Thoughts on thoughts

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Sometimes I make the mistake of asking my family members what they think I should write about. More than anything else, it gives me a glimpse into their thoughts.

‘Write about me,’ one giddy teenager proclaims, while spilling toothpaste on herself, next to her pyjama clad twin, who at least suggested the more mature topic of the crisis in higher education. That tricky topic was echoed by an older sibling who maintained I should consider the debate around decolonisation of universities.

‘Explore why one moment they (our offspring) are watching Barney and Noddy and the next they have rejected their childhood,’ said Andrew, ever conscious of the aging process in others, ‘or sadistic teenagers’ (corrected by one to ‘edgy’ teen) without taking his eyes off FIFA ’16, handed down by Michael who is now on to FIFA ’17.

I won’t ask him, the footballer, I thought, because he will either suggest how they have not yet solved the FIFA cheating glitch with the new version, or something like the vagaries of the English Football transfer window. And the only thing I know about that particularly confusing aperture is that it is now closed.

Sean believes I should review a book and I just might dissect one of the Jeffrey Eugenides novels I have recently finished (if you haven’t discovered this writer and need a chuckle, while coming to grips with deep stuff, he’s your man – Jeffrey, not Sean). Sean’s first suggestion was a self-conscious exploration on the writing of a blog, but, as you can see, I’m way ahead of him.

Liam is MIA tonight, but he told me to stop writing or I would be late for mass (such a good boy! I can say that because he is at the Marais’ house annoying them). Mika on the other hand hummed and hawed and suggested ‘cooking.’ Mwahahaha. But I could mention that Lizzy is now baking banana loaf which smells sublime.

I eventually broke down and asked Michael who merely said ‘I don’t know’ – I hope that is not what he is thinking, but I do have a fair idea now about what each of my other beloved relatives is contemplating. Which begs the question: What am I thinking about and why do I not have a topic of conversation at hand?

The answer is a trifle sad, I must confess: other than worrying about my school’s upcoming Umalusi desktop submission and my own inertia in beginning some of the policy writing I need to do, and wondering whether eight o’clock is too early to go to bed and read my book in the school holidays, I’m not really having any deep insights on life or personal epiphanies. Teasing out the semiotics of such thoughts, what I have realised is that my whole focus generally is on the needs and interests of my family (which is good but can be a bit Betty Crockerish) and my school (Yes, important during term-time); yet I have not cultivated any actual hobbies of my own which often has me getting caught in the middle of trying to please everyone and ignoring my own self.

So, to my horror, on a Sunday night I am having to admit that I am suffering from housewife’s angst. It’s disturbing to admit that even executive women can subjugate their ‘self’ to the vagaries of external views (even though in this case, to be fair, I actually asked the family what I should be sharing in my blog). But I think we women, all too often fall prey to a subversion of self which we mistake as Christian kindness, but often erases ourselves and our own interests or needs, as we try to please everyone.

No more of that. (Even though from time to time – I must remain a bit of a martyr in order to use that against the progeny) I shall employ  a new philosophy which I cannot politely name (it rhymes with ‘bucket’). I shall indulge my own thoughts and share my own ideas.

After that I shall ask my family what they think about my blog.

Personal Assistants

So I have graduated to being managed by a personal assistant. Her name is Gizelle and, like the ballet character after whom she is named, she glides through my life, effortlessly and gracefully fielding calls, managing staff appointments; gently correcting my mistakes (and they are many); protecting me from cute Grade 4 groupies whom I simply don’t have the heart to turn away, but who were becoming accustomed to spending every break with me, not to mention running the administrative nightmare that goes with managing a large school.  And she makes me tea, leaving it steaming on my desk like the lingering whisper of an elfin gift.

Ariel Dorfman refers to the life of a secretary as ‘responsibility without power, the fate of the secretary throughout the ages.’ Now far be it from me to question Dorfman’s experience of personal aides, but Gizelle’s petite, ballerina-like personage may look fragile, but she is a tower of strength and surprising talents, despite her youth. No one argues with her – especially not me.

Wikipedia has this cute explanation of what a personal assistant does: ‘The personal assistant is required to do any task that the manager requires whether personal or professional.’ Seriously? Truth be told I feel guilty every time Gizelle brings me tea, because that is personal and I believe that her duties should be professional only. I wonder how many managers cross the line by exploiting their assistants to do more ‘personal’ work than ‘professional’ work. The Marius Fransman situation is a case in point of how patriarchal managers view those who work for them, especially when they are young, naïve and vulnerable women.

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-08-08-band-of-brothers-anc-integrity-commissions-fransman-report-contains-some-disturbing-nuggets/#.V6o-D_l97rc

The expression ‘my PA’ has a certain feudal ring to it and carries overtones of possession which are worrying. I certainly hope no James Bond wannabees on our staff have tried to flirt with the Meridian Miss Moneypenny. (I don’t think they’d dare.) But on a feminist aside, just google ‘secretary – images’ and see how many pictures of male secretaries with woman bosses come up…yeah…none. The job is almost exclusively considered ‘women’s work’ especially when the boss is a man. And I think as a result  is often considered to be a servile position.

Now I would be hypocritical to say that Gizelle does not field calls from Caitlin (‘Please buy electricity’ – now there is a scary assistant!) or remind me to respond to my sister’s message (an even scarier personage to ignore), but I wouldn’t dream of requiring her to fetch my dry-cleaning (if I had any) or buy my husband flowers/ whisky/ cigars. The school does not pay her to serve me, but to support me.

And thank goodness it does. Her prowess on the computer is lightning fast. She can take complex, scattered data and make graphed sense out of it and her attention to detail has saved me several times already this year from embarrassment and error. She works long hours and frequently takes work home. I am filled with mild panic at the very thought of her being absent. She has seen me at my weakest, but I live in fear of her seeing the mess in my stationery drawer.

Now here is the thing: she does all of this uncomplainingly (well she did once moan at me for signing a document in the wrong place), while running a family of two young children plus three older step-children and a husband who works shifts. Why am I mentioning this? Well because she may be employed as a ‘personal’ assistant, but it is important for me to remember that she has a personal life. She has hopes and dreams and ambitions.

Once a year, we celebrate our secretarial and administrative staff with a hallmark moment, but truth be told, it is impossible to truly give pen to the contribution of such an éminence grise. All I can say is that I am immensely grateful for the person that is Mrs Gizelle Marais, a woman of courage and one to be respected.