Revisiting the Thigh Gap: Thin Body Shaming Isn’t Okay Either

As a skinny person – and one who struggled through her entire teenage years to pick up weight and look ‘normal’ – this really spoke to me. Down with all body shaming!

FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE

judging-any-body-is-wrongWe talk a lot on the blog about body-shaming and usually it’s code for fat-shaming.  But thin bodies can also be “shamed,” and this has been brought to my attention a few times in recent weeks.

In December, I showed the film, Arresting Ana, to one of my Women’s Studies classes. It’s a documentary about the potential criminalization of the pro-Ana (pro-anorexia) movement in France.  At one point, they show a billboard campaign in Italy [first campaign shown in this link] that was meant to scare women out of being anorexic.  The billboards depicted an extremely thin model posing nude, with the caption “No!.”

At the time of the photo shoot the model, Isabelle Caro, was recovering from near death from her eating disorder. According to her interview in the film, she weighed 75 pounds in the photo.  Isabelle Caro has since died from her eating disorder at…

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How to spot a Successful Person (and figure out whether you are one)

In accordance with today’s 60-minute challenge, as posted by Writerish Ramblings here, I made a valiant attempt at writing for a full hour.  This was somewhat hampered by my to-do list and accompanying guilty conscience, hence the result. I enjoyed doing this way more than cleaning, though. Plus a clean house never stays that way, while this post actually might. So, here goes:

My house is a mess. A complete and utter mess. Dirty glasses and mugs litter every available surface. There’s an empty wine bottle on my little lounge table, and some old flowers shedding all over the floor, and random pieces of plastic from a wide variety of eats fluttering everywhere. There are clothes lying on the floor. And leaves that blew in from outside. And books, and newspapers, are taking over all the floor space. There are dead spiders in my bathroom that I liberally sprayed with Doom and haven’t swept away yet. A dead bee somewhere too, only I can’t seem to find it. My kitchen smells odd and I can’t find its source – I’m too afraid to investigate. My dishes are piling up – when I’m hungry I selectively wash a plate, fork and knife and get the hell out of my kitchen with a piece of toast.

I’ve been smoking too much. Not eating healthy enough – I haven’t made juice, as I intended to do when I bought all those beetroots, in three days. I only just remembered to take my meat out the freezer, which means I’ll have to start cooking at ten tonight. I haven’t planted my little coriander and chilli seedlings in my garden as I have been intending to do for the past five days. I have done very little exercise. I haven’t done my laundry.

I have been spending too much time on the internet. Too much time in my favourite restaurant making small talk with the waiters. Too much time reading. Too much time writing. And here I am, writing again. As part of the sixty-minute challenge, so it’s all justified of course.

I thought about naming this piece “How not to fail at life” – very tongue in cheek, of course. I have no idea how not to fail at life. I’m not quite sure what failing or not-failing looks like, to be honest. I only know I have been dogged by guilt for an alarming amount of time now, because of an alarming amount of things, and I have no exact idea why. I just know there are things you are supposed to do to be successful, to not feel guilty when you walk past other people on the street who have obviously got it together. And I’m not doing those things.

So one of the prompts was “think of a stereotype you believe in and why”. Well, I always think I’m open-minded and then realise, of course, that I am not. I can’t see my own blind spots, which doesn’t mean I don’t have any. So here’s a stereotype I believe in, if you want to call it that, and in keeping with the stereotype I shall label it: “How to spot a Successful Person (or figure out whether you are one)”.

Successful people have clean houses, clothes that always smell of lovely springtime washing powder, garden that flourish, kitchens equipped with state-of-the-art knives and a wide repertoire of impeccable cooking skills. Successful people can tick off at least two thirds of all the things they meant to do from their lists, every day. Successful people do not feel guilty, they do not waste time sitting in bed munching crackers and reading the news or indulging in some guilty Facebook-stalking. Successful people never overspend on their budgets, always answer their emails promptly, and remember to floss their teeth at night. Successful people get at least an hour’s exercise a day, and remember to shave their legs, and moisturise properly. Successful people never neglect any of their friends – they remember birthdays and anniversaries, they buy thoughtful gifts, they send thank-you notes.

Successful people read Good Literature and manage to finish it (Catch-22 comes to mind, and War and Peace). Successful people watch a lot of Woody Allen movies without getting depressed. Successful people can make small talk without appearing bored. Successful people might have cellulite and scars, but they can shrug it off because they know they’re awesome anyway, and other people agree too. Successful people don’t eat a whole Camembert in one sitting and pretend that it’s lunch. Successful people definitely do not smoke.

Successful people have folders where they store payslips and bank slips and rental contracts and warranties in alphabetical order. Successful people recycle. Successful people can recognise a good wine and even tell you what type it is (how the hell does one tell, in one sip, the difference, between a Shiraz and a Merlot? I have giant gap in my education). Successful people post tasteful pictures of their holidays on Facebook, never braggingly, but enough to make a mortal like me feel the sting of jealousy. Successful people go to bed at ten p.m. and get up at six in the morning looking as cheerful as Meg Ryan, but with better hair.

Successful people can listen to a lot of jazz and give thoughtful comments on the creative process. Successful people have neat fingernails that seem to buff themselves. Successful people remember to drink enough water and eat five portions of fruits and veggies a day.  Successful people never let the milk in their fridge go off, or some harmless broccoli become blue and hairy, or an onion in the cupboard start producing baby onions. Successful people do not apologise to spiders before killing them, because they don’t have spiders in their houses.

Successful people never get tipsy and start telling everyone who will hear the most blush-inducing personal stories. Successful people do not cry when they watch romantic comedies – they don’t watch romantic comedies anyway. Successful people don’t watch four seasons of Big Bang Theory in one sitting and then talk of nothing else for two days. Successful people don’t forget to read the news on the apps they so thoughtfully installed on their phones, and then fumble their way through the next conversation about the Taliban. Successful people know every detail about ISIS, the CIA and torture, Obama’s policies, Australia’s Muslims, England’s newest Prime Minister, and Angela Merkel. Successful people never get angry at idiots either, even though they themselves are obviously very decidedly Non-Idiots.

Successful people don’t write about successful people, unless it is to give advice such as “five handy tips to better manage your time” or “why eight hours’ sleep is essential for proper brain functioning”. Successful people also don’t know that they are making me feel guilty, because they think everybody is as successful as they are, except drug addicts and those only exist in Columbia and Cape Town’s slums, obviously. Successful people do not know the abject terror of always being behind on life, always with something yet unfinished. Successful people do not buy sketch pads at extreme cost and then never draw a single picture. Successful people read The Economist in one sitting. Successful people can play piano like it’s nobody’s business, because they started taking lessons at seven. Successful people run marathons, and their home-grown tomatoes don’t get eaten by birds and insects, and they can cook Chicken Korma from basic ingredients.

Successful people don’t say ‘fuck’ (there, I might hazard to say, they are missing out). They are either atheists or Christians, and in both cases they have their argument well thought-through and fool-proof. Successful people manage to meditate for an hour without falling asleep. They have read both Nietzsche and Sartre, and also Alain De Botton (they can also spell “Nietzche without having to double check on the internet). They know what being an existentialist or a postmodernist means. They like Picasso and can say clever things about Cubism. They go to museums for fun. When they have children, these children can speak at the age of one and a half and read by four – they call their kids ‘gifted’ and everybody agrees. They know all about MSG and make sure never to feed their kids any. They make their own pesto.

Unlike me, successful people don’t feel guilty when they read Time’s “ten ways to improve your exercise regime”. They don’t make lists to improve their lives and then promptly (and conveniently) lose these. So, my question is, how do I become a Successful Person? How do I stop feeling guilty as hell all the time? Because, the ugly truth is, I still take bites of raw bacon while cooking and occasionally eat food off the floor. I mostly clean my house only when I know I’m having guests. I only buy wine when it’s on special and I wear hats when my hair’s looking dirty. I don’t even stick to my principles: I pray when I’m scared or I want something, even though I’m not a Christian.

One thing I know: I’m not going to figure this out while sitting in front of my computer, intermittently playing Solitaire and typing. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to wash a plate. Maybe I’ll even wash two. After that exhausting exercise, you may find me in my bed, eating crackers and attempting to solve the mysteries of the universe.

People Who Use Drugs are the Forgotten Victims of Rape

A well-researched and truly heartrending post, providing the opportunity to think of an issue rarely covered – I feel that everyone should read this.

Keri Blakinger

Rape has been in the headlines lately. That’s partly thanks to aRolling Stoneexpose last month detailing a gang rape of a first-year student at a frat party at the University of Virginia. The story went viral and sparked campus protests. Then discrepanciesemerged in the account the victim told the reporter. Amid aflurryofstories slamming Rolling Stone for setting back sexual assault victim advocacy efforts, the magazine issued an apology.

Despite this problematic incident, the recent coverage has sparked much-needed discussion. Aside from the UVA story, there have been a number of interesting developments regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment, such as California’s controversial affirmative consent rule, the report by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and Senate draft legislation that would create tougher penalties for colleges that mishandle sexual assault cases.

Some talk has focused on the interplay…

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Love me, love me not

IMG_201412360_071753Yesterday my brother came to my house; perhaps for some Christmas cheer but mainly, I soon gathered, to borrow my phone (he lost his). “Can I go on Facebook?” he asked. There was a girl he wanted to talk to. When he went on Facebook he laughed – “She wants me to join them in Hermanus!” Hermanus is about two hours’ drive from us, far for someone who doesn’t have a car, but my brother was undeterred. He is an expert hitchhiker, carrying his guitar and guileless smile as hiking props, and he always gets lifts. To him the whole thing is an adventure.

“It’s Christmas day,” I said. “The roads will be quiet. Besides, it’s looking like rain.” “Yes but she’ll come pick me up in Kleinmond,” he retorted. Kleinmond is still an hour and a half away, but the matter was decided. He put on his tweed jacket, French beret, and got his guitar – he looked like a travelling songster, which I guess he is. And he went.

The story started about a week ago. When I went to the restaurant where my brother works he told me he met a girl. Nothing unusual about that; as his one friend told me: my brother has more game than anyone else he knows. The fact that he mentioned it, however, was noteworthy. “We met and had a great time talking and then there was this dodgy drunk guy who had to sleep over at her place, so she asked me to come over too just for in case. So we got to know each other some more,” he told me. “I’m going to ask her on a date.” The next time I saw him he had news. “It’s so funny,” he said. “When I went on Facebook to friend her and ask her out for a drink, she had already invited me and asked if I wanted to go out sometime.”

Things escalated quickly: two days later he told me she’d bought him R400’s ticket to a trance party she was also attending, when he told her he couldn’t buy one himself because he had to make rent. And then, next thing I know, he’s joining her and friends for Christmas. “I don’t know if she likes likes me, though,” he told me before leaving. “She’s really friendly, maybe that’s just the way she is with everybody.” Yes, but does she buy trance party tickets for everyone? I thought. And replied: “Well, not being sure makes it more fun. You don’t want it all at once.”

And you don’t. A certain level of uncertainty keeps things interesting, especially at first. There is something to be said for the hunt, or the dance two people enter into when they start being interested in each other but are as yet uncertain whether the other person feels the same. The text messages. The conversations. The tension.

But I admit I felt jealous of the simplicity of my brother’s approach: sees girl, likes girl, parties with girl. Is invited to party with her again. The only possible obstacle would be if she had a boyfriend, which she patently doesn’t. Barely a doubt as to his own ability to win her enters my brother’s mind, or it doesn’t seem to. There is no agonising, no tactical back and forth.

I wonder if the girl feels the same too, though. I know I wouldn’t have. After having bought him such an expensive ticket I would have spent about two days feeling awkward about it, wondering whether my gift was too much, too soon. Whether I was making my interest too obvious. Whether I should be letting the man do more of the chasing.

That is what annoys me about dating: all the bloody rules. I have no idea whether it’s the same for men, but it feels to me as if the whole dating scene, as a woman, is fraught with shoulds and shouldn’ts. Ever heard of the book “Act like a lady, think like a man”? In a moment of utter stupidity, about two years ago, I read it. The only thing it did was to completely and utterly confuse me (also, I took exception to the title, but that’s a story for another post). Basically, the book’s premise is that a man is won by not being overtly desired (initially, in any case), by not being chased at all, by being refused sex for at least two months, and by not being intimidated by anything unfeminine in the woman (which includes: argumentativeness, swearing, too much focus on her career, smoking, any hint of promiscuity, and any conversation where the woman intimates that she might not (gasp) need the man). However, she must manage to make him feel manly and needed without being needy – take note, that’s very important. (There were a few good principles in the book too, but I don’t have time to discuss that. I’m all into righteous anger right now.)

You might as well ask me to stop breathing. I can do all these things, I can turn into a simpering sweet being, I have done it before, but that has always left me as nervous as a cat walking through a minefield. As with not breathing, I can only maintain it for a few minutes before I turn blue. There is no point in not being liked for yourself, after all. I get not being too aggressive. I get using some intuition to draw back when needed. But all that simpering yet hard-to-get stuff?

Here are some snippets of advice I have heard and read (and, admittedly, sometimes given): Just be yourself. Let him do the chasing. Don’t expect too much from him. Raise the bar and let him know exactly what you expect. Don’t talk too much. Don’t be too opinionated. Be flirty and talkative – you don’t want him to think you’re a wallflower. Ask good questions that get him talking. Disagree with him sometimes – that’s a good challenge. Admire him, agree with him. Be vulnerable so he wants to protect you. Be independent. Don’t cook for him. Wow him with your cooking (we all know the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach). Don’t immediately have sex. Have sex – show him you’re a passionate woman. Don’t call/text him for three days after going out. Don’t be shy to let him know you’re interested – let him know in a flirty text message. Always look pretty when he sees you. Don’t wear too much makeup – be natural. Show off your good bits, be it legs, breasts, or eyes – just not all at once. Don’t show too much cleavage. Don’t flirt with other men. Flirt with other men so he knows you’re a catch. Don’t be too friendly with his friends. Become good buddies with his friends so he knows you’re fun. Don’t demand too much of his time. Put your foot down when you are feeling neglected.

So, correct me if I am wrong – to “catch” a man, one should: do a whole lot of things that are not only counter-intuitive, but also do not correspond at all. Be vulnerable. Be independent. Be beautiful. Be real. Be admiring. Be challenging. Be undemanding. Be uncompromising. In between, sneak in bits of being yourself so the whole thing is not an entire lie.

The problem with the above (one of many) is that it demands a whole lot of strategizing. And it gives us the idea that, should we be able to pull off doing all of these things, no man is invulnerable to our charms. In other words, if a man has managed to resist, it’s because we did something wrong. This makes cartoon characters of men: all falling for the same thing, all liking the same girl. It shallows them, and women’s perception of them, of what they want; and in the process it also shallows women. I read the other day in “The Women’s Room” something which really made me sit up and think (I paraphrase): If a woman shows interest in a man and then changes her mind, she is deemed a ‘cock-tease’ (one would hope this has changed since the 70’s, but, being friends with a whole lot of men, I must admit I still hear that word. A lot). However, if a man shows interest in a woman and changes his mind, the woman wonders what she did wrong.

On a slightly different note: I got a pair of glasses about a month ago, the first I’ve worn in ten years. Unlike when I was a teenager, I didn’t give a flying fuck whether I would look nerdy, and started wearing them everywhere to rest my eyes from contact lenses. To my surprise, and again very much unlike ten years ago, they were a big hit. As in, a huge hit. The first time I walked into a club, within ten minutes I had gracefully declined to give my number to two people, been gifted a shot of strawberry vodka by someone across the bar, and been asked to dance by a variety of people. And I came with guy friends, usually a big deterrent.

Me with glasses. Yup - not all that interesting.

Unsure whether this was just a fluke, I wore them again. Now, let me tell you, there is nothing sexy about interrupting your dancing every 30 seconds because of having to push your glasses up your sweaty nose. Or about the way the strong lenses make my eyes – my pride and joy, normally – look half their actual size. Yet somehow every time I would push my glasses up my nose and regain vision, I would catch men looking at me. One told me he really has a thing for a girl with glasses. One asked me whether I’d ever “had a British man”. Many just sidled up to me and tried to sneak an arm around my waist. I suddenly went from the okay-looking girl dancing wildly and completely unaware in her corner to the object of everyone’s attention.

It was disconcerting. Flattering, too, until I started feeling annoyed. Here I am, the exact same person I’ve always been, but because I am playing into some naughty librarian fantasy I am suddenly desirable. It’s not about my scintillating conversational skills or my great dance moves, it’s about my glasses. A prop. How’s that for being myself? And, contrasting what I said earlier, how are women supposed to think men are not all into the same thing if they seem to so definitely be?

Here’s another thing I noticed: people were offended when I said no. They would retreat back to their friends and sit holding a beer, glaring balefully at me for the rest of the evening. Some went all passive aggressive and told other guys: “don’t even try hitting on her.” I had dared to enter the domain of ‘hot girl’ without complying to its apparent rule: being grateful for the attention I was getting. In exchange for a stamp of approval, I must walk the tightrope of approachability without falling into the abyss of cheapness or being easy.

A lot can still be said about this. I have a myriad stories and opinions myself, having, in my as yet shortish life, had quite a wide range of odd experiences in dating. I don’t have a beautifully lyrical ending for this post, though, no conclusion I can definitely draw to nullify all the problems with dating. I don’t quite know what the solution is, I see only the problems. I would like to say “let’s all be ourselves and it’ll all work out!”, but trying to function outside of the formula can get rather lonely when everyone else is still buying into it. Nonetheless, I will continue being myself, resolutely, see-sawing back and forth as I figure out exactly what that means within this context. Screw strategizing. Screw agonising.

I’d love to hear your experiences of what I have mentioned, men’s as well, very much so – stories, odd advice you have been given, something to laugh or gasp about: lay it on!

Rain on Christmas

It’s raining. After weeks of perverse heat, I’m sitting with my doors open to allow the cool air to come in and I can’t stop marvelling at the fact that it is truly raining. I can almost hear my garden gasping its relief – yes I water it, but in comparison to this gently permeating rain my attempts are as if nothing.  I am listening to Damien Rice, perhaps from a perverse desire to be melancholy on Christmas day, perhaps because my brother came by earlier humming one of his songs. So it’s Damien Rice, the rain, some red wine, and I, on Christmas evening.

My last rainy Christmas was in 2003. I can still remember it achingly clearly – I was 14 and both terrified of life and hungry for it. We had driven down to the Western Cape from our farm in Natal, ostensibly to visit the family, also for my dad to close a deal on selling two plots we owned near Gansbaai, a coastal town. Before Natal, we had actually lived in Gansbaai, and I had somehow attached to it all the unpleasant memories of my pre-teens, scapegoated it unashamedly. Most of all, I hated it during the holiday season – all of a sudden the gloriously empty houses everywhere filling up with people laughing uproariously, playing music to the small hours, putting up gaudy decorations, filling the beach, cramming the grocery shops, the streets with their too-clean Landrovers and Toyota 4X4s. Everywhere strange children eating ice cream and, so it felt, staring at us as though we were the aliens. For two months a year it wasn’t my town at all anymore.

So coming back as holidayers was odd in itself. Bittersweet. I didn’t like it much (admittedly, I didn’t like too many things back then). We went to look at our plots; they were outside town in a new, supposedly upmarket development – around them houses were jumping up, each more grandiose and ridiculous than the other. Our piece of land didn’t quite look out to the sea, but it was close enough; it was also completely overgrown by fynbos, making it almost impossible to walk through. We did, though, even though the skies were settling in a fine mist onto the foliage, leaving one’s pants wet, leaving one’s cheer rather dampened at the wind permeating every layer of clothes, at the skies closing forbiddingly above us. My dad was seized with a landowner’s fanaticism, wanting to inspect every corner, to mark off his domain, to show us where every boundary pole was still standing. Once we did, he didn’t want to leave. “Let’s sleep here tonight!” he suggested to my mom. “It’ll save money!”

There we were: five straggly kids (the youngest of whom was three), my mom silent and exhausted in the way one tends to be after breaking up endless sibling car-fights, and my dad, chomping at the bit for a fire on his own piece of land next to the ocean (and eager to avoid my mom’s family, whom we were supposed to visit). We complained, we dragged our feet, yet we ended up sleeping in a hopelessly small tent, bundled in all our warmest clothes. I slept at the far side, next to my sister, face pressed against the fabric of the tent, standoffish as always. (It seems now, looking back, that my teenage years were an endless gritting of teeth and silent bearing of the moment in the knowledge that one day, one day, I would grow up and do exactly what I wanted.)

On Christmas morning I woke up in a puddle of water. Somehow in the night a tent flap had come open and I was soaked through. My breath had congealed on the fabric against my face. I was lying, it felt to me, in a mixture of rain, sweat, and the breath of seven people. And probably a few farts too. I struggled out of my sleeping bag and went to pee outside behind a bush. The sun, though hidden from sight, was rising, and the sky was slowly awakening in a chorus of muted colours. It was very, very beautiful. It smelled of sea. It sounded of ocean birds. I hated it with every fibre of my being.

Perhaps it was because I knew the coming year would be a difficult one, perhaps because my parents were fighting, perhaps simply because I was fourteen and confused, but I have not a single good memory of that holiday. Nowadays, driving through Gansbaai feels odd. I still see all the things I hated. I even feel a bit of residual emotion creeping up on me. Yet I no longer hate it – to a certain extent I even enjoy running through the shops, bumping into people, standing in line with my wine and lamb chops like every other vacationer. I look at its mountains and its ocean and its unpredictable weather and find, strangely, that I somewhat like it. And when I think of it, or when I meet someone else who lived there and indulge in some mutual reminiscing, I feel nostalgia. That and the uncomfortable feeling that I am betraying my 14-year old self.

The following year did turn out to be the hardest I have ever experienced. I went through an operation to stretch my leg, which for a year left me crutch-bound, in intense pain, and wearing a very ugly metal contraption. My mom experienced very serious health problems. My parents’ marriage finally fell apart. We went through odd and complicated things and finally, by the end of 2004, all of us save my dad moved away, in a single car filled to the brim with everything we could take. Yet the hardest part of the year was not one of these things, but rather the simple agony of being fourteen, of being isolated, of wanting to be like everybody else yet being so glaringly not. Trying to forge an identity and glean some meaning from life, while around me my entire family was like an animal writhing in pain. My single thought, my one single thought, was: only four more years. Four more and then I’m eighteen. Then I can move out.

And then I was eighteen. And then twenty-one. And then twenty-five. And gradually life became gentler. Anger more nuanced. Injustice less life-defining, pain less life-threatening. Definites less definite. I moved out as soon as I could, yet since then my memories have softened into something tender. The self-inflicted isolation, the anger and confusion, have faded, and fierce love has remained.

This morning I woke up and my first thought was that I wished I could be with my family (the adapted version). I phoned my mom, sent a voice note to my sister. I smiled at the thought of seeing them in a week’s time. A friend and I went to an orphanage for two hours, where I sat on the floor, wearing one of the boys’ ridiculous Christmas hats, racing cars on a shoddy track (mine kept falling off the track. I lost). I kept wanting to ask potentially awful things like: “do you have brothers and sisters?” and I felt both intensely sad and immensely grateful.

And then I came home and it was evening and I did exactly what I, as a 14-year old, always pictured myself oneday doing. I poured myself a glass of wine, and ate an entire box of strawberries. I opened my doors as wide as they could go. I put some music on, sat back and closed my eyes and let peace seep through me.

“I am medium brown” – on drunken conversations and trying to be colour blind

It is a Thursday night at Seamus’s* (and my brother’s) flat. (Seamus, to quickly give some background, is a good friend of mine. He and I share a taste for inappropriate jokes, a love for playing 30 Seconds, and a talent for somehow initiating the oddest and dodgiest of conversations. He is also, as one might gather, my brother’s housemate.) I, along with about ten others, have been invited to an unofficial housewarming at their place. Chairs and a very tatty old couch have been dragged outside, where some meat is being prepared on the fire; from inside music is playing (mostly stuff that reminds me of high school and earlier. You know, Blink and Live and the occasional Radiohead). It is almost midnight, the warm day has ceded to a rather cool night, and I am feeling cosy and tired and nostalgic in that way one feels at these kinds of parties. The yard is looking pretty catastrophic: overturned wine glasses (and some shards from earlier accidents), empty cigarette packets, cigarette butts that weren’t thrown in the fire, a discarded pair of sunglasses, chips packets, and an empty bottle of brandy.

Seamus, Jude (another friend) and I have been abandoned by my brother and the rest of the party – as was wont to happen, they decided to go dancing somewhere and we, being ever so slightly older, saw no reason to leave a perfectly nice house-party for that. So here we are, rather contentedly playing 30 Seconds, all three in various stages of inebriation: Seamus still getting progressively drunker, periodically refilling his brandy (though one wouldn’t easily notice it, he is the same when drunk as when sober), Jude done drinking and yawning more and more unsubtly, and I hovering somewhere between tipsy and sober as I alternate between Appletizer and white wine. The party is winding down.

But my phone keeps ringing. Apparently my brother was texting a friend from it, inviting him here, only to promptly forget all about it when the bright idea to go out came to him. The guy on the other side of the phone (a Desmond) is rather incoherent as he insists on joining “the party” (what party? Even the fire is out). I hand the phone to Seamus – they are colleagues. He can give directions if needs be.

Desmond my man!” Seamus says, falling into an almost natural joviality, coupled with a suddenly heavily accented, simplified English, which indicates that he is talking to a black person. I can never understand why this accent is at all necessary, it sounds incredibly condescending, yet I catch myself using it too. Foreigners (especially Russians – try speaking normal English to people who sound like a bad 007 movie) get it from us too: we might be speaking perfectly normal if slightly accented English (neither Seamus nor I are first-language English speakers either), only to switch over to this kind of rolling ‘R’, overpronounced, and ungrammatical nonsense upon encountering a tourist, as if talking to a mentally impaired person.

Seamus is gesticulating wildly, now and then handing the phone over to Jude, as they try to explain to Desmond how to get here. Apparently not an easy task, because Desmond phones back at least ten times over the course of the next hour. Each time he is somewhere else – halfway out of town, or at some petrol station in a dodgy part of town, or at a nearby park (the complex where Seamus lives is called Prince Park. Apparently that led to some confusion). I am starting to feel very bad about all of this – this poor guy is moving heaven and earth to get here (not owning a car, he is being driven by some longsuffering friend), and here we are: three people, barely awake, mumblingly playing board games. “Tell him the rest have already gone away!” I mouth at Seamus, who is on the phone again. He ignores me. I light a cigarette and ignore him back.

Eventually, after my phone has died from lack of batteries and we are finishing up the game, the security guard comes to the door. “There is a man here for you,” he announces rather doubtfully.

Desmond is going to hit on you,” Seamus warns as he gets up to fetch him. I laugh. I’m mostly the only girl whenever I hang out with my brother’s friends, they have all at some stage made a token pass at me. Being warned about it, however, puts me slightly on edge – being flirted with has never been worth a mention in the past. Maybe Desmond’s flirting is of a more harassing nature. I’m not very keen on this addition, I realise. We would need to give up on our game in favour of a real conversation; I would have to ask the mandatory “get to know you” questions instead of lounging about with people I already know. Above all I’m not very excited about seeing the poor guy’s reaction when he realises the party he was so excited about is long dead.

Uproarious laughter indicates Seamus and Desmond’s arrival. There are two other men with them too, I see, feeling even less enthusiastic. I like Desmond on first impulse – he has that level look and smile I associate with a good conversationalist, someone quick to jump to understanding and opinion alike. His friends I am less sure about. Jake, skinny and looking rather young, looks disinterested, we hardly exchange words throughout the night. The third guy, Titus, is the only one to be noticeably drunk (though they all are, I realise as Desmond pulls an almost empty bottle of brandy from a plastic bag. As are we, more or less, I guess). Titus is somewhat older than the rest, perhaps a bit more uncouth, to euphemise, though very friendly. He sits down next to me and I steel myself for an evening of wild nodding and gesticulating.

Ah, man!” Desmond says. “We were all up and down in town, man! Why do you say “turn left” when you mean “turn right”?”

Everybody laughs, except for Jude who is by now almost completely asleep on the couch, emanating only a sleepy giggle every now and then.

It’s not my fault you’re so bad at directions!” Seamus defends. “You were probably almost at Franschoek at one stage!”

I was almost everywhere,” Desmond agrees. “And that park!” More laughter.

You should have spoken to the driver,” Titus volunteers. He speaks incredibly loudly, causing me to look nervously at the sleepy houses next to us, slapping his knees for extra emphasis, prodding me on the knee too whenever I don’t participate enough.

I know everything about this town, you know,” he tells me. “I was a builder here for ten years. I know every street.” Desmond and Jake nod in agreement. “He should have talked to me on the phone.” I make agreeing noises.

Ask him to build anything, he can do it,” Desmond tells us. “Ask him to build these flats, he can do it.”

Titus’s gaze roams over the houses stacked against each other neatly, all identical, all silent. Perhaps he is looking at the paint on each, because when he talks again it’s on a wholly different topic.

I don’t understand why we say ‘white people’,” he says to us. I perk up. Now this is the kind of conversation I don’t mind having. “Have you ever seen a white person?” he asks, pointing at my arm.

No,” I laugh.

No! Exactly! These houses are white. People are not white! Nobody is white.”

Seamus might be very close to white,” I joke. My attempt is lost on him as he carries on. “And black! I am not black. Do I look black to you?”

I shake my head. “Your hat is black. You’re not really black at all,” I contribute. What a banal thing to say, I think. I try again. “I think the reason why we use these distinctions is because we haven’t found an alternative that works yet.”

You look very fucking black to me, my brother,” Seamus volunteers. Everybody laughs again.

What colour would you say you are?” I ask.

My ancestors were light brown.”

But you? What colour are you, then?”

I am medium brown,” he says, inspecting his arm. This time general hilarity ensues. Even compared to Desmond and Jake, his fellow Zimbabweans, Titus is very dark. Someone makes a joke about not being able to distinguish him from the background. I ask: “Okay, but if you are medium brown, what am I? Light orange?” Or dark beige? I imagine a world where we are all given our own colour title, like Dulux paint cards. I would be “faded turmeric”. Seamus would be “mild pink”, Titus perhaps “kingwood cocoa”.

The government is stupid. So we have to tick these boxes, ‘what colour are you’, but they are so lazy, they only use five-letter words. “Black”. “White”. What about Indians and Chines and Coloured?” Titus adds.

There are boxes for them too, I want to say, but I haven’t got the energy to try and make myself heard over the general confusion of conversations taking place all at once by now. Desmond is telling a story about how they use Seamus to pick up girls – apparently black girls like white guys – (also, Desmond hasn’t hit on me at all so far), Jake is trying to play a hip-hop tune on the guitar, Titus is telling anyone who wants to listen about the government. Seamus is talking about where to possibly buy more brandy at this time of night. I allow myself to drift in and out of conversations, wishing I were in bed.

When I excuse myself to go to the bathroom I stand looking in the mirror unnecessarily long, wondering why I am so intensely bored. There is an air of good humour to the night, yet conversations seem to die out after a few sentences, the same topics are being flogged to death over and over again, everyone laughs too loudly. Am I being racist? Would I have participated more had they been white? This is what I do, what I always do: I question my actions and the assumptions underlying them unendingly, always ending up feeling dissatisfied and frustrated from all the uselessly forced self-monitoring.

I go back, trying even harder, constantly running into my self-made race-consciousness, constantly running into my own awkwardness. Somewhere there is a division – our frames of references, even our English, is so different that attempting a conversation feels hardly worth the effort. Perhaps I’m not racist, perhaps I’m classist, I wonder. After all, I have no problem conversing endlessly with the verbose black students who populate campus. Or do I?

A guard calls Seamus away (by now we have been warned about the noise levels twice). He has to verify something at the gate. Before leaving he asks me, in Afrikaans: “Are you okay? I don’t want to leave you alone.”

I nod emphatically, feeling guilty for probably looking as glum as I feel. “I’m fine,” I say. “Just a bit sleepy. I’ll wake up now, and hold the fort.”

I’ll be close by, you can just shout if you need me. I don’t think they’ll try anything,” he reassures me. I am flabbergasted. I meant I was tired of talking, Seamus meant that he doesn’t trust them alone with me. Yet I have been poked and prodded at numerous times by a variety of drunk white boys in his presence, to little concern of his, while these three are sitting calmly, taking swigs from the brandy and talking, now, about cellphone batteries and Titus’s wife who is looking for him. “Don’t be silly,” I scoff, and try extra hard to participate in the conversation while Seamus is gone. At the end of the night I give each a handshake, fumbling over the signature gripping back and forth and thumb clapping I can never manage with ease.

Later that night I tell Seamus I hadn’t really enjoyed Desmond and his friend’s visit, I had been too tired to really hold a conversation. I want to confide in him my worries, to ask him whether he thinks it’s harder to have a meaningful conversation with a black person, and why that could be.

Me neither,” he adds conspiratorially, before I can talk, though. “I thought it would only be Desmond coming. It felt weird, I was rather worried, especially when I left you alone. You never know what could happen.”

I don’t even bother bringing up my thoughts on the subject, then. We are miscommunicating as totally as Titus and I had earlier. So much for calling them “brother” and “my man”, I think. So much for good-natured jokes, for back-slapping and getting drunk together. There is a gulf between us, perhaps between black and white, perhaps between perceived higher and lower classes, perhaps between a combination of these, that I do not completely understand and cannot even attempt to overcome by myself, not even with the best of intentions. I feel naïve and hopelessly condescending in my attempts.

Seamus is friends with black people. Were I to accuse him of racism he would scoff at me. He is only being careful, he would say. Probably he is. Yet what I feel is that he only wants them in small quantified doses. So do I, I realise. Never too much, too loud, too different. Give me a black person who thinks like me, talks like me, reasons like me. Put me somewhere I am at ease and I can comfortably pretend that I am colour blind. Yet, confronted with what is different, unquantified, unknown, I clam up in bewildered fashion, angry at my own inability to move past myself and yet powerless to know how to overcome it. I am completely and blissfully ensconced in my tiny world and my friendships with people more or less like me and my books and my left-wing arguments untried by reality.

* For the sake of privacy I have changed the names of those involved in the conversations mentioned.

** Please comment on my previous post (here) if you have a blog you think I might like. I am looking for new blogs to follow and posted about it, to little reaction, however. If it’s easier, just ‘like’ the previous post and I will go check out your site. Thank you!

Newbie looking for insight: a call from my sandcastle

I have been seized with an urge to blog and read others’ blogs overnight. All of a sudden I can’t believe what a treasure trove of interesting stuff is right at my fingertips. However, I’m quite new at blogging and even newer at being active in the blogging world – so I’d love some advice and maybe a shout-out from whomever has wisdom to impart. Especially: I’m looking for great blogs to follow, and I don’t have quite know where to look, so if you think I might be interested in yours or someone else’s, comment here. The stuff that really interests me is:

– People, in different contexts: politics, burning questions, social problems, religion vs. non-religion, etc.

– Well-told personal accounts and the occasional musing

– Blogs from/about South Africa

– Meaningful discussions about life, whatever that might entail

– Basically anything interesting.

Other than that, any tips from you seasoned bloggers would be great! I dove in without ever having thought about the shore I’m heading towards. I’m loving the waters, though – maybe I’ll just keep on paddling away at heart’s content.