IC/ Officer of the deck. You know, the one who repeats the instructions of the captain (me) for the other scurvy swabs. Even as a seven year old, she would take up the orders and pass them on to the laggards. Nowadays she doesn’t wait for me even and dishes out instructions on her own (and I notice they scurry around too.) Caitlin is my right hand (and my left), my conscience and my inspiration. She has a stupendous work ethic and is super smart, but what makes me most proud is the beauty of her spirit and the energy that she puts into relationships. She makes me want to be a better person. She also knows what I am thinking because we are so close, which can be fun when in company she lifts one elegant eyebrow at a remark from someone that I am deliberately biting my tongue from responding to, but sometimes I’d rather she didn’t because sometimes she disapproves and no one wants to have Caitlin not be impressed…It’s nice to know though that someone ‘gets you’ and she certainly does.

My King in the middle is Michael. Now Michael and I have spent a lot of alone time together having middle-of-the-night DMC’s, but much of our contact time has been on the way to his beloved football matches and a good deal of it on the way to hospital – not from soccer injuries but various serious and often life-threatening conditions. Michael started out life with bacterial meningitis (yes – nice bugs you can find in the Sandton Clinic) and nearly didn’t survive. Then he developed a childhood form of hypoglycaemia (unconnected to the meningitis), which required me to frog-march him semi-awake nightly to the lounge to feed him digestive biscuits and then return him (to the top bunk – and he was a solid little blighter) to bed so he wouldn’t go into a coma in his sleep. There is nothing that makes one resort to bargaining with God like seeing one’s son unconscious and unresponsive in the emergency unit. But there is something of the stubborn Irish in this one which has served him well and he has flourished into manhood, strong and swift; he plays football like a poet in studs (and me like the violin!) He avoids doing dishes and other chores like a shyster and at 19 is making money off his football blog. #Mom’sRetirementFund.

The elder of my heart children is Lizzy. Musically brilliant like her father, she has been a best friend to her crazy step-sister since they were about four and apparently when Andrew and I married it was really about Elizabeth and Shannon becoming sisters. She is outwardly a serene, ladylike young woman until she steps into the house and the homecoming screeches can be heard all the way to the beach. Her zany sense of humour and willingness to make me cups of tea endear her to her wicked step-mother. When she puts the oboe to her lips it turns our lounge into a gala event at the City Hall. The fact that her accompanist is rather sexy endears her to me even more. She gives great hugs and appreciates Mom-stuff with a cheeky grin, mocking my tissue-up-the-sleeve and elderly tendencies. Mercurial and melodramatic, yet scholarly and disciplined, there is hole when she is not here.

Then there is Shannon. She told us as a five year old, redheaded ragamuffin that she came from the Planet Nil and has steadfastly declined definition by anything but her own quirky rules since. She is a gifted artist and actress, having the dramatic ability to wring tears out of even my jaded eyes and have one laughing uproariously in the next moment. She brings out the child in me and is the offspring of choice to drive through puddles with; loudly (as if I can do anything quietly) enact the Naughty Noddy Song with and avoid all forms of exercise with. Just yesterday we escaped the attacking alien mass of foam scum at the beach, racing away laughing hysterically (in the car of course – we don’t run). Every Friday she selflessly spends hours making pizza from scratch, although her sibs say she is masterful in the manner in which she solicits help from them AND avoids doing dishes. She is the only one who can get my sister, Brigid, to do anything she (Shannon) wants and yet she is immovable on her own agenda. Despite her own strongly held (Amazonianly strong) views, she is a deep thinker and extraordinarily mature for 16. So long as she does not call me ‘cute,’ I love her very much.

My second heart child is my godson, Mika, whom I have cherished since he first snuggled into my lap as a two-year old. He prefers to keep folk (and me) at arm’s length, assuming a strong, but silent presence. His outwardly cynical view on life belies his inner sweetness. One only has to see his tolerance of his elderly and infirm grandmother to recognise a teenager with character. Mika is a whizz kid on the computer, which explains the drain on the internet when he is in residence, sequestered behind his screen and protected from us plebeians by his earphones. Mika is the living proof that Michael Moore got it wrong in Supersize Me because he is able to survive on a diet of Mickey D’s and chocolate, which he alternates with crisps and McFlurries. He is a master of note at avoiding making his bed and has perfected passive resistance when it comes to tidying up. Teenage girls are swooning over his tall, dark and deceptively distant persona.

Liam was born in my thirty-ninth year, to an adoring clan of older siblings. His nanny named him Syamthanda* and we did (do still mostly). He was an easy, affable baby who was an obliging doll for the girls and an easy patsy for the boys’ shenanigans. He was an annoying twelve year (for about three years) but generally he is turning into a decent human being. He is majoring in hockey in high school and as captain and goalkeeper he makes for a rather vocal, well-padded Stormtrooper. He has no fear, but I suppose being bottom of the heap will do that to you. Despite his annoying habit of proclaiming expertise in things he has never heard of, he has a compassionate heart and has managed to charm all he met at his new school, even if his relatives are at times bemused by his antics. He will make an excellent talk show host or politician (if he can learn to resist inserting ‘like into very second word in his sentences.) It is encouraging to hear him being polite to adults when he is not aware I am there.

So which one do you think it is?

Sorry to disappoint – the answer is obvious: there is no favourite – my mom was right- they are all my favourites – all for different reasons. The trick is in making them each believe it is them. Then they grow up confident and secure. And I get more tea.


*We love him (isiXhosa)

On Being a Redhead

Someone sent me a picture of a group of bedraggled looking rooikoppies today, asking whether they were mine and I had a chuckle and suggested mine were infinitely the worse for wear. But that’s not true. In fact I have three of the most attractive flame-haired young people around (four if you count Michael’s startlingly rusty beard.) In fact when they were younger my step-children called us the ‘Orangies.’

Andrew says I can no longer lay claim to being a strawberry tart however because I have faded with age. He is probably right because I have noticed an unpleasant tendency among folks apologising to me just before launching into blonde jokes. He recently suggested I dye my hair the colour I think it still is, so sadly my days of auburn glory are nearly over.

But why is it that redheads are either depicted as bog-Irish orphans or harpies? And why do you never see two redheads falling in love on the big screen? It’s prejudice I tell you.

There are so many myths about coppertops, the worst of which is the one about redheads having horrible tempers.  Seriously? Well you spend your life being made fun of because you look different and see how that improves your mood?! You can be sure that every redhead has been called ‘Ranga’, ‘Duracell,’ ‘Ginger’ ‘Orphan Annie’, ‘Carrots’ or ‘Flame’ more than once and none of those were meant kindly.  Speaking for myself, I know that the old flight or fight choice happens with this sort of bullying and you either slink away bruised or … you fight. And I know how I survived. Very soon the jeers were about my ‘smart mouth’ or ‘cheek’ and more than one neighbourhood boy had the hurled insults returned with sods of red clay. Sometimes that didn’t work and I ended up in a scrap or two, earning the nickname by the doctor’s daughter of ‘die bloedige meisie’ and she wasn’t referencing my hair.

You’d think that wannabe mean kids would be more creative, but it is hard to compare the magnificence of gleaming titian locks to anything besides perhaps a glorious sunset. Glowing coals come close too because few redheads are monochromatic, but whatever makes the jeerer feel she must pick on the ‘different’ kid stops her from choosing majestic imagery. And the redhead feels the pain of being the butt of mockery so she either develops a thick skin or is painfully shy.

In high school I was desperate to be one of the crowd and would have given anything to be mousey brown or blonde (God is laughing somewhere now). Being bookish didn’t help either and I spent 20 years trying to stop smoking which in adolescence I figured would help me be less of a wallflower. Of course I was never the shrinking violet wallflower so my unpopularity with boys probably had more to do with my acerbic tongue than my hair colour.

We are all so over being told we are witches though, or that we have no souls or that we are genetic freaks – we know – we are freaking awesome! (See what I mean by not being a shrinking violet?) There are times that I rather like revealing bits of my inner witch too – cue evil laughter.

I grew up also being told that I had to be careful of what colour I wore so as not to appear tarty. So while my older sister with her luxuriant brunette locks was decked out in reds and vibrant colours, I was given the washed out pastels, or ‘lovely warm, Autumn colours’ (browns and beiges) unless of course they were hand-me-downs, in which case it seems poverty deemed it acceptable for me to risk propriety and splash out. Now of course I gleefully step out in every colour I please, especially purples, reds and outlandish cerise outfits. Of course these may look better now that I am not a flaming ‘Oros Head,’ but who is checking.

It was only in my twenties that I grew to enjoy my burnished mane (even though it was the eighties and I permed the hell out of it.) My mother bemoaned the fact that I would bleach the colour out of it with ‘all those chemicals,’ yet I secretly hoped I would, because the fear of being the oddly coloured freckly one persisted.

It took forty years to meet a man who likes my Celtic looks, but before then I had already seen in my eldest son and two daughters how interesting it is to have such divergent looks. They have also alternatively developed sassy rejoinders and strong personalites. Sadly I could not prevent the ‘ranga’ jokes from hurting, but each has owned the power of red, even Sean, who is rapidly losing what strawberry he has left (Sorry, Lad, you inherited your maternal grandfather’s hairline.)

Now the boys have these manly lumberjack red beards and we can only wait to see what happens to the fuzz on Liam’s face.

In the meantime, let’s just pause and ponder the fact that some really cool characters in books and movies are redheads and I’m not speaking about the Weasleys or Nancy Drew:

Good earmuffs make good neighbours

The Neighbour from Hell:

The poet, Robert Frost, makes fun of neighbours keeping to themselves in ‘Mending Wall.’ But he lived on a farm and so could remove himself far away from any disturbances emanating from the neighbouring gramophone. Not so, the unfortunate urban neighbour who must suffer a life punctuated by the ebb and flow of the base and treble of digital techno beats.

Now ‘beat’ is an interesting term: one pretty much feels abused by the ‘utsz-utsz’ of what is occasionally referred to as ‘modern music’ invading one’s every thought. I play my Andrea Boccelli fairly loudly I admit, but when I have to listen to the ‘remix’ version of ‘Sogno’ with a heavy pulse in the background, I draw the line.

Now far be it from me to pretend that we are not a noisy household. I have what my mother euphemistically referred to as a ‘carrying voice’ and my offspring are not retiring types either. In fact between the piano , giggling Gerties, the death throes of people on an assortment of Playstation games or the gamers’ swearing because ‘FIFA is cheating again’ and raucous laughter, we do our bit to produce noise pollution. Nothing like our neighbour though.

And ‘good fences’ don’t even keep out the din. Good earmuffs would make good neighbours, methinks. And that was before The Party:

I guess the DJ arriving at 15:00 with equipment Rammstein would be envious of, should have tipped me off, especially when the aforementioned nightclub wannabe also staggered in with a large coolbox, filled with beers (I know because several Amstels fell out as he stumbled up the adjacent driveway.) Presumably the bejewelled king of clamour needed that many because the gig lasted another 12 hours, much to the horror of the inhabitants of our road.

It wasn’t merely the music though: cars began disgorging partygoers at about 18:00 – after 3 hours of setting up and ‘sound testing’ (I could have told them there was something seriously wrong with the sound – it was too jolly loud!) – and kept on coming all night, until soon they were double parked along the road and revving as they ramped the pavement to park their throaty 4×4’s on our front lawns. And the revelry had spread out onto the curb. I suppose it was full inside.

Naturally in this day and age, everyone has a cellphone, and soon the alley outside our window became the spot for (loud) phone calls to the three people in Cape Town not invited to the fiesta. And of course, later on there were the inebriated conversations between the rejected and their consolers. DMC ‘s* over the decibel allowance are not really private. I wondered whether the rejected lovers would appreciate some relationship advice from me. I might have ended all of our misery a little earlier.

‘It’s Friday night and he is a young man celebrating his new home,’ I charitably thought at 20:00. ‘I am sure he will comply with the council sound regulations by midnight.’ Ha! At two (am), I phoned the police, the third call to them by the good folk in our street over the evening. When they arrived, they asked the host to turn the music ‘down’! My husband, bless his undressed soul, was having none of that and yelled out of the window that they should switch it ‘off’! Only then did they comply, turning it up again gradually over the next hour, like boiling a frog slowly. Funny they didn’t think to close over the doors so close to the boundary wall, especially after the shocking vision of the man next door in his altogether, leaning out the window…  Andrew is threatening to practise his trumpet really early on a Sunday morning in revenge (hopefully with his clothes on.)

The following day, the street Whatsapp group was buzzing with indignation. One good Samaritan (who clearly lived far enough away not to be too badly affected) suggested we should have been more full of the Christmas spirit. Seriously? At two in the morning the only spirit I am channelling is my inner ogre. I do not need to ask ‘Who is my neighbour?’ His presence is somewhat obvious.

The story doesn’t end there, because after the housewarming bash, the family from up north arrived to stay. They brought with them an assortment of aunts and uncles and a granny… and four children in training as town criers. You know how some little squirts automatically shriek in a swimming pool, well that’s what it was like all day. Only without the pool (small mercies). The poor lady on the other side of the property went around to ask them to keep the children a bit quieter and she was verbally abused for her pains. And again the lads in blue paid the house a visit. The following morning (at 5 am) the tourists departed for up-country again, leaving an entire neighbourhood awake and spitting mad. At least one of the visitors bought him curtains.

I do have some compassion for this lad who now is without his relatives and has managed to offend all the good citizens he lives among. I nipped over one evening to alert him to the fact that his car window was open, not a good idea in our crime-ridden suburb. (You’d think he’d have been aware of it a few hours before because the alarm kept going off, but still.) It was a thankless act. He stared at me balefully and only responded to my greeting because I stuck out my hand. Clearly this is not over.

I’m thinking of moving to the Karoo.

*DMC: Deep Meaningful Conversations

Mending Wall


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

‘We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.’


  I discovered recently that old Robbie Burns probably nicked most of the words for his poem which eventually became everyone’s favourite midnight ditty from an old man who sang it to him, but James Watson in 1711 obviously had access to the same song because his poem and at least two earlier ones are strikingly familiar. Perhaps The Highlander tale of immortals is true and the ‘old man’ got around. Either way, it is a great song to stir the nostalgia and encourage kindness, no matter how drink-inspired it may be at some celebrations.

My husband of course believes that the best way to start a year is to be sleeping before midnight on New Year’s Eve. Although that is probably his old-man curmudgeonly ways kicking in, as an idea it has some merit. This morning the two of us went to mass first thing, listening to Beethoven’s 9th being belted out, not something we could have done if we had tied one on the night before.

Fortunately, last night, our neighbours from hell went out to a party so our sleep was only punctured by the usual idiots releasing fireworks before, at (and long after) midnight. Since one son was waiting tables at a fancy restaurant for his Bulgarian slave lords, one is still in the UK, and rode the London Eye before the New Year struck, two daughters were out at Kirstenbosch and a sleepover with her bestie respectively, the youngest was left with two old farts who were less than enthusiastic about a late-night gig.

We compromised by agreeing to hit the Spur early and then head home, but it and several other restaurants we drove around looking for (for an increasingly irksome while), were closed. Ending up in a queue at the local McDonalds was NOT on my plans, but since a teenage boy can easily be entertained by the Golden Arches’ servings, I was willing to placate him with sugar disguised as a burger (Andrew bought Nando’s).

It was kind of sad being in there though. While the assembled hungry people consisted of a fair number of couples intent on going home back to poolside togetherness and an assortment of moms and scraggly children, imploring to sit on the counter, or be picked up, I was struck by the loneliness of those queueing for a single quarter pounder meal and then having to return home to an empty apartment, either just with little babe or entirely alone as one youngish man seemed to be. And he looked so forlorn. It must truly suck to be the one youngster NOT with a special person or not invited to a year-end bash.

While the throngs bopped to the thud-thud of what passes for music these days at venues from Long Street to Eden on the Bay, that chap was going to eat his stodgy cakey bun and processed meat all alone possibly without even any post-Christmas, bedraggled decorations. And what saddens me more is that I failed the Burns ‘cup of kindness’ test of inviting the melancholy man to join us because it is ‘simply not done’ to bring strangers back from McDonalds. I do understand the danger inherent in approaching random single men and asking them home (my sister would have apoplexy), but he looked so dejected that I felt sad for him. Of course he could have just been really fatigued and was looking forward to a night on his own with a beer and the football highlights and was thinking to himself, ’Look at that middle-aged crone and her loud son. She shouldn’t be buying him such bad food.’

But I resolved (after saying I was going to be open to the prompting of the Spirit in the New Year) to ‘pay it forward’ in another way, this time literally (correct usage, please note, Liam) when I went to buy our socks at Pep this morning (tradition now on New Year’s Day, which can be a trifle anti-climactic) to buy everyone a pair of Socks, hence ‘Sucky Sock Day’ in our house because my family loves such footwear and is not put off by receiving them as gifts).

‘I’ll pay for the shopper behind me,’ I thought and that will start 2016 off well for them’ … And then there was no one else in the shop! Where are the poor when I want to be kind?! Still feeling like a frustrated philanthropist I got to thinking though: Perhaps God wants me to respond to HIS promptings and not create my own safer do-good moments. I could at least have chatted to the chap in the burger joint. Perhaps that was all the connection he needed.

Then there was the litter on our beaches both from Hogmanay and New Year’s Day. Having been brought up to pick up and take home one’s trash, it pains me to see the beaches and surrounds looking so soiled by humans. The howling South-Easter on New Year’s Eve was no excuse for the potential damage to sea and birdlife caused by plastic and glass. Caitlin, our eco-conscience, has a no-straw policy and on our stroll this morning before the council workers descended on the strand to pick up after indolent revellers, we filled three packets of soggy sweet wrappers, beer bottles and countless straws. Before you mistake me for a good citizen, gentle reader, I have to confess that our mini-clean-up began as an enterprise to disguise the remains of Maggie’s previous meal that she was in haste to expel along the way, hence the handy Spar bags. But I suppose it was a ‘cup of kindness’ to the sanitation workers who had slightly less bending to do, not to mention the wildlife protected from plastic pollution.

Small prompting; small kindness.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.


For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Robert Burns (1788)