Regrets? I’ve had a few

October 9, 2009

• I don’t regret the rosé with a light lunch at the hospital (a few slices of cheese on French bread and some baby tomatoes, which left a definite hole in my tummy only partially filled with chocolate cake). But I do have other regrets – social ones, work ones.

• What got me onto this subject was watching the latest episode of the wonderful ZA News here (along the lines of Spitting Image). Former president Thabo Mbeki is funny on the subject of regrets. I love Zapiro’s puppets and all of them are good – Tim Modise as the presenter, Tutu and Mandela, Manto, former prez Mbeki and the others. This was initially intended for the SABC but they chickened out so their loss is the web’s gain.

• I’ve almost reached 150 posts here at the Couch Trip and I’ve realised that I’ve fallen into the habit of blogging about once a week (mostly on a Monday). I don’t think I’ve lost my blogging Mojo just yet but I have been wondering about how long I’ll keep going and whether I should focus it a bit more on psychology rather than the general whatever-I-feel-like format that it currently has. When I’m busy and/or stressed I don’t do the rounds of usual blog-reading that I would like to. But I do think my life is a lot richer for the blogging friends that I’ve made and I always come away from my regular blog-reads with some good ideas and grateful for the sense of shared experiences.

• I also know that I need to shake up my real-life social interaction. I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut where friendships are concerned and reading Sandy’s blog-post (over at Blogging Behavioural) about making friends made me realise that I can do something about it.

• Today is the day that I got an offer of more permanent employment with the military. Part of me is relieved that the offer finally came through but I’ve also got used to being temporary here so it’s with mixed feelings that I will sign the acceptance letter and fax it back to them. I’m almost ready to leave again and so it feels quite weird to be signing a letter saying that I’m going to stay.

• I’m working on a short talk for my group on Tuesday about literary representations of Cape Town. I intended to draw on ten novels about Cape Town but I think that I will find more than enough material in the excellent A City Imagined by various authors and edited by Stephen Watson from the UCT English department. It’s interesting that while Cape Town is such an incredibly beautiful city many people (and writers in particular) react to it with such mixed feelings and with a sense of tangible disappointment. I’ll post on this next week when my head is a bit clearer.

• Friday is generally not a good day for me. I’m not exactly sure why but I think the friendship drought has something to do with it. I enjoy the solitude and the chance to read and recover from the week but I’m also wishing for more stimulating company. I nearly went to a book launch this week at the excellent (and independent) Book Lounge but P was busy with her taxman and I just wasn’t up for it. I felt like a bit of a coward and the trip to the gym only put me in a worse mood.

• I have a low cringe threshold for John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. I bought the complete edition for P for her birthday and we watched the first episode the other night. Basil Fawlty is sooooo awful. It’s that similar feeling I get when I watch The Office. I can appreciate the humour but the awkwardness of it makes me want to curl up into a ball and start rocking! One DVD series that I AM loving is Planet Earth. The visuals alone are breath-taking.

A trip with no story

August 12, 2009


I haven’t been able to blog since I came back from Kathu and I’m trying to understand why. Perhaps I’ve been too worn out by the trip. All the driving and the not sleeping very well and the disruption to my routine. Eating not terribly good food and just feeling unsettled for a week. This trip has also made me duller, more stupid and more of a blunt instrument. I’ve become a sluggish foot-soldier.

The purpose of the trip was to do a psychological risk inventory on the troops as part of their annual health assessment. The test itself is quite a blunt instrument. If you have any intelligence you can guess the correct answers but that’s not the point. You need to answer according to how you feel at the time. We interviewed the ones that ‘failed’ and then decided on their colour status (green or yellow) and how to proceed from there. The interviews amounted to mini mental status examinations where we were looking for pathology but also signs of coping and resilience and emotional stability.

I was quite anxious about the amount of driving that was required on the trip and I feared having an accident in the military car. Would my concentration hold up, would we be able to get petrol, would the car break down and would my cold deteriorate into swine flu? In the end, nothing bad happened. The car drove well and the journey there and back proceeded without incident.

So rather than posting a story about my trip, I’ll provide some fairly random thoughts instead.

The symbol of the battle school where we were is a red knight (the chess-piece kind) with a sword coming out of its head. Perhaps this is an appropriate symbol of madness. A disembodied horse’s head which is also an instrument of war.

Part of me remains the journalist. I go on a trip to an unusual destination and I’m looking for the story, the angle and wondering what I can deliver before deadline. But this is different. There’s no deadline, or rather the work deadline is completely different. We have to assess 250 people in 4 days. Sign the files. Write the referrals.

One of the best things about Kathu is its golf course. In the dry Northern Cape the golf course is watered from the iron ore mine. What this means is that the greens are green and the trees (mostly camel thorn trees) are flourishing. When my drive went astray (which it mostly did) and I couldn’t be bothered to go and find it in the long rough, I would take out my camera instead and try and capture a good picture of one of the trees.

I was interested in my fellow guests at the lodge, particularly the two guests who looked like they were high-ups or middle management from Kumba (the highly profitable iron ore mine which is part-owned by Anglo American). He was tall and black and well-dressed and looked the picture of the new mining executive. BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) to a tee. She was white and intelligent and less flashy although she still dressed in a corporate way. I noticed that they stayed in the Boutique Hotel side of the Lodge rather than the more plebby lodge side but they still joined us for meals. I wondered if they were a couple or just business colleagues. There was little to indicate that they were romantically involved but my thoughts ran to one of the local soapies and I thought that they would make a perfect new South African corporate couple. She was more aware of her fellow diners while he seemed quite wrapped up in himself. Perhaps he was thinking about the next board meeting and how to continue to maximise the profit from the mine. If he was visiting from Johannesburg there would be a certain seriousness attached to the visit. Goals, objectives, targets and so on.

Sitting at one of the breakfast tables, I was thinking of my last work trip in which I stayed at a decent hotel. Mauritius. We were there to do a short study of the country’s political, economic, social and corporate governance. We put in 12-hour work days for a week and then we took a day off to visit one of the island’s many holiday resorts. Sparling blue pools, lazy views of the bay, comfortable loungers, lots of light and healthy, suntanned Americans and Brits in abundance. The books on the loungers were bestsellers, thrillers largely. Nothing too challenging.

The food in Kathu was largely forgettable. As I sipped my small glass of orange juice and regretted the oil-rich food of fried eggs, fried bacon, fried sausage and some potato mixture (hash browns perhaps), I remembered my team in Mauritius. Those were good times. And now? A different career and working largely on my own (even though I’m part of an organisation).

My colleague on the trip was a young Afrikaans guy in his early thirties. Unmarried and with a distinct eye for pretty women. Not very broad-minded perhaps (although he’d worked in London for two years) but a really decent guy and someone who works hard and plays hard. A good golfer. The night we arrived he was soon chatting away to one of the waitresses, who was called Elandi and who called us “Meneer”. She told us that the local bar where we intended to play pool was pretty rough and that she never drank without her “verliefde” (her sweetheart). As she told us this, she touched the chain around her neck anxiously. On it there was a medallion of a saint.

Losing my marbles

July 21, 2009

Feeling a bit down this afternoon and as usual it’s a combination of things. Firstly, I had my interview for the military today and although it went pretty well, I was left with disappointment that I had to hide my true feelings in order to get the job.

The interview was successful and I was recommended for employment at the end of it. But the mere fact of going to an interview got me on edge and I hated the fact that I had to say that I was positive about going on deployment. Deployment is the biggie – if you’re willing to go they’ll have you. If you’re at all unwilling to be deployed for three months to an African country then they could well not recommend you. So I did what I had to do. I said I was in favour of it. I also said I was cool about wearing a uniform and going on an Officer’s Course. Argh, no wonder I felt like a bit of a fraud when it was over.

The interview panel was small and included two people whom I know well. V and H asked nice questions and it was good to have coffee with V afterwards and chat about this and that. I hardly ever get to see him and when I do, it always feels as though we’re not quite friends and will probably never be. Maybe I just need to make more of an effort.

Then I went to gym to work off the coffee and cake and the adrenalin from the interview. That was OK but to get free parking I spent over R100 on things I didn’t really need such as mouthwash, a fineliner, paper and so on. When I got home I thought that I’d left my blue top at the gym so I went all the way back to the gym and looked in locker 79 (no top) and then went to ask at the front desk (no top). In the car on the way home I was approached by the usual vendors desperate to sell their Big Issue and I just didn’t have it in me to buy this week’s edition. I felt small-hearted and mean. And I also couldn’t help reflecting that in Toronto I left my digital camera on a train and it was handed in at the next station whereas in Cape Town people in the gym would take a measly Gap top. When I got home I found the top was in my bag after all and I realised that I’d lost my marbles instead.

Perhaps there’s just too much going on in my head right now. The weekend started pretty well with D’s birthday party. The Saturday dinner party was also a good one and there was yummy food, quality singing and some funny conversation. I didn’t know the people at my table but we managed to strike up a lively conversation. C was in particularly good form and told some hilarious stories. The guy next to me was a bit annoying and kept peppering me with personal questions about what it’s like to be a psychologist. I put it down to curiosity and thought no more about it. Until Monday when I get a call from the guy asking me on a date. He knows that I have a girlfriend but he managed to misconstrue a light-hearted comment to the effect that P and I were having issues. I really did nothing to encourage the guy so I was quite astounded that he would call me out of the blue like that.

Of course I was a bit flattered and I felt sorry for the guy (since he was way off the mark) and I also thought that it must be difficult being gay and having to ask other men out. So I thanked him for the call and said it was nice to meet him and C and then called P to tell her the funny story. Unfortunately P didn’t see the funny side of it and proceeded to have an emotional meltdown. She was worried that perhaps I was gay and that she had just missed the signs. (At 39 I think I would know.) Or that I had somehow flirted with the guy or given him some tacit encouragement. She pointed out that at one point I had swopped places with her, which meant that I was sitting next to the guy. Whatever. I couldn’t believe she was so upset about it. At least she apologised today for being a bit irrational but she said it just hurt her very much that someone she knows (although not that well) would try and take her boyfriend away from her.

So that’s what up with Gilbert Grape today, dear bloggers. Time for some more tea I reckon and some blog therapy.

The House

July 6, 2009

Halfway through the year already and things are not going too badly considering that I’ve just bought a house. Did I mention the house? The one with the walls and the roof and a cute little (we’re talking very little) garden and the wooden floors and the front porch which gets beautiful sunlight in winter. Three bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms. It’s in an up-and-coming neighbourhood and is reasonably close to the house where I used to live many years ago when I taught at Westerford.

How did it come about? My parents have a bit of cash to invest and so they were thinking of buying a small house on auction that needed doing up. So we went to see it and didn’t like it. On the way back we stopped off at a few show-houses. This one ‘spoke to me’ straight away. I liked the open feel of it, the wooden floors and the position. It has a drawback in that it shares a driveway with the house behind but I actually like this. It’s good to have contact with the neighbours and the couple that live behind are apparently settled and nice.

I was in the house for all of about five minutes but I liked it instantly and as we drove away, I said we should think about putting in a bid. Nothing happened about that since when we got home my dog had climbed on the furniture again and left a drop of blood on one of the couches in the lounge. Disaster! My mom managed to get off the blood with some carpet shampoo but we felt completely deflated after the pleasure of looking at show-houses. My mom also got a call from the estate agent to say that the house was apparently not on the market after all. There’s a bid which has been accepted. Pity, because I really liked it.

Two days later I’m sitting in the kitchen with my mom and she says, “If you’re not going to do anything about getting a house then I’m going to re-invest my money.” In the meantime the estate agent had called back to say that the previous bid was rejected.
I phoned her up again and arranged to put in an offer. Since the previous offer was dependent on the neighbours behind agreeing to a carport which would block their lounge-window, this was rejected when the neighbours (not unreasonably) said no. My offer was unconditional and was accepted. Easy as that. I still have to pay the deposit (by today) and raise a bond within 30 days but those should be mere formalities. Occupation in eight weeks’ time. Can’t wait …


Having a quiet morning since my first patient is at lunch-time, which gives me a few hours to get on with some editing. I’d forgotten how time-consuming it is to do a good edit. Ten pages in the hour before breakfast and this is a re-edit since I did the first paper changes a few weeks ago. At this rate it will take a very long time before I give it back to S.

Taking a break with my “Psycho Mix rides again” mix. Love this track, “Lost” by Coldplay.

Weekend was pretty quiet. Watched the men’s and women’s Wimbledon finals. How was that last set between Federer and Roddick? I felt very sorry for Roddick at the end (and he was gutted). They were still trading volleys in the post-match interviews as well:

Roger: “Don’t feel so bad, Andy, I lost last year and I came back this year.”
Andy: “Yeah, but you only lost once!”

And it’s true. In something like seven finals at Wimbledon, Federerer has won six times! Both Federer and Roddick wanted to grab what could be their last chance at the title before the return of the powerful Nadal.

Then there was the rugby, which the Lions won. (I was happy after the debacle with the Springbok coach basically condoning eye-gouging. The Lion’s coach called him a clown, which was quite accurate.)

A nice roast chicken for Sunday lunch and some reading. A few books on the go at the moment: The Paris Review Interviews (Vol 2); Thin Blue by Jonny Steinberg; Therapy by David Lodge. And a few odd titles here and there. Will try and post a review later this week.

Otherwise, it’s house, house, house. I can’t tell you how good it feels to know that I will soon have a place of my own to stay in again. P likes it too, although she has mixed feelings since we were looking for a place to rent together. But she’ll come round …

Editing blues (and buying long and selling short)

July 2, 2009

Feeling a bit out of sorts today. I think it’s a combination of things. Firstly, this book I’m editing is taking forever and I have moments when I think it could well be the most boring thing I’ve read this year. Then I feel terribly guilty and I wonder what it would be like if the writer ever read these words. Perhaps I actually want her to read these words (if you follow the twisted logic) and to feel some of the pain that I’m feeling when I work with her words! (She won’t though since she doesn’t know about this blog.)

How about this for a bad opening-sentence (to chapter five)?

As a human being, Lisa could not be faulted for experiencing emotions unique to her lifeworld.

Oh my God! Where do I start? Firstly, “as a human being” adds nothing except make me think of the alternatives (an animal, a rock?)
“Could not be faulted” is passive voice and also makes me think of Wimbledon. “Fault”. But the clincher to this sentence is the phrase “unique to her lifeworld” Are you on drugs? Who speaks like this? New-age hippies on mind-altering hey-shoo-wow gummy berry juice maybe.

Sorry, that is very passive-aggressive of me and I feel suitably ashamed. (And also a little better.)

Other grumbles today:

1) The weather. Fierce berg wind means it will rain later. The air dries out and then of course it gets washed clean again. But in the build-up to the rain I feel edgy and it’s like I can’t quite equalise the pressure.

2) Other stuff. I’m putting in an offer on a house, which is terribly exciting and terribly anxiety-provoking at the same time. I’m waiting for the offer to be emailed to me so that I can fill it out and send it in. The estate agent sounded positive on the phone yesterday but I’m not getting my hopes up too much. I’m also already starting to get that feeling of “buyer’s remorse”.

My buyer’s remorse goes like this: why am I always the one who pays a bit too much for a house but when it’s time to sell, I sell for too little? I don’t feel like going into the ins and outs of this today but I know it has to do with assertiveness and self-belief and ignorance and a general feeling that I’m not quite understanding how this property business works.

3) Then we also have a couple counselling session this evening. I really need that like a hole in the head but I’m also curious to hear what a neutral, experienced observer will say about our relationship (or ex-relationship). We could well discover that we actually want to make this thing work after all. But I don’t want to talk about that here either.

So what should I talk about? Nothing I guess. I’ll post something in a couple of days’ time when I feel that I have something to say …

A sackload of potatoes to Upington

February 23, 2009
Down by the (Orange) riverside

Down by the (Orange) riverside

the long road to U-town

the long road to U-town

It seems like ages since I sat at this desk and fired off a quick post about this or that. The this of today is my Upington trip, which I alluded to above in the post about flirting and playing truant.

Perhaps the easiest way to do this would be the 5Ws and an H method we learned in Journalism school.
Who? Me and my colleague, H (an Afrikaans, conservative Christian type)
What? Drove to Upington to test the troops
Why? Because we were told to.
When? Last week
Where? That would be Upington in the hot Northern Cape
How? In a car.

Hmmm. I guess this method isn’t working as well as I hoped. Switch to Q&A.

What were the best and worst aspects of your trip?
Good question. There were a few good points. The first was having my misperceptions of Upington corrected. I’d always assumed that Upington was a hot, boring town in the middle of a hot, boring province and that it would be hell on earth to visit there. Wrong. Upington is an oasis of green in a hot, dry desert and the B&B we stayed in was, if not quite a home away from home, pleasant and hospitable and a mile better than its counterparts in Bloemfontein.

The second plus was meeting some fine (pleasant, kind, polite, interesting) colleagues from the Northern Cape. The woman in charge was a little older than me and she drove her team around in a minibus taxi which was just like a mom’s taxi and she was just like a mom. A fun, spunky-type mom. The psychologist who tested with us had recently climbed Mt Kilimanjaro and was an adventurous sort. And no, I didn’t flirt with either of those two women but I did let the spunky, mom-type have my extra ice-cream (which I got through being politely assertive).

The worst part, apart from the 9-hour car journeys there and back, was having to make small talk in Afrikaans with H, my conservative Christian Afrikaans colleague. On the plus side, I have made a new friend who I can go diving / taking pictures/ hiking with. But on the minus side, I had to listen to stories about his ex-girlfriends for five days. I know that many of you will wonder why I chose my current profession if I don’t like listening to people talk about their exes for long periods of time. And we are talking loooong periods of time. But allow me to point a small difference. In the therapy room I can call time after 50 minutes. “I’m sorry but we’re out of time.” On a long car journey with no CDs along for the ride (what was I thinking?) I was forced to listen, nod, listen some more, make appreciative noises (in Afrikaans) and then form an opinion and have a discussion.

“Yes, she does appear to have borderline tendencies but, you know, borderlines can also be very loving when they feel they’re understood.”

“No, I’m not very religious and I don’t go to church more than perhaps, once a year.”

“Hmm, that’s an interesting [conservative, religious] expression. I hadn’t heard that one before. How does it go? He is no fool who gives up what he can’t keep to gain what he can’t lose? Yes, I see. Giving up your earhtly life for eternal life. Right.”

(Sorry, I am being a passive-aggressive nasty person here but it’s quite therapeutic so feel free to skip off to the next post if this grates you.)

I knew I was in for trouble when 10 minutes into the journey he apologised for bringing a sackload of potatoes along for the ride. That’s an Afrikaans expression in case you didn’t know, which refers to bringing a whole sackload of problems into a discussion. You start off with a little potato and, before you know it, you have a whole table full of them and you’re being asked to give your considered opinion on each one.

One little extract from my journal might be helpful:

“I like H but I also find him quite boring and I get tired speaking Afrikaans all the time (or most of the time). He tires me out – the chronic fatigue, the negativity re L and the other girlfriend (the one with the beach phobia), the limited interests, the conservative outlook about absolutely everything except diving, the lack of empathy with others, the child-like need for approval and encouragement …”

Reading this again, I realise a few things.
i) I’m judgmental.
ii) I’m able to be empathic but I resent being put in a situation where I have little choice but to be empathic for long stretches of time
iii) I get uncomfortable with people who are conservative without any idea of how their conservatism impacts the people around them.

I’m also aware of something else. My own anxieties about my job and everything else that I have on the go this year makes me less tolerant of people such as H. I start to worry that I’m going to have to be friends with him for life. Would that be such a bad thing? Maybe I need to lighten up a little, or to shoulder those potatoes with a small shrug and a little smile. Hmm, potatoes did you say? Let’s roast a few over the fire and see how they taste.

Snows of measured seriousness (aka Board Exam Blues)

February 4, 2009

Today I wrote my board exam and it was, on the most optimistic of assessments, only so-so. When I walked out of the University building in Parow, I was confident that I’d got the sub-minimum of 70% required to pass. But of course when I got home, I got out one of the Acts and checked the relevant provisions. Ouch. That’s one question on which I clearly didn’t get the sub-minimum. I’ll have to wait three whole weeks before I learn whether I’ll be doing this all again in June.

In the meantime, this is what happens when I’m supposed to be studying but end up watching Sky News instead.

Snows of measured seriousness

If you went down to South Wales yesterday, the hills were alive with tones of measured seriousness. For two days Sky News reporter Katie Stallard has been reporting on snow-covered roads in the South. Yesterday she was at Abelare in South Wales where her coverage had a sense of quiet melodrama.
Now I’m quite prepared to accept that with all the studying and avoiding of studying I’ve been doing that I’ve lost some perspective on the issue but I’ve never seen a snow-covered road in South Wales or elsewhere for look so, well, moving.

On Monday she helped to rescue a man who had been stuck in his old Mercedez Benz on the hard shoulder of an icy road with no mobile phone and five coats which he wore at the same time to keep warm.
“Jamie MacDonald has been sitting in his car since 8 o’ clock this morning,” said Katie earnestly, fixing her eyes intently at a point behind the camera. She added that he had fallen asleep at one point but had finally been towed to safety.

Watching this quiet melodrama, I couldn’t help wondering about the love that the British have for a crisis. Preferably a crisis in which the whole of Britain is at risk of being swamped by danger (in this case snow or the cold) and everyone has to rally round and do their bit.

Was it being trivial to think that we weren’t a million miles away from this:

we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender …

Probably. But the cadence of we-will-survive-against-the-odds is possibly similar.

And then I changed channels. Oprah was interviewing the cast of The Secret Life of Bees and I was hooked. The talent, the drama, the sheer stamina of that national institution that is Oprah. British actress Sophie Okemodo looks brilliant in this too by the way.

And then it was back to Sky in case I’d missed some more of the drama in Abelare before flicking back to South African TV. The Joburg police were on strike and there was political intimidation in KwaZulu-Natal. It was all a bit humdrum and anti-climactic and I couldn’t help thinking that Katie would have done better. Which then got me thinking about what would happen if our daily lives were small soundbites on satellite news.

Katie: I’m here in South Africa where blogger Pete has been holed up in his bedroom for THREE days trying to cram for his Board exam. How do you feel?
Pete: Aaargh, I think I’m losing my mind.
Katie: He says that tomorrow he’s writing his porfessional board exam and that if it goes badly, he could well lose his mind.
Pete: Aaargh, I’m losing my mind.
Katie: This is Katie Stallard for Sky News, South Africa.

Frustrations and low-hanging fruits

January 24, 2009

It’s been a week of frustrations on many fronts, which means my reading has gone out of the window. And I’ve also done very little preparation for the board exam. It doesn’t help that the Health Professions Council are incompetent. What’s so difficult about accepting an internet payment rather than a direct deposit? Two other frustrations: the geyser burst at my house in Joburg and I found out that I need to take a work trip to the hot-as-hell and remote town of Upington. And then I also agreed to do a freelance piece for the Belgians.

But since my mantra is “one step at a time”, I am trying to follow it. Reminds me of some business advice I read once that we should pick the low-hanging fruits first. In other words, don’t try for the fancy stuff while there are simple tasks you can accomplish in the meantime. Simple, basic advice which I would do well to follow. So no considered blog posts from me for a while until I get some progress on the low-hanging fruits. If I could just find the orchard and the trees that is.

Very limited options on the job front and I haven’t sent off my applications to those limited options yet either. One of the frustrations is just getting people to act as a referee. The one academic that I want to be my referee is notoriously bad about responding to emails and I’m too scared to call her. I guess I could always send an SMS (text message) instead.

On the plus side, we saw Revolutionary Road yesterday and Kate W and Leo were very good. I liked the mental patient’s insights as well. The problems of 1950s couples seem quite dated nowadays (but also still relevant). But it’s interesting to see how women’s options have changed with the times. I thought the part about sanity and insanity was well done – and I see that the novel by Richard Yates got good reviews.

We also saw the promo for “Benjamin Button” and I wasn’t convinced but I could see that P would like to see this one anyway. “What did you think of Forest Gump?” I asked, remembering how much DoctorDi had hated it.
“I liked it,” she said. Hmmm. “Well then I guess you’ll like this one as well. I suppose there’s no harm in checking it out for ourselves.” I’m pretty sure I won’t like it – and the concept just seems daft to me (he gets younger rather than older) – but sometimes it’s good to have one’s misgivings confirmed. But maybe that’s a bit like seeing that you’re going to hit your head against a brick wall and going ahead with it anyway, just to confirm that it really is not pleasant to have a brick-induced headache.

Please be patient …

September 30, 2008

Power’s down here at the military base which means I’m on the laptop battery for about another hour. No power means no coffee and a generally grumpy pete. So to cheer myself up I’ve put up some cool wrapping paper (by Cape Town-based illustrator Alex Latimer of The Western Nostril fame) on my office wall.

Without the coffee I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those sloooow days.

Driving me crazy

September 27, 2008

My brother was the star, the favourite, the embattled hero who made it. Born with an immature stomach valve, he cried solidly for the first year and a half of his life. At three years old he walked to the shops with his sister (5) and came back with the correct change.
“The correct change, just imagine it,” said my ma. “And all that way.”

It was quite a way for a three-year old kid. You had to cross Forest Drive (the busiest road in Pinelands), pass the tennis courts and go round the municipal hall which was used as a nursery school before you got to Central Square. The Beehive was at the corner and the Blue Haze cafe was in the middle. This walking back with the correct change seems to sum up my brother’s innate ability. Having been short-changed at the start of his life with an immature stomach valve, he made sure that people wouldn’t do him down again. He was not one to lose the fight. Plucky little chinaman, said our mom.

He’s also a lefty, another disadvantage that he’s risen above. Lefties apparently have life tougher than us righties do. Sinister comes from the Latin word for left-handed. Scissors, golf clubs, even writing-desks are all designed for right-handed people. You don’t need to be Einstein to tell that right is right and left is, well, what’s left over. In strict Islamic societies you’re supposed to eat with your right hand and wipe your bum with your left. Lefties apparently also live on average five years less than righties. I don’t know where I read that but I’ve been struck with guilt ever since. The thought that my brother, whom I both admire and dislike could possibly be cheated again in the final years of his life makes me feel guilty. As if I’d somehow wished this calamity on him in all those moments when he called me horrible names (oily, boom, smell, noxious odour) or set his dog on me (“Hunt and kill, Dougal. Kill him!”) or teased me until I lost my temper.

I think he enjoyed seeing how easily he could make me lose it. “Low frustration tolerance” as it’s called now was the bane of my life for quite a while. I once got so mad with him that I chased him around the putt-putt course at Three Anchor Bay holding a putter over my head and with a murderous expression on my face. I knew that I wouldn’t actually hit him but I wanted to make him believe that I was crazy enough to do it. I wanted to see him suffer for a change. I would seethe with frustrated rage that I couldn’t beat him at one single thing. Not only was he my mom’s favourite but he was better at everything else too. Putt-putt, tennis, cricket, chess, hockey, academics, board games, middle-distance running, you name it.

My brother was my closest friend and my greatest enemy. My hero, my rival. One day when I was about 10 years old we’d just played our favourite board game, Formula One. As far as board games went in those days it was pretty cool with cards with gauges on them for tyre wear and brake wear and a steering wheel with a speedometer. The little plastic cars in different colours and the racetrack which snaked around the bedroom floor like a big jigsaw puzzle. He must have won every single game we played. I kept on thinking that if I just tried a little bit harder that I would beat him but I don’t remember ever winning. If I did beat him at anything then he would just ignore me so it would be a hollow victory. That day I really believed that I would finally triumph. My patience was going to pay off and I would be on a par, even for a few moments, with my older boet.

On the final lap he snuck passed me and then proceeded to do his usual gloating routine which involved reminding me that I was a loser. I was gutted and sat out on the carport roof next to the garage for ages while I seethed with the injustice of it all and tried to find a vent for my unexpressed anger. I was close to tears but I calmed down eventually and got some perspective. I realised that the less you care about something, the less it hurts you. That day I learned detachment as a defence mechanism. If you don’t try so hard or care so much then it doesn’t really matter if you win or lose.

“It’s just a game,” goes the saying. But when your sense of self is a bit dented from the start, losing is a continual reminder that you’re not quite good enough. Losing to my brother didn’t make me a lesser person even though it felt that way. From that day on I didn’t care so much about Formula One. We probably played the game a few more times after that but the excitement was gone for me. To this day I don’t really like the sport of motor racing. My brother still watches Formula One and I guess he cares about Hamilton versus Raikonnen, Ferrari versus McClaren. I don’t really see the point. You’re racing around burning up precious fuel, risking your life and for what? So you can say that you’re faster to the finish line?

It’s obviously more than that. Just like running is a chance to be the best you can be, to improve yourself physically and mentally, driving is a way of enhancing your reflexes, your coordination and your ability to cope and compete in pressure situations. But not for me. I’ll leave the fast driving to my older, more successful brother. I’m the guy driving in the slow lane in my Toyota Tazz, listening to Bob Dylan or U2 and analysing the psychological significance of road rage (narcissism) or the significance of driving in dreams. But part of me still yearns to be behind the steering wheel of a red Ferrari, accelerating through the turns, powering up the hills and feeling the glow and the thrill of victory.