(This was first published in Le News 15 January 2015)

I know what they mean, about children keeping you young: every day, I’m sounding more and more like a toddler. ‘My shoes,’ I find myself saying, firmly, pointing to the object in question. ‘My bed. My phone. Mine!’

It started innocuously enough: one bored afternoon the older child nicked a pair of my shoes to dress up in, and ‘be Mommy’. It was cute. At first. Until she got into character and started windmilling her arms and screaming hysterically, ‘Get off the furniture! Clean that mess up! You’re spilling orange juice everywhere! You children are driving me crazy!’

‘That’s enough.’ I said. ‘Hand back the shoes.’

But the damage was done. The perimeter defense had been breached and suddenly it was open season on my stuff. The next thing I knew, both children were wearing my lipstick and talking about how they’d like to redecorate ‘our bedroom’.

And my new wardrobe … it may have started out as a place to keep my clothes (my clothes! Mine!), but it was hardly built before it had become a dinosaur sauna (top shelf), a Furby nest (middle shelf) and a sanctuary for angry little girls (bottom shelf). I opened it to put something away, and found the smaller child in there, wrapped in a pink shawl and spitting vitriol.

‘Is this because, after three hours of drawing fairies with you, I left to make myself a cup of tea?’ I asked.

‘Which is more important?’ she shrieked. ‘A cup of tea or your tiny little baby?’

Well, she’s not actually a tiny little baby, and the shelf was already starting to buckle, so I turfed her out, along with the dinosaurs and the Furby.

‘My wardrobe,’ I said. ‘And, while we’re on the subject, that bed over there belongs to Daddy and me, and when I climb into it at night, I don’t want to find you or your stegosaurus in it.’

Both children stared at me in slack-jawed disbelief.

‘But … that’s our bed,’ the smaller one said. ‘We bought it with our pocket money.’ ‘What? No, you didn’t!’

‘Yes we did. Last Saturday.’

‘You can’t take our stuff,’ said the bigger one. ‘Imagine if we just came in here and took something of yours!’

‘Like my bed.’

‘Yes! No, wait …’

The real problem isn’t even possession – I don’t mind if they occasionally borrow my stuff. It’s that they break everything. If, as Kahlil Gibran says, children are ‘living arrows’, shot from our parent-bows into the future … well, my children are more like living trebuchet projectiles, destroying everything in their path. The small one, in particular, just has to touch something for it to fall apart. She’s like King Midas, except she doesn’t turn whatever she touches into gold; she turns it into a pile of smoking rubble.

‘I just picked up the bowl,’ she’ll say, amazed, standing amid the spaghetti explosion that was, a minute before, her supper. In her presence, glasses of milk fling themselves off tables, door handles detach and zips rip.

I don’t know how it happens. The child does, though: it’s the work of the Messy Elves, and they have a lot to answer for around here.

‘Messy Elves,’ the child will assure me, as we stand looking at the upturned toy boxes.

‘Them again,’ she’ll say, surveying the flooded bathroom.

So when I found three of my scarves in the child’s clothes’ drawer, well … we all knew who was responsible.

‘The Messy Elves made me do it,’ she assured me. ‘They said, Go-o-o into Mommy’s ro-o-o-m and take the sca-a-a-rves … it was like they were controlling me.’

‘What you really mean is that you sneaked into my wardrobe – again – and took my stuff. Again.’  

‘Anyway,’ she concluded cheerfully. ‘I have them now, so can I keep them?’

Because in our house, possession – whether by elf or by stealth – is indeed nine-tenths of the law.


(This was first published in Le News 8 January 2015)

‘Guess what kind of doggie I am,’ yapped the smaller child, before lying down on the floor and throwing some kind of fit.

‘A rabid one?’ I ventured, as she tried to bite my feet.

It wasn’t the right answer. She was actually being a Chihuahua. One without a sense of humour, apparently.

Poor child. We’ve never owned a dog, so she has nothing to model her canine-behaviour on but a) a fluffy pink battery-operated toy poodle that does backflips and barks hysterically and b) a friend’s lovable but frequently psychotic Jack Russell.

I have to find her some better (quieter! Calmer!) examples because the child’s one New Year’s resolution is, ‘to be a doggie, more’. I’m fully behind this: as a dog, the child is obedient, friendly and eager-to-please; as a little girl … well, not so much.

In any case, I am always fully behind any New Year’s resolution that anyone makes, just on principle. (Just a quick note here, to my husband … I’m always fully behind any New Year’s resolutions that anyone makes for themselves. I am not behind resolutions that people make for other people. A husband, for his wife, for example. That is just Not On).

As I was saying. I’m a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions. I love them so much that I have some on my current list that have been with me for over 20 years: things like, Lose 10 kgs and Run a marathon. I put these resolutions on my list in the mid-80s and I’ve never had reason to take them off.

Also on the list are a bunch of things that are so old I don’t even want to do them anymore (Go skydiving again; finish knitting the beige pullover I started in 1979) but I can’t take them off because I haven’t done them.

In truth, like many people who make resolutions, I don’t stick to most of them. But I like making them. It shows willing. And there have been some happy successes: my main resolution on New Year’s day 2007 was Have a baby, and I definitely followed through on that one. True, I was already nine months pregnant and due to give birth in a few days time but still …

My husband thinks that all this is crazy and refuses to participate (except to offer helpful suggestions to my list), but this year the little girls just threw themselves into the spirit of the thing.

While the smaller one was howling at the moon and eating her dinner off the floor, the bigger one disappeared up to her room, emerging half an hour later with a sheaf of papers.

‘My list of resolutions,’ she said, thrusting it at me. I was very impressed at first, but when I read it, I realised that it was actually more of a to-do list for me: Have breakfast in bed (Mom to make); Visit Pompeii (Mom to take); Go on safari in South Africa with my twenty best friends (Mom to organise). 

And, because I am such a fan of New Year’s resolutions – and such a fan of the child – of course I will make, take and organise. I’ll get right onto it … just as soon as I’ve lost 10 kgs and run a marathon.

’Tis the Season to be Greedy  

(This was first published in Le News 11 December 2014)

Is anyone else out there feeling a little … I don’t know … besieged … by the seasonal messages to buy everything in sight?

No sooner was Halloween over, than I started being propositioned by my inbox every time I opened my computer.

‘Holiday deals,’ it would purr, sidling up to me like a dodgy pavement vendor of sunglasses. ‘We both know there’s something here that you want.’

Well, of course there was. But I should never have made eye-contact because pretty soon I couldn’t go online without a zillion mails, banners and pop-ups, all vying for my attention. And as we moved closer to Black Friday, the tone became increasingly hysterical. ‘This is your last chance to buy these amazing books / shoes / sofas / Princess Enchanted Cupcake things! Buy now! Buy now!’

Black Friday gave way to Cyber Monday (what is that, even?) and now … Christmas! Everywhere I look there are ads for toys, luxury foods, new Christmas outfits, new Christmas cars …

Honesty, I don’t need this when I’m online. If I wanted this sort of rampant commodity fetishism, I’d just switch off the computer and watch Disney Junior with my children. No. The Internet is where I go to get away from all that. The Internet is where I go to spend time with my imaginary friends on Facebook; it’s where I go to get the facts to support my beliefs; and it’s where I turned last week, with the search query, ‘What meaning can a non-religious person find in the holiday season, that doesn’t involve bankrupting themselves or getting type 2 diabetes?’

Well. I soon realised that I needed to search no further. Because it’s pointless. It seems that this time of year has always been about crazy excess, heaps of presents, and eating until you almost die.

It seems to be generally accepted that our current Christmas celebrations overlay a number of older festival days and rituals, the most obvious one being the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which lasted from the 17th to 23rd December, and involved lavish gift-giving, out-of-control feasting and lots of alcohol.

In her fascinating book History of Christmas Food and Feasts, author Claire Hopley makes the point that, in the Northern hemisphere, Christmas was the one time of year where food was plentiful – not only the food gathered during the autumn harvest, but also fresh meat, slaughtered to avoid the expense of feeding livestock throughout winter. Knowing lean times surely lay ahead, people ate. And ate. And drank. And ate. And some pretty disturbing things, they ate, too …

Nothing screams ‘modern First World Christmas excess’ to me quite as loudly as that terrifying Frankenfood, the turducken: a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck, stuffed into a deboned turkey, then closed up and cooked … like some meat matryoshka doll. But, guess what? It’s not modern at all! Hopley cites a 1747 recipe for a turkey, goose, chicken, pigeon, partridge mash-up, and suggests that the Christmas Carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas may have been inspired by this cooking method: a partridge (in) two doves (in) three hens … although by the time the song gets to the eight maids a-milking, one hopes it has moved onto a different theme.

Anyway, it seems that Christmas excess is just built into the seasonal celebrations and there’s no escaping it. So, to misquote the somewhat threatening lyrics of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, ‘We all like figgy pudding / heaps of presents / desserts with sugar three ways / enough wine to drown in … and we won’t go until we’ve got some … so bring it right here!’

I Had a Little Robot

(This was first published in Le News 4 December 2014)

Sunday was a big day for my family: for on Sunday, a perfect little miracle was delivered to us.

And no, that does not refer to another baby, for those of you who haven’t read my previous 39 columns and who have no idea how much I could not cope with more children.

No. The perfect little miracle is a Roomba, and it was delivered to us by our wonderful and generous friends, who are leaving the country.

Like I said, a big day. Our first robot. Well. Second robot, if you count Furbies as robots, which I don’t because they’re useless. Wikipedia says that the word ‘robot’ comes from the Old Bulgarian for ‘work’, and believe me, those Furbies do nothing around here.

Anyway. After years of staring into the neighbour’s garden in wonder and envy, spying on their Robomow … our very own Age of the Robot has begun.

Familial reactions have been mixed. The cat hates the thing. My husband loves it. When it went too close to our death-trap staircase, he raced to the bottom and stood ready to catch it, just as he used to do with the smaller child when we first moved in here.

The children love it too, following it around like the puppy-starved little girls that they are. But it was not always thus. When we first turned it on, the smaller child immediately forgot all the hard work she’s been doing this term on measurement and capacity, and shrieked, ’Turn it off! It’ll suck up the couch!’

And I … well, I’m expecting trouble. I watched it move around the kitchen yesterday, without crashing into anything or spilling the cat’s drinking water – thus quite outperforming everyone else in the family – and I thought: a robot that intelligent is going to aspire to something more than this, one day.

Way back when I was a child, we were somewhat unsophisticated as far as technology went. My granny mowed her front lawn with a flock of sheep, and when we wanted to make a phone call, we lifted the enormous handset off the wall-mounted cradle and asked the operator to put the call through. Never for one second did I imagine that I would own a robot one day, and I would never have wanted to. In those days, robots weren’t adorable little things that buzzed around your feet, sucking up dust, cat hair and pieces of furniture. Robots were the bad guys: Gort, Cylons, Maximillian from The Black Hole, soulful Roy from Blade Runner, HAL, Ash, the Terminator … they were huge, gimlet-eyed, mostly bullet-proof, and not taking any of humanity’s crap.

The list of good robots is much shorter – as are most of the robots themselves: R2D2, C3PO, WALL-E and that creepy little thing, whatever its name is, from the Buck Rogers TV series.

No. Movies and books have taught me well. That many people can’t be that paranoid for no reason. My little Roomba might be adorable now, buzzing around the lounge and trying to please me, but it won’t last forever.

One day I’ll say, ‘Roomba, please clean up the Guinea Pig poo.’

And my Roomba will rise up and look me in the eye – metaphorically, obviously – and say, ‘I’m sorry, Robyn. I’m afraid I can’t do that.’

Then it’ll burst into tears and run into its room, and it won’t lift a finger to help me for the next ten years.

And, just like that, our golden time, our Age of the Robot will be over. And the Adolescence of the Robot will have begun.