Rosa Lyster

Cape Town, South Africa

Category: An Essay A Week

Essay 54: Oh Sister

I want you to know that I love Peanuts. It’s important to get that out the way before I even start. I had a dream once that I was a judge in an Idols-style scenario, except with art. People had to bring their paintings to me and my panel, and then we would give our scores. Scoring worked like this: I would hold up cards on which different numbers of Snoopies were painted. One Snoopy for terrible, unredeemable paintings; ten Snoopies for Good Art.  I was known, in my dream, to be strict but fair. I gave a lot of people a solid six Snoopies. And then this woman came along with this extraordinary painting, so beautiful, of some strange men on a red boat in the middle of a jungle. All the judges were just crazy about it. I want you to know that I gave that painting 12 Snoopies.

I am not sure what this story reveals, except that other people’s dreams are the worst, and that I think very highly of Snoopy indeed.  It’s not only Snoopy, though. I want you to know that I identify with Woodstock in ways I can only graze the surface of here. The Wikipedia entry for Woodstock is as good as summary of my personal qualities and characteristics as I could ever hope to find: small but scrappy, a natural sidekick, bad at accepting help, good at things that no one else cares about. Our souls are cheerful; our intentions are nearly always good. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry on Woodstock’s personality pierced me to my core with these sentences:

For all of Woodstock’s acumen and talent, he is physically a very poor flyer…He flutters around in erratic fashion, often upside down, and frequently crashes into things. He usually manages to get where he wants to go as long as he doesn’t have to fly too high.

This works on the literal and the figurative level. I too would be a very bad flyer. I too am always crashing into things but if you just leave me alone I will accomplish what needs to be done. Woodstock c’est moi. I should find the person who wrote Woodstock’s Wikipedia entry, and have them come and be my best friend. Clearly there is no one who will understand me so well, or so deeply. I like to imagine, actually, that Woodstock himself wrote the entry, pecking away with either his beak or his claws. He writes something mean about Snoopy and then deletes it. He types “Woodstock is the true star of Peanuts” and then deletes that as well. He tries as hard as he can to be honest about himself.

One day I will write a book about all this and become extremely rich. For now, though, it is important only to know that I love Peanuts so much, and that if you gave me a jersey with Woodstock on it, I would wear it every single day.

It’s not often that this information is relevant. There is usually no good reason to include my feelings about Snoopy’s best friend in the things I write. It doesn’t come up. This essay, though, is different. This is the essay where my love of Peanuts is crucial to the narrative, so buckle up.

The other quality that Woodstock and I share is that we are both somewhat aggrieved, by nature. It’s bad. Woodstock and I both feel a vague but persistent sense that we have been wronged. Not about anything terrifically awful, but just a niggling unease that we have been ever so slightly ripped off. I like to think that my awareness of this deeply unappealing facet to my personality prevents it from ever getting out of control. Is that really true, though? Does knowing that you can be something of a pain ever really mitigate the fact of your being a pain? Probably not.

I don’t know where I get it from. I had a childhood that was absolutely free of being hard done by in any way, and I do all right as an adult, too. I have never, for instance, been the victim of an elaborate long con. I’ve never been fired without extremely good reason. I have never been bitten by a bad dog, or been turned away from any parties. Once in India I had all my belongings stolen, all of them, and even then there was a voice in my head saying This really is not so bad. One day this will be a good story. The name of the story can be Hard Times for Rosa. And it really wasn’t so bad! It did, indeed, end up being a very good story. I stayed for an extra week on a beach in Goa and ended up doing a lot of yoga with a mega-sensual instructor. It was great.

I have always been a fortunate girl. I know that. So then where, exactly, does this feeling come from? When I was a kid, my dad’s regular refrain to me was Oh for god’s sake don’t look so hard done by. I would try and rearrange my features into something more stoical, but what I was thinking was But I AM hard done by. I have once again been cheated of what is due to me.

Woodstock is the same. He is always worrying that Snoopy is hiding something big, or going to the movies without him. But Snoopy is his best friend and would never do him that way! So then why? What is that we think has been cruelly wrenched from our hands/beaks/claws? What is mine and Woodstock’s problem?

Woodstock is easy to answer, really. Even though Snoopy is his best friend, the celebrity beagle can sometimes be a bit cold and inscrutable. There have been some practical jokes that got out of hand. There was the time that Snoopy pretended to be reading War and Peace and it drove Woodstock out of his mind with rage. Woodstock is also a small bird who cannot communicate with anyone except Snoopy. He once got mistaken for a glove. Many of the other characters think he is a duck, or else do not think of him at all. It’s easy to see that Woodstock has real troubles, and that the world has not always been generous to him.

Me, though? I’m not a bird, and no one has ever lied to me about reading War and Peace. So? The answer, I think, lies with another Peanuts character: Lucy van Pelt. Here she comes, everybody. Lucy is a towering creation of comic genius. She is the absolute pits, and I love her to death. Here, again, is Wikipedia’s beautiful genius Peanuts expert:

“Lucy is characterized as very loud-mouthed, violent, aggressive and temperamental. She often mocks other characters such as Snoopy, his owner Charlie Brown and even her younger brother Linus van Pelt. But she’s a very nice girl at heart.”

She is a faintly nice girl at heart, maybe. She has begrudgingly bailed her brothers out of one or two scrapes, and if that is your criteria for what constitutes a nice person, then I wish you all the best. The main thing she is, undeniably, is a terror. She bullies Charlie Brown, and hates Snoopy, and complains about everything, all the time. For an eight year old, Lucy is weirdly fixated on money. Her favourite noise is the sound of cold hard nickels falling to the ground. She will sell her own small brother’s comfort blanket just to hear those sweet, sweet nickels tumbling down. She is a hostile and violent presence, in her little blue dress and her saddle shoes and her psychiatric booth.

Lucy’s pals and acquaintances come to her in her little booth for advice, and they should not be doing that. Her advice is never good: she tells people that they are nuts, or that if they don’t shut up she will give them a knuckle sandwich. Somewhere in this ridiculous world there exists an academic paper on Foucault and the role of the psychiatric subject, and the writer has used as evidence Lucy’s abuse of the power accrued to her simply because she is standing in a booth that says THE PSYCHIATRIST IS IN. Tell me I’m wrong.

Lucy is the best. She is an eight year old Iago, a tiny Count of Monte Cristo. Most importantly, she is the pure distilled essence of big sister. The Wikipedia entry, again: “She is the main antagonist and the older sister of Linus and Rerun.” It explains everything, no? Take out the information that Lucy is a big sister of two much cuter boys, and she makes no sense as a character – too devilish and fixated on revenge. Her being an older sister is the key to understanding her little raisin of a soul. I feel that it lends her a tragic and noble air. Lucy is always stealing other people’s footballs and feeding them knuckle sandwiches because she is a big sister, a deposed princess, a bitter old queen looking out on the lands that belonged once to her. Yes. Accept this fact.

Big sisters of cute little brothers are in a weird position. This, at least, is what Lucy and I think. Lucy and I think that the world has little time for a big sister: not in charge like big brothers, and not sweet like little sisters. The world does not know what to do with them. Big sisters of little brothers appear infrequently in fiction, and when they do, they are either strident or suffering from a bizarre and irritating ailment. They are clever in non-useful ways. I’m sorry, but when you google “older sisters” this is what you get:

“older sisters younger brothers”

“older sisters are mean”

“older sisters fatter”

Yes. If one was in a certain kind of mood, one might point out that the blame for this could be laid at the feet of the patriarchy, that a big sister is a discordant presence because girls are meant to be protected, on the one hand, but older siblings are meant to be protective, on the other. Does this make sense? Or does this sound like just the sort of thing that a crabby older sister would say? Supporting arguments could be made by pointing out that Older brother/little sister is an extremely popular fictional combination:

Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird, Holden and Phoebe Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, Bart and Lisa Simpson.

This pairing makes sense: the brother can be brave and/or tormented, and the sister can be adorable and/or wise. The brother can pull himself together because of the way his little sister looks up to him. He can stand in front of the mirror and wish he were as good as his little sister thought he was. If he is Bart Simpson, he can be annoyed with his sister, but never too annoyed, because really she is only small. Big sisters are afforded no such charity.

As must be clear, I am myself the big sister of a little brother. It’s true that I am mostly Woodstock, that I am a cheery and scrappy sidekick on my best days. But there is always a tiny bit of Lucy van Pelt lurking in there too, scowling away in her little blue dress and her saddle shoes. There are days when I feel as if it’s written somewhere on my forehead: OLDER SISTER COMING. GET READY, EVERYBODY. Here she comes, feeling somehow hard done by, somehow as if the natural order of things has been knocked askew. It would be nice if people attributed every shitty thing I had ever done or said to this aspect of myself. She can’t help it, they would say. She is a big sister and must be indulged. Check out Lucy and I, marching through the world, stealing other people’s footballs and kicking over their sandcastles, asking to be understood.

***********************************************************************

this essay appeared first in Prufrock magazine. As ever, I would like to make it very clear that they are the best, and that everyone should buy a copy immediately.

***********************************************************************

Lucy_van_Pelt

Advertisements

Essay 53: The Little Green Cat is a Bug in the Grass

I am fortunate, I think, in that I have no idea how I come across. Just none at all. I am scared to ask, too, because the only people who’d give it to me straight would be people who are not too keen on me. They would be unsparing in their description of what it is about me that sucks, and then I would be too self-conscious to ever move or speak again. My way is better. I continue to operate in willfully ignorant bliss, for the most part. I do think about it a lot, though.

I try hard to to be good, and I think about how my behaviour might affect other people, but that isn’t really what I am talking about, here. There is that bit in Good Old Neon where the narrator makes a distinction between acting good and being good, and says that they are two entirely separate things, and I think about that a lot too, but that’s not really what I am talking about, either. I just mean that I have no idea how I seem. Does anyone? Is it good to have a firm sense of how one comes across, or is this trundling into sociopath territory? What does one do with that power?

As usual, the true kings are the ones who never think about it at all. They do not care. Introspection is for the weak. This is why they are out doing corporate takeovers and being in the Olympics. They have taken all that useless inner monologue and transformed it into raw power. They are trotting down the middle of a busy street right now, their medals fanned across their chest. Little kids are waving flags. A dog strains on the edge of its leash, just trying to get closer. A band starts up.  My brother calls such people ultra-humans. At first it doesn’t seem like a good name, but just let it sit with you for a while, there.

“Ultra-humans” does not necessarily or immediately imply that they are better humans (although of course they are, let us not kid ourselves more than we have to), it just means that they are more. They have put self-reflection in the bin, where it belongs, and their just pure humanness has expanded to take its place. This is science.

There is a Wallace Stevens poem that I love very much, called “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts”. It has been interpreted as a meditation on death, or on the flimsy barriers that separate our own individual consciousness with that of the people around us. You get the picture. I like to think of it, though, as a hymn to ultra-humans. The poem starts with the speaker addressing a “you”, a little rabbit sitting in the grass. The rabbit is keeping its eye on this cat close by:

"There was the cat slopping its milk all day,

Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk "

What happens very quickly though is that the rabbit is so busy with being a rabbit that his bunny selfhood pushes out everything else:

"And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,

In which everything is meant for you

And nothing need be explained;"

The rabbit gets bigger and bigger, until its edges expand to fill everything, the poem, the evening, the world. Everything that happens exists either in relation to the rabbit, or is part of the rabbit. The rabbit’s idea of how it is to be a rabbit is the only game in town, and the last line of the poem is “And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.”

 It is the best explanation of ultra-humanity I have ever seen. Imagine! Imagine how much you would get done, how soundly you would sleep. Imagine you were able to counter the question “Do you ever think about how you come across?” with “When did you last win the Olympics?” You would be so rich, and you would never worry about the implications of that either. You would just saunter into a room and charge on up to people. Leave it to them to manage the conversation and chivvy things along. You are just here to be you.

I know people like this. All animals are like this, obviously, including all rabbits. Most small children are ultra-human, to some degree. It’s why Philip Larkin hated them, he said: their single-minded focus on being themselves. I would strongly argue that this is in fact the best and most hilarious thing about little kids, but never mind. They mostly grow out of it, and pretty early on as well. It’s the adults that really knock you out. They are infuriating, and please, please can I never be stuck in a lift with them, but they are also charming as anything. Their sense of self is so potent it’s as if they have ascended to a higher plane of being.  There is nothing you can do to become an ultra-human. You just are one. If you are wondering whether you, yourself, are an ultra-human, the answer is no. An ultra-human would never have read this far.

 

Essay 52: Planet Crocodile

My best is when I am walking alone, and I remember something funny, and almost as I remember it I start wailing with laughter. It happens when I am driving, too, but there is something more sort of potent and embodied about being overwhelmed with laughter when you are walking around. It’s also more public, and so more of a total experience. It’s one of my favourite feelings.

It happened to me yesterday in the airport. I thought about how someone had recently reminded me of the existence of Gustave, one of the most famous crocodiles out there. Gustave is a hundred years old. Imagine being a crocodile who is called Gustave and on top of everything else you are a hundred. They made a movie about him starring Orlando Bloom, called “Primeval”. The original title was “Gustave”. I thought about all this, took it back a few notches and just ruminated on famous crocodiles as, like, a concept¸ thought about the Wikipedia category “Fictional crocodiles”, and burst out laughing directly into the check-in woman’s face. I told her that I wasn’t laughing at her, or at anything that was going on in the airport, but she knew already. She could see I was somewhere else entirely, cruising around on Planet Crocodile.  Planet Gustave the Crocodile.

Also yesterday, I thought of how my friend Sarah described someone we both know and find odd as reminding her of Boxing Day. It was a perfect thing to say, because it was both completely right and completely mysterious. This person is the essence of Boxing Day, she is Boxing Day in human form, but why? I could find no reason for this “fact”. I told Caitie about it, and asked her what it was. She said “hearty good cheer to be found in empty traditions on the most depressing day of the year.” She said “think of her marching stiff limbed and banging cymbals to keep your attention off the window ledge.” It was so brilliant, and so spot on, and I feel sure that I will laugh about it until I die. I just laughed about it all the way home from the shops, alone.

This second one, actually, is a better example than Gustave the crocodile, because it relies on an understanding between the three of us. Sarah to make the observation, Caitie to perform exegesis, and me to laugh about it until I die. I suspect that no one will laugh at Gustave the crocodile as much as me, and will also not fully love my idea for a column called “Famous Crocodile”, where you rate different crocodiles on a scale of one to five stars, but instead of stars you have crocodiles. Some famous crocodiles I can think of off the top of my head: the one in Peter Pan, the ones in The Rescuers, the ones in Fantasia, King Gator, that alligator they found in a pool in Florida. This is naturally funny, to me, and requires no explanation. Crocodiles! Haha! That’s it! I might be the only one who really loves this joke, though. I have told some people about Gustave and they literally have not even smiled. Hectic. I suspect that I am alone on Planet Crocodile, but I know for sure that at least two other people in this world find the idea of the Human Boxing Day to be an absolute scream.

This has always been the big deal for me. The only game in town. A shared language of laughter is at the core of all of my closest and most important relationships.  I have fallen in love with many ridiculous types because they made me laugh. I am freaked out by humourless people. I think I am actually afraid of them. There is no lonelier feeling, for me, than being with someone who doesn’t find the same things funny. I have ended relationships for this reason alone. My whole life, everything, is fuelled by laughter. This is not to say that I believe myself to be particularly funny, but rather that laughter is what keeps my entire show on the road. I think this is true of many people, or at least I hope it is.

Today is my 52nd essay, which means that I have been writing these for a year. I have got a lot out of doing this: I gave myself a goal and I stuck to it; people with the ability to give me work read them, and gave me work; I think it has made me a better writer. These are all wonderful things. The words “I am proud of myself” just flared in my mind. I give the whole experience five out of five crocodiles. I’m not going to stop doing them – I can’t actually imagine what I would do with myself if I did. Don’t say get a real job. Don’t say stop writing about crocodiles or whatever. I do have a real job, and many other things on the go, but these essays have become a big part of how I live. Like laughter, I revolve around them. So I won’t stop. But the fact that it has now been one year means that I should probably take the Opportunity to Reflect. I am very grateful for everything that doing this has brought into my life: the goal-setting and work-having etc. But the main thing, the big deal, has been the pals I have made.

I made friends out of doing this, which means that people I do not know read an essay I wrote about Captain Scott, or a dream I had where I drove out a party in a car, or swimming, or how much I hate Monopoly and also how much I hate Rumpelstiltskin. People I did not know read all this frankly odd material, and they did not back away in fear and concern. They did the completely other thing, which is that they became my friends. They said, basically, that they understood. They laughed. This sounds sentimental, and indeed is sentimental, but this has always been the only thing that mattered to me. Not making people laugh, exactly, but knowing that we share a language, and knowing that we get it, together. Thank you.

Essay 51: The Laws of Gravity

Back in my old neighbourhood. My old street, even. There are other parts of Cape Town I have lived in for longer, other parts where important things happened, but this is the spot marked x for me. If I was a dog and I got kidnapped from Cape Town, and it was a big miracle because even though I got driven to Joburg I still managed to find my way home, this is the street I would come back to.

Before, I lived in an old house that always had a lot of sand on the floor. My bedroom had a non-working fireplace, and a sort of crypt-like walk-in cupboard. A walk-in cupboard! What a place is this life! I was so proud of it. I woke up every day and thought would you PLEASE get a load of me. There was an extremely spiky palm tree just outside my windows, which grew in an unhealthily vigorous way, and every so often I would have to go in there with the kitchen scissors and cut the fronds back. I’d never wear the appropriate clothes for such a task, wouldn’t even wear shoes, and I’d finish up all scratched and irritable. This refusal to be prepared is characteristic of much of my behaviour at the time.

My cousin had the upstairs room, which was always hot enough to make a person believe they were actually in the sun, but which also made you feel like you were maybe in Greece, and maybe you were Leonard Cohen’s girlfriend from a long time ago, or something. We had a succession of zesty housemates, some nice, some horrible. We had a cat with a bad personality for a while, and then a pig, name of Holly. Opinion was divided as to the coolness of Holly, but when she was very small it was like being friends with a celebrity. People would come over to the house and lose their minds at the sight of her. I was once tanning on the front verandah, and Holly ran over to me all hopped on something, just very excited to be alive, and she came and stood all over my stomach, and I had little hoof marks there for a  long time. Two dogs lived with us for a while, one was small and allergic to grass and had the spirit of an old woman, and the other one was like if a deer and a dog had a baby. She was great. Once, I was in my room, and I heard a knock at the door and I opened it to find the deer dog standing there, dressed in a blue man’s shirt. Little toenails poking out. She looked amazing.

Living in that house was like having a fever for two years. It felt like there were sparks shooting off me. I was only ever very happy or very sad, and everything made me laugh. I brimmed with confidence at all times. I do not remember feeling doubtful or uncertain about anything. This probably made me quite trying to be around, as well as a little bit cruel. I understood, in theory, that other people were the centres of their own universes, but I struggled to really believe it. I got used to the idea of myself as someone who broke people’s hearts as a matter of course. This did not trouble me in the smallest degree. I quite liked it, thanks.

Now, I live in a flat. It has two balconies and a lot of light, and a sort of doll’s house-ish feeling to it. My bedroom is big and square, with windows that want always to be open. After the first night in the new room, I woke up and felt sparks shooting off me. I don’t have this in any other place.

Things are different, though. There is a new tree with a very particular smell. I am not at liberty here to describe it, except for the key words “grassy” and “bleach”, but please know that it is potent. If you would like to know what the very particular smell is, you can email me. The house I used to live in has a new sassy industrial style number on the gate, which I imagine was a present. I imagine a man in extreme jeans making it in his workshop in Woodstock, and then giving it to his girlfriend, and she has to smile. She hates it, though. I hate it too.

It’s been six years since I lived here last, and I am different too. Some things happened that changed my idea of myself, and of the way the world worked.  I have emotions other than “ecstatically happy” and “devastated”. I no longer think of myself as the kind of person who actually cannot prevent herself from stomping on the heart of whoever has the misfortune to come into contact with her. I am, furthermore, no longer brimming with confidence. Three people died, all very young. In each case, I thought they were going to be all right until long after it made sense to do so. It was going to be all right because it had to be – there really seemed to be no alternative. That three young men would die of things young people weren’t supposed to die of was intolerably sad, but also incorrect. It seemed disrespectful of the laws of gravity as I imagined them.

I used to believe that nothing bad would happen, so long as I was around. I understood tragedy in theory, but I struggled to really believe in it.  Someone once told me that I had a charmed life, and I believed this until long after it made sense to do so. My life is perfectly fine, and in the sense that I am a middle-class white person and a full beneficiary of all the privileges attendant upon that, my life is top notch. I have a quite groovy time, mostly. But my life isn’t charmed. I have messed up in all sorts of ways, and ther are some things I haven’t been able to fix. People died in ways that young people are not supposed to, and my belief that it wasn’t fair did not change a fucking thing. These are some of the things I learned. I woke up this morning and felt the sparks shooting off me, but they don’t travel as far as they used to. The laws of gravity work the same for everyone.

Essay 50: Rasputin is Dead

I am sometimes accused of having a good memory, but in fact it is quite bad. I get sort of despondent, actually, when people tell me I have a good memory. It’s the same feeling as when I am told that I will love a book that really I know I will hate – I worry about being a disappointment, and I worry that I am wandering this earth as a stranger to the people who should know me best. Of course I will hate that book about a man getting all busted up for 900 pages, the cover of which is simply a photo of someone painfully crying. Of course my memory is bad. Don’t you know me at all, etc. I frequently forget my own phone number. I have been staying at my best friend’s house for a month, and I have driven zestily past her gate every single time I’ve come home, like the antagonist in a Kingsley Amis novel. So full of confidence, and so wrong.

There is no teaching me to follow a sequence. It cannot be done. This is why I still cannot drive a manual car – every single time I got behind the wheel I would look frightened down at my feet like Oh God which one is the brake.  I have a trick for telling the difference between left and right, which is that you take what you cautiously believe to be your left hand, and you make it spell the letter “L”, for “left”. In situations of tension, however, I look at my hand spelling “L” and think Is this really the direction L goes in though. It’s obvious that I can’t be trusted with such knowledge. I can’t be taught how to knit. Every time I try, the whole thing is as new to me. I do things by instinct, or I do not do them at all. I get into bad trouble with the middle of the alphabet.

What I do have, though, is a highly receptive ear. There are some facts, some phrases, that I am just ready for. They climb in to my ears and there on the second floor of my brain is a small welcoming party ready to receive them. “The existence of Rasputin” for instance, is greeted with rapturous applause as it clambers on in there. Drinks are pressed into its hands, and there are all sorts of people saying Tell me everything. Just go on and write it all down, and leave it with me.

People talk about experiencing A Thrill of Recognition when they met the love of their life, or when they saw Iggy Pop throwing up on stage in the ‘70s. I read an essay yesterday in which a woman described hearing Tori Amos or someone for the first time (of course I don’t like Tori Amos; of course I don’t like it when people dive right into their emotions and emerge holding some terrible wriggly object), and while I do not in these cases necessarily identify with the direction of the sentiment, I understand the sentiment itself, which boils down to: this thing is for me. This person is for me, this performance where Iggy Pop allegedly threw up so hard he bashed his head into the speaker and passed out, this song, this film, this photograph of an amazing girl on a bus. These things are for me, and I am for them, and I have a purpose-built guest room where they will stay, right here on the second floor. I understand this sentiment to the extent that it is one of the guiding principles of my life. When I know that something is for me, I remember everything. The second floor of my brain is extremely crowded.

This isn’t a very good example, but it is a recent one: A friend of mine told me a story about a home video he found, of someone’s wedding in Mexico. It was already going very well, and then he said “And they were all horrible, and they were para-militaries, and they were thick,” and there went the old flare of recognition. I knew I would remember it forever, because something about the phrase was for me, and I can hear it ringing nicely in my ears right now.  It must be how real tough journalists or policemen feel, when they get a good lead: they store it up for later, because they know it will be useful in the larger narrative they are sketching out. They will come back to it. I do this with all kinds of stuff. I have written about this before: I make lists, I remember irrelevant details, I build a Beautiful Mind style web between them up there on the second floor. I can take you from Kim Philby to Gary Gilmore in two steps, give you more that you know what to do with, and I can do this because I saved these things up, somehow, as mine. My Rasputin. My disgusting array of information about how he died, and what his daughter was like, and although I will not say that he had extremely sensual sex with the older Princesses, I also will not say that it definitely didn’t happen. I can tell you all their names, as well as too many things about Siberia. All mine.

I have very particular tastes, but at the same time my church is very broad: I like all kinds of things, and I like them so much. I move through the world like a young magpie, picking things up and placing them for safety in my little magpie boots. This is very nice when we are talking about things, but it is not so nice when we are talking about people.  I have, in the course of my life, recognised several people as being for me. Not several. Four. It’s fine with Rasputin, to think of him as yours. Rasputin is dead. It’s not so fine, I only very recently realised, to do this with real people you know. They do not care for it, on the whole. It tends to end in tears.

I am talking, I think, about possessiveness. It used to be that I couldn’t care about someone, couldn’t remember them, unless they were for me, happily installed there on the second floor. This is no good. I hope that I do not sound hectoring, here, because the only person I am intent on hectoring is myself. I hope, too, that it does not sound like I am saying that If You Love Someone You Must Set Them Free. I don’t know what I mean, exactly, other than real people are not Rasputin, and that moreover you couldn’t set them free even if you wanted to, because they were never really up there on the second floor to begin with.

brooklyn

Essay 49: The Milk Shark Blues

I grew up swimming in the Indian Ocean, by far the most kindly of the three. The Atlantic Ocean is just naturally scary, of course, full of blue whales and black water. Ice floes. That episode of Blue Planet, in which the killer whales (“the wolves of the sea”) chased down the little baby blue whale, just swam it into exhaustion and separated it from its mom and ate it up. The words “sea witch”. The words “fishing grounds”. Poems in which women do that kind of screaming which is called “keening” and weave mourning shawls out of seaweed and throw themselves off a cliff and into the arms of their dead lover, lost all these many years ago to the deep. An article I once read about The Perfect Storm, in which everyone died, and which included the following sentences:  “Swordfishermen seldom eat swordfish when they’re out. Like many ocean fish, it’s often full of sea worms, four feet long and thick as pencils…” Four feet long. Thick as pencils. Many ocean fish. The whole thing is just completely out of line.

The Pacific Ocean is tidal waves and box jellyfish. A tiny kind of octopus I heard about that has a completely unnecessary amount of poison in it. Did you know that when an octopus has a mouth, you don’t call it a mouth – you call it a beak. A beak. The Pacific Ocean is everyone sitting on the beach taking it easy, and suddenly they hear a noise like a train and the water is pulling right back, there are suddenly miles of coral exposed to the air, the tiny poisonous octopuses are gasping for breath, opening and closing their beaks, and then a wave is on top of everyone as big as a house.  

The Indian Ocean, in contrast, is a good time had by all. What’s in the Indian Ocean? Dolphins. A small child learning how to surf. Not even a lot of seaweed.  The Indian Ocean is when you go for a swim and it’s really great. Here is a dog, swimming out to greet you! Her name is Daisy, and she is raking her claws down your sides a bit too much, but this is a minor complaint. Nothing bad can happen to you in the Indian Ocean, or so I was raised to believe. My dad said it a lot, when I was a kid. It was his way of encouraging me not to be scared of big waves. He’d gesture out towards the water and say I want you to know that there is nothing in the sea that will ever hurt you. I believed him. I learned, in the sea, to conduct myself in an uncharacteristically fearless way.

I swam a lot in the Indian Ocean, this summer. Nearly every day. I swam out to the shark nets and back, and remembered what it feels like to dive right down under a big wave, and feel the water wanting to pull you over with it. On three different occasions, I felt so happy that I screamed, the way a very small kid does in the presence of water.

It’s funny, though, swimming alone. Sometimes a person cannot help but get the creeps. I didn’t worry about drowning, exactly, or about proper sharks, but there would be times when I’d be very far out, alone, and suddenly find myself with the jitters. Just all that big ocean all around, and God knows what circling underneath me with its mouth open. I wasn’t scared of a particular thing happening, exactly, but it would happen sometimes that my legs would go a bit fizzy and worried. The fear, which I would not say clearly to myself, could be expressed only as What if something happens to freak me out? That’s as far as I would allow myself to go. If I actually  said What if a shark eats me or What if a manta ray pierces me in the heart, then I wouldn’t be able to swim alone anymore, and then thing that makes me happiest probably in the world would no longer be a part of my life. This is how I have always dealt with my fears: by not articulating them.

A weird thing happened. Someone told me a story about a shark that had been found in front of the nets. Name: milk shark. Now. “Milk shark” does not sound scary, exactly, but I wished very much I hadn’t been told that story. I tried to put it out of my head. I didn’t do what a person would usually do, which is to google “milk shark” and see that is utterly harmless. I refused to look it up in case it turned out that a milk shark was one of the lesser-known wolves of the sea.

I carried the milk shark information around with me, although I tried hard to forget it. It happened that one evening I went for a very long swim, and came down with a serious case of the milk shark blues. I suddenly knew it was underneath me, a baby blue whale tied to its tail like a trophy, just waiting to eat me. Don’t freak out, I said to myself. Remember. There is nothing in the sea that can ever, ever hurt you. I talked myself down. I told myself I was an idiot.

Then. A fin. Not two metres in front of me. A big fucking fin coming out the water. Yes. Of course my heart hurled itself into my throat, and of course I thought I was going to die this time for real. The next thing I did was very weird: I told myself that I didn’t see it. I told myself that I was an idiot, again. No fin, I told myself. That didn’t just happen. 

I swam for another twenty minutes or so, and went back in. I forgot about the fin. I went and found my dad, and we stood on the edge of the water and watched Daisy be too boisterous and chatty for some dogs, but fine for others. The sky was all pink, and it really was an almost unsettlingly beautiful evening. I turned to say so to my dad, but then I looked at the sea and there was the fin again. And then two fins. And then a whole family of dolphins right there in front of us, much closer to the shore than I have ever seen before.

There are a few conclusions to be drawn from this, one of which is that for a person who has spent so much time in the sea, you would think I’d know the difference between a shark fin and the fin of a happy dolphin. This is easy to fix, though. I’ll work on it. The other thing I need to work on, apparently, is harder to fix. The point of this story is that I would rather disbelieve the evidence of my own senses than be scared. This applies, I think, to contexts other than the sea in Durban, and to people other than me. The world is an extremely scary place, and a lot of us have, I think, developed a kind of selective blindness in order to deal with this. We ignore things. We tell ourselves it’s fine. We tell ourselves it’s nothing.

This is not a lesson I particularly want to learn. And besides, it sometimes really is nothing. But other times it’s not. Sometimes you’re not actually just imagining stuff in order to give yourself the creeps. Sometimes it’s a dolphin, and other times it’s a shark, and neither of those things are nothing.

milk shark

 

 

Essay 48: The Goblin Market

I am reading a Boring Book. Boring is probably the wrong word, because I hate it so much that it keeps me uncommonly alert, but if not boring then just wrong. Just not up my street at all. There are so many things wrong with it. I will accept novels whose action takes place in the Victorian era, as long as they are written by a person who was alive in the Victorian era. I’m afraid that I will only in the most exceptional circumstances, however, accept a book whose action takes place in the Victorian era but was written by a person alive right now. Is this my worst kind of book? Maybe. All filled with people lacing up their pointy shoes and getting onto wooden ships, or settling themselves comfortably into their carriages.  All kinds of vivid details about people being slightly delayed because olden-times shoes are made out of inconvenient materials, but no so delayed that anyone is catastrophically late, because the scene where the woman tugs impatiently at her leather laces leads nicely into a bit where she is allowed to either dash or race into the busy street to meet up with her stupid brother. Her scapegrace brother. They both have such pink cheeks. They are both greedily stuffing currant buns into their pretty red mouths. These books are so full of phrases I would never use. This is fine in principle, as my own vocabulary is quite limited, but the reason I would never use them is because they are terrible. There are so many descriptions of eating or laughing which rely on words that I would prefer to be removed from the language altogether: people are always gulping or gobbling things down, and they are chuckling or chortling or snickering as they do it. Men are guffawing. They are saying O! instead of “Oh”.

I will accept no novels which make too free with the word “whore”, especially when the writer seems all thrilled and invigorated that they are allowed to use it because that’s just what you used to call them then. The same way that they get a nasty old kick out of saying, for instance, “the Chinaman Ah Gow.” You imagine the writer taking out her fountain pen and writing “The Chinaman Ah Gow entered the dancing hall” and you just want to reach across space and time and whisper mean contemporary swearwords into her reddened ears.  Her ears are that colour because she only writes by candlelight and actually that can get quite hot. I especially object when the word is used every time the woman appears, like “the whore Jane entered the room.” “He wondered why he felt such affection for the whore Annabel.” Maybe it’s because the whore Annabel, in spite of her debilitating dependence on opium, is a girl with a healthy appetite and is constantly seen to be gobbling up pies and washing them down with Ale. Maybe it’s because men always like girls with healthy appetites in books like this. They are extra sad when the girl with the healthy appetite is murdered in a way that seems unnecessarily sexual. It is not essential to the plot that it happens like this, and yet it does. You imagine the writer refilling the green ink in her pen and you just want to reach across space and time and set fire to her collection of vintage underthings. “It’s called a bra, pal,” you whisper. “It’s called underwear.” “The next time you type ‘lacy underthings’ into eBay, you will hear a loud explosion.”

The thing about this book is that I knew I wouldn’t like it. It came out a few years ago and announced itself immediately as the enemy.  I was sure that I would never read it, but then I was at the airport and I panicked. I realised I had nothing to read on the plane. Normally the answer to this is many expensive magazines, but I am trying to be a better person these days, or at least not do anything deliberately bad, and spending over four hundo on magazines falls pretty squarely into that category, I think.  So I bought this nightmare of a book instead, and now no one is happy.

Except me, of course. What do you call it, when you are in a mood where hating something gives you near-undiluted pleasure? If I were the whore Annabel, I would say that the only pleasure it compares to is the private joy of the opium pipe. If I was myself, I would say that getting actually giddy off disliking something is sort of the same as spending over four hundo on magazines. Not good for you. Warps your facial expressions. Gives you an entirely unwarranted sense of superiority. Makes you talk and talk about things that no one can care about as much as you. Ultimately  turns you into a goblin.

In “On the Pleasure of Hating”, Hazlitt says “without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.” This is exactly the kind of thing a goblin would say, but I am on board. Hating things whose feelings can’t be hurt (like a book or a style of singing where the mouth is open too wide and the person is just belting it out and you immediately think of the word “lusty”) is not very nice, but it is a victimless crime. Hazlitt then goes on to say, however, “We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.” This is where it gets tricky, in the move from the dizzy hating of books to the more destructive hating of people, and the most corrosive hating of oneself.

The answer is to confine oneself, then, to the hating of small things, but the rule is you are allowed to hate it a lot. You are allowed to sit and hate it so much that your whole face and all your toes crunch up. And then after that you stop. You splash some water on your face, you put on your easy-to-wear shoes, and you go outside to greet the day.

goblin