Glory Days 

(This was first published in Le News 25 September 2014)

‘How much longer do you plan to go on living?’ the seven-year-old asked me the other day, after giving me one of those long, appraising looks that children are so good at.

I like to think that this question had nothing to do with greed for her inheritance (which currently stands at: my wedding ring; a nice pair of earrings; and several drawers full of denim jeans in assorted shapes and sizes).

No. I think she asked because I’m turning forty-four next month and that seems so old to her that she can hardly believe I’m still tottering about on my geriatric legs.

That’s okay. No offence taken. I remember being in my early twenties and thinking there really wasn’t much point in living past thirty because the people I knew in their thirties were incredibly boring. They never went out at night; they just got together at each other’s houses. And they were obsessed with cooking! They’d start planning that night’s dinner sometime in the mid-afternoon, instead of  – thrillingly – waiting to see what might be in the fridge when they got back from work. In my case that was seldom more than a bottle of vodka and several nail polishes, but I had a string of takeaway restaurants on my route home, and absolutely no gastronomic standards. Life was good and forty wasn’t even on the radar.

Then I met someone and … well. Here we are. That’s where fooling around on the first date will get you: married, with two children and a house full of noisy pets.

So now I have all the trappings of adulthood: a lounge suite that sort of matches; a fridge with real food in it; insurances; wrinkles; a compression bandage for my left knee. But deep down inside … I don’t feel like I’ve ever really grown up. The real me is still a twenty-something, skipping around Joburg without a care in the world (except being mugged or hijacked, of course, but you know what I mean. No other cares in the world).

I don’t think I’m alone in this. My mother, now in her seventies, once told me that she’s never felt a day over twenty-five. And I suspect that most people feel this way, to some extent: inside the most buttoned-up of businessmen is the hairy youth they used to be, playing air-guitar like it’s an actual instrument that they actually know how to play; inside the most professional of businesswomen there’s a girl going crazy on the dance floor; buried deep in the most responsible of parents is a younger, wilder version, who once did things that they’ll never tell their children about. Or, maybe they’ll tell their children about these things as cautionary tales, but they’ll never admit how much fun they were.

Anyhow. Back to birthdays. I do believe I’m overdue for a mid-life crisis, which I was intending to have as soon as I could clear my diary. And for it, I was planning to get a really big tattoo, increased surface area being one of the benefits of ageing.

Vraiment?’ asked the seven-year-old (a phrase and teenage tone that she recently picked up from her Furby).

I was just starting to defend myself in a considered, grown-up sort of way (‘Don’t tell me what to do! You’re not the boss of me!’) when the smaller child burst into noisy tears.

‘You can’t be in the middle of your life,’ she sobbed. ‘You have to live forever!’

So there we go. It seems I’m too old for youthful high-jinks and too young for an Indian summer.

Happy birthday to me.

Nobody Messes with the Easter Bunny 

(This was first published in Le News 18 September 2014)

When my children were small, I decided that I would never lie to them. No matter how painful the truth, I would always be the one to tell it to them. (This was before they caught me scoffing the last of the cooking chocolate, and asked me what I was eating. And I said, ‘Broccoli, of course. What else would I be snacking on?’)

Anyway. From the very beginning, I told them the truth about Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. And they were mostly fine with that. Father Christmas is actually Daddy, leaving floury footprints around the lounge to trick us? Fine. The Tooth Fairy is Mommy? Whatever. As long as the cash is where it’s supposed to be.  

But when it came to the Easter Bunny … well. There was no way that my children were not believing in that.

‘Can I come outside with you and hide the eggs?’ the smaller child asked me, one inclement Easter morning. ‘I might see the Easter Bunny.’

‘But … you know the Bunny doesn’t exist, right?’


‘So why do you want to come with me?’

‘Because I might see the Easter Bunny.’

I was reminded of this conversation recently, when I was reading psychologist Drew Westen’s book, The Political Brain. In it, he describes a study in which people with strong political beliefs were presented with two contradictory statements, both made by their party. They didn’t even seem to notice the inconsistencies, let alone be bothered by them (although they definitely saw the contradictions made by the party they didn’t support).

How is this even possible? How could you hear someone say, ‘I would never do X. I think X is a terrible thing to do,’ then actually see them do X, and … I don’t know, somehow … by some mental voodoo … just be fine with it?

I suppose that if you really, really like that person, you’ll find a way to rationalise it. Westen’s study suggests that the subjects didn’t actually spend much time on this part. Instead, their brains ‘seemed to recruit beliefs’ that quickly soothed them back into their happy state of certainty.

But it also seems that, for a brief moment, the clash between what someone in this position wants to believe and what they actually see, makes them uncomfortable. So their brain works really hard to make them feel good again.

As Westen explains, ‘Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on.’

So, people believe what they want to. And the more wrong they are, the better they feel, because their brains reward them for it. For some people, that may mean a nice big dose of dopamine. And for others – some small, animal-loving, sweet-toothed others – the reward for their wholehearted belief in something that they know isn’t true, is the  possibility of a giant cuddly bunny heading their way, carrying a basketful of chocolate.

Who can argue with that?