September 20, 2013

Only in America

NOTHING IS QUITE as exasperating as learning to say "This is Africa" when you first arrive and things are moving along at a glacial pace, or not at all. And yet, nothing is quite as endearing as thinking back to the times you said "This is Africa" while you lived there when you no longer do.

But in my eagerness to record all the hilarious TIA moments during our expat years, I had forgotten the wealth of not so much exasperating but unusual and strange stuff that can happen to you right here at home in the United States. A condition that Noisette has dubbed "Only in America."

I had one of those moments today. The pest control guy came by, as he does every month, but this time it was a new one. We introduced each other, and he wanted to know if there was anything I didn't want sprayed. I told him we just got a new kitten and proceeded to find it and put it outside, so that it wouldn't be tempted to lick the baseboards. 

"Oh, he's a cutie," he said. "I've got two cats at home." 

He then felt the need to tell me their life stories. Or his life story, come to think of it. He and his wife started out with seven cats, got divorced, she took 5 and he kept two. His new girlfriend then felt compelled to poison one of the two, so after that he was down to one (and minus a girlfriend). Then, when he was working in real estate for a while, he found a beautiful but emaciated white cat locked up in a recently vacated apartment and took her home to nurse back to health. She got pregnant by his other cat, a male (he doesn't believe in "snipping," he told me), and now he has two very cute 4-week old kittens. He was a cat lover if ever I've seen one. Gentle and kind and caring. I could sense he slightly disapproved of my dumping our cat unceremoniously outside the back door (can I just say he LOVES it outside!) and then gave me the helpful hint to take one of those lint rollers you use on your suit jackets to run over his (the cat's) fur to gobble up fleas and ticks before they settle in. 

But clearly we weren't done with me receiving gratuitous advice. 

"Did you know that mice are born three quarters blind?" he asked me as we made our way to the basement where he wanted to place some tacky board for bugs. "Well, that's why they always run along a wall, to better orient themselves." 

I told him I was grateful to know this, even though we didn't have any mice. I thought of something. "We DO have moles, though. They've been digging up my entire backyard." 

"Well, that's easy," he said. "They hate electricity." He then proceeded to explain, in detail, how to somehow convert an extension cord with the help of a craft knife and a copper rod into a contraption you can send current through your backyard with, to scare away the moles. I'm not sure I got all of it. Electricity has never been my strong suit. 

"Or better yet, just shoot them," he went on. "You can sometimes see where they're moving through their tunnels, by the earth shifting on top, and then you just take an empty coke bottle, put it over the muzzle of your gun, and shoot. Pffffft. That's how it'll sound. Best homemade silencer." 

Homemade silencer reenactment. Caution: Do not try this at home. *

I must have looked at him incredulously at this point, because he felt the need to explain: "I'm an ex-army guy. Used to work as a sniper. I love guns." 

I was still trying to figure out where to file away the Coke bottle information should I ever be in a situation where I might feel the strong urge to use a silencer, but he was already moving on. "I hate to be a bit crude," he said, "but you know what else you can use as a silencer?" He looked at me expectantly. I assured him that I did not, in fact, know what that might be. But that I was of course dying to find out. "Crude" had gotten my attention. 

"A condom," he said. "Pull it over the barrel of your gun but leave that little pouch hanging off the front, and shoot. Pfffft. Works like a charm. Guys in Vietnam did that all the time." 

He did say "pouch."

How on Earth did we get from cute little kittens to condoms and dead people in less than five minutes? My mind was reeling. But he was only just warming up.

"Do you want to know the best way to kill someone?" came next. These are the moments when I'm glad I'm a writer. Instead of developing a strong urge to push someone like that out the door as fast as possible and give monosyllabic answers to speed up the event, like I would have done only a few years ago, I become more and more intrigued, sensing a good story. I felt like AJ Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically, who in the name of research (and in the name of living by the Bible, which that week meant inviting strangers into your home) outlasted a Jehova's Witness who'd come knocking at his door and eventually, after hours and hours, made a regretful retreat, claiming his wife was by now probably worried about him. I didn't quite pour a coffee for this opposite of a Jehova's Witness - he seemed quite enamored with killing things, just not kittens - nor did we settle into armchairs, but I did keep the conversation going.

I nodded eagerly - who doesn't want to know the best way to kill someone? - and so I learned that I should take a ballpoint pen, with the ballpoint out, and stick it slightly behind and under someone's ear and push up full force. Or maybe that was just to make a person follow me where I wanted to lead them, I can't remember. See how useless I am when it comes to weapons? I might simply need to take someone hostage and lead them onto the getaway boat, and instead I've actually killed the poor guy because I couldn't remember the lesson from army sniper training 101. 

Pest-control-guy/kitten lover/killer-of-moles-and-people then let his gaze move over my furniture. "See that rocking horse there? I could use that as a weapon. That's my training. Everything I see around me becomes a weapon."

I must have looked particularly vulnerable to him, what with no gun in the house (nor any Coke bottles or condoms, come to think of it), so he continued to instruct me in the art of self defense. I now know how to:

a) dislocate someone's thumb so that he can't grab me anymore
b) take out their Adam's apple (good thing he told me, because I would have just gone for their balls)
c) concoct a deathly draught using urine, sherry (tawny, not dry), and cat toenail clippings to pour into an intruder's eyes.

Okay, I made that last one up. But there are a lot of ways you can kill someone using just your hands or some regular tools you've got floating around your house. Perhaps even a lint roller. I questioned him more about that sniper part, but he wouldn't divulge any secrets beyond "Moved around the world for ten years to take out people." Definitely CIA, I thought, because he wouldn't tell. Though he did volunteer "You'll never even hear of it. Our government takes out 100-200 people every day" before moving on to compliment me on our beautiful wooden furniture. Turned out he did wood and glass engravings "with a dental drill" and had a side business specializing on personalized gifts. "It gets real busy between Thanksgiving and Christmas so call early" were his parting words as he left his business card on my counter and saw himself out the door, waving once before he climbed into his pickup.

He was the nicest guy. Though I now have that slight feeling of unease which neighbors must feel when they're questioned after the latest mass shooting and have nothing else to offer but "he seemed such a nice guy!"

For now I filed away his business card. Under:

  • Advice on cat grooming
  • Getting rid of moles and other pests in your yard
  • How to practice self defense with everyday appliances
  • Hit man (foreign countries preferred)
  • Dainty wood engravings for anniversaries and holidays
  • Useful advice during board games where "name five ways to use a condom" might come up

Only in America.

* I know that this picture will offend someone's sensibilities if past blog comments are anything to go by. Probably someone happening across this post quite by accident without reading past the first line. So here are all the disclaimers: a) The gun is not real, it is Jabulani's South African toy gun that has come real handy for the purposes of this blog (see Of Guns, Manhunts, and other American Pursuits); b) I did NOT put the cat there on purpose but he is a very curious guy and of course had to immediately check out the new arrangement, and seeing as I was in a hurry so as to put away the gun before the kids got home (I did not want to have to explain how I had gotten to that point, quite frankly), I didn't have time to wait for kitty to move; c) I also didn't have time to take the water out of the bottle, so it probably wouldn't have worked anyway; and d) It wasn't even a Coke bottle as instructed - would something as un-American as a Seltzer water bottle even work? Who has ever even heard of Seltzer water?

September 16, 2013

Ode to Teenagers

I KNOW FOR A FACT that you are only reading this because you saw the title and thought: She must have gone off her rocker. Singing an ode to teenagers is akin to praising the U.S. Congress for having accomplished something. Or liking the moles tunneling under your lawn. Or being particularly fond of bee stings.

And it’s true. Teenagers are possibly the biggest catastrophe wrought upon us parents by nature. They are disagreeable, have mood swings defying any logic, and their rooms – well, we don’t know for sure, because we've stopped entering them for fear of alien forms of life attacking us from the morass of stuff littered around them.

Not that this is purely a modern problem. Plato - or was it Socrates - bitterly complained about the youth of his day, calling them lazy, disrespectful, and reckless. Even then they almost certainly grew their hair in unconventional ways and tied their togas in a sloppy fashion. I'm sure there was the equivalent of the iPhone back then, diverting a teenager's attention when she was supposed to answer her mother. And there's no doubt that many a brand-new chariot was wrecked when the son took it out for a spin and did precisely what the father told him not to do. 

Many, many parenting articles have been written about teenagers, listing their countless shortcomings and offering advice on how to survive (for both parties) the teenage years. But has anyone ever found anything praiseworthy about them? I realize I might be a pioneer in that particular field of study when I say you have to give credit where credit is due. Or perhaps I just like to swim against the tide. But I thought an article in praise of teenagers is in order.

In fact, I thought up this article over a year ago and have made several attempts to publish it. But invariably I was stalled by certain events. Such as Zax forgetting to pack his hockey stuff in the morning and then blaming me for not getting it to him at the most convenient time and place. Or Impatience screaming at me that I was the worst parent ever for not getting her a better calculator so that she could enter mixed fractions without having to worry about how to convert them. Or Jabulani swearing to me all day that there was absolutely nothing more he could possibly do to prepare for his math exam tomorrow and that he was therefore justified in playing xBox all day, and then sending me an urgent text message from school the next morning to please bring his calculator and ruler which he’d forgotten to pack. Though on that instance my murderous thoughts all the way to school were instantly mollified when he gave me a big smile and even bigger hug in front of all 300 high school students as a thank you.

So anyway, here are my Top 20 Reasons to Appreciate Teenagers:
  1. If they have a question, they will Google it instead of asking tiresome “why” questions.
  2. They save you money on babysitting. Even though you might have to have the house steam-cleaned and disinfected upon your return.
  3. They can show you how the DVR player works, which you haven’t used in months because you can’t figure out how to fast forward (also because you can no longer decipher the buttons on the remote).
  4. They refrain from calling “Mommy, I am finished” when they are, well, finished with their business and expect someone to come wipe.
  5. You can have a conversation with them (if they are, in fact, talking to you at the moment) about topics a bit more demanding than Littlest Pet Shop or Thomas the Tank Engine.
  6. You can tell them dirty jokes without having to explain. 
  7. You don't have to listen to their jokes more than once.
  8. You don't have to let them win when playing a game of pickup basketball and you know they're not letting you win either.
  9. They sleep through the night (and most of the day).
  10. You actually want them on your team when playing 30 Seconds or Trivial Pursuit.
  11. Instead of having to hide stuff in high places, they can help you reach stuff you've put in high places.
  12. You no longer have to find any Lego pieces. You just sometimes have to find them, and there is a perfect iPhone app for that.
  13. They won't cling to your leg while you're trying to cook. They will just stop by the kitchen to ask you what's for dinner and then disappear again.
  14. You don't have to attend birthday parties with them. Actually, they do not want to be seen with you at all.
  15. They don't usually fling themselves onto the floor of the grocery store and scream at the top of their lungs
  16. They don't point to other people and loudly say "Look, that man is bald!". On the contrary, they will shush you when you as much as laugh in public and chastise you for being so embarrassing.
  17. Quiet time in their room (with the curtains drawn) is what they do best.
  18. You do not have to convince them to take a shower. They may just never come out of the shower.
  19. If you have boys, you generally save a few years worth of haircut expenses.
  20. If it wasn't for them, you'd never have gotten onto Facebook. Even though your teens are no longer on Facebook because it is so yesterday.

Have I forgotten anything? What positives can you find about your teenager? Surely there must be one...

September 6, 2013

Volunteer Opportunities in Johannesburg

As promised in my previous post on charity in Africa, I have now put together a collection of volunteer opportunities in and around Johannesburg. I don't claim it to be in any way complete as there is simply too much going on to mention it all. I just "assembled" all the outreach projects I was involved in or that were brought to my attention by friends.

If you are a newly arrived expat, this will be a great starting point for you and your family to get involved. If your move to South Africa is still in the vague future, you might want to file this away to pull back out once you are here. For those of you who've already lived here for a while, as always I welcome all your comments and additions to this list.

Alexandra Baseball: This is at the top of the list, simply because it was my pet project while living in Joburg. It is really still my pet project, just from afar. We have been so blessed for the Irwin family to step in and not only take over what I left behind, but expand and grow Alex Baseball in ways that weren't open to me. The idea is to provide opportunities to disadvantaged children in the township of Alexandra through the sport of baseball. It is a great volunteer opportunity for those expats who love sports, especially those Americans who have baseball withdrawal and can't quite bring themselves to from an affinity for cricket.

Contact: Louis Van Zyl at Alexandra Baseball

Shumbashaba Equine Assisted Therapy: Conveniently located close to both Dainfern and the American School, this is essentially a horse stable (although they are involved in a variety of other community outreach programs) where disabled kids from Diepsloot are brought to ride once or twice a week. Most of these kids have cerebral palsy or some other handicap, and it is absolutely amazing to see how horse riding helps them with their development. They are in desperate need of people who come one or two mornings a week and help with the riding (two people are needed to hold some of these children on the horse, or to guide the horse around the track. If anything, you get a good workout, and you get to spend the morning outside in one of the most picturesque locations of Johannesburg! Read about Shumbashaba here and find out how you can become involved.

Contact: Sharon Boyce at Shumbashaba

EduFun/Diepsloot Combined School: There are numerous ways to volunteer with EduFun. Volunteers can help with teaching and also help mend uniforms, assist in providing health checks for the students, buy supplies for and make peanut butter sandwiches to supplement lunch for the students, and help with further education for Diepsloot school students going on to varsity. Anybody who can volunteer a few hours each week is welcome.

Contact: Avril Donnelly on 082 892 0505 or at EduFun.

Door of Hope: This is an orphanage in Glenvista run out of someone’s home. Not the closest to the Northern Suburbs of Joburg where most expats live, but a great place to volunteer and hold and play with babies. Volunteers will have to submit an application (forms provided on the website) and get a police clearance.

Contact: Nadene Crowder at Door of Hope

New Jerusalem Children's Home: Another orphanage focused on AIDS orphans with volunteer opportunities in admin and fundraising as well as through the adjacent Orange Babies Montessori Preschool. I have written a news story about New Jerusalem here.

Contact: Anna Mojapelo at New Jerusalem Children's Home

Princess Alice Adoption Home: As you can see there is no shortage of orphanages in Johannesburg, and these are just the tip of the iceberg. This one is near the Westcliff Hotel and they are celebrating 83 years this October.

Contact: Jo-Anne Schermeier at Princess Alice Adoption Home

Thokozani Preschool: Founded by a fellow Dainfern Valley expat, this endeavour in Diepsloot has grown by leaps and bounds in a very short time. The Friends of Thokozani have done amazing work with these 150+ kids that didn't have anything but dirt floors before. Volunteers meet on Mondays, carpooling from Dainfern Valley Shopping Center at 9 am, to help with supplies, teaching and support in whatever way possible.

Contact: Annabel Newell at Friends of Diepslooot

Help Portrait: A great opportunity especially for hobby photographers, but anyone can help. The biggest drive is the annual Christmas project where volunteers go into disadvantaged communities and photograph people, returning later with a printed and framed portrait. But there are other year-round projects at any given time, and you can also create your very own outreach drive. To get an idea of what this looks like, read the article I wrote about it here.

Contact: Stanley-Carl Du-Pont at Ubuntu Help Portrait

African Havens: Yet another children's home run by a Christian organization with plentiful opportunities to help with fundraising, photography, transport, maintenance, tutoring, and lots and lots of playing with babies.

Contact: Candace Sutton at African Havens

Lastly, a good place for more outreach options would be your local school (ours was Dainfern College), as most every school in South Africa is involved in at least one if not many outreach programs and partnerships. The Dainfern International Social Club meets one Tuesday each month and also provides opportunities for volunteer work, and the American Society of South Africa is yet another organization you might join to explore volunteer opportunities for expats.