Friday, February 18, 2011

Yes, Africa Must Solve Africa’s Problems. No, I Won’t Shut Up

As an American living in South Africa, I was conscious to keep my mouth shut when the subject of politics came up. Sure, I read the news. I had mostly South African friends who I listened to at length regarding structure and history of South Africa’s political landscape. But it certainly wasn’t my place to comment on South Africa’s, or Africa as a continent’s, problems. I’d never gone through apartheid and was very conscious that I could never understand what that must have been like for people on either side. And, in the context of Africa as a whole, how could I ever understand what it was like to not have clean water, or to be hungry, or to worry about rape, murder, or disease?

Further, how could I ever converse about a place that was so foreign to me? Born in small town USA and educated in London, I’d never seen an electric fence until I lived behind one in Johannesburg. I had a panic attack the first time I ever drove through a South African intersection because I had never seen so many people walking in the street – let alone selling things at the intersection! What if I ran someone over? And what are all of these signs saying “high highjacking zone” doing there?

While the lack of understanding prohibited me from entering into debate, so did the actions of several high profile people. I remember reading, long before moving to South Africa, an interview with Thabo Mbeki where he said, “Africa must solve Africa's problems.” I’m sure other people have said this as well, but the sentiment rang clear – Africa doesn’t want my help.

Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo took it a step further, calling foreign aid in Africa "unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster.” She singled out the actions of, among others, a woman I greatly admire: Angelina Jolie. Moyo claimed that “glamour aid” facilitated by the actions of people such as Jolie was spreading the belief that foreign aid is the only possible solution to Africa’s issues. Again, Africa doesn’t want my help.

I found South Africa to be the most welcoming, thrilling, dynamic place I’d ever visited. In the year that I lived there I fell in love with the people, the cultures, and yes, even the politics. What is so wonderful about South African politics is that people talk about them. And when they’re done talking, they talk about them more.

And this political loquaciousness, for lack of a better term, is what makes me want to break my silence. Why am I not being invited into a discussion that I could contribute to?  Regardless of what Dambisa Moyo says, it was Angelina Jolie that sparked my interest in foreign affairs with her commitment to Africa. Here was someone that didn’t need to get involved – and perhaps she has not done so in the correct way – but she has done so in the very brash, American way of throwing herself in and making loud noises. South Africa and Africa need more of that. In her 2007 op-ed in The Washington Post, Jolie said, “What the worst people in the world fear most is justice. That's what we should deliver.” And I believe that to be true. We must hold people accountable and seek justice.

I’m not attempting to blur the line between South Africa and the continent of Africa. But there has been a visible lack of an invitation into the discussion on both fronts. And I’m invested in both. I now live in Hong Kong with my South African boyfriend, and watching recent events unfold in Africa and the Middle East have us both glued to the news screens.

My Twitter feed, filled mostly with South Africans as I discovered the medium while living there, has been filled with calls for Americans to butt out. Or criticizing America’s stance on the various conflicts. What people are failing to mention is that the American political administration’s point of view is not the point of view of all Americans. Just as not every South African agrees with Jacob Zuma, not every American agrees with Barack Obama or watches Bill O’Reilly’s news program.

What Americans can offer to Africa is enthusiasm and accountability. Yes, as an American, I want to be involved in everyone’s business. We hold grudges and want everything to be like a Hollywood movie where the bad guy goes down dramatically. It might sound stupid – but who else is doing it?

I found South Africans on the whole to be intelligent, creative, and incredibly aware. Even people who cannot read are keeping track of politics on the radio. I didn’t know who Jacob Zuma was until I moved to South Africa, yet every South African has known of my president before he was a candidate. Why aren’t South Africans being louder? As the shining stars of their continent, South African’s should be singing their praises to the world. They should also be holding their neighbours accountable.

Mbeki told us that Africa had to solve its own problems. Unfortunately, Mbeki's system of "quiet diplomacy" failed and little progress was made beyond stabilizing rather than improving volatile relationships. His rejection of the USA's "megaphone diplomacy" may have been premature. Africa can certainly solve its own problems, but completely rejecting help can lead to disaster, as Mbeki found with AIDS treatment. 

As we enter into dangerous waters in terms of press freedom and power struggles in South Africa and on continental Africa, megaphone diplomacy is not just an option, it’s a necessity. Egypt has had enough, and they are telling the world. Tunisia has had enough. Libya, too. Sudan – yep. When will South Africa have enough? When will it use its collective voice to cry out for press freedom and condemn its criminal continental brothers?

As an American that loves South Africa, I’m inviting myself to the conversation. I want to see South Africa engage in megaphone diplomacy. If Africa needs to save Africa, I want to help Africa do so. Not because I’m butting in, or because I’m bored with my American life so I need to go help “the Africans.” Because I believe that human rights are not a national or continental issue – they are a human issue. Who is policing African politicians? The African Union?

The borders within the global community are becoming more and more hazy as information spreads more quickly. I’ve not come in contact with a single South African journalist or columnist who held back in terms of commenting about America, and I’m done holding my tongue. South Africa has a great opportunity to build on recent success and truly become a beacon worldwide. Keeping others out of the conversation isn’t going to help capitalize on that opportunity. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fantastic Hong Kong Beasts and Where to Find Them

Hello from Hong Kong!

It's a beautiful Friday here in our favourite Special Administrative Region and I've decided to write a quick post about animal encounters. I don't know about you, but one of the first things I ask people when they say they've been to a new place is, "what is the wildlife like?"

Last year, in South Africa, I was treated to some of the most spectacular wildlife in the world. Lions, rhinos, elephants, Helen Zille, the list goes on and on! Before that, I'd lived in Australia, which also has a fantastic array of wild creatures, and visited Alaska, where I was treated to whales, grizzlies, mountain goats, moose, and various other majestic beasts.

So, when the decision was made to move to Hong Kong, it was with the sad realization that the animals in the area may not match up to other regions I'd experienced previously in life. I was okay with the decision. Though I'm a huge fan of our animal brethren, I was willing to spend a year or two focusing on great architecture and noodly food - might as well expand other horizons.

To my surprise, we have found a wide array of wild beasts in Hong Kong. Some expected, some surprising - but nothing ordinary. Here are a few highlights:

The Dangerous Jungle Lemur
This beast is fairly common. We first came across it when Simon and I were running up Victoria Peak. After we'd reached the top, we were winding back down at a gentler pace when we heard a rustling in the trees. We looked up and - LEMUR ATTACK! And by attack I mean that we saw one. However, they are far more prevalent in Hong Kong than I would have expected. Perhaps they're refugee lemurs from Madagascar.

The Herculean Demon Spider
This beastie was also encountered upon Victoria Peak, which seems to have a slew of wild creatures. Simon had taken a second to stretch before coming up the peak, so when I was coming back down I ran into him - standing frozen as an ice cube in the middle of the path. I asked him what was wrong and he yelled, voice tight with tension, "Stop right there!"

"What's up?" I queried.

"There is a huge spider somewhere on this path."

Now, dear Simon demonstrates above average bravery when it comes to most things. However, when it comes to small creatures such as spiders, rats, and cockroaches, he gets a little less comfortable. So I assumed that I would find a teensy weensy little spider baby if I looked around long enough.

I decided to walk down anyways and then I saw it.

"Holy Shit!"

The spider was at least the size of my hand, and daddy longlegs it was not. It was thick and hairy and grey and evil. In fact, I'm 95% certain that it starred in that movie "Eight Legged Freaks." It was petrifying.

The Palm Tree Porcupine
Yet another tale from Victoria Peak. Perhaps it is the Galapagos of Hong Kong? Regardless, this was a brief encounter. I'd had a scary experience on the Peak a few days before (which I may blog about someday once I've shaken the post traumatic stress disorder), so I was a bit jumpy. I'd just reached the top when I noticed a shaking off to my left. I stopped - it was a jiggling palm-ish plant. Like a palm tree fern. However, instead of being green, it was a bony kind of colour. I inched closer, wondering what this strange plant could be? Then the plant upped the shaking, going from a mild shaking to full-on epileptic seizing. Then I saw its snout. The plant had a dark, black, bunny snout. Usually plants don't have this feature.

I leapt back like a frog in a stew-pot and braced myself against the stone edge of the Peak. I realized I was looking at a porcupine. I had once seen one in Alaska, but rather than this bony/giant/palm tree thing it had been sad and dark grey.

I decided that getting pined (or porked? ew) by a porcupine was not on my nightly "to-do" list, so I retraced my steps and headed back down the mountain to safety.

The Endangered House Cat
I know what you might be thinking, and I don't think it is true. Seriously, I have seen no evidence of anyone in Asia eating house pets. In fact, there are plenty of dogs (big and small) in the city and none seem to be afraid of being lunch. However, cats seem to be few and far between. Maybe that is because I'm rarely in peoples' houses and often in the street so that could be why I don't see them. But whenever I do come across a kitty, it is either haggard looking (missing tail, etc) or being chased by an old lady. I don't know much about the HK kitty, I just thought I'd provide some food for thought. Whoops!

The Godzilla Bull
Simon and I took a day trip to Lantau, which is Hong Kong's biggest island. While it takes up much more space than the main island, the population is far smaller. We decided to hike from the town where the ferry dropped us to another town across the island (where there was a South African restaurant on the beach that we were eager to try).

Right from the beginning of our sojourn, we noticed a large amount of poo on the pathway (which was right beside the islands main road). It was large livestock poo, and at first we speculated that it may be wild pig poo, as we heard that they inhabited the island. Not to be vulgar, but any Pennsylvanian worth his or her salt knows what pig poo smells like (HORRIBLE) so I figured it was not of piggy origin.

We continued along the path, eventually forgetting about whatever creature it was that was dropping periodic bombs. Then, we rounded a corner, and OH MY GOD. We were faced by the biggest bull I have ever seen. It was like the red bull from The Last Unicorn (see picture at the beginning of the post).

I let out an unholy screech and rocketed across the road like jack in the box. Simon was laughing because he is evil (but gorgeous so I keep him around), and because he is from South Africa where the have the parent species of The Godzilla Bull, known as The Godzilla Jaws Beast Water Buffalo.

We hid behind a steel gate for a bit until the bull had passed us. I looked at Simon incredulously. "How could that monster just roam freely? Don't they make fences in Hong Kong? Won't it eat innocent babies?"

Simon guessed that we probably would have heard about it if innocent people were being killed by bulls on Lantau.

I smell a conspiracy.

For the full story on this, see my better half's blog:

The Lantau Sea Cow
The Godzilla Bull's lovelier female relative, the sea cow, can also be found on the beautiful island of Lantau. We had just survived our encounter with the bull of death when we found a path leading down to a small beach side town. Everything looked as normal beach towns do, except for a heard of cows walking around on it.

The Lantau Sea Cow is a beautiful and graceful animal and worthy of our affection. I posed for pictures with mothers and babies while Simon recalled bygone days of growing up amongst the cows in the small farm town of Durban in South Africa (I may be exaggerating on that front).

The Taxi Terror
The most dangerous breed of Hong Kong animal, without a doubt, is the taxi terror. The taxi terror will sneak up on you around corners, can run at speeds up to 140 km/h, are often missing integral body parts that impair their ability to function, and are hell bent on disturbing as many people as possible.

The only thing that saves people from the taxi terror is that they will ignore you as soon as you show interest in them. In fact, if you act like you would like to interact with the taxi terror, perhaps even ride in one, it is incredibly likely to avoid you if at all possible. Whew.

The Hong Kong Dog-Maid Symbiot
The Hong Kong Dog-Maid Symbiot is simultaneously the most varied and prevalent animal in Hong Kong. Common varieties have a lapdog base, usually of poodle or corgi origin. Other common bases are the Labrador and bulldog varieties. What all of these have in common is that they are all attached, usually by a leash (sometimes by hand or though vocal command), to a Filipino woman.

The symbiot is most often seen between the hours of 7 and 12 in the evening, likely when the Filipino ladies are finished helping with dinner and have time to walk the dog. Very, very rarely you will see a dog attached to a Chinese or Caucasian man or woman, but that is almost unicorn-rare.

The symbiot is also the friendliest of Hong Kong animal species on both its dog and woman sides, though occasionally you will meet a muzzled one. It is difficult to communicate with the woman half of the creature, as it usually attached to a cellular device.

*I don't want to be offensive about Filipino maids, so please do comment and let me know if I've said anything that can be taken the wrong way. As I've said, I've only met friendly women walking dogs in Hong Kong. I am alarmed by the shocking amount of Filipino women who have to leave home in order to earn enough money to support their families back in the Philippines, but I don't yet know enough about the subject to speculate.

I hope you find this guide moderately useful in the case that you visit Hong Kong. If any of our friends come to visit, Simon and I will be happy to take you for a safari tour of Hong Kong and its majestic beasts.

:) Mike

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Infinite Possibilities of a Sensor-Assisted Future

Hi there! I wrote this for work last week, but I figured that I would share it on here as well. Let me know if you have any thoughts on the subject!

Until recently, I was never too gaga about motion-sensor technology. However, I can’t say that I’d had much experience with it. I used to have a little crystal ball that dolled out advice in similar fashion to a Magic 8 ball: “Signs point to yes,” or “Reply hazy, ask again later,” or perhaps, “Outlook not so good.” However, this crystal ball was especially exciting because it answered you after you waved your hand over it in majestic gypsy fashion. Being a squealing eight year old, ravenous for Ouija boards and Narnia and all things mystic and mysterious, I found this endlessly enthralling. I did not stop to think about how the crystal could detect me until, after months of tireless use, my older brother spoiled my fun by pointing out the little red sensor light that gleamed out of the base of the crystal.

That killed my love affair with the crystal ball, and I never really thought about sensor technology in the years that followed. In retrospect, sensors were obviously a part of my life. Burglar alarms, automatic soap dispensers, toilets without handles, and features on digital cameras are all based in motion-detection. But I never stopped to think about how these sensors worked or, more importantly, how they may be improved to affect other parts of my life.

Then came Wii. As a lifelong Nintendo devotee, I was appalled when I saw the beloved controller of generations past updated into a remote control for the new generation. How could true gaming skill be discerned by the use of two buttons? How was I going to be able to make Mario jump by wildly shaking my arm at the television?

I bit my tongue and swallowed my pride and took the Wii for a spin. I was instantly impressed by the precision of the controls. The first game I played, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, had me swinging a sword, shooting arrows, riding horses, and flying through trees. In contrast to my early fears, I actually felt a much stronger connection with my in-game character than I had in the bygone days of button mashing.

The public at large also responded positively, making the Wii the “must-have” item of several Christmases in a row. As one industry insider put it, “The Wii is destined to sell more units than The Bible.” Competitors also took note; both Microsoft and Sony have recently released motion-sensing peripherals, each with technology more advanced than that of the Wii. In the next year or two, we should see the next generation of gaming consoles unveiled and it is almost a certainty that each of the industry leaders will include motion-sensing technology in their system specs at launch. For an in-depth description of each platform’s technology, check out this article at PC World:

So, motion sensing has taken off in the gaming sector, but does that mean anything in terms of the world outside of the game-o-sphere? Yes it does. Let’s transition to a bigger picture.

The mobile phone industry has adopted motion sensor technology in a plethora of ways. One of the first significant executions of this was for, of all things, gaming. Several of the first iPhone games that came along were based on moving the phone itself to control the game, rather than to push buttons or make sounds. Then, as more first and third party contributors began to master the technology, the iPhone and other smartphones increasingly incorporated sensor technology. It can be as simple as shaking the phone to return to the home screen or as complicated as using eye-tracking to communicate through video calling. Augmented reality applications have allowed people to combine motion-sensing technology with other technologies and actually add a virtual layer to their lives as they navigate through the “real world.” Check out this application that IBM created for visitors to Wimbledon: The only thing that is certain is that only the tip of the iceberg has been uncovered with regards to using this technology in the mobile realm.

Extending beyond this “peripheral” approach to motion detection, the question that comes to mind is how sensor technology could evolve to influence even more of our daily lives? Does it have a place outside of the gadgets that we so depend on? In this column for Mashable, HP Quantum Structures Research Laboratories’ own Distinguished Technologist (there’s a title for you) Pete Hartwell gives his prediction for the future of sensor technology, motion and otherwise. He shares that, even now, sensors that are one thousand times as powerful as those found in our Wiis can be produced. The question that Hartwell raises, and speculates on, is how we can use this technology to advance society, particularly in the areas of safety, security, and sustainability.

Hartwell speaks of a world where homes will be equipped with heat sensors in order to know what room the inhabitants are in. He notes the environmental benefits of this system, as the house could automatically shut of lights and appliances when a room emptied. How far behind is the hotel room that begins playing romantic music as soon as two bodies enter the room and their heat level increases? Or perhaps sound sensors will detect angry voices and turn on the sprinklers to drown a potential brawl?

It is not too hard to envision a future where all buildings are equipped with sensor technology. Perhaps sensor technology will become so huge that it will be like electricity in buildings. Will we someday get to a point when all of our buildings are aware? Imagine a future where no one must check into or out of work because the building can detect a person’s specific gait as she or he enters the front door. No bank teller would have to push a button because a simple hand gesture could alert the building to a potential security threat. The possibilities are truly endless.

If buildings can become aware, surely objects can as well. One step into the gym will tell you that certain equipment is already sensor enabled; the treadmill can check your heart rate and adjust your workout accordingly. Are we far from having the actual objects being our personal trainers? Will we have mirrors for aerobics classes that tell us how to do a particular exercise and then monitor our execution? A sensored mirror is a truly scary proposition. Imagine the mirror informing you that you’ve gained weight. Or point out pimples. Yikes.

What other objects will become aware? What objects need to become aware and which would suffer if they did? I am interested to see what people think about this. Perhaps movie seats sense us jumping in terror during a horror movie and change to cater to specific audience fears. Imagine sports clothing with built in sensors, becoming more porous as the athlete’s temperature increased.

We have already seen the functionality of sensor technology in the automobile sector. In terms of safety, in-car breathalyzers have long been in place for convicted drunk drivers. On a lighter note, many cars now respond to voice commands. Are we that far from heat-sensing anti-road rage car measures? The industry has shown creative use of sensors outside their vehicles as well. Check out Honda’s recent use of “smile tracking” at an event in Australia:

I could continue to rampantly speculate, but I suggest that we all ponder how the future of motion sensors, or sensor technology in general, could affect our lives. What interests me about this is whether sensor technology is going to be the catalyst that connects our “digital” and our “real” lives. Certainly ecommerce, Internet banking, social media, streaming content, and many others have bridged the gap significantly. But I still feel, at least personally, that my digital life (whether it be gaming, working, banking, shopping, researching, or whatever) and my non-digital life (reading, traveling, being outdoors, socializing, etc) are still separate in many ways.

Can motion-sensing technology bring it all together? Who knows? What we can be certain of is that sensor technology will only become more and more prevalent. The technology to expand it well beyond its entertainment-based foundations already exists. Questions arise as to where it will be most embraced, where it can help the most, and where it will be perceived as a threat? So many questions and so few answers. I’ll have to ask my crystal ball.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Starting Out Happy

It's been a long time.

I stopped blogging in February in order to focus on another venture: writing my first book. I am pleased to share that I was successful in this endeavor. At least in the sense that I wrote the book. We'll leave it to editors and publishers to see if it ever hits a shelf. But in addition to wanting to write a book about South Africa, The Jupiter Drawing Room, Graham Warsop, and about myself, I just wanted to write a book. Anything. I would have done a fan fiction sequel to The Dragons of Blue Land as long as it meant I finished something. 100,000 words later, that task is done.

So here I am, blogging again. I really want to share some stories about my new homeland: Hong Kong. Simon and I moved here four weeks ago today and are already having the time of our lives.

I will write further entries about Hong Kong itself. Adventures have already included fish balls, being chased by bulls, losing our way on mountains, lots of culture shock, tons of noodles, and plenty of “universal” hand gestures. But today's entry is about a subject that is near and dear to all of our hearts: being happy.

Some of you, especially first time readers of Mike, might be running for the hills or struggling to chug down this treacly subject matter. All I only have one thing to say to that:

Screw you, bucko.

We all spend so much of our time trying to be happy. And then, on the occasion when someone does manage to taste even just a piece of the happy pie, there is a very specific (and I think rare) type of person that decides to pick and criticize and snark until they've sucked all of the happy out of the proceedings.

If one of those people doesn't want to read what I have to say, that is fine. I don't want you reading it. In fact, I will write further entries titled - Searching for Care Bears, What Disney Princesses Can Teach Us About Life, Inspiring Sports Stories Especially Those Featuring Serena Williams, and I Am So in Love and I Want to Sing it From a Rainbow Perched on a Love Cloud Above a Waterfall on Valentine's Day in Magical Love Love Love Land - just to keep your kind away.

Now, tangent over. I don't want to write a story about why I'm happy and how you can be exactly like me and how that will make you happy too. Rather, I want to write on a subject that I've often wondered about: starting off happy.

For those of us who live our lives as if we are the main character in an epic adventure/romance/swashbuckling/etc film, the idea of beginning a story with the main character happy at the beginning is a fairly rare occurrence. Even Belle from Beauty and the Beast started her tale as a very single woman wanting "so much more than her provincial life!" Do all of the best stories start with sadness?

Last year, I began my journey through South Africa with a big chip on my shoulder. I had had a rough job with my job the year before, I'd fallen out of love with the city I'd travelled from (London), I was incredibly homesick, and I was as single and lonely as a nun on Halloween.

Coming into my new story, I've arrived in Hong Kong having had the best professional year of my life, having come from the most beautiful country I'd ever travelled through, having just spent over a month with my parents around, and head-over-heels-marry-me-now-oh-baby-oh-baby in love. What am I supposed to struggle against in order to get my grand and inspiring conclusion?

I've thought a lot about this and one answer keeps coming into my head as soon as I begin to ponder.

You're not done yet.

Fairy tales tell us that once you've fallen in love and proven the bad guys wrong then you’re done. While I love fairy tales, real life tells me that, though happy, having support and having overcome challenges gives me the opportunity to pursue even loftier dreams. Things I never thought I’d get to do. (Hello, Oscar!)

Hong Kong is the perfect place to realize that one's path does not need to follow a typical story line. So much of the world that is unknown to me is a relative hop, skip, or jump from here. Simon has not seen much of Asia either, so we get to explore these new things together. Hopefully some of my best friends, who I miss so much every day, will come over to visit and explore it, too.

So, prepare for a year of messages about Hong Kong adventures. And prepare for them to be happy. And if they're not, I'll be the first to put my foot in my mouth. But I think we all owe it to ourselves to celebrate when we are happy ourselves and when those close to us are happy. A dear friend, Kim, said to me right before Simon and I left South Africa, "We're allowed to be happy. Which takes some getting used to." (Read her inspiring stuff at and And she's right - we are allowed.

I am so excited to be here in Hong Kong and to have the opportunity to share some things about it. I am also just excited about everything right now. I'm excited about Hong Kong, about Asian adventures, of course about Simon, about going to Meadville for Christmas and seeing my family and friends, and about so much more.

I think happy and excited is the perfect way to begin this new adventure.


PS: Simon has already started documenting some of the adventures we'd had in Hong Kong (among other things), so make sure to check them out at

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cape Fear?

Hello everyone!

I have been in Cape Town for two weeks now and today is the first rainy day - I can handle that ratio! It's good to see some good old fashioned rain.

Anyways, I'm not writing a weather report. I was going to write about my epic trip down here with the lovely Martina Sudowe, but I'll do that later in the week. My past three days in Cape Town have been stressful yet enlightening and I feel the need to share.

I'm not going to go in chronological order. Instead, I'll unveil my messy few days in Kill Bill fashion - starting at the end, returning to the beginning, and stopping somewhere in the middle. The most recent and significant event of my last few days was being mugged last night. That sounds dramatic, and I really shouldn't have made it my facebook status as suddenly everyone thought I had been thoroughly attacked. But there isn't really anything else to call it. I will say, however, that (a) it needed to happen and (b) it really didn't come close to ruining my day.

I'm a big fan of the "God works in mysterious ways" rule. Most of the worst things that have ever happen to me have needed to happen for me to become the semi-functioning, almost-stable adult that I am today. This was yet another case of that. I was in a hurry to go and have a quick drink with my good friend Erin, who lives right up the street here in the city bowl of Cape Town. We both live above hotels and it's literally a 90 second walk from one to the other. It's kind of like "LOTR: The Two Tours" meets "Barbie."

Anyways, I speedily threw on some clothes and shoved some money in my pocket (I've abandoned a wallet because its kind of an obvious target and it also doesn't fit into any of my tight pants). As I rounded the corner to Erin's building, I paid no attention to the fact the street was completely abandoned. Dumb move one. I get to her buildings glass doors and peer through - locked, and no one sitting at the security gate. I assume Erin is running a second behind, so I pull out my shiny silver phone and start texting away. Dumb move two.

I look over as an extremely thin street dweller rounds the corner. He looks through a garbage can and then comes my way. At first he just stands there looking at me expectantly. He was wearing a yellow vest, so I thought maybe he was a parking attendant. "Yes?" I asked, seeing if there was something specific he wanted.

"Change?" he asked, his voice weak. He didn't look drunk or drugged, just hungry. I think maybe I've gotten so jaded by living in a country with such poverty that I refuse to ever think of handing out anything but coins. I searched my pockets. No coins. "Sorry, I don't have anything" I said. He just stood there. I tried the age-old elevator trick of pretending I had something vital to do on my phone, hoping he'd go away. Dumb move three.

I looked up, as he was obviously still staring at me, and saw that his eyes fixed firmly on my phone. Whoopsie daisy. I turn to the glass doors of Erin's building and try to push them open. No luck. I look at the call box and cannot even fathom how to reach her to "buzz me in". When I turn around again, the little guy was gone. I thought he must have found someone else to pester.

I couldn't help but think of "Beauty and the Beast" - when the prince at the beginning turns the beggar woman away, she curses him. Yikes. I should have given him some money. But they always tell you ("they" being locals) especially in your own neighborhood, or you'll never get any peace. Which is probably a good point, regardless of the outcome of my tale.

Then I spot little guy return from around the corner, this time with a taller, stronger (but still starving and about half my size) guy in tow. Ruh roh. I looked around for some sort of something to defend myself with. Then I spotted my pocket, which had a R50 note (only about 7 bucks US) sticking out of it for the world to see. Mistake four.

So, there I was, basically fishing for homeless people, with my shiny phone in one pocket and my money hanging out like bait of the other one. The boys both looked starving, and the must have been like 15 years old. The new, bigger one asked if I would like to buy something off of him. (Instead of panicking, I thought - this is just like Beauty and the Beast!)

"No," was all I could think of to say. I love how those lines of extreme wit just come flying out during stressful encounters. While I didn't want him to turn me into a beast or a teapot, I also didn't want to catch a disease from whatever her wanted to sell me. Luckily for me, it turns out that the "selling something" excuse was just a clever opening for him to put his hand into his pocket and pull out a knife.

I was scared, but not really for my life. I'm pretty sure the knife was to small to kill me. It just looked so dirty that I couldn't imagine getting stabbed with it. Ew ew ew. I whipped out some cliched line like "think about what you're doing, son" - which in retrospect seems a bit dumb. Everyone who's ever said that in a movie has gotten killed.

He politely asked for some cash, and I reached into my pocket, coming out with an R100 bill. I tossed it at him, and it was such a sad sight to see them squabble over it like hungry puppies. I was feeling so badly for them. The older boy ended up getting it and he turned back saying, "If you have one for me, you must have another for him" - good logic, I suppose. I reached in and pulled out another R100. Why the hell couldn't I pick out an R10 note? I tossed it at them, the little guy grabbed it but didn't seem to happy. I was hoping they'd at least smile.

I expected them to follow up by at least demanding my phone or something, but instead the trotted off, even yelling thank you when they rounded the corner. I was in a bit of shock. I didn't feel particularly violated or anything, I just felt guilty. How could I walk into a street of poor people and basically flaunt money, having it hang out of my pockets and flashing my shiny phone around? I would have mugged me too, and then punched me for being so insensitive. I always think that because I don't make a ton of money, people will understand. But when you survive on a dollar a day, even a 25 year old's salary seems like a ton.

So Erin came down, we laughed off the encounter, and had some wine. All in all a good night.

A few days before, though, I had witnessed a bank robbery. If we're going for cliched phrases, I would say the appropriate one for this event is "to assume makes and ass out of u and me" - always liked that one. I had been trying to find paper cups for a picnic and had just negotiated three from the McDonald's counter. It was sunday, so none of the stores were open. I was walking back towards my building when I heard gun shots to my left. Yikes! I turned and saw police sprinting down the street after some very criminal looking folks. I kept hearing more gunshots and saw civilians throwing themselves on the ground. There was a low roar of panic in the crowd as people screamed and they continued to run, holding guns in the air.

I was truly shocked. The only violence I'd seen in the four months I've been down here was the one time someone tried to "smash and grab" my car and threw a brick at me. And it was such a bad throw that it was hard to call it violence - it was more desperation. I have come to know South Africa as a safe and well-run place for the most part, especially on a Sunday afternoon! (I suppose at this point I should have though "who robs a bank on a Sunday?" but logic escaped me)

I was trying to decide whether it would be appropriate to go into Sigourney Weaver mode and tearing off my shirt and running to help the wounded or if I should run screaming when I hear someone yell "CUT!" over a loud speaker. Was it the voice of God?

No, it was a man with a faux-hawk in a director's chair. Hadn't spotted him. And I watched in awe as he, with one word, managed to stop a bank robbery. Everyone cheered and started chatting. People stood up and brushed themselves off. Guns were dropped and gathered up by stressed-looking assistants.

Who knew they filmed movies in Cape Town? I can imagine that they get quite a tax break, but sheesh. And could they have at least put signs up? I know that, living in SA, you hear a few more gunshots than you do in say, Topeka, but they still aren't that common. A warning sign or information booth would have been a nice gesture. And then I could have prepared a way to throw myself in front of the camera and become famous.

The next day, I was chatting with a person from England on the phone for a work-related issue. This person was describing the likelihood of a person wanting to move to South Africa as being "very low" - and acting like I was talking about moving someone to Sierra Leone. As this person voiced their misconceptions, I realized that I'd felt the same in a lot of ways before coming down. Expecting violence, expecting disease, expecting it to be technologically and socially backward. And I have had such a dramatically different experience from those poorly-informed views that what would end up happening the next day, the "mugging," happened because I acted in a way that would be dumb in any city in the world. I got mugged because I was being stupid, not because I was in South Africa. And I was shocked to see the "bank robbery" because I actually do feel safe here. When that man yelled "cut!" I felt gratified, knowing that my opinion of my adopted country wouldn't be sullied by random acts of violence.

Anyways, I suppose I've written enough for now. I have to go desperately search for a laundromat or I'll be going to work naked (which might cut down on the possibility of future muggings - though lord knows what else it might inspire).

Have a fantastic day!


Monday, February 1, 2010

Cheating on myself...

I'm well aware that I have not written in two months. This doesn't mean I've abandoned my blog. Instead, I was taking the celebrity approach to the holidays - like my contemporaries Beyonce and Jude, I decided that I was going to take a holiday from everything. I wanted to recharge my batteries and disappear for a while. I feel like I spend too much of my life in front of a computer screen and too much time away from my family, so I just wanted to nestle into home life and avoid technology (hours of video game playing didn't count, of course).

It was a great decision in a way. On the other hand, I realized that having two completely separate lives can be a bit too emotionally damaging. I don't know how polygamists do it - I'm relatively single and having a double life nearly killed me!

From Fall 2007 to Fall 2009, I lived in London. I never felt like I was living two different lives, even though most of my loved ones were back in the States while I skipped about Europe. I was always sad to leave after holidays at home but not devastated, because I knew we'd see each other soon. And I never felt like I was "home" in England - I knew I wouldn't stay for the long run. Even though I made some of my best friends ever there, friends I will keep and cherish for my whole life, I knew that E1W 2JD wasn't going to be my permanent post code.

When it came time to leave Meadville this year, however, all hell broke loose. I cried for an entire 24 hour period. I threw up. I couldn't even play scrabble because it gave me too much time to think.

On one hand, this was to be expected after having one of the best months of my entire life. There were so many big and little things that left me with lifelong memories. My mom and I took a road trip to Indiana to see some family and had to stay in a cheap motel without heating in a creepy little town straight out of Deliverance. I remember thinking as we laid in bed in our parkas and scarves and ate pizza and drank Bud that this had to be one of the best moments of my life. I saw Avatar with my equally emotional father and laughed at the end when I realized he'd bawled the whole way through the movie too. I had a few wonderful lunch dates with my dear Aunt Kathy, spent some quality time with my cousin Pammy, and caught up with some of my best friends. And I almost broke down when I went to visit my brother's school and heard that he was the top student in his class (this after some well-documented problems over the last couple of years).

On the other hand, there was nothing completely different than previous years. Everything was still wonderful, but not so extraordinary that it should have had such a different influence on me. When I returned to South Africa and landed in Johannesburg, the difference hit me: I actually have a life here! Eeek!

I have a job I love, a great apartment (even better now that I've moved to Cape Town - more on that next update), friends, even a car I like! And I have a surrogate family that feels like an extension of my family at home rather than a replacement.

The problem with liking my life here, and realizing I have one, is that I'm no longer certain I'll ever go back to my old one. And it's terrifying. I'm lucky to be close enough with my family that I know they'll just come and join me if I decide to stay somewhere else forever. But it almost feels like I'm betraying my other life by having such a nice one here. And it makes me sad that I realize I can't really live both of them at the same time.

I'm sure this is a problem that everyone has at some point, but I'm finding it kind of crippling. I've been distracted and grouchy since returning to work down here. I'm confused about what I should do next year - the plan was to go to China or South America, but now I wonder if I should stay here? Or move to NYC? Or maybe start all over and become a park ranger in a remote forest?

Anyways, I'm back on the writing trail now. (Who knows if anyone even reads this, but it is therapeutic). And, while I'm conflicted about my future, and my life as it stands, writing about it is so much fun. South Africa is such an amazing place and sharing it with even one person makes it worthwhile.

Stay tuned for tales of smart cars, flooding, wild zebra attacks, and more!


Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Thanksgiving Episode

I'll just begin with a brief disclaimer. I have not given up on blogging - it just happens to be board meeting season and I haven't had a spare second. Literally. In addition, I've actually written this post twice only to burst into tears so I've left out most of the sentimental Thanksgiving memories - better to reflect during a less stressful time. Anyways, on with the show.

There are few things that you can count on in the world of television. People die and come back. Series will jump ahead in time, or sometimes recast a character out of the blue (soap operas, I'm looking at you). However, one shared trait amongst most long-running American television series is the Thanksgiving episode. Now, I know this doesn't apply to every show. "24" would have to have a whole season of Thanksgiving episodes and "Survivor: Puritan New England" doesn't have the same draw that an exotic locale would. But for a lot of tv, the Thanksgiving episode is a consistent treat.

"Friends" had quite a few of them. "Gossip Girl" is almost on its third. Even "Heroes" had one. Thanksgiving offers the unique opportunity for a television show to explore family dynamics in an authentic setting. There is no need to strand two characters in an elevator for dramatic conflict - instead, let them be drawn together by those invisible bonds of familial obligation!

I am not writing this post out of a love for television. In fact, the only tv I've watched on the tv set since moving to South Africa is "Morning Live" - one of South Africa's morning news programs. What I do love, however, is comparing life to a television show. I often joked with friends in college that our lives were like a big television show - one season, a character would go missing (usually to take a semester off or to study abroad). In another season, a supporting character would suddenly be thrust into a dramatic romance and the fallout would take over everyone's lives.

My Thanksgivings of late have served more for entertainment value than for holiday feel-goodness. Thanksgiving used to be one of my favorite family holidays - my Aunt Kathy's pumpkin pie, my mother's obsession with us all wearing "Thanksgiving outfits," Grandma's need to have "real butter" on her potatoes and staying late into the evening to play games with Uncle Mike and Aunt Kathy. But after my Uncle Mike and Grandma passed away, the family seemed to lose its motivation to celebrate the holiday. I personally have not had family Thanksgiving in 6 years I think.

Regardless, it is a great time to reflect on what we're thankful for. It's also a great opportunity to recognize Native Americans - a cause very near to my heart. We all know that I'm obsessed with Pocahontas, but it goes a bit deeper than that. After my freshman year of college I volunteered for a few weeks on a Lakota Sioux reservation in Mission, South Dakota. Though I spent the first week harboring a bit of resentment (imagine me, weighed down with power tools, attempting to fix a wheelchair ramp in the 100 degree sun while a bunch of old Methodist women try to further enslave me and you'll have a picture of a typical day), I eventually learned to love the culture.

I know Thanksgiving is seen by quite a few people as a lie to cover up the genocide that settlers committed with regards to Native Americans, but I think that is a bit off base. I'm not disputing the severity of the damage that European settlers did - I just think that Thanksgiving, regardless of its origins, serves as such a great tool to educate young Americans on Native Americans and to keep their history alive. Why eliminate something if it has the ability to do good?

Anyways, I did not mean to get all political. My real purpose was just to list some things I am thankful for and to get back in that blogging groove. So here I go!

This year, I am most thankful for:
-My wonderful family.
-My fantastic friends all over the world.
-My job! Who would have thought I'd be saying that? My how things change. But I truly love coming to work each day.
-Along those lines, I am so thankful for my colleagues - everyone from my boss to the tea lady has been so welcoming and it is such a privilege to spend my days with them.
-South Africa! Though I question some things here (do people reeeeeally need to try to sell you something at every single intersection? is it logical for the word "shoo" to mean yes, no, wow, I'm sorry, and also function as a sigh? does every single person have to ask me if I've met a "hot chick" in our very first conversation?), it really is a magical place full of so much excitement.
-Furthermore, I am thankful for the super-cool city of Johannesburg. I was expecting a slumland and instead I ended up in one of the most beautiful, exciting, and diverse cities I've ever been to. I am not, however, thankful for the obnoxiously bad road planning, the abundance of potholes, and the lack of a decent brand of canned pasta. (Chef Boyardee, where are you???)
-Pinotage. South African wine is a thing of beauty, particularly this delicious blend.
-Books, video games, and running shoes. Provide me with my three favourite hobbies.
-Serena Williams and Beyonce, obviously.
-Country music Christmas carols. You know you love them.
-And one final shout out - to my cleaning lady. Though I am convinced you are a spy and I may start putting mousetraps on top of my entertainment center if you unplug my xbox again, I must admit that it is so nice to come home to a clean house and ironed clothing every wednesday.

-I'm also thankful that in one week I'll be flying into New York City and then will be home in Meadville two days later to celebrate Christmas, do puzzles with my mom, force my brother to see New Moon and play Mario Bros., once again try to learn how to cook from my dad, and to catch up with friends. It should be the best month ever.

It's funny how that when you're happy everything else in life seems so much better. Last year, I was worried about going home for Christmas because I feared nothing would be able to get me on the plane to go back to my job. When I did have to leave home, I cried the whole way to the airport and then seriously considered "accidentally" missing my flight. This year, I'm so looking forward to coming home because I really feel like I've earned a break and I'm so excited to recharge so that I continue to have such a fantastic time working. What a blessing.

I hope everyone had a fantastic holiday - please excuse this less than thrilling post.

:) Mike

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Just like a tattoo...

Has anyone ever noticed how absolutely strange Dopey (from Snow White) is? He looks like the forgotten lovechild of a Precious Moments Doll and ET. Yikes. Who ever thought that a mutant dwarf (little person?) who lacks hair and the ability to speak would be a good Disney mascot? I may have nightmares.

Anyways, that doesn't have a lot to do with what I wanted to talk about. I just happened to be watching Snow White up until a few minutes ago. I went on a Disney buying binge on Friday so I've had quite an "animated" weekend - pun very intended. I had the day off on Friday, so I went to lunch with our office coordinator, Debbie. We had some wine and next thing I know I'm in the mall buying every Disney movie that I don't already own (the list isn't too long so I only ended up buying 5 - could have been a lot worse). I'm now the proud owner of Snow White, Hercules, The Black Cauldron, The Sword and the Stone, and Lilo and Stitch. I almost have a complete collection! I'm not sure why I have the desire to own every single Disney movie, but I do. I certainly get my money's worth out of them - I have to have seen Beauty and the Beast over 500 times, and my other favorites well over 100 times each. Disney movies make for great background entertainment when doing work, schoolwork, cleaning, writing, etc. If you want to pay attention, it is great. If not, you can just listen to the songs and the whimsical dialogue. Perfection.

About an hour after my Disney movie shopping spree, I was planted in a movie theatre eating Maltesers (malted milk balls - or Whoppers - for non-EMEA readers) and popcorn while watching "A Christmas Carol" - which I loved, by the way. I am now firmly in the holiday spirit. Anyways, while chomping on my popcorn, I felt a sharp pain on my left hip. I looked down, moved my pants a bit, and was shocked to find that I had a new TATTOO! Uh oh.

It all came flooding back to me. In 45 minutes I'd managed to completely forget it. After strolling out of the movie store, I strolled about in search of a diet coke. Now, South African malls have everything under the sun - these people know how to do the mall experience - so I shouldn't have been surprised when I passed a tattoo parlor. I don't know what was different about me - I think I just needed to let loose a little - but I decided that I was going to march in there and get a tattoo.

Moments later I was sitting in the front window of the shop, pants down, getting my hip needled. You see, I've had the design of this tattoo in my wallet ever since I left Australia (where I studied abroad in college) almost 4 years ago. It's a simple design but for some reason I've never taken the time to get it. I already have a tattoo (my fraternity letters on my right hip) so it is not like I was terrified of the experience. And I have an obsession with symmetry so having one tattooed hip for 5 years has really bugged me.

Well, now I'm symmetrical. And I have a firm reminder of my Australian experience forever imprinted on my hip. I don't regret it and I doubt I ever will - Australia was the place that showed me how much I love being in nature, that I could be in love, and how to just chill out and enjoy life. It is good to have a reminder of that with me always.

The design is quite simple - it is a constellation. The Southern Cross is a constellation that you can only see in the southern hemisphere (it is also on the Aussie flag) - so it is nice that I got the tattoo down here in SA, also in the southern hemisphere. The first time I ever saw it was a very special night. I was with my Australian significant other (who has been my most significant "significant other" to date), who pointed it out to me in a sea of stars in the clear Australian sky. It was on the beach and all of that la-dee-da-sappy-lovefest-hallmark-moment stuff and that moment has always stuck out to me as one of the best of my life. The tattoo isn't to remember that relationship though. Relationship-related tattoos are a slippery slope (unless you're Beyonce, who can do no wrong). The tattoo (a) represents an amazing period of my life and (b) reminds me that so many magical things exist in the world and you can't see them all from one place.

I don't condone getting inked while intoxicated, but I must say that I nearly died laughing when I looked down at my hip in the movie theater and saw the southern cross staring up at me. First of all, I should have been concerned that I was pulling down my pants to look at my hip in the middle of a children's movie. Pee-wee Herman I am not. And it was just plain funny to think - "well, shit - when did THAT happen?"

Now for another wonderful South African work day. I am bound and determined to learn the country's geography this week - so expect an educational post on that later in the week.

I'm going to go put some vaseline on my new acquisition.

:) Mike

Monday, November 9, 2009


As I get older, life seems less about learning to overcome my fears and more about drinking my way through them. A recent flight reinforced this point.

There we were, nearly 40,000 feet above the ground. My boss is asking me what our action points for the next week are - deadlines, important meetings, etc. I am nodding vacantly, trying desperately to concentrate while also reciting The Lord's Prayer in my head. The boss looks over and asks - "are you alright?" and I'm forced to make a decision: do I scream "no!" and let loose in the flight sickness bag or do I lie my face off and try to continue working? I chose option 2, but only because my stomach (barely) cooperated.

For the ride home, I was on my own, so I decided to lubricate the journey a bit. So, at 11:30AM I was sitting in an airport restaurant drinking wine and reading a videogame magazine. I was still a nervous wreck, so I moved on to a coffee shop and had a beer and a bear claw (delicious - I always try to treat myself at the airport - last supper mentality). I decided that if the coffee shop was selling beer, it was socially acceptable for me to be drinking it. I finished up with another glass of wine minutes before boarding the flight. This was about successful as Napoleon's attempt to take over Russia. This time, instead of being terrified and working, I was just terrified and drunk.

This scenario is part of disturbing trend in my life as of late. I've gone from loving flying - to the point of planning which in-flight movies I'll be watching over a month before the flight, to absolutely dreading it - to the point of having trouble breathing steadily when thinking of an approaching air-travel date. Nothing particularly horrible has happened to me - but this transition from hero-to-zero has happened in just the last 1.5 years.

Up until the scenario I listed at the opening of this entry, I had my moments of terror privately. I burst into tears in the bathroom of a flight last January, threw up on a flight in June, and attempted to sedate myself for the first time ever on my trip down here in September (red wine and benadryl - I'm not exactly Pete Doherty). So far nothing has worked. Some surprising things have helped a little. I sat between a very gregarious family man and a very nervous first-time flier on a flight to New York in August. We kept up a three-way convo for most of the flight, and something about the camaraderie/mutual admission of terror really helped. But not enough. I still felt as if I was teetering on the brink of death for 8 straight hours.

I have an 18 hour flight approaching next month and it is looming as large in my psyche as a warthog in a squirrel village. On one hand, it is awesome that they do a direct flight from South Africa to New York. On the other hand, there are so many potentially terrifying things that can happen over 18 hours - how will I cope? I was at a barbecue (a "brai," as the South Africans call it) on Sunday and I spoke with a man who had just flew on one of these epic journeys. I asked him how he made it through the trip. He said, "I got on the plane, took a sleeping pill, and woke up in New York." Some help. I would consider resorting to prescriptions, but this too has its worries. What if my heart stops mid-flight? I don't want to trivialize the deaths of Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson, but certainly they've taught us the dangers of over-sedating. Also - what if the f-ing thing does go down over the Atlantic? If by some miracle of God we survive, how the hell am I supposed to swim to safety if I'm knocked out?

The problem with this sudden fear of aviation is that there is no logic in it. I read that between 1990 and 1999, the chances of even being injured on a UK licensed flight were 1 in 180,000,000. I talked to a pilot a few months back, and he said, "you have to remember that you're more likely to be killed by a donkey than an airplane." Sure sure. We've all seen the statistics. You're also about 6 times more likely to be killed by a coconut than by a shark but it is far less terrifying to lay under a palm tree than it is to swim in the deep blue sea. When in the air, I try to remember the statistics. But the minute the plane rumbles or I hear a strange noise logic goes out the window. I'd much rather be leading a donkey on the solid, reliable ground than sputtering about in a tin can miles in the air.

Flying can also turn you into the most superstitious person on Earth. On this most recent flight, the check-in lady said that I could have a seat on an earlier flight if I wanted. At first I thought - it is a sign, the second flight is going to crash - I need to take this seat! Then I thought - no, that is disturbing the natural order, upsetting my fate - the first plane will crash! I decided that I should go with destiny and take the second flight. Why upset the natural order? My dad once told me that he refuses to run red lights because he thinks it upsets the order in which things are supposed to happen to him. (No wonder why he became a police officer). He was probably telling me this to make me a safe driver (good luck there, buddy) and instead I have multiplied it tenfold and applied it to flight travel. And now that they let me pick my seat number, picking a lucky numbered seat is usually a requirement as well.

I've always loved plane-crash inspired fiction. Whether it is Lost (one of my favourite in-flight-games, before I became a whack-job, was to pick my ideal "cast" out of the other passengers), Bioshock, or Cast Away - there is a very romantic element to plane crashes. But for each of those, there are other non-fiction tales of flights-gone-wrong that tilt the scale in the other direction.

I know this is not an especially significant or enlightening post, but I think part of getting over this fear has to be to talk about it. I've chosen a career that requires a lot of flying. And I love love love to travel. I love to see new places. If I wouldn't have flown last week I would not have been able to spend a few magical days in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. And if I don't fly home next month, I wouldn't be able to spend my favourite time of year with my favourite people. So it is something I have to do.

I heard an interesting quote this morning that I think is a very good lesson on how to live life. A person said, "even if your faith wavers, your hope never should." Whether that is in a religious or non-religious context, I think that is a very good way to live life. Sometimes in life, I may lose faith in others, in myself, in my ability to do something as easy as flying. However, as long as I never give up hoping - that constant feeling that things are going to keep getting better - then I am going to keep trying and trying until it actually does.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Don't Let Me Get Me

Does anyone remember the movie "Must Love Dogs" with Diane Lane? I barely remember most of the film - the most memorable character was that gorgeous Newfoundland pup that followed Diane around (though he served very little purpose in the plot, considering his titular standing). Regardless, one scene has always stuck out to me. It's when good old Diane (God love her) flips out at the butcher because he won't give her a single serving of chicken. She proclaims that she is going to eat dinner hunched over the sink, alone, and does not need more than one serving.

I hear you, girlfriend. This is not a lament over being single - I have recently tried to not be single and have found that my job, like it or not, currently occupies far too much of my free time for me to consider full-time romance. I'd likely have to give up videogames and/or the stairmaster to be in love and let's face it - homey won't play that game.

But Diane raises a key point. This living alone business may have its high points, but on the whole it is for the birds. I can't take it. I miss having people around. I miss waking up on Saturday morning and making Gary watch The Wire or hearing about Steph's crazy night in South Kensington. I miss Borough Market with Kaitlin and laying in bed with Jane and Ece. Going further back, I miss dragging Shaw and Hazen to garage sales or playing Mario Kart with Evan and Kissling or even flipping out at Joey for one reason or another. Most of all, I miss waking up to my mom doing the crossword puzzle on the couch, my dad pouring a fresh cup of coffee, and my brother being passed out in front of some horrible movie like Farce of the Penguins or Dumb and Dumberer.

My South African experience has shown me some of the perks of living alone. I'll share a few with you. I have discovered that it is incredibly fun and deliciously naughty (this shows how sheltered my life is) it is to take a spoon, dip it in the peanut butter, and then dip that same peanut-buttery spoon into the jelly jar, and then eat it! Trust me former roommates, I did not do this during our time of cohabitation. However, I wish I had. One spoonful of this glorious combo is like a full dessert without the clean-up. And it feels so wrong but so right!

I can also do things like have a drink at 11AM on a Sunday. When living with others, it feels a little odd to whip out the gin before noon. However, living alone (especially in South Africa where I hardly drink on weekdays) I can do it without the bat of an eye. I can also play video games at any moment of the day - when I'm not working, of course. There's nothing quite like getting up for a 6AM round of Smash Brothers without fear of waking someone up.

Then there is the naked issue. Living alone gives you the freedom to be naked whenever you want. However, I've never been much of a naked person. I'd venture to say that, after years on the swim team and lots of camping and all of that that I'm much more comfortable nude than the next person. However, I find little enjoyment in sitting around the house naked. I just feel like a deviant and I'd worry about injury in the kitchen.

There is also the very necessary but very temporary need to misbehave in all of the ways you could not in your youth. Eating ice cream for dinner, sleeping on the couch all night, watching tv while doing your homework - the spirit of rebellion lives strongly in all of these mundane activities. I settled into a delicious bowl of Cherry Garcia for supper a couple of nights ago and I felt like James Dean - pure rebel.

One can also think of clever new exercise and dieting techniques without fear of scrutiny. A few days back I didn't feel like getting in the car and going to the gym. So, I decided to play a Disney exercise game (like a drinking game but lamer). I put in Beauty and the Beast and every time someone on screen was singing I would do an exercise - I rotated between jumping jacks, sit-ups, and push ups. You can also crash diet without looking like the depraved individual that you obviously are. When I came to South Africa I had just spent a week eating and drinking in rural France. Yum turned to glum when it was time to put on my skinny jeans. So I embraced the Special K diet with abandon and, as opposed to my last attempt at it, I moved back to a normal diet once the desired results had been achieved. Success.

Overall, though, I'd have to say that this living alone business is more of a temporary fling than a love affair. For every stolen spoonful of PB&J there is a terrifying bump in the night. For every indulgent game of Mario Kart there is the lack of a response from the couch next to you when you exclaim "I just killed you with that red shell!" And there is the constant fear that you'll become just a little too comfortable with being alone and the next thing you know you're setting a place for your cat at the dinner table and leaving your toenail clippings on the coffee table.

I don't think humans are solitary creatures. I'm pretty confident that one day I'll do all of those fall-in-love and have-a-family type things, so I'm not completely terrified about the future. But I think sometimes the fear of being alone is so great that we actually embrace it. I'm so happy that I've gotten to know myself even better in this last month of domestic solitude, but even if I was the coolest person on Earth - one is still the loneliest number.

Gotta run - there's a spoonful of PB&J waiting for me in the kitchen.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Into the Wild

I know I have not updated in the last week. It was not for lack of trying - I just happened to be in one of the few places on Earth where there was no wireless internet. And it was kind of refreshing - it was nice not to be a slave to my inbox. I remember a couple of years back I was vacationing with my family in Canada. (Like 10 years back, now that I think about it. Scary.) Anyways, we spent two weeks on an island in the middle of a lake and did not even have phones, let alone the internet. I remember struggling to find a newspaper every day so that I could read the French Open scores. How far away that seems now. Every second, we're reachable in about 15 different ways. And if you can't get a hold of someone in a couple of hours, God forbid, well they must (a) be ignoring you, (b) hate you, or (c) be dead.

Well, if you can't reach me, I don't hate you and hopefully I'm not dead. I've just never been a fan of instant accessibility. Many of my friends know that I refuse to listen to voicemails. I have a phobia against one-way conversation. I think it is because I'm extremely sensitive, but I freak out when someone has the ability to say whatever they want to me without fear of response. This is especially odd because I can't think of a single person I'm in conflict with - but who said fears were rational?

Okay - enough of that babbling. The reason I was out of touch this week was because I finally made it out of the city of Johannesburg and into the South African countryside. I can't share details of the conference, but I can certainly talk about myself and my personal experiences. I rode down to the conference in a borrowed Audi with my boss and his brother/business partner, John. We were supposed to be in a party bus with the rest of our office's management team but the bus company got the order wrong and sent a bus more suited to a Junior prom. Since Graham (my boss), John, and I technically work for the holding company and not Jupiter-Johannesburg, we separated ourselves and took a car down.

The first thing I noticed when heading out of the city were the giant golden plateaus to the side of the N1 highway, on which we were traveling south. Graham explained to me that these were deposits left over from when Johannesburg was colonized and mined. It gives the environment a desolate, alien feeling - seeing nothing for miles aside from these huge man-made plateaus.

I'd been concerned when I found out that I'd have to ride with my boss and his brother. It is one thing to put your best foot forward in the office - I can show up bathed, polished, caffeinated and smiling day after day. My usual car behavior consists of leaning my head back and snoring Homer Simpson style. I also love to eat while in the car, and I need to stop once an hour to pee. Roadside distractions attract me like a fly on a sugar cube and I hate it when the radio is too loud. I always bring several magazines, books, and Nintendo DS games so I can accommodate my finicky taste in entertainment. None of these personality traits were things I wanted to show off to the boss man. And what if, God forbid, I fell asleep and passed gas or something horrifying like that? I'd fire anyone that farted in a car with me.

Well, about 20 minutes in John pulled into a petrol station and Graham ran in to get some coffee. On one hand, I love that the man already knows I'm addicted to coffee - he even knows how I take it. On the other hand, I was hoping to dehydrate myself so the bladder didn't act up. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to stop and pee on a cactus because we were miles from civilization. We continued down the road and I was boggled by the size of the sky. It was like Montana - it just stretched for miles over the hot South African land. It would have been easy to imagine us bandits in the old west, if I hadn't been in an Audi with two men in business suits drinking a mocha. Not exactly John Wayne material.

About halfway down things started to get exciting. I looked up from my laptop (I was working on a presentation) and saw a field of ostriches! Like the bird! I'm kind of terrified of ostriches, what with their big people eyes and strange, hyper-active way of walking around. I yelped out - "are those ostriches??!!" Graham didn't even look up. And John, focused on driving and on the car's strange radio - which was in the habit of turning itself on to tell us about traffic updates - simply said - "probably" and shrugged. I made a note to myself to keep my excitement over the wildlife to a minimum. Unfortunately, I forgot to heed this note. Not five minutes later I wanted to scream "MEERKAT!" when one of the furry critters trundled across the road in front of us. In my heart of hearts I wanted to stop and beg them to let me out of the car so I could follow the little guy to Meerkat Manor, but I managed to hold back.

I'd like to say that my enjoyment of the wildlife stopped there. However, over the next three days, I further embarrassed myself with my antics. I've done a good job of being Business Mike so far in my job at Jupiter, but something about seeing exotic animals and plant-life pierced my armor. I can't imagine how I'll embarrass myself when I actually manage to see elephants and lions and tigers.

Overall, the conference was a large success. I bonded with a lot of the work people I didn't get to know yet and I learned a ton about how the company is run. It also taught me that as much as a try to act like a serious guy in the work environment, it would be just plain dumb for me to think that is who I really am. Why not be someone who is responsible in the office but will also dress up a stranger's pets and sing to their cows? My biggest problem with my job last year was that I tried to be so serious that I ended up losing what makes me me. Better for me to get all my work done and to be a little exciting on the side.

Speaking of exciting - I can't believe another Halloween has passed. Halloween is unfortunately not as big in South Africa as it is in the States. I really miss American Halloweens. For our work party, I dressed up as a marathon runner - basically because it was my gym outfit and I could go there right after the party. Haha. It made me miss the olden days of renting scary movies and dressing up at a friend's house. I went out to a bar following the work party, this time as a cowboy. I very nearly had a Bridget Jones-in-the-slut-suit moment because no one at the bar was dressed up. Luckily, every man in South Africa dresses like a cowboy so I actually just blended in. My hope is that next year (or as soon as possible) I can come home and have a real American Halloween.

I had better get out and run some errands - everything closes so early on Sunday. I'll write again soon - there are some really funny things going on in Johannesburg that I can't wait to share with people.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

New Orleans

Okay, so I know I've written about Disney already. But since animated bliss is such a major part of my life I figured mentioning it again wouldn't be too much of a stretch. I've just watched a "featurette" on Disney's next movie - The Princess and the Frog. And I'm so excited that I may keel over just thinking about it. One of the coolest things about this upcoming slice of animated glory is that it is set in New Orleans, one of my favourite cities in the world. I traveled to New Orleans in October of 2000, when I was sixteen years old. My mom had a conference with ASHA - the American School Health Association - and she took me along so that we could bond. Like any sixteen year old, I was hormonal and difficult at the age and the trip to New Orleans really cemented the fantastic relationship that I have with mom today. We went on a "voodoo tour" of the city, we had a 5 star brunch that we could not afford but that we "deserved," I ate my first oyster at the Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter, and we had enough adventures to last a lifetime.

I still remember waiting for the plane from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. We were at the gate, looking out the window as they loaded the luggage onto the aircraft. There was a man fiddling about in the engine and then he came out, climbed down the ladder, and started shaking his head and crossing his arms as he talked to one of the other mechanics. The woman next to us, a business lady fiddling about on her laptop, had been looking out the window as well and said decisively, I am not getting on that plane." She proceeded to rally the other passengers and a group of smartly dressed business people stormed the little gate desk, where the worried looking counter girl sat reassuring and promising until eventually the call came through that no one would be getting on that plane. Instead we were diverted through Atlanta and ended up in New Orleans in the middle of the night.

I felt like I was in a foreign country when we arrived down in New Orleans. The hot, sticky air and the heavy southern accents, the delicious creole cuisine and the European design, the list goes on and on. I'm not sure what the city is like post-Katrina but I hope it has maintained that easy-going charm. It's hard to imagine that it has when so many people lost their homes and lives, but the spirit of the city has surely endured.

Another thing that stuck with me about New Orleans was the division of white and black people and also of poverty and wealth (not that the two necessarily go hand-in-hand, though sadly they sometimes do). Now, living down here in South Africa, I reflect and think that New Orleans really served as a prelude to this experience. New Orleans was the first place I'd ever visited that I would be standing on the street and be the only white person. At the time I remember feeling quite uncomfortable. Not because I felt threatened, but because the last thing a sixteen year old wants is to stand out, especially because of something they cannot hide. This made me think about all the "different" kids back in my hometown - it was one of the first times that I actually thought about what it must mean emotionally to be one of the only black kids in a school full of white kids, or the only Chinese or Indian, etc.

Now, down here in SA, it is quite common to find yourself as the only white person in a store or on a road. And that is something I've really enjoyed, because it has given me firsthand knowledge that we are still basically all the same. No one has treated me any better or worse because of what I look like - I get far more attention for my North American accent (which boggles my mind anyway - I never thought I had an accent - we're neutral!) than for the colour of my skin.

Another thing about New Orleans that was similar to South Africa is the extreme division between wealth and poverty. I know that this division is far more noted in areas of the world that I have not visited - I hear that especially in South American nations this dichotomy is quite noted - but they are pretty much my only two points of reference. In New Orleans you have the French Quarter and the Garden District and the New Orleans proper. The French Quarter is stunning - I'm sure you've heard of the hysterically fun Bourbon Street and the House of Blues and the various parades, etc. It has this fabulous European quality that just seeps out of every pore. Then you have the Garden District, which is where you'll find the grand Southern mansions and overflowing gardens. The city itself, however, feels much more like Detroit than Europe. There is a certain inner-city charm, but it is definitely a huge change from the glamour of the other neighborhoods.

South Africa has been a lot like that. The entire city that I actually live in is called Sandton. Sandton is a refuge directly to the north of Johannesburg (they blend together and can hardly even be called separate municipalities) that the wealthy people went to when Johannesburg itself became too unpredictable and dangerous. Sandton is divided into neighborhoods - from the super-affluent Melrose to the media- hub of Rivonia (where I live/work) to the shopping-mecca of Fourways - but all of them are basically upper-crust. Surrounding Sandton are townships (such as Soweto and Alexandra) which are much better than they used to be but are still markedly less wealthy than the surrounding towns. No wonder there is sometimes violent tension and anger when people are living in poverty right across the fence from someone with a swimming pool and a Mercedes.

I've been thinking a lot of New Orleans lately because of these similarities. That is why I'm so happy to see Disney embrace it and make it the setting for a film! How wonderful to give New Orleans the same treatment as Wonderland and Agrabah! And it has been too long since we've had a good old fashioned animated fairytale at the movies.

Maybe one day they can use Johannesburg for a fantasy-land. I know I made comparisons to The Lion King but that film is definitely more in line with other parts of Africa. What people don't realize about this area is the physical beauty. When you here Johannesburg, people think violence and poverty mixed in with big business. The truth is that the hot sun, the red soil, and the purple jacarandas give the whole city, rich or poor, a fairy tale quality. It is amazing to be in a city of seven million and still to be able to drive over a hill and see and expanse of hot red soil baking in the sun. The Johannsburg's days of being El Dorado ended when the gold was stripped of gold back in the days, the harsh physical beauty of the land still makes it feel like the protector of precious materials.

I'm suffering from the flu at the moment so I apologize if I don't make sense. I took myself on a date last night since I didn't feel well - I rented a movie, bought some soup, turned off my phone (not that I know enough people to expect phone calls!) and nestled into the couch. It was so nice to have an old fashioned relaxing night - I can't remember the last time I did that. I hope everyone else is having a similarly indulgent weekend.