Questions of a four-year-old

“Good morning” the voice rings out from his room. Our four-year-old son is awake and wants some attention.
  “Your turn,” my wife says.
  Fair enough. I grab my pillow and head to his room. He moves over - “there's space for you”. Usually he'll lie in quietly for a bit longer, but today he sits upright and starts asking questions.

Pappa, why did you want this boy?
  Where did you get this boy?
  So did you go to the hospital and say you wanted this boy?
  Where did I come from?
  But how does the baby get inside?
  A brief pause and a change of topic. This is a recent one that is really hard to deal with.
  Pappa, why is grandpa in the sky?
  When is he coming back?
  But what if I want to see him?
  And how did he get up there?
  Is there a big house?
  Why do people go to the sky?
  When we get old, will we also go to the sky?
  But when I'm old I want to go to the big school. Can I go to the big school?
  Pappa, what happens when our house gets old?
  But what if our house gets old and it breaks?
  But will a man come and build us a new one?

Nothing here, I suspect, that most parents aren't confronted with. You don't want to spin elaborate tales, but you also don't want to overburden the child with too much information. Finding the happy medium is tough.
  These sessions make me think again about questions - how we always have them, new ones, harder ones, some that just won't go away and others that might never get answered. Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limit of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.”
  Our boy is learning more about what is and what cannot be. It's a lengthy, lifelong process and it can get you down. Now he's disappointed to find out people cannot fly. Some day he might feel shattered when a dream doesn't come true, or a goal stays out of reach. The big challenge is accepting the limits and learning to live well within them. I hope he'll get there.

Posted on 25 June 2015


what they wanted for supper

My wife mailed me a link to a recipe with the message “Hmm … Can we have this for supper?”
  It seemed simple enough - a pasta bake with mince and béchamel sauce. I jumped in the car to go buy ingredients. A pet hate of mine is recipes calling for seasonings you'll never use again. Wasteful. I imagined my wife saying “just follow the recipe,” ignored the voice and decided not to get the two Certain Brand spice mixes. Texan Barbeque rub, in you go. Do your best.
  Also on my culinary hate list is recipes that don't give the preparation time. Usually it's a gross understatement, but at least it gives you an idea of how long you'll be slaving over a hot stove, as they say in the classics.
  This pasta was not a quick, simple supper idea, I soon realised as I wiped away my onion tears. The further down I went, the more complicated the instructions became. Onions, then garlic, then meat until browned, then spices and seasoning in a mysteriously specific order, followed by half a cup of roughly chopped parsley.
  Roughly I can do. Finely, not so much. One of the elimination tests in any version of Masterchef is chopping. Right there I would be sent packing with my clumsy knife skills. Turning two tomatoes into tiny cubes is a major effort for me.
  The word “while” should be banned from the cooking lexicon. Multi-tasking shouldn't be a requirement in the kitchen. Not for amateurs, anyway. But while the meat and tomatoes were cooking (how are you doing, BBQ rub?), I had to boil the pasta to the elusive al dente state. While the pasta was going, I had to start the béchamel and beat four large eggs that would be mixed in with the penne.
  The sink was getting full with pots, wooden spoons, measuring cups, mixing jugs. A trail of flour lay on the floor to the cupboard. Blobs of white sauce dotted the counter. I nicked a finger while grating nutmeg. Burnt like anything when some tomato juice hit it. Got some paprika on my reading glasses.
  It was all getting a bit rich. The béchamel took such a massive chunk of butter that I could feel a phantom heartburn in my throat. There was more. After the layering in a greased dish, a full cup of grate Parmesan went on top.
  Two hours had slipped past by the time I heaved a large baking dish into the oven for a quick 30 minutes (or until golden brown on top).
  My cooking is appreciated - no complaints there. But I still wanted my wife to know the minute she got home that supper was an epic job. Now she felt bad, she says later as we dug in. “It's nice, but it doesn't taste that special when you consider the effort. I'm sorry, I meant something like this for supper. I didn't mean the actual recipe …”
  She showed genuine remorse, so I forgave her. But then our four-year-old wailed: “Nooo, I don't like pasta and mince. I like fish fingers and chicken nuggets and chips and milk shake … I didn't order this for supper!”
  That hurt. And there was more. This morning he said: “When are you going to do your exercises? Your tummy is getting fat, because you eat a LOT.”
  No more rich food. Tonight we're having soup, no matter who ordered what. And I won't follow any fancy recipe, either.

home improvement

Confessions of an unhandy man

I'm useless with my hands. There's a screw wedged against the glass in our bathroom window, an annoying reminder of what happened when I tried to replace the vintage handle myself. The screw hit another screw, slipped around and popped out of the frame. Once you've noticed it, you can't see past it. Can't get it out, though, so I'm screwed.
  One of the biggest lies ever told is “quick and easy assembly”, most often seen on the side of boxes containing toys for kids. Especially the eco-friendly and educational kind. Those tree-hugging toy makers are out to get you. Or out to organic tea while you battle with a cryptic diagram and a slippery Allan key.
  My dad could make elaborate 3-D cardboard models. I don't go near a cutter. Less than a handful of my fingers can type and I'll be needing them for many more freelance years. My freestyling with scissors (not snipping straight) doesn't get me close to perfection either.
  Like many mums, mine went through a tapestry phase. She stitched some pretty intricate canvasses. That steady hands gene leaked out of the pool before I was born.
  Let me not pretend I can read and understand philosophy, but a soundbite from Schopenhauer popped up in the lovely French movie Chinese Puzzle and is sticking in my mechanically challenged mind. An abridged translation: “Life may be compared to a piece of embroidery. During the first half you see the right side and during the second half, the wrong. The wrong side is not as pretty, but more instructive; it shows how the threads have been worked together.”
  I'm looking at the wrong side already. It's not the work of a master craftsman, but as our kid would say proudly: “Look, I made something!”


the Bicycle thieves

If my bicycle could talk, it wouldn't have much to say. It could tell of throwing me off twice, breaking first my left arm and then my right in the same spot. It might recall the two summers it got out a bit, even though only for gentle rides to the shop where I bought fresh ingredients for supper. This kept me less unfit and saved a few cents - less potatoes sprouting horns, cheese growing blue beards in the fridge and fruit turning to mush.
  As I descended to the nether regions of laziness, the bike languished in the shed with a growing number of scooters, toy wheelbarrows and toddler-sized, plastic gardening tools. I had every intention of getting back in the saddle for those produce runs. Just had to wait for this harsh winter to pass. Not going to happen, though.
  A few Fridays ago the electricity was down from six to six in our neighbourhood as the council took another stab at installing a new substation. By midday I couldn't stand listening to the ticking clock in the quiet house any more and went out for an hour.
  When I got back, I found someone had scrambled over our high brick wall and stolen my bike from the shed at the back. Nothing else. Two boot marks on the pillar near the gate were the only evidence.
  In the great 1948 film Bicycle Thieves a desperate dad finds a job putting up posters. He needs a bicycle and gets his back from the pawn shop, but it's stolen on his first working day. After a lengthy search for the thief, despair drives him to try stealing another bike.
  The Italian classic's usual English title, The Bicycle Thief, contradicts its message, writes critic David Thomson in ‘Have You Seen…?’, his opiniated introduction to 1 000 films worth seeing for various reasons. He believes the message is “We are all likely thieves now, or if times get hard enough — because we are urban creatures.”
  Urban I simply don't get, all likely thieves I don't agree with. Philosophical as I might try to be, it was my bike. Paid for. If you needed it badly, thief, you could have asked. I might have given it to you.


Big wheels keep on turning

A dreaded moment has come. The sagging old sedan is falling apart, the kid is bursting out of his booster seat. Time to cross over to the mystifying world of mum's (or dad's) taxis. Just don't call them that.
  It's what parents do. Instinctively. They migrate from ordinary transport to a chunky SUV, with a cavernous boot, holders for sippy cups, central locking, windows with safety film, GPS, air bags all round, cruise control, mountain bike rack, mist lights, warranties that cost more than a posh pre-school. Add the stickers that show the car holds a shopping mummy, surfer daddy, soccer boy, ballet girl and a big dog.
  Why is a standard car suddenly not good enough? Could be a rite of passage, a power statement, a status symbol. An SUV says you can drive over rocks and through muddy puddles to any child-friendly wine estate where you'll have lunch and fun (pictures on Facebook). It says you might live in the suburbs, but you can roar off for a weekend getaway whenever you want. Just not this weekend. School fête.
  One more reason for driving these hunks of metal: many South Africans claim they feel safer when they're higher off the ground. Don't ask in what sense, because you won't get a clear answer. So you see tiny mums peering over the dashboards of unarmed tanks they can barely control, while dads with killer shades park halfway up pavements just because they can. I don't like joining clubs. But here we are, pulled as if by gravity towards the SUV/MPV/crossover crowd.
  I'm not into cars. I like rugby, braai and the occasional craft beer, so I meet the minimum requirements for South African maledom. But cars are transport. I like good design, though, so I won't be truly happy in a Fugly XL Guzzler. And the family taxis look drearily similar, with form making road kill of function.
  Are SUVs designed by bad manga artists these days? Front lights like bulging alien eyes, bumpers like double chins, grilles like space trooper helmets and my new pet hate, the string of blinding “daylight” LEDs that make little sense in bright African sun.
  SUVs are expensive — and don't the drivers just know it. You see it in their eyes as they look down on your lowly town hopper at traffic lights. A compromise is the crossover, a family car lifted a bit and put on big wheels, with decorations like “plastic wheel arch extensions” and “faux underbody protection plates”. Faux? I'm paying more for fakes? All I see is extra weight that will push up petrol bills.
  The extras can be an odd mix: one model on our list offers Bluetooth, but the back windows aren't electric. Visions of toddler cranking down his window and leaning out like a dog, drooling in the wind, or tossing bits of his fun activity travel pack at oncoming traffic.
  Browse car reviews and you end up panicking about statements like “vibration detectable through the pedals and the bodyshell” or an ominous “lots of body roll in corners”. But none of these are as disconcerting as the fine print on service plans.
  For the longest time I drove a small car with organic air con (windows), non-centralised, manual locking (keys) and ambient sound (broken radio). It was fine. But you have to keep moving. The question is which way.
  There's a special on a certain crossover at the moment. Offer valid for seven days. No pressure. Makes me want to take the old family carcass to the nearest Mr Try-To-Fix-It and hope for a miracle.


Why do the right thing?

I've spent the past hour not liking people very much. It will pass, but allow me to vent while it lasts. The villains of this piece happen to be men. Coincidence. I'm angry with all of humanity.
  It started with a man in an MCLV (midlife crisis luxury vehicle) crawling down the exit ramp from the parking garage, oblivious to cars piling up behind him, once even bumping the kerb because he's on his cell phone and driving with one hand. This isn't just inconsiderate, it's illegal here.
  Outside a shopping centre a man shouldered me out of the way so he could walk under the awning and avoid getting a few drops of rain on his haughty, coiffured head. Rather me and the toddler on my arm than him, thank you.
  Inside the grocer, where the better-off-than-thou were flash-buying organic fillet and wine for the afternoon's obligatory rugby braai, the queue spilled out of the cash point maze into the aisles. A smug-looking, prematurely balding dadlet with an oversized kid in the baby seat parked his trolley in front of a pregnant woman. “Are you in the queue?” he asked in mock surprise. Yes, but it's fine, she answered in a voice too timid to carry quotation marks. “Oh, okay,” he said and looked at me quizzically as I try to glare him into some modicum of remorse. As a father, he must know the difference between a paunch and a baby bump. But hey, she said it was fine.
  Earlier we met a friend at a coffee shop with the feng shui of a rat's nest. The only route from the pick-up point to the tables was through a queue snaking out the entrance. I saw an opening, asked for a general pardon from all involved and walked. The man to my left stepped forward quickly to cut me off and hit my arm. I spilled coffee ... and apologised to him. I actually did. He stared at me blankly.
  In this kind of situation I normally don't swear, glare, or flare. My inner masochist surfaces. So I dropped off the beverages, returned with some serviettes, got down on one knee and wiped up my spill. In theory I'm trying to shame by example. In practice people think you're weird if they notice at all.
  Not everyone will react with such random acts of oddness, but mine come from what many of us want to believe: that humility, modesty, consideration and genuine empathy will pay off in some way. We want to believe that playing by the rules, from social to constitutional, will bring some reward. It won't, unless you think avoiding a road rage injury, a huge fine or prison time are reward enough.
  Can I find comfort in thinking I'm the better person? I can't, because I'm not. Should I do unto them, the superlatives, as they do unto us, the ordinarians? I couldn't, because it's not me.
  Reward in heaven, then? Karma? Judgment day? Who knows. One of my favourite Lou Reed lines is: “It takes a busload of faith to get by.” You can interpret it in several ways. For me it means believing that it's good to do what seems right. For no reason, just because.
  The discontent is fading. Good vent, though. Thanks for reading. And keep the faith.


A tiny death prepares me for a great loss

When I called my wife last night to say her birthday supper was ready, she came out of the bedroom in tears. Our 15-year-old cat was hardly moving. His kidneys and his strength had been failing but since midday he had taken a turn for the worse.
  We ate in near silence, keeping our voices light as we chatted to our two-year-old son. Before my wife went to bed, she lit two candles and placed them outside. Some might consider it banal, she said, but it was one candle for our cat and one for Madiba.
  I settled on the couch for the night with Cider wrapped in a blanket on my chest. He didn't even purr as I scratched his ears. After watching mindless TV for an hour, I drifted off. When I woke up just before six, he was gone.
  I put him in his carrier basket and in the car boot so my son wouldn't see him when he woke up. Then I stood on the back porch in the icy morning air, turning towards Constantia mountain. From my home its slope looks like the profile of a man lying peacefully on his back, gazing towards the south where two oceans clash and swirl around Cape Point.
  It is not my imagination: many have said the man looks like my father. About 18 months ago he died after being injured in a freak car accident. He was 79 and getting a little weaker, but this wasn't something we expected or could prepare ourselves for.
  I went inside and, like many South Africans this morning, checked the news to see if Nelson Mandela made it through the night. He had. I thought of the people who share his life: a wife, family, friends and comrades. There will be the world's loss of a great statesman and leader, but there will also be their much more personal loss.
  Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in a recent New York Times essay: “Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.”
  There is sadness after the death of a pet, though it might seem like a small matter in a big world. But there is profound grief after a great loss. May the people in the life of Nelson Mandela receive an abundance of love and compassion - now, and when they will need it most.

Posted on 28 June 2013