True Confessions of a Book Fiend 

(First published in Le News edition 25, 15 – 21 May 2014)

‘Goodbye, my darlings,’ I waved to them, as they sped away in the back of the charity shop van. ‘I’ll never forget you.’

My books. Boxes of them, packed off as if they meant nothing to me. As if they hadn’t given me some of the happiest moments of my life.

My husband, who has a heart of stone, was unmoved.

‘You’ve still got too many,’ he said, pointing at the boxes being loaded onto the moving van.

‘Those ones are coming with us,’ I answered, baring my teeth a little.

‘Fine. But let’s try to keep it under control in the new place, okay?’

Three years later and ‘the new place’ is starting to feel familiar, if not actually like home. And the book situation is pretty much under control. Because the minute our feet touched Swiss soil, we went completely digital. I dusted off my Kindle and started mainlining ebooks. Oh, the immediacy of it! You hear about a book, you hit that Buy now with 1-Click® button and ten seconds later you have it! Just add coffee, for perfect happiness. Maybe such immediate gratification isn’t psychologically healthy but it’s a book, so it’s okay, right?

Also, ebooks are very secretive. Nobody but Amazon and me need ever know how much more time I spend buying books than buying groceries. Nobody need ever say, in a judgemental tone, ‘We’ve been out of muesli and tomato sauce for a week, but I see you’ve finally completed your Sookie Stackhouse collection. Well done.’

Then I discovered Audible and things got even better! I can have books read to me while I run, cook, dust my empty bookshelves, whatever.

But. I’m going to give all of that up and go back to print; back to space-devouring, dust-gathering, forest-munching paper books. For the sake of the children.

Ever since the four-year-old ordered ‘a big glass of wine’ in a restaurant in Yvoire, I’ve realised that children do as their parents do. If I want them to read, they need to see me reading. Actual books, not ebooks on my laptop. For all they know, I could be spending hours … I don’t know … watching cute cat videos on YouTube and Facebooking. (Cough, cough).

And it’s no use looking to their father, who seems to have taken to reading business books in bed at night. (Who is this man? Seventeen years ago he won my heart by quoting poetry and now he’s reading something called Data Analysis and Decision Making). Clearly the job of bibliophile-building is up to me.

So, henceforth, print books will be seen in hand. They’ll also be seen on floor, on bedside table and next to bath. Stories will tumble off shelves again, and intrude into our lives. They’ll trip us up, get in our way, remind us of themselves all the time. It’ll be really untidy and my husband won’t like it but it’ll do him good too. Man should not live on management textbooks alone.

And how will I stay away from my late night trysts with Amazon? Well, I won’t. Sooner or later I’ll find myself running to the computer, like Gollum to his Precious, eyes full of longing and arms outstretched … slowed down only by the dusty piles of books that someone left all over the floor.

Baby Steps 

(First published in Le News edition 24, 8 – 14 May 2014)

Ever since we arrived in Switzerland my husband and I have been fantasising about the outdoor adventures we could have, if only our children would walk.

In true Johannesburg-child fashion, they seem to believe that feet are things meant for pressing accelerator pedals. Not that they’re lazy. They’ll run around in the park forever, bounce on the trampoline for hours … but ask them to actually walk on the actual ground and they cannot cope. At the mere thought, both children begin to wail as loudly as if we’d just … I don’t know … pushed them straight down an icy mountain on two waxed planks. Oh wait, that’s me I’m thinking of. The children love hurtling down slopes. It’s only when the ground is flat that they complain.

The smaller child, particularly, is prone to sudden and debilitating attacks of Short Legs.

‘I can’t go on,’ she sobbed recently, falling facedown on the dusty ground and clutching her ankles. ‘I have Short Legs! Carry me!’

‘We’re still in the parking lot,’ I pointed out. ‘Get moving!’ For the rest of the walk (all 2 kilometres of it) she wept pitifully and shuffled along like a cross between La Belle Dame Sans Merci and a woodland zombie.

I’ve only seen the children walking with any enthusiasm once, and that was when we were stampeded by a herd of cows. Delirious with joy at being let out of their barn, the herd immediately broke into a gallop.

‘Crikey!’ I shrieked, as thirty tonnes of grass-fed beef hurtled down the hill, straight towards us.

‘Calm down,’ my husband said, pointing to a flimsy piece of wire strung between a few wooden poles. ‘There’s a fence.’

Sure enough, the cows got to within ten metres of the wire, veered sharply to their left and stampeded on in an orderly fashion. Swiss cows. Amazing. If we’d been back in South Africa, not only would we have been trampled but one of the herd would have stolen my sunglasses.

By the time we caught up with the children, they were halfway home and still going strong. It was quite difficult to slow them down, actually. But seeing how fast they can move when motivated didn’t solve my problem. I can’t employ the services of an overexcited cow every time I want a stroll.

Let the reluctant little walkers lead the expedition,’ the parenting book said. So one sunny day I packed sandwiches and juice into a backpack and told them we were going for a hike.

They screamed and fainted for a while, but the promise of a picnic lunch eventually got them out the door, up the road and into the forest. Then disaster struck.

‘Where are the juice bottles?’ I asked, reaching into the backpack and finding nothing but a giant soft toy. ‘Where’s the food?’

‘At home,’ the bigger child answered. ‘I took everything out so I could fit Big Monkey in.’

The children immediately began to howl with hunger, fatigue and Short Legs, and the trip home was not a happy one. As soon as we got inside I slammed the door and swore we’d never travel anywhere on foot ever again.

Not long afterwards we were driving down Germany’s lovely Romantic Road and my husband said, idly, ‘Maybe one day we could do a walk along here.’

‘Great idea,’ I answered, ignoring the horrified screams from the back seat.

My memory, it seems, is as short as their legs.

 

An Ogre Ate my Song 

(First published in Le News edition 23, 1 – 7 May 2014)

I try not to be judgemental, I really do. Treasure can often be found in the most surprising places; truffles don’t immediately present themselves as edible, let alone delicious, and so on. But I must admit, I’m losing the battle – I’m complaining a lot and my family thinks I’m boring.

For example, it causes me great pain that my children will probably always refer to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as ‘that song from Shrek’.

Not that they like it very much.

‘I think it’s mean,’ the seven-year-old told me. ‘Someone tied someone else to a chair, and broke their throne and cut their hair. That’s not nice.’

‘Well,’ I rushed in, ‘it’s not really about that.’

‘What’s it about?’

What indeed. Passionate, destructive love. Bliss. Transcendence. Obsession.

Erm … nothing. You’re right. It’s just mean. Very mean!’

Anyway, my point is that, for the rest of their lives, every time they hear that beautiful, tortured song, the children are going to think of a green ogre. And every time they hear ‘Habanera’ from Carmen, they’re going to think of Pixar’s Up. Now, Up is lovely and I’m glad they saw it, but I wish they could experience this stuff in its original context before it’s used in a movie. Or worse, in an ad. You don’t get those out of your head. I don’t know what the situation is in the rest of the world, but there’s a generation of South Africans who struggle to think of Carl Orff’s ‘O Fortuna’ as anything other than ‘the song from the Old Spice ad’.

And yesterday I stumbled upon some information that froze my blood. The ZhuZhu Pets – fluffy toy things with names like Ipsy-Woo and Tiddly-Pop –  have released a CD of Beatles covers. I only managed to listen to the first five seconds of ‘All My Loving’ before my teeth fell out. Under no circumstances can the four-year-old  find out about this: I’m no musical purist but the first Beatles songs my children hear will not be sung in squeaky voices by toy hamsters.

Books can be a problem too. Just about every other week I have to lay down the law afresh about Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

‘Please, Mommy! We want to see it! Ple-e-ease,’ my daughters wail.

But they’re not allowed to until they’ve read the book. Honestly, there are some things that just should not be Disneyfied. It’s not that I think severe deformity, emotional pain, public hangings, betrayal and murder aren’t the stuff of great children’s movies. It’s just that I’d like them to experience the power of the book before they see Quasimodo dancing around and singing a duet with a cute little gargoyle friend.

Same with Monster High dolls, which the children are clamouring for.

‘If I buy you that Draculaura fashion doll,’ I explained, ‘I’ll be normalising the undead and robbing you of your chance to be scared silly by your first vampire movie.’

That was when they denounced me as boring, and I sloped off to my room to be old and grumpy by myself. Actually, I had a nice time: I listened to some music by the guy who wrote that song from Shrek.

 

 

Keep it Real

(First published in Le News edition 21, 3 – 9 April 2014) 

Things have been a little dull in my family since the snow melted and we put away our skis, so I’m going to suggest that we have a season of Reality competitions, to see us through to the summer holidays.

We’ll kick off with a few episodes of This Family’s Got Talent, just to warm us up. My money is on the seven-year-old. She’s been belting out ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen every afternoon for over a month now, and I think she’ll blow the judges away. Literally. She has quite a set of lungs, for a small girl. Her little sister can only get through the first two lines of ‘In and Out the Dusty Bluebells’ before losing interest, so the only real competition is going to come from my husband, who’ll be demonstrating his amazing sitting skills: after months of practice, he can get through three rugby games in a row, hardly moving a muscle.

After that, we’ll move into a short round of MasterChef. My husband and I will each be presented with a tin of Borlotti beans, some wilted broccoli, two apples and a stock cube, and tasked with making a delicious three course meal. The children will judge and I can tell you now, whoever is stupid enough to actually use that broccoli is going to lose. (I think I have an excellent chance of winning this one because it’s a challenge I face at least twice a month, when I’ve been too lazy to go grocery shopping.)

This should get us to the Easter Holidays, and the thrilling Survivor Switzerland. The children and I will be stranded at home for fourteen days, most likely in torrential rainstorms. My strategy is to get myself voted off Hell Island early, then retire to my bedroom with a pile of books. Only when things downstairs are threatening to head towards a Lord of the Flies scenario will I emerge, bribe everyone with sweets and declare myself the winner.

After the holidays we’ll enjoy an exciting double bill: The Great Bake Off and Fear Factor. In the first round the children will compete to bake the most original cake. Past entries have included the Cake Made of Nothing But Six Eggs and Balsamic Vinegar; the Half a Bottle of Ground Ginger Tart; and my personal favourite, the Unbaked Sugar and Milk Cake With a Carrot in the Middle. In round two, the judges will attempt to taste each entry without retching or spitting anything out.

Then we’ll be running the ever-popular Big Brother, Parents, Cousins and Friends over the first half of the summer holiday. We’re not sure who will arrive because nobody we know plans that far ahead, but in previous years we’ve had up to ten people spend a week together, sharing only two showers and one washing machine. Housemates will be given a number of challenges, such as getting six giant duvets into six duvet covers without breaking down in tears; inflating air mattresses while small children jump up and down on them; and getting my mother’s fifty kilo suitcase up a flight of stairs without swearing.

And at the end of this thrilling week, any housemates left standing will cram themselves into two cars and head off for an episode of The Amazing Race: Tuscany, armed with only their swimming costumes and a GPS that doesn’t recognise Italy.

Exciting times ahead, so stay tuned!

Eco-Warriors and Morality Police

(First published in Le News edition 20, 27 March – 2 April 2014)

I’m trying to be a better person, because of my children. It’s partly that I love them and I want to set a good example, of course. But it’s also because I have the feeling that they’ll tell on me if I don’t behave, and I’ll be in trouble with someone.

Take the seven-year-old. She’s always been the kind of child who worries about the state of her soul because she stole two sweets from the cupboard; who prays before bed every night (and hopefully mentions me because I could use a good word). But recently she’s become an eco-warrior, and our home has become her battleground. Quite frankly, she’s insufferable.

‘My teacher says we should always put paper in the recycling,’ she informed me crisply when I tossed an envelope into the bin.

‘Yes, of course,’ I said, retrieving it. ‘Absolutely right. What was I thinking?’

‘We mustn’t waste electricity,’ she frequently says at dinner, before lighting a tiny leftover Christmas candle and plunging us into near darkness.

Recently she spent an afternoon holed up in her room with a book about endangered animals. It was a trying time for the rest of the family. As we went about our business, her outraged voice boomed down on us every now and then with upsetting pieces of information like, ‘The Hector’s dolphin is almost extinct’ and, ‘We’ll probably never see a Javan rhino’.

I wanted to lighten the mood, for all our sakes, so when she bellowed, ‘Do you know there are only about 300 Cross River gorillas left in the world? What are we going to do about that?’ I bellowed back, ‘Tell them to cheer up!’

And … just a word of advice here. Don’t make jokes about endangered animals. Seven-year-old eco-warriors won’t think you’re funny.

The four-year-old, thank goodness, is still mostly a reprobate, but I’m starting to suspect that the Morality Police might have co opted her into some sort of surveillance role.

’You certainly like that game,’ she’ll say casually, popping up behind me when I’m supposed to be working but am actually playing Candy Crush. ‘You play it a lot.’

‘You do enjoy your wine, don’t you?’ she’ll observe, appearing from nowhere at my elbow, as I pour a (tiny, tiny) pre-dinner glass.

Or, ‘Napping again, I see,’ as she stands, shrouded in shadow, at the bottom of my bed. ‘Always. Napping.’

She’s making me paranoid. Why does she have to say it out loud? Is she miked up?

I really got worried last week, though, when she sat watching me in the bath for a while, eyes narrowed, before asking, ‘Do you think the other mommies have also got tattoos?’

I was blinded by a sudden vision of myself as she might report me: a tattooed wino who plays Candy Crush during work hours and sleeps all afternoon.

‘I don’t know,’ I answered, trying to sink beneath the bubbles. ‘But if you mention mine at school, could you also mention that I get up early every morning to cook you a hot breakfast?’

At the moment I’m the only one being judged – for the near-extinction of the Sumatran orangutan and for my own bad habits. But soon the little girls will grow up, look further afield and start taking the rest of the world to task.

I’m happy to say, our future is in good hands.

 

 

Together in Electric Dreams

(First published in Le News edition 19, 20-26 March 2014)

I think you’re too attached to that thing,’ my husband noted the other day, gesturing towards my computer.

Who?’ I asked, cradling it protectively. ‘Do you mean Precious? What makes you say that?’

You haven’t made eye contact with me or the children in over a week.’

It’s true. But who can blame me? My computer is the perfect partner.

Our affair started a few years ago when my family left South Africa and moved into a small, sad hotel room in France. It rained almost every day of the month we were there, and I would’ve gone mad had it not been for my computer. It became our entertainment centre, playing DVDs and music non-stop; we used it to Skype family back home; we played games on it; and I spent a lot of time Googling things like, ‘what to do with small children when you’re trapped in a foreign country, it’s raining and you have no car.’

Normally one might turn to one’s spouse at a time like that but seeing as he was the one who’d made off with the car, he wasn’t in my good books. So I fell in love with the computer, and we’ve been going from strength to strength ever since. I adore my Precious and, I’m thrilled to say, my Precious adores me right back. Seriously. Every day, in a hundred little ways, my computer shows me how much it cares.

What’s on your mind?’ Facebook asks me gently, every time I look at it. Nobody around here ever asks me that, unless I’m sighing a lot or lying down on the floor.

And Spotify is so thoughtful. It sends me little messages like, ‘You played Barry Manilow’s Copacabana over a hundred times last week. You might also like James Blunt.’ I’m so touched by that kind of attention that I don’t even feel the need to explain that it was actually the four-year-old, who is obsessed with the song’s clever juxtaposition of tragedy with disco.

Coursera will happily spend night after night with me talking about the poetry of Gertrude Stein without ever once threatening suicide or trying to steer the conversation to rugby.

Google answers all my questions immediately, never feigning deafness or telling me to ‘just hold on until this penalty shot is taken’.

Pinterest understands my tastes and picks out nice things for me to wear, Audible reads me to sleep and, if my heart desires something, Amazon hops to it immediately, to find it for me.

All in all, I’m getting more attention from my computer than I am from anyone else in this house. I was in bed with a fever for four days last week before one of the children thought to offer me a glass of water. And even then, they were only trying to revive me long enough to go downstairs and put the television on for them.

Worse, neither husband nor children noticed my new haircut which, thanks to a small misunderstanding between myself and the hairdresser, has left me almost functionally bald and with much larger ears than I intended.

But that’s okay because love is blind. And, as long as I don’t do anything silly like activate the Photo Booth app … so is my Precious.