Earnest and Sincere

I saw a leopard the other day. I had taken the two younger members of the 23thorns household down to the bush for ten days at the end of their Christmas holidays. Sadly Mrs 23thorns couldn’t join us (she was starting a new job), but her absence notwithstanding, it was a perfect moment. At the end of a perfect day.

When my time comes, I hope to go quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of fuss. I try my best to be considerate of the needs of others, and I would think it churlish to make anyone stand around while my whole life flashed before my eyes (they might have meetings to attend, or reading to catch up on…), but I do hope they will not begrudge me a minute or two to run through some sort of highlights package. This moment will be on it.

We had been called out at dawn to go and watch a pack of wild dogs flopping around in an open patch of dust at the side of a dried-out dam before rising at some unseen signal and flowing off into the bush like quicksilver, just as the sun broke the horizon.

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These dogs

We had bacon and eggs out on the stoep while a noisy flock of hornbills and go-away birds squawked and fidgeted in the trees above us and a scrum of mongooses snuffled around our feet until the heat got to be too much for them, and they passed out like tiny drunks in the shade nearby.

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These tiny drunks

We went out for a drive and saw great frolicking gangs of baby impalas darting and soaring in wide and wild circles through stunted thorn-trees as they learned to use their legs. We slipped through the middle of a small group of elephants, surprising them as they surprised us, hearts beating as they swung towards us with an annoyed snap of their ears.

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They were annoyed that the boy child had decided to dress like a Michael Jackson backup dancer for a drive in the bush.

We sat in a hide and watched a broken old buffalo come down for a drink.

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You should see what the other guy looked like.

We saw kudus, and giraffes, and warthogs, and followed the fresh, crisp tracks of a rhino and her calf down a dusty road until they faded off into the bush. The girl child nearly put her hand down on a snake hidden along a railing at a lookout point.

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This snake

The boy child somehow managed to open the door while we were driving and nearly fell out. Again. Sometimes I think he is just messing with us.

In the afternoon, we went up to the pool to escape the heat (it was 42 degrees in the shade). I nearly put my hand down on a snake.

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No, that is not a boomslang. No, I was not in possession of that handy little piece of information as I was nearly putting my hand down on it…

The kids made some friends and splashed and shrieked and threw themselves off irresponsibly high walls into the water below as I lay back in the shallow end drinking an ice-cold beer and swapping stories with a couple of other grown-ups. And looking out over this.

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Sometimes you can’t see all of those trees because there are elephants in the way.

As the sun went down we joined some friends for supper. Which was nice, since it gave me a chance to remind the kids what a vegetable looked like. (As I said, Mrs 23thorns wasn’t with us. It had been five days of cold cereal and charred red meat, and their gums were starting to bleed). We finished it all off with a cold glass of wine around a blazing fire whose flames turned the circle of sparse mopanes around us into a thin wall holding back the insect-buzzing dark.

On the short drive home we searched the night with hand-held spotlights, picking out the glowing red eyes of a pair of bushbabies up in the trees and the neon green ones of a genet slinking off into the undergrowth, before braving the terrifying walk from the car down to the house. At least it is terrifying for the small people. It’s a walk of about ten metres or so, but there are no fences around it, and the fitful glow of a hand-held torch doesn’t fight off much dark after the brilliance of the car-battery powered spotlights.

And that should have been it. It was, as I said before, a perfect day, and would have lasted in my memory if it had ended there. It didn’t. I bullied the kids into their pyjamas and pretended not to notice quite how unenthusiastically they brushed their teeth, and then we collapsed into bed, exhausted. That’s when we heard this.

That’s a pretty awe-inspiring sound on YouTube. It’s a little bit more so when you are lying in the dark and hear it less than a hundred metres away. And a little bit more when you are lying next to two small people you have just cajoled through that same dark with the promise that there was nothing out there. And a lot more when this is your “bedroom”.

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Sorry about the facial expression. My arthritis was playing up…

Yup. We sleep on the outside of the house in what is essentially a cage made out of chicken-wire and mosquito netting. Which seems a little flimsy when the darkness outside is making that noise. We stopped being exhausted.

You may think you have done some listening in your time, but you haven’t really done it properly until you have sat in the night with two small hearts beating like drums on either side of you, and the silence hissing in your ears as you strain to pick up the sound of the world’s sneakiest animal tiptoeing through the dark. And pick it up we did.

Leopards don’t make a lot of noise. Their lives kinda depend on it. But they do make some. We heard the crunch of gritty sand as a paw sank into the dry river-bed in front of the house. Then silence. The crackle of a dried leaf crushed underfoot. Then silence. The quiet scrape of soft fur against undergrowth. Then silence. Each small sound was closer than the last.

And then, after a particularly pregnant pause, he was there. Right there. My mother has sunk a small stone birdbath into the sand about four metres from where we sleep. Whenever we visit, we fill it up for the birds and the lizards and the squirrels and the other small creatures that bustle around the house. And the leopards, apparently.

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This birdbath.

As we sat there straining to resolve the greys and blacks of surrounding dark into something vaguely feline, there was a short sigh below us, and then the sound of a cat lapping up water. A very, very big cat.

Mosquito netting acts rather a lot like a one-way mirror. If, in the dark, you take a step back and shine a torch on it, the darkness beyond it disappears and you are faced with an opaque wall of reflected light. If, however, you hold the torch up against it, the netting becomes all but invisible.

I held a torch up against the mosquito netting. It became all but invisible. And there we sat, the three of us perched motionless and unbreathing at the sharp end of a spreading cone of light, as one of the world’s most wild and beautiful creatures lapped away at tiny birdbath just a few short metres away from us.

The back of his body was hidden by an overhanging bush, but with his head bowed, his feet drawn up under his chest and his shoulders hunched up he might as well have been a domestic cat drinking a saucer of milk.

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Awwwww.

Until he stopped drinking for a second and turned to look up at us with piercing yellow eyes. He stopped being a domestic cat and we started being meat.

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Oh.

Then he broke cover and strolled across the open ground right in front of us, paused for a backward glance, and disappeared between two trees.

I was born without the soul of a poet, and even if I had one I don’t think I would have the words to explain what it’s like to see a leopard like this. A picture can show you its beauty, its burnished golds and cloud-spotted platinums, but it cannot convey its lithe grace and brutal power, cannot show the utter self-assurance and belongingness of the thing as it slips back into the darkness it was built to haunt.

And that was that. We fell back down onto our pillows (yup. We hadn’t even needed to get out of bed for any of this), and I lay on my back for a moment staring up at the ceiling and listening to my children’s breathing settle. And wrestling with a question. What do you say?

What do you say to a six-year-old and an eleven-year-old when they have just done something profound? How do you make sure they get it? I wanted to turn on the lights and haul them out of bed by the scruffs of their necks and scream “LOVE THIS! LOVE THIS, YOU LUCKY, LUCKY LITTLE BUGGERS! BURN THIS INTO YOUR BEING AND CARRY IT WITH YOU FOREVER!”

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I wanted to teach them to appreciate the quiet serenity of the bush.

I try my best to avoid being earnest and sincere with my children. This is because earnest and sincere people tend to think in straight lines, and often confuse their own view of the world with the immutable truth.

I want my children to be people who think around corners and who will fight for their opinions right up ’til the moment they realise they are wrong. And then change them. I want my children to be subversive and just a little bit cynical. I want them to surprise people, and make them ever so slightly nervous. I want vague acquaintances to stop and think “Oh!” when they start getting to know them better.

I want, in other words, for my children to be interesting. And God bless ’em, but sincere and earnest people struggle to be interesting (unless they are slightly unhinged, in which case they are fantastic company in short bursts.)

My motives for wanting them to be like this are entirely selfish. They moved into our house when we weren’t looking, and don’t look like they are going away any time soon. I am going to be stuck talking to these people for years. Decades! There’s no reason I can’t try my best to enjoy the situation.

Most of what I tell my children is a mosaic of highly plausible lies and unlikely truths. If they want to get anything like wisdom out of me, they are going to have to work for it. Truth be told, they are going to have to create it themselves. You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear and all that.

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Although you can apparently make quite a nice coin pouch from a kangaroo scrotum. Well done, Australia!

But the world is not made up of absolutes, and every now and then I feel compelled to tell my children something heartfelt and, for want of a better word, important.

The last time I remember doing so was on a trip down to the bush last year. When we saw a leopard.

Fear not! I’m not about to launch into another florid and overworked description of burnished golds and beating hearts. I exceeded my annual quota of florid and overworked at the beginning of this post and it has given me a headache. I’ll rush you through it and stab myself in the hand with a pen every time I use an adjective.

Mrs 23thorns was with us. As was my mother. Mrs 23thorns was, for her sins, driving.

We came around a corner onto a small open plain next to a dam, and there he was, sprawled out on a low anthill in the sun, all burnished golds and cloud-spotted platinums. Ow! Stabbing yourself with a pen hurts.

He stood up, stretched, and ambled over towards us. He was one of those rare wild animals that have become so accustomed to people in vehicles that they act like we are simply not there. Since I have promised not to be florid and overworked anymore, instead of describing the scene I will show you a picture of my sister and her family doing the same thing with a lion earlier this year, in the same vehicle.

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You will note that they are far more interested by something off to their right than they are by the 200 kg murder-beast rubbing up against their bumper. Probably some sort of unusual bird.

That is almost what we did with our leopard. But not quite. My sister and her family don’t really know how to do the bush properly.

First of all, you will notice that everyone in that picture is sitting calmly and quietly. This is incorrect. To be fair, by the time our leopard got that close, we were all quiet, if not calm, but before that, we had all taken the opportunity to really enjoy the moment by helping Mrs 23thorns drive, frantically whispering useful instructions like “REVERSE FORWARD TO THE LEFT SO YOU CAN PARK IN THE SHADE OF THAT TREE ON THE RIGHT HAND SIDE THERE!”, and “TURN OFF THE CAR SO YOU CAN DRIVE MORE QUIETLY”. Nature is much more fun if you can give the person responsible for your safety a panic attack.

It is also important to remember that our kids are still quite small, and might find the approach of a large and fearsome predator a little unnerving, so we calmed them down with a few comforting words. “IF YOU DON’T STOP CRINKLING THAT DAMN CHIP PACKET, SO HELP ME GOD I WILL COME BACK THERE AND MAKE YOU EAT IT! THERE IS AN ENORMOUS BLOODY LEOPARD WALKING RIGHT TOWARDS YOU! OF ALL THE THINGS THAT THAT COULD POSSIBLY MAKE YOU FEEL, HOW THE HELL DID YOU SETTLE ON “PECKISH”?”

Secondly, you will notice that my brother-in-law is taking pictures with a rather large camera. Huge mistake. I myself had our brand new camera sitting in its brand new bag on the seat right next to me, but I refused to take it out and use it. To truly appreciate moments like these, you have to be there, living them.

The moment you lift a camera to your eye, you place a barrier between yourself and nature. You become an outsider: an observer, not a participant. Better to burn the pictures into your mind, to know that you will share them forever with those who were with you. That’s how truly special memories are made. Or at least that’s what I told Mrs 23thorns when she asked me why the hell I hadn’t taken any pictures. I am frightened of her and was too scared to admit that I had forgotten that I had our brand new camera sitting in its brand new bag on the seat right next to me.

Finally, you will notice that they have sent their very small daughter to the “naughty chair” three rows back while a 200 kg super-predator ambles past close enough to make a 2 ton Toyota Land Cruiser look a little dinky. While this might be very effective from a discipline point of view, it is, when all is said and done, pretty shocking parenting. (I might be being a little disingenuous here. When a wild animal sees a bunch of people sitting in an open vehicle, all it sees is a single enormous rumbling entity. If you stand up and break the silhouette, the wild animal sees a human being appear suddenly out of nowhere, and things can get a little dodgy. Wherever you are sitting when you spot a lion is where you will stay until the lion has gone away.)

I’m going on a bit here. We did this, just the five of us.

And it was awesome.

Awesome enough for me to try and be earnest and sincere with my children. I told them that in a world inhabited by seven billion people, there was a very good chance that, at that precise moment, no-one else was doing this, anywhere. I told them that, as far as a statistician would be concerned, no-one ever got to do this (this was a mistake, because being earnest and sincere loses a bit of shine when you have to pause to explain what a statistician is).

I wanted them to remember this. To get that this was a moment. That this was important.

Which was all very well, but things came unstuck a little three days later when we saw a unicorn.

Or as close as dammit to a unicorn as you can possibly get.

Because on the way home at the end of our holiday, we saw a white lion.

White lions are not a separate species, or even subspecies. They are not albinos. They are a very rare colour mutation, and occur naturally in only one place in the world. Which was where we happened to be.

If you Goolgle “white lion”, you will come up with hundreds of pictures of these beautiful creatures. Which is a little sad. Almost all of those pictures will be of the offspring of a couple of white lions that were taken out of the wild a few decades ago and bred up in captivity, for zoos, and circuses, and Siegfried and Roy. And, distressingly, the canned hunting trade. Yup. Some of the pictures you see will be of white lions with bullet holes in them, with men, and sometimes women, posing over them with rifles and the all-conquering expressions of those who have achieved dominion over nature.

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Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful. Hate me because I travelled 13 000 km to murder someone’s pet with a sharpened stick.

Which must make them feel just super. Except that none of the white lions that are shot, anywhere, ever, are wild. Whatever you may think of hunting as a sport, these brave souls are not hunters. They have exerted their dominion over nature by shooting the equivalent of a domestic cow, an animal bred in a cage and let out into a small enclosure for a few weeks before being slaughtered, not hunted.

If you use Google to try and find out how many truly wild white lions there are in the world right now, you will find that there are fourteen of them. In the whole world. Which makes them pretty damn rare. Or at least it would if it were true. It isn’t.

Twelve of those fourteen are held in fairly small enclosures by a group of well-intentioned people who claim to be reintroducing them to the wild. Which is nice of them, but to call them “wild” is a bit of a stretch, because those animals are either inbred captive animals rescued from captivity, or their offspring, and most reputable scientists are dead set against their being released into the wild, because that is not how nature works.

There are, as far as anyone can tell, two genuinely wild white lions on the planet right now. And we saw one of them.

She was rather startlingly beautiful, with pale, almost blue eyes and a ghostly coat that stood out against the browns and greens of the surrounding bush. She emerged from a thicket and then walked along the road for a stretch before scrambling up the trunk of a large tree that had been knocked over by an elephant. And there she sat, as we tussled over binoculars and tried to get a few shots on an iPad because some fool had packed our brand new camera in its brand new bag in the boot. Me. I had packed our brand new camera in its brand new bag in the boot I suspect I am in little danger of winning any “wildlife photographer of the year” prizes.

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Some people take photos as a form of art. We take them as evidence.

Now, if you’re going to get all dewy eyed and earnest about a common or garden leopard, you have to do the same thing about a unicorn. And we tried.

Mrs 23thorns and I waxed lyrical about how incredibly rare an experience this was, and how we ourselves had never seen one, and how they needed to remember this forever because it was unlikely they would ever see one again. We cooed about how this was the most awesome moment of an awesome holiday, and about how it was lucky we saw her on our way out since there would be no topping this.

Thing is, I think our children are smart enough to know when we are lying.

So what was it like to see a white lion for the first time? Well…

We were driving along a tarred access road that cuts through the middle of a huge area of bush filled with private game lodges. Usually, it is used purely to get in and out, but that morning we noticed that it was being used by a number of game vehicles, driven by khaki clad rangers and packed with tourists bundled up against the morning cold. We must have passed about ten of them, enough for us to start wondering what could be going on.

We didn’t have to wonder for long. We rounded a corner to find ourselves in the middle of a scrum of game vehicles, all grinding gears and revving engines as they jockeyed for positions along one side of the road. One of them kindly waved us into an open space next to him, and leaned over to explain that there was a white lion there. We searched around desperately for a minute or two, but saw nothing.

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Sometimes the wide open spaces are less wide and less open than you might think.

And then she emerged from her thicket. Followed by a Land Cruiser. Which might not sound that unusual, except that there wasn’t a road there. The vehicle was powering over bushes and flattening small trees to get as close as possible to her.

She stopped. Not to sniff the air or search around search for her companions, but because there were two more vehicles growling through the virgin bush towards her from the front. She didn’t climb the tree to get a better view of her surroundings or to have a bit of a rest. She was trying to get away. She sat there flicking her tail and glaring down in annoyance at the three vehicles which had come to rest virtually below her as the morning erupted with an angry clatter as thirty camera shutters went into overdrive.

We took our pictures and left. As we reversed out of our spot in the scrum, a jaded local on his way past wound down his window and asked “Is she still there? Shame. They’ve been on her like this since four o’clock this morning. If she’s got any sense, she’ll disappear deep into the bush for the next few months”. And that was that. Our white lion.

I’m making this sound awful. It wasn’t. I’ve always wanted to see a white lion, and now I have. Those rangers driving through the bush weren’t being awful people, either. Most of those tourists were from overseas, people who have three days to pack in the sights and experiences that I have had the privilege of collecting over a lifetime. And the rangers are there to provide those. In exchange for the money that allows this wonderful place to exist.

Don’t feel too badly for the lion, either. She was a little harassed. She had a bad morning at the office. Don’t we all, sometimes? Soon enough, she would disappear deep into the bush to do the things that lions do when Land Cruisers aren’t trying to park underneath them. And those people who saw her will all go back home and tell their friends they saw a unicorn, and maybe inspire some of them to come out here too. With their money. So this can all last a little bit longer.

It’s just that this wasn’t a moment. It won’t be on my highlights package. It might be a footnote. Part of a checklist I’ll run through to make sure I haven’t missed anything: Bungie jumping? Check. Running with the bulls? Check. Climbing the Alps? Check. White lions? Check.

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Superhero for a day? Check.

And that’s when I realised that it had been a mistake to try and drive home lessons about leopards. Because it wasn’t about the leopard. It was about the place we have been blessed with. It was about breakfast with mongooses, and jumping off irresponsibly high walls into pools overlooking a view of something ancient and beautiful. It was about tracking down rhinos, and red eyes in the night, and elephants snacking on my father’s garden, and hyenas whooping in the night, and nearly putting your hands down on snakes, and finding scorpions in the shower. And yes, it was about the five of us alone together with our hearts in our mouths as a vision of burnished gold and cloud spotted platinum stalked past us close enough to touch as we bickered about chip packets and explained to Mrs 23thorns how to drive with the engine off.

And maybe that doesn’t need a lesson at all. Maybe I don’t need to be earnest and sincere. They are smart kids. Maybe they don’t need a lecture to understand when they have experienced something transcendent. Maybe I just need to learn to keep my mouth shut while they put together their own highlights packages.

And so, as I lay in the dark after our night visitor had disappeared into the dark, I said nothing. I just lay there quietly listening to their breathing slow as they drifted off to sleep, trusting they would know that this had mattered.

Just in case, though, I did make a point of thinking as loudly as I could. “LOVE THIS!” I thought. “LOVE THIS, YOU LUCKY, LUCKY LITTLE BUGGERS! BURN THIS INTO YOUR BEING AND CARRY IT WITH YOU FOREVER!”

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Forever.

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Imagination Could Make a Man of You

I got myself into a little bit of trouble with Mrs. 23thorns the other day. She objects, it would seem, to having well educated children. Apparently I am not allowed to teach them anymore.

All I had done was take the kids out for a walk in the countryside. My kids are far too soft and suburban, so I had taken them out to spend some time in the open air enjoying nature. It was less fun than I had anticipated, because I happened to choose a day when the country was being blasted by a severe heat wave. We had walked for less than a kilometre when I became aware of quite how soft and suburban my children are. Their muscles seem to have atrophied completely, and I turned around to find them re-enacting one of those lost-in-the-desert cartoons, so we had to turn back. This was not necessarily a bad thing, since our water all seemed to have evaporated, and the soles of our shoes were starting to melt and stick to the stones in our path.

 

That'll teach them to love the great outdoors!

That’ll teach them to love the great outdoors!

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Birthday sex.

“BIRTHDAY SEX! BIRTHDAY SEX!”

The words are cutting through the sleepy haze of an early Sunday morning like an icebreaker ploughing through a frozen sea. Birthday sex? Oh, dear. Here we go again.

About five years ago, we got the boy child a CD player for his birthday. He was just starting to get into music, switching the TV onto the music stations and demanding we turn on the radio on the way to school. He would walk around practising dance moves and singing little snatches of the songs he heard most often. It was cute. We decided to encourage it.

It's all fun and games until the five-year-old starts grabbing his crotch.

It’s all fun and games until the five-year-old starts grabbing his crotch.

We got him a CD to go along with his new player. We chose one of those compilations of current hits, called “Now 5876” or something. We reckoned it would have at least some songs that he recognised, and would have a wide enough variety of styles to keep his tastes fairly broad.

Sorted. He disappeared into his room to listen to his “beats”, while Mrs 23thorns and I sat back and enjoyed one of those moments that parents of five-year-olds so rarely experience; moments when you are not comforting or shouting or managing or just picking things up and putting them away. We gave each other a high five and congratulated ourselves on quite how well we were doing at this whole parenting thing.

It couldn’t last. A day or two later, he invited us through to his room to listen to his favourite “beats”. He popped in his CD, cranked up the volume, and there it was “BIRTHDAY SEX! BIRTHDAY SEX!” Yup. By far the catchiest tune on “Now 5876” was a tune where the singer mumbles incoherently along to the beat for a minute or so before everything else stops and he chants, slowly and clearly “BIRTHDAY SEX! BIRTHDAY SEX!” Oops.

“What,” asked the boy as the driving beat faded into a silence pregnant with menace, “is birthday sex?” I looked anxiously over at Mrs 23thorns. “You”, I explained to her, using only the wordless, ancient and unacknowledged language of parents everywhere, made up mostly of eyebrow raises, frowns, tiny nods and headshakes, “can deal with this one.”

Look! A birthday sex cake!

Look! A birthday sex cake!

We agreed fairly early on that the best way of dealing with these sorts of questions was to be honest, clear and clinical.

“What are those dogs doing, Mom?”

“Well, they’re mating. That’s where puppies come from. The daddy dog plants a seed in the mommy dog’s womb, and that seed grows into a puppy in her tummy. When it gets big enough, she will give birth to it.”

Sorted.

This is, of course, one of those agreements where I go along with Mrs 23thorns because I am scared of her. Personally, I think it would be both more fun and more beneficial to lie.

“What are those dogs doing, Dad?”

“Leapfrog, son. They aren’t very good, though, are they? I think that one at the back might have hip dysplasia. But you have to admire him. He seems to be trying very hard.”

“So where do puppies come from, then?”

“The Netherlands.”

They also make cheese and wooden shoes.

They also make cheese and wooden shoes.

So how is this beneficial? Well, you can be damn sure that if, the first time the boy finds himself in a compromising situation with a young lady, he places both hands firmly on the small of her back and leaps over her like a gazelle before spinning round with his chest puffed out like a bantam and says “Hips like steel, baby. Hips like steel”, he will get a bit of a reputation and teen pregnancy will not be an issue in our household. But no. Mrs 23thorns wants honesty.

She straightened her back, squared her shoulders, and took a deep breath before kneeling down to place herself on the same level as the boy. Gently, she placed a motherly hand on his shoulder, and looked him straight in the eye.

“Sax.” She said. “He’s saying “birthday sax”. The song is about how this guy got a saxophone for his birthday.”

I raised a rather quizzical eyebrow in her direction. She glowed a rather fetching pink colour, but refused to meet my eye. Hah! Honesty, hmmm?

I was, of course, being a little unfair. Honesty is the best policy, and children can cope with the truth about procreation just fine. If he had asked about sex, we would have had it all covered. But he hadn’t. He’d asked about birthday sex. That is a bridge too far.

Look! This one has a biblical quote on it!

Look! This one has a biblical quote on it!

The CD mysteriously disappeared into a hidden drawer and was replaced with one full of songs about happy hippopotami. Until it was found by she from whom nothing remains hidden. Yup. The five-year-old girl child found it.

I must be getting old before my time. I’m far too young to be grumbling about “the music you young people are listening to”. But it’s nasty. Why is this stuff all over the radio and the TV?

I sat down rather innocently with the boy the other day to watch some TV. He’s ten now. But he still likes his “beats”. I was in for a treat.

I should have seen what was coming when the VJ (are they still called that?) announced with a perfectly straight face that “Nicki Minaj sure knows how to make it clap”, but I didn’t know what he meant. I still don’t. But I now have some rather disturbing ideas.

A video came on. It all started off innocently enough. The good Ms Minaj was loitering about halfway up a jungle tree with some friends in bikinis. As one does. The music started to build. And then it happened.

“MY ANACONDA DON’T!” shouted a lusty and enthusiastic young man.

“MY ANACONDA DON’T!” Ms Minaj and friends started doing a couple of rather suggestive warm-up exercises. I began to feel a vague sense of apprehension. Your what now?

“MY ANACONDA DON’T WANT NONE UNLESS YOU GOT BUNS, HUN!”

"'Scuse me, Ma'am. Do you have any buns?"

“‘Scuse me, Ma’am. Do you have any buns?”

WTF?

I looked around desperately for the remote. Our TV remote is a little like the yeti; a vaguely plausible entity that is supposedly spotted every few months by questionable witnesses, but for which there is very little concrete evidence.

I rose to go and change the channel on the TV at the same time as looking around for Mrs 23thorns to come through and be honest, clear, and clinical about reptilian sexual metaphors. She was nowhere to be found.

Oh, well. I prepared instead a dishonest, clear and clinical little speech about the proper care and curious dietary requirements of the world’s largest snake, but before I got to either it or the TV, the good Ms Minaj stepped forward, pouted at the camera, and, in a clear, mock-prissy voice, destroyed my chances of side-stepping the issue at hand.

“Oh. My. Gosh.” She said. “Look at her butt!”

I did. I cannot lie. My only defence is that I did so not out of prurience but out of slack-jawed fascination. Ms Minaj is a healthily proportioned young woman. She grabbed hold of a perfectly innocent looking chair with both hands, leant forward, pointed her rather prominent fundament at the sky, and proceeded to put it through a workout that would have seen lesser women hospitalised.

I believe the scientific term for that is the "badonk".

I believe the scientific term for that is the “badonk”.

It was like watching two manatees wrestling inside a sleeping bag. It shook.

“MY ANACONDA DON’T!” Oh, dear. He was back.

It wobbled. It quaked. It swayed from side to side, as hypnotic as a dancing cobra.

“MY ANACONDA DON’T!”

It jiggled. It dipped. It soared. It separated into two perfect hemispheres, each with a mind of its own, rotating in opposite directions.

“MY ANACONDA DON’T WANT NONE UNLESS YOU GOT BUNS, HON!”

I was transfixed. Mesmerised. I didn’t know the human body could do things like that. Mine can’t. Not without getting itself placed on some sort of police watch list. The VJ was right. Ms Minaj can make it clap. I’m pretty sure she can, with a little application and some incense, make it start its own religion.

“Oh. My. Gosh. Look at her butt!” Indeed. But I couldn’t. There was a ten-year old sitting next to me who was probably deeply concerned about the unfortunate anaconda at this point, and was sure to be looking for some answers.

I completed my interrupted dash for the TV just as Ms Minaj started to compare a boy named Troy to the Eiffel tower. Favourably. I turned to look at the now surely emotionally damaged child curled up on the couch in a foetal position, sucking his thumb and muttering “It’s alive. It has a mind and a soul of its own. The clapping! So much clapping!”

Just make it stop.

Just make it stop.

No such luck. He was staring distractedly down at a bundle of brightly coloured elastics wrapped around his finger. He glanced up at me. “Can we turn it over to Nickelodeon?” he asked, before looking back down at his rapidly swelling finger. It was turning a rather fetching blue colour.

I’m not quite ready to see myself as an old curmudgeon. I’m only forty one. I’m not ready to write angry letters to parenting magazines or bang on about how children are being damaged by stumbling across the knowledge that our species procreates while listening to the radio. But I find this all a little tricky.

Children aren’t damaged by the knowledge of sex. If they were, we wouldn’t be allowed to take them to farms, and all the monkeys down at the zoo would have pants on. Sex itself isn’t damaging. It’s the reason we are all here. It’s not dirty or corruptive or ugly. It can be wonderful and fun and funny, and so much more than that. But. It can also tear the world apart if it is approached without the right amount of respect.

And that, I suppose, is what bothers me about this stuff. It’s disrespectful. It’s crass. It’s coarse. There is no wit to it. It’s not clever. And it is not, despite the frantic efforts of Ms Minaj and her fundament, sexy. You need a bit of clever for sexy to work properly. Or a bit of class.

Neither of which is pictured here...

Neither of which is pictured here…

It’s as if half of the entertainment industry has decided to focus solely on grabbing the attention of thirteen-year-old boys. That is not a lofty goal. And how the hell am I supposed to have an adult conversation about something if it’s pitched at a level that makes Beavis and Butthead seem sophisticated.

I have no objection to people being fun or funny about sex. We all think about it all of the time anyway; I see no harm in people making light of it. I just wish they wouldn’t ambush my five-year-old with “BIRTHDAY SEX!” at 6 on a Sunday morning. I’m not ready for that before my first cup of coffee. She’s not ready to even talk about it until she’s at least 35.

And leave my boy alone, too. He might be ready to discuss this stuff, but I’m not. I’m still working my way through the whole “the birds and the bees” talk. There is no room in there for bun-hungry anacondas.

It’s not really the sex that bothers me at all. It’s that the kingmakers of the entertainment world have taken the crass, the coarse and the witless and packaged it as the coolest stuff in the world. Present a ten-year old boy with Eminem and Einstein and I would be vaguely concerned if he developed a sudden interest in relativity. It would mean he was weird.

But that means our ten year old boys are aspiring to be as cool as that guy up on the TV with the belt allergy who just managed, in a two minute video, to call women bitches and whores, and gay people faggots, and make the idea of lurking around on street corners selling drugs to children sound like some sort of rite of passage you had to pass through in order to become the coolest thing in the world. A pimp. Yay.

Stay in school, kids, and you can be whatever you want to be.

Stay in school, kids, and you can be whatever you want to be.

The world is moving too fast. My parents sat us down and told us blushingly about what happened when a boy and a girl really liked each other (it started with getting married…). I could do that. No such luck. I’m going to have to sit my son down and explain what happens when a “ho” backs it up on a pimp and then drops it down low and makes it clap. I don’t want to. But I have to, before he brings a girl home and introduces her as “his bitch”, and everyone ends up having a very long day indeed.

It goes one step further. The “N” word. Yup. That one. I get it. It’s an ugly word that carries the suffering and prejudice of generations with it. And the black people who use it are taking it back. They are disarming it. They are standing up and throwing it back in the faces of those who would use it to push them down. It’s an ingenious way to deal with ignorance and hate.

But. My boy is ten. And he is a born free. Born frees are what we call the generation born after the fall of apartheid ‘round here. It is, perhaps, a little presumptuous to call a white kid that, but in my son’s case it is true. On his birthday, we took him and his friends out to see a movie. It was him, three black kids, an Indian, and a Korean. It felt like we were walking into the set-up of an old-fashioned joke. It’s a wonderful thing to see. He is genuinely colour-blind, and if that isn’t freedom, I don’t know what is.

But. Soon, if not already, his black friends are going to start using the greeting they see being used by cool people in movies and songs everywhere. “My n*****r”.

Not my boy, though. He’s the wrong colour. Which is as it should be. But he won’t know why not. He’s too young. He is smart enough to get that he is not allowed to say that, no matter how cool Kanye West may make it sound, but he is not ready to understand why. He is not ready to properly feel the weight of his people’s history, the weight of all the hate and the casual arrogance and the damage and the junk science and the subversion of religion into a twisted justification of prejudice and the “whites only” park benches and the separate homelands and the hate. He will just, in his young mind, not be allowed to be cool.

It's too soon for him to start never forgetting.

It’s too soon for him to start never forgetting.

It does no good to moan about these things. They are everywhere. We cannot escape. Iggy Azalea will be making it clap on the Disney Channel. Eminem will be rapping about “his bitch” on the radio on the way to school. Snoop Dogg will be saying hello to his n****r at the movies. Nicki Minaj will keep on violating unsuspecting pieces of furniture. We live in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. We will just have to find a way to deal with them.

Baby steps. First, I will go and get myself a cup of coffee. Then I will sit my little girl down and tell her about the shiny new saxophone that nice man got for his birthday. And then I will hide the CD and be sad for just a little while.

I'm sure he also got a cake.

I’m sure he also got a cake.

Party People

The girl-child (let’s call her “V” again) was all aflutter a couple of weeks ago. She had received an invitation to her friend Kondi’s birthday party. A purple and pink invitation. And purple and pink, she informed me with a grave look on her face, both just happened to be her favourite colour. It was to be a Barbie princess party. V was most pleased.

 

Strange. I would have thought Barbie was a bit too subtle for five-year-olds...

Strange. I would have thought Barbie was a bit too subtle for five-year-olds…

V had, as is the way with five-year-olds, woken up at four thirty in the morning, brushed her hair, put on her party dress, and woken us up so that we wouldn’t be late. The party started at two that afternoon.

Her rather gung-ho approach to punctuality was not in vain, however, since it gave her the opportunity to try on three more outfits, and to meddle with the enticingly elaborate wrapping job Mrs 23thorns had done on the present, until the legs fell off the wire and satin butterfly that was tied to the top with a ribbon (Mrs 23thorns does not bugger around when it comes to wrapping presents for five-year-olds). This gave us something to talk about on the way there.

“Don’t worry, mouse,” I said in a calm, soothing tone, “I’m sure we can fix it once we get there.”

“Waaaargyeeeurghaar,” said V, in a tone that could shatter glass at forty paces, “now-I-can-never-have-a-beautiful-present-for-Kondi-and-her-party-will-be-ruined-forever-I-want-Mom-to-fixit. Waaaargyeeeurghaar.”

 

We talk all the time. Maintaining an open channel of communication with your kids is vital.

We talk all the time. Maintaining an open channel of communication with your kids is vital.

The fact that this soulful little lament started at home might explain why we left under a certain amount of pressure. It does not, however, explain Mrs 23thorns’s cruel and unconscionable role in this story.

“Where am I going?” I asked. Mrs 23thorns has always had a better idea of where I am supposed to be than I have.

“Waaaargyeeeurghaar.” Said V. Loudly

“Imagine the Venue.” Said the good Mrs 23thorns. Although she denies it now. The woman has a refreshingly cavalier attitude toward the truth.

 

Why they chose these guys as the embodiment of devil-may-care off-handedness is beyond me. He looks like he took 4 hours to get dressed, and another 45 minutes to do his moustache.

Why they chose these guys as the embodiment of devil-may-care off-handedness is beyond me. He looks like he took 4 hours to get dressed, and another 45 minutes to do his moustache.

“Kondi-is-never-going-to-like-her-present! Waaaargyeeerghaar!” said V. Loudly.

Mrs 23thorns began to develop a pronounced facial tic. We left.

Telling your loyal and faithful husband to “Imagine the Venue” may seem unkind. It’s not. “Imagine the Venue” is the name of a party venue near our house. Not “Imagine. The Venue.” Or “Imagine: the Venue”. Just “Imagine the Venue”. There is something delightfully and engagingly wrong about it. That’s not the name of a party place. It’s the beginning of a story. “Sit down, children. Is everyone listening? Good. Now, Imagine the Venue…”

It’s the sort of name that lurks around the edge of your consciousness trying to get in, the sort that might spring unbidden into the mind of a lesser man than myself as he set off at speed with a grieving five-year-old under one arm, a mangled present under the other, and a pair of bent wire butterfly legs clenched between his teeth. I suspect that something along those lines happened to Mrs 23thorns. She doesn’t handle pressure as well as I do.

 

"I have no idea where the party is, But I have to tell him something..."

“I have no idea where the party is, But I have to tell him something…”

I know the place well. We’ve been there a couple of times. The clubhouse overlooks a wide, spreading lawn filled with jungle-gyms and swings. There’s a pen filled with geese and rabbits and an angry goat, and a huge, shady sand-pit on one side.

I am a little less familiar with where it is, apparently. We set off cheerfully (Waaaargyeeerghaar!) at a quarter to two, with time to spare. At two o’clock, party time, I stopped to inform V that if I heard one more waaaargyeeerghaar I would be forced to be unkind, and imagining the venue would be as close as we would come. I decided to check the carefully laid out directions on the invitation at the same time. Not that I was lost or anything. It was just that the venue seemed to have moved since the last time we had been there. Imagine!

The invitation seemed to have moved as well. We found it under the kitchen table the next morning. I don’t wish to point any fingers, but I think we all know who put it there. There’s no need to name names. Mrs 23thorns. Mrs23throns put it there.

Oh, well. We would have to find it the old-fashioned way; street smarts and an unerring sense of direction.

 

"It's just over the hill there." "It damned well better be. We just popped out for a pack of smokes, and that was four years ago..."

“It’s just over the hill there.”
“It damned well better be. We just popped out for a pack of smokes, and that was four years ago…”

At two fifteen, I turned on the GPS on my phone. It led me to a charmingly rustic little dam full of ducks and invasive water hyacinths.

At two thirty we arrived at the venue. Imagine.

We have a rather laid back approach to time-keeping out here in South Africa. Arriving half an hour late is not really that big a deal. But I like to do things properly, so we tried to look just a little embarrassed as we scuttled into the venue (imagine). I needn’t have worried. They were still setting things up when we walked in. There was a beautiful little table laid out with a purple tablecloth and pink napkins, with little silver plastic tiaras and a Barbie birthday cake, and there was bunting up on the walls, but the mother of the birthday girl was up a ladder sticking up a birthday message made of huge polystyrene letters. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” it said “N”.

I went over and introduced myself to her, and apologised for being late.

“Oh, don’t stress.” She said “The birthday girl isn’t here yet.”

Laid back we might be, but being half an hour late for your own party is pushing it. Oh, well. We put the present down on the table with the others, and I ushered V outside to play with her friends. Then I sat down and looked around me with the inane grin I like to use when confronted by a room full of strangers with whom I have to make small-talk for an afternoon. I was, I must confess, a little disappointed to see no-one I recognised.

 

"Hellooo, everyone! Who wants to be my friend?"

“Hellooo, everyone! Who wants to be my friend?”

I entered into an earnest discussion with a nervous-looking woman (don’t worry, I put her at her ease by grinning a little more widely) about what a lovely day it was for a party and how it had looked like it might be overcast earlier but had cleared up nicely. I did so despite the fact that it was 3 degrees Celsius outside, and that there was a gale-force wind blowing. You can do that at parties. It’s one of the rules. I was about to launch into a series of fascinating anecdotes about other sorts of weather I had seen at other parties when I noticed something a little odd. V. She was playing alone. That wasn’t like her. I nipped out to see what was up.

“Why,” I asked, “are you not playing with your friends?”

“These,” she replied, bouncing happily backwards and forwards on a small plastic horse attached to a large metal spring, “are not my friends.”

Ah. Kindergarten politics.

Or… A rather uncomfortable idea began to crawl its way up my spine.

I went back inside and grabbed as full a plate of snacks as I could. I sank back into my chair and sat staring fiercely down at my chicken drumsticks and dried-out sausage rolls for a moment before falling upon them like a hungry wolf in a speed-eating competition. The nervous woman leapt to her feet and dashed off out of sight. Maybe she was hungry. I have no idea where she went, because I didn’t look up. Didn’t want to. Couldn’t. Not until I’d finished my snack platter. I had my reasons.

 

I only took a couple of each...

I only took a couple of each…

Had to. The mother was finished putting up her polystyrene letters. She climbed down the ladder, spread out her arms like a game-show assistant and let out a theatrical “Tahdaah!” I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but it is physically impossible to ignore a woman standing with her arms spread out and saying “Tahdaah!” That’s why the game-show assistants do it. I had to look up.

My worst fears were realised. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY LEE-ANNE” was spelled out in purple and pink. Bugger. Bye-bye snack platter.

We left with our backs straight and our heads held high, looking the mother square in the eye as we thanked her for a wonderful half hour and sparing a cheerful little wave for my new weather-discussing friend, who seemed to be hiding behind a pillar. I must confess to feeling just a little awkward as we rummaged through the pile of presents to retrieve our butterfly festooned offering. It seemed a little churlish in light of the hospitality with which we had been received, but we had a party to go to.

I called Kondi’s mother. It was time. I was out of options. We were nearly an hour and a half late, and still had no idea where the party was. She was very understanding. The party was at Fantasy Park, she said. The next day.

We had fun. There was cake.

 

We didn’t see Kondi anywhere, though. Maybe she had gone to bed. 9:30 did seem a little late for a five-year-old’s party…

We didn’t see Kondi anywhere, though. Maybe she had gone to bed. 9:30 did seem a little late for a five-year-old’s party…

I would tell you all about it, but I simply don’t have the time. I’m taking the boy-child off to a party this afternoon. We haven’t picked a venue yet, but I do have an idea. Imagine.

We invited Mrs 23thorns along, but she says that that would be dishonest. Hah! She’s a strange woman. Smart. Well spoken. Snappy dresser. But absolutely no appreciation for a decent snack platter…

Why you should read to your children.

Don’t worry; I’m not going back to that whole post a day thing. Like I said the other day, I had a bunch of posts lying around, so I decided to pop a couple of them on here to test them out. This will most likely be the last of them. I’m about to slap them all together into a dummy blog and sally forth to talk the powers that be into letting me start a blog for the bookshop I run. Wish me luck…

If they go for it, I might pop the odd link onto 23thorns, if I think the post is worthy. If not, the idea has been fun while it lasted, but you will never get to know the reasons why you should read romance novels about bare-chested cowboys, or books about birds, or quantum physics, or Englebert Humperdinck. And no, I can’t tell you now; I haven’t made them up yet…

As if you need a reason to learn more about "The Hump"!

As if you need a reason to learn more about “The Hump”!

Anyhow, here’s my post on why you should read to your children.

Because it will make them smarter.

 

Although it might have a strange effect on their hair.

Although it may have a strange effect on their hair.

That was easy, wasn’t it? We can all go home now. It was also, however, wrong. I don’t read many business books, but one of the few that I have read is an unusual little creature called “Freakonomics”. You should come and pick up a copy. From ♦♦♦♦ Books. In ♦♦♦♦. It might just change the way you think about the world.

One of the fascinating little snippets in “Freakonomics” deals with the effect of books on children. A bunch of scientists examined the early test scores of a bunch of small children to see whether books had any effect on them. The results were a little surprising.

First, they isolated the results of the kids who were read to every night by their parents. Their scores were the same as those of the rest of the kids. Which is disappointing.

 

You get what you get, apparently...

You get what you get, apparently…

Then they isolated the results of the kids whose families had lots of books in their houses. Their test scores were higher than those of the rest of the kids. This is wonderful news. All you need to do to make your children smarter is to go out and buy a huge pile of books. And I know just where you can do that. ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. Just saying.

Or not. “Freakonomics” had a pretty sensible sounding explanation for why this was happening. Genetics. Smart people tend to have smart children. And smart people tend to have houses full of books. Not always, on either count, but often enough to bump up those test scores. Sadly enough, all those books weren’t magically increasing the intelligence of the children in their proximity.

Bummer. I just spent thousands redecorating the kids' rooms.

Bummer. I just spent thousands redecorating the kids’ rooms.

 

This isn’t going well, is it? I’m trying to tell you why you should read to your children, and so far I’ve laid out some fairly good reasons why you shouldn’t bother. But.

A few years ago, a YouTube clip appeared on the interweb. A ten-year-old boy had gone to a funfair, where he had had his face painted like a zombie. He was being interviewed by a reporter using that breathlessly excited, palpably patronising tone reporters use when they are forced to interview little children.

 

I don't think he was buying it...

I don’t think he was buying it…

“You’re looking good!” she cooed. “You just got an awesome facepaint job! What do you think?”

“I”, replied the redoubtable young man, staring off into the middle distance, “like turtles.”

Do you want to be responsible for making that guy? Or that girl? Do you really want to be to blame when one day, years from now, some poor sausage feels their heart sink as, shortly after sitting down for a formal dinner, they find their companion for the next four hours, the fruit of your loins, the apple of your eye, turning toward them and announcing “I changed my favourite colour today! It’s green now”?

Do you want to find yourself living out your own final years in Shady Acres, and have your only visitor in months lean slowly toward the bed to which you are confined and say, with all the energy and excitement of a resting caterpillar, “I dug a hole, Dad”?

 

Although, to be fair, that's a pretty damn good hole.

Although, to be fair, that’s a pretty damn good hole.

I am not a scientist. I’m a bookseller. I have not read the research those scientists produced, and I don’t have the faintest idea of how you would go about testing the intelligence of small children. The little buggers can’t even drive, let alone read or write. I am, however, pretty sure those tests don’t cover things like the size of their worlds and breadth of their imaginations or whether they were interesting people or not.

And that’s the thing. You are not, as a parent, slowly and carefully building a super genius, just like you are not building a super-fast runner or a really good hitter of golf balls. Or at least I hope you aren’t. You’re making a person. A whole one. And then you are unleashing that person on the world. That sort of thing comes with a few responsibilities. Duties.

You need to make a person that the rest of us will like being around. A person who is witty and interesting and engaging, who makes four-hour formal dinners more bearable, not endless. A person who can talk about anything, with anyone, anywhere. A person whose world is wide enough and deep enough for the rest of us to dive into without cracking our heads on a shallow sheet of rock just below the surface.

4499190532_fb80d054ae_z

The truth is that there is very little you can do to change someone’s intelligence. It’s in there already, like eye colour or whether their earlobes hang loose or are connected to their heads. There is, however, a great deal you can do to influence the way they use that intelligence. Things like vocabulary and general knowledge and mental agility and imagination might not matter much when it comes to early test scores, but they start to matter a great deal later on.

So how do you give your children a wide vocabulary and a broad general knowledge? And a vivid imagination and insight into the behaviour of others and an understanding of how the natural world works and an informed idea of politics and a well-developed sense of humour? Well, it’s easy. And very, very hard. You turn them into readers. And how do you turn them into readers? It’s not an exact science, but reading to them in bed every night when they’re small is a pretty good place to start. And even if it doesn’t take, you will have at least started them out in life with the knowledge that there is more to their world than the dreck that they watch on the Disney Channel.

So that’s why you should read to your children. The big reason. One day, I might get stuck next to them at a formal dinner, and you don’t want to make me sad.

"You won't like me when I'm sad." (The quotation marks are there because I'm quoting from the script of a new movie I'm writing; "The Incredible Sulk" Sorry.

“You won’t like me when I’m sad.”
(The quotation marks are there because I’m quoting from the script of a new movie I’m writing; “The Incredible Sulk”)
Sorry.

 

But there’s another reason. A smaller reason. A quieter one. But maybe, in its own subtle way, a more important one.

If you already have slightly older children, you will already know this, but if you’re just starting out, I have some disconcerting news for you. You just gave birth to a monster. A werewolf.

A rather special kind of werewolf. One whose changes are triggered not by the phases of the moon, but by the onset of evening. As your kids get a little bit older, you are going to start noticing something. Every day, starting at round about four o’clock, your precious little angel is going to turn into the devil incarnate.

 

I don't read much on religion. Is this what the devil incarnate looks like?

I don’t read much on religion. Is this what the devil incarnate looks like?

And stay that way until bedtime. Happy or sad, they will bounce off walls and run screaming down passages. Burglar bars will become ladders. Furniture will become mountains to be scaled. The floor will turn to lava, and blankets and cushions will be ripped from the bottom of piles in your linen cupboard and strewn across the carpet to make it safe to walk on.

Supper will become a test of wills, an intricate game of chess with the pieces replaced by bowls of pudding and threats of no TV. As an opening move, your special little star will fall to their knees twenty minutes before supper, weeping because they are so starving. And then they will refuse to eat.

The announcement of bathtime will become a declaration of war, a pitched battle fought over bubblebath and wildly varying but very specific temperature requirements, followed shortly afterward by another pitched battle to get them out again. Be very, very careful to choose the right towel. And jammies.

 

I said purple! These are mauve!

I said purple! These are mauve!

Your children will become both hyper-clumsy and hyper-sensitive to pain. They will walk into tables and trip over carpets before falling to the ground clutching themselves and screaming like world cup soccer players trying to get a penalty. And God help you if you try to get them into the bath with anything even resembling an injury. Bathwater is like kryptonite for toddlers.

And then you have to try and get the little buggers into bed…

Yup. The last few hours you spend with your child are, for a while at least, going to be harrowing. There will be hysteria. Sulking. Shouting. Shrieking. Tears will be shed, doors will be slammed, threats made, bags packed. And that’s just going to be you. Your children will be worse. You may not believe me, but this is gospel. Check with any parents out there. They may have different names for it; the witching hour, the daily hell, crazy hour, Armageddon, Ragnarock. But they will all recognise it.

Fear not! Like all things parenting, this too will pass. However…

Remember how, when you started out on the relationship that led your having kids in the first place, everyone told you never to go to bed angry? It gets said so much that it sounds trite, but it’s good advice. And here’s the thing; it doesn’t just apply to you and your partner.

There’s a way to make things right. A way to calm the troubled soul of your little werewolves before you release them into sleep. A way for you to smile and talk and laugh a little, to draw a line under the ordeal you have just been through. A way to lie shoulder to shoulder under the warmth of the blankets and remember that you do actually like each other, and that the thing with werewolves is that the teeth only come out when the moon is full.

 

The hair, however, is pretty much always like that...

The hair, however, is pretty much always like that…

Books. Read to your child. Every night. They will love it, and believe it or not, so will you, if you choose the right books. It will become a ceremony; the choosing of the story for the evening, getting the pillows arranged just so, using the right voices for the right characters…

Slowly, as you travel the well-worn paths of an old favourite or step cautiously into a new, unexplored world, the light of madness will be exorcised from your child’s eyes, and they will soften and unwind at your side. A drowsy little head will ease down onto your shoulder, a small warm hand will come to rest on your arm, and as sleep slowly brings its sweet release, you will find that the devil has been driven out, and your sweet little angel is back, and the whole ordeal will be that much easier to deal with the next day.

And that’s not all. They will remember this. Forever. The time you spend doing this will become a part of their being, like the times you sing to them, or swing them around by their arms on the lawn, or run outside with them in the dark, or in the rain, a touchstone used to measure other joys. The stories you read them will become part of the magic of childhood they carry around as adults. No-one has ever said that about television.

 

The magic of childhood.

The cheap sleight-of-hand trick of childhood.

So that’s about it then. Read to your children. Do it to make them better at being smart. Do it to make them interesting, and witty, and engaging. Do it to calm them, and to make them happy, and to fill their hearts with magical memories. Do it because books should be part of the fabric of childhood.

But most of all do it for me. I might just end up sitting next to them at a formal dinner one day…”

 

Weeping Song

Nick Cave is one of those rare artists who can make his teenage fans feel like they are deep and tortured and special, while also being great for a jolly good sing-along. But it has to be the right sort of sing-along.

You cannot sing Nick Cave songs while clapping your hands around a campfire with a bunch of boy-scouts. In fact you shouldn’t be hanging around with boy-scouts at all. I have never quite been able to put my finger on why, but there is something dodgy about boy-scouts. It’s just unnatural for kids that age to be that focussed on complicated knots and waffle-top socks.

 

He looks nice. Let's send our kids out into the woods with him for the weekend.

He looks nice. Let’s send our kids out into the woods with him for the weekend.

No. Nick Cave sing-alongs are reserved for the end of parties when a few die-hards refuse to go home and everyone is three or four glasses beyond any sensible measure of “enough to drink”. You have to be young enough to feel the echo of teenage angst and old enough to realise that Nick Cave, being Australian, has always had his tongue at least partially in his cheek.

Nick Cave, you see, is a master droner. This is by no means a criticism. It is high praise, a title he shares with deep and meaningful gods like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. And it is a happy coincidence that once all the sensible people have gone home, the die-hards left sitting around on the kitchen floor and staring off into the middle distance are droners too. It’s just a thing that happens. Give Enrico Caruso two packets of cigarettes and a bottle of Old Brown Sherry and he would be rasping out “Suzanne takes you down, to her place on the river…” with the best of them.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about this song, kinda;

The Weeping Song. When I was young enough to feel the echo of teenage angst and old enough to find myself staring into the middle distance on people’s kitchen floors at two in the morning, it formed a very clear image in my mind. Of Gypsies.

Maybe it was the clapping, but whenever I heard the Weeping Song, I pictured wild eyed, raven haired beauties and hatchet-faced, snake-hipped men with roses clenched between their teeth whirling and stamping around bonfires encircled by painted wooden caravans. The Weeping Song was a ritual; an aching, arcane ceremony in which all of the sadness and isolation and unbelonging of a homeless and unwanted tribe was poured out in a throat-tearing orgy of wailing. A cultural catharsis. An annual cleansing of the stain of unhappiness to fortify the people for another year of alienation and mistrust.

 

The rest of the year is one huge party, apart from the prejudice, poverty and pogroms.

The rest of the year is one huge party, apart from the prejudice, poverty and pogroms.

I’m older now. If I find myself on the kitchen floor at 2 am I’m generally cleaning up dog vomit, and my angst is reserved for serious issues like balding. I know the truth. The Weeping Song is not about Gypsies. It’s a parenting song.

It’s one of the many aspects of parenting that none of the books warns you about, but should you choose to bring another person or two into the world, prepare yourself for the fact that, at round about five years old, they are going to spend a year or so being bloody miserable. That old “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’m going to go eat worms” song is not a fun little comedic ditty. It is a piercing insight into the psyche of your child.

Since no-one bothers to warn you about this, when your fist child starts to do this, you are going to be rather alarmed. “I”, said our sweet little boy about five years ago, looking up at us through piercing blue eyes limpid with tears, “don’t want to live anymore. I just want to be dead. I am going to kill myself”. Jesus! That’s a bit rough for a five-year-old, even if he hadn’t been allowed to stay up late and watch Scooby Doo!

 

Nobody feels my pain.

Nobody feels my pain. It was the ghost pirate episode!

Mrs 23thorns and I stayed up deep into the night, earnestly discussing how sensitive the boy was, and how it might be time to find him a decent therapist and start him off on a course of bubblegum flavoured anti-depressants.

And then he woke up the next morning as happy as Larry, and went skipping off to school for all the world like a small person without a death wish. It was the beginning of a rather long year. Sometimes, the boy was very, very sad, crying himself to sleep and clinging to the will to live by the thinnest of threads. Sometimes. The rest of the time he was as sunny and cheerful as he’d always been.

It didn’t take us very long to work out what was going on. Have you ever seen a fledgling bird learning to use its wings for the first time? They don’t just leap into the air and soar off into the heavens. They sit on the edge of the nest flapping their wings awkwardly, learning how the wind flows over their feathers and how tiny changes of angle and pitch can shift their balance. But they are not flying. One wrong step and their soaring will be both limited in time and downward in direction.

 

I believe I can flyyyyy!

I believe I can flyyyyy!

Small children do the same thing. Emotions don’t just arrive fully formed. Five-year-olds need to practice using their emotions properly so that they are fully prepared for the all-important teenage years. And practice they do. We soon learned that the boy-child was suffering from very selective form of depression. If he was thwarted, or thought he might be in trouble, he would launch into a protracted and oddly poetic monologue.

“I”, he would announce between sobs, “am very sad” Mrs 23thorns and I would brace ourselves. “I don’t know how I can feel this way. Sometimes I think that you don’t love me, and that you wish I was dead”.

“That”, we would reply, “is just not true. We love you very much. Why don’t you come over here and get a nice big hug. After you take those chocolate biscuits back to the kitchen. The ones we said you couldn’t have any more of”.

Then it was on. “YOU JUST WAN’T ME TO DIE SO YOU CAN HAVE ALL OF THE CHOCOLATE BISCUITS! YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT ME AT ALL!”

 

He's on to me. Perceptive little bugger...

He’s on to me. Perceptive little bugger…

It was, as I said, a rather long year. But, like all phases, it passed. After flapping his emotions around like untested wings for twelve months, the boy took flight. He was done with his Weeping Song. A new person emerged. One who had been through a rite of passage and learned his first grownup secret. Emotions are better wielded as a scalpel than they are as a sledgehammer.

This doesn’t mean that he has stopped trying to manipulate us. He is both smart and incredibly sensitive to the emotions of people around him. But these days, managing the boy is more like playing chess with a grand master than it is like entering the ring with a heavyweight boxer. Not that this affects the outcome much. The little bugger still manages to get all the chocolate biscuits.

The boy might be done with his Weeping Song, but Mrs 23thorns and I are not yet in the clear.

“I”, announced the girl-child a month or two ago, looking up at us through enormous blue eyes limpid with tears, “am going to go and live in Zambia. Sob. You don’t want me here anymore!”

 

A wise choice. The views are just spectacular.

A wise choice. The views are just spectacular.

Bugger. Both Mrs 23thorns and I are now old enough and wise enough to recognise a Weeping Song when we see one. Oh, well. At least we knew what we were dealing with this time.

“I am very, very sorry to hear that, Mouse. Do you need our help with your packing?”

“What?”

“Packing. You can’t just go to live in Zambia like that. You’ll need some spare clothes. And a toothbrush. It’s absolutely vital that you brush twice a day. And floss. I don’t think there are any good dentists in Zambia.”

 

Zambian dogs. I didn't have the heart to post a picture of the people.

Zambian dogs. I didn’t have the heart to post a picture of the people.

“YOU SEE! I TOLD YOU YOU DIDN’T WANT ME HERE!”

“But of course we do, Mouse. We love you and want you to stay with us. Moving to Zambia was your idea. Now, I believe that it’s quite warm in Zambia, but I still think you should take along a jacket of some sort. And a raincoat. What about your bumblebee one?”

“AAAARGH”

It was, I suppose, a little unfair of us. We knew the rules of the game and she didn’t. We had a year of experience; she thought she’d just invented the game. We needn’t have feared. Her brother might be the sensitive one, but she is every bit as smart. She went off to restrategise.

 

My children frighten me.

My children frighten me.

“You”, she said a few days later, fixing me with an imperious stare, “don’t care about my feelings. You are going to live in Zambia”

“Don’t you mean you are going to go and live in Zambia?”

“No. I like it here with Mommy and the dogs. My brother can stay too. You can’t. You don’t care about me so you have to go to Zambia.”

Oh, well. At least it’s something new. We’ve done our year of self-pity, and now we get to play a different game with different rules. She’s rewritten the song; “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I’m gonna make the soulless bastards go and eat worms.”

So far I’ve been threatened with both deportation and death, and had the heat in my room cut off while being told that both Mrs 23thorns and I would only be allowed to wear short sleeves in winter. At least she’s being creative, I suppose.

 

It's going to be a long, hard winter.

It’s going to be a long, hard winter.

We know, this time round, that this will pass. And we know something else, too. You see they aren’t really weeping, these peculiar small people. They’re learning. Nick Cave said it better than I could;

“Father, why are all the children weeping?

They are merely crying son

O, are they merely crying, father?

Yes, true weeping is yet to come.”

So there you have it. If you are busy slowly putting together your own first small person, and are watching in horror as they suddenly turn into the world’s unhappiest angry people, relax. They are merely crying. True weeping, as the good Mr Cave points out, is yet to come. They’re going to be teenagers one day. Brace yourselves.

God help us!

God help us!

Cat People

My father was not a man about whom people said “He has such a way with animals.” Not that he disliked them or anything. He just wasn’t one of those people who spend their first ten minutes of a visit to someone else’s house aggressively patting the dog and shouting “Who’s a good boy, then?”, or trying to win over the surly cat by holding out a hand a going “Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh” and gurning like a lunatic. He tended to ignore animals and they tended to ignore him.

 

Some people ignore animals more energetically than others.

Some people ignore animals more energetically than others.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when, as he was walking in his garden one day, a cockatiel landed on his shoulder and just didn’t go away. We put up some “Found. Naively trusting cockatiel” signs, but no-one claimed him. And so we went out and bought him a cage and some toys, and a tiny mirror so that he would have an imaginary mortal enemy to fight with. Cheeky Boy (for some reason, all cockatiels round here are called Cheeky Boy) lived with us for a year or two, nibbling his way through the edges of our childhood books and noisily beating the crap out of the bird in the mirror until, sadly, he went the way of all flesh.

We packed the cage away in the back of the garage and forgot about it until, as my father was walking in his garden one day, a cockatiel landed on his shoulder and just didn’t go away. Up went the “Found” signs. Out came the cage. We called him Cheeky Boy (rules are rules). Being older and wiser, we threw away the mirror.

This is, I’m sure you will agree, a rather unusual way of acquiring pets. I have heard of other people who have captured escaped cockatiels (all cockatiels round here have escaped; they don’t occur here naturally, and can’t survive as ferals) by luring them in with food or spraying them with a hose, but my father just had to step outside.

We began to suspect that sinister forces were at play when, some time after Cheeky Boy II had passed on, my father stepped out into his garden, and a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo landed on his shoulder, and just didn’t go away. Up went the signs. Away went the bird. Cockatiels may be a dime a dozen, but a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo is $1000 for just the one. The owners turned up almost as soon as we put up the signs. No free pet for us.

 

"Cute! If only there was a way we could turn it into cash..."

“Cute! If only there was a way we could turn it into cash…”

This was, in retrospect, probably a good thing. Sulphur Crested Cockatoos can live for over 70 years, and besides, none of us had the faintest idea of what you are supposed to call them.

My father passed on a couple of years ago, and among the many things we lost was the ability to pluck free pets from the ether with no effort at all. These days it takes a bit of effort.

My family, you see, is obviously rather taken with the idea of free pets. Not birds, though. Without my father’s curiously impractical super-power, birds are out of reach for us. No more Cheeky Boys. So my family has taken to stealing cats instead.

They will loudly protest their innocence, but I know what they’re up to. It started with my youngest sister. A few years ago, she and her family moved into a new house. Once they’d been there for a week or two, the neighbour’s cat popped over the wall to check them out, as cats do. And so, obviously, my sister fed him a can of top-grade tuna. As one does. Or rather, as one doesn’t.

 

Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh

Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh

This wasn’t a starving feral cat from a back alley somewhere. It was the neighbours’ pet. They had a little basket for it. They had a litter box for it. They fed it and had a cute little name for it, like Mr Whiskers. They did not, however, feed it top-grade tuna. For some inexplicable reason, the cat began to visit my sister’s house more often, and spend more time there. And put on weight.

And now? It doesn’t go “home” anymore. Ever. She might have done so very, very slowly, but my sister stole her neighbour’s cat. Is she racked by guilt? Filled with remorse? She is not. She has renamed the beast “Tuna Cat” in recognition of her glorious victory. And the best part? She doesn’t really like cats.

My mother was slightly disapproving of all of this. One shouldn’t use high-quality saltwater finfish of the tribe Thunnini to steal one’s neighbours’ cat. Not content to merely point this out, she then went on to demonstrate, by stealing her neighbours’ cat through the power of love alone. It took nearly a year. She knew she had won when the unfortunate beast began to starve to death. It was clearly spending so much time at my mother’s house that the neighbours forgot they had a pet and stopped feeding it.

Honour was satisfied. My mother declared victory and started to feed the stolen cat. She named her Mishka. My mother has set aside a couch in the TV room for her. And the best part? She doesn’t really like cats.

I don't know why not. There's just so much you can do with them...

I don’t know why not. There’s just so much you can do with them…

I try not to judge these people. As they say, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. I love them for who they are, and to be perfectly honest, moral superiority is quite a warm and snuggly feeling.

So why this long and rambling redefinition of the word “catnap”? Well, this is actually one of those long and rambling “I haven’t posted for ages!” posts. I’ve been a little scarce.

I have, you see, re-joined the ranks of the nine-to-fivers. I started a new job at the beginning of last month. It’s exactly the same as the job I left a year ago, but in a different place. Yup. I’m a bookseller again.

It’s all been a bit of a shock to the system. My time is no longer my own. It took me a while to find my rhythm. Evenings were for catching my breath, not writing. But I got over it pretty quickly. I’m a bookseller, not a lumberjack. After a week or two I was ready to return to blogging. And then it happened.

 

Now try to keep Monty Python's lumberjack song out of your head for the rest of the day.

Now try to keep Monty Python’s lumberjack song out of your head for the rest of the day.

I am sorry to have to tell you this, but Mrs 23thorns has been sneaking around behind my back. All it took was for my absence to be guaranteed and my movements predictable. I stepped out of the door one day, and everything around me crumbled. Mrs 23thorns betrayed me.

Yes, good people. No sooner was my back turned than Mrs 23thorns up and stole a cat. Bam! Just like that! No high-quality tuna. No furtive strokes as the cat came stealing over the wall. Nope. I went off to work one day without any cats to speak of, and came home to find Ginger Cassidy living in my house. Yup. Ginger Cassidy. He was named by a committee of small people.

 

I wanted to go for "Contraband", but the committee disagreed...

I wanted to go for “Contraband”, but the committee disagreed…

The whole operation was flawlessly executed. Mrs 23thorns arrived home with her two tiny henchpersons to find the soon-to-be Ginger Cassidy mewing in the driveway. In a heartbeat he was installed in my daughter’s bedroom, calmly chewing on a piece of sausage and lapping up some milk while the dogs barked hysterically at the window.

Luckily I, the calm, rational, sensible member of the family, arrived home soon after, and immediately set about remedying the situation. I took Ginger Cassidy back out into the driveway and explained to him in short, easy-to-understand Anglo-Saxon words that it was time for him to leave. Sorted. I dusted off my hands and went back inside, nodding firmly to myself in acknowledgement of a job well done. Until I glanced out the window and saw that Ginger Cassidy was still there. As was the younger Ms 23thorns.

 

They were having a pose-off...

They were having a pose-off…

Every time Ginger Cassidy so much as glanced at the gate, she would scoop him up in her four-year-old arms and carry him back to the middle of the driveway while explaining that she loved him very much and he was not allowed to go anywhere.

Right. Desperate times called for desperate measures. I set the dogs on him. Kinda. What I actually did was carry him out of the gate and then let the dogs into the garden to keep him from coming back in. Theoretically.

Apparently Ginger Cassidy can levitate. Ten minutes later we found him sitting comfortably up a thorn-tree in the middle of the garden while the dogs went berserk just below him. “We need”, said Mrs 23thorns, looking at me pointedly, “to get him down.”

Right. This is what our thorn-tree looks like.

Mrs 23thorns refers to this category of things around the home as "Your job".

Mrs 23thorns refers to this category of things around the home as “Your job”.

 

“We” got him down. There was blood. No matter. I had another idea. I locked the dogs in the house, and the cat outside, and off we went to bed. It was perfect. As we slept, Ginger Cassidy would get bored and bugger off home to his real family. And he has a real family. Feral cats don’t let four-year-olds carry them around like ragdolls. Perfect.

Theoretically. In reality, I stepped outside the next morning all clean and polished and ready for work to be greeted by a plaintive mewing. From the thorn-tree. More blood. The dogs were locked outside and Ginger Cassidy was locked inside, and I went off to work.

I returned to find that we now had a litter-box full of cheerful white and blue crystals, and eighty kilograms of cat food. I wasn’t going to give up that easily. I went around the neighbourhood knocking on doors. No joy. I put up some “Found. Naively trusting cat” posters. Success! That very evening I got an excited phonecall from a pleasant-sounding Nigerian man with only a passing familiarity with the English language. It took me just ten minutes to work out that he wanted me to go and fetch my cat. And its kittens. It took me just another ten minutes to explain the small but fundamental difference between the words “lost” and “found”. Bugger.

 

Although he did give me an idea...

Although he did give me an idea…

I mentioned the SPCA to Mrs 23thorns. She mentioned euthanasia to me with moist eyes and a quivering lower lip. Bugger.

It would appear that we now have a cat. And allergies.

And so to the paucity of posts on this blog. I have found my new routine. It goes like this:

We wake up bright and early in the morning. Or rather we are woken by a distraught four-year-old who has been bitten by a cat. There is little or no brightness involved. We lock the dogs outside. We remove an unreasonably large poo coated in cheerful white and blue crystals from a specially bought plastic tray full of cheerful white and blue crytals with a small, specially bought pink spatula, and throw it away. Then we vacuum up the cheerful white and blue crystals that have been artfully scattered around my daughter’s room. We close the cat back in my daughter’s room and let one of the dogs back inside to feed it while the other eats outside. Then it’s just a simple matter of locking the dogs outside again so that my daughter can get dressed with Ginger Cassidy before moving them back inside (while making sure Ginger Cassidy is safe in his room) so that they don’t run out into the street when I go off to work.

God only knows what happens when I’m away at work. All I can tell you is that yesterday it involved a tetanus injection. Then I come home again.

 

So that's what Karma looks like...

So that’s what Karma looks like…

I arrive home to a scene of idyllic peace. This lasts up until the moment I open the front door. The dogs run out. I pause briefly to greet the family before having a quiet cup of coffee with Mrs 23thorns in the garden. Or not. First, we have to drive the dogs back inside and lock one of them in the bathroom (the reasons for this are complex, but revolve around his ability to open windows) so that Ginger Cassidy can have some outside time. We then have to threaten the children with death if they let the dogs out. And then we can have our quiet cup of coffee.

Or not. My children do not fear death. We have about three minutes in which to soak up the peaceful sounds of the dog barking hysterically in the bathroom before one of the children needs to come outside to tell us that they are drawing a picture, or the other needs to answer a call of nature and releases the window-opening hell-beast. Then we get to relax by sprinting off down the lawn to drive the dogs back into the house before retrieving the cat from the thorn tree. And bleeding.

Once we have finished relaxing, we drive the dogs back out of one door while bringing the cat in another. We feed and bath the children before closing the cat in my daughter’s room and letting the one dog inside so we can feed the entire menagerie in their separate locations. Then we let the dogs inside for the night and squeeze my daughter into her room while holding various animals at bay with our feet. All that remains is to open my daughter’s window once she has fallen asleep so that the cat can frolic around in the dark for a while before coming back in to bite her awake at four in the morning so that we can do it all again.

 

Dawn at my house.

Dawn at my house.

And then it is my time to write. For some reason I don’t really feel up to it, and Mrs 23thorns and I opt instead to weep ourselves quietly to sleep while one of the dogs whines peacefully at my daughter’s door.

Fear not! Things are going to change around here! We are going to find a new routine! I wish I could tell you that we are taking control back from the vicious swarm of vermin that have taken over our lives, but I can’t. Nope. Today’s the day my daughter gets to bring Mickey and Mouse home with her. Micky and Mouse are the class hamsters. They live in a cheerful looking circus tent-cage covered in transparent pipes, and apparently need to be taken out and held every fifteen minutes or they will feel sad. My daughter is very pleased with herself. All the other kids get the hamsters for a weekend. She’s got them for the holidays.

Hamster cages have come a long way since I was small.

Hamster cages have come a long way since I was small.

 

And so, good people, it might be just a little while before I get back to regular posting. I need to find a way to keep the cat away from the hamsters. And the dogs away from the cat. Which involves keeping my daughter away from the hamsters. And my son away from the bathroom. I can, at least, relax just a little and leave the dangerous work up to Mrs 23thorns. Not that she’s in control or anything. It’s just that she recently had a tetanus shot…

I’m beginning to understand why they say that owning a pet adds ten years to your life. I’ve aged at least that much in the last two weeks. And the best part? I don’t really like cats. Maybe we should get a cockatiel…

We could call him Cheeky Boy.

We could call him Cheeky Boy.

 

 

Snorkelling lessons.

I’ve been a little scarce of late. This is because I am in the process of trying to become gainfully employed. This is not a process that I find particularly settling, so if anyone has been thinking of sending me a small fortune (or a large one; beggars can’t be choosers and all that), now would be the time.

This has not meant that my mind has been quiet; just the part that allows me to hurl its contents down onto a keyboard. Something has been bothering me a little lately, and today, it was thrust to the fore. By Vanessa Mae.

Remember her platinum undies?

And her platinum undies.

Remember her? She was the girl who inspired an interest in classical music in an entire generation of young men by virtue of the skill and passion with which she played the violin.

There are, no doubt, some uncharitable people out there who might say she inspired an interest in classical music in an entire generation of young men by virtue of the skill and passion with which she played the violin without too many clothes on. They might just be onto something. She was rather startlingly attractive. But the truth is that she would never have become famous if she hadn’t been quite good at playing the violin.

Nothing could distract her, not even a raging sea and the loss of her pants.

Nothing could distract her, not even a raging sea and the loss of her pants.

That skill was not an easy thing to come by. She started playing the piano at the age of three. At the age of three, my children were still trying to master the complex set of challenges involved in eating with a spoon. She started the violin at five. That’s when I’m planning on introducing my daughter to knives and forks (she should have started earlier, I know, but we have been delaying for as long as possible since the world is going to be a frightening place once she is fully armed).

Ms Mae’s fame was at its zenith in the 90’s. The world moved on, as it does. And so, it would seem, did Ms Mae. They were talking about her on the radio this morning. No, she has not released a new album called “The Bikini Fiddler; Vamping to the Classics”. She has, instead, just taken part in the Winter Olympics. And not as a performer in the opening ceremony.

Yup. Not content with being a former child prodigy, the good Ms Mae decided to go off and become an Olympic athlete. It’s all a bit much, really. My greatest achievement so far is managing to balance three golf balls on top of each other. The magnitude of her achievement was only slightly diminished by the news that she was representing Thailand at skiing, which is kind of like representing Greenland at beach volleyball.

What they lack in skill, they make up for in dedication.

They might not be very talented, but damn, they look good.

But I only learned that later. When I heard that she was an Olympian, she coalesced a couple of ideas in my mind. Something, as I said, has been bothering me. Something to do with sporting superstars, children, and the sort of parents who would make a three-year old learn the piano.

I’ve been thinking about these things for a reason. I am, you see, teaching my son and heir to snorkel. This involves hauling him off to the local gym a couple of times a week, strapping various pieces of rubber and glass onto him, and watching him bob around cheerfully while trying to stop him from vocalising the sound effects that accompany whatever snorkelling-based fantasy is playing out in his head (it appears to involve lasers and robot sharks).

There are not any things cooler than robot sharks.

There are not any things cooler than robot sharks.

It’s all quite fun. For us. We have lasers and robot sharks. What set me off the other day was the boy next to us. He wasn’t having much fun. He was young, not much older than my own nine-year-old. But he was not there to bob around making “peeeooo peeeooo peeeooo” noises through a bent plastic tube. He was there to work.

I noticed him as we arrived, slicing through the water like a fish, and remember thinking that he was a remarkable swimmer for a boy so young. We soon realised why. Shortly after we got into the water, he grabbed hold of the side of the pool and looked plaintively over at a grim-looking woman sitting on a bench nearby. “Can I stop now, mom? I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

“No,” was the rather curt reply. “You’re doing a hundred lengths. 16 more to go.”

Keep it up, little man! Love ya!

Keep it up, little man! Love ya!

And that was that. He turned and ploughed his way back down the Olympic sized pool. But he suddenly looked more like a robot than a fish. Fish are free.

Normally, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. There have always been people who have pushed their kids like this. Without them, classical music would be brought to its knees, and sport would be more than a little duller.

To create the sort of people who excel at these things, you need to make them put in the hours. And you need to make them put in the hours at an age when they would rather be making robot-shark laser noises. It’s not something that I would choose to do (I have a hard enough time getting the boy to do his shoelaces up. 18 hours a week of balalaika practice would simply be beyond us), but I have never really been concerned when others choose differently. Maybe I should have been. Something has changed. Because of this guy.

TigerWoods2Getty_690

When I was growing up, South Africa was separated from the world because of apartheid. Most of our greatest sporting heroes were amateurs. Those who weren’t did OK financially. Some even did quite well. But sport and money were not what they are now. There were still parents out there driving their kids to excel at sports, but their motivations were different. They were after status. Bragging rights. They wanted their kids to be the best in their schools. They wanted them to make the national side. They wanted them to get rugby scholarships. They wanted to live out their own unachieved dreams through their children. They did not, however, want a billion dollars.

Tiger Woods got a billion dollars. There’s a reason for this. His dad wasn’t content to wait ‘til he turned three. He started playing golf when he was two. It paid off. He is, rather simply put, one of the greatest sportsmen ever to have lived.

But you don’t get a billion dollars for that. No. Tiger Woods is a money pump. He sells. He sells golf shirts and golf club memberships and computer games and television rights and cars and credit cards and watches and razors and sports drinks. He earns every cent of his billion dollars.

He’s got those sporting parents rubbing their hands together. It’s not about bragging rights anymore. Sport is about money. Big money. Enough money to make them forget just one small detail. Tiger Woods is a dick.

Shhhh! That was our secret!

Shhhh! That was our secret!

While the world was cheering him on for hitting a little white ball around really, really well, he was having a bit of a ball himself, working his way through a football team of lingerie models, porn-stars and cocktail waitresses. This was not infidelity. This was contempt. Contempt for what the world thought. Contempt for what his wife felt. Indifference to the message he was sending his little boy, and his little girl, about the value of women and the value of their mother. And it really was contempt, because he simply cannot have been dumb enough to think this wouldn’t all come out.

He must have known it would. Cocktail waitresses and porn stars and lingerie models are not well known for their discretion. But what the hell. He’s Tiger Woods. When the world gives you a billion dollars for hitting a little ball around, you must come round to thinking that you are entitled to take whatever you want from the world.

And this is what Tiger wants from the world.

And this is what Tiger wants from the world.

And here’s the thing; he was right. He’s back. He did take a little time off to say he was sorry, and did the obligatory rehab sessions for sex addiction that have replaced accountability for celebrities caught with their pants down, but he hasn’t really lost anything. He’s still hitting his ball around, and raking in the advertising money. He did, to be fair, lose his wife, but judging by the value he evidently placed on his relationship with her, that was no great loss.

But whether he rose from the ashes or not is immaterial. We’re getting used to sportsmen falling from grace. OJ. Lance Armstrong. Michael Vick. Tonya Harding. Barry Bonds. Mike Tyson. Some rise from the ashes, some don’t.

And it doesn’t matter. Somewhere along the line, we stopped thinking that we should admire these people for their skill, or their dedication, or their sportsmanship, and instead started admiring them for their Bentleys and their weekly salaries.  And when you’re caught rogering a stripper with five syringes full of horse steroids in your pocket in the bathroom of a nightclub, they don’t take away your Bentley.

Especially not if you've classed it up with a subtle paint job.

Especially not if you’ve classed it up with a subtle paint job.

We’re about to watch another quite spectacular fall from grace. We’re all gearing up for the Oscar Pistorius trial. It’s started already. The court will decide if he’s a murderer. But day by day, evidence is emerging that Oscar Pistorius is a bit of a dick. There are stories of small arsenals being ordered, of guns being fired in crowded restaurants, of assaults on women at parties.

I suspect that by the time we’re done here, we will all have received a rather powerful reminder that the steely determination required to become a top athlete, and the almost unbelievable grit required for a man with no legs to compete in the able-bodied Olympics, do not necessarily make someone an admirable person. Just a rich one.

Which brings me to what’s really been bothering me. A girl. You see, Oscar’s trial isn’t the only one that’s been in the news. There’s been another one, too. A little one. A quiet one. A blink-and-you-would-miss-it one. A couple from a place called Bloemfontein went out to a dam in the countryside, and set up a couple of chairs on the bank. And then they made their daughter go for a swim. For hours. Until she got tired. And staggered out. And asked to be allowed to stop. At which point they, in the cold, official language of the court, assaulted her, and drove her back into the water. She is ten years old.

Happy birthday. Now blow out your candles and get back in the water.

Happy birthday. Now blow out your candles and get back in the water.

Someone called the police. The charming pair were arrested. They’ve been charged with attempted murder. And the girl has been placed with a foster family.

And here’s the thing that’s been tugging away at the back of my mind as I watched small boys begging to go home and play with Lego rather than swim for miles; is she happy there? Does she lie in bed at night thanking god that she doesn’t have to drag herself endlessly through the murky waters of that dam anymore? Does she heave a sigh of relief when she remembers she won’t be beaten if she doesn’t shave a millisecond or two off last-weeks’ time?

Or is she lying there in the dark, nails digging into her palms, teeth gritted, wishing that she had been just that little bit tougher? Wishing she had powered on, setting aside her ten-year old frailty to keep her parents out of jail? Hoping she could get to a swimming pool soon so that she could make her new family love her? And as she drifts off into the sweet release of sleep, does she dream of the day she can swim a shiny new Bentley for mommy and daddy, and fix the mess she has made with her despicable weakness?

I hope not. I hope she stumbles across a bunch of people who can teach her that her value isn’t measured on a stopwatch. I hope she finds someone who teaches her the difference between enthusiastic encouragement and attempted murder. I hope she finds someone who can remind her that being ten isn’t a brutal push for the finish line. I hope someone teaches her that the limits of her sporting career should be defined by the limits of her own ambition, no-one else’s.

We would love you more if that two was a one.

We would love you more if that two was a one.

I hope, most of all, that when she is old and grey and looks back on her life, be it one of Olympic glory, corporate drudgery or domestic bliss, that she can remember a time, long, long ago, when she understood that there wasn’t a Bentley in the world worth as much to an adult as a laser-shooting robot shark is to a child. Just saying. Peeeooo peeeooo peeeooo.

92. Pride.

I am, I fear, one of those fathers who has given his son a lot to live up to on the sports field. I was, you see, captain of my rugby team. Those are some big shoes to fill.

It should in no way diminish my achievement in your eyes if I tell you that I was captain of the seventh team. There were only seven teams. We would occasionally find ourselves playing against kids who were missing limbs, and there was this one guy who kept breaking down in tears when we got the ball away from him.

Seventh team rugby players prepare for another tough match.

Seventh team rugby players prepare for another tough match.

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79. Packed lunch.

“I need”, said my nine-year old son in a panicked sounding voice, “a packed lunch! And we have to get to school early! We are going to Sandton to say our poem today!”

Unlike these fine people, I have not yet mastered the art of packing a glass of milk.

Unlike these fine people, I have not yet mastered the art of packing a glass of milk.

If this sounds obscure to you, welcome to the club. I had never heard anything about a poem. Sandton is a rather large suburb near our home. But I have all of the most important qualities of an investigative journalist. Within minutes, I had pieced everything together. My son’s school was taking him and his class on a field-trip. They were going to a sister school in Sandton, where they were going to recite a Roald Dahl poem to some sort adjudicating committee. For marks. He needed to take something to eat along with him. Continue reading